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.

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Blaming Israel Again

by Elliott Abrams
May 16, 2014


Today’s New York Times carries a useful guide to President Obama’s understanding of his own failures in the “Middle East Peace Process.” He blames the Palestinians a tiny bit, the Israelis a great deal, and himself not at all.

Here are the key paragraphs:

Publicly, Mr. Obama has said that both sides bear responsibility for the latest collapse. But the president believes that more than any other factor, Israel’s drumbeat of settlement announcements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem poisoned the atmosphere and doomed any chance of a breakthrough with the Palestinians.

“At every juncture, there was a settlement announcement,” said the [senior administration] official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. “It was the thing that kept throwing a wrench in the gears.”

There are a number of comments worth making about these remarks. First, note that the term “settlement” is used for construction in Jerusalem, Israel’s capital. Second, note that there is no reference to the 10-month settlement freeze Israel undertook in November 2009. For that decision Netanyahu paid a domestic political price but got nothing in return from the Palestinians–who did not come to the table until the tenth month, when they knew the freeze was ending–or from President Obama, who apparently has forgotten the whole thing.

Third, note that the reference is to a “drumbeat of settlement announcements” rather than actual construction. That’s because there is no big increase in settlement activity–in new construction or in confiscation of land for settlements. Government officials at various levels of responsibility in the municipal and national governments can and do make announcements, sometimes for political reasons.

A careful analysis would show that the administration’s accusation of vast increases in construction activity is wrong, but it seems there has been no such analysis done. Instead, the President and Martin Indyk make vague references to “rampant” activity and “large scale” land confiscation, offering no evidence for their charges. Surely they are sophisticated enough to know that such announcements are political acts, often meant to embarrass Netanyahu and often misleading as to whether additional, new construction is coming. And if they are sophisticated enough to know this, then their continuing insistence that Israel is to blame for the breakdown in talks is simply misleading and unfair. Because they know that according to the numbers there is no explosion of settlement activity; they know that when Israel did undertake a construction freeze, it did not bring the Palestinians to the table; they know that such a freeze has never been a precondition for talks before the Obama administration tried to make it so.

One thing missing in every account of the administration’s reaction to the breakdown of the talks, and it is introspection. Never do we read of any serious internal effort to assess what the President, or Kerry, or Indyk, may have gotten wrong. It seems easier to blame Israel and “settlement announcements.”

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  • Posted by EMT

    With all respect for President Obama, it’s not because he holds this position that he is right in what he says and does. We have witnessed several unfounded promises. Does Obama know the history of the Jews and the so-called Palestinians? I doubt it. Even in his Cairo speech of June 4, 2009, there were several inaccuracies.

    Although he did mention the suffering of the Jews in Europe, he failed to mention the expulsion of the Jews from Arab countries, where they had lived for centuries. They lost all their wealth and were dislocated. However, they managed to relocate without begging the UN for help. Today they are spread all over the world.

    When Obama talked about the Palestinian’s struggle for a homeland, he did not mention that most of the Arab population in Israel came from various Arab countries seeking work, which was available during the development of Israel.

    The land they are claiming is “Judea/Samaria”, not “Arabia”. The name is of deep significance. It’s not through terrorism that anything can be achieved. The Arabs who flocked to the refugee camps were enticed to do so by Abd-el Nasser’s appeal to leave Israel. There were not chased away. Those who remained in Israel are living peacefully and enjoy all the democratic citizens’ rights. Those who live in Judea/Samaria can stay there. No one is chasing them.

    I agree with you that it is easy to blame Israel for the breakdown of the peace negotiations, instead of analyzing our administration’s actions. Abbas himself always held the all-or nothing position. May I remind you that when the Palestinians revolted in Jordan and were chased, they found Israel to give them shelter?

    The Palestinians have themselves created the mistrust, and we cannot blame Israel for that. It’s not the Palestinians’ intention to make peace, and they say it openly. Especially now that Abbas is with the Hamas, the latter always declare that they want all of Israel. The blame is on Kerry and those who gave him the instructions. Israel is a democratic state today, and the Palestinians are not.

  • Posted by correcto

    On top of this, the settlement issue is a canard.
    For after any final peace agreement, “settlements” over the Palestinian line will be in Palestine.
    And so what? These inhabitants will be under Palestinian rule, as were the ones given up In the Gaza. (Will Palestine also be Judenrein?)
    For what raising this issue really is that Abbas has no intention of ever making peace with hated Israel.
    And why should he? As he holds the greatest key to power in the history of the world-the hatred of the Jew!
    So as long as he pictures himself the victim of Jews, as false as it is, he will continue receive the largesse of the entire world and keep his stolen billions, as did Arafat, which will eventually lead to the destruction of Israel, yet another Holocaust.
    Very smart-he learned well from Hitler

  • Posted by Jack

    Judea-Samaria and all of Jerusalem of course are part of the Jewish national home set up juridically by the San Remo Conference, 1920, and the League of Nations, 1922. Article six of the League’s mandate for the JNH calls for the mandatory power, the UK, to facilitate “close settlement of Jews on the land” in that country. Since the Jewish National Home has never been legally revoked or superseded by any binding international law, it is still in effect and Jews have the right to settle and build homes throughout the country, including Judea-Samaria, of course.

