President Obama asserts, seconded by Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, that "America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements" in the West Bank. Both have praised the 10-month freeze on new residential building -- excluding eastern Jerusalem -- that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced late last month.
Netanyahu now calls for Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to resume negotiations or take the blame for lack of progress when the "one-time-only" freeze expires. Abbas' precondition -- adopted after Washington's pronouncements -- is that all Israeli construction, including in eastern Jerusalem, must cease permanently.
Too bad international diplomacy doesn't have a replay button. If it did, the parties could look back at history, which would show that Israeli settlements not only are legitimate under international law but positively encouraged.
The basic relevant provision, the League of Nations' 1922 British Mandate for Palestine, Article 6, encourages "close settlement by Jews on the land, including state lands and waste lands not required for public use." Most Israeli settlements in the West Bank have been built on land that was state land under the Ottomans, British, Jordanians and, after the 1967 Six-Day War, under the Israelis, or on property that has been privately purchased.
The United States endorsed Article 6 by signing the 1924 Anglo-American Convention, a treaty stipulating acceptance of the mandate. The League of Nations is long gone, but Article 6 remains in force. The United Nations' 1945 Charter, Article 80 -- sometimes known as "the Palestine article" -- notes among other things that "nothing in the charter shall be construed to alter in any manner the rights whatsoever of any states or peoples or the terms of existing international instruments."
Eugene Rostow, U.S. undersecretary of State for President Lyndon Johnson -- who is an authority on international law and the coauthor of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which outlines requirements for Arab-Israeli peace -- reaffirmed this principle. In 1990, he said: "The Jewish right of settlement in the West Bank is conferred by the same provisions of the mandate under which Jews settled in Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem before the state of Israel was created."
As for Resolution 242's call for "secure and recognized boundaries," according to Rostow in 1991 in another piece, a careful look at the wrangling over the resolution in 1967 makes it clear that it did not mandate Israeli withdrawal from all of the West Bank, Gaza Strip, Golan Heights and Sinai peninsula to the post-1948 armistice lines.
Many who allege that Jewish communities in the West Bank violate international law cite the 4th Geneva Convention, Article 49. It states that an occupying power "shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies." But Julius Stone, like Rostow a leading legal theorist, wrote in his 1981 book, "Israel and Palestine: An Assault on the Law of Nations," that the effort to designate Israeli settlements as illegal was a "subversion . . . of basic international law principles."
Stone, Stephen Schwebel, a former judge on the International Court of Justice, and others have distinguished between territory acquired in an "aggressive conquest" (such as Nazi Germany's seizures during World War II) and territory taken in self-defense (such as Israeli conquests in 1967).
The distinction is especially sharp when the territory acquired had been held illegally, as Jordan had held the West Bank, which it seized during the Arab states' 1948-49 war against Israel.
Further, Article 49 of the 4th Geneva Convention was intended to outlaw the Nazi practice of forcibly transporting populations into or out of occupied territories to labor or death camps. Israelis were not forcibly transferred to the West Bank, nor were Palestinian Arabs forced out of it. Two years after President Carter's State Department determined that Israeli settlements violated international law, President Reagan said flatly that they were "not illegal."
One can argue, as Reagan did and Obama does, that Israel's establishing towns in the disputed territories after 1967 obstructs diplomacy, or, as some Israeli critics do, that building Jewish communities near Palestinian Arab population centers disperses the country's Jewish majority too widely. But one cannot accurately declare the settlements illegal.
Eric Rozenman is Washington director of CAMERA, the Boston-based Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.