WASHINGTON -"Despite fervent denials by Obama administration officials, there were indeed agreements between Israel and the United States regarding the growth of Israeli settlements on the West Bank," a former senior advisor to the Bush administration wrote in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday.
The editorial, penned by former Deputy National Security Advisor Elliot Abrams, validates the Israeli government's claim that then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and President George W. Bush came to an agreement that would allow for some degree of growth within existing settlements.
Titled 'Hillary is wrong about the settlements,' the opinion piece rejects the current US administration's repeated denials about the existence of such an understanding. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has explicitly denied any such exchange.
The tensions between Jerusalem and Washington over the settlement issue have yet to be resolved. The Americans will not accept anything but a complete freeze of all construction in the West Bank, including the neighborhoods adjacent to Jerusalem itself. Israel however says that the understanding with the previous administration allowed for the building of new housing units within the boundaries of existing settlements.
It is with these tensions in the air that the meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and George Mitchell, President Barack Obama's special envoy to the Middle East, was canceled. Defense Minister Ehud Barak is to leave for Washington next week in an attempt to bridge the gaps with Mitchell.
Netanyahu has said on a number of occasions that he agrees that no new settlements would be built, but that he cannot tell families in the existing ones "not to have children."
'Sharon didn't invent this'
Abrams, now a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, handled Middle East affairs at the National Security Council from 2001 to 2009.
He writes: "On settlements we also agreed on principles that would permit some continuing growth. Mr. Sharon stated these clearly in a major policy speech in December 2003: "Israel will meet all its obligations with regard to construction in the settlements. There will be no construction beyond the existing construction line, no expropriation of land for construction, no special economic incentives and no construction of new settlements."
"Ariel Sharon did not invent those four principles. They emerged from discussions with American officials and were discussed by Messrs. Sharon and Bush at their Aqaba meeting in June 2003. They were not secret, either. Four days after the president's letter, Mr. Sharon's Chief of Staff Dov Weissglas wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (to confirm the understandings)."
Referring to Clinton's denial of any such understandings, Abrams says: " These statements are incorrect. Not only were there agreements, but the prime minister of Israel relied on them in undertaking a wrenching political reorientation - the dissolution of his government, the removal of every single Israeli citizen, settlement and military position in Gaza, and the removal of four small settlements in the West Bank. This was the first time Israel had ever removed settlements outside the context of a peace treaty, and it was a major step.
"It is true that there was no US-Israel "memorandum of understanding," which is presumably what Mrs.
Clinton means when she suggests that the 'official record of the administration' contains none. But she would do well to consult documents like the Weissglas letter, or the notes of the Aqaba meeting, before suggesting that there was no meeting of the minds."
Expressing surprise, Abrams ends his piece with saying: "For reasons that remain unclear, the Obama administration has decided to abandon the understandings about settlements reached by the previous administration with the Israeli government. We may be abandoning the deal now, but we cannot rewrite history and make believe it did not exist.