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Bush, Rice Need to Get More Involved in Israeli-Palestinian Talks

Interviewee: Martin S. Indyk, Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
May 7, 2008

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Martin S. Indyk served two tours of duty as ambassador to Israel in the Clinton presidency and serves in a private capacity as an adviser to Sen. Hillary Clinton’s (D-NY) campaign. He says it is crucial for President George W. Bush Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to become more involved in trying to bridge the gap between Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. Indyk says the timing of Bush’s visit to Israel next week “is going to be propitious for him to engage in a way that could move these talks forward.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has returned to Washington after a long weekend in Israel and the West Bank. What do you hear about what’s going on?

It’s important to understand that there’s a process that’s functioning on a number of levels. The negotiations themselves are being held in secret, so all we’re getting are kind of temperature readings from all of the sides. So, from the Palestinians, before Rice arrived, it was a very sour, cold temperature. This reflected President Mahmoud Abbas’ disappointment after his recent visit to Washington that Bush wasn’t ready to intervene and stop Israeli settlement activity. Today, we get a different read—the secretary of state saying that progress is being made and the Israeli prime minister’s office reporting progress as well. The Israeli press is saying that this may have more to do with the shifting attention from the ongoing, unspecified criminal investigation into Prime Minister Ehud Olmert than with what’s actually happening in the negotiations. But the bottom line is, we don’t know. In a way it’s a good sign that there are no details leaking out of what they’re discussing or where they are in the negotiations. But there are other levels of the process that are observable. And there, you can make a judgment that things are not going well at all.

Like what?

The critical parts of the process that aren’t going well are what’s happening on the ground in the West Bank. The whole idea was that while Abbas was having these secret negotiations with Olmert, both sides would live up to their 2003 “roadmap” commitments: the Israeli side to freeze all settlement activity, including natural growth, and dismantle illegal settlement outposts; on the Palestinian side, to end all incitement and act to dismantle the infrastructure of terror. And that if both sides worked on those commitments, the theory was that this would rebuild confidence that would help the negotiations. But we see very little progress on the commitments. The Israelis, as the whole world knows, has announced new settlement activity. True, it’s in the settlement blocs that Israel intends to keep as a result of the negotiations, but that’s hardly comfort to the Palestinians or for the Arab leaders involved in this process, who see it as an attempt to preempt the outcome of the negotiations. They see it as discrediting them in the eyes of the Palestinian and Arab publics.

Are the Palestinians complying?

On the Palestinian side, the Palestinians simply don’t have the capability to act against the terrorists or gangs that operate in the West Bank. The Israelis certainly don’t believe that the Palestinian Authority has the capability to control the territory in the West Bank that’s supposedly already under Palestinian control. So the Israeli army is not handing over security responsibility to the Palestinians. So there’s not a lot of confidence being built on either side.

“Rice has not tried to move in and breach the evident gap between the parties. And that’s the critical role that Bush needs to play, either himself or through Rice, backed by Bush.”

That leads directly to our next issue, which is trying to jumpstart the Palestinian economy, trying to get road blocks removed so there’s more free movement in territories—so that Palestinians can breathe more easily, move in the major cities more easily, and do commerce more easily. The Israelis are concerned that if they lift the roadblocks, it’ll just make it easier for the terrorists to operate. Palestinians say, “You know you make it impossible for us.” Tony Blair [former British prime minister, now special Middle East envoy] is making very little progress in terms of getting the Israelis to go along with the requirements for building the industrial zones that he wants to set up, or the housing projects because Israelis think if they loosen the grip at all, that the terrorists will come back.

[Ehud] Barak, the defense minister who is basically responsible for all the security activity in the West Bank, is not prepared to take the risk and therefore the political blame if something goes wrong. So the secretary of state was spending a lot of her time in an effort to try to find creative ways to, on one hand meet Israel’s security requirements, but on the other hand allow these things to go forward in the West Bank so that Palestinians will feel something positive is happening while they await the results of the negotiations.

Why is this so important? Why not wait for the negotiations to conclude?

It’s because Hamas is out there saying “negotiations don’t deliver, negotiations can’t get you anywhere—whereas violence and resistance is what leads to Palestinian rights being recognized.” And that’s a potent message, which can only be responded to by some tangible progress, which is not evident yet.

Now, at the same time, there have been intense talks going on in Egypt, between Egypt, Hamas, and the Palestinian Authority—with Israel watching—on securing a lengthy ceasefire in Gaza. What do you think is happening there?

Well, it’s interesting that Hamas appears keen to have a cease-fire in Gaza. And the indication of their keenness is that they’ve dropped what was a pretty critical demand—that the ceasefire extend to the West Bank as well. So they’re prepared to have a ceasefire just in Gaza, meaning that Israeli operations against Hamas or the Islamic Jihad in the West Bank will continue even while there’s a ceasefire in Gaza. That suggests to me that they are feeling the heat from the stress in Gaza—that the Palestinians there are tired and their circumstances are deteriorating. Hamas is in control so Hamas is accountable. And Hamas always has a finger on the pulse of the “Gazan Street,” so I think that’s what driving this. Now, the Israelis also want to stop the rocket fire upon the villages and towns and cities in southern Israel, along the border with Gaza. And so it’s in their interests to have a kind of ceasefire.

