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Media Conference Call: Clinton's Trip to the Middle East

Speaker: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Presider: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org, Council on Foreign Relations
February 25, 2009
Council on Foreign Relations

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BENARD GWERTZMAN:  Hi.  Welcome to our conference interview.  My name is Bernard Gwertzman.  I work at the Council on Foreign Relations on the Council's website and I do interviews there.  I used to, in my youth, work for the New York Times in many different capacities.  And I'm going to introduce our guest.  It's Elliott Abrams who's Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council.  He's a recent -- he recently joined after the administration changed hands in Washington.

Elliott had been in charge of Middle East affairs at the National Security Council and has had a long illustrious career in government going back to the Reagan administration where I first met him when he was an assistant secretary of State for Human Rights, and he later became the assistant secretary for Latin American Affairs.  

Elliott --

ELLIOTT ABRAMS:  Yes sir.  

GWERTZMAN:  -- you've just been to Israel again, this time as a civilian.  What's the mood there?  Are they going to reach a consensus on  a new government?  

ABRAMS:  Well, they're going to take weeks more to hammer this out.  Clearly, Netanyahu is going to be the prime minister and I would say pretty clearly he wants a broad-based coalition; he wants Kadima in the coalition.  He does not want to be leading a right-wing only coalition where he is, in a sense, on the left of his own coalition.  But as we've seen, Livni is very reluctant to do this, more reluctant, really, than the average member of Kadima.  And we saw yesterday the number two person in Kadima, former defense minister Mofaz, making positive noises about going into a coalition.  

My sense now is that Livni really doesn't want to do it, and at least for a while, she won't; that is, they'll start up a government that is a right-wing coalition and we'll see.  You know, three or six months down the road there may be opportunities to broaden it.  

GWERTZMAN:  The Israeli public, I gather, really would like the idea of a national unity government, right?

ABRAMS:  Yeah, the polls make that very clear.  And you can also see it from the votes.  After all, Kadima has one more seat in the Parliament.  So the voters -- the voters split basically 65-55 in Knesset seats for a right-wing coalition over a left-wing coalition or -- I shouldn't say right-wing, center-right over center-left.  And that's what they want.  And there is pressure, therefore, from the population and also from within Kadima to do this, which is why I think that if Livni does resist now, as she seems to want to do, there's always a chance to revisit this down the road.  

GWERTZMAN:  Well now, George Mitchell, who's the special representative on -- special envoy for Mid-East peace Arab-Israeli negotiations made a visit there soon after the election and -- soon after the inauguration -- and he's going back there, I think, tomorrow or the next day or he'll be there over the weekend.  And Secretary of State Clinton will be there for -- will be in Egypt and then in Israel for a conference on aid to Gaza.  But she'll be meeting with the major politicians in Israel.  Do you think the U.S. wants to bring pressure on Livni to join this government?  

ABRAMS:  I think it's clear that the United States would prefer a broader-based government.  I don't think the U.S. will pressure her to join.  I think that we would not be likely to intervene in Israeli politics that way, partly because you never know quite what the outcome of such pressure would be and how she would take it.  But I think -- I think they know already that we would prefer a coalition government, and I don't think there's much secret about that.

GWERTZMAN:  Mm hmm.

ABRAMS:  This will be interesting in the sense that it is the secretary's first trip to the Middle East.    

GWERTZMAN:  Right.

ABRAMS:  And in addition to seeing the Israelis and Palestinians on the side of that pledging meeting, the Gaza pledging meeting, there'll also be her first quartet meeting where she'll have the foreign ministers of the EU and Russia and she'll have Ban Ki-moon and Solana and that'll be her first -- her inauguration in that activity.  

GWERTZMAN:  And I guess the major Arab states will be there too, Saudi Arabia --

ABRAMS:  Yes, actually President Sarkozy and Prime Minister Berlusconi will be there.  Ban Ki-moon and there'll be foreign ministers from all of the Arab countries.  

GWERTZMAN:  So that'll be an interesting initiation for her as secretary of State.  I guess she's met most of these people in different walks of life, right?  I mean --

ABRAMS:  She must've met many of them.  In many cases, they have been -- they were foreign ministers -- if you take Saud Al-Faisal, for example, of Saudi Arabia, he was foreign minister during the Clinton administration too.  So she must have met him.  

But this is different.  

GWERTZMAN:  Sure.  Right.

ABRAMS:  She's now the key figure, not the president's wife.  She's -- so those meetings will be more significant for her.  

GWERTZMAN:  Now, there have been reports in the press that, I think the State Separtment has not confirmed, saying that she was going to bring with her a package of 600 million (dollars) in aid for the Palestinians in Gaza, which would be funneled, obviously, not through Hamas but through U.N. organizations.  That's a lot of money.  Do you think Congress is in a mood for that?  

