Bush Gave Green Light for Israeli Settlements in Secret '04 Letter
A hallmark of the Bush presidency has been the public disavowal of actions already taken in secret. In just the latest episode of Bush White House duplicity, the Washington Post revealed today that President Bush in 2004 secretly approved the expansion of existing Israeli settlements on the West Bank despite his stated policy to the contrary dating back to the start of his first term.
As the Post details, the letter George W. Bush personally delivered to then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon not only contradicts the administration's public position on settlements, but could well undermine Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas just as he arrives today in Washington:
Ehud Olmert, the current Israeli prime minister, said this week that Bush's letter gave the Jewish state permission to expand the West Bank settlements that it hopes to retain in a final peace deal, even though Bush's peace plan officially calls for a freeze of Israeli settlements across Palestinian territories on the West Bank...
...Israeli officials say they have clear guidance from Bush administration officials to continue building settlements, as long as it meets carefully negotiated criteria, even though those understandings appear to contradict U.S. policy...
..."It was clear from day one to Abbas, Rice and Bush that construction would continue in population concentrations -- the areas mentioned in Bush's 2004 letter," Olmert declared in an interview with the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, published Sunday. "I say this again today: Beitar Illit will be built, Gush Etzion will be built; there will be construction in Pisgat Ze'ev and in the Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem," referring to new settlement expansion plans. "It's clear that these areas will remain under Israeli control in any future settlement."
Olmert points to a key sentence in Bush's 2004 letter as providing Israel with blessing from the United States to expand settlements in several existing sites. "In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers," Bush wrote, "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."
For its part, the Bush administration claims that "no such agreement exists." Given the past denunciations of Israeli settlement activity by President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, those denials are not surprising.
At least as far back as 2002, President Bush insisted "Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories must stop." Speaking in Jordan on March 31 during her latest swing through the region, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice reiterated Bush's firm opposition to new settlement activity in the West Bank, even as the Israeli government announced plans to build hundreds of new homes in the occupied West Bank:
Asked, however, about Israel continuing to approve construction of new housing in contested territory, Rice criticized the close U.S. ally.
"Settlement activity should stop - expansion should stop," Rice said.
It is worth noting tangentially that that position is shared by all three of the remaining presidential candidates, including John McCain. As the Israeli paper Haaretz reported last month:
At the end of the day it is hard to find differences in the promises being made by the candidates that have survived in the race - Clinton, McCain and Obama - regarding the peace process. All of them want involvement, all are opposed to Hamas, all are in favor of a Palestinian state and against Palestinian terrorism, all are in favor of security for Israel and against the settlement construction.
So as Abbas arrives at the White House, he will meet with a president whose private assurances to the Israelis will likely further jeopardize the Annapolis peace process he only belatedly supported. As for President Bush, his mixed signals on the expansion of Israeli settlements only serve to make his pledge to achieve a Middle East peace agreement by the end of tenure even more remote.
UPDATE: At the White House today, President Bush announced that a Palestinian "state that doesn't look like Swiss cheese" was a high priority for his administration. Meanwhile, Dana Perino began the walkback from Bush's commitment to a peace agreement before he left office, claiming, "a lot of this is up to the Palestinians and the Israelis, who committed to trying to work something out by the end of the year."