Every U.S. president since Jimmy Carter has expressed varying degrees of opposition to Israeli settlement expansion, but in practice none has taken concrete measures to ensure a cessation of building in West Bank and East Jerusalem. The following timeline shows how U.S. policy on settlements has developed since the Carter Administration, focusing on international diplomacy, congressional actions, and official presidential statements.
Carter Administration (1977-1981)
Number of Settlements in 1977: 20
Settler Population: 4,400*
Sept. 1978-Mar. 1979: At the Camp David Accords, Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat, and U.S. President Jimmy Carter agree to a “Framework for Peace in the Middle East,” which calls for a freeze on Israeli settlement construction
Jun. 1980: At a question-and-answer session with the American Jewish Press Association, President Carter calls Israeli settlements illegal and “contrary to the Geneva Convention, that occupied territories should not be changed by the establishment of permanent settlements by the occupying power.”
Reagan Administration (1981-1989)
Number of Settlements in 1981: 68
Settler Population: 16,200*
Sept. 1982: Addressing the nation on U.S. Policy for Peace in the Middle East, President Reagan calls for a settlement freeze to jump-start the peace negotiation process following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon. He stresses that “settlement activity is in no way necessary for the security of Israel and only diminishes the confidence of the Arabs that a final outcome can be freely and fairly negotiated.”
Aug. 1983: President Reagan backpedals away from usage of the term “illegal” to describe settlements, but nevertheless still asserts that they are an “obstacle to peace” in his Radio Address to the Nation on the Situation in the Middle East.
Dec. 1987: U.S. abstains from U.N. Security Council vote, allowing passage of UNSCR 605 which reaffirms that Israeli settlements are in violation of Fourth Geneva Convention.
George Bush Sr. Administration (1989-1993)
Number of Settlements in 1989: 115
Settler Population: 187,900
Jun. 1990: President Bush in a press conference with Mikhail Gorbachev reaffirms that U.S. policy on settlements has not changed under his administration, “We oppose new settlements in territories beyond the 1967 lines—settlements [are] contrary to the United States policy.”
Oct. 1991: Following the First Intifada negotiations between Palestinians and Israel begin in Madrid. President Bush negotiates an end of the Arab boycott of Israel in exchange for a freeze on Israeli settlement construction.
Nov. 1991: After evidence that Israeli settlement construction continued unabated, President Bush pressures congress to withhold $10 billion in loan guarantees.
Jul. 1992: Bowing to domestic political pressure, Bush allows $ 10 billion loan to Israel to continue with annual deductions taken for the amount Israel sent in new settlement construction (roughly $250 million a year).
Clinton Administration (1993-2001)
Number of Settlements in 1993: 120
Settler Population: 257,700
Sept. 1993-Sept. 1995: Oslo Accords between Israel and Palestine make settlements a “final status issue” to be resolved at a later date. In the meantime, the status quo is to be preserved.
Nov. 1993: State Department authorizes additional $500 million in NATO military aid for Israel to offset annual deductions in US aid for settlement construction.
Jul. 1996: At a press conference with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, President Clinton urges Israel to await the outcome of the Oslo Peace Process before taking unilateral action on settlements, “The settlement issue under the Oslo Accords is a matter for determination between the parties as we move to the end of the negotiations. And we have encouraged everyone not to do anything which would weaken the chances of peace.”
Mar. 1997: U.S. vetoes UN Security Council Resolution 199 declaring Israeli settlements in violation of Fourth Geneva Convention.
Jul. 2000: At Camp David II, Israel insists on retaining 69 of its West Bank settlements. The peace process initiated at Oslo breaks down.
Jan. 2001: President Clinton calls continued settlement construction “inconsistent with the Oslo commitment” made by Israel.
George W. Bush Administration (2001-2009)
Number of Settlements in 2001: 123
Settler Population: c. 370,000**
Jun. 2002: President Bush lays out a “Roadmap to Peace” setting out a series of steps for establishing a Palestinian state that includes a cessation of settlement construction.
Nov. 2003: U.S. votes in favor of UNSCR 1515, which endorses a complete settlement freeze as part of the Roadmap to Peace.
Apr. 2004: In a private letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, President Bush assures him that major settlements close to the Green Line will become part of Israel and that new construction to accommodate natural growth in these settlements is permissible.
Jan. 2008: President Bush on his visit to Israel tells Prime Minister Ehud Olmert “Outposts, yeah, they ought to go.”
Obama Administration (2009-2017)
Number of Settlements in 2009: 121
Settler Population: c. 485,000**
May 2009: Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stresses that a “settlement freeze” must be defined in the broadest sense, “We want to see a stop to settlement construction, additions, natural growth — any kind of settlement activity.”
Jun. 2009: President Obama in Cairo reiterates that, “the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements” and calls for a freeze in settlement construction.
Nov. 2013: During attempt to revive the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, Secretary of State John Kerry refers to Israeli settlements as “illegitimate. ”
Number of Settlements in 2015: 127
Settler Population: 588,100
Dec. 2016: U.S. abstains from vote on UNSCR 2334 declaring that Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and West Bank “have no legal validity.”
Jan. 2017: President Obama warns that Israeli settlements are making a two-state solution impossible, “Increasingly what you are seeing is that the facts on the ground are making it almost impossible, at least very difficult, and if this trendline continues – impossible, to create a contiguous, functioning Palestinian state”
Trump Administration (2017-present)
Feb. 2017: In a press statement, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer rejects view that settlements are an obstacle to peace but notes that they “may not be helpful in achieving that goal.”
Feb. 2017: President Trump cautions Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the prudence of settlement construction, “I’d like to see you hold back on settlements for a little bit.”
*Data on settlers in East Jerusalem unavailable for these years.
**Data for East Jerusalem settler population approximate for these years.