Winnie Stachelberg, Senior Vice President for External Affairs, Center for American Progress
Congressman Robert Wexler (D-FL), chairman, subcommittee on Europe, House Foreign Affairs Committee
Moran Banai, U.S. Editor of Middle East Bulletin
Congressman Wexler: Thank you very much for a very warm introduction, thank you Winnie, thank you especially to the Center for American Progress. I think this is a fair statement. On the drive over, Ashley, who I’m privileged to work with, said it’s extraordinary how the Center for American Progress has become indispensible to people who work on Capitol Hill and I think that’s an understatement. The amount of information—the critical information—that this organization provides to Congress to support progressive ideas, to support the truth, and the way they break it down on a state-by-state basis, is extremely relevant and extremely important in terms of the public debate, and I’m privileged to be here.
Winnie was kind enough in the introduction to point out some of my background in the context of what we are here to talk about, and that is where we stand in the Middle East. Just for the purpose of perspective, mine at least, I signed onto the Obama campaign within the first month. I did so, not because I designed to do so. I had the opportunity and privilege of sitting with then Senator Obama in his Senate office and he spoke about his vision for the Middle East. This was before debates, before anything had really been fleshed out in any detail. But what I took from from that conversation was that here was a man who had a realistic vision of the role that America desperately needed to play in terms of engagement with Iran, for the purpose of thwarting Iran’s nuclear program, and for the purpose of stopping, ultimately, Iran’s financial support of terrorist organizations and networks, and that he was bold enough, grounded enough in reality, but bold enough to believe that a policy of engagement was in the interest of the United States of America, was in the interest of the State of Israel and was in the interest of at least everything I cared about. And I got up from that meeting, and I said to myself, in my small way, undoubtedly very small way, that I had a responsibility, although I thought it would never happen, to try to enable the politics of that process. So I signed on and for the better part of almost two years, I found myself engaging in a debate, often times in the Jewish American community I represent—privileged am I, to represent a congressional district which arguably has the largest percentage of Jewish Americans than any other congressional district in the country.
With that background, I present to you where I think we are and where we ought to be headed. And if I could start with just a reality check because in this town that we’re privileged to work in, often times there are no reality checks. We are at the beginning of October 2009. Think about where we were in January of 2009, not January of 2002 or 2004, but January of 2009. A new president takes office, the expectations are great, but there was an emotional, debilitating, vicious conflict in Gaza that had just been completed. From the Israeli perspective—and I tend to agree with it—they had withstood months and months and months of missile onslaughts and finally a reaction had to happen. They learned their lessons from the war in Lebanon a year and a half earlier, and they did militarily what they needed to do in order to protect their citizens and their sovereignty. From the Arab world’s point of view, and I’m making a generalization, and I don’t mean to, but from the Arab community’s point of view it was a use of disproportionate force, it wound up with Israel staying too long and implementing tactics that in the new era of cable television enraged a good bit of public opinion—not just in the Arab world, but in the broader Islamic world, as well as in Europe and some other spots as well. The Israeli public dynamic was uncertain, in that elections were still not yet had. When those elections were taken, there was a bit of a lull because of the unexpected —or the reality of—a split decision and the Israeli politic was not determined in essence until April of this year.
So when people ask the question, where are we, we need to put it into the context of, in January we were in the middle of a bloody conflict in Gaza, the Palestinians were still in total disarray in terms of Hamas and Fatah, President Abbas was weak—that might be an overstatement, Hamas was on the rise, both in terms of public opinion within the Palestinian community and in terms of their military strength. President Obama walks into office. What does he do? In essence he says, unlike his predecessors—and I do not say this in a critical “judgementary” fashion, if that’s a word—it’s not. I appreciate that. That’s part of the straight-talking shtick. Unlike his predecessors, he doesn’t wait until a comfortable part of a second term, he jumps right in. And he jumps right in, not to a scenario that is ready-made for presidential or American engagement—just the opposite —the scenario that is ready-made for failure, ready-made for disappointment, and ready-made for all kinds of obstacles to be presented. But he did so anyway. He appointed a well-respected Middle East envoy—no one can question his expertise or his commitment or the results that Senator Mitchell has delivered in the past. I think we should be mindful of one of many of Senator Mitchell’s very fine quotes—one that I have repeated to myself over and over again. He very articulately says, in terms of his experience with Northern Ireland, that there were 700 days of frustration and failure, followed by one day of success. Now I hope what we’re talking about here is not 700 days, but I think it’s important to keep that in mind. Let’s move forward a little bit.
