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Makovsky: Iran Possible ‘Sore Point’ in U.S.-Israeli Relations

Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
Interviewee: David Makovsky, Director, Project on the Middle East Peace Process, Washington Institute for Near East Policy
November 13, 2006

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David Makovsky, an expert on Israeli politics, who has just completed a study on this summer’s Lebanon war, says there is potential “good news” in the reports of a new, technocrat cabinet replacing the Hamas government in the Palestinian Authority. But Makovsky also cited a potential sore point in Israeli-U.S. relations if the United States drops its policy of trying to isolate Iran.

Makovsky, who directs the Project on the Middle East Peace Process at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says the good news is that “the Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has announced very clearly that he will step down and that his Hamas government will give way in a few weeks to a government of technocrats made up of non-Hamas and non-Fatah politicians that could end the eleven-month isolation that the Palestinian Authority has faced.”

As Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert meets with President Bush today how would you describe the relationship between the United States and Israel at this juncture, at a time when both leaders are showing very low popularity ratings in their countries?

In the domestic context, their meeting was sharply different from their initial encounter in May. What a difference six months makes! Then, Olmert had just been elected to succeed the ailing Ariel Sharon. He spoke to a joint session of Congress, where he got sixteen standing ovations. He brought a plan to evacuate most of the settlements of the West Bank. He received a qualified endorsement from the president.

Using an aviation analogy, it looked as if Olmert was zooming to an altitude of 40,000 feet. Things looked very good for him. As a result of the Lebanon war however, his plane took a nosedive and has been hitting turbulence at around 2,000 feet. It doesn’t mean that Olmert is crashing and he’s hoping to gain altitude now that he has reconfigured his government a bit and broadened the base of his coalition, but for the most part, what’s missing is a clear agenda at this point between the United States and Israel in trying to move forward with the Palestinians.

How do you regard the apparent agreement of Hamas and Fatah to create a technocrat government?

This is good news that has been lost because of everyone’s focus on Iraq and the American midterm elections. This is a political drama in which the Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh has announced very clearly that he will step down and that his Hamas government will give way in a few weeks to a government of technocrats made up of non-Hamas and non-Fatah politicians that could end the eleven-month isolation that the Palestinian Authority has faced not just from Israel and the United States but also from the whole international community through the group known as the quartet: the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations. The quartet’s three principles are recognizing Israel, disavowing violence, and adherence to past agreements.  

Hamas has vowed not to accept those principles, but the net effect has been that Hamas has realized that its domestic popularity is dropping because the people haven’t been paid and they have not been really able to govern. The net effect, I think, is that there is an opportunity to see a new Palestinian Authority government. Of course, adherence to the quartet’s principles remains to be seen. But this could be a potential turning point that I think would be something that would be good for all sides and I would hope that Olmert and Bush would make clear that once this new Palestinian Authority is constituted and meets the requirements of the international community it will find partners both in Washington and in Jerusalem. I think Olmert is definitely ready for this. I think this could be a basis for negotiations with President Mahmoud Abbas.  

Now even with a technocrat government what’s likely is Hamas as a party will say “we still don’t recognize Israel.” Will Olmert still say that he doesn’t care?

I think Olmert will look at it and will say: “look, I’m dealing with the Authority [headed by Abbas]. We won’t deal with Hamas the party but we’re going to deal with the Palestinian Authority government.” I think it’s a potential opportunity that could lead to results and I hope that it will lead to renewed talks. Of course, this also assumes the Israeli prisoner, Gilad Shalit, is released as part of some exchange of prisoners.

Let’s switch to Iran, which has made no secret of its hatred for Israel and the Israelis of course seem to be the country most alarmed about a potential Iranian nuclear bomb. The politics in the United States on this issue seem to be more uncertain with the new defense secretary, Robert M. Gates coming aboard. He’s on the record as advocating direct dialogue with Iran. Is this a potential sore point in U.S.-Israeli relations?

Yes, it’s a sore point, but is one of those things that will never be the subject of a public acrimonious exchange. I think there clearly has been a nervousness in Jerusalem about a new secretary of defense who has talked about a conciliatory approach towards Iran. Prime Minister Olmert is very careful to publicly and repeatedly say that Israel does not seek a military solution and that if there was a diplomatic solution that would deny Iran nuclear weapons, he would be the first one to be overjoyed by that. But also look at what Olmert is saying: he calls Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad “the new Adolf Hitler” because of his comments calling for Israel being “wiped off the map.”

