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Indyk: Israeli Troops Likely to Move into Gaza to Stop Attacks

Interviewee: Martin S. Indyk, Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
May 23, 2007

Martin S. Indyk, former assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, says he expects Israeli troops will have to enter Gaza to put down the Hamas-directed rocket attacks on Israel. But Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel, says Israel will likely only do that if it is ensured that some international force will replace the Israelis as was done in southern Lebanon after last summer’s war. Strange as it may sound, he says, that could lead to laying the groundwork for an overall peace in the area.

You’ve just come back from a trip to Israel. Can you bring us up to date on what’s going on between the Israelis and the Palestinians on the one hand, and the blowup in Tripoli in Lebanon between Palestinian radicals and the government of Lebanon? Are these related at all?

In the Middle East you have to operate on the assumption that everything is connected. The challenge is to try to understand in which ways. What you’re seeing in Lebanon and in Gaza is the consequence of when states, or nonstates, are unable to control effectively the territory that’s supposed to be under their jurisdiction. This is the case whether you talk about Somalia, or the badlands of Pakistan, or northern Lebanon, or Gaza. You see that a whole lot of bad actors are able to thrive. In those areas, al-Qaeda and, on the other side, the Iranians, have an ability to intervene and create problems. While it’s very hard for us to understand what all this is about, at heart it’s about weak governments unable to control territories with al-Qaeda, Iran, and, perhaps in the Lebanese case, Syria seeking to take advantage of those circumstances.

Let’s start with Gaza. We seemed close at one point to a unity government between Fatah and Hamas that was set up by the Saudis, and the Israelis were being pressured to deal with this government. What led this unity effort to fall apart so quickly?

The unity government was really an arrangement of convenience that papered over the reality of the very intense struggle for power between Hamas and Fatah. In their cynical way they went along with Saudi insistence that they stop the fighting and work together in government, but in reality the struggle for power continued. The Fatah forces, under the nominal leadership of Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas], the Palestinian president, began to rebuild their security capabilities with backing from the United States, Egypt, Israel and Jordan, [so they would] be able to deal with Hamas in the future. Hamas decided to preempt that military buildup by Fatah and as a consequence you get the outbreak of civil strife again in Gaza. The government itself now hangs by a thread, and it’s only a matter of time before the fighting picks up again. I’m quite pessimistic about the ability of Fatah to prevail in these circumstances. It is more likely that Gaza will become a kind of Hamas-stan, in which Fatah will lose much of its control there. What we’ll end up with over time is a Gaza that’s controlled by Hamas and a West Bank that’s controlled by Fatah. You could call this “a two-state solution,” but it’s hardly the two-state solution President Bush had in mind.

The Israelis seem to be debating how much military force to put into this equation, because Israel’s being hit by these Qassam rockets cannot be allowed politically to continue, right?

Yes, this is part of the cynical game, that in order to cover the real intention of Hamas, which is to take over Gaza from Fatah, Hamas simultaneously steps up rocket fire on Israel from Gaza, meanwhile calling on all the Gazans to unite in the face of the Israeli enemy. It’s a diversion, but it’s not a diversion the Israelis are prepared to ignore anymore. Since January, there was a hope that a de facto cease-fire would take hold, and a “hudna” [truce in Arabic] between Hamas and the Israeli army in Gaza would lead to a cessation of the rocket fire, but that never really occurred.

The Israelis did not respond to the rocket fire for something like four months, but gradually over the last month they have been responding and once this barrage hit Israel over the last week, they took the gloves off. The decision has been taken to return to target individual Hamas leaders, including, as some Israeli ministers have said in the last few days, [Khaled] Meshal, the head of Hamas who resides in Damascus. But with the return of targeting, suicide bombings will not be far behind, although it’s not clear whether Hamas will have the ability to penetrate the barriers that Israel’s put up around Gaza and the barrier in the West Bank, to launch those suicide attacks.

Why doesn’t Israel send its troops into Gaza and clean them out?

It may eventually lead to that; in fact, it probably will. But since the intifada broke out in October 2000, Israel has been very reluctant to send its army into the cities and refugee camps of Gaza. But in April 2002, [former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon sent the army into the West Bank where it remains to this day, and basically destroyed the infrastructure of terror there quite effectively. It did not do this in Gaza, and hasn’t yet; the reasoning as I understand it is that the suicide bombings were not coming from Gaza, they were coming from the West Bank. The cost in terms of Israeli soldiers’ lives and the lives of Palestinian civilians would be very high in the kind of cleanup operation that you’re talking about.

