Not since the Balfour Declaration has there been a document that has raised so many expectations as the one President George Bush is supposed to give Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, detailing American quid pro quos for the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and four isolated settlements in the northern West Bank.
Balfour promised a Jewish national homeland in the Land of Israel and Bush is supposedly going to promise the borders and identity of the Jewish state to include the large settlement blocs in the West Bank and keep the Palestinian refugees away from the gates of Israel.
Sharon is continuing a tradition of many years - the desire for some kind of international "charter" for Jewish settlement in the country has been embedded in Zionism since the days of Herzl. On his way to his meeting with Bush in Washington, Sharon ought to read "The Palace File," which documents how the U.S. abandoned its closest ally in Asia, South Vietnam, where so many tens of thousands of American servicemen died fighting for its independence.
Presidents Nixon and Ford backed up the abandonment in a series of secret messages to the president of South Vietnam Nguyen Van Thieu, in which they reiterated over and over economic and military aid and assistance "to achieve our common goals" and spoke of vehement responses to violations of the peace agreement by the Communists of North Vietnam.
Thieu kept the 31 presidential documents in a secret case in his presidential palace in Saigon and regarded them as guaranteeing the survival of his country and his continued rule over it. He showed some of the letters to his subordinates, as an expression of the American empire's support and the graciousness of its leaders.
But at the moment of truth, when the North embarked on its final campaign to take over the South, all the promises evaporated. America was fed up with Vietnam, and did not want to risk its prestige any longer in the Asian jungles.
There are many worlds of difference between South Vietnam and Israel. Israel has never asked America to fight for it and die for it. But despite the differences in the circumstances, it is difficult to ignore the historical lesson: political promises are meant to solve urgent political problems and are always only good for the moment they are made. Don't regard them as a "political insurance policy" as Dov Weisglass, the prime minister's lawyer and bureau chief has referred to the anticipated Bush letter.
Sharon wants the president's note to overcome opposition in the Likud to his disengagement plan and to toss a bone to Benjamin Netanyahu and the other dithering ministers. The White House letter is also meant to save Israeli face, as it withdraws under fire and without any quid pro quo from the Palestinians.
In Sharon's eyes, the presidential seal will guarantee the freeze of the situation in the territories into a kind of long-term interim arrangement for long years to come. The Americans hesitated at first, and then under continued softening, agreed to a vague formula about permanent borders and refugees. Sharon and his office will present it as a tremendous political achievement, an Israeli victory in the war.
Sharon is very will aware of the limits of diplomatic promises. On Pesach eve he shook off his previous promise to Bush not to harm Arafat. "There have been changes since then," he explained. If so, why should Bush be more serious about his promises to Sharon? Sharon also doesn't believe in a permanent agreement with the Palestinians. In his holiday interview he said, "I believe that one must hope."
So why entrap the Americans into articles of an agreement that will never be formed? It is doubtful that a Democratic administration would honor the Bush letter. Sandy Berger, the former advisor to President Clinton, wrote in Foreign Affairs that Israel's unilateral withdrawal should be a station on the road to an agreement and not a recipe for a freeze.
For all those reasons, it is evident that one should not take the Bush letter too seriously. Its importance will evaporate with the closing of the Likud referendum poll, when the disengagement plan is brought to the government for its approval.
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