The meeting between President Barack Obama and Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on November 9, 2015 is long overdue. The contentious Iran agreement is done – already crumbling, but essentially over. While the whole Middle East continues to erupt, the relatively low-simmering Israeli-Palestinian struggle is now bubbling.
The state of Israeli-Palestinian relations is regressing. The latest Palestinian incitement to attack Jews is incessant, anti-Semitic, and comes from the top Palestinian leadership. Israelis are on high alert everywhere, their safeties are off, and everyone with a gun now has a hair trigger.
In the Middle East there’s a sense that the United States is groping for a policy, and Israelis and Palestinians are unimpressed and uninspired.
Since we’ve regressed, let’s really go back, back to a better period when Israelis had confidence in American leadership and the Palestinians knew where U.S. leadership stood. It was a period when the U.S. expressed its support for a two-state solution and simultaneously discouraged PA Chairman Mahmoud Abbas from inflating his demands while providing Israel with a way to limit its settlement expansion.
Not so long ago, mutual confidence cemented the relationship between Israeli and American leaders. Not acrimony and suspicion. The Palestinians had no opportunity to say, “The Americans are making maximalist demands from the Israelis, so why shouldn’t we?”
So press the reset button to April 14, 2004 when President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon shared trust and a ground-breaking correspondence. It is all the more essential to resurrect that 2004 discussion after another email from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s office was released on October 30, 2015. In June 2009, her correspondence with aide Jake Sullivan showed that the new Obama Administration sought to ignore and negate the agreements between Bush and Sharon.
In 2004, Israel’s Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was considering withdrawing Israeli military facilities and Israeli settlements from Gaza and areas of the West Bank. As a soldier, Sharon had withstood furious enemy attacks and artillery barrages on the battlefield. As a politician, though, he was entering a very dangerous political minefield, even a possible civil war, in the forced expulsion of more than 8,000 Israeli civilians from their homes.
Bush’s letter provided Sharon the essential cover for the territorial retreat. It provided a historical diplomatic foundation that could have been built upon.
A senior U.S. Defense Department official explained to me that Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s office was the initiator and drafter of the Bush letter.1 The State Department was barely involved, and in retrospect, perhaps therein laid the letter’s fatal flaw.
Bush wrote to Sharon, “These steps described in the [withdrawal] plan will mark real progress toward realizing my June 24, 2002 vision [of two states], and make a real contribution towards peace…. The United States appreciates the risks such an undertaking represents.”2
The president declared his support for a “viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent” Palestinian state and called on the Palestinian leadership “to act decisively against terror, including sustained, targeted, and effective operations to stop terrorism.” His letter continued, “All official Palestinian institutions must end incitement against Israel.”
Key Assurances to Israel
Bush’s letter included several essential political and diplomatic assurances to Israel. The vow that “the United States is strongly committed to Israel’s security and well-being as a Jewish state,” remains a cornerstone of U.S. policy today. But the clarity on critical issues, such as Palestinian refugees, is absent. “The settling of Palestinian refugees” will be in a Palestinian state, Bush wrote, “rather than in Israel.”
The most important assurance was on future boundaries and the fate of Israel’s settlements. Prime Minister Sharon took those promises to the political bank.
In comparison to the recurring U.S.-Israel contretemps over housing projects in Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem, Sharon was also told “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949…”
Note: the letter’s American drafters purposely chose not to refer to those 1949 armistice lines as the “1967 lines.” Armistice lines are not sacrosanct as final boundaries.
Israel’s Obligations in Side Discussions and Letters
Prime Minister Sharon and his successor Ehud Olmert knew that the “new realities on the ground” would also restrict Israeli settlement growth. According to Elliott Abrams,3 a senior White House foreign policy official in Bush’s National Security Council, Sharon and American officials agreed to four principles articulated by Sharon himself in a December 2003 speech: “”Israel will meet all its obligations with regard to construction in the settlements. There will be no construction beyond the existing construction line, no expropriation of land for construction, no special economic incentives and no construction of new settlements.”
Prime Minister Ehud Olmert insisted in 2008 in a news interview,4 “It was clear from day one to Abbas, Rice and Bush that construction would continue in population concentrations — the areas mentioned in Bush’s 2004 letter…. I say this again today.” Olmert continued, “Beitar Illit will be built, Gush Etzion will be built; there will be construction in Pisgat Ze’ev and in the Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem…. It’s clear that these areas will remain under Israeli control in any future settlement.”
Later, Obama officials and the former Bush officials they consulted claimed that there was never any such agreement – at least not in writing — to “allow Israel to build up settlements within existing construction lines.” In 2009, President Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, argued “In looking at the history of the Bush Administration, there were no informal or oral enforceable agreements. That has been verified by the official record of the [Bush] Administration and by the personnel in the positions of responsibility.” Jake Sullivan, a senior Clinton advisor, referred to Israel’s “supposed oral agreements” in an email to Secretary Clinton on June 6, 2009 released on October 30, 2015. Sullivan detailed his efforts to disprove and deny the agreements’ assurances.
