February 3, 2009

President Obama & Special Envoy Mitchell (AP)

"Every issue in the Middle East is kind of connected to other issues, and if there are positive steps being taken on the Arab-Israeli front, then that is going to have a positive impact throughout the region."

What do see as the top three challenges facing the new administration in the Middle East, including Afghanistan and Pakistan?

There is kind of an overarching challenge, which is to restore American credibility and stature in the Middle East. More specifically, I would say Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and Afghanistan.

How do you expect the new administration’s policies to differ from the last administration’s policies and how do you expect them to stay the same?

I think the Obama administration will recognize that military force has to be used as an essential tool in defending our interests in the region, but it will rely more heavily on the other tools of American power in conducting foreign policy in the region, especially diplomacy. It will certainly devote regular attention to the Arab-Israeli conflict. That is already obvious in the George Mitchell appointment and his trip to the region.

The administration will put its focus on changing a regime’s behavior, not changing a regime itself. I think it will engage states like Iran and Syria directly and without preconditions but obviously with intense preparation. It will be more pragmatic. It will remain, of course, committed to U.S. allies in the region and to democracy and human rights. But there will be a new approach to promoting democracy and human rights, with less of an emphasis on regime change.

Do you think there are policies that are going to stay the same?

It is a matter of some degree. We will not forget democracy promotion, but we’ll handle it differently. President Bush, of course, pushed it very hard and then he dropped it in the final two years of his administration. But there is continuity, of course, in all of these areas that I’ve mentioned—Iran, the peace negotiations, Iraq, Afghanistan—but there are changes as well.

How do you assess the current situation on the ground for Israelis and Palestinians?

The situation on the ground for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip certainly before the war and after the war has been abysmal. Poverty, limited power, very high unemployment, closed borders, poor governance, and now, of course, an even deeper resentment and hostility towards Israel, anger towards Fatah, towards the United States, towards Egypt, towards Saudi Arabia. Homelessness is now pervasive. Many thousands are wounded. Many orphans. Much of the infrastructure is rubble. The immediate challenge of course with regards to the Palestinians requires a massive aid effort. In some respects the situation in the West Bank is somewhat better. The economy has grown, the police force is beginning to perform much better. But Abbas’ presidential term technically ended in early January. Hamas, of course, doesn’t recognize his legitimacy and his government. Abbas’s government faces a real legitimacy crisis. In Israel an awful lot, of course, will depend on these Knesset elections coming up, and who wins them. Israel certainly demonstrated its enormous military power and military superiority in these recent events. But the anger among one and a half million inhabitants, and I guess throughout the region, not just against the United States, but against Israel and against Arab governments, has grown and fueled a lot of resentment. The challenge for the Israelis, of course, is that they obviously want to stop the rocket fire and stop the resupply through the tunnels or any other way, and they’re trying very hard to achieve that. I’m not sure to what extent they’ve had success in stopping it. For the Israelis, Iran is a fixation, and there is a sense of deep insecurity in Israel with a potentially nuclear Iran, and that has really captured the attention of the Israelis and to some degree limited their attention to the Palestinians.

What do you think are the main impediments to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the larger Arab-Israeli conflict?

The deep seated hostility between the Palestinians and the Israelis—words don’t mean the same thing to them. So that hostility is pervasive and very, very difficult to overcome. In addition, you’ve got a divided Palestinian leadership, you’ve got the very fractious nature of Israeli politics, you’ve got the difficulty that Israeli leaders have had in making very tough, but necessary decisions. You’ve got the continued growth of the settlements in the West Bank. And the rockets – as long as the rockets fall in Israel it’s a huge impediment to making any progress towards resolving the conflict.

What role do you see the United States in working to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict and the issues just discussed?

I don’t think the United States can force peace upon the Israelis and the Palestinians, only the parties themselves can achieve it. But there is a place for American leadership to try to create conditions conducive to a just peace and the advancement of our interests in the region.

The conditions for making peace, of course, are very difficult and we have to commit ourselves as a country to improving the quality of life of both Palestinians and Israelis. That means a heavy investment, I hope, with the international community’s support in economic development and institutional development. I hope it means the dismantlement of illegal Israeli settlement outposts, reducing checkpoints, freezing settlement construction. For the Israeli side, stopping the rockets, stopping the rearmament of the Palestinians. The Americans should try to encourage the formation of a Palestinian unity government. We want to continue to support the training of the Palestinian forces in the West Bank, which I think seems to be going reasonably well.

