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The following is an edited transcript of the sixty-third in a series of Capitol Hill conferences convened by the Middle East Policy Council. The meeting was held on January 20, 2011, in the Rayburn House Office Building with Thomas R. Mattair moderating.
We at the Middle East Policy Council think that it is a national security interest of the United States to resolve this conflict. In that, we are in agreement with President Obama, General Petraeus, George Mitchell, former officials such as Brent Scowcroft and many others. Since 1977, when President Jimmy Carter tried to orchestrate a comprehensive resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict with a Palestinian homeland at its core, there have been a number of developments: Israeli settlements in Palestinian territories have proliferated; the United States and Israel have recognized the PLO; interim agreements have been achieved; and limited Palestinian self-rule has been established.
More far-reaching comprehensive agreements have been narrowly missed, and there have been many setbacks and long interruptions in the peace process. But the nature of the resolution of this conflict has become crystal clear: a two-state solution, comprised of an independent state of Israel and an independent state of Palestine living in peace next to each other. We now have an American president who's trying very hard to bring this about. But he's facing considerable challenges, and he needs to rethink his approach and is doing so. We think this panel can help.
We are at a moment of truth in the Middle East, in the Arab-Israeli conflict and in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We face the urgent necessity of moving forward because the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the broader Arab-Israeli conflict, is a national security threat to the United States of America.
There are many reasons why America should promote peace in the Middle East. Promoting peace is a good thing in and of itself, but today, more than ever, it is because our national security interests are at stake that we need to promote peace. Why is it a moment of truth? Last month at the U.S.-Israel forum sponsored by the Saban Center at Brookings, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton admitted what we all knew: the Obama administration's very brave efforts of the first two years had not succeeded, had not produced a breakthrough despite the hard work of Secretary Clinton and special representative George D. Mitchell. Despite the brave words of Cairo, we had not achieved a breakthrough.
Now the administration, the American government in broader terms and the American people are debating the question, what next? We are hearing familiar arguments, arguments I remember hearing before Camp David in 2000, arguments we had at Camp David in 2000. Should we put it on the back burner? It's too hard. We simply can't accomplish this. We can't want it more than they want it. I wish I had a nickel for every time I've ever heard that one. We've heard all of these before. In my view, it is time to double down, to try harder and, if necessary, put forward American ideas with American strength behind them. I'm going to focus on why it is urgently necessary — which, frankly, is the easy part of this — and leave it to my colleagues to talk about how to do it, although I'll be happy to chime in my own two cents in the questions and answers.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a national security threat to America. Indeed, American lives are being lost today because of the perpetuation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A peace agreement is a, if not the, key to achieving most of our goals in the greater Middle East. It is not the solution to everything; it is not a panacea. But that is an unrealistic standard. "Solving the Arab-Israeli conflict won't solve every problem between Morocco and Bangladesh" is, frankly, a stupid reason not to try to move ahead and solve it.
This is a false issue, a red herring, if I've ever seen one. The reasons why this conflict is a threat to the United States are multiple. I'll start with a very simple one. If you believe that Israel is a national security interest of the United States and an ally and partner of America, as every American president since Harry Truman has affirmed, then a conflict that threatens Israelis every day must be a threat to the national security interests of the United States as well.
But I want to dwell on two other reasons. First, this conflict creates anger, frustration and humiliation that fuel the enemies that are killing Americans today. Second, this conflict weakens our allies and friends, the moderates in the Islamic world, who are trying to fight our enemies. I'm going to spend more time on the first and less time on the latter because I think the first is where there is the most intellectual disagreement.
There is no question to anyone who studies this conflict, anyone who has lived in the Arab world, anyone who has lived in the Islamic world, that this conflict produces anger, frustration and humiliation among Palestinians, among Arabs and among Muslims more broadly. It is thus a driving force — not the only one, but a driving force — of radical extremism throughout the Islamic world and becoming more so every day. Once again, it's not the only force; there are other things as well. But it is among the most important, if not the most important. I'm going to focus on al-Qaeda, because I've done a lot of research on al-Qaeda and because al-Qaeda today is the single most dangerous threat to the United States. President Obama made that clear in his review of policy in Afghanistan and Pakistan: our policy in this region has as its highest priority to disrupt, dismantle and defeat al-Qaeda. Al-Qaeda is also important because it falls into an unusual category. It is an organization that has actually declared war on the United States of America. No one since 1941 except al-Qaeda has declared war on the United States of America.
My proposition, very simply, is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, in particular the larger Arab-Israeli conflict, is at the heart and center of al-Qaeda's ideology and narrative. It is essential for its case and its declaration of war that every single American is a legitimate target to be murdered today. Some argue that al-Qaeda is a latecomer to this issue, that it's not sincere, that this is not really what drives al-Qaeda at all, that al-Qaeda is actually driven by a desire to remove American soldiers from Saudi Arabia. Rubbish. Al-Qaeda has been involved in the Arab-Israeli dispute. It has been at the center of its ideology from its inception, as I will show you. If this issue were all about American troops in Saudi Arabia, this war should have ended five years ago. We lost, by the way. We gave up, and we said, we're leaving. But it didn't happen; it hasn't ended one bit.
Let me talk about it by looking at three individuals: Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Khalid Sheik Mohammed. I'm going to focus primarily on Bin Laden. Every scholar who has studied Bin Laden's life in-depth — myself, Steve Coll, Mike Scheuer, Peter Bergen, you name them — emphasizes that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a central feature of this man's life. Look at his speeches, for example. Of his eight major speeches before 9/11, seven of them highlighted the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a driving force in his ideology. Of his 16 major speeches between September 11, 2001, and 2007, 13 focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Look at his speech of May 2008, on the sixtieth anniversary of the creation of Israel:
The main root of the conflict between our civilization and your civilization is the Palestine question. I stress that the Palestine question is my country's central issue. Since childhood it has provided me and the free 19 [a reference to the hijackers of September 11] with an overwhelming feeling of the need to punish the Jews and those supporting them. This is why the events of September 11 took place.
There you have it, from the horse's mouth. It couldn't be more clear; it couldn't be more unequivocal. Go back to his 1998 declaration of war on America. What is the number-one goal he lists? The liberation, as he puts it, of Jerusalem. He puts the liberation of the Holy Mosque of Jerusalem above the liberation of the Holy Mosques of Mecca and Medina, an extraordinary thing for a Muslim to do but a reflection of his priorities.
Look at his life story. Look at his relationships. Look at where he traveled, where he grew up, where he was educated. Steve Coll has laid it all out in his book. I tried to do it more briefly in my own book. He's a product of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is of course not to say that his views are right. That's misleading. It is to understand what motivates him. The first key to victory in any conflict is to understand your enemy, and we need to understand our enemy better.
Look at his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri. Here, the case is a no-brainer. Al-Zawahiri became a terrorist because he wanted to kill Anwar Sadat, the first major Arab leader who tried to make peace with Israel. He was a minor figure in the assassination plot of 1981. Since then, he's been a major figure in international terrorism and radical Islam. Virtually every statement he gives, at one point or another, focuses on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Finally, look at Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, the so-called mastermind of 9/11. I'll simply quote what the 9/11 commission report concluded, based on reading the hundreds of pages of interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed: "Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's animosity towards the United States stems from his violent disagreement with U.S. foreign policy favoring Israel." Not my words, the words of the 9/11 commission.
None of this is particularly surprising. If you go back and look at who is the intellectual grandfather of al-Qaeda and the global Islamic jihad today, it's a Palestinian named Abdullah Azzam. He was the cofounder of the Services Bureau, which is the progenitor of al-Qaeda; the cofounder of Lashkar-e-Taiba, the so-called Army of the Pure in Pakistan; and a major intellectual influence on the Islamic Resistance Movement in Palestine, Hamas. Abdullah Azzam has rightly been called the father of the modern global jihad by the former head of the Mossad, Israel's intelligence service, and he is not afraid to link it to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
One final example. On December 31, 2009, an al-Qaeda triple agent infiltrated an American forward-operating base in Afghanistan and killed seven CIA officers. What motivated him? His wife has told us. He was angered by the war in Gaza, Operation Cast Lead. He wanted to go to Gaza to fight with Hamas. He couldn't get there, so he settled for his second choice, killing Americans.
