[Published 5 August 2011]
A report this week [http://www.israelhayom.com/site/newsletter_article.php?id=562] claims that President Obama has now decided to honor the terms of a letter given by former President George Bush to former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon on 14 April 2004.
That letter can best be described as a pledge - given its contents and the circumstances in which it was written by President Bush to Prime Minister Sharon - who had also handed President Bush a letter at the same time setting out Israel’s proposal to unilaterally disengage from Gaza and part of the West Bank.
That fateful decision carried with it enormous risks to Israel’s security and possible trauma for the 8000 Israeli men women and children who were to be evacuated from their homes and businesses in Gaza where many had lived for more than three decades.
Those risks were soon translated into harsh realities as Hamas assumed power in Gaza within a few short years and indiscriminately targeted Israeli population centers with thousands of missiles. Now Hamas is busily engaged in building an arsenal of far more deadly weapons in anticipation of a future showdown with Israel.
Many of those evacuated Israeli civilians indeed experienced matrimonial and psychological breakdowns and financial ruin as a result of the disengagement.
President Bush was well aware of those risks - but appreciated at the same time the opportunity such disengagement would offer to progress his Roadmap when he told Prime Minister Sharon:
“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 toward peace. ...The United States appreciates the risks such an undertaking represents. I therefore want to reassure you on several points.“
The reassurances President Bush gave were:
1. The United States would do its utmost to prevent any attempt by anyone to impose any other plan.
2. The United States reiterated 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,
3. Israel would retain its right to defend itself against terrorism, including to take actions against terrorist organizations.
4. The United States was strongly committed to Israel’s security and well-being as a Jewish state.
5. It seemed clear that an agreed, just, fair, and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement would need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel.
6. 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 populations centers, it was unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations would be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution had reached the same conclusion. It was realistic to expect that any final status agreement would only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.
The Bush letter was overwhelmingly endorsed by the United States House of Representatives and Senate on 23 June 2004 when the following Resolution was passed by a vote of 407-9:
“Resolved by the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring), That Congress 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; and supports continuing efforts with 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 to the security of Israel.”
President Obama has been very coy in publicly acknowledging that he intended to honor the Bush Pledge.
In 2009, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said there was no acknowledgment of any such agreement in the official negotiating record between Israel and the Bush administration - asserting .
“There is no memorialization of any informal and oral agreements. If they did occur, which of course people say they did, they did not become part of the official position of the U.S. government,”
Why President Obama should have got his Secretary of State to try and weasel out of honoring the Bush letter was very puzzling. That letter was given to assure Israel of America’s support as it unilaterally withdrew from Gaza and part of the West Bank. It set out clearly and unequivocally America’s position in relation to the outcome it would support in future negotiations under the Roadmap between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Having been overwhelmingly endorsed by the Congress this letter could not be dismissed as some private or secret agreement made at the whim of a President that could be negated by a subsequent President. For better or worse it had become part of American policy that would need to be honored and respected by President Obama.
Ha’aretz journalist Ari Shavit issued a warning about the failure of Obama to honor this letter when he wrote in 2010:
“When it emerges that an incumbent American president is denying a commitment given by a previous American president and adopted by a large majority of the two houses of Congress,Israel will pass from a state of moral inferiority to one of moral superiority.
This is not merely a tactical matter. To make peace with the Palestinians Israel will have to take on itself almost survival-threatening risks. For Israel to take such risks it will need solid American guarantees. If the U.S. tears to shreds its previous guarantees, there is no value to future guarantees it might provide. So the matter of American credibility is fundamental.”
Hopefully the President has now come to the same conclusion.