Israeli political and security officials expressed dismay over the Obama Administration’s cavalier dismissals of the Bush agreement. The Bush-Sharon agreement allowed Sharon to undertake the painful withdrawal from Gaza and part of the West Bank. Israel appeared ready for more diplomatic actions, but the political check Sharon took to the bank to cover his political debts bounced. The denial and reneging on the agreement to permit construction within Jerusalem and Israel’s settlement blocs – the “new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers” – have fouled the relationship between Jerusalem and Washington for seven years.
It’s time to go back to the future.
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Letter from U.S. President George W. Bush to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, April 14, 2004
His Excellency Ariel Sharon Prime Minister of Israel
Dear Mr. Prime Minister,
Thank you for your letter setting out your disengagement plan.
The United States remains hopeful and determined to find a way forward toward a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. I remain committed to my June 24, 2002, vision of two states living side by side in peace and security as the key to peace, and to the roadmap as the route to get there.
We welcome the disengagement plan you have prepared, under which Israel would withdraw certain military installations and all settlements from Gaza, and withdraw certain military installations and settlements in the West Bank. These steps described in the plan will mark real progress toward realizing my June 24, 2002, vision, and make a real contribution towards peace. We also understand that, in this context, Israel believes it is important to bring new opportunities to the Negev and the Galilee. We are hopeful that steps pursuant to this plan, consistent with my vision, will remind all states and parties of their own obligations under the roadmap.
The United States appreciates the risks such an undertaking represents. I therefore want to reassure you on several points.
First, the United States remains committed to my vision and to its implementation as described in the roadmap. The United States will do its utmost to prevent any attempt by anyone to impose any other plan. Under the roadmap, Palestinians must undertake an immediate cessation of armed activity and all acts of violence against Israelis anywhere, and all official Palestinian institutions must end incitement against Israel. The Palestinian leadership must act decisively against terror, including sustained, targeted, and effective operations to stop terrorism and dismantle terrorist capabilities and infrastructure. Palestinians must undertake a comprehensive and fundamental political reform that includes a strong parliamentary democracy and an empowered prime minister.
Second, there will be no security for Israelis or Palestinians until they and all states, in the region and beyond, join together to fight terrorism and dismantle terrorist organizations. The United States reiterates its steadfast commitment to Israel’s security, including secure, defensible borders, and to preserve and strengthen Israel’s capability to deter and defend itself, by itself, against any threat or possible combination of threats.
Third, Israel will retain its right to defend itself against terrorism, including to take actions against terrorist organizations. The United States will lead efforts, working together with Jordan, Egypt, and others in the international community, to build the capacity and will of Palestinian institutions to fight terrorism, dismantle terrorist organizations, and prevent the areas from which Israel has withdrawn from posing a threat that would have to be addressed by any other means. The United States understands that after Israel withdraws from Gaza and/or parts of the West Bank, and pending agreements on other arrangements, existing arrangements regarding control of airspace, territorial waters, and land passages of the West Bank and Gaza will continue.
The United States is strongly committed to Israel’s security and well-being as a Jewish state. It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.
As part of a final peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders, which should emerge from negotiations between the parties in accordance with UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338. In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.
I know that, as you state in your letter, you are aware that certain responsibilities face the State of Israel. Among these, your government has stated that the barrier being erected by Israel should be a security rather than political barrier, should be temporary rather than permanent, and therefore not prejudice any final status issues including final borders, and its route should take into account, consistent with security needs, its impact on Palestinians not engaged in terrorist activities.
As you know, the United States supports the establishment of a Palestinian state that is viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent, so that the Palestinian people can build their own future in accordance with my vision set forth in June 2002 and with the path set forth in the roadmap. The United States will join with others in the international community to foster the development of democratic political institutions and new leadership committed to those institutions, the reconstruction of civic institutions, the growth of a free and prosperous economy, and the building of capable security institutions dedicated to maintaining law and order and dismantling terrorist organizations.
A peace settlement negotiated between Israelis and Palestinians would be a great boon not only to those peoples but to the peoples of the entire region. Accordingly, the United States believes that all states in the region have special responsibilities: to support the building of the institutions of a Palestinian state; to fight terrorism, and cut off all forms of assistance to individuals and groups engaged in terrorism; and to begin now to move toward more normal relations with the State of Israel. These actions would be true contributions to building peace in the region.
Mr. Prime Minister, you have described a bold and historic initiative that can make an important contribution to peace. I commend your efforts and your courageous decision which I support. As a close friend and ally, the United States intends to work closely with you to help make it a success.
Sincerely, George W. Bush