Clinton shreds Bush-Israel settlement understandings, fuels US-Israel row from the DEBKAfile Special Analysis
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 to 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.
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. Click to read the rest of the article