[Published 13 November 2013]
US Secretary of State - John Kerry - has again succeeded in muddying the waters with the following headline-grabbing sentence uttered by him after meeting PLO Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem this week:
“Let me emphasise that the position of the United States is that we consider now, and have always considered, the settlements to be illegitimate”
Abbas would have been squirming at Kerry’s use of the word “illegitimate” - rather than the word “illegal” - the term used by Abbas to deny Jews their claimed legal right to live in the West Bank.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - on the other hand - would have been shaking his head in disbelief at Kerry’s claim that the United States has “always” considered the settlements to be illegitimate.
The word “illegitimate” has several meanings in most dictionaries including -“illegal, unlawful, forbidden by law” - or alternatively - “incorrect, contrary to logic, unsound”.
Only Kerry himself can explain which meaning he intended to convey.
Jewish settlement in the West Bank is not illegal, unlawful or forbidden by law - having been legally sanctioned and expressly enshrined in international law under article 6 of the Mandate for Palestine and article 80 of the United Nations Charter
The PLO in 1964 considered the Balfour Declaration, Mandate for Palestine and everything based on them to be “fraud”. In 1968 the PLO deemed these documents to be “null and void”.
Kerry in my view was not flagging America’s opinion on these Jewish and PLO claims.
He was emphasising that Israel’s settlements policy in the West Bank was incorrect, contrary to logic, unsound - notwithstanding any claimed legal entitlement to so act.
Israel obviously does not agree with Kerry’s viewpoint - and continues to build and plan new houses in the West Bank in the belief these programs should not provide any justified excuse for Abbas to abandon the current negotiations.
A unilateral ten month building freeze by Israel in 2010-2011 brought no end to the conflict. Another similar freeze now could reasonably be expected to have very little impact - if any - in achieving a successful breakthrough.
The parties reportedly still remain apart on many substantive and sensitive issues far more serious than building houses over the next six months within heavily populated and decades-long established Jewish cities, villages and towns.
More alarming than trying to interpret Kerry’s ambiguous use of the word “illegitimate”- is his unambiguous claim that America has “always” considered the settlements to be illegitimate.
Kerry’s predecessor Hillary Clinton would be the first to disagree with Kerry - telling Christiane Armanpour on ABC in February 2011:
“I think it is absolutely clear to say, number one, that it’s been American policy for many years that settlements were illegitimate and it is the continuing goal and highest priority of the Obama administration to keep working toward a two-state solution with both Israelis and Palestinians",
“Many years” is clearly not “always”.
History also incontrovertibly denies Kerry’s claim.
President Woodrow Wilson said on 3 March 1919:
“I am persuaded that the Allied nations, with the fullest concurrence of our own Government and people, are agreed that in Palestine shall be laid the foundation of a Jewish Commonwealth.”
On 30 June 1922 - both Houses of Congress of the United States - then not a member of the League of Nations - unanimously endorsed the following joint resolution - which was signed by President Warren Harding on 21 September 1922:
“Favoring the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people:
Resolved by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled - That the United States of America favors the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people, it being clearly understood that nothing shall be done which should prejudice the civil and religious rights of Christian and all other non-Jewish communities in Palestine, and that the holy places and religious buildings and sites in Palestine shall be adequately protected.”
The first Report of the High Commissioner on the Administration of Palestine (1920-1925) acknowledged America’s invaluable support for reconstituting the Jewish National Home in Palestine:
“The [Balfour] Declaration was endorsed at the time by several of the Allied Governments; it was reaffirmed by the Conference of the Principal Allied Powers at San Remo in 1920; it was subsequently endorsed by unanimous resolutions of both Houses of the Congress of the United States; it was embodied in the Mandate for Palestine approved by the League of Nations in 1922; it was declared, in a formal statement of policy issued by the Colonial Secretary in the same year, ‘not to be susceptible of change’. ... The policy was fixed and internationally guaranteed”
Jewish settlement in the West Bank between 1927 -1948 was never declared “illegitimate” or “illegal” by America.
President Bush acknowledged in his 14 April 2004 letter to Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that it would be unrealistic to expect that all Jewish settlements built in the West Bank after 1967 would have to be uprooted.
Historical amnesia - Kerry-style - has been - and apparently still is - a potent factor in failed American attempts to resolve the Arab-Jewish conflict.
Such ignorance has clouded the thinking of many former well-intentioned Secretaries of State - who became ticking time bombs destined to end up on the political scrap heap because they tried to undo what was internationally guaranteed in former Palestine ninety years ago.
Kerry seems destined to join his failed predecessors.