Guest Charles Reilly on Israeli Settlements: Who’s Obsessing?

Banksy’s peace dove on a section of the Israel-Palestine wall.

Who’s Obsessing? Reflections on Elliott Abrams’ “The Settlement Obsession” in Foreign Affairs

By Guest Blogger Charles Reilly, Kroc School of Peace Studies, San Diego

Elliott Abrams is better known for delivering justificatory words and lethal weaponry than for treating compulsive disorders or resolving Middle Eastern disputes.   His early cold war crusade justified terrorist military regimes in Central America, less than forthright Congressional testimony on Iran – Contra funding and denied a major  Salvadoran military massacre in El Mazote, El Salvador.  He celebrated the U.S. record in El Salvador as a “fabulous achievement”, although the 1993 Secretary of State’s review panel “concluded that the Department’s massacre investigation undermined the Department’s credibility…. “a massacre had indeed occurred and U.S. statements on the case were wrong”. (Donner, 1993).  He next conflated U.S. and Israeli interests during his national security work for President Bush.  Today, like Prime Minister Netanyahu, Abrams again exercises chutzpah by lecturing  President  Obama for his  “obsession” with “Israeli settlements” (and, I suppose, the 44 year occupation as well).  Abrams finds such “facts on the ground” are hardly “obstacles to peace” and declares that in no way should they be central to US policy in the Middle East.  I disagree.  In fact, given changes in the region, I suggest that Israelis, members of the Jewish diaspora like Abrams, and all Palestinians should tone down their  temerity, dig deeper into Jewish (Muslim and Christian) traditions, and build their regional  future less on words and weaponry and more on moral principle such as tzedakah, or “justice with charity”.

Abrams’s FOREIGN AFFAIRS “review essay ” treats two books: – Occupation of the Territories: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies 2000-2010, and The Settlers And the Struggle Over the Meaning of Zionism, by Gadi Taub. Occupation, written by “Breaking the Silence”, draws from IDF soldiers’ testimonies of the occupation of Palestine.  They depart from prevailing Israeli and diaspora narratives regarding the conflict and search for peace and criticize the IDF.  Abrams summarily dismisses the soldiers’ argument that this occupation produced a “deterioration of moral standards (that) finds expression in the character of orders and the rules of engagement, and are justified in the name of Israel’s security” (p.143).  He admits many of the testimonies are moving, but rapidly reminds readers of bad things done by U.S. occupiers after WWII.  Abrams finds the volume “ideological”, faulting its authors for making “political points”.  Imagine!  He particularly faults the sampling of former IDF soldiers’ as unduly weighted towards the early 2000’s, suggesting, by his own “logical inference” that “things must have gotten better since”. Like in Gaza, or Abu Graib or example?

Palestinians plant their flag on the fence of an Israeli settlement.

It occurs to me that, if updating be needed, Mr. Abrams could well have included in his essay current Israeli “breakers of silence”, whether the gathering of Israeli artists who demonstrated against the occupation in Tel Aviv in early May, 2010, the protests in July against Knesset laws further constricting free speech in not so democratic Israel, or the attached list in ads placed in Israeli newspapers and the New York Times signed by 21 former IDF officers (most of them generals), as well as dozens of Israeli Prize laureates, university presidents and security officials.  HAARETZ carried the text from the May New York Times ad which reads: “We, the citizens of Israel, call on the public to support the recognition of a democratic Palestinian state as a condition for ending the conflict, and reaching agreed borders on the basis of the 1967 borders. Recognition of such a Palestinian state is vital for Israel’s existence.  It is the only way to guarantee the resolution of the conflict….”. (Ilan Lior,, published 02:11, 20.05.1).

The Gadi Taub volume Abrams engages with insight, gusto, and copious citations despite it being a profoundly, if not exclusively “ideological” study.  Why did this merit a serious review, not like his curt dismissal with no citations like with the Israeli soldiers?  My guess – the ideology this time is Zionism, which makes all the difference – in fact, the volume is all about current and historical differences between religious, land-based versions of the 19th century ideology versus secular, “statist” versions that continue to divide Israeli Jews, and perhaps more acutely, members of the Jewish diaspora in the United States. Taub and to a degree Abrams see that resolving tensions between those two versions is the challenge before Israelis if they are to sustain their state, (and permit one to Palestine?) in the future.  Clearly, Abrams learned a lot from Taub, while he brusquely turned off the soldiers – even generals.

Abrams, President Bush’s former adviser, compulsively recycles George W. Bush’s words here with scant recognition of facts on the ground and unconvincing argument that the settlements will simply fade away.  Such recollections and speculation fit better in  memoires than in book reviews.  Like he did in El Salvador praising U.S. policy and the Salvadoran army, Abrams celebrates some dubious outputs in Israel of the Bush years and before.  My balance sheet is quite different than his.  I question nine U.S. vetoes of United Nations resolutions criticizing Israeli policies, $30 billion poorly regulated commitments of U.S. weapons to Israel, the Lebanon war debacle, Bush’s mouthing of Ariel Sharon’s “new realities on the ground” rhetoric and practice, the radical shift to the right and disproportionate influence of armed settlers in Israeli politics, intermittent fruitless negotiations and, if you please, dramatic escalation in settlements and all the soldiers and U.S. military hardware that accompany them.  Sorry, but these don’t register for me as peacebuilding achievements worthy of celebration.

