The following is an unedited transcript of the seventy-eighth in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held on October 15, 2014, at the Phoenix Park Hotel in Washington, DC, with Omar Kader moderating and Thomas R. Mattair as discussant. The video can be accessed at www.mepc.org.
OMAR KADER, Chairman of the Board, Middle East Policy Council
Well, good morning. It’s time to get started. And I’d like to introduce the panel and give you the format.
Middle East Policy Council is about 31, 32 years old. And I’m the current chair of the board. Thomas Mattair is currently the executive director, who carries most of the load.
As a council, we run three programs. This Hill conference is one which produces a lot of content for our website, TeachMideast, and for the journal. And the transcript of this conference will be published in the next issue of the journal and be online within, what, 72 hours? To watch. And so our three programs – and the flagship program, of course, is the best journal on the Mideast, published in the English language is The Middle East Policy, edited by Anne Joyce. We’ve revived and rejuvenated our outreach program that produces material for educators, and we’re working one establishing a fairly big footprint in that in the coming year. Third, of course, is a Hill conference. So we welcome you to it, and we hope you all get a copy of the journal and get a chance to review it.
Another conference on the Arab-Israeli conflict. How many of you said, oh, good, I got to be there, I haven’t seen once of those since – how many of you? I have been studying this my whole life, and I thought I’d give you some perspective just for a moment before I introduce the speakers.
There have been six Nobel prizes given, Nobel peace prizes given for the Arab-Israeli conflict. Starting in 1950, Ralph Bunche got it for negotiating the armistice, 1950. And then in 1978, Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin received it for negotiating Camp David. And then in 1994, Arafat, Rabin and Peres got it for negotiating the Oslo accords. And then Carter got a Nobel Prize in 2002 for a variety of reasons, including the work that he did with the Arab-Israeli peace talks.
Another statistic that we don’t really like to talk about is that two of those Nobel winners were assassinated for signing peace agreements, Sadat and Rabin. And to this day, Rabin’s grave has to be watched over by Israeli military soldiers because it’s desecrated on a regular basis for his betrayal of the Israeli people by reaching peace. So this is – this is rough territory, thinking wise and living a normal life. So here we are, six Nobel peace prizes, two assassinations and another failed attempt at peace by a very able and experienced secretary of state, John Kerry.
So my first thought is, what could you tell – and I’m talking to the panel here – what could you tell this group that has gone to the trouble on a rainy day to come and hear you, and what could you tell the American people and the people reading the Middle East Policy Journal in the next months and years ahead that they haven’t heard before or that would be unique to this problem in terms of solving it? What could we say to young people that want to make it a career? What could we say to those who don’t belong to what I call kind of the three schools, though I shouldn’t call them schools, the three thinking styles: the Dennis Ross side of tiptoe around the Israelis no matter what; the Aaron David Miller which nothing can be done, so why don’t you just quit and go find yourself a grave plot and die; and the third one is John Kerry, who says, never quit, just keep trying?
So my question back to the panel is I refuse to believe that what John Kerry tried was for naught. There had to be something in what he did that pushed the ball down the road a bit further towards that tipping point where something will happen. What was it? What did he contribute, and how did he contribute to that? Because you can’t go through nine to 12 months of intense behind-the-scenes negotiating without kicking the ball further down the road. What was it? Or was it just another useless attempt?
And I’m not naïve enough to believe that it was – you’ll see something great come out of it, let’s just wait and see, but I’d like to think that something happened, but I haven’t figured it out yet. But when I read yesterday’s New York Times on the front page, and you see that the British Parliament passed a nonbinding resolution to recognize the Palestinian state, and Sweden last week said we’re going to probably recognize Palestinians too, and the French said we’re ready to, and the Spanish said we’re getting ready to, and the EU is thinking that they’re going to have to do something collectively, that there may just be a we’re sick of this problem going on in the world today, and maybe the Kerry effort was part of loading that up and putting it on the front burner and asking the world, how many of you would like to rebuild Gaza again? Another half billion dollars committed by the EU yesterday in addition to a half billion they’ve already rebuilt and had destroyed. There is a degree of insanity to all of this, and it has nothing to do with peace and war. But yet we have to get right back to the basics. How do we make diplomacy work?
And so a couple of questions to get us started. And for those of you that have little cards, if during the conference you got a question to ask, write your question, hold it up and somebody will bring it up and give it to Tom and read it.
Have the Palestinians failed to take the talks seriously enough? Is it too late to expect an agreement? And if so, what – have the Israelis built too many settlements? Is Israel stuck on an ideology principle of if you have choice between peace and land, they’ve chosen land? Has Israeli successfully eluded an agreement by building settlements deliberately to kill the peace process? Should the EU follow Sweden? Should we expect that? Will the U.S. back a Palestinian state’ admission to the U.N., or will they block it?
Finally, has public opinion in Israel changed enough to allow an Israeli prime minister to reach an agreement, and if so, on what grounds? I’m not naïve enough to believe that one person in Israel holds the keys to peace. Prime minister has limits, and it’s a very complicated country with multiparties going in every direction that there are parties, and it’s not an easy one to address just from the Israeli perspective. And finally, the demographics: Will demographics be the key to a settlement, or will it be diplomacy? Because there is a giant elephant in the room called population growth.
With that, let me just introduce the panel quickly. You see the program. We have Professor – former Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer over here on the right. He’s the Middle East Policy Studies professor at Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton. He’s been ambassador Egypt and ambassador to Israel. And I don’t know of a better voice on this issue with a historic perspective.
Matthew Duss is president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace. He’s national security reporter for ThinkProgress. Natan B. Sachs is a fellow at Brookings in Mideast Policy. Yousef Munayyer is director of the Jerusalem Fund and its education program.
I’m the chairman of the Middle East Policy Council, and I’m in the private sector. And Thomas Mattair has taught at the University of Southern Cal, Kent State, Cornell, a research director at Middle East Policy Council before he became executive director. And he’s written three very important books about the Gulf and is an expert in several areas of the Middle East and has been with us now a dozen years or so. Let – five years, OK, sorry.
Let’s start with Ambassador Kurtzer, Professor Kurtzer, and then we will take it on the program that you have. Bios are on the back. The program is on the front. Go ahead.
DANIEL KURTZER, Professor, Middle East Policy Studies, Princeton University, Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel and Egypt, Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs
Good morning. I want to thank Omar for the introduction. He actually set the bar pretty low. The fact that you’re here suggests that you are interested in the subject. And as I said to Tom when I walked in, if you can get anybody in Washington to show up for a conversation about the Middle East peace process, you’re ahead of the game.
The fact is, however, that however much our policy-makers and maybe part of our public hopes to ignore this issue, it simply will not go away. And if one thing was proved as a result of the end game which followed the unsuccessful Kerry diplomacy, when the United States called a pause in the peace process, is that status quos are anything but static. They get better, they get worse; they can get better if you work on them, sometimes they get worse if you work on them, but they don’t stay the same.
And the fact that for several months after expectations had been raised over the course of the previous year nothing happened, and situations on the ground were allowed to fester, tensions were allowed to build up, frustrations were allowed to gather, it suggested that a spark – in this case the kidnapping and murder of three teenagers – the Israel response, the Hamas response once again brought us into a period of violence, which is the inevitable result, in my view, of a status quo that people assume can continue unabated.
So if that’s the case, it really behooves our policy-makers to spend some time on this issue. Now, that’s not easy to do today in Washington because not only is the Middle East beset with problems – and you know them as well as I, whether it’s ISIS or Syria, humanitarian distress, the Iran negotiations – but the president has an agenda that’s far wider than just the Middle East, a foreign agenda and a domestic agenda. And therefore, all of these issues compete for presidential time and presidential decision-making.
Anne Joyce reminded me when I walked in today, apparently in Haaretz there’s an article, which I missed, which reports President el-Sisi’s comment to Prime Minister Netanyahu that the road to Riyadh, in his view, runs through Ramallah. Now, we remember that in the past we used to have this debate, does the road to Jerusalem run through Baghdad, does the road to Baghdad run through Jerusalem?
I’m not sure el-Sisi is right because, in fact, we, as a large country and big power, don’t have the luxury of deciding to prioritize issues in a manner that ignores others. We have to walk and chew gum. But in so doing we have to avoid what Monty Python used to call the hundred-meter dash for runners without a sense of direction – (laughter) – in which the starter fires the pistol and eight runners go off in different directions.
So the question is, do we have a direction? Do we have a strategy? Do we have a set of tactics that might actually advance us toward the goal of a two-state solution? Have we learned anything from previous experience which is applicable to this effort to move ahead? And if so, how do you align expectations, which today have to be kept low because it’s highly unlikely that we are going to have a peace process today that emerges in a two-state solution. But we need a process that keeps the diplomacy going, that offers hope to both Palestinians and Israelis that there is an outcome to this conflict other that periodic bouts of violence, settlements, occupation practices and the like.
So the first thing I want to talk about for a couple of minutes is lessons learned and unlearned. As some of you may know, I’ve spent the eight years now since leaving government co-authoring two books and editing a third, all on the peace process, and in each of them I focused on lessons learned. The sum total of those lessons adds up to over 20, but I’ll spare you. I now have it whittled down to about a dozen or so. And if we just look at several of them and apply them to what John Kerry may decide to do again after our mid-term elections, we could be better off in the next round of our diplomacy.
The first is the obvious lesson of deciding on a strategy before you decide on the tactics. Now, we compared – in our book “The Peace Puzzle” we compared the Obama administration’s policies in the first term under George Mitchell’s guidance as kind of billiard-ball diplomacy, because we tried a tactic, it didn’t work, and we kind of bounced off the wall and then we tried something else. And when that didn’t work, we tried a third tactic.
First it was confidence-building measures. Then it was indirect talks. Then it was direct talks. And finally the president, in 2011, you recall, came up with the idea of establishing a minimal set of parameters to try to start negotiations on security and borders as a way of framing a Palestinian state, and then of course subsequently adding content into that frame.
The question is, why did we not start with a strategy and then decide how these various tactics might fit in? Confidence-building measures, for example, the second lesson learned, don’t work in the abstract. It’s not to say that a freeze on settlements is not important. It is important. Settlements remain one of the most persistent negative issues in this conflict, notwithstanding what some argue, including people in Washington who say that settlements are not a problem.
That’s ridiculous. Settlements are a very serious problem. But asking an Israeli government, whether it’s a government led by Netanyahu or even a government led by Rabin in the ‘90s, to freeze settlements in the abstract simply doesn’t work, because there’s a political price that a prime minister has to pay, and that prime minister has to know, if he’s going to pay that price, will there be some payoff for him to be able to justify the cost of freezing settlements?
So the issue is not to seek the confidence-building measure, but rather to embed it in a strategy in which you can market the idea of a confidence-building measure in a sustainable process in which there are going to be gains and challenges for both sides, but the gains hopefully would outweigh the risks and the challenges that the two sides have to take.
A third lesson – this was argued quite cogently by Rob Danin in the book I edited, “Pathways to Peace,” this question of top-down versus bottom-up diplomacy. For years we have tended to see the two as somehow the opposite sides of a dichotomy. Either we do a peace process in which we define the end game, or if that doesn’t work we try to improve the situation on the ground. And in fact, today you hear voices in Washington and in the region saying, since we’re not going to have a peace process, let’s just improve the quality of life.
Now, that’s very important to do, because to the extent that Palestinians can live better and can build up the institutions and sustainable economy that would make a Palestinian state succeed rather than fail, the chances of a post-settlement success go up exponentially. But neither of these works in the abstract, for the same reason that confidence-building measures don’t work in the abstract.
The people for whom life is getting better on the ground need to know that there’s a destination, that they’re not simply going to live better and live under occupation. They need to know that there is some process underway – maybe it doesn’t end today, tomorrow or next week, but there’s a process underway which will, at some point, help them achieve independence.
