Goodness, gracious me! Glenn Kessler and Howard Schneider just posted a doozy on the WaPo site, which will put the cat among the pigeons! And why am I not surprised to find the fingerprints of our dear old friend and pardoned Iran-Contra criminal, Eliott Abrams, on this one.
The story begins when Nentanyahu came to meet Obama a week or so ago and got an earful wherever he went in DC, especially about halting the expansion of settlements. It wasn’t just at the White House and State Department. He also got a rude welcome on Capitol Hill among all those Congresscritters Bibi thought were his old buddies.
You know you’re on shaky ground when Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla) tells you, ""The Palestinians have enormous responsibilities, but the notion that Israel can continue to expand settlements, whether it be through natural growth or otherwise, without diminishing the capacity of a two-state solution is both unrealistic, and, I would respectfully suggest, hypocritical." Ah, hum.
But! Not to be discouraged by such a cool reception in DC, the Israelis are trying to push back, restating boldly that they have no plan to freeze settlements. You see, according to Bibi’s spokesman, until there are "final status arrangements," of which settlements are one, "it would not be fair to kill normal life inside existing communities."
Hmmm. Not fair to kill normal life. Let’s stop and think about that for a moment. Might there be some other folks in the neighborhood who share a similar sentiment that it’s unfair to kill normal life inside existing communities? Especially given that Israel undertook in Phase I of the Road Map to "take all necessary steps to help normalise Palestinian life…[and] also freeze[s] all settlement activity, consistent with the Mitchell report."
But, but… say the Israelis. George Bush gave Sharon a letter in 2004 that had caveats. And indeed Bush did. Here’s what the Wikipedia article on the Road Map for peace describes about the letter. [Note: this is a stable part of the Wikipedia Road Map article, so there seems to be consensus about its accuracy.]
On April 14, 2004, President George W. Bush wrote a letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon seeming to herald two significant changes or increased specifications to longstanding but ambiguous U.S. policy which had most recently been embodied in the road map. For the first time during the road map process, Bush indicated his expectations as to the outcome of the final status negotiations. The letter was widely seen as a triumph for Sharon, since Bush’s expectations seemed to favor Israel on two highly contentious issues. Regarding final borders, the letter stated: "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities...". Second, regarding the Palestinian refugees’ right of return, Bush also stated: "It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state and the settling of Palestinian refugees there rather than Israel."
So far, Bush’s 2004 letter, though supremely irritating and disappointing to the Palestinians, nonetheless tracks with what most observers had expected the Road Map process to eventually lead to. True, the letter may appear to prejudge certain "final status arrangements." However, the points in the letter don’t appear to be inconsistent with Israel’s obligations under the Road Map.
But wait! There’s more! Here’s the kicker, from Kessler and Schneider:
In an interview with The Washington Post last year, Sharon aide Dov Weissglas said that in 2005, when Sharon was poised to remove settlers from Gaza, the Bush administration arrived at a secret agreement — not disclosed to the Palestinians — that Israel could add homes in settlements it expected to keep, as long as the construction was dictated by market demand, not subsidies.
Elliott Abrams, a former deputy national security adviser who negotiated the arrangement with Weissglas, confirmed the deal in an interview last week. "At the time of the Gaza withdrawal, there were lengthy discussions about how settlement activity might be constrained, and in fact it was constrained in the later part of the Sharon years and the Olmert years in accordance with the ideas that were discussed," he said. "There was something of an understanding realized on these questions, but it was never a written agreement."
Regev said Israeli and U.S. negotiators are discussing the degree to which the terms of the 2004 letter will apply under the new administration, but U.S. officials indicated that Obama wants to move beyond the 2004 letter and hold Israel to its commitments under the road map. "The bottom line is we expect all the parties in the region to honor their commitments, and for the Israelis, that means a stop to settlements, as the president said," a senior administration official said.
So let me get this straight. The WaPo has since 2008 been sitting on the knowledge of "something of an unwritten understanding" or "secret agreement" — which was not disclosed to the Palestinians — that exempted Israel from commonly understood expectations of Israel’s Road Map obligations.
Just curious. Was this agreement shared with the Quartet? With Middle East envoys like James Wolfensohn, who had the unenviable task of trying to get the Israelis to deal with the Gaza withdrawal about the same time Eliot was negotiating that "unwritten understanding"? Was it disclosed to other branches of the US government?It certainly wasn’t shared with with the US public, either by the Bush Administration or the WaPo, even though the issue of Israeli settlements has become the focus of increasing public disapproval of Israeli actions, and even though it has even been a factor in US electoral politics. Just how many folks were in on this little private understanding. Maybe Eliott shared that tidbit with his friends who hired him at the Council on Foreign Relations. Who knows!
Still, it seems that the previously undisclosed "understanding" is rapidly becoming NOL (no longer operative). The last statement quoted by Gessler and Schneider from a "senior administration official" doesn’t sound like much of a "discussion" is happening between US and Israeli officials. Let’s just review it one more time.
"The bottom line is we expect all the parties in the region to honor their commitments, and for the Israelis, that means a stop to settlements, as the president said".
That message is going to elicit howls of outrage and betrayal from Tel Aviv. One assumes that news of the "unwritten understanding" will also produce howls from Ramallah, though somewhat offset by Obama’s apparent seriousness to hold the Israelis to their commitments. But it appears that any Israeli howls aren’t going to be met with much sympathy from the Obama Administration, or even on Capitol Hill.
By the way, tell me again, who got suckered when Bibi met Obama?
UPDATE: My cynicism about the WaPo’s Middle East coverage is high, but I’m still astonished at how completely they’ve buried this story. This story not only isn’t on the home page. You have to scroll down six articles in the "More News" column on the "World" front to find it. And even on the "Middle East" front, two other articles are showcased, and this is only one of a number of headlines at the top of "More News". Maybe they’re hoping it stays buried until the Sunday shows are over.