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Return to Sender

Author: Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
June 27, 2011
Weekly Standard


There is never a shortage of Middle East peace plans, and another has recently been proposed by a set of Washington luminaries—some with considerable Middle East experience and some with none at all. This new plan, dated June 23 and published in the New York Review of Books, appears to be a reaction to President Obama's speech at the State Department on May 19.

In that speech the president adopted a new policy: Israeli-Palestinian negotiations should be based on the “1967 lines” with agreed land swaps. This position had previously been that of the Palestinian side, and Obama's adherence to it undermined Israel's negotiating position. It means, for example, that the Western Wall of the ancient Temple, Judaism's holiest place but conquered by Jordan in 1948, is to be regarded as legitimately part of Palestine, such that Israel must trade some of its own pre-1967 territory to keep it.

But the president did not propose any actions: no conference, no new envoy, no invitations to Washington, nothing. He did not even dispatch Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to tour the area, in the traditional substitution of motion for progress. There was, as Rob Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has explained, “a policy without a strategy. It is no surprise, therefore, that others have begun to fill the vacuum—a development that is almost always unwelcome.”

Satloff describes recent efforts to fill the vacuum, the first of which was a nasty op-ed by the former Saudi intelligence chief and (briefly) ambassador to Washington Turki al-Faisal, who threatened “disastrous consequences for U.S.-Saudi relations if the United States vetoes U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state.” We have all heard those threats before, and this one, from someone not even holding a government job, is less scary than most. Surrounded by the Arab Spring and the menace of Iran, the Saudis are about as likely to break with us over this matter as the French were to break relations with the United States and the United Kingdom in 1940.

The French recently made an effort to fill the perceived Middle East vacuum with a conference, and that effort was dismissed so quickly by Secretary Clinton that Israeli prime minister Bibi Netanyahu didn't even have time to send an Israeli rejection. More recently the EU foreign minister, Lady Ashton, proposed a new Quartet initiative, presumably because the EU is part of the Quartet and this would give the European chancelleries a piece of the action. For that reason alone this initiative is unrealistic and doomed, although it may prove useful if it provides EU member states an additional excuse to vote against the Palestinian statehood resolution in the U.N. General Assembly.

And now comes the open letter to President Obama from a group including many famous names: Zbigniew Brzezinski, Lee Hamilton, Frank Carlucci, Thomas Pickering, Sandra Day O'Connor, and James Wolfensohn are just a few. Their letter proposes fierce pressure on Israel, and they know this is a tough sell, so the final paragraph sympathizes with the president and tells him how he can do this:

We understand, Mr. President, that the initiative we propose you take to end the suffering and statelessness of the Palestinian people and efforts to undermine Israel's legitimacy is not without political risks. But we believe that if the American people are fully informed by their President of the likely consequences of an abandonment of U.S. leadership in a part of the world so critical to this country's national security and to the safety of our military personnel in the region, he will have their support.

So the message seems to be that supporters of Israel aren't going to like this proposal one bit, but you can beat them. You can beat them especially if you say that the lives of American troops are at risk as a result of our policy of supporting Israel. This is a terrible argument for many reasons; for one thing it suggests tacitly that the pro-Israel community is not part of “the American people” to whom the policy must be explained. Moreover, it suggests that those who might be tempted to disagree are simply ignorant and not “fully informed.” In so doing it smacks of the arguments that our policy is the product of the “Jewish lobby” and that it is supported merely by Christian evangelicals who are uneducated and know no better.

So what does this letter actually propose that will present the president with “political risks”? It proposes that the United States give up on the “peace process” and impose conditions of our own, and threaten dire consequences should Israel balk.

First comes the analysis:

Left to their own devices, it is the vast disparity of power between the two parties rather than international law and fairness that will continue to prevail. The experience of these past two years has surely not suggested any other possible outcome.

So, the problem is that Israel is blocking progress. The Palestinians, who since January 2009 have refused to come to the negotiating table, are exempted from any criticism.

The Israelis now face what they “perceive to be a global movement that seeks their country's delegitimization.” They perceive wrongly, the letter argues:

But it is not the State of Israel within its 1967 borders that is being challenged. It is Israel's occupation, the relentless enlargement of its settlements, its dispossession of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and in East Jerusalem, and the humanitarian disaster caused by its blockade of Gaza that are the target of international anger and condemnation.

