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A Conservative View on the Middle East

February 25, 2009

Washington D.C. – On the eve of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s much anticipated visit to the Middle East, Elliott Abrams, former senior adviser on the Near and Middle East to the Bush Administration and currently senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, outlined the challenges Clinton will face as the new top U.S. diplomat, and portrayed a gloom state of affairs in the region, at the core of which is the stand-still in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“There’s very little belief, in the Middle East, that political negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians are possible,” Abrams, a leading neoconservative who was involved in the Iran-Contra scandal, said in a conference call with reporters. Currently, it is impossible to say who would even be a legitimate representative of either party at a negotiating table. In addition to a long-standing split within the Palestinian camp – where the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) represents only a part of the population, the other having embraced Hamas — the general elections recently held in Israel, and which have yet to yield a national government, only contributed to complicating the picture.

According to Abrams, the hope for a broad base coalition that would include both Likud and Kadima parties, an option more conducive to dialogue with the Palestinians, has already been crashed. Despite widespread popular support for such a solution, and Likud leader and Prime Minister-Designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts, Kadima’s Tzipi Livni is resistant to aligning her party with Israel’s more conservative factions. “The U.S. would prefer a broader base government,” Abrams said. Nevertheless, it unlikely that Washington will put any direct pressure on Livni. “It’s hard to know what the outcome of a direct intervention would be, and how Kadima would react to it,” Abrams explained.

Political negotiations over the future of Palestine have been languishing for a long time. Discussions have long reached a point where the minimum the Palestinian Authority is willing to accept is more than the maximum the Israeli Government is willing to concede. Increased Palestinian ambitions make things worse. In Abrams’ opinion, the idea that the creation of a Palestinian state is a matter of urgency and should be attended to immediately is relatively new and was not, for example, part of the road-map. The road-map contemplated incremental steps and an interim stage before a state could ever be created. “I think these issues shouldn’t be taboo. One can envision many different combinations beyond what the Palestinian Authority wants now,” Abrams claimed.

Because of the unlikelihood that a political agreement will be reached in the near-term, Abrams encouraged all parties involved to focus on a step-by-step approach aimed at improving material standards of living in the West Bank, leaving Gaza aside for the time being. “The economy in the West Bank has not collapsed yet. It is actually in a decent state. Even more could be achieved if the Israelis loosened road blocks and checkpoints. We should work to strengthen some of those Palestinian institutions, like the police force, that one day will be needed for a Palestinian state,” Abrams advised.

In this context, Abrams believes that the issue of Jewish settlements in the territories should be downgraded. In his opinion, population growth in the settlements doesn’t have, per se, a huge impact on the daily lives of Palestinians, nor does it hamper the possibility of the creation of a Palestinian state. The real problem lies, instead, in potential land expansion. However, according to Abrams, there has been little evidence of this in recent years. “The U.S. should tell Israel to exercise pressure on its settlers to avoid outgrowth of the settlements. For the rest, we should keep our ammunitions for issues that affect Palestinians more deeply,” Abrams advised.

As for Gaza itself, the Israeli blockade still stands. As a consequence only humanitarian supplies (i.e. medicines and food) are being allowed in, while other kinds of products, for example materials needed for reconstruction efforts, are not. “I don’t think Netanyahu will mend this position,” Abrams predicted, indicating that one, although difficult, possibility would be to get these supplies into Gaza through Egypt. “The Egyptians will be resistant because they don’t want the Israelis to offload Gaza on them,” Abrams explained. Things are further complicated by the fact that Israel considers an even more porous border between Egypt and Gaza as a potential threat in terms of arms smuggling. The Israelis are convinced, and many Egyptians agree, that Iranian weapons come into Gaza via the tunnels under the Egyptian border. Reportedly, most arms shipments leave Iran by sea, circumnavigate the Gulf of Aden, and ultimately stop short of the Suez Canal and hit land in places such as Somalia and Eritrea, finally arriving in Gaza via land.

In the context of Iran, Abrams criticized the Obama Administration’s new approach. Irrespective of whether or not the U.S might eventually start direct diplomacy with Teheran, Abrams believes that Washington should have never taken the military option off the table. “We need to keep the Iranians off balance and we need to keep them worried,” Abrams said. “Instead, I think we left the Iranians with the feeling that the possibility of a U.S. strike is totally out of the question,” he regretted.

While it appears increasingly unlikely that the U.S. will attack Iran, it is hard to predict what Israel might do. “They do see Iran as an existential threat and they believe that a nuclear Iran could trigger a second holocaust,” Abrams explained. According to him, Israel will have to consider how effective a military strike could be and assess the political and social consequences it would have. Abrams disagreed that attacking Iran would trigger a backlash and increase support for the regime. While he conceded that this could happen in the short run, a military intervention could cause the Iranian people to doubt their choice of leadership in the long run.

Finally, Elliott Abrams touched on the nomination of Dennis Ross to be Secretary Clinton’s special adviser to South West Asia and the Persian Gulf. The choice of Ross, criticized in Iran for his pro-Israel stances, had long been expected and turned out to be for a less significant role than what had been anticipated.
“I’m not sure why he wasn’t officially nominated for Iran. There are many speculations as to why that happened,” Abrams said. Interestingly, Ross has not been given the role of an envoy, such as George Mitchell for the Middle East, and is not tasked with outreach. Rather, Ross might be assigned to a behind-the-scene role of private consultations with Secretary Clinton. Clearly, Ross’ final job will also depend on what approach the Obama Administration decides to take toward Iran and on when any form of direct engagement might actually start.

Originally reported and written for Washington Prism

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