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The following is an edited transcript of the sixty-fifth in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held Monday, July 25, 2011, in the Rayburn House Office Building, with Thomas R. Mattair moderating.
THOMAS R. MATTAIR, Executive Director, Middle East Policy Council
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 Ariel Sharon was not enthusiastic about it, and neither was the Bush administration. They were giving up on Yasser Arafat as a partner for peace and 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 Colin Powell wanted to establish a Quartet — the United States, Russia, the European Union and the UN — to draft a road map for how to get to a two-state solution. 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.
Therefore, in the spring of 2003, when the war in Iraq seemed to be going well, President Bush asked Sharon to cooperate with Mahmoud Abbas. Sharon said he was ready to make painful compromises for peace. But the road map is a complicated document, full of stages and conditions. The first one, a complete ceasefire, could never be established. So 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 or take Palestinian refugees into Israel. And the Bush administration supported a number of Sharon's unilateral measures — 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 Strip.
In 2006, there was war between Israel and Lebanon. Hamas won the 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. The Bush administration still wasn't enthusiastic, but by the end of the year, they called the parties to Annapolis and committed themselves to supporting negotiations that would bring about two states within a year — that is, by the end of Bush's term. But Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Abbas couldn't close the deal in 2008. Israelis and Syrians tried, but 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 it failed, even though it has said that it's a vital national security interest of the United States to succeed.
Now we have an Israeli peace initiative — not an official one, but a civil society initiative authored and signed by very well-regarded retired generals, intelligence officials, government officers, academics and others, demonstrating there is still the will and support in Israel for a peaceful resolution. How this initiative compares and contrasts with the Arab Peace Initiative and agreements almost reached between Barak and Arafat in 2000, and agreements missed between Olmert and Abbas in 2008, are subjects that can be discussed. How the initiative will influence the Israeli government or the Israeli electorate can also be discussed. How the Arab Spring is going to affect all of this can be discussed. Finally, we can discuss what will happen if negotiations fail and the matter is taken to the United Nations.
SHIBLEY TELHAMI, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development, University of Maryland; non-resident senior fellow, Brookings Institution
I'd like to try to put some perspective around the Arab Peace Initiative and compare it to where we are now. If we look back at 2002, when the Arab Peace Initiative was passed, it was an extraordinary document. It was really the first time all the Arab states, in essence, said that if Israel withdraws from the territories occupied in 1967, the Arab states will (A) 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.
It was quite a contrast with the Arab League resolution following the 1967 War, when the Arabs basically rejected even the idea of negotiating with Israel. This was a hugely important initiative that, in historical perspective, looks like a wasted opportunity. The question is, why, and how do we compare it with where we are now?
It was also important because those moments in history are really rare, when you have so many governments in the Arab world, with all its divisions, taking a unanimous position on something like this. A unique set of circumstances led to this resolution. The question is not only why was it passed at that time, but also, why did the United States not engage with it, and why did the Israelis not embrace it as they could have? Embracing it doesn't mean doing every part of it, but making it a basis for negotiations at a time when the Arabs were offering far more than they had offered in the past.
I think it's very important to think about it in strategic perspective, because this does in some ways shed light on what we're going through now. When that Arab League resolution was passed in the spring of 2002, the region was still in the middle of the Second Intifada. More important for the United States, it was right after 9/11, when there were a couple of things going on that had significance for the key players — the United States and the Israelis, the Egyptians and the Saudis, 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 Clinton try and fail — they had a policy of "not Clinton," as Brent Scowcroft called it, so 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.
The president himself certainly assumed that in the Arab world, the United States 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 that is not what is going to animate Saudi policy toward the United States or global issues. That was the prevailing assumption in the Bush administration.
President Bush, by all accounts, including his own memoirs, didn't think the Saudis cared much about the Arab-Israeli issue.
Then came late spring, early summer of 2001, when Crown Prince Abdullah rejected an invitation from the president to come to the White House, explaining in a letter that it was due to his anger over American policy toward the Palestine question. By all accounts, that shift in June, July and August of 2001 affected the president more than any other thing in the Middle East because it essentially challenged his assumptions about the Saudis. He cared about the relationship with Saudi Arabia, and he hadn't thought the Saudis were going to be angered by what was happening on the Palestine question. Yet, here was the crown prince essentially saying no to the president of the United States and explicitly specifying that it was over this issue. There was a rethinking of American policy during the summer of 2001.
This was, obviously, just before the tragedy of 9/11. Once that tragedy took place, it changed the strategic assumptions everywhere, including in the United States. The initial American instinct was not anger with the Saudi government, though some people now say, 9/11, therefore anger with the Muslim world; 9/11, therefore anger with Saudi Arabia; 9/11, therefore anger with the Arab world.
In fact, this wasn't clear, even in public-opinion polls in the United States. Initial American public opinion, even toward Muslims, was actually far more positive right after 9/11 than it became down the road. The administration's instinct initially was to say, these enemies of the United States, al-Qaeda, are also enemies of our allies in the Middle East, particularly the Saudis. There was, in fact, an early attempt by President Bush to support the idea of a Palestinian state after 9/11, not before. There was initially a calculation and some back-and-forth on whether to 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. 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 post 9/11 approach 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. At the macro level, it's a very complex political system. There are always two major components in Israeli foreign policy. The first one is that, whenever there is a strategic change of the sort that we witnessed after 9/11 and are witnessing now, Israel's top priority is to protect its strategic relationship with the United States at all costs. It trumps even the Arab-Israeli issue. It trumps regional calculations. It trumps every single issue, because it is the anchor of Israeli foreign policy: the strong, solid, uncontested strategic relationship with the United States.
Secondarily, in its policy towards the Arab world, there has been an axiom from the beginning: taking Egypt out of the equation of Arab politics is central. This was obviously the priority during the 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 are threatening to Israel — and there have been some — but not at the level of worrying about existence or about big wars that could be lost, if Egypt was taken out of the equation. Israel wanted peace with other Arab states, but did not see this as a strategic imperative.
The Arab Peace Initiative started, of course, as a Saudi peace initiative. In some ways, the Saudis were surprised by the turn of events in the United States, where initially there were people coming to them to see if they could coordinate and help. Then suddenly there was a changed mood, particularly when people talked about those who attacked America, and whether the Saudis had been, in effect, supporting the type of radicalism that gave rise to al-Qaeda. And there was a media campaign targeting the Saudis with policy consequences. They were taken aback.
