Obama mum on Bush’s borders for Israel

Tension looms over ‘04 letter

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As Israel’s prime minister prepares for his fifth official meeting with President Obama this week, the White House has declined to publicly affirm commitments made by President Bush to Israel in 2004 on the final borders of the Jewish state.

The interpretation of a 2004 letter from Mr. Bush to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has been a source of tension between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mr. Obama.

Mr. Netanyahu is expected in the meeting on Tuesday to discuss both the prospects for direct talks with the Palestinians and whether he will renew a 10-month freeze of new settlement construction on the West Bank. Both leaders are also looking to improve the negative atmosphere of the U.S.-Israeli relationship in the past year.

The Israelis maintain that Mr. Bush’s letter is the foundation for the United States to accept new construction in the Jewish settlements that encircle Jerusalem, areas that make up the vast majority of the Jewish population on the West Bank.

Mr. Obama and his White House team have fought to get Mr. Netanyahu to stop new settlement construction in Jerusalem and are hoping the Israelis will extend a new construction freeze for the West Bank that is set to expire in September.

The April 14, 2004, letter from Mr. Bush to Mr. Sharon said a final peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians should reflect “new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers,” and that “it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”

Mr. Bush’s letter also said Palestinians would have to agree to the final borders, yet at the time the letter was touted as a major concession by Mr. Sharon’s top advisers as Israel was preparing to withdraw settlements and Israeli troops from Gaza unilaterally.

During a conference call Friday with reporters, Dan Shapiro, the White House National Security Council’s senior director for the Middle East and North Africa, declined to say whether the 2004 letter reflected the Obama administration’s understanding of the parameters or borders of a final settlement to the conflict.

“I don’t think … we’ll have a comment on these kinds of … private discussions that we’re having with the parties. We have a very good understanding with our Israeli partners about the foundations of this relationship and this effort to move toward our shared goal of comprehensive peace and two states,” he said.

Robert Danin, a Middle East specialist at the Council on Foreign Relations, said the Quartet — the diplomatic body that represents the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations — does not recognize the commitments from Mr. Bush to Mr. Sharon either.

Mr. Danin, who in the spring left a position in the office of Tony Blair, the Quartet’s representative in Jerusalem, said last week, “That letter and the statement was a U.S.-Israel understanding, it was never endorsed by the Quartet as such, it has never been a Quartet issue as such.”

Israeli diplomats have claimed that there were verbal understandings that stemmed from the 2004 Bush letter that enshrined Israel’s right to expand and build in the settlements that form part of the Jerusalem suburbs known as Ma’aleh Adumim.

Bush administration officials have offered different accounts of the details and content of the verbal understandings on settlement construction.

The Israelis, however, did look to lock in the Obama administration to the verbal agreements it had with the Bush administration.

Once before the 2008 election and once shortly after that election, Sallai Meridor, Israel’s ambassador to the United States at the time, sought to get Mr. Bush’s White House National Security Council to agree to write down these oral understandings on settlements as part of a master list of U.S.-Israeli agreements, according to two former senior Bush administration officials.

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