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Sunday, February 15, 2009

The 'resident skeptic'

We Jews refer to someone who has important family relations as having yichus. Among Anglos in Israel, it seems that Ruthie Blum Leibowitz - a regular JPost columnist who frequently interviews important people for the JPost's weekend edition - has amazing yichus among neo-conservatives. She is the daughter of Norman Podhoretz and the sister of John Podhoretz - both well-known neo-conservative commentators. It turns out that she is also the sister-in-law of Elliot Abrams, who until recently was deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser for global democracy strategy, in which capacity he supervised both human rights efforts and US policy in the Middle East. Abrams (pictured at top left) was the subject of Ruthie's interview in this weekend's JPost. I'm going to give you a small bit of the interview, but you really must read the whole thing (it's six screens on your computer). Note especially what he says about why what 'everyone knows' is the 'solution' to the 'Palestinian question' hasn't happened.
There is a point of contention in this country over the question of which was the chicken, so to speak, and which the egg, regarding the disengagement initiative. Some maintain that Bush, being the friendliest US president Israel ever had, would have gone along with anything Sharon deemed beneficial to Israel's security. Others argue that it was precisely because of Sharon's willingness to withdraw from territory that the administration in Washington was so supportive. Which is it?

Disengagement was not an American initiative. The US did not say to the Israeli government: "You need to get out of Gaza." Discussions of this sort had been going on for years, not only during Bush's tenure, but also during the Clinton administration. For example, there was a question of whether Israel would go back to the September 28, 2000 lines in the West Bank, and whether the Palestinian security forces could cope with terrorism there if Israel withdrew. The answer from the IDF was no. The Israelis told us that it would be very dangerous, both physically - in the sense that more terrorism might ensue - and politically, because if the risk were taken and a significant act of terrorism did ensue, it would blow up any negotiations that were then taking place.

The same question was asked about whether there could be some kind of withdrawal from Gaza. The Israeli government said no - such a withdrawal would be bargained for at some point in the future. Then came disengagement.

Sharon's decision to pull out of Gaza, therefore, was not a surprise to us in the sense that doing so was something that had been talked about for years. But the timing certainly was a surprise.

So, when Sharon came to visit Bush's ranch in Crawford, the president asked him about it. Now, obviously, what politicians and statesmen tell each other is not necessarily exactly what they think. But Sharon's answer, as I recall, was that, after the defeat of the intifada, a vacuum was left in the Israeli-Palestinian front. And it was being filled with many, very energetic diplomatic proposals - mostly emanating from Europe - that were all damaging to Israel, all saying that now was the time for final-status negotiations.

"Let's have a conference," they were saying. "Let's reconvene Madrid."

And some Israelis and Palestinians came up with the Geneva Initiative, which Sharon hated. According to Sharon, these bad ideas were growing in importance, and he needed something to fill the vacuum that would be good, rather than bad, for Israel. Disengagement was it.

I've heard different theories from others, of course, such as that disengagement was purely a security decision. That is, it was crazy to put so many IDF resources into protecting such a small number of Israelis, especially when there were so many other things - including the West Bank and the Syrian border - to worry about. I've also heard the "poison pill" theory, according to which Sharon did not believe that, given this opportunity to rule Gaza, the Palestinians would prove to be able to have a democracy that would show all Israelis that if Israel then pulled out of the West Bank, they'd be getting a peaceful, friendly, democratic neighbor. This theory goes that Sharon thought the Palestinians would blow it, and that this was a way of showing the world that a two-state solution had to be delayed until such time as the Palestinians could govern themselves properly. If that was his theory, it seems to have worked.

What about the theory that disengagement was Sharon's "keep-out-of-jail" ticket via media support?

From the point of view of the US government, all these speculations were largely irrelevant, once he made the decision to do it, and we fully supported that decision.


Speaking of factors which determine policy, in his second term, Bush moved his national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, to the State Department. In her new capacity as secretary of state, her policies seemed to move to the left. Was this a function of her change of address? Why is there usually a difference between the way the White House and the State Department view the Middle East?

There is almost always a difference where Israeli-Palestinian issues are concerned. There isn't much new to say on this topic, about which at least 50 books have been written, going back to the 1940s and the foundation of the State of Israel. It is partly because the State Department is less concerned with domestic politics than the White House is, and partly because the cadre of officials who handle Middle East affairs in the State Department are people who are mostly trained in Arabic - and who spend the bulk of their careers in Arab countries - rather than having a knowledge of Hebrew and being posted in Israel. This is not to say that they are anti-Semitic or hostile to Israel, as some people suggest. I think that is actually false. It does mean, however, that they lack an understanding of Israel.

In Bush's first term, the White House's relationship with the State Department changed after 9/11. During the election campaign of 2000, it was generally thought that then-governor Bush didn't know much about foreign policy or national security affairs, and that Colin Powell would lead on that front, while the president's main concern would be domestic. Whether that was true or not - or whether it would have been true under normal circumstances - is irrelevant, because 9/11 happened. And he became a wartime president. But I don't think secretary Powell made that shift in his own mind. In any event, the president took over. He then moved all the really important national-security decision-making to the White House. Take Powell's trips to the Middle East and Israel. The view of the press people accompanying him, and of some State Department officials, was that each trip was less significant than the previous one, and that the State Department was becoming visibly less significant in making policy.

