The crisis in U.S.–Israeli relations that the Obama administration caused this month, in its waning days, has its roots in a huge and foolish error that President Obama made on coming to office in 2009.
Way back in late 2000, in the Clinton administration, former senator George Mitchell was asked to do a report on then-recent Israeli–Palestinian violence — on how to stop it, and how to move forward toward peace. The Mitchell Report, known formally as the Sharm El-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee Report, was not completed by the time Clinton left office, but Colin Powell (entering office as secretary of state) asked Mitchell to finish and deliver it.
Take an example, in fact the example Prime Minister Ariel Sharon put to me in 2003: A young man serves his years in the Army and marries. His wife is pregnant, and they want to live near his or her parents. The parents live in a settlement. Do you think it’s right, he asked, for the Government of Israel to say to him, “No way, forget it, we have a freeze that includes natural growth”? Do you think we should be advising young families not to have children?
That ridiculous policy was rejected by George W. Bush, who in essence buried the Mitchell Report. But Bush did not want unlimited expansion of settlements to make an eventual peace agreement impossible — to change the map of the West Bank further — so he and Sharon negotiated a deal in late 2003. In an exchange of letters with Sharon in 2004, Bush made it clear that he understood that Israel would keep the major settlement blocks. He stated that
in light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, 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, 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.
In exchange for this and other points in Bush’s letter (such as his comment that the Palestinian refugee problem would have to be resolved in a Palestinian state “rather than in Israel,” thereby killing the so-called “right of return”), Sharon made various pledges and stated that “we are fully aware of the responsibilities facing the State of Israel. These include limitations on the growth of settlements.”
What limitations? There were four, and Sharon stated these clearly in a major policy speech in December 2003: “Israel will meet all its obligations with regard to construction in the settlements. There will be no construction beyond the existing construction line, no expropriation of land for construction, no special economic incentives and no construction of new settlements.” The “peace map” or Google Earth map of the West Bank would not change, because settlements would build up and in—not out, taking more land. But equally obviously, population growth in settlements would continue.
The agreement was widely understood. On August 21, 2004, the New York Times reported that
the Bush administration, moving to lend political support to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at a time of political turmoil, has modified its policy and signaled approval of growth in at least some Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, American and Israeli officials say. In the latest modification of American policy, the administration now supports construction of new apartments in areas already built up in some settlements, as long as the expansion does not extend outward to undeveloped parts of the West Bank, according to the officials.
Sharon, and after him Ehud Olmert, kept their side of the bargain. There were no additional financial incentives like cheap mortgages; Benjamin Netanyahu, the finance minister until August 2005, saw to that. On a few occasions when Israel was building homes that might be said to expand a settlement, Sharon’s national-security adviser would call me either to explain why this was necessary in a particular case or to beg forgiveness for a small deviation that might pay large political dividends for Sharon — and for the overall effort to limit settlement expansion.
EDITORIAL: Obama’s Shameful Parting Shot at Israel
So the deal worked — until Barack Obama threw it away. On his second day in office (January 22, 2009) he went to the State Department to announce his appointment of George Mitchell as his special Middle East peace envoy, and the old idea of an absolute freeze was back. As Hillary Clinton described Obama’s position in May 2009, “he wants to see a stop to settlements — not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions.” In June 2009, Obama said this to NPR:
I think that we do have to retain a constant belief in the possibilities of negotiations that will lead to peace. And that’s going to require, from my view, a two-state solution that is going to require that each side — the Israelis and Palestinians — meet their obligations. I’ve said very clearly to the Israelis both privately and publicly that a freeze on settlements, including natural growth, is part of those obligations.
So the Obama administration was now demanding that such a freeze was a precondition for negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians: no freeze, no negotiations. This had never been the American view, but it also had never even been Yasser Arafat’s view! He had negotiated with several Israel prime ministers while settlement construction was underway — and indeed while the expansion was very rapid. Palestinians opposed settlement construction, to be sure, but they had never before made it the central issue between them and Israel, or an issue that would prevent prevent peace negotiations.
But what could Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader who followed Arafat, do in the face of this new American stance? He could not of course be “less Palestinian” than Obama, so he stayed away from the table and accepted the American-imposed precondition. Abbas explained it all in 2011 to Newsweek, at a moment when Obama had decided that talks were needed fast, so that suddenly no preconditions should be permitted: “It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze. I said OK, I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump. Three times he did it.”Obama’s obsession with settlement activity (a malady shared by John Kerry, it is now very clear) led him to pose a total freeze as a precondition to talks — which helps explain why during his eight years there have been no serious face-to-face negotiations. His misunderstanding of Israeli politics led him to strengthen the pro-settlement forces, because he demanded a total freeze even in Jerusalem — something no Israeli government has ever agreed to or ever will. Had Obama asked for a freeze only in settlements beyond the Israeli security barrier, in outlying areas and surrounded by Palestinians, he might have had wide public support in Israel. Many Israelis view those areas as part of a future Palestine or perhaps part of Jordan someday, but not a future part of Israel. But when Obama said there must be a total freeze even in the major blocks that Israel will obviously keep in any peace agreement, and in Jerusalem, and added “no natural growth,” he lost the vast majority of Israelis. And rightly so.
President Trump would be well advised to go back to the Bush–Sharon letters of 2004. They provided a sensible compromise on settlement growth. The sooner the errors of the Obama years are left behind, the better.
— Elliott Abrams is senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli–Palestinian Conflict.