William B. Quandt, Ali Abunimah, Asad Ghanem, Alon Ben-Meir
The following is an edited transcript of the ﬁfty-ﬁfth in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held on Friday, January 16, 2009, with Chas. W. Freeman, Jr., presiding.
CHAS W. FREEMAN, JR.
President, Middle East Policy Council
Among today’s pressing issues is the question of peace between Israel and its neighbors. Six years ago in April, the Middle East Policy Council dedicated a conference to the question of whether the two-state solution was viable or not. At the time, it was a topic no one was really willing to address, and I must say the panelists found it too difﬁcult to confront directly. Yet, even then, there was reason to doubt whether the two-state solution was achievable. This morning we’re conducting a conference on whether the two-state solution can be salvaged. The change of topics does not represent progress. In the interim, the process of colonialization of Palestinian lands by Israelis, or Jewish immigrants from abroad, as the case may be, and the occupation and its brutality have continued. We’ve come to a situation in which there is very little land left for a state; there’s no agreed framework anymore for a discussion of two states; and, in fact, there is no one on the Palestinian side with whom Israel is prepared to talk who has the authority to make a deal.
Meanwhile, the deﬁnition of the two-state solution continues to slide, as we were reminded by Tzipi Livni, who declared that one of the merits of a two-state solution is that it would allow Israeli Arabs to be transferred to an independent Palestine and stripped of their Israeli citizenship. This doesn’t speak well of the direction of Israeli politics or the hope for this solution. So President-elect Obama, in a few days when he takes ofﬁ ce, will inherit a situation in which there’s no clear diplomatic process, and, though Israel’s existence as a military power in the region is well understood and recognized, its legitimacy as a country is not accepted. In many respects, Israel is not part of the Middle East at all — not politically, not economically and not culturally.
For Israel, clearly, the long-term issue is how to achieve acceptance of its existence from its neighbors, whether they believe Israel’s coming into existence was right or wrong. That remains an unattained objective. For Palestinians, aspirations for self-determination remain unfulﬁlled. It’s not clear yet what the long-term effects of the disgusting scenes in Gaza will be, but the record suggests that it’s probably likely to strengthen hardliners on the Palestinian side rather than empower those prepared to work with Israel.
So President Obama will confront a worsening situation in a region where the credibility of the United States, Israel and the Palestinian leadership, divided as it is, is close to zero, and most people do not see the two-state solution as viable. In these circumstances, the question of whether that solution can be salvaged is very appropriate and timely. If it isn’t salvaged, the consequences for Israel, the Palestinians and the United States are grave indeed.
WILLIAM B. QUANDT
Professor of politics, University of Virginia
Thank you for 12 years of service in bringing intelligent debate to issues that often are not intelligently debated in this town and country. Also, thank you for staking out a position on the issue at hand that is going to make me look even less pessimistic than you. I think you gave us a pretty sober preliminary outline of the problems concerning the two-state solution. I will try to give you a slightly different take on it, but obviously, in the midst of the current crisis in the Middle East and Gaza, and with the record of the past 10 years in mind, it takes an enormous act of faith to believe that the two-state solution can be salvaged. I think we all know that it’s a long shot at best.
But I’ve been around this business long enough to know that it is hard in the midst of a crisis to be quite sure where we’re going to come out at the end of it. There are moments when crisis can clarify issues, sober people up and give them the sense that we can’t really afford to go through this too many more times and that something needs to be done. This sense of urgency, obviously, has been lacking in the past decade or so. Perhaps we can rediscover the reasons that this conﬂict needs to be resolved, and resolved on a basis that is viable and sustainable, so that we don’t go through these periodic crises again.
The other thing that makes me think perhaps this is a moment when we might look for some new developments is that new leadership is about to arrive in Washington. I don’t want to pretend that it’s the magic solution to all problems, but it is clear that who is president in this country can make a difference. We’ve had presidents who have taken this issue more seriously and dealt with it more forcefully and others, who have simply thrown in the towel and declared that there is no compelling American national interest involved, and that we ought to stand on the sidelines until they discover in their very last year that maybe that’s not the best stance. But, by then, it’s too late.
I’m willing to believe that out of this crisis, and with new leadership in Washington, there are some possibilities for new approaches. But it’s obviously still going to be very tough to revive the framework of the two-state solution that has been the primary one that we have been thinking about for quite a long time. Let me go through a balance sheet of what I see as the negatives and the positives for new diplomacy and for the possibility of a negotiated outcome along the lines of the two-state solution. I think there are obvious negatives, but there are a few positives.
Let me start with the negatives, so I can end on something that sounds a little less grim than perhaps what Chas. outlined. First, we know that the facts on the ground make a two-state solution extremely difﬁcult. The last time I spent any prolonged period in the West Bank, I drove around to look at all the places that I’ve seen off and on since about 1970. It truly is shocking how little there seems to be left, over which to negotiate and on which to build a Palestinian state. Settlements are all over the place, and most of them look like they aren’t about to be packed up and dismantled.
The ﬁrst question that one has to ask is, can a two-state solution be constructed without a massive relocation of settlers back to Israel proper on the order of maybe a 100,000150,000, and is there any Israeli government we can imagine that is capable of pulling off that kind of displacement? These are people who have been encouraged, after all, to go and live in the West Bank and have been given incentives to do so. I guess, on one level, I could say that this was done politically; that is, political incentives were given to people to move there. You can reverse those incentives. It is primarily a political challenge. There is nothing built into the demography that says it’s impossible, but it is very difﬁcult.
The second obvious point: Weak leadership is a bad formula for peace making. When you have leaders who are looking over their shoulders or looking toward the next election, they tend to do things that they think will enhance their popularity. But that’s rarely consistent with making the tough decisions we know an Israeli leader and a Palestinian leader and an American president would have to make if this problem is going to be resolved.
Fortunately, I think we have a strong American president whose inclinations are untested but probably not too bad on this issue. We’re very likely to have divided and weak Palestinian leadership — that’s going to be a problem until it gets resolved. We don’t know what we’re going to have on the Israeli side. Within a few weeks, we will perhaps know, but it’s unlikely that we will have a strong, peace-oriented coalition emerging from this crisis. We’ll be lucky if we don’t get Benjamin Netanyahu and a very hard-line, right-wing leadership.
In the past, we were always able to say, at least Israeli and Palestinian public opinion, insofar as we can measure it, is on the whole in favor of a compromise solution, more or less a two-state solution. Is that still the case? I don’t know that there’s any evidence for it, but at least it’s a question as to whether, out of this crisis, we haven’t seen a hardening of positions on both sides. Ultimately, politicians need supporters if they are going to make peace, and right now it’s not clear to me that the kind of underlying politics of the Israeli or Palestinian communities is ready for a negotiated compromise.
Let me switch to the positive side in my last few minutes. I’ve already said that I think the Obama administration has an opportunity. By not being George W. Bush, Obama has great credibility for a brief moment in the Arab and Muslim worlds, simply because they’re glad to see a change in Washington. Once Obama starts taking positions and saying things, obviously, many people will not be as pleased as they would like to be. As they look at the team forming around him who will deal with the Middle East, they may conclude that it is going to be Clinton-redux and that we’re going to see incrementalism and conﬁdence-building. We know, in all honesty, where that’s going to end. We’re not going to get to a negotiated agreement with that approach.
So there are a lot of question marks about the new administration, but they will beneﬁt for a period from simply not being George W. Bush. I think when Obama says from day one that he’s going to start tackling this issue, we ought to hold him to it, because it’s one of the few positives in the equation. Secondly, there is a lot of international support for settling this problem once and for all if we could ﬁgure out how to do it. Europeans will support it. The vast majority of the Arab regimes will, not that they’re all very robustly legitimate in their own right. Nonetheless, having them all sign on to the Arab League peace initiative is worth something.
We would ﬁnd support from our other allies: the Quartet and the Turks are being helpful. There is a lot of international enthusiasm for tackling this one again, but they will need American leadership. I don’t think it can only be the Americans doing it, but they will work with the new administration with money and with peacekeeping forces if necessary — we’re seeing that already in the Gaza crisis — and with diplomatic energy. That’s a plus. We don’t have to do this alone, if we decide to get engaged as Americans.
Third, the Syrian-Israeli track seems pretty easy. I don’t want to exaggerate it; it’s not going to fall into place overnight. But people who have been in Damascus quite recently tell me that Bashar al-Asad is ready to make peace. He’s putting out all the right signals. That actually helps rather than competes, in my view, with the Palestinian-Israeli track. I think it’s always better to be moving on both tracks rather than to have a competition over whether we want to get one at the expense of the others. It could be a plus, if we saw real progress on the Syrian track. It could encourage those who believe peace negotiations can still work.
The fourth positive factor is this: on the whole, if there is ever going to be a negotiated two-state solution, we know what it’s going to look like. Not that it’s going to be easy, but the Clinton parameters plus Geneva give us the idea of the target to aim for. More or less the 1967 lines, a few adjustments, a few percentage points here and there, offset with other territories; Jerusalem divided; and the other issues more or less as they had been laid out in 2000. That’s the target. I don’t think we have to start from scratch in trying to imagine what it would look like.
