By my count, State Department spokesmen have declined 21 times over the past year to answer a straightforward question: does the Obama administration consider itself bound by the 2004 Bush letter given to Israel in exchange for the Gaza disengagement plan? On Friday, a key White House official logged the 22nd refusal to address the question:
The April 14, 2004, letter from Mr. Bush to Mr. Sharon said a final peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians should reflect “new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers,” and that “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.” …
During a conference call Friday with reporters, Dan Shapiro, the White House National Security Council’s senior director for the Middle East and North Africa, declined to say whether the 2004 letter reflected the Obama administration’s understanding of the parameters or borders of a final settlement to the conflict.
The Bush letter reassured Israel of a “steadfast [U.S.] commitment” to “defensible borders” and to Israel’s ability to “defend itself, by itself” (a coded reference to Israel’s retention of its ultimate means of defense). Such borders require retention of the major settlement blocs, since they are located on the high ground surrounding the center of the country and other militarily significant points in the West Bank. (The 1967 Joint Chiefs of Staff memorandum on defensible borders is summarized here, and a useful video showing the topography of such borders is here.)
In referring to the “realities” on the ground and what is “realistic” for final-status negotiations, the Bush letter set forth the requirements of a serious peace process — since no Israeli government is going to cede territory essential to its strategic defense — and represents in any event a commitment that cannot be repudiated simply by ignoring it (at least not in normal diplomacy).
The reason Shapiro and the State Department spokesman have ducked the question of adherence to the Bush letter may be that they in fact do not know the answer. Michael Oren reportedly said that his access to senior administration officials and advisers of the president is good but that Obama exercises very tight control and “[t]his is a one-man-show.” In the Obama-Netanyahu press conference scheduled for later today, perhaps someone will address the question to the only person in the administration who apparently can answer it.