And those on the other side, who have to make very difficult concessions with regard to peace and security and governance and political control, also have to know that the conditions on the ground have been built up strongly enough, that the folks on the ground have a reason to sustain their life, that they understand that there would be costs to their deciding to prolong a conflict. So what you’re talking about, then, is not top-down or bottom-up. You’re talking about top-down and bottom-up, and that’s the lesson that hopefully, as we go forward, we will be able to assimilate.
I always lose track of numbers, so whatever number I’m up to – a fourth lesson or fifth, whatever it is – short-term fixes. I penned an op-ed this summer during the Gaza War in the Washington Post which suggested that, yes, a cease-fire was inevitable. They always happen. We’ve had many, many bouts of violence in the Middle East. They always come to an end, for lots of reasons. There’s fatigue, there’s perceptions of victory, there’s declarations of victory even when there isn’t victory.
The question, of course, is and was – or was and is, does anything happen beyond a cease-fire or do you simply stop the violence? You fix a few technical issues, like you reconstruct Gaza with $5.4 billion worth of commitments. You open up a little bit. There’s a report today in the press that X amount of tons of cement and iron have entered Gaza. That’s good news, but then you kind of leave it as it is.
Now, if we had not experienced this previously, we could say, well, maybe just fixing the immediate problem of the violence is sufficient, because it’s sometimes hard to achieve that cease-fire. But we’ve seen this movie before. If you only fix the proximate causes of violence and you don’t start to deal with the root causes of violence, you are fated to see a repetition of the violence itself.
Only in Gaza – I’m not including Lebanon – you have had these many wars in 2006. People tend to forget that there was a war in Gaza even while we were focused on the war in Lebanon in 2006 and 2008 and 2012 and 2014. Maybe this one will not recur for three years instead of two years. Maybe we’ll gain an extra year because of reconstruction. But is this wise? Is this the right way to conduct policy, to simply say that two sides have fought a war and we’re going to end it with a cease-fire and some reconstruction without trying to get at the root causes of that war?
Now, I was wrong. About six years ago I wrote an article called, “The Third Intifada: Coming to a TV Screen Near You.” And the projection was that we would have a third Intifada because none of the issues that motivated Palestinians to start the second Intifada had been addressed or fixed. Now, we haven’t yet had a full-scale third Intifada. And I hope we don’t. But it’s inevitable that we are going to have outbursts of violence all the time unless you not only fix the proximate causes of the violence but you start to deal with the underlying causes as well.
A fifth of sixth issue – whatever I’m up to – monitoring accountability and consequences. Now, John Kerry, as Omar suggested, engaged in I would say brilliant diplomacy for six or seven of the nine months in which he was quite active, because he didn’t approach the peace process as the United States has approached it for many years, which was let’s simply get the parties to the table. And if we get them to the table, some magic will happen and they’ll make some advances.
What Kerry understood is if you don’t get to the table on the basis of a strong platform, a strong foundation, the negotiations are fated to fail. And so before even thinking of getting the parties to the table, Kerry brought John Allen into the picture to look at security, he brought the Arab foreign ministers to Washington to reiterate the Arab peace initiative and to indicate that there is a regional context in which this takes place. He adopted the World Economic Forum plan for a multibillion dollar investment for the perspective state of Palestine.
He did ask the two sides for confidence-building measures in the context of what he was doing – prisoner releases and foregoing the move toward independent Palestinian statehood outside of this process. And he said, having put this construction or this construct together, he said now we have to term on the terms of reference for negotiations, because if you only bring the parties to the table without terms of reference, they are the Monty Python race without a sense of direction. And it’s that place that failed.
It’s that place where John Kerry tried to bring about terms of reference for negotiations in which there would be not only a serious context for the parties to negotiate but also a serious process by which we would begin to monitor behaviors. And those two elements – terms of reference and monitoring – have been absent for too long from American policy and the process, and may be, in fact, the most important of the lessons that we need to learn.
Let me do the second one first – monitoring accountability and exacting consequences. If you look back over the 20 years – or 20-plus years since Madrid and Oslo, there have been a number of occasions in which the United States faced a choice as to whether or not to hold the parties accountable for not doing what they promised to do or for doing thing that they promised not to do. The most obvious of those are the violence which the Palestinians said that they would renounce and the settlements that Israel should not have been building.
And we never set in motion a serious process of monitoring behaviors. Now, for those historians in the audience, you know how dangerous this has been in the past, just in the Arab-Israeli conflict. You look at the Rogers cease-fire in 1970 along the Suez Canal, in which there was no monitoring when Rogers succeeded in a cease-fire. You remember, the Soviets then brought up their surface-to-air missiles.
And what happened three years later? Those SAMs became the umbrella under which the Egyptians felt comfortable attacking. That’s not a – I’m not deciding whether or not Egypt had a right to attack. I’m not – that’s not the issue here. The issue here is if you do diplomacy you’ve got to monitor the agreements and the undertakings and the commitments that flow from your diplomatic actions. And we’ve never done it.
And when you do monitor – or if you do monitor, you have to hold the parties accountable. Now, in the Annapolis process, in fact the Bush administration did appoint a monitor. We had a general who was asked every several months to go out and check how people were doing. Nothing ever happened with his reports, because there wasn’t the third aspect which was not only holding the parties accountable, but exacting consequences from the parties that don’t do what they’re supposed to do.
And if there is no consequence for bad behaviors, then there is no reason for parties to stop doing those bad behaviors. The argument that some made in the 1990s that this process is fragile enough that it’s like riding a bicycle – you have to keep pedaling; if you ever stop to deal with bad behaviors t the bicycle would tip over – is ridiculous because it’s like saying I’m going to ride a bicycle and even if I’m heading into a swamp I got to keep pedaling because I don’t want the bicycle to tip over.
And that’s what we’ve done. We’ve been riding this bicycle into a swamp while bad behaviors continue. So one side of this equation is to establish a serious monitoring, accountability and consequence system. And the other is to develop serious terms of reference. And with this, I will conclude.
Why do we need terms of reference? You remember in Madrid the letter of invitation – which is available online – was the – became the terms of reference and it laid out the expectations and agreements of all of the parties at the Madrid conference of what was going to happen both at the conference itself and in the bilateral negotiations that followed. But Madrid was a process-oriented breakthrough. And that’s what the first Bush administration was able to achieve.
Break the stalemate. Get the parties to the table. Establish this two-track negotiating process in which you have bilateral negotiations in parallel with multilateral negotiations – a critical breakthrough in the Middle East. To move to the next step, which is how do you imbue the bilateral, substantive negotiations with the possibility of success? You also need terms of reference because otherwise the two parties start on entirely different planes heading in entirely different direction. And it’s their right to do so.
We may not like it. We may not like a Palestinian position that claims all of the territory of 1967 and all of Jerusalem and refugee return. We may not like an Israeli position that says, no, we’re not giving back a large part of the West Bank and we want no refugees. But if you allow these parties to walk into a room without some understanding of where the parameters are within which they’re going to negotiate, the negotiations are fated to fail.
And so it’s for that reason that I have argued, and I continue to argue – and it’s in the public domain; it was an appendix to “Pathways to Peace” and I put it out in a separate article – I put out a set of parameter. These are my parameters. They don’t have to be anybody else’s. But the idea was to see where the negotiations had come over the years. You take what Clinton had done in 2000. You take what happened in Annapolis, where Olmert and Abbas got to.
And you develop an idea of where the United States might position those parameters, far enough ahead of the positions of the parties that they know where they have to go – it’s kind of a road map and a GPS – but no so far that they find it impossible to head in that direction. And you position them at the – at the head of a funnel with the understanding that you’re going to narrow those differences over time as they move along towards the objective of achieving those parameters.
And they exist. There are no parameters that are so far removed from the reality of Israeli and Palestinian life that they would destroy this process. Now, it may be that today, because of the configuration of Israeli politics and the configuration of Palestinian politics, those parameters may not be a catalyst to actually get to negotiations. I want to be realistic here. If the United States decided tomorrow to put out – or really right after the midterms, more realistic – to put out a serious set of parameters, we may not get to negotiations.
And that’s not a disaster because this administration will have established a baseline which will make it impossible to move anywhere else when the political conditions on the ground allow for negotiations. In fact, it give us diplomatic opportunities because our diplomats right now don’t have a policy on which to base our diplomacy. What do we stand for when it comes to Jerusalem, refugees, the territories occupied in ’67? Let’s give our diplomats tools. We could even think about not vetoing something in the U.N. Security Council; we could actually propose a resolution the U.N. Security Council which incorporates our parameters, and they could become a successor to Resolution 242. In others words, it gives you diplomatic options, which we don’t currently have.
So to answer at least one of Omar’s questions, no, I have not given up. No, the United States has not yet failed, but we are continuing to not succeed by failing to understand the lessons that we have lived through and experienced in the past and revising our approach, developing our strategy, a serious set of terms of reference, building into that a process in which you can ask the parties to change their behaviors and then to monitor and hold the parties accountable for how they do those behaviors. That could represent a serious diplomatic strategy, which, again, may not get us immediately to negotiations and peace but will set this piece process on a far better course than it’s on today.
NATAN SACHS, Fellow, Brookings Institution’s Center for Middle East Policy
Thank you very much. It’s not an easy act to follow. Thank you very much for the invitation, and it’s a pleasure to be – to be here and an honor to be with the ambassador.
So I started out thinking about this talk, and I was thinking about the question, has the U.S. failed? Now, on the face of it, it seems like a relatively easy one – the answer is yes – and on Twitter, there were a lot of responses, one-word responses to the title; the answer simply is yes. I think it’s a bit more complicated than that.
The U.S. has obviously not succeeded. We don’t have a final status agreement, as the U.S. objective has been for quite a while, certainly was in the past year.
But I think the ones who have failed, the ones who will pay the price, the ones who have really – who have not succeeded more than anyone else are the sides themselves, the Palestinians and the Israelis. And this seems like an obvious point, but it’s actually worth noting, in particular because – this is a thing I harp on again and again – there is the perception in this city that you do not ascribe agency to the parties and especially to the Palestinians. Palestinians are the weaker party. Many of them are under occupation. And therefore, there is an assumption that they simply have no tools of policy to decide where they’re going. This is patently false, simply comparing the fate of the two main Palestinian territories in this summer shows the dramatic difference that Palestinian political decisions make.
But of course, Palestinians are the weaker party, and the Israelis are the stronger party in this. And certainly, their decisions are extremely consequential. And in their now-stated goal of a two-state solution, they have obviously failed quite miserably.
So the main question to my mind is, who’s going to pay the price, or what will be the price for this lack of peace? Because on the one hand, if we look at the past year, the main cause, the root cause for the fact that there was no success in this process to my mind is the fundamental and very deep lack of trust between these leaders. The political systems echo this, and they enhance this. The Israeli political system constrains Netanyahu to a large degree, and the Palestinian public certainly constrains Abbas, as does his own leadership within Fatah.
But more than anything, we have two leaders who know each other very well, who came into office with absolutely no trust in one another, and have now much worse than that. They truly believe that each – that the other is antagonistic to their interests and even to their word.
So why did the secretary go in this – in this direction? This was a question that was asked a lot in this city.
At least face value, the way the secretary explained it is that this might be the last moment. It may not be a good moment. We may not have the ideal leaders for peace, to put it mildly. We may not have the right political coalitions to do it, to put it mildly. And moreover, something that you may have noticed in the Middle East has happened in the last few years that may not make it the best moment to deal with – with this problem, of all the other problems. And yet the secretary said this may be the last opportunity for a two-state solution, and therefore, we have to go for it now.
So I think there are two main questions. One is what happens in the absence of peace, in the absence of moving forward? And second, building on what the ambassador said, what happens if people get convinced that this simply is impossible if they take the secretary at their word and they simply conclude that it is too late? Too many settlements, so the Palestinians are no longer interested, et cetera.
So let me say a few words on Palestinians, whom I know much less, and then I’ll turn to the Israelis, whom I know a bit more and who I follow regularly.
