Israel’s former Prime Minister - Ariel Sharon - has been in a coma since 4 January 2006 but his legacy hangs like a heavy cloud over the plans of President Obama to oversee the creation of a new Arab State between Israel and Jordan.
President Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton certainly have a lot on their minds as they grapple with a multitude of the world’s current conflicts which - no doubt - have caused massive overloading of their respective memory banks.
Yet this would be a lame excuse for them forgetting about - or seeking to minimize the existence and crucial importance of the letters exchanged on 14 April 2004 between President Bush and Israel’s then Prime Minister - Ariel Sharon.
This correspondence enabled courageous and highly dangerous decisions being taken by Israel to kick start President Bush’s stalled 2003 Road Map - which had been enthusiastically endorsed by Russia, the European Union and the United Nations as the key to resolving the Israeli-Arab conflict by 2005.
The President’s letter provided the catalyst - and the political justification - for Israel unilaterally evacuating the entire Jewish population of 8000 from Gaza and withdrawing Israel’s army totally from there without any preconditions or undertakings being given or sought from the Palestinian Authority.
The Presidential letter set out in detail the framework that President Bush would support as Israel attempted to progress his Road Map towards the creation of this new Arab State between Israel and Jordan for the first time ever in recorded history.
President Bush’s letter clearly - and unambiguously - assured Israel that;
1. The borders of this new Arab State would not encompass the entire West Bank despite successive Arab leaders having demanded this outcome for the previous 37 years,
2. Jewish towns and villages in the West Bank would be incorporated into the borders of Israel
3. The Arabs would have to forego their demand to be given the right to allow millions of Arabs to emigrate to Israel and
4. Israel’s existence as a Jewish State would be non-negotiable
Jerusalem Post Editor David Horovitz joined a group of Israeli journalists who met with President Bush in the Oval Office prior to the President’s visit to Israel to take part in its 60th Anniversary celebrations in May 2008.
In his editorial - published on 14 May 2008 - Mr Horovitz revealed the extent of the American loss of memory - even at that time - concerning the President’s 2004 letter in the following terms:
“Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, however, has been known to minimize the significance of this four-year-old letter. Just last week, for instance, she told reporters that the 2004 letter “talked about realities at that time. And there are realities for both sides….
Bush’s National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley has also given briefings to the effect that Israel had tried to overstate the importance of a rather vague letter, which was issued at a time when Sharon was seeking to bolster support for the pullout from Gaza.
And in answering my question, Bush did not at first even realize that I was referring to the 2004 letter. Hadley, who was also in the Oval Office, had to prompt him. “Okay, the letters,” the president then said, remembering.”
This was not simply memory loss but something far worse and more sinister. An attempt was being made - even in 2008 - to downplay America’s clear and unequivocal commitments given to Israel as the price for Israel’s total evacuation of Gaza;
Israel has paid a high price in relying on President Bush’s letter.
Gaza has become a de facto terrorist Palestinian State with Hamas now firmly entrenched as the governing authority.
Israel has - since its evacuation of Gaza in 2005 - sustained a never ending barrage of rockets and mortars fired indiscriminately into Israeli population centres from Gaza by a bewildering variety of terrorist groups and sub-groups who would have had no chance of operating so freely from Gaza if the Israeli Army had remained there.
Gaza eventually paid the price for these gross acts of terrorism with Israel’s invasion of Gaza between December 2008-January 2009. However Gaza still remains defiant and unbowed.
Israel now needs to make it perfectly clear to President Obama and his Secretary of State - Hillary Clinton - that any attempt to resile from President Bush’s letter to Ariel Sharon will torpedo the prospects for any further negotiations - that President Obama then will have no one but himself to blame for bringing his own plans to a premature and ignominious end.
Israel’s former Prime Minister - Ehud Olmert - neither forgot - nor overlooked - the critical significance of President Bush’s letter to permitting the resumption of any ongoing negotiations.
President Bush and Ms Rice were quick to claim credit for bringing Israel and the Palestinian Authority together at the international conference held in Annapolis in November 2007 to announce the breakthrough in the resumption of those negotiations.
Maybe President Bush and his former Madam Secretary were so flushed by their apparent success that they failed to hear - or perhaps hoped everyone might overlook - what Prime Minister Olmert told the gathered world leaders at Annapolis about the course of those future negotiations:
“The negotiations will be based on previous agreements between us, U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, the road map and the April 14, 2004 letter of President Bush to the Prime Minister of Israel.”
The subsequent failure of the negotiations at Annapolis can be directly attributed to Israel’s insistence that America remain committed to the terms of President Bush’s letter to Ariel Sharon - terms that the Palestinian Authority was not prepared to countenance and which led to the breakdown of those negotiations.
As President Obama gets ready to lay out his own proposals for achieving the two state solution, he needs to be reminded of the commitment made by his predecessor to Ariel Sharon. Israel’s Prime Minister - Benjamin Netanyahu - must insist on President Obama remaining committed to supporting the outline of any proposed resolution to the conflict as clearly laid out in President Bush’s letter.
Jews have accumulated many memories - both pleasant and unpleasant - since losing their State, being expelled from there 2000 years ago and being dispersed to all corners of the globe. The Jews steeled themselves to ensure they never forgot who they were, where they came from and to where they would one day return.
Strength comes from remembering - not forgetting.
President Obama and his Secretary of State would do well to remember - and heed - this lesson as they strive to develop their own plan for ending the conflict.