Abrams’ ‘Gritty Realism’ Is Path To Continued Conflict

Our guest blogger is Moran Banai, U.S. editor of the Middle East Bulletin.

abrams.jpgIn last week’s cover article for the Weekly Standard, Elliott Abrams, who most recently served as President Bush’s deputy national security adviser for Global Democracy Strategy, joins a long line of former Bush advisers harkening back to the good old days of George W. Bush’s first term to repudiate policies they helped shape. He takes a swipe at the “visions, dreams, and endless conferences” that marked the Bush administration’s second term policies regarding the Middle East peace process, and extols the “gritty realism” of Bush’s first term — gritty realism that he thinks should be guiding the Obama administration’s policies on the issue.

So what does Abrams mean by gritty realism?

– Accept that “a final status agreement is not now a real-world goal.”

– Realize that instead what we need is “an intense concentration on building Palestinian institutions in the West Bank.”

– And finally, “rethink the recent commitment to leaping all at once to full independence for the Palestinians, and even to break the taboo and rethink that ultimate goal itself.” That includes reconsidering “links to Egypt and Jordan.”

While this may seem like a more convenient path considering the challenges that lay ahead, not least Israeli and Palestinian political fragmentation and deadlock, it is fundamentally wrong.

For starters, Marc Lynch already debunked the Egypt/Jordan links last month pointing out that no one who would be part of this solution –- the Jordanians, Egyptians or Palestinians -– has any interest in it.

The problem with Bush’s second term policies was not that he got too excited about diplomacy. It was that he ignored the peace process for seven years and then took an essential concept –- the combination of progress on final status issues, implementation of Road Map obligations (including for the Israelis a settlement freeze and improving movement and access in the West Bank and for Palestinians fighting terrorism and building security forces) and the building of Palestinian institutions -– and failed to implement the necessary processes to ensure that progress was made on all three simultaneously.

Let’s take Abrams’ familiar plaint that there is no Palestinian partner for peace, and that that is why the focus should be on building Palestinian institutions. Abrams argues that the Palestinian leadership is weak, lamenting that Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad “had less help from the West than one might expect.”

The shift away from realistic efforts to build Palestinian institutions and toward international conferences like Annapolis put President Abbas in the limelight, not the pragmatic work of Fayyad and his ministers.

This is a curious argument. First of all, the premise of the Annapolis process, developed by the Bush administration while Abrams was at the NSC, was to spur movement on all three fronts simultaneously. Between the administration and the Quartet, there were four envoys responsible for Road Map obligations and Palestinian institution-building. Real progress was made, particularly in Jenin, on building Palestinian security forces’ capabilities and on economic development .

As Hashim Shawa, the general manager of the Bank of Palestine, who has been an active participant in efforts to build the Palestinian economy, explained in an interview with Middle East Bulletin last month, the Palestinian economy in the West Bank is growing significantly. But it is severely limited by two critical elements: one, the lack of progress on movement and access issues and continued settlement building and two, the lack of a political horizon.

One of the novelties of the Annapolis process was the announcement by President Bush that the United States “will monitor and judge the fulfillment of the commitment of both sides of the road map.” Yet despite the fact that last February a team of former Israeli generals and security specialists offered an alternative system of checkpoints that would ease the restrictions in the West Bank, the number of barriers and checkpoints actually grew after the Annapolis conference. And settlements, which Israel has committed to freezing, grew by 69 percent in 2008 (and according to Peace Now, there are plans to build up to 73,000 new homes in settlements and outposts). These are things Abrams wants to put aside while energy is put into building Palestinian institutions. Prime Minister Fayyad, upon whom Abrams heaps much praise and whose lack of support he bemoans, made it very clear last year, however, that all three must happen simultaneously.

Combine all of this with the fact that under the Annapolis process no envoy was tasked with overseeing the political process (although there were people suggesting such an envoy be appointed) and that it was instead left solely with Secretary Rice. This might help explain why Abrams is “unaware of the achievement of any actual agreement on any important issue on either track” between Olmert and Abbas or Livni and Qureia.

Yesterday’s donors conference in Cairo was an important step in moving forward on Gaza reconstruction. Yet serious challenges remain, including the current division of the West Bank and Gaza.

With these challenges in mind, the lessons for the Obama administration should not be to follow Abrams’ path of gritty realism, which very might well lead to the end of a two-state solution. The lessons should be: start immediately (as President Obama has done) and put in place the necessary mechanisms to translate words into actual progress on all three of these fronts simultaneously.