On the Palestinian side, you see a contradiction. On the one hand, if you look at polls even today, even after the Gaza war, you see still a majority favoring mildly a two-state solution, even compared to the Yugoslavia option, what some people call the one-state solution, they sometimes say it without irony, it – people – Palestinians still do prefer the two-state solution. And yet they very strongly, even more strongly than before the war, believe it’s impossible because the Israelis are not there.
This is of course mirrored on the Israeli side. There is still significant majorities on the Israeli side that would prefer the two-state solution. It’s certainly higher than among the Palestinians. In the Israeli side, one-state scenario, Yugoslavia option, Bosnia option is not very popular. But still, majorities – but clear majorities of Israelis – and for a very long time, basically since the second intifada, where everything really broke down – Israelis do not believe Palestinians are there.
The past breakdown of these talks enhances this. For the Palestinians, they saw settlements on the Israeli side, the embodiment of Israel working against the supposed two-state solution. On the Israeli side, they saw a confirmation of the same old narrative, which is that Abbas, much better than Arafat in the sense that he himself is not involved in violence while negotiating peace, is not – is still not willing to sign away the final deal, in particular right of return, Jerusalem in particular. They saw this affirmation because time and time again, Abbas, according to the Americans, was unwilling to give a conclusive answer. Now, of course, circumstances of that, of why Abbas did this, why he did it with Olmert, why Arafat did it previously, there are always circumstances. But in the Israeli perspective, which is extremely skeptical of Abbas to begin with, this was yet again at least consistent with the notion that Abbas is willing to do many things, but to sign away the historic rights, he will not.
On the Israeli side, where does this leave us? Well, with the absence of peace, if the – for the Palestinians, this means abject failure, historic failure, continuation of occupation, continuation of the refugees – and again, I want to emphasize something the Palestinians themselves are a party to, this failure, continuation of occupation, continuation of the refugee problem, of all the different difficulties they point to the Israelis about.
For the Israelis, this means continuation of occupation, which has a very deep consequences on – consequence, long-term consequence on Israeli society, on its ability to stand within – a fifth of Israelis are not Jewish, and the occupation and the conflict has a deep ramification for relations between the majority and the minority inside Israel, not – and leaders on both sides don’t help at all.
It has dramatic ramifications in the international arena. We saw, of course, the vote in the British Parliament, the Swedes, et cetera, and the rise of BDS, as they call themselves, right, sometimes formulated as a pro-peace movement against occupation, usually formulated simply as an anti-Israel movement, which is actually the opposite of a two-state solution, exactly the opposite of peace. Israelis are confronted with this and feel a very strong, growing sense – a wrong sense, in my mind – of the world is simply against us. BDS is obviously not against a two-state solution. They’re not boycotting the settlements, for example. They’re boycotting Israel. They’re against Israel. Many of them, of the proponents of this, do not talk about a two-state solution because if they did, they would lose the coherence of their camp. Some of them talk about, for example, a – when they do mention a two-state solution, they – a two-state solution and the full right of return. In other words, a state and a half Palestinian and half a state, for a while, Jewish. For the Israeli mind, when they hear this, when Israelis hear this, it is the very clear answer, this is just yet one more stage in this idealistic perceived world campaign against Israel – a misperception, to my mind, but a very strong perception.
We see a very strong trend inside Israel rightward in one sense, in the sense of hawkishness. During this war, for example, Netanyahu was very – lost a lot of popularity in Israel, but he lost popularity not to the left; he lost popularity to the right. Naftali Bennett, who’s the leader of the Jewish Home party, which is a member of the coalition, at least nominally, and – is much more hawkish than Netanyahu, is the one that gained most from this, in part because he and others and even Foreign Minister Lieberman pointed to a lack of strategy on the Israeli side, saying, what are you actually trying to do? If Hamas is as bad as you say, and it is such a threat to Israeli security, bring it down. But if you’re not bringing it down, what is – what actually are you after? And so we see a rise of the right wing, on at least the security hawkish side. We see a strong sense in Israel the whole world is against us. Sometimes the British Parliament – which, by the way, was extremely different from what you hear on campuses, was not a boycott of Israelis at all. That is why, for example, George Galloway couldn’t attend. He objected to the – to it in Parliament because he, of course, boycotts Israelis period, while the resolution in Parliament was for a two-state solution, one of them being Israel. But they see this campaign, sometimes in this – in the British Parliament form, but often in the more louder forums – in forums that simply object to Israel. They have a very strong rightward trend on security, and they see, most importantly, a dramatic change in their region. And this I want to dwell for a moment because I think it’s extremely important.
When Israelis look at the problem, for years they would always claim, as was alluded, that the road to Baghdad does not go through Jerusalem, that the Palestinian-Israeli problem is not the core of the Middle East problem. It may be an important problem, but is not the core of it, that in fact, is the Middle East that has an enormous array of problems that have nothing to do with Israel, that use Israel as a hook because the enemy of my enemy – hence, for example, the Islamic Republic of Iran, which has no borders with Israel, has really no problems with Israel per se, but because it is a Shiite power, because it is non-Arab, sees an enormous advantage in becoming the forefront and the supporter the glorified resistance movement against Israel and taking a mantle in which it can lead others in the Middle East.
The last three years, four years, even, to the Israeli mind, especially the center-right, have been a very strong validation of this perspective. If you look at the Middle East today, absolutely horrendous civil war in Syria, massacre in Syria and Iraq, enormous upheaval in the largest country in the Arab world, Egypt – the list goes on and on. None of these have anything to do with Israel directly. The Iran question perhaps does. It depends on what day Israelis talk about it. But usually, most of these issues, to the north, to the south, in every single direction have nothing to do with Israel. For many Israelis, especially on the center-right, this is a very strong validation of this perspective that Jerusalem, Israel, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not the center of the problem.
Of course, that doesn’t – there is a flaw in this, and the – well, that – on the face of it is true, and the president, in fact, said it recently. That of course does not change the simple fact that the Palestinian-Israeli problem is extremely important, that it exacerbates the U.S. position in the region for many others reasons. It also makes it very easy for other parties in the region to use the Israeli-Palestinian conflict whenever it suits them. In other words, it is extremely important in its own right and should be solved, even though it indeed is not the key to the whole problems of the Middle East or even most of them.
But the Israelis, when they look at it, they not only see things that are unrelated to the Palestinian problem, they see things that exacerbate the extreme risks that Israel would take if it were to engage in what the Palestinians want. And so when they look, for example, east, and they see the Islamic State or whatever we’re calling it these days, they see a dramatic threat to Jordan on Israel’s border. On the Golan, on the line there, they see Islamists, not quite ISIS, but they see Islamists not far from – on the Israeli line, sometimes firing accidentally into Israel. In Lebanon, they see a Hezbollah which is involved in that same huge civil war that spans Iraq and Syria now and is on the border with Israel. They see a Sinai which seems to be a hotbed of the same thing until Sisi came to power and the military took action. And all these are not theoretical questions. They are very real questions at the border.
And so when Israelis, when Netanyahu says in English, we do not want to create another Gaza in the West Bank, it may sound like hollow rhetoric in English, but of all the things he says, this is the one that resonates perhaps most strongly with Israelis not as hollow rhetoric but as a very tangible, real, personal thing. Netanyahu was ridiculed for claiming that there would be missiles from Gaza onto Ashkelon. He really was. And for Israelis, he was vindicated in every way possible on – in foreseeing what might happen in Gaza. And so the same prediction on the West Bank, with a possibility of the growth of Hamas in the West Bank, concomitant with everything else that’s going on in the Middle East, seems to Israelis like the last moment in which they would take dramatic security steps.
So where does it leave them? To my mind it leaves them in a very strange contradiction. Like Palestinians who seem to not know where to go – they want a two-state solution, but they don’t think it’s possible, and so many of them are holding onto options, which are sold to them as if they are solutions, in fact spell civil war – Israelis find themselves in a situation in which economically and many other perspectives, Israel is doing very well. Demographically, economically, technologically, Israel is much stronger than it was even 10 years ago and especially 20 or 30 years ago. It is now officially a member of the OECD. It’s a developed country now, officially. And it truly is in many respects. It’s now also being able – it’s now find itself able or compelled to deal with domestic issues that have nothing to do the Palestinian something – Palestinian problem, something that they could not do before.
And at the same time there seems to be a malaise among Israelis, a very deep sense of a loss of direction, in particular with relation of the Palestinian problem – because in the Israeli narrative, which you’ve heard a million times, all the attempts to real peace with Arafat, with Abbas, to do it through the – through the Arab states, to do it unilaterally, all these things have failed. Force doesn’t seem to work. Peace certainly doesn’t seem to work. Nothing seems to bring about normalcy for Israel in any kind of recognizable borders.
And so there is, to my mind, a combination of escapism – an idea that, OK, we will just somehow have to manage this, we will deal with completely different things – and the rise of alternative visions. I spend much of my time when I speak to Israelis now talking about Israeli strategy and trying to figure out where it is. And like the title of this panel, many people answer with one word – I ask, does Israel have a plan? Does it have a strategy? And the answer – one word, no. That’s your book. One word.
But of course, it’s more complicated than that. To my mind, Israel has many plans. And in fact, what we see today in Israel is a growth – a troubling growth, to my mind – of all sorts of alternative ideas, almost all of them ludicrous, on what might happen with the territories in the long term – pseudo-democracy, semi-occupation, autonomy, simply management for the long term.
And of all of these, the one that is most likely, I’m sorry to say, is simply some kind of management to the long term. We have suggestions for what is now called plan B’s in Israel, all sort of fixes to the border, plan B’s of how Israel would withdraw unilaterally from part of the territories, make its position better in the short term. But it boils down in the end to managing the problem, in particular given what’s happening in the Middle East.
So what does this mean in the long term? Well, to my mind, from the U.S. policy perspective, this comes out very much to what Ambassador Kurtzer said. The United States needs, as well – as does Israel, as do the Palestinians, to keep their eye on the ball, to keep their eye on the long-term strategy of where they’re trying to go. Whether the two-state solution looks like the negotiated thing that we thought in the past, whether it looks slightly differently, the fundamental idea that these two people need to govern themselves separately to my mind still holds true. And if that is the goal, then everything should be judged according to it. Tactics need to be derived from this strategy.
The U.N. vote, for example, to my mind in – 2 ½ years ago, when there was talk of the Palestinians going to the U.N., there were some in the central Israeli political system who were saying, Israel should just say yes. Israeli should be the first to recognize the state of Palestine and negotiate with the state of Palestine. And to my mind, that would be a good idea. Israel should be the first state to recognize Palestine – but without changing anyone of the Israeli demands on security, on many of the other issues, of course. This does not change it. This is, of course, anathema to those who would want a Yugoslavia, to those who would want a one-state whatever they call it. And this is – this actually I think an indication of why it might be useful.
And the same is true of the Americans, and the same is true for the Palestinians. Anything that can promote this would be good.
At the end of the day, though, we come down to the fact the status quo is not static. We’re on a course here. And the question is what do we do with that. Settlements are growing. The Palestinians are turning away from a two-state solution. Palestinian politics are going in a very different direction. How do we – what do we do with this?
And to my mind, what the United States needs to do is to set some kind of parameters for nonpeace, for a situation in which we don’t have a solution. In part this has to do certainly with settlements. It also has to do a lot with violence, with the fact there are two armies in the Palestinian territories, with what happens in the Gaza Strip, whether Hamas is allowed to be armed, wage war separate from the Palestinian Authority. These are very difficult questions that need to be dealt, but to my mind, they need to be dealt always in light of the same basic strategic goal.
I’ll just say one last thing on the Israeli public mind. I mentioned two very troubling trends. One is the rightward movement in terms of hawkishness in the sense of security, and the other is a sense that the world is against us, that they are simply all anti-Semites. But I would just caution this to say that the Israeli move to the right is not necessarily a move to the right on the question of land and ideology. Most Israelis – one can believe this or not, but for most Israelis, the settlements are not an attempt to prevent peace. They truly don’t think that. They may be wrong, but they don’t think that.
