Abrams on Obama: He sees Israel as a problem to solve

In an interview with ‘The Jerusalem Post,’ the former top aide to George W. Bush explains his difficulties with the current president’s positions.

Abrams 311 (photo credit: Reuters)
Abrams 311
(photo credit: Reuters)
Elliott Abrams, one of former US president George Bush’s top Middle East advisers, is not known to mince words. So it was no surprise, really, when at a panel last week at the Presidential Conference in Jerusalem he said bluntly that “there is no great love” in President Barack Obama’s heart for Israel.
But as he was sitting on a panel with two strong Obama supporters, former congressman Robert Wexler and former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, this comment did not go unchallenged.
Wexler launched into a spirited and sarcastic rebuttal, presenting a checklist of actions Obama has taken that he said proved where the president’s heart was.
These steps included encouraging a security relationship between Israel and the US that is “unprecedented in terms of depth and profound engagement”; cancelling involvement in a Turkish military maneuver when the Turks disinvited Israel; sending the largest contingency of US military ever to dock at Haifa Port; ensuring that the OECD countries voted to let Israel into that prestigious club; lobbying the leaders of Britain, France and Germany not to support the PA’s statehood bid at the UN; overseeing the largest amount of military aid, $3 billion, ever approved for Israel; and pushing through an additional $205 million appropriation for Iron Dome development and purchase.
Sounds, Wexler said, like a whole lotta love to him.
Abrams didn’t really get to reply at the panel, but was able to do so in a later interview with The Jerusalem Post, in which he explained what he meant on this particular issue, and expanded on others.
“Bob was making a campaign speech,” he said of Wexler’s checklist. “I don’t want to be portrayed as saying the president hates Israel and is an enemy of Israel, because that is not what I am saying. What I am saying is that we had two consecutive presidents [Bush and Bill Clinton] who had a special consideration for Israel, who viewed Israel as a great ally. I think President Obama views Israel as a problem that needs to be solved.”
Abrams said that this was most evident at the United Nations.
Bush’s attitude, Abrams said, was that the UN “is against Israel, and that it is completely unfair and biased.” The upshot of that during his term was that “if something comes up, you veto it, and you’re done with it. You’ve then done a good deed.”
Indeed, he said, the Bush administration cast nine vetoes blocking anti-Israel resolutions in the Security Council over an eight-year span.
The Obama administration, by contrast, “is desperate to avoid vetoes,” he said.
“They don’t like to veto anything at any time. I believe they hoped initially to get through four years without a veto, and they got through two years without a veto.”
Earlier in the year, the US cast a veto against an anti-settlement resolution. But Abrams said that if you looked at US Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice’s explanation of the veto, in which she, too, slammed settlement activity, “you see how unhappy she was” at casting it.
Abrams also suggested Wexler was being a bit disingenuous by giving Obama credit for this year’s $3b. military assistance package, saying that package had been negotiated during the Olmert-Bush years. “To give Obama or Netanyahu credit for that is wrong,” he said.
Regarding the security cooperation and Iron Dome assistance, Abrams – who did not contest that US-Israel security cooperation is now at its highest point ever – said there was no question that the president or the defense secretary could, if they wanted to, tone down the military-to-military relationship.
That the president had not interfered, Abrams said, was indeed to Obama’s credit.
And then Abrams added the “but”: Were the president to reduce the level of cooperation, or cancel exercises or high-level meetings between generals, that would become known, “and the rumblings, the unhappiness in the American Jewish community would become greater. So there is politics that would play here,” he said.
As to the additional Iron Dome funding, Abrams said, “First, it is a terrific thing that he did.” Second, he added, it is “very much in the interest of the US that he did it,” since a good, working Iron Dome system is beneficial to the US as well.
“After all, we have missile threats, too,” he said of the system that defends against short-range rockets and artillery shells.
“We are the only country with serious [military] bases all over the world,” he continued. “Missile defense is a very important thing for us – we are very good with long-range missile defense systems developed in the days of USSR, but Israel is at the forefront in the short-range missile defense – systems like Iron Dome.
This is very critical for a country with lots of bases in disputed locations. We have tens of thousands of troops in Korea within range of Korean missiles; we have troops in the Persian Gulf. The Iron Dome is great for the US.”
Abrams, who today is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Washington- based Council on Foreign Relations, had a hand in drafting the 2004 Bush letter to then-prime minister Ariel Sharon stating that the US believed the Palestine refugee problem should be settled in a Palestinian state, rather than Israel, and that it was unrealistic to expect that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement would mean a full and complete return to the 1949 armistice lines.
One of the sources of contention between the Netanyahu and Obama administrations since they took power in early 2009 was the status of that letter, with the prime minister wanting to pin Obama down to reaffirm it, and Obama unwilling to do so.
And this, at least for Abrams, signified a “huge” Obama mistake.
“I think the administration from the very beginning has taken the opinion that it was kind of a private letter from Bush to Sharon. But that’s wrong – it was very public, and was endorsed in overwhelming votes in both houses of Congress,” he said.
“Now we are asking Israel to take risks, we are always asking Israel to take risks, and it is reasonable to say, ‘What is the American position?’ If the American position is going to change every couple of years, then there is no American position, and there are no guarantees at all.”
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, according to Abrams, is very well within his rights to ask Obama how he views the letter.
