Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
The U.S. position has fluctuated over time. In the Reagan years, the United States said the settlements were "not illegal." The Clinton and George H.W. Bush administrations avoided the legal arguments but criticized the settlements frequently. President George W. Bush called the larger settlement blocs "new realities on the ground" that would have to be reflected in peace negotiations.
More recently, the official U.S. attitude has been more critical. In 2011, the Obama administration vetoed a UN Security Council resolution calling the settlements "illegal" but former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice then denounced "the folly and illegitimacy" of continued Israeli settlement activity. "The United States of America views all of the settlements as illegitimate," Secretary of State John Kerry said in August 2013.
The United States is the main broker of peace between Israel and the Palestinians, so American officials have tended toward pragmatic approaches. U.S. officials have viewed settlement expansion as an obstacle to peace talks and the conclusion of a comprehensive peace agreement, and opposed it on those practical grounds.
U.S. officials have tried to avoid an argument over the legal status of the settlements, instead urging that expansion is a bad policy. The use of the term "illegitimate" rather than "illegal" suggests a desire to express disapproval as a political judgment without getting bogged down in arguments over the international legal status of the Palestinian territories and Israel's actions in them.