THOMAS R. MATTAIR, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council; author, Global Security Watch — Iran: A Reference Handbook
Well, good morning. And on behalf of everyone at the Middle East Policy Council, I’d like to welcome you to this Capitol Hill Conference.
This is actually the 63rd conference we have done in a program that began in 1992. And it’s the first Capitol Hill Conference of 2011, a year that marks our 30th anniversary as an organization in Washington. We’re a non-profit 501(c)(3).
And this conference is being livestreamed, so in addition to this physical audience we have an international virtual audience. And I’d like to say welcome to them as well.
I’d also like to say a few words about the council before we actually start this conference. We — as I said — have been in operation for 30 years. And we have three major programs. This Capitol Hill Conference series is one of them. And we cover a wide range of topics that concern America and the Middle East.
The first program we started 30 years ago was our quarterly journal, Middle East Policy, which — and we have just published our 106th issue of that journal. And our third program is our education program, which provides workshops for K-12 teachers all over the United States to help them teach about the Middle East more knowledgably and more fairly.
And I invite you to visit our website, www.mepc.org, to learn more about those programs and — a lot of our material is archived.
The title of this conference is “The U.S. National Security Interest and Israeli-Palestinian Peace: How Can It Be Achieved?” And as the title suggests, we at the Middle East Policy Council think that it is a national security interest of the United States to resolve this conflict. And in that we are in agreement with President Obama, General Petraeus, George Mitchell, former officials such as Brent Scowcroft and many others.
Since 1977, when President Carter tried to orchestrate a comprehensive resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict with a Palestinian homeland at its core, there have been a number of developments. Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories have proliferated. The United States and Israel have recognized the PLO. Interim agreements have been achieved and limited Palestinian self-rule has been established.
More far-reaching comprehensive agreements have been narrowly missed. And there have been many setbacks and long interruptions in the peace process. But the nature of the resolution of this conflict has become crystal-clear, and it is a two-state solution — an independent state of Israel and an independent state of Palestine living in peace next to each other.
We now have a U.S. president who’s trying very hard to bring this about. But he’s facing considerable challenges and he needs to rethink his approach and is doing so. And we think this panel can help.
Our first speaker will be Bruce Riedel, who will explain why it’s a vital national security interest of the United States to solve this problem. And we’ve asked him to amplify on a comment he made at one of our conferences a year ago when he said the Arab-Israeli conflict has become a threat to the national security of the United States of America. We think Bruce is eminently qualified to — to address this issue.
He is a senior fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution and has served in very important positions at the CIA and the Defense Department and National Security Council, has been an advisor to four United States — senior advisor to four United States presidents. And although it’s not an Israeli-Palestinian issue, I have to say he has a brand-new book out called “Deadly Embrace: Pakistan, America and the Future of Global Jihad,” published by Brookings Institution Press.
Our second speaker is our president — the president of the Middle East Policy Council, Frank Anderson, who is going to address the question of whether the Israelis and Palestinians can or cannot by themselves revolve this conflict. And Frank also is extremely well-qualified to address this, having spent 27 years in the CIA and ending his service there as chief for Near East and South Asia and having worked as a private consultant on Middle Eastern issues since that time.
And our third speaker is Ambassador Philip Wilcox, who is the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, which is here in Washington, D.C., and dedicated to finding a way to resolve this Arab-Israeli conflict. And Ambassador Wilcox has also had a long and distinguished career in the United States government, in the foreign service, and having served as chief of mission and consul general in Jerusalem and having served in senior positions at the Bureau of Intelligence and Research and the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs in the State Department.
And then — and he will speak about whether the United States should be advancing its own peace program and how we could present it and how we could advance it.
And then our fourth speaker is Brian Katulis, who is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and a new board — a new member of the board of directors of the Middle East Policy Council. And Brian has lived and worked in the West Bank, from 1995 to 1998, when he worked for National — National Democratic Institute, has been a consultant to a number of government entities and private corporations and non-governmental organizations and is the co-author of a book called “The Prosperity Agenda,” which is about United States national security interests and which was published in 2008.
And if I didn’t say so, I’m Thomas Mattair. I’m the executive director of the Middle East Policy Council.
Without any further ado I’d like to invite Bruce to come. And we’re very happy always when Bruce agrees to speak to us.
BRUCE RIEDEL, Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution
Thank you very much, Tom, for that very kind introduction. Thank both you and Frank for inviting me here today to what I think is a terribly important discussion at a critical moment. I’m happy to say this is my fourth appearance, I think, at the Middle East Policy Council. Your description of it being 30 years old only adds to my sense of getting old — I admit it — so I’ll try not to focus on that anymore. I’m very happy to be here with such a distinguished panel today.
We are at a moment of truth in the Middle East. We are at a moment of truth in the Arab-Israeli conflict and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We face the urgent necessity of moving forward because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the broader Arab-Israeli conflict is a national security threat to the United States of America.
There are many reasons why America should promote peace in the Middle East. Promoting peace is a good thing in and of itself. But today, more than ever, it is because our national security interests are at stake that we need to promote peace.
Why is it a moment of truth? Well, last month at the U.S.-Israel Forum sponsored by the Saban Association and Brookings, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted what we all knew: that the Obama administration’s very brave efforts of the first two years had not succeeded, had not produced a breakthrough despite the hard work of Secretary Clinton and special representative Mitchell, despite the brave words of Cairo, we had not achieved a breakthrough.
Now the administration and the American government in broader terms and the American people are debating the question, what next? And we are hearing familiar arguments, arguments I remember hearing before Camp David in 2000, arguments we had at Camp David in 2000. Should we put it on the back burner? It’s too hard. We just can’t simply accomplish this. We can’t want it more than they want it. I wish I had a nickel for every time I’ve ever heard that one.
We’ve heard all of these before. In my view, it is time to double down, to try harder and if necessary put forward American ideas with American strength behind them.
I’m going to focus on why it is urgently necessary, which I think, frankly, is the easy part of this, and leave it to my colleagues to talk about how to do it, although I’ll be happy to chime in my own two cents in the questions and answers.
Why? Simply because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a national security threat to America. Indeed, American lives are being lost today because of the perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A peace agreement is a — if not the — key to achieving most of our goals in the greater Middle East. It is not the solution to everything. It is not a panacea. But that is an unrealistic standard because “solving the Arab-Israeli conflict won’t solve every problem between Morocco and Bangladesh” is, frankly, a stupid reason not to try to move ahead and solve them.
This is a false issue — false red herring — if I’ve ever seen one. The reasons why this conflict is a threat to the United States are multiple. I’ll start with one very simple one. If you believe that Israel is a national security interest of the United States and an ally and partner of America, as every American president since Harry Truman has affirmed, then a conflict that threatens Israelis every day must be a threat to the national security interests of the United States as well.
But I want to dwell on two other reasons why. As I said, there are many reasons. But I want to dwell on two. First, because this conflict creates anger, frustration and humiliation that fuels the enemies that are killing Americans today. And secondly, because this conflict weakens our allies and friends, the moderates in the Islamic world, who are trying to fight our enemies. I’m going to spend more time on the first and less time on the latter because I think the first is where there is the most intellectual disagreement.
There is no question that anyone who studies this conflict, anyone who has lived in the Arab world, anyone who has lived in the Islamic world that this conflict produces anger, frustration and humiliation among Palestinians, among Arabs and among Muslims more broadly. It is thus a driving force — not the only, but a driving force in radical extremism throughout the Islamic world and becoming more so every day.
Once again, it’s not the only force. There are other things as well. Of course there are. But it is among the most important, if not the most important. I’m going to focus on al-Qaida because I’ve done a lot of research on al-Qaida and because al-Qaida today is the most single dangerous threat to the United States. President Obama made that clear in his review of policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan — that our policy in this region has as its highest priority to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaida.
Al-Qaida is also important because it falls into an unusual category. It is an organization that has actually declared war on the United States of America. No one since 1941 except al-Qaida has declared war on the United States of America. That puts it in an unusual category.
My proposition, very simply, is the Israel-Palestinian conflict, in particular the larger Arab-Israeli conflict, is at the heart and center of al-Qaida’s ideology and its narrative. It is essential for its case and its declaration of war that every single American is a legitimate target to be murdered today.
Some argue that al-Qaida is a latecomer to this issue, that it’s not sincere, that this is not really what drives al-Qaida at all, that al-Qaida is actually driven by a desire to remove American soldiers from Saudi Arabia — rubbish. Rubbish. Al-Qaida has been involved in the Arab-Israeli dispute. It has been at the center of its ideology from its inception, as I will show you in a minute. And if this issue was all about American troops in Saudi Arabia, then this war should have ended five years ago. We lost, by the way. We gave up, and we said, we’re leaving. It didn’t happen. And it hasn’t ended one bit.
Let me talk about it by looking at three individuals — Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Khalid Sheik Mohammed. I’m going to focus primarily on bin Laden.
Every scholar who has studied bin Laden’s life in-depth — myself, Steve Coll, Mike Scheuer, Peter Bergen, you name them — all emphasizes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a central feature of this man’s life. Look at his speeches, for example. Of his eight major speeches before 9/11, seven of them highlighted the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a driving force in his ideology. Of his 16 major speeches between September 11th and 2007, 13 focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Look at his speech of May 2008, on the 60th anniversary of the creation of Israel. And I’m going to quote:
“The main root of the conflict between our civilization and your civilization is the Palestine question. I stress that the Palestine question is my country’s central issue. Since childhood it has provided me and the free 19” — that’s a reference to the hijackers of September 11th — “with an overwhelming feeling of the need to punish the Jews and those supporting them. This is why the events of September 11th took place.”
You have it there, from the horse’s mouth. It couldn’t be more clear; it couldn’t be more unequivocal. Go back to his 1998 declaration of war on America. What is the number-one goal he lists? The liberation, as he puts it, of Jerusalem. He puts the liberation of the Holy Mosque of Jerusalem above the liberation of the Holy Mosques of Mecca and Medina — an extraordinary thing for a Muslim to do, but a reflection of priorities.
Look at his life story. Look at his relationships. Look at how he traveled, where he grew up, where he was educated. Steve Coll has laid it all out in his book. I tried to do it more shortly in my book. He’s a product of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This is of course not to say that his views are right. That’s misleading. This is to understand what motivates him. The first key to victory in any conflict is to understand your enemy, and we need to understand our enemy better.
Look at his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. I think here, the case is a no-brainer. Ayman al-Zawahiri became a terrorist because he wanted to kill Anwar Sadat, the first major Arab leader who tried to make peace with Israel. He was a minor figure in the assassination plot of 1981. Since then, he’s been a major figure in international terrorism and radical Islam. Virtually every statement he gives, at one point or another, focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Finally, look at Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the so-called mastermind of 9/11. Here, I’ll simply quote what the 9/11 commission report concluded based on reading the hundreds of pages of interrogation that had gone on to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed. Quote, “Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s animosity towards the United States stems from his violent disagreement with U.S. foreign policy favoring Israel.” Not my words, the words of the 9/11 commission report.
