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A Tale of Two Letters: Why the Peace Process Went Poof

Last week Zbigniew Brzezinski, joined by five other foreign-policy experts from the past, issued an open letter entitled “Stand Firm, John Kerry,” calling for “clarity” on “the critical moral and political issues” in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The letter castigated Israeli settlements and proposed “halting the diplomatic process” to “help stop this activity.” At “Pressure Points,” Elliott Abrams dismantled the letter, noting that, among other things, it ignored history.  

As it happens, tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of one of the more important items of history the Brzezinski group ignored: the April 14, 2004 letter from President George W. Bush to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, Abrams recounts how the letter went through “many drafts, as words, phrases, and paragraphs came in and out,” ending with a “headline” that was clear: “There would be no return to 1967 and Israel could keep the major settlement blocks.” In her  own memoir, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recounted spending three hours on the letter with Sharon the night before it was issued, and described the agreement to apply a “Google Earth test” for settlements: no new ones, no expanding the boundaries of them, but allowing building within existing settlements, since that would not reduce the land available for a Palestinian state. In his recent biography of Sharon, David Landau writes:

The American-Israeli diplomacy culminated in a hugely significant exchange of letters between Bush and Sharon in April 2004. In his letter, Sharon committed to carry out the [Gaza] disengagement. In his response, President Bush committed to back Israel on two vital issues: the Palestinian refugees would not return en masse to the State of Israel; and – by clear implication – the large settlement blocs on the West Bank, close to the 1967 line, would remain part of Israel in a final status agreement. Sharon regarded the exchange of letters as his most salient achievement as prime minister. He was probably right.

Last year, as Secretary Kerry was in Israel seeking to restart peace negotiations, an Israeli reporter asked him about “a guarantee from the past”–“telling that blocs of settlements can stay.” His question was straightforward: “does [the guarantee] exist?” Kerry responded: “I remember that commitment very well because I was running for president then, and I personally have supported the notion that the situation on the ground has changed.” Indeed, four days after the Bush letter was issued, Kerry was asked directly about it on Meet the Press:

MR. RUSSERT: On Thursday, President Bush … said that Israel can keep part of the land seized in the 1967 Middle East War and asserted the Palestinian refugees cannot go back to their particular homes. Do you support President Bush?

SEN. KERRY: Yes.

MR. RUSSERT: Completely?

SEN. KERRY: Yes.

The 2004 Bush letter was not simply a statement of policy; it was a negotiated deal, on which Israel relied in carrying out the Gaza disengagement, dismantling every settlement there and four others in the disputed territories as well. Sharon made the Bush letter part of the formal disengagement plan submitted to the Knesset for its approval. The U.S. Congress also endorsed the letter, in joint resolutions by the Senate (95-3) and House (407-9). The letter was endorsed in unambiguous terms by the 2004 Democratic presidential candidate, who in 2013 as secretary of state correctly called it a “commitment.”

The Obama administration, when it took office in 2009, repeatedly refused to answer whether it was bound by the Bush letter. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton denied there were any “enforceable” understandings with Israel. The day before Palestinian President Abbas met with President Obama, Clinton told the press Obama had been “very clear” with Prime Minister Netanyahu that he “wants to see a stop to settlements – not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions”–and that this had been “communicated very clearly, not only to the Israelis but to the Palestinians and others.” The same day, Abbas told the Washington Post he would do nothing but watch the Obama administration pressure Netanyahu. The administration eventually got a ten-month construction freeze, which both Clinton and Obama envoy George Mitchell called “unprecedented.” It produced nothing from the Palestinians other than a demand in the tenth month that it be continued.

Now flash forward five years, to Secretary of State Kerry’s April 8, 2014 Senate Foreign Relations Committee testimony, in which he said “both sides … wound up in positions where things happened that were unhelpful,” but that “when they were about to maybe [resume negotiations], 700 settlement units were announced in Jerusalem, and poof, that was sort of the moment.” Kerry knew the 700 “settlement units” [sic] were in a longstanding Jewish area in the capital of the Jewish state; that the area will be retained by Israel in any conceivable peace agreement; that Israel had made no commitment to Kerry to stop any construction there; and that Israel was working on an expanded prisoner release when the Palestinians went to the UN.

The peace process went “poof” not because of 700 units in Jerusalem, but because–for the third time in three years–the Palestinians violated the foundational agreement of the process, which obligates them not to take “any step” outside bilateral negotiations to change the status of the disputed territories. For the third time, the Palestinians went to the UN; for the third time, there was no American response; for the third time, there was no penalty for the violation; and on April 8, there was not even an honest assessment of the situation by the secretary of state.


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