The next US presidential administration will be compelled to listen to its allies and enact a more assertive foreign policy, Elliott Abrams, a senior fellow for the Middle East Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Monday night at a speech to the Jewish People Policy Institute in Jerusalem.
“Whoever is president will start out listening to Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Poles, Czechs, South Korea... and will hear the need for more assertive policy,” said Abrams, who served in the George W. Bush administration as deputy National Security Adviser and was an assistant secretary of state under President Ronald Reagan.
Long regarded as a Washington insider with close ties to the Republican party, he began his Washington career under the hard-nosed democrat Henry “Scoop” Jackson in the 1970s.
In a wide-ranging discussion on US policy in the Middle East, relations with Israel and the upcoming US elections, Abrams was optimistic that the next administration would learn from the mistakes of the last seven years but warned people to prepare for the unexpected.
“No one was talking about [Bernie] Sanders or [Donald] Trump” in June of 2015, he recalled, attributing their rise to a global phenomenon in Western democracies that also has led to the ascent of Marine Le Pen in France and Jeremy Corbyn in England. American voters “do not love foreign entanglements, but also don’t love losing,” he asserted.
This election season in the US has confounded foreign policy experts, as a surge of populist resentment has brought candidates like Republican billionaire Trump and Democratic Vermont Senator Sanders into the limelight.
He predicted that Israel stands to benefit from whoever wins in the next election, because the lack of assertiveness of US President Barack Obama’s administration will likely result in a swing back toward the center.
There will be increased US military spending, and almost every major adviser to candidates on the Right, as well as Hillary Clinton are more hawkish, he said laying much of the blame for the situation at the feet of Secretary of State John Kerry.
“George Schultz would not have reacted as Kerry did to US personnel being captured by Iran,” he said, a day after attending an Israel Democracy Institute dinner in Jerusalem honoring the former secretary of state.
Abrams pointed to Kerry as being the architect of the current Iran deal and putting pressure Israel, and was also most pointed in his criticism of Obama on his Syria strategy, arguing that the US president’s “immoral” and dismissive policy toward the Syrian rebels resulted in the Russian intervention and Bashar Assad remaining in power. Abrams forecast that both these policies would be changed in the future.
“What do we do about a rising Iran?” the former official asked. “It’s not going away. The US Jewish community will be united in urging a tougher attitude to Iran.”
A new administration may not throw away the Iran deal, but will take a hardline on any cheating, he said.
Regarding Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Abrams admonished Israelis not to assume that the US will impose a solution or solve Israel’s problems.
“Under the next president, look for an improved situation for the West Bank [Palestinian] economy; increased Palestinian autonomy; improved relations between the US and Israel; seeing if the Arab states can do more for the Palestinians. We are approaching the end of the Mahmoud Abbas era… succession fights are a bad moment for comprehensive [peace] schemes, we have to see who rises and who falls.”
During a Q&A session, one audience member asked if that meant the US might acquiesce to Israel annexing part of the West Bank, but Abrams threw cold water on that scenario.
“There is a broad consensus for two-states… there should be an agreed settlement, don’t look to Washington for a hechsher on annexation,” he said, using the Hebrew term for a seal of kosher certification.
Abrams was comfortable in front of the audience, which consisted of academics, journalists and former Israeli security and diplomatic pashas.
Former ambassador to the US, Sallai Meridor, who spoke after Abrams, expressed concern that, in a US election year, Israel might become a partisan issue. Both Meridor and Abrams recalled having been unaware of who the young Senator Obama was before he became a rising star – evidence of how quick political fortunes can shift.
Abrams argued that Israel is an extremely strong position in the Middle East at the moment, saying “[Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-] Sisi could be gone in five years or two, Jordan is weakened...”
Despite the sometimes contentious political relationship between the two countries in recent years, Abrams said support for Israel was at an all time high in the US.
“For Republicans and conservatives, Israel is a pillar of their belief about the world and there is only some erosion in support in the Democratic party but not at high levels,” he said. Even Sanders, who rarely discusses his Jewishness, was evidence of the low levels of anti-semitism in the US, a success story of assimilation in the sense, according to Abrams, who said the year ahead still hold challenges if Trump becomes the Republican nominee or if there is a major terrorist attack.
“Buckle your seat belt and try to enjoy the ride,” he said.