'Occupation' and Defensibility

As predicted earlier this week, President Bush — formerly (and arguably) the strongest supporter of Israel to inhabit the White House in years — used his address at today’s Annapolis Conference on Palestinian Statehood to renege on his 2004 promise of "defensible borders" to the then-Prime Minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, and to demand that the Jewish state retreat to its pre-1967 borders as a show of good faith in its peace negotiations with the Palestinian government.

Three years ago, Bush wrote to Sharon that "as part of a final peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders." He continued:

In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.

With this letter — and nothing else — in hand Sharon proceeded to unilaterally force over 9,000 Israeli settlers from their homes in the Gaza Strip, abandoning the territory to Israel’s immediate south which had been serving as a buffer against attack. The folly of that unilateral move has been proved again and again. Just since last November, the Gaza Strip — now known informally as "Hamastan" to some — has served as a launching point for over 400 Qassam rockets into civilian areas in southern Israel.

However, Sharon at the time accepted the President’s urging to make this move because of the language included in Bush’s letter. On April 22, 2004 — one week after receiving it — Sharon told the Israeli Knesset:

There is American recognition that in any permanent status arrangement, there will be no return to the [19]67 borders. This recognition is to be expressed in two ways: understanding that the facts that have been established in the large settlement blocs are such that they do not permit a withdrawal to the [19]67 borders and implementation of the term ‘defensible borders.’

In an era when Arab fighters are employing rockets and other standoff weaponry, withdrawing to the 1967 borders would move the edge of an unregulated Palestinian state up to the border of Israel. This would not only endanger Israeli citizens living in those areas, but would also put major coastal cities like Tel Aviv, which is a mere eleven miles (18 km) from what would be Palestinian land, well within range of Katyusha rockets.

The largest of the al Aqsa mosque’s four minarets on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem towers over an Israeli flag and the Western Wall of the old Jewish temple (c) Jeff Emanuel 2007

It’s now three years since the President after promised Sharon that Israel’s concessions would be rewarded with America’s "steadfast commitment to Israel’s security. Those commitments included 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" And President Bush — faced with the looming specter of his Presidential legacy — has moved the goal posts far beyond the distance he promised previously.

Said Bush at Annapolis Tuesday:

The Israelis must do their part. They must show the world that they are ready to begin — to bring an end to the occupation that began in 1967 through a negotiated settlement This settlement will establish Palestine as a Palestinian homeland, just as Israel is a homeland for the Jewish people. Israel must demonstrate its support for the creation of a prosperous and successful Palestinian state by removing unauthorized outposts, ending settlement expansion, and finding other ways for the Palestinian Authority to exercise its responsibilities without compromising Israel’s security.

(Emphasis added.) That highlighted language would demand that Israel retract its borders to the very same 1949 armistice lines that Bush, in his letter to Sharon, promised would not be in play.

With that paragraph President Bush put to rest any hope among supporters of the Jewish state that he would keep his promise to the former Prime Minister, and would support Israel’s right to defensible borders against the threats to their north, east, and south. Instead, encouraged by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Bush has apparently decided to ignore his letter to Sharon as well as his 2001 promise that the Israeli concessions proposed by President Clinton in 2000 were "off the table.” He was echoing the language used by Israel’s enemies in the region, is demanding that “occupation” be ended and the state’s borders be shrunk far past a defensible minimum simply as a starting point for peace negotiations.

This was the reason that Syria and the rest of Israel’s invited neighbors and enemies agreed to attend the conference. Whether it was intentional or not, President Bush — by referring to Israel as an ‘occupier’ and by demanding the cessation of the land, gained in battle, that currently serves as a buffer to attack — gave those who would see the Jewish state wiped off the map exactly what they hoped for.

In requiring unilateral concessions as a show of goodwill, and in expecting Israel’s neighbors to respond in kind, the President appears to be repeating the grave mistake of applying his own worldview and values to a foreign population, and expecting their thoughts and actions to be similar to what an American might do in good faith.

“The Palestinian people are blessed with many gifts and talents,” said Bush in his address. He continued:

They want the opportunity to use those gifts to better their own lives and build a better future for their children. They want the dignity that comes with sovereignty and independence. They want justice and equality under the rule of law. They want freedom from violence and fear.

But based on their consistent history, it’s apparent that peace with Israel is one thing the Palestinians and their leaders, as well as the surrounding nations, do not want.

Secretary Rice appears to be similarly misreading the will of the Israeli people. On November 13, just two weeks ago, Rice said that she “believe[d] that most Israelis are ready to leave most of the – nearly all of the West Bank, just as they were ready to leave Gaza for the sake of peace." 400 Qassam rockets and one kidnapped IDF Corporal later, we have seen how the withdrawal from Gaza “for the sake of peace” turned out. And according to the a study by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs “public opinion polls actually show strong Israeli support for retaining strategic areas of the West Bank, like the Jordan Valley.”

Photo taken from the Mount of Olives (East of Old Jerusalem) of the Temple Mount, dominated by the Golden Dome of the Rock, and the Old City (c) Jeff Emanuel 2007

Apparently, in the wake of the Gaza Strip disaster, there really aren’t that many Israelis — outside of Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and the supporters who make up his 9% approval rating — who are ready and willing to make similar unilateral concessions, and for very good reason. Unfortunately, Bush, Rice, Olmert, and the cast of countries that makes up Israel’s worst enemies are quite willing to overlook this fact in favor of pushing the Jewish state back into an indefensible geographic position.

If there was any doubt about the reason for President Bush’s sudden desire to insert himself so forcefully into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it was put to rest by the conclusion of his Annapolis address:

The day is coming when Palestinians will enjoy the blessings that freedom brings — and all Israelis will enjoy the security they deserve. That day is coming. The day is coming when the terrorists and extremists who threaten the Israeli and Palestinian people will be marginalized and eventually defeated. And when that day comes, future generations will look to the work we began here at Annapolis. They will give thanks to the leaders who gathered on the banks of the Chesapeake for their vision, their wisdom and courage to choose a future of freedom and peace.

If only solving millennia-old disputes was that simple, and a legacy could be saved so easily. Then again, if that were the case, even Bill Clinton might have been able to do it — a proposition which begs the following question: Absent the opportunity to embark on a quixotic second-term quest for the ever-elusive “Middle Eastern Peace,” what else would President Bush find to use in an eleventh-hour attempt to resuscitate what he apparently sees as his failing legacy?