Norman Podhoretz’s new article “Israel and the Palestinians: Has Bush Reneged?” raises a myriad of issues that cannot be dealt with in a single post, so this one is devoted to only one of the contentions he makes -- that “far from reneging on the commitment he made on June 24, 2002, Bush has in at least one key respect strengthened it in Israel’s favor since the Annapolis conference was held.”
The “key respect” is Bush’s formal statement in Jerusalem on January 10, 2008, in which the President said the following about the final status negotiations he wants completed by the end of this year:
“These negotiations must ensure that Israel has secure, recognized, and defensible borders. And they must ensure that the state of Palestine is viable, contiguous, sovereign, and independent.”
Podhoretz writes that this statement “signaled a change that has gone curiously unnoticed by friends of Israel” -- an endorsement of the demand by Dore Gold (Israel’s former UN Ambassador) and others for retention by Israel of a military presence in the Jordan Valley. Podhoretz writes that:
By adding for the first time the word “defensible” to the “secure and recognized borders” he had specified in his previous statements, Bush was for all practical purposes endorsing continued Israeli control over the Jordan Valley; and by reiterating that the Palestinian state must be “contiguous,” he was saying that, contrary to Palestinian objections, a way could be found to reconcile these two requirements.
In this post, I hope to show that (1) the January 10, 2008 statement was not the first time the word “defensible” was used; (2) its prior use was not simply an endorsement “for all practical purposes,” but a formal U.S. commitment to Israel; (3) the history of how the word “defensible” appeared in the prior commitment is crucial to understanding its meaning; and (4) the jury is unfortunately still out as to whether Bush really stands by that commitment.
Let’s start with some history. In June 2003, the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs published a paper by Dore Gold entitled “Defensible Borders for Israel.” That paper included an exhaustive analysis of the history of the “defensible borders” concept, beginning with UN Resolution 242 and continuing through statements by Yitzhak Rabin and various U.S. governmental officials. The paper concluded as follows:
Historically, as Israel undertook new risks for peace, it has been the practice of past U.S. administrations to offer letters of assurance, or even executive agreements, to Israel to help protect its vital interests in the peace process. . . .
Israel's right to defensible borders ought to be acknowledged by the Bush administration. Should the roadmap to a Palestinian state be implemented, then an appropriate quid pro quo for the establishment of a Palestinian state (with certain security restrictions) would be defensible borders for Israel.
Six months later, Ariel Sharon announced his intention to adopt a disengagement policy, and over the next four months he negotiated a deal with the United States to dismantle all the long-standing settlements in Gaza plus four more in the West Bank, remove all Israeli military forces from Gaza, and turn over control of the Egyptian border to the Palestinian Authority -- providing the Palestinians with an opportunity to demonstrate they could “live side by side in peace and security” and proceed with the Roadmap -- all in exchange for certain formal U.S. commitments.
One of those commitments, set forth in the April 14, 2004 exchange of letters between Sharon and Bush, was a formal reassurance that:
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.
The concept of “secure, defensible borders” is a strategic doctrine that differs significantly from the theory of “land for peace.” The latter theory presumed a return to the 1967 borders with minor changes, in exchange for a “peace agreement,” would produce peace.
In contrast, the concept of “secure, defensible borders” recognized that Israeli security ultimately depends on borders Israel can defend on its own, even if the Palestinians do not honor their agreement, or if a dispute -- whether or not bona fide -- arises with a future “sovereign” Palestinian state.
Defensible borders are also an important American interest, because a peace agreement might require U.S. or NATO guarantees, and it would hardly serve American interests to commit the U.S. or its allies to defend Israeli borders not defensible by Israel itself.
Indeed, the absence of defensible borders would itself be an invitation to the aggression supposedly foresworn in a “peace agreement.” Defensible borders were thus indispensable to insure any ultimate “peace agreement” might actually work.