When the Bush administration in 2002 seemed to be 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 that included that period. We have a lot of new information from interviews. But when you look at the Bush administration's decision to go to war with Iraq, many of the Saudis who were consulted early on 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 there was a resolution of the Arab-Israeli issue first.
It's in that context of the Saudis fighting for the narrative that was taking place here in the United States 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. However, it happened when the Israelis were in a different place because Ariel Sharon was looking at it as a strategic threat to Israel. This was a period when Israel was not going to make decisions. This was a fluid environment in which America's national interests were being redefined, and Sharon did not want to be on the wrong side of how this came out. 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 there was an Israeli confidence about the Egyptian-Israeli relationship.
The Arab Peace Initiative, of course, was put on the table as a presumed incentive to the Israelis, in part because, 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 shift the internal political situation in Israel in favor of endorsing the Arab Peace Initiative. That did not happen, as things were moving much more toward confrontation, focused on the Iraq war. The Israeli focus was far more on what might happen, given that the administration was already moving toward war in Iraq. Therefore, there was no interest in seeing a diplomatic initiative take away from that.
Now we're seeing in some ways another huge set of events, perhaps akin to 9/11 in their strategic consequences even for the United States. The uprisings in the Arab world obviously have reshuffled the deck of politics in the region in a manner that forces every country, including the United States, to reassess its interests. In such a fluid strategic environment, it is very hard for the Israelis to do anything but go to the core issues: to protect their relationship with the United States and make sure they are on the right side of the strategic debate, because the United States 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. That affects everything else; it becomes the focal point of Israeli policy.
The one changing element here, from the Israeli perspective, is what happened in Egypt. One cannot overstate how important the Egyptian-Israeli relationship has been as an anchor of Israeli foreign policy since the Camp David Accords. The Israelis have a lot of worries: Iran, obviously, has been a concern to them, and they worry about Hezbollah and Hamas but not in the same way that they had worried prior to the Camp David Accords about the consequences of a major war to their very existence. I think the Egyptian-Israeli treaty was taken for granted, but it was an anchor of Israeli foreign policy. Arab politics were far less central than they have become since the uprisings, particularly since the downfall of the Mubarak regime. Now, it's not that in the short term the Egyptian-Israeli relationship is in jeopardy. But the Mubarak government was not only reliable in its commitment to a peaceful cooperative relationship with Israel. Over the past half-dozen years, that government had become Israel's central ally in the Middle East in a way that we had not seen in the past.
Historically, the Israelis liked to have at least one or two allies in the region, separate from the relationship with the United States. Iran under the shah was one; then Turkey essentially became that ally. Iran obviously was "lost," and then Turkey went in another direction that jeopardized their close relationship with Israel. The Mubarak government filled that vacuum, becoming the central ally of Israel in its strategy and tactics. So it was not just about the safety of the peace relationship; it was also about the quality of proactive coordination.
Recently an environment has evolved 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, they will tell you that the military-to-military relationship between Egypt and Israel has never been stronger. 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 after the Egyptian elections.
So in that sense, this is a period of uncertainty, and the Israelis do not like to make decisions under uncertainty of this sort. Regardless of their assessment of what's happening in the Palestinian territories, the situation is very 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.
In my 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 in ways that we have not seen in the early months. It is already clear that the Palestine question remains central in Arab politics. In the Zogby poll that was just released two weeks ago, about whether Arab views of the United States have improved in light of the Arab revolutions, you find that they have declined, 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 become engaged in diplomacy over the Palestine question, particularly in the UN General Assembly in September, and then the election campaign in Egypt unfolds, the discourse is going to be very focused on the question of Palestine again, in a manner that is inevitably going to raise flags in Washington and in Israel.
But 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 as it was in 2002, in large part because it revalidates the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, at a time when the Israelis are no longer certain about it. So putting aside for now Israeli domestic politics, there could be a greater incentive for diplomacy after the picture in Egypt clarifies.
Let me conclude by saying two things. When you have big strategic changes of the sort we're witnessing in the Arab world now and that we witnessed with the tragedy of 9/11, they shift the strategic foreign-policy calculations of every government, certainly of the Israeli and U.S. governments. Second, the 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 the attention paid 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 those that will remain in place, will have to pay more attention to public opinion.
SCOTT LASENSKY, Senior Research Associate, Center for Conflict Management, U.S. Institute of Peace
I want to thank the Middle East Policy Council for organizing this meeting, particularly as 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 focuses 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. My colleagues have recently been in Egypt and Libya, looking for ways to cement nonviolent political change in the Arab world. We're a think tank, because we sponsor applied research. If you have taken 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 here 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 that are working on conflict resolution. And we're an academy; we do our own training for people involved in international conflict.
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. It is a detailed history of American Involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict.
I'm going to talk about the Israeli Peace Initiative, based on what I've read and learned, and about a trip to Israel two weeks ago, where I met some of the originators of this peace initiative. I'm also going to talk about the Israeli mood and political environment when it comes to questions of peacemaking.
In April 2011, when the Israel Peace Initiative, as it's called in English, was trotted out at a press conference in Israel, the State Department said in response to a question, "We believe this could make a positive contribution." So our own government, in a way, endorsed it. Why now? What's it all about? How does it compare to other initiatives, and can it capture the imagination of Israelis?
"Why now?" For starters, those who signed the Israel Peace Initiative — and it's a very impressive group of people — are very worried about the vacuum in Israeli foreign policy when it comes to Israel's conflict with its Arab neighbors. Why do I say a vacuum? There's a vacuum in Israel because — although the government today and the prime minister himself, Benjamin Netanyahu, have endorsed the concept of a two-state solution and a few other principles — in effect, the diplomatic field is wide open. Israel 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. Those in Israel who have stood behind this initiative are worried. Even in the government, Ehud Barak, the defense minister, was quoted recently as warning that a "diplomatic tsunami" 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. How does this compare to other initiatives? There's something old and something new about the Israeli Peace Initiative. On the core issue of conflict between Arabs and Israelis — the Palestinian question, the ideas in the Israeli Peace Initiative — are those that we've seen before.
They approximate the ideas of President Clinton when he put forward his peace initiative at the end of his time in office and even unofficial peace initiatives like the one put forward some years ago by Sari Nusseibeh and Ami Ayalon and even up to the present. Look at President Obama's May 19 speech and his principles on the questions of borders and security. This recent formulation that these notable Israelis have put forward approximates a lot of these consensus ideas about a two-state solution: the '67 borders, a shared Jerusalem, agreed solutions to the refugee problems, etc.
