Secretary of State Clinton denied on Friday (June 5) that the George W. Bush Administration left to its successors a set of understandings with the government of Israel about limited growth of settlements. "With respect to the conditions regarding understandings [about settlements] between ... the former Israeli government and the former government of the United States, we have the negotiating record. That is the official record that was turned over to the Obama Administration by the outgoing Bush Administration. There is no memorialization of any informal and oral agreements. If they did occur, which, of course, people say they did, they did not become part of the official position of the United States Government. And there are contrary documents that suggest that they were not to be viewed as in any way contradicting the obligations that Israel undertook pursuant to the Roadmap. And those obligations are very clear."
I predicted on January 28 that "The Obama team may find it difficult to obtain a clear and consistent record of these American-Israeli understandings about the construction line principle, because many of the commitments were expressed orally rather than in writing, in conversations with select White House officials. Apparently these were not reported to other officials of the Bush Administration. "
Elliot Abrams, who represented the Bush White House in those agreements, confirmed their existence to the Washington Post on May 24: "There was something of an understanding realized on these questions, but it was never a written agreement... At the time of the Gaza withdrawal, there were lengthy discussions about how settlement activity might be constrained, and in fact it was constrained in the later part of the Sharon years and the Olmert years in accordance with the ideas that were discussed." Abrams wrote in an op ed piece in the Post on April 8, "For the past five years, Israel's government has largely adhered to guidelines that were discussed with the United States but never formally adopted: that there would be ...no new construction except in already built-up areas. The clear purpose of the guidelines? To allow for settlement growth in ways that minimized the impact on Palestinians. Israel has largely, but not fully, kept to those rules."
And Dov Weissglass, who represented Shron in the negotiations, has provided a detailed account of the negotiations and the agreements. He wrote in Yediot Ahronot on June 2, that in a "'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, ...(3) construction within the settlements would be confined to 'the existing construction line.' ...On a further meeting held with Ms. Rice on May 14, 2003, the agreement on the definition of the term 'freeze' was confirmed...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 [these understandings were included in 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."
Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak's Cheif of Staff, Mike Herzog, tried but failed to persuade Presidential Envoy Goerge Mitchell that these agreements exist, during a meeting in London on May 28. "Herzog spoke to Mitchell and his staff [on May 28] about understandings reached by former prime ministers Ehud Olmert and Ariel Sharon with the Bush administration on allowing continued building in the large West Bank settlement blocs. He asked that a similar agreement be reached with the Obama government….The Israeli delegates were stunned by the uncompromising U.S. stance, and by statements from Mitchell and his staff that agreements reached with the Bush administration were unacceptable. An Israeli official privy to the talks said that 'the Americans took something that had been agreed on for many years and just stopped everything.'"
Below is additional evidence of the agreements from the article I posted on January 28, "Obama and a Settlements Freeze."
On April 18, 2004, Sharon's aide Dov Weissglas asserted, in a letter to Rice, "the following understanding, which had been reached between us: 1. Restrictions on settlement growth: within the agreed principles of settlement activities, an effort will be made in the next few days to have a better definition of the construction line of settlements in Judea & Samaria. An Israeli team, in conjunction with Ambassador Kurtzer, will review aerial photos of settlements and will jointly define the construction line of each of the settlements."
The Government of Israel quickly acted to enforce the distinction. On August 5, 2004, a settler newspaper reported that, "The Defense Ministry has completed a large-scale project to mark the existing built-up borders of all the Jewish communities and towns in Judea and Samaria - and no further construction will be allowed beyond them. Yediot Aharonot reports today that aerial photos will be sent to the United States, which will monitor every building aberration. Though the towns will be allowed to appeal the decision, every building beyond the marked borders could be subject to immediate demolition. The above program is in accordance with the commitment Prime Minister Sharon gave U.S. President George Bush three months ago."
The Bush Administration was reluctant to acknowledge publicly that it had arrived at such an understanding with the Government of Israel, but there were several public indications that it had. The New York Times' Steve Weisman reported on August 21, 2004, "The Bush administration…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…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…according to the officials." The Washington Post's Glenn Kessler reported on October 30, 2004 that, "during an interview with Egyptian television [in September 2004], Deputy Secretary of State Richard L. Armitage mused openly about a definition of natural growth. 'If you have settlements that already exist and you put more people into them but don't expand the physical, sort of, the area -- that might be one thing,' he said. 'But if the physical area expands and encroaches, and it takes more of Palestinian land, well, this is another.'" The Post added that "a senior administration official told reporters at a briefing that the purpose of a settlement freeze is to make sure additional settlers would not impede Palestinian life or prevent the formation of a viable Palestinian state. It makes no difference, he said, if the Israelis add another house within a block of existing homes." And the Post added that Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the administration was negotiating with Israel over whether its settlements in the West Bank can grow within existing settlement boundaries.
While the Administration's background statements and the absence of denials implied that the Israeli assertions that there was an agreement were accurate, the Administration never quite said so in a clear way. But no denial was issued after August 21, 2004, when a front page story in the New York Times story appeared under the headline "U.S. Now Said to Support Growth for Some West Bank Settlements", claiming loudly that such an agreement existed. Nor was there any correction after the Guardian published an article headlined, "Secret US Deal Wrecks Road Map for Peace" on August 27, 2004, reporting that "The United States was accused this week by Palestinian leaders of …giving its covert support to Israel's expansion of controversial settlements in the West Bank. American officials are privately admitting they have…given Jerusalem tacit permission to build thousands of new homes on the disputed land…A European diplomat said this week, 'The US has tacitly agreed that [Israel's] position has validity and has shown that limited building is permissible.'"
There were some carefully parsed partial denials nearly four years later, when Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post revisited the issue on April 24, 2008. But Kessler also reported an on-the-record confirmation from Daniel Kurtzer, then the U.S. Ambassador to Israel, who said he had argued at the time against accepting the April 2004 Weissglas letter that asserted there was a U.S.-Israel understanding on the construction line concept. Kurtzer told the Post, "I thought it was a really bad idea. It would legitimize the settlements." Kurtzer said that, in the end, the White House did not send the team to define the construction lines, "when it became clear it would not be easy to do." It appears that, as an alternative, the Israeli Ministry of Defense provided the United States with aerial photographs marking the construction line of each settlement (reported by Yediot Aharonot on August 5, 2004.)