WASHINGTON — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump are likely to agree on a return to the understandings their respective predecessors Ariel Sharon and George W. Bush reached on Israeli settlements, veteran peace negotiator Dennis Ross said.
In 2004, Bush sent a letter to the Israeli premier acknowledging the existence of large Israeli settlement blocs in the West Bank and said it would be “unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final-status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949.”
But he also insisted that “any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.”
On a call with reporters Monday hosted by The Israel Project, Ross said that messages coming out of the White House suggested that a return to the framework would be a likely outcome of Wednesday’s meeting between Trump and Netanyahu.
“I think what you’re going to see is some understanding… including perhaps a resurrection of the Bush-Sharon letter,” he said.
A White House statement released earlier this month said the administration did not think “the existence of settlements is an impediment to peace,” but that “the construction of new settlements or the expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful.”
That assertion aligned with the posture taken by the Bush administration but later abandoned by president Barack Obama, who saw all Israeli construction over the Green Line as an obstacle to peace.
Ross said such a return to the Bush letter would have “significant implications, both because it was recognizing settlement blocs referred to in the letter as major population centers, but also because it said that no agreement can involve going back to the 1949 Armistice lines or the equivalent of June 4, 1967.”
Such a posture on the part of the Trump administration would have additional implications due to a December United Nations Security Council resolution that the Obama administration abstained from vetoing, and that branded settlements as illegal, calling for a complete halt to all construction in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas Israel captured in the 1967 Six Day War.
“That’s a significant statement to get re-established because if you look at Security Council Resolution 2334 … it effectively created June 4, ’67 as a default position,” said Ross, who worked under both Republican and Democratic administrations, most recently during Obama’s first term.
“And so, it’s important, I think, for Israel, to get the Bush-Sharon letter resurrected, but it has implications in terms of a limitation on settlement activity, and it leads you more to building in the blocs and not outside the blocs.”
Making that understanding public, Ross added, would also be helpful to Netanyahu, who has faced increasing pressure from right-wing members of his coalition since Trump won the election to move forward on approving more settlement projects.
“The irony is, of course, that that will help the prime minister with the pressure he’s under from Jewish Home and some of the right within his own party,” he said. “I think he would see it as an achievement to have the Bush-Sharon letter resurrected, and I think there is at least some potential of that.”
While Trump made suggestions during the campaign he would allow Israel free rein on the settlements, he has recently signaled a different tune.
In an interview last week with the Sheldon Adelson-owned pro-Netanyahu newspaper Israel Hayom, Trump spoke in surprisingly critical terms of the impact settlements have on the prospects of a peace deal.
“Every time you take land for settlements, there is less land left,” he said. “But we are looking at that, and we are looking at some other options we’ll see. But no, I am not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace.”
But Trump’s meeting with Netanyahu this week will give him a chance to craft an official policy toward settlements, something that will be relevant for his Orthodox Jewish son-in-law Jared Kushner, who he delegated to lead the administration’s peace efforts.
On Kushner’s role as a diplomat, Ross argued it was imperative for Middle East leaders to know he can really speak for the president.
“One thing I can tell you: authority matters,” he said. “People in the region — they can smell it when negotiators don’t have it. And I think that having the authority counts for a lot.”