The Israeli government was wrong in vocally opposing the Palestinians’ successful bid to be recognized as a non-member observer state at the United Nations, and wrong again in announcing plans to build in the controversial E1 corridor to punish them for the unilateral step, a former senior US official told The Times of Israel this week.
Elliott Abrams, who served as deputy national security adviser to president George W. Bush, also criticized new US Secretary of State John Kerry for seeking to achieve a final-status agreement between Israelis and Palestinians in his term, saying such a project was doomed to fail and would hurt American, Israeli and Palestinian interests.
In a far-ranging interview marking the publication of Abrams’ new book — which chronicles the Bush administration’s dealings in the Middle East — the neocon diplomat also said that the widespread belief that former prime minister Ehud Olmert was close to signing a peace deal with the Palestinians is a “mirage.”
Last December, a few days after the Palestinians won non-member state status at the UN General Assembly, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans to resume construction in E1, the area that connects Jerusalem with Maaleh Adumim. While Israel intends to retain E1 under any peace agreement, the announcement of construction plans drew international condemnation, with critics arguing that building up this area would endanger the contiguity of a future Palestinian state.
Abrams, a staunch Republican, said E1 would eventually belong to Israel, because he doesn’t believe Maaleh Adumim will be connected to Jerusalem by only one road. “But I think that it was a mistake for Netanyahu to make the statement at the time that he did,” he said. “There is no plan, as I understand, to do some kind of big housing construction now in E1.” So while little practical gain was made by the announcement, it was obvious Israel would be subject to much international protest, “and I don’t see what was gained by making that statement,” Abrams said. “I see the cost, but I don’t see the benefit.”
Clearly, Netanyahu wanted to sanction the Palestinian Authority for unilaterally trying to change its status. But “punishments for the Palestinians should hurt the Palestinians and not Israel. The announcement that there would be construction in E1 hurt Israel more than the Palestinians. I just don’t think that was a sensible reaction,” continued Abrams.
Indeed, Jerusalem’s hostility toward to the Palestinian UN gambit was mistaken, as it was clear that the PA move would find much support in the General Assembly, according to the Harvard-educated diplomat.
“Israel’s opposition to it was so strong that it actually built up the importance of the resolution,” he said, adding that the Palestinians’ non-member state status changes very little on the ground. It would have been smarter for Netanyahu to openly declare that Palestine will not become a state through UN resolutions, but it was a “mistake” to fight the UN bid so vehemently.
How close was Olmert to inking a deal with Abbas?
In his new book, “Tested by Zion: The Bush Administration and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict,” Abrams traces the relationship between various White Houses and various Israeli leaders between 2001 and 2009, including as they dealt with the prelude and aftermath of the 2005 Gaza disengagement, the 2007 bombing of a Syrian nuclear reactor, and various efforts to advance the peace process.
Abrams, who was one of the Bush administration’s key officials dealing with the Middle East peace process, rebuts Olmert’s claims that, in 2008, he and PA President Mahmoud Abbas were close to signing a deal.
Olmert’s proposal to Abbas included an Israeli withdrawal from the entire West Bank with one-for-one territorial swaps, the division of Jerusalem between Israel and a new Palestinian state, and the establishment of an international trusteeship to control the Old City. Olmert also reportedly offered to allow a limited number of Palestinian refugees to live in Israel.
“We were very close,” Olmert said in 2011, “more than ever in the past, to complete an agreement on principles that would have led to the end of the conflict between us and the Palestinians.”
But according to Abrams, the two sides were very far from inking a final-status deal; he called Olmert’s claim to the contrary a “mirage.”
“I don’t think they were close to an agreement. Or to put in a different way: I don’t think Abbas was close to signing an agreement,” Abrams said. “I do not believe Olmert’s version that there were almost no gaps. I do not believe that Abbas was ready to walk away from the refugee plans. I don’t believe there was any agreement on security at all. They didn’t even talk about security. Olmert made a proposal on the governing of Jerusalem that I do not believe his cabinet or the Knesset would have accepted.”