Israel doesn’t see Iran as a status quo power but as a destabilizing ideological force which means what it says and even if it didn’t use nuclear weapons itself, it could certainly give them to terror groups that it supports such as Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad.

So many Israelis see a very genocidal approach that is being advocated by the president of Iran. But at the same time they don’t want to be seen as beating the drums for a war or advocating American military action, and I believe Olmert when he says that he’d be the happiest person around if they could solve this thing diplomatically. But his fear is that it won’t be solved diplomatically because Russia and China and the UN Security Council have their own commercial interests and therefore sanctions are not going to be serious.

They read that the Bushehr nuclear reactor [being built by Russia for Iran] is going to be exempted somehow to these sanctions. And they read the Iranian press and they feel the Iranians are laughing at the UN Security Council, saying that there’s really no political will there.

So that obviously gets the Israelis nervous, but it’s a nervousness that will probably not find that much public expression because Olmert, like his patron Ariel Sharon, is very careful not to get on the wrong side of the White House. The midterm elections don’t really change anything because Israel feels it has a lot of friends on both sides of the aisle.

Since Israel knew that the Siniora government was about as friendly a government as it would get in Lebanon in the long term, why was Israel so intent during the Lebanon war in knocking out Lebanon’s complete infrastructure even though it would weaken that very government it wanted to see in power?

This is an issue that is going to be debated for a while. It’s a fair question. The Israeli view is that they hit bridges where they thought rockets were being imported or where kidnapped Israeli soldiers were being transported. They didn’t feel they hit Beirut at all; they hit a runway and they hit the southern suburbs, which is outside the city limits of Beirut which were the Hezbollah strongholds. So they feel that they’ve gotten a bad rap on this and that if you want to put it in a boxing metaphor Hezbollah might feel it went fifteen rounds but the Israelis believe that they landed some blows on Hezbollah while the punches Hezbollah fired were all below the belt because they were rockets fired at Israeli population centers.

But what is the main issue that has led to Olmert’s unpopularity? The fact that war wasn’t run right from the Israeli point of view?

There’s basically two critiques of his management of the war. The popular critique goes like this: that he did not bring Israel’s full fire power to bear early enough [by taking control of] the thirteen miles south of the Litani River up to the Israeli border where most of the Katyusha rockets were fired at Israeli northern towns. And Israel has no military answer for these Katyusha rockets, which might sound very startling to readers but that’s the truth and you hear it from everyone.

So the popular critique says you did nothing on the ground and you therefore led to an inconclusive outcome. There’s a second critique, which is more associated with Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and you see this among what I would call the elite opinion. It goes like this: Given that Hezbollah was embedded in civilian populations and you really could never have had a knockout blow against Hezbollah, you needed to think from the beginning how the war was going to end and work your way from there. In this view, it would have been much better to do a five-day operation where you offered a punishing blow to Hezbollah for crossing the internationally sanctioned border in an unprovoked manner.

Israel knocked out fifty-nine Iranian and Syrian long-range and intermediate-range launchers on the second day that could have hit Tel Aviv. They had some impressive military feats but you needed to do that in the first few days and stop. There was no way to have a very decisive knockout against Hezbollah and they needed to think about that in advance.

I also think another critique that has emerged goes to the heart of the civilian- military relationship. People were saying that the Israeli cabinet was not asking the IDF [Israeli Defense Forces] hard questions on how it was running the war and that you had for the first time in Israel’s history, the head of the air force running what was traditionally the army’s job and he thought air power could solve everything and it didn’t. But I think the overarching question was this issue of the war management, although I should say there is some subsidiary questions too, like Israel’s equivalent of the FEMA in New Orleans; namely its inability to evacuate more of its northern residents in a timely fashion. Instead a million people were in shelters in the north and so you have the FEMA kind of dimension to this. You have the issue of Israel’s military performance too because this was an army that basically spent a lot of its time policing Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and it hadn’t been training for fighting this sort of a war. The reserve system, which used to be one of the defining characteristics of Israel, seems to have fallen into disrepair.

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