Today is the ninth anniversary of one of the key documents in the history of the “peace process”: the April 14, 2004 letter from President Bush to Prime Minister Sharon, reiterating a “steadfast commitment” by the U.S. to “defensible borders” for Israel, and recognizing that Palestinian refugees would return to a Palestinian state, not to Israel. In Tested by Zion, his invaluable account of the Bush administration and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Elliott Abrams describes how carefully considered the letter was: there were “many drafts, as words, phrases, and paragraphs came in and went out.” At the end, “the headline was clear: There would be no return to 1967 and Israel could keep the major settlement blocks.”
The letter was more than a statement of U.S. policy. It was part of a deal. One of the most troublesome signs of the new approach adopted by President Obama in 2009 was the repeated refusals by administration spokespersons to answer whether the U.S. was bound by the letter. At 22, I stopped counting the number of times the question was asked and not answered, as the administration signaled Israel that the prior U.S. commitment was no longer reliable. But last week, on his return visit to Israel seeking to re-invigorate the “peace process,” Secretary of State Kerry was asked about it again.
At an April 9 press conference in Tel Aviv, Bow Shapira from Israeli TV (Channel 1) told Kerry he wanted to ask about “a guarantee from the past”–the 2004 Bush letter, which he described as “telling that blocs of settlements can stay, cannot [be] removed from the territory.” His question about the guarantee was straightforward: “well, does it exist?” Kerry responded in part as follows:
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, and obviously, we’re talking about blocs that are in a very different status. I’m not going to get into telling you what ought to happen with respect to any particular piece of geography today because that’s for the parties to decide in their negotiation. But I have certainly supported the notion publicly myself that we need to deal with the ’67 lines, plus the swaps that reflect some of the changes that have taken place since then.
It is not surprising that Kerry remembered the commitment so well. He appeared on “Meet the Press” on April 18, 2004–four days after the Bush letter was issued–and was asked directly about it by Tim Russert:
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.
Kerry’s response to the Israeli reporter last week is significant, because he recognized: (1) that the Bush letter was in fact a commitment, subsequently endorsed by both the Senate (95-3) and the House (407-9) in concurrent resolutions; and (2) that he supported it at the time, in unambiguous terms.
But it is indicative of the continuing problem President Obama created with his refusal in 2009 to endorse the Bush letter that an Israeli reporter felt it necessary to ask whether the U.S. commitment exists. The president has been attempting to assure Israelis with his have-your-back, all-options-on-the-table rhetorical commitments, but they remember that in the past he did not feel constrained to respect even a written commitment to Israel.