As if Israel didn’t have enough trouble with a strengthened Iran and random Palestinian terror attacks, Elliott Abrams noted another cause for concern: the recent loss of two world leaders who were strongly pro-Israel.
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott was ousted by his own party in Australia during Rosh Hashanah, and Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper lost the election Oct. 19.
“That’s not to say that their successors will not be basically pro-Israel. Canada and Australia both have a pretty long record of being pro-Israel, but one has to wonder whether they’ll be quite as actively pro-Israel as they’ve been under those two guys,” said Abrams, a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. “Israel does have other friends, but fundamentally its security is tied to the United States, and that’s why it is such a significant issue for the American Jewish community.”
Abrams, who served in Ronald Reagan’s State Department and on George W. Bush’s National Security Council, will talk about Israel’s security as the guest speaker at Israel Bonds’ 2015 Community Tribute Dinner, honoring Gov. Nathan Deal, on Tuesday, Nov. 3.
Abrams talked to the AJT from Washington on Thursday, Oct. 22.
AJT: Why do you support Israel Bonds?
Abrams: It’s a form of support for Israel at a particularly difficult time for them. The Israel Bonds organization has made a tremendous contribution to Israel really from the founding of the state. It’s a consensus organization that everybody in the American Jewish community supports, and they’ve been very important to the Israeli economy over time.
AJT: How should the United States and the American Jewish community respond to the stabbings and other attacks in Israel?
Abrams: I testified on this in the House Foreign Affairs Committee this morning. There was a hearing on the incitement questions. One way we can respond, I think, is we have not been tough enough with the Palestinian leadership on the question of incitement, which is really a word for teaching hatred. … You see the Palestinian leadership now still saying things that are clearly going to incite more violence — President (Mahmoud) Abbas, for example, making statements about the Temple Mount that are just bound to create rather than resolve a difficult situation. So that’s one thing that the United States needs to do much better at, bringing pressure on the Palestinian leadership to stop the incitement. And obviously we’re going to need to give support to Israel in international organizations, where it continues to be maltreated.
AJT: Do you think Israel will be a significant issue in the 2016 elections?
Abrams: No, I don’t because I think that Democrats and Republicans at this point agree that we have a tense relationship, and we need to improve it, and I think it will improve regardless of which party wins the election.
AJT: How should they do that?
Abrams: I think that one of the ways the United States can improve the relationship is to understand the military-intelligence relationship is largely hidden. Experts may know about it; some of it is even classified. Most Arabs, most Europeans don’t know about it. What they see is the political relationship and the diplomatic relationship. And if they see a greater distance between the U.S. and Israel at the United Nations or if they see greater criticism from the State Department spokesman, I think what tends to happen is that they attack Israel more. The Europeans, I think, triangulate. They do not want to be closer to Israel than we are. So they take a look at U.S.-Israel relations, and they want to be further away. So tension between the U.S. and Israel is not only bad in itself, but it leads to greater tension between Israel and Europe, and it leads to greater trouble for Israel in the United Nations. So I think we need to patch up the diplomatic side.
AJT: How can the United States help build Israel-Arab ties?
Abrams: There’s a limit to how far that relationship can go by itself because of Arab public opinion. So even countries that are developing some kind of secret government-to-government relationship or even intel-to-intel relationship don’t want to talk about it. I do think that there is a possibility here for the United States to talk to the Saudis in particular about the 2002 Saudi peace plan that was later adopted by the Arab League and see if they’re willing to acknowledge that that was not meant to be a take-it-or-leave it proposal, that it can be the basis for negotiations, and then see how far we can get getting Israelis and Arabs to at least talk about changes on the West Bank. I don’t think this is the moment where we can talk about a comprehensive peace agreement. For one reason, we’re at the beginning of the succession on the Palestinian side, so this is a time when no Palestinian leader or would-be leader is going to make politically risky concessions. But I do think that Israelis and Arabs could talk about ways to make life better for Palestinians living in the West Bank.
AJT: In what ways can life be made better for the Palestinians?