None of this is particularly surprising. If you go back and look at who is the intellectual grandfather of al-Qaida and the global Islamic jihad today, it’s a Palestinian named Abdullah Azzam, who was the cofounder of the Services Bureau, which is the progenitor of al-Qaida, the cofounder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the so-called Army of the Pure in Pakistan, and a major intellectual influence on the Islamic Resistance Movement in Palestine, Hamas.
Abdullah Azzam has rightly been called the father of the modern global jihad by the former head of the Mossad, Israel’s intelligence service, and he is not afraid to link it to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
One final example on this. December 31st, 2009, an al-Qaida triple agent infiltrated an American forward operating base in Afghanistan and killed seven CIA officers. What motivated him? His wife has told us. He was angered by the war in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead. He wanted to go to Gaza to fight with Hamas. He couldn’t get there, so he settled for his second choice, killing Americans.
The second half of the equation is of course, the flipside, that the prolongation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict weakens the hands of moderates, weakens the hands of our friends and our allies in the Islamic world.
I’m sorry WikiLeaks hasn’t done a better job in illustrating this, but I think there’s a reason why. Most American embassies, when foreign, Arab and Muslim leaders tell them that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict weakens their hand, don’t even report it anymore. It’s so well-known, it doesn’t make news.
Every Egyptian, Jordanian, Moroccan, Gulf leader I have ever heard talk to four American presidents always raises the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and pleads with American presidents to do something about it, not just for us, but for them. The most articulate and persuasive advocate I ever heard was the late King Hussein of Jordan.
Frank and I had the extraordinary privilege one day of listening to him speak to this issue in Frank’s dining room in Maryland. He could not have been more clear and more articulate. And close to his deathbed in 1998, he came to the Wye River to plead with President Clinton to push Bibi Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat to conclude the Wye River agreement. Why? For the children of the peoples of Jordan as well as the peoples and children of Israel and Palestine.
Bottom line: Israeli-Palestinian conflict produces unholy rage and anger, which is used by al-Qaida and other extremist groups to justify war with America and murder of Americans. This unresolved conflict weakens our allies, weakens those who we are trying to help in the Middle East and beyond.
Of course we should not push for a just, fair and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians to appease al-Qaida. That’s a false issue as well. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri do not want a just, fair and lasting peace. They want to kill every Israeli and shoot the ones who try to swim away.
We are never going to convert them. We do not do this to conciliate extremism. Rather, we do it to isolate extremism and to isolate al-Qaida and its allies in the Islamic world, to expose them as the extremists and murderers that they are and to strengthen the moderates who are fighting for the soul of Islam today, for peace and for the two-state solution.
Failure to find a secure, just and fair peace means that extremism and anger will fester, will spread further, producing more and more threats to American national security and ultimately to American citizens. To underscore this point, let me give you one more example: Mumbai, 2008, the most significant terrorist attack since 9/11 anywhere in the world.
Ten Pakistani terrorists, young men from the Punjab, led by Lashkar-e-Taiba, struck key targets in the largest city in India. What was at the very top of their target list that day in November 2008? A Jewish Shabbat house in Mumbai. Mumbai is a big place. You have to look hard to find a Shabbat house. They had looked hard.
An American citizen, David Headley, had helped them look for it for months and months. It was at the top of their list because for them, it symbolized the Zionist-Hindu-Crusader alliance. I submit to you when 10 Punjabi kids have decided that killing American Jews in Shabbat houses in Mumbai is a holy cause, we have come to a situation in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a national security threat to the United States of America.
Mumbai is not alone. It is a symbol of the radicalization process that is going on today. Thus, the urgent necessity of finding peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in the broader Arab-Israeli conflict.
Future generations will look back on us, I am convinced, and they will ask a simple question. Why did America let this fester for so long? Why did we let 1.5 million Palestinians live in Gaza under siege? Why did we let Israelis live under siege for so many years? Why did we let Americans be at threat for so long? Couldn’t we see it? That this was an urgent necessity in our own self-interest to resolve?
Can it be done? I leave that to my colleagues to weigh out how. My simple answer is yes, with American leadership and with an American map. I’m happy to expand on that later on in questions and answers. Thank you very much for your attention. (Applause.)
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you, Bruce, for such a clear and compelling statement. And now, I’d like to ask our president, Frank Anderson, to come to the podium.
FRANK ANDERSON, President, Middle East Policy Council
Thank you, Tom. Thank you all for being here and thank you, Bruce, especially. What I was tempted to do was stand up and say I agree with Bruce. (Laughter.) He’s hit most of my points. I wanted to — and I worked on this — Tom will attest — for weeks to make it as scholarly as possible and I gave up.
Let me just hit with the — it started, trying to write an op-ed, which I had entitled “Coming Down on the American Side of the Arab-Israeli Conflict.” And that comes from an experience long ago in the early 1990s, when Bruce and I were working together, and I brokered the first official contact between Israeli and Palestinian security and intelligence organizations.
I had to gain and keep the confidence of both sides and the line I used to do that was to promise them that on any given issue, I will come down on the American side. Now, we must identify, is there an American side in this struggle for the much-too-promised land? Bruce has done a superb job of identifying the strategic national interest of the United States in resolving this conflict.
He follows General Petraeus’ testimony earlier this year — for that matter, every commander of the U.S. Central Command’s testimony since 9/11 has made that point. The 9/11 commission has made that point. And as Bruce said and I will echo, any American who has lived in or worked on the region knows that this festering sore of a conflict is a threat to peace and our well-being. There’s been a counterargument advanced. I think we need to address it.
Dennis Ross and David Makovsky wrote, in 2009, against the idea of linking this conflict and American interests. Let me quote from their article. “There have been dozens of conflicts and countless coups in the Middle East since Israel’s birth in 1948 and most were completely unrelated to the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
They go on, “In addition, as tragic as the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has become, it has not spilled over to destabilize the Middle East. There have been two Palestinian intifadas, or uprisings, including one that lasted from 2000 to 2005, claimed the lives of over 4,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis. But not a single Arab leader has been toppled or a single regime destabilized as a result. It has remained a local conflict in a small” — “contained in a small geographic area.”
I have a very different view. I would point out a couple of events or a few events. The 1956 Suez war, when the United States was forced into confrontation with its closest World War II allies over this “local conflict.” The Six-Day War of 1967, when American facilities throughout the Middle East were attacked. And our then-Cold War rivals gained enormous ground when our diplomats were expelled from Algeria, Egypt, Syria and Iraq over this “local conflict.”
The spectacular wave of terrorism across the region and the bloody war in Jordan in what became known as Black September of 1970 was over this “local conflict.” The Yom Kippur War of 1973, when we and the Soviets edged close to nuclear confrontation and we took the economic blow of an Arab boycott was over this “local conflict.” Almost two decades of Lebanese civil war, set off by this “local conflict.”
And in my career, more innocent victims of terrorism than I can count whose killers all claimed to be motivated by this “local conflict.” Speaking of terrorism, I’m going to get personal and claim, along with Phil, some experience in dealing with terrorists. I’ve dealt with them a lot. From quasi-diplomatic interactions with the Palestinian leadership from the 1970s through the 1990s, to operational interactions with some nasty people.
One so nasty that I dealt with him only in an automobile which I drove with one hand while I had to hold a pistol on him with another. Terrorists have killed my friends, including some whom I ordered into harm’s way and terrorists have tried to kill me. And I can tell you that all the terrorists I ever knew saw very clear linkage between the Israeli-Arab conflict and American interests.
After I retired, a bunch of terrorists murdered thousands of people in New York and they continue to recruit by saying that their central motivation, as Bruce has pointed out, is this conflict. As was said it’s not true that all the world’s problems are tied up in the Arab-Israeli conflict and that resolving it will bring universal peace and prosperity to the world.
I don’t mean to trivialize it by quoting a high-school business teacher of mine who said, you know, money can’t buy everything. But money can buy everything that’s for sale and that’s a lot of stuff. This problem or this issue won’t solve everything. It won’t stop terrorism or eliminate radical Islamic extremists.
But it will take the wind out of the narrative that motivates much of the anti-American and anti-Western terrorism. And as Bruce had pointed out, it will remove serious threats to governments in the region whose cooperation is essential to the protection of our interests. A deal won’t solve all the world’s problems, but it will solve so many that it will be a historic, strategic achievement for us and the entire world.
As Bruce has said, we defer to others on how to fix it, but I can tell you one thing for certain. Israelis and Palestinians are incapable of reaching a settlement that is acceptable to us. The news that they are once again stalled on their way to settlement — reports only the latest in a long line of impasses.
The parties, even if and when they are willing, have proven they are unable to reach an agreement through negotiation with each other. Blood-soaked decades of strife have shown that neither Israelis nor Palestinians can force the other into any solution that would meet either of their needs. They certainly can’t kill their way to a settlement that will meet our needs.
I believe that the time came long ago for us to recognize that both the Israeli and Palestinian political systems prevent their leaders from reaching a settlement. Their systems don’t work. We have some trouble recognizing this.
So let me just — November, President Bill Clinton in a tribute to the memory of Yitzhak Rabin wrote, “There’s a real chance to finish the work he started. The parties are talking. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has the necessary support from his people to reach an agreement. Many Israelis say they trust him to make a peace that will protect and enhance their security.”
It goes on, “Because of the terms accepted in late 2000 by Prime Minister Ehud Barak, supported in greater detail by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and approved by President Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinians, everyone knows what a final agreement would look like.”
It’s generally true that everyone knows what a final agreement would look like. At least pluralities of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples regularly polled in favor of a deal that establishes two states with borders that roughly and closely follow the 1967 lines of separation between Israel and its then-hostile neighbors with Jerusalem as a shared capital and a just settlement for the refugees, which practically must mean, then, mostly compensation, which would be paid mostly by the United States.
This deal was not only acceptable to the majority of Israelis and Palestinians, it would be welcomed by the international community, the Arab states and the vast majority of people in the Arab-Muslim world.
Nevertheless, both Israel’s and Palestine’s political systems give veto power to their respective rejectionist minorities. The power of the rejectionists in Israel is growing. Recent polls show it, the demographics show it, the maturing of a generation of children born in the settlements who are now reaching senior positions in the Israeli government is growing.
On the Palestinian side, the performance of the Palestinian authority in the West Bank and polls will tell you that the rejectionist power has diminished. I will tell you it’s not diminished enough to matter. There’s all kind of a disagreement or argument about why the two sides have dysfunctional systems and powerful rejectionists. Those arguments don’t matter. They just do.
Ignoring the dysfunction on both sides is no longer possible. And waiting for them to fix their dysfunctions is no longer responsible. We have to stop saying — as Bruce had said, and I’m tired of hearing — we can’t want peace more than the parties themselves want peace.
