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Undoing the Bush Letter

Martin Kramer has suggested that Obama’s Cairo speech can be understood as an example of “Third Worldism,” given some of the themes that pervaded the address:

Some of the influences on Obama bubble to the surface. There is the Third Worldism: Muslims are victims of our colonialism (Obama has read Fanon) and the Cold War (has he been reading Khalidi again?) The primacy of the West is over: “Any world order that elevates one nation or group of people over another will inevitably fail.” There is the implicit comparison of the Palestinians to black Americans during segregation, a familiar trope (Carter and Condi went for it too). Israel comes across as an anomaly. There is no appreciation of Israel as a strategic asset – its ties to the United States are “cultural and historical,” and thus not entirely rational. (That validates Obama’s other former Chicago colleague, Mearsheimer.) All of this has the ring of conviction – and of a Third Worldist sensibility.

Kramer’s reference to Rashid Khalidi is a useful clue to one of the more extraordinary incidents in the four-month old Obama administration:  the refusal, 21 times and counting, to answer whether the administration is bound by the 2004 Bush letter to Israel.

What would make a new president think he could simply ignore a written commitment to a U.S. ally – reflecting an agreement on existential issues and on which the ally acted in reliance?  Why would he treat the letter as if it were merely a prior politician’s pledge?  The answer can perhaps be found in Khalidi’s 2006 pseudo-scholarly book – “The Iron Cage: The Palestinian Struggle for Statehood” – which Obama likely read when it came out.  The book contains a discussion of the Bush letter, as well as Khalidi’s recommendation about how a subsequent president should handle it.

Khalidi acknowledged the letter is unambiguous.  It “recognized the permanence of major Israeli settlements” and “endorsed the Israeli contention that Palestinian refugees cannot return to Israel proper.”  But Khalidi followed that description with a non-sequitur, asserting that the letter “helped lay low, perhaps definitively, the increasingly dim prospects of an independent, sovereign, contiguous Palestinian state ever coming into being.”

Why would rejection of a Palestinian right of return to Israel have any effect on an “independent, sovereign, contiguous” Palestinian state – particularly since the Bush letter endorsed a Palestinian right of return to the new Palestinian state?  Why would rejection of a right of return to Israel not be simply one of the minimum requirements for a two-state solution, assuming the goal was two states for two peoples?

Similarly, why would the permanence of major Israeli settlements have any effect on an “independent, sovereign, contiguous” Palestinian state – since those settlements occupy about eight percent of the West Bank, could be compensated with land swaps from pre-1967 Israel (even assuming 92 percent of the West Bank was not itself sufficient for a Palestinian state), and are essential to the defensible borders necessary to make any two-state solution work?

Khalidi did not acknowledge, much less answer, those questions.  He simply asserted – using the language of a Third Worldist – that the Bush letter represented “effective support of settlement, colonization, theft, and occupation” that would make the U.S. look like “a superpower bully, conniving with its powerful local ally to impose its will on the weak and powerless.”  Then he gave his suggestion, which reflects precisely what the Obama administration appears to be doing:  just “undo” the Bush letter.  In Khalidi’s words, “what one politician – American or Israeli – has done, another can undo.”  Treat the letter as merely a politician’s pledge, and break it.

The strategic significance of what Obama is doing (and undoing) with respect to the Bush letter is serious.  The considerations are analyzed with remarkable clarity by J.E. Dyer in the first and second installments of her series on “The Next Phase of World War IV.”  The title reflects the forgotten fact that we are in the middle of a new cold/hot war, in which this issue is not simply a peripheral one.  On the contrary, the persistent refusal of the State Department to address the U.S. commitment reflected in the Bush letter is, as she notes, “[p]erhaps one of the most important developments.”



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