THE BLOG

Elliott Abrams' Complaint

07/19/2011 06:42 pm ET | Updated Sep 18, 2011

Following President Barack Obama's May 19 speech on the Middle East at the Department of State, The New York Review of Books (NYRB) published a letter that had been presented to the president this past January by a number of prominent, former, senior, U.S. government officials. The signatories to the letter urged the president to present to the parties in the Israel-Palestine conflict clear parameters to frame negotiations for a two-state peace agreement, and it suggested six key components for such a framework.

The signatories are David L. Boren, Zbigniew Brzezinski, Frank C. Carlucci, William J. Fallon, Chuck Hagel, Lee H. Hamilton, Gary Hart, Rita E. Hauser, Carla Hills, Nancy Kassebaum-Baker, Sandra Day O'Connor, Thomas R. Pickering, Paul Volcker and James D. Wolfensohn.

In a column in the Weekly Standard of June 23, 2011, Elliott Abrams, himself a former government official -- if not of particular prominence, certainly of some notoriety -- takes to task the signatories of this letter.

Abrams' questionable reliability as a guide through the shoals of Middle East peace diplomacy is established early on in his column, which he begins by speculating that the letter was prompted by President Obama's May 19 speech. The letter that appeared in the NYRB was clearly dated Jan. 24, 2011. The introduction to the letter by Congressman Lee Hamilton in the NYRB also indicated the Jan. 24 date. So while it is conceivable that the letter influenced President Obama's speech, the reverse is not.

Getting cause and effect backwards seems not to be an innocent oversight but a chronic predisposition on Abrams' part. For example, he blames Palestinians, not Israel, for the paralysis of the peace process and the continuing occupation. It does not seem to have occurred to him that the Palestinian weaknesses and failures on which he blames the current impasse might be the result of the occupation, disenfranchisement, dispossession and deliberate economic de-development of the Palestinians by Israel for nearly half a century, rather than their cause.

Abrams also has difficulty dealing with facts. He writes that Obama's proposal that the 1967 borders serve as the starting point for negotiations for changes in that border had until now been a Palestinian demand. He charges that now that Obama has made this demand his own, he has undermined Israel's negotiating position.

Let's be clear on this. An Israeli demand that border talks begin from some point other than the 1967 line (i.e., that some territory beyond that border remain with Israel even before the negotiations begin) constitutes a unilateral act. Therefore, Abrams is wrong: the requirement that negotiations over possible border adjustments must begin at the 1967 border and that changes in that line can be made only by agreement between the parties is not Obama's idea. It is a position that George W. Bush, the man Abrams worked for, insisted on, as well. Here is what Bush had to say on this subject:

Israel should not undertake any activity that contravenes its road map obligations, or prejudices the final status negotiations with regard to Gaza, the West Bank and Jerusalem. This means that Israel must remove unauthorized posts and stop settlement expansion. It also means that the barrier now being built to protect Israelis from terrorist attacks must be a security barrier, rather than a political barrier.

In other words, Bush was suggesting that even those parts of the so-called security barrier that were built by Israel beyond the 1967 line could not define Israel's political border, and might have to be removed.

Possibly having in mind misrepresentations of the kind now being made by Abrams, Bush's Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, added the following:

The United States position on [unilateral changes in the border] is very clear and remains the same. No one should try and unilaterally predetermine the outcome of a final status agreement. That's to be done at final status. The president did say that at the time of final status, it will be necessary to take into account new realities on the ground that have changed since 1967, but under no circumstances ... should anyone try and do that in a preemptive or predetermined way, because these are issues for negotiation at final status.

Abrams writes that if President Obama's suggestion that territorial negotiations begin at the 1967 border were followed, Israel would have to give up "its holiest site," the Western Wall, because it is situated in East Jerusalem beyond the 1967 border.

He is wrong again. The border negotiations have no such implications for the Western Wall -- to which, incidentally, Judaism ascribes no holiness whatever. While the Western Wall is widely venerated in the Jewish imagination, Jewish religious law ascribes holiness only to the ground occupied by the ancient temple. Consequently -- and ironically -- Jewish law forbids Jews to enter the Temple Mount. If the Western Wall were considered similarly holy, it would also have been off-limits to Jews.

While Abrams should not be faulted for his ignorance of Jewish law, as a former National Security Council official in charge of the Israel-Palestine file, he certainly should have known that the issue of the 1967 border is entirely separate from arrangements for Jerusalem, which the Oslo accords identify as a distinct permanent-status issue.