We have to abandon the idea that our interests can be adequately served by agreements that parties can reach by themselves. That’s just not true. We need peace. We need a settlement that will deny murderers the motivation and justification that they’ve used over decades.
Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians need or want this peace enough to meet our needs. So we need it. We want it more than they do. We can’t responsibly settle for what they can work out. We must also recognize that we have means to overcome their rejection. Neither side can long survive without our contributions and treasure. Neither side can advance or defend its cause without our diplomatic cooperation.
As I have said, and 9/11 commissioners said, commanders of the Central Command have said, groups have said, we are paying an increasing price in blood for their failure to — refusal to reach an agreement. We can no longer ignore this. We can no longer let the parties ignore this.
Tom Friedman’s December op-ed was a message to the leadership. He wrote it to both the Palestinians and the Israelis. Let me quote from his op-ed: “Israel, when America, a country that has lavished billions on you over the last 50 years and taken up your defense in countless international forums, asks you to halt settlements for three months to get peace talks going, there’s only one right answer. And it is not ‘how much?’ It is ‘yes, whatever you want because you are our only true friend in the world.’”
Actually, Australia and Micronesia sometimes vote with them along with us.
“Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, what are you thinking? Ehud Olmert, the former prime minister, offered you a great two-state deal, including East Jerusalem. And you let it fritter away. Now, instead of chasing after Obama and telling him you’ll show up for negotiations anywhere under any circumstances that the president asks, you’re also setting your own terms. Here’s some free advice: When America goes weak, if you think the Chinese will deliver Israel for you, you’re wrong. I know China well. It will sell you off for a boatload of Israeli software, drones and microchips so fast that your head will spin.” It’s time for the United States to present and insist upon its own outline of an acceptable settlement.
And Kurtzer, the former ambassador to Israel testified last year. Everybody at this table will agree with what he said. And that is:
“We have known for years that interim incremental or step-by-step approaches will no longer work. We know that confidence-building measures in a vacuum do not work and instead inspire lack of confidence….Combined with a determined leadership role by the United States, strong terms of reference can make the difference between negotiations that simply get started and negotiations that have a chance to end with success.”
The international community is moving in this direction. The European Union’s calls for a settlement along the 1967 lines with Jerusalem as its shared capital are increasingly insistent. They’re not going to turn back. Threats are growing that they will call for a U.N. resolution that would accept the Palestinian state as a full member of the U.N.
The Argentine, Brazilian and Chilean governments’ declarations that they recognize the Palestinian state within the 1967 borders will be followed by others.
There’s growing concern in Israel about calls for boycotts and disinvestment in Israeli enterprises in the occupied territories, fear that those will become an argument for disinvestment and boycotts from all products from Israel. Increasingly, voices in Israel are recognizing that their strategic — indeed, their existential needs parallel ours. And they’re calling for a more assertive role.
Israeli Policy Forum, an organization of former senior military and diplomatic officials prepared a message, actually, to the new administration in February of 2009 — a quote from it:
“Effective leadership requires that a U.S.-planned revision be placed on the table. There is no need to dispense of earlier initiatives such as the Clinton Parameters, the negotiations that followed the Annapolis process…or the Arab Peace Initiative, but it is essential to go beyond what has been done by including a regional perspective and a clear vision for the endgame, including the tough issues of Jerusalem, refugees and borders. The imperative of a U.S. vision is such that it need not wait for an agreement of Israeli or Palestinian leaders; it must reflect the comprehensive thinking of the new administration on a final resolution of the conflict.”
Daniel Levy — who’s making his mark in the United States, has a very, I think, effective and articulate voice — has written the following:
“President Obama may, however, take seriously his own admonition that this issue matters to American strategic interests. That would translate into U.S. leadership in shaping a breakthrough, preferably with the EU and Quartet support, creating real choices and deploying new incentives and disincentives with the parties, notably Israel. Ultimately, for the noise and speculation regarding — for all the noise and speculation regarding their resumption, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are likely to prove rather inconsequential. Success or failure in achieving de-occupation in two states will depend primarily on the conversation between Obama and Netanyahu, their political calculations, priorities and persistence.” And Levy ends with: “And that conversation has barely begun.”
Now, the administration’s statements have steadily moved toward that sort of engagement and away from the sterile and discredited claim that we have to accept what the parties are going to work out for themselves. Not just this administration — let’s review some history.
It was during the Carter administration that we first heard an official mention of the Palestinian nation. During the Clinton administration, it was the president’s wife, not the president, who first spoke of a Palestinian state. The George W. Bush administration’s road map — however little he’s done to follow it — is the first official mention of two states as a solution.
The current administration in a remarkable advance in rhetoric has declared that it will end the occupation. He said that it will end what began in 1967. The secretary of state recently declared that — this is the quote — “We will not be passive.” She has demanded that both sides present their specific visions for settlements in detailing — for settlements, detailing positions on borders, security arrangements, Jerusalem and refugees.
I think we’ll wait a long time to get these two sides to present these real things. They’ll only be presented when we accept that the only way forward is for the United States to present its outlines and to declare its determination to reach them.
It does sound like we’re getting ready to come down on our own side. I’m hoping that that’s true. And I’m hoping beyond, quite frankly, what I called earlier today cautious pessimism, that it’s in time. Thank you very much. (Applause.)
DR. MATTAIR: Ambassador Wilcox, please?
PHILIP WILCOX, President, Foundation for Middle East Peace
Thank you, Frank, and all the members and staff of the Middle East Policy Council for another one of these prestigious forums. You heard a vivid commentary on the U.S. national security interest in a comprehensive Middle East peace and a solution, at its core, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — that Frank has described why it has not for decades been possible for the Israelis and Palestinians to do it themselves.
I’m going to suggest how and what we should do. The administration has not described the next phase of its diplomacy. For the last two years, it has clung to the notion of a peace process. At the center of American diplomacy was the notion of a settlement freeze as a confidence-building measure. That was a failure. There are no longer direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but we have reverted to what I call “proximity talks.”
But the administration has said — and has said this in the past, but I think it said it more explicitly — that it wants to know what the Israeli and Palestinian policies are. And then, if necessary, the U.S. will add bridging proposals. Bridging proposals are fine but they are no substitute for a much bolder American approach.
Some experts — fewer, I think — still argue that this is such an intractable conflict, and the prospects for success are so poor that the U.S. should not plunge into an ambitious and comprehensive peace plan because the failure of such a plan would be an even greater blow to American influence and credibility. I don’t agree.
I don’t agree because I think we do have the capacity to do this. We talk about dysfunctional Israeli and Palestinian assistance. I am not prepared to say that the United States government is a dysfunctional system, and that we can’t do what is profoundly in our national interest.
Some say that, well, still, it’s going to take time. And we can still try to manage the conflict and keep the lid on. We said that for years. But I think everyone knows now that this is a dynamic. And volatile conflict, which gets worse by the day — the metaphor of riding a bicycle is a good one: If you don’t move forward, you’re going to fall off. And we are all in danger of falling off again as we have in the past.
The problem becomes more dangerous by the day because of the persistent and perhaps even rising element of extremism in the Palestinian community and in the Muslim world, and because of a dangerous change in Israeli society and political culture.
The challenge of peace, though, should not be minimized. But it means — and I’m not sure that we Americans or our leaders fully grasp this — it means reversing a 40-year national project in Israel of occupation and settlement. That is a massive test, but it has to be done if Israel and the Palestinians are to together make this necessary decision to rescue themselves and to make peace.
Well, I mentioned the ideological, political change inside Israel influenced by this — or in the case of settlement policy interspersed with lots of wars, lots of violence, the Israeli right wing has emerged in recent years as the most powerful political force of Israel. It’s a combination of the religious, messianic leadership. Even the IDF has been increasingly influenced by the settler right. Some of its more senior officers are now settlers.
The Labor Party has now disintegrated, it seems. And there is no formal or effective opposition in Israel. And the threat of violence, of course, is built-in. There is violence almost every day between Israelis and Palestinians. It is no longer reported prominently in our press because it has become so routine.
Well, what is needed? I think all of us on this panel, and most of you, agree that it is time for America with its allies to intervene with a comprehensive approach to the Israeli and Palestinian conflict — and to couple that, diplomacy that addresses the related Israel-to-Syria conflict over the Golan Heights, the problem of Lebanon and Hezbollah.
Well, another option is that we address these issues piecemeal. I don’t think that’s a good idea. They are linked — that a prospect for an Israeli-Palestinian peace would be more difficult to achieve without a parallel process for an Israeli-Syrian peace. The problem of Israel and Hezbollah and Lebanon also must be addressed because that is part of the larger regional conflict.
Some say it’s time for us to impose peace. We can’t do that. Ultimately, peace will come only if it is willingly accepted by the people of Israel and Palestine. But what we can do, and what we must do, is to mobilize strong, compelling public support in both of those societies for peace, even if their current leaders are unwilling to accept that need.
That will mean interfering in Israeli and Palestinian internal affairs. It will mean confronting deeply ingrained interests in both of those societies. People will say we have no business of interfering in the vital affairs of other societies and nations. Let’s remember that the government of Israel interferes daily in American affairs. It is quite normal for democracies to do this, and we should not be shy about using public diplomacy addressing our views and trying to influence the Israeli and the Palestinian governments.
Here at home, people say that whatever the national interest, whatever the reality, we are simply paralyzed because of powerful interest groups — Jewish, Christian — that for years, these organizations have tried to influence our government and our public to believe that this is not our business, that we have to defer some of the decisions of the Israelis and the Palestinians.
Well, I think that’s a myth. And I think these interest groups are certainly influential. They work hard. They are well-funded. They do not reflect the majority views of Americans, Jews, Christians, Muslims, nor Arab Americans. Is it then presumptuous, even so, for us to believe that at this late stage in this deepened conflict, we can bring about such a massive change in the state of Israel and its policies, and in Palestinian society?
Well, I think it is not presumptuous; it is necessary. It is a vital national interest to do this. Remember that the United States is not just an onlooker, not just an observer. We are not just drawn into this conflict because of good will or altruism. We are a party to it.
For years, the United States has been Israel’s closest friend and ally. We have provided enormous moral, political and financial military support to Israel. This has been helpful, indeed essential, for Israel to survive and prosper as a state. But it has been so — we have been so uncritical and unqualified in our support for Israel that we have taught Israeli leaders and, to some extent, the Israeli public that they are unique, that they need not observe the normal rules of nationhood. And they act with impunity. That’s another reason why we have to alter our own policies and intervene more energetically.
The policies of U.S. deference to Israel are obsolete and harmful. So we have a responsibility as Israel’s best friend and ally to treat it like a real friend, to speak the truth. Well, how do we do it? I’m suggesting that we have the capability of altering the — fundamentally public opinion in those countries and to mobilize strong coalitions for peace.
