The Value of a Written Commitment

An Israeli official noted on Friday that the U.S. had still not produced a letter confirming the promises made to Benjamin Netanyahu the week before, including the pledge to give Israel 20 F-35 stealth warplanes worth $3 billion, which produced this reaction from Benny Begin:

“It looks like the free stealth fighters have slipped,” said Benny Begin, a minister from Netanyahu’s Likud party who is opposed to the proposed U.S. deal, warning that Washington was setting a trap to extract major concessions later down the line.

With this administration, it is a good idea to get oral understandings in writing, since Hillary Clinton famously argued last year that a six-year unwritten understanding of a “settlement freeze” (no new settlements or expansion of the borders of existing ones) was “unenforceable” — and that henceforth every new apartment (or announcement of one) would be considered a “settlement.” No wonder the Israeli security cabinet decided that an oral understanding would not be worth the paper it was written on.

Of course, with this administration, the value of a written understanding may not be worth much more. One of the provisions of the 2004 Bush letter was that the “United States will do its utmost to prevent any attempt by anyone to impose any other plan” than the Roadmap (emphasis added), with its requirement of a negotiated settlement based on UN Resolution 242. Israel sought the commitment to prevent the possibility that a complete withdrawal from Gaza might eventually lead the UN (or a subsequent U.S. administration) to seek to impose a complete withdrawal from the West Bank, rather than an agreed withdrawal to defensible borders.

Rather than reaffirm that commitment, the new U.S. letter commits only to opposing a UN declaration of a Palestinian state for a year (which coincidentally ends at the same time the Palestinian prime minister says he will have established the institutions of a state). The one-year commitment is thus less a promise than a threat — you’ve got a year to come to an agreement — that will add a perverse influence to the process: pressure on Israel from the time limit and a reverse incentive for the Palestinians to wait for its expiration, in the hope they can then transfer the issue to the UN without opposition from the United States. It is not clear what the value of such a letter is.