Elliott Abrams predicts Obama, Bibi faceoff
by HEATHER ROBINSON
Elliott Abrams, former deputy national security advisor to President Bush, speaking Saturday morning in Fort Lauderdale at the winter meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said he thinks the Obama administration may be able to successfully employ sanctions against Iran now that oil prices have dropped, especially if President Obama is able to secure cooperation from China and Russia.
However, Abrams predicted friction between Obama and Netanyahu on the issue of Israeli settlements. And he said that if sanctions fail to arrest Iran’s march toward nuclear capability, both Obama and Netanyahu will face a historic decision as to whether to allow “this regime whose stated intention is to destroy Israel” to acquire nuclear weapons.
Abrams, senior fellow for middle eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said President Obama has a better chance of effectively employing sanctions against Iran than President Bush did due to two factors: the drop in cost of oil and the possibility of increased cooperation from Russia and China.
During the Bush years, high oil prices offset the sanctions’ effect. But now that oil prices have significantly dropped, sanctions could be more effective in halting Iran’s progress toward nuclear capability, according to Abrams.
“Our sanctions [during the Bush years] were having an impact but weren’t overcoming the money Iran was getting from selling oil,” according to Abrams. “In the course of this year, though, sanctions could work.”
The second factor in making sanctions effective would be greater international cooperation. If President Obama can garner more cooperation from China and Russia than President Bush was able to, then that cooperation, combined with reduced oil prices, might mean the U.S. could effectively squeeze Iran’s leadership, Abrams believes.
If sanctions fail, and should Iran acquire nuclear weapons, “then we’d be forcing the hand of Arabs in the region also to acquire nuclear weapons …then the possibility of terrorists acquiring a nuclear weapon becomes five or ten times as great,” he said.
In terms of a military option to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear capability, Abrams said two questions on the table for both Obama and Netanyahu are whether they can successfully target Iran’s nuclear facilities, and if they do so, how far it will set Iran back.
“The question is, ‘How much can you destroy?’” he said. “It’s not like Osirak, they’ve spread things around. Also, what about the secret plant we’ve never heard about?
“How far can you set them back? If it’s five months, it won’t be worth it. But if it’s ten years? [The U.S.] has a larger air force and better capability than Israel. We could do a better job.”
Abrams also questioned the conventional wisdom that a military strike against Iran would provoke a nationalistic response from the Iranian people.
Most Iran experts say in the event of a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, Iranians “would immediately rally, there will be a nationalistic reaction and you will see solidarity and support,” said Abrams. But, he reflected, in the aftermath of the Israeli attack on Iraq’s nuclear facility at Osirak in 1981, it would appear Saddam Hussein did not react by rebuilding his nuclear facility, and there was not a widespread nationalistic response. Similarly, he cited the lack of response on the part of Syria to a 2008 U.S. military attack against terror suspects crossing from Iraq into Syria.
If the U.S. attacked Iran’s nuclear facility, Abrams questioned, “Would the Iranian people rally behind the regime, or would they say… ‘How did we get into this?’ I’m not sure what most Iran experts [predict would happen] would be true.”
Abrams critiqued the appeal President Obama delivered Friday to Iran for providing reassurance to Iran’s leadership.
“It was a speech to the Iranian people … combined with a message of reassurance to [the mullahs who] we should not be reassuring,” he said. “If you were an Iranian dissident I think you’d have been disappointed with what you heard yesterday.”
On the subject of Israel, Abrams predicts some friction in the near term between Obama and Netanyahu because the Obama administration believes that the main problem in brokering an Israeli/Palestinian final status agreement is Israel’s settlement expansion. This, according to Abrams, is false.
“I can illustrate why [this is false] very simply,” said Abrams. “Look at what [Ehud] Barak proposed ten years ago. Look at what Olmert offered recently. Olmert offered more.”
In other words, what has repeatedly made a final status agreement between Israelis and Palestinians impossible is Palestinians’ refusal to accept a deal, not settlement expansion, since the latter has coincided with more generous offers of land for peace, according to Abrams.
Abrams said he is unsure how much friction there will be between Obama and Netanyahu on the issue of settlements. Nonetheless, he predicts American Jewish organizations will side with Obama in political battles.
“I hope I’m wrong, but I think [Jewish and other security-minded organizations] will have a tough time making the case for what Netanyahu wants to do,” he said.
Abrams also talked about media coverage of the incoming Netanyahu government, saying The New York Times has already begun a “campaign to de-legitimize” the incoming Israeli government before it even takes power, “as if there is something illicit about democratically electing a right-of-center government.” This campaign has taken the form of interviewing IDF forces about alleged improprieties in Gaza during Operation Cast Lead, according to Abrams, who characterized this reporting as highly questionable.
“You’ll notice these IDF officers are never saying, ‘I did it,’ or ‘I saw it,’” said Abrams, but “‘I heard about it.’”
Asked by an audience member whether there is any hope for recognition by the Obama administration and the world that the lack of Arab states’ acceptance of Israel is the major obstacle to peace in the Mideast, Abrams responded by saying, “We are decades away but [acceptance of Israel’s right to exist] could happen.”
While some governments like that of Iran still institutionalize hatred of Israel, others have shifted toward acceptance, he believes. But he maintains the “Arab street” is still far from accepting.
“The governments of Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Tunisia don’t want to destroy Israel [but] they can’t bring their own people along [to accept Israel],” Abrams said. “For decades, as a means of distracting their own people from the lack of freedom and democracy, they have instilled massive propaganda against Israel,” and now that it may no longer be in their interests to whip up hatred against Israel, they can’t easily undo it.
The anti-Israel prejudice is exacerbated, Abrams believes, by Al Jazeera and a worldwide surge of Islamism, which he believes has reached its apex and will probably start to wane in its virulence, but will take several decades to do so.