On the eve of the unilateral Gaza withdrawal, Ariel Sharon explained his action to the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot:  “I’ve reached a deal with the Americans.  I prefer a deal with the Americans to a deal with the Arabs.”


            What, exactly, was that deal?  What did Israel receive for its disengagement plan?  And what — since Israel has now carried out its end of the bargain — does the United States owe Israel?


            The public record of the deal is the April 14, 2004 letter from George W. Bush.  Most attention has focused on two statements in that letter:  (1) it “seems clear” Palestinian refugees must be resettled in a Palestinian state rather than Israel, and (2) it is “unrealistic” to expect a complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, in light of major Israeli population centers there.


            But the heart of Sharon’s deal is not in those two statements.  It is in three express assurances — contained elsewhere in the Bush letter — representing formal promises by the United States to Israel. 


            The significance of those promises has not been widely appreciated, perhaps because they cannot be fully understood without reference to Sharon’s letter to Bush dated the same day, and other matters external to the April 14 letters themselves. 


But if these sources are considered together, the deal Sharon made becomes clear. 


The April 14, 2004 Exchange of Letters


            Sharon’s disengagement plan arose from several convictions:  (1) unless Israel produced an alternative, the world would impose the Geneva Accord; (2) the Geneva Accord did not provide Israel defensible borders (and contained a “right of return,” purportedy limited, that would in practice de-legitimize Israel), and (3) Palestinian observance of such an agreement would be — to put it mildly — uncertain.


Faced with that conundrum, Sharon decided to negotiate with the United States instead.  He generated three promises in exchange for disengagement.


I.  The First Promise.


To understand the first promise in the Bush letter, it is necessary to review Sharon’s letter to him.  In his letter, Sharon was unusually specific with respect to the Roadmap, the three-phase “performance-based” plan formally accepted by both Israel and the Palestinian Authority.


            The Roadmap, Sharon stated in his letter, was a “practical and just formula” for the achievement of peace; it “sets forth the correct sequence and principles for the attainment of peace;” and — most importantly — it was the only plan:


Its full implementation represents the sole means to make genuine progress.  As you have stated, a Palestinian state will neverbe created by terror, and Palestinians must engage in a sustained fight against the terrorists and dismantle their infrastructure. . . .  We are committed to this formula as the only avenue through which an agreement can be reached.  We believe that this formula is the only viable one. . . .


Progress toward this goal [of an Israeli-Palestinian settlement] must be anchored exclusively in the Roadmap and we will oppose any other plan.  [Emphasis added].


            Sharon thus emphasized — no less than five times in the space of two paragraphs   — that the Roadmap was the only way forward.  It was the “sole means” to make progress; the “only avenue” to reach an agreement; the “only viable” formula; progress had to be anchored “exclusively” in it; and Israel would oppose “any other plan.”


             Bush’s April 14 response gave three specific “reassurances” to Sharon — before turning to the now famous statements about refugees and the West Bank.  Bush stated he wanted to “reassure” Sharon that:

First, the United States remains committed to my vision and to its implementation as described in the roadmap.  The United States will do its utmost to prevent any attempt by anyone to impose any other plan.  Under the roadmap . . . . [t]he Palestinian leadership must act decisively against terror, including sustained, targeted, and effective operations to stop terrorism and dismantle terrorist capabilities and infrastructure. . . .  [Emphasis added].

            Since “any other plan” could not conceivably be imposed against the will of the United States, Bush’s reassurance to Sharon — given the terms of Sharon’s letter — represented a promise the Roadmap would in fact be the “sole means” to make progress and the “only viable” formula.

Phase I of the Roadmap includes a requirement — expressly referenced in both Sharon’s letter and Bush’s response — of “sustained, targeted, and effective operations to . . . dismantle terrorist capabilities and infrastructure.”  There can be no Palestinian state

(even with provisional borders) in Phase II, nor any final status negotiations in Phase III, unless and until Phase I of the Roadmap is completed.