And we are going to have to bridge the divide on the key issues—whether you’re talking about the refugees or security or borders—any of the core issues. I hope that the president will at some point articulate the core principles for a final settlement. I’m not sure of the best timing of that, but I do think it’s important that it be done. And that should address the grievances of both sides, and the president has to work to empower the peace constituencies in both communities. The people of the region, Israelis and Palestinians, ordinary people, desperately want peace.

I also think the United States will have to engage in regional diplomacy in order to reinforce what it’s trying to do. So the role of the United States is crucial, and peace will not come to that area without the United States. And our agenda is a very full one.

What impact do to you think efforts on the Arab-Israeli front could have on Iraq, Iran and other major policy questions facing the Obama administration in the Middle East?

Certainly a resolution, but even a greater effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, is going to be viewed quite positively in the region. Every issue in the Middle East is kind of connected to other issues, and if there are positive steps being taken on the Arab-Israeli front, then that is going to have a positive impact throughout the region. I’m not sure it’s going to change things substantially all that much in Iraq. It seems to me that the Iraq policy, that is, a policy of responsible exit, is pretty much underway. If you had significant progress on Israeli-Arab questions, one very significant consequence would be progress with Syria, better relations with Syria, greater cooperation with Syria on the Syrian-Iraqi border and in other ways. If you make progress on the Arab-Israeli conflict, it deprives the Iranian leadership of one of its claims to leadership in the region. They wouldn’t be able to criticize the moderate Arab states for their inaction, and progress would also mean that Hamas and Hezbollah may lose some of their appeal in the region. So it would have a very wide-ranging impact and generally quite positive impact in ways I’ve mentioned and some I’m sure I have not.

How do you think these other issues might affect the Arab-Israeli front?

Progress in any area will have positive spillovers in other areas. If Iraq settles down, that removes a real irritant in the region. If you made progress in Iran on the nuclear question it would have a huge impact with regard to Israel, greatly increasing the security of Israel, and relieving the Israelis of their major security concern. So, the principal point in both of your last questions would be that progress anywhere will enhance the prospects for progress elsewhere.

What are the most important tools that President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton, and Special Envoy Mitchell have at their disposal?

They all have good standing in the region with the key parties- Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan. Not, certainly, with Hamas. We have the ability to work with each other. We have the ability to encourage cooperation. We have the ability to work for conditions that would be conducive to peace. We have a lot of inroads with all of the parties involved. And the U.S. position cannot be ignored. We have economic aid and trade and security systems available. That’s going to be essential to the Israelis, for sure, and likewise essential to the Palestinians. So, the challenge that our people face is to integrate all the tools of American power and bring them forcefully to bear on the resolution of the conflict.

What role do you see regional actors playing in working to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict?

First of all the Arabs, they really do have an important role, a huge role to play. King Abdullah’s peace initiative has been a missed opportunity to move forward on a two-state solution, and it’s an important initiative in the Arab world. There are a lot of power feuds taking place in the region. Iran has certainly strengthened its overall position, strengthened its ties with Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. That’s a negative impact, of course, from our standpoint.

The moderate Arab states have suffered a blow. Polling suggests that the Arab street has been very disappointed with them. But I do believe that one of the keys to a resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict will be a diplomatic offensive, which will include the neighbors, and that can reinforce the decisions made by the principal parties. We’ve seen, of course, a number of things happen on the ground there—Arab-Israeli breakthroughs that have occurred in the absence of the U.S. government—that includes the Oslo accords, it includes Israel’s peace treaty with Jordan. And we’ve had a number of failures, of course, by the United States to bring about the cessation of hostilities.

You’re seeing other countries getting more involved—Qatar, Turkey—they have good relations with all of the parties, and they are serving and probably will continue to serve as interlocutors in ways that the United States probably cannot. So we’re going to need help as we move through this process. Our role is crucial and essential, but we probably will need a lot of help.

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“We knew at the outset that the task would be difficult. We acknowledged that publicly and privately. We knew this would be a road with many bumps— and there have been many bumps—and that continues to this day. But we are not deterred. We are, to the contrary, determined more than ever to proceed to realize the common objective, which we all share, of a Middle East that is at peace with security and prosperity for the people of Israel, for Palestinians, and for all the people in the region. We will continue our efforts in that regard, undeterred and undaunted by the difficulties, the complexities or the bumps in the road.”—George Mitchell, special envoy for Middle East peace, remarks with Prime Minister Netanyahu, September 29, 2010

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