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A foolish letter from ‘wise men’ on the Middle East

Jun 27, 2011, Vol. 16, No. 39 • By ELLIOTT ABRAMS
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There is never a shortage of Middle East peace plans, and another has recently been proposed by a set of Washington luminaries—some with considerable Middle East experience and some with none at all. This new plan, dated June 23 and published in the New York Review of Books, appears to be a reaction to President Obama’s speech at the State Department on May 19.

Jerusalem

In that speech the president adopted a new policy: Israeli-Palestinian negotiations should be based on the “1967 lines” with agreed land swaps. This position had previously been that of the Palestinian side, and Obama’s adherence to it undermined Israel’s negotiating position. It means, for example, that the Western Wall of the ancient Temple, Judaism’s holiest place but conquered by Jordan in 1948, is to be regarded as legitimately part of Palestine, such that Israel must trade some of its own pre-1967 territory to keep it.

But the president did not propose any actions: no conference, no new envoy, no invitations to Washington, nothing. He did not even dispatch Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to tour the area, in the traditional substitution of motion for progress. There was, as Rob Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy has explained, “a policy without a strategy. It is no surprise, therefore, that others have begun to fill the vacuum—a development that is almost always unwelcome.” 

Satloff describes recent efforts to fill the vacuum, the first of which was a nasty op-ed by the former Saudi intelligence chief and (briefly) ambassador to Washington Turki al-Faisal, who threatened “disastrous consequences for U.S.-Saudi relations if the United States vetoes U.N. recognition of a Palestinian state.” We have all heard those threats before, and this one, from someone not even holding a government job, is less scary than most. Surrounded by the Arab Spring and the menace of Iran, the Saudis are about as likely to break with us over this matter as the French were to break relations with the United States and the United Kingdom in 1940.

The French recently made an effort to fill the perceived Middle East vacuum with a conference, and that effort was dismissed so quickly by Secretary Clinton that Israeli prime minister Bibi Netanyahu didn’t even have time to send an Israeli rejection. More recently the EU foreign minister, Lady Ashton, proposed a new Quartet initiative, presumably because the EU is part of the Quartet and this would give the European chancelleries a piece of the action. For that reason alone this initiative is unrealistic and doomed, although it may prove useful if it provides EU member states an additional excuse to vote against the Palestinian statehood resolution in the U.N. General Assembly.

And now comes the open letter to President Obama from a group including many famous names: Zbigniew Brzezinski, Lee Hamilton, Frank Carlucci, Thomas Pickering, Sandra Day O’Connor, and James Wolfensohn are just a few. Their letter proposes fierce pressure on Israel, and they know this is a tough sell, so the final paragraph sympathizes with the president and tells him how he can do this:

We understand, Mr. President, that the initiative we propose you take to end the suffering and statelessness of the Palestinian people and efforts to undermine Israel’s legitimacy is not without political risks. But we believe that if the American people are fully informed by their President of the likely consequences of an abandonment of U.S. leadership in a part of the world so critical to this country’s national security and to the safety of our military personnel in the region, he will have their support.

So the message seems to be that supporters of Israel aren’t going to like this proposal one bit, but you can beat them. You can beat them especially if you say that the lives of American troops are at risk as a result of our policy of supporting Israel. This is a terrible argument for many reasons; for one thing it suggests tacitly that the pro-Israel community is not part of “the American people” to whom the policy must be explained. Moreover, it suggests that those who might be tempted to disagree are simply ignorant and not “fully informed.” In so doing it smacks of the arguments that our policy is the product of the “Jewish lobby” and that it is supported merely by Christian evangelicals who are uneducated and know no better. 

So what does this letter actually propose that will present the president with “political risks”? It proposes that the United States give up on the “peace process” and impose conditions of our own, and threaten dire consequences should Israel balk. 

First comes the analysis: 

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