Oren, Abrams, and Ross Address AIPAC: What Should U.S. Foreign Policy Be?

The opening foreign policy session of AIPAC featured the three major foreign-policy analysts working on the Middle East crisis: Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S. and well-known historian Michael Oren, followed by the former Obama advisor Dennis Ross, and then Bush administration Middle East advisor Elliott Abrams (who is now at the Council on Foreign Relations).

What is most notable about their three presentations, in our estimate, is their essential agreement on where our country stands, and what must be done in the future. That Ross comes from advising a Democrat president and Abrams a Republican one makes little difference when it comes to what they say needs to be accomplished.

In Ambassador Oren’s Q and A with moderator Frank Sesno, he made the following points. The forthcoming trip by President Obama, he said, is important because it will be a message to the world that the United States stands behind Israel. As ambassador, of course, Oren is first and foremost a diplomat---who represents his government. That means he has to be circumspect. He is not expressing his personal opinion, but framing what in effect is a message from the prime minister he serves. 

Hence Oren stressed that when Netanyahu put Likud on record as favoring a two-state solution of a Palestinian state standing in peace next to Israel, it was a game changer, proving that Israel is taking steps to peace. Now, he said, the Palestinians have to show that they too will take the very same steps 

On the issue of Syria, Oren said that “Israel will not remain silent.” Assad must be forced to leave.  Calling Assad “reckless and unpredictable,” Oren stressed that his departure will also be a major blow to Iran, which is arming his forces.

Turning to Iran, Oren said the Iranian regime must be told it will not be permitted to go nuclear, and  that all options must be on the table. Iran, he stressed, has engaged in diplomacy that has not worked, and is moving ahead to full attainment of a nuclear arsenal. The question, then, is when will it be too late to prevent them, and the issue is the price of inaction.

Concluding his remarks, Ambassador Oren stressed the importance of maintaining U.S. administrative and congressional support for the state of Israel. Given what he called the “Jihadist view of the world” held by the mullahs of Iran, Oren presented in effect a skepticism about the possibility of getting Iran to negotiate seriously. As to his own state and the Palestinian issue, Oren argued that Hamas cannot be negotiated with unless it recognizes Israel, and that Abbas of the PA must be told that he cannot put into place a reconciliation with Hamas, which would permanently make a peace process forever impossible. That, he said, would be a “game changer.” 

Next came a dialogue between Elliott Abrams and Dennis Ross. What is most interesting is the essential similar analysis each presented. Abrams began by saying that the president’s forthcoming trip was a good sign, and meant he faced a challenge telling the Israeli public that he understands them and the challenges they face. Ross added that it could be a new beginning for both Obama and PM Netanyahu, presenting a chance to establish a new connection for the president with the Israeli people.

On the issue of the threat from Iran, Abrams said that in his view, the U.S. was negotiating not with Iran, but only with itself. Iran came to the table, said progress had been made, but essentially walked away without giving anything in the form of a serious proposal on its side. Iran’s game is to talk and get closer to attainment of a nuclear weapon, and the regime is using negotiations as a ploy to buy time.  Ross agreed, saying that Iran made only excuses, saying it listened to what the U.S. said and offered nothing itself that was serious. As Abrams then added, the world was “failing to step Iran from getting closer to a nuclear weapon.” 

On what might happen between the president and the Israeli prime minister in the forthcoming trip, Ross said the public would not learn what happens in private, but that neither the U.S. nor Israel wants its own hands tied so what it might do in the future was limited by a public agreement. What he hoped both wanted is to achieve a better personal understanding between each leader.

On Syria, Ross said Assad must leave, and that the U.S. should help accelerate his departure, while preventing a new state leaving Jihadists in charge. The U.S. must use its power to influence the new landscape after Assad leaves.

Agreeing with Ross, Abrams praised Secretary of State John Kerry for changing policy and giving humanitarian aid to Syria’s rebels fighting the Assad regime. It was, he said, both a good sign and a “terrific” step. Previously, he noted, the U.S. through the UN had given millions of aid that was funneled through the Assad regime and its Red Crescent agency. Kerry ended this, and he hoped it was not too late to have an effect. It was one step in trying to strengthen moderate forces against extremists. 

Most surprising was Dennis Ross’s next statement. Ross said that humanitarian aid was not sufficient. Instead, he said there had to be “lethal aid” -- in other words, military equipment and supplies. The issue was to these writers a throwback to the '80s and the issue facing the Reagan administration it had to decide what had to be done to stop the Sandinistas and Marxist guerrillas in the region and stop the Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Should there have been military aid to the contras?  This was a policy some say a younger Elliott Abrams supported. Now, the Democrat advisor Dennis Ross openly came out for such aid to Syria’s rebels. Ross said military aid would be a true balance of force to make the opponents of Assad an equal force to Syria’s army. 

Finally, turning to Egypt, Ross said the Muslim Brotherhood was not being inclusive, as some thought it would be. He expected them to try and take power, but was surprised at the sectarian path they took. Abrams then said: “I agree completely with Dennis.” Both said the Brotherhood only won with 51 percent of the vote but was disregarding the wishes of the rest of the country whose support they did not have.  The money given them by the U.S. was enough to bail Egypt out for only three months or a bit more. After that, both feared that the regime would be near collapse. Abrams, in fact, thought they would no longer be in power within a few years. Ross responded that they had to respect the rights of Christian Coptics in Egypt as well as respecting all international agreements made in the past by Egypt.

The last point was a brief discussion on Israel and the Palestinians. Abrams feared that while the U.S. would stand firm and not negotiate with Hamas, European nations would quickly do just that, and try to forge an agreement between the PLO and Hamas. If such took place, he warned, it would forever make a peace impossible. 

The discussion, therefore, was a firm dose of reality for the beginning of a conference that will have more substantive discussion of these pressing issues.

More from Bridget Johnson: Oren: ‘Thank God the Golan Heights is in the Hands of Israel.’

Update: Video of the Sunday morning session is now online at AIPAC.org.