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Overcoming the 'Rut' in Middle East Peace Efforts

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Hasib J. Sabbagh Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
August 19, 2009

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There were no obvious breakthroughs on Middle East peace efforts during Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's meeting with President Barack Obama on August 18 in Washington. But CFR Senior Fellow Steven A. Cook says the visit itself was significant because it symbolized the end of the estrangement between the United States and Egypt that persisted throughout the last four years of the administration of George W. Bush. Cook says that Obama, who may make a public statement on a U.S. peace plan for the Middle East soon, has been urging both Israelis and Arabs to make reciprocal gestures to overcome the "rut" the peace talks are in. But "everybody wants something and doesn't want to give something for nothing, and the president is stuck in between these two sides that are not willing to go through the door first," says Cook.

President Obama met with President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, a longtime ally and frequent visitor to the United States, but someone who had not been in Washington in five years because of his disagreements with Bush administration criticisms of Egypt's political and human rights record. Obama expressed hope that if the Israelis and Arabs could "move off the rut that we're in" there could be some tangible results. What did you make of the visit?

The importance of the visit was in part exactly what you pointed out--that this is President Mubarak's first visit to the United States since April 2004. There's an effort on both sides to put the Bush years, which were characterized by mistrust and discord, behind them and to forge a new relationship. And for the United States, that means looking at the U.S.-Egypt relationship in its totality, not looking through the narrow prism of reform and democratic change and holding Egypt to certain benchmarks and conditions based on their progress towards a more democratic and open political system. That was really the major issue that came between the two countries, and what created the discord between them. There obviously were policy differences on Iraq and policy differences on the Arab-Israeli conflict, but the perception in Egypt that the United States was interfering in Egypt's domestic affairs was something that did not sit well with Egypt's leadership.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice made a major human rights speech in Cairo.

In 2005 she went to the American University in Cairo and made a rather robust speech about the need for democratic change in the region and in Egypt in particular. But just a few months later, the Egyptian parliamentary elections returned about eighty members of the Muslim Brotherhood to parliament. Within a short period after that, in free and fair elections [in 2006] Hamas won the Palestinian elections and the United States began to ratchet down its public rhetoric on the question of democratic change and political reform even if it continued to fund programs dedicated to those issues. The Obama administration is interested in issues related to reform and democratic change. Obama wrote about this in Foreign Affairs, he talked about it during the campaign, he mentioned it in his Cairo speech in June and in his inaugural speech, but as I said, there's a real effort to evaluate the relationship in its totality rather than on one particular issue. And to be quite honest, I'm not quite sure how far anybody is going to get on the question of political change and reform so long as President Mubarak and the people around him--but particularly President Mubarak--aren't really interested in fundamental political change.

There's a real effort to evaluate the [U.S.-Egypt] relationship in its totality rather than on one particular issue.

It's been widely reported that Obama had sent letters to Arab leaders asking them to make gestures to prod the Israelis to freeze construction of new settlements. But so far the Arabs have said, "Israel has to go first." Obama seems a little bit frustrated by the slow pace. Is that a fair analysis?

They spoke sparingly after the meetings, but if you read between the lines, the president did not get what he wanted, which was a commitment from Egypt to either by itself make some sort of gesture to the Israelis or help President Obama convince the Arab states that they have to make some sort of gesture to the Israelis, to help the Israelis feel more comfortable about the settlement freeze. From the Egyptian perspective, they say, "We have a peace treaty with the Israelis, we have security cooperation with the Israelis. Our head of general intelligence, Omar Suleiman, spends a lot of time working to get Lieutenant Gilad Shalit, who was taken by Hamas three years ago, free from capture. What more is it that we can possibly do?" The Arabs, and the Saudis in particular, say, "We tabled this Arab initiative in 2002 that offers Israel full normalization for withdrawal from territories, establishment of a Palestinian state, settlement of the refugee issues, all [issues] related to a final status agreement. What more is it that we can do? We don't want to give the Israelis something for nothing." On the other side, the Israelis say, "We're not going to agree to a settlement freeze because we're not going to get anything in return." So everybody wants something and doesn't want to give something for nothing, and the president is stuck in between these two sides that are not willing to go through the door first.

Israel is waiting for another Arab leader like the former president of Egypt, Anwar al-Sadat, who offered peace to Israel and in fact spoke to the Israeli Knesset, right?