The second half of the equation, the flipside, is, of course, that the prolongation of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict weakens the hands of moderates, weakens the hands of our friends and allies in the Islamic world. I'm sorry WikiLeaks hasn't done a better job of illustrating this, but I think there's a reason why. Most American embassies, when foreign — Arab and Muslim — leaders tell them that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict weakens their hand, don't even report it anymore. It's so well-known, it doesn't make news. Every Egyptian, Jordanian, Moroccan or Gulf leader I have ever heard talk to four American presidents has always raised the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and pleaded with American presidents to do something about it — not just for us, but for them. The most articulate and persuasive advocate I ever heard was the late King Hussein of Jordan. Frank Anderson and I had the extraordinary privilege one day of listening to him speak to this issue in Frank's dining room in Maryland. He could not have been more clear and articulate. And close to his deathbed in 1998, he came to Wye River to plead with President Clinton to push Bibi Netanyahu and Yasser Arafat to conclude the Wye River agreement. Why? For the children of the people of Jordan, as well as the children of the peoples of Israel and Palestine.
The bottom line: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict produces unholy rage and anger, which is used by al-Qaeda and other extremist groups to justify war with America and the murder of Americans. This unresolved conflict weakens our allies, those we are trying to help in the Middle East and beyond. Of course, we should not push for a just, fair and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians to appease al-Qaeda. That's a false issue as well. Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri do not want a just, fair and lasting peace. They want to kill every Israeli and shoot the ones who try to swim away. We are never going to convert them. We do not do this to conciliate extremism. Rather, we do it to isolate extremism and to isolate al-Qaeda and its allies in the Islamic world, to expose them as the extremists and murderers that they are and to strengthen the moderates who are fighting for the soul of Islam today, for peace and for the two-state solution.
Failure to find a secure, just and fair peace means that extremism and anger will fester and spread further, producing more and more threats to American national security and ultimately to American citizens. To underscore this point, let me give you one more example: Mumbai 2008, the most significant terrorist attack since 9/11 anywhere in the world. Ten Pakistani terrorists, young men from the Punjab led by Lashkar-e-Taiba, struck key targets in the largest city in India. What was at the very top of their target list that day in November 2008? A Jewish Chabad house in Mumbai. Mumbai is a big place; you have to look hard to find a Chabad house. They had looked hard. An American citizen, David Headley, had helped them look for it for months and months. It was at the top of their list because for them, it symbolized the Zionist-Hindu-Crusader alliance. I submit to you that when 10 Punjabi kids have decided that killing American Jews in Chabad houses in Mumbai is a holy cause, we have come to a situation in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a national security threat to the United States of America.
Mumbai is not alone. It is a symbol of the radicalization process that is going on today. Thus, the urgent necessity of finding peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in the broader Arab-Israeli conflict. Future generations will look back on us, I am convinced, and they will ask a simple question. Why did America let this fester for so long? Why did we let 1.5 million Palestinians live in Gaza under siege? Why did we let Israelis live under siege for so many years? Why did we let Americans be at threat for so long? Couldn't we see that this was an urgent necessity in our own self-interest to resolve? Can it be done? I leave it to my colleagues to weigh out how. My simple answer is, yes, with American leadership and with an American map.
I was recently trying to write an op-ed, which I had entitled "Coming Down on the American Side of the Arab-Israeli Conflict." This comes from an experience in the early 1990s, when Bruce and I were working together and I brokered the first official contact between Israeli and Palestinian security and intelligence organizations. I had to gain and keep the confidence of both sides, and the line I used to do that was to promise them that on any given issue, I would come down on the American side. Now, is there an American side in this struggle for the much-too-promised land?
Bruce has done a superb job of identifying the strategic national interest of the United States in resolving this conflict. He follows General Petraeus's testimony earlier this year. For that matter, every commander of the U.S. Central Command since 9/11 has made that point. The 9/11 Commission has made that point. And, as Bruce said and I will echo, any American who has lived in or worked on the region knows that this festering sore of a conflict is a threat to peace and our well-being.
There's been a counterargument advanced, and I think we need to address it. Dennis Ross and David Makovsky wrote in 2009 against the idea of linking this conflict and American interests. Let me quote from their article: "There have been dozens of conflicts and countless coups in the Middle East since Israel's birth in 1948, and most were completely unrelated to the Arab-Israeli conflict.... In addition, as tragic as the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has become, it has not spilled over to destabilize the Middle East. There have been two Palestinian intifadas, or uprisings, including one that lasted from 2000 to 2005 that claimed the lives of over 4,000 Palestinians and 1,000 Israelis. But not a single Arab leader has been toppled or a single regime destabilized as a result. It has remained a local conflict contained in a small geographic area."
I have a very different view, and I would point out a few events: the 1956 Suez war, when the United States was forced into confrontation with its closest World War II allies over this "local conflict"; the Six-Day War of 1967, when American facilities throughout the Middle East were attacked. Our then-Cold War rivals gained enormous ground when our diplomats were expelled from Algeria, Egypt, Syria and Iraq over this "local conflict." The spectacular wave of terrorism across the region and the bloody war in Jordan in what became known as Black September of 1970 was over this "local conflict." The Yom Kippur War of 1973, when we and the Soviets edged close to nuclear confrontation and we took the economic blow of an Arab boycott, was over this "local conflict." Almost two decades of Lebanese civil war were set off by this "local conflict." In my career, there have been more innocent victims of terrorism than I can count, whose killers all claimed to be motivated by this "local conflict."
Speaking of terrorism, I'm going to get personal and claim, along with Phil Wilcox, some experience in dealing with terrorists. From quasi-diplomatic interactions with the Palestinian leadership from the 1970s through the 1990s, I've had operational interactions with some nasty people. One so nasty that I dealt with him only in an automobile, which I drove with one hand while holding a pistol on him with the other. Terrorists have killed my friends, including some whom I ordered into harm's way, and terrorists have tried to kill me. I can tell you that all the terrorists I ever knew saw very clear linkage between the Israeli-Arab conflict and American interests.
After I retired, a bunch of terrorists murdered thousands of people in New York, and they continue to recruit by saying that their central motivation, as Bruce has pointed out, is this conflict. As was said, it's not true that all the world's problems are tied up in the Arab-Israeli conflict and that resolving it will bring universal peace and prosperity to the world. I don't mean to trivialize it by quoting a high-school business teacher of mine who said, money can't buy everything, but money can buy everything that's for sale and that's a lot of stuff. Solving this problem won't solve everything. It won't stop terrorism or eliminate radical Islamic extremists. But it will take the wind out of the narrative that motivates much of the anti-American and anti-Western terrorism. And as Bruce pointed out, it will remove serious threats to governments in the region whose cooperation is essential to the protection of our interests. A deal won't solve all the world's problems, but it will solve so many that it will be a historic, strategic achievement for us and the entire world.
Like Bruce, I defer to others on how to fix it, but I can tell you one thing for certain: Israelis and Palestinians are incapable of reaching a settlement that is acceptable to us. The news that they are once again stalled on their way to a settlement reports only the latest in a long line of impasses. The parties, even if and when they are willing, have proven they are unable to reach an agreement through negotiation with each other. Blood-soaked decades of strife have shown that neither Israelis nor Palestinians can force the other into any solution that would meet either of their needs. They certainly can't kill their way to a settlement that will meet our needs. I believe that the time came long ago for us to recognize that the Israeli and Palestinian political systems prevent their leaders from reaching a settlement. Their systems don't work. We have some trouble recognizing this.
In November, President Bill Clinton, in a tribute to the memory of Yitzhak Rabin, wrote:
There's a real chance to finish the work he started. The parties are talking. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has the necessary support from his people to reach an agreement. Many Israelis say they trust him to make a peace that will protect and enhance their security. Because of the terms accepted in late 2000 by Prime Minister Ehud Barak, supported in greater detail by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and approved by President Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinians, everyone knows what a final agreement would look like.
It's generally true that everyone knows what a final agreement would look like. At least pluralities of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples have regularly polled in favor of a deal that establishes two states with borders that closely follow the 1967 lines of separation between Israel and its then-hostile neighbors, with Jerusalem as a shared capital and a just settlement for the refugees — which practically must mean compensation, to be paid mostly by the United States.
