Nice Little Letter You Got There

Nearly a week ago, the State Department spokesman declined to answer whether the Obama Administration regarded itself bound by the letter Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon received from President Bush in 2004, but promised a written response.  No response has been posted by the Department, and the same reporter raised the question again at yesterday’s press conference, leading to the following remarkable colloquy, courtesy of Department spokesman Robert Wood:

QUESTION: The United States, in the form of a letter that President Bush sent to then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2004, made certain commitments to the Israeli state. I have tried to ask whether or not the Obama Administration feels bound by the commitments that President Bush expressed in that letter, which the Israelis would certainly feel comprise obligations on the part of the United States that we have made. Does the United States regard itself as – right now, as being bound by those commitments that President Bush made?

QUESTION: What about our written obligations? Do we live up to the ones that we set?

MR. WOOD: Look, we – the United States lives up to its obligations. Right now, we are focused on, as I said, trying to get both sides to adhere to the Roadmap so that we can move forward toward that two-state solution. And it’s not going to be easy, as you know. We’ve spoken to that many times. And we’re going to continue to try to do that.

QUESTION: Is the letter binding or not on this Administration?

MR. WOOD: Look, what I’m saying to you, James, is we have – there are a series of obligations that Israel and the Palestinians have undertaken.

QUESTION: I haven’t asked about their obligations and what they’ve undertaken. I’ve asked about a letter that this country sent to Israel. I’d like you to address that letter.

MR. WOOD: Well —

QUESTION: Is it binding on this Administration?

MR. WOOD: Well, this Administration is – as I said, has laid out its proposals, its strategy for moving forward. And that’s about the best I can help you with on that, James.

QUESTION: Does it entail that letter?

MR. WOOD: I’ve said what I can say on this right now.

Seven times the question was posed – a question that could be answered “yes” or “no” (and that in fact has only one appropriate answer) – and seven times the spokesman declined to answer whether the administration stood by the explicit commitments given to Israel when it turned over Gaza to advance the “peace process.” Now the administration wants Israel to commit, in advance of negotiations, to do it all over again in the West Bank, in return for new paper promises, just as the U.S. reneges on its prior ones.

There are several possible explanations for the State Department’s refusal to answer the question, after promising to answer it a week ago.

Perhaps the Department is delaying its answer as part of a campaign to pressure Benjamin Netanyahu to commit to two states as the outcome of negotiations with the rump regime in Ramallah, even if the regime’s leader will not promise in return that one of the states will be Jewish.

Perhaps the Department knows the U.S. is bound by the April 14, 2004 letter (for the reasons laid out here), but does not wish to answer the question until after the president speaks to the Muslim world in Cairo this week.  Perhaps the president does not want to affirm the “steadfast commitment” to defensible borders for Israel just days before he speaks to an audience that expects him to endorse an Israeli return to the indefensible borders of 1967.

Perhaps the problem, however, is the president’s approach to commitments.  Perhaps the president who delivered a prepared address to 7,000 people at AIPAC last year in which he said “Let me clear . . . [Jerusalem] must remain undivided” – and then reneged on that commitment a day later (in the same manner he reneged on his commitment to public campaign financing and made wholesale reversals of his primary positions once he got to the general campaign) – is someone who believes commitments are good only for a particular time and place, and not thereafter.

The president is good with words, but those who rely on them do so at their peril.