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Obama Must Take Regional Approach on Gaza Violence

Interviewee: Martin S. Indyk, Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, Council on Foreign Relations
January 12, 2009

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Martin S. Indyk, a senior Middle East adviser to President Bill Clinton and twice the U.S. ambassador to Israel, says incoming U.S. President Barack Obama must take a broad approach to Middle East diplomacy if he is to solve the current conflict in the Gaza Strip. Indyk says Obama's efforts to bolster the Israeli-Palestinian peace process should come alongside efforts to engage Iran to divert it from its nuclear program, and a push to restart direct negotiations between Israel and Syria. Together, he says, these three initiatives would "generate some positive synergies" and would help prevent Obama from polarizing his own image in the region. Indyk says he is hopeful that U.S. troops already stationed in the Sinai Peninsula could help stem the smuggling of weapons from Egypt to Gaza in a way that is politically acceptable to Egyptians.

In a recent memo you coauthored with Kenneth M. Pollack, you urge Barack Obama to move on Middle East policy as soon as he takes office. With the Gaza situation in flux right now, it's more urgent than ever. How should the new administration actually get started?

It depends on what the situation is like when he comes into office. The Israelis are, at the moment, poised either to escalate into a new offensive to go into the cities and refugee camps of Gaza, or to hold back and accept a diplomatic intervention. Unfortunately, at this particular junction, the diplomatic intervention has kind of lost its steam. And because the Bush administration is also in its last days, I'm afraid that Obama is going to enter with the situation even more serious than it is now. If that's the case, he will have to focus on trying to put in place a sustainable cease-fire. That will be the first priority of his secretary of state.

Let's focus on that cease-fire for a moment. The Israelis have been insisting not only that Hamas agree to stop firing rockets, but that there be some way of enforcing a ban on infiltration of weapons into Gaza. Those are very tough demands, aren't they?

They are. They've essentially been endorsed by the UN Security Council resolution that just passed on Thursday night [January 8]. But how you actually implement the mechanism to control better the smuggling is a very problematic issue. The Egyptian-Gaza border is the place where the weapons seem to be coming in through these tunnels, and the idea here is to put some kind of international force in there to help the Egyptians to control that situation. Now, the Egyptians with their pride and sense of sovereignty are going to be reluctant to see that kind of international intervention. But there is a good solution here in the multilateral force of observers--the MFO--that has been observing the Israel-Egypt peace treaty for the past thirty years. The American-based force that exists in the Sinai could be augmented and some of its parts moved to the border without changing anything actually. So I'm hopeful that can be solved and serve as a lever for the Israelis to wind down the conflict.

What about dealing with Hamas? Do you think there will be any change in the new administration's attitude toward talking to Hamas?

I would be surprised. Overall, there is a belief among Obama and his advisers that not talking to enemies is a mistake. And he's made it clear that he tends to try to talk to the Iranians about their nuclear program in particular. But in the case of Hamas, his focus has got to be a cease-fire first and then a new initiative to make peace. But Hamas is not interested in making peace. So, it's hard to see how you'd construct a peace process with Hamas. On the other hand, given the division in Palestinian politics for the moment--Hamas controls Gaza and Fatah and the Palestinian Authority rule in the West Bank--it's also difficult to see how you can achieve movement in this process without some closing of ranks on the Palestinian side. The way that he should approach it is to leave this task to the Arabs and the Turks--they also have influence with Hamas--who have intense interest in trying to promote unification amongst Palestinians. If they got to a situation where Hamas and Fatah reconcile, where Hamas observes a cease-fire, where Hamas agrees that the Palestinian Authority and President Mahmoud Abbas should negotiate with Israel, then I could imagine Obama allowing some low-level engagement with Hamas. But anything before those things happens would, in effect, not just undermine President Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, which want to make peace, but it would give legitimacy and victory to Hamas and it would undermine Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who are trying to moderate Hamas's behavior. If Hamas gets the trophy of American recognition before anything is changed, especially in the context of the provocation of this crisis and the launching of these rockets onto Israeli civilians, then Obama will be starting off on the very wrong foot. Rather than the United States playing a positive role in terms of trying to end this conflict, he'll end up in a whole political conflict of his own.

Do you think the Israelis launched these attacks on Gaza because of their coming elections?

No. The political leaders involved, who are running for reelection or running for election--that is, Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and Defense Minister Ehud Barak--would have been happy to go into these elections with the cease-fire, which had held for five months, continuing to hold. But once Hamas started firing barrages of rockets, then, with an election looming, they were put in the position where, if they didn't take action, they would have been seen to be weak and not interested in protecting Israeli civilians--which is the first responsibility of any government. So the politics of the election did play into it, but it was because of the rockets landing on the Israeli villages. Now, there's no doubt in my mind that they, as politicians, are supremely conscious of the looming date of February 10, the election day, and neither one wants to appear responsible for getting the Israeli army sucked into the Gaza quagmire again, where it has in effect reoccupied Gaza, Israeli soldiers are dying, even one a day, and rockets are still falling.  So they have an interest in getting this over before the election and they also have an interest in showing that they achieved something in terms of the basic requirement of the security of Israeli citizens.

Do you think they are really pressing to get this over this with before Obama comes into office?