This deal was not only acceptable to the majority of Israelis and Palestinians; it would be welcomed by the international community, the Arab states and the vast majority of people in the Muslim world. Nevertheless, both Israel's and Palestine's political systems give veto power to their respective rejectionist minorities. The power of the rejectionists in Israel is growing. Recent polls show it. The demographics show it: the maturing of a generation of children born in the settlements who are now reaching senior positions in the Israeli government is growing. On the Palestinian side, both the performance of the Palestinian authority in the West Bank and the polls will tell you that the rejectionists' power has diminished. But it's not diminished enough to matter. There are all kinds of arguments about why the two sides have dysfunctional systems and powerful rejectionists. Those arguments don't matter; they just do.
Ignoring the dysfunction on both sides is no longer possible, and waiting for them to fix their dysfunctions is no longer responsible. We have to stop saying, as Bruce has said, and I'm tired of hearing, that we can't want peace more than the parties themselves want peace. We have to abandon the idea that our interests can be adequately served by agreements the parties can reach by themselves. That's just not true. We need peace. We need a settlement that will deny murderers the motivation and justification that they've used over decades.
Neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians need or want this peace enough to meet our needs. We need it. We want it more than they do. We can't responsibly settle for what they can work out. And we must also recognize that we have the means to overcome their rejection. Neither side can long survive without our contributions and treasure. Neither side can advance or defend its cause without our diplomatic cooperation. As I have said, the 9/11 commissioners have said, the commanders of the Central Command have said, other groups have said, we are paying an increasing price in blood for their refusal to reach an agreement. We can no longer ignore this. We can no longer let the parties ignore it.
Tom Friedman's December 11 op-ed was a message to the two leaderships:
Israel, when America, a country that has lavished billions on you over the last 50 years and taken up your defense in countless international forums, asks you to halt settlements for three months to get peace talks going, there is only one right answer, and it is not "How much?" It is: "Yes, whatever you want, because you're our only true friend in the world."
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, what are you thinking? Ehud Olmert, the former Israeli prime minister, offered you a great two-state deal, including East Jerusalem — and you let it fritter away. Now, instead of chasing after Obama and telling him you'll show up for negotiations anywhere under any conditions that the president asks, you're also setting your own terms. Here's some free advice: When America goes weak, if you think the Chinese will deliver Israel for you, you're wrong. I know China well. It will sell you out for a boatload of Israeli software, drones and microchips so fast that your head will spin.
It's time for the United States to present and insist upon its own outline of an acceptable settlement.
Dan Kurtzer, the former ambassador to Israel in testimony last year said this, and everybody at this table will agree with him:
We have known for years that interim, incremental or step-by-step approaches will no longer work. We know that confidence-building measures in a vacuum do not work and instead inspire lack of confidence....Combined with a determined leadership role by the United States, strong terms of reference can make the difference between negotiations that simply get started and negotiations that have a chance to end with success.
The international community is moving in this direction. The European Union's calls for a settlement along the 1967 lines with Jerusalem as a shared capital are increasingly insistent. They're not going to turn back. Threats are growing that they will call for a U.N. resolution that would accept the Palestinian state as a full member of the United Nations. The Argentine, Brazilian and Chilean governments' declarations that they recognize the Palestinian state within the 1967 borders will be followed by others.
There's growing concern in Israel about calls for boycotts and divestment from Israeli enterprises in the occupied territories, fear that these will become an argument for divestment and boycotts of all products from Israel. Increasingly, voices in Israel are recognizing that their strategic — indeed, their existential — needs parallel ours, and they're calling for a more assertive role.
The Israel Policy Forum, an organization of former senior military and diplomatic officials, prepared a message to the new administration in February of 2009:
Effective leadership requires that a U.S.-planned revision be placed on the table. There is no need to dispense with earlier initiatives such as the Clinton parameters, the negotiations that followed the Annapolis process....or the Arab Peace Initiative, but it is essential to go beyond what has been done by including a regional perspective and a clear vision for the endgame, including the tough issues of Jerusalem, refugees and borders. The imperative of a U.S. vision is such that it need not wait for an agreement of Israeli or Palestinian leaders; it must reflect the comprehensive thinking of the new administration on a final resolution of the conflict.
Daniel Levy, who's making his mark in the United States, has a very effective and articulate voice:
President Obama may take seriously his own admonition that this issue matters to American strategic interests. That would translate into U.S. leadership in shaping a breakthrough, preferably with EU and Quartet support, creating real choices and deploying new incentives and disincentives with the parties, notably Israel. Ultimately, for all the noise and speculation regarding their resumption, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations are likely to prove rather inconsequential. Success or failure in achieving de-occupation in two states will depend primarily on the conversation between Obama and Netanyahu, their political calculations, priorities and persistence.
Levy ends with, "And that conversation has barely begun."
The administration's statements have steadily moved toward that sort of engagement and away from the sterile and discredited claim that we have to accept what the parties are going to work out for themselves. And it's not just this administration. Let's review some history. It was during the Carter administration that we first heard an official mention of the Palestinian nation. During the Clinton administration, it was the president's wife, not the president, who first spoke of a Palestinian state. The George W. Bush administration's road map, however little he did to follow it, was the first official mention of two states as a solution. The current administration, in a remarkable advance in rhetoric, has declared that it will end the occupation. President Obama said that it will end what began in 1967. The secretary of state recently declared, "We will not be passive." She has demanded that both sides present their specific visions for settlements, detailing positions on borders, security arrangements, Jerusalem and refugees. I think we'll wait a long time for these two sides to present those visions. They'll only be presented when we accept that the only way forward is for the United States to present its outlines and to declare its determination to reach them.
It does sound as if we're getting ready to come down on our own side. I'm hoping that's true. And I'm hoping — beyond, quite frankly, what I call cautious pessimism — that it's in time.
Bruce Riedel has given us a vivid analysis of the powerful U.S. interest in a comprehensive Middle East peace and a solution to its core problem, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Frank Anderson also underscored the danger this conflict presents to American national security, how Israelis and Palestinians have proved they cannot make peace by themselves, and why only the United States can help them do this. I'm going to suggest what we should do and how we might do it.
For the last two years, the Obama administration has clung to the notion of a "peace process," starting with a settlement freeze as a confidence-building measure to resume negotiations. But settlement building continues, direct negotiations have failed, and we have reverted to "proximity talks." The administration has challenged Israeli negotiators to explain their positions, so that, if necessary, the United States can offer "bridging proposals." This incremental approach shows no signs of working. It is time for a much bolder American approach.
Some experts still argue that this is such an intractable conflict and the prospects for success are so poor that the United States should not plunge into an ambitious peace plan, because failure would do even greater damage to American influence and credibility than the status quo. We talk about dysfunctional Israeli and Palestinian systems. I am not prepared to say that the U.S. government is also dysfunctional and that we can't do what is profoundly in our national interest.
The same skeptics believe we can continue to manage the conflict and keep the lid on, as we have tried to do for decades. But this is a dynamic, volatile conflict that gets worse by the day. It's like riding a bicycle: If you don't move forward, you fall off. We are all in danger of falling off again. The problem becomes more dangerous because of rising anti-American and anti-Israeli feeling in an unstable Arab and Muslim world, negative changes in Israeli society and political culture, and the deepening split between the West Bank and Gaza.
The challenge of making peace cannot be overstated. It means reversing a 40-year Israeli national project of occupation and settlement in the territories occupied in 1967. It means resolving the paralyzing ideological and religious divisions that are preventing Israelis and Palestinians from making the right choices for peace. In Israel, the secular and religious right, which supports occupation and settlement, has the initiative. They hold senior positions throughout the bureaucracy and play a growing role in the military, some of whose senior officers are settlers. The Labor party may be disintegrating, and there is no effective political opposition. There is also deep division in Palestine, where the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Hamas are ideologically and geographically split between the West Bank and Gaza. The threat of violence is built into this impasse, and there are clashes almost daily, though this goes largely unreported in the media because it is so routine.
What is needed? All of us on this panel think it is time for America, with its allies, to intervene with a comprehensive plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Such a plan should also address the related conflicts with Syria over the Golan Heights and the problems of Lebanon and Hezbollah. Since these problems are linked, they cannot be dealt with piecemeal.