And for most of them, even if they object very strongly to the idea of a blanket freeze on settlements, they don’t necessarily support robust building. In other words, they have moved strongly to the right on security. They do not believe the Palestinians – but they don’t necessarily – they haven’t necessarily changed their mind fundamentally on, what is the ideal state, or whether or not the Palestinians should govern themselves.
And I think this, coupled with, I hope what might remain among Palestinians of a similar sentiment gives some hope that, with some time, perseverance, but also, keeping one’s eye on the strategic goal, we have not actually reached the point of no return, as the secretary warned us. Thank you. (Applause.)
MATTHEW DUSS, President, Foundation for Middle East Peace
Hi. Good morning. It’s a real privilege to be here. Thanks for the invitation – and an honor to share the stage with my colleagues here. Thinking about the question – the title of this conference – has the U.S. failed? An interesting question. And, you know, just to be contentious and annoying, I might answer with another question. Failed at what? Looking at the very basic and direct question, has the U.S. failed to achieve a lasting resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Well, obviously, yes, the U.S. has failed, or thus far failed to achieve what it has and what administrations had repeatedly stated is a key regional interest. If the Obama administration’s view of the conflict could be summed up in a sentence, it’s this: The status quo is unsustainable, as our previous speakers said.
Secretary of State Clinton told the AIPAC meeting in Washington, March 2010, quote, “the status quo is unsustainable for all sides; it promises only more violence and unrealized aspirations.” President Obama himself, in his May 2011 speech on the Arab Spring at the State Department. “The status quo is unsustainable, and Israel must act boldly to advance lasting peace.” John Kerry himself – Secretary of State Kerry earlier this year at the Munich security conference, “today’s status quo is absolutely, to a certainty, I promise you, 100 percent, cannot be maintained. It’s not sustainable. It’s illusionary. There is a momentary prosperity; there is a momentary peace.” And I think, as Ambassador Kurtzer pointed out, the Gaza War brought that home.
So although the Obama administration may have coined this phrase and then, really, repeated it constantly, the sentiment is not new. Every administration since Carter’s has, in some fashion, recognized that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict creates cost for the United States and the region, and that the United States has an interest in resolving it. In the words of former CENTCOM chief, General David Petraeus, the conflict, quote, “foments anti-American sentiment, limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples in the Middle East.” And I just want to agree with Natan’s characterization of the significance of the conflict. I think it’s untrue that this is the key or the core conflict of the Middle East; we will not solve every other problem by achieving a resolution to the Israel-Palestinian problem, but I think we’ll make some of those problems easier. But it is important in its own right.
So even in the face of this – I would call it a consensus of the U.S. foreign policy establishment, if I could – certainly, I think, of the international community, there is a consensus that the status quo is unsustainable and dangerous, and that a two-state solution is the – is the best way to solve it. That status quo persists. Define the efforts of the world’s most powerful country to change it time and time again. The Clinton, Bush and Obama administrations all put in considerable effort into reaching a deal that would end the occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and create a Palestinian state alongside Israel. President Obama made achieving this goal a priority of his presidency, appointing a special envoy in his very first week as president in 2009. And yet, now, over five-and-a-half years later, Secretary Kerry failed to even keep the parties at the table, never mind hammering out a final agreement.
Why did the talks collapse? You know, I think we can – there are various reasons for this, but I think one of the key reasons that we have to look at is that the current Israeli government – the current Israeli – many in the current security establishment – I won’t say all, but many believe that the status quo is, in fact, sustainable, and that it has to be sustained, and thinking of remarks by Israeli scholar Martin Kramer at the Herzliya conference in February – I think it was February 2011, just as the Arab awakening – the demonstrations, the uprisings were really getting going, mocking the claims, mocking the statement about the status quo, saying, no, we in Israel believe, not only is the status quo sustainable, it is the job of the United States to sustain it.
I think that really characterizes the view of the current Israeli government, and I – there was an interview – I think you should all check out if you haven’t seen it already – with Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya’aalon in today’s Israel Hayom, where he says that straight up. It’s management. We’re going to manage this problem. There is no solution. The status quo is maybe not perfect, but it’s the best for us, and the Palestinians are basically just going to have to deal with it.
So I think recognizing that this is the attitude, this is the approach, this is the policy of the current Israeli government is hugely important. Discarding illusions that this current government is, in any sense, genuinely committed toward achieving a two-state solution is very important to deciding where we go from here. But in the wake of the collapse of the talks, let’s just look at how the U.S. team themselves assessed the collapse. Unnamed U.S. officials told Israeli journalist Nahum Barnea that while there were issues on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, blocking progress, in the view of the U.S., the key problem lay on the Israeli side, in particular, the unwillingness to cease the growth of settlements.
And I think it was good to have U.S. officials laying out these views. It would have been nicer to have them put their names on it, but still, the interview showed – to me, it was troubling in what it revealed about the knowledge or lack of knowledge of current Israeli political realities. For these officials to say that they did not realize that settlements were going to be a problem, that settlements were constantly going to be used to undermine negotiations by parties and officials to the right of Netanyahu is a bit mind-boggling. There’s really – I see no excuse not to have realized this going in. Israelis, Palestinians, Europeans and Americans were all warning Kerry when he began his own peace process.
In March 2013, just as Netanyahu was assembling his current coalition, I was in Israel at the time. Nearly every Israeli official with whom I spoke voiced strong concerns that a, quote, “surge” in settlement building was coming. Writing that same month, Aluf Benn, editor-in-chief of Israel’s Haaretz newspaper warned, quote, “the third Netanyahu has one clear goal: enlarging the settlements and achieving the vision of, quote, ‘a million Jews living in Judea and Samaria.’ The magic number will thwart the division of the land, and prevent, once and for all, the establishment a Palestinian state,” unquote.
Now, leaving aside what these officials could have, should have known, the question is, having now said publicly that the Netanyahu government’s prioritization of settlements is a primary obstacle to achieving a stated U.S. interest – the two-state solution – what’s the U.S. willing to do about it?
One more quote from the U.S. official to Barnea. Quote, “20 years after the Oslo Accords, new game rules and facts on the ground were created that are deeply entrenched. This reality is very difficult for the Palestinians and very convenient for Israel.” So the question I have is, is the U.S. prepared to take steps that makes reality less convenient for Israel? And this is, of course, not to exonerate or absolve the Palestinians themselves from their own responsibilities. They – you know, they have issues regarding their own political movement. Abbas – elections are way overdue for the Palestinians; I think Palestinian unity, in some form, is necessary – absolutely necessary to create a legitimate Palestinian representation that can speak for all Palestinians and make an agreement that Israelis can trust.
But I think, in terms of managing the massive power imbalance, we do – the settlements and this current Israeli government does deserve some special focus. For years, the mantra of conservative pro-Israel groups here in the United States has been that Israel will only be able to make the difficult choices for peace if it knows that U.S. support is absolute. But there is a flip side to this as well. When Israel knows that U.S. support is absolute, it has no incentive to make difficult choices.
So I would say, yes, the U.S. has, obviously, failed thus far to manage a process that achieves its stated goal. On the other hand, it has quite effectively managed a process that protects its ally, Israel, from any genuine pressure or costs. I wouldn’t downplay the – or I wouldn’t simply dismiss some of the issues that Natan talked about – international pressure, criticism of Israel. I think we really have to note the upsurge in anti-Semitism that happened in Europe during the Gaza War, which everyone should condemn as horrible, and there’s absolutely no excuse for.
So those – that sense of criticism and confrontation is very real, but in terms of, I think, actual economic costs – actual costs to the state of Israel, I see very few. But getting to the U.S.-Israel relationship, while trying to manage a process to broker a peace agreement or broker a set of talks, while at the same time, protecting Israel, expending a great deal of political and diplomatic capital to protect Israel from any real costs internationally, it gets at a fundamental tension in the U.S. approach. Can the U.S. effectively broker negotiations between two parties when it has pledged unstinting support for one of those parties, regardless of that party’s actions?
I don’t think there’s any negotiation in the world that’s going to succeed under those terms. No negotiations will go anywhere if one of the two parties is completely unmotivated to actually negotiate. We constantly hear that Israel has some hard choices to make. And it’s quite true. They do, but why would anyone make hard choices if there’s no cost for simply not making that choice? And I think that is the policy that we see described by Defense Minister Ya’alon. They are simply not going to choose. They’re simply going to manage the status quo, because there’s really no cost for them – for them doing that.
For comparison’s sake, let’s look at another ongoing negotiation, I think, which CFR’s Ray Takeyh now refer to as the second-longest negotiation in the Middle East, which is the Iranian nuclear negotiations. I think everyone agrees that some pressure in the form of sanctions was necessary to get Iran to the table and engage in good faith productively, which I think everyone – most everyone would agree that Iran has, even if not sufficiently or as much as some would hope. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu certainly believes it; he won’t stop talking about it. Yet somehow, this logic never applies to Israel. It is deeply ironic to hear Netanyahu warning about Iranian tensions when he says, beware Iran using negotiations as cover for continuing their work. He is very familiar with this strategy. (Scattered laughter.) It is his own strategy.
So obviously, here in the U.S., political – domestic political realities make it difficult to put pressure on Israel. I think we can – we should – I hope, during the conversation – the Q and A, we’ll talk through what some of those options are for both Israelis and Palestinians to help guide them or shape their choices. But I think, for the time being, it’s probably better to focus on, OK, what can – will the U.S. get out of the way of others taking steps such as the EU? We saw, as Natan mentioned, the vote in the British parliament. We see the EU looking more seriously at settlement regulations. And again, these are not sanctions as such. They are simply the EU enforcing the letter of its own law with regard to products made in the settlements.
Frankly, I think the EU settlement decision, even though it created, obviously, some consternation when it came out, was probably the best thing to happen to the peace process in many years. The amount of Israeli outrage over comparatively small actions, I think, shows how accustomed they have become to experiencing no cost for these constant unilateral actions.
But I think the U.S has to take a very, very hard look at its management of the process, and I would say that it’s the process that is the main problem here, not the solution – not the goal. I understand the arguments for and against two states, for and against one state, a binational state – and perhaps we’ll discuss some of them here today, but I think it’s a bit shortsighted to look at the poorly-managed process and determine that it’s the goal that has been the problem all along. It seems to me it’s like driving an old, busted car from D.C. to New York, and then, when the car keeps breaking down, you decide, well, the problem was, we should have just been going to Atlantic City the whole time. (Laughter.)
But still, rising skepticism of two states amongst Palestinians, amongst Israelis and amongst activist groups in the U.S. is something that’s very real, and I think it has to be taken very, very seriously. It’s a debate that really needs to be engaged energetically and in good faith. In my view, two states are still the most practical goal, the one that produces the best outcome for the most people. But if the process is going to work, I think the U.S. has to relinquish, to some extent, its monopoly to allow other players to play a greater role, and that includes Palestinian efforts to circumvent what is Israel’s ongoing veto over its national and human rights by seeking relief – nonviolent relief in international fora.
And it’s worth noting here that these efforts by Palestinians to address the massive power imbalance and create some disincentive for the Israelis, as they see it, is a direct result of the U.S. having failed to do this. I mean, ideally, brokering a process would involve creating – addressing that massive power imbalance, and I think Ambassador Kurtzer got at that a bit in his talk about terms of reference, which I agree is hugely important.
So yes, the – obviously, the U.S. has thus far failed to achieve a lasting resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and I think it will continue to fail unless it takes a very hard look at the way it has managed the efforts and decides, finally, to change it. Thank you. (Applause.)
