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.
-- Any construction in the settlements would be within current building lines.
-- There would be no provision of economic incentives promoting settlement growth.
-- The unauthorized outposts built after March 2001 would be dismantled (a commitment that Israel, regrettably, has not yet fulfilled).
These understandings provided a working platform and, in my opinion, a proper balance to allow essential elements of stability and normality for Israelis living in settlements until their future would be determined in a permanent-status agreement. I adopted these understandings and followed them in close coordination with the Bush administration.
Moreover, during the run-up to Annapolis and in meetings there, I elaborated to the U.S. administration and the Palestinian leadership that Israel would continue to build in the settlements in accordance with the above criteria.
Let me be clear: Without those understandings, the Annapolis process would not have taken on any form. Therefore, the focus on settlement construction now is not useful.
The insistence now on a complete freeze on settlement construction -- impossible to completely enforce -- will not promote Palestinian efforts to enhance security measures; the institution building that is so crucial for the development of a Palestinian state; better movement and access to the Palestinians; nor an improved economy in the West Bank. Nor will it weaken the Hamas government in Gaza. It will not bring greater security to Israel, help improve Israel's relations with the Arab world, strengthen a coalition of moderate Arab states or shift the strategic balance in the Middle East.
Only a political process that demands courageous decisions from leaders on both sides will bring a solution to the issue of settlements.
To this day, I cannot understand why the Palestinian leadership did not accept the far-reaching and unprecedented proposal I offered them. My proposal included a solution to all outstanding issues: territorial compromise, security arrangements, Jerusalem and refugees.
It would be worth exploring the reasons that the Palestinians rejected my offer and preferred, instead, to drag their feet, avoiding real decisions. My proposal would have helped realize the "two-state solution" in accordance with the principles of the U.S. administration, the Israeli government I led and the criteria the Palestinian leadership has followed throughout the years.
I believe it is crucial to review the lessons from the Palestinians' rejection of such an offer.
The focus on settlement construction, while ignoring the previous understandings, unjustly skews the focus from a true political process and from dealing with the real strategic issues confronting the region.
Settlement construction should be taken off the public agenda and moved to a discrete dialogue, as in the past. This would enhance our bilateral relations and allow us to deal with the essential issues: the political process; preventing Iran's attempt to obtain nuclear weapons; eliminating Islamic extremist terrorism; and creating the necessary dialogue for normalizing relations between Israel and the Arab world.
The time to deal with such important matters is running out. We cannot waste what time we do have on non-priority issues.
The writer was prime minister of Israel from 2006 to 2009.