ABRAMS:  Well, some of it is not new money.  That's, I think, been made clear.  But the State Department has not said how much -- how does it break down.

I think this will be tough, first because this is going to be a tough year for foreign aid, given the financial situation and given the budget situation; secondly, there is the worry about this money going to Hamas -- there is a question as to why we have to give so much, why don't the Arabs give more; and finally, I think that Congress might appropriate this because of the Hamas problem with conditions that make it very, very difficult to spend.  So it isn't really clear to me how much American money is actually going to get through.  

GWERTZMAN:  Mm hmm.  There have been reports in the Israeli press saying that Mrs. Clinton was pressuring Israel to relax the restrictions on the open -- on opening the gates, more or less, for the aid, that not enough trucks are getting through, that the Israeliss are using this as a bargaining chip to get the release of Private Shalit who's still a prisoner after a couple of years.  Do you feel that sounds true to you?

ABRAMS:  Yeah.  The Israelis have been allowing through what they define as humanitarian material, which is essentially food and medicines.  But they have not been allowing a commercial opening of these passages for things like concrete, let's say, and other things needed for reconstruction.  

Olmert has made clear that he will not open the passages generally until Shalit is freed.  I don't think he will abandon that position and I don't think that Netanyahu will when he comes to office.  It's a pretty popular position in Israel.  

So that really creates a problem.  You can get some of this stuff -- maybe the answer is Egypt, just getting it in through Egypt and having them police the shipments to make sure that there are no arms and other materials, explosives, going in as part of what should be construction materials.  

GWERTZMAN:  Right, right.  I think we can open it up to questions.  So can we go ahead with that?

OPERATOR:  Yes, sir, thank you.  

At this time we will open the floor for questions.  If you would like to ask a question please press the star key followed by the one key on your touchtone phone now.  Questions will be taken in the order in which they are received.  If at any time you would like to remove yourself from the questioning queue, press star two.  Again, to ask a question please press star one now.  

Our first question comes from James Kitfield with the National Journal.

QUESTIONER:  Yeah, Elliott, I just returned from Israel as well, and, you know, researching this whole idea of can a two-state, you know, process be reinvigorated.  And I found a whole lot of despair in the region about whether that's even viable.  People are talking a lot about the two-state solution being dead.

I'm just curious of what your take on the viability of reinvigorating the process as another big letdown after the Annapolis initiative seems to have petered out?  And if that's not on the table for right now, what can the administration do to sort of -- to work this in any meaningful way?  Give me your sense of what this --

GWERTZMAN:  Or should the administration?  I mean, I'm not sure Elliott even agrees with the premise.  

ABRAMS:  Well, first let me say I found, as you did, that there is very little belief that a political negotiation -- that is, a negotiation over a final status agreement -- is possible right now.  One reason for that, of course, is the division among Palestinians -- that is, 40 percent of the Palestinian population lives in Gaza under Hamas control, so you have to wonder is the PA -- or let me be more precise, is the PLO, which is the negotiating body, really able to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinians.  

My own view is that there may be political discussions this year between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas.  They should meet as Olmert met with Abbas.  But they're not going to make any progress on these fundamental final status issues.  I think the more sensible -- the more useful thing to do is to concentrate on making life better and building institutions in the West Bank.  

I actually, to plug my own article -- I've written an article about this in this week's issue of the Weekly Standard.  I think that this is something that was really a theme in the Bush first term.  Another way of saying it is that we should have concentrated more on Prime Minister Fayyad than on President Abbas in the negotiation.  

There's a lot to be done on the ground in the West Bank.  The economy is not collapsing.  The economy is in decent shape and could be improved if, for example, the Israelis would remove more checkpoints and obstacles to make movement on the ground in the West Bank easier.  

The building of Palestinian institutions that someday will be needed for a Palestinian state, or Palestinian entities, let's say.  We can come back to the question of statehood.  

But you need, for any kind of state, you need things like a decent police force and other security forces.  You need a system of justice with courts and police and prosecutors and jails.  These are the things that can be built now and you're not building on nothing.  You're building on a considerable achievement with respect, for example, to the police and security forces.  

There've been a lot of progress in the last couple of years.  The United States has lead this under General Dayton, training, now I believe it is 1,600 police at the training center in Jordan.  And that number is scheduled to double.  

The government in the West Bank, the Palestinian authority, is a good and honest and effective government under Prime Minister Fayyad, and he needs more help.  He was unable -- for the first time in a couple of years, he was unable to meet the payroll this month because he isn't getting the financial support that he ought to be getting particularly from the Arab world.  

