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.
Stephen J. Hadley, White House national security adviser for Mr. Bush, rebuffed the Israeli ambassador both times in part because he did not seek to hem in the next administration.
“There is a document listing all the written agreements,” a former senior Bush administration official said. “It covers Bush but also prior written agreements. Sallai wanted it to include all oral agreements. Hadley did not want to reduce to writing that which was never written.”
Mr. Danin called the 2004 Bush letter “quite path-breaking,” adding that “it took place in a unique context. Israel was withdrawing from Gaza, unilaterally, it was dismantling settlements for the first time, again unilaterally. What was then called ideological compensation, the United States helped to try to encourage this process of Israel withdrawing from Gaza.”
Aaron David Miller, who has been a senior Middle East adviser to six U.S. secretaries of state, said the United States over the years has sent letters of assurances to Israel, the Palestine Liberation Organization and Middle Eastern states such as Syria, Egypt and Jordan.
In order to entice the Palestinians to participate in the 1991 Madrid peace conference, Mr. Miller said, President George H.W. Bush referred in a letter to PLO leader Yasser Arafat to East Jerusalem as “occupied territory.” Israeli leaders call the same territory their country’s “undivided and eternal capital.”
No U.S. president since George H.W. Bush has publicly called East Jerusalem occupied territory.
“These letters serve a very important function at the time, but as circumstances change parties conclude they are no longer of as much utility and value,” Mr. Miller said.
The 2004 letter is important also because Mr. Obama is looking to start direct negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians in the coming weeks. Both sides now negotiate only indirectly through the offices of George Mitchell, the former Senate majority leader who is Mr. Obama’s personal envoy to the Arab-Israeli conflict.
If the Palestinians agree to direct talks, one of the top agenda items will be the contours and perimeters of a Palestinian-Israeli border.
The Arab League peace proposal says the border should be along the 1949 armistice lines and include the complete withdrawal of Israeli settlements in the territory that the Jewish state won in the 1967 war. The 2004 letter from Mr. Bush directly contradicts the Arab League position.
In the Camp David talks in July 2000 and the Taba talks in January 2001, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators agreed on the concept of land swaps so that population centers over the armistice lines of Jewish Israelis would remain in Israel.
Mr. Netanyahu likely will propose an extension to the current 10-month settlement construction freeze on the West Bank in exchange for a peace process with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
But Mr. Netanyahu and his advisers have not said they would endorse prior Israeli peace offers made during failed negotiations, such as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s 2008 offer to Mr. Abbas to divide Jerusalem and allow international monitors to control access to the Temple Mount, the site that includes both the remnants of the second Jewish Temple and the Al Aqsa Mosque.
Mr. Netanyahu’s Cabinet also has sought to establish the principle that Israel’s final borders be “defensible,” and must give Israel control over positions in the Jordan River Valley.
The Israeli prime minister also has taken a dim view of unilateral territorial withdrawal in light of the recent rocket war from Gaza.
Moshe Yaalon, the minister of strategic affairs in Mr. Netanyahu’s government, wrote in a recent essay for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs that unilateral withdrawal encourages terrorists.
“The fact is that the mere discussion of removing Israeli settlements encourages jihadists across the globe,” he wrote. “Their stated aim, after all, is not to establish a Palestinian state but to ‘wipe Israel off the map.’”