            Israel has its own obligations under Phase I, primarily the removal of settlement “outposts” constructed since March 2001, freezing settlement activity, and — as security performance progresses — withdrawal of Israeli forces to the positions held on September 28, 2000.  In many respects Israel has already exceeded these obligations, even though its formal position is that things are still in a pre-Roadmap status.[1]  In any event, as Condoleezza Rice recently explained in an interview with the New York Times:

“[T]he roadmap is assiduously not sequencing one step after another.  It gives, in parallel, certain obligations to both sides.  And the obligation of the Palestinians has to do with the dismantling of terrorist infrastructure and organizations and they’re going to have to do it.”  [Emphasis added].

            The first promise of the Bush letter was thus that the only avenue forward would be the dismantlement of Palestinian terrorist capabilities and infrastructure — before any negotiations on borders, refugees, Jerusalem or any other final status issues.

II.  The Second Promise.

            In his second reassurance to Sharon, Bush reiterated again the central importance of dismantling terrorist organizations, and then proceeded to address Israel’s future borders.  Bush reassured Sharon that:

Second, there will be no security for Israelis or Palestinians until they and all states, in the region and beyond, join together to fight terrorism and dismantle terrorist organizations.  The United States reiterates its steadfast 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.  [Emphasis added]

            The reference to dismantling terrorist organizations re-emphasized the critical importance of Bush’s first promise.  But the central part of the second promise was the endorsement — as an explicit part of the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security — of “secure, defensible borders” that would enable Israel to “defend itself, by itself.”

            The concept of “secure, defensible borders” is a strategic doctrine significantly different from the theory of “land for peace” that underlay the Geneva Accord.[2]  The Geneva Accord presumed that a return to the 1967 borders (with very minor changes) would, in exchange for a peace agreement, produce peace. 

            But what if it didn’t?  What if it simply returned Israel to what Abba Eban famously characterized as “Auschwitz borders,” and simply set the stage for the next war?

            The concept of “secure, defensible borders” recognizes that Israeli security ultimately depends on borders Israel can defend on its own, even if the Palestinians do not honor their agreement, or there is a future dispute with a Palestinian state. 

            Such borders are also important because they do not depend on third-party guarantees by the U.N. or others — a mechanism that failed spectacularly in 1967.

            Moreover, defensible borders are also an important American interest, because the last thing the U.S. wants is to place American troops in a dangerous situation to secure the “peace,” or to obligate itself to defend Israeli borders not defensible by Israel itself. 

            Finally, borders that are not militarily defensible are themselves an invitation to the aggression supposedly foresworn in a “peace agreement.” 

            Defensible borders are thus indispensable to insure that any ultimate “agreement” will actually work.

The concept of “defensible borders” had been contained in U.N. Resolution 242 in 1967, whose heavily negotiated terms had intentionally referred to a withdrawal from “territories” — not “all the territories” — and which expressly envisioned “secure and recognized boundaries” for Israel.  

            But over the years, land for “secure and recognized boundaries” became land for “peace” — with Palestinians demanding a total withdrawal to the indefensible 1967 borders as the price of the promised “peace.” 

            The “land for peace” mindset reached its apogee with the December 23, 2000 Clinton Parameters, which envisioned a virtually total withdrawal from the West Bank in exchange for “peace” (with an “international presence” to “monitor” it).  Once they were rejected, Clinton had stipulated his parameters were “off the table,” and said they represented a personal proposal that was gone once he left office.  But they led instead to the disastrous Taba negotiations, and reappeared again in the form of the Geneva Accord. 

            Bush’s assurance regarding “defensible borders” Israel could defend “by itself” meant the Clinton Parameters could not be proffered again by the U.S. — and that future borders would depend on Israeli security needs, rather than Palestinian demands.


III.  The Third Promise

            Bush’s third assurance reiterated again the central importance of the dismantlement of terrorist organizations — and then not only endorsed it as a matter of American policy but promised to lead efforts to achieve it.  Bush reassured Sharon that: 

Third, Israel will retain its right to defend itself against terrorism, including to take actions against terrorist organizations.  The United States will lead efforts, working together with Jordan, Egypt, and others in the international community, to build the capacity and will of Palestinian institutions to fight terrorism, dismantle terrorist organizations, and prevent the areas from which Israel has withdrawn from posing a threat that would have to be addressed by any other means.  [Emphasis added].