Neither are some of the personalities new: Amy Ayalon, a former Israeli security chief; Colette Avital, a long-time Labor Knesset member and protégé of President Shimon Peres; academics and diplomats long associated with Israeli diplomacy and peace making, such as Shimon Shamir and Tamar Hermann.
The ideas themselves are not necessarily new, but there's a very interesting rub, and it relates a lot to what Shibley said. I'll give you 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 is very correct in noting that timing is everything in diplomacy. And today, after a very difficult decade for Israelis — filled with violence and intifada, wars in the north, wars in the south, skepticism and rising right-wing trends in their politics — there's very little Palestinians can give Israelis that can bring the conflict to a resolution. That's why the regional frame is so important.
In effect, it's almost as if 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 and frameworks — taking the conflict as a whole was central to American thinking and international diplomacy.
In recent years, the issue has been subdivided into various negotiating tracks. It's almost like when you build a house. You don't have one builder who does it from top to bottom but you a bunch of subcontractors and plumbers and carpenters. The Arab-Israeli conflict has been subdivided for a very long time, with Israelis and Syrians off in one direction and Palestinians and Israelis in another. In 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. There are things Israel can only get from the neighboring Arab states; they may give to Palestinians, but there are more trade-offs that involve other states. So the regional frame is new.
Second, some of the personalities are new. Most of the personalities are not; they're people in the Israeli political mix that have been strongly supportive of peacemaking and compromise for many years. The new constituency, those who signed onto 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 small but important segment of the Israeli business community that is worried. Just as Ehud Barak worried about a diplomatic tsunami, they worry about an economic tsunami that awaits Israel, should a diplomatic showdown at the United Nations precipitate further showdowns in the months and years ahead. They see real and concrete costs that could affect Israel's economy. The business community is central to this new initiative, and their ability to create a constituency that can motivate political leaders could mean this initiative captures the imagination of Israelis. This leads me to the third point: How does this initiative spark a different kind of political reality in Israel? Well, number one, it needs to draw in more business leaders. It might be helpful if you could see, not just a handful, but scores of heads of some of Israel's largest and most important companies. Recruiting more business people — the eight or nine families that control half of the old, traditional economy in Israel (consumer goods and transportation, "bricks and mortar") and leading figures from the new economy, based on high-tech, biotech and high-value goods — is vital.
Also, the signatories and people behind this initiative need to pull another stunt. I would put that as the second factor that will make a difference. What do I mean by a stunt? 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, standing next to the CEO of a company, flanked by security chiefs and flanked by other CEOs. And it caught the imagination. 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 business people in the Arab world and in Israel or political leaders, maybe around the UN General Assembly meeting. They need to find a way to remain in the mix. The news mix here, just as in Israel, tends to be dominated and privileged by those who hold political office. The people behind this Israeli Peace Initiative don't hold political office, so they're at a disadvantage.
Third, the factor that Shibley alluded to but that's out of the direct control of Israelis is the Arab Spring. 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.
A few points about the Israeli mood, broadly defined. This certainly will affect the prospects for the Israel Peace Initiative and for American diplomacy. Israelis are nervous about the Arab Spring. They look to their borders to the north and see a border with Syria, quiet for almost 35 years. And yet, it's the Arab Spring; there'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 there might be more to come.
The Sinai, to Israel's south, has affected Israeli strategic thinking for many decades; it's their only border that doesn't have a fence. The strategic orientation of the military in Israel is not toward the south. The military and its hardware no longer look south. But the last few months of events in Egypt and the Sinai worry Israeli strategic planners and lead them to think, what would we do if the Sinai suddenly becomes ungovernable? They've had three explosions in a critical gas pipeline and 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 is hard to find Israelis who would say, well democracy and more open, accountable politics are bad things in the Arab world. But when it comes down to the day-to-day, Israelis are very concrete and very practical about their political calculations. They worry that ongoing political turmoil, as well as an opening perhaps for extreme Islamist views, will create more problems for them. So they're torn. And, yes, there's a bit of a split personality when it comes to Israelis and how they think about political change in the Arab world. But they're nervous.
Second, they're traumatized. To say nothing about Palestinians or neighboring Arab societies, 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, Israelis have been traumatized from the last 10 years, from the violent collapse of the Oslo peace process in 2000. The present follows a very rough decade.
Third, you have a high degree of Israeli ambivalence. It's much remarked upon; there was even a major news magazine cover story, "Do Israelis Really Want Peace?" When I was in Tel Aviv last week — the engine of the growth of the Israeli economy — it was striking to see how much ambivalence and complacency there was. Economic and social concerns animate people today, not the peace process.
They have a security barrier, a fence and a wall that's still being built, which they see as effective, and in a sense they're hiding behind. The economy's growing. The security situation seems relatively under control. All this creates a certain level of ambivalence and complacency, which is not good for peace making. You need a spark. These are some of the obstacles that have to be overcome.
Fourth, any conversation you have in Israel, any reading of the Israeli press and any look at Israeli polling data will suggest that the society is trending to the right, particularly among the youth. This is very problematic.
It's not just about the events of the last decade; it's also about political institutions in Israel, which have structural weaknesses. Israel has the lowest electoral threshold in the Western world: 2 percent. It takes 2 percent of the vote for a party to get into parliament. 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 is trending right, but that institutions accentuate it.
Fifth, Israelis are also very much searching for leadership. Leadership has often made the critical difference, whether Yitzhak Rabin in the '90s or Menachem Begin and the bargain with Egypt in the late '70s. Right now, Israelis, I think, are looking for a hero. There is a very interesting Israeli personality in Washington right now, General Gabi Ashkenazi, who's at the Brookings Institution as a visiting fellow. He just stepped down as chief of staff of the Israeli military. At least a few polls I've read suggest that, if he's at the head of one party or another, those parties would get many more seats in the Knesset. This shows you that Israelis are really hungry for leadership, hungry for heroes. And they're hungry for vision.
Finally, when talking about the obstacles in Israeli politics and society and how you can find opportunities, there is also 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, I'm told that the way the legislation is written, you don't even have to prove damage, you just have to claim it. So if you are an Israeli and write an op-ed in a newspaper saying, we shouldn't buy oranges from this particular Israeli settlement, there are those in parliament who are trying to make that illegal. There was a bill about investigating Israeli NGOs, which luckily failed. I could go on and on and on. There is 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 Israel's own military. The real story about this isn't publically released, but there's enough that leaks out from military sources to suggest 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 to a breakthrough.
I want to end on the upside, not just because I work at the Institute of Peace, 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, Israel is yearning for acceptance and would emphasize what Shibley said about the importance of the relationship with the United States.
