Why Michael Oren’s diplomatic plan doesn’t hold water

The esteemed historian, former Israeli ambassador to the U.S. and CNN commentator is now back in Israel running for public office, and he has a plan. The problem is it doesn’t align with the facts.

By Shemuel Meir

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to then Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, Tel Aviv, April 9, 2013. (State Dept photo)
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks to then Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Oren, Tel Aviv, April 9, 2013. (State Dept photo)

It turns out that “spin” isn’t exclusively in the Israel’s prime minister’s domain. Michael Oren, Israel’s former ambassador to Washington and current diplomatic poster boy for Moshe Kahlon’s “Kulanu” party, recently laid out the nascent party’s policies vis-a-vis the core issues of the Palestinian conflict, and how to put an end to the crisis between Israel and the U.S.

According to Oren the solution is quite simple: resuscitate the 2004 Bush-Sharon letter. For Oren this is a two-for-one deal: rehabilitating the strategic relationship with the United States, while also returning to the negotiating table with the Palestinians. Under closer examination, however, the ambassador’s positions sound more like “voices for peace” than the real thing.

So what exactly does Oren’s magical solution look like? According to him, “the Bush-Sharon letter established, once and for all, that Israel will not return to the ’67 borders.” Reading Oren alone, one might think that the Bush-Sharon letter gave the official go-ahead to annex the settlement blocs, “which would remain within Israeli borders in any final-status agreement.”

Oren makes it seem like the Americans gave a green light to annex the “necessary” settlement blocs (without further detail), most likely including the Jordan Valley. Doing so would leave the Palestinians with isolated enclaves (“municipal cantons”) within the West Bank. In order to strengthen his argument, Oren states that the letter was approved by both houses of Congress, and that as opposed to other presidential promises, the letter “has legal standing in the United States.”

But do all these diplomatic gems actually exist in George W. Bush’s April 14, 2004 letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon? We checked, and couldn’t find similarities to the presidential promises Oren claims to have found. Here are the actual details of the letter.

U.S. President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the White House. (White House Photo/Paul Morse)
U.S. President George W. Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at the White House. (White House Photo/Paul Morse)

The letter contains six instances in which the president describes the United States’ commitment to an independent Palestinian state. In order to dispel all doubt, here is the actual wording: “A Palestinian state that is viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent.” For anyone who may have forgotten, this was written by the “friendly” President Bush, not Obama.

More facts. The letter mentions neither “settlement blocs” nor American approval for annexing “blocs” to the State of Israel. The main paragraph deals with secure and recognized borders according to UN Security Council Resolution 242. Israel loves the wording of said resolution, which has for decades been a source of controversy: the English-language version calls for a withdrawal from “territories occupied in 1967.” But with the hindsight of 48 years, the international community has come to accept the French version of the text, which calls from withdrawal from “the territories occupied in 1967.”

Meanwhile, Israel regularly ignores the preamble of Resolution 242, which reflects a basic principle in modern international relations: “Emphasizing the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by war.”

In the very same paragraph, President Bush clarifies that, “[i]n light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.” The use of “major population centers” can be understood in various ways. For instance, it could mean urban population centers, or even specific towns, rather than “settlement blocs.”

Bush emphasizes that this is an outline for a final-status agreement that “will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.”

Anybody reading this short paragraph will find that the word “negotiations” appears at least four times. In the following paragraph, Bush writes that the separation barrier was built to “be a security rather than political barrier,” should be “temporary rather than permanent,” and thus should not affect the establishment of a border. The clear American stance on the issue of the barrier was meant to signal that a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank to the route of the barrier — meaning unilateral annexation — is not acceptable.

The West Bank separation barrier. (Photo by Activestills)
The West Bank separation barrier. (Photo by Activestills)

It seems that Ambassador Oren’s claim that the Bush-Sharon letter “established, once and for all, that Israel will not return to the ’67 borders,” does not say much, at least not to those who believe in unilateral withdrawal and annexation. A closer reading of the letter leads to the conclusion that it is clearly dealing with a scenario of changes in the border, which will need the approval of the Palestinians.

This is the farthest thing possible from a carte blanche by the U.S. government to annex the settlement blocs.

Even the claim that the letter has “legal standing” due to its approval by both houses of Congress does not hold water. Congress knows very well how to issue warnings and letters of support at times of need. Not to mention the fact that the letter was written in support of Sharon’s “disengagement.” But the Americans were not merely satisfied with a disengagement from Gaza. Even then the Americans were opposed to the Israeli policy of “divide and rule” and demanded a parallel withdrawal from the West Bank. Does anyone remember the settlements of Kadim, Ganim and Homesh, in the northern West Bank, which were also evacuated in 2005?

It is unclear whether these are what Oren terms the “diplomatic gains that we’ve made in the past” — the same gains he wishes to revive in order to extract Israel from the dead-end of peace negotiations. But along with all of the criticism, Ambassador Oren deserves our praise for a brave campaign move that has brought up an important matter affecting the safety of Israel’s citizens and its democratic character — peace and borders. Endless spin has diluted and blurred the public discourse on borders in Israel.

Israel is not an only child in the world of international relations. In order to prevent the “South Africa” type situation we are fast approaching, Israel will need to face reality and listen to its friends; to internalize that the lines reached at the end of the 1949 war are the only legitimate recognized borders. This is the main significance of Resolution 242, which deals with the outcome of the 1967 war and entrenches the 1949 lines as the basis for a future border. This is the reason that Bush’s reference point is the 1949 armistice lines. Should negotiations resume between Israel and the Palestinians, we will likely discover continuity in the United States’ positions regarding borders.

Despite Oren’s attempt to contrast “good” Bush with Obama, there is no real difference between the Bush’s letter and Obama’s speech at the State Department in May 2011. Obama did not back down from his plan, and even re-emphasized them via U.S. diplomat Philip Gordon, who was the special envoy to the Haaretz Peace Conference in the summer of 2014.

Unfortunately, Gordon’s speech came right as the first rockets were fired at Tel Aviv, and thus was not covered by the press. Here’s a summary: unilateral annexation of territories in the West Bank is illegal — the U.S. and the world will never approve of it. The only acceptable solution is “two states for two peoples”; a sovereign and contiguous Palestinian state on the basis of 1967 lines, with agreed-upon land swaps. The Palestinian state would have permanent borders with Israel, Egypt and Jordan. This leaves no room for annexing “settlement blocs” or the Jordan Valley. Gordon’s text also included American support for the Arab League’s Peace Initiative.

No more spin.

Shemuel Meir is a former IDF analyst and associate researcher at the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. Today he is an independent researcher on nuclear and strategic issues and author of the “Strategic Discourse” blog, which appears in Haaretz.

Related:
How peace talks and settlement construction go hand in hand
Israeli government votes to support annexing West Bank settlements
There’s nothing static about the West Bank ‘status quo’