In other words, dismantlement of terrorist organizations was now not simply an Israeli demand on the Palestinians, but part of an American commitment to “lead efforts” to achieve it.  Israel not only retained the right to act against terrorist groups in Gaza; it received a promise the U.S. would “lead efforts” to prevent Gaza from posing a threat in the first place.

The Permanent Status Agreement


            The two famous statements in Bush’s letter relate to the final status agreement envisioned in Phase III of the Roadmap, which is intended to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on specified UN resolutions and a “realistic” solution to the final status issues.  The Roadmap envisions a settlement:


negotiated between the parties based on [UN Resolutions] 242, 338, and 1397, that ends the occupation that began in 1967, and includes an agreed, just, fair, and realistic solution to the refugee issue, and a negotiated resolution on the status of Jerusalem that takes into account the political and religious concerns of both sides, and protects the religious interests of Jews, Christians, and Muslims worldwide, and fulfills the vision of two states, Israel and sovereign, independent, democratic and viable Palestine, living side-by-side in peace and security.  [Emphasis added].


             Noticeably omitted from the list of UN resolutions is Resolution 194, the resolution the Palestinians continuously (and erroneously) cite as the basis of a “right of return” to Israel.  Moreover, the Roadmap expressly requires that the solution to the refugee issue be “realistic.”  Since it “seems clear” refugees cannot be settled in Israel, Palestinian insistence on any refugee return will not meet one of the fundamental standards set forth in the Roadmap.


            The Bush letter also states that, in light of major Israeli population centers, complete withdrawal from the West Bank is “unrealistic.”  Although phrased as a statement of fact (rather than as a promise to Israel), the letter acknowledges what can realistically be expected from final status negotiations.


            The Bush letter thus makes it clear that — assuming the parties ever reach final status negotiations, something that depends on the prior dismantlement of Palestinian terror organizations and infrastructure — Israel cannot be criticized for insisting there will be no evacuation of major West Bank population centers, and no refugee return.  




            Sharon’s deal was thus to exchange disengagement for the following American promises:  (1) no political discussions with the Palestinians before they dismantle terrorist organizations and infrastructure; (2) no return to indefensible Auschwitz borders, but only to borders Israel can defend without reliance on Palestinian promises or third-party guarantees; and (3) American led efforts to insure Gaza does not threaten Israel.


Moreover, the U.S. reinforced these reassurances with a formal commitment to the Roadmap — with its dismantlement requirement in Phase I — as the exclusive way forward, not to be replaced by any other plan. 


Finally, the U.S. acknowledged what a “realistic” peace agreement would entail on the critical issues of refugees and West Bank population centers, and a “realistic” agreement is a requirement of the Roadmap.


            Was this a good deal for Israel?  Maybe, maybe not — reasonable people can differ.  But what we do know for sure is that:


            First, Israel paid a high price with its Gaza withdrawal:  establishing a precedent that terrorism pays; yielding neighboring territory to terrorist organizations; violating the democratic process (which re-elected Sharon in 2003 on a promise not to withdraw from Gaza, and then watched him not only renege but prevent a referendum); dividing secular and religious society and splitting the ruling Israeli party; acquiescing in a Judenrein

land; and destroying the homes, jobs and societies of nearly 10,000 citizens (equivalent to 450,000 people in the U.S.). 


            Second, having effected a difficult, dangerous and traumatic disengagement, Israel has performed its end of the deal, and perfected its right to what it negotiated:  Palestinian dismantlement as a precondition to further negotiations, ultimate West Bank withdrawal only to defensible borders, American-led efforts to prevent a Gaza threat, and — most importantly — no new plan once the Palestinians miss their final opportunity with this one.


Share this article on WhatsApp:

Previous articleMaintaining Yiddishkeit In Colonial Times
Next articleThe Power Of Love (Part II)
Rick Richman, whose work has appeared in The New York Sun, The Tower Magazine, and The Jewish Press, among other publications, is a prolific writer who appears regularly in Commentary magazine and its group Contentions blog, where this originally appeared. He also maintains the Jewish Current Issues blog (www.jpundit.typepad.com/jci/).