Finally, I think the two-state solution comes back into focus, because there is no good alternative in terms of a negotiated solution. There are other outcomes. We’re seeing them right now; we’ve seen them for the last 10 years. We haven’t had a two-state solution. We’ve had violence, we’ve had chaos, we’ve had a ﬁve-state de facto outcome, a little enclave up here, a little enclave there, a little enclave here, Gaza and Israel. That may be the future, but it’s not peace. You’ll probably hear a one-state alternative. I have no objection to the theory; I just don’t think there are enough takers in the Middle East right now to make it viable. It has virtually no support in this town, as far as I can tell. I will confess to thinking practically; that’s the business I am in. It’s politics, it’s diplomacy, the art of the possible. It’s what you can get accomplished. There is no alternative in my mind, in terms of a negotiated solution, other than the two-state one.
All I would say to Obama is, go for it one more time, but do it seriously and don’t wait till your eighth year.
AMB. FREEMAN: I think that was an excellent introduction to this topic. It is true that optimism is to diplomats as courage is to soldiers. If you are trying to solve a problem, it makes sense to understand it in its worst dimensions, but it never makes sense to abandon hope. So I take it you are a disciple, Bill, of the “yes we can” school.
PROF. QUANDT: Yes, we should.
Fellow, Palestine Center; founder, ElectronicIntifada
It’s a great pleasure and honor to be here with such a distinguished panel. I don’t know if I will refute Professor Quandt’s thesis, but I will give my own ideas. As we’re speaking here, the war that’s going on in Gaza has to be mentioned. Massacres and atrocities on a scale that the world has not witnessed so openly and brazenly in many years. What is happening will be remembered on an infamous list including Deir Yassin, Qibya, Kafr Qasim, Jenin, Sabra and Shatila. To these infamous names, others will be added: Tel al Hawa, al Zeitun, Jabaliya and many, many other places in Gaza.
I hope and pray that Israel is made to stop the bombardment. This is not a war; this was an unprovoked attack based on fabrications about rockets. As we all know, despite the Israeli lobby’s propaganda that is being asserted with such force in Washington, Hamas had kept to a ceaseﬁre meticulously until Israel violated it on November 4. Israel had been waging a silent war of siege against a million and a half people imprisoned in Gaza, denying them food, medicine, electricity, water and other basic necessities.
The purpose of this war on Gaza was never about terrorism or rockets. It was about breaking Palestinian resistance and opening the way for Palestinian surrender: agreement to Palestinian Bantustans, which would then be given the name of a Palestinian state. However, paradoxically, despite the massive destruction and massacres in Gaza, the events of the past few weeks reveal that it is not the Palestinians who can’t survive in this region, but Israel. Furthermore, it has exposed the so-called moderate Palestinian leadership for what they are: collaborators with a ruthless and relentless occupation.
Israel’s problem, as I mentioned, is not, as its ceaseless propaganda insists, Palestinians’ terrorism. Its problem is legitimacy or, rather, a lack of it. Israel was founded and maintained through ethnic cleansing. The goal of the so-called peace process was to normalize this and gain Palestinians’ blessing for their own dispossession. So some of the axioms of the so-called peace process are that it is pragmatic for hundreds of thousands of colonial settlers, many of them from Brooklyn and New Jersey, to occupy Palestinian land and live on it in perpetuity. We’re told that it’s part of the peace-process consensus that these settlers will remain where they are in the context of a Palestinian state. We’re told that it’s not pragmatic for hundreds of thousands of Palestinian refugees caged into the Gaza Strip to return to their lands, which are mostly empty, north and east of the Gaza Strip where very few Israeli settlers now live.
We’re told that’s not pragmatic. The reason, of course, is that those Palestinian refugees are the wrong religion and the wrong ethnicity. If they had the wrong skin color, everyone would understand what this is at its root: racism and apartheid. Racism is never pragmatic, it’s always wrong. We have to introduce an element of morality into this discussion — not just pragmatism and not just the art of the possible. Some things are right and some are wrong. Today, 50 percent of the people living under Israeli rule are not Jews. Like nationalists in Northern Ireland or non-whites in South Africa, they will never recognize the right of a settler-colonial elite to establish and maintain an ethnocratic state by force, repression and racism and to keep that state in existence in perpetuity.
But haven’t the events in Gaza demonstrated that there is no way around this? That Israel is simply too strong? I don’t think so. In terms of destructive capacity, Israel is unmatched. It can bomb schools, hospitals, UN stores, mosques, private homes; it can assassinate people by all means of technology like no one else in the world. These are the things Israel has perfected and brought to the region. But a state that loses legitimacy cannot bomb its way to legitimacy and normality. In hindsight, when the history of this period is written, Gaza will be seen as the moment after which it became impossible for Israel to be integrated into the region as a so-called Jewish-Zionist state.
There is another moment in recent history that can instruct us on the choices Israel faces. When F.W. de Klerk became president of South Africa in 1989, he gathered his military chiefs around him and asked for their assessment. They said,
Nobody can defeat us militarily. We have the warplanes, the tanks, we have nuclear weapons. No one can take us on; we can go on indeﬁnitely. But the cost of that will be increasing international isolation, and we will have to kill tens of thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands — of people.
Israel has reached that moment when the only thing maintaining its existence is brutal force and the ability to try to bomb the indigenous peoples of Palestine and its neighbors into submission.
Will Israel make the wise choice that de Klerk and the apartheid leaders in South Africa made: to agree voluntarily to dismantle this system, to de-Zionize the state of Israel and decolonize Palestine and seek a peaceful solution? They will if they are forced to, and they must be forced to. Washington exists in a bubble, but the rest of the world is recognizing that Israel cannot be allowed to go on the way it is. In Europe, governments are beginning to talk about war-crime tribunals for Israeli leaders. This is a very appropriate, reasonable, moderate and minimalist measure that must be taken in the wake of what has been going on in Gaza and before that. Sanctions are also being talked about, ﬁrst of all at the level of civil society, but we saw recently the president of the UN General Assembly talking about adopting these at a governmental level. We’ve seen the EU slowing down and suspending its upgrades of relations with Israel. More will follow.
What will not happen is a return to the “business as usual” of the so-called peace process, though I think that this will be tried. We have to expect that the ofﬁ cial apparatus of the peace-process industry — the Hillary Clintons, the Quartets, the Tony Blairs, the Javier Solanas, the Ban Ki-Moons, the whole panoply of ofﬁcial and semi-ofﬁ cial Washington think tanks — will carry on with business as usual, trying to make believe that, through their ministrations, a Palestinian state will come into being. It won’t happen. They’re even more nakedly exposed today now that their so-called Palestinian partner, Mahmoud Abbas, whose term expired on January 9, has no authority, no respect and no legitimacy among Palestinians whatsoever.
The moment has come when we have to speak very frankly about these things. I said to Chas. before we started that I’m going to speak to you like I’m in Chicago, not Washington. We have to recognize that silence about these things is no longer an option. Peace for the 11 million souls who inhabit Israel-Palestine is possible. Remember that in 1985-86, during the state of emergency in South Africa, when, like Israel, South Africa banned journalists from entering the townships to see the repression that was going on, most people thought that this could only end in disaster, in civil war, in millions of people being killed. We have to impress on Israelis collectively that the choice is theirs, whether to face international isolation or to choose a different path.
AMB. FREEMAN: I think Ali’s statement and its passion illustrate very well the possibility that he’s correct, that recent events do mark a collapse of options that have been central to the peace process and the aspirations of peace for all of us. His answer to the question of whether the two-state solution is salvageable clearly is no. I was struck by the analogy to South Africa, which I happened to have worked on as F.W. de Klerk made his historic decision to release Mandela and change course — and later as the elections loomed and the South African Defense Force contemplated a coup d’état and the establishment of a separate state for Afrikaners within South African territory, something they were talked out of with considerable difﬁculty and in which I played a role.
I think the crisis of conscience was the solution in South Africa. It came from religious traditions that were deeply held. Those religious traditions also exist in Israel, and one has only to read the liberal Israeli press to understand that many Israelis do not accept the actions that Ali condemned. But I think the crucial question Ali poses, and the one we need to deal with as a country in terms of crafting solutions rather than inﬂ aming passions, is whether Israel can achieve legitimacy in its own region, in the Middle East.
Israel is regarded by the perpetrators of the Holocaust in Europe and by the forces here that intervened to end the Holocaust as having a right to exist. It is not regarded in the region where it has been established as having such a right, and there is the difﬁ culty. That is the issue that must be resolved. Finally, the South African analogy illustrates that the sort of crisis of conscience to which Ali referred led to the end of an Afrikaner-dominated state and to a very different society in South Africa, the success of which remains in doubt. But it ended the notion of separate development and replaced it with something quite different. So I think what Ali is saying is entirely consistent with his longstanding view that the only solution is a one-state solution. I don’t believe that’s going to be imposed by the United States, for the reasons Bill Quandt mentioned, but that may be the very painful outcome. This is no longer impossible to imagine.
