One of President Obama’s first breaks with Israel was when he disregarded what its foreign ministry considered an informal U.S. agreement to accept limited expansion of Jerusalem suburbs built on land Israel won in the 1967 Six-Day War.
It turns out this decision — a flash point for Jerusalem — was quietly supported by Bush’s second secretary of state and first foreign policy tutor: Condoleezza Rice, according to an e-mail made public by the State Department last week as part of the disclosure of Hillary Clinton’s personal e-mails stored on a private server.
The June 7, 2009, e-mail from Hillary Clinton, then the secretary of state, to two of her closest aides under the subject line “settlements,” says: “Condi Rice called to tell me I was on strong ground saying what I did about there being no agreement btw the Bush Admin and Israel.”
Ten days after she sent this e-mail, Clinton told reporters at a press conference that “there were no informal or oral enforceable agreements” that allowed some settlement activity and that this position”has been verified by the official record of the Administration and by the personnel in the positions of responsibility.”
At the time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his top aides were wrangling with Obama over his call to Israel to stop building in all of the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Netanyahu agreed ultimately to a modified settlement freeze. But he also said that Obama’s demand violated an agreement Israel made with his predecessor.
The e-mail illustrates that the conflict runs deeper than Israel has portrayed. It is not simply a clash between Obama and Israel. In his memoir released last month, Israel’s ambassador to Washington in Obama’s first term, Michael Oren accuses Obama of going back on Bush’s promise. “For the first time in the history of the U.S.-Israel alliance,” he wrote. “The White House denied the validity of a previous presidential commitment.”
But that commitment is debatable. Clinton’s e-mail suggests Rice never thought the U.S. accepted some settlement growth in the population centers in and around Jerusalem, as Israel has said. Assistants to Rice and Clinton declined to comment for this column.
The issue began on April 14, 2004. That day Bush handed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon a letter that said: “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.”
What that letter means has been an enduring disagreement between Obama and Netanyahu. The Bush letter was drafted in part as a reward for Sharon, who had agreed to withdraw all Jewish settlements from Gaza and four such settlements from the West Bank. It was the first time an Israeli prime minister had withdrawn from territory without extracting something from an adversary. The move was all the more notable because Sharon was the most ardent advocate of the settlements in Israeli politics. The withdrawals ultimately split the Likud party, leading Sharon to form a new centrist coalition and ceding the leadership of Likud to Netanyahu.
This is the point in the story where it gets fuzzy. Sharon himself acknowledged in speeches at the time that he had agreed to important limits on settlement growth. One of Sharon’s closest aides, Dov Weissglass, has asserted that oral commitments were made after this letter; the agreement was said to be that Israel would end subsidies to settlers and build no new settlements, but that growth in existing Jewish population centers on the West Bank in and around Jerusalem would remain.
This view is also supported by Bush’s deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams, who helped negotiate the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. Abrams acknowledged in a 2009 Wall Street Journal op-ed that there was no formal memorandum of understanding that would give America’s consent to some settlement growth inside major population centers. But he also said there were agreements on settlement activity not spelled out in the 2004 letter. “Not only were there agreements, but the prime minister of Israel relied on them in undertaking a wrenching political reorientation — the dissolution of his government, the removal of every single Israeli citizen, settlement and military position in Gaza, and the removal of four small settlements in the West Bank.”
Rice’s own memoir from 2011 is unclear on the issue. She writes that Abrams and the national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, had sought to iron out the specifics of where and when Israelis could build within existing Jewish population centers on the West Bank. But she adds, “We could never get an agreed definition for a settlement freeze based on those parameters.”
Rice, however, also acknowledged in her memoir that there were informal agreements on settlement activity. Those agreements included an end to government subsidies to settlers; an agreement from Israel not to build new settlements; an agreement not to expropriate new lands for settlement construction; and what Rice called the “Google Earth test,” meaning the perimeters of existing settlements would not expand.
All of this suggests that Israel had agreed to some specific limits on settlement activity, while other kinds of building within these existing settlements was informally understood to be acceptable.
Rice ends her chapter on this issue by acknowledging that settlement activity continued to be a “bone of contention” for the U.S.-Israel relationship between 2004 and 2009. But nonetheless in this period, “there were no new settlement blocks built,” and the settler population grew at a lower annual rate than at any other time since the 1967 war.”
Clinton’s memoir also offers at least some insight into the matter. She wrote that Obama’s top advisers on foreign policy debated the merits of demanding Israel engage in a total settlement freeze. She said that she and Obama’s special envoy to the peace process, George Mitchell, “worried we could be locking ourselves into a confrontation we didn’t need and the Israelis were being asked to do more than the other parties” with the request for a total freeze.
In some ways Clinton’s fears proved prescient. When John Kerry took over at the State Department for Obama’s second term, he dropped the demand of a settlement freeze as a condition for peace talks. Instead he asked Israel to release violent Palestinian prisoners. The Netanyahu government agreed to that too. Neither side is any closer to peace.
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