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Focus on West Bank, Not Negotiating

Interviewee: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
January 13, 2010

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Elliott Abrams, a CFR expert who served as a senior Middle East adviser in the George W. Bush administration, says he questions the chances for a breakthrough in efforts to negotiate a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis. He says that the Obama administration is putting too much emphasis on "negotiations." He says, "The tragedy here is that this focus on the negotiating table has led the United States to continue, as we did in the Bush administration, to put much too much emphasis on negotiations and too little emphasis on the actual daily work of building a Palestinian state in the West Bank." Abrams says he would like an emphasis on bolstering the legal system and economy in the West Bank, now run by President Mahmoud Abbas.

Former Senator George Mitchell, the administration's special envoy to the Middle East, is about to start a new round of discussions in the Middle East. He was interviewed on the Charlie Rose Show last week and made clear that the administration is hoping to have negotiations lasting about two years, starting with the Israelis and Palestinians, which would then encompass the rest of the Arab world, which would endorse any agreement that resulted. Yet despite a year of trying, Senator Mitchell hasn't accomplished anything concrete. Does he have a better shot this time?

I don't see why he would, because nothing has changed fundamentally. The Palestinians are still demanding a complete Israeli construction freeze of settlements, including in Jerusalem, before they go back to the table. This is the condition the Obama administration insisted on a year ago, and the Palestinians, having been pushed into adopting that standard, cannot now figure out how to abandon it even if they would like to. So they are refusing to go back to the table with the Israelis, and what we have been seeing from Senator Mitchell are "trial balloons," such as, "let's have proximity talks instead of direct negotiations."

What are proximity talks?

Crisis Guide: The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Proximity talks would be the Palestinians and Israelis in different hotels or different rooms in the same hotel and the Americans would shuttle back and forth. What is ridiculous about that is that these people have been negotiating face to face for twenty years, so to go back to proximity talks is a real admission of failure. But the second trial balloon was that Senator Mitchell would carry "letters of guarantee," which are letters from the president to each side saying what the American position would be on Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, with the hope that would get the Palestinians in a position where they could begin face to face negotiations again; but Palestinian spokesmen have already rejected that. So I just don't see any optimism about getting them back to the table again.

Now Mitchell repeated in the Rose interview what Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had said last year after meeting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu--that he thought it was "very significant" that Netanyahu ordered a settlement freeze for ten months, excluding Jerusalem. So you're saying that because earlier the administration had asked for a total freeze, including Jerusalem, this ten-month freeze is not sufficient for the Palestinians?

It's not sufficient for the Palestinians because after Senator Mitchell and Secretary Clinton took a very hard line last winter, the Palestinians of course could not permit the administration to be more Palestinian than they were, so they took a similarly hard line. But you have to remember that the Israelis were building settlements for over twenty years. So this insistence on a complete freeze was new. Frankly it was injected by the Obama administration in what was a terrible diplomatic error.

So the question is how do you get out of this situation?

Right. And after a year of trying, nobody has been able to figure out the answer. The tragedy here is that this focus on the negotiating table has led the United States to continue, as we did in the Bush administration, to put much too much emphasis on negotiations and too little emphasis on the actual daily work of building a Palestinian state in the West Bank.

"The real sinews of a Palestinian state are not going to be built at a conference table. They are going to be built on the ground in the West Bank."

Mitchell did have high praise for the Palestinian security situation in the West Bank, which he said the Israelis praise as well. What should the United States be doing in the West Bank that it's not doing?

The praise for the security work that the Israelis and Palestinians are doing together and of the advances in the Palestinian security forces are well deserved. And it's an example of the change in the West Bank and the beginnings of building the institutions of Palestinian statehood. But let's take that example. They have now a competent police force, but they don't have the rest of the legal system: that is to say prosecutors, courts, jails that can be relied upon.

What we and the Europeans should be doing is helping Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad build all of the institutions of the legal system and helping him build a productive economy and a better education system. The real sinews of a Palestinian state are not going to be built at a conference table. They are going to be built on the ground in the West Bank. The focus in the latter years of the Bush administration and the first year of the Obama administration on negotiation seems to me to marginalize what should be central and instead [makes] central what is not essential to the building of a Palestinian state. Israeli-Palestinian negotiations can come later.

How important are these negotiations to the overall situation in the Middle East? A lot of experts have said if you can get Israeli-Palestinian negotiations going, that will ease tensions and put pressure on Iran and Syria.

This is a longstanding debate. If you ask, "What are the tensions?" it's hard to see why the commencement of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations would end them. If the PLO leadership is negotiating with Israel, that will not reduce tensions on the Gaza border between Hamas and Egypt--tensions that have flared to violence in the past week. It's not going to alleviate tensions between various Arab countries and Iran, it's not going to alleviate tensions between Iraq and Syria on their border, it's not going to alleviate tensions within Lebanon that are caused by Hezbollah and Syrian interference in Lebanese politics. So it seems to me that the gains from negotiation are overstated.