Despite the ambivalence and despite the fact that most Israelis are more comfortable walking around Manhattan or Hyde Park, there is still a tremendous yearning for acceptance in Israeli society. 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. Now may not be the time. But I mention it because, despite the trauma of the last decade, despite the cynicism that's sweeping Israeli society, and despite the right-wing trends — remember, Israeli politics were 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, there is a tremendous yearning for acceptance. In fact, it's the mirror image of this fear you hear from Israelis about delegitimization, which so animates Israeli discourse today. This yearning for acceptance is something that I think the United States needs to keep more in mind, as do Israel's neighbors, particularly when politics settle down and these transitions play out a bit more. It's a point of leverage.
Second, what Shibley said is very much 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, and at this point it really is a central pillar. How do you use that relationship? How do you leverage it, not in onerous and heavy-handed ways but in positive ways? How do you leverage new offers of security assistance, whether you're the president of the United States or the secretary of state, speaking directly to Israelis about the relationship. How you do that — and you have to do it in a subtle way — presents the greatest opportunities for the United States. 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. Israelis will pay a relatively high price to preserve it.
There was a saying that no Israeli politician could sustain a dispute with the United States for a very long time. But there are some in Israel suggesting that maybe Benjamin Netanyahu has rewritten the rules, and that now Israeli prime ministers can find a way to have a little tension with Washington and still survive politically. 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 is still being written.
There is 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. That's very much the ace in our pocket. I think this president and the people around him have learned a lot about how you manage the relationship with Israel, when you push certain buttons and when you don't. I believe they're on track for a more effective second half of this term.
HUSSEIN IBISH, Senior Research Fellow, American Task Force on Palestine
I'm going to look at what looms ahead potentially at the United Nations in September. That seems to be the most immediate diplomatic and political context from a Palestinian perspective, and it has huge repercussions. I'd like to put this conversation in context, as I and the Palestinian leadership and a lot of Palestinians talking about some kind of UN initiative understand it.
First, while it's true that a lot of Israelis, Americans, Europeans and others are frustrated at the lack of progress diplomatically — the lack of a viable, working peace process or any negotiations — Palestinians are living under occupation, and they uniquely find the status quo not only untenable, but intolerable. This has profound implications for Palestinian leaders and the Palestinian political scene. While it is frequently alleged on the Israeli right and on the Arab left that the leadership in Ramallah of the PLO and the Palestinian Authority 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 terms, they're not content at all. They understand that if their policy and program of achieving Palestinian statehood and independence 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. They don't have a future beyond that approach, and when that approach is shelved, people will look elsewhere. Who they'd look to is not mysterious. A lot of people posit the emergence of a third force — and 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. We can speculate about the consequences to the Palestinian national movement of an Islamist takeover of that cause.
So the status quo 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 in spite 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 the Palestinian leadership to conclude that the process as it's structured now is dysfunctional. It's simply not working for them, and if they continued to rely for their long-term goals primarily on a process that was dependent on Israeli enthusiasm for an agreement and American determination, then they were surrendering themselves too much to a process they couldn't control and in which they didn't have sufficient initiative or agency.
So there was a tremendous desire to find an alternative path forward diplomatically, while at the same time continuing to stand strongly against violence and for these other principles that they are committed to. There's also a kind of subtext here that's important to appreciate. This frustration over the past couple of years with Prime Minister Netanyahu, with his cabinet and with the American role generally — though not with the Obama administration particularly — has led many Palestinian leaders to want to find a way to demonstrate to these two parties that it has viable and maybe even powerful alternatives, that it's not completely dependent, that it has options and second-best scenarios.
The other crucial thing to understand 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 UN initiative. This is understandable, as I'll explain, because virtually every idea about approaching the UN carries with it significant dangers and costs. 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's quote is this: "Negotiations are our first, second and third choice." He's really trying to emphasize how much they would like to negotiate.
What they're asking 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 extra little fillips thrown in by the president for each party. For the Israelis, the Palestinians ought to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, whatever that means, which I think is the right answer to that request — What does it mean? That ought to at least make it a little clearer. And for the Palestinians, there should be a full and phased withdrawal of all Israeli forces from the territories that will become a Palestinian state. That's a new formulation from the United States.
However, 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. It was apparently three to one over this Jewish-state question and maybe some other divisions. The European Union is also divided, with its last meeting issuing a rather anodyne statement. So not only has the West not produced a clear framework or set of terms of reference or anything like that, Western policy is unusually divided on this subject. The role of the Quartet until now has been to give international backing to American-led initiatives, and that's failed to be produced for the first time in my memory. I don't think it's ever happened since the founding of the Quartet. So you have, 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. This only pushes the Palestinians further toward the United Nations.
None of the options are cost-free. By the way, when they first started talking about this in public, the terminology that was usually used was that the Palestinians would look for recognition from the United Nations, which is meaningless. The United Nations doesn't recognize states; states recognize each other. The United Nations has member states. So it was assumed, and still is, that what Palestinians would do would be to submit an application to the secretary-general, to be referred to the Security Council. This is required for a recommendation to the General Assembly. A two-thirds vote by the General Assembly would then make a potential state a member 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, so it won't happen. There is a very significant potential cost to a confrontation with the United States over the question of statehood in the Security Council, and I think that is putting it rather mildly. I will only remind you of the veto cast last year on the question of settlements. This effectively killed that issue, because ever since then, Israel has had in effect a kind of 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. This is the mildest possible language, and it even muted Palestinian responses.
So for the time being, that shelved the issue. It really behooves everyone to think very carefully about potentially repeating that on the issue of statehood. The issue of settlements is bad enough. A confrontation with the United States in the Security Council over the question of statehood carries with it enormous political and diplomatic costs for the Palestinians. This is why I think it's less than likely, in spite of the political pressure.
The second thing that was talked about quite a lot was some kind of action in the General Assembly under Resolution 337, the so-called Uniting for Peace Resolution from 1950, which was designed to get around vetoes by a Security Council member. It was prompted by American frustration with continual USSR vetoes in the late '40s on the question of Korea. 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. But its practical implications seem very nebulous because there already are states that have been practicing sanctions and boycotts against each other in all kinds of conflicts without any Resolution 337, 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 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 a full UN membership recommendation to the General Assembly or after it: a request directly to the General Assembly for non-member-state status. Right now, the Palestinian representation at the United Nations is the PLO observer mission, which is not a non-member state. It's a political-entity observer mission. There are a number of those, in particular the EU and the Holy See. This would require, as I understand it, 50 percent plus one, which the Palestinians would certainly get. It is appealing in some ways but not in others and carries very significant costs if it's pursued. The first thing that it would not do, of course, is establish an independent state of Palestine. It would just be a declaration by the General Assembly, that's all.