What did President Obama offer? The most important thing that I believe the new president offered was a change of equation. Regardless of how you view the Israeli-Palestinian, or the Israeli-Arab, or the broader conflict, no matter what side you’re on, I think it’s fair to say that in the past, the construct was that the Israelis and the Palestinians were supposed to negotiate, and what benefit, what cost, what risk, were to be had by either side, was to be done between the two, and to a certain degree America would play a moderating, supporting, conciliatory, some kind of role. And if you take the example of what President Clinton attempted, then to fuse into that situation a different point—Jordan, Egypt and the others.
President Obama created a different construct, which I thought, and more importantly Prime Minister Netanyahu thought was a game-changer, and it is. And that construct is: It’s no longer just the Israelis and the Palestinians. It’s the Israelis and the Palestinians joined with the entire Arab world, which is charged with responsibilities; and, equally important, the statement that the resolution of this conflict is in America’s interest, defined from America’s self-interested perspective, and it is in the interest of the world. We all have a stake in the resolution of this conflict.
Now why is this, in my mind, so particularly important at this time? Again, regardless of your perspective, you cannot approach this equation without at least appreciating that, to a degree, when we are starting with a Palestinian society that is fractured and a Palestinian leadership that is divided, that by definition President Abbas is not able to deliver like an ordinary president would be able to deliver—he doesn’t control Gaza. So, by asking, by creating a scenario, where the Arab world plays a far more important role, it makes what otherwise by definition would be almost impossible, potentially possible. Now of course, what has happened since then, is that the president has laid out, and Secretary Clinton laid out, and Senator Mitchell has laid out, a process in which the Israelis were supposed to implement a settlement freeze—everyone continues to talk about the definition of what a settlement freeze is—the Palestinians were supposed to make significant progress on security, reduce incitement, take the ordinary steps that a people desiring statehood should take to make peace possible, and the Arab nations were supposed to engage in steps of normalization to create confidence, and to increase, in effect, the prize, for Israel to be able to take risks for peace. Now I’m not going to be naive, I’m not going to sugarcoat what happened last week [at the trilateral], but I still believe, I’m still quite confident, that the construct that the president laid out, in fact has begun a successful process.
Let me just go back to George Mitchell’s 700 days of frustration and failure, one day of success. In that regard, I want to be specific, I want to actually point out, an article that I found fascinating, I read it probably ten times. It was in the New York Times about two weeks ago—the title, “Land First, Then Peace,” it was written by the former Saudi Ambassador to the United States, Prince Turki Al-Faisal. In that article, the Saudi Prince in effect, undermines President Obama’s entire approach. He starts out by talking about the very special and unique role that Saudi Arabia plays, not only in the Arab, but the Islamic world. And, he talks about the fact that Saudi Arabia holds itself to the highest standards of justice and law. And then I’ll read just one sentence, bear with me please: ‘Saudis must therefore refuse to engage with Israel until it ends its illegal occupation of West Bank, the Gaza Strip, the Golan Heights, Shebaa Farms in Lebanon. For Saudis to take steps towards diplomatic normalization before this land is returned to its rightful owners, would undermine international law, and turn a blind eye to immorality.’ Regardless, I’m not going to sit here and refute the Saudi Prince’s analysis of history and Saudi Arabia’s place in the world—that’s not my point.
My point is, which I think goes to the essence of President Obama’s speech last week in New York—all leaders need to get out of the box that they have comfortably put themselves in because it does not challenge them in a domestic way, and start thinking bigger. Yes, Saudi Arabia has a point, and that is in 2002, the then crowned prince of Saudi Arabia, and now the king, proposed, the Arab Peace Initiative. Yes, he has a point, that probably here in Washington, and maybe in Jerusalem, we didn’t give enough credence, as we should have at the time to that proposal. But that is all largely irrelevant at this date. What is relevant, and which is disappointing, but I’ll go back to George Mitchell’s guidance, President Obama on at least two occasions in person, has talked to the king of Saudi Arabia, and in effect, although I’m sure the king was polite, he has said no, in terms of advancing this cause. And my challenge to Saudi Arabia, and I point them out in this article, because in fact they are, if not the leader, they are certainly the leader of those Arab states that have not yet recognized Israel’s right to exist. The king of Saudi Arabia should not put this in the context of making concessions to Prime Minister Netanyahu. That’s not what this is all about. For the last eight years, before Barack Obama was elected, anyone in government, that had the opportunity to meet with an elected official, or an appointed official, or an official of a government that is not democratic, essentially what we heard for eight years, regardless of whether we were Democrats or Republicans, was that America was not engaging. And if you were engaging, you were engaging in a way that was condescending, arrogant and unilateral. Well, in one clean swoop Barack Obama has undone all of that criticism, so that’s a bygone.
