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Cook: Israeli-Palestinian Talks Linked to Iraqi Problem

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
January 16, 2007

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Steven A. Cook, a leading Middle East expert, says current U.S. efforts to make progress in the Israeli-Palestinian talks are directly linked to Washington’s desire to get Arab support for the shaky government in Iraq. “Because of the close association of the United States with Israel, it makes it more difficult for us to work with our Arab allies,” says Cook, because Arab leaders feel domestic and external pressure from Iran “for appearing to be weak in the face of U.S. and Israeli policy,” he says.

Cook says the United States should engage in discussions with Syria and Iran, as advocated by the Iraq Study Group, but has to be wary of demands those countries might put forward in exchange for any help on Iraq.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in the Middle East. She’s pledged to get involved with an Israeli-Palestinian-U.S. negotiation or discussion on moving toward a Palestinian-Israeli peace. Do you think this is a precursor to some kind of shuttle diplomacy or is this just a futile effort to try to appear like some progress is being made?

I certainly see it as at least a positive first step that the administration is now engaging on the Israel-Palestinian issue. This is something that has been a major sticking point between the United States and its Arab allies. The United States should be involved in trying to bring the parties together, because obviously as long as this problem festers, the longer it will take for us to achieve our goals in the region.

Do you agree that the Israeli-Palestinian situation is linked to Iraq in some way?

Yes, I do. Because of the close association of the United States with Israel, it makes it more difficult for us to work with our Arab allies. They are under domestic pressure and external as well—from the Iranians—for appearing to be weak in the face of U.S. and Israeli policy. And so for that reason it’s important for the United States to be engaged. In general it would be a good thing for there to be peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians after this long and debilitating conflict. But do I think the United States has stepped up engagement on this issue to make a difference in terms of the sectarian violence in Iraq? That is far fetched to say the least. But of course, stabilizing the situation between Israelis and Palestinians would overall generally help the environment in the region.

I was thinking if the Arab states saw the United States was sincerely making an effort, they might then lend more support to getting a settlement in Iraq.

Well, there’s certainly that kind of talk being bandied about. It’s called “Iraq for Land” or “Land for Iraq.” This is certainly something that Arab leaders have said over and over again: “You need to do something on the Israel-Palestine front in order for us to be able to withstand public pressure to, in turn, help you on this question of Iraq.” But my question is, “What can those states do in practical terms at this point to stabilize the situation in Iraq?” I don’t think there’s very much.

I guess one might hope that since they’re all Sunni states they might be able to persuade the Sunnis in Iraq to enter into some kind of negotiation with the Shiites. I don’t know if that’s possible.

That’s the hope, that there would be some pressure put on the Sunni factions within Iraq by the Sunni neighbors. The problem as I see it, however, is the major Arab states—all of whom are Sunni—are concerned about Iranian influence in the region. They fear that the Iraq government is within the ambit or influence of the Iranian regime, and so what they naturally want to do is not necessarily come to some sort of accommodation. They want to resist and contain Iranian influence.

So that puts the United States in a tough spot. Until today, terrorism in Baghdad had dropped since President Bush’s policy speech last week. Do you think that was just a coincidence?

I think perhaps there are two things going on. One is that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki—who is dependent, in part, on people like Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army—is concerned about what the U.S. plan actually means, and he will do what he can do to shield Muqtada al-Sadr from the American military. He’s counseling the Sadrists to have some restraint as this escalation, or surge, as its being called, is under way. The problem is that the increased number of troops, from what I understand, is not a sustainable level. And those troops are going to go home, those numbers are going to go down, and unless those militias are neutralized there’s a very real possibility that violence will pick up once again.

On the general question of negotiations now—there was a big leak in Haaretz, the liberal Israeli paper today, revealing that unofficial contacts between Syria and Israel have been going on for about three years, and that they had reached some tentative understanding of borders without any direct government input. Both governments have now denied any involvement. That raises the question of Syria again. The Iraq Study Group urged the Bush administration to get involved in some kind of discussions with the Syrians and Iranians on helping solve the Iraq problem. And the Bush administration has shown absolutely no interest in either one of these partners. As a result I think the Israeli government is also not interested in taking part. Is this a mistake?

Given where we are in Iraq, it is one of the things we should be doing. But we should be very, very careful about what we do when we talk to the Iranians and the Syrians, because they’re going to want to extract a significant price for their cooperation in Iraq. Everybody keeps saying, “They have an interest in stabilizing the situation in Iraq.” I don’t really see it that way. It seems to me that they don’t have an interest in chaos, which is the word that Secretary Baker used when the Iraq Study Group report was rolled out. But they do have an interest in creating or maintaining the level of trouble we have in Iraq right now to keep us bogged down. After all, we’ve spoken about regime change in Iran and regime change in Syria. So, as long as we’re bogged down in Iraq, we really can’t turn our attention to those goals.

On this question of Israel and the Syrians and these private negotiations, I feel like I’ve seen this movie before. It’s called the Oslo Accords [of 1993], which were initially hammered out by private participants on each side, and then the governments got involved and we had eight years of on-and-off-again negotiations. But what ultimately came to be in 2000 was the second intifada and four years of violence, and the situation we face right now. It strikes me once again that it’s perfectly rational for the Syrian government and the Israeli government to distance themselves from these types of talks, given where we are in the region right now. The Olmert government of Israel is quite weak after this summer’s war in Lebanon against Hezbollah. Any discussion about withdrawing from territory is an explosive issue in Israel right now.

I guess the truth of the matter is the Israeli public, as we know from the negotiations in 2000, is really opposed to giving up the Golan Heights unless the leadership in Syria made an all-out effort à la [former Egyptian President] Anwar Sadat [who visited Jerusalem in 1977] to show Israel that it really wanted lasting peace. I think [Syrian President] Bashar al-Assad is not interested in that kind of demonstrative diplomacy.

Yes, I think it’s unrealistic to think that Bashar al-Assad is going to show up in Jerusalem and give a speech to the Knesset, so the Israelis have to lower what their expectations are. In general the Israeli public is supportive of peace, but they regard the Golan Heights as of strategic value and they don’t necessarily trust the intentions of the Syrians.

You can work out many different approaches. You could have U.S. troops as a buffer, that sort of thing.

The outlines of this plan that have emerged in Haaretz talk about Israel withdrawing to the June 1967 lines, which was a sticking point back in 2000 because the Israelis were concerned the Syrians would thus have water rights on the Sea of Galilee. Now they’re talking about some sort of park that Israelis and Syrians could be using together. Just given what the situation is and what happened between these two countries, I don’t believe the Syrians are ready for this type of interaction with the Israelis. I think we’re actually quite far away from a resolution to that part of the conflict.

What is your sense of Secretary Rice and the Middle East? She doesn’t seem to really get involved that much, but now she’s said she will. Do you get any sense of that?

Well, her visits during the summer were a new reality for her. This was her first foray into a Middle East crisis between Israelis and its neighbors, and I think she recognizes the need to engage on this issue and get involved. The problem is, the problem itself is so difficult to resolve. There’s a certain amount of urgency to the issue because of the situation in Iraq and because of the linkage that Arab governments are making between the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and Iraq. But despite this positive first step of moving forward with a summit that’s going to be held in February, I think we’re going to find that despite whatever momentum this most recent trip has produced, they’re still faced with the extraordinarily difficult problems of Hamas being the leading party in the Palestinian areas, the violence between Fatah and Hamas, and Israel’s continued settlement of the West Bank. In fact, the Israelis announced additional housing units in the northern West Bank.

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