I’m not sure it’s a fundamental problem in either society. In spite of the lurch to the right in recent years in Israel — a product, in large part, of its dysfunctional political system which exaggerates the power and control of the religious ideological right — public opinion polls persistently show that the Israeli center, the Israeli people are still pragmatic and still liberal. There may well be a silent majority in Israel that would rally to a wise, empathetic, but tough, American peace initiative. The Israeli public is deeply concerned about the future of the Jewish democratic state. They understand the demographic threat that looms larger and larger.
There is deep concern about initiatives by radical religious and ideological figures to curtail the Israelis’ civil society and trample upon democratic freedoms. The collapse of the Labor Party, if indeed it has collapsed, is seen as a wakeup call for many Israelis to reinvigorate a real opposition that can speak for the Israeli majority.
Now, Israelis are a proud and tough people. We’re not going to kick them around. The art of an American peace initiative is to reinforce their understanding that we support Israel. We support its prosperity, its success and its future, but we must speak more honestly to them. And I think they will listen. We have to make it clear that this is not a relationship that was made in Heaven.
We should stop the slogans that are so prominent in our public discourse. For example, about how there’s no daylight between our policy and yours; how we are together because of shared values. The United States does not share the values of a considerable part of the Israeli leadership, which for 40 years has been devoted to the denomination, control and dispossession of its Palestinian neighbors, so these slogans are very misleading.
And we — I think we have to stop talking about how Israel is a strategic ally of the United States that is defending its interests. Its current policies, indeed, have made Israel a strategic liability.
So let us bring a new candor into our public dialogue. I think that will have a bracing effect on the Israeli leadership. It will not be easy to absorb, but Israelis are smart people; they will listen carefully. They know that their relationship with the United States is indispensible to their security and their well-being.
I remember in the early ’90s when Yitshak Shamir, the Israeli prime minister, worked very hard to foil what was seen as a sensible good-faith American initiative to bring about the Madrid peace process. Shamir was — and his party were voted out by the Israeli public in favor of a more progressive and forward-minded coalition under Yitzhak Rabin. This is a volatile society. It can still change in spite of all that’s happened in the last 40 years.
Well, we need the same approach for the Palestinians. They too are a divided people. They have foolishly indulged in internecine quarrels with the urging of Israel, and I’m sorry to say, the United States. The two factions have confronted each other resulting in a military dustup at Gaza, which broke the Palestinian community in two.
The U.S. has not yet altered its own policy of, at least, acquiescing or, if not, encouraging this split. But we’re going to have to do so because there will be no effective peace until there is a united Palestinian community that speaks with one voice, so Palestinian reunification has to be part of our agenda. That will be very difficult. We may not be able to do this directly ourselves, but we can certainly work with intermediaries. It’s not a hopeless task because Hamas is still a work in progress, for better or worse. There are pragmatic elements in Hamas.
A powerful and compelling U.S. peace initiative that offered freedom and sovereignty to the Palestinians could not be rejected by Hamas. It would be a huge incentive for them to work for reunification with the Palestinian authority. Well, we, of course, would have to work with the Palestinian authority to persuade them that unity is in their best national interests and is vital if they’re going to make peace with Israel and reclaim a state of their own.
The initiatives of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad are very impressive. The Palestinian peaceful diplomacy in recent months has been impressive, but it’s not enough. They are a weak primarily occupied society. They desperately need international intervention to rescue them and in the process rescue their neighbors.
Well, the problem in the United States is real, but I think we have — and our leaders — have exaggerated the problem. I think there is a deep, wide support for the kind of leadership which I have advocated. I think if the president and his staff would turn their attention to working hard to assemble an American peace constituency, he would find ready and willing partners in the American Jewish community, in the Christian community, in the Arab and Muslim American communities. This has not happened yet. But I think it’s a possibility and it’s a necessity if he is to engage in this kind of very ambitious and sustained diplomacy that I have recommended.
Well, what about the substance of the plan? That’s the easy part. For 20 years, now, the Israelis and Palestinian leaders, themselves, have discussed answers to all the final-status issues: security, Jerusalem, borders, settlements, refugees, water. So the concepts are there and they should form the basis of an American peace initiative. We have never announced our views on these issues, in spite of our involvement in endless peace processes. It’s time to do so in a comprehensive way.
These must be introduced in an integrated fashion. To deal with the issues individually will not work. The idea of discussing refugees, alone, without simultaneously discussing Jerusalem is not a successful approach. There are tradeoffs that have to be made; painful concessions made by both sides. Unless that can be done in the context of a larger, comprehensive, internally reinforcing plan, I don’t think it’s going to happen.
Well, what about sanctions? People talk of carrots and sticks. I believe sanctions should not be the main element of an American peace plan. I think that honesty and candor and courage should be. And I think that the Palestinian and Israeli people have the wisdom and courage to respond to that in a positive way. To be sure, at some stage, there may have to be some tough measures taken.
For example, why has the United States permitted scores, if not hundreds of millions of dollars, to go from American donors to Israeli settlements through tax-free American charities? There will probably have to be expensive contributions to international funds to compensate refugees. There will have to be a fund, I believe, also to compensate Israeli settlers.
Well, what about Iran? Should a resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue be linked to a resolution of the Israeli and Palestinian conflict? No, it should not be. Success in each of these problems should not depend upon success on the other, but success in bringing peace between Israel and Palestine will have an extraordinarily positive impact on the Iranian dilemma.
It would defuse the extremism, the radical rhetoric of the Iranian leadership and would make it easier to address the very dangerous Israel — Iranian nuclear program. That can be done. There will be those Israelis who say the two are so closely linked that we must do them and succeed simultaneously. I think that would only delay the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Well, what about the timing? I think we have to move now. There are always excuses for delaying until the next election. We have other problems on our agenda. I think we have to move quickly because the situation is deteriorating. There is the danger of much greater violence, even war. If the administration does so I think it needs more deeper staffing. I do not think the White House has the level — levels of expertise and experience among its staff that it needs.
I think that this is going to have to be another target structuring the staffing of a peace process. I think there has to be a more clear point of leadership, whether it’s the secretary of state — whom it probably should be — or someone else to take the lead. That’s important too and we’ve seen how past U.S. efforts have — had been weakened by division among the senior-American policymakers.
Well, is this — in spite of what — all of that I have said — just a pipedream? There is no historic precedent for the kind of initiatives that I recommend. It is extraordinarily ambitious, but the stakes are huge for everyone.
First of all, for the United States, for the future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state, for the Palestinians who also strive for and deserve dignity, freedom, sovereignty, human rights and a state of their own, let’s not concede that we have a dysfunctional system, that this is beyond the capability of the United States. It certainly isn’t. I think we have no choice but to do this. Thank you. (Applause.)
DR. MATTAIR: I think I may have neglected to say that I asked Brian Katulis to speak about alternative ways and means of achieving peace if an American plan isn’t advanced or fails. Welcome.
BRIAN KATULIS, Senior Fellow, Center for American Progress
Great. Yeah, thank you, Tom. And thank you to Middle East Policy Council. It’s a real honor, for a few reasons, to speak here today and be part of this forum. First, just the tradition of the Middle East Policy Council, I’ve been involved with a few forums before. I had spoken, I think, in 2006 and 2007. But 30 years is quite amazing.
And if you just look at the top of the heads of all the speakers up here, you’ll see that I’m a little bit different. (Laughter.) I’m from a younger generation. And I say that with full deference and respect because when my friend, Omar Kader, who’s on the board of the Middle East Policy Council, asked me to join, I was very enthused because when I talk with my colleagues or even look out here at the audience, there’s a very rich tradition that’s lasted for a long time to try to wrestle with the complicated issues in the Middle East and you’re part of it.
I’m with the Center for American Progress which is seven years young. Our claim to fame, I think, these days is that we’ve got about 60 or 70 people in this current administration who were former colleagues of ours. Using some of these ideas, but connecting, you know, new ideas with longstanding traditional groups I think is very important in keeping this dialogue alive.
The second reason I think it’s important in the concept of a U.S. plan and discussing it is that — we need alternatives. I was thinking about the recent events over the last few months and it just reminded me of that old saying about the definition of insanity, which is doing the same thing over and over and over again and expecting different results.
So that’s why I’m enthused to just say a few things about both the consequences of a U.S. failure — and I’ll say failure on the peace process, and include in that, the failure to submit a plan — and then map out what I see as four possible alternatives. In doing this, understand that I’m not advocating these alternatives; I’m just providing some sort of analysis of what I think may be likely.
But first, the consequences of U.S. failure either in not presenting a plan or a failure of the peace process which we saw. And let me just be very brief. This has been covered but I think there are four main ones. One, I think we’re looking at the end of the viable two-state solution. The clock certainly is ticking — and was mentioned (earlier ?) — in the West Bank and Gaza Strip in Jerusalem back in the 1990s. And every time I go back, I don’t recognize the landscape. The landscape has completely changed, particularly between Ramallah and Jerusalem.
And I think we’re getting to the point — and I wrote a report in the December of 2009 based on a month-long visit to the area — that the window of opportunity is really closing. And in fact, the Obama administration used that language last fall when they started ,or restarted, direct talks. But I think we’re looking at the quite possible, as Bruce said, “moment of truth,” here. Because a viable two-state solution may no longer be possible this decade. And if it’s not achieved in the next few years, we’ve got some real problems.
Number two, I think there’s a very real risk of a destabilizing conflict in the region. And this was mentioned briefly, but when you look at what’s happened over the last four-and-a-half to 5 years, my analysis is that the region really walked up to several conflagrations in the summer of 2006, nearly five years ago — civil wars in Iraq, the conflict between Lebanon and Israel, Hezbollah and Israel and the fights in Gaza.
And though there’s a calm now — there’s a very tenuous calm. And there have been flare ups in some major spouts of violence, including the Gaza war in 2008 and 2009. In the absence of forward progress either in the current process or some alternative, like, the presentation of a U.S. plan, one could see yet another conflict reemerging when you look at the combustible mix that exists now in Lebanon. The absence of momentum I think is deeply troubling.
The two other consequences of failure, further undermining American power and our ability to get things done. And I think when historians look back on the first decade of the 21st century; they will see that we’ve committed several self-inflicted wounds in our ability to actually use our power and leverage. And people have been talking about this for a while. And it’s an issue that comes up — and I’ll circle back to when we talk about the viability of the U.S. plan. But how much power and credibility do we actually have?
I call it an efficacy crisis and this has existed for a while, and you go back to the mid-part of the Bush administration. We have had presidents repeatedly state certain goals or objectives in Iraq or Afghanistan or North Korea or on the Middle East peace process and not achieving those goals. It actually sends the message to a world that has transformed — that is indeed much more multipolar — that perhaps the U.S. is no longer what it used to be. And I think that’s the signal that many people have, and they’re behaving accordingly.
