'US, J'lem had agreement on settlements'
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.
Former US Deputy National Security Adviser Elliot Abrams.
Photo: Ariel Jerozolimski
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
UNIFIL finds 20 Katyushas ready for launch
In an effort to prevent a flare-up along the northern border, UNIFIL has increased its operations in southern Lebanon and has begun entering villages in search of Hizbullah weapons caches, according to information
obtained recently by Israel.
UN peacekeeper monitors the Israeli-Lebanese border
In one recent successful operation in the eastern sector of southern Lebanon, UNIFIL peacekeepers uncovered close to 20 Katyusha rockets that were ready for launch.
UNIFIL operates under Security
Council Resolution 1701, passed following the Second Lebanon War in 2006. Operations in villages have been a point of contention between UNIFIL and Israel, which said over the past three years that the peacekeeping force was failing to prevent Hizbullah's military buildup in southern Lebanon since it refrained from entering villages.
Hizbullah, the IDF believes, has deployed most of its forces and weaponry - including Katyusha rockets - inside homes in the villages. Until now, UNIFIL and the Lebanese army have mostly operated in open areas.
According to information obtained by Israel, UNIFIL has also succeeded recently in thwarting attacks that were planned against its own personnel.
UNIFIL's increased activity comes amid concerns in Israel that Hizbullah will launch an attack along the northern border to avenge the assassination of the group's military commander Imad Mughniyeh in Damascus last year.
Hizbullah was behind a thwarted attempt earlier this year to attack the Israeli Embassy in Baku, Azerbaijan, according to foreign sources. The group has also tried using Palestinian proxies for attacks within Israel, without success. These frustrations, Israel fears, might lead the group to try a retaliatory attack against the northern border, which would be easier operationally.
While Hizbullah has amassed tens of thousands of Katyusha rockets since the 2006 war, it is having trouble recruiting new fighters and is short several hundred men. Before the Second Lebanon War, the assessment in Israel was that Hizbullah had some 6,000 fighters.
The group's current recruitment difficulties are believed to stem from its failure to keep its promises to rebuild homes in Lebanese villages damaged during the war in 2006. This disappointment with Hizbullah is also understood in the IDF as being responsible for the group's defeat in parliamentary elections in Lebanon earlier this month.
Meanwhile, late Thursday night, Lebanese news agencies reported that the IDF was moving tanks and armored vehicles to the border area along the Mount Dov and Mount Hermon region. There was no Israeli comment on the reports.
Lebanese newspaper A-Safir
reported that Israel had proposed direct political negotiations with the new Lebanese government, making the overture via an Israeli army delegation in contacts with its Lebanese counterpart under UNIFIL's auspices.
Earlier Thursday, Lebanese lawmakers overwhelmingly reelected a pro-Hizbullah parliament speaker, signaling that the political factions are moving toward a unity government.
Reelecting Hizbullah ally Nabih Berri for a fifth consecutive term is expected to smooth the way for the formation of a new government in the coming weeks, which majority leader Saad Hariri is tipped to head.
Hariri said picking Berri for the job "consolidates national unity and preserves civil peace."
The choice of Berri, a Shi'ite, is in accord with Lebanon's sectarian power-sharing structure, which calls
for the speaker to be a Shi'ite, the prime minister a Sunni and the president a Maronite Catholic. Both parliament and cabinet are divided evenly between Muslims and Christians.
Berri heads the Shi'ite Amal movement that together with Hizbullah controls most of the Shi'ites' 27 seats in the 128-member legislature. He was the sole candidate for the post, which he has held since 1992.
Berri addressed lawmakers after his appointment, urging rivals to assist in the formation of a national unity government.
The Lebanese should "benefit from favorable regional and international developments... to consolidate peace and stability," he said. "This requires that we contribute toward the creation of a national government."
The June 7 vote brought victory for the Western-backed coalition, which fought off a strong challenge from Hizbullah and its allies. But it also underscored the deep divisions among the Lebanese.
AP contributed to this report.
'Gilad Schalit is begging for his life'
Amid escalating rumors that captive tank gunner Gilad Schalit is about to be transferred to Egypt, his father, Noam, speaking Thursday at a Tel Aviv rally marking three years since his son's capture, said Gilad was begging for his life.
