FRANK ANDERSON, President, Middle East Policy Council
Good morning, everyone, and thank you for coming. It’s not cold, it’s not rainy, but it’s not a pleasant day to be about. So we’re very grateful that you came. I’m Frank Anderson. I’m the president of the Middle East Police Council. For those of you who don’t know us, we’re a nonprofit, nonpartisan — I’ll claim to be — education organization, and our mission is to inform the dialogue in this town on issues in the Middle East that impact American national interests. We do it through three mechanisms.
The first is the journal, Middle East Policy, which we publish quarterly. And Joyce, our vice president and the editor of Middle East Policy, is here with us today. We do it through conferences like this and some smaller breakfast meetings that bring together experts on subjects more often than our quarterly conferences. The quarterly conferences — it’s 67 — 65 — the 65th conference that we’ve conducted. It — the transcript of this conference will become the first chapter of the next issue of Middle East Policy. It will be available on the Web at www.mepc.org and is one of the mechanisms that we’re very proud of; gives us an opportunity to bring together people that understand the region, share their views, sometimes get them in clashes, that would increase our understanding.
The third leg of our school is an educational outreach program. We conduct teacher workshops around the country, the aim of which — I use the word “the two E’s:” we enable and excite teachers to teach about the geography, the history, the culture, the politics and religion of the Middle East in ways that break down, to the extent we can, some very unfortunate but persistent stereotypes.
That’s what we’re about. Thank you for attending this session of one of our three legs of the stool. Dr. Mattair, our executive director and for a long time our chief of research, will at length — still — no — more length, but briefly identify each one of our speakers, whom I thank for being here. I will steal a line from Tom Mattair. He said, you know, if these people would stop being so accomplished, it would be easier to introduce them. (Laughter.) I can tell you, their accomplishments would easily take up the time we have available just listing them. So I won’t bother to try.
The subject today is one that’s been of great interest to me since my youth and a source of some frustration. It is a subject about which I have a point of view. My point of view is that American national interests are very much impacted and in fact endangered by the absence of peace in the Middle East. I’m mildly pessimistic about the prospects for achieving that. But we’re in an exciting time now in that there are competing Arab and Israeli peace initiatives that are out. It’s easy to concentrate on that part of the Israeli body politic that is a rejectionist-centric and — but nevertheless still is a minority of the Israeli body politic. The recent issuance of an Israeli peace initiative by a number of senior former military and security officials and others in Israel gives me some hope. And I’m going to steal a little line from someone else, and this is from Al Sharpton, who talked about — used it in a different context: I’m pleased that the Israeli right on this subject will now have to confront the right Israelis.
And in terms of the Arab side, those of you who are Arab — Arabists in the world — (in Arabic) — “the winds of change are blowing.” The major Arab peace initiative that — originally penned by then Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia in late 2001, which then became shortly thereafter the Arab Peace Initiative, was then adopted by the Islamic — the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and it has become the Islamic world’s peace initiative — now has one on the table that tracks it paragraph by paragraph, causing me some hope, maybe a crack in my pessimism.
Time now to listen to people who really know about the subject. I’ll introduce you, Dr. Mattair, who will introduce the rest of our speakers. Thank you.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
Yes, I join Frank in thanking you for coming and would add that this conference is also being live-streamed, so for everybody in that audience, you can also submit questions to us by clicking on a link on our website.
Before I introduce the speakers, I want to spend two minutes giving a little bit of historical background. The Arab Peace Initiative was offered by then Crown Prince Abdullah in March 2002, at a time when the Second Intifada was raging and Israel was retaking the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Sharon was not enthused about it and neither was the Bush administration. They were giving up on Yasser Arafat as a partner for peace. They were demanding that Palestinians implement political reform before the United States would support a two-state resolution of the conflict.
But as war with Iraq approached, Secretary of State Powell wanted to establish a Quartet — the United States, Russia, European Union and the U.N. — to draft a road map for how to get to a two-state solution. And also, Arafat agreed to the establishment of a position of prime minister, filled by Mahmoud Abbas, as a response to Bush administration demands for political reform.
So therefore, in the spring of 2003 when the war in Iraq started to — seemed to be doing well, Bush asked Sharon to cooperate with Mahmoud Abbas. And Sharon said he was ready to make painful compromises for peace. But the road map is a complicated document full of stages, full of conditions; and the first condition that there be complete ceasefire could never be established. Therefore, Israel was unwilling to freeze settlements, and the process stalled.
In 2004, Bush made some assurances to the Israelis that they wouldn’t have to withdraw fully and completely to the 1967 lines and that they wouldn’t have to take Palestinian refugees into Israel. And the Bush administration supported a number of unilateral measures made by Sharon, namely consolidating large settlement blocs that he wanted to be incorporated into Israel later, building a security wall; and then in 2005, withdrawing from the Gaza Stip.
We know that in the following year, there was war between Israel and Lebanon. Hamas won Palestinian elections, and the following year, Hamas even drove Fatah out of the Gaza Strip. The Arab Peace Initiative was endorsed again early in 2007. Again, Bush administration wasn’t enthused, but by the end of the year, they called the parties to Annapolis, committed themselves to supporting negotiations that would bring about two states within a year; that is, by the end of Bush’s term. But Ehud Olmert — Prime Minister — Israeli Prime Minister Olmert and Abbas couldn’t close the deal in 2008. Israelis and Syrians tried. They couldn’t close the deal in 2008. And that year ended in war.
Then the Obama administration came into office and tried — gallantly, I think — to resolve this conflict, but has failed, even though it has said that it’s a vital national security interest to the United States to succeed.
Now we have an Israeli peace initiative — not an official one — a civil society initiative authored and signed by very important retired generals and intelligence officials and government officials and academics and others, demonstrating there is still will and support for a peaceful resolution in Israel.
How this initiative compares and contrasts with the Arab Peace Initiative or how it compares and contrasts with the agreements almost reached between Barak and Arafat in 2000, how it compares with agreements missed between Olmert and Abbas in 2008 — those are subjects that can be discussed. How the initiative will influence the Israeli government or influence the Israeli electorate — something else that can be discussed. How the Arab Spring is going to affect all of this can be discussed. And finally, if negotiations fail, we can discuss what will happen if the matter is taken to the U.N.
Those are some of the issues I think we’ll be dealing with today.
And now to tell you about the panelists — on the back of your invitation, there is something comprehensive about each one of them. And I can’t go through all of it, but I will start by saying that our first speaker will be Shibley Telhami, who’s the Anwar Sadat chair at the University of Maryland and a non-resident scholar at the Brookings Institution. And he has accomplished a great deal in his career; one of the most recent things is having served on the Iraq Study Group, and he also is a principal investigator in annual public opinion surveys conducted in the Arab world and was my cohort in graduate school at the University of California, Berkeley. But I won’t say how many years ago that was.
And then I’d like the second speaker to be Scott Lasensky, who is a senior research associate at the Center for Conflict Management at the U.S. Institute of Peace. He was an adviser to the Obama-Biden campaign. He appears on major TV networks and is published in major international papers, is the co-author of a book published in 2009 called “Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East.”
He will be followed by Hussein Ibish, a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. You can find his blog address and his Twitter address on the invitation. His most recent book is called “What’s Wrong with the One-State Agenda: Why Ending the Occupation and Peace with Israel is Still the Palestinian National Goal.”
And the cleanup batter will be Graeme Bannerman, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute; the founder of Bannerman Associates, an international consulting firm; former analyst on the Policy Planning Staff at the State Department; former staffer on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and someone who has taught at Georgetown and George Washington and other universities and an election observer, too.
That’s a good panel. Again, please read the fuller bios on the back of the invitation. And now I’d like to ask Shibley to come to the podium.
SHIBLEY TELHAMI, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, University of Maryland; non-resident senior fellow, Brookings Institution
Good morning. Thanks, Tom, for the introduction. And as you heard, Tom and I go a long way back to graduate school at Berkeley. We also go back a long way with the Middle East Policy journal. In fact, with this year’s, I’ve done this program many times. But more importantly, back in the late 1990s when Richard Haass was the director of foreign policy at Brookings, we had something called Sadat Forum at Brookings, which was a series of conversations about the Middle East that was actually published regularly in the Middle East Policy journal. And Anne Joyce is here, who had done a lot for this journal. So I’m happy to be here again.
What I’d like to do is try to put some perspective around the Arab Peace Initiative and compare it to where we are now. I think if we look back at 2002 when the Arab Peace Initiative was passed, it was an extraordinary initiative in historical perspective because it was really the first time where you had all the Arab states in essence say that, if Israel withdraws from the territories occupied by 1967: A, the Arab states will consider the Arab-Israeli conflict over, sign a peace agreement with Israel and achieve peace for all states in the region; and B, establish normal relations with Israel within the framework of this comprehensive peace.
This was quite a contrast with the Arab League resolution following the 1967 border war, when in fact the Arabs basically rejected even the idea of negotiating with Israel. So this was a hugely important initiative, which in historical perspective, looks like it was a wasted opportunity. And the question is why, and how do we compare it with where we are now?
It was also, by the way, important because I think those moments in history are really rare when you have so many governments in the Arab world with all the divisions that are ongoing within the Arab world, where you have kind of a unanimous position on something this important. And there was a particularly unique set of circumstances that led to this resolution. And so the question is not only why was that resolution passed at that time but also why did the U.S. not engage it in a way the U.S. could have engaged it and why did the Israelis not embrace it as they could have embraced it? Embracing it doesn’t mean that we do every part of it, but embrace it as a basis for negotiation at a time when the Arabs, in fact, offered something far more than they had offered in the past.
I think it’s very important to think about that in strategic perspective, because it does in some ways shed light on what we’re going through now — to look at the bigger strategic picture. And I think here you have to take into account that when that Arab League resolution was passed in the spring of 2002, the region was still in the middle of the Second Intifada. And more importantly for the U.S., it was right after 9/11. And I think there were a couple of things that were going on that had significance for the key players, for the United States and the Middle East; that is, for the Israelis, for the Egyptians and for the Saudis. Those are really the players that matter most in the Middle East for American diplomacy.
When the Bush administration came to office in 2001, one of the things that they had assumed was that the Arab-Israeli issue was not important, not only because they had seen that Clinton tried and failed and they had a policy of “not Clinton” as Brent Scowcroft called it — so therefore, they didn’t want to deal with it. But there was also a strategic conclusion among the advisers of the president that the Arab-Israeli issue is really not strategically consequential for the United States of America.
In some ways, the president himself certainly assumed that in the Arab world, the U.S. had two strategically important relationships: the one with Egypt and the one with Saudi Arabia. The Egyptian one was safe, from his perspective. And the Saudis, according to his advisers, really didn’t care about the Arab-Israeli issue. They paid it lip service, but when push came to shove, that is not what is going to animate Saudi policy toward the United States or on global issues. That was really the kind of the prevailing assumption in the Bush administration.
The president himself, by all accounts, including his own memoirs, which I reviewed recently for a journal, thought the relationship with Saudi Arabia was important but again, didn’t think that the Saudis cared as much about the Arab-Israeli issue.
And then came late spring, early summer in 2001 when Crown Prince Abdullah rejected an invitation of the president to come to the White House, writing a letter explaining that it was over his anger over American policy toward the Palestine question. And by all accounts, that shift in June and July and August of 2001 affected the president more than any other thing taking place in the Middle East because it essentially challenged his assumptions about the Saudis. He cared about the relationship with Saudi Arabia and he didn’t think the Saudis were going to be angered by what was happening on the Palestine question, and yet here was the crown prince essentially saying no to the president of the United States over this issue and explicitly specifying that it was over this issue. And there was a readjustment — a rethinking about American policy during the summer of 2001.
Now that takes place, obviously, just before the tragedy of 9/11. And once the tragedy of 9/11 takes place, it changes the strategic assumptions everywhere, including in the U.S. The initial American instinct was not necessarily anger with the Saudi government. Some people now look at 9/11 and say, well 9/11, therefore anger with the Muslim world; 9/11, therefore anger with Saudi Arabia; 9/11, therefore anger with the Arab world. Actually that was not clear right after 9/11.
