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A Rocky Path Forward in the Mideast

Interviewee: Jacob Walles, Cyrus Vance Fellow for Diplomatic Studies, CFR
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
March 11, 2010

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Vice President Joseph Biden's trip to the Middle East this week to build momentum for a new round of Israeli-Palestinian talks got a bumpy start with the "particularly bad timing" when Israel announced a plan to build sixteen hundred more housing units in East Jerusalem, says Jacob Walles, former U.S. Consul General in Jerusalem. Still, Walles believes the "proximity talks" scheduled to begin next week, in which U.S. mediator George Mitchell will toggle between Jerusalem and Ramallah, are a good way to wade back into peace talks, where the status of Jerusalem and Palestinians' right of return remain the most vexing issues.

While Vice President Biden was in Israel on Tuesday, Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai announced that Israel was going to build sixteen hundred new housing units for Jews in East Jerusalem, where Palestinians hope to have the capital of a future state. What do you make of Yishai's announcement?

The events of the last few days illustrate just how volatile the situation is in the region. On Monday, we had a positive development, when Senator George J. Mitchell, President Obama's special Middle East envoy, announced the two sides had finally agreed to indirect talks that he would be running. But on Tuesday, the atmosphere was damaged badly by this latest Israeli announcement about construction in East Jerusalem. The timing of that announcement was particularly bad, because it was on the first day of Vice President Biden's visit to Israel. This was a visit meant to highlight the strength of the U.S.-Israel bilateral relationship. What it demonstrates is the need for the United States to work hard and keep these negotiations on track. And it will be important, when Senator Mitchell returns to the region next week, to ensure that these talks get off to a good start, because they've been damaged pretty badly by this latest announcement.

Henry Kissinger, when he was secretary of State in the 1970s, said, "Israel has no foreign policy, it has only a domestic policy." Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apparently wasn't expecting the announcement by Yishai, who heads the right-wing Shas party. Was this an effort by Israeli right-wing politicians to scuttle the peace talks?

Henry Kissinger's comment many years ago was very apt then, and is still relevant now. One of the consistencies of Israeli politics is that every government is a coalition government. Prime Minister Netanyahu is from the Likud party. Eli Yishai, as you said, represents Shas, which represents ultra-orthodox Jews of Middle Eastern origin. There's also the Labor Party, which tends to be more supportive of the peace process. And then you have a right-wing party headed by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. So you have many different interests at play within this government, and it pulls the government and the prime minister in different directions.

Senator Mitchell will be returning to the Middle East next week, and he will have the very difficult job of keeping these negotiations on track.

I don't know exactly why this announcement was made, and particularly why it was made on the first day of Vice President Biden's visit. But I think what it shows is that a party like Shas is trying to respond to the needs of its constituents. The construction of the sixteen hundred units is in an area which contains a number of ultra-orthodox residents. But the result was that it was quite damaging for the effort to restart negotiations.

Biden issued strong reassurances to Israel, which is concerned about Iran's nuclear program, about the United States' commitment to its security. Then later in the day he issued this statement condemning the Israeli building plan. Why?

There had to be a U.S. response. As I said, the purpose of the vice president's trip was to reassure Israel about the bilateral relationship with the United States. There was a conscious effort on the part of the administration to have Senator Mitchell visit Israel last week and try to wrap up the announcement of the resumption of talks before the vice president's visit. [That way] the vice president wouldn't have to focus on the negotiations, and could focus on his purpose, which was the bilateral relationship and the common concerns we have about the Iranian nuclear program.

Unfortunately, the Yishai announcement dragged the vice president back into the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He had no choice in the face of that announcement but to make the statement that he did last night. The other unfortunate aspect is that this announcement probably overshadowed his visit to Ramallah for his meeting with the Palestinians. Rather than being able to talk about a way forward, they ended up talking about the announcement that took place the day before. Senator Mitchell will be returning to the Middle East next week, and he will have the very difficult job of keeping these negotiations on track.

He's doing it in the format of "proximity talks," moving between Ramallah and Jerusalem. Kissinger, who started these U.S.-led mediation efforts, practiced what he called "shuttle diplomacy," flying back and forth between Egyptian and Israeli negotiators, and between Syrian and Israeli negotiators. Does the fact that they don't sit down in one room make it tougher to get agreements?