“Obviously the parties have to negotiate it themselves. But it needs to be understood that at a certain point the United States is going to come in with bridging proposals. …. Otherwise, there’s not going to be a deal.”

But the Israelis have two concerns. One is that Hamas will simply use the quiet for the purposes of smuggling more arms in and relieving the pressure on the Palestinians in Gaza. And after a while, they’ll start it up again, but they’ll be in a stronger position. And secondly the Israelis are concerned that if they’re seen to be doing a deal with Hamas, they will necessarily be undermining their own position, which is that Hamas cannot be part of the negotiations. Israel fears that if it deals with Hamas this will undercut Abbas who is the Israeli interlocutor in the negotiations. It’s a very complicated dance going on here.

There’s an indirect negotiation going on. The Egyptians are acting as the go-between. And the Israelis are looking for assurances from Egypt that Egypt will step up efforts to stop smuggling into Gaza. One other point about this, which I think is important. A ceasefire will also involve opening the passages, not just from Egypt into Gaza, but also from Israel into Gaza. Israelis will only agree to that if the Palestinian Authority is put in charge of the passages. And that, in itself, in the context of the ceasefire, can actually produce an interesting dynamic, because the Palestinian Authority led by Abbas and Salam Fayyad, the prime minister, will be nominally in charge of the passages. That would give them a toe-hold again in Gaza, which it hasn’t had in a long time. This will require Hamas and the Palestinian Authority to start to talk to each other and cooperate with each other, in a way that will in effect be sanctioned by Israel. That can be a driver towards some kind of Hamas-Fatah reconciliation, which would advance the peace process, I think.

“It’s true that Bill Clinton in his last year became too involved in the details. In his last year in office, he became almost a desk officer for this issue …. But contrast that with George Bush, who is completely indifferent to the details, and has been for seven years, and still basically is.”

The second thing it does is, it begins to make Hamas shift its focus from violence and resistance—we call it terrorism—to meeting the needs of the Palestinian people of Gaza. They become responsible. Once the passages are open, if they go back to fighting, the passages will be closed automatically. Hamas will be blamed. So actually I think there’s some reason to hope that out of the Hamas desire for a ceasefire can come some new, more positive dynamics in the relationship between the Israelis and the Palestinians, particularly over Gaza.

Now we haven’t said much about U.S. policy on all this. Of course, Bush will be in Israel next week for the sixtieth anniversary of the state of Israel. When we talked at the very end of the Annapolis Conference, you noted that Bush didn’t take a very active role. Since then, he’s been to Israel once. Do you think he’s been more active?

He will have made two trips to the region, which is two trips more than he made in the last seven years of his presidency. So, in that sense, he’s more active. But there is no sense that he will be involved in trying to move this process forward. That was very evident in January, when he seemed to be on some kind of a sightseeing tour. He then declared while he was out there that his objective was to achieve a peace treaty by the end of his term in office. That, of course, raised expectations sky high. Now he’s started to walk it back and say he’s interested in is trying to define what a Palestinian state would look like by the end of his presidency. And now he’s going back out. But I also get the sense that the timing of this visit is going to be propitious for him to engage in a way that could move these talks forward. The secretary of state has been getting reports on what’s happening, but she has not tried to move in and breach the evident gap between the parties. And that’s the critical role that Bush needs to play—either himself or through Rice backed by Bush. They are going to need to play that role. Now, because we don’t know exactly what’s happening in the negotiations, it’s difficult to judge whether time is ripe for that. If the president brings the prestige and the weight of his office to the region, and leaves he parties without having moved the process forward, he only damages his prestige. He devalues his currency. And that’s what it looks like we’re going to see.

Now you were a chief Middle East adviser in the Clinton presidency. And now you’re an advisor in a private capacity to Senator Hillary Clinton’s campaign. President Clinton has come under criticism from people like your former colleague Aaron David Miller for not being decisive enough in negotiations and spending too much time on the nitty-gritty. Do you think the next U.S. president should be hands on?

A balance has to be struck. And it’s difficult to find that balance. It’s true that Bill Clinton in his last year became too involved in the details. In his last year in office, he became almost a desk officer for this issue, particularly at the Camp David summit in the summer of 2000 and afterward. It’s probably fair to say he was too involved in the details. But contrast that with George Bush, who is completely indifferent to the details, and has been for seven years, and still basically is. And you see that there has to be a middle way.

What is the balance?

The right balance is for the president to empower the secretary of state to make it clear that the United States is going to be a full partner in these negotiations. Obviously the parties have to negotiate it themselves. But it needs to be understood that at a certain point the United States is going to come in with bridging proposals. And the secretary of state has to know that he or she has the backing of the president for that kind of engagement. Otherwise, there’s not going to be a deal. You’re dealing in the negotiations now with borders, territory, refugees, Jerusalem: the most sensitive issues in the conflict. And it’s not going to be possible to resolve them without the active engagement of the United States. And that’s what needs to happen now. So, there’s a time for bridging proposals. And then there’s a time for closing the deal. That’s when the president needs to engage.

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