I don't know, but Barak, in particular, as the architect of Israel's military strategy here, would have been supremely conscious of both the January 20 inauguration, and February 10, the Israeli election. He also doesn't want go into the February 10 election with a crisis in Israeli relations with the United States. And I'm sure that they don't want to get off on the wrong foot with the new president, so the original plan would have been to try to get this over before January 20. Things were basically moving in that direction. But as with all wars, you know when and where it starts, but you don't know when and where it finishes, and you can't control all of the actors here. The Security Council, by moving so rapidly in the cease-fire resolution that did not have an implementing mechanism, actually [caused] the unintended consequence of the fighting going on longer. In other words, there was an opportunity last week to get an effective cease-fire resolution that the Israelis would have been able to say, "Okay, we can accept that," and look for a way out of this. But even then, it would be a question mark if Hamas would have been able to accept it. Now both sides have rejected it, and the Israeli government has to make the decision whether it's going to escalate the problem with very serious, potentially serious consequences, or whether it's going to just stand and kind of wait for a new diplomatic intervention.

If the fighting is still going on, is there going to be a lot of pressure on Obama to criticize Israel for overdoing the fighting, which is what's going on in Europe right now?

As the conflict continues, pressure inevitably grows. We've seen this before. In the first phase, the right of Israel to defend itself is usually accepted by the international community, and the Arab states actually came out and criticized Hamas--or previously, Hezbollah [in 2006]--for provoking conflict. In the second stage, when Israel goes in with its overwhelming force and Palestinian casualties result, then the condemnation starts to build; in this particular case, with the advent of Arab satellite television, which is feeding the Arab people and the Muslim people around the world with twenty-four hour coverage of dead women and children and relatives crying, it's creating a surge of anger, which brings a lot of pressure on Arab governments and the Turkish government to condemn Israel, and to come knocking on Washington's door saying, "You've got to help us with this if you want us to be able to do anything when it comes to salvaging this situation. You have to distance yourself from Israel."

This puts the new president in a very awkward position, and he's made it clear that he wants to move quickly towards trying to resolve this conflict. That's the right thing to do in my opinion. To achieve a resolution of the conflict, he has to have credibility with both sides. If he distances himself from Israel from the get-go, then the Israelis are going to feel like they are embattled, isolated. But if he doesn't criticize Israel, he'll find that the goodwill that a lot of people in the Arab and Muslim world had toward him because of his personal narrative, because he's the first African-American president, because of his middle name Hussein, could be quickly dispelled, or in fact is already discredited because of his silence and his principle of one president speaking at a time. So he is going to be in very odd position. The only way I think he could get out of this is by actively engaging in bringing about a cease-fire. Rather than criticizing one side or the other, he should be seen to be working to stop the deaths of innocent civilians on both sides, and then use that as a springboard to try to resolve a conflict that is not going to be an easy task. His commitment to that and his painting of a vision of a more peaceful Middle East is something that's going to be very important in terms of lifting the lives of Israelis and Arabs out of the mire of misery that they are now stuck in.

Do you think he should have a broad policy speech early on his total goals in the Middle East?

Yes, I think he has that in mind. It's very important to the Middle East, toward the Arab and Muslim world, that he has to now counter the effort that Hamas, Hezbollah, and al-Qaeda want to try to succeed in, which is to paint him as no different from George W. Bush. And in order to do that, he has to brand himself. The way to brand himself is to use his extraordinary communication capabilities to speak to Arabs, Israelis, and Muslims alike about a different future, and at the same time, start to promote policies that can help change that future.

The major other issues out there would be the Iran situation and the Syrian-Israeli negotiations. I know in your new book, Innocent Abroad, you proposed a policy called "Syria Also"--meaning  that once the Palestinian-Israeli situation calmed down, the United States should also want to start talking to the Israelis and Syrians. Is that right?

Yes, I think that there needs to be a comprehensive strategy which takes into account the different dangers and opportunities. One very real danger is that Iran will cross the threshold of nuclear capabilities by the end of Obama's first year in office. That's a ticking clock that he needs to focus on. Another opportunity lies in the Israeli-Syrian negotiation, where the ground is prepared by some effective Turkish diplomacy in the last year, in which Israelis and Syrians have been talking to each other indirectly through the Turks. The foundations for a resumption of direct negotiation has already been laid.

And if you put these pieces together--an effort to engage Iran so as to divert it from its nuclear program, an effort to relaunch Israeli-Syrian direct negotiations and the effort to build a sustainable cease-fire--and then resume the final-status negotiations between Israel and Palestinians, those three initiatives taken together and coordinated can generate some positive synergies among the three that would help with the overall objective--which has to be a comprehensive end to the Arab-Israeli conflict and a construction of a new regional security order in which Iran can be a constructive member if it chooses to be. That's a very tall order, and we haven't got to what to do about his commitment to draw down the troops in Iraq, the fact that he's got to change strategies on Afghanistan and deal with a losing war there, and, of course, the much broader challenge of the global economic crisis and the recession at home. So he has a huge number of problems, but he's going to need a comprehensive strategy for the Middle East. He needs to harness the international community behind that vision and try to start to move forward. Leveling and making progress on these issues with everybody is going to be extremely difficult, just as it's going to be difficult on the economic end.

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