US Refuses to Commit to Previous Agreement with Israel
Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu - Jun 03, 2009
Israel National News
(IsraelNN.com) The U.S. State Department Tuesday refused to state whether the Obama administration will honor a promise by the previous government that Israel will retain sovereignty over large Jewish areas in Judea and Samaria, in the event that a new Palestinian Authority state is created.
Then-President George W. Bush wrote former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2004, “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations 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, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion.”
Sylvie Lucas, President of the Economic and Social Council, charged that the refusal of the United States to state whether it is backing the commitment is problematic because “we are continually calling, for example, on the Palestinians – all factions of the Palestinians – to abide by the commitments that previous Palestinian governments have made. And yet you stand at that podium unwilling to declare whether or not the United States feels obligated to abide by the commitment that a previous United States government made.”
The question of whether U.S. President Barack Obama will honor the letter was raised at the State Department’s daily press briefing last week. Spokesman Ian Kelly replied, “That’s an excellent question…and I’ll get you the information on that.”
Spokesman Robert Wood dodged the issue Monday but was cornered on Tuesday by Lucas, who verbally sparred with him. [Questions and answers on the letter are located at 29 minutes after start of video.]
Wood repeatedly answered Lucas, “What I tried to say yesterday, and I’ll try and say it again today, is that we are working with the two parties to implement their Roadmap obligations….We’ve been extremely clear about that."
Pressed by Lucas, who asked, “So it means you are not bound by this letter?” Wood replied, “What I said, Sylvie, was we are working with the two sides to help them implement their Roadmap obligations.”
Lucas tried again: “Why don’t you want to say if you are bound or not? I don’t understand.”
Wood: “I’m saying what I’m saying.”
Lucas: Well, you are not answering.” As others at the session laughed out loud, she asked, “I don’t understand why you don’t want to say it.”
Wood insisted he could not be any clearer on the issue, to which Lucas answered, “What? Well, we must be stupid because we don’t understand. It’s a yes-or-no question, Robert. Is the Obama Administration bound by the contents of that letter or not? A yes or a no will suffice.”
The spokesman refused to budge and repeated, “Well, I’m giving you the answer that I’ve given you yesterday and today.”
He rejected Lucas’s charge that the U.S. is demanding from the PA to agree to previous commitments while the American government does not abide by the same rules. She did not mention that most conditions of past agreements have been carried out by Israel while several PA obligations, such as ending incitement and formally recognizing the State of Israel , have been skipped over.
“We’re demanding things from both sides,” Wood declared. “This is not an issue of what the United States needs to do. This is an issue about what the two sides need to do.”
Media commentators have reported that President Obama is morally bound but not legally bound to stand behind the letter from his predecessor.
Clinton shreds Bush-Israel settlement understandings, fuels US-Israel row
DEBKAfile Special Analysis
June 6, 2009, 11:39 PM (GMT+02:00)
Gloves off, no more legalistic quibbling
US secretary of state Hillary Clinton roughly rejected any secret Bush agreements with Israel on expanding settlements. Her intention was to have the last word and so shut down the Obama administration's argument with Israel over a West Bank settlement freeze. But she only threw fresh fuel on the fire when she stated emphatically on Friday, June 5, that according to the negotiating record which Bush officials turned over to the Obama administration, "There is no memorialization of any informal and oral agreements."
Israel officials have protested that Barack Obama's demand for a total freeze on settlement expansion contradicts a series of understandings – some written, some oral – with Bush officials which permitted expansion under certain conditions. This argument was put forward by prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu in his wide-ranging talks with the US president on May 18 and reaffirmed by Israeli officials when they met US Middle East envoy George Mitchell in London ten days later.
This key understanding referred to was reached in 2004: It provided for Israel's voluntary evacuation of the Gaza Strip and the northern tip of the West Bank (which took place the following year) would be counter-balanced by Washington's acceptance of the need for continuing construction in the large population blocks in other parts of West Bank territory to meet natural growth needs.
