President Obama meets with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the Oval Office May 28 (White House photo)
TEL AVIV – Jerusalem officials are concerned the Obama administration intends to abrogate written pledges made by President Bush that Israel would be able to keep main West Bank settlement blocs in a future deal with the Palestinians, WND has learned.
Real estate in the West Bank is key. The strategic territory borders Jerusalem and is within rocket-range of Israel’s central population centers.
“It seems the understandings reached with Bush are being shelved. We have good reason to fear that Obama doesn’t intend to honor them,” said a source in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
Also, an Israeli government source told WND yesterday in a carefully worded statement: “There would be concern if there was an expectation that Israel is expected to abide by its commitments and understandings and the U.S. government felt itself free to disregard previously given commitments and understandings.”
In 2004, Bush provided Israel with an official letter stating, “In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations 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.”
The letter meant Israel would not need to evacuate the entire West Bank. It was provided in response to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s announcement of plans to evacuate the Gaza Strip and northern West Bank Jewish communities.
Bush’s pledge was used by Sharon on several occasions to demonstrate he was receiving political and security capital from the U.S. in exchange for Israel’s retreat from Gaza.
In 2005, Sharon and Bush also reached a secret deal whereby Israel can continue “natural growth” of West Bank settlements, meaning adding housing to current communities in the territory to account for growth in population. That deal demonstrated the further U.S. commitment that Israel can retain main settlement blocs.
WND reported last week the Obama administration wanted to abrogate the 2005 deal on natural growth, according to sources in Netanayhu’s office.
Now, Jerusalem officials are concerned Obama may also be looking to backtrack on Bush’s 2004 letter indicating Israel can keep main settlement blocs.
Already, the Obama administration has abrogated Bush’s “natural growth” pledge.
In unusually strong remarks last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in an interview with Al Jazeera that Obama “was very clear” when Netanyahu visited the White House that “he wants to see a stop to settlements.”
“We want to see a stop to settlement construction – additions, natural growth, any kind of settlement activity – that is what the president has called for,” she said.
According to sources in Netanyahu’s office, Clinton’s remarks were not coordinated with Israel. Her tone took Jerusalem by surprise.
Netanyahu’s cabinet yesterday reportedly decided it would not abide by the U.S. demand to halt natural growth of settlements.
Reiterating this conclusion, Netanyahu today remarked in the Knesset today that “there are reasonable demands and demands that are not reasonable.” He was referring to Obama’s demands to stop natural growth.
Obama weighing Israel ‘sanctions’
According to a report in the New York Times, the Obama administration is considering taking measures against Israel should Netanyahu not comply with the U.S. administration’s demands to halt settlements. The actions would be a sharp departure from the Bush administration.
The Times report outlined what it said were some of the steps Obama may take, including ceasing near-complete support for Israel in the United Nations; refraining from opposing U.N. security council resolutions, which are usually unfairly anti-Israel; and using Obama’s “pulpit” to criticize Israeli settlement activity.
“There are things that could get the attention of the Israeli public,” the Times quoted a senior administration official as saying.
The official, however, also said, “Israel is a critical United States ally, and no one in this administration expects that not to continue.”
Obama ties Israel’s hands
While Obama reportedly is looking to get out of a deal agreed to by his predecessor, the U.S. president seems to expect Netanyahu to stand by extreme concessions to the Palestinians under his predecessor, Ehud Olmert.
According to sources in Netanyahu’s camp, Obama communicated in his meeting with Netanyahu two weeks ago that he expects Israeli talks with the Palestinians to begin where negotiations were left off during talks led by Olmert.
According to multiple reports, Olmert offered the Palestinians a state in much of the West Bank and peripheral sections of eastern Jerusalem.
Following his meeting with Netanyahu, Obama said he had told the new Israeli leader during more than two hours of talks that his government must move quickly to resume peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
In an instructive announcement, Obama said he had insisted negotiations start from a previous point negotiated on the establishment of a Palestinian state.
“We have seen progress stalled on this front, and I suggested to the prime minister that he has a historic opportunity to get a serious movement on this issue during his tenure,” Obama said.
“That means that all the parties involved have to take seriously obligations that they have previously agreed to,” he said.
WND broke the story in November that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had collected notes and documents from Israeli and Palestinian negotiating teams to ensure Obama’s incoming administration will not need to assist in negotiations from scratch.
Rice’s State Department assembled the notes concerning issues on which both sides are close to an agreement, according to informed Israeli and Palestinian sources who spoke to WND in November.
WND reported at the time Rice’s move could limit the incoming Israeli prime minister, since the Palestinian Authority can point to notes documenting points of agreement by Olmert.
While Olmert’s non-finalized decisions during negotiations are not binding for the next prime minister, documents noting agreements during previous Israeli-Palestinian negotiations have been used at times as starting points in subsequent talks.
According to both Israeli and PA sources, American officials took detailed notes of talks at U.S.-brokered negotiations at Camp David in 2000 and then used points of agreement on key issues, such as borders, during the current round of intense Israeli-Palestinian talks, which continue this week.
Informed Israeli and Palestinian sources told WND that under Olmert, Israel and the PA were quietly working to conclude a major agreement seeking an eventual major West Bank withdrawal and the granting of permission to the PA to open official institutions in Jerusalem. The agreement would have postponed talks on the future status of the capital city until new Israeli and U.S. governments were installed in 2009.
Just before he departed his post, Olmert gave a major interview to Israel’s Yediot Aharonot newspaper in which he revealed he had offered the Palestinians a state in about 94 percent of the West Bank and that he had been negotiating the handover of sections of Jerusalem.