The second thing it wouldn't do is accomplish the goal that President Abbas and others keep suggesting it might, which is to get on a more equal footing with Israel in the diplomatic register. They don't really put it in the context of non-member-state status, but this is how I take it, anyway. 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 this in practice.
But let me tell you about what it might do. It might first give the Palestinians access to the International Criminal Court. This is 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 one of the assembly of parties at the International Criminal Court. It's theoretically possible. There are a couple of problems with that, however. First of all, would this status actually be taken as actual state status, especially when it comes to the question of territory? The question of territory is very important for the ICC, because Israel is not a party to the Statute of Rome. This 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 2009 with a letter to the ICC was a request that the court exercise jurisdiction in the territories nominally or supposedly under the control of the PA, including Gaza — this was a reference to the Gaza War. 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. You can see the importance of territory here. This non-member state might not be understood to actually control territory in any kind of sovereign way, so it might become extremely complicated.
I do think this has been one of the guiding concerns of Israel, because the Statute of Rome has several elements that might be seen as very threatening to the Israelis should they ever fall under it. All belligerent parties are potentially liable to war crimes, such as unlawful use of force against civilians or property. But there are two passages that might particularly apply to the Israelis. The Statute of Rome specifically lists settlement activity and the transfer of population into an area under military occupation as a war crime. The Security Council has reaffirmed many times that the West Bank, East Jerusalem, the Gaza Strip and the Golan Heights are under Israeli occupation, that Israel is the occupier.
There's also a crime called the crime of apartheid, described roughly as a system of discrimination favoring one ethnic group over another with the intention of perpetuating that system. I think if you looked at all of the political and social systems in the world, probably the system that Israel operates under the occupation falls closer to meeting that definition than any other. It's obviously a vulnerability.
It's not at all certain or even likely that such status accorded by the General Assembly would actually give Palestinians 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. Although statehood was obviously an issue and territory was obviously another, whether that would resolve this issue or not is very much in question.
The other thing that appeals to Palestinians about this idea is that there have been 16 non-member states in the history of the United Nations, not including the Vatican, the Holy See, which is currently the only non-member state. 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 — the Vatican has never wanted to become a member state — and become 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 significant costs. The 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? Then there's American retaliation. Congress has threatened the cutoff of aid, and the United States is the single biggest donor annually to the PA, though not if you include all of the EU. That's a significant amount of money at stake here, plus general relations with the United States, which are 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 few in number but represent the most powerful, influential countries: most of the West plus Japan. They would present this, in effect, or maybe even overtly, as the camp of the "civilized world," claiming that although countries in Asia, Africa and Latin America might be with the Palestinians, the "important" countries — the "civilized world" — are with us. This might be another kind of victory for Prime Minister Netanyahu.
All these options carry very serious costs. And all parties, including the Palestinians, have a very serious day-after problem: what do they do then? From a Palestinian point of view, if any of these measures is seen as a diplomatic "success" but nothing changes on the ground, and — because of Israeli retaliation, the loss of U.S. aid or other measures — things actually get worse for people's daily lives, there is the potential for an outbreak of popular anger.
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, it would take a nonviolent form. But the occupation is a 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 that are totally committed to armed struggle and violence and would certainly take advantage of that kind of situation. How long it could stay nonviolent, 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 for everyone to resume negotiations, but they might be indirect. Even providing a road map or terms of reference that are seen to be meaningful might be enough to stave off any kind of train wreck or confrontation. 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 United Nations but with upgraded rights and privileges, sort of EU-minus. They probably can't aspire to have all the privileges of the EU without provoking some kind of 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, so that 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 and diplomatic situation. And that might precipitate a confrontation that would harm all parties and that should be best avoided.
GRAEME BANNERMAN, Scholar, Middle East Institute; Founder, Bannerman Associates
Every time I hear discussions on the peace process — and my aged body has heard many of them — I always think about the definition of a pessimist as being an informed optimist. Those of us who have been involved with this process for a long time have seen many peace plans, peace initiatives and the like. Volume one of the peace plans was the one I was told to pull together in 1977 at the beginning of the Carter administration to use as the basis for discussions. 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. Where did all those go?
In the end, there is 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 40 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 a 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: (1) the security of Israel; (2) the unobstructed flow of oil and the preventing of another Arab oil embargo against us, which had put our economy into a recession; and, (3) making a conflict with the Soviet Union less likely by preventing a repetition of the 1973 confrontation that led to the United States and the Soviet Union mobilizing forces and bringing us to the brink of war. The United States needed to eliminate these threats, because it was in the American national interest.
President Sadat made a strategic decision that the national interests of Egypt were better served by working with the United States and making peace with Israel than maintaining its alliance with the Soviet Union. As for the Israelis, they were offered the chance of recognition by the most important Arab state. By taking Egypt out of the equation, as Shibley said, 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 of significant progress in the peace process 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: 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 United States and join the process. Second, the Soviet Union collapsed, and the United States became the only superpower permitting it to undertake policies that would have been difficult in the past. Then, the Gulf War occurred. The United States displayed its military power and its willingness to use it. The United States became the dominant force in the Middle East and took advantage of its commanding position to press 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 a 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 Institution 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 preeminent 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.
The Americans at the end of the 1980s and in the early 1990s also wanted to recreate a multilateral Arab-Israeli dialogue, but this time the conference was held in Madrid. They succeeded in getting people together who had never before 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 the 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 the population balance within the territories west of the Jordan River was changing. 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 Israel's continuing settlement activity was making any future separation of the Palestinians and the Israelis more difficult.
Second, he said that 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 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 the hearts of Arabs like no other issue.
Third, 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 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 as influential as we once were. I'm reminded of when I was teaching at the American University of Beirut in the 1960s. I had a student from Bahrain. At that 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." My fear is that the United States is following the British in decline. We are no longer the world's only superpower.
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 United States 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 they would have to make if peace were to be attained. 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 he 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: Washington will not have a public disagreement with the Israelis. We will disagree with them, but those conversations will be in private. This policy change occurred because many believed the Israelis would be more likely to make 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 been 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 United States 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 its American supporters was very damaging to U.S. regional standing. The damage done by this retreat cannot be overstated. The United States clearly demonstrated that it could not or would not be the mediator necessary to attain peace.
