The mainstream media are abuzz with reports that President Donald Trump has come out against Israeli settlements. The New York Times was exultant: “Trump Embraces Pillars of Obama’s Foreign Policy,” it crowed.
That kind of story serves two propagandist purposes. First, it provides a kind of justification for Obama’s betrayal of Israel at the UN Security Council over settlements last month; second, it nods at the old NeverTrump claim that Trump would never keep his word to conservatives.
There’s just one problem: the story is false.
Here is the exact wording of the White House statement on Thursday (emphasis added):
The American desire for peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians has remained unchanged for 50 years. While we don’t believe the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace, the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal. As the President has expressed many times, he hopes to achieve peace throughout the Middle East region. The Trump administration has not taken an official position on settlement activity and looks forward to continuing discussions, including with Prime Minister Netanyahu when he visits with President Trump later this month.
The New York Times pounced on the phrase “may not be helpful”:
In the most startling shift, the White House issued an unexpected statement appealing to the Israeli government not to expand the construction of Jewish settlements beyond their current borders in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Such expansion, it said, “may not be helpful in achieving” the goal of peace.
The statement is only “startling” if one is unaware of the history and geography of the region. In fact, the statement tacitly accepts all existing settlements. (One wonders when the penny will drop, and when the Times editorial page will attack Trump for provoking Middle East tensions with the same statement.)
Recall, too, that Obama insisted on a complete “settlement freeze,” including expansion within existing settlements, and later allowed the UN Security Council to declare the entire Israeli presence beyond the “1967 lines” — including the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem — a “flagrant violation” of international law. The Trump administration’s statement is a complete reversal of the Obama administration’s policy.
As legal scholar Eugene Kontorovich explains:
The White House Press Secretary’s statement about settlement building is a huge change of policy, in which the U.S. broadly accepts all building within settlements, including those settlements outside of “blocs.” This is huge.
In the statement, the White House says the building of entirely “new settlements” is not great (but not sharply criticized). On the other hand, building “within existing settlement lines,” ie municipal boundaries, is totally OK. Since all building for 20 years has been within existing lines, and all planned building is within existing lines, this is as big an authorization as it gets.
This is such a big deal, that the press is trying to spin it as a limitation on settlement activity, whereas it is a broad and historic green light. It can no longer be said that the US opposes settlement building.
Perhaps the White House deliberately spun the statement as a limitation to fool the media. That is not hard to do, and it is to President Trump’s benefit, as a negotiating tactic, to appear unpredictable — aggressive one moment, compromising the next.
Nevertheless, the Trump administration has just signaled its intent to back a permanent Jewish presence in eastern Jerusalem and Judea and Samaria (the West Bank), with or without a Palestinian state. The Palestinians will see what the Times missed.
The Times makes several other slips in its effort to liken Trump’s policy to Obama’s. It claims that UN Ambassador Nikki Haley was emulating her predecessor, Samantha Power, when she talked tough about Russia this week — as if the Obama administration ever made a serious effort to confront Russian ambitions in Eastern Europe, diplomatically or otherwise. And on the Iran deal the Times reports that the administration has “shown no indication that it plans to rip up Mr. Obama’s landmark nuclear deal.” In fact, Trump’s policy from a very early stage was to beat Iran through harsh enforcement: “I would police that contract so tough that they don’t have a chance,” he said in August 2015 on NBC News’ Meet the Press.
No doubt, Trump is treading carefully in the Middle East. But he is taking a different path than his predecessors. And the mainstream media, more eager to score political points than to report the news, are setting themselves up for failure again.
Joel B. Pollak is Senior Editor-at-Large at Breitbart News. He was named one of the “most influential” people in news media in 2016. His new book, How Trump Won: The Inside Story of a Revolution, is available from Regnery. Follow him on Twitter at @joelpollak.