YOUSEF MUNAYYER, Executive Director, Jerusalem Fund and The Palestine Center
Thank you. Thank you, Omar; thank you, Tom, and Middle East Policy Council for having me. Thank you for my copanelists today for their contributions. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict: has the United States failed? “Yes” would seem like the very obvious answer, I think, as all of us have pointed out today. All one needs to do is look at Israel-Palestine today, see what is clearly the absence of peace and conclude that the answer is an unequivocal yes. But let’s not jump to obvious answers or conclusions.
To answer if the United States has failed, we must first ask, what is it that they’re ostensibly trying to accomplish? If they have, in fact, tried to achieve a goal and have not done so, then we can say that they did fail. So is Washington’s goal an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal? Well, not exactly. The United States has always perceived its most narrowly-defined interests in the Middle East as twofold – securing the free flow of resources out of the region into a global resource market, and securing the existence of Israel.
Throughout modern history, these two goals have come into conflict with each other to varying degrees. The latter goal – securing Israel’s survival – is probably less about regional interests than it is about domestic politics. But narrowly speaking, the Israeli-Palestinian peace is not the primary goal. Stability (and ?) Israel are. If peace happens to serve those interests, then fine; if not, it’s not going to be pursued in a serious way. Even when peace is not running counter to those interests, since it is not the primary goal, other factors weigh heavier into the decision calculus on policy, like, for example, domestic politics.
Today, folks down the road in Foggy Bottom are brainstorming creative ways to send messages of disapproval to Israel about its policies. But even this effort is shaped by pressure coming from the other side of Constitution Avenue in Congress. Israel is, essentially, an American client state. It relies on U.S. support in various arenas, including the military and diplomatic, and to a lesser extent these days, economic. But U.S. policymakers find themselves constrained when seeking to change the type of Israeli behavior that the vast majority of the world has concluded is destructive to peace.
The nine-month process initiated by Secretary Kerry, which collapsed in April of this year, is a microcosm of a long history of American mediation. At the outset, the goal of a final status agreement seemed optimistic to say the least, and suggested Kerry and his team were either aloof or having trouble with effective messaging. Surely enough, the expectations were consistently tempered from a final status agreement in nine months to an American peace plan, maybe, to a bridging proposal to a framework to maybe extending the talks to nothing at all.
To initiate the talks, Kerry worked a deal. The Palestinians, of course, were well-aware of how American-mediated negotiations had gone in the past, and should they forget, they’re easily reminded with a glance out the window at a constantly-growing hilltop settlement which didn’t exist when this peace process began. Lacking popular support and legitimacy, and with his own inner circle disapproving, Mahmoud Abbas needed insurance that this nine-month period, that was more than likely to result in no progress, would not be a complete waste of time.
Enter the prisoners. The Israelis, too, did not want to see the Palestinians continue down the road of internationalization. The Americans made it very clear to the Palestinians, and made clear that the ICC – the International Criminal Court, in particular, was a bold red line not to be crossed. So in exchange for putting the Palestinian internationalization campaign on hiatus for a nine-month period, the Israelis would release 104 pre-Oslo Palestinian prisoners. Kerry was the guarantor of this deal, and it was on this basis that Mahmoud Abbas decided to proceed. Keep in mind that the agreement to release the prisoners is not new. In fact, the Israelis had agreed to release them on more than one previous occasion, including in the Sharm el-Sheikh memorandum of 1999, where Israel agreed to release these prisoners by Ramadan of the following year. That would be the year 2000. And yet, here we are in 2014 still talking about some of these same prisoners.
The 104 prisoners were expected to be released in four stages during the nine-month process. The Israelis did not want to release them all at once, but instead wanted to hold them as an incentive to keep Abbas in the negotiations until the end of the period and beyond.
But the fourth tranche was never released despite Kerry’s promise to Abbas. Looking at this plainly, it seems clear that the Israelis reneged on their end of the agreement. But if we’re to believe Ben Birnbaum, who penned a widely disseminated fly on the wall-type piece in The New Republic, it was just the miscommunication that happened when two long-winded fellows like Kerry and Netanyahu were tuning each other out. Birnbaum claims that the Israelis thought they only promised to release 80 and not 104. But the Israeli prime minister issued a press release, what was entitled an open letter to Israeli citizens, on July 27th of 2013, wherein he stated, quote, I did agree to release 104 Palestinians in stages after the start of negotiations and in accordance with the circumstances of their progress. That’s a very odd thing for something to – for someone to say who thinks they’ve only agreed to release 80 prisoners and not 104. This widely released statement appeared first on Netanyahu’s Facebook page, though now it seems to have been deleted, but of course it still exists as an official press release on the prime minister’s office website.
Something else, however, doesn’t add up, and I mean this very literally. Each of the three tranches which were released, of which there were supposed to be four, included 26 prisoners. This is precisely one quarter of 104. So while what was said between Kerry and Netanyahu about this might be a mystery, it’s clear from the way in which these prisoners were released that they wanted the impression of a total of 104, that that impression to be – would be perceived.
What happened here is that Kerry made a commitment that he could not back up. Netanyahu balked either because he couldn’t deliver the vote or because he had hoped to use the fourth tranche to get Abbas to extend beyond nine months despite one settlement expansion announcement after the other. After the whole thing fizzled, insiders were happy to displace responsibility in statements to the New Republic and elsewhere in the press.
So, two decades after the handshake in the Rose Garden, the United States secretary of state was unable to get the Israelis to keep their end of the bargain over 26 prisoners, which should have been released 14 years prior. Abbas, who beat back dissent in his ranks because Kerry gave him his word, now saw that Kerry’s word was broken.
And yet somehow Kerry and Washington and many voices in this town which could not get the Israelis to keep their word on 26 prisoners – a minor issue in the grand scheme of things – still want Abbas and the Palestinians to believe that they’d be able to press the Israelis into dismantling settlements, agreeing on refugees and dividing Jerusalem. It was as early as January that the Israelis began to signal they would not release the fourth tranche of prisoners, and it was around this time that we began to hear about a framework. That framework of course never came.
What is perhaps most disturbing is not Kerry’s quest for a framework or that it was akin to the search for the Northwest Passage, but rather that a perfectly good framework already existed, and it was being vigorously ignored. That framework, international law, has long been established, and sadly, Washington has over time moved further and further away from it as a frame for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian question. Settlements, instruments of Israeli colonization in the West Bank, went from being illegal to illegitimate. Redress of Palestinian grievances through the U.N. Security Council, even when resolutions were pieced together using State Department language, were stymied by an American veto.
Everything was being done to ensure that if the issue was to be resolved, it would only be through an American arena, not a legal one, not an international one – only one where Israel’s lawyer – Washington – could be the arbiter. Never was this distancing from an international legal framework more clear than this summer as Israel bombarded the Gaza Strip. For perspective, consider this. In 2002, Israel dropped a one-ton bomb on the home of Salah Shehade. He was at the time the head of the Izz ad-Din Qassam brigades in the Gaza Strip. The strike killed Shehade and 14 civilians, including eight children. The White House – the Bush White House – condemned the strike. The president’s spokesperson, one Ari Fleischer, made clear that despite the presence of Shehade, apartment buildings were civilian infrastructure. And when queried about the Israeli claim that civilians were used as human shields, he rejected the rationale, saying, quote: This is one instance where the United States and Israel do not see eye to eye.
This summer, killings like the Shehade killing took place on almost a daily basis. The Betch (ph) family lost 18 members in one strike. The Abujemi (ph) family lost 25 members on the same day, (that ?) the Siam (ph) family lost 10. The Casas (ph) family was targeted with an Israeli strike, and nine members were killed, among them six children. The Khilali (ph) family followed Israeli military instructions to leave areas where it was bombing. First they fled from Beitnahia (ph) to Shujaria (ph), then from Shujaria (ph) to the center of Gaza City, and Israeli airstrikes still found them there, killing all seven members, including five children. All told, some 89 entire families were wiped off the face of the earth by Israeli strikes. In many of these cases – and there are too many more to name in particular here – it’s doubtful that there was any real legitimate military target. And even if there was, it would not justify the wanton killing of noncombatants and children in the process, as Fleischer had made clear some 12 years ago after a single strike that had killed 14 civilians.
Still, it was not until some 500 Palestinians, mostly civilians, were killed that President Obama noted his quote “serious” concern for the loss of civilian life in Gaza. But that concern did little for those who had already lost their lives, nor did it do anything for the next 1,400 who would be killed by Israeli fire before the U.S. government issued a stronger statement about being, quote, “appalled” at the Israeli shelling of a U.N. school. Yet the same week that statement was made, the U.S. opened its arms caches to Israeli tanks so that they can reload, effectively saying one thing with its mouth and another with its actions.
So what’s changed since 2002? The laws of war certainly have not. Instead, what has changed is that Washington is even more willing to sit idly by as Israel flaunts the laws of war on greater and more horrific scales, while still supporting them with arms, aid and diplomatic cover. There’s a reason why the Israeli prime minister is welcomed more warmly in Congress than he is in the Knesset. Washington has directly contributed to the growing culture of impunity in Israel by consistently failing to punish Israeli violations, and Israel continues to push the boundaries, both literally and figuratively, as if to explore the greatest extent of American tolerance.
Instead of using its leverage over Israel to get it to comply with international law, Washington has used its leverage internationally to ensure Israel never has to. The definition of failure, according to the Merriam-Webster’s dictionary, is quote “the state or condition of not meeting a desirable or intended objective.” So to say U.S. policy on Israel-Palestine has failed presupposes that Washington not only desires a just peace agreement but also that they’ve actually tried to achieve one. Neither seems obviously true. In fact, what the U.S. desires is preserving Israel, even if that means Israeli leaders define that through perpetual occupation. In this, U.S. policy has succeeded. And behold Israel-Palestine today: an apartheid status quo, the fruit of American policy success.
This apartheid reality must change, but the pressure necessary to change it certainly will not come from this town, not any time soon at least. Barring revolutionary change in Israel-Palestine policy, this pressure must come from elsewhere. The only avenue left is the international isolation of the Israeli state – and I emphasize here the Israeli state. There is a significant misunderstanding of the isolation efforts or efforts like BDS, which assume that it is targeting Israelis or accused that the failure to focus specifically on settlements somehow means that the target is Israelis in general. But the reality is, it is the state which is crafting these destructive policies. It is the state that is financing and creating infrastructure for these settlements. They do not appear on hilltops by themselves. It is because of a conscious effort of the state and with the support of the United States of America that the Israeli state is able to do this.
Of course opponents of this approach will say – and they may have said it here today – but if you do that, you will alienate the Israeli public. To this I would respond: The Obama administration can barely compete with Netanyahu and the right wing over the prevailing opinion in Congress. How can they expect to compete with him with his own public?
It is – in fact it is only when the Israeli state is alienated that its public will seriously begin to question the positions of its leadership. Today the Israeli public is largely supportive or apathetic to apartheid policies because it comes with little consequences for them. It’s high time that this changes.
Also, and perhaps more importantly, why should Israeli public opinion hold a veto on basic Palestinian rights? For Israeli behavior to change, the denial of Palestinian rights cannot come cost-free. Any party that contributes to tipping the scales in that direction is doing a service in the pursuit of peace. If Washington wants to finally join this effort, it will find far more allies than opponents.
Thank you. (Applause.)
DR. KADER: We will now start the question-and-answer section of our program.
You have a diversity of thinking that’s taking place today, and there’s an overriding sense that there is a consensus on this panel that the United States doesn’t know what it’s doing in the Middle East or the talks and isn’t clear, from terms of reference to invisible goals to fuzzy thinking and ultimately, when we get right down to it, the lack of courage to do what needs to be done because of a variety of – variety of obstacles.
Tom, do you – do you have enough to get us started?
DR. THOMAS R. MATTAIR, executive director, Middle East Policy Council
Actually, before I get to the audience questions, I’d like to ask my own. And since we have you here, Dan, and you served in U.S. government, you’ve been a part of this, I’d like to start with some of your reactions to what’s been said today.