There's a lot to do, I think, in building Palestinian institutions and making life better, particularly in the West Bank, which will show a contrast, of course, between the West Bank and Gaza.  I don't think that a concentration on conferences and meetings and final status issues is going to produce very much in 2009.  

QUESTIONER:  Does the American government give much aid to the West Bank?

ABRAMS:  Yeah.  Well, the American government gives a great deal of aid to Palestinians.  It was actually $600 million in calendar year -- or fiscal year 2008.  That includes $185 million for UNRA, the U.N. agency that helps Palestinian refugees to which the U.S. is the largest donor.  And it includes all sorts of different kinds of aid.  Some of it, in past years, has been cash.  Much of it has gone through U.N. agencies.  But we -- the number last year was 600 million (dollars).  

QUESTIONER:  Can I follow-up on that?  

GWERTZMAN:  Go ahead.  

QUESTIONER:  What about settlements?  If you talk to the Palestinians on this, they say now you want to talk about a sort of bottom-up, build institutions.  This is something that's going to take years to do.  And during those years, they get the sense that they're going to see what they've seen in recent years, which is a continuation of settlement activity that makes any -- you know, that sort of blocks the door to a final status agreement.  If America's going to take, sort of, an approach to be very patient like that, don't we need to say something strong about settlements?

ABRAMS:  Well, I guess I don't share the premise; that is, divide Israeli settlements, essentially, into two pieces.  The major blocks, places like Ma'ale Adumim where there's about 35 (thousand), 38,000 people living now.  Blocks that, I think, virtually all Palestinians recognize are going to stay in some form of trade of land with Israel, they're going to stay in Israel.  These are the major blocks on the western side of the fence.  And then the rest, the vast majority of space in the West Bank where there are a number of small Israeli settlements.                                   

I don't think that it makes it harder to have a Palestinian state if, for example, Ma'ale Adumim has 39,000 people instead of 38,000 people.  The question would then be, well, go outside the major blocks to the areas beyond the fence, areas that most Israelis and Palestinians realize ultimately the Israelis are going to have to get out of.  

It would -- it would make a final settlement harder if Israel were gobbling up a lot more land and territory and putting more people beyond the fence.  They're not.  I think if you look at the figures of, you know, take the last year or the last five years, there really isn't much expansion there.  And the reason is there aren't many Israelis that want to live there.  Most of the people who are living in those major blocks are what we would call suburbanites; that is they're commuting to Jerusalem or to Tel Aviv or to other cities.  They're fairly typical Israelis.  

Beyond the fence you have much more ideological settlers and that's a smaller population in Israel.  Many of those small settlements are struggling.

And I don't mean to say that there should be no restraint on that.  I think that, in fact, the United States should say to Israel that it should exercise as much pressure as it can, that is the government of Israel, to prevent any physical expansion of those small settlements.  If, you know, a settlement has 150 people and it goes to 160, that doesn't have much impact on Palestinians.  If it doubles in size in land area that can have a real impact on Palestinians and the government of Israel should not do that and we should tell them that they should not do that because that is the kind of thing that will complicate a negotiation.  

But there isn't -- I think the notion that there's this big geographic expansion of Israeli settlements over the last few years beyond the fence is not actually right.  

GWERTZMAN:  Next question.  

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from Maurizio Molinari with La Stampa.  

Mr. Molinari are you on the line?   All right, I think we lost him.

Our next question will come from Martin Landlow (sp) with the New York Times.

QUESTIONER:  Good morning.  I just wondered whether you could speak a little bit more about the challenge that Secretary Clinton faces in travelling to Israel when the coalition question is unresolved.  A couple of people have said, you know, when you're parsing every nuance in her public statements it would be easy enough for her to put a foot wrong, even if she didn't intend to.  And, you know, people have also pointed out there is history here with the Clinton administration and Netanyahu the last time around where he was rather bitter about what he felt was meddling.  I mean, is she taking a bit of a risk here or is it something she should be able to navigate through?  

ABRAMS:  I think she's made the right decision to go.  There won't be an Israeli government for about a month, so let's say early April.  And you then -- they then get into Passover, which is a holiday period.  So the early -- so the first half of April is probably not a good time for her to go either.  She's going to be in the region in Sharm el-Sheikh so it seems to me that rather than put off for another few months an opportunity to talk to Netanyahu and to talk to Abbas and Fayyad and others that it is smart to jump over there from Sharm.  

You're right in saying that it's a delicate moment and she needs to be very careful about what she says in Jerusalem and in Ramallah.  But, you know, that's the diplomat's job, and the people who are drafting those speeches in the Near East Bureau and on Senator Mitchell's staff will just have to -- will just have to be careful.  I think she needs to be more careful -- if I were advising her I think I would say just avoid Q&A sessions, read your statement and stop there, okay.