Some say that Washington must "impose" peace on Israel and Palestine, but we can't do that. Ultimately, peace will come only if it is willingly accepted by both societies. The task of the United States is to mobilize strong public support in both societies for a concrete and compelling peace plan even if their current leaders resist it. This will mean interfering in Israeli and Palestinian internal affairs and confronting deeply ingrained interests. We will be harshly criticized for such interference. But let's remember that the government of Israel interferes daily in our internal affairs. It is quite normal for democracies to do this, and we should not be shy about using diplomacy directed to the people, not just to their governments, knowing that ultimately the leaders of both Israel and Palestine must respond to their citizens.
Here at home, people argue that, notwithstanding our national security interests, experience proves that powerful interest groups — especially Jewish and Christian — who oppose any American challenge to Israeli policy, especially on issues of territory and security, will succeed in undermining a U.S. peace plan. These interest groups are certainly influential. They work hard and they are well-funded. But they do not reflect the views of a majority of Americans, whether Jews, Christians, Muslims or Arab-Americans. Indeed, there are other influential interest groups — Jewish, Christian and Arab-American — that want much more active U.S. leadership to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian and related Middle East conflicts.
Still, isn't it presumptuous of us to believe that, at this late stage in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and in the face of repeated past failures, we can bring about the massive changes needed in Israel and Palestine to make peace? Perhaps it is. But it is necessary to at least try to do this, and to try much harder than we have in the past to protect our own vital interests. There is another reason why the United States should intervene more energetically. The United States is not just an outsider that has been drawn into this conflict because of good will or altruism. We are a party to it because of our extraordinary relationship with Israel. For years, we have been Israel's closest friend and ally. We have provided enormous moral, political, financial and military support to Israel. This has been helpful, indeed essential, for Israel to survive and prosper as a state. But we have been too uncritical and unqualified in our support. As a result, Israelis have come to believe that their country need not observe the normal rules of nationhood and can act with impunity. This habit of U.S. deference is obsolete and mutually harmful. We have a responsibility, as Israel's best friend and ally, to treat it like a real friend and to speak the truth.
How do we do it? Our approach must be to change public opinion. We need to inspire hope and confidence in a peace plan that would fulfill fundamental Israeli needs for security and acceptance. The move to the right in Israel is a result, in part, of a dysfunctional political system that exaggerates the power and control of the religious and ideological right and of the military. This process is not irreversible, and public-opinion polls show that at the center the Israeli people are still pragmatic and volatile. In planning a peace initiative, our assumption would be that there is a silent majority in Israel that would rally to a wise, empathetic and strong American peace initiative. Israelis are deeply concerned about security and the future of their state. They understand the demographic threat to the ideal of a Jewish and democratic state. Many Israelis are also deeply concerned about initiatives from the right that threaten Israel's civil society and assault its democratic ideals. The apparent downfall of the Labor party is also seen as a wake-up call for many Israelis to reinvigorate a real opposition that might someday speak for the Israeli majority.
Of course, we cannot force Israelis to make peace. They are a proud, tough people with many historical reasons to be skeptical. The art of an American peace initiative would be to reinforce their understanding that we support their security and future well-being, applying both candor and empathy. We need to explain that we want to preserve and strengthen the U.S.-Israeli relationship. But we need to make clear, for the first time, that our relationship was not made in heaven and must be a two-way street. We should stop using the misleading slogans that are so prominent in our public discourse: for example, that "there is no daylight" between our policy and theirs and that we will always be bound together by "shared values." The United States does not share the values of a considerable part of the Israeli leadership, which for 40 years has been devoted to the domination, control and dispossession of its Palestinian neighbors. And we should stop proclaiming that Israel will always be a strategic ally that protects U.S. interests at a time when Israel is in danger of becoming a strategic liability.
Such unaccustomed candor will be painful, but if done properly, it will have a bracing effect on the Israeli public and their leaders. Israelis will listen carefully, knowing that their relationship with the United States is indispensible to their security and well-being. I remember that in the early '90s, when Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir worked hard to foil what Israelis realized was a sensible, good-faith American initiative to bring about the Madrid peace process, the Israeli public voted out Shamir and his party in favor of a more progressive and peace-minded coalition under Yitzhak Rabin. Israel is a volatile society. It can still change, in spite of all that's happened in the last 40 years.
We need to use the same approach toward the Palestinians. They too are divided, and they have foolishly indulged in an internecine quarrel between the PA/Fatah faction and Hamas. The result was a military clash in Gaza that broke their community in two. The United States, unfortunately, has encouraged this split. But there will be no peace between Israel and Palestine without a united Palestinian government that speaks with one voice. Palestinian reunification must therefore be part of a comprehensive U.S. peace policy. A dialogue with Hamas will be difficult, and we might have to work through intermediaries at first. But Hamas is still a work in progress, for better or worse, and it has its pragmatic elements. I doubt that a compelling and sustained U.S. peace initiative offering freedom and sovereignty to the Palestinians would be rejected by Hamas. It could be a huge incentive for them to work for reunification with the Palestinian Authority, and ultimately new Palestinian elections in both the West Bank and Gaza. Of course, we would also have to persuade the Palestinian Authority that unity is in their best national interest and vital to making peace with Israel and creating a state of their own. The initiatives of Prime Minister Salam Fayyad and Palestinian peace diplomacy in recent months have been impressive but insufficient. Palestinians are still primarily a dependent and occupied society. They desperately need international intervention to rescue them and, in the process, to rescue their Israeli neighbors.
Of course, there would be tough opposition here at home to the kind of American diplomatic activism and leadership I have advocated, but perhaps our leaders exaggerate this. Repeated polls show deep and wide support for stronger U.S. leadership in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. If the president wants to build a strong American peace constituency, he would find ready, willing partners in the American Jewish, Christian, Arab and Muslim communities.
What about the substance of the plan? That's the easy part. For 20 years now, Israeli and Palestinian leaders and experts themselves have discussed all the final-status issues: security, Jerusalem, borders, settlements, refugees and water. Solutions they have proposed should be the basis for an American peace plan, although tough negotiations on the details will still be needed. As for the format, I think proposed final-status solutions should be contained in a comprehensive, integrated plan. Dealing with these issues piecemeal will not work, since tradeoffs will be needed to ease the painful concessions both sides must make, for example, on such difficult issues as Jerusalem and refugees. Unless that can be done in the context of a comprehensive, internally reinforcing plan, I don't think we will succeed.
Incentives and disincentives will also be necessary as negotiations proceed. But firmness, patience and honesty should be the mainstays, not sanctions. I think that the Palestinian and Israeli people have the wisdom and courage to respond in a positive way. To be sure, at some stage, some negative and positive inducements will be needed. For example, the United States might stop tax exemptions for donors to Israeli settlements. There will have to be extensive U.S. investment to compensate Palestinian refugees and Israeli settlers as well, and the United States will have to take more independent positions on the conflict in the United Nations.
Should a resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue be linked to peace between Israel and Palestine? Peace between Israel and Palestine could have a very positive impact on the Iranian dilemma. It would defuse the extremism and the radical rhetoric of the Iranian leadership and make it easier to address the Iranian nuclear program. That can be done. Some Israelis argue that the two conflicts are so closely linked that we must resolve them simultaneously, but this would likely delay a resolution of both conflicts.
As for the timing of a new U.S. peace initiative, I think we have to move now. There are always domestic political reasons for delay and other competing diplomatic challenges. But the environment for peace in Israel and Palestine will continue to deteriorate, and the danger of much greater violence, even war, is ever present. If the Obama administration does decide to move, it will need deeper staffing and expertise. The president should also create a clearer point of leadership, whether it's the secretary of state or someone else, in order to avoid the kind of division among policy makers that has hurt American peace efforts in the past.
I know many of you will still ask, is such a bold and unprecedented new policy really possible? My answer is that, while success is far from guaranteed and there are many reasons for skepticism, we must do this, because the stakes are so high for everyone — first of all, for the United States; for the future of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state; and for the Palestinians, who also deserve dignity, freedom and sovereignty. Let's not concede that this is beyond the capability of the United States.