Haifa University; visiting researcher, University of Maryland
I will try to draw, again, the basic principles of the conﬂict between Palestinians and Israelis, which are related to all aspects of their relations, and all the wars between Palestinians and Israelis, including the latest war in Gaza. This is a war between the colonial project and postcolonial, national-liberation aims. The fact that Jews still push for maximizing the power and hegemony of the Israeli state — the Jewish state controlled by Jews and serving Jewish interests — makes it clear that the opposite of this project, the one proposed by the Palestinians, is different. The two-state solution is a concept that many Arabs think should be the future of the conﬂict. But this is not the only option. I think we’ve learned to speak here about other, what I call democratic, options.
One democratic option presented in the last 20 years is the option of two states reaching a settlement between two national groups in the same territory based on separation. This option is used in different places in the world. It has succeeded in some places; it has failed in others. Another option that I would like to consider is the one state, whether a bi-national option or a liberal-state option. I want to remind you that, when we speak of a two-state option, creating a Palestinian state beside Israel, it means that we will resolve one aspect of the conﬂict: the occupation. It doesn’t mean that we will resolve the conﬂict between Palestinians and Israelis, because that conﬂict includes the repercussions of the 1948 war, including refugees, Palestinians in Israel, compensation and so on.
When Israel withdrew from Gaza and claimed that it had resolved the occupation problem in Gaza, it was not true. The problem is that 75 percent of the Palestinians in Gaza are refugees who have the right, in my understanding, to return to their homelands. Israel doesn’t care about compensation for Palestinians who have been under Israeli control and direct occupation for 38 years. Israel thought, with the support of its own and others’ propaganda, that this was the end of the conﬂict with Gaza.
When we speak about a two-state solution, we usually mean a complete withdrawal of Israel to the ’67 borders, the full evacuation of the settlements, and the creation of a viable Palestinian state. I want to surprise you: Except for the period between ’93 and ’96, nobody among the Israeli leaders took the meaning of two states seriously. Israelis and supporters of Israel in the United States and Europe mean something else when they speak about the two-state option. They mean one Israeli state and many quasi-Palestinian states beside Israel. More than that, it is quite clear that, following the collapse of the peace process — the Oslo process collapsed when Netanyahu came to power —when [Ariel] Sharon was prime minister, he showed the public a new idea about what should happen in the West Bank.
Israel moved under Sharon from the concept of a two-state solution — the transposed concept of [Yitzhak] Rabin — to managing the conﬂict. For Israel, managing the conﬂict includes many aspects: building separation walls and continuing the settlement activity in the West Bank. When Sharon unleashed the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza, his ofﬁce general director, Dov Weisglas, said very clearly in a Haaretz interview, “Our project is to withdraw from Gaza and to continue our settlements in the West Bank.” Part of Sharon’s concept is to build a strategic agreement with a few Arab states — Egypt and Jordan, the Arab League — to play a major role supporting Israel’s managing-the-conﬂict project.
I want to say a few things about the signiﬁcance of Gaza because it’s related to our discussion here. This war should tell the international community and the Israelis a lot about the nature of the society in Israel and its regime. The killing and injuring of Palestinians — boys, kids, women, without any questioning from the Israeli side except by two or three journalists in Haaretz — raises dangerous questions about the nature of Israel.
A second important thing is about Palestinian politics. This is the most important war for Palestinian politics since the ’67 war. This war in Gaza marks the end of the PLO. We are moving from the PLO era to the post-PLO era. If you have followed the discussion, nobody has spoken about the PLO, only about the PA [Palestinian Authority], Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] and Hamas. This is the ﬁrst war since the reemergence of the Palestinian national movement in the ’50s when the Palestinian national movement, the PLO, are not part of the conﬂict. The PLO of Abu Mazen, along with Egypt and Jordan and other Arab states, has supported, practically speaking, the Israeli side. Egypt helps Israel to control the Palestinians and to keep them under siege while Israel attacks them in Gaza.
What is going to be created? I think that two states may be created after all. [Israeli P.M.] Olmert was interviewed on al Arabiya, a Saudi- owned TV channel, one day before the war. He was given one hour to explain in Arabic his next steps against the Palestinians in Gaza. But he also said that he had reached an agreement with Abu Mazen that the war was also about the implementation of this agreement, and that if Kadima wins the next election, it might be possible, under the Obama administration, to sign an agreement. I’m not sure this is going to be fulﬁlled because of the settlements, Jerusalem, the refugees, the Palestinians in Israel, the water resources and so on. There are many reasons an agreement will not be implemented.
But there are two other aspects of the problem in the Middle East. First, there is no possibility in the near future that any Israeli government can take measures to implement an agreement. It might be possible if Tzipi Livni is elected prime minister. Livni might sign an agreement with Abu Mazen to establish a truncated Palestinian state in part of the territories, but excluding Jerusalem and the refugees. This agreement will not be fulﬁlled because the next day the government would fall, and another election in Israel would be called. And the next time for sure, Netanyahu would be elected.
Second, the Palestinian national movement has failed. There is no example in the history of struggles against colonial powers in which there is no national movement to lead the liberation efforts. Israeli politics, Israeli-American politics, Palestinian politics, the facts on the ground all point to the same conclusion: there are only two alternatives, the apartheid that we already have or a one-state solution.
AMB. FREEMAN: Bill Quandt accused me of being somewhat pessimistic in my introductory remarks, but you’re suggesting that we are at a deﬁning moment in several different respects — a post-PLO era in which there is, as you said, no effective national movement representing Palestinians. You did not mention it, but much of what you and Ali have said implied that one of the victims of Gaza is the so-called Arab Peace Initiative, which has offered acceptance of Israel in exchange for a viable two-state arrangement between Palestinians and Israelis. I take it from your premises that you are concerned that this may now be, if not dead, close to it.
Finally, I think you make a point that is very sobering: that a two-state solution consisting of Israel, plus a set of Indian reservations or Bantustans, is not a basis for peace but for continuing strife and a resumption of conﬂict, perhaps on a wider scale, and that therefore such an agreement could not last. These are all very sobering thoughts. I have to say, I hope you’re wrong. And I’m sure that we will end on a note of optimism looking at the possibility, notwithstanding all of these difﬁculties and trends of a resolution by Israelis, by Palestinians, by Arabs and by the new administration of Barack Obama, which will take ofﬁce next week.
Senior fellow, Center for Global Affairs, New York University
I appreciate very much the fact, Ambassador Freeman, that I’ve been invited to this very important event, especially at this time. The plight of being last to speak is that either somebody has already said what you wanted to say or they said something that you disagree with and you come to feel compelled to respond to it. But I am going to withstand the temptation, because to me, more important than anything else in this tragic conﬂict between Israelis and Palestinians, are the biases that we hear from both Israelis and Palestinians. This is probably the fundamental problem that has perpetuated a conﬂict that could have been resolved decades ago. When you talk to Israelis, they will speak about the right of the Israelis to be in that part of the world. People disagree with that premise, but there is no question about it: Jews have certain rights to that part of the land, be they historical, practical or circumstantial. They are there, they have been living there for more than 60 years, and this is a fact that needs to be recognized. You also have to look at the Palestinian side: They have been in that land for a thousand years or more. They have an inherent, inalienable right to that land.
So anyone who starts talking about denying either side the right to be in that land is living in denial. It is an illusion to assume that you can concoct a solution to deny one party the right to live in peace and security with the other.
It is okay to talk about the Palestinian desire to have a one-state solution; the results are obvious. There is a fundamental demographic issue here. A one-state solution would mean a Palestinian majority almost overnight, which is totally contradictory to the premise of the establishment of the state of Israel as the last refuge for the Jews. You may disagree with this premise, you may think it’s wrong; but it is a fact of life.
I have devoted all my adult life to this crisis. In my dissertation on the Middle East, which was written 30 years ago, I stated: “Occupation is not sustainable; it must end.” It remains today unsustainable, and it must end. To solve the Israeli-Palestinian conﬂict, therefore, we have to look, not simply at the wrongs that Israel has done over the years, but also the wrongs that the Palestinians have done. We have to look at the proper equation. I remind my friends here, Ali and Asad, that immediately after the 1967 war, Israel offered to return all of the territories for a comprehensive peace. That was in July 1967. In November of the same year, the answer came from Khartoum in an Arab League resolution known for the three noes: no peace, no recognition and no negotiation.
This is a matter of record. The Palestinians were invited in 1977-78 to come to the negotiations with the Egyptians. They refused. I can go through history and point to so many incidents of missed opportunities, both by the Israelis and by the Palestinians. It is very easy to sit here and say, “Everything that Israel has done is wrong, everything that the Palestinians have done is right.” Do I have to remind you of the horriﬁc violence that has been undertaken by each side all these years? Do I have to remind you of the suicide bombing, of the Israeli retaliation, of rockets and missiles and war after war with thousands of violent incidents that have robbed both societies of the ability even to think in terms of coexistence?
But, regardless where we have been, the only way we can solve this problem is by looking ahead and stopping the blame game. That is not going to lead anywhere. We can sit here in judgment and decide who was right in this incident and who was wrong in that incident. What’s happening today is tragic by any measure, but it is not only tragic for the Palestinians. It is just as tragic for the Israelis. You can’t make a judgment just on the basis of numbers — how many people died here versus how many people died there. Anyone who thinks for a second that the Israelis enjoy killing Palestinians does not understand Israel as a society.