So, having had at times legitimate criticism, and at times, in my view, overstated criticism, here we have a president of the United States that comes along and puts his own political capital on the line. This is another beef I have, with people that criticize to a degree, the actions of the administration in this way—the President is acting on his own words. I started by saying I represent a district that has the largest percentage of Jewish Americans, trust me—just take my word for it in this one respect—making the issue of settlements the public priority that this administration did, took a good deal of political risk—trust me. Many of you know yourself, that the conversations around Rosh Hashanah tables, and break the fasts at Yom Kippur, as they related to politics, were heated in terms of the role that America, and our president, and our administration is taking. President Obama is in fact taking the same medicine that he’s asking all of the world’s leaders to take—break out of the box, do something bold, take a step for peace that may cause you some challenge at home and then defend it—and that’s how we will get to a better spot. Unfortunately, as I think has been represented by the actions of too many in this process, that hasn’t yet happened. Saudi Arabia, and I keep just talking about them because of their significant spot—while they do deserve, as I said before, credit for initiating the Arab Peace proposal—they still advance the Arab boycott of Israel. In 2008, according to our Commerce Department statistics, there was a larger number of boycott requests by Saudi Arabia of American companies, than had been the case years before. That’s not moving this towards peace and that hasn’t changed.
In the broader sense, and I will talk about this, Prime Minister Netanyahu had a ‘victory’ of sorts last week—he had argued that we should move to the next round of talks without any preconditions, of course President Abbas said otherwise, and the precondition being, a settlement freeze. The president, having gone and watched Senator Mitchell, and Secretary Clinton go through this process, said it was time to move on. The goal is not a settlement freeze and the president is correct. The settlement freeze was a vehicle in which to get us to a better point, to develop confidence and create normalization steps. That didn’t turn out precisely the way the president had hoped. It may still turn out as a significant development. As was said earlier, we are, as we speak, meeting with the Israelis and the Palestinians, and I am confident listening to Senator Mitchell, and to others, that in fact there will be an understanding reached on settlements and the activities that do and don’t occur, that will enable this process to move forward, and that in and of itself, while it’s not easy to define, and it’s not subject to just a one sentence description—that is an enormous achievement.
And in terms of analyzing where we were in January and where we are in October, in the interim, let us not forget that Prime Minister Netanyahu moved from a position of not endorsing a two-state solution to, in his speech in Israel at Bar Ilan University, endorsing a two-state solution. Understanding, that the prime minister expresses that in a manner in which you might expect a Likud prime minister to express it. But the point is he said that which he did not say before.
Now let me also point out some differences. For all of President Abbas’s problems, and for all of the obstacles that he has before him, I was more than pleasantly surprised, I tip my hat to the Prime Minister, Prime Minister Fayyad, who a couple of weeks ago laid out what to me was the brightest statement ever annunciated by a Palestinian leader. He talked about, in essence, the fact that the Palestinian government would for the next two years operate as if they had already achieved their state—understanding of course that they hadn’t. What he had provided was arguably the first articulation by a Palestinian of what the true aspirations of the Palestinian people are. He talked about a process for creating institutions, institutions of health, institutions of learning, institutions of transportation, all of the things that a state is supposed to do. One of Yasser Arafat’s failures—one—is that he never spoke about the hospitals he was going to create, or the great universities that would lead the Palestinian people and the things that create intellectual capacity and so forth and economic might. Prime Minister Fayyad for the first time did just that. And what he said was, we’re going to achieve so much in the next two years, that the Americans, the Israelis, and everyone else, are not going to be able to, with a straight face, deny us, the Palestinian people, our just state. What a fascinating concept. In this country we ought to get behind that 110 percent. We ought to help fund it, we ought to help support it politically, and we ought to help ensure that those that support that policy in the Palestinian communities gain political strength. Now at the same time, I hate to keep going back to the Saudis, but you might ask, but where are the Saudis in this process? This has nothing to do with Benjamin Netanyahu, this has nothing to do with Barack Obama. The Saudis still haven’t paid up their money that they committed to the Palestinian Authority, not to Hamas, but to the Palestinian Authority—to President Abbas, to Prime Minister Fayyad. The Arab world needs to step up to the plate. They need to do it for themselves, they need to do it in support of a bold and energetic policy initiated by a new American president who himself is taking risks for peace.