QUESTIONER:  Thanks.  

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  

Our next question comes from Andrew Friedman from Mischaka (sp) Magazine.  

QUESTIONER:  Good morning.  You talked a little bit about Egypt.  There's been a lot of pressure on Israel to open border crossings.  I'm wondering why there's no pressure on Egypt to open their border crossings, is question number one.  

Question number two -- into the Gaza Strip that is, I'm sorry.  

Question number two is, can Egypt -- can Egypt be trusted to prevent the rearming and the resupplying of arms and explosives to Hamas in Gaza?  

ABRAMS:  Thanks.  Well Egypt opens the border crossings intermittently.  They did it a couple of days ago to allow about 1,000 people through including young people who were going back to colleges abroad.  The -- there should be pressure on Egypt, I think, to open that border more than it is now open.  But the Egyptians are going to resist.  And the reason they're going to resist is they're always suspicious of the idea that the Israelis are trying to off-load Gaza onto Egypt, return it to Egypt, as it were, the way it was before the '67 war.  So they will resist the notion that the borders between Israel and Gaza are shut tight and the border with Egypt is open and Gaza should integrate itself economically with Egypt.  They don't want that.  And I think that's one of the main reasons that they are exercising real restraint in opening the borders.  

There's another reason, I guess, which is there's a security issue with Hamas on the other side of the border.  

And that leads to your second question.  It's not in the interest of the government of Egypt that arms go back, go in to Gaza.  It strengthens Hamas, which they're not interested in doing.  It creates tension and then violence between Hamas and Israel.  But they haven't done a very good job at policing it.  So the real question is, why?  

My conversations in Israel suggested that it isn't an easy question for the Egyptians.  There is a, first, a question of competence of the forces they have on the Egyptian side of the border.  There is a question of corruption.  There's a lot of money to be made, as you can imagine, the police who are guarding that border and very poorly paid.  

There's also a question of relations between the Egyptian state and the Bedouin who live near there.  This is a group that's been discriminated against for decades in Egypt and their economic situation is not good.  And they have taken to smuggling as a way of earning a living.  And if the government were to cut that off there would be difficulties and maybe even violent protests on the part of the Bedouin.  So the government has to worry about that.  

I don't think the Egyptians much care about the trafficking in things like cigarettes or liquor.  What they should care about, and I think do care about, is things like broad missiles, the kind of missile that can go 20, 30, 40 kilometers.  They ought to be doing a better job at policing that.  They have told the Israelis they would.

I heard from several Israelis who had spoken with the Egyptians that the tone in which they say this is much tougher than in previous years.  But it does not seem yet to have translated into a real crackdown.  There's mixed information about this.  There have been some news stories about trying to make it tougher on doing this.  It would seem to me that the Egyptians have the capability to make it clear on their side of that Philadelphia strip that they're not going to come down too hard if, you know, what's in the tunnel is cartons of cigarettes but they will come down very, very hard on explosives or on weapons.  

I think it's an open question.  It seems to the Israelis to be an open question whether they would actually perform on the tough language they're now using.  

GWERTZMAN:  How -- if I could just intersperse a question -- how did the Iranian arms get to Gaza in the first place?

ABRAMS:  Well, if you ask the Egyptians they will tell you that some of it comes by sea and that the Israelis need to do a better job at guarding the coastline.  

I didn't find any Israeli officials who accepted that view.  They believe that these things actually do come in the tunnels.  And the tunnels have, you know, one should not think of, sort of, tiny, dirty hole in the ground.  These tunnels are industrial strength.  Many of them have electricity and lights and there is a tunnel infrastructure in Gaza.  There are tunnel courts where disputes are resolved.  There are permits for tunnels.  So this is really rather well regulated by Hamas.  

GWERTZMAN:  I mean, I've heard that these weapons go to Sudan and up and just up the Nile?

ABRAMS:  Well, it appears that they come by sea, most of them, by sea from Iran and go around Gulf of Aiden and, right, and up ultimately they don't, we don't think they go through the canal, most of them by ship and out into the Mediterranean and then into Gaza.  Rather, it seems that they hit land in places like Yemen or Somalia or, I guess, Eritrea to some extent, places like that, you could look at the map.  And then cross over into Sinai and are taken across Sinai and then sneaked into Gaza.  I don't think this is, you know, accounts for 100% of the shipments but that seems to be the bulk of them.  

Now, you will remember that at the end of the Gaza War there were pledges by the United States and a number of European countries that we would try to help interdict the seaborne part of this.  And the Egyptians were supposed to try the Sinai part, before you get into the area right on the border.  I don't know whether there has actually been in the last month or so any significant increase in the maritime policing.  

GWERTZMAN:  Right.  Next question.  