You might disagree with this, but, Asad and Ali, with all due respect, there is a moral tenet to Israeli society. Some Israelis speak loud and clear to the injustices that are perpetrated against the Palestinians. You do not hear that often from the Palestinian side. Who has ever spoken publicly about the 10,000 rockets being ﬁred at Israel from Gaza since 2005? Ten thousand. You’ve got to go and live in these cities, where children and men and women have to go to shelters 10, 12, 15 times a day. Then you will understand how it feels to live under those conditions.
Does that mean it is okay for Israel to do what it does? Does it mean that targeted killing is always right? I am not going to sit here and tell you what is right and what is wrong. Both have made and are making mistakes. Both will continue to make mistakes. The time has come for us to ask ourselves the basic, simple question: Where do we go from here?
The two-state solution is not one of many options; it is the only option. This right of the Israelis and Palestinians has garnered tremendous currency in the last 60 years, at many conferences, many meetings. The Clinton parameters, the Roadmap, the Arab Peace Initiative, the current negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians — all speak about the simple requirement of a two-state solution. Yes, it will take bold action. The Israelis will have to come to the conclusion that a two-state solution cannot be just a name. It has to have facts — proper borders, proper places for the Palestinians. This means to me relinquishing 99 percent — I say 99 for a reason — of the West Bank and certainly the entire Gaza Strip in order to establish an economically viable Palestinian state, independent, living side by side with the state of Israel. Consistently, Palestinians as well as Israelis — between 69 and 70 to 73 percent — all support without any question the creation of a Palestinian state living in peace beside the state of Israel. This is what it has to be. I agree 100 percent with Bill on the issue of leadership. Leadership has been in short supply in Israel as well as among the Palestinians.
Recently I wrote an essay on what it is going to take. I’m hoping, I’m praying that the new U.S. administration will look at this process anew and ask the basic question: What is this going to take? I think the new administration ought to deal with Israel with a sort of tough-love approach. Yes, we will support you; yes, we will guarantee your national security; yes, we will take all the necessary measures to be sure that you remain a viable, secure state. But occupation has to come to an end. We can talk about the difﬁculties and the impossibilities of withdrawing 50,000, 100,000, 150,000 settlers. It can be done, it should be done, and it will be done. But we need leadership coming from this city, from Washington.
We also need leadership in Israel, and certainly, we have to look at the Palestinian side as well. Leadership matters: what Rabin was able to do, what [Menachem] Begin — despite all our disagreements with him — was able to do, and what Sharon was planning to do. Sharon wasn’t going to limit himself to Gaza. You’ve got to look at the Kadima platform: ending the occupation, including the West Bank, not limited to Gaza. There is a new election coming in Israel. The hope is that whoever arrives, be it Tzipi Livni or even Netanyahu, the opportunity to bring the tragic conﬂict to an end is there. But we’re going to have to stop looking at the past and begin to look to the future for a resolution. That is the only way we can advance what is best for the Israelis and the Palestinians, so that not one more child, be it Israeli or Palestinian, is going to die in vain.
AMB. FREEMAN: In a sense, you returned us to where we began with Bill Quandt’s observation that the outline of a solution is quite clear. There is a latent solution, yet current events — not the past, but current events — are moving things in quite the wrong direction. The question, I agree, is whether new leadership in our country can rise to the occasion to move things in the right direction toward this solution, which involves withdrawal, as you said, from 99 percent of the lands taken in 1967. There is reason to hope that a solution that is possible may become real. The stakes are terribly high, and not just for the participants.
The ironic result of the effort to ﬁnd a safe haven for the Jews has been to place half of the world’s Jewish population in conditions of great danger. Jews are safe in the United States; they are not safe in Israel. The other ironic result has been to place Palestinian lives in great danger. But for those of us concerned with the United States and our interests, the impact of this situation is equally tragic. It has poisoned our relations with a fair part of the world. It is now, as Ali enumerated, beginning a process of separation by others from Israel and potentially from the United States, which is totally identiﬁ ed with Israel. Therefore I agree, again, with Bill Quandt and you that the new administration has no choice. It must seize this issue because time is moving against a reasonable outcome.
Q: Several of the panelists talked about the issue of the collaboration of a number of Arab governments. My concern is that there’s a geostrategic framework for this collaboration: the argument that the new geopolitics of the region is the conﬂict between moderates and extremists and that Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and perhaps (at some future point) Syria are aligned with Israel in the moderate bloc and that the extremist bloc is made up of Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran and maybe the Syrians. Beyond the immediate hideous tragedy, I fear a broader conﬂict in the near future that is already being redeﬁ ned in terms of the collaboration that we’ve seen from a number of Arab states plus the Palestinian Authority in the events of the last 21 days.
MR. ABUNIMAH: Yes, that’s a very important context. The Bush administration tried to divide the region into moderates and extremists. The real division is between those who want to resist Israeli and American hegemony in the region, and those who want to collaborate with it and beneﬁt from it. Those who believe in resistance are labeled extremists by the Bush administration, and those who believe in collaboration or rely on collaboration to maintain their seats are called moderates. It’s clear that those who have argued for resistance have by far won the popular support in the region. The so-called moderates, those who are propped up by U.S. support, have lost completely and are totally exposed. The regional system where the United States is trying to hold things together with these repressive, so-called moderate, regimes is coming apart at the seams. And Gaza is going to hasten the bursting of this system. For the ﬁrst time, we see Egypt and Saudi Arabia openly siding with Israel. During the Lebanon war, they tacitly sided with Israel; now they’ve openly sided with Israel. The same is true of the Palestinian Authority, openly siding with Israel against the Palestinian resistance. That battle has been lost in terms of U.S. policy. There’s no way to put the Humpty-Dumpty of the so-called moderates back together. We see the regimes that want to survive pivoting towards public opinion. Qatar has done it very clearly in the past few weeks. Jordan is still, as always, trying to run a middle line, saying one thing in private and another in public, but I think it’s going to have to push in that direction if it wants to survive.
Israel tried to strike a blow against the resistance front in Lebanon in 2006 and failed. It has tried to do the same in Gaza. Yes, it’s killed a lot of people, but it has failed to destroy the resistance. It has recruited tens of millions, if not hundreds of millions, more people to the camp of resistance that the United States labels extremist. Unfortunately, I don’t expect that false labeling imposed by the Bush administration to change after January 20.
DR. BEN-MEIR: I’d like to think that the so-called moderates today are not puppets on a string being manipulated by the United States. Hamas is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt going back more than 60 or 70 years. This is a historical fact. I wouldn’t justify Hamas’s resistance against occupation itself. Even the president of Israel has said that the occupied have a right to resist. But Hamas is not merely resisting occupation; Hamas’s charter is very clear. It seeks the destruction — I repeat, the destruction — of the state of Israel. This is not a simple resistance movement. The PLO at one point also had in its charter the destruction of the state of Israel and, ﬁnally, was persuaded that, if they wanted to coexist, that clause had to be removed. Subsequently, it was modiﬁed. Hamas is a threat to Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, like Al-Qaeda or any other terrorist groups. That’s how they see it. They did not side with Israel tacitly or overtly because of their love for the Israelis. If they supported the Israeli incursion in any way, it is because of self-preservation. I support resistance, but if Hamas were to say, we are resisting the occupation but we recognize Israel otherwise, I would be the ﬁrst one to cheer.
MR. ABUNIMAH: They did do that!
DR. BEN-MEIR: Absolutely untrue. I would be the ﬁrst one to say, enough is enough.
MR. ABUNIMAH: They did do that, and Israel rejected it.
DR. BEN-MEIR: If I may, Ali. I think Israel today ought to make abundantly clear to the Palestinians that this war is not against the Palestinians; it’s against Hamas. Israel has to show, immediately and on the ground, some major moves in order to demonstrate that what is happening in Gaza does not, by any interpretation, undermine the Palestinian cause. Therefore, it has to work openly and clearly to bring about the reduction, and eventually the elimination, of occupation. That’s got to be done. And if Israel doesn’t do so, then we can hold Israel responsible for what happened today in Gaza and this year and next. I’m told that the Israelis understand this perfectly; they want to make it abundantly clear to the international community that this is not a war against the Palestinians. This is a conﬂict against a renegade group that is working, not at the behest of any Arab country, not even the Palestinian cause, but at the behest of Iran. Hamas gets its orders from Iran, not from anyone else.
If you want to wear blinders, that is your prerogative. I am against occupation in every sense of the word — I have always been against it — but I am not going to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conﬂict by merely saying, one side is wrong. We’ve got to do something about it on the ground. That is where groups such as Hamas have been undermining the peace process from day one. And that’s where the issue is today.
PROF. QUANDT: We’ve gone through a period in which, on the American side, Iran has been portrayed as pulling the strings in the Middle East, whether through Hezbollah or Hamas or fomenting radicalism and so forth and so on. I don’t want to make Iran sound like they’re the most peace-loving country in the world, but we have created this notion of an extraordinarily powerful, manipulative country that, I think, runs counter to the reality of a fairly problematic regime with lots of internal divisions, whose economy has just sunk by about 50 percent because of the drop in oil prices, with elections coming up.