It's probably not ideal, but it's a good way to start on these talks. It's practical, it's effective, and it's also low risk, with what are some very difficult issues.

Recent statements indicate that Palestinian negotiators no longer insist on complete Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, but would accept Israel keeping some major West Bank settlements while trading Israeli land in return. That was the plan put forward by President Bill Clinton in his abortive effort to get an agreement. Has that now become a relatively easy part of the negotiations?

I don't think anything is easy in these negotiations, although it may be easier to start on the issue of the territorial arrangements, because there may be more of a basis to find a way forward on that. The Palestinian position is as you described it, which is that they're not insisting on returning exactly to the line as it was in 1967, but, if there are any adjustments of those lines in favor of Israel, they want to be compensated with a swap so that in the end they end up with an equivalent amount of territory. That's one area where Senator Mitchell will be able to use his role as mediator between the two sides to look for ways to bridge some of the differences.

Netanyahu has made least two conditions. One is that the Palestinians should recognize Israel--which has a population that's 20 percent Palestinian--as a Jewish state. He also wants to have the right of Israeli troops on the eastern border of any Palestinian state, to prevent weapons' smuggling. How will the Palestinians respond to those demands?

The question of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state is an emotional issue for both sides. It's not clear exactly what the practical meaning of it is, and that's the kind of question that would have to be dealt with in the course of the negotiations. In the end, the objective is two states living side by side, and these two states are going to have to accept one another in order to live in peace. So that's the kind of issue that can be discussed.

Having the United States in the middle in these proximity talks is a good thing because it helps enhance the U.S. role and allows us to follow up and look for openings, and make sure that every opening is fully explored, and that the talks don't just drift off on their own.

In terms of security arrangements, clearly that's an important aspect of the negotiations. Again, this is an area where the U.S. role as a mediator will be critical. There has to be a way to balance Israel's security issues, which are legitimate, with the Palestinian interest in having a viable state. The objective is two states; and a Palestinian state, as the vice president said in Ramallah, has to be viable and it has to be contiguous. So again, it's a question of balancing these two interests.

Senator Mitchell is a very skillful mediator. He worked very successfully in Northern Ireland, in bridging very difficult issues there. Once talks start going, they begin to take a life of their own. Having the United States in the middle in these proximity talks is a good thing because it helps enhance the U.S. role and allows us to follow up and look for openings, and make sure that every opening is fully explored, and that the talks don't just drift off on their own.

I'm now coming to the toughest issues. One is the status of Jerusalem, which both Israelis and Palestinians see as their capital. At the end of the Clinton administration, both sides traded proposals, and they were actually pretty close on Jerusalem. How do you see the situation now?

It's one of the toughest issues that are out there. Not only is it about how the two states relate to each other, but there are territorial aspects and there are religious aspects as well. It's pretty emotional for both sides. In the end, I think, the important thing is that Jerusalem is a city that is important to the Jewish people, it's important to the Christian people around the world, and it's important to the Muslim people around the world. And it's important for all the parties at these talks to recognize that, and to realize that there's going to have to be a way found so that everybody's devotion to the city, and interest in the city, is respected in some way. How you do it will be difficult, but it's something that will have to be negotiated, and it has to be done in a very sensitive way because it affects not only politics but religions as well.

What about the "right of return" for Palestinians whose ancestors fled what is now Israel to avoid fighting in the 1948 War of Independence for Israel? Israel has insisted that the Palestinians could not return to Israel but should go to the new Palestinian state.

It's still an important issue, and it's not an easy one because it is emotional for both sides. As a practical matter, the bulk of the "return" of Palestinian refugees living outside the West Bank and Gaza would likely be to a new Palestinian state, not to Israel. But the negotiations will also need to find a way to address the emotional aspect for Palestinians, the sense that they suffered a great tragedy in 1948, and this has to be recognized in some way. In the end, all the issues--borders, security, Jerusalem, and refugees--are linked in one way or another, and they will have to be resolved as a package.

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