  • Posted by Dan DePetris

    Mr. Abrams makes a good point here in distinguishing settlement building from the introduction of settlement tenders…which is merely the start of a long process. Very rarely is the settlement issue looked at in this way. Commentators (including myself at times) often lump it all together, so it’s good to have that clarification.

    For the Palestinian negotiating team, however, I’m afraid that this is a distinction without a difference and an exercise in pure semantics. Just as settlement announcements are designed in part to hurt Netanyahu’s credibility politically, they have the same effect on Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority-which is already on borrowed time democratically speaking. If there was any hope amongst ordinary Palestinians that negotiating with Israel was going to work and lead to an independent and sovereign state of their own, the announcement of new settlement bids-even if it’s just the start of a process-only works to downgrade that small hope. It’s difficult to see any leader negotiating seriously if a good portion of the public is not behind them.

    I hate to be safe and PC about this, but both sides truly contributed to the collapse. It wasn’t all Israel’s fault, just as it wasn’t all the Palestinians fault. Israel’s decision to withhold release of the final batch of Palestinian prisoners (even though they agreed to that condition in the first place) did not help matters. Yet the reaction from the Palestinians (going to the UN again) was just as shortsighted to the negotiating process.

  • Posted by Aaron Burr

    speaking of drumbeats, when it comes to continuing the drumbeat narrative of the left – blaming Israel first, last and always, the president is no Jimmy Carter. at least Carter’s misplaced idealism and experience led to a moment of progress between Israel and Egypt. Obama is a staunch leftist though much less an idealist; there’s no twinkle in the eye of Obama as to progress which appears actually unwanted by the administration, which is not the peace maker.

    also, in a rather odd way, Israel has more [potential] support in the region than from the administration, from Saudi Arabia and Egypt under the current regime. so, the foreign policy at this time is to further the Brotherhood’s interests in Egypt, “blame the victim” and see how it goes.

    the effect of this on our foreign policy in the geography area most relevant? we will not know for sure until Kerry meets with Abbas when the latter’s newly minted alliance with Hamas becomes an issue. and you know he will.

    only bungling ineffectiveness of the American foreign policy might save the day, as Israel itself will have to contend with the PA’s current suicidal bent. finally, ditto the effectiveness of the NYT is keeping its own house in order.

  • Posted by Aron Leiberman

    Very well said Mr Abrams. Thank You

  • Posted by richard

    i am mystified as to the why kerry thought he could solve the problem.he brings nothing new and he lacks experience.

  • Posted by richard

    as to martin indyk there is no question he is a well wisher.but he must have known there was no chance of an understanding.what was he thinking?

  • Posted by richard

    israel will not be accepted in the middle east.that is a given.

    will israel be safer if it becomes a sliver of land along the mediterranean coast?

    more likely it will invite an attack simply because of its small size.
    where are those who pressed israel to give up the golan heights to syria?

  • Posted by Steven Simoneschi

    The sentiments expressed in this blog as well as the comments below it are downright comical. The settlements being built in Palestine territory are in stark violation of international law, has been reiterated to be the case numerous times. In fact, the Geneva conventions, to which the settlements are violating, were created to criminalize the actions of the NAZI’s in occupied Europe. Saying they don’t apply is quite a statement.

    The idea that Barack Obama blames Israel is even more comical and displays a deeply ingrained indoctrinated culture to which you are all responding. In February of 2011, the United States videoed a security council resolution(the vote 14-1) that sought to condemn Israel for its illegal settlements. The US was the only country opposed. How is this blaming Israeli settlements for failures in the peace process? Even still, Israeli settlement construction didn’t stop during the freeze, as has been well documented by so many sources it is no longer debatable. Even if you are unwilling to concede that point, which would be ridiculous, freezing illegal settlements is worthy of no praise whatsoever just like we wouldn’t praise a common criminal from refraining from theft.

    Palestinian terrorism is disgusting, unjustified and ignorant. It is in my view, a war crime. Israeli violence and settlement construction in the occupied territories is disgusting, unjustified and ignorant. It is also in my view a war crime. Yet Palestinian hints at joining the ICC have been sharply criticized by the US and Israel. Such an act would have the Palestinians putting themselves at risk of being tried for crimes, something we should applaud them for, not criticize. Better then committing terror certainly.

    As for the idea that anti-Semitism is a factor in this is absolutely ludicrous. The Israeli’s are committing crimes, that’s why they are blamed, not because they are Jewish. The article cited here in the NYT criticizing Israel is absolutely incorrectly asserted. It is actually defending Israel and painting a picture of the world that is entirely inaccurate. By, for one example, not mentioning the aforementioned veto, gives the shroud that the US is a neutral abritiaror in this process. It is not. It is on the side of Israel as evidenced by the overwhelming diplomatic and military aid it has provided Israel for decades.

    You people can prefer fitting the world into your ideology if you want. But be honest about it. I’ll will continue to objectively seek the truth and do whatever I can to limit the suffering of both sides of the border of whom, the populations are the true victims. Not either prime ministers political backlash to ending crimes. Joke.

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