Elliott Abrams

Pressure Points

Abrams gives his take on U.S. foreign policy, with special focus on the Middle East and democracy and human rights issues.

Print Print Cite Cite
Style: MLA APA Chicago Close


Obama at AIPAC: Correcting Some Errors, Compounding Others

by Elliott Abrams
May 22, 2011

President Obama spoke to AIPAC today and addressed the controversy his Thursday speech had caused.

He met two criticisms by backing down. On Thursday he had not mentioned the “Quartet Principles.” Today he did, saying that Hamas must “accept the basic responsibilities of peace: recognizing Israel’s right to exist, rejecting violence, and adhering to all existing agreements.”

He also responded to the criticisms of his call for negotiations based on the “1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps.” Today the president said that:

“By definition, it means that the parties themselves – Israelis and Palestinians – will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967. It is a well known formula to all who have worked on this issue for a generation. It allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last forty-four years, including the new demographic realities on the ground and the needs of both sides.”

Here the president was admitting error while claiming he had not made one. The error on Thursday was not saying, as he did today, that any agreed border would be different from the 1967 line. But the president failed again to recognize that the 1967 line was actually the 1949 armistice line, and that a return to it should not merely reflect “changes that have taken place over the last forty-four years, including the new demographic realities on the ground.” In fact those lines would need to change even if not one settlement had ever been built. The changes must reflect Israel’s need for secure and defensible borders, which has long been the American position. Moreover the changes need to reflect that the 1949 lines were the product of aggressive war and were unjust: for example, the Western Wall of the ancient Temple was in Jordanian-occupied Jerusalem prior to the 1967 war, and is now–and obviously must remain–in Israel.

The president also failed to resolve one logical contradiction in his policy–one with considerable significance–perhaps because it is impossible to do so.

The contradiction is visible clearly in these lines he delivered: “we know that peace demands a partner – which is why I said that Israel cannot be expected to negotiate with Palestinians who do not recognize its right to exist, and we will hold the Palestinians accountable for their actions and their rhetoric.But the march to isolate Israel internationally – and the impulse of the Palestinians to abandon negotiations – will continue to gain momentum in the absence of a credible peace process and alternative.”

So Israel should and must negotiate, but Israel cannot be expected to negotiate. If Mr. Obama wonders about criticism–and he complained about it at AIPAC–he should ponder those lines in his own speech. He said today that “If there’s a controversy, then, it’s not based in substance. What I did on Thursday was to say publicly what has long been acknowledged privately.” Perhaps. It does seem that Israel is being pressured to negotiate even by those who “acknowledge privately” that it has no negotiating partner. Mr. Obama is in a separate category: he is pressuring Israel to negotiate even as he acknowledges publicly that it has no negotiating partner.

Post a Comment 9 Comments

  • Posted by Dean Smallwood

    Essentially President Obama is telling Israel ; “You must do what you cannot do” … Not at all helpful but typical of his approach to foreign policy . After all , he has nothing to lose but some credibility .
    Israel on the other hand …

  • Posted by Dan Friedman

    Anyway you slice or dice it, Abrams, CFR and the “diplomatic community” are trying desperately bring “the process” bad from the dead. Without it, what would they do with all those dark empty suits hanging in their closets?

  • Posted by Robert Sloan

    BHO repeatedly asserts that Israel and its leaders must determine their terms of negotiation. But the realities of the necessary support of America and BHO’s now publicly declared NEW terms of negotiation contradict those assertions.

  • Posted by Huckleberry CHIN

    Dear Mr. Abrams,

    I do not see a contradiction as you do in the argument that “Israel should and must negotiate, but Israel cannot be expected to negotiate”. I believe that your argument is flawed.

    Two parties must be at the table in order for negotiations to take place. If one party is unreasonable, it does not mean the other party should not show up. President Obama is speaking to Palestinians when he says “Israel cannot be expected to negotiate”. This is an important nuance. They say you can’t really understand a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. Here, Obama is trying get Palestinians to understand Israel’s perspective. How can you expect us (Israelis) to negotiate when you (Palestinians) want to completely eliminate us? I think this is a valid statement, and a very good question.

    But this question being pointed at Palestinians, does not mean Israel should not be willing to come to the table. Israel should fight for its rights, but it should absolutely make attempts to make peace.

    No party here has the right to walk away from the table. There is too much at stake. Too many lives, too much bloodshed over this. Once both parties agree to stay in the room, then let’s talk about who’s being reasonable or not being reasonable. But until then, Obama is sending Fatah and Hamas a message that they are, in fact, being unreasonable.

    So given this, I don’t understand why you find contradiction in Obama’s message to Israelis and Obama’s message to Palestinians. I feel that these messages are simple and appropriate to the given audience.

    Yours truly,
    Huckleberry CHIN

  • Posted by Adam Dobts

    There was another contradiction that seems to have gone unremarked upon. The president allows that the Palestinians will have to demonstrate the effectiveness of security arrangements as Israel withdraws (what does that mean, btw?) but also expects negotiations to be concluded on a timetable.

    This sets up an obvious moral hazard, precisely the one President Bush had sought to avoid with the roadmap. if the Palestinians know they’re going be able to establish an independent state on some given date, their incentive to genuinely comply with security arrangements or make the hard cultural choices that make real peace possible go away entirely. Instead, they just have to fake it long enough.

    Worse, as that date approaches and Hamas fails to recognize Israel, attitudes toward Hamas will ultimately prove more flexible than attitudes toward the date. Indeed, Abbas is already beginning to claim that the unity government is not in any way a Hamas govt but rather something that supersedes Hamas as well as the PA. This alone may be enough to wave away the Hamas problem in some quarters.

  • Posted by Marc Otte

    so no negotiations ever with the current protagonists?

  • Posted by Elliott Abrams

    To Amb. Otte: No negotiations with Hamas, for sure–at least while it remains what is today. To negotiate with the terrorist group Hamas when it continues to reject the three Quartet Principles would be to reward terror and undermine the more moderate Palestinian leadership.

  • Posted by Sallie Murphy

    Let’s see, Mr. Abrams —
    We negotiated with the North Vietnamese before they agreed to anything and we’re negotiating with the Taliban now. The Iranians haven’t given in to our demands but we’re negotiating with them too. There’s no need to negotiate with those who have already conceded defeat. A diktat suffices.
    You, Mr. Abrams, are like the fairytale king who says “Of course my daughter can marry the man she loves, but first he must prove himself worthy of her by bringing me the giant’s head, the dragon’s tongue and the magic ring from the bottom of the sea.”
    I can’t help feeling that you’re preventing that marriage from taking place but want to make it look like the young suitor just isn’t up to snuff.
    Though most fairytales end with “happily ever after” this one is not going to end well for anybody.

  • Posted by Virginia M. Kind

    Get out of the Mid-East forever.

    There is nothing in it for us as Americans.

    Israel is not my country. America is.

    Start thinking like an American.

Post a Comment

CFR seeks to foster civil and informed discussion of foreign policy issues. Opinions expressed on CFR blogs are solely those of the author or commenter, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions. All comments must abide by CFR's guidelines and will be moderated prior to posting.

* Required