We Are Allowed to Build, On Condition

Op-Ed by Dov Weisglass , Former Chief of Staff to PM Sharon

Yediot Ahronot, 2 June 2009

The disagreement between the Israeli and the American governments on a building freeze in the settlements demands a review of the understandings that were reached on the subject and the context in which those understandings were negotiated.

Beginning in the mid-1990s Israel agreed not to build new settlements in Judea, Samaria and Gaza but retained its right to expand existing settlements according to the principle of “natural growth.” Through 2002, Israel proceeded on the basis of several “understandings” that were reached between then Foreign Minister Shimon Peres and Colin Powell, though the Americans completely denied the existence of such understandings.

Indeed, the American claim found expression in the Road Map which was first submitted to Israel in the second half of 2002. In the section dealing with settlements, Israel is required “in accordance with the Mitchell Report” to “freeze all settlement activity including the natural growth of settlements.” Israel objected to this clause, and accordingly, it was deleted in the corrected draft returned to the administration.

At the beginning of 2003, Israel submitted its reservations on the Road Map. On Thursday, April 24, 2003, I headed an Israeli delegation to Secretary of State Powell, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice, and other senior administration officials. The issue of the settlements, it was decided, would be “discussed in a separate forum.” This “separate forum” convened on May 1, 2003 in Jerusalem. Senior administration officials Steven Hadley and Elliott Abrams met with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and me, and, over the next two days succeeded in working out an exact definition of the term “settlement freeze” in the Road Map. According to this definition, (1) no new settlements would be built, (2) no Palestinian land would be expropriated or otherwise seized for the purpose of settlement, (3) construction within the settlements would be confined to “the existing construction line”, and (4) public funds would not be earmarked for encouraging settlements.

On a further meeting held with Ms. Rice on May 14, 2003, the agreement on the definition of the term “freeze” was confirmed, thus concluding the discussions on Israel’s reservations on the Road Map. Since the meeting also affirmed that the draft of the Road Map would constitute the final document (in part in order to prevent “reopenings” by other parties), the Israeli reservations were not included in the body of the text but rather were publicly recognized by the administration as reservations that “require substantive attention.” The administration further asserted that it “shares Israel’s view” that the reservations are “noteworthy,” and would give them “full and serious consideration” in applying the Road Map (White House communiqué, May 23, 2003).

The result, as such, was that the Israeli commitment to a settlement freeze in the Road Map reached during these discussions provided for construction and development in settlements within the “construction line.” Accordingly, two days later (May 25, 2003), the Israeli government approved the version of the Road Map that included Israel’s reservations.

The drawing of the existing construction line- the area in which construction is permitted- encountered technical difficulties. It was therefore decided to establish a joint American-Israeli team that would examine, mark, and delineate the construction line around each of the existing settlements. The team, however, was never created, though not because of any fundamental disagreement.

On April 13, 2004, on the eve of President Bush’s letter to Prime Minister Sharon, representatives of the Israeli and American governments reviewed all of Israel’s “obligations under the Road Map” that had yet to be fulfilled, either partially or completely. All of these were included in a letter that I wrote with the full consent and in the name of Prime Minister Sharon, and sent to National Security Advisor Rice. Among other things the letter said “in the framework of the agreed principles on settlement activity, we will shortly make an effort to better delineate the settlement construction line in Judea and Samaria…”

There was no doubt, therefore, that on April 14, 2004- the day that President Bush sent his letter to Prime Minister Sharon- the administration recognized Israel’s right under the Road Map to development from within the existing construction line in the Israeli settlements in Judea, Samaria and Gaza. This right, of course, was conditional on the fulfillment of the other principles governing the above mentioned freeze.

America is committed to the Road Map and it is difficult to believe that the Administration’s peace plan will deviate from it. As President Bush reconfirmed in his letter of April 14, 2004, “the United States remains committed to my vision and will fulfill it as set out in the Road Map.” Not only did the United States commit to prevent the emergence of other peace plans but “the United States will do everything in its power to prevent any attempt whatsoever by any party to impose any other plan…” This was not only a personal opinion; the President’s letter was approved by overwhelming majorities in both the House and the Senate. The Road Map was further adopted by the Security Council in its resolution 1515.

The Israeli government has, for some reason, raised doubts about its intentions to implement the Road Map. Consequently, one can understand the American position that, once Israel has abrogated its commitments under the Road Map, Israel can no longer demand “rights” under the Road Map to build within the construction line. The sooner Israel reiterates its commitment to the Road Map the sooner the disagreement with the administration will be resolved. Israel can proceed to delineate the settlements, as formerly agreed, and can justifiably realize its right to build within their perimeters.

Reaffirming Israel’s commitments to the Road Map is important not only for the settlement issue but also for preventing the emergence of other peace plans that undermine the Road Map’s logic, namely, that security must first be established before peace. If, God forbid, the new administration would champion such a plan, Israel could remind the current president that his predecessor recently committed to prevent it. President would be pitched against president, and the world will have to decide which had the greater credibility.

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