State Department Won’t Say Yes or No on Crucial Assurances to Israel

By Patrick Goodenough | June 11, 2009 | 5:05 AM EDT

More than 30,000 Israelis live in Maale Adumim, a 33-year-old town located on disputed territory near Jerusalem. (Photo: Maale Adumim municipality)

( – The Obama administration so far has refused to say whether it is bound by key written assurances President Bush made to Israel five years ago, relating to Jewish settlements in areas demanded by the Palestinians for a future state.
Three different State Department spokesmen sidestepped the issue at three separate daily briefings last week, refusing multiple times to provide a simple yes or no answer to the question: Is Bush’s letter to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, dated Apr. 14, 2004, binding on the Obama administration?
Jewish advocacy groups are calling for an unambiguous response.
For Israel the matter is crucial: It was largely on the basis of assurances contained in that letter that Sharon moved ahead with the plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip in the summer of 2005, uprooting 9,000 Israelis living there in the process.
Among other issues, the letter touched on the future boundaries of Israel once an envisaged Palestinian state is established in line with the so-called “two-state solution.”
“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,” Bush wrote, adding that “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,” he continued.
(The 1949 armistice lines, also known as the pre-June 1967 lines, are essentially the borders of Israel today excluding the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and eastern Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights. The lines held until the 1967 Six-Day War, when Israel captured those three areas from Egypt, Jordan and Syria respectively.)
The Bush letter makes it clear that the U.S. does not expect Israel to dismantle all Jewish communities in the West Bank – the area known by Israelis as Judea-Samaria, the country’s biblical “heartland.”
The implication of Bush’s words is that the boundaries of a Palestinian state in a “realistic” final Israeli-Palestinian peace deal will therefore fall short of the entire West Bank. That stance has held by every Israeli government since the Oslo Accords were signed.
But if the U.S. government recognizes the continued existence of Jewish settlements into the future, then the question of “natural growth” springs to the fore: Israel has long argued that no town’s inhabitants can reasonably be prohibited from building new homes to accommodate a naturally growing population.
The communities in question would include towns like Maaleh Adumim and Modiin Illit, each with populations exceeding 30,000. Beitar Illit’s population is just a little smaller while more than 16,000 people have built a thriving town in Ariel. More than 280,000 Israelis live in towns and villages built in Judea-Samaria over the past 40 years.
A former chief of staff to Sharon said recently that the prime minister and Bush had reached understandings permitting Israel to continue natural growth construction within the boundaries of existing communities. (Sharon himself has been in a coma since 2006.)
As the State Department declines to answer direct questions about whether the Bush letter is binding, they and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton are insisting that the focus be on the 2003 Mideast “roadmap.”
The roadmap incorporates a recommendation, first made by a panel chaired by Sen. George Mitchell in 2001, that Israel should “freeze all settlement activity, including the ‘natural growth’ of existing settlements.”  Israel refused to agree to a total freeze on settlement construction in the roadmap, however.

Another view of Maale Adumim. (Photo: Maale Adumim municipality)

Clinton has said on several occasions in recent months that there will be no exceptions for natural growth in settlements.
She told ABC News at the weekend that a Bush-Sharon understanding permitting natural growth “was never made a part of the official record of the negotiations as it was passed on to our administration.”
Congressional backing
The Bush letter was endorsed by both Houses of Congress in June 2004.
The House of Representatives by a 407-9 vote passed a resolution saying it “strongly endorses the principles articulated by President Bush in his letter dated April 14, 2004, to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon which will strengthen the security and well-being of the State of Israel.”
The Senate then passed a resolution, 95-3, which like the House measure incorporated the key sentences from the Bush letter regarding “existing major Israeli population centers” and a “realistic” final settlement.
Clinton, then senator for New York, voted in favor.
The Republican Jewish Coalition on Tuesday decried what executive director Matthew Brooks called “a steady, step-by-step withdrawal by the Obama administration from key elements of the U.S.-Israeli alliance.”
It urged the administration to provide “a clear and unambiguous answer to the question of whether they will honor the understanding” reached by Bush and Sharon on settlements, noting State Department officials’ repeated recent refusals to address the issue.
“The president who promised ‘transparency’ in his administration should be forthcoming about his intentions, his position, and his policies regarding these very sensitive issues,” said Brooks. “It is time for a clear and unambiguous answer to the question of whether the U.S. will stand by its past agreements and stand with our ally Israel.”
The Zionist Organization of America argued that Obama was morally obliged to honor the assurances given by Bush.
“It is simply inhumane and wholly impractical to prohibit a Jewish son or daughter who marries or moves out of their parents’ home from building a house in the same town as their parents, thus forcing them to live in a town other than the one in which they grew up,” it said last week.
“That this sort of measure is to be applied solely to Jews because they are Jews is simply racist and against American values … why can 1.2 million Arabs live among six million Jews within the Green Line, but 300,000 Jews cannot live among two million Arabs in Judea and Samaria?”
Other important elements of the Bush letter include a U.S. commitment to ensure that Palestinian institutions will “dismantle terrorist organizations.” Bush pledged that the U.S. would “lead efforts” to that end.
The Palestinian Authority has not dismantled Hamas, Islamic Jihad or the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, a terror group affiliated to P.A. President Mahmoud Abbas’ Fatah faction. The Gaza withdrawal was followed in time by a violent Hamas takeover of Gaza, and an increase in rocket attacks against Israeli towns from the strip eventually led to Israel’s controversial military operation last winter.
Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow