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The Problem with the Obama Letter

Paul Mirengoff concurs with Evelyn Gordon’s suggestion that Barack Obama’s proposed letter, promising significant “goodies” for Israel if it extends its settlement moratorium, is unreliable — given Obama’s failure to abide by promises made by the U.S. in his predecessor’s letter. My own view is that the problem with the proposed letter is not simply its credibility but also its substance.

The Obama administration has refused 22 times to state whether it considers itself bound by the Bush letter, which conceded that it “seems clear” that Palestinian refugees must be resettled in a Palestinian state rather than in Israel and that it is “unrealistic” to expect a complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, given the major Israeli population centers there. Those factual statements remain true notwithstanding Obama’s refusal to acknowledge them. But the critical part of the Bush letter was the promise that the U.S. would stand by its “steadfast commitment” to “defensible borders” (a term with a long diplomatic history and military meaning) — a commitment made not only by Bush, but by the Clinton administration in its own letter to Israel’s then-prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

According to David Makovsky’s quasi-official summary of the proposed Obama letter, the administration promises to help ensure “a complete ban” on the smuggling of arms and terrorists into a Palestinian state; maintain a “transitional period” for Israeli enforcement of security in the Jordan Valley; and enhance Israel’s defense capabilities in a “post-peace era.” But there was no reiteration of the prior U.S. commitment to such borders as are necessary for Israel to defend itself if the ban proves less than complete, the transitional period not quite long enough, and the “post-peace era” similar to the one that followed withdrawals from Lebanon and Gaza.

The failure of the proposed letter to reiterate the commitment to defensible borders made by both Democratic and Republican administrations is another indication the Obama administration has reneged on it. In its place, the administration offers a “complete ban” that no one can guarantee; a “transitional period” no one can assure will be long enough; and a promised enhancement of Israel’s defense capabilities, which is an implicit admission that Israel’s current capabilities are insufficient for the risks involved in a “post-peace era.” Even if given in good faith, the Obama letter cannot substitute for defensible borders, but that is the function the proposed letter seems intended to serve.


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