In fact, it wasn’t clear even in public opinion polls in the U.S. Initial American public opinion, even toward Muslims, was actually far more positive right after 9/11 than it became down the road, and the administration’s instinct initially was actually to say, well, these enemies of the U.S., al-Qaeda, are also enemies of our allies in the Middle East, particularly the Saudis. And there was in fact an early attempt with President Bush supporting the idea of A Palestinian state after 9/11, not before 9/11. There was initially a calculation and going back and forth on whether to in fact use this tragedy that brought support from all over the world to get closer strategically to allies in the Middle East and maybe push for an Arab-Israeli peace. That certainly was an option, so much so that the Prime Minister of Israel Ariel Sharon worried about the strategic consequences and used the Munich analogy to make his point. He said that we will not allow Israel to be sold out in the administration’s approach following 9/11 to get closer to the Arab world.
So there was a strategic picture that was fluid and uncertain during that time. I’m also a student of Israeli foreign policy. When I look at Israeli foreign policy, at the big level, (put aside the domestic political environment, which is important always in Israel it’s a very complex political system). Put it aside for now, there’re always two big components in Israeli foreign policy. The first one is whenever there is a big strategic change of the sort that we witnessed after 9/11 and what we’re witnessing now, Israel’s top priority is to protect its strategic relationship with the U.S. at all costs. That trumps even the Arab-Israeli issue. It trumps regional calculations. It trumps every single issue because that is the anchor of Israeli foreign policy, is the strong, solid, uncontested strategic relationship with the U.S.
And secondarily in its policy towards the Arab world, there has been an axiom from the beginning, which is that taking Egypt out of the equation of Arab politics is central, was obviously the priority during Israel’s three decades that led to the Camp David Accords. And with the Camp David Accords, there was a certain safety about the regional picture. Yes, there are all kinds of things that could happen, that can go wrong, that are threatening to Israel — and there have been some — but at the level of worrying for existence or worrying for big wars that could be lost, when Egypt was taken out of the equation. Israel wanted peace with other Arab states, but did not see it as a strategic imperative when Egypt was taken for granted.
The Arab Peace Initiative started, of course, as a Saudi peace initiative. And in some ways the Saudis were surprised by the turn of events in the U.S. where initially there were people who were coming to them to see if they could coordinate and help, and suddenly there was a changed mood particularly when people talked about those who attacked America and whether the Saudis have in fact been in effect supporting the type of radicalism that gave rise to al-Qaida. And there was a media campaign targeting the Saudis with policy consequences; they were taken aback.
And when the Bush administration in 2002 was trying to figure out what it was going to pursue, it already had made a decision about its top priority: Iraq. Whether it had made a decision to go to war early or not, is of course subject to debate — many accounts will be told in the coming months, including in a book that Scott and I and William Quandt, Dan Kurtzer and Steven Spiegel have just finished co-authoring that included that period, and we’ll have a lot of information about that period from interviews over that period.
But when you look at the Bush administration’s decision to go to war with Iraq, when many of the Saudis were consulted early on, many of them contested at least the sequencing of going to war with Iraq before dealing with the Palestine question. They were more open to war with Iraq if in fact there was a resolution of the Arab-Israeli issue first.
And it’s in that context, I think, of the Saudis fighting for the narrative that was taking place here in the U.S. after 9/11, assuming that a Palestinian—Israeli peace would make it more possible for the Arabs to tolerate a war against Saddam Hussein, that they sought this initiative.
But it happened when the Israelis were in a different place because Ariel Sharon was looking at it as a strategic threat to Israel. This is a period where Israel is not going to make decisions. This is a fluid environment where America’s national interests are being redefined. And he did not want to be on the wrong side of how this came out. And essentially he saw an opportunity to consolidate the relationship with the Bush administration, and he was not as fearful of the consequences in large part because Egypt was — there was an Israeli confidence about the Egyptian-Israeli relationship.
Now the Arab Peace Initiative, of course, was put on the table as a presumed incentive to the Israelis in part because the Israeli-Palestinian — in the Israeli-Palestinian equation, the Palestinians had little to offer many in the Israeli public other than ending the intifada, and there was an idea that the inducement of peace with the Arab states would in fact change — shift the internal political situation in Israel in favor of endorsing an Arab — the Arab Peace Initiative.
That did not really happen in Israel as things were moving much more toward confrontation, particularly focused more on the Iraq war and the mobilizing. And the Israeli focus was far more on what might happen, given that the administration was already moving toward the Iraq war. And therefore, there was, you know, no interest in seeing a diplomatic initiative that would take away from that.
Now I say all that in perspective because if you look at what we are seeing now, we’re seeing in some ways another huge set of events, maybe akin to 9/11 in the strategic consequences even for the U.S., I mean, separate from — obviously for the Middle East, they’re even more consequential.
But the uprisings in the Arab world, the revolutions that are taking place, obviously have reshuffled the deck of politics in the region in a manner that forces every country, including the U.S., to reassess its interests. And when you are in such a fluid strategic environment where interests are being redefined, it is very hard for the Israelis to do anything but go to the core issues, which is first protect your relationship with the U.S. and make sure you are on the right side of the strategic debate because that is when the U.S. is essentially reformulating its approach to the region; and the Israelis have to make sure that they’re on the right side of this issue. And that affects everything else. And to the extent that it’s fluid and uncertainty that comes with it, mean that that becomes the core focal point of Israeli policy.
Second, the one changing element here from the Israeli perspective is what happened in Egypt. Because one cannot underestimate how important the Egyptian-Israeli relationship has been as an anchor of Israeli foreign policy since the Camp David accords. To the extent the Israelis worried about anything in the region, they have a lot of worries: Iran, obviously, has been a concern to them, and they worried Hezbollah, and about Hamas — it was not in the same way that they had worried prior to the Camp David Accords in terms of the consequence of a major war to their very existence.
And I think the Egyptian-Israeli treaty was taken for granted, but it was an anchor of Israeli foreign policy, in which case, their consideration toward Arab politics were far less central than they have become since the uprisings and particularly since the downfall of the Mubarak regime.
Now after the downfall of the Mubarak regime — it’s not that in any short term the Egyptian-Israeli relationship is in jeopardy in terms of the end of peace or the end of the Camp David Accords. I don’t think anyone really thinks that likely any time soon. But what has happened with the Mubarak government was not only that it was in essence reliable in its commitment to its peaceful cooperative relationship with Israel, but that over the past half-dozen years, the Mubarak government had become Israel’s central ally in the Middle East in a way that we had not seen in the past.
Historically, Israelis liked to have at least one or two allies in the region for regional politics separate from the relationship with the U.S. Iran, under the Shah, was one, and then Turkey essentially became that ally. Iran obviously was “lost,” and then Turkey went in another direction that jeopardized their close relationship with Israel, and the Mubarak government really filled that vacuum, becoming the central ally of Israel in its strategic and tactical coordination. So it was not just about the safety of the peace relationship; it was also about the quality of the proactive coordination.
Now what has happened recently is an environment in which the Israelis cannot assume that Egypt is a strategic partner anymore. They’re not as worried as they were a few months ago, in large part, because they see the Egyptian military asserting itself. And if you ask Israelis about what has been happening over the past few months, they will tell you that the military-to-military relationship between Egypt and Israel has never been stronger. So it’s not that that military relationship, the coordination, has diminished — in fact, in some ways, both sides have more mutual interests, particularly over issues in the Sinai — but they cannot be certain about the outcome of the political process, particularly after the Egyptian elections.
And so in that sense, in my own estimation, obviously this is a period of uncertainty. I’m not going to talk about the Palestinian dimension of it; I’m just going to focus on what I expect would happen at least from the Israeli side, and that is that the Israelis do not like to make decisions under uncertainty of this sort. So regardless of their assessment of what’s happening in the Palestinian territories, the situation is too unsettled both in terms of how America is defining its interests and how the Arab world is going to come out at the end of this series of uprisings. And they’re very uncomfortable making strategic decisions in an uncertain environment of this sort.
But in my own assessment, the Egyptian elections in the fall will somewhat clarify the picture of Egypt and its relations with Israel. But these elections will also raise the profile of the Israel-Palestine question in Arab politics and Arab revolutions in ways that we have not seen in the early months. It is already clear that the Palestine question remains central in Arab politics. If you look at the Zogby poll that was just released two weeks ago about whether or not Arab views of the U.S. have improved in light of the Arab revolutions, you find that they have declined, and it’s clear that that decline is largely because Arabs continue to view the United States through the prism of the Israel-Palestine conflict. That has not changed despite the Arab Awakening.
And as we get engaged in a diplomacy over the Palestine question, particularly in the United Nations General Assembly in September, and then you have the election campaign in Egypt unfold, the discourse in Egypt is going to be very much focused on the question of Palestine again in a manner that is going to raise flags inevitably in Washington and in Israel.
But at the same time — here’s my hypothesis: From the Israeli point of view, the Arab Peace Initiative that was passed in 2002 is worth twice as much to the Israelis today than it was worth in 2002, and in large part because an Arab Peace Initiative that revalidates the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, at a time when the Israelis are no longer certain about it, is far more valuable to Israel than it was before. So at the strategic picture actually, there’s a huge strategic incentive — let’s put aside for now Israeli domestic politics — that could possibly become a greater incentive in diplomacy after the picture in Egypt clarifies.
And so let me end just by saying two things. One is that when you have big strategic change of the sort we’re witnessing in the Arab world now, of the sort that we witnessed with the tragedy of 9/11, those strategic calculations are central in the making of foreign policy of every government, but certainly of the Israeli governments and of the U.S. government. And now we’re going through one of these, and you cannot lose sight of that big picture in thinking about what is possible.
And second, Arab revolutions have not diminished the value of the Palestine question in Arab politics and the way Arabs see the world. If anything, they probably will intensify attention to this issue in large part because Arab public opinion was far more focused on this issue than the governments were, and now every government, including governments that will stay in place, will have to pay more attention to public opinion.
Thank you very much. (Applause.)
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you, Shibley.
SCOTT LASENSKY, Senior Research Associate, Center for Conflict Management, U.S. Institute of Peace
Boy, it’s hard to follow Shibley. That was like a summer minicourse, half a semester’s worth of American foreign policy and Middle East strategic affairs in a few minutes. Shibley, it’s always a delight to join you.
I want to thank the Middle East Policy Council for organizing this meeting, particularly that it’s held here on Capitol Hill. I work at the Institute of Peace, and for those who don’t know, the institute was created and is funded by the Congress.
Our mission — it’s fairly broad, but at the same time, very much focused on developing nonviolent solutions to violent conflicts worldwide. We do it in often very unconventional ways. It’s an operational organization; we’ve got staff around the world, particularly throughout the Arab world, colleagues recently in Egypt and Libya, looking for ways to cement nonviolent political change in the Arab world.
We’re a think tank because we do research and publications. I think if any of you have taken courses or taught courses on international conflict or the Middle East, it’s hard to avoid titles from the Institute of Peace Press. Some of the panelists have titles in that catalog.
We’re a foundation — this is not a plug, but an offer for those who don’t know — the institute is a grant-making organization. That’s part of the charter from the Congress. We give grants to organizations and individuals in the United States and throughout the world working on conflict resolution.
And we’re an academy because we do our own training — professional training for people involved in international conflict. So a short plug, if you don’t mind.
And I’m glad Shibley mentioned the book, which we hope will be out a little bit later this year or early next year, which we have tentatively entitled “The Peace Puzzle,” a detailed history of American involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
I want to keep my remarks brief, andbe largely thematic and less historical than Shibley. I’m going to talk about— the Israeli Peace Initiative based on what I’ve read and what I’ve learned about, and a trip to Israel two weeks ago where I met some of the originators of this peace initiative, but I’m also going to talk a little bit about the Israeli mood and the Israeli political environment when it comes to questions of peacemaking.
In April, just this year in April, when the Israel Peace Initiative, as it’s called in English — I’ll get to that in a minute — as it’s called in English, was trotted out at a press conference in Israel, the State Department responded to a question and said we believe this could make a positive contribution. So here our own government, in a way, endorsed it. So why? What’s it all about? Why now? How does it compare to other initiatives, and can it capture the imagination of Israelis? A few words about those questions.
One, I think, “Why now?” is because those who signed — and it’s a very impressive group of people who signed up to this initiative, the Israel Peace Initiative — are very worried about the vacuum. There’s a vacuum in Israel, in Israeli foreign policy, when it comes to Israel’s conflict with its Arab neighbors.
