Vol. 3, No. 21 April 15, 2004
President Bush’s April 14, 2004, letter to Prime Minister Sharon represents a significant shift in U.S. policy, as compared to the Clinton Parameters advanced by the former president after the failed Camp David Summit of July 2000 and in subsequent months.
In his plan, Clinton provided conditional approval of settlement blocs, but insisted that there needed to be “territorial swaps” of land from pre-1967 Israel in exchange for any West Bank land Israel would retain. Bush does not insist on any land swaps involving Israeli territory.
Clinton spoke of Palestinian refugees finding homes in other states including Israel, while Bush states that Palestinian refugees should be settled in a future Palestinian state “rather than Israel.”
The Clinton Parameters dropped the idea of defensible borders and replaced them with “security guarantees” including a proposed “international presence” in the Jordan Valley. In contrast, Bush refers to “defensible borders” in the context of preserving and strengthening “Israel’s capability to deter and defend itself, by itself.”
According to the Clinton Parameters, Israel’s security needs “need not and should not come at the expense of Palestinian sovereignty or interfere with Palestinian territorial integrity.” In contrast, Bush allows for Israel to continue to control airspace, territorial waters, and land passages in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank “pending agreements or other arrangements.”
During the Clinton era, the signing of a peace treaty was supposed to produce security for Israelis. Under Bush, security must be achieved first, as a prerequisite for peace. Given the threats Israel still faces from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Yasser Arafat’s own Fatah Tanzim, the approach taken in the Bush letter represents a significant improvement for Israel and for the prospects of a lasting peace.
President George W. Bush’s April 14, 2004, letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon represents a significant shift in U.S. policy toward the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Prior to the Bush-Sharon summit, U.S. policy pronouncements were largely procedural, with the important exception of Bush’s public backing of Palestinian statehood. For example, the Quartet Roadmap outlines a diplomatic pathway for reaching Palestinian statehood, but it takes no positions on final status issues such as borders, Jerusalem, or refugees.
The last administration to take a public position on these issues was that of President Bill Clinton, who addressed the Israel Policy Forum in New York on January 7, 2001, at the end of his presidency. In that address, he laid out what became known as the “Clinton Parameters,” which summarized positions he advanced after the failed Camp David Summit of July 2000 and in subsequent months.
1. Settlement Blocs
It is not entirely accurate to say that Bush was the first U.S. president to envision the incorporation of West Bank settlement blocs into Israel. In his plan, Clinton provided conditional approval of settlement blocs with certain caveats. There needed to be some “territorial swaps” – that is, Israel had to trade land from pre-1967 Israel in exchange for any West Bank land that it would retain.
Bush did not use the expression “settlement blocs.” But he did state that final borders would have to be based on “new realities on the ground including already existing major Israeli population centers.” Significantly, Bush did not insist on any land swaps involving Israel having to concede pre-1967 territory. In that sense, Bush has restored the original terms of reference in the peace process that confined the territorial issue to the dispute over the West Bank and Gaza Strip alone, on the basis of UN Security Council Resolution 242, without involving any additional territory.
Clinton spoke about the idea that the Palestinian state “will provide all Palestinians with a place they can safely and proudly call home.” But he also allowed the Palestinian refugees to find a new home in other locations, consistent with the immigration policies of other states. He specifically said that Israel could be one of those states, though he clarified that it would be Israel’s sovereign decision to let them in. This formulation could subject Israel to political pressure from international bodies to make the decision to accept certain numbers of refugees, since, in principle, Israel is identified as one possible place of residence for Palestinians. To a large extent, Bush closes this door.
Bush reiterates in his letter the point he raised at last year’s Aqaba Summit, that the U.S. is committed to Israel’s security and well-being as “a Jewish state” – a position which should dissuade Palestinians hoping to overwhelm Israel demographically. But, more importantly, he states that Palestinian refugees should be settled in a future Palestinian state “rather than in Israel.” Of course, tighter language could have been used like “and not in Israel.” But clearly Bush went farther than any previous U.S. president in protecting Israel from the Palestinian claim of a “right of return,” which does not emanate from UN General Assembly Resolution 194, Palestinian arguments not withstanding.
3. Defensible Borders
Bush restored the traditional U.S. view that Israel has a right to defensible borders that are to be different from the 1949 Armistice Lines (the pre-1967 borders). Initially, the Clinton administration supported the idea of defensible borders in its January 17, 1997, letter by Secretary of State Warren Christopher to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But with the 2001 Clinton Parameters, the idea of defensible borders was dropped and replaced by “security guarantees.” Indeed, Clinton proposed “an international presence in Palestine to provide border security along the Jordan Valley.”
In contrast, Bush refers to defensible borders in the context of preserving and strengthening “Israel’s capability to deter and defend itself, by itself.” There is no multilateral body that is supposed to replace the Israel Defense Forces. Preserving Israel’s doctrine of self-reliance, fashioned under Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, is consistent with the national security doctrine of Prime Minister Sharon; its premise is that only Israeli soldiers should risk their lives in Israel’s defense.
4. Israel’s Security
Clinton’s commitment to Israel’s security needs included a huge caveat. Security guarantees to Israel, according to the Clinton Parameters, “need not and should not come at the expense of Palestinian sovereignty, or interfere with Palestinian territorial integrity.” For example, if Israel needed to retain an early-warning station on a West Bank hilltop, this principle could be used to preclude an Israeli claim. Essentially, it placed Palestinian national sensitivities above Israeli security needs. In contrast, in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, Bush allows for Israel to continue to control airspace, territorial waters, and land passages, “pending agreements or other arrangements.” This includes continuing Israeli control of the Philadelphia corridor between Gaza and Egyptian Sinai.
The Clinton Parameters explicitly envisioned the re-division of sovereignty in Jerusalem according to a formula whereby “what is Arab should be Palestinian” and “what is Jewish should be Israeli.” Bush’s letter is silent on the issue of Jerusalem. While support for a unified Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty is missing, at least there is no attempt to return to the Clinton formulations.
Both the Clinton parameters and the Bush letter were offered in the context of Israeli concessions: in Clinton’s time, Barak proposed giving up almost all of the West Bank and Gaza (as well as dividing Jerusalem), while Bush’s positions were in the context of an Israeli pull-out from Gaza alone. Thus, there is no question that the Bush letter to Sharon represents a major shift in U.S. policy toward Israel. Part of this shift is undoubtedly due to Bush’s special relationship with Israel. Of course, some of the unique specifics of the Bush letter can also be attributed to the collapse of the negotiating process between former Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat. Undoubtedly, Bush’s strong stand on terrorism – which does not appear in the Clinton Parameters – can be traced to the post-9/11 environment in the U.S.
Here, there is an important policy development. During the Clinton era, the signing of a peace treaty was supposed to produce security for Israelis. Under Bush, security must be achieved first, as a prerequisite for peace. Given the threats Israel still faces from Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and Yasser Arafat’s own Fatah Tanzim, the approach taken in the Bush letter represents a significant improvement for Israel and for the prospects of a lasting peace.