I would like to say a few things about the consequences of a U.S. failure on the peace process, including the failure to submit a plan, and then map out what I see as four possible alternatives. I'm not advocating these alternatives; I'm just providing some analysis of what I think may be likely.
But first, the consequences of a U.S. failure, either in not presenting a plan, or in a failure of the peace process. This has been covered, but I think there are four main ones. First, we're looking at the end of the viable two-state solution. The clock certainly is ticking in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and in Jerusalem. Every time I go back, I don't recognize the landscape, particularly between Ramallah and Jerusalem. We're getting to the point, as I wrote in a report in July 2009 based on a month-long visit to the area, that the window of opportunity is really closing. In fact, the Obama administration used that language last fall when they started, or restarted, direct talks. But we're quite possibly looking at, as Bruce said, the "moment of truth." A viable two-state solution may no longer be possible. If it's not achieved in the next few years, we've got some real problems.
Second, there's a very real risk of a destabilizing conflict in the region. When you look at what's happened over the last four-and-a-half to five years, the region really walked up to several conflagrations: civil war in Iraq, the conflict between Lebanon and Israel, Hezbollah and Israel, and the conflict in Gaza. And though there's a calm now, it's a very tenuous calm. There have been flare-ups and some major bouts of violence, including the Gaza war of 2008-09. In the absence of forward progress in either the current process or some alternative, such as the presentation of a U.S. plan, one could see yet another conflict reemerging. Look at the combustible mix that exists now in Lebanon. The absence of momentum is deeply troubling.
There are other consequences of failure, such as the further undermining of American power and our ability to get things done. When historians look back on the first decade of the twenty-first century, they will see that we've committed several self-inflicted wounds to our ability to use our power and leverage. How much power and credibility do we actually have? I call this an efficacy crisis, and it has existed for a while, since the middle of the Bush administration. We have had presidents repeatedly state certain goals or objectives in Iraq or Afghanistan or North Korea or the Middle East peace process and then not achieve them. It sends the message to a world that has become much more multipolar that perhaps the United States is no longer what it used to be. And people are behaving accordingly.
Fourth, like Bruce, I think the consequences of failure will make it very difficult for the United States to fight against terrorist networks like al-Qaeda. American lives are being lost today, as Bruce said, and we mustn't forget that it's part of the al-Qaeda ideology. Resolving this by whatever means possible will take the wind out of their sails.
So here, for the purpose of discussion, are four quick alternatives in the absence of U.S. success in the current process. I lump them together because there are many different variations on each of the four. First there are what I would call the Israeli, mostly unilateral, steps. This is what we've had for the last several years. It is premised on the notion that there's no chance at all for a final-status agreement, that the parties are too divided, that "there is no partner," the slogan you hear in Israel. Israel would either try to come to some sort of interim arrangement or move to maintain the status quo and continue some of the things that we see right now. In fact, Avigdor Lieberman has presented this plan in recent days: modest economic development, continued security cooperation with Palestinians in the West Bank and perhaps provisional borders.
I suspect we're going to hear more about this in the next few months, in the absence of any new ideas or progress before the next Quartet meeting in February. Prime Minister Netanyahu has talked about this — continuing the status quo, trying to build Palestinian state institutions in parts of the West Bank. I would suggest that this is not a viable long-term strategy, for a number of reasons. All of these Israeli unilateral options are suboptimal in the long run. Given the demographic trends in the region, if Israel wants to remain a viable democratic and Jewish state, there is a need to resolve these issues. These ideas of a long-term interim arrangement or agreement ultimately forestall the resolution of some of these issues. The reason I think this is probably the most likely option if other alternatives don't succeed is that it's attractive to this current Israeli government. All of the difficult decisions involve having to evacuate settlements and confront settlers in a land-swap deal.
Second, there is the Palestine option. A serious push for international recognition is gathering steam, and it's linked in some ways to the Fayyad plan. The notion is that the Palestinians need to assert a new state. The current UN resolution on settlements is part of a broader strategy that is actually quite interesting, in which the Palestinians are using language that the Obama administration has used on settlements and on the peace process. They're trying to force the U.S. administration to decide whether or not to use its Security Council veto. The basic notion is a dual track, one on the ground, continuing to build the vestiges of a Palestinian state. Fayyad in the summer of 2009 talked about his plan and its concrete goals. This is one thing that has been supported by the U.S. administration through money, support and security training.
This second track, of course, means looking for UN recognition of a Palestine state. It faces a couple of challenges. This has been tried before, in 1988 with the declaration of the establishment of a Palestinian state. More than 130 countries, depending on how you count them, recognize this state. There is a quasi-state. There are representatives here in town. In fact, a controversy has caused some echoes up here on Capitol Hill: the raising of the PLO flag just a few days ago in Washington. These are nice ideas in concept. But, as Phil said in his remarks, the Palestinians are quite weak. If, ultimately, the United States and Israel do not react positively to this, it may go nowhere.
All of this may play out this year, with the Israelis continuing to introduce unilateral moves and the Palestinians trying to build statelets in parts of the West Bank and then trying to move diplomatically. But it ultimately doesn't resolve the core issues. Israel may choose just to ignore this UN recognition. And Hamas has not supported the Fayyad plan, another weakness in this structure.
There's a third alternative. I'm not going to spend much time on it because I don't think it's serious, but I heard it in my visit to PA offices in the West Bank: dissolve the Palestinian Authority. Mahmoud Abbas brings this up every once in a while, in his most frustrated moments. I remember one visit to the West Bank, around the time that Israel was negotiating for the return of the remains of an IDF soldier from southern Lebanon. A very senior PA official said, Israel negotiates more seriously sometimes with Hezbollah or with those factions in Gaza like Hamas than they do with the PA. There's a sense of frustration — what are we doing here if there are no serious steps on the Israeli side? I don't see the dissolution of the PA as serious at this point. We would still be stuck with an unresolved situation that ultimately is drifting towards something like a one-state solution. This is something the Israelis don't want as the resolution of the conflict.
Fourth, there is the multilateral and international track. Here I'm going to highlight one thing that we haven't discussed. I don't want to beat a dead horse, but the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, reintroduced in 2007, is an interesting formulation that has never really gotten the attention it deserves. The problem with introducing a U.S. plan on the Israeli-Palestinian track and doing it in isolation forestalls what I think is the ultimate goal in the longer run. It's my hope that at the end of my career — and I've about 25 or 30 years in me — we're not still discussing these things track by track. I remember in 2007, sitting in Speaker Pelosi's box in the gallery, hearing King Abdullah, the son of King Hussein, speak very articulately about the Arab Peace Initiative, trying to reintroduce it again. I think this notion seems moribund and impractical, given that each of the individual tracks — the Israeli-Syrian, the Israeli-Palestinian — have their own complications. Without a grander plan, and without connecting a U.S. plan to a more comprehensive solution, I think we will ultimately forestall the resolution of this conflict.
I believe that Israeli-Palestinian peace is in the interest of U.S. national security. The main question I have about a U.S. plan is this: If the United States introduces one and President Obama takes a step forward, then what? This idea suffers from the same potential flaw that the administration faced in the settlements fight last year. If you don't have a bend point, if you haven't thought through how the Israelis will respond and how the Palestinians will respond, and if you haven't garnered political support both at home and abroad, you're stuck. Presidential intervention is a very precious asset, and you want to use it sparingly. I'm not opposed to the idea of a U.S. plan at this juncture, particularly if the indirect talks and the four other alternatives don't work. But if you're going to go there, you really need to game out the implications, because you could potentially be lighting a political fire that this administration may be averse to dealing with, given everything else that's on its agenda.
It's unfortunate that there's been a dangerous gap between the rhetoric of the president and top leaders and the mapping out of clear strategies to deal with this complicated issue. If you look at the UN General Assembly speech that President Obama delivered last fall, one-quarter of it was dedicated to the Arab-Israeli conflict, about 1,000 words out of 4,000. If you're going to set a bold position, not only in that speech but in Cairo, you'd better have a plan B, C, D, E and F. In my assessment of how this administration is handling it, I'm worried that they don't even have a clear plan A.
I think this forum is an important opportunity to map out how you would actually introduce a U.S. plan, because everybody's right here. People know what the contours of a final settlement look like. The challenge, I think, is how to actually navigate this politically inside the United States, inside Israel, inside Palestine and throughout the region. If we continue to just slice this salami, track by track, and not discuss comprehensively how to end the entire Arab-Israeli conflict, we're doing a disservice to what we can potentially accomplish in the next couple of years.