Abrams tilts more towards what historian Charles Beard called “perpetual war for perpetual peace”.  The Middle East is going through rapid changes.  Israel faces new, as yet undefined neighbors as well as its own restive peaceniks and peace advocates at home and among the American and European Jewish diaspora.  It must adapt.  Friends of Israel (as real friends are wont to do) will question and criticize particular Israeli actions, often resulting in reprisals or accusations of Anti-Semitism.  Dissent seems increasingly stifled by “democratic” Israel’s Knesset that is, usually, like with Abrams, couched in anti-terrorism rhetoric.  Without spaces carved out for conversation and nonviolent peacebuilding by the many sides of this conflict, the future holds nothing but perpetual war, with or without the fig leaves of rhetorical peace processes.  In Northern Ireland, Paisley and Adams talked less, but risked a great deal for peace.  The Irish diaspora in the United States were among the last to buy into peace for Northern Ireland. The American Jewish diaspora, with Elliott Abrams among its pugnacious leaders, runs the same risk.  Why not listen to “breakers of silence”, voices for peace.

Billed by some as a Neo-con’s Neo-Con, Abrams didactic lectures to readers and to president Obama in this review essay are self-serving chutzpah, mixing gall with temerity.  These are the stuff of tragedy when driven by one-sided, dehumanizing narratives that concede nothing to the other parties.  For Abrams, it is all much too simple.  Terrorism is the only issue, occupation the only solution. Abrams even asserts that an eventual Palestinian state will continue occupied by Israeli defense forces!  Forget any vestige of Palestinian sovereignty if Israel controls land, sea, air, even water rights and aquifers, with no room for non-violent protest, not even for Israeli citizens. Why in the world should  Palestinians settle for that?  That’s why much of the world supports their turn to the same UN that endorsed the creation of both states so many years ago.  Can Abrams not recognize that Israel’s quest, if not obsession for security through military means alone is unsustainable in the region for the long run, with or without a compliant U.S. sponsor?  Why no hint of Marc Gopin’s profound cultural Jewish vision of peacebuilding, why so little interest in helping to restore a broader Abrahamic base for believers and a moral grounding for secular humanitarians on all sides of the many divides?  Sustainable peace as an end does not come by means of weaponry nor through grossly unequal power negotiations.  A nuclear arsenal, the IDF forces, $3 billion per year in American military aid, the short range missile shield that fascinates Abrams (he wants the U.S. to buy into it), the wall, the occupation, US white phosphorous shells, and least of all, phantom “negotiations”, have brought neither security nor peace to the Middle East.

And yet, there may be hope.  Abrams could change as Paisley did.  Abrams clearly learned much from reading Taub.  He could learn even more from Michael Walzer’s commentary on Maimonides in the July / August edition of Foreign Affairs. Despite Abram’s “human rights and humanitarian affairs” government trajectory, I hope that he would find Walzer’s treatment of  Jewish tzedepah  “humanitarianism” stimulating, culturally resonant, and a welcome alternative for re-imagining relationships of Jewish and Palestinian peoples. Abrams recognizes that Israel’s security policies have dramatically separated both groups on this narrow strip of land. He concedes that the “occupation has more and more become the only prism through which Palestinians see Israelis”, p.151.  How about a shared future?

That hope must work through painful histories of violence and terrorist targeting of civilians on both sides – going way back to the Nakba, the King David Hotel bombing led by Menachem Begin’s Irgun guerrillas, Hamas rocket shots and suicide bombers, U.S. made white phosphorous shells and a 100 to 1 body count killed in the Gaza attack, invasions of and by Israel of immediate neighbors to the north, east and south over many decades, etc..  What a heavy history of violence, and how little the United States has helped with all its military hardware and reluctance to be an independent third party willing to criticize when Israel or Palestine does wrong!  Like other prolonged conflicts, this one is driven by narratives, obsession with past injuries, cramped by self-fulfilling prophecies. Yet, like other conflicts, there are undercurrents of peace-builders unwilling to demonize the other. War has become more and more obsolete.  If so little progress through violence in sixty plus years, why couldn’t Abrams market something different.  Rather than donate more weapons and missile shields, why not adapt Maimonides?