Israelis gather at a rally to mark three years since IDF soldier Cpl. Gilad Schalit was kidnapped by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, in Tel Aviv, Thursday.
"We are standing here across from the office of the commanders who sent our son on his mission to the Gaza border, a mission from which he has not returned until today. We are standing here this evening to give Gilad a voice," Noam said.
To the hundreds who joined him opposite the Kirya military headquarters, under spotlights which lit up the night sky, Noam said it was doubtful his son could see the sun or smile as he endured his 1,095th day in captivity.
"He asks only one thing from you - his freedom. As we have become accustomed to saying, Gilad has already paid the price for the failures for which he bore no responsibility," Noam said.
Thursday's rally was the latest of dozens of events the family and their supporters have held during the past three years in hopes of pressuring the government into making a deal with Hamas that would secure Gilad's release.
As Noam spoke, unconfirmed reports circulated in the media, as they have all week, that Gilad was about to be transferred to Egypt, a move that had been suggested as a preliminary step toward his release in past third-party negotiations between Israel and Hamas. Israel has been willing to meet most of Hamas's demands for the release of hundreds of prisoners in exchange for Gilad, but has balked at freeing some of those charged with killing Israelis in terrorist attacks.
On Wednesday, there were also media reports that Egypt had received a sign of life from Gilad.
Noam told The Jerusalem Post
that he had heard nothing, and Israeli officials denied reports of significant progress in the affair.
Gilad's brother, Yoel, told the Post
he was trying not to pay attention to the rumors and would only believe them when he heard something official. So far, he said, the family has not heard anything.
When Gilad was first captured, Yoel thought it would be a matter of days until his release, then week, then months, and slowly time has stretched into years.
Looking out at the crowd at the rally he said he would want his brother to know how many supporters he had.
At the rally, Noam asked those who sat on folding chairs on a lawn to close their eyes and imagine his son in captivity. Earlier in the day, speaking to Army Radio, he had said, "My wish today, on the 25th of June, 2009, every person in the state to close your eyes for three minutes. Wait until those minutes pass, and during that time, try to think about what my son Gilad has gone through: a young man who is waiting with bated breath - not just three minutes, and not just three hours, and not even just three days - but is waiting in darkness and despair, mentally and physically tortured, to regain his freedom which was taken from him three years ago."
Yoel Schalit spoke on the radio as if he was speaking to his brother, who is now 22.
"Gilad, my dear brother, after three years in captivity I thought you might like to know a little bit about the things that have happened here," he began.
He told him how Michael Phelps won seven gold medals at the Beijing Olympics and how Israel came back with a bronze medal in sailing.
"Thousands of discharged soldiers left to travel all over the world; you could've traveled with them," Yoel said. "Today in Israel there are 200,000 university students, you could've been one of them. There are plenty of other things that happened and are still happening, and I'm waiting to tell you about them."
Yoel then pleaded with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. "Mr. Prime Minister, I request from you, save my brother," he said. "Don't abandon him to an unknown fate. Don't wait for tomorrow, help Gilad today. Every day he is in captivity is a risk to his life."
In a letter she sent out to the media prior to the rally, Gilad's mother, Aviva, who was at the rally but did not speak, wrote, "For three years I've been trying to bring all the pain, unease and frustration to the eyes and hearts of the public. Quite simply, I carry my tears with me, choking me so I can't even cry.
"I know, people say that we're 'noble' in our apparent silence... and some are asking, 'Why don't you raise your voice and shout?'... I'll tell you honestly, we never tried to be different people from who we are, and we never meant to seem noble."
"Is this why nothing is happening? Does our trust hinder Gilad's release? Will a country's government speed up its decision making only under pressure from the family?... Will it not, unprompted, show its own commitment to the boy it sent on its mission? My pain is immense, but I won't describe here the nights or days that linger with us for all these years."
In her letter she called for her son's release, as did the rest of the family, a call which was picked up by other speakers who addressed the crowd; Tel Aviv Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau, former IDF chief of General Staff Lt.-Gen. (res.) Amnon Lipkin Shahak and Karnit Goldwasser, the widow of IDF reservist Ehud Goldwasser, whose body was returned to Israel in a prisoner swap with Hizbullah in 2007.
A moderator read a letter from Tami Arad, the wife of IAF navigator Ron Arad, who disappeared in 1988 after he had been held captive in Lebanon for more than two years.
