President George W. Bush's April 14 2004 letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon resulted, according to Elliot Abrams, Deputy National Security Advisor at the time, from a line-by-line negotiating process. Sharon had embarked upon a course that was fraught with both security dangers (as time would, unfortunately, reveal) and political dangers for him personally in undertaking a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza. In return, he needed concrete and significant commitments from the United States.
Bush's letter is best remembered today for two such commitments, which Sharon presented as important diplomatic achievements: first, that Israel would maintain "existing major population centers" beyond the 1949 armistice lines; second, that there would be no Palestinian right of return, and the solution to Palestinian refugee problem would be found "through the establishment of a Palestinian state and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel."
Yet Ranan Gissin, one of Sharon's closest advisors, revealed last week at a conference sponsored by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs on "Israel's Critical Security Needs for a Viable Peace," that the most critical passage in the Bush letter was neither of these promises. For Sharon, the key was President Bush's reiterated commitment to Israel's security, "including secure, defensible borders and to preserve and strengthen Israel's capability to deter and defend itself, by itself, against any threat or possible combination of threats" – i.e., recognition that Israel's security depends upon Israel being capable of defending itself, without being forced to rely on the kindness of strangers.
The entire Bush letter was subsequently approved by both houses of Congress by overwhelming margins – 407 to 9 in the House and 95 to 3 in the Senate. Among those voting in support were then Senator Hilary Clinton and Congressman Rahm Emanuel.
THE QUESTION BEGS TO BE ASKED: How can Israel's ability to defend itself be reconciled to the vision of an independent Palestinian state also envisioned by President Bush. That question takes on even greater force in light of Hamas's quick takeover of the Gaza Strip from Fatah after the Israeli withdrawal. Gaza was thereby transformed into another Iranian proxy mini-state and launching pad for rocket attacks on Israel's civilian population, like that previously created by Hizbullah in southern Lebanon.
The twofold question, then, is: what assurances could Israel hope for that the West Bank would not become a failed terrorist state, and, if it did, what could Israel do to prevent that state from obtaining mobile rockets, shoulder-held anti-aircraft rockets, and anti-tank missiles that would threaten Israel's major population center, its major international airport, and make mobilization of reserves in time of war very difficult.
There are no good answers to those questions. President Bush, however, did offer at least a partial answer: Prior to achieving statehood, the Palestinians would first have to transform their society. No, they would not need to achieve a full constitutional democracy, but they would need to act vigorously to uproot terror organizations and end incitement against Israel in all official Palestinian media and textbooks. "Palestinians must undertake a comprehensive and fundamental political reform that includes strong parliamentary democracy and an empowered prime minister," wrote Bush in his April 14 letter.
With those words, President Bush reiterated his June 24, 2002 Rose Garden speech, in which he made clear that a Palestinian state would never arise from terror, and that a fundamental restructuring of Palestinian civic society is a precondition for statehood. In short, a society in which three-year-olds are still taught through the official media to admire those who seek martyrdom through suicide bombings is not one with which Israel can expect to live in peace.
EUROPE HAS TRADITIONALLY taken a very different approach to Israel's defense than that enunciated by President Bush in the April 14 2004 letter. For Europe the primary goal of Middle East diplomacy has long been the creation of a Palestinian state. When the irksome question of Israel's security has arisen, the Europeans have had a ready answer: NATO or some other international peacekeeping body will defend you. In short, the European approach is the very opposite of Bush's insistence on empowering Israel to defend itself, by itself, against any combination of enemies.
That the Europeans do not chafe at the idea of placing one's defense in the hands of others is perhaps not surprising. That is what they have been doing since 1945, when they placed themselves under the United States defense umbrella and began contributing ever smaller percentages of their gross national product to defense.
But it is no less surprising that Israel's defense strategists are not persuaded by the argument that international peacekeepers will protect Israeli civilians. Already in 1967, when U.N. peacekeepers were removed from the Sinai, prior to the outbreak of hostilities, Abba Eban described such peacekeepers as comparable to "an umbrella that folds whenever it rains." And Israel's recent experience has been no better. The U.N. peacekeeping force put in place in southern Lebanon at the end of the Second Lebanon War, has presided over Hizbullah's rearmament. It has shown no inclination to confront Hizbullah or interdict arms shipment to it. All the U.N. peacekeepers do is complicate Israel's response in the event war breaks out on the northern border.
Into which camp does President Obama fall – the European or the traditional American one? The former it would appear. Western Europe serves as the ideal for Obama against which the United States must be measured. He has consciously set America on the European path towards a social welfare state, and shares the reverence of European elites for supranational organizations as the source of international legitimacy.
Nor is it necessary to merely infer that he is likely to incline towards the European approach towards Israel's defense needs – i.e., rely on us. His administration has explicitly headed in that direction. National Security advisor General James Jones is known to support international peacekeepers on the West Bank, and another member of the National Security Council, Samantha Powers, has even gone so far as to say that the purpose of such peacekeepers would be to protect Palestinians from Israel.
In early June 2009, State Department spokesman Robert Wood was pushed hard on subsequent days by reporters to answer whether the administration still stood behind President Bush's April 14 2004 letter to Prime Minister Sharon. Wood refused to answer, which is tantamount to no. By refusing to stand behind carefully negotiated guarantees, President Obama at least taught Israel one valuable lesson: It relies on American guarantees at its own peril.
The Obama administration has continually pressed Prime Minister Netanyahu to commit to the creation of a Palestinian state within two years, and treated the rapid achievement of Palestinian statehood as the centerpiece of its outreach to the Muslim world. In that context, Israel's insistence on protecting its own security has been repeatedly portrayed as an obstacle to American interests in the Middle East, most recently in a Helene Cooper news story in The New York Times this week.
The two-year time frame is totally unrealistic in terms of the transformation of Palestinian society that President Bush viewed as the necessary prelude to Palestinian statehood. The "moderate" Palestinian Authority has not reduced the anti-Israel incitement in its official organs, and continues to honor anti-Israel terrorists as national heroes. A society desirous of living in peace with Israel has not even begun to be created. And without that, Israel cannot even contemplate an independent Palestinian state, no matter how many security guarantees it receives.
The Obama administration has assumed, as a matter of course, that the 1949 armistice lines, which were never viewed by the international community as borders, constitute the basic outline of the Palestinian state in waiting. And that includes in Jerusalem, a subject deliberately omitted from Security Council Resolution 242. That is the meaning of the flap over Israel's announcement of plans to add units in Ramat Shlomo: Anything beyond the 1949 armistice lines is "occupied territory" in the Obama administration's view.
The focus on the 1949 armistice lines flies in the face of the explicit commitments of every American administration since 1967. In the wake of the Six Day War, President Lyndon Johnson declared that a return to the June 4 lines was "not a prescription for peace, but for renewed hostilities." An Israel ten-mile wide at its narrowest point, which just happens to be within easy artillery range of its major population and industrial center, Johnson recognized, presents too inviting a target for enemies to resist. With respect to those borders, President Reagan wrote in September 1982, "I'm not going to ask Israel to live that way again."
That, however, appears to be just what the Obama administration seeks to do, leaving it to American and/or NATO troops to protect Israeli lives.