After winning the support last month of his conservative friend Elliott Abrams, who wrote in The Wall Street Journal that on the Bush National Security Council he witnessed understandings with Israel on "natural growth" in the settlements, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has just received a boost from his longstanding political rival, Ehud Olmert.
In an op-ed in Friday's Washington Post, the former prime minister attacked U.S. President Barack Obama's settlements policy, claiming that the focus on freezing settlement construction diverts attention from the peace process and important strategic challenges, hinting at Iran.
Olmert bases his argument in part on the letter George W. Bush gave to Ariel Sharon when they were in power, "recognizing ... the Jewish population centers in the West Bank would be an inseparable part of the state of Israel in any future permanent-status agreement." Olmert believes the "understanding" on continued construction in the settlement blocs comes from this.
But the letter and the clarifications the administration carefully issued afterward specify that the situation Israel created in the territories cannot continue without agreement from the Palestinians. As we know, Israel and the Palestinians have not reached an agreement on a single settlement, including the Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.
In addition to Bush's letter to Sharon, Olmert specifies the following as understandings between the two:
1. No new settlements, and any construction would be within the current built-up area within the existing ones, "the building line." 2. No new land would be allocated or confiscated for settlement construction. 3. No economic incentives to promote settlement growth would be provided. 4. All unauthorized outposts built after March 2001 would be dismantled. Olmert admits that the latter has not been done, but claims that his government complied with all the other obligations. Is that indeed the case?
1. The building line: A few weeks ago the former U.S. ambassador to Israel Daniel Kurtzer published an op-ed in The Washington Post in which he claimed that this restriction was never implemented and never agreed to by the Israeli military representative to talks with the United States, Brig. Gen. (res.) Baruch Spiegel. Kurtzer says that shortly after the November 2007 Annapolis summit, Olmert himself approved the construction of Agan Ha'ayalot, a new neighborhood west of Givat Ze'ev.
2. Incentives: Although there is no line item in the state budget for "support for settlements," settlement beyond the Green Line enjoys support via "priority areas" and other allocations.
3. Land expropriation: In May 2008 final approval was given for expropriating 60 dunams (15 acres) to expand Ariel's industrial area. The same month about 100 dunams north of Kiryat Arba was declared "state land" for building about 100 residential units. At least four additional orders have been issued to appropriate land for West Bank settlements.
4. Olmert writes that in the run-up to Annapolis he "elaborated to the U.S. administration and the Palestinian leadership that Israel would continue to build in the settlements in accordance with the [understandings reached with the Sharon government]," understandings that he claims made the summit possible. Even if this is accurate, it is hard to believe that the Americans and Palestinians interpreted these understandings as a license to dramatically accelerate the rate of settlement construction. According to Israel's Central Bureau of Statistics, in the year following the summit there were 2,122 new building starts in the settlements, up from 1,487 in 2007 (excluding East Jerusalem).
"To this day, I cannot understand why the Palestinian leadership did not accept the far-reaching and unprecedented proposal I offered them," Olmert writes, adding that he does not understand the U.S. insistence on a complete freeze on settlement construction. Perhaps it has something to do with his faithfulness to the understandings he demands that the United States uphold.
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