I must say I am looking forward to a new American regime that, at least in public, says we should be willing to talk to Iran and Syria. And, God bless her, Hillary Clinton said the same thing in her conﬁrmation hearings. The test will come in doing it, but we’ve been through a period of not talking to Iran seriously, not talking to Syria seriously, therefore opening this paradigm of moderates versus extremists that is a counterproductive way for the United States to play the Middle East game. We have common interests with Iran and Syria. We may even have common interests with Hezbollah and Hamas. The only way you discover that is by engaging in a very sophisticated, complicated diplomacy that is hard to explain in sound bites or bumper stickers. Therefore, sometimes, you do it covertly. We had relations with the PLO for years when we had fundamental differences. The PLO was committed to the destruction of the state of Israel, formally, although we learned through contacts that there were terms and conditions under which they might agree to enter a political negotiation. Those were useful contacts. They could never be brought out in the light of day. Congress passed laws that made it literally illegal. When I was in government, I could not meet with somebody from the PLO.
I think we have to get out of both that mindset and that practice. I want to talk about my country’s interests. This conﬂict has hurt the United States for years and years and years. As an American, I don’t care whether there’s a two-state solution or a one-state solution. I want a solution that lasts and brings peace to the Middle East, because in that context I think American interests prosper. There’s a moral and humanitarian reason for it that matters to me, but I’m speaking hard-headedly, as a pragmatist: What should the United States do for its own interests? I think that’s the only way an American president can sell a policy to the broad American public: This is good for our country, and it’s the right thing to do.
But if it’s not intuitively obvious to Americans why peace in the Middle East is good for the United States, it’s not going to get the necessary political support. We’re going to instead see these stupid bills introduced into the Congress that get 99 percent support from people who don’t know what they’re even voting for. That kind of politics has to change, and the only way it changes is from the top, with political leadership that is sophisticated and able to explain to the American public why these paradigms — good guys versus bad guys, radicals versus moderates, Iran manipulating all the strings in the Middle East — have to be broken down and challenged. It doesn’t mean you solve all your problems by changing the mindset. But if you don’t change the mindset and the practices, we are in deep, deep trouble.
MR. ABUNIMAH: I think it is very important for the understanding of any conﬂ ict, to make a distinction between intentions and practices. I have no doubt that you believe that ending the occupation is the only way to stop the suffering of the Palestinians and the Israelis. This is, maybe, part of the Israelis’ intentions, part of the ofﬁcial Israeli propaganda. But what really happened in the ﬁeld, in Palestine? What told Israel to at least get an agreement with Abu Mazen and withdraw from the West Bank? Israel speaks loudly about peace, about withdrawal, evacuation of settlements, but in fact, it continues with settlements, with occupation, with oppression of Palestinians, not allowing them to move from one place to another by creating a huge presence in Nablus, in Gaza and in Jenin. This is what is really going on in the ﬁeld. In Israel, there is the moderate government, with Abu Mazen in power in the West Bank. Who holds them to agree with Abu Mazen? This is the difference between what Israel says and what Israel practices in the ﬁeld, which is occupation, continued settlements and so on.
When I speak about a one-state solution, I speak about democracy and peace. When Israel speaks about two states, they mean controlling the Palestinians and for this big present that will be called a Palestinian state. Israel doesn’t mind if Palestinians call it empire or kingdom, or whatever they want to call it, but it will be under Israeli control. This is the Israeli peace. This is war. What I mean by a one-state solution is a peaceful solution that guarantees the Jews security and self-determination equally with the Palestinians and not as the superpower and the chosen people, who have the right to control the others.
AMB. FREEMAN: There are different perceptions of the facts, and I feel obliged in the spirit of the political incorrectness that guides this presentation to inject a thought or two. The so-called moderate bloc is indeed, in my view, a ﬁction invented here for convenient purposes. I noticed, for example, that Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, when he blamed the Palestinians in part for the situation, did so in a very nuanced manner that was totally lost in the news. He said that what had happened in Gaza was because the Palestinians had failed to achieve unity between Hamas and Fatah. That is a very different thing from siding with Israel on this. Saudi Arabia and Egypt have their own difﬁculties with Hamas. We explored these at great length in April, and I invite you to look at the MEPC website and see the transcript of that discussion [also published in the last issue of Middle East Policy]. Each of those countries has its own fears of what Hamas represents. Whether these are well-grounded or not is something that we don’t know.
Q: Bill Quandt was just touching on it at the end, but the panelists during part of the discussion are still ignoring the 800-pound gorilla, the so-called domestic political situation in the United States.
AMB. FREEMAN: Bill, would you like to address this? And I think others will probably have thoughts on this also. I’m glad to see a return to a discussion of U.S. policy, and I would ask the panelists to please not exchange judgments about the moral character of the various participants in this, because I don’t believe that making judgments about who was right or wrong really advances the cause of serving the U.S. national interest by producing some solution to this. I think Bill made that point quite effectively in his last intervention. Would you like to address the politics?
PROF. QUANDT: There’s not a lot new to say on this topic. Politics is not for sissies. Nobody forced Barack Obama to run for president. If he’s not prepared to use the political capital that he has, why did he work to so hard to build it up? Sure, he’s going to have to draw down that political capital if he wants to be a peacemaker in the Middle East, maybe quite a bit. If he succeeds, however, it’s a big plus. The process of doing it is going to be painful. He’s going to be arguing with people who are programmed to react negatively because they’re suspicious, they’re afraid, they’re on the payroll, or whatever. Presidents, when they put their minds to this and are willing to explain to the American public what is in the American national interest, can sometimes succeed. It is leadership. If he is not prepared to use that unique opportunity to explain to the American people why there needs to be an Arab-Israeli peace settlement based on what seem to be pretty reasonable terms, with the substantial international support he could now mobilize, it will fail. He’ll blame it on the Arabs or the Muslims or the radicals or whatever else. But if he wants to do it — if he says, as he has from day one, that he’s going to tackle this — he’s going to have to accept that people will criticize him.
As I said, politics is not for sissies. If you’re afraid of being criticized, you don’t go into this business, and you don’t tackle the Middle East problem. If you want to tackle the Middle East problem, you have to be like Jimmy Carter and think, okay, people are going to say terrible things about me, but I actually happen to believe what I said. He didn’t get re-elected, but getting re-elected is not the most important thing in the world. If you’re president of the United States, actually doing something for your country might be.
DR. BEN-MEIR: I absolutely echo what Bill has just said. I would remind you that if you, for example, look at the Roadmap that President Bush introduced, it calls for a two-state solution. The problem was implementation, the extent to which the Bush administration was really committed to the very instrument it produced. That was a problem. The Bush administration should have lived up to what the Roadmap called for and, for example, stationed a presidential envoy with the proper mandate from the president to sit down there with the instruction not to come home until this is resolved. This is what I think President Obama should be doing. Follow the Roadmap, but make sure that whatever is suggested is implemented, and that the United States is going to be behind it.
There are constituencies in the United States that support Israel, but there’s also grassroots support for Israel in the United States. This is just a fact of life. The point, however, is that you need a leader — speciﬁcally President Obama — to say, enough is enough. U.S. national interests require that we ﬁnd such a solution and follow it. The solution to the problem has been staring at us ad nauseum. We need leadership to put it in place, and that means pressure on Israel. That means a consistent approach with proper pressure on Israel in order to make those Israelis who resist understand that the time has come to make the important decision, the critical decision, the historic decision, or there will be absolutely no end to this horrifying, tragic conﬂict.
AMB. FREEMAN: Alon, may I ask you a question? This is a follow-up because you and several other speakers referred to the prospect of Benjamin Netanyahu’s returning to power. Clearly, the direction in which he would like to lead things is not consistent with the Roadmap or Oslo, which he did his best to repudiate when in ofﬁce the last time. Do you think President Obama should get serious about this and that we should not say things unless we are prepared to follow up? Do you think he should signal an interest in the outcome of the Israeli elections?
DR. BEN-MEIR: I’m not sure that he should necessarily signal that. That may or may not have an effect on what the Israelis are going to do. It looks like Benjamin Netanyahu may very well be elected as the next prime minister. But I also recall that it was Begin who gave up the Sinai. It was Sharon, the father of the settlements, who came to the realization that this was not going to work. So you never know. It may take someone from the Likud party as prime minister at such a time, so the Israeli public will not feel he is going to sell Israel down the river, and they will trust him to do the right thing. If Netanyahu is going to be the prime minister, in all likelihood Ehud Barak will be the defense minister from Labor, and they cannot form a real government without Kadima.
So among the three, they will have to agree on the next step. I have yet to see a prime minister in Israel who can actually withstand pressure, if that pressure comes from the White House in a consistent, constructive way. That’s what we are looking for President Obama to do. Notwithstanding the grassroots support that Israel enjoys in the United States, it’s going to take that kind of leadership to tell the American public that Israelis and Palestinians deserve to live in peace. We have to be the conduit for it, and we can do it. I think the president will be able to engender that kind of American support, even if he has to put the necessary pressure on Israel.