This understanding was reached by Bush's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley and his deputy Elliott Abrams in talks with Israeli officials. Brig. Gen.
At their London meeting of May 28, Mike Herzog, defense minister Ehud Barak's chief of staff, bore witness to Mitchell that he had led the Israeli team at the 2004 talks and that those talks had indeed ended with the two US NSC heads' endorsement on behalf of the Bush administration of continued Israeli settlement construction to keep pace with the natural growth of those communities.
Elliott Abrams is quoted Friday by the Washington Post as acknowledging last week that there had been unwritten understandings between Washington and Jerusalem, as Brig. Herzog affirmed.
By repudiating any such understandings – written and spoken - Clinton has dragged US-Israeli relations into a new trough. It is now a straight issue of word against word, Washington versus Jerusalem's. This is a dark point for restarting any peace process between Israel and Palestinians or other Arab governments for an accord on substantial issues which have defeated every past peace effort.
The "settlements" referred to by Obama in his demand for an end to all construction apply to five Israeli urban centers: its capital, Jerusalem, which the US does not recognize with or without its post-1967 extensions (although successive administrations have pledged to locate its embassy there), Maaleh Adummim just east of Jerusalem, Efrat to the south, Ariel to the north and Modiin Ilit, southeast of Tel Aviv. Their total population is estimated between 250,000 and 300,000, plus isolated communities which are home to another approximate 180,000 Jewish inhabitants.
These figures do not include the unauthorized outposts over whose removal Israel is not arguing.
Abrams in an article he published on April 8 hinted that the passage in the 2004 Bush letter to Ariel Sharon - "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" - was an indirect recognition of demographic "changes" (in the Israeli and Palestinian populations over 42 years) and understanding for the "realities" applying to the large settlement blocks, meaning that Israel was entitled to continue their development.
However, DEBKAfile's Washington sources stress, Eliott Abrams has no standing in the new administration. Obama and his team will adopt or dump the understandings reached by his White House predecessors not according to archival evidence but according to whether or not they suit his new international policy directions over which Jerusalem is getting badly worried.
The Netanyahu government is now facing its first real test. In Washington, the gloves are off. If the prime minister holds to his defensive, accommodating posture toward on the settlement issue and fails to punch back with demands that the other side - and the United States itself stand by former accords and commitments - he will find himself inexorably forced back step by step on other vital security interests, including Iran's accelerated nuclear weapons program.
Legalistic quibbling over dead letters will not avail - as Israeli officials will discover when confronted with new pressures for concessions from US envoy Mitchell next week.
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Article's topics: George Mitchell, Avigdor Lieberman, Shimon Peres, Ehud Barak
While outwardly US envoy George Mitchell tried to downplay tensions between Washington and Jerusalem, the settlement construction issue continued to be a central source of contention when Mitchell met with Israel's leaders on Tuesday.
Lieberman and Mitchell at the...
Lieberman and Mitchell at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, Tuesday.
SLIDESHOW: Israel & Region | World
Mitchell, during a day of meetings that included four hours with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, was told that Israel would not bring all settlement construction to a complete halt, even though this continues to be the US's stated position.
One senior official said that there appeared to be some "convergence" between the sides, and they were moving toward a definition of the issues.
Following the evening meeting with Mitchell, which included a two-hour one-on-one conversation, Netanyahu's office issued a statement that the meeting was "friendly and positive and encompassed the whole range of issues on the agenda."
* Analysis: What is the US policy on Israeli settlements?
Netanyahu, according to the statement, said that "Israel is working to promote peace and security with our Palestinian neighbors and the wider Arab world."
In front of the cameras, Mitchell took pains to stress the importance of the US-Israeli relationship, and Washington's commitment to Israel's security.
Mitchell, after a meeting earlier in the day with President Shimon Peres, said he wanted to state again "clearly and emphatically, beyond any doubt, that the United States' commitment to the security of Israel remains unshakeable."
