Palestine – The One Question President Obama Must Answer

By: David Singer

Is there one intrepid reporter – among the scores following President Obama during his momentous visits to Jerusalem and Ramallah this week – who will be prepared to ask President Obama this one critical question face to face at one of his scheduled press conferences:

“Mr President: Do you regard yourself as bound to accept the written commitments made to Israel’s then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon by your predecessor President George Bush in his letter dated 14 April 2004?

President Obama’s answer to this question is urgently required because of the following commitments made by Sharon’s immediate successor as Prime Minister – Ehud Olmert – at the Annapolis Conference convened by President Bush on 27 November 2007:

“The negotiations will be based on previous agreements between us, UN Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338, the Roadmap and the April 14th 2004 letter of President Bush to the Prime Minister of Israel.

On conclusion of the negotiations, I believe that we will be able to reach an agreement which will fulfill the vision of President Bush: two states for two peoples.

A peace-seeking, viable, strong, democratic and terror-free Palestinian state for the Palestinian people.

A Jewish, democratic State of Israel, living in security and free from the threat of terror – the national home of the Jewish people.

It is clear that the implementation of an agreement will be subject to the implementation of all obligations in the Roadmap, on all its phases and according to its sequence, as concluded between us from the very beginning. WE will abide by all our obligations, and so will you.”

The Annapolis Conference was unprecedented in the annals of the Jewish- Arab conflict – and its significance is explained by the Congressional Research Service – Library of Congress – in the following terms:

“The United States invited 49 countries and international organizations to send representatives to a conference at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, MD. Attendees included members of the Arab League Follow-on Committee (Algeria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen), the G-8 group of industrialized countries, permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, fellow members of the international Quartet, members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and representatives of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. The size of the gathering signaled strong international support for a peace process. The size of the Arabs’ turnout was attributed to their need for a strategic alliance with the United States against Iran, but also may have indicated support for Abbas over Hamas.”

That Israel’s Prime Minister regarded an American President’s written commitments to a former Israeli Prime Minister – Ariel Sharon – as of critical importance in shaping Israel’s official position in regard to the negotiations to follow – and to publicly incorporate the letter in his speech before such an international gathering – indicates the centrality this letter has had in shaping Israel’s conduct in negotiations with the PLO since 2004.

So what was in this letter that propelled it centre stage into Prime Minister Olmert’s speech to such a distinguished audience?

The letter had been given by President Bush in response to Israel’s planned disengagement from Gaza – a commitment Israel subsequently honoured to the full in 2005 – and for which it has paid a high price ever since in terms of loss of life, injury and trauma suffered by its citizens in on going terrorist attacks and indiscriminate firing of thousands of rockets into Israeli civilian population centres.

The Bush letter was very significant because it contained the following Presidential commitments that were to underpin Israel’s decision to unilaterally disengage from Gaza without any agreement from the PLO:

1. The United States remains committed to President Bush’s vision and to its implementation as described in the roadmap.
2. The United States would do its utmost to prevent any attempt by anyone to impose any other plan.
3. As part of a final peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders, which should emerge from negotiations between the parties in accordance with UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338.
4. The United States is strongly committed to Israel’s security and well-being as a Jewish state.
5. It seems clear that an agreed, just, fair, and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel
6. 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, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion.
7. 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.

This letter was not a purely personal commitment by an American President to an Israeli Prime Minister in a wink and nod agreement made during a private and confidential meeting behind closed doors – a letter that Prime Minister Olmert suddenly discovered and brought out of the closet three years later at Annapolis.

The President’s commitment was approved by the House of Representatives (with Senate concurrence ) by an almost unanimous vote of 407 – 9 on 23 June 2004 which:

“strongly endorses the principles articulated by President Bush in his letter dated April 14, 2004, to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon which will strengthen the security and well-being of the State of Israel”

By a vote of 95 – 3 on 24 June 2004, Senators approved nonbinding language that also said it was unrealistic for any peace settlement between Israel and Palestinians to require Israel to return to the borders that existed before the 1967 war.

President Obama’s acknowledgement to be bound by or repudiate President Bush’s commitments to Israel must be raised during his forthcoming visit.

President Obama needs to answer “Yes” or “No” – so that no one will be in any doubt as to America’s position as “honest broker” and sponsor of President Bush’s 2003 Roadmap – should negotiations between Israel and the PLO ever be resumed.

The answer will certainly cause consternation for Israel or the PLO – but the time for playing it straight down the middle in a feigned show of even-handedness is surely over.

All else that the world will be subjected to during the President’s visit will be nothing more than hot air and ceremonial posturing.

Ask the President this one question – and ask it soon.

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