Why do I say a vacuum? Well, effectively you have an Israeli government, and it’s a big government — that’s a separate question about gridlock in politics; I think we know a little bit about gridlock in politics — there’s a lot of gridlock in Israel. They have a government that represents, I think, more than — it’s close to one-third of all the members of the parliament sit in the government, but that’s a separate issue.
There’s a vacuum in Israel because Israel’s government today, though they have endorsed the concept, and the prime minister himself, Benjamin Netanyahu, has endorsed the concept of a two-state solution and a few other principles — in effect, the net impact of where this Israeli government stands today is that the diplomatic field is wide open. So it doesn’t have an operational peace initiative on the table. So there’s a vacuum.
And vacuums don’t last very long in the Middle East. And those in Israel who have stood behind this initiative are worried. People even in the government — like, Ehud Barak, the defense minister, I think ,was quoted recently talking about a diplomatic tsunami that is awaiting Israel just over the horizon. So the timing of the Israel Peace Initiative in 2011, ahead of what many in Israel fear could be a serious showdown at the United Nations, is certainly not a coincidence. That’s the “why now.”
So how does it compare to other initiatives? Well, in a sense, there’s something old and there’s something new about the Israeli Peace Initiative. What’s old? Well, on the core issue of conflict between Arabs and Israelis, on the Palestinian question, the ideas in the Israeli Peace Initiative — which, you know, you don’t really need to me to tell you about; it’s all online; they have a nice website — the ideas about the Palestinian question are effectively those that we’ve seen before. They’re not new.
They approximate the ideas of President Clinton when he put forward his peace initiative at the end of his time in office, even unofficial peace initiatives like the one some years ago put forward by Sari Nusseibeh and Ami Ayalon, even up to the present . You look at President Obama’s speech, May 19th speech, and his parameters — the principles on the questions of borders and security.
This formulation that these notable Israelis have put forward essentially approximates a lot of these consensus ideas about a two-state solution along the ’67 borders, a shared arrangement in Jerusalem, agreed solutions to the refugee problems, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.
And some of the personalities beyond the substance are not new: Ayalon, who I just mentioned, a former Israeli security chief, Ami Ayalon, has signed on; Colette Avital, who’s a long-time Labor Knesset member and a protégé of Shimon Peres — currently the Israeli president; academics and — diplomats long associated with Israeli diplomacy andpeace-making: Shimon Shamir, Tamar Hermann.
So the personalities are not necessarily new. The ideas themselves are not necessarily new. But here’s the rub — there’s a very interesting rub. And it relates a lot to what Shibley said. I’ll give you two things — at least the way I read the IPI — two ideas to think about as you consider whether this could be a game changer in Israel: Number one, there’s a regional frame on this Israel Peace Initiative. Like the Arab Peace Initiative, it looks at the conflict as broadly as it can be defined. Shibley, I think, is very correct in noting that, you know, timing is everything. It’s everything in life, it’s everything in personal relationships, and it’s everything in diplomacy.
And the fact is today — and I’ll get to this in a minute — after a very difficult decade for Israelis, a decade filled with violence and Intifada, wars in the north, wars in the south, and skepticism, rising right-wing trends in their politics, there’s very little — this may sound somewhat provocative — but there’s very little that Palestinians can give Israelis on their own in solving their conflict that can bring the conflict to a resolution. So that’s why the regional frame is so important.
In effect, it’s almost like we’re moving back to the future. If you look at ideas for solving the Arab-Israeli dispute decades ago, and the ideas of President Carter when he came to office and others even before — comprehensive ideas, comprehensive frameworks, taking the conflict as a whole was very central to American ideas and international diplomacy.
In recent years the issue has been subdivided into various negotiating tracks. It’s almost like when you build a house and no one — no one comes — you can see where I am in life — you don’t have one builder who comes to the house and just does it from top to bottom. You end up with a whole bunch of subcontractors and plumbers and carpenters and this and that. Well, the Arab-Israeli conflict has been subdivided for a very long time. And you have Israelis and Syrians off in one direction, and Palestinians and Israelis in another.
With this Israel Peace Initiative, like the Arab Peace Initiative years before, there is a broad regional framework. The solution is defined as broadly as the conflict itself can be defined. And that’s very important. It’s very important because in the trade-off between the parties what the Palestinians can give to Israel — sorry — what Israel can give to Palestinians they can then get from them in return and from regional — from the neighboring Arab states. And that’s a critical part of the equation. So the regional frame is new.
And second, some of the personalities are new. I said most of the personalities are not new; they’re people in the Israeli political mix that you can identify as being strongly supportive of peacemaking and compromise for many years. But some people are new. And where’s the new constituency? The new constituency, those who signed up to this initiative, are from the business community. Israel’s got a very strong business community but they’ve been silent for a long time.
One of the strongest backers of this Israel Peace Initiative is a businessman named Idan Ofer, representative of a segment — still I think a small segment, but an important segment in the Israeli business community — that worries. Just as Ehud Barak in his remarks worried about a diplomatic tsunami, they worry about an economic tsunami that awaits Israel should a diplomatic showdown at the U.N. precipitate further showdowns in the months and years ahead. And they see real and concrete costs that could come to Israel’s economy.
The business community, I think, is central to this new initiative. And it’s their ability to create a constituency that can motivate the political leaders that could mean this initiative captures the imagination of Israelis. So that leads me again to — I mentioned this third point: How does this initiative spark a different kind of debate, a different kind of political reality in Israel?
Well, number one, more businesspeople. If you could see not just a handful but dozens, scores of the heads of some of Israel’s largest and most important companies, from their old economy — the eight or nine families that control half of the old, traditional economy in Israel, consumer goods and transportation the “brick and mortar” — and leading figures from the new economy, because Israel has a very vibrant and fast-growing new economy based on high-tech, biotech and high-value goods — recruiting more businesspeople.
Also the signatories, the people behind this initiative, need to pull another stunt. I would put that as sort of the second — the second factor that will make a difference. What do I mean by stunt? Well, when they launched the initiative in April there was tremendous media coverage because here you had a son of the slain Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, his son Yuval Rabin, standing next to a CEO of a company, flanked by security chiefs and flanked by other CEOs. And it caught the imagination. There was a vacuum, there wasn’t much about peace being discussed in the Israeli body politic, and it caught a news cycle.
They need to do this again. They need to find another way, whether it’s orchestrating some kind of informal confidence-building measure between businesspeople in the Arab world and in Israel or political leaders, maybe, around the U.N. General Assembly. They need to find a way to remain in the mix. The news mix here, just like in Israel and anywhere, tends to be dominated and privileged by those who hold political office. And the people behind this Israel Peace Initiative don’t hold political office. So they’re at a disadvantage.
So recruiting more businesspeople, which is an important silent majority in Israel — particularly now since Israelis think so much about their pocketbooks in a growing economy, but still a tenuous economy — making the news; and then, third, the one factor that Shibley alluded to but it’s sort of out of the control of Israelis — out of their direct control — is that if there is what I would call a soft landing to the Arab Spring, then this peace initiative, which mirrors the Arab Peace Initiative, becomes very influential.
Let me say a word or two, not about the Israel Peace Initiative, which — you know, it’s interesting — and I’ll get to this when I talk about the Israeli mood — it’s interesting that in Hebrew the initiative is called “Yisrael Yozemet,” Israel Initiates. Why Israel Initiates? Well, they wanted to give a sense of forward leaning, of being — of action oriented. But they also left out the word “peace.” Why? Well, we’ll get to that in a minute.
A few points about the Israeli mood, broadly defined — and this certainly will affect the prospects for the Israel Peace Initiative and for American diplomacy — five, six points. Number one, Israelis are nervous. Shibley already talked about that. They’ve very nervous about the Arab Spring. They look to their borders to the north; they see a border with Syria, quiet for almost 35 years. And yet, it’s the Arab Spring; it’s a popular uprising in Syria that led the regime to very cynically throw people at the border — two incursions in recent weeks. And Israel is worried that more could be to come.
The Sinai, to Israel’s south, which has affected Israeli strategic thinking for so many decades — it’s their only border that doesn’t have a fence. The strategic orientation of the military in Israel is not deployed toward the south. The military and its hardware — this is not what I do every day, but I know enough from talking to Israelis — that their military is no longer deployed looking south. But just the last few months of events in Egypt and the Sinai worry Israeli strategic planners and lead them to think, well, what would we do if the Sinai suddenly becomes ungovernable? They’ve had three explosions in a critical gas pipeline, the continuing conflict over the border — Gaza’s frontier with Egypt. So they’re very nervous about the Arab Spring.
Of course, in the abstract sense it’ll be hard for you to find Israelis who would say, well, you know, democracy and a more open, accountable politics is a bad thing in the Arab world, in the abstract. But when it comes down to the day-to-day, Israelis are very concrete and very practical when it comes to their political calculations and they worry that ongoing political turmoil, as well as an opening perhaps for more extreme Islamist views, will create more problems for them. So they’re torn. And, yes, there’s a big of a split personality when it comes to Israelis and how they think about political change in the Arab world. But they’re nervous. And you have to take the nervousness and the anxiety into account.
Number two, they’re traumatized. Saying nothing about Israel’s neighbors — Palestinians or neighboring Arab societies — but if you look at Israeli society by itself, it is a society traumatized by the last decade: a very violent Intifada that hit the home front, over a thousand Israelis killed, many more thousands injured; war in Lebanon, war in Gaza. Say what you will about cause and effect, but Israelis come out traumatized from the last 10 years, from the collapse of the Oslo peace process in the year 2000 — it was a violent collapse. And so the present follows a very rough decade.
Third, on top of that, you have a large degree of Israeli ambivalence. And I know it’s much remarked upon these days; there was even a Time magazine or a Newsweek — I forget which — a cover story about, do Israelis really want peace? But I wanted to mention it because it’s so striking. And when I was there last week — being in Jerusalem is one thing, but being in Tel Aviv, the hub of the Israeli economy, the engine of the growth of the Israeli economy — it’s just striking to see how much ambivalence and complacency there is today in Israel.
They have a security barrier, a fence and a wall that’s still being built. They have a security barrier which they see as effective, and in a sense they’re hiding behind. The economy’s growing. The security situation seems relatively under control. And all this kind of creates a certain level of ambivalence and complacency, which is not good for peacemaking. You need a spark. So these are — these are — again, these are some of the obstacles one has to overcome.
Fourth, Israeli society — and any conversation you have in Israel, any reading of the Israeli press and any look at Israeli polling data will suggest that their society is trending to the right. And it’s trending to the right particularly among the youth, which is very problematic. The younger Israelis are the more right-wing.
And it’s not just about the events of the last decade; it’s also about institutions in Israel. They have political institutions that are, you know, would be generous perhaps to call wacky. They have the lowest electoral threshold in, I think, in the Western world — 2 percent. It takes 2 percent to get into parliament. Our Congress here — I’m — I don’t know which way to point in this room — but, you know, our Congress runs on a very different system. If we had a 2 percent electoral threshold in this country you would not believe the kinds of people that would be sitting in our Congress. So it’s not just that the society’s trending right, but the institutions accentuate that. That’s fourth.
Fifth, Israelis are also very much searching for leadership. Now, here, this is not — you know, political scientists always look for theories, grand theories, parsimonious ones. Historians tend to look at the more heroic view of history. Well, I’ll put my historian hat on for just a moment. In Israel they’re very much looking for leadership.
Leadership has often made the critical difference, whether Yitzhak Rabin in the ’90s or Menachem Begin with Egypt in the late ’70s. And right now, Israelis, I think, are looking for a hero. There is a very interesting Israeli personality in Washington right now; his name is General Gabi Ashkenazi who’s at the Brookings Institution. He’s a visiting fellow. He just stepped down as the head of the Israeli military — the chief of staff of the military.
And at least in a few things I’ve read it suggests that polls — if he’s at the head of one party or another, give those parties 50 percent or 75 percent more seats in the parliament. What does it show you? It shows you that Israelis are really hungry for leadership. And they’re hungry for heroes. And they’re hungry for vision.
Last, I would say, you know, on — just on the — when talking about the obstacles when it comes to thinking about Israeli politics and Israeli society and how you can break through and how you can find opportunities — last, I think I would be remiss if I didn’t point to — there is a growing level of intolerance in Israel as well. When I was there two weeks ago a bill passed in the parliament that would outlaw calling for boycotts or strikes against Israeli settlements. In fact, the way the legislation, I’m told, is written, you don’t even have to prove damage, you just have to claim it. So if you are an Israeli and you write an op-ed in an Israeli paper saying, well, we shouldn’t buy oranges from this particular Israeli settlement, there are those in their parliament who are trying to make that illegal.
