May 16th, 2011
08:57 AM ET

The "peace process" has come to a screeching halt

Editor's Note: Elliott Abrams is former senior director for the Near East and deputy national security adviser handling Middle East affairs in the George W. Bush administration. He is now a senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he writes the blog Pressure Points.

By Elliott Abrams, CFR.org

George Mitchell resigned Friday as the President’s special envoy for the Middle East.

Mitchell was appointed the second day President Obama was in office, January 22, 2009, and his role was given great importance. He was a symbol of the new Administration’s determination to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement. He made innumerable trips to the region, gave many press conferences, and assembled a substantial staff. So what happened?

I am told that the final straw for Mitchell was a failure to convince the White House that the President’s speech next week must include a American detailed plan for Middle East peace. That would be a very bad idea, rightly rejected (if my sources are right) by the White House. Mitchell was said to believe that such a plan could bring the Israelis and Palestinians back to the table now for a serious negotiation.

This is extraordinary, for it seems to overlook the Hamas-Fatah unity agreement signed two weeks ago. Israel is not going to negotiate with a delegation containing Hamas representatives, whether an American plan is on the table or not. Moreover, both parties would likely have rejected parts of any detailed American proposal (while officially applauding it, of course), so Mitchell’s idea would have left the President looking weaker. It was bad advice.

In fact, Mitchell’s advice has been disastrous all along. He is one of the fathers of the idea that a 100% construction freeze in Jerusalem as well as all the West Bank settlements is a necessary precondition for peace talks. Such a total freeze is impossible for any Israeli prime minister, and had never previously been viewed by Palestinian leaders as a prerequisite to going to the table.

Of course, once Mitchell got that approach adopted by the President, the Palestinians had to adopt it as well; they could not risk appearing less demanding than we were. The end result was frustration on all sides.

In a strikingly nasty interview with Newsweek, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas told the story this way: “It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze. I said OK, I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump. Three times he did it.”

It is sad to say so, but for about two years now Israeli and Palestinian officials alike have been complaining that Mitchell had strong ideas and meant well but did not listen to them.

That the President saw Mitchell off with a written statement rather than a warm personal embrace may suggest that he had worn out his welcome at the White House too. The President thanked Mitchell by saying that “as he returns to his family, George leaves behind a proud legacy of dedicated public service….” That does not make it sound like the Administration plans on enlisting him again in any other capacity.

Who should replace Mitchell? The Bush Administration had no special envoy, and the Secretary of State and Assistant Secretary for the Near East did the heavy lifting when there was a need for diplomatic action. That is a better model. If a new envoy is named now, he or she will have nothing to do: at least until the Palestinian elections next year settle the role of Hamas in their political system there will be no negotiations.

That suggests the old Washington practice of “dual hatting:” if you absolutely have to have an envoy, name the current Assistant Secretary for the Near East or some other State official with a real job. Then you can say you still have an envoy, but that person won’t have to do make-work and gin up trips to looks busy.

The President has made the right decision, if my information is right, in diminishing the attention to Israeli-Palestinian matters in his forthcoming address and concentrating instead on Bin Laden and the Arab Spring. The “peace process” has been brought to a screeching halt by the deal between Fatah and Hamas. The President would do himself no favors by making it a central part of next week’s speech.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Elliott Abrams.


soundoff (28 Responses)
  1. james2

    I think Obama made a mistake here in deciding not to include the peace process in his speech. Let's not forget that the Arab Spring is not just a protest against their own authoritarian regimes but the hypocrisies of the United States as well. A few examples include weapons that have "Made in USA" written on them, America's historical support for these dictators, and above all else AMERICA NOT BEING AN HONEST BROKER IN THE PEACE PROCESS. In fact, I would argue that this the perfect time to push Netanyahu toward a deal; Obama already has the support among the israeli populace so what purpose does it serve to throw your hands up in defeat? If I had to guess Obama chickened out because he did not want to displease his fellow Congressmen and the pro-israeli lobbyists they work for/get campaign money from. Gotta please those campaign donors for 2012 right? Plus, Obama clearly has already told Mahmoud Abbas, even before the unity agreement, that he will wait until after the 2012 elections to maybe, possibly begin brokering a new peace process.

