March 16, 2010

President Peres and VP Biden in Jerusalem (AP)

"[Q]uite frankly, it’s the element of disrespect for America that does not sit well with many Americans, particularly those like me who cherish the unbreakable bond between America and Israel."

What do you think were the goals of Vice President Joe Biden’s trip to Israel?

The vice president’s, and also the president’s, goals were actually quite straightforward in that the vice president was going to Israel to reaffirm the special relationship, the unbreakable bond, between the United States and Israel. The vice president was the ideal communicator of that message because for him that sentiment has been a three-decade-plus heartfelt position that he has advocated throughout his entire public career. So it was convincing, authentic and heartfelt, and he was the correct messenger.

How would you assess the success of the trip in terms of those goals?

I think the vice president was pitch perfect. He was on point in both the manner in which he expressed the unshakable commitment by the United States to the security of the state of Israel and the depth and sincerity of that commitment and relationship on behalf of America. I also think the vice president was quite adept in the manner in which he, unfortunately, had to respond to the East Jerusalem housing announcement. His condemnation—which was swift, clear and strong—I thought was proportionate. There are few people that could have managed to express both a sincere commitment of friendship, and at the same time an authentic condemnation of a policy announcement that undermines the goals of both President Obama and the Quartet as we were attempting to begin proximity talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis. The vice president found himself in a difficult situation not of his own making and he handled it as well as could be expected under the circumstances.

So what do you think are the broader implications of the Israeli announcement?

I think there are several implications. One of which is an opportunity. I think the announcement, first of all, needs to be put in context. I take Prime Minister Netanyahu at his word—I think everyone should—that he was as surprised by the announcement as was the vice president. The housing policy is, however, a barometer of the policy of the government that he oversees. The problem is, while the United States is seeking to bring the parties to proximity talks, no party should be creating facts on the ground that complicate the start of negotiations or the ultimate resolution of the final status issues. And the announcement by the Israeli government was a rather striking example of an action that makes creating trust and developing the formula for an end of conflict between the Palestinians and the Israelis more difficult.

Now, I understand that the Israelis have not agreed to freeze housing starts in East Jerusalem. I understand that. On the other hand, either you take a process of proximity talks and negotiations seriously or you don’t. And you can’t effectively enter into a negotiation process with sincerity if one side or both sides are continuously going to poke the other side in the eye. It just unnecessarily complicates things and needlessly enrages sensibilities in an already combustible environment. And what’s the upside or the advantage of the Israeli government in making such an action? If it is to somehow assuage or comfort a particular domestic political audience then I would respectfully suggest that the Israelis need to balance that perceived gain against the added difficulty it creates for the United States and the international outrage that results from those announcements, as well as the additional pressure that President Abbas receives from the Arab League and elsewhere to end his commitment to the proximity talks. In fairness, the Israelis were quick to point out this was simply an announcement—it wasn’t even as if the building in East Jerusalem would begin for possibly years. So what is the point? Ultimately, respect for the United States should be given more weight and attention. I think that’s what bothered the American administration the most. And, quite frankly, it’s the element of disrespect for America that does not sit well with many Americans, particularly those like me who cherish the unbreakable bond between America and Israel.

You said that you think that the vice president responded in a good way. Would you have advised the administration to do anything else?

I think the vice president handled it very effectively. I think the more important question candidly is: How will the administration make certain that the upcoming proximity talks evolve into direct talks—a serious step toward an end-of-conflict resolution? And while I certainly would opine that it is premature for the United States to lay down on the table a detailed American plan, I do not think it is premature for America to establish, consistent with what the president and the secretary of state have already stated, a set of parameters that we expect the parties to acknowledge as they enter into proximity talks on the final status issues such as borders and the right of return, for instance. My understanding is that Secretary Clinton spoke to Prime Minister Netanyahu on Friday about the need to not only begin talks, but to begin talks of substance, not just procedure. Likewise, the Palestinians must not get the impression that this brief moment of tension between the U.S. and Israel gives them a license to extract greater concessions from the Israelis before the negotiations even begin.

In this context, I believe there are certain principles that would seem to be at this point self evident. For instance, the only way to effectively establish a de-militarized and economically viable Palestinian state is to create borders that mirror the 1967 borders with modifications or land swaps that take into account population changes. Under such a system it’s reasonable to assume that the goal would be that between 70 and 80 percent of the Jewish-Israelis that today find themselves outside of the 1967 borders will be placed within the internationally recognized borders of Israel. Likewise, the Palestinians must understand that if a Palestinian state that is demilitarized and economically viable is going to be created, that the so-called “right of return” of Palestinian refugees will be solely to the Palestinian state and that Israel must remain demographically a Jewish state. The goal is to create one Palestinian state, not to create one Palestinian state and a state of Israel that is no longer Jewish. It also must be stated that in order to realistically accomplish a two-state solution where both sides gain the prerequisites that they require, Israel’s security must be safeguarded first and foremost. That applies whether it’s a Likud government that is in charge in Israel, or Kadima or Labor—Israeli security is first and foremost. Those concerns must be respected and addressed.

