Two Books Offer Dueling Peace Roadmaps as Obama Prepares for Trip to Middle East

Elliot Abrams and Daniel Kurtzer Give Divergent Advice

Impending Visit: President Obama insists he’s going to the Mideast to listen, not bring prepackaged solutions. Two policy pros lay out suggested courses of action for the president, but their ideas couldn’t clash more.
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Impending Visit: President Obama insists he’s going to the Mideast to listen, not bring prepackaged solutions. Two policy pros lay out suggested courses of action for the president, but their ideas couldn’t clash more.

By Nathan Guttman

Published February 27, 2013, issue of March 08, 2013.
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Decrying the lack of persistence and focus, the book’s authors state that they are “left to ponder whether that kind of American leadership and diplomatic wisdom can be recaptured.”

Daniel Kurtzer
Daniel Kurtzer

Abrams, who has produced a memoir of his years on Bush’s national security team, offers a different account, one that is more skeptical about America’s need or ability to take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a top priority.

The USIP’s research group consisted of Kurtzer, who served in Middle East-related positions from the Reagan administration through the administration of George W. Bush; William Quandt, a former Middle East adviser for Presidents Nixon and Carter; Scott Lasensky, a researcher currently with the Obama administration, and scholars Steven Spiegel of the University of California, Los Angeles and Shibley Telhami from the University of Maryland, College Park.

In the analysis by these scholars and policymakers, efforts to broker peace by Presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama left much to be desired. George W. Bush’s administration is described as having been “at war with itself” over policy as differences surfaced between Secretary of State Colin Powell and his successor Condoleezza Rice on one hand, and the neo-conservative voices within the administration, including Abrams, on the other. Bush’s efforts to promote Israeli-Palestinian peace are described in the book as “a saga of missed opportunities and inadequate preconceptions that left the prospect for peace far weaker when Bush left office.”

Abrams calls this claim “ludicrous.” In an interview with the Forward, he argued that Bush’s tenure brought important advances to the nation’s Middle East policy. He cited in particular Bush’s identification of Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat as an obstacle to peace; Bush’s later introduction of the concept of reforming the Palestinian Authority, and his clear statement of support for Palestinian statehood. “It is very convenient for people who don’t like Bush to say he was simply not interested in the peace process,” Abrams said in an interview.

The USIP research group does note some of the achievements reached during the Bush years, and criticizes Obama for not following up on them. Obama, they say, did not try to build on the Annapolis process, an attempt to restart talks based on a November 2007 international conference hosted by Bush. He instead chose a new approach that put an Israeli freeze on Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank front and center.

Abrams, a staunch critic of Obama, believes that fixing the settlement freeze issue should be the president’s main task in his upcoming visit to Jerusalem. According to Abrams, it was Obama’s demand that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu freeze Jewish settlement activity that caused the Palestinians to insist on this point before agreeing to resume negotiations. Beyond the issue of settlements, Abrams argues that Obama should “convey to the Israelis that he really understands emotionally and intellectually how Israelis feel,” though he added that even if successful, Obama will only convince part of the Israeli public.


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