Israelis Say Bush Officials Agreed to Limited Settlement Growth

Published: June 3, 2009

JERUSALEM — Senior Israeli officials expressed irritation on Wednesday that President Obama had declined to acknowledge what they called clear understandings with the Bush administration that allowed Israel to build West Bank settlement housing within certain guidelines while still publicly claiming to honor a settlement “freeze.”

The complaint was the latest in a growing rift between the Obama administration and the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over how to move forward to achieve Middle East peace. Mr. Obama was in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday and due to address the Muslim world from Cairo on Thursday.

The Israeli officials said that repeated and ongoing discussions with Bush officials starting in late 2002 gave unambiguous permission to build within the boundaries of certain settlement blocs as long as no new land was expropriated, no special economic incentives were offered to move to settlements and no new settlements were built. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity about an issue of such controversy between the two governments.

When Israel signed onto the so-called roadmap for a two-state solution in 2003, which says its government “freezes all settlement activity (including natural growth of settlements),” the officials said, it was after a detailed discussion with Bush officials that laid out those explicit limits.

“Not everything is written down,” said one of the officials.

He and others said that Israel agreed both to the roadmap and to move ahead with the removal of settlements and soldiers from Gaza in 2005 on the understanding that settlement growth could continue.

But a senior official in the Bush administration disagreed, calling the Israeli characterization “an overstatement.”

“There was never an agreement to accept natural growth,” the official said Tuesday, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the delicacy of the matter. “There was an effort to explore what natural growth would mean, but we weren’t able to reach agreement on that.”

The official said that Bush administration officials were working with their Israeli counterparts to clarify several issues, including natural growth, government subsidies to settlers, and the cessation of appropriation of Palestinian land. The United States and Israel never reached an agreement though, either public or private, the official said.

The Israeli officials acknowledged that the new American administration had different ideas about the meaning of the term “settlement freeze.” Both Mr. Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have said in the past week that the term meant an end to all building, including natural growth.

But they complained that Mr. Obama had not granted that the previous understandings existed. Instead, they lamented, Israel stood now accused of having cheated and dissembled in its settlement activity whereas, in fact, it had largely lived within the guidelines to which both governments had agreed.

On Monday, Mr. Netanyahu said Israel “cannot freeze life in the settlements,” calling the American demand “unreasonable.”

Dov Weissglas, who was a senior aide to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, wrote an opinion article for Yediot Aharonot, a mass-selling newspaper, on Tuesday in which he laid out the agreements he said had been reached with Bush officials.

He said that in May 2003 he and Mr. Sharon met with Elliott Abrams and Stephen Hadley of the National Security Council and came up with the definition of settlement freeze as “no new communities were to be built; no Palestinian lands were to be appropriated for settlement purposes; building will not take place beyond the existing community outline; and no ‘settlement encouraging’ budgets were to be allocated.”

He said that Condoleezza Rice, then the national security adviser, signed off on that definition later that month and that the two governments also agreed to set up a joint committee to define more fully the meaning of “existing community outline” for existing settlements.

President Bush presented Mr. Sharon in April 2004 with a letter stating, “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.” That, Mr. Weissglas said, was a result of his earlier negotiations with Bush officials acknowledging that certain settlement blocs would remain Israeli and open to continued growth.

The Israeli officials said that no Bush official had ever publicly insisted that Israel was obliged to stop all building in the areas it captured in 1967. They said it was important to know that key verbal understandings reached between an Israeli prime minister and an American president would not simply be tossed aside when a new administration came into office.

Mr. Abrams, the former Bush official who was part of those negotiations, wrote his own opinion article in The Washington Post and seemed to endorse the Israeli argument. He wrote, “For the past five years, Israel’s government has largely adhered to guidelines that were discussed with the United States but never formally adopted: that there would be no new settlements, no financial incentives for Israelis to move to settlements and no new construction except in already built-up areas. The clear purpose of the guidelines? To allow for settlement growth in ways that minimized the impact on Palestinians.”

Mr. Abrams acknowledged that even within those guidelines, Israel had not fully complied. He wrote: “There has been physical expansion in some places, and the Palestinian Authority is right to object to it. Israeli settlement expansion beyond the security fence, in areas Israel will ultimately evacuate, is a mistake.”