Walzer draws on this medieval Talmudic scholar’s reflections on ancient Jewish humanitarianism, the imaginative exercise of moral obligation created by “stateless Jewish peoples”.  Built on the Hebrew word tzedekah, commonly translated as “charity”, it comes from the same root as the word for “justice”.  It is a two-in-one, charity and justice principle that emerged over centuries, echoing Isaiah, and codified by the great medieval philosopher. Walzer recognizes that the two-in-one principle comes in Christian and Muslim versions such as tithing or zakat, “but the centuries of Jewish statelessness give the Jewish version a special force”, ( p. 72).  Lacking state services and safety nets, charity / justice necessarily came in to play.  It required special attention to the poor and needy, as to their neighbors, considering it an obligation.  It updated Abrahamic legends of tolerance for others and adapted it to diverse settings. It recalled the way Hillel summarized the entire Torah: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow man”.

Walzer suggests this tzedekah approach might today ground international humanitarianism, even be a core principle for state building.  I’d like to stretch the principle further, and suggest that Abrams should dare to imagine shifting from arms advocacy to tzedekah bridgebuilding, done by both Israelis and Palestinians, offering nonviolent alternatives to security obsessed Middle East neighbors, and capable, as in Northern Ireland, to at least partially neutralize the spoiler extremists on both sides. Walzer recognizes the difficulty of humanitarian intervention which involves “the use of force in someone else’s country”.  Yet there have been and continue to be Jews and Palestinians, Christians and Arabs, ready and willing to talk, cooperate, even if their political leadership does not.  Israel could even actually contribute to Palestinian state-building and no longer prevent it, just as Arab and Christian Israelis could help improve Israel, still very much a democratic “work in progress”.

The Walzer argument is nuanced and profound, rooted in his work on the series The Jewish Political Tradition. He explores humanitarianism’s “relief and repair” driven by justice and charity.  He asks: “What ought to be done right now?  The answer will change depending on the existing needs, the political circumstances, the resources that benevolence can provide, and the requirements of justice. As individual men and women, as members of or contributors to nongovernmental organizations, as citizens of powerful states, it invites us to choose to do what we are absolutely bound to do”. P. 80.

I ask whether such a justice / charity humanitarianism might propel us beyond narratives of past grief and present rage, to inspire hopes for a shared future, whether two state, one state, federated states, or even, as in the Jewish past, no state.  (I believe Christianity blundered badly when it identified with the Constantinian, then subsequent states). In the rapidly changing Middle Eastern context, would not tzedekah offer a broader and more effective framework for just peace than has weaponry, preventive wars and security-justifies-whatever.  Couldn’t  tzedekah offer all of us, especially Israelis and Palestinians who seek a just and lasting peace, a north star that beckons well beyond chutzpah and military aid.  Couldn’t Elliott Abrams help Israelis and the Jewish diaspora in the United States not only “break the silence” when needed, but even help “to choose to do what we are absolutely bound to do”?  That would mean different priorities than we once chose in Central America or now in the Middle East.  Walzer insists: “The governing principle of humanitarian intervention is “Whoever can, should”. p.79.

Any takers?


Breaking the Silence”, Occupation of the Territories: Israeli Soldiers’ Testimonies 2000-2010.  2010, 431 pp. Free Online.

Bonner, Ray, “Massacre of Hundreds Reported in Salvador Village..  New York Times, (Photos by Susan Meiselas).  January 27, 1982.

Donner, Mark. “The Truth of El Mozote”. New Yorker, December 6, 1993.

Commission for the Truth in El Salvador. Final report, March 15, 1993.  “From Madness to Hope: The 12 year War in El Salvador.”.  “more than 500 identified victims perished at El Mozote and other villages”, see Donner, New Yorker, final page.

Gopin, Marc,2002. Holy War, Holy Peace . Oxford University Press.

Gafni, Isaiah M. 2003. Great World Religions: Judaism.

Guillermoprieto, Alma.  Washington Post, “El Mozote”, Jan. 27, 1982

“Shedding Light on Humanity’s Dark Side”, Washington Post, March 14, 2007.

Kurtzer, Daniel and Scott Lasensky. 2008. Negotiating Arab-Israel Peace. Washington


Mearsheimer, John J. and Stephen M. Walt. 2007. The Israeli Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy. New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux.

Peri, Yoram. 2006. Generals in the Cabinet Room. Washington D.C.: USIP.

Rohter, Larry. New York Times, February 2, 1996,  pp. A1 and A4.

Secretary of State’s Panel on El Salvador, July, 1993. “…. The Department’s massacre investigation undermined the Department’s credibility….. The panel concluded that “a massacre had indeed occurred and the U.S. statements on the case were wrong.  On December 11, 2002, two embassy officers went to a memorial ceremony in El Mozote”. (cited in Donner’s New Yorker article).

Taub, Gadi. 2010. The Settlers: And the Struggle Over the Meaning of Zionism.  Yale University Press, 2010, 240 pp.

Tutela Legal, San Salvador Catholic Church Human Rights Office.  Its first investigation published in November 1991, listed 794 victims in Mozote and nearby villages.

Walzer, Michael. “On Humanitarianism” in FOREIGN AFFAIRS, July/August, 2011, pp. 69-80.

Whitfield, Teresa. 1994. p. 390, fn. 28. Paying the Price. Temple University Press.  Cites Abrams  re “fabulous achievement” of the administration in El Salvador.


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