Let me move on a little bit and then open it up. I’m going to analyze this from the point of view of an article Richard Cohen wrote on Tuesday in the Washington Post, he said ‘Time to Act Like a President,’ quite critical of President Obama. Essentially he said the president, last week in New York and in Pittsburgh, had acted more like a secretary of State, and not a president. One of his lines, Mr. Cohen’s line, is, ‘the candidate is yet to become a commander-in-chief,’ and he cited the fact that, of course, the revelation made public last week of the second Iranian nuclear facility and that the president came out and gave a dramatic warning. He said, let the secretary of State issue grave warnings—and in fact, Mr. Cohen, and I respect him enormously, but I disagree with him so totally, and I think it goes to the essence of where we need to go—he essentially said the president has to be careful with his language, he better mean what he says. And he gave other examples like creating a healthcare deadline in August, and then the deadline went and came, and that when the president does that, he loses credibility and therefore, reduces his both opportunity and ability to achieve his underlying policy goals. I could not disagree with Mr. Cohen, Richard Cohen more. Something happened in Washington over the last years. A lot of things happened that weren’t very good, but one of the things that apparently happened is that we got used to a president who was disengaged, a president who rarely, if ever, rolled up his sleeves and actually got a little dirty in the process of legislating—the process of leading. Now I understand there’s a difference between the president of the United States and a member of Congress. I understand there’s a difference between the president of the United States and the secretary of State. But I would ask Mr. Cohen respectfully a few questions. If President Obama had not reacted in such an urgent fashion last week—and I mean the set was there, it wasn’t like he was just in New York talking to the YMCA, he was there with all the world’s heads of state, and here this piece of news comes. Had President Obama himself not issued these warnings, do we think for one minute, that Russia, that President Medvedev, ever would have changed his position on the potential use of sanctions with respect to Iran? That was a gigantic shift in the context of Russian diplomacy. Russia went from, ‘we don’t do sanctions,’ as a result or consequence of President Obama’s urgency in New York and in Pittsburgh, to, the Russian position was, ‘sanctions don’t often work, but sometimes they are necessary.’ Well hello! That would not have happened but for the urgency of the president of the United States—it wouldn’t have happened also, most likely, although they are not joined in any official way, if the president hadn’t a week earlier, altered our policy on missile defense to a much smarter, militarily sound and effective missile defense program anchored in Poland and the Czech Republic. But the point is it was presidential leadership that has now set the stage for the world’s focus on the Iranian nuclear program. Had President Obama not done what he had done last week, Iran would not be in the situation it is in today, this week, in Geneva and across the world. Now, none of this is easy, none of this is going to automatically lead to success, but if you look at the variety of problems and obstacles that exist, it requires five presidents, not one. But we have one.
Let me just, if I could I’m not going to belabor the point. The healthcare example that he gives—it has nothing to do with the Middle East, but I think that’s where it’s glaringly wrong again. The president issued a deadline on healthcare, yes in August, and the Congress didn’t meet the deadline. So Richard Cohen concludes the president wasted his prestige, he’s now a smaller executive as a result. No, the truth of the matter is had the president not issued an August deadline, there would have been no movement—House Committees wouldn’t have passed the bill, there wouldn’t have been town hall meetings—as much as they gave me headaches and others—there wouldn’t have been town hall meetings all across America in August, and we wouldn’t be passing a bill that we hopefully, and I’m confident we will, by the end of the year. Yeah, does Barack Obama get a little bloody as a result, in the middle? Yeah. Does he have to roll up his sleeves and get involved in a process that’s not so pretty? Yeah. But that’s how you get success. That is presidential leadership. When the president of the United States moves forward a platform with respect to Middle East Peace, and the king of Saudi Arabia says no once, says no twice, that doesn’t mean the president of the United States shouldn’t engage. It means the president of the United States, in my view, if he’s confident about his position and that it’s the correct one, which I think he is—he keeps going. And he keeps going until the king of Saudi Arabia decides, ‘My God, this young president is in fact serious. And although I wasn’t inclined to get out of the box when he first asked or when he second asked, well now I’ve got to do it.’ And that’s the kind of leadership that is going to be required as they begin these talks and none of it is going to be easy or obvious, and the president is going to have to make the arguments that move publics across the world, and that won’t be easy either.