There was a bill about investigating Israeli NGOs, which luckily failed. And I can go on and on and on: a striking level of illegality throughout the Israeli West Bank in terms of what settlers call the price-tag policy; continued settlement building, which interestingly enough flies in the face of the Israeli — Israel’s own military.
And the real story about this, you know, isn’t publically released. But there’s enough that leaks out of the Israel military which suggests that they’re struggling with this trend of illegality. So there’s a lot going on that’s troubling in Israeli politics. And there are a lot of obstacles in terms of breaking through.
But on the upside — I want to end on the upside not just because I work at the Institute of Peace — (chuckles) — but because I believe there are real and serious possibilities for American diplomacy and also for Israel’s neighbors to try to leverage. Number one — I’ll just end on these two points — Israel’s — Israel is yearning for acceptance — and also I want to emphasize what Shibley said about the relationship with the United States.
So first, despite the ambivalence and despite the fact that most Israelis are more comfortable walking around Manhattan or Hyde Park in London, there is still a tremendous yearning for acceptance in Israeli society. And I’m not going to suggest that in the midst of this tumult sweeping the Arab world, an Arab leader’s going to get on a plane and fly to Jerusalem. You know, now may not be the time.
But I mention it because we’re still at a point, despite the trauma of the last decade and despite some of the cynicism that’s sweeping Israeli society and despite the right-wing trends — and remember, Israeli politics was trending right when Anwar Sadat hopped on a plane and flew to Jerusalem — despite all the obstacles, those I mentioned and even some I didn’t mention, there is such a tremendous yearning for acceptance.
In fact, it’s the mirror image of this fear you hear from Israelis about delegitimization, which so animates the Israeli discourse today. So this yearning for acceptance is something that I think the United States needs to keep more mindful, and Israel’s neighbors, particularly when politics settles down and these transitions play out a little bit more. They need to keep in mind it’s a point of leverage.
And then secondly, what Shibley said is so on the mark. Israel’s relationship with the United States has risen to an order of existential importance. It’s been growing in that direction for some time. But at this point it really is such a central pillar: how you use that relationship; how you leverage that relationship, and I say here not in onerous and heavy-handed ways but in positive ways; how you leverage new offers made in security assistance; how you try to speak directly to Israelis, whether you’re the president of the United States or the secretary of State, about the relationship; how you do that — you have to do it in a subtle way, but it probably presents the greatest opportunities for the United States because if there’s anything, there is — if there’s anything in Israel to take advantage of, it’s the reservoir of support among Israelis for their relationship with the United States. And Israelis will pay a relatively high price in terms of preserving that relationship.
There was a saying for a long time that no Israeli politician could sustain a dispute with the United States for a very long time. And there are some in Israel trying to suggest that, well, maybe Benjamin Netanyahu has rewritten the rules, and now Israeli prime ministers can find a way to have a little tension with Washington and still survive politically. I think it’s — I think it’s — I think it’s not true. The history of the Obama administration is just being written now; they’re only at the beginning. We think two years here is a marathon, but there are two more years to say nothing of the possibility of a second term. The history’s still being written.
And there’s still, I think, a very solid rule in Israeli politics that Israeli prime ministers have to make sure that Israelis when they go to sleep at night know that their leaders are taking care of their relationship with the United States. And that’s very much our ace in the pocket.
I think the administration — it’s a topic for another panel about learning in foreign policy. I think this president and the people around him have learned a lot about how you manage that relationship, when you push certain buttons and when you don’t, with the Israelis. And hopefully they’re on track for a more effective second-half of this administration — of this first term.
So let me end there. I’ve put enough on the table. Thank you. (Applause.)
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you, Scott. Ibish — Hussein?
HUSSEIN IBISH, Senior Research Fellow, American Task Force on Palestine
Yeah. Thanks very much to the policy council for inviting me, and thanks to everybody who came out today. I’m Hussein Ibish. I’m a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine. And I’m going to look at what looms ahead potentially at the United Nations in September, because that seems to be the most immediate diplomatic and political context, from a Palestinian perspective anyway, and has huge repercussions.
The — first of all, I’d like to put this whole conversation in its context, at least the way that I — as I understand it and the Palestinian leadership and a lot of Palestinians who are talking about some kind of U.N. initiative in September understand it.
The first point is that while it’s certainly true that there are a lot of Israelis and Americans and Europeans and others who are frustrated at the lack of progress diplomatically, the lack of viable, working peace process or any negotiations, Palestinians live under occupation. And they uniquely find the status quo not only untenable but unbearable, intolerable. And that has very profound implications for Palestinian leaders and the Palestinian political scene, because while it is frequently alleged on the Israeli right and on the Arab left that the leadership in Ramallah of the PLO and the PA is content with the status quo because their rule in Area A of the West Bank is fairly stable and relatively unchallenged, this is, I think, completely wrong.
Over the medium and long term, they’re not content at all, because they understand that if their policy and their program of achieving Palestinian statehood and independence through — primarily through diplomacy and negotiations, augmented by state-building and other measures is seen by the public as having permanently failed, they will be finished in Palestinian society, that they don’t have a future beyond that approach. And when that approach is shelved, people will look elsewhere. And who they’d look to is not mysterious. They’re — a lot of people posit the emergence of a third force — that could happen — but right now, the alternative to the PLO and the PA is sitting there in Gaza. We know exactly who it is, what they say, what their agenda is. And I think we can speculate about the consequences to the Palestinian national movement of an Islamist takeover of that cause.
So the status quo, in fact, is totally unacceptable to the Palestinian leadership in spite of whatever stability they have in the areas that they control in the West Bank and despite of these accusations. The breakdown in diplomacy after the direct talks failed and particularly after the United States was unable to get Israel to agree to a three-month extension of its partial temporary settlement freeze moratorium, in spite of a very attractive and generous package of inducements, led, I think, the Palestinian leadership to conclude that the process as it’s structured now is simply dysfunctional, it’s simply not working for them; and if they continued to rely primarily on — for their long-term goals on a process that was dependent on Israeli forthcomingness, if there is such a word, Israeli enthusiasm for making an agreement and American determination, that really they were surrendering themselves too much to a process that they couldn’t control and that they — that — in which they didn’t have sufficient initiative or agency.
So there was this tremendous desire to find an alternative formula, an alternative path forward diplomatically, while at the same time continuing to stand strongly against violence and these other principles that they are committed to. And I think also there’s a kind of subtext here that’s important to appreciate, which is that this frustration over the past couple of years with Prime Minister Netanyahu, with his cabinet and with the American role — not with the Obama administration particularly but with the American role generally — has led many Palestinian leaders to want to find a way of demonstrating to these two parties that it has actually viable and maybe even powerful alternatives, that in other words, it’s not completely dependent, that it has other options and second-best scenarios, so to speak. So this is another impulse, I think, that’s very important.
Now, the other really crucial thing to understand, to contextualize these ideas, is that the official position and, I think, the real position of the PLO leadership, as continuously emphasized by President Abbas, is that they prefer negotiations to any kind of U.N. initiative, and it’s understandable, as I’ll explain, because every idea about approaching the — virtually every idea about approaching the U.N. — carries with it significant dangers and cost. So it’s completely understandable that from a Palestinian point of view, this is perceived as a kind of leverage to get negotiations restarted if they possibly can. In fact, today, Abbas’ quote is this is: negotiations is our first, second and third choice. This is literally what he said. So he’s really trying to emphasize how much they would like to negotiate.
And what they’re asking for, looking for, are clear terms of reference, which have not been forthcoming, and a framework for the negotiations, which also has not been forthcoming. They’re interested in President Obama’s speech and the framework that was suggested by it: talks based on the 1967 borders with mutually agreed-upon land swaps and focusing — although this makes both parties uncomfortable — on borders and security first. They’re potentially open to that.
There were two extras, two little fillips thrown in by the president for both parties: one, for the Israelis, that the Palestinians ought to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, whatever that means, which I think is the right answer to that request — well, what does that mean? Please provide a definition. And I think that ought to — that ought to at least make the request a little clearer. And for the Palestinians, a full and phased withdrawal of all Israeli forces from the territories that will become a Palestinian state. That’s fairly new. That’s a new formulation anyway, from the United States. And it was important.
But nothing has been achieved to create terms of reference or a negotiating framework out of that vision. And as a matter of fact, the Quartet at its last meeting was unable to reach any consensus on this. You know, it was apparently three to one over this Jewish state question and maybe some other divisions. And the European Union is also rather badly divided, with its last meeting issuing a rather anodyne statement.
So not only has the West not produced a clear, working framework or set of terms of reference or anything like that; I think it’s fair to say that Western policy is extremely divided, unusually divided, on this subject. Really, the role of the Quartet until now has been to give international backing to American-led initiatives. And that’s failed to be produced. I know, a couple of weeks ago, for the first time in my memory — I don’t think it’s ever happened since the founding of the Quartet, frankly. So you have a kind of — on top of everything else — a breakdown in the coherence of the Western approach to the specifics of negotiations, which are essential to restarting them. And that only pushes the Palestinians further toward the United Nations. However, none of the options, as I say, is cost-free to say the least. And I just want to look at each of the three main ones that have been considered or discussed publicly.
The first, of course — and by the way, when they first started talking about this in public and people started speculating about it in public — the terminology that was usually used was that the Palestinians would look for recognition from the U.N. in September, which is meaningless, because the U.N. doesn’t recognize states. States recognize each other. The U.N. has member states. So it was assumed that what Palestinians would do — and it’s still widely assumed what Palestinians would do — would be to approach — well, submit an application to the Security — to the secretary-general to be referred to the Security Council, which is required for a recommendation to the General Assembly and a two-thirds vote by the General Assembly, which would make a potential state, a member state, of the United Nations.
I don’t think there’s much doubt the Palestinians could get the two-thirds majority in the General Assembly, but there’s also no doubt that the United States will veto this in the Security Council, and so it won’t happen. And there is a very — I mean, to say significant — potential cost to a confrontation with the United States over the question of statehood in the Security Council, I think is putting it rather mildly. I’ll illustrate it only by reminding you of the veto cast last year on the question of settlements, which effectively killed that issue, because ever since then, Israel has had in effect a kind of a free hand on settlements. It announces settlements all the time, and there’s virtually no international response. The last thing I heard was Catherine Ashton, the EU foreign policy chief saying she was "disappointed" by some very provocative announcement — which is the mildest possible language — and even muted Palestinian responses.
So for the time being, that sort of shelved the issue. Now, I really think it is — it behooves everyone to think very carefully about repeating that potentially on the issue of statehood. I mean, the issue of settlements is bad enough. So a confrontation with the United States in the Security Council over the question of statehood carries with it simply enormous political and diplomatic costs for the Palestinians, which is why I think it’s less likely than likely, in spite of the — of the political pressure to do it.
The second thing that was talked about quite a lot was some kind of a resolution in the General Assembly under General Assembly Resolution 337, the so-called Uniting for Peace Resolution from 1950, that was designed to get around vetoes by a Security Council member. It was prompted by American frustration with continuous USSR vetoes in the late ‘40s on the question of Korea. And this particularly animated the Israeli press because it permits member states to take various coercive actions to meet breaches of the peace or acts of aggression and whatnot. But its practical implications seem very, very nebulous because there already are states that have been practicing sanctions and boycotts against each other in all kinds of conflicts without any 337 Resolution, and that includes the Middle East Conflict. And it doesn’t go to the question of statehood or the question of membership. It seems entirely off point, frankly, and without practicality. So we haven’t really heard much about that since people looked at it carefully.
The idea that’s dominating the conversation now, at least in public, is the idea of a Palestinian application, either instead of a move in the Security Council to request full U.N. membership recommendation to the General Assembly or after it, would be a request directly to the General Assembly for non-member state status, okay. Right now, the Palestinian representation in the U.N. is the PLO observer mission, which is not a non-member state. It’s a political entity, observer mission. And there are a number of those, in particular the EU and the Holy See.
And that would require, as I understand it, 50 percent plus one, which the Palestinians would certainly get. And this is appealing in some ways and also not appealing in some other ways and carries very significant costs if it — if it’s pursued. The first thing that it wouldn’t do, of course, is it wouldn’t establish an independent state of Palestine, okay. This just would be kind of a declaration by the U.N., by the General Assembly — that's all.