OPERATOR:  Thank you.

Again, if you would like to ask a question please press the star key followed by the one key on your touchtone phone.  

Our next question comes from Howard Lafranchi with Christian Science Monitor.                                                  

QUESTIONER:  Thank you.  Hi.  Yeah, I was wondering now if you see, as you said, at least 2009 as not the time for negotiations and not really progress on that front, what role do you see for Senator Mitchell?  I mean, do you see it sort of limited to this, you know, idea of building up Palestinian institutions on the West Bank?  What about this idea of sort of branching out a bit and working on relations with Syria?

ABRAMS:  Well, whether Senator Mitchell will deal with Syria and Lebanon, I think, is really the question the president and the secretary of State must decide.  If under the new Israeli government they get into negotiations with Syria, then Mitchell, you know, will have to see if he wants to do that and if he's authorized to do that.

I think that there's certainly a role, even if there are not kind of formal, final status negotiations, there's plenty for him to do in trying to help the Israelis and Palestinians in whatever negotiations they have under way, whether it's over settlements or it's over the removal of checkpoints and obstacles in the West Bank or it's over financial relations.  I mean, there is certainly always plenty of business for somebody who has a job that Senator Mitchell does.

You know, I think there will be some level of political negotiations as well.  It seems to me that no Israeli government is going to say, well, that's over, you know, we're not going to talk to these guys for a year or two about anything larger than their economy.  So there will be discussions between Israelis and Palestinians at the political level.  And Mitchell will want to know what's going on there and see if he can help grease those, too.

QUESTIONER:  Do you get the impression that Netanyahu is interested in a Syria deal?

ABRAMS:  Well, he was last time.  

QUESTIONER:  That's why I asked, yeah.

ABRAMS:  Yeah.  There is every reason to think that he would be for a number of reasons.  First, the overall question, if you could really get Syria to reorient itself away from Iran and Hezbollah, if you could really get Syria to use the term that we usually use ("flip" ?) in the sense that Libya under Qadhafi did, that would be an enormous change in the region.  That would mean that Iran no longer had this key ally in the Arab world.  That would mean that Iran, in a certain sense, no longer had a border with Hezbollah and Israel.

So the prize is worth getting.  Now, if you ask just about every Israeli expert, nobody believes that this is very likely, that is that Assad is really ready to do this.  But there's no reason that he would not want to try to figure that out for himself.  He (went to ?) negotiations.  If they can be restarted, see how far they get.

I think there's a second reason for him to do it, which is even if you don't believe that Assad is ready to pay the price, let that be on Assad's shoulders, show the world and show the United States that you're willing to enter negotiations and let's see what the Syrians may do.  He may also believe that if there's going to be a difficulty having a political negotiation with the Palestinians, maybe some of the pressure off him is alleviated by having a political negotiation with Syria.

GWERTZMAN:  Next question.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Again, if you would like to ask a question, please press the * key followed by the 1 key on your touch-tone phone.

Mr. Gwertzman, it looks like we have no further questions at this time.

GWERTZMAN:  Let me just ask you, Elliott, if you don't mind, about Iran.  I noticed that Dennis Ross was just appointed sort of a special adviser on Southwest Asia and the Persian Gulf without mentioning Iran in the press release.  I thought that was kind of humorous.  I mean, what's going on do you think?

ABRAMS:  Well, first, let me say I don't know.  I'm not sure, but there's a lot of speculation as to what this all means.  It's odd in the sense that in December the word was out that Dennis Ross would be going and he would be handling Iran.

GWERTZMAN:  Right.

ABRAMS:  In early January, the Washington Institute issued a press release saying that he would be handling Iran and advising about the Middle East -- (inaudible).

GWERTZMAN:  For the White House in fact, I think it was.

ABRAMS:  Well, and that now seems not to be true.  

GWERTZMAN:  Right.

ABRAMS:  What I am hearing is that there was a long negotiation over exactly what the job would entail.  And meanwhile, of course, Senator Mitchell is brought on to do Israeli-Palestinian and Richard Holbrooke is brought on to do Southwest Asia.  And so, in a sense, the available turf was collapsing.

I think the most interesting thing about the announcement, besides the fact that it was made in, you know, rather indistinct language 9 p.m. --

GWERTZMAN:  Right.

ABRAMS:  -- is it describes an inside job not an outside job.  That is, Senator Mitchell's job is to advise the secretary or president but also to go over there and talk to the Arabs and the Israelis.  The description of Dennis Ross' job is that he is an inside adviser and he's not an envoy.

GWERTZMAN:  Right.

ABRAMS:  I asked the question of people in the administration yesterday, does this mean he won't travel?  And they said, well, you know, he has to travel.  So I think in fact that it's quite unclear.  And to me, that means that the turf fighting will continue for a while as people try to stake out their territory.