MR. ABUNIMAH: This is also a view to give as an American, just to make that point very clear. There are two factors when it comes to considering an American role. One is political will, and we’ve heard some views about that. The other is the notion, and we’ve heard it today, that a solution is available and everyone knows its outlines; all we need is leadership to grab it. And I want to take two minutes to challenge that view and to talk about political will.
Barack Obama made his peace with the Israel lobby many years ago in Chicago. His campaign-ﬁnance manager, Penny Pritzker, comes from one of the most activist, pro-Israel settlement-building families in the country. Barack Obama understood early on that to reach the lofty heights he has reached today, he would have to give on some issues, and Palestine was one of them. I do not expect any courageous, new or bold initiatives. I understand that there remain both hope and wishful thinking about that, and that’s ﬁ ne, but it doesn’t rule out some sort of change. I’m not saying that there will simply be a continuation of Bush administration policy. I doubt that, in fact. There will be some change, but I very much doubt that it will be a change that is commensurate with the challenge. I, like everyone else in this room, would like to be surprised, and I hope that I’m wrong, but I fear that I’m not.
Now, let’s suppose in the best possible case that Barack Obama comes in and says, “forget about the economy, forget about Iraq, forget about Afghanistan. We are now going to focus all our attention on solving this issue.” The notion that an agreement is available — whether it’s the Clinton parameters or the Geneva Initiative or Taba — is a fallacy. We’re constantly told there is a consensus and everybody knows what the outlines of a solution are. This is not true. There is a consensus on a set of vague formulations that hide the extent of the disagreement, a consensus on the need for peace, and I include the Arab Peace Initiative in this, but there is no consensus on how to solve the problem and bring peace. So everybody agrees on a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders. Well, for the Palestinians, that means a full withdrawal to the lines of June 4, 1967, whose location is not in doubt. To Israel, it means the annexation of expanded Jerusalem, 80 percent of the settlers remaining where they are, control of the Jordan Valley and so on.
Everybody agrees to a just resolution to the refugee problem. Even Ariel Sharon would agree to a just resolution to the refugee problem. To Olmert and Livni and Barak and Netanyahu, that means the return of not one single Palestinian refugee. So we can all agree on vague formulations, and whether we package them as the Arab Peace Initiative or the Clinton parameters or whatever else doesn’t disguise the extent of the problem. The ﬁnal point I want to make on this is that a two-state solution solves only the problem of the 1967 occupation. It doesn’t even begin to address the situation of the 1.5 million Palestinians who are second-class citizens inside Israel and who face increasing threats to their existence. We constantly hear this refrain about Israel being threatened with destruction. It is, in fact, Palestinians whose lives, livelihoods and society have been constantly threatened and destroyed.
Livni, just a few weeks ago, again threatened the transfer of 1.5 million Palestinians in Israel. I would predict that if a two-state solution is agreed upon, in whatever form, you could expect, shortly after that, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from inside Israel. An extremist Israel, the one that exists today, if it’s left the way it is, will say, what is the point of a two-state solution that doesn’t leave us with an exclusively Jewish state? So the next target of that Jewish state will be the 1.5 million Palestinians who are living there. So a two-state solution is neither available, stable, nor just.
This is why we have to open the discussion — to stop insisting there’s only one solution, when, for over 40 years, it has failed. We’ve been hearing the same refrain time and again: A new administration is coming. New diplomacy is coming A new initiative is coming. We have heard this time and again. When does the moment come when we say, let’s open our minds to something new? Will it be eight years from now, or 16 years or 24 years from now, after who knows how many U.S. administrations? We must take this bull by the horns. Time is running out.
PROF. GHANEM: I think that time is running out, but this conﬂict is not going to end in the near future. I hope that some of us will still be alive when they reach some agreement in Palestine. I’m sorry to disappoint you in this regard. But I have something to say about the domestic politics in the United States. I think that we have to make a distinction between the administration’s politics and the American public. I have no illusions. We do not have any brief with the American public as Palestinians. I’m following what’s going on in the media coverage. There is no reason in the near future to believe that the majority of Americans will support any kind of just solution for the Palestinian refugees.
I have no doubt that this administration will put more effort than any other administration into pushing for a two-state solution, for an agreement between the Palestinians and the Israelis, although the last two administrations — Clinton and Bush — clearly supported two states. I think that this administration will, as did the other administrations, send an envoy, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and she will speak about the two-state solution, but in two years, three years, four years, she will come back and say, we cannot afford it.
The next administration will help us to understand more and more that the two-state solution is not viable. Somebody has to start saying — among the Americans, among the Israelis, among the Palestinians — that peace means peace. The whites in South Africa are much more powerful and much better off after the end of apartheid than before. That’s the situation that we offer the Israelis: to enjoy being equal citizens, not as the privileged who have to use force every day in order to keep their privilege.
AMB. FREEMAN: You doubt whether there is any political base in the United States for the kind of vigorous diplomacy that would be required, if I understood you. And therefore, you believe the solution, when it comes, whatever it is, must come from people in Palestine, Jews and Arabs, not from the United States, which is a viewpoint that I think is probably gaining ground. And I’m glad you stated it, even though I don’t, myself, agree with it.
Q: If there’s no change in the negotiators, can U.S. policy be different?
PROF. QUANDT: It doesn’t inspire a whole lot of conﬁdence in “change you can believe in” to see a lot of retreads. Dennis Ross worked for James Baker, and Baker was in charge of the policy, and Baker got Madrid, which I think was a potentially interesting step in the right direction. Working for Clinton, Ross was an incrementalist who wasn’t prepared to push as hard as the ﬁrst Bush/Baker presidency, so I think it makes much more difference who’s president and who he really listens to than to look at the second echelon. But at some point, the second echelon does matter, because day in and day out, they’re helping to shape the interpretation of events. I’m quite eager to see who the rest of the team is. In all honesty, I don’t know anything more than what I’ve read in the press and talked to a few people about. So the jury’s still out, in my mind. We have a few new faces, a lot of old ones. I’m not an optimist. I’m quite deeply pessimistic about the prospects, but insofar as I have any hope, it is that decisions, at the end of the day, will be made by the president, if he wants to make them. He may decide that this isn’t worth it. That’s what, I think Bush II decided, that this was not worth his time. So he delegated to various people who had their own agendas. If that happens, we’re not going to get anywhere, because then you get the bureaucratic response, which is to be cautious. Bureaucrats don’t take risks. They’re buck-passers; they want to do things that are safe and that guarantee that their careers prosper and all the rest. We’re never going to get there that way.
Presidents who want to make a difference have to be like Eisenhower, who was willing to stand up for what he thought was the American national interest in 1956. It hasn’t happened very often since. I think Carter had the guts to get out and push hard. And, in a curious way, Nixon and Kissinger did, after a disaster that befell them when they were looking the other way, the 1973 attack on Israel by Egypt. And I think that the ﬁ rst Bush/ Baker team, had it stayed on for a second term, might have surprised us and been a pretty competent peace-making presidency. We haven’t had many others. My fear is that we’re going to see a return of Clintonism, which was a lot of words, a lot of talk, endless process and no results. And that does scare me.
DR. BEN-MEIR: I’m not sure who is going to be the person to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conﬂict. I understand Dennis Ross would be focusing on Iran, rather than on the Israeli-Palestinian conﬂict. But I believe that, if President Obama is really serious about changing America’s image in the Middle East, which has been almost destroyed, and restore America’s moral authority, he must begin with the Israeli-Palestinian conﬂict. The situation in that region, all the way from Morocco to Southeast Asia, is not going to be settled otherwise. The Israeli-Palestinian conﬂict, unfortunately, feeds into the extremism in one form or another. Every single Arab state is affected by it. There will be no resolution to the Iranian problem; there’ll be no sustainable peace in Iraq, not to speak of Afghanistan, unless we begin to calm down the extremism that’s being fed by this perpetual crisis. So I think President Obama has a historic opportunity and a historic obligation. If he wants to mend America’s reputation in the Middle East, he’s got to begin by putting out the ﬁre between Israel and the Palestinians. If America wishes it to happen, it can happen. It is not going to be easy. Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are going to roll over and say okay, you can get what you want.
It can be done because both sides have reached a point of exhaustion. The majorities on both sides are looking for a solution. It’s going to have to be led by the United States. But that is going to also be, ﬁrst and foremost, in the interest of the United States. America cannot mend its position, its strategic interests, its reputation, not to speak of its moral leadership, unless it begins solving the Israeli-Palestinian conﬂict – not to the exclusion of what needs to be done in Iraq or Afghanistan or elsewhere, but it is going to have to receive attention. I hope that Mr. Obama will be looking at it in the same manner.
AMB. FREEMAN: I just want to add a footnote. George Hishmeh [an Arab journalist] tells us that the Arab Peace Initiative is dead now. Let’s remember that our ofﬁcial embrace of the two-state solution under George Walker Bush came after a threat from King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia — then crown prince — to downgrade relations with the United States if we did not demonstrate a measure of sincerity and commitment on the Israeli-Palestinian issue. This is an illustration of the impact, more broadly, that this continued dispute has on U.S. foreign relations. Even in periods of what can only be called autism in our government, we are somewhat responsive to the impact of adverse developments. It will be interesting to see what comes of the evolution in the Arab position and what changes it produces here in a new administration.
