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Haass ‘Somewhat Pessimistic’ About Chances for Progress Toward Israeli-Palestinian Peace With Departure of Sharon From Political Scene

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
January 6, 2006

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Richard N. Haass, the president of CFR, says the loss of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon from the Israeli political scene, combined with the disarray in the Palestinian political ranks, leads him to “ a somewhat pessimistic” appraisal that, in the Middle East for some time to come, Israeli-Palestinian peace progress is “unlikely to move significantly forward.”

“In order for any peace process to move forward, be it in the Middle East or anywhere else, you need what I would describe as conditions of ripeness,” says Haass, who served from 1989-93 as senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs on the staff of the National Security Council under President George H.W. Bush and as head of policy planning under Secretary of State Colin Powell. “And two of the principal conditions of ripeness is that you have leaders who are, one, able, and two, willing, to make compromises for peace, to offer them, but also make them stick in their own domestic politics.”

“I’m not sure on either side now you have leadership that’s both able and willing.”

He says that the Bush administration would be wise to avoid introducing any major peace plans and instead to put forward some general ideas that would hold for the future. “The United States would have to enter a phase not of shuttle diplomacy, but more of rhetorical diplomacy where it tries to build a context that makes it more likely that there can be, down the road, a resumption of productive diplomacy,” he says.

Haass was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on January 6, 2006.

With the departure of Ariel Sharon from the political scene, where does this leave the Middle East peace process now? This seems particularly acute with the Palestinian political situation up in the air, also.

You’ve framed it exactly right. What we’ve got now is a situation where what we’re likely to see is prolonged sorting out on both sides. Let me take a step back. In order for any peace process to move forward, be it in the Middle East or anywhere else, you need what I would describe as conditions of ripeness. And two of the principal conditions of ripeness, is that you have leaders who are, one, able, and two, willing, to make compromises for peace, to offer them, but also make them stick in their own domestic politics.

I’m not sure on either side now you have leadership that’s both able and willing. On the Palestinian side, [Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud] Abbas may be willing, but there’s a real question about his ability to be a viable partner for peace. And we’re likely to see years, if not longer, of Palestinian sorting-out between old-line Fatah [the dominant Palestinian political party headed by Abbas], new-generation Fatah, and Hamas. On the Israeli side you may, in people like [Ehud] Olmert, have someone who’s willing to continue Sharon’s policies of serial, unilateral disengagement. But it’s not clear he’s going to have the ability. He doesn’t inherit Sharon’s political mandate. So what this suggests to me, then, for the foreseeable future, is a political process that’s unlikely to move significantly forward.

Now the Bush administration, in its second term, seemed to be putting more emphasis on getting something going in the peace process. Given the fact the president is increasingly a “lame duck,” does it make it almost impossible to get anything done now?

It’s less because of the fact that he’s got three years left. I think it’s too soon to call him a lame duck. It’s less because of that, than it is of what we just discussed; the fact that the United States may not have a partner there on either the Israeli or the Palestinian side. Essentially what the United States has been able to do for the last year is ride on the back of having a single partner. And the genius, if you will, of unilateral disengagement from Gaza was that it offered you an approach to a peace process, but didn’t require two partners, which was the traditional approach. My hunch is that had Sharon remained viable politically and physically, what we would have seen was not a return to a traditional peace process, but instead a period of successive unilateral disengagements up to a certain point. And then my guess is that Sharon would have said, “Ok. We will go this far unilaterally. We are only prepared to take the final steps, though, of disengagement and withdrawal if we have a Palestinian partner.”

So I think the Israelis essentially would have halted the process at a point that they felt gave them security and what they needed demographically to maintain a Jewish state. But they would not have gone all the way because, again, certain final withdrawals would have required an end to the state of war, with the Palestinians’ formal agreement to all the final status issues. It’s hard for me to see now how anyone else can take you down that road to the point where it would have been poised until a Palestinian partner emerged.

It’s impossible almost at this point to talk about internal Israeli politics, but everybody wants to because the Kadima party, which Sharon had formed, was way ahead in the political polls and Olmert, who is now in charge of it,  was a major player in the new party. Have you ever met him? What kind of sense do you have of him?

Like Sharon, he came a long way in recent years. And I believe the reason is that like Sharon, Olmert essentially bought into what we might call the demographic argument; that he needed a so-called a “third way,” as people in Britain might call it, between the traditional “land for peace,” which was the Labor approach, and the Likud approach, which essentially said, “No compromise until the Palestinians refute violence and become democratic.”

And Olmert was a convert because of the demographic argument that the Israelis needed a unilateral approach because neither of the other two would preserve Israel’s security, prosperity, democracy, and Jewishness. I think the question now is to what extent Olmert can pick up where Sharon left off. Predictions are always dangerous, as Yogi [Berra] would say, particularly about the future, but it seems to me it’s likely that Kadima survives but with less of the plurality than it seemed to have under Sharon, and that both Labor and Likud pick up some of the slack. What this suggests to me, then, is an Israeli political future of no clear party dominance. And there will either be a very complicated multi-party government, or perhaps even worse, a government of national unity, which in many ways is more of a government of national disunity that would be unlikely to get a real consensus.

Is it possible, you think, that [former Labor Party leader] Shimon Peres might go back to Labor and give Labor a boost?

I don’t know, but my sense is that Sharon’s passing from the scene in some ways pretty much ends the era of that generation of Israeli political leaders. Peres, for all of his intellectual talents, for all of his administrative talents, doesn’t seem to me the person whom the Israeli people would choose to lead them and take the dramatic decisions that Israel now faces.

