Stop Focusing on the Settlements to Achieve Peace in the Middle East

Graffiti on a section of Israel's separation barrier last month.
Graffiti on a section of Israel's separation barrier last month. (By Bernat Armangue -- Associated Press)
By Ehud Olmert
Friday, July 17, 2009

Israel's partnership with the United States is one of its greatest strategic assets. The United States provides Israel with crucial security and economic aid and invaluable political backing in the international arena. Amid the legitimate rapprochement President Obama has initiated with the Arab and Muslim world, it is important not to underestimate the multifaceted nature of U.S. relations with Israel, the only real Middle Eastern democracy whose founding principles are based on the Western values of liberty and freedom for all.

During the tenure of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and my administration after that, we, together with President George W. Bush, boosted Israeli-U.S. relations at all levels and on most issues. This progress was based on deep and candid understandings, both written and oral.

Throughout the second intifada, America provided unprecedented support for Israel's struggle against Palestinian terrorism and Israel's construction of the security barrier. Together, we envisioned the "two-state solution" as the only way to end the conflict by adopting and implementing the "road map" and its sequencing.

By vast majorities, Congress endorsed President Bush's 2004 letter elaborating Israel's right to defend itself, by itself, against any threat and recognizing new realities on the ground in which the Jewish population centers in the West Bank would be an inseparable part of the state of Israel in any future permanent-status agreement. America acknowledged that the future Palestinian state would represent the solution to the Palestinian refugees, resettling them there and not in Israel.

In November 2007, Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the Bush administration convened in Annapolis with the unified goal of solving all outstanding issues. Annapolis provided the framework for direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians toward bringing an end to the conflict and to all claims.

Yet today, instead of a political process, the issue of settlement construction commands the agenda between the United States and Israel. This is a mistake that serves neither the process with the Palestinians nor relations between Israel and the Arab world. Moreover, it has the potential to greatly shake U.S.-Israeli relations.

The settlements are a known issue of contention between Israel and the United States; although America has not supported their construction, it has, on some occasions, recognized the realities that have developed over 40 years.

Sharon reached understandings with the U.S. administration regarding the growth and building of settlements, as part of the road map. The understandings included that:

-- No new settlements would be constructed.

-- No new land would be allocated or confiscated for settlement construction.

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