MR. ABUNIMAH: Another scoop from the summit is that Qatar and Mauritania have announced their full suspension of all economic and diplomatic ties with Israel. I hope Jordan follows suit as soon as possible. That would also be a very positive, constructive and pro-peace step in the region, because I think Israel and indeed the United States don’t understand anything except pressure. One of the most damaging aspects of U.S. policies, in addition to this false dichotomy between moderates and extremists, has been a kind of tacit sectarian incitement that the United States and its allies have engaged in, trying to divide the region between Sunni and Shia. The reason I bring this up is that it’s a point Dennis Ross and Martin Indyk have been making very publicly, saying the main split in the region today is not between the Arabs and Israel, but between Sunni and Shia. This has been a very explicit effort to try to incite sectarian conﬂict as a diversion from the conﬂict with Israel and to try and solidify a so-called “moderate” bloc of Arab states plus Israel. The verdict in the proverbial Arab street has been to overwhelmingly reject this and to see, for example, Hezbollah, not as a Shia Iranian and sectarian organization, as the propaganda effort tried to paint them, but in the mold of Arab nationalist and resistance organizations, which I think is how people do see them. The reintroduction of the Rosses and the Indyks and the others could also mean that this very dangerous policy of sectarian incitement might also survive the Bush era into the Obama era. That would be very dangerous and very wrong.
Q: How about a United States of the Middle East, modeled after Europe, with Jerusalem as its center, a place where everybody has an emotional connection? It could become the engine of global economic growth and create a peace model, and then we will all live happily ever after. And why is it that all the smart Israelis, like yourself [Dr. Ben-Meir], move to the United States, while crazy Brooklyn Americans move to Israel?
AMB. FREEMAN: The fact that many smart Israelis are moving here, which reﬂects some of the despair among the better people in Israel with the continuing struggle and its direction, is very much our gain, but it is Israel’s loss. I think it’s quite tragic.
Q: I’ve been told by some of my Arab friends that there were 153 Israeli violations of the ceaseﬁre between June 19 and November 4. I searched every news service to ﬁnd them, but I could not, although I could ﬁnd in the Israeli press a record of many, if not all, of the rockets that have gone to Sderot. In this town, and in the United States generally, the facts aren’t really known. I also heard that Hamdan al Malik from Hamas said this past week that Hamas has a charter that is against Israel, but it’s only a charter; it’s not a holy book, it’s not the Koran. Maybe that’s apocryphal, but I looked up the Likud charter of 1996 on the Knesset website and it says the eastern border of Israel is the Jordan River, and that, while Palestinians have autonomy, they will never have an independent state. Does our Congress know this? When we talk about charters, please, let us be equal.
MR. ABUNIMAH: I want to talk brieﬂy about the immediate ceaseﬁre and then expand on the point about what Hamas has offered politically in recent years because those questions are both connected and relevant. The ceaseﬁre lasted from June 19 until November 4. During that time, according to the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs website, rockets were ﬁred from Gaza into Israel — 26, compared to hundreds in the previous months. Not one of those rockets was attributed to Hamas, not one. They were all ﬁred either by smaller factions or by unknown parties. And Israelis themselves have acknowledged on several occasions that Hamas moved to stop rocket ﬁre whenever it occurred. No injuries at all were reported by those 26 rockets. After Israel carried out an unprovoked attack on Gaza on November 4, which killed six Palestinians, Hamas began to retaliate with rocket ﬁre. During the period of the ceaseﬁre, more than 30 Palestinians were killed by Israeli attacks in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. No Israelis were killed by Palestinian attacks. Never in history has a single rocket been ﬁred from the West Bank into Israel. Yet, during the period of the ceaseﬁre, Israel continued to carry out house demolitions and extrajudicial executions. We also saw settler pogroms and the full panoply of occupation violence in the West Bank.
The Israeli talking points that are always ready on some lips assert that thousands of rockets have been ﬁred from Gaza into Israel. Why does nobody ever talk about that? Let’s talk about it. According to Israel, 6,300 rockets and mortars have been ﬁ red at Israel from Gaza since 2005. This sounds like a lot. Let’s assume that these all landed in Israel. Many did not; the vast majority landed in open areas and ﬁelds and did no harm to anyone. Just take Wikipedia; look up Qassam rocket. These rockets carry about two pounds of low explosives. So if you do the math and add them up, you get to about 13 tons of low explosives ﬁred at Israel over a period of several years. Does anyone ask how much high explosive Israel has dumped into the Gaza Strip during the same period? On the ﬁrst day of the current attack, December 27, Israel boasted it dropped 100 tons of bombs. We’re not talking about the fertilizer bombs that Hamas is ﬁring. We’re talking about military-grade high explosives shipped from the United States. 100 tons of bombs on the ﬁrst day
— eight times more than Israel claims that Hamas had ﬁred at it in three years. According to Human Rights Watch, from September 2005 to May 2007, the Israeli army ﬁ red 14,617 artillery shells into the Gaza strip. This is not counting missiles and bombs dropped from the air. This is only a period of about a year and a half. It doesn’t include the ﬁrst six months of 2008, when Israel bombarded the Gaza Strip and in March killed 110 Palestinians. Why is this never ready on the lips of those who keep lecturing us about rockets?
On the larger point about Hamas, the same refrain. Remember when the PLO was a banned terrorist organization, and we were lectured constantly about the PLO Covenant? Now it has become the Hamas Charter. Well, it was written by one man in 1988 during the height of the ﬁrst intifada. It was never ratiﬁed by any legislative body. Hamas leaders never refer to it; they never take it as their program. When they ran in the elections of 2006, they did not run on the platform of the charter. They had maintained the ceaseﬁre for one year, unilaterally, before the elections took place. There were numerous statements before, during and after the elections about offering Israel a long-term truce. I encourage you to read an article by Ahmad Yousef from The New York Times about a year and a half ago called “Pause for Peace,” where this strategy was laid out, a long-term truce modeled on the IRA ceaseﬁre with Britain that led to a political process. They have more or less openly accepted the two-state solution. I think they are as deluded as anyone else if they think that’s going to happen, but nevertheless, they’ve accepted it.
But the propagandists constantly say to us, Hamas equals al-Qaeda, Hamas is an extremist group, you can’t talk to these people, you can only bomb them. Forget about what I say; forget about what Jimmy Carter says, who very courageously and wisely went and met with Hamas leaders a few months ago. Look at Israel. Israel itself negotiated with Hamas, reached a ceaseﬁre agreement with Hamas. Israel acknowledges that Hamas kept to the ceaseﬁre agreement until Israel decided to violate it on November 4 by never lifting the siege, maintaining for almost two years the silent war against Palestinians in Gaza — the Terror Famine.
The reality is that there are people in Hamas you can talk to. Hamas began a political process, but it was never allowed to complete it. It won an election fair and square. If there had been a normal political process in Palestine, who knows what program Hamas would have put forward. Who knows what national consensus they would have achieved with the other Palestinian factions on a peace-negotiation program, if we hadn’t had Lieutenant General Keith Dayton and Condoleezza Rice and the rest training militias trying to overthrow Hamas in the Gaza Strip. If they had been given a chance, we would have seen a different situation. Israel and the United States are the ones who missed opportunities after the election of Hamas, and that policy needs to be reversed after January 20.
PROF. GHANEM: It should be acknowledged that Hamas has a telling point: they decided to run for election according to the Oslo Accords. Unfortunately, the same day that Hamas was elected, Israel said that this was a declaration of war from the Palestinian side, and they started their efforts to make sure that Hamas did not gain legitimacy. Ramallah and the PA joined Israel that same day in order to diminish the Hamas-elected government. I’m not a Hamas person; I am against an Islamic regime. But I think democracy means democracy. People who are elected should be given the chance to run their political program. I agree with Ali that Hamas is not only one thing, one group of people. We know now under the siege, the attacks, and the war that Hamas is different things. Those who are ready to negotiate, like Ahmad Yousef and others, should be given a chance. Hamas parliament members have been in Israeli jails for more than a year. Nobody asks about this or raises questions publicly about why they were arrested without any charges, without a court order.
The other small thing that I want to raise is this: the lie from the Israeli government that Israel doesn’t attack civilians. Israel attacked civilians in the Lebanon War, in Jenin and now, by premeditation, in Gaza. This includes schools and hospitals. The majority of those killed in Gaza are children and women, not ﬁghters. Go to the Internet and see what’s happened in Gaza, the total destruction of the lives of normal people. These are the crimes against humanity, something to be ashamed of if you are an Israeli. This is the time to take these criminals to court. But the Israelis continue with the lie that they do not attack civilians, that they are committed to human values. Where are the human values in attacking children in a school? They left their homes and found shelter in the school. And Israel, on purpose, attacked this school and the people were killed.
AMB. FREEMAN: I think the passion that is being evoked by Gaza is clear in this room, as well as internationally. There was a question about why there is no real coverage in the U.S. press of the details of this savagery. If you look at today’s Washington Post, you will ﬁnd a story on page 14 about truce negotiations that mentions, in passing, the bombing of the U.N. warehouse in Gaza. One would have thought this would have been a rather large story. So there is, I think, as Asad mentioned, a disposition in the United States not to want to hear anything that buttresses the cause of the Palestinians or that appears to be critical of Israel. That’s a fact. It raises the question of how we, as a society, deal with these issues in practice, if our knowledge base and our politics are so skewed. I do want to take issue with one thing that Ali said, although I think the recitation of the sequence of events and the numbers and so on are indeed valuable, but I’m sure would be disputed by some in Israel and here.