One of the things that has transpired which needs to be addressed, is that within the Israeli public the lack of confidence in the process is quite obvious. And just like the president made a historic address in Cairo and just like the president, I believe, has changed the equation in terms of America’s relationship with the Arab world and the broader Islamic world all for the better, we also need to understand that we ignore Israeli public opinion to our own detriment—not because we are concerned with elections one way or the other in Israel, but because in order for us, along with the Israeli leadership, with Prime Minister Netanyahu, to create the dynamic that allows him to take the risks he ultimately will need to take. You’ve got to do it from the bottom up. He runs for election, too.
I see there are some people shaking their heads and this is where I’m going to lose all my credibility undoubtedly, if I haven’t already. But, I’m one of the few people in this town that has great confidence that the combination of President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu is in many ways precisely what we need now. That doesn’t mean the process is an easy one; it doesn’t mean I agree with everything that everyone does. But these two men share certain attributes that I think will be important; they share a personal bond that at times has been, I think, very positive when they have met and talked. But, most importantly, I am confident that Prime Minster Netanyahu has learned lessons from his first role as a prime minister and he understands what ultimately needs to be done. Now, I realize I am in the minority of about one or two that has that confidence, but I do. Prime Minister Netanyahu understands full well the power and the persuasiveness of both the American president as an institution and this particular man who occupies the White House. He understands that for the first time an Israeli prime minister has been offered the opportunity to engage not just with the Palestinians but with the entire Arab world, He also understands that there is a far bigger looming crisis, and that is the Iranian nuclear capacity. And that while none of this is linked, that progress with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian, Israeli-Arab process enables greater facilitation—greater cooperation —on the Iranian program and it was very telling that after President Obama’s speech in New York last week, and there was some controversy as to some parts of his speech with respect to his analysis from the Israeli perspective and the Israelis chose to ignore that. And what they focused on was what is arguably the strongest statement ever made by an American president with respect to the Iranian nuclear program, and the importance of stopping that program and stopping their financial support for terror, because we cannot ever forget that underlying all of this, with respect to Iran, is not just the nuclear program, but it is their constant effort to undermine the process of peace. Hamas is supported by Iran, Hezbollah is supported by Iran, and we need to understand that these groups are not just terrorist groups, that they just don’t do horrifying events and actions, but ultimately their real disgrace is that they are rejectionists to the very process that would enable their own people to enjoy the fruits of freedom and economic prosperity. That, ultimately, is the real battle, and that ultimately is why Iran must be defeated in terms of its quest for nuclear power, and we must understand, we here in the United States, that the president of the United States has presented a policy of engagement that is both forthcoming and bold and enables any well-intentioned leader to buy in at some point. But if, at that point, where there’s no other alternative, that president must make a very stark choice, and it’s my belief—and I’ll stop with this, that President Obama essentially will be judged historically on two primary matters. Seventy five percent of his judgment historically will be the economy—if we turn this thing around and we’re growing again and we’re working again, he will be better than FDR. If we don’t, it won’t be pretty. But about 25 percent of that judgment—Iraq will probably be President Bush’s judgment, Afghanistan, shared—but I do believe a significant part of the minority judgment on President Obama will be whether or not Iran becomes a nuclear power on his watch. It will define the foreign policy of his administration here on forward, and the consequences of not stopping that nuclear program, not just to America, not just to Barack Obama as his administration goes, but to entirety of the region, to the entire balance in the region, to the prospect of advancement in the Israeli-Palestinian, Israeli-Arab track. It is impossible to advance on that track if Iran becomes a nuclear power, because Saudi Arabia will likely choose to advance itself in its nuclear capacity, other Arab nations will—they’ll have to. Iran will go further to upset the Shi’ite populations in other nations, seeking to topple nations that are allied with us. The consequences are endless beyond the weapons themselves that will create all kinds of havoc.