Now, it has been made clear that the P5+1 negotiations which have been conducted below the level of secretary of State by Bill Burns will continue to be conducted by Bill Burns.  So I think this remains unclear, and I think that it's going to be several months we see who's got what.

GWERTZMAN:  Or see what the policy is on Iran because Obama keeps hinting about wanting, willing to get into talks with Iran besides the 5+1 talks.

ABRAMS:  You know, I mean, there's another question here, which is, what do we want to do, if anything, before the Iranian election in June?  Many people have argued that if we were to get into a negotiation, it would help Ahmadinejad because he would then be able to say, see, I'm not such an ogre -- (inaudible) -- negotiations with the Americans under me, why would you want to vote for a so-called moderate like Khatami who will open the door to the Americans?  I've already done that.  So there is an argument for waiting until after the election.  But that may also postpone the turf fighting within the administration.

GWERTZMAN:  Well, look, thank you.  

No other questions?

OPERATOR:  Yes, sir, actually we do have a few more questions.

GWERTZMAN:  Okay, okay.  Go ahead.

OPERATOR:  Our next question will come from Jim Lobe with InterPress Services.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  Yeah, I actually had a couple of questions.  If, as some say, there will be a summit next month to the Arab League and if they somehow patch together a new government of national unity between Fatah and Hamas and if they do a new reiteration or version of the Arab League peace plan, what do you think the upshot of that will be?  I know it's a hypothetical question.  I apologize for that.  But would could be the result both with respect to Israeli politics and what the United States might do?

The other question was back on settlements for just one second.  You know, there was this report that was leaked to Haaretz, the official report saying that a lot of the let's call them mainstream suburban settlements as well as in east Jerusalem were actually accomplished or expanded in violation of Israeli law.  Should that have any impact on how we in the United States see those settlements?  And should there be anything resulting from that in terms of U.S. pressure with respect to those settlements?

ABRAMS:  First on the unity government idea, it's not so hypothetical in the sense that it happened once before, the so-called Mecca agreement which briefly produced at least the idea of a unity government.  I think that Hamas and Fatah hate each other so much that a unity government between them cannot last.  If the Arab League were to create one, it would just be a matter of a few months before it fell apart.

The immediate impact, though, would be first on the Israelis.  I think that no Israeli government, not the Olmert government and not the next government, would be willing to negotiate with a government or deal with a government that contained Hamas.  So one key question would be, what is the nature of this?  People have talked about a technocratic government in which there would be no Fatah or Hamas.  You could do that.  There are enough technocrats to be put in.  The current Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad is himself not a member of Fatah, although I would say that if one of the things that happens as a result of some kind of a unity government is that he leaves, this will create a problem with a lot of donors, both Arab, European and the U.S. because there's a lot of faith in his integrity, and we don't really know who would come next and whether he or she would be any good.

So the first thing would be that problem particular.  So let's say the first is the question of, would the Israelis agree to political negotiations?  The second would be the question of how it would affect donors if Fayyad left.

The third would be, what is the impact on the PLO?  You know, the negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians are not conducted formally by the Palestinian Authority.  When Abbas meets with an Israeli prime minister to discuss those issues, he's meeting in his capacity as chairman of the PLO of which Hamas is not a member.

And one question that would then arise is, well, is Hamas going to join the PLO?  What does it mean for Hamas to join the PLO?  Does it mean that they're compromising on their principles and their charter and now wholly accept, as the Quartet has demanded, all previous agreements made by the PLO?  Or does it mean that the PLO is now abandoning previous positions?

Hamas, I think, in the long run would very much like to replace or push aside or take over the PLO.  And that is a question we need to ask about any unity deal that the Arab League negotiates, even if it doesn't last too long.

On the settlements, I think the key question is really, what is the real impact on the Palestinians?  This is a very difficult issue in Israeli politics, and it costs a lot for an Israeli politician and for the United States to push very hard on this issue.  It is worth doing, I think, only when the impact on Palestinians is direct, when, for example, the expansion of a settlement in the West Bank would mean that an important road is going to be off limits to Palestinians now.  But when it's a symbolic issue, I think that we ought probably to save our ammunition for issues that affect Palestinian life more directly.

GWERTZMAN:  Next question.

OPERATOR:  Thank you.  Our next question comes from James Kitfield with the National Journal.

QUESTIONER:  Yeah, Elliott, we've heard -- you know, John Bolton wrote this piece saying, you know, look, the two-state solution, the prospects look so dim, let's talk about somehow having Jordan step into the West Bank and Egypt gets Gaza.  I actually saw an editorial by a pretty senior Israeli general who was talking about something along these lines.  It gets to this point that there's a lot of despair, I think, about reaching any kind of a two-state deal.  Did you hear any talk about this?  Because it seems to me a nonstarter if you talk to Jordanians, but it seems to be percolating in the sort of punditry out there.  I'm curious whether you've heard anything along these lines.