Iran-Contra affair, parts I and II
Abrams, 65, was a player in US Middle East politics long before he became George W. Bush’s deputy national security adviser. In the 1980s, he served as assistant secretary of state under president Ronald Reagan. He was involved in the 1986 Iran-Contra Affair, during which senior US officials illegally helped facilitate arms sales to Iran. He pleaded guilty to withholding information from Congress and in 1991 was sentenced to two years’ probation and 100 hours of community service, but was pardoned a year later by president Bush senior.
Abrams remained controversial: In 2008, investigative journalist David Rose accused him of having played a crucial role in a 2006 ploy to “provoke a Palestinian civil war.” According to Rose, the State Department helped arm Fatah and encouraged it to militarily oust Hamas, which had just won the Palestinian elections. The reported plan, dubbed by critics “Iran-Contra 2.0,” backfired and ultimately led to Hamas taking over the Gaza Strip.
Speaking to The Times of Israel this week, Abrams called these allegations “complete, total nonsense,” saying they were invented by people “on the far left” to discredit the Bush administration. “Anybody who knows anything about the State Department knows that’s not the way the State Department works,” he said.
In the interview, Abrams criticized the current head of the State Department, John Kerry, for his zeal in tackling the peace process. (According to a recent story in Haaretz, Kerry is “determined to the point of obsession” to reach an agreement, and Abrams confirmed that it is rumored in Washington that Kerry is fired up.)
Given the gaps between Israelis and Palestinians and the general turmoil in the region, aiming for a comprehensive peace agreement at the present time is a “mistake,” Abrams opined.
“If the goal is to prevent violence, to stabilize the situation, to make life in the West Bank better politically and economically, that’s very sensible. [Yet] I do not think it is sensible to aim for a comprehensive agreement, because we know from [the 2000 peace summit at] Camp David that, when you fail, there is a price to pay. [The second intifada erupted soon after.] There is a price to pay for the United States, because failure is always bad. And there may be a price to pay for the government of Israel and for the Palestinian Authority also.”
Commenting on former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, who last week agreed to enter a new Netanyahu-led coalition on condition that she would conduct talks with the PA, Abrams stressed that he was not opposed per se to negotiations that deal with final-status issues.
“But for now, that should not be the main track. The main track should be the pragmatic efforts of what can be done now.” Rather than focusing on near-intractable issues such as the status of Jerusalem or refugees, both sides should take steps to improve the conditions on the ground, such as upgrading security cooperation and working toward more mobility and financial stability for Palestinians, he said.
“I still believe that it would be preferable to sign an interim agreement that creates a Palestinian state, but in which the Palestinians do not now have to give up all of their claims.” A state “with provisional borders” would be “a better situation than the one we have now.”
Today a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, Abrams stressed he is in favor of a two-state solution — because “it’s not good for Israel to govern millions of Palestinians.”
However, he does not think that a final-status agreement will be possible in the next few years. After the last two major efforts to end the conflict — in 2000 and 2008 — it became evident that the involvement of the Arab states was essential to arrive at a comprehensive settlement, he said.
“Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians can give each other everything that the other side needs. What Israel wants is peace with — and the acknowledgment of — all the Arab countries. And the Palestinians want the Arab governments to say that whatever compromise you make, that’s fine. That’s not possible right now, because of the Arab Spring.” With political turmoil in Egypt and Syria, and uncertainties elsewhere in the region, the Arab states’ support for an agreement is just not available, he argued.
In the meantime, should US President Barack Obama, who is scheduled to visit Israel this month, seek to enforce another settlement freeze? Many proponents of a two-state solution see the expansion of Jewish settlements as obstructing progress on that front.
“The arrangement that the US and Israel reached under [former prime minister Ariel] Sharon and Bush was a sensible arrangement: that Israelis could build in the major blocs, but that [the blocs] would not be physically expanded,” Abrams responded. Such an arrangement would be sensible today as well, he said.