Wednesday, June 03, 2009
On Honoring Past Commitments
Seven times the question was posed - a question that could be answered “yes” or “no” (and that in fact has only one appropriate answer) - and seven times the spokesman declined to answer whether the administration stood by the explicit commitments given to Israel when it turned over Gaza to advance the “peace process.” Now the administration wants Israel to commit, in advance of negotiations, to do it all over again in the West Bank, in return for new paper promises, just as the U.S. reneges on its prior ones.Read the whole thing for the precise transcript. It reads like Abbott & Costello's "Who's On First" routine.
Can we give the Obama Administration the benefit of the doubt here? I'd sorely like to do that. But unless the Administration comes out soon -- very soon -- with an admission that, yes, it does consider itself bound by the commitments of past administrations, including the commitment in question here -- then other countries will just assume that, no, the United States does not honor its past commitments. (At that point, it won't much matter if the Administration answers the question; the trust will have been lost, and will need to be re-earned the hard way.)
As many others have pointed out: If you don't honor yesterday's commitments, how on Earth can you expect anyone to trust the commitments you make today?
If President Obama truly believes that he is not bound by the commitments of a Republican Administration -- which were upheld by Congress, at that -- then it follows inevitably that future Administrations won't be bound by his commitments... meaning that his promises to other countries are backed by nothing at all.
Nor will this achieve what President Obama seems to want. As Noah Pollak ably explains, if Israel cannot count on the United States to honor its past commitments, then Israel will likely go it alone -- and has the wherewithal to do so. If, as Mr. Pollak suggests, the Obama Administration thinks it can pressure Israel by withholding arms sales, this too will backfire. In extremis, Israel will use its military hardware while it still works... and implement its own foreign policy, with no need to placate the United States first.
(Do you think Israel would never launch an attack -- against, say, Iranian nuclear facilities -- against the direct demands of the United States? Think again. Israel's very survival is at stake here, and she knows it. Then, too, Israel has done it before; remember the USS Liberty?)
As a less-extreme case, let's remember that, yes, Israel has been dependent on the United States for her weapons purchases for a long time -- since 1967, in fact, when France started reneging on her past commitments. But Israel has also manufactured her own weapons, to her own specifications, from battle rifles to tanks to fully-functional warplanes. Having to go it alone would be a severe economic hardship on Israel, to be sure... but Israel has known extreme economic hardship before.
I have yet to understand President Obama's apparent policy of placating enemies and alienating friends. Does he really think that courting the murderous terrorists of Hamas and Fatah, while stiffing America's longest and most loyal ally in the Middle East, will achieve anything positive? In a larger sense, does he think that making friends of Venezuela, North Korea, Iran, and so forth will somehow make up for the friends he loses elsewhere?
And does he not realize that, if he allows himself the luxury of abandoning past agreements with American allies, subsequent Administrations can do the same to his agreements? And does he not see how damaging this is to the United States?
As I said, I very much hope that President Obama will understand that prior commitments must be kept -- for America's sake. Right now it doesn't look as though he does.
UPDATE: Dore Gold, formerly Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, expresses this far better:
Many observers are surprised to learn that settlement activity was not defined as a violation of the 1993 Oslo Accords or their subsequent implementation agreements. If the U.S. is now seeking to constrain Israeli settlement activity, it is essentially trying to obtain additional Israeli concessions that were not formally required according to Israel's legal obligations under the Oslo Accords.Read the whole thing.
Given the fact that the amount of territory taken up by the built-up areas of all the settlements in the West Bank is estimated to be 1.7 percent of the territory, the marginal increase in territory that might be affected by natural growth is infinitesimal. Moreover, since Israel unilaterally withdrew 9,000 Israeli settlers from the Gaza Strip in 2005, the argument that a settler presence will undermine a future territorial compromise has lost much of its previous force.
Disturbingly, on June 1, 2009, the State Department spokesman, Robert Wood, refused to answer repeated questions about whether the Obama administration viewed itself as legally bound by the April 2004 Bush letter to Sharon on defensible borders and settlement blocs. It would be better to obtain earlier clarification of that point, rather than having both countries expend their energies over an issue that may not be the real underlying source of their dispute.
UPDATE 2: Eliott Abrams has an interesting piece in the June 26, 2009 Wall Street Journal: Hillary Is Wrong About the Settlements. Here's an excerpt:
In recent weeks, American officials have denied that any agreement on settlements existed. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated on June 17 that "in looking at the history of the Bush administration, there were no informal or oral enforceable agreements. That has been verified by the official record of the administration and by the personnel in the positions of responsibility."Well, actually, yes we can... but it would not speak well for us if we did. Nor does it speak well for us if, as American policy, all treaties and agreements must be re-negotiated every time the White House changes hands.
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 U.S.-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.
Mrs. Clinton also said there were no "enforceable" agreements. This is a strange phrase. How exactly would Israel enforce any agreement against an American decision to renege on it? Take it to the International Court in The Hague?
Regardless of what Mrs. Clinton has said, there was a bargained-for exchange. Mr. Sharon was determined to break the deadlock, withdraw from Gaza, remove settlements -- and confront his former allies on Israel's right by abandoning the "Greater Israel" position to endorse Palestinian statehood and limits on settlement growth. He asked for our support and got it, including the agreement that we would not demand a total settlement freeze.
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.
The obvious result of that will be for other countries to resist trusting us with anything -- anything at all -- if there's an election coming up. And the consequence of that should be clear; in the United States, there's always an election coming up.