Currency is only valuable if those issuing it can stand behind it. The dollar
works because you can go into a store and people accept it. It loses its value
if it is not backed up. That’s Economics 101.
That’s also International
Relations 101. Countries will only trust other countries’ commitments if they
back up previous ones. If they don’t, it creates a trust deficit.
is one of the problems the Obama administration is facing trying to convince
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, his inner circle and his top ministers that a
new presidential letter of commitments is incentive enough to extend the
settlement construction moratorium.
Netanyahu said on more than one
occasion since the original 10-month settlement moratorium was declared last
November that it was a one-time gesture designed to draw the Palestinians into
talks and that it would not be repeated.
His credibility, therefore,
would be seriously compromised were he now to extend that freeze, even for a
limited amount of time. Domestically, the electorate would question the value of
his word, and internationally he would be viewed – on the eve of delicate and
sensitive negotiations – as very pliable, as not having any “red
The Obama administration realizes all this. It realizes that even
a limited extension would cost Netanyahu, and as a result it is reportedly
trying to “sweeten” the deal by offering some “incentives.”
reportedly include supporting a long-term IDF presence in the Jordan Valley;
selling Israel more F-35 fighters; pledging to veto any anti-Israel resolutions
on the diplomatic process in the UN Security Council for the next year; and
significantly upgrading Israel’s early warning capabilities.
Netanyahu didn’t jump at the package, according to Israeli officials, is that
the package, if one looks at it carefully, is not that attractive.
of F-35 planes is already in the works; allowing an IDF presence in the Jordan
Valley could be interpreted as part of previous US commitments to ensure Israel
secure and defensible borders; Congress would be unlikely to let the
administration throw Israel to the wolves in the UN; and access to early warning
platforms seems a given between allies like Israel and the US.
that, however, the “trust deficit” is another reason why the Netanyahu
government is not jumping at the deal.
FROM ISRAEL’S perspective, there
is already one letter on the table – president George W. Bush’s letter to prime
minister Ariel Sharon in 2004 that enabled Sharon to pass disengagement through
The problem, from this government’s perspective, is that
this letter hasn’t been honored by President Barack Obama and his
administration. And if that’s the case, then why – some key ministers in
Netanyahu’s government are arguing – should Israel place its faith in yet
How many times, the argument runs, will Israel have to
take a step that will “cement” its relationship with the US? Hasn’t that
relationship already been cemented by previous steps and previous letters, like
the Bush-Sharon letter and the disengagement from Gaza? And if not, then why
would one think that a future letter would have any greater adhesive power? This
is why Netanyahu is reportedly making a recommitment by Obama to the Bush letter
his precondition to bringing a two-month extension of the moratorium to his
ministers for their consideration. His message: First reaffirm and make good on
what was already promised, before promising something else.
administration’s Middle East policy, though its overall tone toward Israel has
improved dramatically over the last half year, is still reeling from two major
The first was the president’s call in May 2009, during his
first, difficult meeting with Netanyahu, for a complete settlement construction
This call immediately drove Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud
Abbas up a high tree from which he has not yet descended – if Obama was calling
for total settlement moratorium, then Abbas could certainly not do anything
Obama made a similar move during his address to the UN two weeks
ago, calling very publicly on Israel to extend the settlement moratorium. By
doing this he again chased Abbas up the tree, because – once more – how could
Abbas settle for anything short of a settlement moratorium, if this indeed was
what the president of the United States was calling for.
misstep was and continues to be the administration’s blatant refusal to commit –
or otherwise nod and wink at – the Bush letter. Sharon, when he went to Bush in
April 2004 looking to muster domestic support for his disengagement plan, knew
very well that he would get nothing from the Palestinians in exchange for
leaving Gaza. He also knew that disengagement would not buy peace. What he did
think he got were iron-clad assurances from the US that would mean much more for
Israel’s national security than retaining the settlements in the Gaza
He thought he received a US pledge that it would not back the
Palestinian demand that refugees and their descendents be allowed into pre-1967
He thought he received a commitment that the US was not calling
for a return to the 1967 borders, that it would back Israel’s holding on to the
large settlement blocks, and he thought that the US would stand firmly behind
Israel in the face of what he realized would be pressure coming to bear
regarding its nuclear program.
Sharon waved this letter, which was
endorsed by huge majorities in both houses of Congress, as an historic
achievement. Questions he and his advisers were asked regarding whether the
letter would bind succeeding administrations, or whether it had any real
statutory impact, were largely dismissed.
History, they said, has shown
that presidents do not easily dismiss letters of commitment written by their
Except that sometimes they do.
As recently as July,
amid reports that Netanyahu was going to ask Obama to recommit to the Bush
letter during his meeting in the White House, senior administration officials
refused to sign off on the letter.
Washington Times reporter Elli Lake,
during a conference call with senior White House officials Dan Shapiro and Ben
Rhodes in July, asked specifically about that letter and whether it reflected
the US understanding of the parameters of the final agreement between Israel and
Shapiro sidestepped. “We have a very good understanding
with our Israeli partners about the foundations of this relationship and this
effort to move toward our shared goals of comprehensive peace and two states,”
he said. “But on the specific question you’ve raised, I don’t have a
Rhodes quickly moved on to another question.
troublesome from the government’s perspective, was US Secretary of State Hillary
Clinton’s unequivocal denial of any understandings on settlement construction
between Israel and the US that flowed from this letter.
tacit informal understandings on where building could and could not take place,
Clinton, in a press conference in Washington with Foreign Minister Avigdor
Lieberman in March 2009, said 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.”
Former US deputy national security
adviser Elliott Abrams, as well as senior US Israeli officials at the time,
disputed Clinton’s remarks. But beyond the historic question of what indeed was
agreed upon, and whose historic record is more accurate, Abrams’s or Clinton’s,
the whole episode left nagging questions at the highest levels of Israel’s
decision-making pyramid regarding the reliability of US commitments.
this questioning, this doubt, has resurfaced once again as Netanyahu debates
whether to put his faith – and much more – in a new presidential letter.