    MJ Rosenberg made an exellent case as to why the "we dont recognize Israel as a state" portion of Hamas's charter should not matter in Al Jazeera's opinion section (http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/05/2011512747012237.html). Hamas's "anti Israel" provision of its charter should not matter because the negotiations will be with Mahmoud Abbas not Khaled Meshaal. If it decides to respect its border with Israel, is that not in effect recognizing who lives beyond that border? The only thing required of Hamas is to not attack Israel, and Netanyahu should not worry about this because it ought to be obvious by now he has the backing of the United States. Is that not enough for Netanyahu? Does he want the entire world to fight on Israel's behalf to feel secure?

    Mr. Abrahms, you cannot possibly absolve the Israeli government of its prime culpability in this ordeal and pretend that "both sides are at fault" can you? Why should Israel get away with building settlements on occupied territory that is not theirs while the Palestinians limit the number of refugees allowed to return to Palestine? Did you not read the Palestine Papers? Clearly they offered all kinds of concessions! The Israeli government has held the upper hand over the Palestinians for over a decade now and its stubbornness in hammering out a peace deal is just overkill. People you, Mr. Abrahms, spineless Congressmen, and pro-Israeli lobbyists certainly only make matters worse by enabling Israel's bad behavior.
    (Concessions Offered by the Palestinian Authority – http://www.france24.com/en/20110124-mideast-negotiations-leaked-documents-reveal-palestinian-concessions-jerusalem-refugees#;
    The Palestine Papers – http://english.aljazeera.net/palestinepapers/2011/01/201112214310263628.html;
    Why the Whistleblower felt the need to Leak the Palestine Papers – http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/05/201151432144832519.html)

    May 16, 2011 at 9:57 am | Reply
    • Thinker23

      james2: "Hamas's "anti Israel" provision of its charter should not matter because the negotiations will be with Mahmoud Abbas not Khaled Meshaal."

      Sorry, james2, but the negotiations will be with THE PALESTINIAN LEADERSHIP representing the Palestinians. If (as you're implying here) Mahmoud Abbas DOES NOT REPRESENT a large part (or even the majority) of the Palestinian what is the point of negotiating with him is the Promises Abbas will, possibly, sign will not apply to Hamas and other Palestinian factions?

      "Why should Israel get away with building settlements on occupied territory that is not theirs while the Palestinians limit the number of refugees allowed to return to Palestine?"

      Why should the Palestinians get away with building on territory that is not theirs? As long as there is no official signed agreement defining which territories belong to Israel and which to the (still non-ecisting) Palestinian state the lands a DISPUTED and BOTH sides should be treated equally.

      "Did you not read the Palestine Papers? Clearly they offered all kinds of concessions! "

      Somehow I'm not aware of ANY concessions offered by Palestinians. More than that, I'm not aware of an individual or organization having the authority to offer such concessions as the Palestinian Authority is not recognized as such body by Hamas and other factions. Further, as long as the Palestinian Charter DOES NOT RECOGNIZE the right of Israel to exist it's futile to talk about ANY concessions as it makes no sense to offer concessions to a NON-EXISTING entity... but feel free to PROVE ME WRONG.

      May 16, 2011 at 11:55 am | Reply
      • james2

        Thats just stupid. They signed a unity deal so of course Hamas recognizes the Palestinian Authority. Here are some of the concessions offered by the PA:

        – The Palestinian Authority’s willingness to concede illegal Israeli settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank (http://www.ajtransparency.com/en/document/2861)
        – Limiting or excluding the right of return for Palesinian refugees (http://english.aljazeera.net/palestinepapers/2011/01/2011124121923486877.html)
        – Annexation of portions of the West Bank (http://www.ajtransparency.com/en/document/3127)

        Netanyahu, on the other hand, has received billions of dollars in aid, billions worth of fighter jets and weapons and decides only to maybe, stop, temporarily expanding settlements (which of course we have seen was a load of crud).
        I don't know if you've read this or not, but the West Bank and Gaza strip are occupied territories. If there is a majority Palestinian population living there, being forcfully evicted for the sake of building Israeli compounds, would it not make sense to stop treating them as second class citizens and grant them the power to govern themselves? Every nation, including the United States though they don't publicly say it, considers the Israeli expansions as illegal and counterproductive to the peace process. In the face of this, Israel continues to build anyway. Given that, plus the fact that a majority of Israeli citizens oppose continuing settlement expansion (http://english.aljazeera.net/indepth/opinion/2011/03/201131784045745152.html), saying that "both sides are at fault" is grossly misleading and a sure sign that you favor the status quo and are not interested in hammering out a true peace deal.