ABRAMS:  Yeah, I did.  I think, you know, let's go back.  In the last couple of years, it's the Palestinian position particularly has been, we want a state and we want it right now.  But that is a relatively new position for the international community.  That's not what was in the road map.  You know, the road map which appeared written in 2002 and then released in 2003 has three phases.  There is an interim phase for full statehood, and that interim phase is aspects or attributes of sovereignty and does not resolve all the final status issues.  So the international community and the Israelis and Palestinians, as recently as 2003, were contemplating this interim stage.  

Others have also said that, look, the main problem in getting to Palestinian statehood is security.  It isn't the Palestinian economy.  It isn't how effective the ministries are.  It's security.  And the best way of addressing that problem would be some kind of Jordanian security role at least.

My own view is that these are things that should be talked about.  They shouldn't be taboo.  One can envision lots of combinations and permutations, in addition to the one that the Palestinian Authority is seeking now, which is an immediate 100 percent leap to every attribute of statehood.

In our discussions with the Palestinians in the Bush administration, they would often say that they were unwilling to accept anything that detracted from full sovereignty.  And the answer that we always gave them was nothing detracts from full sovereignty if you agree to it.  There are all sorts of -- look at the European community.  The nations of Europe have agreed to many, many things that detract from what used to be their full sovereignty, but they do it voluntarily and willingly because they think it improves the overall condition of their people.  

That would be true with respect to the Palestinians, too.  A voluntary agreement with the Israelis over something like, you know, who controls the air space, which has always been contemplated, doesn't detract from their sovereignty if they're willing to do it.

So the bottom line is I think as we think forward to how the Israelis are going to be gotten out of the West Bank, having them leave the West Bank and Palestinians there will be able to govern themselves, it isn't sensible to think there is only one unbreakable model.  There are lots of possibilities.

OPERATOR:  All right, thank you.  Our next question come from Andrew Friedman with Mischaka (sp) Magazine.

QUESTIONER:  Mr. Abrams, I'd just like to continue on the line of discussion from the last question and ask, what happens if you get to the very, very bottom line of the Israel-Palestinian question and the basic equation works out that the very, very minimum that the Palestinians can or are willing to accept is more than the very, very maximum Israel can give?  That was question number one.

And question number two, I wanted to go back to Iran and talk about Iran's nuclear program.  Do you envision a strike by Israel or the United States sometime this year?  What's your understanding of the goings on with regard to Iran's nuclear program?

ABRAMS:  On the maximum-minimum thing, I think that's where we are now, and in fact it's where we've been for years and years.  Many people have said over the last 25 years is that the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is obvious.  Anybody can draw a map.  We're 95 percent of the way there.  It won't take much to get the rest of the way.  And I think that's exactly wrong.  Because to the degree that people know what a settlement would have to look like, what a resolution would have to look like, I think it's clear that, as you said, that the Israeli maximum is lower than the Palestinian minimum.  

Both sides have a sense of what a resolution will look like, and they don't want it.  And this has been true under a number of Palestinian leaders and a number of Israeli leaders and Israeli governments.  So that is where we are now, and that's why there hasn't been an agreement.

And the question really is, how does that change over time?  My answer to that is we don't really know the answer to that, and we don't know how long it will take.  Meanwhile, there are living people in the Palestinian territories, and we ought to be spending more time and more effort, I think, addressing the conditions under which they live and preparing for the day, ultimately, when the Israelis leave most of the West Bank and there's (a fuller ?) self-government than there is today.  And there's a lot that can be done to make those preparations and to improve life in the West Bank.  And I think it deserves more attention and more money.

Now, Iran, it does not seem to me that the Obama administration is anxious to strike Iran.  I think that it is a mistake to make that as evident as it seems at least to me to be.  Because if you're trying to do a negotiation with Iran, as they may well -- well, start again.  We have a negotiation with Iran in the P5+1, and the administration has talked about additional negotiations.  If you want those to succeed, it seems to me that there ought to be all options on the table.  I think it has been a mistake never to mention those options and to probably leave the Iranians with the impression that the danger of an American strike is totally and completely nonexistent.  I think that's a bad negotiating tactic.

As to what the Israelis will do, I don't know.  I don't think anybody knows.  Many Israelis view this as an existential question and believe that the possession by Iran of nuclear weapons could be a step on the way to another holocaust.  And there's certainly plenty of statements you can find in comments by the Iranian leadership, Ahmadinejad and others that would lead you to that view.

