Commentary Magazine


What Obama Has Done Wrong in the Middle East

In a fascinating interview, former Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams, who oversaw George W. Bush’s Israel policy (remember — when we treated our ally with affection and respect?), details Obama’s errors regarding Israel (yes, it’s a lengthy interview), gives some insight into the Bush administration, and offers some predictions and suggestions. The program should be watched in full or the transcript read, but there are certain sections that are especially noteworthy.

Topping the list of Obama’s errors, Abrams explains, is the peace-process fixation:

First, I guess, and — and — most significant. They seem to think that peace between Israel and the Palestinians comes top-down. It is created someplace at a conference table in — in Taba or Camp David or Annapolis or Geneva. And that’s wrong. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians will be created between them, on the ground, in the real world. And it will depend on essentially what happens on the West Bank, on creating the institutions of Palestinian — self-government. And the fight against terrorism, I guess — critical things on the Palestinian side. So — concentrating on diplomacy, concentrating on the settlements is just wrong. That’s not what’s critical. What’s critical is what happens in the so — in the West Bank.

This leads to a glimpse inside the Bush White House:

I thought Annapolis was a mistake because — obviously, President Bush didn’t agree with me. I thought they were not going to reach an agreement. It seemed to me that — that if you look at the terms that were out there, neither Israeli nor Palestinian leaders were ready to accept those terms. I thought we were putting the emphasis in the wrong place, again, on conferences and conference tables and flying flags and all, rather than on the pretty — undramatic but critically important work of building institutions on the ground.

(In a prior interview with the Jerusalem Post, Abrams made clear that Condoleezza Rice pushed for the peace process, failing to provide the president with a full array of options.) It is a candid admission that presidents of both parties have fallen prey to peace-process-itis — the ailment characterized by a deep aversion to candidly assessing reality. But unlike the current president, Bush, to his credit, did not make a settlement freeze the cornerstone of his policy or escalate the issue of Jerusalem:

Since 1967, Israel has been building in — the West Bank, at one point in Gaza. Of course, that’s over now. And in Jerusalem, which is under Israeli law, the capital of Israel. It’s not occupied territory. In the Bush Administration, we reached a kind of agreement with Israel, under which they would build up and in but not out in the settlements.

In other words, no more land would be taken. The idea was, let’s not disadvantage the Palestinians by taking — an olive grove or a road.  And let’s not create a new issue for final settle — status talks someday.  If you want to build for more people to live in the middle of a settlement, fine. That doesn’t hurt Palestinians. I thought the Obama administration would accept that deal.

But Bush’s successor trashed that agreement and embarked on a new tactic: bullying Israel and trying to topple Bibi. (Abrams speculates: “It’s a reasonable theory that he thought, ‘We’ll continue to escalate the tension. Sooner or later, this coalition in Israel will crack.'”)

Abrams also takes a look at Iran, assessing the chance of an Israeli military action at “above 50-50. I think they really mean it when they say an Iranian nuclear weapon is unacceptable. Britain, France, England, Germany, the US, China, Russia, everybody says unacceptable. I don’t think we really mean unacceptable. I think we really mean not good. I think the Israelis mean unacceptable.” The interview took place before the UN sanctions deal, and Abrams correctly predicted that we would not obtain the kind of sanctions needed to deter the mullahs from pursuing their nuclear plans.

What impact on the U.S. would result from the failure to prevent Iran from going nuclear? “[I]t is a threat to the American position in the entire Middle East and therefore in the entire world. American’s strategic credibility is deeply damaged, I think, if after all these speeches we’ve given, we let them get a nuclear weapon.”

Since Obama is plainly not getting those crippling sanctions. what would Abrams advise? In addition to an all-out effort to bolster the Green Movement, he invokes John McCain’s 2008 campaign line:

“The only thing worse than bombing Iran is an Iranian bomb.” I would favor an American or Israeli use of force to prevent that regime from getting a nuclear weapon. I would favor an American or Israeli use of force to prevent that regime from getting a nuclear weapon.

In private, many self-proclaimed defenders of the Jewish state voice the same views as those of Abrams. When will they pipe up?

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