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Indyk: Bush Seemed Uninvolved in His Own Peace Conference

Interviewee: Martin S. Indyk, Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
November 28, 2007

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Martin S. Indyk, who served two tours as U.S. ambassador to Israel in the Clinton administration, says “my expectations were disappointed” by the lack of specificity in President Bush’s speech at the Annapolis Middle East peace conference.  Indyk says: “You didn’t get the sense in any of his words or his body language yesterday that there’s a real commitment” to engage in the tough work necessary to reach a peace agreement by the end of his administration. Indyk adds there may be a better chance of Israel and Syria working out a deal rather than Israelis and Palestinians.

I have to say that never has a peace conference been preceded by so many bad reviews. I wonder what your impression of this big get-together was and whether it was as ill-fated as predicted.

Well, I think there were unrealistic expectations going into this meeting. It was designed to launch and bless the beginning of final status negotiations. And because it is the beginning of final status negotiations, it was never reasonable to expect that either side was going to make compromises ahead of time on the actual issues. The focus on a joint document was unfortunate, because it could only really produce procedural agreements: when to start, when to end, how to conduct the negotiations and so on. That’s exactly what was in the document. But I think where my expectations were disappointed was in President Bush’s speech, because that was an opportunity for the United States to give a sense to all of the parties that were assembled in Annapolis of an American view of where this process should end up.

The United States has great influence and the purpose of such a statement about the issues would essentially have been to take away the fears of both sides, or to try to reduce the fears of both sides. The Israelis fear that the Palestinians are going to use the claim to a “right of return” [of Palestinians who left what is now Israel during the 1948 war] to undermine the existence of the state of Israel. The Palestinians fear that Israel, during negotiations will continue settlement activity, which will make a viable Palestinian state impossible. And the President could have addressed some of those issues. After all, he’s done it before.

In a letter to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2004, [Bush] talked about settlement blocs being incorporated into Israel, and Palestinian refugees finding their homes in the state of Palestine rather than in Israel. He could, this time, have referred to the 1967 borders [the borders that preceded the 1967 war in which Israel captured land ruled by Egypt, Jordan and Syria] and suggested that territorial compensation would need to be made for any territory that Israel annexed as a result of the negotiation. [Arabs have consistently demanded the return of all lands captured in 1967 as a price for peace. Egypt did receive its lands back as a result of the 1979 peace accord with Israel].

So the President avoided any specifics, right?

He avoided any specifics at all, except for one, which was to refer to Israel as “the homeland of the Jewish people,” a Jewish state. That was important because it was a contentious issue in the run-up to Annapolis. That way he did try to deal with the fear of the Israelis.

But you think the Palestinians did not come away from his speech with much?

That’s correct. I mean, he could have given them some reassurances about territory. After all, it was Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert who said in his speech that the situation created by the 1967 war could be changed significantly, which is his way of indicating that the 1967 borders was a reference point. Olmert is not likely to say that himself, but the President could have done so in a clearer way. He said the focus was to end the occupation that began in 1967. Those are familiar words, but he could have introduced two more words: “territorial compensation.”

That is a principle that could give Palestinians some sense that a Palestinian state would be viable, but he avoided that. In fact his whole approach was a kind of arms-length embrace of the process.

Could it be that he was so advised by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice not to get into any specifics and let the negotiators worry about that?

I don’t know the answer to that, but I think that what happened is the other way around. The secretary of state, unlike the president, is very committed to trying to reach a final status agreement. It was her heavy lifting that got the powers to Annapolis in the first place. She made eight trips to the region. She started last year talking about strategic opportunity and the need to focus on the political horizon and deal with the final status issues. That was a time when nobody was seriously thinking about that. But I think that at each step of the way, she’s had to bring the president along. She got him to commit to the international meeting: that was a big achievement on her part to get the president to go along with it.

You get the sense that he’ll turn up. You know, he’ll host a party again today at the White House to inaugurate the final status negotiations, but in terms of wanting to roll up his sleeves actively and get involved in the negotiations in order to achieve an agreement by the end of his administration, which is a goal that he has now embraced, I think that is questionable. You didn’t get the sense in any of his words or his body language yesterday that there’s a real commitment to that.

Obviously, you have a certain nostalgia for President Carter and President Clinton, both of whom were very hands-on negotiators.

