The Unanswered Taken Question

At the State Department press briefing yesterday, Department Spokesman Ian Kelly declined to answer two questions, designating them as “taken questions” to be answered later. The first question related to Cuba and was answered by the end of the day with a three-paragraph response. The second, related to Israel, remained unanswered by the end of the day. It was a straightforward question:

QUESTION: Does the Obama Administration regard itself as bound by the contents of the letter that then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon received from President Bush in 2004?

Hillary Clinton was asked the same question yesterday and evaded answering it; when pressed, she would only say it was being “looked at.”

Let me take a stab at an answer:  Yes.

The letter in question is not a document setting forth the policy of a prior administration. It is part of an exchange of letters that, taken together, set forth the terms of the Gaza disengagement deal, negotiated between two heads of state. It contains explicit U.S. commitments to Israel regarding defensible borders and the Roadmap, and formal U.S. recognition of certain “realities” regarding settlement blocks and refugees. The letter was endorsed by a concurrent resolution of Congress.

When Israel formally approved the disengagement plan, the letter was incorporated into it. Sharon informed the Knesset that the U.S. commitments would be valid only if Israel proceeded with the disengagement, which Israel did — removing not just settlement “outposts” and not just “freezing” settlement activity, but completely dismantling every settlement, removing every soldier, and turning over the land, buildings, and a functioning greenhouse economy to the Palestinian Authority.

Israel paid twice for the commitments in the letter — first, by proceeding with the disengagement at great political and social cost and at considerable strategic risk; and second, by subsequently bearing the costs of rockets on its civilians year after year, until a new war became necessary to stop the almost daily onslaught. Israel now lives with a terrorist state on its southern border and a kidnapped soldier held for almost three years.

The letter was not simply a statement of policy, nor even simply an agreement; it was an agreement upon which Israel acted in reliance, and thus has the right to insist it be honored.

So yes, the Obama administration is bound by the contents of the letter. Words must mean something.