That's something that's quite unlikely to happen. Of course there are things that the Arab states could do that are relatively cost free that would help the Israelis feel more comfortable in the region. Some of the ideas that have been floated are allowing the Israelis overflight rights over Saudi Arabia for Israeli flights that are travelling to the Far East, which now have to take circuitous routes to China and India, [and] so on and so forth. Other kinds of gestures include returning Arab representatives to commercial offices that were closed at the outset of the Second Intifada in 2000. Those kinds of things are gestures. But up until this point, the Arabs seem generally unwilling to take even those steps. From their perspective this is a principled stand.

The Egyptian spokesman, Soliman Awaad, after the meeting said Obama indicated there would be a U.S. peace plan put forth about the time of the General Assembly next month. Have you heard much rumbling about that?

This is something that has been in the works for some time. A major statement on Middle East peace is something that notables have been advising the president to do. Leaders from the Middle East and former U.S. government officials have been advising the president to make a clear American statement on Middle East peace. Everybody knows that this is coming. Thus far there haven't been too many details leaked. But when Obama does speak, his speech or statement will likely have some tough things for both Israelis and Palestinians as well as the larger Arab world to swallow.

We have the Israeli-Palestinian question which revolves around several difficult problems such as the final borders, the status of Jerusalem, and what to do about Palestinian refugees. Then you have the broader Arab-Israeli issues, which this administration seems more interested in, which is along the lines of what the Saudis have put forth as long ago as 2002, that there be a global agreement between Israel and the Arab states. Where do you think the emphasis is going to be?

They're not going to get a global agreement with the Arab states and the wider Islamic world until the Israelis come to some sort of agreement with the Palestinians. That is the logic of the Arab initiative, which is to do all those things on borders and refugees and Jerusalem-to agree with the Palestinians on all the final status issues. Once that agreement is in the bag, you can expect normalization of relations between the Arab states and Israel, and even all fifty-seven members of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Egypt can play a role in helping to create a regional environment where Iran and Iran's allies are contained and isolated and make things uncomfortable for those countries.

They also talked about nuclear issues. The United States and Egypt are in agreement that neither side wants to see Iran go much further in its nuclear development, aren't they?

That is a place where there is clearly a confluence of interest between the United States and Egypt. The question is what practically can the Egyptians do to help the United States in that area. I don't think much on the nonproliferation issue, but Egypt can play a role in helping to create a regional environment where Iran and Iran's allies are contained and isolated and make things uncomfortable for those countries. Of course Egypt has been on the defensive with regard to Iran over the course of the last couple of years. That's primarily having to do with the fact that Egypt is at peace with Israel, and Iran uses the Israel-Palestinian conflict as a way to play Arab politics. This has deeply and profoundly annoyed President Mubarak, who regards himself and Egypt as leaders of the Arab world. The Egyptians are interested and ready to help where they can. But what they bring to the table is really that political influence that they've had in the Middle East. In terms of facing down the Iranians they don't have much to bring to the table.

Mubarak indicated he hadn't ruled out running for reelection, right?

I had always assumed that as long as he was in relatively good health, he was going to run for president again in 2011. He'd be eighty-three and certainly getting on in years should he run in 2011, be elected, and attempt to serve it out. The real question on the succession issue is what are the plans? Who might follow President Mubarak? Of course most speculation has fallen on Gamal Mubarak, the president's 46-year-old son, who is a senior official in the ruling National Democratic Party, and who has over the course of the past ten years become quite influential. He's here with his father now. Others have speculated that perhaps Egypt's head of intelligence, Omar Suleiman, might be a candidate. But if you look at the way in which a presidential candidate in Egypt can be nominated and elected president, it seems to rule out anyone other than Gamal Mubarak.

You have to have been involved in a party for a certain amount of years; [you have to have been] party leadership for a certain amount of years; you have to get signatures of people from Egyptian provinces. So it might be difficult for anyone other [than Gamal Mubarak] to actually run and become president, including a military officer, unless there's some sort of palace coup. All of the available public evidence suggests that Gamal Mubarak may in fact be Egypt's next president. They've set things up institutionally so that it seems the only likely candidate that will be nominated by the ruling National Democratic Party would be Gamal Mubarak.

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