A Critique of Elliott Abrams: The Settlement Obsession in Foreign Affairs Magazine

 By A.G. Moore  July 14

The roots of catastrophe oftentimes are not discerned until the fruits of those early beginnings are in full expression. Thus did WWI emerge from the unlikely cauldron of frustrated Serbian nationalism. Thus did the Nixon resignation debacle ensue from a midnight caper at the Watergate Hotel. But if, and when, seismic upheaval in the Middle East rattles the planet, no one will be surprised. And so it behooves those with insight and influence to speak carefully and truthfully about the issues that threaten stability in the troubled region.

I recently read an article by Elliot Abrams in Foreign Affairs. In the article, The Settlement Obsession, Abrams takes issue with those who see Israeli settlements in Occupied Territories as an impediment to peace. In my discussion here I will take no position on the rights of the Palestinians or the Israeli’s. I will, however, take a position on the caliber of the dialogue that is taking place between those “neutral” experts upon whom the success of future peace negotiations rests. If these voices truly speak impartially, then peace is possible. If they, on the other hand, are lobbyists for one side or another, then progress in the negotiations is not possible.

So I call Mr. Abrams to task for the quality of his argument. He is far more informed than I am and far more skilled at diplomacy. All I bring to the table is an open mind and an eagerness to see the chronic Middle East crisis tempered by just resolution of long-standing grievances.

The Palestinian diaspora will not evaporate and Israel will not commit suicide. Both of these parties will predictably come to negotiations with passion and a jaundiced view of the facts. Somewhere in between the two versions of the truth may lie the possibility for peace. It is up to arbitrators to find that middle. It is the arbitrators who are charged with being dispassionate and clear headed; who are charged to speak with an unbiased voice and seek a balanced solution.

Mr. Abrams certainly argues with the careful tones of a diplomat and his presentation gives the impression of impartiality. However, his use of language is so careful as to affect the thrust of his argument. Throughout his article he manages never to refer to the disputed territories on which the settlements are built as “Occupied Territories”. It is not as though the term is not accepted: not only do the UN and the international community regularly use this terminology in referring to the territories seized in the ’67 War, but the government of Israel itself has argued and the Israeli Supreme Court has affirmed that the territories in question are in a state of “belligerent occupation.”

The closest Mr. Abrams comes to semantically acknowledging the disputed nature of the settlement lands is when he quotes others who refer to the areas as territories. Only once does Mr. Abrams himself directly refer to the lands in dispute in terms of occupation – and that is when he mentions briefly that “the occupation began in June of 1967”. In all other direct discourse, however, he refers to the disputed territories as “settlements” and “lands”. By avoiding obviously significant words such as “disputed” and “occupied”, Mr. Abrams is semantically denying the essential conflict at the heart of the settlement issue. And without acknowledgment of that dynamic, no resolution is possible.

Please keep in mind as I critique Mr. Abrams’ argument that he speaks as a former U. S. National Security Adviser and as a current Fellow at the Council For Foreign Relations. These affiliations give his voice authority – the authority of association. With that authority comes the responsibility to provide information that enlightens and advice that advances understanding. I do not see either responsibility met in the Foreign Affairs essay.

In support of settlement activity, Mr. Abrams refers to the right of Israelis to return to areas occupied before the 1948 War (“to reclaim places where Jews lived in previous decades”). He refers specifically to Hebron and Gush Etzion, two cities in which the blood of Jewish people was shed by Arabs. Nothing can erase the tragedy of those who were slain in these two massacres. However, Mr. Abrams surely knows that those who fell were victims not only of ignorance and unspeakable brutality, but also of ideology and geopolitical calculation.

Britain’s 1917 Balfour Declaration put the Arab population on notice that a Jewish Homeland was to be established in Palestine; the Declaration was a spur to Jewish immigration. It was also a spur to Arab resentment. In this context, conflict between the new settlers and the existing residents was inevitable. The 67 Jews who were massacred in Hebron were as much victims of ham-handed British imperialism as they were of inflamed Arab passion.