Jerusalem was designated in the U.N. Partition Plan of 1947 as a "corpus separatum," assigned neither to the Jewish state nor to the Arab state. That -- not the 1967 border -- is why there are no foreign embassies even in West Jerusalem to this day. That, too, is why at both the Camp David Summit in 2000 and in the Annapolis negotiations in 2007, the parties were able to come close to an understanding that even in East Jerusalem, the neighborhoods that are largely Jewish would be part of the Jewish state, their location beyond the 1967 border notwithstanding.

Abrams considers the advice given to the president that he encourage rather than impede a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation without Hamas having to accept the Quartet's conditions, which include recognition of Israel, as granting legitimacy to a terrorist organization. Of course, the letter does no such thing, for it conditions U.S. acceptance of Hamas on the organization's acceptance of Security Council resolution 242, which would require Hamas to recognize Israel's right to "live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries."

Abrams attributes the misguided views of the letter's signatories to the "frustration" of these eminent persons over the fact that even "in the age of the Arab Spring," there is no visible progress toward ending the Israel-Palestine conflict.

The signatories to the letter may be frustrated, but their frustration has little to do with the Arab Spring; as indicated, they handed their letter to the president well before that event. A reason for their frustration -- as suggested by Lee Hamilton in his NYRB introduction to the letter -- might well be the failure of President Obama to have indicated in his State Department speech that there would be consequences for the rejection of the parameters for resumed peace talks that he asked the parties accept. Ironically, it is a failure best described by Abrams' fellow neocon, Robert Satloff, the head of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy that was established by the folks who run AIPAC. Abrams quotes him in his article as saying that the president presented "a policy without a strategy," to which Abrams adds, "no conference, no new envoy, no invitations to Washington, nothing." Exactly. That is sufficient cause not only for frustration but for despair.

Abrams asserts that a majority of Americans opposes the presentation of an American framework for resumed peace talks and believes that our democratic principles therefore obligate the president and Congress to reject the idea. On both accounts, Abrams is wrong: the friendship that most Americans feel toward Israel does not necessarily translate into opposition to U.S. guidelines for a fair peace accord, and our democracy does not impose the slightest obligation on a president to support popular views that he believes to be wrong. I assume Abrams would not have considered the legislation adopted by the U.S. Congress closing our borders to Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler's persecution in the 1930s as a democratic obligation even if a majority of Americans had been in favor of it, which may well have been the case.

Abrams argues that the fact that the settlements did not prevent former Prime Minister Olmert from offering Palestinians more land than did Ehud Barak proves that they are not an obstacle to peace. But he seems to be unaware, or does not wish to let his readers know, that it was Olmert who said that any Israeli leader who is not prepared to withdraw "from nearly all, if not all" the occupied territories and to share Jerusalem with a Palestinian state is not serious about making peace.

Abrams reminds us that Arab countries challenged the legitimacy of Israel's existence and supported the U.N. "Zionism Is Racism" resolution at a time when there were no Israeli settlements in the West Bank. He therefore rejects as "bizarre" the assertion by the letter's signatories that it is not Israel within its 1967 border but an Israel that refuses to withdraw from territory outside its own border that is being challenged by the international community.

What is bizarre is that Abrams is not embarrassed to resort to such tired and discredited polemics. Yes, when Arab countries sought to prevent Israel's existence and the U.N. passed the "Zionism Is Racism" resolution, they were the obstacle to peace. Since that resolution was withdrawn and Arab countries abandoned their opposition to Israel and offered not only peace but formal recognition and normal relations in return for an Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories in their Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, it is Israel that has been the main obstacle to peace, because it not only ignored that initiative but perversely increased its settlements and deepened its hold on the West Bank.

The only aspect of Obama's approach to Middle East peacemaking that Abrams welcomes is his opposition to the Palestinian's intention to bring the case for their statehood to the United Nations, a prospect that has thrown Israel's right-wing government and its supporters in the U.S. into a frenzy of accusations that Israel has become the victim of a global campaign of delegitimization.

In fact, the only delegitimization taking place is Israel's delegitimization of the Palestinians and their right to statehood within the 1967 borders. And it is doing this not with empty rhetoric or resolutions at the U.N. but with brutal "facts on the ground," dispossessing Palestinians of their homes and lands in the Occupied Territories with its bulldozers backed by the IDF's firepower, and transferring its own population into those areas in blatant violation of international law. It is a delegitimization that has gone on now for over 40 years. Yet when a resolution condemning this out-and-out rogue behavior was finally brought before the Security Council, the U.S. vetoed it, and now promises to once again veto a Security Council resolution that would affirm the Palestinian right to self-determination.

President Obama's inspirational speeches in Cairo and at the Department of State notwithstanding, for all practical purposes, it is Abrams' prescriptions rather than his own that he is allowing to prevail.