World on Fire

An Interview with Elliott Abrams

OR: Do you think there’s been longer-term damage done to Democratic support for Israel in recent years?

Abrams: The trends on that issue are deep and would be visible even if Obama had never been president. I think that the problem with the Democratic Party is the problem with the Left globally. The Left everywhere has been turning against Israel for decades. The Democratic Party is part of that. I think that it is, to some extent, slowed down or covered over by some of the people in the Democratic Congressional leadership who are very strong supporters of Israel — Steny Hoyer comes to mind. I think that’s changing generationally and I think that the poll data will show that Democratic Party support for Israel is steadily declining. Obama made it worse by making it the official policy of the leader of the Democratic Party to be more and more critical of Israel, but I think that these very unfortunate, deep trends are going to continue even without Obama.

If you’re a 60-year-old Democrat, you were born in the mid-1950s, and you remember the 1967 war, you remember the 1973 war. You remember Arafat turning down peace at Camp David. If you are a 25-year-old Democrat, you really don’t remember any of that, and you have a different image of Israel. Furthermore, if you are that 25-year-old Democrat, we can well imagine what you learned about world politics, Middle East politics, and Israel if you took courses on those subjects at most American universities. Part of it does reflect, I think, the Middle East Studies Association and the usual take on the Middle East that most American academics appear to have.

Why is the Left turning against Israel globally? I think there are other deeper issues here. The question of nationalism is certainly a live one in Europe; I think it’s the case in the U.S. too that nationalism is viewed as somehow primitive. Nationalism and patriotism are viewed as primitive emotions that we need to overcome. Obviously, if you believe that, then you are going to be very critical of Israel, a country in which nationalism and patriotism are very strong. If you believe that the use of military force is primitive and needs to be overcome, then you not only dislike, for example, George W. Bush and American foreign policy; you’re also going to think that Israeli policies are terrible and need to be fought.

Don’t forget, as well, that we are talking about a very different Democratic Party. The Democratic Party used to be built around the labor movement. The labor movement — George Meaney’s labor movement, Lane Kirkland’s labor movement — was very pro-Israel. That was a labor movement, basically, of employees in the private sector. You now have a new labor movement, a government-employee labor movement whose leaders are ideologues on the Left. They are not an anchor of support for Israel in the Democratic Party. On the contrary, they are not supportive in many cases of Israel at all. That’s another, I think, significant change in the Democratic Party over time.

I think it is impossible to talk about these questions without getting to the question of anti-Semitism. That is one of the factors that motivates this criticism. We see it in the Islamic world. I think we see it plenty in Europe as well. Why is it that no one has ever, to my knowledge, proposed the labeling of products from the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus, which from the European legal point of view is, if you will, even worse than the Israeli settlements? We can come up with all sorts of geopolitical explanations, but it’s very hard to believe that an element of it is not hatred of Jews. On the settlement question, there is a massive amount of misinformation, and one of the sources of this misinformation is the U.S. government. It’s very clear that both Obama and Kerry have in their minds that there is a vast expansion of Israeli settlements and that they are gobbling up the West Bank. This, they argue, makes peace less likely with each passing month. Kerry repeated this claim recently. He said in early November that one of the reasons that Palestinians are so unhappy is precisely this vast expansion of settlements. This is false. It’s demonstrably false. These are questions of fact. They’re not judgments. The fact is that Israel is not building new settlements and the fact is that there is virtually no physical expansion of settlements.

They’re not gobbling up the West Bank. I would guess that nearly every single person in Europe believes what Kerry and Obama appear to believe, but it is not true. The Google map, so to speak, of the West Bank is very close to unchanged over the last 15 or 20 years. What is changing is the size of the population: settlements on both sides of the security barrier are growing in population. They are not growing physically, but they are growing in population. This is having a political impact in Israel, obviously, because those people are voters and they have families. To my mind, the disaster of Obama’s policy toward Israel becomes visible on January 21, 2009, his first full day in office. That day, if I remember correctly, was the day he appointed George Mitchell as his special Middle East envoy. Mitchell was the chief author of an eponymous report demanding that there be an absolute freeze of settlement population in every settlement and in East Jerusalem.

The reason that demand is so stupid is that if you were to call for some kind of freeze or partial freeze or time-limited freeze beyond the security fence, you would have something like 80 percent of Israelis agreeing with you. They never go to those places beyond the security barrier. They don’t want to. They think it’s unsafe. They are not interested in getting near Jenin or Nablus. Most Israelis view the people who live out in those small settlements as fanatics or as extremists. People who live in the major blocks, like Ma’ale Adumim, they view as suburbanites. They’re people who probably would rather live closer in, but they can’t afford it. This is why if you say we need to have a total freeze beyond the security fence, in any of the major blocs that everybody knows Israel’s going to keep or in East Jerusalem, then you’ve got something like 80 percent or maybe 90 percent of Israelis against you. Politically, what Obama and Mitchell did was unbelievably stupid. They threw away an opportunity, if they were looking for one, to begin to address the question of the settler population beyond the security fence in areas that most Israelis believe will not in the end be part of Israel.