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Makovsky: Time is Right for Israeli-Arab Negotiations

Interviewee: David Makovsky, Director, Project on the Middle East Peace Process, Washington Institute for Near East Policy
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
April 2, 2007

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David Makovsky, an expert on Middle East diplomacy and former executive editor of the English-language Jerusalem Post, says Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert is interested in negotiating with Saudi Arabia and other Arab states, and that Olmert has reacted positively to the recent Riyadh Arab League declaration calling for Israelis and Arabs to work out a peace deal.

The Arab League in Riyadh has concluded its meeting with a proclamation that is fairly moderate and forthcoming to Israel, offering to live in peace with Israel if Israel will accept essentially the old Security Council Resolution 242 from 1967, return to the 1967 borders, and “solve” the refugee problem. The Israel official reaction is kind of muted, although I read Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s interviews in the Israeli press and he seemed very forthcoming. What do you think is going to happen?

If there’s a will, there’s a way. Given Olmert’s interview in Haaretz before the Passover holiday, it’s clear that he wants to sit down with the Saudis and any other Arab states that want to negotiate. He has been saying this since November, when he emphasized the positive elements in the Arab initiative that the then Saudi Crown Prince (now king) Abdullah put forth in 2002 and reaffirmed this week in Riyadh. In 2002, Israel thought the Saudi initiative was a gimmick, a way for the Saudis after 9/11 to get out from under international condemnation since most of the hijackers were Saudi.

Has the Israeli attitude really softened?

The Israelis now think there’s a common basis here. The key to me is not whether Israel’s ready to sit down with them, but are they willing to sit down with Israel? If they’re saying this is a “take it or leave it” proposition, then they’ll miss an opportunity. But if unconfirmed reports are right and they put together an Arab working group, what is known as the Arab Quartet—Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Jordan, to discuss and negotiate on the basis of this opening position, I believe that this could go far.

Olmert said his hope and belief is that they could reach a comprehensive peace with all Arab states in the coming five years. People always say “you never go broke” being a pessimist on the Middle East, but the differences in policy have narrowed pretty dramatically. Israel and the Arabs basically understand that there could be land swaps, like offsetting land transfers on each side of the borders that existed before 1967. That would enable Israel to keep most of the settlers, and return almost all the occupied land to the Palestinian state. The land issue, despite what Jimmy Carter thinks, is the easiest part of this whole story.

So what’s the tough part?

The biggest sticking point is the refugee issue. And here I think there’s a lot of misinformation that really the Council on Foreign Relations could help clarify. First of all, nobody wants a single refugee to live in squalor, but to have dignity, and to have a better future. The whole idea of trying to construct a two-state Israel-Palestine solution was predicated on the idea that you can move Palestinian refugees to the new Palestine. If you are a refugee and you want to stay where you are and the host state agrees, there will be financial compensation. Or you can go to a third country. There’s no debate over that.

The issue is: Should the refugees not only be allowed to go to a new Palestinian state, but should they be allowed to go to Israel? A Palestinian intellectual once said Israel would be suicidal if they agree to this because it would be the end of Israel as a Jewish state. This is where the misinformation comes in. The Palestinians say that they have “right of return.” And they quote this UN resolution 194. The fact is, it’s a General Assembly resolution, not a Security Council resolution, so it’s non-binding. And if you look at 194, it says not that the refugees have a right to return, or must return, or shall return, but suggests it would be a good idea if they be allow to go back. [The pertinent text says: “Resolves that the refugees wishing to return to their homes and live at peace with their neighbors should be permitted to do so at the earliest practicable date, and that compensation should be paid for the property of those choosing not to return and for loss of or damage to property which, under principles of international law or in equity, should be made good by the Governments or authorities responsible”]

There are tons of General Assembly resolutions on any issue under the sun. They’re non-binding. So this has been really the biggest sticking point, and it has been largely been based on misinformation. Once we get some kind of historical and analytical clarity on this issue, with good will the Arabs and Israelis can sit together and work it out. Israel has agreed to family reunification of many, many Palestinians since 1967. They would agree to let in certain refugees too, under that humanitarian banner.

Obviously this would have to be a major item on the negotiating agenda.

Right, but the Arabs have to be willing to negotiate. Amr Moussa, head of the Arab League, says: “First, accept everything and then we will sit down.” That’s ridiculous. No country would negotiate on that basis. They have an opening position. Israel’s got an opening position. They should sit and negotiate and end this wretched conflict, which has really consumed both peoples.

You didn’t mention the Palestinians being on this negotiating committee. Where do they stand in all this?