I don’t think that severing communication with Israel, whether it’s Mauritania or Qatar or academic groups, is a desirable or effective measure. Quite the contrary, severing communications with Israel replicates the mistake we have made with Hamas. We should have been talking to Hamas, regardless of what we think of its ideological stance or its charter. And it’s notable that in the conﬁrmation hearings for the secretary-of-state designate, Hillary Clinton spoke quite eloquently of the need for dialogue with people we disagree with, like Iran. She ruled Hamas out as an appropriate subject of such dialogue, however, saying that Hamas had to meet certain preconditions, which are well known, and that this for her was an absolute. If it is an absolute, then I think the prospect for effective American diplomacy on the issues we’ve been discussing is greatly diminished. Even before the bombing boosted solidarity behind Hamas among Palestinians, which seems to be its primary effect to date, Hamas had the legitimacy of an election victory behind it and, therefore, the ability to negotiate on behalf of Palestinians. This, Abu Mazen clearly has not had. So I don’t think severing communication is the answer. Increasing communication is a better approach. That is why, even though some of today’s discussion has been heated, I think it was an important exchange of views.
Q: What will U.S. behavior during the recent Gaza War mean for the new administration?
AMB. FREEMAN: This concerns me very deeply, the impact of all of this on the U.S. reputation and inﬂuence, not just in the region, but more widely. So far, it is very negative. That should concern all of us, because I heard consensus here behind the disagreement and the relative pessimism that was expressed, a consensus that the time has come for the United States to get serious about addressing this issue. Alon Ben-Meir used the phrase “tough love” with respect to Israel. I don’t think anyone on the panel would disagree with that. But I think it is awfully early to judge the Obama administration, and I will not. It’s not in ofﬁce yet. It is politically unwise for someone who has no authority to take responsibility, since he can’t do anything about the situation at present, anyway. We must wait until after January 20 to begin to judge what the new administration will do.
Since the end of the Cold War, the United States has not had a policy process capable of developing a grand strategy that integrates political, economic, cultural and military instruments of power to achieve a deﬁned result within a deﬁned period of time. We have been very long on pious hopes and nowhere more so than in the arena of Arab-Israeli peace, where the Annapolis conference, in retrospect, was a delusion at best and a fraud at worst. I don’t think the United States can afford the purely tactical policy approach of running on autopilot and making the minor adjustments in direction that has characterized both the Clinton and the Bush years. I think we now need to redevelop the capacity for thinking strategically, developing goals and, as several people have said here, pursuing them seriously, instead of making pious statements and not following them up.
The Middle East, connected as it is to many other issues in the region, is the place that most needs such an approach. Everyone on this panel agrees there are gross injustices in the current situation and much suffering. They may disagree about the history that produced this, but everyone agrees that it’s intolerable and damaging to the United States, as well as to those who are directly involved. And everybody wants us to do something about it. I will wait until January 20 to begin to judge whether the president, who appears to have a strategic bent of mind although perhaps some of his advisors do not, is able to rise to this challenge.
I would like to invite each panelist, very brieﬂy, to address this question of what we may hope for from the new administration.
DR. BEN-MEIR: It’s not unrealistic to hope that, given the last eight years — speciﬁcally, the period since September 11: the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan, the continuing conﬂict between Israelis and Palestinians — the Obama administration can look at the Middle East from an entirely different perspective and change the geopolitical dynamics in the region so that an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conﬂict will take place.
We have excluded a very critically important player, and that is Syria. The United States ought to end its efforts to marginalize Syria and begin earnest, direct negotiations with Damascus. That would be extraordinarily helpful to the overall peace process in the Middle East. In so doing, I think the United States would be able to deal more effectively with the rise of extremism throughout the region and be able to contain future conﬂict. Time has come to talk. Time has come to communicate, be that with Syria or with Iran. There’s an interconnectedness among all of these conﬂicts, but I would begin, without question, with the Israeli-Palestinian track, not necessarily to exclude dealing with other conﬂicts simultaneously. A capable administration should be able to deal with more than one conﬂict at a time. Hopefully, the United States will have a new resolve and a new commitment under the leadership of Mr. Obama.
PROF. GHANEM: I hope that the next administration will try its best to play a fair role in the Middle East. I follow the discussion about “why they hate us,” and I think that it is justiﬁed to say that the United States has played a very unfair role in the history of the Middle East since the end of World War II, especially following the establishment of Israel.
It is time for the United States to start taking the role of a great power seriously and to try to develop a policy that might change the situation on the ground and the whole atmosphere in the region, including among Palestinians and Jews.
MR. ABUNIMAH: I think there’s a parallel between the Middle East peace process and the global ﬁnancial crisis, in that for years and years we were told what a wonderful economy we have and what a great economic system. We have the best-capitalized, most dynamic banks in the world. Then, lo and behold, the whole system is revealed to be a giant Ponzi scheme. Amazingly, the people who brought us that system and who told us it’s all wonderful are the same people who are brought back time and again to explain to us why it didn’t work and how we should ﬁx it. Exactly the same happens with this issue. The reason I am very pessimistic about the Obama administration is that it’s the same cycle over and over again with maybe minor adjustments. I’m not pessimistic about the prospects for radical and positive change, but I think the possibilities for that exist outside the bubble of diplomacy or war. There are mass movements around the world and in the region that are writing and determining history. Decisions, as we’ve seen the past eight years, can’t be made unilaterally in Washington. People will write their own history.
The ﬁnal point is that what constitutes a policy discussion has to be widened. The refrain that no, we must not talk about anything other than the two-state solution is a position advanced out of fear, out of the knowledge that it is a house of cards and that any serious academic and objective examination would ﬁnd that there are alternatives. But those alternatives threaten the status quo, the current imbalance of power and the injustice that many people are very deeply invested in and want to preserve. So look outside the bubble, look to the grassroots, look to the mass movements. That’s where my hope lies. People will lead, and Washington will be the last to follow them, as it often is.
PROF. QUANDT: I don’t think we can start all over again and have the same debates. I understand where Ali is coming from, and I sympathize with the sentiments behind it. We do need to approach issues differently. Americans are not all-powerful; we can’t snap our ﬁngers and impose our will. The kind of arrogance that has lain behind American policy for the last eight years has cost us dearly. We have to understand — particularly in this new era of economic distress and emerging popular or liberal movements or states that have interests that are opposed to ours — that we cannot act as if we are the hegemon of the world and imagine that the only thing that matters is what we think.
Is a new American administration prepared to break with that mindset? I don’t know. I think we are going to be forced by reality to adopt different policies. Reality has a way of educating even politicians. You can’t just live in the bubble that you have lived in as a campaigner. You will have to start dealing with real issues and problems, with mass movements but also with states. States are not irrelevant. You may wish that they all would go out of existence, but they have a kind of tenacity. I hope that the Obama administration will realize that this is an important issue, however it’s going to be solved — one state, two states, United States of the Middle East. I’m thoroughly pragmatic as long as the solution as viewed as fair by the vast majority of people on both sides, so that they will make it work. Otherwise it won’t work.
The United States has to see urgency, the importance of this, the need for dialogue with people we haven’t talked to for a long time, and the need for partners. That’s a lot. The other thing the president needs to understand is, time runs out on you very fast. If you don’t start quickly and get results quickly, people will conclude that it’s a hopeless case. Then we will be into the other paradigm: American leadership no longer matters.
Who is going to take its place? Maybe nobody. Maybe the grassroots movements will eventually ﬁnd ways of solving all this, but you’re into a generational conﬂict at that point. I’d like to see an early solution and then let the mass movements work out the contours of how a two-state or a one-state solution would really evolve in human terms.
If we don’t ﬁnd a diplomatic solution among the states and primary actors in the Middle East soon, it is going to be a generational conﬂict, and there’s going to be lots more blood spilt. But I think the chance is there, with the current alignment of forces, to get a truce, get the basic parameters of an agreement agreed to, and get a modicum of fairness built into the solution of this conﬂict. I simply hope that a new president will not miss that slim chance.
AMB. FREEMAN: I will close by stating what I think is the underlying logic that everyone agrees on: a solution to this problem is in the American interest, but an unjust solution is not sustainable. Therefore, the solution must be just to both parties and cannot be one-sided. Conversely, the absence of a solution is dangerous to our country and its interests. It is corrosive of our inﬂuence abroad, and it is menacing to our way of life at home, as 9/11 and the partially constructed garrison state that followed it illustrate. No solution can be imposed. It will require contact, dialogue and some form of negotiation, be it mediation, conciliation or direct engagement with all the parties, whatever our view of their moral standing may be. Whether they are right or wrong or whether their position is objectionable or not is irrelevant for this purpose. I think everyone has expressed the hope — some with optimism, some with pessimism — that the new administration will at last seize this issue and serve American interests by bringing it to a just conclusion.