Abrams: Well, start economically. There’s more that can be done. (Benjamin) Netanyahu has actually done more than his predecessors in ways to improve life economically in the West Bank. More Israeli Arabs who are richer are shopping in the West Bank. Palestinian traders, now about 10,000, have permits to go to Israel to buy goods they then sell in the West Bank. Prior to this terrorism, there were up to, I think, close to 100,000 Palestinians working in Israel every day, which is obviously terrific for their economy. A lot of checkpoints, obstacles, barriers have been removed in the West Bank, so that mobility is a lot better. … There are things that can be done on giving them more autonomy. Ultimately, one would think there’s the possibility of talking about the settlements beyond the fence, a freezing of new construction beyond the fence, in exchange for certain things from the Arabs.
AJT: Is there a risk that the Palestinian leadership, at least abroad, doesn’t want economic improvements, that they want the misery to keep driving the uprisings?
Abrams: Yes, certainly for Hamas. They have an interest in economic improvement in Gaza. They don’t have an interest in economic improvement on the West Bank. … What I said today in part was that Hamas and Abbas are playing the same nasty game. Hamas wants things calm in Gaza and is trying to foment terrorism in the West Bank and Jerusalem. And Abbas, who rules in the West Bank, wants things quiet there, so there continues to be security cooperation between the PA security forced and Israel to keep things calm on the West Bank. But he doesn’t care about things being riled up in Israel, including in Jerusalem. So his own rhetoric is terrible.
Abrams: The terrorists are disproportionately from East Jerusalem, and I think that’s because it is a kind of no man’s land. The Palestinian police are obviously not permitted to work there because it’s part of Israel, but the Israeli police don’t have a great presence there either, and Jerusalem municipal services are much worse in East Jerusalem than they are in West Jerusalem. It is not fully integrated from the point of view of municipal services. … When this crisis is over, the Israelis really need to think this through again. Either these places should be part of Jerusalem, or they shouldn’t. If they should, then they need to be treated exactly as West Jerusalem is. If they shouldn’t, then they should reverse the decision that expanded the size of Jerusalem significantly in 1967.
AJT: How much can Israel focus on the Palestinians in the next few years with Iran knocking on the door?
Abrams: Prior to this terrorist outbreak, people were thinking much more about Iran and Syria, and that is true about the Arab side too. … It’s very striking how little you hear the Israeli-Palestinian conflict even mentioned as opposed to discussions of Syria and Iraq and Iran and Libya, Yemen, things that are happening elsewhere in the Arab world. So it’s difficult, but I do think the old line is still true. These two peoples share this space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean. It’s clear that what Israelis want is a successful separation with security from the Palestinians. So they need to keep thinking about more successful and safer ways to separate.
AJT: What do you see as the impact of the money spigot being turned on for Iran?
Abrams: So far, so bad. So far we have seen an increase in what I would call aggressive activity. Iranian presence in Syria is much greater. The head of the Quds Force is there right now. Newspaper reports suggest that thousands more Shia forces have been sent there — some of them Iranian forces, some of them Iraqi, some of them from further afield like Afghanistan. … The missile test, which our government believes is a clear violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions, has also happened since the signing of the agreement. So all the evidence suggests that this agreement will embolden Iran, and they haven’t gotten 10 cents out of it yet.
AJT: How should the next administration respond?
Abrams: The larger picture I think is that Arabs and Israelis are convinced that the United States is basically withdrawing from the region and is agreeing to Iranian and now Russian leadership and even hegemony in the region. They will decide what will happen to Syria, not the Syrians, not the United States. So that needs to be turned around. … Hillary Clinton has suggested no-fly zones and humanitarian corridors in Syria; I agree with that. Whether that will make sense 15 months, 18 months from now is impossible to say, but I think that’s the kind of thing we need to think of. It’s an assertion of American power. … We need to take a very hard look at the new nuclear deal and whether we want to keep it. Most of the Republicans say they do not. They seem to be debating only on whether to get out of it on Day 1 or on Day 10 or something. Hillary Clinton obviously was a supporter of it, but if Iranian behavior by then is as bad as I think it’s going to be, then she would as president also have to think about ways to reimpose sanctions.
What: Israel Bonds Community Tribute Dinner
Where: InterContinental, Buckhead, 3315 Peachtree Road
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday, Nov. 3
Tickets: $150; firstname.lastname@example.org or 404-817-3500