        May 16, 2011 at 3:26 pm |
      • Thinker23

        James: Hamas DID NOT recognize Abbas and his administration as the governing body having the authority to represent ALL Palestinians including Hamas. If you believe that this is not the case show the relevant statement of Hamas.

        Further, A 'CONCESSION' by definition means giving away something you HAVE. Not something you WOULD LIKE to have. I repeat, the Palestinians DID NOT offer any concessions to Israel nor are they expected to offer any concessions. All they're expected to do is to STOP VIOLENCE, RECOGNIZE ISRAEL AND NEGOTIATE A PEACE AGREEMENT.

        May 16, 2011 at 5:15 pm |
      • Thinker23

        james: "the West Bank and Gaza strip are occupied territories. If there is a majority Palestinian population living there, being forcfully evicted for the sake of building Israeli compounds, would it not make sense to stop treating them as second class citizens and grant them the power to govern themselves?"

        If you believe that the West Bank and Gaza are occupied territories you'll have no troubles to NAME THE COUNTRY these territories belong to. The fact, however, is that the Arabs living in these territories have their own democratically elected governments, even two. It's up to these Palestinian governments to treat their citizens as good (or bad) as they wish. These people are NOT CITIZENS OF ISRAEL.

        "Every nation, including the United States though they don't publicly say it, considers the Israeli expansions as illegal and counterproductive to the peace process."

        If you believe that this is the case you'll have no troubles to answer the following simple question: WOULD THERE BE PEACE IF THERE WERE NO SETTLEMENTS? YES OR NO? If the answer is NO then it means the the settlements are IRRELEVANT to the peace process. If the answer is YES then it means that the Palestinian Constitutions (Charters), the Palestinian leaders that wrote these Charters and the Palestinians that voted for these leaders were all LIARS and that YOU know better than all of them what the Palestinians want.

        May 16, 2011 at 5:23 pm |
      • Thinker23

        James: "Every nation, including the United States though they don't publicly say it, considers the Israeli expansions as illegal and counterproductive to the peace process."

        Every nation, including the United States considers TERRORISM as illegal and counterproductive to the peace process and they say it publicly. Why don't you ask the Palestinians to STOP TERRORISM? In response Israel may stop building settlements.

        As a matter of fact, I believe that the settlements CAN become pretty productive to the peace process if in response to every terrorist act a new settlement will be established. Even the Palestinians will understand the link between the two, don't you agree?

        May 16, 2011 at 5:57 pm |
      • j. von hettlingen

        It seems that the Israeli-Palestinian debate causes more commotion in the U.S. than in Europe and the fight between the two parties will remain a never-ending conflict.
        Now there seems to be a new intifada going on, as the Palestinians took to the street to commemorate the Nakba Day. They want to follow the others in the region. It would be interesting to see how the situation comes out.
        I am sure Obama would consider this Israeli-Palestinian issue in his speech and I guess he would try to urge them to make peace.

        May 16, 2011 at 6:36 pm |
      • james2

        Saeb Erekat detailing the reconciliation, in particular explaining the fallacy of Netanyahu's political doublethink – http://english.aljazeera.net/programmes/frostovertheworld/2011/05/2011514124852935545.html

        Khaled Meshaal detailing plans for an eventual unified legislative body and unified security force that is not partial to either faction – http://english.aljazeera.net/programmes/talktojazeera/2011/05/20115710350758529.html
        The main point behind this video is that the Palestinian people will be stronger unified rather than divided. If the legislative body is free of allegiance to either party, then it does not matter if Hamas recognizes Israel or not. Fareed mentioned that it is time for the Palestinian authorities to be more accountable to their people especially in light of the Arab Spring, which means Hamas, as I said before, will have to get with the program and seek the changes they want through "ballots not bullets" (in the words of Saeb Erekat).

