Are promises made by American presidents carved in stone or written on ice?
by Yoram Ettinger
President Obama stridently disavows President Bush's understandings - with Israel - concerning sustained natural growth construction in Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria, as well as – supposedly - future Israeli sovereignty over "settlement blocs" in Judea and Samaria. What does such a disavowal bode for the credibility and durability of President Obama's promises to – and understandings with – Israel?!
The discussion, in Jerusalem, of Obama's proposed commitments in return for the continued freeze of Jewish construction in Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem (while Arab construction is at an all time high!) reflects miscomprehension of the US political system, ignores lessons from past US commitments and guarantees, and accepts a non-existing linkage between the Iranian nuclear threat on one hand, and the Palestinian issue and US-Israel strategic cooperation on the other hand.
An examination of past US commitments, guarantees and treaties highlights three critical attributes: 1. Non-Specificity, vagueness and ambiguity, intended to facilitate non- implementation. 2. Non-Automaticity which is a platform for delay, suspension and non-implementation. 3. Non-Implementation if implementation harms US interests. For instance, the NATO treaty as ratified by the Senate commits the US only to consider steps on behalf of an attacked NATO member, "as it deems necessary," "including the use of armed forces." Also, in 1954, President Eisenhower signed a defense treaty with Taiwan; but in 1979, President Carter annulled the treaty unilaterally with the support of the US Supreme Court and Congress.
The significance of a presidential agreement/commitment is substantially constrained by the US Constitution, which is designed to preclude an omnipotent Executive. It does that by an elaborate system of Checks and Balances and the absolute Separation of Powers, which limits presidential clout on Capitol Hill.
Therefore, a US President is not an all-powerful ruler, but equal-in-power to the Legislature, which possesses the Power of the Purse. Moreover, the president shares policy-making with Congress, including matters relating to the UN, arms sales, peace and war. Thus, a US president cannot commit the US without Congressional consent.
Settlements, Iran not connected
For example, in 1999 President Clinton signed the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty, but the Senate has yet to ratify it. In 1957, President Eisenhower issued an Executive Agreement – in exchange for Israel's full withdrawal from Sinai - committing US troops on behalf of Israel should Egypt violate the ceasefire. But in 1967, Egypt invaded the demilitarized Sinai, expelled the UN troops, blockaded Eilat and established an Arab axis with the self-proclaimed goal of annihilating the Jewish State. President Johnson's response was to declare Eisenhower's Executive Agreement non-binding, thus paving the way for the Six-Day War.
In 1975, President Ford sent a letter to Prime Minister Rabin, stating that the US "will give great weight to Israel's position that any peace agreement with Syria must be predicated on Israel remaining on the Golan Heights." But in 1979, President Carter contended that Ford's letter hardly committed Ford - and certainly none of his successors at the White House - to support Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights.
In 1982, the US Congress preconditioned the sale of F-15s to Saudi Arabia upon President Reagan's commitment that the planes would not be stationed in Tabuq, close to the Israeli border. But in 2003, President Bush employed the "changed regional circumstances" argument to justify his acquiescence with the deployment of the planes to Tabuq.
In 1991, President Bush promised Prime Minister Shamir to "positively consider" Israel's request for $10 billion loan guarantees for the absorption of one million Soviet Jews, in exchange for Shamir's restraint in the face of Iraq's Scud missiles hitting Tel Aviv. Shamir fulfilled his commitment, but Bush reneged and even opposed any form of emergency assistance to Israel for damages caused by the Gulf War. However, Israel received the assistance because of Congress and in spite of the Administration.
In 2000, President Clinton promised Prime Minister Barak $800 million for the retreat from Southern Lebanon. Israel retreated, but the $800 million has yet to reach Jerusalem…
An Israeli embrace of commitments, which are – frequently – written on ice, in return for tangible concessions, reflect detachment from the Washington constitutional labyrinth and from significant precedents, at the expense of dire Israeli interests.
Finally, there is no basis for the assumption that Israel's acceptance of Obama's promises – in exchange for an extended freeze of Jewish construction in Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem - is ostensibly essential for a joint battle against Iran, for a simple reason: There is no linkage between the Iranian nuclear threat on one hand, and Jewish communities in Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem on the other hand.
Iran's nuclear drive aims at advancing a 14 centuries old strategic goal – the domination of the Persian Gulf, the Middle East and the Indian Ocean, irrespective of Israel's policy or Israel's existence. Furthermore, the chief hurdle for Iran is the US and NATO involvement in these regions. Hence, it is the US and NATO that are the chief targets for Iran's nuclear capabilities, independent of Israel and its actions.
The acceptance of the false linkage between the Palestinian issue on one hand, and the Iranian threat and US-Israel strategic cooperation on the other hand, subordinates vital US and Israeli interests to Palestinian terrorism, idiosyncrasy, radicalism and systematic violation of agreements, causing a severe setback to US and Israeli strategic concerns and values.