When one speaks with people from the region, one finds they have lost faith in the United States and are looking for alternative approaches. The Palestinian decision to press their case at the United Nations is a consequence of their loss of faith in America's ability and willingness to help. Can this be changed? Yes. Does the United States still have the ability to influence Israel? Yes. Does the United States still have an interest in peace? Yes.
But these are not the questions that matter. The primary question today is whether peacemaking 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. None of our peace plans are 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 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 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 for ignoring it.
Q: My question is about the future of Arab Peace Initiative. If I were an Israeli, I would see no reason to make any compromise to pay the price for peace. The Israeli economy was the least affected by the international financial crisis. Israel has been more or less successful in containing terrorist attacks. On the Arab side, major countries like Egypt, Iraq and Syria have other priorities than peace. The major Arab country, Saudi Arabia, is more concerned about Iran than Israel. So why would Israel pay the price for peace?
DR. LASENSKY: The riddle you put your finger on is a real one. When the Israelis look at their most immediate conditions, they see relative security and relative economic prosperity. But the people behind the Israel Peace Initiative are mindful that nothing stays the same for very long. The economy in Israel is, as the central banker Stanley Fischer likes to say, 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. Economic dislocation or another war, those are things that you have to worry about. Again, I'll point to the question of leadership. If, in the mix of Israeli politics, the right leader pops up who points to the broad costs they pay as a society for the ongoing conflict — young people have to put their lives on hold for several years, for example — we'll see again a yearning for peace. Public-opinion polls have been very consistent: there's still support for a two-state solution and peace with Israel's Arab neighbors. The only problem is that Israelis don't believe it will happen; they've lost hope. So, if you can find a way to restore hope, you can tap into a deep reservoir of willingness for reconciliation and peace making.
DR. TELHAMI: In the short term, you're absolutely right, and that obviously explains why Israeli politicians get away with doing nothing, even though they have a public that is actually prepared to do something. But the real idea here is not what happens in the short term; it's whether the Israelis have a unilateral strategic solution to the dilemma in which they exist. And I don't know anyone in the Israeli political debate, even on the right, who thinks that's possible. In the end, 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.
Will there be an emergency of some sort that could push political leaders to move forward? People emphasize the role of the United States and U.S. leverage. 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 United States — as already exhibited. And, obviously, if you have elected governments, that's going to be reflected even more. So the United States has a stake in the outcome, and a role to play. 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 not, if it's fluid, there is a little bit more uncertainty.
But the second thing is crisis. Every single decade has witnessed a crisis that made it more urgent for Israelis, separate from the Arabs and the Palestinians. Just over the past five years in which it has been assumed that Israel is sitting very nicely strategically, it has fought the 2006 war with Hezbollah where the Lebanese paid a very heavy price, but the Israelis did, too. It has made them reluctant to engage in another war of that sort. And I would argue that the 2008-09 war with Hezbollah, with Hamas in Gaza, also had its political cost to the Israelis. Those sorts of things obviously are just one incident away.
That's why a lot of people, including myself, agree with Rahm Emanuel that you can't let a crisis go to waste. Crises usually are opportunities for diplomacy, because they raise the issue in the priorities of the public. In some ways, American diplomacy has failed to exploit crises and just sought to defuse them. I think what might emerge out of the General Assembly is a crisis that could be exploited for leverage or for defusing the tension that would follow. It's really a diplomatic choice.
Q: I am wondering about the Arab awakening. What is really needed is an American and Israeli awakening. Bernard Avishai said on NPR last year, in answer to a question from J.J. Goldberg: What made Judaism last so long in such a pristine state? — God and the ghetto. Professor Lasensky, do you think Israel is proceeding towards becoming a new kind of ghetto in the Middle East?
DR. LASENSKY: It is, and it isn't. Israelis have been cut off from the region in which they live for a very long time. It's become, in a sense, a semipermanent situation. It is a situation they believe has been imposed on them. The question is, do they aspire for something different? Israeli young people at one time aspired to go and explore Petra. They talked in a very romantic way about being able to cross that frontier with Jordan and wander through the red canyons of Petra. Israelis aren't dreaming about that as much anymore. They have a peace with Jordan, so they can go if they want. But they're thinking further afield. The Israeli economy is far more open to the world than it ever has been before. Information technologies in Israel, as anywhere, open up the society.
So 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 drive Israeli political leaders to take risks for peace again? There are a whole set of incentive structures that outsiders need to think very carefully about to entice Israelis out of this sort of comfortable ambivalence. You say it's a ghetto, but the ambivalence is also fueled by the fact that there are certain comfort factors. Part of the world is closed to them, particularly the neighbors, but big swaths of the world are open as never before. How do you entice them out of that sort of complacency? That leads you back to the United States, the one country where Israelis can let their guard down and, I think, be convinced to take risks for peace. It's a tough task for our president, who's got a lot of problems on his agenda. But I think the opportunities are just over the horizon.
Q: The policy change in the '90s that Dr. Bannerman mentioned — not disagreeing with Israel in public — was there some sort of American fear that went into that policy decision? Can we go back to the old policy where it would be okay to disagree with them publicly? How we can continue a strong relationship, but also take a stand for something greater?
DR. BANNERMAN: As Midwesterners, we argued over everything in my household and with my closest of friends. 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 worked 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 to attain peace. That was the theory. The fact that we've made little progress indicates that this approach has not been successful.
Q: One thing that most of you touched upon was that it's important for all the parties involved to have something to gain. 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 of aligning itself with Palestine would be to the United States?
DR. IBISH: I don't think it's a question of aligning itself with Palestine. I think what the Palestinians, and the Arabs generally, have been asking the United States to do is not de-friend Israel, but add another friend that is Palestine. 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 the confrontation, for instance, last year at the United Nations over settlements, which truly annoyed the Obama administration. They were also annoyed by the Israeli cabinet and by Prime Minister Netanyahu personally on the issue of settlements. We may have reached, at least among political leaders on all three sides, a kind of a pox-on-all-your-houses situation over the issue of settlements.
But I think that there are a number of reasons why the United States would find it essential to its national interests to seek a peace agreement based on the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. First, there really has been, as Shibley was describing, a transformation of attitudes in the past few years, especially in the last year of the Bush administration and the first two years of the Obama administration. There is now 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 makes it harder to achieve absolutely everything that the United States tries to do.