And the fourth — Bruce covered this — I think the consequences of failure — it can get very difficult for the U.S. fight against terrorist networks and al-Qaida. And Bruce covered that very thoroughly when he said that, you know, American lives are being lost today. We mustn’t forget that it’s part of the al-Qaida ideology. And resolving this by whatever means possible will take the wind out of their sails.
So briefly — and here, these are very — four quick alternatives for the purpose of discussion. I think it’s important for you to consider this, and I’ll go through them very carefully. And I lump them together because there’s many different scenarios for variations on each of the four. But in the absence of either a U.S. or success in the current process, there are a couple of alternatives that I see possible.
Number one, I would call the “Israeli mostly unilateral steps,” and in fact I think this is what we had for the last several years. This is premised on the notion that there’s no chance at all for a final status agreement. And the notion that the parties are too divided, that the Palestinians in particular — “there is no partner” is the slogan you hear in Israel. We have no one to deal with.
The notion that Israel would either try to come to some sort of interim arrangement because — and I call it an arrangement rather than agreement — but in a sense move to maintain the status quo, continue some of the things that we see right now. And in fact Avigdor Lieberman has presented this plan in recent days, of modest economic development, continued security cooperation with Palestinians in the West Bank and perhaps the notion of provisional borders.
And I suspect we’re going to hear a little bit more about this in the next few months, in the absence of any new ideas and in the absence of any progress before the next quartet meeting next month. And Prime Minister Netanyahu has talked about this. But methods — it is a continuation of the status quo moving forward, trying to build as best as we can the Palestinian state institutions in parts of the West Bank.
I would suggest that this is not a viable long-term strategy for a number of reasons. First, all of these Israeli unilateral options are suboptimal in the long run, that given the demographic trends in the region, if Israel wants to remain a viable democratic and Jewish state, there is a need to resolve these issues. And I think this is — these ideas of a long-term interim arrangement or long-term interim agreement ultimately forestall the resolution of some of these issues.
But I think — the reason why I think this is probably the most likely option if other alternatives don’t succeed is that I think it’s attractive to this current Israeli government. If you look at the constitution of the Israeli government and where politics have trended, all of the difficult decisions — having to evacuate settlements and confront settlers that may be involved in a land-swap deal — I think that this may become more dominant.
And again, I’m not advocating this. I just see this as a likely possibility in part with what’s been happening over the last few years.
The second option — and we talked a little bit about this — is the Palestine option. And there is a serious push for international recognition that is gathering steam. And it’s linked in some ways to the Fayyad plan. The notion of this is the Palestinians need to assert a new state. I think the current U.N. resolution on settlements is part of a broader strategy and plan, which is actually quite interesting, where the Palestinians are using language that the Obama administration has used on settlements and on the peace process.
And I think they’re trying to force the U.S. administration to decide whether or not to veto. And this is a test case of this. But the basic notion of this dual track — one on the ground, continuing to build the vestiges of a Palestinian state — and Fayyad in the summer of 2009 talked about his plan. It had concrete goals. I think this is one thing that has been supported by the U.S. administration through money and support and security training.
The second track, of course, is looking for a U.N. recognition of a Palestine state. And there are a couple of challenges with this. I mean, first this has been tried before — 1988 with the declaration of the establishment of a Palestinian state. You have more than 130 countries, depending on how you count it, who recognize this state. We have a quasi-state. We have representatives here in this town. In fact, the latest controversy which is causing some echoes up here on Capitol Hill is the raising of the Palestinian flag just a few days ago — the PLO flag here in Washington, DC
So all of these things are a nice idea in concept. But as Phil said in his remarks, the Palestinians are quite weak. There’s a weak party in this. And if ultimately the United States and if Israeli, which has far greater power than the Palestinians do, do not do anything in reaction to this, it may go nowhere.
So all of this may play out this year with the Israelis introducing new — continuing to introduce unilateral moves — the Palestinians trying to build statelets in parts of the West Bank and then trying to move diplomatically. But it ultimately doesn’t resolve a lot of the core issues. And Israel may choose just to ignore this recognition.
And you know, another fact is, from where I can see, Hamas has not supported the Fayyad plan. So there are weaknesses to all of this structure.
There’s a third alternative. And this is — I’m not going to spend much time on this because I don’t think it’s that serious, but I’ve heard this in my visit to PA offices in the West Bank — and it’s call it quits — dissolve the Palestinian Authority. Mahmoud Abbas brings this up every once in a while when, I think he has his most frustrating moments.
And I remember one visit I had to the West Bank, which occurred around the time that Israel was negotiating for the return of the Israeli soldier — IDF soldier’s body from southern Lebanon. And I remember a very senior PA official saying, look, Israel negotiates more seriously sometimes with Hezbollah or with those factions in Gaza like Hamas than they do with the PA. And there’s this sense of frustration that perhaps, you know — what are we doing here if there’s no serious steps here on the side of the Israelis?
I don’t see the dissolution of the PA a serious and viable at this point. I think the consequences if you game that out means we’re still stuck with an unresolved situation that ultimately is drifting towards something like a one-state solution, which is something the Israelis don’t want — to forestall the option — the resolution of a conflict.
The fourth and final is — and it’s linked somewhat to the initiatives in the U.N. and diplomacy. It’s the multilateral and international track. And here I’m going to highlight one thing that we haven’t discussed, which I think is still worth reintroducing. And I don’t want to beat a dead horse, but the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 that was reintroduced in 2007 — I mean, it’s an interesting formulation that never really has gotten the attention that it deserves.
And the problems that I have — and I’ll get to this in a bit — and the challenges of just introducing a U.S. plan on the Israeli-Palestinian track and doing it in isolation — it forestalls what I think is the ultimate goal here in the longer run. And you know, the Middle East Policy Council has been around for 30 years. It’s my hope that at the end of my career — and I’ve about 25 or 30 years in me — that we’re not discussing these things and it’s not just track by track.
And I remember in 2007, sitting in Speaker Pelosi’s box in the gallery, hearing King Abdullah, the son of King Hussein, speak very articulately about the Arab Peace Initiative, trying to reintroduce it again. And here, again, I think this notion seems moribund and it seems impractical given that each of the individual tracks — the Israeli-Syrian track, the Israeli-Palestinian track — have their own complications.
But without a grander solution, and without connecting a U.S. plan to a more comprehensive solution, I think we actually ultimately will forestall the resolution of this conflict.
In conclusion, and I’d say the main question I have about a U.S. plan at this point — because I believe that Israeli-Palestinian peace is in the interests of U.S. national security — the main question I have is if the U.S. introduces this, if President Obama takes a step forward, then what?
One of the weaknesses that I see in introducing this is that it suffers from the same potential flaw that the administration faced in the settlements fight last year, that if you don’t have a bend point, if you haven’t thought through how the Israelis will respond and how the Palestinians will respond, and then importantly how do you garner political support both at home and abroad, then it leaves you stuck and presidential intervention has bruised — is a very precious asset, and you want to use it sparingly.
So I’m not opposed to the idea of a U.S. plan at this juncture, particularly if the indirect talks and if the four alternatives — the Israeli unilateral alternative, the Palestinian unilateral alternatives — either asserting their state or just going home — or the international alternative — if none of those work, I think it’s worth trying. But if you’re going to go there, you really need to game out the implications of this because you could potentially be lighting a political fire that this administration may be risk-averse to try to deal with, given everything else that’s on their agenda.
And again, I’m not advocating. I’m just trying to analyze what I think is a complicated situation and explain how they see things.
So I perhaps have a glum closing remark in my assessment of how the Obama administration has handled this, I think, is that it’s been most unfortunate that there’s a dangerous gap between the rhetoric of the president and top leaders and the mapping out of clear strategies to deal with this complicated issue. If you look at the U.N. General Assembly speech that President Obama delivered last fall, one-quarter of the speech was dedicated to the Arab-Israeli conflict — about a thousand words out of 4,000 words.
And if you’re going to stake out — set a bold position not only in that speech but in Cairo, you’d better have a plan B, C, D, E and F. And in my conversations — in my assessment of how this administration is handling it, I’m worried that they don’t even have a plan A that is clear.
I’m seriously concerned about this. And that’s why I think this forum is an important opportunity to map out how would you actually introduce a U.N. — a U.S. plan because everybody’s right here. And people know what the contours of a final settlement look like.
What the challenge is, I think, is how do you actually navigate this politically both inside the U.S., inside of Israel, inside of Palestine and throughout the region? And what I suggest to you is that if we continue to just slice this salami track by track and not discuss comprehensively how do we end the entire Arab-Israeli conflict, we’re doing a disservice to what we can potentially accomplish in the next couple of years.
So thank you, and I look forward to the discussion. (Applause.)
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you, Brian. And yes, we can see how the Israeli-Palestinian track is the core of it but should be complemented by an improvement on the other tracks.
As the moderator, just let me ask the first question and then I’ll go to this audience and the virtual audience. But let me say to the virtual audience, if you’re watching this, if you’re livestreaming this, there’s a link under the key which will take you to an e-mail address and you can use that to ask questions.
But my question of the three panelists is this: Not very long ago, Roger Cohen wrote in The New York Times that after the administration abandoned its effort to get an extension of the partial settlement freeze, he wrote that the president had, quote, “Virtually no domestic constituency,” end quote, for what he was trying to do.
Now, Brian, you wrote 18 months — one of your recommendations was that we should have a public diplomacy campaign, a strategic communications plan, to influence Israeli and Palestinian people and in the wider Arab world.
What about a strategic communication plan for the American public to build a domestic — a bigger domestic constituency for what the president needs to do about everybody — maybe we’re — (inaudible, cross talk).
MR. KATULIS: Yeah, I mean, if I could comment on that and just highlight — I actually think that, first, you have to have the policy substance right on the issue. And what I was alluding to in my concluding remarks is that I’m not certain that they have a full-blown strategy just yet — and people may disagree.
I think in each of the individual tactics that the Obama administration has in place — trying to build parts of the institutions in Palestine, trying to work with the Israelis — make sense in and of themselves; I don’t know if it matches up to a coherent strategy. But then, importantly, a key part of it is the strategic communications, and it’s not sufficient enough for the secretary of state or the president to deliver a speech one month, and then there’s no engagement with what’s a very vibrant press environment in Israel and in Palestine, first and foremost.
And it struck me before Thanksgiving, 2009. On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, they had Senator Mitchell deliver a press briefing at the State Department — on a Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving. (Chuckles.) And it struck me that there was a real glaring absence — and that audience was mostly, I think, for the U.S., if you’re doing a press conference at the State Department — this absence or willingness to respond to the charges or to respond to what’s going on in Israel and Palestine in terms of the debate.
And as far as the U.S. public? Yes, I would support that, but I would highlight that on the broader national security questions — and I don’t know if the other panelists agree — that the president’s attention to communicating to the American public on national security has actually been quite minimal when you compare it to previous administrations. And in part I think it’s a consequence of the major domestic challenges here at home.