        Only Mahmoud Abbas would handle any and all peace negotiations with Israel – http://english.aljazeera.net/programmes/insidestory/2011/05/20115672042173465.html

        May 16, 2011 at 11:35 pm |
      • james2

        Definition of Concession –
        a. the act or an instance of conceding (as by granting something as a right, accepting something as true, or acknowledging defeat)
        b. something done or agreed to usually grudgingly in order to reach an agreement or improve a situation

        May 16, 2011 at 11:40 pm |
      • james2

        Obviously if the West Bank and Gaza Strip are occupied then they belong to the state of Palestine and, furthermore, to the Palestinian people. The fact that Fatah and Hamas, two very different governing bodies, have decided to unite under one unified governing body, is a sign that they are listening to the Palestinian people. I would imagine that forming a stronger, more unified government would do a lot of good for their people in giving them a stronger hand with which to negotiate with Netanyahu.

        Nice try. Of course there are many components to achieving the overall end objective, which in and of itself is peace, one of which is an end to the settlement expansion. You know those settlements are an attempt to expand power and influence, not any cockamamie, two-bit excuse as a “response to every terrorist”. As I said before, the Arab Spring represents a repudiation of terrorism and extremism as a means of achieving reforms and changes to the status quo. If Hamas wants to remain a legitimate organization, it will have to fall in line with the aspirations of the Palestinian people. The military actions between Hamas and Israel have been asymmetrical and heavily in favor of and heavily instigated by Israel. It's a little myopic to act like the Israeli government's actions against Hamas are equal in magnitude to Hamas's attacks against Israel. Israel has also blockaded the Gaza Strip with the intention of keeping them on the brink of economic collapse, as revealed through Wikileaks (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2011/01/05/israel-gaza-collapse-wikileaks_n_804583.html). Does this sound like somebody who cares about stopping terrorist attacks or somebody who only cares about being vindictive and exacting revenge?

        May 16, 2011 at 11:58 pm |
      • james2

        Here is an article you may be interested in reading concerning "Nakba Day":

        http://wonkroom.thinkprogress.org/2011/05/16/myths-about-palestinian-nakba-day/

        It points out some of the prejudices some may have against Palestinians from the West Bank.

        May 17, 2011 at 12:04 am |
      • Thinker23

        james2: "Obviously if the West Bank and Gaza Strip are occupied then they belong to the state of Palestine and, furthermore, to the Palestinian people"

        I'm sorry but I was asking you to name an EXISTING state. As of now there is no state of Palestine and the 'Palestinian people' were UNKNOWN TO THE WORLD until the late 1960s. There is no reason (at least, an OBVIOUS one) to declare that the land belong to a NON-existing state and a 'people' invented for the purpose of claiming it. If the Latinos of California decided to call themselves 'Californians' and declared that California belong EXCLUSIVELY to them - WOULD YOU AGREE?

        Further, the Palestinians can offer Paris, New York, Botswana or the entire world as 'concessions' and it will not change a thing. Only when they'll STOP VIOLENCE, RECOGNIZE ISRAEL AND ASK FOR PEACE NEGOTIATIONS will peace become possible. It's that simple.

        May 17, 2011 at 5:45 am |
      • Thinker23

        James2: Israel has also blockaded the Gaza Strip with the intention of keeping them on the brink of economic collapse.

        This is a pretty stupid lie no matter where it came from. The goal of the Israeli blockade of Gaza was (and is) prevention of terrorists from entering Israel. Any state has the right to close its borders, especially a border with the enemy during a war... and if these actions will bring the enemy to an economic collapse - so be it. Maybe, a collapse will convince the Palestinian leaders to ask for peace.

        May 17, 2011 at 6:00 am |
      • james2

        I see, so you're a conspiracist. Congratulations, I was fooled into taking you seriously. Our conversation is over then.

        May 17, 2011 at 9:35 am |
    • Thinker23

      James2: The military actions between Hamas and Israel have been asymmetrical and heavily in favor of and heavily instigated by Israel.