Second, this issue is the gold standard of legitimization among the Arabs and some 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 from Bin Laden to Ahmadinejad in Iran to the al-Asad regime, for example — not exactly "frenemies," but certainly opponents of U.S. policy interests. Basically, the issue is a megaphone lying on the street. All you have to do to gain credibility and legitimization with a certain constituency in the Arab world is to outbid everybody else, 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. Bin Laden also talked a lot, but manifestly did not care about the issue. It's a kind of very damaging tool for extremism and opportunism, not in the interests of the United States, to advance itself.
There's obviously a potential economic benefit that is very hard to quantify, but would be enjoyed by not only Israelis, Palestinians and Arabs, but also by the United States. Finally, there's a question of the relationship of values to foreign policy. Some people dismiss this notion, but most Americans take seriously the idea that we prefer dealing with states that are democratic and liberal, in its classical sense. We don't like the political systems that have predominated in much of the world, particularly in the Middle East, and would in the long run like to see those changed. Our long-term interests are often in conflict with our short-term interests, is how people tend to formulate it.
Globally, but particularly in the Middle East, it is really not possible to lecture any group of Arabs, or anybody else, on the requirements of democracy, if the United States is indirectly paying for and winking and nodding at the system that Israel operates in the occupied territories. It takes that issue off the table, at least if people don't want to discuss it, and it renders the United States very vulnerable to accusations of double standards, hypocrisy, et cetera. These changes aren't easily overcome by arguments that rationalize giving Israel a pass for some reason — security, the Holocaust, it doesn't matter. If you take it off the table, then it becomes very hard to lecture other people about it.
DR. TELHAMI: If you look at American foreign policy since the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, it has been assumed that the United States, on the one hand, supports Israel; on the other hand, it has strategic interests in the Arab world. As long as there is no Arab-Israeli peace, it's very difficult for the United States to manage its interests in the region. So it's been an axiom of American diplomacy that a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace is an American interest. It was visible in a variety of crises, particularly because of the Arab oil embargo that accompanied the 1973 war. Some people have argued that the end of the Cold War changed that and reduced it. So the debate about why the United States 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. What we're talking about is how important the Palestine question is in the Arab world and beyond. I think all the evidence suggests that it is very central.
There's no one who would debate whether the United States has strategic — economic and military — interests in the Arab world. Everybody assumes that's the case. Are these interests linked to the question of Palestine? I think all the evidence suggests that, yes, they are. The United States has a big stake in what happens to the Palestinians because that is tied to its broader interests in the Arab world.
DR. MATTAIR: I think our inability to deal successfully with this issue is a reason for our declining influence in the Middle East. We are seen as a party that is capable, but doesn't have political will and, therefore, perhaps is not the best partner some of these countries could have. That makes it harder, as Shibley was saying, to realize our strategic interests. The flip side of that, I think, is something that Obama may have been trying to convey in his May 19 speech, when he spoke about strategic reasons for dealing with this problem sooner rather than later. I think he may have been trying to say that eventually the United States will be less able to help Israel resolve this problem. Shibley, do you think he was saying that?
DR. TELHAMI: Possibly. You could make that argument. Graeme made the argument that when Anwar Sadat said 99 percent of the cards are in the hands of the United States, he was really referring to the fact that only the United States can persuade Israel to make the needed compromises. If you make that argument and at some point you don't cash it in, you try it for half a century and those cards are not used, people give up. Even if you make the argument that part of America's importance in the Arab world is the fact that the United States has leverage with Israel, if you never use that leverage even on issues that matter, such as the settlement issue, people can give up. In that sense, you are no longer an effective instrument. It undermines your leverage. At what point, do you stop believing the United States holds the cards?
Q: Judging by the current state of affairs, the Palestinians will look for a resolution in the United Nations. Do you think this will have a negative effect on the prospects for peace negotiations, 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 — confrontation in the Security Council, a 337 idea that's more or less off the table, a non-member-state status for the observer mission and an observer mission upgrade with its present status — is that they are very different in their political and diplomatic impacts and would have very different effects. Third parties, particularly Europeans, could play a very significant role, assuming negotiations or terms of reference cannot be found in the meantime, which I think could defuse this situation and find 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 victory and would be helpful, at least in avoiding the day-after scenario. I think it's something that people are talking about seriously. But, as we get closer to September, finding something largely acceptable that the United States can live with, and that the Israelis will not go crazy over and take all kinds of extreme unilateral actions, becomes more and more imperative — because the other alternative, negotiations, recedes.
I mentioned that the day-after problem exists no matter what happens at the United Nations, whether there's a relative failure or a relative success, whether the situation in the West Bank, particularly in Area A, stays the same or deteriorates. This is why 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 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 unilateral Israeli measures. There are many things that could reverse that or freeze it, either of which would be devastating.
So, in addition to finding a compromise at the United Nations and some sort of movement at this top diplomatic level with regard to terms of reference or framework of negotiations, there has to be some serious attention paid to quality-of-life issues. Frustration is running very high.
Q: If there's a large percentage of Israelis that really want peace and a two-state solution, why aren't they getting elected to positions of power?
DR. TELHAMI: Public-opinion polls, in both Israel and the Arab world, show that if you ask people 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, not only among Palestinians, but in the Arab world. I do public opinion polls in six Arab countries, and you find that majority. But what people don't talk about is the fact that a majority of people don't think it's ever going to happen. They don't believe it because they don't think the other side is prepared to do what is needed. That's the issue. They're open to it, but it's not a viable option. That's what has happened really since the collapse of negotiations in 2000.
In the 1990s, people thought there was a viable option: the negotiations. In fact, the assumption they were that it was going to lead to a settlement. So it was very easy to raise public awareness and mobilize the public in support of a solution. After the collapse of negotiations in the past decade, people have just lost faith. It's that pessimism and disbelief that explains why people don't do more.
DR. IBISH: My impression is that, not only has belief in this prospect diminished on all sides since 2000, it's diminished even more in the past couple of years. People are increasingly cynical, not only about the other side's sincerity, but also about whether a framework could actually be found.
I think a factor in Israel that has helped to shift the body politic to the right is a kind of a demographic and political change in the structure of Israeli society. I thought I was going out on a limb the other day when I speculated that a factor in the shift to the right was 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 much faster than other sections of Israeli society because of high birthrates. These two constituencies are more likely to be represented on the political right than some others in Israel. 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 Goldberg of The Atlantic and others. The opinions of those people can change. Societies are not static, and Israeli society is shifting. That is part of this equation.
Q: I heard a talk by Professor John Quigley at Ohio State, and he said that for a UN membership request, the idea of a U.S. veto was misleading because it's only a recommendation.