What they need to think about, of course, is how good is their military option?  You know, if an Israeli strike would set the Iranians back one month, I think everyone would say that's not worth doing.  If it would set them back by 10 years, that's a different story.

And there is a second thing you need to think about, I think, which is, what is the political impact in Iran?  Conventional wisdom is and I think most Iran experts would say that an Israeli or American attack would lead to an outpouring of nationalism and would help the regime.  I'm not persuaded by that view.  I'm sure that would be true in the first week or month.  But the longer-term question, though, is, what is the impact?  What do Iranians think about this even that just happened?

The example I would give you is south Lebanon where it seems that public opinion is now a restraint on Hezbollah because the people who live there do not want Hezbollah to create another war.  I think this is true in Gaza as well.  It's hard to measure, but many people, Israelis and Palestinians, I spoke to have the impression that many people in Gaza are now asking, why the hell does Hamas have to keep shooting missiles into Israel and create this mess?  We have enough trouble as it is.

And that might happen in Iran.  People might wonder, how did we get into this mess?  Why was it necessary for the government to drag us into this when there were prospects for negotiation?  You know, what the Netanyahu government will do, I don't know.

GWERTZMAN:  Any questions?

OPERATOR:  Yes, sir.  We have another question from Kevin Sullivan with Real Clear Politics.

QUESTIONER:  Hi.  Good morning, Mr. Abrams.

ABRAMS:  Hi.

QUESTIONER:  On your last point, you just mentioned that you don't see sort of an upshot in Iranian nationalism.  You would perhaps argue that it's a consequence of the Israeli-American strike on Iran.  Wouldn't another consequence be some sort of asymmetrical threat upon Israeli soldiers and American soldiers?  And with so many positioned in Iraq and the broader region, wouldn't that be another negative consequence of such a strike?

ABRAMS:  That's, of course, a key question.  People have tried to figure out, what would the Iranians do?  The Iranians have said that in the case of such a strike by the United States or by Israel that they would attack American bases in the Gulf.  I don't believe that because that would be inviting a war with the United States.  It's completely insane for the Iranians to do that, to attack, for example, U.S. bases on the other side of the Gulf, which would mean killing American soldiers, servicemen.  That seems to me to be completely unpersuasive.

It used to be said, particularly one, two, three years ago, that the main thing we had to worry about was Iraq because of the situation that we were in in Iraq.  That's probably less of a worry right now because, obviously, we're diminishing our presence in Iraq.  One year from now, you know, the numbers will be down.  And the Iranians have another concern which is, what about the Iraqi army?  What will the Iraqi reaction be if they decided to increase greatly the amount of violence in Iraq?  So they've got to worry about that, too, in their relations with Iraq and the Iraqi reaction.

Obviously, there is an opportunity for the Iranians in Iraq and Afghanistan to make things tougher on us, but it goes beyond that.  Directly and through Hezbollah, there is the asymmetric threat of Iranian terrorism.  They're very capable, as we know, of blowing up embassies, as they did the Israeli embassy in Buenos Aires one time or of attacking American facilities elsewhere.

Again, I think there is a constraint on them, which is, how much of a conflict do they want to get into with the United States?  One nightmare that I hope the Iranians have is if there were an Israeli strike that just didn't involve us at all and they responded by acts of terrorism that killed Americans, how would the Americans respond?  Is it possible that the United States would finish the job against their nuclear facilities?  They ought to be worrying about that.

And that's why I would like, frankly, a little bit more saber rattling on the part of the U.S.  Even if, frankly, if they have no intention of following through, we need to keep the Iranians off balance, and we need to keep them worried.

GWERTZMAN:  Can I just ask you one quick question on that?  Sy (Hersh ?), who's an old colleague of mine, made a living predicting a U.S. attack on Iran for over the last eight years.  Was there ever a time you thought there would be an attack?

ABRAMS:  I guess I'd say if you mean was there ever a time when I thought we're going to do it now, it's next week, it's next month, the answer is no.  I did think earlier on, let's say in the first term, that there was a greater chance that this would happen.  But by the second term, it seemed to me very unlikely because, as the questioner noted, because of our situation in Afghanistan and in Iraq, particularly in Iraq, a few years ago.

And this is a point at which most critics were saying the war is lost.  Certainly our situation there was extremely grave.  And the notion that you would, you know, further complicate it was something that most in the administration were very concerned about.

GWERTZMAN:  Okay.  Well, look, that about wraps it up.  Thank you very much.

ABRAMS:  You're very welcome.  It was fun.

GWERTZMAN:  Okay, great.

ABRAMS:  Hope it was useful.

GWERTZMAN:  Bye-bye.

ABRAMS:  Bye.


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