DR. MATTAIR: Not very long ago, Roger Cohen wrote in The New York Times, after the administration abandoned its effort to get an extension of the partial settlement freeze, that the president had "virtually no domestic constituency" for what he was trying to do. Brian, one of your recommendations was that we should have a public-diplomacy campaign, a strategic communications plan, to influence the Israelis and Palestinians and the wider Arab world. What about a strategic communications plan targeting the American public, to build a bigger domestic constituency for what the president needs to do?
MR. KATULIS: First you have to have the policy substance right on the issue. And what I was alluding to in my concluding remarks is that I'm not certain they have a full-blown strategy just yet. Each of the individual tactics that the Obama administration has in place — trying to build parts of the institutions in Palestine, trying to work with the Israelis — makes sense in and of itself, but I don't know if it adds up to a coherent strategy. A key part of it is, of course, strategic communications. It's not sufficient for the secretary of state or the president to deliver a speech one month and then not engage with what's a very vibrant press environment in Israel and in Palestine. On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving 2009, they had Senator Mitchell deliver a press briefing at the State Department. Wednesday afternoon before Thanksgiving, and the audience was mostly, I think, in the United States! The president's attention to communicating on national security has been quite minimal when you compare it to previous administrations. In part, I think it's a consequence of the major domestic challenges here at home.
What worries me about the Middle East peace process or the lack thereof, or the Afghanistan war or Iraq, is that we actually don't have enough of a debate in groups like this or outside of the think tanks in Washington. Look at the president's speech on Iraq at the end of August 2010. A third of it was the message that we need to be strong at home to be strong abroad. I think he's definitely listening to the political winds in the country, because America has turned a bit inward. It's not isolationist, but it's a challenge for the president to find the time on his schedule to speak about these issues.
MR. RIEDEL: I would agree with what Brian has just said about the unfortunate reality that this administration, given the numerous disasters it inherited from its predecessor, finds it hard to find the time to give all of them the attention it should, especially in the public domain. We need to build a variety of constituencies. As Ambassador Wilcox laid out, we need to build an Arab constituency and an Israeli constituency, a Palestinian constituency and a global constituency, if we're going to put forward an American proposal for how to resolve this conflict. Above all, we have to put forward a domestic constituency, as you suggested. American presidents have done this before. Bill Clinton did it in the 1990s. He built quite a large constituency in this country of the liberal left of the American Jewish movement, and that gave him a lot of room to maneuver.
I also want to speak on one other issue: interfering in Israeli politics. I worked for four presidents. I won't speak for the Obama administration, but the previous three all interfered in Israeli domestic politics quite openly. George Herbert Walker Bush engineered the overthrow of the Yitzhak Shamir government through the instrument of housing-loan guarantees. But he didn't build a big enough constituency in the Jewish community in the United States to support it and suffered as a result. Bill Clinton engineered the overthrow of Bibi Netanyahu in 1998. I can tell you for sure that was exactly what he intended, and he built a constituency to support Ehud Barak. George W. Bush engineered support for Ariel Sharon that made abundantly clear to the Israeli people that Sharon was "a man of peace." If that's not interfering in Israeli domestic politics, I don't know what is.
I don't see any harm in interfering in Israeli domestic politics. It's in our interest to move Israeli domestic politics in the right direction. But a smart president would build his own domestic constituency to support that beforehand.
Q&A: couple of you mentioned the demographic changes in Israel and Palestine that are not working to Israel's benefit in the long run. But what about demographic changes here in the United States? One of the things I've noticed in my over-two-decade career as a professor is that younger people are less and less sympathetic toward Israel. It doesn't mean they're sympathetic toward Arab leaders, but they are more sympathetic toward Palestinians. Does that matter? Second, someone referred to the Argentinean, Chilean and Brazilian recognition of a Palestinian state. Some of the work done by the Pew Foundation shows that the Hispanic population is not sympathetic toward Israel and may not even be sympathetic toward Jews. Is what we've seen with Latin America evidence of a larger assertion of a viewpoint among Hispanics that affects American Hispanics, and what does that mean going forward? Third, the Muslim American population has really grown, and there's a huge, vibrant Arab and Muslim presence on our campuses. People can actually talk to these people and hear their points of view. Does this growth in the Muslim American population make a difference? I don't think that the Congress supports Israel just because they happen to think it's right. They do so because it's a reflection of trends in society, and if these trends change, I suspect that they're going to change as well. Will the United States therefore have a greater ability to assert an American viewpoint, as you have indicated here?
AMB. WILCOX: The public climate is improving in the United States for more American leadership in this conflict. That is particularly true in the American Jewish community, which traditionally has been the most important voice in influencing our Middle East policies and is devoted to the welfare and security of Israel. The Jewish community is deeply divided today. Increasingly, younger American Jews and even some of the older generation are worried about the very future of Israel. They want to see more aggressive American leadership for the benefit of Israel and are challenging the traditional Jewish establishment that wants a seamless U.S.-Israeli relationship. There is also a wing of the American Christian evangelical community that presses for Middle East peace, in contrast to the conservative Christians who support Israel, right or wrong. These trends are an opportunity for the Obama administration to mobilize a domestic pro-peace constituency in a systematic way.
A new American peace plan will provoke considerable friction with the Israeli leadership. But if we persevere and are smart, strong and empathetic, there could be growing support among the Israeli public.
MR. KATULIS: I agree that there's a lot more ferment now in terms of the politics. There are new groups like J Street. In fact, General James Jones, the former national security adviser, spoke at their conference last year. I think it was an important signal. There are many different avenues. I don't know yet that they're all harnessed or organized. And the important thing, as Ambassador Wilcox mentioned, is that efforts be connected to what the strategy is. Bruce mentioned that there were leftist Jewish American groups that supported President Clinton. Some of them are part of the Center for American Progress (CAP) now. The Israel Policy Forum recently merged with us, in part, because CAP is a think tank like Brookings, but it's also an "action tank." We've been working with and talking to partners, because there's a lot of concern about the absence of a viable political strategy. It's not just about the substance. It's a political strategy.
Second, there's a countercampaign in play. We saw this in some of the Senate elections and some of the independent campaigns, what some people call "neocon 2.0." I call them national security regressives. They oppose a range of national security issues like New START; they actually want to bomb Iran tomorrow and then add to their portfolio. There's a very active nascent political campaign on a two-state solution. I've been in small meetings where I have seen the conservative right in this country talking with the conservative right in Israel and saying things such as, the Obama administration is the least pro-Israel administration in the history of the United States and that we need to actively work around it politically. So I would say, yes, there's a lot more ferment. There's discontent with the traditional lobby groups.
We're a democracy. We want to have a broad exchange of ideas, but there are those national security regressives who essentially want to say, this is impossible, and what President Obama has tried to do — which most of us agree is quite modest — is actually undermining Israel. I would say that he has actually been trying to help, and that we need to engage more.
MR. ANDERSON: Let me call attention to some words that have repeatedly emerged in our discussion: "comprehensive," "integrated" and "strategy." I would reiterate that you cannot have a strategy unless you have identified an objective. It's awfully difficult for the president to go to his political operatives and say, let's come up with a strategy to sell our policy to the American Jewish community. Let's build a coalition in the United States to support it and not have an answer to what it is that we're selling. I think the fundamental first step has got to be a leadership decision that can only happen in the White House that says, this is our objective. Then the president calls together his political as well as his national security team and with them hammers out a plan to sell and carry out that objective.
DR. MATTAIR: We said earlier that the outlines of a settlement are clear, so for the United States to say what it thinks the border should be, what the capitals of the two states should be, and what the resolution of the refugee issue should be, is not really that difficult. The border should be close to the 1967 borders; West Jerusalem, the Israeli capital; East Jerusalem, the Palestinian capital; compensation for refugees. I don't understand why it's so difficult for the United States or the Obama administration to articulate that. Then its strategy falls into place. But strategy always involves incentives and sanctions. We just tried every incentive we could possibly imagine, and that didn't motivate the Israelis. That leaves sanctions.
