The internal US debate about whether the Bush administration had tacit agreements with Israel on construction in the settlements heated up Thursday, with former deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams writing that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was wrong in saying these agreements did not exist.
Yet a diplomatic official in Jerusalem described the debate over whether the Bush administration did or did not have tacit agreements with Israel as interesting, but largely "academic."
"Let's say that the Obama administration is backtracking on previous agreements. What are we going to do?" the official asked.
He said that with Obama's popularity in the US still soaring, and the settlements not an issue with much support in Congress, no one is going to go battle with the president over backtracking on tacit understandings on settlement construction.
"Do you see anyone in the US really going to war with him over this?" he asked.
Abrams, in a piece that appeared in Thursday's Wall Street Journal, said that "for reasons that remain unclear, the Obama administration has decided to abandon the understandings about settlements reached by the previous administration with the Israeli government. We may be abandoning the deal now, but we cannot rewrite history and make believe it did not exist."
The US State Department did not respond to a request to comment on the piece, which is the latest volley in an ongoing argument between former Bush officials, the Obama administration, and Israelis over what understandings the Bush administration had reach with Jerusalem over settlement activity.
This is the second piece Abrams has written since April saying that agreements did exist with the Israeli government, whereby the US agreed that construction in the settlements could continue under certain conditions.
The issue has been thrust into the headlines because of the Obama administration's demand for a complete settlement freeze, and Israel's counter claim that by making this demand, the Obama administration was essentially reneging on commitments given to Israel under the previous administration.
Defense Minister Ehud Barak will travel to the US on Monday to discuss the demand for a settlement freeze with US Mideast envoy George Mitchell, and try to find a compromise on the issue.
Clinton, in a press conference in Washington with Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman 10 days ago, said, that "in looking at the history of the Bush administration, there were no informal or oral enforceable agreements. That has been verified by the official record of the administration and by the personnel in the positions of responsibility. Our former ambassador Dan Kurtzer has written an op-ed that appeared in the last few days that lays out our position on that."
Kurtzer, the US ambassador to Israel from 2001-2005, said there were no understandings on settlement growth between the US and Israel. In an article he wrote last week in The Washington Post, Kurtzer said Israel maintained that draft understandings discussed in 2003 between former prime minister Ariel Sharon and US deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley, as well as former president George W. Bush's April 14, 2004, letter to Sharon, and a letter from Sharon's top aid Dov Weisglass to then-national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, constituted a "formal understanding in which the United States accepted continuing Israeli building within the 'construction line' of settlements."
However, Kurtzer argued, there was no such understanding.
He said that while the Bush administration did not regularly protest Israel's continuing settlement activity, silence did not mean consent.
But Abrams, who was present in those 2003 meetings with Sharon, referred directly to Clinton's comments about "no informal or oral enforceable agreements," and said those statements were simply "incorrect."
"Not only were there agreements, but the prime minister of Israel relied on them in undertaking a wrenching political reorientation - the dissolution of his government, the removal of every single Israeli citizen, settlement and military position in Gaza, and the removal of four small settlements in the West Bank. This was the first time Israel had ever removed settlements outside the context of a peace treaty, and it was a major step," Abrams wrote.
"On settlements, we also agreed on principles that would permit some continuing growth. Mr. Sharon stated these clearly in a major policy speech in December 2003: 'Israel will meet all its obligations with regard to construction in the settlements. There will be no construction beyond the existing construction line, no expropriation of land for construction, no special economic incentives and no construction of new settlements.' Ariel Sharon did not invent those four principles. They emerged from discussions with American officials and were discussed by Messrs. Sharon and Bush at their Aqaba meeting in June 2003."
Abrams suggested it was disingenuous for Clinton to say now there was no official record.
"It is true that there was no US-Israel 'memorandum of understanding,' which is presumably what Mrs. Clinton means when she suggests that the 'official record of the administration' contains none," Abrams wrote. "Mrs. Clinton also said there were no 'enforceable' agreements. This is a strange phrase. How exactly would Israel enforce any agreement against an American decision to renege on it? Take it to the International Court in The Hague?"
"Regardless of what Mrs. Clinton has said, there was a bargained-for exchange," Abrams wrote. "Mr. Sharon was determined to break the deadlock, withdraw from Gaza, remove settlements - and confront his former allies on Israel's Right by abandoning the 'Greater Israel' position to endorse Palestinian statehood and limits on settlement growth. He asked for our support and got it, including the agreement that we would not demand a total settlement freeze."
Steven Rosen, a former policy director with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, interpreted the Abrams-Kurtzer back-and-forth as reflective of splits within the Bush administration when both were part of it. He noted that Kurtzer had opposed the understanding on settlements outlined by Abrams.
"These dueling op-eds by Kurtzer and Abrams are a continuation of a policy war withing the Bush administration, a war that Kurtzer lost at the time but is trying to win now," he said.
Hilary Leila Krieger contributed to this report from Washington.