On May 1 and 16, 2003, during discussions of Israel’s reservations in respect to the Road Map initiative, it was agreed that there will be no construction at Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria, and Gaza, with the exception of existing communities. These words were uttered, agreed upon, and documented in the records of the talks kept at the Prime Minister’s Office. I’m sure that an efficient search will reveal the parallel American records.
This is how most day-to-day diplomatic activity takes place: Talks between the authorized representatives of states, followed by a verbal agreement recorded in real-time by one or several of those present, and the documentation that reflects the agreements.
Regular diplomatic contacts and the understandings reached through them only rarely result in a detailed contract that includes an introduction as well as numbered clauses and paragraphs. And this is precisely how the above-mentioned agreement was secured, as an exception to the general construction freeze decree in the Road Map.
The agreement was brought to the public’s attention in Israel and abroad on December 18, 2003. In the “Herzliya speech,” which for the first time presented the Gaza disengagement plan, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon detailed the substance of the agreement that is now shrouded in controversy. This is what he said at the time: “Israel will deliver on all its obligations, including on the matter of settlement construction. There will be no construction beyond the existing construction lines. There will be no land confiscations meant for construction, no special economic incentives, and there is no construction of special settlements.”
The text of the speech was read, analyzed, and carefully studied everywhere, and especially in the United States. Yet nobody, either here or there, stood up or protested: “What construction? What agreement?” The speech was met with laud applause, among others by the US ambassador to Israel at the time – who was among the guests of honor at the Herzliya Conference, and who recently made a point of denying the existence of the agreement in an article he wrote.
The US Administration’s current position on the matter is embarrassing, to say the least. Talk such as “there was never such agreement,” “these were only verbal understandings,” or “if there was an agreement, it was violated by Israel, and in any case it should be annulled given the changing circumstances” is reminiscent of a person who at court claims that he never signed a promissory note, while at the same time arguing that he already paid it in full a long time ago.
The current secretary of state went as far as declaring that no mention of the agreement can be found in the Administration’s records. A former senior White House official, Elliot Abrams, wrote recently that Clinton is wrong, and that an agreement was reached. “I was there,” he noted in a Wall Street Journal article last week.
Indeed, there was an agreement, which was documented (at least in Israeli records) and publically announced. We should also keep in mind that a verbal agreement is one that must be honored, as long as there is substantial evidence of such agreement’s existence. Moreover, nothing fundamental has changed in the past six years that justifies the annulment of the agreement.
The Administration’s denials are not only unfair and unjust; they are also unwise. The Arab-Israeli conflict is replete with suspicions. Once final-status peace treaties are secured, they will require many American guarantees and obligations, especially in respect to long-term security arrangements. Without these, it is doubtful whether an agreement can be reached.
Yet if decision-makers in Israel (or elsewhere) discover, heaven forbid, that an American pledge is only valid as long as the president in question is in office, nobody will want such pledges. The ancient rule whereby “agreements must be honored” is the basis for the existence of the social and political order in the world.
For that reason, we must note the following: Israel’s right for limited construction in Judea and Samaria communities, within existing construction lines, was agreed upon as an exception to the construction freeze clause in the Road Map. And as agreements must be honored, Israel too must remove any doubt regarding its adherence to the Road Map. The obligation to honor agreements applies to Israel as well.