You’ve been very kind and attentive, I apologize for talking longer I think than I was supposed to, and I’d be happy to…
Moran Banai: Hi, Thank you very much Congressman, that was very interesting and we’re very happy to have you here. My name is Moran Banai and I’m the U.S. editor of the Middle East Bulletin and I run our Middle East Progress Program. I think you covered a lot of the questions I was going to ask you. Maybe you could expand a little bit more. Clearly, the president put a lot of thought into the words he chose for the speech that he [gave] last week at the GA. Can you talk a little bit about what specifically the different parties can do to use that speech as a basis for moving forward?
Congressman Wexler: That’s a great question. The president was very specific, in that he talked about not only the need to move forward but when we do move forward, in the context of peace discussions, that the issues to be discussed were borders, refugees, Jerusalem, all of the issues that need to be addressed. Now there’s no agreement yet, that that will in fact occur. But the president in his speech, and Secretary Clinton and Senator Mitchell have reinforced that. So he laid out very specifically what the president’s expectation is. Now, I think the good news is, and I say this—I admit it, I have a bias. I am very protective of the American-Israeli relationship and I am very sensitive to Israel’s security interests—I admit that. I’m proud of it, but I also admit it. I’m glad on one level that Prime Minister Netanyahu received a victory last week. I’m glad that he can go home and argue—although he will be big enough not to do it—argue in effect that the president moved a bit to his position by moving to these discussions without preconditions. I think it will enable the prime minister of Israel to give a little bit more on the issue of settlements right now, which hopefully will give President Abbas a little bit more of a push. Now, the downside of this is that President Abbas took a little bit of a hit. But still, President Abbas—from people who know better than I—seems to be in a stronger position than he was a few months ago because the economy in the West Bank is fairing relatively well. And that, if they can get, in fact, a settlement agreement that allows him to talk about the fact that this would be the biggest concession that any Israeli prime minister has ever made with respect to the settlement program, I think that would be significant and would allow is to move forward with a degree of credibility. And let me underscore that if I could. I know there’s suspicion and there’s hesitancy and there’s all kinds of questions. But if they—they meaning the discussions between the United States, Israel and then the Palestinians—if we get to where I think we’re going to get in the next week or two, sure, Arab leaders will say Prime Minister Netanyahu isn’t doing enough—they will, and from their perspective that will be correct. But the fact is, he will have agreed to do more than any other Israeli prime minister has ever done in the context of the settlements. I think we should view that, not as a full victory, but a very substantial victory in the process.
Moran Banai: Great, thank you. I’m now going to open up the floor for questions and I’m going to take press first, if you can give your name and affiliation and also just to remind you that Middle East Progress is a 501(c)3 so please no partisan or electoral questions. Thank you.
Q: My name is Mohammad Elshinnawi from Voice of America. Mr. Wexler, Jim Baker said in a DVD sent to all members of Congress that the parameters of the solution is well-known. So, what do you think the U.S. should do differently this time to end the Arab-Israeli conflict?
Congressman Wexler: Secretary Baker is a very wise man and I think there certainly are certain constructs that are deemed to be the most likely resolutions. I think one of the things that can be done, and I think has some support in terms of the process within the Israeli political structure—I believe maybe President Shimon Peres has talked about this most recently—is it may be prudent, it may be wise for the United States to possibly lead with the issue of borders, for a whole host of reasons. One, because it gives the Palestinians an idea, something concrete—those that support peace—to take to their people. But it also, arguably, defuses to a large degree the issue of settlements and a settlement freeze, because any likely demarcation of borders would put 75 percent of the Jewish Israelis that today are on the east side of the ‘67 borders within what would become the internationally recognized borders of Israel. So, in one clean swoop, you at least diminish the settlement issue if you count it in terms of people by 75 percent and then the political consequences that flow from that. So, I think this time around that one of the things we could do, that would be dramatically different would be maybe to lead a bit with borders.
