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Political Analysis and Commentary
The Jerusalem Post Internet Edition
Civil Fights: Just another bit of fish wrapping
Oct. 15, 2008
Evelyn Gordon , THE JERUSALEM POST
Does anyone still remember George W. Bush\'s April 2004 letter to Ariel Sharon? At the time, it was touted as Israel\'s main quid pro quo for uprooting 25 settlements, expelling some 10,000 Israelis from their homes and withdrawing the army from Gaza. Yet today, it is never mentioned - and for good reason: In the ensuing four years, the Bush and Olmert administrations between them have systematically eviscerated every "achievement" it allegedly granted Israel.
Take, for instance, its pledge that "the United States will lead efforts, working together with Jordan, Egypt and others in the international community, to... prevent the areas from which Israel has withdrawn from posing a threat that would have to be addressed by any other means."
In reality, Palestinians have fired more than 6,000 rockets and mortar shells from Gaza since the August 2005 disengagement, more than triple the pre-pullout volume. The Palestinian Authority, which controlled Gaza until Hamas\'s June 2007 coup, made no effort to prevent this. Yet far from "leading the effort" against this threat, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice preferred to press Israel for more concessions, claiming that absent these, the PA could not be expected to fight terror.
Specifically, she demanded a "safe passage" between Gaza and the West Bank - which would have enabled rocket technology to spread to the latter - and the reopening of the Israel-Gaza border, which would have eased terrorist procurement and infiltration. In November 2005, she bullied Sharon into signing an agreement that included both provisions, but Olmert, to his credit, froze it because of the ongoing rocket fire. Nevertheless, she continued pressing these demands, most recently in her May 2007 "benchmarks" plan.
THE LETTER also pledged that "Israel will retain its right to defend itself against terrorism, including to take actions against terrorist organizations," if Gaza did prove "a threat that would have to be addressed by any other means" than diplomatic pressure. In reality, Washington pressed Olmert to avoid anything beyond ineffective, small-scale military operations. But there, it was pushing against an open door: Olmert wanted a major operation as little as Bush did.
Thus in theory, Bush\'s letter offered a multilayered security guarantee: Either the PA would provide security voluntarily, or the U.S. would "lead the effort" to force it to do so, or if all else failed, Israel would protect itself militarily. Instead, Palestinians launched daily attacks from Gaza without suffering any serious diplomatic or military consequences. And the world will now expect Israel to accept this as the model for future withdrawals as well.
Equally grave, however, is the evisceration of two key diplomatic achievements. One was the letter\'s pledge that the refugee issue must be resolved "through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel." The US has not reiterated this with the consistency and clarity necessary to convince the Palestinians that it is serious. But at least it never officially backtracked.
Olmert, however, single-handedly gutted this achievement by offering to absorb some 20,000 Palestinian refugees under any deal. And as everyone knows, the minute you concede the principle, the price is negotiable.
Predictably, therefore, the world is already pressuring Israel to raise the figure. French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, for instance, declared earlier this month that not only must Tzipi Livni honor Olmert\'s offer, she might even have to increase it: "I don\'t know how many [refugees Israel must accept] - 10,000 or 100,000, I don\'t know," he said.
The second achievement was the letter\'s promise that "in light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major population 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."
THE BUSH administration began gutting this promise almost immediately, by objecting vociferously to Israeli construction in these "major population centers." Clearly, if the settlement blocs were to remain Israeli, there was no reason to oppose construction within them. Thus by declaring construction within the blocs no more legitimate than construction elsewhere in the West Bank, Washington signaled that in fact, it did not believe Israel should retain them.
Last month, however, it made its retraction explicit: Speaking to the Palestinian daily Al-Ayyam, US Consul in Jerusalem Jacob Walles said Rice had told both sides that negotiations must be based on withdrawal to the 1949 lines. The State Department subsequently issued a denial, but its denial said merely that "the US government has not taken a position on borders." In other words, Washington no longer considers a return to the 1949 lines "unrealistic"; at best, it has "no position" on borders.
Olmert, however, has gutted this provision no less thoroughly: Last month, he told the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee that the territorial price of an agreement would be "very close to a formula of one for one." That means the border will basically be the 1949 lines: If the Palestinians must receive equivalent territory inside Israel for any West Bank territory Israel keeps, any adjustments to these lines will necessarily be minor. Olmert then repeated this in a Rosh Hashana interview with Yediot Aharonot, saying Israel "should withdraw from almost all of the territories, including in east Jerusalem," and compensate the Palestinians by "close to a 1:1 ratio" for any land it does retain.
CLEARLY, THE world will expect any future government to abide by this, since offers made during one round of negotiations are always the starting point for the next. Thus not only has Washington abrogated its 2004 promise, but Olmert has buried any possibility of resuscitating it.
Sharon claimed to have secured three American pledges in exchange for the disengagement: a free hand in fighting Palestinian terror post-withdrawal, opposition to resettling Palestinian refugees in Israel and support for retention of the settlement blocs. And most Israelis considered this trade-off worthwhile.
Four years later, however, all three have evaporated - just as disengagement opponents warned that they would. And Bush\'s letter has become just another bit of fish wrapping.
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