Monday, June 01, 2009

How Much Does Bush's Commitment To Israel's Settlements Count For Now?

Rick Richman writes about a State Department Press Briefing last week where the question was asked:
Does the Obama Administration regard itself as bound by the contents of the letter that then-Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon received from President Bush in 2004?
The response both then and when Secretary of State Clinton was asked the same question was that the Obama administration is looking into it.

The key part of the Bush letter to Sharon is this paragraph:
As part of a final peace settlement, Israel must have secure and recognized borders, which should emerge from negotiations between the parties in accordance with UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338. 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. [emphasis added]
The question is whether this is just a letter between two leaders, or whether there is anything substantial behind President Bush's commitment.

Richman answers the question by demonstrating that it is the latter:
The letter in question is not a document setting forth the policy of a prior administration. It is part of an exchange of letters that, taken together, set forth the terms of the Gaza disengagement deal, negotiated between two heads of state. It contains explicit U.S. commitments to Israel regarding defensible borders and the Roadmap, and formal U.S. recognition of certain “realities” regarding settlement blocks and refugees. The letter was endorsed by a concurrent resolution of Congress.
According to that concurrent resolution:
Resolved by the House of Representatives (the Senate concurring), That Congress—

(1) strongly endorses the principles articulated by President Bush in his letter dated April 14, 2004, to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon which will strengthen the security and well-being of the State of Israel; and

(2) supports continuing efforts with others in the international community to build the capacity and will of Palestinian institutions to fight terrorism, dismantle terrorist organizations, and prevent the areas from which Israel has withdrawn from posing a threat to the security of Israel. [emphasis added]
The question remains though, just how bound is Obama by this resolution.

First of all, the resolution is a concurrent resolution and not a joint resolution:
A legislative measure, designated "S. Con. Res." and numbered consecutively upon introduction, generally employed to address the sentiments of both chambers, to deal with issues or matters affecting both houses, such as a concurrent budget resolution, or to create a temporary joint committee. Concurrent resolutions are not submitted to the President and thus do not have the force of law. [emphasis added]
Similarly, back in 2004 Bernard J. Shapiro, the executive director of the Freeman Center For Strategic Studies, wrote:
FACT: According to the US Constitution, international treaties and commitments assumed by the president must be ratified by 2/3 of the Senate, in order to be constitutionally binding.
But he also adds another point:
FACT: According to the US Constitution, the president or Congress can rescind any international commitment by issuing an Executive Order or by a congressional vote.
Nevertheless, the commitment of a US President has to mean something--as Obama has said: "Words have to mean something."

Unfortunately, US commitments made to Israel have not always meant something.

Cal Thomas wrote in 2004:
What should be troubling is the number of promises made by previous American presidents that were not fulfilled, either because the United States failed to uphold them, or an Israeli prime minister did not press the matter.

In 1956, President Dwight Eisenhower made commitments in order to get Israel to withdraw from the Sinai. In 1967, President Lyndon Johnson failed to implement those commitments and the Six-Day War followed.

In 1970, President Richard Nixon made promises to end the war of attrition between Israel and Egypt. Egypt violated the agreement, and the United States failed to live up to its commitments. The 1973 Yom Kippur War followed, which killed 2,800 Israelis.

In 1996 and again in 1998, President Bill Clinton promised to refrain from pressuring Israel into making further concessions until the Palestinian Authority altered its Charter that calls for the elimination of Israel. The Charter was not altered, but Israel was expected to honor its promises.

In 2000, Clinton committed $800 million in special assistance to induce Israel to withdraw from Southern Lebanon. Israel withdrew, and Hezbollah quickly filled the geographic and military vacuum, increasing terrorist attacks. The promised U.S. assistance never arrived.
Based on the Constitution, it appears that the only obligation Obama has to honor the Bush letter is a 'moral' one--not a legal one.
Based on the history of the fulfillment of US commitments to Israel, we have a problem.

Crossposted on Soccer Dad

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