“Three may keep a secret, if two of them are dead” — Benjamin Franklin
President Obama seems to have become embroiled in an exercise in deceit that could spell the end of his - and America’s - role as an honest broker in the proximity talks planned to start shortly between Israel and the Palestinian Authority sitting in separate rooms whilst America shuttles back and forth between them.
Letters are integral to understandings and agreements between parties to such negotiations and are designed to confirm and guarantee what once might otherwise have been the subject of a verbal wink or nod.
Trust these days is very limited and reliance on verbal undertakings is a risky business - especially where the Arab-Israeli conflict is concerned.
When a letter is suggested as having been given secretly to one side without being disclosed to the other - a crisis is more than likely to ensue.
President Obama seems to have stumbled into this dangerous minefield.
On 20 April 2010 in a well publicized letter to Alan Solow - the Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations - President Obama wrote:
“I am deeply committed to fulfilling the important role the United States must play for peace to be realized, but I also recognize that in order for any agreement to endure, peace cannot be imposed from the outside; it must be negotiated directly by the leaders who are required to make the hard choices and compromises that take on history.”
The import of this statement seemed clear and unambiguous. The parties alone would negotiate directly on the terms of any agreement. The United States would have a role in putting forward its own proposals but would not attempt to impose any terms on a reluctant party.
It didn’t take long for that notion to be possibly dissipated.
Writing in the International Herald Tribune on 27 April 2010 journalist Roger Cohen reported:
“Last week, a letter from President Barack Obama was conveyed to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president. In it, I understand, Obama spoke of his very strong commitment — unprecedented commitment — to a two-state peace and said that if Israel seriously undermines trust between the two parties, the United States will not stand in the way of a United Nations resolution condemning that.”
White House spokesman Tommy Vietor was quick to issue a denial:
“This report is inaccurate. Our policy about issues relating to Israel at the U.N. is clear and will not change. We will continue to speak out strongly for Israel’s right to self-defense and to oppose efforts to single Israel out unfairly for criticism,”
Interestingly however Vietor didn’t deny the existence of a letter being given to Abbas and also said,
“We’ve asked both sides to take steps to rebuild trust and proceed with proximity talks. We’re not going to get into the details of those requests because we think they should be discussed in private diplomatic channels.”
Israel should be concerned at the fact that a letter might exist - whose contents have been withheld from it by the White House - which seemingly gives assurances to the Palestinian Authority that the United States might well attempt to impose a solution on Israel by threatening to vote in a certain way at the United Nations if Israel refuses to accept any particular American proposal put during the proximity talks that Israel finds objectionable.
This can hardly be seen to be an exercise in building trust - rather the direct opposite.
Some deal involving a moratorium on building construction in East Jerusalem by Israel as a result of tacit understandings between Israel and America may well have been the catalyst for the issue of this letter to induce the Palestinian Authority President to get off his high horse and agree to the proximity talks.
Israel could have assured America that whilst Israel would suspend any building in East Jerusalem - it could not be seen to have done so openly for domestic political reasons.
Such a behind the scenes deal could have been done between Israel and America - backed up by a letter of assurance from the White House to Abbas that if Israel dared turn one sod of soil in East Jerusalem during the proximity talks then the Palestinian Authority could get the Arab League to run off to the United Nations to procure a resolution censuring Israel that America would not veto.
Then again the letter could be far more sinister and threatening in content - assuring the Palestinian Authority that America would not support Israel in the United Nations if Israel turned down a suggested American - or even Palestinian Authority - proposal that America thought should be part of a peace settlement.
Back channels, secret deals and vehement denials are a normal part of international diplomacy and can generate their own web of deceit.
However in the present case there is a somewhat unique situation developing - a published letter is being possibly countermanded by an unpublished letter given to one side only in the dispute just a few days later.
Israel may well have received a copy of the unpublished letter and accepted its contents without demur. Then again Israel may not have.
Those not privy to what is in the unpublished letter can - however - only speculate about its contents and the effect it might have on the proximity negotiations.
If such speculation reflects unfairly on one or more of Israel, America and the Palestinian Authority - then the affected parties have no one but themselves to blame for the consequences of their clandestine actions.
Perhaps the fog may lift - if America is called on to support Israel at the United Nations should any moves to censure Israel be proposed during the proximity negotiations.
It would appear that the tale of the two letters has not yet ended - and will not go away until the contents of the second letter are publicly revealed.
Hopefully it will not take the demise of two of the parties for the secret to get out.