Let’s talk a bit about Sharon. When you first met him, what kind of impression did he leave?

My early meetings with Sharon in the late 1980s and early 1990s largely concerned Israeli plans for settlement of the occupied territories. He would take out the famous—or infamous—maps and he would essentially talk about all his plans as settlements minister. He was big in every sense of the word—not only physically big, but a big personality and a big historical figure that had already gone through several careers, including the controversial leader of the Lebanese invasion, the daring military leader. What’s so interesting to me, in some ways akin to [the late Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin, is what turned out to be a late-career conversion. And I think he was successful at it—and here is the contrast with Shimon Peres—he was successful politically because his conversion to what we might call peacemaking was reluctant. The Israeli people felt comfortable with someone who was a proven warrior and his conversion to peacemaking was reluctant. When Rabin said that “this is not easy for me,” that resonated. The reason I believe it will be difficult for others to step into Sharon’s shoes is because they will not have either the warrior aura or that bond with the Israeli people of reluctance.

It’s a good comparison with Rabin because I remember in the 1970s Rabin was driving [Secretary of State Henry] Kissinger crazy with his reluctance to sign on even to a fairly modest disengagement agreement in the Sinai.

But that reluctance gave him tremendous credibility because it captured what I think is the duality in Israeli politics, which is yearning for security and at the same time yearning for peace and normalcy. And the most successful politicians in Israel capture both. The problem with Shimon Peres, quite honestly—politically, I believe—is that he is perceived to be too anxious to make peace. He doesn’t capture enough of the reluctance. And the problem I believe with [Likud leader Binyamin] Netanyahu is that he is perceived to emphasize only the reluctance and only the security side and not enough of the desire to compromise for peace.

From what you’ve said, the Israelis are going to have to wait a while to come up with some peace plan and the Palestinians are in a kind of disarray. It’s a pessimistic picture of the immediate future, isn’t it?

It is somewhat pessimistic. Again, I believe for the short term there’s probably no alternative, given the nature of Palestinian politics, to an era of effective Israeli unilateralism with a degree of perhaps tacit or perhaps informal Palestinian coordination. The real question is whether the Israelis are able to generate that now in a post-Sharon period. I don’t think there’s a serious alternative or possibility of traditional two-party negotiations. I simply don’t see that.

So if you can’t have traditional two-party negotiations and if you can’t have, because of Sharon’s passing from the scene, further unilateral disengagement with some degree of coordination, then it almost certainly means a period of drift on the negative side. On the positive side—we call it sorting out—where the Palestinians would essentially have to have some degree of civil war or some degree of political competition to figure out their political identity vis-à-vis Israel. And the Israelis would have to essentially continue what Sharon in some ways did with the formation of Kadima.

The Israelis would have to, absent the talent and personality, have a realignment of their political system. The peace processes and diplomacy have to simply wait for domestic politics. The danger is, though, that you could have violence between the Israelis and the Palestinians. You would have continued settlement activity, and building activity. And this combination of violence and rhetoric and construction could radicalize the politics on both sides and simply make it more difficult down the road to resume peacemaking. That’s the danger, it seems to me.

What you’ve sketched is an inability of either side to come to grips on peace. The United States has more or less taken a back seat, here. Should the United States dramatically step up its presence? Should the president go to a funeral if there is one? How do you handle this if you’re the White House?

The issue is not funerals because funerals are events, and if it does come to a funeral, the United States would obviously send a high-level delegation. That’s not the point. The real question is, What does the United States do if it no longer has the luxury of an Israeli-led disengagement process? There’s simply not the opportunity, or the possibility, of returning to a traditional, negotiated two-party peace process. This potentially is a costly situation for the administration because the Middle East has receded as a political liability for the United States over the last year because of what Sharon did. Absent forward progress, it will come back as a political liability. And this will have implications for everything from the U.S. effort to promote reform in the Arab world and its ability to combat terrorists to relations with Europe. When things don’t move forward in the Middle East, it’s a tax on many aspects of U.S. foreign policy.

That said, the administration won’t have many good options. The pressure will grow on it to do something. I would say the emphasis should be on making Gaza work and on helping, particularly, the Palestinians sort out their politics, and perhaps laying down some rhetorical markers along the lines of what President Bush did with Prime Minister Sharon several years ago when Sharon visited Washington and President Bush gave him a letter and he assured him and Israel about denying the Palestinian right of return and about the Israeli ability to keep settlement blocs.

What I would suggest that the administration probably needs to do to buy time and protect its interests is to set down further markers between the Palestinians and Israelis. If you can’t have substance sometimes in the Middle East, if you can’t have actual diplomatic progress, what you need to do to fill the space, put ideas in circulation that will buy the United States some goodwill and hopefully help create a context. The United States would almost have to enter a phase not of shuttle diplomacy, but more of rhetorical diplomacy, where it tries to build a context that makes it more likely that there can be, down the road, a resumption of productive diplomacy. But I don’t think the administration is going to have the option of trying to force parties to the table, or force unilateral disengagements absent the evolution of politics in either Israel or the Palestinian side of things.

Because the U.S. has a bit of luxury in that there won’t be a new Israeli government really until after the March elections, and probably another month after that…

At least a few months if not more than that. In another way, though, President Bush will still have several years on his watch where he is likely to have less to work with than he’s had in the last year. Let me put it another way. In a number of interviews at the end of his first term and the beginning of the second term, President Bush talked about his optimism, possibly in solving or settling the Israeli-Palestinian dispute during his second term. It’s unlikely he’s going to have that opportunity.

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