What worries me about the Middle East peace process, or the lack thereof, or the Afghanistan war, or Iraq, is that we actually don’t have enough of a debate outside groups like this or outside of the think tanks in Washington, D.C.; that we don’t have enough of a dialogue.
Look at the president’s speech on Iraq at the beginning of September of last year — at the end of August. A third of it was actually about this message of, we need to be strong at home to be strong abroad. And I think he’s, you know, definitely listening to the political winds in the country because America has really turned a bit inward. It’s not isolationist, but it’s a challenge, I think, just for the president to find the time on his schedule to speak about these issues.
And maybe Bruce or others can comment.
MR. REIDEL: I would agree with what Brian has just said about the unfortunate reality that this administration, given the numerous disasters it inherited from its predecessor, finds it hard to find the time to give all of them the attention, especially in the public domain, that it should. We need to build a variety of constituencies. As I think Ambassador Wilcox laid out, we need to build an Arab constituency and an Israeli constituency, a Palestinian constituency, a global constituency if we’re going to put forward an American proposal for how to resolve this conflict.
But above all, we have to put forward a domestic constituency as you suggested. And American presidents have done this before. Bill Clinton did it in the 1990s. He built quite the large constituency in this country of the liberal left of the American Jewish movement and that gave him a lot of room to maneuver.
I want to just also speak to one other which has come up, which is the whole issue of interfering in Israeli politics. I worked for four presidents. I won’t speak for the Obama administration but the previous three all interfered in Israeli domestic politics quite openly. George Walker Bush 41 engineered the overthrow of the Yitzhak Shamir government through an instrument of housing loan guarantees. He didn’t build a big enough constituency in the Jewish community in the United States to support it and suffered as a result.
Bill Clinton engineered the overthrow of Bibi Netanyahu in 1998. I can tell you for sure that was exactly what was on his mind as he was trying to do that and he did build a constituency to support Ehud Barak.
George Bush Jr. engineered support for Ariel Sharon in a very clear way, which made abundantly clear to the Israeli people that Ariel Sharon was, quote, “a man for peace.” If that’s not interfering in Israeli domestic politics, I don’t know what is.
I don’t see any harm in interfering in Israeli domestic politics. It’s in our interest to move Israeli domestic politics in the right direction. But a smart president would build his own domestic constituency to support that beforehand.
DR. MATTAIR: I see a question from Dr. Mark Katz who has been a visiting fellow at the council for the past six months.
Q: Thank you, Tom. Thank you to the panelists for a very interesting presentation. A couple of you mentioned the demographic changes in Israel and Palestine that are not working to Israel’s benefit in the long run. But I’m wondering if you — that they should address also demographic changes here in the United States?
One of the things that I’ve noticed in my over-two-decade career, now, as a professor — you know, I’m not, sort of, stating my point of view on this, but that younger people are less and less sympathetic toward Israel. It doesn’t mean they’re sympathetic toward Arab leaders, but they are more sympathetic toward Palestinians. Does that matter?
Second, I think that, you know, someone referred to the Argentinian, Chilean, Brazilian recognition of a Palestinian state. I know that some of the work done by the Pew Foundation on Hispanics is that, basically, the Hispanic population is not sympathetic toward Israel; may not even be sympathetic toward Jews.
In other words, is what we’ve seen with Latin America, in other words, evidence of a larger assertion of a viewpoint among Hispanics that affects American Hispanics and what does that mean going forward?
Third, the growth in the Muslim American population — that’s one thing that I’ve truly noticed as a professor. When I was a student, there were just very few Arab students, certainly not Arab American students, or if there were, they hid this pretty well. Now there’s a huge, vibrant Arab and Muslim presence on our campuses, and it makes a huge difference when people can actually talk to these people and hear their points of view. Does this growth in the Muslim American population make a difference?
And I guess — and I ask these questions, in other words, going forward, does this make — in other words — here we are in Capitol Hill. We’re talking about American domestic politics. I don’t think that the Congress supports Israel just because they always — they just happen to think it’s right. They do so because it’s a reflection of trends in society and if trends in society change, I suspect that they’re going to change as well.
But does it mean that in fact, the U.S. will have a greater ability to assert an American viewpoint as you have indicated here or does it mean, in fact, that we are more strongly than ever before and can end up doing nothing. Thank you.
DR. MATTAIR: Who’d like to tackle that? Ambassador Wilcox?
AMB. WILCOX: I think the climate is improving in the United States for active support for much more American diplomatic leadership in this conflict. I think that is particularly true in the American community, which traditionally has been the most important voice in influencing our politics in the Middle East. That is the American Jewish community. It is very small, but it has largely been devoted to the welfare and security and the future of the state of Israel.
There is a deep divide in the American Jewish community today and increasingly, younger American Jews and even more — more of the older generation are worried about the very future of the state and would like to see more aggressive American leadership for the benefit of Israel, but not — it’s not exclusively Israel.
The American Jewish community, for decades, has been primarily a liberal community which is interested in social justice and democracy and reform. That is a community whose voice has not been fully expressed in my view. I’m encouraged by the emergence of new American Jewish progressive leaders.
And I think that there is a real opportunity now for the administration to begin to reach out. It really hasn’t done so yet. I think it’s a product of inertia and history that administrations tend to listen to the more traditional organizations which are highly professional, very well-staffed and very well-funded.
Polls show of the deep discontent in the American Jewish community about Israeli policy and American policy. That’s an opportunity. Now, I — I’m a little — I’m a little hesitant to say that the White House and the Congress are not the best judges of American public opinion, but I’m not so sure that they are.
In any case, it’s vitally important that they do so and build a domestic constituency in a systematic and aggressive way and I think they can do so. I don’t know anything about the Hispanic community. I think there’s a myth that the American conservative Christians are for Israel, right or wrong. It’s not true. There’s a substantial evangelical movement that is liberal and supports two-state peace.
So there is an opportunity here and that is an activity where the administration could be active and prominent and busy during a — this very long period which will elapse before the adoption of an American peace plan and its fulfillment. I foresee a long — a long period — a period in which there will be considerable friction with the Israeli leadership and this will be tough. It’ll be very tough because we’re not accustomed to this.
But I think if we stick to it, there will be a corresponding rise in support among the Israeli public. So here is an opportunity which will work if we do it right. It has to be — it has to be smart. It has to be empathetic but above all, it has to be strong and persistent.
MR. KATULIS: If I could add to that — if you don’t mind. I think — I agree that it’s — there’s a lot more ferment now in terms of the politics. There is — there are new groups like J Street and in fact, Jim Jones, the former national security advisor spoke at their conference last year. I think it was an important signal.
There are many different avenues. I don’t know yet that they’re all harnessed or organized. And the important thing Ambassador Wilcox mentioned this — it connected to what the strategy is. Bruce mentioned that there were left — Jewish American groups that supported President Clinton.
And we actually have some of them who are part of the Center for American Progress now, the Israel Policy Forum recently merged with us, in part, because you know, CAP is a think tank like Brookings, but we’re also an action tank. And we’ve been working with and trying to discuss with partners because there’s a lot of concern about the absence of a viable political strategy, which is what I was trying to say. It’s not just about the substance. It’s a political strategy and it’s one thing we’ve been discussing and talking about.
Second thing I would add is that there is — there’s a reverse counter-campaign in play. Already, we saw this in some of the Senate elections and some of the independent expenditure campaigns, what I call — what some people call neoconservatives or neocon 2.0, I call national security regressives — regressives who oppose a range of national security issues like New START, who actually want to bomb Iran tomorrow and then add to their portfolio, there’s a very active nascent campaign on a two-state solution.
And it’s a political campaign and I’ve been in small meetings where I have seen the conservative right in this country with the conservative rights in Israel talking and saying things like this administration — the Obama administration — is the least pro-Israel administration in the history of the United States and that we need to actively work around it, politically. So I would say, yes, you know, there’s a lot more ferment. There’s discontent with the traditional lobby groups.
And I think we’re a democracy. We do it to have that broader exchange of ideas, but it’s not yet harnessed in favor of a two-state solution and there are those national security regressives who essentially want to say this is impossible and that what President Obama has tried to do, which I think most of us agree is quite modest and not as organized, is actually undermining Israel. I would say that this has actually been trying to help and we need to engage more.
DR. MATTAIR: Frank?
MR. ANDERSON: Let me call attention to the fact that a couple of words have repeatedly emerged in our discussion. “Comprehensive” and “integrated” and “strategy.” And I would call back to the problem that you cannot have a strategy unless you have identified an objective. It’s awfully difficult for the president to go to his political operatives and say let’s come up with a strategy to sell our policy to the American Jewish community.
Let’s build a coalition in the United States to support it and not have it answer to what it is that we’re selling. I think that the fundamental first step has got to be a leadership decision that can only happen in the White House that says this is our objective. And then the president calls together his political as well as his national security team and makes — with them — a plan to sell and carry out that objective.
DR. MATTAIR: And we said earlier that the outlines of a settlement are clear so for the United States to say what it thinks the border should be and what the capitals of the two states should be and what the resolution of the refugee issue should be is not really that difficult. It’s pretty clear.
The border should be close to the 1967 borders. West Jerusalem, the Israeli capital, East Jerusalem, the Palestinian capital, compensation for refugees. I don’t understand why it’s so difficult for the United States — or the Obama administration — to articulate that. And then its strategy is — falls into place.
But a strategy always involves incentives and sanctions. And we just tried every incentive we could possibly imagine and that didn’t motivate the Israelis. And that leaves sanctions. Jeff had a question.
Q: Thank you. I was very much struck by the fact that over the course of the presentations by all of the panelists, that the one voice of opposition to the clearly correct policy viewpoint expressed by all of you was the quote that Frank used from Dennis Ross, who’s the president’s chief White House policy advisor on the Middle East peace process.
And the question I’ve got for the panelists is since the issue has been raised by our interference and interventions into Israeli internal politics and clearly, Israeli — parallel — operates into our politics. Are we doing an effective enough job in countering the Israeli operations inside the United States because it strikes me that they’re vastly more effective than what we’ve done intermittently inside Israel?
And I could cite the study that was done, the moment that Likud came into office in 1977 by the ministry of religious affairs profiling out all of the evangelical and fundamentalist churches in America that could be recruited to the Israeli lobby and the next thing you know, Jerry Falwell is being given a jet flight by Rabin to stage a nationwide tour of the United States.
AIPAC, right now, is going through something that looks remarkably like a bad episode of “Dallas” between Steve Rosen and the top management. Yet, there has not been a word or a paragraph in the U.S. press. If I had money to take a full-page ad out in The New York Times and just run the transcript of Steve Rosen’s deposition where he goes through the internal life at AIPAC and my question is could we be doing more to create an appropriate demonization of the activities of the AIPAC and related apparatus?