Has it been actually the objective of the United States government over the years to facilitate a two-state solution, or has the United States’ objective been to make Israel comfortable? I mean, I think I know the answer, and knowing what Jimmy Carter and George Bush and Bill Clinton and many others have done, but I’m interested in your reaction.
Secondly, how did you react to the comments that were made by the two Obama administration officials who had been in charge of the portfolio for nine months when they said that they didn’t realize settlement tenders had been intended to bolster Netanyahu’s government and subvert the process and that they had – and, even more so, didn’t realize that settlement construction entailed the expropriation/confiscation of land?
And third, in terms of accountability, what – how would we – how would we try to make the parties accountable? Is there any kind of balance between what the parties are doing in terms of the Palestinians constraining violence and cooperating in security and their successes and their failures in that department, on one hand, and then on the other hand the Israelis and their response to the request to freeze and restrain settlement-building?
AMB. KURTZER: Those are all directed –
DR. MATTAIR: Yeah. Well, first – (laughter) – first to you, first to you, yes – you’re the person with the most experience in American government – but everybody is welcome to answer that. I’d like to start with you, though.
AMB. KURTZER: Look, even a cursory reading of American policy over the past 35 or 40 years would answer the first question. Whether or not we think the United States conducted its policy intelligently or with success, the fact is that successive administrations, even starting before Jimmy Carter but certainly since Jimmy Carter, have seen the two-state solution, the success of the peace process, as an objective of our – goal of our policy and as a – an indication of our national interests.
So asking the question, Tom, the way you asked it is almost like when I stopped beating my wife. The answer is of the United States has supported a two-state solution. What we’re trying to do today is dissect the American policy process and substance over these past decades and to see what we can extract from it that may help us do it better in the future.
I was surprised by the statements both by the unnamed official in Haaretz and a little bit less strikingly so by Martin Indyk when he spoke some time after that publicly. The admission that settlements activity was a surprise to the administration is a problem. It should not have been. I think it echoes, in some respects, a comment that the president himself made back in – I think it was 2010 – to Time magazine when he admitted that he didn’t realize how hard it was going to be to make peace and might have done things differently if he’d understood how hard it was.
We should understand it, and this lack of understanding actually has significant roots. You see in the various books and memoirs written about Camp David, for example, the second Camp David, in the year 2000, the American delegation showing up unprepared for what were clearly going to be the two most significant issues, which was Jerusalem and refugees.
So we have a lot of homework to do and a lot of serious revisiting of what I call the lessons learned and unlearned. And I think the admission most recently, after the Kerry diplomacy, is one example of that.
On the question of accountability and the balance between what the parties are doing, this is often a subject of rather angry debate, Palestinians arguing that Israel’s settlements policy is eating up the very territory about which they’re supposed to be negotiating a two-state solution and Israelis arguing that even additional settlement activity is not comparable to killing people, which is done in Palestinian violence and terrorism over the years. So there really isn’t. You’re talking about two different types of behaviors, both of which should have been avoided by the two sides, both of which involved commitments of the two sides, and over time there are different ways to deal with it. You remember in the ’90s there was an effort to persuade the Palestinian Authority and the PLO to take action against not just those who perpetrated violence but what was called the infrastructure of those organizations. There was only one example in which such action was taken, and that was in 1996 after Rabin’s assassination and the period in which Shimon Peres was the acting prime minister, when the Palestinian Authority did clamp down on Hamas and other violence. But that was a one-off effort, and more needed to be done.
And there has never been a serious effort by the United States to hold Israel accountable for the settlement activity. And there are a lot of options to do so, with respect to how the U.S. supports Israel and how that assistance in not just economic ways but political ways could be translated into both accountability and the consequences that need to be exacted for Israeli behavior.
DR. KADER: OK. We – what you just heard is an excellent exchange between Yousef saying you got some morons running policy and an ambassador saying this is really difficult to move through a very large government, and both are right, but it’s not satisfying. You know, it’s just not enough.
But you just tripped over something that I think it would be enlightening to this crowd. If you could elaborate – just elucidate a little bit more on the consequences and the rewards, the carrot and stick of how you would handle the violence on the Palestinian side or the settlement expansion, because when we talk about this, we talk about we must, we do, we – what are those mechanical details of what a government can do?
And with Israel, the settlement policy just goes on and on and on, and the bombing and killing of civilians goes on and the violence goes on. What are the actual hands-on that a government can use that can put the accountability to the test that means something?
AMB. KURTZER: Well, first of all, Omar, I don’t agree with the characterization that our government is run by morons. And I really – you know, we’ve heard some very harsh words here today. We’ve had a lot of hard-working people, myself included, who have tried our best to do what we thought was right, and sometimes we succeeded and many times we failed. But I think it’s wrong, and I think it’s counterproductive to assume that there is some either moronic side to our government or some underlying hostility to the very idea of reaching peace. So I think we need to get that straight as we have this discussion.
With respect to accountability, there’s laundry lists of ideas that have come out over the years. The EU, for example, is making decisions to decide not to accept Israeli goods produced in the occupied territories under EU-Israel trade agreements. But we also have a free trade agreement with Israel and we have not made that distinction, so one of the issues that we can think about is not accepting, either in terms of quota or customs, duty exemptions, Israeli products from the territories.
Secondly, there was an article – I think it was in the Washington Post yesterday – which noted the degree to which our tax laws provide exemptions for – what are they called – 501(c)(3) organizations that funnel – that are designed to funnel money to the settlements, which effectively means that we end up paying at least a part of that bill. And there’s ways to tighten up our tax regulations. It requires a constant vigilance because you can easily create a new 501(c)(3) if one is shut down, but the reality is that we operate against ourselves.
There also used to be legislation – I don’t know if it’s still on the books – associated with loan guarantees in which the United States Congress authorize the administration to deduct, dollar for dollar, from loan guarantees to Israel the amount that Israel spent in the occupied territories. And we did it for a couple of years. We didn’t do dollar for dollar, but that kind of fell by the wayside. So there are a variety of ways in which we can continue to maintain the support that we provide to the state of Israel for its basic security, which is critically important, and it is an American national interest, but not to provide support for Israel’s occupation practices.
The laundry list on the Palestinian side is a little shorter because the U.S. relationship with the Palestinians is less full, is less dynamic. There is assistance provided to the Palestinian Authority, which, if it does not take action against the infrastructure of terrorism, could be brought into play. There are obviously political – I use the word “sanctions” with a small “s” – that could be employed to demonstrate our unhappiness of the Palestinian Authority doesn’t take action, or in which it hides behind the idea that it somehow can’t take action.
So there are – there’s ways to do this. And, you know, we could spend of time in trying to come up with tactics. The real question is one of, as I mentioned in my formal remarks, deciding that you are going to monitor behaviors, that you are going to hold the parties accountable, and that they will expect that there will be consequences should they not fulfill their obligations.
My guess is that if we ever started to do that, the pain that both sides would suffer – not just Israel because of settlements, the Palestinians because of violence – would actually be quite severe because both have been quite derelict in carrying out the responsibilities that they’ve undertaken.
DR. KADER: Thank you.
MR. MUNAYYER: Can I get a word in here?
DR. KADER: Yeah. Let me just clarify something. The use of the word “moron” is an awfully crude language. What do you take as a better word for describing somebody who’s surprised that settlements were a problem? What would be a better way to describe that?
AMB. KURTZER: Omar, I’m not going to do that.
DR. KADER: No, no, what I mean is –
AMB. KURTZER: It just – it should have been understood.
DR. KADER: Yeah, that’s what I’m looking for. That’s all. But isn’t it surprising?
AMB. KURTZER: I said it was, yes.
DR. KADER: No, I’m not – I apologize for using a crude word like a “moron.”
MR. MUNAYYER: Well, and that takes care – almost takes care of half of what I wanted to say, is that I do not think that, you know, that policy-makers are moronic. In fact, as I outlined, I think it’s because they make very rational, very calculated decisions about the prioritization of interests that we have not seen progress on this issue.
It’s not that peace is not an objective; it’s not the primary objective. And so when it competes with other secondary objectives, which include things like domestic political calculations, you’re extremely constrained when it comes to formulating successful policy when you have other competing interests domestically and internationally. So I just – I just want to make sure that – you know, that if you took my remarks to mean that – something other than that then, you know, I wanted to clarify that.
But the other place that I would push back on is something that the ambassador said. And I understand there’s this, you know, question of agency, but we also have to contextualize it within the actual relationship between the two parties and the power dynamic between the two parties. There’s no doubt that there’s agency on both sides, but the reality is that the power imbalance between the two is so significant that the responses to violations on both sides need to be appropriate so that changing behavior is done in the context of this imbalance of power.
So when you have Palestinian violations, there is also – there is already a very capable, very powerful force holding Palestinians accountable. It happens to be the Israelis and their military. But when the Israelis are committing violations, there is no counterbalancing force to hold them accountable. And so this only goes in one direction, right? Israel is occupying Palestine. It’s not the other way around. Israel is building settlements. The Palestinians are not the ones building settlements.
And the other area where I would push back is the characterization of violations on one side being nonviolent and violent on the other side. The process of settlement building – the occupation, the infrastructure around the occupation – is very much a system of violence and a process of violence that is wreaking havoc on Palestinians.
And, you know, if you look at the numbers, particularly in the last couple years, there has been a very significant spike in the number of Palestinians killed as a result of Israeli fire in the West Bank and injured. In fact, in the last couple years, I think from 2011 to 2012, those numbers doubled and have remained at that very high rate since then, and are on pace to do so this year as well. So, you know, I would push back against that characterization. I’ll leave it at that.
DR. KADER: Clarify that. The question is directed at – or the point you want to make is what again? There is a power imbalance.
MR. MUNAYYER: There is – there is obviously a – I completely understand the argument that both sides have agency.
DR. KADER: OK.
MR. MUNAYYER: But this agency exists within a power dynamic which is very much imbalanced between the two. So when we talk about correcting behaviors or providing accountability for behavior, we have to take that power imbalance into account.
DR. KADER: OK.
Did you want to respond to that?
MR. DUSS: I don’t – (off mic).
DR. KADER: OK. Do you?
DR. SACHS: Since I brought up the issue of agency, it goes well beyond accountability for specific acts. There’s a very different – there are two very different worldviews. One worldview says that there is a passive victim here and there are agents that do things to it, and they have done it since ’48. For example, then there was a disaster that one side did to another, according to this worldview.
In this worldview, therefore, the stronger side – in this case the Israelis, the pure malice, or the Americans, the adjacent malice – are not morons. They are rationally pursuing other goals. This worldview is false. There are two sides. The Israeli side is significantly stronger, in many respects therefore more responsible, as I said before. Many instances of Israeli – of Israelis targeting Palestinians, for example, on the West Bank, on which I have published, have to be held accountable by the Israelis and maybe by the Americans as well.
But we must not fall into a deeply simplistic and also false worldview in which there is one passive victim with whom there is justice – not peace, justice the goal – with whom international law simply is aligned, and if simply international law were followed, therefore obviously the Israelis would comply with absolutely everything the Palestinians want, including invalidating Israel as a Jewish state, for example, right? And this passive victim simply cannot be held accountable because, by definition, he is passive. By definition, things are done to it.
For example, in the summer you will often hear that Gaza was simply under attack – that was the main hashtag – or that there was – “when the Israelis bombarded Gaza.” What happened in Gaza was horrific, and the damage to civilians in Gaza was horrific and should be dealt with, I think, very seriously. But what happened in Gaza was not that one day Israelis woke up and that the malice inside them bubbled and they decided, let’s kill some Palestinians.
There’s a reason it didn’t happen in Ramallah. There’s a reason it happened in the Gaza Strip that may have had to do with the cease-fire before it started, that Hamas rejected, before the ground operation that Hamas rejected, et cetera, et cetera. My point is not to settle the score who’s at fault in the Gaza War. It’s exactly the opposite, actually. It’s to say that we have two sides here that really have agency, not as a platitude, that actually make political decisions, and that when catastrophes happen to them, it is often largely – or significantly has to do with what the other side is doing.