But I think the biggest difference, and I spoke about this before, but the biggest difference is, and I don’t say this in a critical way—not at all—in the past it was a process dominated by Israelis and Palestinians. Today it needs to be a process dominated by Israelis, Palestinians and the broader Arab world. Saudi Arabia has to be a part of this. Egypt, of course, Jordan, of course, play instrumental roles. The other Gulf states must play a part, Morocco, the list goes on. That has not been the case before. It will provide greater, if successful, greater likelihood of stability, it also increases the prize to Israel, it also increases, I hope, the confidence of Israelis, where they look at the Palestinian leadership and they see division, they see Hamas, they see Fatah, they don’t know who’s really in charge. This provides a legitimate base on that side of the equation.
Q: My name is Jean Athey with Peace Action. In your talk you emphasized several times the importance for people, in particular you mentioned different Arab governments, to get out of the box that they were in, that you were challenging them and I would like to challenge you in the same way. I don’t think any of us actually needed your statement at the end, stating that you were a supporter of Israel after we had listened to the previous comments. And one way to kind of just even poke your finger out of the box would be to have a hearing in Congress where you brought Judge Goldstone to speak. You may know that he recently did an independent study of what happened in Gaza, totally independent. He is a Jewish, well-respected, international jurist and it’s puzzling to me why Congress wouldn’t consider hearing from Judge Goldstone. I’m sure he would be willing to come and speak.
Congressman Wexler: That’s a great question. Judge Goldstone, is in fact, has been over the years a respected jurist. The report, however, that he prepared is a farce. It’s a farce, in my view, respectfully, because it compares two actions that are not comparable and it analyzes the Israeli response to the aggression by Hamas without explaining the context of the aggression of Hamas, and to compare a democratic society, whether you agree or disagree with its policies, but to compare a democratic society where there is a robust free press, where they have nurtured a judicial system that rival[s] ours, in terms of its independence and so forth, to a society in which none of the indicators of democracy—I’m talking about Gaza now—none of the indicators of democracy, free speech, freedom of association, nothing—where they occur, creates a degree of illegitimacy. And let me aggravate you further. The Palestinians—the Fatah, President Abbas—Palestinians that support a process of peace, need to a degree choose between the path of peace and the path of pursuing these kinds of claims in international courts of justice against the Israelis. There are legitimate points of discussion on whether or not tactics, used or not used by the Israeli Defense Forces, comply with international law. That’s fair. Not everything the Israelis do, say, or the fashion in which they conduct themselves is necessarily perfect. But the report that was prepared by the UN in this context, I believe, on its face, unfortunately, delegitimized itself in the manner in which it was conducted and the manner in which the conclusions were presented. Undoubtedly you have a different view. I don’t see a need, candidly, to heighten or give greater credibility to a report that by definition, and I have studied it very carefully, I don’t believe it deserves it.
Q: Eric Fingerhut from JTA. You talked about Iran. There’s a bill that Howard Berman is going to bring up next month on sanctions. You put out a statement the other day which seems to indicate that you would be supporting it. Can you talk a little bit about the prospect for that in Congress? Whether there will be opposition from the left or others to it?
Congressman Wexler: There’s no more thoughtful person in the United States Congress, in my view, than Chairman Howard Berman on this issues and others. So, when he does something, and I believe he’s going to probably do it in a bipartisan way, it has a great deal of credibility. I would assume there will not be unanimous support, but I think it will receive very substantial support. He has been very careful in terms of his timing. He has not, he did not file it before last week, in terms of the UN beginning its process. He did not file it before the discussions between all of the interested parties and Iran began. He does not want to do that, but what he does want to do, and I think appropriately so, and the answer to me, yes I will support it, is that this is a simultaneous process. The process of engagement, as President Obama has defined it is, there are carrots and sticks, there are prizes and there are consequences. And I think we all need to be realistic; the Iranians will not just respond to a smile and good will. They have to understand that there are significant economic consequences at the end of this process if they continue to violate their international obligations, with respect to their nuclear program. And in order to do so, I believe that Chairman Berman’s bill will be a part, a reasonable, responsible part of the equation and that process.
Can I just say one thing to the young lady in purple? If you were familiar with my district, you would know, I say this respectfully, that arguing in support of President Obama’s policy with respect to Israeli settlements is out of the box. Trust me.
Q: Tony Haddad with Lebanese-American Council for Democracy. Congressman, obviously we work together on that part of the region. We feel that the refugees issues in Lebanon and other parts are probably one of the biggest stickler points. And we don’t hear anybody talking about it in a constructive way. I mean, everybody’s thinking that we’re not going to think about it now and they’re not coming back, but what are you going to do with them?