      You should read something about wars and their goals. You'll be amazed to discover that every war is being fought with a goal to WIN it, not to equate the losses ad infinitum. When the US decided to go to Afghanistan and beat the living crap out of terrorists there it had every right to do it and not limit itself to bombing a couple of buildings to make it "symmetrical". In military operations, the amount of force used should be "symmetrical" to the GOAL to be achieved. In the war between Israel and the Palestinians the goal is to end terrorism and convince the Palestinians to ask for peace. As terrorism still continues it means that the amount of force used by Israel was INADEQUATE and more force is necessary to achieve the goal by convincing the Palestinians to ask for peace or by fighting until there will be no one left to ask for peace.

      May 17, 2011 at 5:55 am | Reply
      • james2

        You're stupid, you just recognized the Palestinian people in this response. We're done here.

        May 17, 2011 at 9:37 am |
  2. leeintulsa

    It shouldn't be something we have to deal with at all. It's a UN problem, not a US one.

    Israel, from what i understand, has ignored many UN mandates.

    Why does Israel get away with ignoring many UN mandates while Mo can't ignore just one without being driven from power? There should be sanctions against Israel and peacekeepers on the ground.

    The UN is not controlled by the US. Why have they let Israel slide for so long?

    We are paying now for previous administrations defending Israel right or wrong. What has Israel done for us?

    May 16, 2011 at 11:30 am | Reply
    • Piizagirlgirl1986

      leeintulsa: let me tell you, what Israel does is fight Mulslim extremists every single day.

      In their yards, they get rockets on a regular basis.

      They are at the epicenter of everything. And believe me, if you lived there, you would have no choice but to defend yourselves.

      May 16, 2011 at 2:30 pm | Reply
    • AZLib

      Peace would mean they would not be able to hold out their tin cup for more money from the US and other sources. As long as they get money for being at war then they will do everything to stay at war. Very simple. Cut off funds, peace will come.

      May 16, 2011 at 7:06 pm | Reply
    • Thinker23

      AZLib: "Peace would mean they would not be able to hold out their tin cup for more money from the US and other sources. As long as they get money for being at war then they will do everything to stay at war. Very simple."

      This is not that simple considering that the US aid covers about 25% of Israeli military budget at best and that Israel has to fund the remaining 75% from its own sources. It is possible, of course, that YOU'll purchase something you don't need (10 tons of dried guano, for example) paying $10,000 for it if someone would donate $2,500 to you. Israelis, however are much smarter.

      May 16, 2011 at 8:14 pm | Reply
  3. Thinker23

    leeintulsa: Israel, from what i understand, has ignored many UN mandates.

    I'm afraid that your inderstanding is wrong. For starters, the UN does not issue "mandates" but Resolutions. Further, the UN Resolutioins can be mandatory or not. Non-mandatory UN Resolutions are OFFERS and can be accepted or rejected by the parties involved. When one party rejects a non-mandatory Resolution the other is under no obligation to comply with it. As an example you may consider the UN Partition Resolution 181 that OFFERED to divide Palestine and create two states: one for the Arabs in areas with the Arab najority and the oter for the Jews in areas with the Jewish majority. The Jews ACCEPTED the UN offer and declared a state. The Arabs REJECTED it, started a war and lost. The rejection of the UNR181 by the Arabs made it null and void. Further, the UN Security Council issues MANDATORY resolutions that are to be complied with by all parties... and I dare you to show one or more such UN Resolution that was violated by Israel but COMPLIED WITH by the Arabs.

    May 16, 2011 at 12:05 pm | Reply
  4. Piizagirlgirl1986

    It is so easy for people to criticize Israel, for people who don't live there and don't experience what life is like in this two sided coin of a country.

    On one side, you have beautiful cities, a vibrant culture and economy, the sparkling Mediterranean and so much more.

    But the other side of the coin is not so shiny. Every man must serve in the army for four years.

    Many a family has been touched by a tragic war-related fatality.

    And the country is truly deeply divided over the Palestinian issue. Those of you who seem to dislike Israel need to know this.

    But, the idea that most are united are on is this: if a Palestinian state is created, will it be enough to satisfy the hard right, radical Muslims? That is the billion dollar question.

    Some will say yes, but lots of people fear the worst. That no matter what Israel does, it will never quite be enough. And at the end of the day, that the radical Muslims will want to drive all Jews into the sea - even if Israel gives up the precious land - so tiny an area that it is to begin with.

