Why should the Netanyahu government place any faith in the incentives offered by President Barack Obama in return for an extension of the moratorium on settlement construction? So grumble some Israelis, pointing for added emphasis to Obama's refusal to honor an earlier, Bush-administration pledge to Ariel Sharon. For these Israelis, such backtracking is another indication that Obama has broken with precedent and is bent on significantly shifting longstanding American practice toward Israel.
But what if the president is only following longstanding practice? As it happens, principles enunciated by one American president have regularly been ignored or silently repudiated by his successor, and some presidential commitments have enjoyed an even shorter shelf life than the one to which disillusioned Israelis now point.
Take the issue of borders. "It is clear that a return to the situation of June 4, 1967, will not bring peace," President Lyndon B. Johnson affirmed in a statement shortly after the Six Day war. Yet when the Nixon administration came into office in January 1969, Secretary of State William Rogers sounded quite a different note, insisting that "any changes in the [pre-war] lines should not reflect the weight of [Israeli] conquest."
Or take Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's 1975 promise that the U.S. would not negotiate with the PLO so long as that organization did not recognize Israel's right to exist. Two years later, the Carter administration came into office keen to open a dialogue with the PLO, and almost immediately began doing so through intermediaries. In 1978, Carter recognized "the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people" and authorized the PLO to operate an information office in Washington. His ambassador to Lebanon reportedly met with Yasir Arafat, and his representative to the UN was forced to resign after his own meetings with the PLO were publicly exposed.
Under the Reagan administration, secret contacts with the PLO continued unabated, while Secretary of State George Shultz initiated open meetings with members of the Palestine National Council (not, technically, PLO operatives). Ultimately, judging that Arafat had renounced terrorism and recognized Israel, the administration extended diplomatic recognition to the PLO.
A similar story can be told about presidential commitments opposing the establishment of a Palestinian state. The 1982 Reagan peace plan, issued on the heels of the PLO's expulsion from Beirut, reiterated Carter's earlier recognition of the "legitimate rights of the Palestinians" but pledged that the U.S. "will not support the establishment of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza." When George H.W. Bush came into office, he reaffirmed the pledge but pressured Israel into attending the 1991 Madrid peace conference, an event that included Palestinian representatives widely understood to have been pre-approved by the PLO.
During the Clinton years, when Israel's Labor government itself opened negotiations with the PLO that would eventuate in the Oslo accords, the American administration naturally became a champion of Palestinian statehood (while pledging no contact with Hamas—another commitment that may soon go by the boards). Even when the PLO reneged on Oslo and resumed terrorist attacks, the George W. Bush administration, in its 2003 Road Map, reaffirmed America's new commitment to statehood—provided the Palestinians abandoned violence—and the president reiterated this commitment in 2005 despite the fact that Palestinian violence had not ceased.
This brings us back to the 2004 letter from Bush to Sharon. That letter, issued to support Sharon's unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, acknowledged that Israel's final borders would have to be based on "new realities on the ground including already existing major Israeli population centers"—i.e., settlement blocs—in the West Bank. This "1967-plus" formula is what Obama now appears to be rejecting.
It may be that the old saying is right and that certain kinds of promises are made to be broken. But if so, the obvious lesson is only the need to keep that cautionary principle in mind when undertaking important strategic decisions hinging on presidential guarantees.
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