Q: I was struck by the fact that, over the course of the presentations, the one voice of opposition to the clearly correct policy viewpoint expressed by all of you was the quote that Frank used from Dennis Ross, the president's chief White House policy adviser on the Middle East peace process. Are we doing an effective enough job in countering the Israeli operations inside the United States? It strikes me that they're vastly more effective than what we've done intermittently inside Israel. A study was done the moment that Likud came into office in 1977 by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, profiling all of the evangelical and fundamentalist churches in America that could be recruited to the Israeli lobby. The next thing you knew, Jerry Falwell was being given a jet plane by Rabin to stage a nationwide tour of the United States.
AIPAC right now is going through something that looks remarkably like a bad episode of "Dallas," between Steve Rosen and the top management. Yet there has not been a paragraph about it in the U.S. press. If I had the money to take out a full-page ad in The New York Times, I'd run the transcript of Rosen's deposition, where he goes through the internal life at AIPAC. Could we be doing more to create an appropriate demonization of the activities of AIPAC and its related apparatus? Ultimately it's the president of the United States who's our constituency for getting this policy through. He's going to have to know that his back is much better covered in order to take the kinds of bold steps that would be required. That means a much more aggressive, targeted campaign against this apparatus.
AMB. WILCOX: I think the administration should stick to the high road and tell the truth about the reality of this conflict and the harm it is doing to Americans, Israelis and Palestinians. We should not attack individuals or lobbies. I remember when George H.W. Bush said, "What can I do? I'm surrounded by Israeli lobbyists." He took a beating. The public will be much more responsive to a strong, realistic and honest description of the problem and what must be done. A political process to build American domestic support for peace would be something new. It could consume a lot of the time and space between the introduction of an American initiative and its fulfillment. We should also use this period to pursue peace making between Israel and Syria and Lebanon and on a new policy to promote Palestinian unification. It isn't as if we're going to announce the plan and then hope that something will happen quickly. It's going to be a long, tough slog.
MR. ANDERSON: I'll call attention to what was said when Bruce and I were on a panel together on Afghanistan: If our strategy requires that we change the nature of Afghan society to succeed, we will not succeed. If our strategy requires that we change the nature of Israeli, Palestinian or American political structures, we will not succeed. I hate to be a broken record on this, but what is required is leadership, which must come from the president, who comes up with an objective that is then carried out by the national security team, the diplomatic team, the military team and the political team inside the United States. This is the essential thing, not whether one part of a very vigorous political mechanism or another needs to be outed.
We've all seen the president of the United States and his team work for decades at varying levels of effectiveness. We need a program that is identified, and then we need it to be effectively carried out. That includes mobilizing and directing the political discourse in the United States, not changing it.
MR. RIEDEL: I'd like to go one step further from where I think Frank has just eloquently put us. I agree that we don't need to be demonizing; there's enough of that in this country today. I think we need to go a step beyond principles, parameters and road maps. We need to put a map on the table. This may sound like a very small idea, but I actually think it's quite a large idea. My experience with negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, Israelis and Syrians, is that, when you put a map on the table, people focus like a laser. It's for real, it's serious. Ninety-eight percent of the West Bank plus 2 percent swaps, 96 percent of the West Bank plus 4 percent swaps — all those things are useful and important. But when you actually put a map down and say, this is what we think it should look like and say, we have spent 20 years listening to you; we have studied the demographics, we've studied the security aspects, and we think this is where the line should be, you take the conversation to a new level.
The people who live in Israel and Palestine will look at that map right away and say, I'm on the wrong side or I'm on the right side. And you will build constituencies in a nanosecond that you have never built before. I don't mean that we should put it down and say, take it or leave it. That won't work. We should put it down as America's best idea and say, if you don't like something on this map, draw me the alternatives and then let's have a negotiating process around it. This should be part of a more comprehensive proposal that deals with the other issues as well. But I believe that this is the way to break the impasse more than any other.
Many will say this can't be done. Brian rightly pointed out that every time we go to the West Bank, it looks increasingly like a place we've never been before. The geography is changing every day. I feel that probably more than most. I grew up in Jerusalem in the 1950s. I can't even begin to recognize places that I knew as a young boy. But I think this is the single step that takes us further along.
People will say, and many do, that foreigners should not draw these maps. When I proposed this idea to a bunch of Europeans, including Norwegians, who are usually in favor of putting something on the table, they were horrified: "Outsiders shouldn't draw maps." In theory, yes. There isn't a border in the Arab Middle East that was drawn by an Arab. We're not exactly breaking new ground here. All we're doing is drawing the map in Washington instead of London. That's not necessarily the best solution, but I think Frank and others have said it here very well. If we leave it to Israelis and Palestinians to draw that map, it will never, ever be drawn. This is the step I think the United States should take forward now, even though it will cause huge fallout. Ambassador Wilcox is exactly right: we need to gird our loins and be prepared for what will come. But if it really is a national security interest of the United States of America, we need to put something on the table that goes beyond road maps and principles to something highly specific and explicit.
DR. MATTAIR: We have a number of questions from the international audience. Most of them pertain to our domestic politics. This is for Ambassador Wilcox: Why do you think Hamas could not reject an American plan? Why would they tend toward unity with the Palestinian Authority?
AMB. WILCOX: Hamas is, above all, a political organization that ultimately must rely on Palestinian public support. No one knows how popular or unpopular it is. There are polls that show declining support for Hamas in Gaza, where they know Hamas best. Others say there is still a substantial following for Hamas in the West Bank. Ultimately, there are going to have to be Palestinian elections. That is the only way to create a legitimate Palestinian leadership. It's a tragedy that the United States, having championed democracy in the Middle East, rejected the results of the first election there, which was in Palestine, because Hamas won a plurality.
I doubt that Hamas would permanently resist a promising U.S. initiative to liberate the Palestinians and create a Palestinian state with a capital in East Jerusalem. If they did, their following would rapidly dwindle. So I think the best hope for Palestinian internal reunification is to promote aggressively a peace formula that will appeal to all Palestinians and that Hamas could not stand against.
DR. MATTAIR: Hamas has said that they'd like to put it to a referendum, and they'd accept the results. But who would vote? Palestinians in the diaspora?
AMB. WILCOX: Of course, it's up to the Palestinians. There has to be progress toward the basic issue of independence and sovereignty before the Palestinians themselves could organize an election, but surely elections are necessary, probably sooner rather than later. Until there is a real movement toward Palestinian internal unity, however, I don't think they're going to have elections. A well-designed American peace initiative could unlock the impasse of Palestinian disunity that blocks elections to restore Palestinian democracy and create a legitimate leadership.
Q: I wonder if some of the panelists could assess the potential of the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement to make Israelis feel that the status quo is less tenable than they currently do. This movement is growing, particularly in Europe, which is a much larger trading partner of Israel than the United States is.
MR. KATULIS: I'm not certain it yet has legs to achieve what it wants to achieve, for a number of reasons. Israel is a very powerful country, not only militarily, but economically. It's increasingly linked not only to Europe, but to the rest of the world. Bruce actually wrote a piece telling us this includes India, the largest buyer of military equipment from Israel. I think ultimately it needs to actually persuade Israelis, and those who are voting within Israel, that it's in their interests to move forward on this. I can imagine how a range of Israeli leaders, especially those who are in government right now, might react to it. And given Israel's power to do what it wants, I'm not certain that it will be effective in moving things. I just don't think that's where the game is right now.
MR. RIEDEL: I would agree. I also think we shouldn't underestimate the impact that American presidents can have in a positive direction in Israel when they make it clear, either explicitly or through symbolism, that Israelis understand that the president is looking for a partner, and he knows who that partner is. What do I mean by that? When George Bush and Brent Scowcroft made it very clear that Yitzhak Shamir was not the partner, was not going to move forward, Israelis felt angry at first. But when it came time to go into the polling booth, they voted for Yitzhak Rabin. When Bill Clinton made it very clear that Benjamin Netanyahu was not, in his view, a partner for peace, we went through the entire Rolodex of the Israeli Labor party, one by one, until we found Ehud Barak. And, in the end, the Israeli people chose Ehud Barak. When George W. Bush put his arm around Ariel Sharon, he gave him immense political support in Israel.
