The fog surrounding informal understandings between the Bush Administration and the then-government of Israel over growth of settlements deepened today. Daniel Kurtzer, who was U.S. Ambassador to Israel from 2001-2005 and played a role in part of the Bush Administration negotiations with Israel over settlements, published a piece in the Washington Post today denying in detail that there was a U.S. commitment to limited natural growth. Kurtzer does not deny that there were informal understandings, but he asserts that these did not rise to the level of a formal, codified commitment on the part of the U.S. to which the Obama Administration should feel bound.

Here is an extended excerpt:

"...Today, Israel maintains that three events -- namely, draft understandings discussed in 2003 between Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and U.S. deputy national security adviser Stephen Hadley; President George W. Bush's April 14, 2004, letter to Sharon; and an April 14 letter from Sharon adviser Dov Weissglas to national security adviser Condoleezza Rice -- constitute a formal understanding in which the United States accepted continuing Israeli building within the "construction line" of settlements. The problem is that there was no such [formal] 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. ...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 Rice, 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. ...

"Throughout this period, the Bush administration did not regularly protest Israel's continuing settlement activity. But this is very different from arguing that the United States agreed with it. In recent days, former senior Bush administration officials have told journalists on background that no understandings existed with Israel regarding continued settlement activity."

Contrary to Kurtzer, Elliot Abrams, who participated in arriving at the understandings with the government of israel, wrote that ""There was something of an understanding realized on these questions, but it was never a written agreement" and that there were "guidelines that were discussed with the United States but never formally adopted..." See my pieces, "There was a Bush Agreement on Settlements" and "Obama and a Settlements Freeze."