This gets to the whole question of what sort of Palestinian government we’re talking about. Has the Mecca agreement setting up a unity Fatah-Hamas Palestinian government been an advance or not? I see the Mecca agreement and the national unity government that followed it as a big step backward. The unity government guidelines of the last two weeks don’t mention Israel at all—only the term “Israeli aggression.” Some people say, “Well, you have to make peace with all the Palestinians, and that includes Hamas.” That may be desirable, but the question is whether it’s feasible. If they don’t recognize that Israel exists, how can there be negotiations?

But if Israel sits down with the Saudis, wouldn’t that be a major step forward, given the past refusal of the Saudis even to mention “Israel” as a legitimate state?

Absolutely. In my view, however, time is not on the side of the moderates. It’s important that the moderates sit down and hammer something out, because the future should not be in the hands of the rejectionists.

Is there a time table? Is there anybody working to get something going right now?

Condoleezza Rice is going to the region every month now to talk about what she calls the “political horizon.” It’s the newest buzzword in Middle East diplomacy. And people say, “What’s different from that and the 'final status negotiations' which Bill Clinton tried at Camp David in 2000?” Some say Rice is really revisiting what Clinton did seven years ago. And it took six years for this administration to focus on that. But a “political horizon” is a conversation, not a negotiation at Camp David, but a conversation between leaders on what those principles would be. In terms of where the diplomatic ball is, the ball is with Rice, and she is trying to hammer out this sort of “political horizon” that she hopes would break the logjam. Moreover, she feels it would provide room for an Arab coalition that is seeking to contain and thwart the nuclear ambitions of Iran.

What about a deal between Israel and Syria to get a peace accord similar to the ones Israel has with Egypt and Jordan?

There are many in the Israeli defense establishment that very much want to negotiate with the Syrians and believe they could find out whether Syria is willing to engage in a strategic reorientation away from Iran and other Islamist allies like Hezbollah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad. At the same time, perhaps for the first time in the history of the U.S.-Middle East relationship, the United States is asking Israel not to negotiate with Syria.

Is that still the case?

Yes. The United States fears that Syria is disingenuous and that it is only interested in the process more than peace and will use this process to get out from under a cloud that it’s been under ever since the Rafik Hariri assassination [in Lebanon]. Israel is not going to defy the Bush administration when it comes to Syria. Some would argue, and with justification, that if you look at the political system in Israel, it is very hard for it to successfully pursue two-track diplomacy with both Palestinians and Syrians simultaneously. There are those who say that if you do negotiate with both, you can create an impression on the Arab side that the other one’s about to sign and then get the other one to make concessions. I don’t believe that.

Let’s talk about the Israeli domestic situation. Everyone says Olmert’s popularity is so low that he can’t really do anything. What do you think?

The polls show his popularity is very low. And the key moment for him will probably come toward the end of April when the Winograd commission, which is a review panel headed by a retired Israeli judge, including leading Israeli academics, will look at how the war in Lebanon was managed. Some believe this could be Olmert’s political death. Others are not convinced of that. Clearly, if the Arabs reached out to the Israeli center and to Olmert, this would be something that could help him survive a very difficult period.

Should Olmert after Passover make a concerted effort to get these talks with the Arabs going?

There’s a rumor of something called the two-plus-four-plus-four, whereby the UN Secretary General is going to bring together the Quartet—the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations—along with the Arab Quartet—and that is Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Jordan—along with the Israelis and Palestinians, and sit them all together at one table. That could grab public attention in Israel that there’s some hope. And if people think the Arabs are genuine, that would do more to revive Olmert’s political fortunes than anything else. People in Israel want to end this terrible conflict. This could help them. If, on the other hand, the Arab states list all these preconditions and things like that, then there’s a strong chance that his political career is over.

I think the best hope for Olmert’s survival is a political negotiation with the Arabs. On May 28th there will be a Labor Party primary and there will be a new Israeli defense minister. For the first time this week, there was a statement by the current defense minister, Amir Peretz, the leader of the Labor party, that he’s willing to vacate his position. I think it is eight months too late.

The public sees the Middle East as a rough neighborhood, and they don’t see that Peretz had any skills in national security. And they’re concerned about another confrontation with Hezbollah, and perhaps a looming confrontation with Iran. If someone—whether it’s [retired General and former Prime Minister] Ehud Barak, who is the most decorated soldier in Israeli history, or Ami Alon, who is the former head of the Shin Bet—is elected on May 28th, the Olmert government could have a new lease on life. There are a couple of hurdles here for Olmert to survive. They’re steep. But he could make it. I don’t think we should miss that moment. And I would hope that the Arab leaders seize the opportunity and the United States will work to help make that happen.

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