A linguistic debate on Israeli settlements

Posted by Hannah Allam on November 6, 2013 

Secretary of State John Kerry met with Palestinian and Israeli leaders today during a Middle East trip to check on the progress toward what he'd envisioned as a revived peace process.

Both sides were grim about the prospects of getting back to the negotiating table, and only adding to the friction was Israel's announcement of plans for some 3,500 new homes for settlers in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.

Most countries consider Israeli settlements in those areas, territories captured in the 1967 war and which Palestinians want included in any future state, illegal. (As Reuters notes, Israel cites historical and biblical links to the land, where more than 500,000 Israelis now live alongside 2.5 million Palestinians.)

The U.S. finds itself sandwiched between world opinion and what most analysts describe as its virtually unconditional support for Israel. The compromise? The U.S. government refers to the settlements as "illegitimate" but stops short of using the term "illegal." The U.S. talking points also refer to the settlements as "unhelpful" to restarting the long-moribund peace process.

Kerry said this after meeting with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas:

"The Palestinians believe that the settlements are illegal.  The United States has said that they believe the settlements are not helpful and are illegitimate.  And there should be no connection. That is not to say that they weren’t aware or we weren’t aware that there would be construction.  But that construction, importantly, in our judgment, would be much better off limited as much as possible in an effort to help create a climate for these talks to be able to proceed effectively."    

After tweeting excerpts from Kerry's remarks, I received several responses from readers who wanted to know more about the State Department's word choice and its evolution through the years of the decades-old conflict. Cue the public Twitter debate over the terminology.

Yousef Munayyer, director of The Palestine Center in Washington, tweeted: 'Official US position used to be "illegal" now its changed to "illegitimate" State dept should be pressed to explain change'

That tweet prompted Lenny Ben-David, a former Israeli diplomat who's now a public affairs consultant in Israel, to reply with this 1978 document on the issue, as well as this briefing paper from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

Another Twitter user, Charles Haddad, whose bio says he's a stock trader who spends time in Las Vegas and Beirut, asked a seemingly simple question: "Does illegitimate mean illegal?" I forwarded the tweet to State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki, but got no immediate reply.

Incidentally, that very question arose at the Aug. 13 State Department briefing, prompting linguistic contortions akin to the ones U.S. diplomats used to avoid calling the recent military takeover in Egypt a "coup."

Below is an excerpt from the briefing, but the full transcript has even more heated exchanges on not only the terminology State uses, but on how it responds to Israel thumbing its nose at U.S. requests to lay off the settlement building.

QUESTION: Okay. And finally, would you explain to me – the Secretary of State said that all settlements were illegitimate. What is the difference between illegitimate and illegal, in your parlance, in your explanation?
MS. HARF: Well, our – the Secretary – our position is clear and has not changed that we do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity. That is our policy. I can say it every day but it has in no way changed.  




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