Middle East peace: Elliott Abrams asks whether President Obama has learned from the past

By MARCELLA KREITER, United Press International  |  Feb. 10, 2013 at 4:30 AM
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With U.S. President Barack Obama preparing to travel within weeks to the Middle East in hopes of jump starting peace talks, former Reagan and Bush administrations figure Elliott Abrams is wondering whether the current administration has learned from the mistakes of its predecessors.

"If you're doing exactly the same things, making the same mistakes, you're not going to be successful," Abrams said in an interview with UPI in advance of Tuesday's publication of his book, "Tested by Zion: The Bush administration and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict."

The Harvard- and London School of Economics-educated Abrams, who served as an assistant secretary of state during the Reagan administration and was a deputy assistant to the president and deputy national security adviser to President George W. Bush, holds out little hope the Israelis and Palestinians can reach a "grand bargain," especially now that the Arab Spring has brought so much instability to the region.

Abrams' book hammers home the point that as long as Palestine Liberation Organization Chairman Yasser Arafat was alive, no progress was going to be made because Arafat was a terrorist at heart and had no interest in resolving the conflict or relinquishing any control.

Arafat died in 2004. Abrams questions why Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has been reluctant to reach a deal.

"With the divisions among Palestinians, with the growing strength of Hamas, Palestinian leaders are afraid to sign anything," Abrams said. "They are afraid they will be accused of treason, of being executed. I think it is fair to blame Arafat for the broader failure of Palestinian leadership."

Abrams said people forget the United Nations' formal establishment of Israel in 1948 was merely an announcement of something that was 80 years in the making -- beginning in the 19th century, when Jews began trying to carve out a Jewish homeland in Palestine, in response to growing anti-Semitism in Eastern Europe.

Immigration began in earnest in 1882 with the founding of agricultural settlements, and efforts were under way just before the turn of the century to reach a political agreement for a Jewish homeland -- culminating in the 1917 Balfour Declaration and 1922 League of Nations declaration. Jews then began buying up land from feudal landlords in anticipation of establishing their own state.

"If there is going to be a state of Palestine, it is going to be built institution by institution over time," he said.

"We're not helping if we give the impression that if we sit around a table for three days, it will be OK. It's not true that people know what a final deal will look like. In the near future, I don't see how a comprehensive agreement is possible.

"In recent years people have said rightly one of the mistakes [former President Bill] Clinton made is he only worked with the Israelis and Palestinians. He didn't get the other Arab countries involved. The Palestinians want cover. If the Arab states say, 'This is a good deal,' if they say that, the conflict is over.

"That made more sense five or 10 years ago."

Now all bets are off, Abrams said, with the Muslim Brotherhood in charge in Egypt, conflict raging in Syria and instability growing in Jordan.

The Israelis, he said, realize they will have to take some risks but the trick is to determine what amounts to a foolish risk and the question of Iran's nuclear program complicates the analysis.

Yet, despite all that, it's "not a mistake" for Obama to make the trip now, although one earlier in his tenure would have been better, Abrams said.

"The question is what he will say and what he thinks he's doing," Abrams said.

It was a mistake for the Palestinians to go to the United Nations and seek an upgrade to non-member observer state status, just as it was an error for Israel to make a big deal about it, Abrams argues.

"You don't wave a magic wand. [The action] changes nothing, means nothing," he said, acknowledging, however, the Palestinians now have the ability to go before the International Criminal Court at The Hague, Netherlands, and lodge charges against Israeli leaders.

"I hope one of the messages the president carries, face-to-face, is, 'Don't do it. It not only will screw up relations with Israel, you'll screw up relations with the United States,'" Abrams said.

Abrams said Israelis are right to resent U.S. pressure on them to make concessions when little is asked of the Palestinians, and warned U.S. diplomats against getting "right back in the old rut: shooting for a final settlement in weeks or months, demanding Israel stop construction not only of settlements but in Jerusalem. If that's the route the U.S. takes, we're really going to get nowhere."

Abrams said there's little evidence the Europeans have learned much or changed their position but throwing newly appointed U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry into the mix just might shake things up.

"In 2011, Kerry said publicly he thought this kind of obsession with settlements was a mistake and had wasted a year-and-a-half at that point," Abrams said. "Maybe there's some kind of recognition there. ... Maybe he's learned lessons."

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