He stressed that the current disagreements "are not disagreements among adversaries. The United States and Israel are and will remain close allies and friends. My meetings today with the president and other Israeli officials are discussions among friends who share a common set of objectives: Peace, security and prosperity to all the people of this region."
Mitchell said the objective of the Obama administration was a "comprehensive peace in the Middle East," including "a Palestinian state side by side in peace and security with the Jewish State of Israel. The president and the secretary of state have made our policy clear. Israelis and Palestinians have a responsibility to meet their obligations under the road map. It's not just their responsibility. We believe it's in their security interest as well."
Giving voice to the Obama administration's focus on the regional element of the diplomatic process, Mitchell said the US was engaged in "serious discussions" with Israel, the Palestinians and regional partners in the hopes of creating the conditions "for the prompt resumption and early conclusion of negotiations."
In an apparent indication of the regional context to the diplomatic process Obama wants to launch, the State Department announced that Mitchell - who will hold meetings with the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah on Wednesday - was scheduled to go to Lebanon on Thursday and to Damascus on Friday and Saturday. This will be Mitchell's first visit to Syria since he was appointed envoy in January, though two senior administration officials - Jeffrey Feltman and Dan Shapiro - have visited Damascus twice.
One Israeli official said that while the thrust of the Shapiro and Feltman visits had focused on bilateral Syrian-US ties, Mitchell - in light of his position - was expected to concentrate on the Israeli-Syrian track.
In advance of Mitchell's trip, Syrian President Bashar Assad has expressed renewed interest in restarting preliminary contacts with Israel through Turkey.
"President Bashar Assad told his Turkish counterpart Abdullah Gul once again when he visited Syria (last month) of Damascus's firm and continuing support for Ankara's mediation efforts and its confidence in their impartiality," Syria's ambassador to Turkey, Nidal Kabalan, told AFP.
Assad also told Gul he had sent a similar message to European envoys, Kabalan said, adding: "It is now up to them [the Israelis]."
Though many expect the US to seize the results and push more aggressively for peace between Israel and Syria, with the Mitchell trip a sign of that effort, Strategic Affairs Minister Moshe Ya'alon argued Tuesday that conditions were not ripe for a deal with Syria.
He said that previous negotiations between Jerusalem and Damascus took place in the 1990s under a different leader - current Syrian President Bashar Assad's father Hafez - and were conducted with the understanding that a peace with Israel would mean Syria broke its relations with Iran and stopped supporting Hizbullah."His son's behaving in a very different way," he told the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, describing Israeli officials as suspicious of his overtures.
Regarding Mitchell's trip to Lebanon, Israeli officials said this had more to do with Lebanon's recent elections, and a US desire to send a message of support to Lebanese Prime Minister Fuad Saniora, than any efforts to start an as-yet nonexistent Lebanese-Israeli track.
The officials also said it would be unlikely for Israel to make any concessions toward the Lebanese regarding the Shaba Farms area or the village of Ghajar until it became clear whether or not Hizbullah would be part of the upcoming government. If Hizbullah were in the government, any gestures regarding the Shaba Farms or Ghajar would be unlikely, the sources noted.
One issue that has been discussed extensively in Jerusalem is the possibility of pulling out of the northern part of Ghajar, which straddles the Israeli-Lebanese border.
Regarding the Palestinian issue, Peres, whom Mitchell met in the morning, said there were four important points that needed to be emphasized on the road to peace: "a two-state solution based on the road map, the clear maintenance of Israel's security, independence for the Palestinians, and implementation of a comprehensive regional peace between Israel and the Arab countries of the Middle East."
Diplomatic sources, who said it was likely that Peres was foreshadowing Netanyahu's address on Sunday at Bar-Ilan University, said that while it was likely that Netanyahu would nod toward the notion of a Palestinian state in his speech, he was unlikely to say "two states for two peoples," because this was a slogan that had become too closely identified with opposition leader Tzipi Livni.
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