The concept of “defensible borders” had been contained in the foundational document of the “peace process” -- U.N. Resolution 242, adopted in 1967, whose heavily negotiated terms had intentionally not referred to a withdrawal from “all the territories” -- and instead expressly envisioned not just “recognized” boundaries for Israel but new “secure” ones.
Over the years, however, land for “secure and recognized boundaries” became land for “peace” -- with Palestinians demanding a total withdrawal to the indefensible borders of 1967 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 and an “international presence” to “monitor” the resulting “peace.” The April 14, 2004 letter, committing the U.S. to “defensible borders,” insured that the Clinton Parameters could not be proffered again by the U.S. -- and that future borders would thus depend on Israeli security needs, not Palestinian demands.
The use of the term “defensible borders” in the April 14, 2004 letter was thus not a colloquial or ambiguous expression. It was a term of art with an extensive history -- set forth in the Gold paper published in June 2003, just before the formal negotiations began regarding the conditions under which Israel would proceed with the Gaza disengagement. No one reading (or writing) that letter could have had any doubt about the U.S. commitment it entailed.
On January 14, 2008, four days after the President issued his statement in Jerusalem, One Jerusalem held a bloggers call with Dore Gold. The following is an excerpt from the call (at 17:30 to 20:24 of the recording) relating to “defensible borders:”
JCI: . . . we haven’t heard the phrase “defensible borders” a lot since the April 14, 2004 letter, but the President did use those terms in his summary of principles at the end of his trip. . . . [Is there] any consensus within the Israeli military and political echelons about what the geographic boundaries of defensible borders would look like?
Ambassador Gold: . . . I have very closely followed this subject and note that when Prime Minister Sharon presented the Bush letter to the Knesset in Hebrew, he laid out many aspects of these defensible borders. First of all, he said the letter had two territorial components -- it had the settlement blocs as one territorial component, and then the second territorial component were defensible borders. Later on, he explained to Haaretz in 2005 what he thought was a vital strategic interest of Israel, and in particular he focused on the Jordan Valley.
In Sharon’s judgment, the Jordan Valley did not mean the river bed close to the line of the river but in fact extended upward to today the Allon Road and, according to ex-Prime Minister Sharon, beyond the Allon Road. He thought the whole security structure in the Jordan Valley was vital for Israel to retain. That was also the position of Prime Minister Rabin one month before he was assassinated, when he laid out the borders of Israel to the Knesset.
Since that time Israeli [unintelligible] have expressed concern with other areas of the West Bank that dominate vital parts of Israel’s infrastructure. There are villages like Budrus and Rantis in the West Bank that are within shooting distance of Ben-Gurion Airport. If we gave up Budrus and Rantis, even though they are on the other side of the security fence, we would put civilian air travel at Ben Gurion Airport at risk should the Palestinians ever obtain SA-7 shoulder-fired missiles, that can take down a jumbo jet.
So clearly both protecting vital infrastructure and preventing the Jordan Valley from falling into hostile hands are two elements that repeatedly have been mentioned as part of the concept of defensible borders.
So the President’s January 10, 2008 statement was not the first time the word “defensible” was used, and its use in the April 14, 2004 letter was not simply as an endorsement “for all practical purposes,” but a formal U.S. commitment, using a phrase whose history was clear and whose implementation called for military judgment, not the old “land for peace” formula.
The reason the jury is still out as to whether Bush really stands by that commitment is that the April 14, 2004 letter is the same letter in which Bush committed not to substitute any peace plan in place of the clearly-specified three-step phases of the “Performance-Based Roadmap,” which was intended to insure the dismantlement of terrorism before the negotiation of a state, not vice versa.
Notwithstanding that commitment, the President has allowed his Secretary of State to devote herself for the past year to a project dependent on skipping Phase I, ignoring Phase II, and proceeding directly to Phase III, with a deadline for its completion. The dismantlement required under Phase I has become a fig-leaf promise to be “implemented” in the future. It is the Bush Doctrine in reverse.