The second thing it wouldn’t do, which is — I think anyway or — it’s hard to imagine it accomplishing the goal that President Abbas and others keep sort of suggesting it might. I mean, they don’t really put it in the context of non-member state status, but this is how I take it anyway, of getting on a more equal footing with Israel in the diplomatic register. And particularly, there’s an emphasis on wanting to negotiate about the future of the territory of another state, not the territory of an undefined area under military occupation. I am not sure that such a vote in the General Assembly would actually accomplish that in practice.
The costs — well, let me actually — let me tell you about what it might do. What it might do is first, at least some people are hoping, give the Palestinians access to the International Criminal Court. It’s, I guess, conceivable — I can’t see anything that absolutely precludes a Palestinian entity that is a non-member state in the general assembly — at least trying to accede to the Statute of Rome and become a part of the assembly of parties at the International Criminal Court. It’s theoretically possible.
But there are a couple of problems with that. And first of all, would this status actually be taken as real state status, especially when it comes to the question of territory? And the question of territory is very important for the ICC, because it is — Israel is not a party to the Statute of Rome, okay, which means that Israeli citizens cannot be prosecuted based on actions they take within Israel or because of their status as Israeli nationals.
What the PA tried to initiate in January of 2009 with a letter to the ICC was an authorization to the court to have jurisdiction or request that the court exercise jurisdiction in the territories nominally or supposedly under the control of the PA, including Gaza — this really was kind of a reference to the Gaza War — because if the PA or Palestine were regarded as a state by the ICC, Israel could be liable for actions committed within the territory that is assumed or recognized to be under the control of that state, if any. So you see the importance of territory here. So this non-member state might not be understood to actually control territory in any kind of sovereign way, so it might become extremely complicated.
However, I do think this has been one of the guiding concerns of Israel about all of this, because the Statute of Rome has several elements that might be seen as very threatening and alarming to the Israelis, should they ever fall under it. All belligerent parties are potentially liable to war crimes such as, you know, unlawful use of force against civilians or property or whatnot. But there are two things, two passages that might apply — that might particularly apply to the Israelis.
One is the ICC — the — excuse me, the Statute of Rome specifically lists settlement activity and the transfer of population into an area under military occupation as a war crime. This must be alarming to the Israelis because there’s no doubt — the Security Council has reaffirmed many times that this is an area — the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights for that matter, are under Israeli occupation and that Israel is the occupying power. So this is a concern.
There’s also a crime called crime of apartheid, which is described roughly as a system of discrimination favoring one ethnic group over another with the — with the intention of perpetuating that system. That might be out there, but I think if you looked at any sort of political system or social system anywhere in the world, probably the system that Israel operates under the occupation falls closest to meeting that definition than any other. It’s obviously a vulnerability.
As I say, it’s not at all certain or even likely that such a recognition by the — or such status accorded by — the General Assembly would actually give Palestinians access — direct access to the ICC or give the ICC, in its own mind, jurisdiction over the territories it claims. But that’s one possibility that’s been discussed. The ICC, when they received the letter in ’09, made no determination. They received it without prejudice, and they never came to any conclusion about it. Whether this would help them do that — although statehood was obviously an issue, territory was obviously another issue for them — whether that would resolve this issue or not is very much in question.
The other thing that appeals, I think, to Palestinians about this idea is that there have been 16 non-member states in the history of the U.N., not including the Vatican, the Holy See, which is currently the only non-member state. And if you allow for states that have united — Vietnam and Germany — all 16 of those are now member states of the United Nations. And this history must be, at least in an aspirational sense, very appealing to the Palestinians. If a state of Palestine can become an observer — and the Vatican has never wanted to become a member state — but, you know, became the latest state that intends ultimately to become a member, it might be, they would hope, difficult to prevent that in the future.
There are costs. I’ll try to explain these—— significant costs. First is Israeli unilateral retaliation, which they’ve threatened. They’re currently talking about revoking or abrogating the Oslo Agreements, whatever that might mean — possible annexation, who knows. There’s American retaliation. Congress has threatened the cutoff of aid. And the U.S. is the single biggest donor annually to the PA, not if you include all the EU, but alone. That’s a significant amount of money that’s at stake here, plus general relations with the United States, which is very important.
Finally, the Israelis have the idea of countering any Palestinian majority in the General Assembly with a group of 30 states that would be small in number but represent the most powerful, influential countries: most of the West plus Japan. And they would present this, in effect, or maybe even overtly as the camp of the, quote, “civilized world,” closed quote, and claim that all these countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America might be with the Palestinians, but, you know, the important countries, the “civilized world” or something like that — they’re with us. And this might be another kind of victory for Prime Minister Netanyahu.
So, all these options carry with them very serious costs. And all parties, including the Palestinians, have a very serious day-after problem; what do they do the day after? And particularly, from a Palestinian point of view, if any of these measures is seen as a — as a diplomatic, open quote, “success,” closed quote, but nothing changes on the ground for Palestinians and because of Israeli retaliation the loss of U.S. aid or other measures, things actually get worse as a consequence for people’s daily lives, plus the frustration, there is a potential for an outbreak of popular anger.
Now, people look at the nonviolent movement in the West Bank and the nonviolent nature of a lot of the Arab uprisings and hope — and I hope so too — that if there is another explosion of anger, that it would take a nonviolent form. But the occupation is the system of control and discipline. I do not think the Israelis have many options of dealing with a sustained campaign of nonviolence other than the use of force eventually. And there are many Palestinian factions who are totally committed to armed struggle and violence and would certainly take advantage of that kind of situation. So how long it could stay nonviolence, even if it started in a nonviolent way, is extremely questionable and would be a headache for the Israelis and the PA as well.
So there are very powerful incentives, which is the subject of this panel, to resume negotiations, but — for everyone — but they might be indirect. Even the — even providing a framework, even providing a road map or especially providing terms of reference that is seen to be meaningful might be enough to stave off any kind of train wreck or confrontation.
And the most obvious way out is for everyone to agree that Palestinians would seek a mission upgrade, not a change of status exactly, to keep the PLO observer mission as the Palestinian presence in the U.N. but with upgraded rights and privileges, sort of EU-minus, since they probably can’t aspire to have all the privileges of the EU without provoking some kind of politically damaging, diplomatically damaging confrontation, but they could get more rights and responsibilities and privileges than they have now. That would be a kind of diplomatic victory.
I think the bottom line is that the Palestinian leadership politically and diplomatically needs an incentive not to do this. They need a political reason not to do this. They certainly need something they can turn to their public and say: This is why we decided not to. If they’re left with absolutely nothing, they’re going to be in an extremely difficult political situation and also diplomatic one. And that might precipitate something that would harm — a confrontation that would harm all parties and that would be best avoided.
DR. MATTAIR: Thank you, Hussein.
GRAEME BANNERMAN, Scholar, Middle East Institute; Founder, Bannerman Associates
My assignment, when Tom asked me to be the cleanup hitter, was making sure that I finish at 11:00. (Laughter.) It’s now a little after 11:00, so I failed in my first assignment. (Laughter.)
The second thing I’d like to say is every time I hear discussions on the peace process — and I promise you my old and aged body has heard many of them — I always think about the definition of a pessimist as being an informed optimist.
Peace plans — those of us who have been involved with this process for a long time have seen many peace plans, peace initiatives and the like. This is volume one of the peace plans that I was told to pull together in 1977 at the beginning of the Carter administration to use as the basis for discussions of the peace process. I have a newspaper article from September 1982 describing an Arab summit in Morocco that was going to discuss the peace plans that were then current: the Reagan plan, the Fahd plan and the Bourguiba plan. Now, where did all those go?
In the end, there are an ample number of plans and processes and people to think about them. But what matters is the strategic situation at the time the plans are initiated. We’ve had, during the last forty years, two periods of time when we’ve made significant progress in the peace process. The first was at the end of the Ford administration and during the Carter administration, culminating in the Camp David peace treaty.
We need to ask ourselves: why were they successful? Clearly, each of the parties involved had the strategic interest in reaching peace. For the United States, we were involved because we had strategic national interests at stake. The 1973 war threatened those interests. Our national interest that the 1973 war threatened were: (1) the security of Israel; (2) the unobstructed flow of oil and the preventing of another Arab oil embargo against us, which put our economy into a recession; and, (3) making a conflict with the Soviet Union less likely by preventing a repetition of the confrontation that occurred during the 1973 war that led to both the United States and the Soviet Union mobilizing our forces and bringing us close to the brink of war. For the U.S., we needed to eliminate these threats, because it was in American national interests.
For President Sadat, he made a strategic decision that the national interests of Egypt were better served working with the United States and making peace with Israel than keeping its alliance with the Soviet Union. And for the Israelis, they were offered the chance of recognition by the most important Arab state. By taking Egypt, as Shibley said, out of the equation, they would never have a war that threatened their existence.
One cannot underestimate the trauma of the ’73 war on the Israelis, how close they came to what they saw as disaster. So, all of the countries involved in that process had a vital strategic interest in attaining peace. The fluidity in the international situation presented the opportunity to undertake a bold initiative.
The other period, when significant progress in the peace process was made, began at the end of 1988 and lasted until the mid-1990s. In 1988, the PLO made a significant change in policy. They abandoned what had been the position of the Palestinians for the previous two decades, wanting a democratic, secular state in Palestine. Instead, they agreed to accept a two-state solution. That decision opened the door for them to speak with the U.S. and join the process.
Second, the Soviet Union collapsed and the United States became the only super power permitting it to undertake policies which would have been difficult in the past. And then, the Gulf War occurred. The United States displayed its military power, and its willingness to use that power. The U.S. became the dominant force in the Middle East.
The U.S. took advantage of its commanding position and pressed forward on the peace process. President Bush and Secretary of state Baker were able to compel the Arabs and Israelis to sit at one table. This had not occurred for more than a decade and one half. Through these efforts a process was begun that moved the Middle East closer to peace.
Americans enter the peace process with plans. Events, however, do not follow the American plan. In 1977, the Carter Administration took what was called “The Brookings Report” — a study on the peace process produced in 1976 at the Brookings Institute-- as the American blueprint. The plan was to return to the Geneva Conference format bringing together Arabs and Israelis and negotiating a general peace between Israel and its neighbors. The Americans pressed this approach moving from one Middle Eastern capital to another.
But once the process began, it developed a life of its own. President Sadat and Prime Minister Begin altered the approach. Neither was comfortable with the pre-eminent Soviet role or the obstructionist policies of Syria. Therefore, when President Sadat offered to come to Jerusalem and convert the discussion to Egyptian and Israeli issues. Prime Minister Begin responded positively and the Americans had to alter their plans.
For the Americans at the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s, they too wanted to wanted to recreate a multilateral Arab-Israeli dialogue, but this time the conference was held in Madrid. They succeeded in getting people together who never before had been willing to meet or sit at the same table. But then again, through the Oslo process, the participants, the Palestinians and the Israelis, took the initiative and pressed the peace process in a different direction. Once again, the catalyst for progress toward peace came from Washington, but substantive progress was the result of local initiatives.
The question today is do we have international conditions conducive to moving the peace process forward? Do any of the parties involved-- the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Americans or anyone else-- have a strategic interest in pushing the process forward? President Obama tried to make that case for pursuing peace in his May 19 speech. He said there are three strategic conditions in the region that make pursuing peace essential. One is demographics. He made the case that population balance within the territories west of the Jordan River was changing; and therefore, it was in the interest of Israel to make peace now, because it will only get more difficult in the future. The President did not stress that the continuing settlement activity was making any future separation of the Palestinians and the Israelis more difficult.
Secondly, he said the Arab Spring was fundamentally changing conditions in the Middle East. Nobody knows where events are going. But as Shibley pointed out, if public opinion plays a greater role in the decision-making process in the Arab world, it’s inevitable that the Arab Governments will be more critical of Israel, more assertive and less compromising than they are today. This change will occur because the Palestinian plight touches hearts of Arabs like no other issue.
And thirdly, opinion in Europe toward Israeli policies is becoming more critical. The international community, which had been acquiescent to American leadership, no longer is willing to remain silent and supportive. The greater the role of the international community the more pressure is placed on Israel.
