September 29, 2010

From the Dept. of Intellectual Dishonesty

Riding the bus en route to work this morning, I read Elliott Abrams' op-ed in the Wall Street Journal on the aborted peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians. The gist of Abrams' argument is that the Obama Administration is spending too much time wringing its hands over Israeli settlements when it could be paying attention to the good news coming out of the West Bank: at the same time in which the economy in the West Bank is growing at 8%, Palestinian security forces are making real gains as well. The Obama Administration, in other words, needs to stop fretting about Israeli settlements. And the suspension of peace talks? Who cares? "The sky," Abrams writes, "is not falling."

The problem with Abrams' op-ed is in his sourcing. He writes:

The World Bank reported this month that "If the Palestinian Authority (PA) maintains its current performance in institution-building and delivery of public services, it is well-positioned for the establishment of a state at any point in the near future." The West Bank's economy will grow 8% this year, said the bank. Meanwhile, tax revenues are 15% above target and 50% higher than in the same period last year.

Good news, right? Absolutely. But Abrams left out one of the other major findings of the report (.pdf) -- the one that undermines his entire op-ed:

Sustainable economic growth in the West Bank and Gaza, however, remains absent. Significant changes in the policy environment are still required for increased private investment particularly in the productive sectors, enabling the PA to significantly reduce its dependence on donor aid.


h. The obstacles facing private investment in the West Bank are manifold and myriad, as many important GoI restrictions remain in place: (a) access to the majority of the territory’s land and water (Area C) is severely curtailed; (b) East Jerusalem -- a lucrative market -- is beyond reach; (c) the ability of investors to enter into Israel and the West Bank is unpredictable; and (d) many raw materials critical to the productive sectors are classified by the GoI as “dual-use” (civilian and military) and their import entails the navigation of complex procedures, generating delays and significantly increasing costs. ... Unless action is taken in the near future to address the remaining obstacles to private sector development and sustainable growth, the PA will remain donor dependent and its institutions, no matter how robust, will not be able to underpin a viable state.

The point of the whole friggin' World Bank report was that the very real economic gains we have witnessed in the West Bank over the past few years will turn out to be ephemeral if they are not followed by a political settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. That political settlement doesn't necessarily have to lead to the immediate creation of a Palestinian state, but it has to address the areas of concern highlighted in the above paragraph. And that bit about "access to the majority of the territory’s land and water" being severely curtailed? Any guesses from the readership what the World Bank research staff thinks is doing the curtailing?

Abrams continues:

Regarding security, cooperation between Israeli and PA forces has never been better. This month the International Crisis Group acknowledged that "In the past few years, the Palestinian Authority (PA) largely has restored order and a sense of personal safety in the West Bank, something unthinkable during the second intifada. Militias no longer roam streets, uniformed security forces are back, Palestinians seem mostly pleased; even Israel -- with reason to be skeptical and despite recent attacks on West Bank settlers -- is encouraged."

Again, nothing wrong with that paragraph, and you can read that report as well. But again, Abrams doesn't mention a key finding of that report:

The undeniable success of the reform agenda has been built in part on popular fatigue and despair – the sense that the situation had so deteriorated that Palestinians are prepared to swallow quite a bit for the sake of stability, including deepened security cooperation with their foe. Yet, as the situation normalises over time, they could show less indulgence. Should Israeli-Palestinian negotiations collapse – and, with them, any remaining hope for an agreement – Palestinian security forces might find it difficult to keep up their existing posture. ... Without a credible Israeli-Palestinian peace process or their own genuine reconciliation process, Palestinians will be stuck in their long and tenuous attempt to square the circle: to build a state while still under occupation; to deepen cooperation with the occupier in the security realm even as they seek to confront it elsewhere; and to reach an understanding with their historic foe even as they prove unable to reach an understanding among themselves.

The Crisis Group report that Abrams cites, like the World Bank report, only supports the thesis of Abrams' op-ed if you very selectively cut and paste from the reports. Otherwise, the reports he cites actually undermine the central argument of his op-ed. (And it goes without saying that Abrams did not similarly endorse this Crisis Group report. Or cite the 2009 address by Keith Dayton to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (.pdf) in which Dayton similarly warned that security gains in the West Bank were ephemeral absent political progress.)

Abrams has to know this. I mean, even assuming Abrams did not himself read the entire Crisis Group report, that bit above was from the executive summary. And again, let's assume Abrams did not read the entirety of that World Bank report either. No matter: here is a representative example of the way that World Bank report was greeted by the mainstream media upon its release last week:

JERUSALEM — The World Bank warned on Thursday that the Palestinians will be unable to build a viable state unless Israel lifts its restrictions that stymie private investment in the Palestinian territories.

The economy of the West Bank and Gaza is expected to grow eight percent this year, but largely thanks to foreign aid, the Bank wrote in a report.

The report's release coincided with the conclusion of two days of Middle East peace talks which a Palestinian official said "made no progress."

"Unless action is taken in the near future to address the remaining obstacles to private sector development and sustainable growth, the PA (Palestinian Authority) will remain donor dependent and its institutions, no matter how robust, will not be able to underpin a viable state," the report said.

(That last bit from the AFP, but for the sake of balance, here is another example from the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. Different news service, same slant.)

I have heard from many people I admire and trust that Abrams is one of the most brilliant people in Washington. But this is the kind of stuff that gives think tank researchers a bad name. I simply cannot believe that Abrams was not aware of the conclusions of the reports he cites when he cited them. Not mentioning those conclusions in his op-ed, then, is worse than disingenuous.

You guys know how much I hate talking about and writing about the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. And the point of this post is not to counter Abrams' argument. The point of this post is that unlike most readers of the Wall Street Journal, those paid to study security issues in the Middle East for a living (and are thus familiar with the sources Abrams cites) know when an author is selectively sourcing his argument and deliberately avoiding evidence or conclusions that might weaken his thesis. Again, this is worse than disingenuous. This is dishonest.