An Error of Omission: The Congressional Research Service and Israeli Settlements

While an ascendant group of old and new congressional representatives have raised the profile of Palestinian concerns and issues on the Hill, challenges remain for those who advocate for Palestinian rights.

Currently, a number of representatives and grassroots organizations are fighting attempts to include the Israel Anti-Boycott Act (S.720) in the omnibus appropriations bill. The legislative proposal would impose criminal and financial penalties on U.S.companies and organizations that choose to uphold the Palestinian call for boycotts, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel for its violations of Palestinian human rights. The ACLU has repeatedly warned that the measure is unconstitutional. Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Dianne Feinstein, both of whom oppose BDS, have urged the Senate to reject the inclusion of S.720.

The attempt to silence advocacy for Palestinian rights and the push-back against such campaigns have been widely reported over the past few years. Less known, however, are more routine and mundane congressional affairs such as the impact of the Congressional Research Service (CRS) on lawmakers’ perspectives and understanding of legislative issues.

[From the Journal of Palestine Studies | The Friends of Bibi (FOBs) vs. “The New Middle East”] 

Unbiased data plays a critical role in the formulation of public policy, in the United States as well as in the Middle East. CRS, a non-partisan arm of the Library of Congress, provides data on a wide range of topics, including Israel and Palestine. CRS prides itself on the objectivity of its research. Its mission is to provide “comprehensive and reliable legislative research and analysis that are timely,objective, authoritative and confidential.” However, its treatment of Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories, in a longstanding and regular CRS publication titled “Israel: Background U.S. Relations in Brief,” reveals a faulty pattern of biased coverage over the past decade. One would get the impression from the Briefs that the settlements issue more or less disappeared after December 2017, an impression that is easily dispelled by a look at settlement growth in 2018. It seems the CRS Brief highlights settlements only when they are an issue of contention between Israel and the U.S., but acts as if the issue disappeared on the ground in Israel and Palestine when the U.S. government ignores the current reality.

“Israel: Background and U.S. Relations in Brief” is released multiple times a year, although not in any consistent or predictable manner. Reports dating back to 2015 can be accessed through the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) digital archive of CRS publications as a part of their government transparency project. Their digital archive includes sixteen different iterations of the report.

A comparison of the frequency of the words “settlement” and “settlements” in each of the Briefs quantifies the extent of these changes. To account for the slight variations in length, each frequency has been divided by the total number of pages in the report to yield an average number of references per page (see figure 1).

[From the Journal of Palestine Studies | Israel’s Power in the US Senate]


Figure 1: Average number of references to Israeli “settlement” or “settlements” per page in the CRS report “Israel: Background and U.S. Relations in Brief”.

A substantial  spike during the last year of the Obama Administration and then an equally pronounced decline and leveling once President Trump took office are evident. The spike corresponds neatly with the Obama Administration’s decision to abstain from the vote on United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 in December 2016, which condemned settlements as a violation of international law, and the diplomatic fallout from this event. In other words, when settlements become an issue of contention between Israel and the U.S., CRS highlights their importance, and when the U.S.government ignores them, so too does CRS.

The scope of the data reduction bias in this condensed Brief version of the CRS report on Israel for policymakers becomes even more apparent in how issues were covered. During the period from January through December 2017, in which the report was published seven times, its section on settlements included the historical context of the settlement enterprise, statistics on settlement growth, changes in Israel policy, both historic and current U.S. policy, Israeli and Palestinian perspectives on the legality of settlements, and the prevailing view against settlements within the international community. At that time, CRS addressed settlements as one of many challenges to a two-state solution, the Obama Administration’s pressure on Israel to halt settlement expansion for resumed peace negotiations, and opposition to this strategy from the U.S.Congress.

In February 2018 and subsequent reports, however, the scant references to settlements only appear within the context of Israeli domestic politics and in speculation on President Trump’s so-called Ultimate Deal. While readers of the briefs published prior to October 2016 and following December 2017 would come away with an understanding of the influence of the settler movement on Israeli domestic politics and the importance of settlements as a diplomatic issue, they would learn nothing about the effects of settlements on Palestinians. The report makes no reference to pressing matters of land use or water consumption created by settlement growth in the West Bank, nor does it address how the geography and demographics of settlement growth could affect a future two-state solution, and, perhaps most significantly, it says nothing about questions of international law that surround them.

[From the Journal of Palestine Studies | Obama’s Legacy on Israel/Palestine]

In keeping with CRS’s mission, each of these issues can be addressed without taking a partisan position. For instance, the reports could note the various interpretations of the Fourth Geneva Convention or how some negotiators see settlement growth as undermining a two-state solution while others believe that land swaps could resolve this issue. Failure to even mention these vital points at all seems to be in tacit agreement with the current government of Israel that settlements are just a normal part of the landscape of the West Bank, disputed only because of the intransigence of the Palestinians. Such an omission cannot be excused by the brevity of the report: after all, the eight versions published in 2017 included precisely this key information.

The problem with the CRS’s “Israel: Background and U.S. Relations in Brief” is not a partisan bias per se but a methodological one. If the descriptive analysis of current events is limited in scope purely to issues affecting U.S.-Israeli relations at a given moment, then the report will inherently reflect the prevailing views within the current administration. If inclusion of statistics on settlement growth is dependent on their salience to current U.S.-Israeli relations, then they will all but vanish from the report during periods when the U.S. is willing to accommodate settlement expansion. The title of the CRS’s brief isn’t just “Israel: U.S. Relations in Brief” but “Israel: Background and U.S.Relations in Brief.” It is time for the CRS to take a broader view of the Briefs’ purpose, one that more fully reflects its title, and to stop omitting critical background material.   

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About Andrew Wickersham 2 Articles
Andrew Wickersham is a research fellow at Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP). He earned his master’s degree in Middle East studies from the University of Chicago. The views expressed in his articles are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of CMEP.

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