    May 16, 2011 at 2:40 pm | Reply
  5. leeintulsa

    I don't live there. And it's not like they are taking rocket fire so I don't have to. They are at the epicenter of everything, but not sure what that has to do with me, and Israels actions sometimes makes me think they like it this way. Much of this extremism they bring on themselves, and by unconditionally supporting israel, it gets on us, too.

    Thinker23, i knew there was another word for it, "Resolutions" escaped me. And thank you for the mandatory/non-mandatory clarification. What, really, is the point of a non-mandatory resolution? And, if the resolution is null and void, was Israel created or not? Maybe if the UN stuck with mandatory, things might be clearer.

    Back to the other, as an outside observer, apparently footing the bill for Israeli defense as my father and his father do and did, for israel to incite violence from Arabs is inexcusable. I expect something in return, as i expect most would when billions of dollars change hands. As opposed to flushing money down the toilet.

    May 16, 2011 at 5:41 pm | Reply
    • Thinker23

      leeintulsa: "What, really, is the point of a non-mandatory resolution?"

      As I've explained above it's an OFFER. One of the functions of the UN Organization is to solve international and regional conflicts by OFFERING solutions that may be acceptable to both sides.

      ".. if the resolution is null and void, was Israel created or not?"

      It's an interesting question. As you may well know there are hundreds of nations (sovereign states) on this planet and NONE of them was created by a UN resolution. Israel WAS created by the PEOPLE OF ISRAEL just like every other state was created by its people.

      "...for israel to incite violence from Arabs is inexcusable."

      I'm not sure what you're talking about but it was Israel that offered the Arabs peace since the first day of its independence and it were the Arabs that rejected each and every peace offer. You may, of course, say that it was "inexcusable" for Poland to incite violence from the Germans back in September, 1939 but most people will disagree with you here... and WHAT EXACTLY you expect from Israel in return for your $10 a year?

      May 16, 2011 at 6:07 pm | Reply
  6. AZLib

    As long as Israel can beg for money and get it to protect itself then there will be no peace. Pease will stop the flow of cash from the US and other donners. The best way to get peace to finally happen there is to cut off funding. As long as you pay somebody for being at war then they will stay at war. They have locked the Pals into two ghettos stopping all but basic living for them. They wonder why they fight back... they wonder why they get made as they see homes being built in the west bank and have no say about anything. Isreal talks about the PALs causing problems, but in reallity who is in control of who life there. Sorry but as only one American I say we stop borrowing money from Red Communist China with interest and giving it to Israel. Face it this will never end as long as it's profitable to continue.

    May 16, 2011 at 7:04 pm | Reply
    • Thinker23

      AZLib: "As long as Israel can beg for money and get it to protect itself then there will be no peace. Pease will stop the flow of cash from the US and other donners."

      Sure it will. It will also free the money Israel has to spend on defense today which is at least THREE TIMES MORE than Israel receives as aid from the US.

      "they wonder why they get made as they see homes being built in the west bank and have no say about anything. Isreal talks about the PALs causing problems, but in reallity who is in control of who life there."

      Well, if the Palestinians did not like the current arrangement they would try to NEGOTIATE a better deal. They had plenty of opportunities. Peace and a sovereign independent state was offered to Palestinian Arabs in 1948, 1967, 1978, 2000, 2001, 2005 and they've REJECTED it every single time while offering nothing but demands and threats to destroy Israel and kill the Jews.

      May 16, 2011 at 8:22 pm | Reply
    • Thinker23

      AZLib: Stopping US aid to Israel will not stop Israel protecting itself but it will force Israel to use cheaper, simpler but no less effective alternatives to the sophisticated, precise and very expensive weapons it is using today to fight the terrorists. For example, instead of laser guided missiles and attack helicopters it will use tanks and artillery. As a result, instead of destroying a house with terrorists a city block where this house is located will be destroyed. Of course, the number of Palestinians killed will increase as a result... but you don't care about it, do you?

      May 16, 2011 at 8:26 pm | Reply
  7. Richard

    There never,ever,was such a thing as the "peace process".It is a fiction .

    May 17, 2011 at 2:55 pm | Reply

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