I think there is a fourth compelling reason for the Americans and the Israelis to push the peace process forward at this time. American influence worldwide is declining. We don’t like to talk about this decline but it is painfully evident to anyone traveling around the world. Businessmen who go to China regularly note that the United States is no longer central to discussions. Look at the Greek debt crisis. Could you imagine 10 years ago that the United States would be playing a secondary role in a major international debt crisis? We were a minor player compared to the Europeans and the international institutions.
In the Middle East, the United States is not now as influential as we once were. I’m reminded of when I was teaching at the American University in Beirut in the 1960s. This is the old thing, again. (Laughter.) I had a student from Bahrain. At this time, the British were withdrawing from the Persian Gulf and the Gulf States were preparing for their independence. My student from Bahrain observed, “we don’t call it Great Britain anymore; we just call it Britain.” (Laughter.) My fear is that the United States is following the British in decline. We are no longer the world’s only superpower.
Now, what does this mean for the peace process? And, why aren’t we as influential as before?
The decline of American influence is the result of many factors including some of our own decisions. In both periods of positive movement in the peace process, the Americans were dominant because they were the ones who could push the parties together. When President Sadat said, the United States had 99 percent of the cards, he did not mean the U.S. was the most powerful, richest nation in the world. He meant one thing: the United States was the only country that could influence Israel. Only the United States could make the Israelis face up to the difficult decisions that they would have to make if peace were to be attained. And that is why the Arabs have always looked to the United States as the primary mediator in the peace process. Only American pressure and American assurances would convince the Israelis to make the compromises necessary to obtain a settlement.
Public disagreements between the Americans and the Israelis occurred in both periods when progress was made in the peace process. The most notable occurred when Secretary of State James Baker, expressing American frustration, told the Israelis that if they wanted to pursue the peace effort they could call the White House switchboard and gave them the number.
The Israelis were infuriated. Nevertheless, that sort of public pressure was the only way to get people to the table. The reason? Everybody is being asked to make decisions that are difficult and heart-rending. Unless the United States is willing to press each side to make difficult decisions, those decisions will not be made. As American relative influence declines, the ability of the United States to exert pressure on each of the parties will also decline.
During the mid-1990s, the United States adopted a new policy toward Israel. And that is, Washington will not have a public disagreement with the Israelis. We will disagree with the Israelis, but those conversations will be in private not in the public eye. This policy change occurred because many believed the Israelis would be more likely to make the difficult decisions if they were reassured of American support. Only a secure Israel would take the risks necessary to obtain peace. The problem with this policy is that it hasn’t worked. Little or no progress has made. The peace process has been dead in the water for more than a decade and a half.
Unless the United States is willing to shoulder its mediating responsibility including disagreeing, when necessary, with the Israelis in public, progress in the peace process is unlikely. People in the Middle East had great hope when President Obama publicly disagreed with the Israeli Government over the settlements issue. They thought the U.S. had a President who could be a fair mediator and not merely an advocate for Israel. I would not have chosen settlements as the issue over which to publicly disagree with the Government of Israel, but President Obama did. His backing away from the confrontation under pressure from Israel and Israel’s American supporters was very damaging to America’s regional standing. The damage done by this retreat cannot be overstated. The United States clearly demonstrated that it could or would not be the mediator necessary to attain peace.
When one speaks with people from the region, they have lost faith in the U.S. and are looking for alternative approaches. The Palestinian decision to press their case at the UN is a consequence of their loss of faith in America’s ability and willingness to help.
Can this be changed? Yes. Does the U.S. still have the ability to influence Israel? Yes. Does the U.S. still have an interest in peace? Yes.
But these are not the questions that matter. The primary question today is whether peace making is a national priority and essential to the national interest of all of the parties? Where does making peace fall on the list of national priorities? It doesn’t fall as high as it has to. It has to be a top priority and it isn’t. Therefore, all of our peace plans are not relevant unless the countries and people involved-- the Palestinians, the Israelis and the neighboring Arab states, as well as the United States and, now, the Europeans--believe that attaining peace is a priority, a high priority, if not the highest priority.
Excluding the Palestinians, few consider attaining a peace settlement as the top priority. International debt, the slowing of the world economy, the Arab Spring and numerous other issues are of a greater concern. There is no reason to believe that this is going to change any time soon. Therefore, progress toward a peace settlement in the Middle East is unlikely in the foreseeable future. And, everyone will pay a price because it is ignored. (Applause.)
DR. MATTAIR: Thanks to all our speakers. Now, actually, Graeme and Scott have to leave at 11:30, so if there are questions for the two of them, let’s try to take those first.
Q: Good morning. My name is Gawdat Baghat (ph) from Nisa (ph), National Defense University. My question is about the future of Arab Peace Initiative. If I were Israeli, there is no reason to make any compromise. There is no reason to pay the price for peace. Israeli economy was the least affected by the international financial crisis. Israeli has been more or less successful in containing terrorist attacks. On the Arab side, major Arab countries like Egypt, Iraq and Syria have other priorities than peace. The major Arab country which is active, Saudi Arabia, is more concerned about Iran than Israel. So how do you see the future of this? Why Israel would pay the price for peace? Thank you.
DR. MATTAIR: You want to take — (inaudible)?
DR. LASENSKY: It’s a great question. I mean, it’s a riddle. How do you get an entire body politic, which, in Israel, is so riven by all kinds of internal divides — some of them are ideological, some of them are identity-based — and here in this panel we’re trying to kind of generalize which is by itself a very difficult task.
The riddle you put your finger on is a real one, which is, how, in a situation where — at least when you look right — when the Israelis look at their most immediate conditions of relative security and relative economic prosperity, what’s the — well, one thing you have to say — and, I think, some Israelis are mindful of — the people behind the Israel Peace Initiative are mindful of is that nothing stays the same for very long. The economy in Israel, as the central banker Jacob Frankel likes to say, it’s doing well until it is not doing well. It has all kinds of vulnerabilities that they’ve managed to tamp down for the time being. But, you know, I hate to be someone calling for economic dislocation or another war to animate the political society, but I think those are things that you have to worry about.
But again, I’ll point to the — to the question of leadership. If you can get in the mix of Israeli politics, which — in which the economics and security situation are two of many, many other factors, and the right leader pops up who points to the very broad cost that they pay as a society for the ongoing conflict, you know, which are that young people have to put their lives on hold for several years — you know, there’s still a tremendous yearning for peace. It’s just that Israelis — and this is where public opinion — where the polls have been very consistent — it shows that there’s still support for a two-state solution and support for peace with Israel’s Arab neighbors.
Israelis don’t believe in it; they’ve sort of lost hope. So if you can find a way to — you know, sounds like political slogan here, but if you can find a way to restore hope, then you can tap into a deep reservoir of willingness for reconciliation and peacemaking.
DR. TELHAMI: I just want to say, you know, at the — in the short term, you’re absolutely right and that obviously explains why, you know, Israeli politicians get — can get away with doing nothing, even though you have a public opinion that actually is prepared to do something. But, I mean, the real idea here is not obviously what happens in the short term; it’s whether, in fact, the Israelis have a unilateral strategic solution to the dilemma in which they exist. And I think I don’t know anyone in the Israeli political debate — actually, even on the right — who thinks that’s possible. There is no — so in the end, you know, the Israelis are incapable of coming up with a solution to their dilemma with the Palestinians separate from making a deal that is acceptable to Arabs.
And I think that — now, will there be an urgency of some sort that would push political leaders to move forward? There are two ideas here. One idea is that — part of that is that’s why people emphasize the role of the U.S. That has been talked about in terms of U.S. leverage because, in fact, if there is an escalation, regardless of what happens in Israel, there will be a cost to the United States, particularly in a changing environment in the Arab world where Arab public opinion will be even more angry with the U.S. as already exhibited. And, obviously, if you have elected governments, that’s going to reflect itself even more.
So the U.S. has a stake in the outcome. And in that sense, there is — the U.S. has a role to play. Without the U.S., if the Israeli-U.S. relationship is secure and immune to any change in the Middle East, your argument would be pretty strong, I think. If it’s not, if it’s fluid, then, obviously, there is a little bit more — (inaudible).
But the second thing is crisis. I think that if you look at the Arab-Israeli conflict, you know, every single decade has witnessed a certain type of crisis that made it more urgent for Israelis, separate from the Arabs and the Palestinians. And I think if you look just over the past five years in which it has been assumed that Israel is sitting very nicely strategically, it has — you know, the 2006 war with Hezbollah that — you know, where the Lebanese paid a very heavy price for it, the Israelis paid a very heavy price that is also making them reluctant to engage in another kind of war of that sort. And I would argue that 2008 and 2009 war with the Hezbollah — with the — with the Hamas in Gaza had its cost on the Israelis. Certainly it has a political cost that we see already in the way it’s — and those sort of things obviously are just, you know, one incident away.
And so — and it may be — and that’s why a lot of people, including — I think I would include myself in that — see that you can’t let a crisis go to waste, as that has been said, that crises usually are opportunities for diplomacy because they raise the issue in the priorities of the public. And I think, in some ways, American diplomacy has failed to exploit crisis and, in fact, just sought to defuse them. And I think we’re going to — the — what might emerge out of the General Assembly might be a crisis that could be exploited for leverage or it could be — you could prepare for defusing the tension that would come. It’s really a diplomatic choice. So there are opportunities, even as, I think, you’re right about the general characterization of what’s going on in Israel.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, we have a mic. Can you — can you go to the mic? While you’re going — oh, Gene is — (inaudible).
Q: Yes, thank you. This will be a very quick question. Gene Bird. Graeme, thank you for the most succinct statement I have heard yet on this subject. We ought to have you as the last speaker every time. It’s a good windup. But —
MR. : (Off mic.) (Laughter.)
Q: I am wondering about the Arab Spring. I don’t like that term; I use “Arab awakening.” And I’m now thinking that what is really needed is an American awakening and an Israeli awakening because, as Avishai (sp) said on NPR last year in answer to a question from J.J. Goldberg (sp), Goldberg said, what made the — what made Judaism last so long and in such a pristine state? And Avishai said, we say among ourselves the two G’s. And he — of course, Goldberg immediately asked, what are the two G’s? God and the ghetto. And I’d like to ask Professor Lasensky of the U.S. Institute of Peace, do you think Israel is proceeding towards becoming a new kind of ghetto in the Middle East?
DR. LASENSKY: You know, I can’t answer your question in the time we have allotted. I mean, it is and it isn’t. Israelis have been cut off from the region in which they live for a very long time. And it’s become, I guess, in a sense, a semipermanent situation.
The question is, do they aspire for something different? You know, Israeli young people, there was a time when they aspired to go and explore Petra. And they talked about in a very romantic way being able to cross that border, that frontier with Jordan and sort of wander through the red — you know, the red canyons of Petra. Israelis aren’t dreaming about that as much anymore. First, they have a peace with Jordan, so they can go if they want. But that’s not really the issue. The issue is, they’re thinking further afield.
So are they in a ghetto or they’re not? I mean, the Israeli economy is far more open to the world than it ever has been before. Information technologies in Israel, like anywhere, open up the society.
So, in a sense, it’s back — and I hate to describe it as a riddle, but it’s back again to the riddle. Does an Israel that is under siege diplomatically and politically, yet very much intermixed with the world around it economically and socially, lead to the kind of social force that can — that can drive Israeli political leaders to take risks for peace again? I don’t know.
It’s a whole set of incentive structures that outsiders need to think very carefully about, and how you entice Israelis out of this sort of comfortable ambivalence. I mean, you say it’s a ghetto, but the ambivalence is also fueled by the fact that there’s certain comfort factors. Part of the world, particularly their neighbors, are closed to them, but big swaths of the world are open to them like never before. How do you entice them out of that sort of complacency?
And that, to an extent, leads you back to the United States, the one country where Israelis can let their guard down and, I think, can be convinced. But it’s going to be — you know, it’s a tough — it’s a tough task for our president in this country who’s got a lot of problems on his agenda. But, you know, I think the opportunities are just sort of over the horizon.
I don’t know if, Graeme, if you want to — or Shibley —
Q: Good morning. My name is Tariq Marhabed (ph) and I work with the Avi Schaefer Fund. A question for Dr. Bannerman: The policy change in the ’90s that you mentioned about not disagreeing with Israel in public — I was just wondering, was there some sort of American fear that went into that policy decision? If not fear, what was it, if you could elaborate just a little bit more?
And then you mentioned about changing that. Is that something — can we go back to the old policy where it would be OK to disagree with them publicly? If not, what other suggestions would you make, you know, going forward and how we can continue a strong relationship but also take a stand for something greater?