In it she recalled how more than 20 year ago, after a series of meeting with parliamentarians and ministers she had met Binyamin Netanyahu, who was then a young MK.
She said that they had sought his support for a prisoner swap, as they had with everyone else. He had responded by telling her of his brother Yoni, who had been killed trying to bring captives home in Uganda in 1976.
"We left the meeting with tears in our eyes," recalled Tami in her letter.
Everything should be done, she said, to keep Gilad from suffering Ron's fate and falling into the abyss. The price for returning soldiers was never easy.
"Mr. Prime Minister, today you are no longer a young MK, but a prime minister in your second term. You specifically as a member of a bereaved family can take a brave step for life and to return Gilad home
, not just for Aviva and Noam, but also for all of us, so we can be proud of the principles by which we live in this nation and for which we sacrifice so many young lives."
Israelis gather at a rally to mark three years since IDF soldier Cpl. Gilad Schalit was kidnapped by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, in Tel Aviv, Thursday.
Hezi Shai, who was freed in a prisoner swap in 1985, read from a letter the Schalit family received from Gilad last year at this time. It was the last time they heard from him.
Shai was in captivity for three years. He spoke as if he were Gilad, and described how he sat lonely, every day fighting for his life and his dignity. He spoke of how he woke up in the morning hopeful and ended the day disappointed. "I sit and think have I failed by staying alive."
Although rally organizers invited all 120 Knesset members and ministers, only MK Ophir Paz-Pines arrived.
British Foreign Secretary David Miliband repeated the UK's call
to Hamas for Schalit's immediate, unconditional and safe release.
In a statement, Miliband said the UK shared "the Schalit family's dismay at Hamas's refusal to allow the Red Cross access to Gilad."
The British minister also mentioned the plight of Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, and repeated the UK's call on Israel "to reduce further the current restrictions on the Gaza crossings, to allow in aid, reconstruction materials and trade
goods, and to permit the legitimate flow of people through the crossings."
Meanwhile, the city of New Orleans declared Gilad an honorary citizen.
The move was initiated by Rabbi Uri Topolosky of Congregation Beth Israel, who petitioned the city council to issue a proclamation declaring Schalit an honorary citizen as a measure of support to him and his family.
"Gilad's story is a symbol of the human element of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and must not be minimized as the global community strives to achieve peace in the Middle East," the city council proclamation announcing the decision stated.
The activists said they had created a new umbrella group working for the release of the young man, called "Gilad's army."
The time for waiting has past, it is time for action, the moderator said.
In Brussels, hundreds attended a rally to show solidarity with the Schalit family.
After a human chain was formed around the building, hundreds of balloons were released.
"The fact that many non-Jewish Belgian citizens participated in the rally emphasizes the world's support for Gilad and his family," said Meir Vanchotzker, World Bnei Akiva's emissary to Belgium.
"Furthermore, it is crucial to organize pro-Israeli rallies next to the European Union , since most of the members are not always Israel's biggest fans," Vanchotzker said.
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report
Netanyahu folds under US pressure for pulling out of West Bank towns before peace talks
DEBKAfile Special Analysis
June 25, 2009, 9:41 PM (GMT+02:00)
Binyamin Netanyahu welcomed by Nicolas Sarkozy
Despite his pledge to keep security considerations uppermost in his dealings with the Palestinians, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is buckling under pressure from the US administration aimed at softening Israel up ahead of Middle East peace talks.
This pressure turned Netanyahu's first official visits to Rome and Paris sour.
He had hoped to outmaneuver the Obama administration's insistence on a total settlement freeze by winning the support of friendly Silvio Berlusconi and Nicolas Sarkozy for a compromise formula, which would be presented as a European-Israel deal.
To achieve this, he promised the Italian and French leaders that Israeli forces would soon be pulled out of West Bank Palestinian towns. But he failed to anticipate that the Obama administration would outflank him and get there first. So his arrival in Rome and Paris was preceded by Italian and French officials parroting the Washington line on a settlement freeze, including East Jerusalem
When he met Berlusconi Monday, June 22, the Israeli prime minister saw that he had already talked to Obama on the phone and promised that the Italian boot would toe the American line.
In Paris, he found the same trap had been laid at the Elysee.