In ’48 Israel was fighting. In the Second Intifada, for example, the horrific, horrific years that essentially ended the chance of peace based on trust, the Palestinians were very active, but the other side was too. Israel did things in the Second Intifada that were probably not very smart, and maybe even very bad. And the Palestinians were extremely active in ’48, even this summer in the Gaza War. The difference is not on scores. It’s not on who’s at fault. It’s on fundamental worldview. Do we have one passive side and malice on the other, or do we have a conflict in which both sides have very deep problems that need to be dealt with?
And this fundamental worldview leads to very different perceptions. If it’s about passivity on one side and malice on the other, then you simply go to international law. There is an answer. The answer is justice. It’s not peace. It’s justice. If you think this is a conflict, then the goal is peace. And in peace, many things of justice, by the way, are not fulfilled. That is certainly true of what is called the right of return, but it’s also true, for example, on prisoner release. Release of extremely violent terrorists is justified for peace. No one can seriously claim it is justified for justice, but I think it is right in the context of peace.
DR. KADER: Thank you. I don’t think we’re going to ever settle the symmetry issue. And I appreciate your point. It’s a good clarification and I don’t think we’ll reach agreement on it right away.
Tom, do you want to go to the next question?
DR. MATTAIR: Yeah. There are some questions from the floor that pick up on this conversation, and I’m going to combine three of them and ask panelists to respond:
My opinion is that the United States has indeed been genuinely seeking a two-state solution but failing. That leads to a question here, which is that the U.S. Jewish community seems more divided than usual. Will this make a difference in American politics? Will it – will it liberate the American administration to hold parties accountable, or is it the weakness of the Palestinians that keeps American politicians supporting – or makes it easier for them to continue acquiescing to the status quo?
The next question is about Israel: If American Jewish opinion is changing and would liberate American policy-makers, is Israel moving so far to the right that it’s going to make it manifestly more difficult to tap into the Israelis who support a peace – two-state solution genuinely?
And finally, if the U.S. and Israel cannot act, what really is the role of other players and other processes that have been mentioned so far – the other actors, namely the Swedish prime minister who says they may recognize Palestine, the other international conventions to which the Palestinian Authority may subscribe like the International Criminal Court? Should we be stepping aside, and how successful might those other actors and processes be? And those questions are for everyone.
DR. KADER: Let’s start on the, is Israel too far to the right?
DR. SACHS: There certainly is a movement in Israel to the right, and I think it is very troubling for the prospects for peace. It’s born of two things that have happened, and both of them long term, at least since the Second Intifada, but I’d say it even goes all the way back to the period the ambassador was referencing, at least as far as February ’96, the bombings.
The perception of Israel is twofold: first, that the so-called peace process, much maligned among Palestinians, perhaps for a good cause, is extremely maligned among Israelis too. The perception was that it was a process in which Israel was giving things and the war was either continuing or intensifying, and whatever land was given was then used as a – as a forward base.
This was especially solidified with the – Israel leaving Lebanon, not a Palestinian issue, but Israel leaving Lebanon, and especially the Gaza Strip, leaving the whole Gaza Strip, even the border between Gaza and Sinai, and evicting all the settlements there, which may bring some joy to other people, but from the Israeli perspective it was a very difficult thing and included dragging thousands of people from their home. And so the – sometimes second generation. And so – and yet that was – created a forward base in the Israeli psyche, et cetera. That’s one.
The second thing is a very strong perception as well as a very strong narrative – I think not completely true, but very strong and not easily refuted – which is the Palestinians are willing to do a lot of things in the peace process that will gain them all sorts of things, but to sign off on final status – in other words, end of claims – in other words, not Jaffa, that Jaffa will be Israel, seriously, forever, that is something they will never do. This is a very strong perception in Israel.
And the peace negotiation failed for many things, including settlements. It finally ended when Abbas would not reply. As the White House has said publicly – or not the White House – as some people have said publicly, they’re still waiting for an answer from Abbas. And the Israeli perception is that the same – that was the same thing. It was all not the same thing with others. These twin things, that there is no end game with the Palestinians, a realistic end game, and the process is necessarily a violent one, of solidifying the Israeli perspective – or in the Israeli politics that moved to the right that is very strong.
What’s the silver lining? To my mind, it can be countered – I think there’s two silver linings. The first is that it can be counted most effectively by the same thing that has usually done the big moves in Israel, which is a hawk from the center that actually makes the bold moves.
Menachem Begin, whom you mentioned, who won the Nobel Peace Prize, was the Hawk, capital “H,” of Israel for decades. He is the one in the end who gave up all Sinai and signed peace. Yitzhak Rabin was certainly a hawk. He was the hawk of the First Intifada, the minister of defense, breaking bones, saying that very publicly, et cetera. That is the hawk who did it. Ariel Sharon, we can have various opinions of what he did at the end, whether it was good or bad, but certainly it was a bold move in the Israeli perspective, a sharp move to the center, and it was done again by the ultra-hawk after Begin.
So in other words, never lose hope. These things can happen from the center or from the right. I personally don’t think Netanyahu is that man, but I think there may be others and Netanyahu won’t be prime minister forever.
The second thing is, as I mentioned earlier, the movement to the right is fundamentally on whether the Palestinians are willing to do peace, and on security, especially given what’s happening in the Middle East, which looms extremely large in Israel. It is not just platitudes that Netanyahu says in the U.N. He says that because it resonates very, very deeply with the Israeli public. That’s why he says it, and it’s not completely unreasonable.
But it is not necessarily a movement on the right on a fundamental ideological question of land for peace or land – or controlling this territory or the malicious colonization, et cetera. It’s not that. The vast majority of the center right in Israel, maybe the biggest group now, is not one that believes that above all everything else Israel has to control Beitar Illit near Ramallah. That’s not the point. The point is that they have to control the hilltop near Beitar Illit because that’s a strategic point. These are very different things, and from a policy perspective I think it gives us some hope, and maybe cautions a little bit what this movement to the right actually means in fundamental terms.
DR. KADER: Do you want to go to the next question or –
AMB. KURTZER: Yeah, Omar –
DR. MATTAIR: Well, I think, yes, more questions and more comments.
DR. KADER: Go ahead.
AMB. KURTZER: Yeah, I just want to comment on the third of the questions, what’s the role of other actors, not in the absence of U.S. acting but in conjunction with U.S. acting? And I think it’s probably the most important issue on the diplomatic agenda today for those who are thinking about reviving the peace process, because it’s quite clear that unilateral U.S. assertion of a monopoly role as a third party is not going to work.
The question then is, what are the alternatives? I agree with Natan that thought should have been given at the time of Palestine’s being recognized by the United Nations as an observer state for both Israel and the United States to have joined that. I wrote this in the summer of 2011 and suggested ways in which it would benefit both sides to translate this occupied/occupier negotiating scenario into, at least on paper, a negotiation between states. And that may still be an alternative that we’re thinking about.
I think it would be counterproductive, not just for the Israelis but also for the Palestinians, to translate this process into what’s called lawfare. Now, I have a son who’s a lawyer so I make no jokes about lawyers, but do we really want lawyers to take over the Arab-Israeli conflict, both sides arguing how the other side – or each side arguing how the other side has violated such and such a statute and such and such an international law? I think it would be – well, it would be a good reason to start making jokes about lawyers because it would take us down a number of blind alleys.
A third possibility, which I think is more fruitful, is to multilateralize this peace process. One of the interesting developments in the 1990s that started on the right track and then was not pursued by the Clinton administration was the multilateral track of the peace process, both the formal multilaterals and then what was called the Casablanca or the economic summits, which were designed to build public\private economic partnerships.
There was some tremendous promise in these activities because they started the transition from a peace process between governments into a peace process involving people. And in the same way that I argued earlier that you’re never going to have peace if you only do top-down or bottom-up, you’re also never going to end up with peace if all you have is a signed piece of paper between two governments. You have to start a reconciliation process between peoples. So multilateralizing this process by funding and reviving – whether it’s in Track II activities or economic joint activities and so forth – would be very helpful.
In that regard, what Kerry started to do at the beginning of his efforts, which was to bring the Arab Quartet and the Arab foreign ministers into the process, really should be given some substance. There is an Arab peace initiative on the table. It is a tremendous boon to this peace process, extraordinarily important, and nothing has happened as a result of that Arab peace initiative.
Something can be done to bring the Arab world into a more active role. That would be not only helpful to Palestinians as a kind of safety net for the kind of decisions they have to take, but also be helpful for Israel in terms of suggesting to the Israeli people that peace that is going to involve risks with Palestinians will also have benefits beyond Palestine with regard to its relations with the Arab world.
DR. KADER: I would like to add something on your point about government-to-government, people-to-people. After the Oslo talks, at the Rose Garden they had arranged for a group of Palestinian American businessmen and Israeli and American Jewish businessmen and women to meet in the White House, and admonished by the president, the vice president, the secretary of state, now, go out and cement what we signed today and get it moving. And they facilitated dozens of opportunities.
The easiest thing I found, as a businessman, to do was to find an Israeli partner. It was the easiest thing I had ever discovered. And it was easy to put him together with Christian and Muslim Palestinians on the West Bank. And we put together projects, and some of them are still going. One of the biggest projects we had that killed it all was our American/Israeli/Jewish guy, who was really brilliant and handled everything perfectly, had a stroke in the middle of the deal. And it just killed the deal, slowed us down, but finding another partner was not as hard as we thought it would be.
But everybody on the ground, on both sides, in the business communities are waiting for the government-to-government to happen before you can do the people-to-people, because you can get in a lot of trouble doing people-to-people before the signatures are signed and the agreements are done. I’m not convinced it’s going to be as hard as we think it’s going to be once you get past the formal diplomatic barriers.
AMB. KURTZER: Well, except, Omar, you have – you have the beginning of it in – I think it’s called Bridging the Impasse, the Palestinian and Israeli private sectors that decided that their respective governments were not doing enough and they simply started talking to each other. It has led to some deals. It has led to a lot of proactive efforts on their part, including joint delegations to Davos, where private sector was admonishing governments to get their act together.
So I don’t think we’re in a situation where we have to wait for a government-to-government agreement. I think the private sector can hold governments’ feet to the fire in this respect and keep moving.
DR. KADER: There are some stigmas attached to going too far out.
Matthew, go ahead.
MR. DUSS: Sure. I just – to address the – I think Breaking the Impasse is in some ways a very significant effort, and clearly on the Palestinian side as well as on the Israeli side, but I would say even more on the Palestinian side there is a great thirst and anxiousness to do business.
I remember visiting Gaza in 2012, talking to some aspiring young tech entrepreneurs, you know, standing there in Gaza City looking longingly north up toward Tel Aviv, knowing that there was this engine of innovation, you know, some – you know, an hour’s drive north, unable to access it. And they spoke quite ruefully about having to do business through the tunnels and not being able to access any of the expertise, even knowing people involved in the – in the tech sector up in Tel Aviv and in Herzliya.
But the problem here – and then I would say the problem with efforts like Breaking the Impasse is, yes, it’s good to get these efforts teed up. It’s good to make clear that there is economic growth waiting to happen. I think the Palestinians know this. They understand that there – you know, they understand that there are benefits toward ending the conflict and a peace agreement. But for the Israelis the question is, OK, you’re offering them incentives; what about the disincentives?
And just finally, the problem with any kind of business effort is, you know, uncertainty is the enemy of investment, and under the conditions of an occupation is a constant situation of uncertainty, whether you can’t get your truck from Nablus to Ramallah in time, whether you can’t get your goods in and out of Gaza. And it’s simply impossible, as we found, to sustain any kind of economic growth under those conditions.
DR. KADER: That’s a good point.
DR. MATTAIR: And I know Matt is interested in responding to this question, which is for everyone. And it really is a little more specific than some of the other questions. It’s, how should we be dealing with Hamas?