The concerns of the Palestinian side also must be addressed, as well as the concerns of the broader Arab world as they relate to Jerusalem. For example, the history and stake of the Muslim community in Jerusalem must be recognized in order to accomplish a lasting two-state solution, which in fact ends the conflict between not only the Israelis and the Palestinians, but the Israelis and the broader Arab world. Resolving the Jerusalem issue is a key component of the Arab Peace Initiative, which offers comprehensive peace and normalization of relations between Israel and all 22 Arab nations as well as the entire Muslim world.

How would you navigate the space between, on the one hand there are clear parameters that everyone is somewhat aware of, but on the other hand, if you give too much of your own opinion, then both sides can just reject it. Where is that line?

Well, you raise a very valid point. There’s a tenuous spot, a sweet spot. I would not recommend that the president of the United States, or the secretary of state start dealing with which street in Jerusalem goes where, or precisely which settlement is in, or which settlement is out, at the beginning. That is for the parties to negotiate in good faith. But I do believe there are a broad set of principles that the United States can establish that will set the tone and the direction of discussions so that the conflict can once and for all be ended. Ultimately, the parties need to negotiate the particulars.

In laying out these parameters, it is essential that the United States establish unequivocally at the outset that the security interests of the state of Israel are first and foremost. Such a statement is necessary because no Israeli prime minister, no Israeli government, can make peace until and unless their security interests are, in fact, respected and met. And arguably it’s unrealistic for any Israeli government to even begin negotiations unless it knows that those security interests will be respected.

In that regard, the Obama administration in the last 15 months has been excellent, both in terms of the messages and actions that we have implemented, all of which were designed to strengthen Israel’s security position and enhance its qualitative military advantage in the region. When Turkey, for instance, uninvited Israel from a particular military joint exercise with the United States and other nations, the Obama administration’s response was unequivocal. We backed out as well. That was a very strong message of support to Israel that registered throughout the world. Right after that message, America engaged with Israel, in Israel, in the largest joint anti-missile military exercise between the United States and Israel in the history of the state of Israel. I believe more than 1,200 American troops were on the ground in Israel for an extended period of time for training exercises. There’s no more important and compelling message that can be sent to Iran and to others about our commitment to Israeli security than engaging in the largest joint military exercise in the history of the state of Israel. And the manner in which we did it—it was quite powerful.

There are a number of other examples. The American administration was a staunch supporter of the Israeli position on the Goldstone report and protecting Israel’s—and America’s, for that matter—right of self defense when faced with a barrage of rockets from a terrorist group. We have stood by Israel’s side going back to the early days of the administration, when America refused to participate in the Durban II Conference, because of the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel nature of the conference. All of these kinds of messages and actions, decisions by the president and secretary of state, reinforce the vice president’s message that this is not just lip service that America pays to the unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel. It’s real. And our actions are consistent with that. The degree of military-to-military cooperation between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu administration is arguably finer than at any other time in our two nations’ joint histories.

Another piece of very important news, for instance, was the recent announcement by the Royal Dutch oil company that it would not be shipping refined oil products to Iran, consistent with the Obama administration’s efforts to economically isolate the egregious parts of the Iranian regime. And these are all efforts that are consistent with the Obama administration’s Iran policy, which has been, of course, to offer the opportunity for engagement, but at the same time to get quite serious about crippling sanctions. That’s precisely what the Obama administration is beginning to implement—a series of sanctions, both formal and less formal, that tighten the economic grip around those parts of the regime in Iran that promote and arguably benefit from their illegal nuclear weapon operation.

All of these actions serve the national security interests of the United States, but they also reinforce our heartfelt and unbreakable bond with Israel. That is why the announcement on housing while Vice President Biden was visiting was quite a jolt; because it seemed not to respect the extraordinary effort that the Obama administration is making to coordinate and work in concert with Israel, particularly as it relates to security.

You mentioned the Arab Peace Initiative. Part of the reason the proximity talks could be announced was because the Arab League had approved of them and supported the Palestinian efforts on them, though that is now in question. What could Arab countries do to more robustly support peacemaking efforts?

The Arab nations can and need to do a great deal more. The Arab Peace Initiative did not receive, in my humble opinion, the just consideration that it deserved when the King of Saudi Arabia announced it almost eight years ago. That’s water under the bridge. The important point at this juncture is that the Arab nations need to sell the initiative and explain how it is consistent with—and actually bolsters—the American vision of a comprehensive resolution to the conflict, so that it can become a more viable proposal in Washington and then hopefully in Jerusalem.