Again, it is Israel and Israel alone that is to blame for the failure to reach peace. And the terminology here is emotive: relentless, dispossession, disaster. The argument is odd. This “relentless enlargement” did not prevent Ehud Olmert from offering more land to the Palestinians in 2009 than Ehud Barak offered in 2000. Gaza has a border with Egypt that not only the Mubarak regime but the new Egyptian government as well patrols carefully and does not allow to be opened fully, yet only Israel is blamed for conditions in Gaza. Moreover, the notion that “international anger and condemnation” are caused by the settlements and the Gaza situation is a bizarre one coming from the signers, who are old enough to remember the wars of 1948, 1956, and 1967 before there was one single settlement—and to recall the U.N.'s “Zionism is Racism” resolution in 1975, which received 72 votes in the General Assembly.

Given this analysis that Israel is to blame for -everything, the proposed framework is logical. There are six points.

(1) “The United States will oppose any effort to challenge or undermine the legitimacy of the State of Israel within internationally recognized borders,” which suggests that we will not oppose undermining Israel today or tomorrow, when it has no such borders.

(2) “The United States will work for the establishment of a sovereign and viable Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, subject only to agreed, minor and equal land swaps to take into account areas adjoining the former Green Line heavily populated by Israelis .  .  .” President Obama's suggestion of using the 1967 lines as a base was not enough, and the United States should further undermine Israel's negotiating position by demanding that any swaps be “minor” and that any settlement not right on the Green Line, such as Ariel (population 18,000), be abandoned.

(3) Any solution to the refugee problem cannot flood Israel with Arabs and destroy its character as a Jewish state, so that “proposals for unlimited entry of Palestinian refugees into the State of Israel will be opposed by the United States.” But this formulation of course suggests that proposals for “limited entry” would not be opposed, meaning that an Israeli policy of refusing any such entry is likely to be viewed as obstructionist—yet another Israeli obstacle to peace.

(4) As part of a peace agreement, “the United States will support the presence of a U.S.-led multinational force to oversee security provisions and border crossings.” It is a surprise to see this proposal for yet another overseas military commitment at a time when there is so much pressure for withdrawal of forces from Afghanistan and Iraq and cuts in the defense budget. And given the nature of the terrorist threat to Israel, how an effective multinational force could be organized is mysterious. In an analogous situation, the international force in Lebanon has failed completely to restrain or disarm Hezbollah.

(5) Jerusalem will be divided between Israel and Palestine and “each side” will control its own holy places. Among many other problems, what this means for the Christian holy places and the entire Armenian Quarter is not specified.

(6) “The United States will encourage the reconciliation of Fatah and Hamas on terms compatible with these principles and UNSC Resolutions 242 and 338.” So there is no precise call for Hamas to adhere to the Quartet Principles, requiring it to abandon terrorism, recognize Israel's right to exist, and adhere to previous agreements. Instead, the United States will move from treating Hamas as a terrorist group, which it is a crime to support, to “encouraging” Fatah to reconcile with it.

These proposals would cause the president political damage, not political risk. Further damage would be caused were he ever to adopt not only these positions but in addition the threatening attitude that is proposed. In his cover letter, Lee Hamilton explains:

Prospects for the implementation of these principles depend entirely on an understanding by both parties that there are consequences for their rejection. .  .  . In his speech, President Obama omitted reference to consequences. We believe the cost-benefit calculations of neither party will be changed without that understanding.

So these are not to be American proposals, but an American ultimatum to Israel. It is striking that the toughest language, about “consequences” and changing Israel's “cost-benefit calculations,” is found not in the letter to the president but only in the introductory description from Lee Hamilton. Whether all of the signers agree with this approach cannot be certain, but it must be assumed that all of this was hashed out in advance.

The analysis and the proposals made in this letter reveal that many of America's most experienced former senior officials now blame Israel alone for the freeze in Middle East peace negotiations. And they believe that Israel should be forced into compromises and sacrifices under enormous American pressure, even if the vast majority of Israelis oppose them and view them as dangerous. This is, to use State Department terminology, “deeply disturbing,” even if the likelihood that any president would accept this advice is small.

No doubt the signers of the letter are frustrated that, in the age of the Arab Spring, there is no visible progress toward ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But as we all celebrate the demands for democracy in Arab lands, we can be thankful that American democracy remains strong. This fact ensures that neither the president nor Congress would ever accept the demands made here: to blame Israel alone for the failure to reach a peace agreement, threaten her, adopt positions that undermine her security, and abandon pledges made by American presidents of both parties.

Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, was a deputy national security adviser in the George W. Bush administration.

This article appears in full on by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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