Increasingly, cabinet ministers in Israel are talking privately and even publicly about going in, cleaning it out, and withdrawing in favor of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] forces, or some other international forces, that are capable of coming in behind Israel’s withdrawal and exercising control there. I personally find this fascinating because four years ago I thought that was the best solution in Gaza, and advocated a trusteeship for Gaza and the West Bank, in which international forces would intervene under a UN mandate, and basically create the conditions and oversee the building of the institutions of government for an independent Palestinian state in a transition arrangement. The Israelis at the time, except for those on the far left, thought this was a terrible idea. But the Israelis learned from the experience in Lebanon over last summer, where they did not exactly go in and clean out Hezbollah, but nevertheless when they withdrew, a more robust international force was put in place in southern Lebanon, which moved Hezbollah away from the border and made it more difficult for Hezbollah to operate against Israeli settlements in the northern part of Israel.

What about the Israeli government itself? When the Winograd commission issued its report on the Lebanese war several weeks ago, most observers expected Prime Minister [Ehud] Olmert would be resigning, but of course he’s not going to resign right now in the midst of all this chaos, right?

Right. To quote one minister, the government is stable but the prime minister is unpopular. The government’s stable because basically it’s only been one year since the last election and members of the Knesset [Israeli legislature] do not want to go to another election so soon. Ministers do not want to give up their cabinet seats so quickly, and so the combination of Kadima, Labor, Shas and this right-wing Russian immigrant party [Israel Beytenu], provides stability for this government, even though the prime minister lacks the confidence of the people. He may even be given a boost by the Labor leadership primary that is going to take place on May 28. If Ehud Barak wins that primary, as the conventional wisdom in Israel suggests he will, then he will become the defense minister in the Olmert government. He will have the credibility that comes from being Israel’s most celebrated war hero, the former head of military intelligence, and of course former chief-of-staff and former defense minister.

Do you think Barak would support a land incursion into Gaza?

It’s hard to know, even though I had a long talk with him while I was on this trip. He has been running a campaign in which he has not expressed himself on any of these major war and peace issues. He is riding on the coattails of his own security credentials, and he simply will not be drawn out on the question of what it is he will do. But Israel, when it comes to dealing with the situation in Gaza, is rapidly running out of options. As long as the rockets were not inflicting casualties, Israelis could brush it off and hope that it would go away in some combination of circumstances. The one hope was that Abu Mazen would finally build up the security capabilities and put people in northern Gaza and stop the rockets from being fired. That obviously isn’t going to happen, so the government is going to have to act. It may well wait until Barak is in the saddle, so as to have more public confidence in the decisions of the cabinet. But it is likely coming in the next three months. If something else doesn’t intervene to stop the rocket fire, the Israelis will go in but they’re not going to go in before they have some strategy in place, and even an understanding in place, which would lead to the insertion of international forces after they’ve gone in and cleaned out the refugee camps and the cities.

And lastly, the American talk about a Middle East peace conference. Is that idea dead on arrival right now?

It’s not dead, but there’s a strange disconnect between the Gaza violence and the fact that there is a broad consensus about the elements of a final peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians based on a two-state solution, and that this consensus now includes the leading Arab states; the Arab League through its peace initiative; the United States, Europe, Russia, and the United Nations in the quartet; the government of Israel; and the Palestinian presidency. As usual, in this part of the world, they don’t have a way of getting there from here, and the “here” keeps on slipping backwards in the wrong direction. The United States has the notion that by creating a political horizon in which Palestinians and Israelis could see what the end result of a negotiation would be, that would help to take care of the situation on the ground. But it’s not going to be enough. It is going to have to be a process on the ground that creates a capable and responsible Palestinian partner, if there’s ever going to be an agreement based on a two-state solution. Without that responsible and capable partner, you get what you’ve got today, which is Israeli withdrawal, Hamas, Hezbollah, al-Qaeda and Iran fill the vacuum, and instead of peace you get a continuation of war by other names.

Do you think if the Israeli forces went into Gaza, that might create the conditions for a peace conference?

Yes. Out of every crisis comes an opportunity to change the situation for the better. It sounds strange to suggest that it will be necessary to make war before peace becomes possible, but that is the history of this region, and the challenge is to be prepared for the opportunities that would create. There is a broad strategic alignment in the region in favor of peace that is the product of America’s debacle in Iraq, which has raised the specter for Israel’s Arab neighbors of an Iran that becomes dominant in the region. That’s not acceptable to Saudi Arabia, to Egypt, to Jordan, and to the other Sunni states. They see that it’s in their interests to take on what they regard now as their primary adversary—the Iranians—and to come to terms with Israel. That’s why you had the resurrection of the Arab League peace initiative, and why you have twenty-two Arab countries saying to Israel, “Let’s get a two-state solution. We’re ready to move on. We’re ready to make peace with you and end the conflict and normalize relations with you.” That’s the heart of the Arab peace initiative. When you look at the overall strategic environment, there is a better situation today than there was back in 2000, when President [Bill] Clinton tried to get a final agreement.  But until there’s a capable, responsible Palestinian partner, there’s no chance of taking advantage of that strategic opportunity.

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