When President George Bush wrote an official letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon last April 14th, its contents were hailed as "historic." The occasion for this formal missive from the White House was Sharon's unveiling of his plans for unilaterally pulling out of Gaza, a.k.a. "the disengagement plan". Following a visit by Sharon to Washington, and preceded by a formal letter from Sharon to Bush, this communication was hailed as ground-breaking. In fact, Sharon used it as part of his argument for pursuing the pullout. You see, he assured an uneasy public, the trade off here is a level of support from the US we've never had before.

One of the statements within Bush's letter - touted as being of key significance with regard to that level of support - read:

"In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population 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."

Presumably, this provided American backing for Israeli retention of major settlement blocs in Judea and Samaria in the course of future negotiations with the Palestinians. That Bush declined to provide recognition by name of specific settlement blocs such as Gush Etzion - as had been requested by Sharon - was brushed off as not important. Sharon, we were told repeatedly, had established an unusually close bond with Bush, who had put himself on the line here.

Some among us in Israel were not impressed with these arguments. Recognizing President Bush as a significant - even an historically strong - friend, we still perceived his letter as little more than a gift to Sharon. It was designed to strengthen him politically as he pursued his plans for unilateral withdrawal, without actually giving much that was new.

We saw that the wording of this document was vague. We pointed out that a presidential letter was not binding on the US government; only a formal Congressional commitment would be. We noted that Bush's sentiments were not necessarily those of the State Department. We cautioned that the situation could change and that we would have nothing to rest upon.

Now we have, perhaps, reached the day of reckoning on this issue.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was in town. She met with Prime Minister Sharon and key members of his government. While the atmosphere was described as exceedingly cordial, the tone had changed, for Yasser Arafat - despised by Bush - is gone and there is a new man in Ramallah. Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas is someone seen as having a pro-US tilt, someone who can be dealt with and should be strengthened. Rice's message was that even if it proves difficult for us, the US expects Israel to do all that it can to bolster the position of Abbas.

In the course of things, it was made clear that the US did not want to see Israel issue any tenders for housing construction in the settlements. Not any. This means no expansion within existing settlements. Not even within settlements that are in areas Israel had presumed were accepted as permanent by the US. "Presumed" is the operative word. A great and foolish leap of faith that was.

Queried about this, Rice replied that the president had given some assurances to Israel in his letter last year, but "he made very clear that everything had to be negotiated, that final-status arrangement would have to be up to the parties."

And you know what? She's right. For the last sentence of Bush's statement cited above reads:

"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."

Welcome to the real world, folks. Bush was saying that indeed the situation on the ground has changed, and in light of these changes it would be realistic to expect final borders for Israel to reflect these changes. However, he was offering no US support for any Israeli retention of settlements. Quite clearly, he was leaving that up to bilateral negotiations.

The odds for the survival of that proverbial snowball are much better than the odds of Israel negotiating a settlement with the current regime in Ramallah that would allow us retention of some settlements.

Then, Secretary Rice met with Palestinian Authority officials.

President Bush, in his letter to Prime Minister Sharon, had also indicated that it would be "realistic" to expect that "a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue as part of any final status agreement will need to be found through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel."

What are the odds that the Secretary of State told Mahmoud Abbas that, in the interests of promoting peace, the US expects him to give up on the "right of return"?

© Arlene Kushner 2005