Friday, June 26, 2009

OPINION: Hillary Is Wrong [LIED] About the Settlements

The U.S. and Israel reached a clear understanding about natural growth.
Printed in The Wall Street Journal, page A15 JUNE 25, 2009

Despite fervent denials by Obama administration officials, there were indeed
agreements between Israel and the United States regarding the growth of
Israeli settlements on the West Bank. As the Obama administration has made
the settlements issue a major bone of contention between Israel and the
U.S., it is necessary that we review the recent history. In the spring of 2003, U.S. officials (including me) held wide-ranging
discussions with then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem. The "Roadmap
for Peace" between Israel and the Palestinians had been written. President
George W. Bush had endorsed Palestinian statehood, but only if the
Palestinians eliminated terror. He had broken with Yasser Arafat, but Arafat
still ruled in the Palestinian territories. Israel had defeated the
intifada, so what was next?

Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, President George W. Bush, Israeli
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Jordan's King Abdullah, June 4, 2003.

We asked Mr. Sharon about freezing the West Bank settlements. I recall him
asking, by way of reply, what did that mean for the settlers? They live
there, he said, they serve in elite army units, and they marry. Should he
tell them to have no more children, or move?

We discussed some approaches: Could he agree there would be no additional
settlements? New construction only inside settlements, without expanding
them physically? Could he agree there would be no additional land taken for

As we talked several principles emerged. The father of the settlements now
agreed that limits must be placed on the settlements; more fundamentally,
the old foe of the Palestinians could -- under certain conditions -- now
agree to Palestinian statehood.

In June 2003, Mr. Sharon stood alongside Mr. Bush, King Abdullah II of
Jordan, and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas at Aqaba, Jordan, and
endorsed Palestinian statehood publicly: "It is in Israel's interest not to
govern the Palestinians but for the Palestinians to govern themselves in
their own state. A democratic Palestinian state fully at peace with Israel
will promote the long-term security and well-being of Israel as a Jewish
state." At the end of that year he announced his intention to pull out of
the Gaza Strip.

The U.S. government supported all this, but asked Mr. Sharon for two more
things. First, that he remove some West Bank settlements; we wanted Israel
to show that removing them was not impossible. Second, we wanted him to pull
out of Gaza totally -- including every single settlement and the
"Philadelphi Strip" separating Gaza from Egypt, even though holding on to
this strip would have prevented the smuggling of weapons to Hamas that was
feared and has now come to pass. Mr. Sharon agreed on both counts.

These decisions were political dynamite, as Mr. Sharon had long predicted to
us. In May 2004, his Likud Party rejected his plan in a referendum, handing
him a resounding political defeat. In June, the Cabinet approved the
withdrawal from Gaza, but only after Mr. Sharon fired two ministers and
allowed two others to resign. His majority in the Knesset was now shaky.

After completing the Gaza withdrawal in August 2005, he called in November
for a dissolution of the Knesset and for early elections. He also said he
would leave Likud to form a new centrist party. The political and personal
strain was very great. Four weeks later he suffered the first of two strokes
that have left him in a coma.

Throughout, the Bush administration gave Mr. Sharon full support for his
actions against terror and on final status issues. On April 14, 2004, Mr.
Bush handed Mr. Sharon a letter saying that there would be no "right of
return" for Palestinian refugees. Instead, the president said, "a solution
to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will
need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the
settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel."

On the major settlement blocs, Mr. Bush said, "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." Several
previous administrations had declared all Israeli settlements beyond the
"1967 borders" to be illegal. Here Mr. Bush dropped such language, referring
to the 1967 borders -- correctly -- as merely the lines where the fighting
stopped in 1949, and saying that in any realistic peace agreement Israel
would be able to negotiate keeping those major settlements.

On settlements we also agreed on principles that would permit some
continuing growth. Mr. Sharon stated these clearly in a major policy speech
in December 2003: "Israel will meet all its obligations with regard to
construction in the settlements. There will be no construction beyond the
existing construction line, no expropriation of land for construction, no
special economic incentives and no construction of new settlements."

Ariel Sharon did not invent those four principles. They emerged from
discussions with American officials and were discussed by Messrs. Sharon and
Bush at their Aqaba meeting in June 2003.

They were not secret, either. Four days after the president's letter, Mr.
Sharon's Chief of Staff Dov Weissglas wrote to Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice that "I wish to reconfirm the following understanding,
which had been reached between us: 1. Restrictions on settlement growth:
within the agreed principles of settlement activities, an effort will be
made in the next few days to have a better definition of the construction
line of settlements in Judea & Samaria."

Stories in the press also made it clear that there were indeed "agreed
principles." On Aug. 21, 2004 the New York Times reported that "the Bush
administration . . . now supports construction of new apartments in areas
already built up in some settlements, as long as the expansion does not
extend outward."

In recent weeks, American officials have denied that any agreement on
settlements existed. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated on June 17
that "in looking at the history of the Bush administration, there were no
informal or oral enforceable agreements. That has been verified by the
official record of the administration and by the personnel in the positions
of responsibility."

These statements are incorrect. Not only were there agreements, but the
prime minister of Israel relied on them in undertaking a wrenching political
reorientation -- the dissolution of his government, the removal of every
single Israeli citizen, settlement and military position in Gaza, and the
removal of four small settlements in the West Bank. This was the first time
Israel had ever removed settlements outside the context of a peace treaty,
and it was a major step.

It is true that there was no U.S.-Israel "memorandum of understanding,"
which is presumably what Mrs. Clinton means when she suggests that the
"official record of the administration" contains none. But she would do well
to consult documents like the Weissglas letter, or the notes of the Aqaba
meeting, before suggesting that there was no meeting of the minds.

Mrs. Clinton also said there were no "enforceable" agreements. This is a
strange phrase. How exactly would Israel enforce any agreement against an
American decision to renege on it? Take it to the International Court in The

Regardless of what Mrs. Clinton has said, there was a bargained-for
exchange. Mr. Sharon was determined to break the deadlock, withdraw from
Gaza, remove settlements -- and confront his former allies on Israel's right
by abandoning the "Greater Israel" position to endorse Palestinian statehood
and limits on settlement growth. He asked for our support and got it,
including the agreement that we would not demand a total settlement freeze.

For reasons that remain unclear, the Obama administration has decided to
abandon the understandings about settlements reached by the previous
administration with the Israeli government. We may be abandoning the deal
now, but we cannot rewrite history and make believe it did not exist.

Mr. Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on
Foreign Relations, handled Middle East affairs at the National Security
Council from 2001 to 2009.

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