DR. IBISH: I've read his book again fairly recently because I have a piece on this pending for The Atlantic this week. He's speculating. It's a little like a theological debate in which somebody wants to go back to the holy text itself and throw out all the exegeses and focus on the original words itself. If read outside of any other context, the charter does seem to grant the General Assembly the power over membership. 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.
In the abstract, you could say, this is a precedent in law, and precedents are overturned all the time. The question is, is there an assembly of forces arrayed internationally that could get that to happen and make it of meaningful benefit to the Palestinians to pursue a path like that? 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. He said the UN attorneys have looked into it, and in his view and in the view of most people, there's no way around this because of other aspects of international law.
But even if Quigley is right, and theoretically the precedent could be overturned by dumping all of that other stuff and returning to a clear reading of the charter — a kind of puritan revivalism — the question is, could the Palestinians do it? I tend to think the answer is no. If they did, would it benefit? I'm not sure at all that the answer is yes, because the forces arrayed against them would be quite extraordinary.
Q: Dr. Telhami, what do you think a lack of Arab-Israeli peace is going to mean for the way the Arab Spring unfolds, and how does that bear on Israel's strategic position?
DR. TELHAMI: A lot. As I said, I think the key here is to look at it primarily through Egypt. 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. From the Israeli point of view, however, Egypt is the core of its regional policy. You can imagine what will happen in September, when the election season starts in an environment of escalation on the Israel-Palestine question or you have a crisis following the General Assembly resolution, and tension on Gaza. Remember, the Egyptians are very focused on the Gaza issue. In 2006-07, the ratings of Al Jazeera in Egypt skyrocketed because it was covering Gaza so much. You could also see that when Egyptians were out on the streets the week after the revolution, they were chanting, "Raise your head; you're an Egyptian." There is a sense of incredible pride and that pride that had been lost, I would argue, most visibly, for the Egyptians in the Arab context and global foreign policy in the 2006 Gaza crisis. Those kinds of crises highlight the tension. You should have heard the Egyptian public attitudes expressed on this issue and on their foreign policy. Hassan Nasrallah the next year was the single most popular man in Egypt, a mostly Sunni country.
To assume that this is not going to be a central issue in Egyptian politics is not to understand how intricately linked this issue is to the notion of identity in the Arab world, especially Egyptian identity. 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 over the Camp David Accords. They assumed they were going to actually help bring about a comprehensive peace treaty. It didn't happen.
So I think this is going to play itself out in Egypt in a way that will be detrimental to the Egyptian-Israeli relationship. If you're an Egyptian presidential candidate who doesn't want to give up on the peace treaty — and most of them will not because they know an Egyptian interest; no one wants war or tension; they want to build the country and move forward — you would rather stay away from this issue. You cannot, however, because public opinion and events are making it an issue. You are either going to have to compete on how much more radical you are, or if there is really a prospect for peace, then you can say we've got an option. If there is no credible option, you're going to be in trouble. If you're an Israeli, you should be thinking about it. It is important for you to preserve the relationship. Instead, I think people go into a complacent assumption: We can't control what's going to happen in Egypt anyway. In the end, it's going to be a combination of deterrence and working with the Egyptian military, which is still asserting itself in a big way, consolidating their power. We can work with them and we'll be fine, so let's wait and see how it unfolds. That's the easy assumption.
DR. MATTAIR: Why don't we end by comparing 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? How close have the Israelis and Palestinians come in previous negotiations to resolving issues such as land swaps and refugees? Are the gaps wide or narrow?
DR. TELHAMI: On some issues, they've narrowed significantly. The most important is the one President Obama declared — the 1967 borders with swaps. We have an indication from the negotiations, particularly between Olmert and Abbas, that they went even beyond that, possibly to narrowing it to one-to-one swaps. That is obviously one of the most significant changes. We also see that the Israeli position has moved closer to the notion that the Palestinians would control Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. The one issue where there is disagreement is, what happens to the most important part of Jerusalem, the Holy Basin.
Historically, you can call Jerusalem what you want. If you look at what is now called Jerusalem the vast majority of it wasn't Jerusalem even in 1967. It was a municipal decision, not a historical decision. What people refer to is that one square mile, the Old City plus a few neighborhoods surrounding it. I don't think there is an agreement on that one, and I think that's not to be underestimated.
The refugee issue is still bigger than most people think, and it's a painful one. It's not that one cannot envision a way out of it. We know what kinds of creative ideas you would put on the table. But my own sense of it is that the Israeli public, apart from a functional kind of solution — the Israeli public certainly doesn't envision the massive return of Palestinian refugees because the Israelis want a Jewish-majority state — has totally rejected of the notion of the right of return.
It is impossible for the Palestinians to give up the notion of the right of return though the functional part is negotiable. But, while people talk about that as if it has been resolved, I think the basic point is very critical. Again, if you're a mediator, you might come up with creative ideas on how to move forward, but I don't think the publics have made that switch. I can give a sample of how important the refugee issue is. I have been polling not only in the Arab world but also among Palestinian citizens of Israel, Arab citizens who live inside the Green Line about their attitudes on foreign-policy issues and on the Palestine question. The most critical factor that defines their attitudes on almost everything else wasn't even religion, income, gender or 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. It is much bigger than people think. I wish there were more discourse about it.
DR. IBISH: Actually, I think the sides are still quite far apart. But I think that once the political will is there and the context is there — a belief that something is actually on the brink of happening, you might see that distance being covered quite rapidly. But I don't disagree with anything Shibley said.
Second, they got closer every time, between the '90s and Taba and in the Olmert-Abbas conversations. Even though there isn't that much in writing, especially towards the end of that process, every indication is that they kept getting closer. But because the principle always was that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, it's hard to say they weren't still very far apart. As long as there isn't an agreement, at least theoretically they're quite far apart, because nothing has been accepted until it is finalized at the end.
The final observation I'd make is that Prime Minister Netanyahu has contributed something very important to this: he has added a fifth final-status issue, in effect. The traditional ones are borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security. He's added the issue of Palestinian recognition of the Jewish character of the Israeli state. It's my impression that a great many Israelis and supporters of Israel have become convinced that this is either indispensably important or, as he said in his address before the joint session of Congress, the only real issue. You can't talk to some Israelis and supporters of Israel in the United States without its immediately coming down to a fixation on this question, an issue that was unheard of before Annapolis in 2007 and only existed for about a week then. But it has been not only been resurrected but made into an idée fixe by Netanyahu, such that it will also have to be dealt with. So I'm not one of those people who thinks everyone knows what's going to happen. I think there's a lot of territory to be covered, frankly.