DR. BANNERMAN: As a Midwesterner — we argued over everything in my household and with my closest of friends; we always argued and discussed things. So I see nothing wrong with having a public disagreement, even with your best friends or your own family, because that’s how people interact.
What happened was, there was a different philosophical approach. There were those who thought that if you disagreed publicly with the Israelis, it became more difficult for the Israelis to make the compromises necessary to achieve peace. This was not just some irrational argument. The belief was that if you work with the Israelis behind the scenes, you had your private disagreements but in public showed unity, you would reassure the Israelis of their own security, and therefore they would be better able to make the necessary concessions that they had to do to attain peace. That was the theory. The fact that we’ve made little progress indicates that this approach has not been successful.
Q: Hi, thank you so much. I just have a question because I think one thing that most of you touched upon was that it’s important for all the parties involved to have something to gain. I — I’ve read that in the American-Israel alliance, America has an economic reason to be involved in Israel; it’s stable. I was wondering what the benefit to aligning itself with Palestine would be to the United States?
DR. IBISH: I’ll take a stab at that.
I mean, I don’t think it’s a question of aligning itself with Palestine. I think what the Palestinians have been — and the Arabs generally have been — asking the United States to do is not defriend Israel, but to add another friend that is Palestine.
And certainly for the past 15 years, the PLO and the PA have taken American considerations into account in virtually every decision that they’ve made. That hasn’t meant that there wasn’t, for instance, the confrontation last year over settlements at the U.N., which truly annoyed the Obama administration. The Obama administration was also annoyed by the Netanyahu cabinet and by Prime Minister Netanyahu personally on the issue of settlements. So we may have reached, at least between political leaders on all three sides, a kind of a-pox-on-all-your-houses situation over — and specifically over the issue of settlements.
But I think that there are a number of reasons why the United States would find it essential in its national interests to seek a peace agreement that is based on the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The first is that it’s, I think, without going into any details, I mean, there’s really has been, as Shibley was sort of describing, a transformation of attitudes — and I think it’s really intensified in the past few years, especially the last year of the Bush administration and the first two years of the Obama administration — the notion that this is really essential for American strategic interests all over the Middle East, that the lack of an agreement and the continuation of the conflict just makes it harder to achieve absolutely everything that the United States tries to do.
Second, obviously, this issue is a — the gold standard of legitimation among the Arabs and some of the other Muslims and has been exploited to the hilt by all kinds of parties, including extremist groups and regimes opposed to the policy goals of the United States; everyone ranging from bin Laden to Ahmadinejad to Iran to “frenemies” that I can think of and others — the al-Assad regimes, for example — not exactly “frenemies,” but certainly opponents of U.S. policy interest. And basically the issue is just a megaphone lying on the street. What this history tells you is that all you have to do, to gain credibility and legitimatization with a certain constituency in the Arab world certainly, is to outbid everybody else on it, as Ahmadinejad did when he started making a big deal about the Holocaust, something that no Arab head of government had ever done and is unlikely to do in the future. So you simply outbid everybody else for strategic reasons. Bin Laden also, you know, talks a lot about it — well talked a lot about, I should say, thankfully— but never — manifestly did not care about the issue, frankly. So it’s just a kind of very damaging tool for extremism to — and opportunism, not in the interests of the United States, to advance itself.
There’s obviously a potential economic benefit that I think is very hard to quantify, but would be enjoyed by not only Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs, but also by the United States. And finally there’s a question of the relationship of values to foreign policy, and some people dismiss this notion. But, you know, I think most Americans take seriously the idea that we prefer dealing with states that are democratic and liberal, in its classical sense, and that we don’t — we don’t like the political systems that have predominated in much of the world, particularly in the Middle East and would like to see those — in the long run — would like to see those changed, and our long-term interests potentially often in conflict with our short-term interests is how people tend to formulate it.
Well, globally but particularly in the Middle East, it is really not possible to lecture any group of Arabs in particular or anybody else on the requirements of democracy, if the United States is sort of, you know, indirectly paying for and winking and nodding at the system that Israel operates in the occupied territories. It really kind of takes that issue off the table, at least if people don’t want to discuss it, and it renders the U.S. very vulnerable to accusations of double standards, hypocrisy, et cetera, which aren’t easily overcome by arguments that would try to rationalize giving Israel a pass for some reason — security, the Holocaust, who knows what — it just — it doesn’t matter. If you — if you take it off the table, it’s off the table, and then it becomes very hard to lecture other people about it. So those are four rather obvious reasons why this would be essential, and I think that’s a consensus now, by the way.
DR. TELHAMI: Let me just add just a couple of things. One is that, you know, if you look at American foreign policy, really since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, it has been assumed that the U.S., on the one hand, supports Israel; on the other hand, it has strategic interests in the Arab world. And as long as there is no Arab-Israeli peace, it’s very difficult for the U.S. to manage its interests in the region.
And so it’s been an axiom of American diplomacy that an Arab-Israeli peace — a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace is an American interest in order to essentially deal with that problem. It was visible in a variety of crises. ’73 was particularly visible because of the Arab oil embargo that accompanied the 1973 war, and some people have argued that the end of the Cold War changed that and reduced it. So the debate about why the U.S. should pay attention to the Palestinians, separate from the moral issue, in terms of interest, is really the link between the Palestine issue and the broader Arab world. So what we’re talking about is not just the how important is the Palestine question in the Arab world and beyond the Arab world, and I think that all the evidence suggests that it is very central.
So there’s no one who would debate whether the U.S. has strategic interests in the Arab world — economic interests, military interests, beyond. Everybody assumes that that — that that’s the case. Are these interests linked to the question of Palestine? I think all the evidence suggests that, yes, they are. And so in that sense, the U.S. has a big stake in what happens to the Palestinians because that’s tied to its broader interests in the Arab world.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, actually, if I could just add something. Where Graeme was talking declining American influence globally and in the Middle East, I think our failure, our inability, to deal successfully with this issue is a reason for our declining influence in the Middle East. We are — we are seen as a party that is capable, but doesn’t have the political will and, therefore, perhaps not the best partner some of these other countries could have, and that makes it harder as Shibley was saying to realize our strategic interests. And actually a flip side of that, I think, that one thing that Obama was trying to get at in his speech, when he cited strategic reasons for dealing with this problem, was that eventually the United States is going to be less able to help Israel. Do you think he was saying that?
DR. TELHAMI: Possibly. I mean, you could make an argument. If you look at the arguments, some people make the argument that even — Graeme made the argument that when Anwar Sadat said 99 percent of the cards are in the hands of the U.S., he was really referring to only the U.S. can essentially persuade Israel to make the needed compromises.
Well, if you make that argument and at some point you don’t cash it in, and you try it for half a century and those cards are not used, that people give up. So, I mean, I think that’s what — that is the case here, that even if you make the argument that part of America’s importance in the Arab world is the fact that the U.S. has leverage with Israel. If you never use that leverage or even on issues that matter — that matter a lot such as the settlement issue, then obviously people can give up and, in that sense, you no longer become an — an effective instrument. So it undermines your leverage. At what point, you know — at what point, do you, you know, do you stop believing the cards are in the hands of the U.S.? And I think that’s clear.
DR. MATTAIR: Please.
Q: Hello, my name is Chavdar Mihaylov; I’m from the Bulgarian embassy. I have a question for Mr. Ibish, I think.
I think judging by the current state of affairs, it’s pretty safe to say that the Palestinians will look for a resolution in the United States — in the United Nations, and do you think — do you think this will have a negative effect on the prospects of resuming peace negotiations anytime soon —
DR. IBISH: It’s a — oh, I’m sorry.
Q: — and do you think — sorry, excuse me — and do you think that third-party countries could come up with a parallel resolution that could diminish this negative effect?
DR. IBISH: On the second point, without question, because the answer to the first is it depends completely on what it is they try to do. The reason I talked about four different scenarios in the United Nations — of confrontation in the Security Council, a 337 idea that’s more or less off the table, a nonmember state status for the observer mission and an observer mission upgrade with its present status, you know, which I came to at the end as a potential compromise — are very different in their — in their political and diplomatic impact, and they would have very, very different effects. And I think third parties, particularly European parties, could play a very significant role in helping to find — assuming negotiations or terms of reference cannot be found in the meanwhile, which I think would defuse this situation or probably would — in finding a formula for some kind of Palestinian diplomatic gain under the fourth scenario I mentioned: an upgrade in status without a change of status.
That would be a kind of a victory and would be helpful, at least in avoiding the day-after scenario. And I think that’s something that a — that is, that people are talking about seriously. I mean, I don’t think that’s a conversation that isn’t being pursued. It is being discussed by people, but, you know, obviously as I say, as we get closer to September, other alternatives other than finding something that is largely acceptable and, you know, that the United States can live with and that the Israelis will not go crazy if they see it and take all kinds of extreme unilateral actions, it become more and more imperative because the other alternative, you know, with regard to negotiations, becomes — recedes.
Let me say this, though: I mentioned the day-after problem exists anyway, no matter what happens at the U.N. If — whether there’s a relative failure or a relative success, depending on how you define it, if the situation in the occupied territories, in the West Bank, particularly in Area A, stays the same or deteriorates, which is why whatever happens, it is absolutely crucial that the improvements in quality of life that have been achieved by the state- and institution-building program, led by Prime Minister Fayyad over the past two years, are protected and extended. This, you know, has been placed in jeopardy by many things. It would certainly be damaged by a cancellation of U.S. aid; it could be damaged by Israeli unilateral measures. There are many things that could reverse that or freeze it, both of which would be very devastating.
So in addition to finding a compromise at the U.N. and hopefully some sort of movement at this top-level diplomatic register with regard to terms of reference or framework of negotiations, there has to be some serious attention paid to quality-of-life issues because frustration is running very, very high and, as I said, there are — most scenarios that involve an outpouring of frustration are very negative in, you know — fairly quickly, you know.
Q: Hi, thanks so much for talking to us today. My name is Jessica Gabriel (ph). I was going to direct this to Dr. Lasensky, but I’m sure you guys can answer it anyways. It’s something that’s kind of perplexed me because I’ve heard that — that most — the majority of — or there’s a large percentage of Israelis that are — that are — they really want peace, that they want a two-state solution. And I was wondering that, with the, you know, the 2-percent threshold, why aren’t people that are seeking this or more people that are seeking this — why aren’t they running for election or why aren’t they getting elected to positions of, you know, more authority or higher power?
DR. TELHAMI: Well, actually the, you know, the public opinion polls, both in Israel and the Arab world, show that if you ask them if they support the idea of a two-state solution with a state of Palestine in the West Bank and Gaza and you don’t give them the exact terms, you find majorities on both sides who support it — both — not only among Palestinians, but even in the Arab world. I do public opinion polls in the Arab world, in six Arab countries, and you find that in majority.
That’s the side that people talk about a lot, but the side that people don’t talk about is that majority of people think it’s never going to happen. They don’t believe it’s going to happen, and mostly they don’t believe it because they don’t think the other side is prepared to do what is needed.
So that’s the issue in which — so the — nobody raised it in the — so it’s not a viable option in their own view. It is — in principle, yes, they’re open to it, but it’s not a viable option, so unless somebody sets a viable option and they start believing it, then nobody’s going to act on it. And it’s what happened really since the collapse of negotiations in 2000.
In the 1990s, we found that there was what people thought was a viable option: the negotiations. In fact, the assumption was that it was going to lead to a settlement. And so it was very easy to raise public awareness and mobilize public — the public in support of a solution.
After the collapse of negotiations in the past decade, people have just lost faith. And that — it’s that pessimism and disbelief that is most critical for explaining why people don’t do more.
DR. IBISH: Could I add something? Shibley is the poster, of course. He’s — he has the details, but my impression is that not only has sort of belief in this prospect diminished on all sides since 2000, but it’s diminished even in the past couple of years. And that’s without reliance on data but sort of just anecdotally. People are just increasingly cynical not only about the other side’s sincerity but also about whether a framework could actually be found. That’s the first point I wanted to — and that’s sort of universal.
And that goes to what I was talking about a minute ago, about the potential for a kind of an explosion of popular outrage, whether it begins nonviolently or not.
