The Middle East remains, years after President Obama’s historic Cairo speech, a region aflame with conflict from Israel to Syria to Iraq to Egypt. The rise of the Islamic State has added another bad actor to the scene. Elliott Abrams, one of the foremost analysts of the region who has been deeply involved in the shaping of U.S. policy for decades, offers in this wide-ranging interview his take on the terror attacks in Israel and Paris, the expanding reach of ISIS, and the future of American leadership.
Octavian Report: Do you see the recent upsurge of violence in Israel as the beginning of a full-blown intifada?
Elliott Abrams: I don’t think it is an intifada, nor is it likely to become one. An intifada requires the support of the Palestinian Authority. In the past, when there were intifadas, Arafat supported them and fed them. That is not what the PA is doing in the West Bank. The PA is happy to see violence in Israel, but it does not want things to get out of control in the West Bank. They are vulnerable to the charge that they are just serving as Israel’s protector and policeman, and that charge undermines support, but nevertheless, the cooperation between the Israeli security forces and the PA security forces has continued throughout and has kept the level of violence in the West Bank reasonably low. I don’t know when this current round of violence will end, because much of it is not coordinated. It’s individuals or two people going on some kind of terrorist attack on their own. What you’re not seeing is really organized efforts involving a dozen people or 50 people.
OR: Do you think that the surge in violence is going to change either the Obama administration’s position or Netanyahu’s?
Abrams: To me, the interesting question here is: why now? Why did this happen now and not a year ago? I think a big contributing factor has been the lies being told about the Temple Mount. It would be normal for Muslims, including Palestinian Muslims, to protest if there were some kind of dastardly, vicious Israeli plan to undermine the mosques, to undermine the Haram al-Sharif, to do all sorts of sacrilegious things. That’s what they’re being told. These lies are being repeated and repeated, including by Abbas himself. I think that’s the largest single contributor, and it’s all a lie. It’s a complete lie. It’s had a really horrendous impact. Some people have proposed the theory that the role of stabbings is in some sense the product of ISIS. One of their trademarks, so to speak, has been killing people with knives, beheading them. Some argue that this direct violence, this taking blood by yourself, indeed this most intimate form of terrorism has been inspired by ISIS. I must say it seems like an interesting theory to me because we’ve not seen this before. In the previous intifadas, you had bombs going off in Israeli cafes and buses. You didn’t have knifings like this. I would not attribute the timing of this to anything that Netanyahu did or that Obama has done.
OR: Where do you see the initiating forces coming from?
Abrams: Well, let’s distinguish two parts of this. One is the Palestinian part. The other is, if you will, the rest of world and particularly Europe. I think for the Palestinian part, the timing of it has to do with lies about the Temple Mount. This brings up a longstanding question, the question of incitement — teaching hatred of Jews has been around for decades. We have never done anything serious in response to it. Every U.S. president and every Secretary of State has said, “Oh, this is terrible. Oh, incitement must stop.” But in fact the Palestinians never pay a price. I’m talking now not about individuals. I’m talking about the Palestinian Authority and the PLO leadership. Individuals in the West Bank don’t have the ability to name a school or a public square after a terrorist and thereby glorify the murder of Israelis. Only officials can do that, and they’ve been doing it for decades, and there has never been a price to pay. The way to respond to that, I think, is to start making them pay a price. In testimony that I gave before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, I suggested, for example, closing down the PLO office in Washington. I suggested keeping track of the individuals who make these statements and revoking their visas for the U.S. if they have visas or denying visas if they don’t. Some penalty needs to be imposed.
More generally, attitudes towards Israel and indeed the BDS movement itself do reflect American foreign policy. It’s always been my view that the European relationship with Israel is, in some part, a triangulation. They don’t want to be closer to Israel than we are. They want to be more distant than we are. How distant or close is that? Well, that depends on how close or distant we are. When they see the U.S. criticizing Israel constantly, when they see a terrible relationship between the Prime Minister and the President, when they see the U.S. behaving as it has in the U.N., threatening not to veto resolutions and in general keeping a certain distance from Israel, they will in turn move further away from Israel. It is not a hydraulic relationship: it’s not the closer we get, the farther they get. Not at all. The closer we get, the closer they get. The farther we get, the farther they get. I think that is one of the reasons the BDS movement has grown in influence.
OR: Do you see that dynamic continuing if Hillary Clinton is elected? How much do you think it would change under any of the current Republican hopefuls?
Abrams: It’s easy to predict how it would happen under any of the current Republican crop, perhaps with the exception of Rand Paul. We’d go back to the kind of relationship that we had not only under George W. Bush but under Bill Clinton. It would, I think, be much closer. What Hillary Clinton would do is more difficult to say. As a senator from New York, she was a reliable supporter of Israel. As Secretary of State, she seemed to go along with everything that Obama was doing. Take Syria, for example. We know that in 2012 she advocated a different approach to Syria and wanted to support the Syrian rebel groups. I don’t think there’s any record of her having that kind of argument with the White House over policy toward Israel. She is close to a certain number of people whose attitudes towards Israel are horrible, Sidney Blumenthal being the one that comes to mind first. I think it’s difficult to predict what a Hillary Clinton administration would be like.
Elliott Abrams is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He served as deputy assistant to the President and deputy national security advisor under George W. Bush and as an assistant secretary of state under Ronald Reagan.