State secrets revealed: Bush agreed to settlement construction

Did Ariel Sharon hide Bush's approval for building throughout Judea and Samaria from Israeli public?

Shimon Cohen ,

George W. Bush
George W. Bush

Did Prime Minister Ariel Sharon conceal an agreement with the Bush administration permitting Israel to build across all of Judea and Samaria?

Following Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s meeting with President Trump last month and his meeting with White House special envoy Jason Greenblatt on Monday, speculation has grown that Trump may renew the understandings on Jewish construction in Judea and Samaria forged more than a decade ago between then-President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Sharon.

That arrangement, worked out during a series of private conversations between White House officials and members of the Prime Minister’s Office, was ultimately expressed by an exchange of letters of understanding in April 2004.

The Bush-Sharon letters of understanding were widely believed as permitting construction within the so-called “settlement blocs” – those large population centers close to the Green Line which would likely be retained by Israel even if a Palestinian state were to be established.

But according to the Independent Media Review Analysis (IMRA) organization, the Bush administration never limited construction to “settlement blocs”.

In a message circulated by IMRA on Monday, Dr. Aaron Lerner, a veteran member of the Likud’s Central Committee, noted that the 2004 Bush-Sharon agreement made no provision barring construction in what are widely referred to as “isolated settlements” – Jewish communities deeper in Judea and Samaria.

The text of the April 14th, 2004 from President Bush to Prime Minister Sharon reads in part:

“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… 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.”

A follow-up letter, however, from the Prime Minister’s Office to then-National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice suggests that the Bush administration had accepted continued building within the existing “construction line” of Israeli towns in Judea and Samaria – with no reference to their being located in the “settlement blocs”:

“Restrictions on settlement growth: within the agreed principles of settlement activities, an effort will be made in the next few days to have a better definition of the construction line of settlements in Judea and Samaria. An Israeli team, in conjunction with Ambassador Kurtzer, will review aerial photos of settlements and will jointly define the construction line of each of the settlements.”

The author of the PMO’s letter to Rice, Dov Weisglass, told IMRA explicitly that the understanding reached between the White House and Israel provided for continued building within all Israeli communities over the Green Line, so long as construction did not expand the existing boundaries of the towns in question.

President Trump, Lerner argues, appears to be proposing a similar approach, whereby construction would be limited to within the exiting boundaries of towns in Judea and Samaria, but not be restricted to major blocs.

“Perhaps people in Israel don’t remember this story, but the person in the White House who drafted the statement to journalists remembers,” said Lerner, referring to a recent press statement by the Trump administration.

Lerner, who spoke with Weisglass regarding his findings, says the claim that the Bush-Sharon understanding limited construction to the major settlement blocs was perpetuated by Sharon himself, who sought to gain support from residents of the blocs for his planned 2005 evacuation of Gush Katif.

According to Lerner, Sharon wished to present the Bush-Sharon understanding as a green light, achieved through careful negotiation, for unlimited construction in the blocs in exchange for restrictions outside the blocs and the evacuation of Gush Katif.

Follow-up negotiations planned between the Bush administration and Sharon government for the precise delineation of construction in towns outside of the blocs were abandoned, with a subsequent sharp decline in building in those same areas.

When asked why subsequent governments, including the three Netanyahu governments formed since 2009, never sought construction outside of the major blocs along the lines established in the Bush-Sharon agreement, Lerner said Israeli leaders were largely unaware of the actual parameters of the understanding.

“It’s very sad, but to put it delicately, if you would ask ministers and MKs and all the people who think they know everything about the Weisglass letter, you’ll find that they don’t know anything.”

Another reason is that President Obama, acting against normative presidential policy, refused to commit his administration to the arrangements agreed upon in the letters by his predecessor in the White House. It is not known whether the former president realized that they allowed for more than settlement bloc construction, but his reaction to building new homes even in Jerusalem makes that point irrelevant.