Neocon 2.0, this whole grouping because ultimately it’s the president of the United States who’s our constituency for getting this policy through. And he’s going to have to have the feeling that his back is much better covered in order to take the kind of bold steps that would be required. And that means a much more aggressive targeted campaign against this apparatus. So that’s my question.
DR. MATTAIR: Ambassador?
AMB. WILCOX: Jeff, I think we should stick to the high road and tell the truth about the reality of this problem and what it is doing to the United States and what is it doing to the state of Israel. I don’t think we should lower ourselves to attacking individuals or individual lobbies. I remember when George H.W. Bush said what could I do? I’m surrounded by Israeli lobbyists. He took a beating.
I think the public will be much more responsive to a more dignified but more hard-hitting and realistic, honest description of the problem and what must be done to rescue us all — Americans, Israelis and Palestinians. And we can do this. We certainly haven’t done it maybe because indeed, it’s impossible. But we haven’t even tried. And I think that could — that could consume a lot of the vacuum and the time between the introduction of an American initiative and its fulfillment.
I also think there are lots of other things we could do. We could aggressively pursue diplomacy on the Syrian, Lebanon track. We could author a policy on Hamas. So it isn’t as if we’re going to announce the plan and then hope that something will happen in the meantime. And it’s going to be a long, tough slog. Believe me.
MR. ANDERSON: I’ll call attention that was said when Bruce and I were last on a panel on Afghanistan. And I made the comment that if our strategy requires that we change the nature of Afghan society to succeed, we will not succeed. If our strategy requires that we change the nature of either Israeli, Palestinian or American political structures, we will not succeed.
What is required, you know, I hate to be a broken letter — or a broken record on this — is leadership, which must come from the president, that comes up with an objective and that is then carried out by that president’s national security team, his diplomatic team, his military team and his political team inside the United States rather than argue about whether one part of a very vigorous political mechanism in this town or another needs to be outed.
The president of the United States and his team — and we’ve all seen them work over decades at varying levels of effectiveness. And look, Brian’s comment about a crisis of efficacy. We need a program that is identified and then we need it to be effectively carried out and that includes mobilizing and directing the political discourse in the United States, not changing.
MR. REIDEL: If I could go one step further from where I think Frank has just eloquently put us — and I agree we don’t need to be demonizing. I think there’s enough of that in this country today. I think we need to go a step beyond principles, parameters, roadmaps. I think we need to put a map on the table. That may sound like a very small idea, but I actually think it’s quite a large idea.
My experience with negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, Israelis and Syrians is that when you put a map on the table, people focus like a laser beam. It’s for real. It’s for serious. You know, 98 percent of the West Bank plus 2 percent swaps, 96 percent of the West Bank plus 4 percent swaps, all those things are useful and important.
But when you actually put a map down and say this is what we think it should look like, we have spent 20 years listening to you. We have studied the demographics. We’ve studied the security aspects. We think this is where the line should be. We then take this conversation to a new level.
The people in Israel and Palestine who live there will look at that map right away and they will say I’m on the wrong side or I’m on the right side. And you will build constituencies in a nanosecond that you have never built before. I don’t mean that we should put it down as a take it or leave it. That won’t work.
We should put it down as America’s best idea and say if you don’t like something on this map, you show me where it should be. You draw me the alternatives and then let’s have a negotiating process around it. This should be part of a more comprehensive proposal that deals with the other issues as well. But I believe that this is the way to break the impasse more than any other.
Now, many will say that this can’t be done. Brian rightly pointed out that every time we go to the West Bank, now, it increasingly looks like some place we’ve never been to before. The geography is changing before you every day. I feel that probably more than most. I grew up in Jerusalem in the 1950s. I can’t even begin to recognize places that I knew as a young man, as a young boy. But I think this is the single step that takes us further along.
One last comment on this. People will say — many do — that foreigners should not draw these maps. When I proposed this idea to a bunch of Europeans, including Norwegians, who are usually the most pro-let’s put something on the table, they were horrified. Outsiders shouldn’t draw maps.
In theory, yes. There isn’t a border in the Arab Middle East that was drawn by an Arab, not a while. (Laughter.) So we’re not exactly breaking new precedent here. All we’re doing is drawing the map in Washington instead of London. That’s not necessarily the best solution, but I think Frank and others have said it here very well.
If we leave it to Israelis and Palestinians to draw that map, it will never, ever, ever be drawn. This is the step I think the United States should take forward now. It will cause huge fall-back.
This is the step I think the United States should take forward now. It will cause huge fallback. And Ambassador Wilcox is exactly right: we need to gear our loins and be prepared for what will come. But if it really is a national security interest to the United States of America, we need to put forward something on the table that goes beyond roadmaps and principles to something highly specific and highly explicit.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, before we come to — we have a number of questions from the international audience. And my guess is that they’re from the Middle East. And I think it’s worth noting that most of them pertain to our domestic politics.
But the question I’d like to ask is this one. And it’s for Ambassador Wilcox: Would you please expand on why you think Hamas could not reject an American plan, why they would toward unity with the Palestinian Authority?
AMB. WILCOX: Hamas is, above all, a political organization that ultimately must rely on Palestinian public opinion. No one knows how popular or unpopular Hamas is. There are all kinds of polls which show rapidly declining support for Hamas in Gaza, where they know Hamas best. Others say there is still a substantial following for Hamas in the West Bank.
Ultimately, there are going to have to be Palestinian elections. That is the only way to reach a legitimate consensus among Palestinians. It’s a tragedy that the United States, having championed democracy in the Middle East, after the first election that took place we decided to reject the results because Hamas won a plurality.
Hamas, in my view, because it’s a political organization is not immune from a Palestinian penchant for democracy. Hamas cannot, in my view, reject a promising initiative to liberate the Palestinians, to create a Palestinian state and a capital in East Jerusalem. If they did, they would — their following, whatever it is — would rapidly dwindle. So I think the best hope for Palestinian internal reunification is to promote aggressively a peace formula that will appeal to all Palestinians and that Hamas could not stand against.
DR. MATTAIR: Hamas has said that they’d like to put it to a referendum, and they’d accept the results of the referendum.
AMB. WILCOX: They’d be —
DR. MATTAIR: But who would vote? Palestinians in the diaspora?
AMB. WILCOX: I don’t know. Of course, it’s up to the Palestinians. But there has to be progress toward the basic issue of independence and sovereignty. I think before the Palestinians themselves could organize an election, surely elections are necessary probably sooner than later. But until there is a real movement toward Palestinian internal unity, I don’t think they’re going to have elections.
DR. MATTAIR: There’s a question back there.
Q: I apologize for my dress. I did not anticipate coming in and being exposed to such a good discussion.
DR. MATTAIR: You look fine, by the way. (Laughter.)
Q: I spent 24 years across the hall. And I recall all of the excellent discussions that descended into bitterness and vituperation because of disagreements fixed on partisan politics, emotions, personal loyalties and outside loyalties from which members of this body could not divorce themselves sufficiently, even modestly, to do all the things that you’d likely say the country should be doing.
And the president should be taking a lead in this, but can you imagine the press that would come two hours before his speech because of the leaks about his speech and what editorial writers would be saying? You’d see it — it’d be just warfare. So I wish you luck. And I pray for a miracle. (Laughter.)
DR. MATTAIR: Yes?
Q: Hi. I wonder if some of the panelists could assess the potential of the boycott, divest and sanctions movement to, you know, change the status quo, to make Israelis feel that the status quo is less tenable than they presently do, which they’d be right — a clear majority.
And on — I mean, particularly in Europe, which is a large — much larger than the United States — trading partner of Israel?
DR. MATTAIR: You might think of that as a part of a multilateral approach for one element.
MR. KATULIS: Well, I would just comment that I’m not certain it yet has legs to achieve that which it wants to achieve for a number of reasons. Because I think — I mentioned, and I think all of us mentioned Israel is a very powerful country not only militarily, but economically. And it’s increasingly linked to not only Europe, but the rest of the world. Bruce actually wrote a piece for us telling us that with India, too. India is the largest recipient of military equipment from Israel. So there are leakages there.
I’m not certain first that it’s a movement yet that has the ability to achieve what it wants to achieve. And I think ultimately it needs to actually persuade Israelis, and those who are voting within Israel, that it’s within their interests to move forward on this.
So I think it’s very nascent. I don’t know that it’s the key to this because I can imagine how a range of Israeli leaders, especially those who are in government right now, might react to it. And given, sort of, Israel’s power to do what it wants — and that’s why I outline there’s an alternative scenario — continued unilateral action — I’m not certain yet it’ll be the thing that will move things, but others may disagree with me up here. I just don’t think it’s where the game is at right now.
MR. RIEDEL: I think I would agree that the game’s not there yet. I think we shouldn’t underestimate, also, the impact that American presidents can have in a positive direction in Israel when they make it clear, either explicitly or through symbolism that Israelis understand, that the president is looking for a partner and he knows who that partner is.
What do I mean by that? When George Bush and Brent Scowcroft made it very clear that Yitzhak Shamir was not the partner, was not going to move forward, Israelis felt angry at first. But then when it came to going into the polling box, they voted for Yitzhak Rabin.
But when Bill Clinton made it very clear that Benjamin Netanyahu was not, in his view, his partner for peace, and we went through the entire Rolodex of the Israeli Labor Party, one by one, until we found Ehud Barak — in the end the Israeli people chose Ehud Barak on the other side.
When George Bush Jr. put his arm around Ariel Sharon, he gave him immense political support in Israel.
Israelis, like anyone, don’t like to have outsiders interfering. But Israelis aren’t stupid. I think everybody on this panel has said that — Israelis are not stupid. They know where the $3 billion in assistance comes from every year. They know that the United States provides Israel with the most sophisticated weapons systems available in our time. They understand the consequences of irritation or worse in the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
They will get it. It has to be done with some degree of subtlety and sophistication. Blunt instruments usually have counterproductive results, but a scalpel can work very, very effectively.
I think this president has made a mistake in not going to Israel in the last two years. I think he made a very unfortunate decision not to do that, particularly since he went, quite hurriedly, in the period between his nomination and his election because the signal it unfortunately sent to Israelis was it’s all about votes.
Israelis need that hug. Implicit in the hug can also be you’ll get a cold shoulder if we’re not moving in the right direction. I think — one of the things I hope is going on in this administration right now is some serious rethinking about how they deal with the Israeli body politic, how to influence it in the way we want to influence it.
It’s ironic. You would have thought that the president’s first chief of staff would have been the world’s foremost expert in how to do this. But to fair to Rahm, he had a lot of other things on his plate to deal with.
This is the moment of truth, the moment of reconsideration and recalculation and trying to build these constituencies which we’ve all been talking about is a critical moment right now. Don’t underestimate how positive influences can still have real profound effects in terms of Israeli politics.