Well, I have a nostalgia for President Clinton. Of course I do, but my comparison is not between President Bush and President Clinton. It was rather President Bush with the other two leaders who were on the stage with him yesterday. I thought that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ and Prime Minister Olmert’s speeches and their chemistry were quite remarkable. These are men who seem to be comfortable with each other, warm towards each other and, in their speeches, addressed peace in a strong and emotional way, particularly Olmert. My comparison point would be with all the other Middle East conferences since the Madrid conference in 1991, and I’ve attended them in one form or another and I was in Annapolis yesterday.

There was only one time that I can remember when there was that kind of warmth and chemistry, and that was in 1995, which was the last high-point of the peace process, when Rabin and Arafat came to Washington to sign the Oslo II Accord, which provided for Israel to withdraw from the main cities and towns on the West Bank.

Were you surprised that so many of the Arab states showed up?

I was not surprised by it. I expected that they would turn up because I think that they have a great deal at stake.

Did you buy into the argument that a number of commentators are making that they’re committed to the process because of Iran?

Yes, it is the fear of extremism that drives all the parties at the moment, and that was captured in the Saudi foreign minister’s remarks as well. And that was the strategic opportunity the secretary of state recognized back in December. There is a common concern that Iran’s bid for hegemony in the region, which is manifesting itself in its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas, [and] the Palestine-Islamic Jihad. During the war in Lebanon two years ago, Hezbollah stood up to the Israeli Army, and Hamas’ takeover of Gaza [last June], both underscored the danger that in a sense Iran was now meddling in the affairs of the Arab world and Israel. That is combined with Iran’s nuclear program, which threatens to destroy Israel, and I think, more important than all of that, the ideological message, which is violence, terrorism, resistance, and defiance of the United States.

And it’s combined with harsh criticism of Arab leaders for hiding under the skirts of the United States, and it resonates in the Arab street and in the Muslim world too. Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is more popular than the leaders of the Sunni Arab states in their own countries and they have to find a way to answer that. They have to find a way to show that their way works, which is moderation, reconciliation and peace through negotiations. That’s what Annapolis was about.

What is the significance of today’s communiqué?

Oh, I wouldn’t put stock in the communiqué today. Today is just a ceremonial launching of the final status negotiations. What you saw, in terms of the communiqué, was the joint document yesterday and, as I said, that was a purely procedural document, which I think underscored how difficult it will be for the parties alone to make progress on these substantive issues. They tried on their own, without American intervention, to deal with all of the issues in terms of general formulations, and they could not in the end even name the issues. The document says all the issues will be dealt with but it doesn’t name any of them!

I know in President Clinton’s administration, in the end his team did a lot of the final language, right? And that fell somewhat short of former Palestinian President Yasir Arafat’s wishes.

Right, that’s correct. You always run the risk that if you put American propositions on the table, one side or the other is going to say no. That is risky business, but peacemaking is risky business in the Middle East, and that’s a question of timing, not a question of tactics. If you simply look at the nature of negotiations, the parties themselves can divide their difference in terms of making the compromises that will lead to agreements, but they both expect the United States to put ideas on the table. I can tell you going into Annapolis the Israelis were expecting to “eat glass,” that is, they expected that Bush or Rice would say things that they wouldn’t like. That was their expectation, but they came out of it very happy that in fact they got away scot-free in all of this.

Do you think Syria is satisfied with what happened, as far as they are concerned?

The fact that the Syrians were invited and turned up is very important in the broader context of this message to the Arab world, because the Syrians are aligned with Iran, and the Syrians are sponsors of Hamas and Hezbollah. That they sat there at the table when their Iranian allies were protesting the meeting is an indicator of the potential for splitting this radical bloc.

There are multiple ironies in this situation: You have a president who had criticized his predecessor repeatedly for trying to get a final status at the end of his term, is now trying to get a final status agreement at the end of his own; an administration that has been pursuing a policy of isolating and pressuring Syria finds itself inviting them to an American table. It would be the ultimate irony if, as a result of the meeting that was focused on launching Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, Israeli-Syrian negotiations were actually launched as well.

That would be the ultimate irony, because the Israelis want that negotiation, the Syrians want that negotiation and, because Syria is a state that could deliver upon its commitments whereas the Palestinian Authority is not a state and manifestly cannot deliver on its commitments, at least not yet because it doesn’t have the ability yet to do so. It may well turn out that Israeli-Syrian negotiations produces an agreement faster than the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

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