As for Gush Etzion: Mr. Abrams quotes Ariel Sharon as declaring to Condoleezza Rice that Gush Etzion was “an old community…where everyone was killed in the 1948 War…..the Palestinians never will be able to come there – never.” It is one thing for Mr. Sharon, who is filled with a sense of history and jockeying for a better bargaining position in any negotiation, to make this assertion. It is quite another thing for Mr. Abrams to use this historic tragedy as support for more settlements.

Murder is indefensible, especially murder on the scale at Gush Etzion. However, it is important to recognize the context in which the Gush Etzion massacre occurred so that this horror may not be used to justify more bloodshed.

The first modern attempt to establish a Jewish settlement in Gush Etzion occurred in 1927. Tension with surrounding Arab communities existed from the start and the community did not succeed. However, in 1943 — according to the Jewish News — a group of young Jews began the effort once again and Gush Etzion took root. By 1948 there were approximately 450 Jewish residents in the area. After Partition (1947, when the UN divided Palestine into an Arab state and a Jewish state) Gush Etzion found itself on the Arab side of the border, outside the defined territory of the new state of Israel.

Despite Gush Etzion’s vulnerable position, a decision was made not to abandon the settlement. Arabs repeatedly attacked the community; women and children were escorted out but the effort to hold on to Gush Etzion continued. Not only did the community have religious significance for the residents, but it was also strategically important; as the Jewish News reports, fighters from Gush Etzion attacked Arab transports on their way to Jerusalem. Thus, the News concludes, in the view of the Arabs, in order to keep the main road to Jerusalem open, Gush Etzion needed to be “completely defeated”. Finally, in May of 1948, within a day of full-blown war, the settlement was overrun and virtually all inside (by some estimates as many as 250) were killed. When Israel won the ’67 War, the land upon which Gush Etzion had existed fell under Israel’s control and settlement construction began once again.

At the heart of Mr. Abrams’ argument is what he terms the Obama administration’s “obsession” with halting settlements; this “obsession”, Mr. Abrams claims, is unreasonable and an obstruction to peace negotiations. In support of his position, Mr. Abrams refers to the Bush administration’s assertion that “realities on the ground” – that is the existence of settlements – have to be acknowledged and accommodated in order for a sustainable agreement to be reached. By referring to this Bush manifesto, Mr. Abrams himself is conceding that settlements – realities on the ground – inevitably influence the way land will be divvied up in a peace deal. Therefore, it is disengenuous of him to assert that new settlements are not an impediment to peace; Arab negotiators are surely aware of the significance of “realities on the ground” – they are not eager to see these realities shift further in Israel’s favor as settlement development continues.

Let me re-assert at this point that it is not my intention to argue the legitimacy of either the Israeli or the Palestinian position. I am arguing for an honest discussion of the Middle East peace process. I am strongly suggesting that “experts” who have input into this process at least attempt a truthful stating of the case. Mr. Abrams may be an “expert” but he fails when it comes to the truth test.

I can accept that a Palestinian describing the history of the Arab-Israeli dispute will do so in a way that favors the Palestinian cause. And I can likewise accept an Israeli presenting an equally biased view. However, if intermediaries and advisers do not abstain from such posturing, then peace becomes more remote and the carnage in Hebron and Gush Etzion becomes a prelude to more bloodshed.

Mr. Abrams certainly has a right to adopt a bias and to advocate for a side. What he should not do is put himself out as an objective analyst and then proceed to argue discretely for a position that he so evidently favors. Chronic unrest in the Middle East endangers the stability of the international community. What the world needs is not another divisive voice, but one that seeks to resolve the issues that roil the troubled region.

Perspectives on the Arab-Israeli Dispute

From the Israeli Perspective:
History of Gush Etzion

From the Palestinian Perspective:
Chronology:  The Year of 1948

An Overview

Elliott Abrams:
From Iran Contra to Bush’s Democracy Czar


Council on Foreign Relations Bio:


Elliot Abrams Testimony Before Congress:


Elliott Abrams: The Neocon’s Neocon:

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