I’ve met with many Arab leaders and diplomats who were involved in crafting the Arab Peace Initiative, and they have made it clear that the initiative is not a “take it or leave it” document, that their position is that peace must be negotiated between the parties. They also understand that there will be no so-called right of return by Palestinians to Israel and that Israel will be a Jewish state. Many also support the reality that, while 1967 borders can be a basis of discussion, facts on the ground need to be accommodated and respected through land swaps of equal size and value—specifically, that an earnest attempt be made to incorporate roughly 75 percent of Jewish Israelis that live outside the ’67 borders into the internationally recognized borders of Israel.

If the Arab nations clarify the Arab Peace Initiative so as to enable that type of interpretation, to be negotiated by the parties, then I believe that we would be in a very serious and positive position. At the same time, President Abbas needs to have his concerns addressed in terms of the contiguous nature of his country, economic viability and a degree of confidence that the Israelis will respect Palestinian sovereignty. All of these kinds of issues need to be worked out in conjunction with the Arab nations. By taking steps in clarifying the Arab Peace Initiative, they can provide an arena of trust that today is absent.

One thing that Prime Minister Netanyahu said when he first visited Congress after his election is that he was different than other Israeli prime ministers, because he was being asked to negotiate not only with the Palestinians, but in effect, to negotiate with the entire Arab world. The Arab world has a very special role to play in terms of guaranteeing Israeli security interests. We see the failure of the United Nations resolutions in Lebanon, that Hezbollah is not disarmed on Israel’s northern border. Only with the cooperation of Saudi Arabia, Syria and Egypt, for instance, will we ever get to a point where terrorist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas are defanged and isolated enough, or to the degree where Israel will be comfortable in making significant concessions for peace. Because after all, what the Israelis often cite is after they withdrew from southern Lebanon, what did they get in return? A barrage of rockets. They also cite Prime Minister Sharon’s withdrawal from Gaza, which did not lead to years of peace, warm or cold, but rather another barrage of rockets. Granted, both of those withdrawals were unilateral. But the Israelis can’t be expected to risk that history repeating in the West Bank. That would obviously create a security dynamic that is untenable for Israel. So the Arab nations have a big role to play in that regard.

That brings us to Palestinian state building and on-the-ground efforts. What role do they play in moving the ball forward?

I would like to see the Arab League, the Arab nations, play the most prominent of roles in supporting the Palestinian Authority, President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, in the context of the Palestinian institution-building plan. When Prime Minister Fayyad announced that plan last summer, I believed then, and still do, that it was arguably the most important statement ever made by a Palestinian leader. It is precisely what Yasser Arafat never did. Yasser Arafat never made a speech on what the hospitals were going to look like when the Palestinians got a state, or what the university system was going to look like, or how the interior ministry was going to function. Well that’s precisely what Prime Minster Fayyad is seeking to do. So, if we’re serious—and when I say we, I mean America, as well as the Arab world—if we’re serious about creating a Palestinian state, if we’re serious about ending the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians and the Israelis and the Arab world, once and for all, it means the institution-building plan of Prime Minister Fayyad and President Abbas is essential and deserves broad-based support from the United States, Europe and the Arab world. There is no replacement for the institution-building plan.

You stepped down from Congress to take a leadership position at the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, taking a leadership role on this issue outside of the government. What do you think people outside of the administration can do to support the peacemaking efforts, and what do you plan to do?

I think there a number of things. Number one, as somebody who believes deeply in the vision of the Obama administration, of the president, the secretary, the vice president, and Senator Mitchell, would be to articulate first and foremost, why it is in our nations’ national security interest to support the Israelis and the Palestinians, in every which way possible, to resolve their conflict. Also, I think it’s essential for me to articulate how the Obama administration has honored the long-cherished relationship between the United States and Israel, on so many different fronts, so that the Israelis, the American Jewish community, and other interested groups can have confidence in the process and the principles that the Obama administration has put forth. Most importantly, I think we can be helpful in creating the dynamic in which the administration feels comfortable to outline a set of parameters and principles that will both guide and encourage the Israelis and Palestinians to take political risks for peace. Help them appreciate that the prize of comprehensive peace is well worth the cost. Even so, we all must appreciate how difficult it is for both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas to navigate such a process. And, I for one, believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu is in fact capable of both agreeing to and implementing a far-reaching, comprehensive peace agreement. While I am discouraged, at times, like many people are, I still maintain a degree of confidence and optimism and I take the prime minister, as well as President Abbas, at their individual and collective words, that their goals are to end the conflict. Everything we do in America should seek to enable the Israelis and Palestinians to end the conflict, because it is in our national security interests to do so.

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