Congressman Wexler: That’s a very fair point and it’s a significant problem with a large human dimension, as you are well aware. I would hope, and I do expect that the debate—if I were to find fault with what has occurred over the last several months, is that the focus has been disproportionately on settlements. Settlements are a part of the problem; they hopefully will be a part of the resolution. But because they have been lifted above, in essence, all the other issues, particularly those that don’t relate centrally to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the issues like refugees and Lebanon and so forth have been discarded for the moment. But I think what you will find is as we move into this next stage, other issues, thankfully, will get the air time, and will get the focus that they justly deserve. I think, again, that the president’s leadership will be quite apparent in terms of challenging the interested parties to move a step beyond that which they previously were willing to go. And it’s each time, unfortunately, hopefully, it will be two steps forward, one step back, sometimes it’ll be the other way around. There’s a reason why this conflict hasn’t been resolved in the years that it has existed and I think it’ll be a part of it. Thank you for asking.
Q: Thank you, Peter Gluck and I don’t have an affiliation other than myself. The Palestinian community is divided, both in its government and its geography and I’d be curious to know how you see the role of Hamas participating in this process as it moves forward since they don’t recognize Israel’s right to exist and I don’t think Israel will negotiate over that. So is it going to be with Abbas and the Israeli representatives and that’s it?
Congressman Wexler: That’s an excellent question, and there are essentially two schools of thought. The school that the United States and our administration presents, which is consistent with the school of thought in Israel, which is consistent with the stated position of the European Union, as well as Russia as well as the United Nations, is that Hamas is a terrorist organization and that it must meet three conditions before it will be recognized and talked to and negotiated with and that of course being: recognizing Israel’s right to exist, giving up violence, and adopting the previous agreements of the Palestinian Authority. Hamas has not yet been willing to do that. So, under that framework, you move forward with Abbas, you move forward with the broader Arab world, and at some point, I presume, we’re way ahead of the game, but there’s going to be elections in Israel and within the Palestinian Authority—within the Palestinian entities. And the Palestinian people at some point, if this all works right, will at some point make an electoral choice and they will choose a process of peace or they will choose a process that Hamas proposes. And if the Palestinian people choose the side that is not represented by peace, then we got a big problem, but we’re way ahead of ourselves.
The other school of thought, which is of course, not adopted by the American, or the Israeli, or the European, or the Russian, or the United Nations, is that it’s unrealistic in part to move forward without engaging Hamas at some level and some degree. And I would respectfully differ with that point of view, but there is that point of view. And I think to a degree, Turkey, a country I respect enormously, has tried to make that argument and there are others as well. In fairness Egypt, Saudi Arabia, to a degree, have tried to mediate between the different Palestinian divisions and have tried to create at different times under different terms, a unified Palestinian position. I think that’s probably more likely, the analysis, or the conclusion than America, or Israel, or Europe changing its view as to how to deal with Hamas, that there be some construct where officials from Gaza who are not a part of the Hamas organization become a part of a broader Palestinian government. But that all remains to be seen. I certainly don’t have any crystal ball and don’t know how that will end up.
The good news is that by every indicator it seems that the Palestinian people themselves seem to be increasing their support for President Abbas, and Prime Minister Fayyad and the forces that support a negotiated end to this conflict, and the forces of extremism, represented by Hamas, seem to be receding. And the one thing that Hamas doesn’t appear really to want to do is to in fact govern their own people. They’re not very good at it and that seems to be taking its toll on the Palestinian people themselves. We don’t focus on as much in this country, but when Hamas in effect turns its guns on the Palestinian people, which in fact they have done, there’s an enormous toll that is taken in terms of public support. Now they can’t express it as you can in Washington, or Jerusalem, or in Europe, but it takes a toll and hopefully not that there will be violence, or not that there is greater injustice, but hopefully the actions of Hamas themselves as to their own people will cause the majority of the Palestinian people to choose a course of peace. The one thing I think that should really give us hope is that throughout it all, and throughout all of the lack of confidence, throughout all of the violence, throughout all of the instability, there still appears to be a nucleus of people on both the Israeli side and the Palestinian side, if—when—presented with a legitimate shot for a comprehensive peace, would support it. Now there are a thousand things that can go wrong, from today until that time, and they undoubtedly will, however, I believe that nucleus still exists and will continue to exist with American leadership.