Now, this all changed when Condi - Bush's closest adviser - became secretary of state. The role of the State Department then became much more important, though it depended on the issue. For example, when it came to Iraq, the State Department was far less important, because Iraq policy was really being made by the president, the vice president, the secretary of defense and the joint chiefs. But there were other areas of policy in which the State Department was very directly and deeply involved. Palestinian-Israeli affairs was one of them. The other was North Korea. In both cases, policy was essentially made in the State Department.

In this area, you have a kind of organizational problem. You want the president - any president - to get a variety of opinions and to make choices based on them. And when the secretary of state is by far his closest foreign policy adviser, you sometimes don't get the full panoply of advice. In the Reagan and Bush administrations, there was the view - it will be interesting to see whether it will be so in the Obama administration, as well - that policy disputes should be ironed out at the level of cabinet principals: the national security adviser, the secretary of defense, the secretary of state, the chairman of the joint chiefs, the head of the CIA, etc. The idea was that you don't go to the president with these fights; you go to the president with a solution, with a policy proposal that reflects a consensus.

This has always seemed to me to be a gigantic mistake. When people of that rank and office have policy disagreements, the president should hear them, and be allowed to choose among the options that are being debated. He should not be presented with a homogenized, consensus, compromised position. There's an old story told about the way the State Department works: There are always three options, one of which is so weak, another of which is so over-the-top strong, that it's obvious the middle one is the one you're going to choose. And it's true! Well, it's a mistake, and presidents should not permit that kind of thing. And I think that in the case of Middle East policy, it happened all too often.

So I was the resident skeptic. We were hearing, both from secretary Rice and from prime minister Olmert that there was a very good chance of concluding a final-status agreement. I never believed this, neither before Annapolis nor after. So I was always like a little black cloud in all these meetings, saying, "I don't think this is going to happen."

Why were you skeptical?

Because others said that the solution here, the eventual deal, was pretty well understood on both sides - that there weren't a million possibilities for where the border between Israel and the Palestinian state would be. The same with regard to Jerusalem. Therefore, they said, it won't take all that much negotiating to get there. That was the conventional wisdom. But it seemed to me that the opposite view was right: that if everybody knows what a deal has to look like, and year after year and decade after decade, it is not possible to reach it, isn't it obvious that it's because neither side wants that deal? Now, the reasons for not wanting it can vary, and they can also change over time, but it does seem to me that if everybody knows what the options are, and the most Israel can offer is less than the least the Palestinians can accept, the solution is not close at hand.

Furthermore, no agreement would be implemented immediately. It would be a so-called shelf agreement. This was obvious in the road map, which was a step-by-step plan. From the Israeli point of view, this seemed to me to be problematic, because once a deal were to be signed, there would be a lot of international pressure to implement it, even if the Palestinians weren't really ready - even if, for example, they had not defeated terrorism, as the road map requires, and dismantled all terrorist organizations.

From the Palestinian point of view, it was also problematic. They would need to make a number of compromises. They would not be getting what the Arab plan calls for, which is a return to the pre-June 1967 situation. And what would they get in exchange? Not a Palestinian state. Only an Israeli promise that some years down the road, when they have fulfilled all the conditions of the road map, would they get a state. Well, what Palestinian leader is going to be able to make all those compromises up front, in exchange for an Israeli promise? It did not seem to me then - and it does not seem to me now - that we're on the verge of a final-status agreement.

Did Bush and Rice make a real distinction between Fatah and Hamas? Was their only question about PA President Mahmoud Abbas whether he was strong enough or supported enough internally to do what it takes to implement the road map?

Yes. Theirs was the American view that, after the death of Arafat, the Palestinian leadership no longer viewed terrorism as either legitimate or sensible, and that they now genuinely wanted a peace agreement. One difficulty was that while the Palestinian leadership was finally becoming more sensible, extremism and terrorism were on the rise in the Arab world as a whole. So they were now doing this against a background that was even less propitious for moderation than it would have been 20 years earlier.
Like I said, it's a fascinating interview. Read the whole thing.


At 3:09 PM, Blogger NormanF said...

There much to said for the step by step approach. It could work if the Palestinians were ready to accept Israel as a natural partner. But no Palestinian leader exists who is a moderate and who can sell the "street" on the need to compromise going forward to statehood. Whatever Israel can offer at a given point, will never be enough for the other side to make it work.

And its not necessary to point why a comprehensive agreement will never end the conflict between the two sides, at least insofar as there is no chance of really bridging the gap between their respective positions. And given the distance between where they are now and where they need to be to get that done, that's a tall order for any American Administration.

The Middle East does not lend itself to a quick fix solution.

At 3:46 PM, Blogger Red Tulips said...


Please read of my encounter wiith Elliott Abrams. It might shed some light on what he thinks and has to say.

My interaction with Elliott Abrams.

My conclusion is that it appears that Mr. Abrams knows the truth about Abu Mazen and the fake 'moderate' status of the Palestinian Authority, but he somehow feels the need to life to himself to get through the day.

Quite fascinating.

At 12:25 PM, Blogger Chris Schoneveld said...

If only Israel had restricted its justifiable occupation of the West Bank and Gaza to a military presence the conflict would have been solved years ago. I blame the past Israeli governments for allowing the building of settlements and the past US governments for not putting enough pressure on Israel to stop this illegal expansion of lebensraum. The ludicrous orthodox dogma of claiming land on religious pretences is the true cause for the duration and sheer hopelessness of this conflict.


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