The other thing I wanted to mention is that I think a factor here in Israel that has helped to shift the body politic to the right is actually a kind of a demographic and political change in the structure of Israeli society. I thought I was really going out on a limb the other day when I had speculated that the fact that the Russian immigrant community is much better organized than it was in the past and that the ultra-Orthodox community is growing demographically much faster than other sections of Israeli society because of high birthrates was a factor in the shift to the right because these two constituencies are more likely to be represented on the political right than some other constituencies in Israel. And I thought I was going to get a lot of criticism, but I actually got public support from J.J. Goldberg of The Forward and Jeffrey — of the — Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic and others. So I really do think it is a factor.
Now, the opinions of those people can easily change — or can change; I don’t know about easily — they can certainly change. But, you know, societies are not static. And Israeli society is shifting. And that’s, I think, part of this equation.
Q: Could I ask another question, too? Sorry. Dr. Ibish —
DR. IBISH: Yeah.
Q: -- so I attended a talk by Professor Quigley, a law professor at Ohio State University earlier.
DR. IBISH: Yeah.
Q: And just for clarification, he had kind of said that for, like, a U.N. membership request, that the idea of the U.S. veto was kind of misleading —
DR. IBISH: Yeah.
Q: Because it’s only — it’s only a recommendation, right?
DR. IBISH: Well —
Q: Could you just speak to that?
DR. IBISH: Yeah. I’ve read his book. In fact, I’ve read it again fairly recently because I have a piece on this pending for The Atlantic. It should go live sometime this week — waiting for the edits. You know, he’s speculating, frankly. I mean, yes, under the charter, if you — I mean, it’s a little bit like a theological debate in which somebody wants to go back to the holy text itself and throw out all the exegeses and other things and sort of focus on the original text itself.
Under the charter, for sure, if read outside of any other context, the charter does seem to grant the General Assembly the power over membership, as simple as that. But there’s more to it than that. There are additional aspects of international law and practice and resolutions and precedent, all of which mean that there is practically speaking no way for an applicant to achieve member-state status without a recommendation from the Security Council.
Now, if you’re — again, if you want to take it into the abstract, you could say, well, this is law and it’s a precedent in law, and precedents are overturned in law all the time. True. The question is, you know, is there an assembly of forces arrayed internationally that could get that to happen and make it meaningful and that it would actually be a benefit to the Palestinians to pursue a path like that? In other words, could they pull it off? I don’t think so. The president of the Security Council was asked this question earlier this year, and he said no categorically. And he said the attorneys of the U.N. have looked into it, and there’s — in his view and in the view of most people, there’s no way around this because of the other aspects of international law and because of the precedent.
But even if Quigley is right, and theoretically the precedent could be overturned by dumping all of that stuff and a return to a clear reading of the charter — a kind of a puritan revivalism of the U.N. or something like that — the question is, you know, could the Palestinians do it? And I tend to think the answer is no. And if they did, would it benefit them to do that? And I’m not sure at all that the answer is yes, because the forces arrayed against them would be quite extraordinary.
I don’t — I don’t think he’s right about this, except in a very theoretical sense.
Q: Thank you very much.
Q: Question for Shibley. You know, you were talking about Israel not wanting to make big decisions in an uncertain strategic environment, which is a valid point, but another question is this: I’m recalling a statement that the British foreign minister made in March or April. And he said that it couldn’t benefit anyone for the Arab Spring to unfold while hopes for Arab-Israeli peace were so low. So if — what do you think the result of a lack of Arab-Israeli peace is going to mean for the way the Arab Spring unfolds and how that bears on Israel’s strategic position?
DR. TELHAMI: Personally, I think a lot. And as I said, you know, I think the key here to look at it primarily through Egypt — I mean, Syria is important, Jordan is important; all of these countries are important for their own sake but also in terms of the Arab-Israeli conflict — but from the Israeli point of view, Egypt is the core of its regional policy. And you can already imagine what will happen in September. The election season will start in September. Elections — the parliamentary elections will be held probably late October, early November. And then you’re going to have a presidential campaign.
And if this is happening in an environment where you have an escalation on the Israel-Palestine question or you have a crisis following the General Assembly resolution, where you have tension on Gaza — remember, the Egyptians are far more — very focused on the Gaza issue. In 2006, 2007, the rating of Al Jazeera in Egypt skyrocketed because it was covering Gaza so much, away from the Egyptian TV. And you could also see that a lot of the — you know, when Egyptians were out on the streets the week after the revolution, they were chanting — (in Arabic) — “raise your head; you’re an Egyptian.” There is a sense of incredible pride. And that pride that had been lost, I would argue — it was very — most visible, actually, for the Egyptians in the Arab context and global foreign policy in the 2006 Gaza crisis. I think those kind of crises highlight the tension. You should have seen or heard the Egyptian public attitudes of expression on the — on this issue and on their foreign policy. Hassan Nasrallah the next year was the single most popular man in Egypt, a mostly Sunni Arab country.
I think to assume that this is not going to be a central issue in Egyptian politics is not to understand how intricately linked, this issue, to the notion of identify in the Arab world, and not only — but especially Egyptian identity. And all the polls indicate that in Egypt, it’s actually stronger than in other places in part because Egypt sees itself as a leader of the Arab world. It wants to restore that leadership. This is the linkage. In part, there is a sense of Egyptian collective guilt, I think, over the Camp David Accords. They assumed it was going to actually help bring about a comprehensive peace treaty. It didn’t happen.
So I think it’s going to play itself out in Egypt in a way that’s going to be detrimental to the Egyptian-Israeli relationship that they so dearly want. If in fact there is not — I mean, if you’re an Egyptian presidential candidate who really doesn’t want to give up on the peace treaty — most of them will not because they know in some ways it’s going to be an Egyptian interest — no one wants war, no one wants tension; they want to build the country, they want to move forward — but if you’re an Egyptian, a presidential candidate and you are — you would rather stay away from this issue but you cannot because public opinion is making it an issue and events are making it an issue for you, you either are going to have to compete on how more radical you are on this issue. Or if there is really a prospect, there is really an issue, then you can say we’ve got an option.
So if there is no real credible option, you’re going to be in trouble. And so I think it’s consequential, and if you’re a — you know, an Israeli, you should be thinking about it. It is important for you to preserve the relationship. Instead, I think people go into this comfortable assumption, which is — it goes like this: Look, in Egypt, we can’t control what’s going to happen anyway. And in the end, you know, it’s going to be a combination of deterrent and working with the Egyptian military. The Egyptian military is still asserting itself in a big way, and now they’re consolidating their power, and we can work with them and we’ll be fine; and so, let’s wait and see how it unfolds itself.
That’s the easy assumption. It’s not a very good one, I think, but it is the easy assumption, I think — the one that is being made.
DR. MATTAIR: We have a few more minutes. Why don’t we end by comparing and contrasting the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 and the Israeli Peace Initiative of 2011. How close or far apart are they on major final status issues? And how close have the Israelis and Palestinians come in previous negotiations? How close do you think the two sides have actually come to resolving issues such as land swaps and refugees? Are the gaps wide, or are the gaps narrow?
DR. TELHAMI: I think on some issues, they’ve narrowed significantly. And I would say the most important one is the one that President Obama declared, which is that 1967 borders with swaps. And I think we have indication from the negotiations, particularly between Olmert and Abbas, that they went even beyond that, possibly to narrowing it to one-to-one swaps. Now, that’s significant. That is obviously one of the most significant changes.
We also see that, you know, the Israeli position has moved closer to the notion that the Palestinians would control, you know, Arab neighbors in East Jerusalem.
I think there is still a gap. And the gap is on two issues, I think, that are not to be underestimated. And I don’t underestimate them even now with all the people saying we know what needs to be done. We know — those of us who are in the mediating business. But it is — and those on both sides who really want to do it. But the general public hasn’t really swallowed this yet.
The one issue where there is a disagreement is what happens to the most important part of Jerusalem, which is the Holy Basin.
DR. IBISH: Yeah.
DR. TELHAMI: I mean, you know, that’s — you know, historically, you can call Jerusalem what you want. I mean, they — if you look at what is now called Jerusalem, it wasn’t — the vast majority of it wasn’t Jerusalem just in 1967. I mean, you know, most of Jerusalem is really — you know, the land that was — it was a municipal decision; it was not a historical decision. So what people referred to is that one square mile, the holy — you know, of the Old City plus a few neighborhoods surrounding it. And I don’t think there is an agreement on that one. And I think that that’s still not to be underestimated. Yeah, they’re creative ideas, but neither public has really — has really made their —
The refugee issue, I think, is still bigger than most people think. I think it’s a painful one. It’s not that one cannot envision a way out of it. And we know what kind of creative ideas you would put on the table. But for the — in my own — my own sense is that the Israeli public, separate from the functional kind of solution, which is that the Israeli public certainly doesn’t envision the return — the massive return of Palestinian refugees because otherwise it wouldn’t be a Jewish state, and the Israelis want a Jewish-majority state — but even separate from that, there has been in the discourse a total rejection of the notion of the right of return, the notion of the right of return.
On the Palestinian side, it is impossible for the Palestinians to give up the notion of the right of return. The functional part is negotiable, but it — to me, I think, you know, while people talk about that as if it has been resolved, I think that basic point is very critical. Again, if you’re a mediator, you might come up with critical — with creative ideas on how to move forward, but I don’t think the publics have made that switch.
By the way, the refugee issue — I can give you just a little bit of a sample of how important it is. I have been polling not only in the Arab world but also among Palestinian citizens of Israel — those are Arab citizens which are not in the West Bank and Gaza but inside the green lines — and I’ve been polling in terms of their attitudes on foreign policy issues but also on the Palestine question and comparing it with the rest of the Arab world to see what the differences are.
And as I look at the positions of that community, mostly Muslim but also with a significant Christian minority and significant Druze minority, and looking at their attitudes on the — you know, the Israel state, Arab-Israeli peace, the Palestine question, statehood, foreign policy, and I’m trying to see what is the most critical issue that defines their attitudes on those issues, I found that it wasn’t even Christian, Muslim and Druze; it wasn’t income; it wasn’t gender; it wasn’t education. It was whether or not they had a family member who became a refugee in 1948. That was the single most critical determinant of their views on every major issue pertaining to the Arab-Israeli conflict. That is much bigger than people think. And I think — you know, I wish there would be more discourse about it than just talking about the generalities of everything that’s been done.
DR. IBISH: I’ll make three quick points. One is that I actually think the sides are quite far apart still. But I think that once they start narrowing, once the political will is there and the context is there, a belief that, you know, this is going — you know, actually on the brink of happening, you could see that distance being sort of covered quite rapidly, which is my general observation. But I don’t disagree with anything Shibley said.
The second is that it’s true that they got closer every time in — between the ‘90s and Taba, and then you could throw in the Olmert-Abbas conversations, I guess, is the best way of putting it. It would — even though there isn’t that much in writing, especially towards the end of that process that I’m talking about, it — every indication is they kept getting closer. But because the principle always was nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, it’s really hard to say that they weren’t still very far apart because as long as there isn't an agreement, then at least theoretically they’re quite far apart because, you know, nothing has been accepted until it is finalized until the end.
The final observation I’d make is that Prime Minister Netanyahu has contributed something very important to this, which is, he has added a fifth final-status issue in effect — in effect, the fifth element, so to speak. The traditional ones are borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security. He’s added the fifth issue of the Jewish — some kind of Palestinian recognition of the Jewish character of the Israeli state.
Now, the reason I say this is — this is the fifth element is that I — it’s my impression that enough Israelis and supporters of Israel have become convinced that this is either indispensably important, or, as he said in Congress, in his address before the joint session of Congress, the only real issue, he said — and to general acclaim and applause and what have you.
And you can’t talk to Israelis — some Israelis and supporters of Israel in the United States — without it immediately coming down to an utter fixation on this question, an issue that was unheard of before Annapolis in 2007 and was — only existed for about a week then, pretty much, and has been not only resurrected but, I think, made into an idée fixe by Netanyahu such that will also have to be dealt with.
So I’m not one of those people who thinks that — you know, everyone knows what’s going to happen or anything like that. I think there’s a lot of territory to be covered, frankly.
DR. MATTAIR: Well, thank you. We are out of time. Thank you to both of you and the panelists who left. Let me just say, our website is www.mepc.org. It’s a rich website. The videos of these conferences are there. Articles from the journal are there. There’s a website that provides educational materials for K-through-12 teachers. Please visit. And thank you for coming. (Applause.)