In these circumstances, Netanyahu should never have gone through with his visits to Italy and France. And defense minister Ehud Barak should call off his trip to Washington Monday for the interview with US Middle East envoy George Mitchell which the prime minister postponed. He has little hope of persuading the administration to change its tune or head off the impending clash between his administration and the Obama White House.
Netanyahu's promise to the Italian and French leaders to pull the IDF out of the West Bank cities of Ramallah, Bethlehem, Jericho and Qalqilya, has meanwhile gone on record, for no gain in Rome in Paris. But he can no longer capitalize on this major concession for a quid pro quo from the Palestinians. The IDF has also been ordered to reduce to the number of checkpoints on the West Bank to 10 active facilities to allow the Palestinians to travel from town to town free of holdups for searches – another concession to US demands.
These concessions are tantamount to the handover of the main West Bank towns to Palestinian security control.
It is the most sweeping redeployment of Israeli security forces since their unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip and northern Samaria four years ago as part of Ariel Sharon's disengagement policy.
To make the gesture palatable to the Israeli public - who have not forgottenthat years of Palestinian suicide bombing attacks from the West Bank were finally stemmed by the IDF presence in terrorist city strongholds - Netanyahu told the army spokesman to announce Thursday, June 25, that the measures were being given a one-week trial run before being finalized.
However, once in place, these measures will be practically impossible to withdraw.
The Obama administration has thus cornered the Netanyahu government into giving away valuable assets to the Palestinians before negotiations have even begun. This diplomatic dexterity has not been displayed in Washington's dealings with Iran.
Palestinians fear Hamas takeover in 'West Bank'
Palestinian residents of the "West Bank" town of Kalkilya told America's National Public Radio this week that they fear Hamas will soon repeat its Gaza Strip takeover in their area.
One local official affiliated with the ruling Fatah faction said a large Hamas weapons cache had recently been discovered in Kalkilya, raising fears that yet another civil war was on the horizon.
The official said that Fatah-Hamas reconciliation talks in Cairo are merely a charade, and that Hamas is using the distraction to plan its "West Bank" takeover.
In the summer of 2007, Hamas forces very quickly and effectively defeated the US-trained Fatah-aligned Palestinian Authority paramilitary army in Gaza, seizing absolute control of the coastal territory.
PARIS, France - U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell said he had cancelled Thursday's meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu in Paris, but a senior official in the prime minister's office said Israel called it off.
Mitchell claimed the meeting was cancelled due to the ongoing dispute over construction in Israeli communities in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) and in east Jerusalem neighborhoods.
"Israel is the one that called off the meeting with Mitchell due to the need to collect data and present it to him in an organized manner," said the official, who is traveling with the prime minister's delegation in Europe.
"The claim that the Americans cancelled the meeting due to a disagreement is unfounded," he said.
"The French confirmed this yesterday in a preparatory talk ahead of the prime minister's arrival," the official continued, "and said that the Americans informed them that Mitchell would not arrive (in Paris for the meeting), following an Israeli request."
In lieu of the meeting between Netanyahu and Mitchell, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak will meet with Mitchell in Washington on Monday in an effort to mediate the dispute.
Meanwhile, following Tuesday's meetings with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in Rome, Netanyahu said that despite the U.S. stance on construction in Jewish communities, Israel would continue trying to reach an agreement with Washington.
"I repeated to Berlusconi what I say everywhere. We will not build new settlements. We will not expropriate land to expand settlements, and we accept the principle that the discussions about the settlements will take place in final-status negotiations," Netanyahu said.
", we don't want them to forbid us to carry on with normal life in the settlements in Judea and Samaria," he said.
"Pending a final peace agreement, the people who are there will be allowed to live a normal life," the prime minister said in an interview on Italy's RAI television network.
"They have children. They need kindergartens. They need health clinics and so on. This is, I think, an equitable position that reflects our willingness to enter immediately into peace negotiations and get on with peace. I think that the more we spend time arguing about this, the more we waste time instead of moving toward peace," he said.
Netanyahu said he was encouraged by Berlusconi's acceptance of the two principal points - Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state and demilitarization of a future Palestinian state - which he made in his speech from Bar-Ilan University a week and a half ago.
Netanyahu will meet with French officials in Paris on Wednesday afternoon.
Sources: Ynet news, The Jerusalem Post