If Obama’s answer is that the letter has no significance, that it “is just the private promise of a former president,” then Netanyahu could fairly ask why any future Obama promise would be any different, he said.
And the implications of that question are serious, not only for Israel, he went on; “I think it is very damaging to the US as an actor in international politics for a president to say, ‘Whatever my predecessor said, forget about it.’ Particularly, when it is formal, not private, and both houses of Congress endorsed it.”
Also disconcerting, Abrams said, was that certain comments Obama had made recently ran against the grain of the letter.
“First, I don’t think that the president has been as clear as he should have on the Palestinian refugee issue. I think he ought to say clearly that the Palestinian refugee problem will be addressed and solved in Palestine, as the Bush letter put it, rather than Israel. I don’t think there should be any pressure at all to take one single Palestinian.
There wasn’t in the Bush administration, and there shouldn’t be now. That is one big difference,” he said.
“The other big difference is this question of borders and swaps, because the position in the Bush letter was that you guys have to agree on a border, and that we are not going to dictate a border,” he continued.
“But one thing is pretty clear; it is not going to be the 1949 armistice line.”
ABRAMS SAID there was a significant difference between what appeared in the Bush letter and Obama’s comment that negotiations ought to start now on the basis of the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed swaps.
“When Obama says you need to agree on a border, and that it will be based on 1967 lines with agreed swaps, that undermines the Israeli negotiating position. By saying that, you are giving that border greater weight. You are not saying, ‘Hey, look, that was an armistice line from 1949 – it has no legitimacy, you guys have to negotiate a border.’ And then, when Obama added in the comment about mutually agreed swaps, my question is always, ‘Are you telling me Israel has to give up sovereign Green Line territory to keep the Kotel?’ That is ridiculous.”
Abrams said that while it was conceivable that Israel would agree to swaps, and that former prime minister Ehud Olmert had proposed one-to-one swaps for everything, “[it] is the sovereign right of Israel to make any deal it wants. But why should the US be weakening the Israeli negotiating position by even suggesting there have to be swaps for every deviation from the 1949 armistice line? It’s one thing to say there will be swaps for Ariel, another for the Kotel.”
He added that “Bush did Israel a favor by saying there would be no return to the 1949 lines, and I think you have to say that helped Israel, and didn’t help the Palestinians. I think the additional Obama formulation hurt Israel, and helped the Palestinians.”
He dismissed the notion that Sharon was “naïve” in putting so much faith in the Bush letter, and in fact used to wave it as “ideological compensation” for withdrawal from Gaza.
“I don’t think it was naïve. You have a very formal communication, it is not a law, not a treaty, but it was a carefully negotiated document endorsed by both houses of Congress. It was reasonable to expect – it was wrong – but it was reasonable to expect that another president would treat it pretty seriously, and this president has not treated it seriously.”
One element of the letter that Obama did incorporate in his speeches on the Middle East in May was that the US remained committed – as the letter stated – to Israel’s ability to “deter and defend itself, by itself, against any threat or possible combination of threats.”
Or, as Obama said at the annual AIPAC conference, “every state has the right to self-defense, and Israel must be able to defend itself – by itself – against any threat.”
What that line meant, Abrams explained, was that the US “is not going to say, ‘Don’t worry about taking security risks because we are behind you,’ because that is a meaningless guarantee.”
He said this line was important because it was a US commitment to “help Israel defend itself so it won’t get into a situation where it will need American troops or an American airlift.”
“Putting American munitions here, which we started doing in a big way under Bush, is a way of saying the same thing,” he said. “Why are we doing this? So that in an extreme situation there won’t be the need to airlift munitions here, so that Israel will be able to defend itself by itself.”
With the 2012 US presidential election now beginning to loom large, Abrams was asked whether Israel had what to fear from a second Obama term.
“The question is, to what degree is his pressure on Israel constrained by domestic politics and the need to be reelected?” Abrams replied. “If the answer is not at all, then you have nothing to fear. But if the answer is that it is probably constrained a good deal, and that in a second term he would be putting much more pressure on Israel – he would be allowing UN votes condemning Israel that he wouldn’t veto, he would be putting much more pressure on behalf of the Palestinians to get a deal that Israel may not like – then you have to worry about it.”
Abrams said he felt that domestic politics had constrained Obama until now.
“I think that the president, as I said, doesn’t get it fundamentally. There is something missing in his attitude toward Israel that Bush and Clinton had; some kind of fundamental sympathy with the plight of Israel in the world community.
He has an intellectual understanding of this, but he doesn’t seem to have an emotional understanding of this at the deepest level. He seems to view Israel, as I believe, as a problem for the US, one of our many problems around the world, rather than having an emotional attachment to it or viewing it fundamentally as a very valuable ally.”
Israel, Abrams implied, should not be intoxicated by the resounding reception Netanyahu received when he addressed Congress in May, because “fundamentally the foreign policy of the US is under the control of the president.”
Granted, Congress has power of the purse and can “wreck” the president’s foreign policy, but “normally the foreign policy is under the president. And if the president decides that he is going to force Israel into negotiations, and force it to make compromises in those negotiations, despite the views of its prime minister, then he can go pretty far.”•make compromises in those negotiations, despite the views of its prime minister, then he can go pretty far.”