Interview with Elliot Abrams about his book

Peace in the Middle East?

In The Jerusalem Post Magazine 04/18/2013 12:12   By SETH J. FRANTZMAN

When George W. Bush was first elected, Israelis were fearful that he would follow in the footsteps of his father and favor the Arab states.

Elliott Abrams similarly describes the Arab view of Bush as being “naïve elation… here comes Bush from a Texan oil background who has a special affinity with the Arabs.” Even the Palestinians had high expectations for the administration and its supposedly pro- Palestinian policies.

Yet as Abrams reveals in this intimate portrayal of the Bush years, not only were some in the administration deeply pro-Israel, such as vice president Dick Cheney, the administration also sought to make a clear break with the past in terms of accepting received wisdom about the conflict.

Abrams wasn’t on the scene from the beginning. He initially took the job of senior director for democracy, human rights and international organizations at the National Security Council, rising to become deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser, handling issues related to the Middle East and particularly Israel.

“I was a Bush supporter, a Rice supporter, a ‘neocon’ and strong proponent of the closest possible relations between the United States and Israel,” he writes in Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict.

Neocon was the name given to several influential intellectuals and government officials, mostly former Democrats who became associated with the Republicans, who supported greater i n v o l v e m e n t abroad and a focus on spreading American ideals.

Speaking to The Jerusalem Post, Abrams explains that the neocons had an indelible impact on encouraging an international perspective within the GOP. “It is a phenomenon that starts after the Democrats turned left in the 1970s… it doesn’t really apply much anymore when you talk about the debates in the Republican Party.”

For Abrams, the important thing to recall is that “there is a debate in both parties, between what I would call internationalists and people who are or who would like to turn away from international responsibilities.”

Bush, especially after the 9/11 attacks, sought to extend a muscular American foreign policy abroad, one that would emphasize democratization and intervention to roll back terrorism.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict played into this issue because Israel had been suffering a widespread terror campaign by Palestinian groups since 2000.

Abrams believed that peace could come in the conflict but not with the current paradigms. “If and when the Arabs were willing to accept Israel as a Jewish state and a legitimate permanent neighbor, I knew that Israelis would make great sacrifices for peace… it also seemed clear to me that the Palestinian side was not ready for statehood, partly because of the crimes of Yasser Arafat.”

In viewing PLO and Fatah leader Arafat as part of the problem, rather than part of the solution as the Oslo peace process had, the Bush administration created a plan called the Road Map for Peace.

The plan called for performancebased steps to end the conflict in stages, rather than a comprehensive peace agreement.

He recalls, “It had a lot of flaws, it was a State Department production, an effort by [secretary of state] Colin Powell and [assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs] William Burns to take back control over policy.”

The conflict in the Middle East was not only one centered in the region, but also one that played itself out back home in competing views at State and in the White House.

Yet Abrams praises the idea of the plan. “It said we wouldn’t get anywhere unless terrorism ceased. It made efforts to come up with pragmatic steps,” he notes.

He praises Israel’s current policies in this respect.

“If you look at what Netanyahu has done, such as removing checkpoints or letting Palestinians work and shop in Israel, those types of concrete cooperation on the ground are steps forward in a more useful way than a grand effort at a comprehensive settlement no one is ready for,” says Abrams.

One outcome that dovetailed with this pragmatic approach was that prime minister Ariel Sharon decided to withdraw Israelis from Gaza. Between August 15 and 22, 2005, 7,000 Jews were removed from Gaza, and several hundred from northern Samaria.

“Gaza would be a model for the Palestinian state. Look, we had said [to the Palestinians], if you produce in Gaza a working model, some place that is peaceful and democratic, it will occur to just about all Israelis that it’s time to move forward in the West Bank too,” he writes.

We know now that the model turned into a nightmare of Hamas rule, humanitarian disaster and terror.

Abrams seeks to set the record straight: “I know there are many Israelis who believe that there is no other model, that [another] withdrawal would mean a Hamas takeover.

“I know Israeli generals who believe that if Israel had kept the Philadelphi Corridor and kept control of what passes to Sinai [from the Gaza Strip], the situation would be different.

The lesson they learned is that Israel could leave the West Bank as long as it keeps the Jordan River and keeps arms and terrorists out.

“To me that makes a lot of sense.”

Abrams is harshest when he discusses what he sees as the failure of Fatah to make any progress. “The problem we saw in 2006 [with Hamas victory in the elections] was the failure of Fatah. It is hard to build democracy if you don’t have a democratic party that can win an election. It was incompetent and corrupt.

“That was seven years ago.

“I haven’t seen much reform. I am in favor ultimately of an Israeli withdrawal to the fence [West Bank security barrier] line. I don’t necessarily say an IDF withdrawal. But how do you fill that space with a decent democratic political order, if you don’t have a party that can win elections?” He sees a situation today that is not dramatically different than in 2004 when Arafat died. There is no “new blood” among Fatah leaders, and “polls suggest they would have trouble winning an election in the West Bank.”

Abrams’s tale is one that is mostly clear and lays out the various events in the Bush administration in an accessible manner.

It is not clogged by policy-wonk analysis and it variously reminds readers of some of the half-baked ideas that have come to naught in the region.

One proponent of these was James D. Wolfensohn, a former president of the World Bank. “I had never met anyone with a larger ego,” writes Abrams.

Wolfensohn inserted himself into the Gaza withdrawal by raising money from American Jews and donors to purchase Gaza greenhouses from the settlers and give them to Palestinians.

After the withdrawal the greenhouses were destroyed, millions of dollars wasted.

“I don’t believe I’ve ever read or heard him discuss the whole Gaza question, [but] he would not blame himself but blame other people… He was by contrast someone who really was looking out for himself and didn’t realize that what he was doing was about himself rather than an Israeli- Palestinian agreement.”

Another issue that the author addresses is his opposition to a comprehensive peace conference that would lead to a photo op and nothing more.

Just such a conference was brought together at Annapolis in 2007.

Former prime minister Ehud Olmert has said that the two sides were very close to a final agreement.

Abrams remarks that “Olmert may have believed he was inches away, but I don’t believe it, I don’t think there was any deal that [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas was going to sign… Olmert was going to take back thousands of refugees and he had this bizarre division of Jerusalem with US, Israel, Jordan and others, and Israel would relinquish sovereignty, and I don’t believe this would have gotten through his cabinet or Knesset.

“Nevertheless, Abbas wouldn’t say yes.

“I think Olmert overlooks the guy across the table.”

Tested by Zion is an important contribution to Bush era memoirs about the conflict.

It also provides important evidence of the perfidy of many Palestinian leaders who have made promises and not kept them.

It illustrates how concrete steps, such as building up the Palestinian security forces through professional training by US advisers, can be made towards peace. This is also the case with refusing to work with terrorists and predicating progress on actions rather than words.

Abrams dispels many myths, such as the idea that America forced elections on the PA in 2006 that led to the rise of Hamas, and he passionately argues that democracy and peace can find a foothold in the Middle East. ■

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