It is clear that most Arab governments would like to see the negotiations underway; I don't think that is because they believe negotiations will lead to a deal in nine months or two years as Senator Mitchell has suggested. I think it's just that they want calm. They don't want to see violence between Israelis and Palestinians, and the talks give a sense of calm and potential progress. I would have to add that that's true as long as they don't break down. The commencement of negotiations as we know from the past twenty years doesn't mean that a deal is imminent. And you sometimes have to deal with the collapse of negotiations and how it exacerbates tensions in the region.

Mitchell also talked about his desire to resume the Israeli-Syrian talks, but there's the problem that Israel doesn't want to deal with the Turks as the intermediaries anymore.

There are a couple of problems, and first is the intermediary problem. In the last two years, Turkish-Israeli relations have become very difficult, and in the last couple of weeks they have worsened. The Israelis have talked about perhaps having France or the United States as intermediaries. The deeper problem though is that if there were a Syrian-Israeli deal, the Israelis would require a complete break in the relationship between the Assad regime in Damascus and Iran and Hezbollah. That is, the Israelis are not going to hand the Golan over to a state that has a deep alliance with Iran and Hezbollah. And there are no signs yet that the government of Syria is willing to make that very deep strategic realignment away from its allies and toward the West.

Lurking behind all this is the situation with Iran. How do you think Washington wants to deal with Iran right now? The United States is going to have talks with its Security Council partners in the coming week to talk about possible sanctions, but it looks like China is not interested, so that would make another round of Security Council sanctions doubtful.

"[W]hen the parties are ready to have a successful negotiation, they will do it whether we like it or not. And our pressure on them, while it leads them to the table, does not lead them to successful negotiations if they're not ready."

The administration's first approach was engagement with Iran as soon as the Iranian elections of June 2009 were over. But of course those elections led to a huge protest movement in Iran that makes that kind of engagement impossible, and it doesn't seem the government of Iran wants engagement with the United States. It now seems that the administration is moving toward a sanctions policy, but as you note, China, and to a lesser extent Russia, don't seem very enthusiastic about that. So the first question is what kind of sanctions can be gotten out of the Security Council and second, can we do sanctions outside the council with the Europeans and Japanese and others in a coalition of the willing? Those sanctions may be enough to get a deal with Iran over its nuclear program, but they also may not, and if they are not, that's going to present the administration with a real conundrum. It already [has] a problem with trying to figure out how much human rights and political change in Iran should play a role in our policy toward that country, and there has been a fair amount of criticism of the administration for sticking too closely to a nuclear-centric policy rather than a human rights-centric policy. And that is a problem that is going to grow this winter and spring.

Coming back to the Israeli-Palestinian situation, is anything really possible until Hamas and Fatah can get their act together?

Well, I would put it another way. There is a lot of pressure from the Saudis and some other Arab governments for Hamas-Fatah reconciliation. But the Israelis have made clear that they are not going to negotiate with a government that is half terrorist, a government that includes representatives of Hamas. So I don't think that Hamas-Fatah reconciliation would be good for negotiations. I would argue that negotiations progress only when there has been progress on the ground. Or to put it another way, diplomacy has got to reflect what is happening on the ground and not vice-versa. If the Israelis see the development of a representative system of government, a legal system, law and order, and a thriving economy in the West Bank, that is much more likely to make them willing to negotiate successfully for establishing a Palestinian state. That is what has to come first.

So you think that just trying to get talks going for the sake of talks is a mistake?

I do, and the example I would give you is Annapolis [where the United States in November 2007 launched a meeting with all Middle East nations to get peace talks started]. The United States can always get talks going if it tries hard enough. The question then is where do they go? And we saw in the case of Annapolis that they did not go anywhere. I suppose that if the administration concentrates almost exclusively on getting a negotiation going, it can get a negotiation going, but it isn't going to go very far. Both the Palestinians and Israel will ultimately decide that their relations with the United States are important enough to sit at the table together, but that's not a formula for successful negotiations; that's just a formula for keeping the United States off your back.

It does recall the efforts of the Carter administration to try to get a grand negotiation going, but it wasn't until Egypt's President Anwar Sadat took the initiative for direct Israeli-Egyptian talks that things got rolling.

That is an important point because the real impetus for those talks, which led to the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement in March 1979, didn't come from the United States, but from Sadat. It would suggest that when the parties are ready to have a successful negotiation, they will do it whether we like it or not. And our pressure on them, while it leads them to the table, does not lead them to successful negotiations if they're not ready.

And you think at the moment they're not ready?

That's right. I think that the Palestinians are not ready to go back to the table until there is a settlement freeze first; second, they are divided between Hamas-Gaza and Fatah-West Bank, and thirdly, one has to remember that Fatah and the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which runs Fatah, are facing a generational leadership change. President Mahmoud Abbas, who is the head of the Fatah party, the head of the PLO, and the head of the Palestinian Authority, has announced that he is not going to run again. In fact this month, his term and the term of the legislature are, by anybody's definition, up. They will stay in office until an election can be held. But sooner or later, an election does have to be held, and if Abbas doesn't run again, there is no obvious candidate for replacing him. So they are in the middle of a kind of political crisis, and that is not a great moment for negotiations with the Israelis.

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