We have a national unity government. Hamas, I am sure, seeks to enhance its influence in the West Bank, where the Palestinian Authority has maintained some peace, and Fatah certainly wants to enhance its influence in the Gaza Strip. How should we be responding to that government, and Hamas in particular, and is it even possible that he Hamas idea of a long-term ceasefire is more practical than signing – dotting all the i’s and crossing all the t’s and working a final peace agreement?
MR. DUSS: Thanks. No, I think, you know, the challenge presented by Hamas is a tough one. There’s a few things I think we have to remember.
One is that, first of all, they won an election in 2006. They do have a claim to political legitimacy. That’s not to diminish, I think, the extreme offensiveness of their charter or to downplay their continuing use of violence. But I think there was an opportunity – and to its credit, I think the Obama administration recognized this opportunity with the announcement of the unity government. I was actually surprised at how quickly they came out and said, we’ll be willing to work with a government that’s made up of unaffiliated technocrats. The rest of the world pretty much followed suit.
I think there was an opportunity to do precisely what Israel says it’s interested in now, which is to facilitate the re-entry of the PA security forces into the – you know, to man the crossings in Gaza. I wish this opportunity would have been looked at more seriously before the death of 2,000 people in the Gaza war.
You know, Hamas is still faced with the three conditions, the Quartet conditions, as they’re called: Recognize Israel, honor past agreements, and end violence. In my view, there should be one condition: End violence, end the use of terrorism, disband the, you know – or rejoining – you know, join the Palestinian security forces, the idea of a one gun – I think this goes to the very basic Weberian sense of a state, a monopoly on the use of violence. But the fact of the matter is the current Israeli coalition includes parties that do not meet these conditions. They oppose openly two states. And yet this isn’t seen as a problem. I think – you know, it’s not to say it won’t be – it won’t be a problem, it wouldn’t present challenges if Hamas were to join the PA more formally, but it seems to insist – it seems to me to really – it undermines the credibility of the entire process to keep insisting on these conditions that the Israeli government blatantly flouts.
MR. MUNAYYER: Can I just add to that? I think this question really goes to another problem in the way the U.S. has kind of approached some of the challenges in both camps. And that’s really the different ways in which the United States has confronted problems with domestic arrangements on the Israeli side versus the Palestinian side. On the Israeli side, if the United States gets a government coalition which is filled with parties or characters like the current Israeli government or previous ones, which have been clearly opposed to, you know, a two-state outcome and ending settlement expansion and all the other things that we talk about, the U.S. response has been this is an Israeli government, an elected Israeli government, the government of a sovereign state, one that we have to deal with – and it deals with it that way. On the Palestinian side, when it gets an arrangement or a group of individuals that it does not like, it actually works to change that reality, either by, you know, imposing sanctions, as we saw after 2006, or, you know, by essentially cooperating in the isolation of Arafat and the replacement of him by his – by his successor earlier on. And that difference is really – goes back to the root problem in U.S. policy of not treating these sides equally or fairly when it comes to some of the same challenges that they present.
DR. KADER: Tom, want to go to the next question?
DR. MATTAIR: Well, I think – I have one. I have one myself. Is it – is it – is it feasible to have as a condition that there must be a cessation of violence? Is it – is it possible that the Israeli government can stop every settler from committing an act of violence or that any Palestinian government can stop every units from launching their rocket or that the mayor of any U.S. city can issue an edict that stops any violence in that city? Should we – should we not go forward with root causes and – while this is going on? Because it seems to me over the years that to make this a condition for going forward is to guarantee that it will not go forward.
DR. SACHS: Yes and no, to my mind. On the one hand, it is certainly true that there will be individual attacks under any condition. Any mayor of the U.S. cannot prevent all crime, et cetera. Many of the attacks that we’ve seen on both sides are individuals doing things.
That is not the problem. The problem throughout this peace process is that a lot of it is not individual attacks. If one thinks the Israeli – cause of the Israeli assault, et cetera, on Gaza, it’s a government operation, it’s not random Israelis doing things, it’s the government doing something, right or wrong.
On the Palestinian side, a lot of the attacks, which are often conveniently portrayed as if it’s just some individuals – (inaudible) – doing something are not that. In March ’96, what the ambassador was referencing, when Peres was prime minister after the Rabin assassination, what had finally happened is that Peres and then-head of the military intelligence, now minister of defense, Ya’alon met with Arafat and made it very plain to him that his rule in the West Bank depended on him actually acting against terrorism as a government policy of the Palestinian Authority. And lo and behold, it happened. The Israeli Defense Forces said this. In March ’96, after – when this round of attacks ended or the last of it happened, Hamas was rounded up by the Palestinian Authority – that’s part of the animosity that also existed that bubbles to this day between Dachland (ph), the person who’s in charge of it in Gaza, and Hamas. And it was actually done.
Now, can there still be an attack by some random Hamas person? Yes, of course. And I don’t think we should be beholden to that, that we would be giving veto to the most extremist. But we also must be very, very careful from turning a blind – closing ourselves to what is often policy. It’s true on the settlements – on settlements, people could claim, well, it’s just individuals doing their own thing. There is a government policy involved, and I think that should be recognized, that should be dealt with. The same is true with terrorism. A lot of it, most of it is not random.
In particular, the whole point that Hamas – the point that Matt made I think is excellent, I agree with everything he said about this – the one gun issue is the fundamental issue. And from the Israeli perspective, this was always the problem with Arafat. Arafat – until the second intifada, when Fatah was actually fighting and conducting suicide bombings – Fatah was not doing it, it was Hamas doing it, but there was a revolving door. And so Arafat was conducting peace talks. There was a second army, the Hamas, which was semi-sanctioned by the Palestinian Authority. And therefore, by definition, it was – it was not official policy. It was just a second army that was sanctioned. We still have a second army, it now has a statelet in Gaza. And that is not – that is not simply individuals doing things. And this has to be dealt with very seriously.
So yes, I agree very much with what you say. We should not give veto power to lone extremists. But we should also be very, very realistic and clear-eyed about what is actually lone individuals conducting things and what is not and when a state is turning a blind eye to some of these actions or not even doing enough. For example, now with violence of settlers and others against Palestinians, the Israeli security forces are actually quite serious and are often doing things very seriously. They still fail, as with the horrific murder of Mohammed Abu Khdeir in Jerusalem, but they are trying very seriously while a few years ago I don’t think they were doing enough.
DR. KADER: (Inaudible.)
AMB. KURTZER: Let me just underscore the point that I think Natan made quite rightly. To my knowledge and from my experience, the United States has never made the actual performance a criterion as opposed to the effort. In other words, the renunciation of violence has been a commitment to try to enforce a no-violence policy and then to seek out and punish perpetrators. But it has never held, in the case of the Palestinians, the Palestinians to a zero tolerance policy.
You go back as early as the first dialogue that we had with the PLO that started in the – at the end of the Reagan administration and actually was implemented in the first Bush administration. The first serious violation of the – of Arafat’s renunciation of violence came in June of 1990 when there was a terrorist act in Israel, and the administration did not cut off the dialogue immediately but rather tried to persuade Arafat that this was a violation that required correction; he had to take action against the perpetrators who were known. And when he failed to take action against the perpetrators, at that point the United States cut off the dialogue.
So I think we can lay to rest the idea that there has to be, you know, a hundred percent performance of the renunciation of terrorism, but there has to be action against it because this happens to be a conflict in which the United States has believed that there is a binary choice before the parties, and that is either you negotiate or you decide on resistance. There are other conflicts where the parties have decided they can do both. This happens not to be one of them. And both the United States and I have watched the Israeli government make the same decision. You make a choice. You either renounce violence and enter this process, or you decide that you are a resistance movement, and you’re going to continue violence. Now, you can seek change in American policy in this regard, but I think it will not succeed. I think the idea that renunciation of violence is important. You hope that the performance will be satisfactory beyond that, but there is no expectation that it’s going to be letter-perfect performance.
DR. KADER: We’re going to take one more question, and then panelists, if you’ve got a closing comment that you want to make before at the end of this question-and-answer period, let’s go ahead to take a minute to wrap up. Tom?
DR. MATTAIR: Well, it’s more of a – more of a comment than a question. And it’s – you know, we were earlier talking about the – how central this issue in the region and in – and in explaining conflict and instability in the region. And I don’t think anyone has ever seriously argued that it is the only conflict or the central one, but I want to give you an example of something that I saw in Riyadh a few years ago, and I think Omar might have been with me.
When we went to the Ministry of Interior in Riyadh, and they showed us videos that they had gleaned from the Internet that, you know, they were – they’re monitoring the Internet and trying to determine what al-Qaida is doing in the country and around the region and how they’re recruiting people, and they showed us that al-Qaida is attempting and succeeding in recruiting people by showing them color photos and color videos of Palestinians lying in the streets after a conflict in Gaza, bleeding and dying. So although al-Qaida has the objective of overthrowing the Saudi government and has other objectives, clearly they understand that it really resonates with people and will attract people to the cause if they exploit it and point to it.
And so that to me indicates that it’s extremely important for us to address this issue because the more time goes on and the longer it’s unresolved, the more extremism there is that can be exploited by people that are even more wicked than anything that we knew 20 years ago. Any comments about that or any reactions, disagreements or agreements?
MR. MUNAYYER: Yeah, I would just say one thing about the linkage argument altogether. I think – you know, and we heard President Obama actually say something about this at his speech recently at the UNGA where he kind of distanced himself from a position that he had made several years earlier in Cairo in relation to this argument – but one of the most often made arguments against linkage completely mischaracterizes the argument. I don’t know if anyone has really ever made the argument that solving the Israeli-Palestinian issue solves all other problems in the region or treats it as a cure-all. I don’t think that’s ever been the argument. I think the argument is it changes the region in such a way that it makes achieving other objectives a lot easier.
And I think that continues to be true, even with what we are seeing in the region. If you think about it, so much of what we’re seeing in the region today is a product of what was characterized earlier as, you know, maybe two competing axes, one of moderation or one of resistance, if you will. But if you have a comprehensive and just Palestinian-Israeli peace agreement, how does that change the way other states in the region ally with each other, if you have an agreement that is in fact accepted by the Arab League and accepted by the Organization of Islamic Cooperation that includes 57 Arab and Muslim nations? The rules of the game change, and the way alliances are formed in the region could also potentially change, opening the way for things that never existed before and solving problems in ways that never existed before. So I think that it is still very central, not in the way that it was 30 or 40 years ago by virtue of refugee populations actually being involved in civil conflict in other countries, but still because of the way it impacts regional alliances, that it’s still very much connected to other issues in the region.
DR. KADER: Any other comments?
Thank you. Do you want –
MR. DUSS: Just a – one very quick comment on there. I mean, just – you had mentioned Saudi Arabia, and this – I think goes back to my – I don’t want to run too far afield here, but I agree with you, such characterization of it. And I think probably would be general consensus up here I think – I’m remembering one quote from Ambassador Kurtzer that I’ve used many, many times is that it’s not the biggest problem in the region but it is – it is the issue on which opinions of the United States are largely formed. And I getting that right? (Chuckles.)
But going back to what I mentioned, CENTCOM chief David Petraeus’ comments and the way he characterized it – undermine the U.S. interests, underline the U.S. relationships and undermining the legitimacy of moderate governments in the region – I think we need to look at that last part here, and I think that is a whole other conversation, a whole other conference. But sure, that’s true, we need to work with some of these governments to achieve certain goals. But, I mean, let’s think about the extent to which we should – as an American should be interested in the legitimacy of authoritarian monarchies or undemocratic governments. So yeah, we need to work with some of them, but, you know, shoring up their legitimacy is not at the end of the day a super important thing for me or for American policy.
DR. KADER: Thank you. And I want to thank all of you for coming today, thank this panel for an enlightened presentation. And we hope to see you again in another three months when we do another panel. Thank you. (Applause.)