Israelis, like everyone else, don't like to have outsiders interfering. But Israelis aren't stupid. They know where the $3 billion in assistance comes from every year. They know that the United States provides Israel with the most sophisticated weapons systems available. They understand the consequences of irritation or worse in the U.S.-Israeli relationship. They will get it. It has to be done with some degree of subtlety and sophistication. Blunt instruments usually have counterproductive results, but a scalpel can work very, very effectively.
I think this president has made a mistake in not going to Israel in the last two years, particularly since he went quite hurriedly in the period between his nomination and his election. The signal it unfortunately sent to Israelis was that it's all about votes. Israelis need that hug. Implicit in the hug can also be, you'll get a cold shoulder if you're not moving in the right direction. One of the things I hope is going on in this administration right now is some serious rethinking about how they deal with the Israeli body politic, how to influence it in the way we want to influence it. You would have thought that the president's first chief of staff would have been the world's foremost expert in how to do this. But, to be fair to Rahm Emanuel, he had a lot of other things on his plate.
This is the moment of truth, the moment of reconsideration and recalculation and trying to build these constituencies we've all been talking about. Don't underestimate how positive influences can still have profound effects in terms of Israeli politics.
Q: There is a Jewish quasi diaspora emerging at this point, people like Avraham Burg, the former chief of the Knesset, and Justice Richard Goldstone, and the authors of the book Murder in the Name of God, who investigated the conspiracy that killed Yitzhak Rabin — it was partially funded here in the United States. They also include the Jews inside Israel right now who are protesting the loyalty oath, Jews who are not allowed to marry whom they want because they're not orthodox and so forth. There's a peace constituency that's under tremendous repression inside Israel. We should be inviting these people to the United States for interviews and forums. I think that would change the American body politic in a profound way, because these people are fighters for peace who are excluded from their own country.
The second thing is the moment of truth at the UN Security Council on the resolution to outlaw settlements. I suspect that what the United States is going to do is try to delay the vote as long as possible and then veto it. That would be a tragedy. I urge those here and elsewhere who have signed on, to go to the president and say, support this resolution.
AMB. WILCOX: Some of my friends predict that the administration will cast a veto because of the 30-year tradition of the United States vetoing all such resolutions on Israeli settlements and the applicability of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which outlaws Israeli settlements. It is hard to believe we would do this and contradict the Obama administration's own anti-settlement policy, which it has pursued for the last year and a half. Instead, we may abstain to avoid the embarrassment of a veto and the criticism that a yes vote would provoke from Israel and the conservative American Jewish establishment. But even an abstention would be a retreat from our own declared policy. This is indeed a moment of truth. I hope the United States votes yes.
The United States for the last three decades has tried to minimize the application of international law and the involvement of the United Nations concerning the Israel-Palestine conflict. I think this is a flawed policy. We will need support in the United Nations as part of creating an international coalition that we will need in pursuing a U.S. peace plan. The UN helped to bring forth the state of Israel. There is no reason it should not be an active partner in bringing forth the state of Palestine.
DR. MATTAIR: One more question from the international audience: Let's say we did not vote yes or abstain. Would that be primarily because it's not the strategy the Obama administration wants to take toward its objective or because of domestic politics? If President Obama is convinced that a two-state solution is in the best interest of U.S. national security, how do you explain the timid approach of the United States as an honest broker?
AMB. WILCOX: There may be those who argue that we cannot vote yes or even abstain because this would make it difficult for us to gain the cooperation of the Israeli leadership. The fact is that for some years we have not had the cooperation of the leadership on the issues that are quite central to a resolution of the conflict. Look at the aggressive acceleration of settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank right now. A U.S. veto, or even an abstention, could encourage Israel's leaders to think that they're on the right track and that, while we may talk about opposition to settlements, in fact we're unwilling to join the international consensus that they are illegal and must be stopped.
MR. KATLUIS: If they do veto it, they'd better have more in mind than just to continue direct talks in another Quartet meeting, because that won't suffice. There's international pressure building. There may be reasons why the United States might abstain or say no. But they should have a better plan and then explain it more thoroughly. I think we're all saying this to the various constituencies that are involved. One element Bruce has written about and I've talked about, along with others, that would help is a cost-to-completion estimate: what the United States and the international community would be willing to provide. We've run some numbers with analysts, and it is not more than $92 billion to $100 billion. I'm talking not just about the Israeli-Palestinian arrangements but Syria and all of the security guarantees that would be needed. That amount is what we spend in Iraq in a year or so, in Afghanistan too.
We lack a strategy for the broader region. Much of what we do in think tanks and almost all of what is done in government is tactical reactive crisis management. It plagues our debate today on Afghanistan and Pakistan. In the 1990s, when many of you on this panel served, you could argue that there was a strategic framework with clear objectives and goals, much of it framed by the Cold War. Now we're in a different landscape. In the Middle East, I believe that we have tactical initiative. This administration has handled it a lot better, and it has been trying to dig us out of a hole that the previous administration dug. But we lack a fundamental strategic conception. As a consequence, we debate the next UN resolution and the next action by Iran. We're reacting. What we've not done, not only on the two-state option but more comprehensively, is to state where we want to be in 2020 or 2030. As a result, we'll debate 10 percent increases in troops in Afghanistan or surges here and there, but we don't actually have a realistic articulation of where we'd like this broader region to be, say, at the end of this decade.
MR. RIEDEL: Phil mentioned Syria and Lebanon. Something that hasn't come up yet today is the special tribunal and the indictment. That's not directly involved with the Israeli-Palestinian case, but I have to believe that it's going through a better context.
MR. ANDERSON: I spent a good bit of my life in Lebanon. I'll even claim a personal friendship with Saad Hariri. Lebanon is at a particularly dangerous place. But it is always at a particularly dangerous place. The former prime minister of the country was murdered under mysterious circumstances, and an investigation is strongly rumored to be about to indict one of the political parties inside the country and a neighboring country for involvement in the crime. They do not wish to be indicted. Lebanon is a place where one of the ways that a political party can avoid going to the polls or to court is to begin killing people and destroying property. I don't believe we can dismiss the possibility that that will happen. Sadly, if I were asked today to go and tell the president the best way that he could react, I don't think I would have a good answer other than that Lebanon is a tar baby for the United States. If you wish to understand how much we will be damaged by it, tell me how much you're going to be involved. Lebanon's going to go into a very critical period in the coming days. I'm not certain I can figure out a way for us to make it better for them or for us. But if it appears to the Israelis that the development is threatening them, then we could have another war — and that really impacts the peace process.
MR. RIEDEL: I agree with what Frank just said and what Brian said earlier. A new war in the Middle East is out there. We can see it, whether it's in Gaza or Lebanon or whether it's a new intifada in the West Bank. The notion that, because people in Ramallah have nice cafes to go to, they are satisfied, is a notion we have tried. It doesn't work. It's building in the West Bank, too; it's building in Iraq. The status quo is unsustainable. The drums of war are already beating in this country. There was an extraordinary op-ed right after the president's shellacking last year in which David Broder suggested that confrontation, if not war, with Iran would be the way for the president to unite Americans and restart our economy. I have to hope that David Broder just had a really bad day when he was writing that. But he's not alone in suggesting these things. In the absence of the new American initiative to try to break the stalemate, there will be another war in the Middle East. And the next one may be a trifecta: a war with Iran, a war in Lebanon and another war in Palestine. We already have two wars in the Middle East. We don't need a third, a fourth and a fifth. If we don't take the initiative now to break this status quo, we will face that sooner or later.
AMB. WILCOX: I think we have to get rid of this notion that the United States cannot talk to terrorists or enemies and adversaries. We've crippled ourselves in the Middle East by demonizing Hamas and Hezbollah. In many respects, they deserve demonization, but they are part of the political landscape in Gaza and the West Bank and Lebanon, respectively. Now it is a German diplomat who negotiates between Israel and Hezbollah on Israeli-Hezbollah hostage issues. It is Egyptian diplomats who negotiate between Israel and Hamas on various issues. The Turks, the Qataris and the Saudis often play more important and positive roles than we do because we've tied our hands by saying we can't talk to the bad guys. I think it's a huge mistake. Talking to people does not confer honor or dignity or acceptance. But they're part of the puzzle. And unless we address them, we're not going to use the full capability that we have.
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