DR. MATTAIR: Michelle?
Q: I would thank the Middle East Policy Council, for this — this is the best Middle East event that I have heard in years and years. And two years ago, when Chas presided and the question, I think, on the table was, has the two-state solution’s time passed? And that was a very good discussion, right after the Operation Cast Lead.
But I think — there’s a couple of things I want to address about organizing. I’m from EIR magazine, as many of you know. We’re all from institutions that can make a major difference. And I’m going to speak a little bit more of the quasi-Jewish diaspora which is emerging at this point — talking about people like Avraham Burg, the former chief of the Knesset, and Justice Richard Goldstone — the authors of the book “Murder in the Name of God” — who went to the conspiracy against Yitzhak Rabin that killed Rabin — that was partially funded here in the United States — the people inside Israel right now who are protesting — Jews who are protesting the loyalty oath, the Jews who are not allowed to marry who they want because they’re not orthodox and so forth.
So there’s a peace constituency, I think, that’s under a tremendous repression inside Israel. And we should be inviting these people to the United States for interviews, for forums, et cetera. We have a — you know, we have an Israeli but he’s really a Brit who speaks, you know, frequently for the peace movement. We need more than that.
In the years that I interviewed and spoke to Maxim Ghilan — the late Maxim Ghilan who was often threatened as a Jew and excluded because he talked to Palestinians, I get a real flavor for what that terror is. So I think that would change the American body politic in a very, very profound way because these people are fighters in — fighters towards peace who are — and they’re excluded from their own country at this point.
So if anybody knows them, please invite them.
The second thing is the moment of truth. As I understand from BBC, the resolution on — the national security resolution is presented to the U.N. Security Council. I suspect that what the United States is going to do is try to delay the vote as long as possible rather than what is being settled on tonight and that we’re going to veto the resolution to kind of outlaw settlements.
So if we do veto, that would be a tragedy. And I commend those among you here and elsewhere who have, you know, signed on to that — to the president and say, support this resolution. So if Obama does that, I would be thankful.
DR. MATTAIR: I think Ambassador Wilcox has a strong opinion on that.
AMB. WILCOX: Some of my friends disagree with me because of the tradition for the past 30 years that the U.S. has vetoed all such resolutions on Israeli settlements and the applicability of the fourth Geneva Convention, which outlaws Israeli settlements.
I can’t believe that we would veto such a resolution in defiance of our own policy in pursuit of which the administration has spent the last year and a half. Yes indeed, we may abstain — an intermediate position, still abstention, would be a — a retreat from our own express policy.
I hope we vote yes, but who knows. It may be that to avoid the embarrassment of a veto or even abstention, the U.S. will persuade the Palestinian Authority and the sponsors to withdraw the resolution. I hope that does not happen because it is a moment of truth. The administration ought to step up to that challenge and vote yes.
There would be widespread support, I believe, in this country for a yes vote, as well as the traditional criticism. The United States for the last three decades has worked hard to minimize the application of international law and the involvement of the U.N. in this issue. The U.N. was present at the creation, helped to bring forth the state of Israel. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be an active partner in bringing forth the creation of the state of Palestine.
I think this is a deep flaw in American policy. We’ve done it because we’re jealous of the — of the role as a leader in the process. We also, I think, for good reasons thought that sometimes the U.N. would gang up on Israel and it was simply unfair.
We have for these reasons been negotiating on the texts of U.N. resolutions in the Security Council and the — and the — and the General Assembly so that the policy of “worst is best” would apply and we could vote no in the GA or veto in the Security Council.
Occasionally we have used it. For example, we supported the — the endorsement of the roadmap by the Security Council. It is in our interest to use the U.N. It can be a very helpful partner. And we have shown over the years that when we want to take the lead in the U.N., it can be used in very, very effective ways to support American interests.
DR. MATTAIR: I think this — this question — that might help me bring in one more question from the international audience. Let’s say we were not to vote yes. Let’s say we did not vote yes or did not abstain. Would that be primarily because it’s not the strategy the Obama administration wants to take toward its objective or primarily because of domestic politics?
And the question from the — the person in the international audience is, if President Obama’s convinced that a two-state solution is in the best interest to the U.S. national security, how do you explain the timid approach of the U.S. as anonymous broker?
AMB. WILCOX: There may be those who argue that we can’t — we cannot vote yes or even abstain because this would make it difficult for us to gain the cooperation of the Israeli leadership. The fact is that for some years we have not had the cooperation of the leadership on the issues which are quite central to a resolution of the conflict.
They are devoted if — for example, look at the aggressive acceleration of settlement in East Jerusalem and the West Bank right now — to continuing their adventure in occupation and settlement. I don’t believe that a U.S. abstention or veto would do anything more than encourage them that they’re on the right track and that while we may talk about opposition to settlements, in fact we’re unwilling to join the international consensus that they are illegal and must be stopped.
MR. KATLUIS: If I could just say one thing: If they do veto it, they’d better have a better plan than just continue to direct talks in another quartet meeting because that won’t suffice, I don’t think. There’s international pressure building for it. There may be reasons why they might abstain or say no. But I would say have a better plan and then explain it more thoroughly. I think we’re all saying this to the various constituencies that are involved.
The second thing I’d like to say — and it keys off of something Bruce said we should build on, and something Frank said — the notion of a U.S., which, again, I’m not opposed to — you need to game that out. One element that I think Bruce has written about, I’ve talked about and others, that would add to it is actually a cost-to-completion of this is what we would be willing to provide — U.S. and international community.
And when you map it out — we’ve run some numbers with some analysts and talked to people — it is not more than 92 (billion dollars) to a hundred billion (dollars) if I’m correct. You add up — and I’m talking not just the Israeli-Palestinian arrangements but Syria and all of the security guarantees that would be needed.
When you think about that amount — $100 billion — that’s what we spend, I think, in Iraq — yeah. No, no — actually, about in a year or so — on Afghanistan too.
And it points to a — you know, just this question about — one final point I want to make is that our dialogue on these issues and on the broader Middle East — I’ll make a passing comment. We lack a strategy overall for the broader region. It worries me that much of what we do in think tanks and — and almost all of what is done in government is tactical reactive crisis management.
And it plagues our debate today on Afghanistan and Pakistan. And what worries me is that in the 1990s and when much of you on this panel served, you could argue that there was a strategic framework with the clarity of objective and goals, much of it — and then through your careers — was framed by the Cold War.
Now we’re in a different landscape. And I think in the Middle East — I really fundamentally believe that we have tactical initiative. I believe this administration has handled it a lot better, was digging — it was trying to dig ourselves out of a hole that the previous administration did. But we still lack a fundamental strategic conception that links all of these together.
So as a consequence we debate the next U.N. resolution and we debate the next action by Iran. And we’re reacting to it. And what we’ve not done, not only on the two-state but more comprehensively, is state where do we want to be in 2020 or 2030. And as a result we’ll debate 10-percent increases in troops in Afghanistan or surges here and there but we don’t actually have a clear articulation that’s realistic of where we’d like this broader region to be, say, at the end of this decade.
MR. RIEDEL: Phil mentioned Syria and Lebanon. Something that hasn’t come up yet today is the special tribunal and the indictment. That’s not directly an Israeli-Palestinian issue, but I have to believe that it’s going to affect the context — maybe — a mention could be made of that — and I see Mr. Riedel nodding so maybe that’s happening now.
DR. MATTAIR: Frank?
MR. ANDERSON: I guess I spent a good bit of my life in Lebanon. I’ll even claim a personal friendship with Saad Hariri.
Lebanon is at a particularly dangerous place. But it’s a place that is always in a particularly dangerous place. The prime minister — or the former prime minister of the country was murdered under circumstances that an investigation is strongly rumored is about to indicate that one of the political parties inside the country and a neighboring country were involved in. They do not wish to be indicted.
Lebanon is a place where one of the ways that a political party can avoid being into the polls or into the court is to begin killing people and destroying property. I don’t believe we can dismiss the possibility that that will happen.
Sadly, I don’t think — I don’t think that if I were asked today to go and tell the president the best way that he could react that I would have a good answer other than to — was an answer that I — I recall penning in the 1970s. And that is Lebanon is a tar baby for the United States. If you wish to understand how much we will be damaged by it, tell me how much you’re going to be involved.
And I guess it’s — Lebanon’s going to go into a very, very critical period in the coming days. I’m not certain that I can figure out a way for us to make it better for them or for us. But if it appears to Israel that the development is striking to Israel, then we have another war that really impacts the peace process.
MR. RIEDEL: I agree with what Frank just said and what Brian said earlier. A new war in the Middle East is out there. We can — we can see it. Whether it’s in Gaza, whether it’s in Lebanon or whether it’s going to a new intifada in the West Bank. The notion that because people in Ramallah have nice cafes to go to they are satisfied is a notion we have tried. It doesn’t work. It’s building in the West Bank, too. It’s building in Iraq. The status quo is unsustainable.
We are already here if you listen to American politics — the drums of war beating in this country. We had an extraordinary op-ed right after the president’s shellacking last year, by David Broder, in which he suggested that confrontation if not war with Iran would be the way for the president to unite Americans and restart our economy.
I have to hope that David Broder just had a really bad day that day when he — when he was writing something like that. But he’s not alone in being — those suggesting these things. In the absence of the new American initiative to try to break the stalemate, there will be another war in the Middle East. And the next one may be a trifecta. You may get a war with Iran, a war in Lebanon and another war in Palestine.
We already have two wars in the Middle East. We don’t need a third one, a fourth and a fifth one. If we don’t take an initiative now to break this status quo, we will face that sooner or later.
DR. MATTAIR: We are out of time. I think I’ll just ask the panelists if that was a great to end. But I’ll ask the panelists to pick up one more — if they have one more (comment ?) to make.
AMB. WILCOX: In answer to Stan’s query: I think we have to get rid of this notion that the United States cannot talk to terrorists or enemies and adversaries. We’ve crippled our role in the Middle East by demonizing Hamas and Hezbollah. In many respects, they deserve demonization, but they are part of the political landscape in — in Gaza and the West Bank and in — in Lebanon, respectively.
Now it is a German diplomat who — who negotiates between Israel and the Hezbollah on Israeli-Hezbollah hostage issues. It is Egyptian diplomats who negotiate between Israel and Hamas on — on various issues.
The Turks, the Qataris and the Saudis often play a more important and positive role than we have because we’ve tied our hands by saying we can’t talk to the bad guys. I think it’s a huge mistake. Of course, talking to people does not confer honor or dignity or acceptance. But they’re part of the puzzle. And unless we address them we’re not going to use the full capability that we have.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, I’d like to say thank you to everyone. Like I said, the transcript to this conference will be on our website. The print transcript and the video will be on our website soon — within days — www.mepc.org. And please visit us and see what else we’re doing in our other programs. And thank you very much. And thank you to the panel. (Applause.)