Responding to (unconfirmed) news reports of a new Obama administration proposal to restart talks between the Israelis and Palestinians, one which would allow the Israelis to continue building in existing settlements while halting the construction of new ones, former Bush administration Middle East adviser Elliott Abrams writes, "If this is a good idea, a decent compromise, one can only wonder why it took the Obama White House nearly three years to get there. For this policy was precisely what the Bush Administration agreed with prime ministers Sharon and Olmert."

This echoes what Abrams first wrote in the Wall Street Journal in June 2009, reflecting the Israeli understanding of what the agreements entailed, and scolding the Obama administration for "abandon[ing] the understandings about settlements reached by the previous administration with the Israeli government."

But according to Amb. Dan Kurtzer, who was U.S. Ambassador to Israel at the time in question, and who responded to these claims in a June 2009 Washington Post op-ed, "The problem is that there was no such understanding."

The first event the Israelis cite is the 2003 discussions on a four-part draft that included the notion that construction within settlements might be permitted if confined to the already built-up areas of the settlements. The idea was to draw a line around the outer perimeter of built-up areas in settlements and to allow building only inside that line. This draft was never codified, and no effort was made then to define the line around the built-up areas of settlements. Nonetheless, Israel began to act largely in accordance with its own reading of these provisions, probably believing that U.S. silence conferred assent.

Second, President Bush’s 2004 letter conveyed U.S. support of an agreed outcome of negotiations in which Israel would retain "existing major Israeli population centers" in the West Bank "on the basis of mutually agreed changes . . . ." One of the key provisions of this letter was that U.S. support for Israel’s retaining some settlements was predicated on there being an "agreed outcome" of negotiations. Despite Israel’s contention that this letter allowed it to continue building in the large settlement blocs of Ariel, Maale Adumim and Gush Etzion, the letter did not convey any U.S. support for or understanding of Israeli settlement activities in these or other areas in the run-up to a peace agreement.

In his 2004 letter to [Condoleezza] Rice, [Ariel Sharon adviser Dov] Weissglas addressed the issue of the "construction line," saying that "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 & Samaria." However, there never were any "agreed principles of settlement activities." Moreover, the effort to define the "construction line" was never consummated: Israel and the United States discussed briefly but did not reach agreement on the definition of the construction line of settlements. Weissglas’s letter also promised "continuous action" to remove all the unauthorized outposts, but Israel removed almost none of them.

As for Abrams’ suggestion that Israel would actually be willing to confine itself to only building within "existing" (but still illegal, of course) settlements, please note that the Netanyahu government is now set to move forward with the first new settlement of Giv’at Hamatos, "the first new settlement that Israel has established in East Jerusalem since the creation of the adjacent Har Homa in 1997, during Binyamin Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister." Terrestrial Jerusalem, an Israeli NGO that tracks developments in and around the city, calls Giv’at Hamatos is "a game changer that significantly changes the possible border between Israel and Palestine, and significantly makes an agreement on the border in Jerusalem more difficult."

I expect we’ll hear soon from Abrams that this, too, is not really a big deal.

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