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Bin Laden Peace Dividend for Middle East?

Interviewee: Martin S. Indyk, Director Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
May 3, 2011

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The killing of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden could mean enhanced leverage for the United States in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, says former U.S. ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk, giving President Barack Obama "a lot more credibility in the Middle East, both in the Arab world and with the Israelis, than he had before." He notes while Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh lamented bin Laden's death and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas hailed it, the two rival Palestinian groups have been moving toward reconciliation for some time, and the disagreement over bin Laden isn't likely to derail a unity deal between them brokered by Egypt last week. Indyk says that that the time might be ripe now for "a 'winds of change' speech, in which [Obama] frames America's approach to the ongoing Arab awakening, and lays out his approach to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." Indyk cautions, however, that given the unsettled situation in the region, it would be foolish to spell out in detail every point in an accord between Israel and Palestinians.

After Sunday night's surprise announcement by President Obama that the United States had killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, al-Qaeda is back in the news after a period of being back-burnered. What impact do you see his death having on the overall Middle East situation?

Al-Qaeda was already suffering a serious blow to its standing as a result of the Arab awaking of recent months. Bin Laden's message to the Arab people over the last ten years had consistently been that violence and terrorism were the way to redeem Arab dignity and overthrow pro-Western, pro-American governments that had made peace with Israel. Al-Qaeda's message was that through violence and terrorism, the rights of Arabs, Muslims, and Palestinians would be redeemed. The recent narrative that the Arab people have been writing for themselves in just about every country across the Arab world recently has been a very different one: that peaceful, non-violent demonstrations are the way to topple unpopular leaders and redeem the dignity of the Arab people. It is very much about dignity. They have shown that the opposite way from al-Qaeda works, and that's the context in which al-Qaeda now suffers the body blow of the killing of its iconic leader. Al-Qaeda is now faced not only with a leadership crisis but a credibility crisis and a narrative crisis.

The Egyptians were able to successfully mediate a unity deal between the two main Palestinian factions--Fatah and Hamas--and there is supposed to be an agreement signed this week. Yet, after the announcement of bin Laden's death, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh condemned the United States (Reuters) for the killing and a Fatah spokesman praised it as a step toward peace. Will this make Palestinian reconciliation more difficult?

The reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas has been going on for four or five years now. Each time they reach an agreement, it falls apart pretty quickly because they are fundamentally adversaries. They have very different approaches to resolving the Palestinian conflict. President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, who heads Fatah, promotes the two-state solution and wants to achieve agreement with Israel through peaceful negotiations that lead to the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. The Hamas organization seeks a one-state solution--that is to replace Israel with the state of Palestine and do it through violence and terrorism. To that extent, they have a common agenda with al-Qaeda, which probably is part of Haniyeh calling bin Laden "a great martyr." Haniyeh is also under pressure from Hamas' militant wing, which doesn't want to go along with Fatah and Abbas and the implications of coming to terms with Israel. I suspect he may be playing to that audience in his statement.

Whatever the case, it underscores the distance between the two approaches. Hamas is probably at this point reconciled with Fatah, not because it is changing its stripes, but because it is responding to popular pressure, particularly in Gaza, from young people who have been demonstrating in the streets and demanding unification. [Also,] Hamas' position in Syria is in jeopardy because the uprising in Syria has put a real strain on the relationship between the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and Hamas, which has its external headquarters in Damascus. Hamas philosophy is closer to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is at the moment an enemy of Assad. So, suddenly Hamas' external headquarters is looking at the possibility that it is going to be thrown out of Damascus and [there's] talk about relocating to Cairo and Doha. A lot of these pressures aren't always visible in the United States.

The common wisdom is that Israel is concerned about all these changes in the Arab world. Is that true?

Hamas is probably at this point reconciled with Fatah, not because it is changing its stripes, but because it is responding to popular pressure, particularly in Gaza, from young people who have been demonstrating in the streets and demanding unification.

The Israelis will be happy that bin Laden has met his end. Israelis identify very much with the war on terrorism because they are the victims of it as well. Al-Qaeda was actively trying to establish operations in both Gaza and Sinai, and over the years, Israelis have become increasingly concerned about al-Qaeda activism close to their borders. From that point of view, this will be a bright star in an otherwise very cloudy horizon in which Iran is progressing with its nuclear program, Hosni Mubarak--a staunch defender of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt--is gone, and the Egyptian interim government is hedging its bets toward opening relations with Iran, opening the crossing between Egypt and Gaza, and promoting this reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah.

All these developments have been disturbing to the Israelis. On top of them, there is uncertainty about the stability of Jordan, the other Arab country that has peace with Israel. And even though Syria was an adversary, it was a reliable adversary. Ever since Syria and Israel reached an interim agreement in 1974 negotiated by then-Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger, there has been only one instance on the Golan Heights, which is now occupied by Israel as a result of the 1973 war. In a way, the United States pulled a rabbit out of the hat here and knocked off bin Laden and helped to reassure Israel that the United States is capable and effective and engaged in taking on the common enemy.

Prior to the announcement of the Fatah-Hamas agreement, plans were afoot for either or both Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama to make public proposals to invigorate negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians on a two-state solution. Is this idea aborted now, as far as the Israelis are concerned?

The argument is that now would be a good time for the president to show that he has a strategic approach to the whole region, that the killing of Osama bin Laden was only one part of a broader approach to the Arab and Muslim world.

I don't think it is aborted. Obviously, during Netanyahu's trip to Washington later this month, he was already in a position to argue that Israel's borders made it difficult for Israel to contemplate taking risks for peace. Now he can make the argument that he made very quickly after the announcement last week of a tentative Hamas-Fatah unity deal, that Israeli now has no partner for peace. He can argue that Fatah, with whom Israel has been negotiating for years, is now in bed with Hamas, and Hamas doesn't intend to make peace or recognize Israel. So, it will reinforce his inclination to basically say that nothing can be done now.

But there are a number of other factors in play. President Obama has also been thinking about making a speech laying out his approach to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When the agreement between Fatah and Hamas was announced last week, it caught both Washington and Jerusalem by surprise. That put an end for the time being to the idea that the president would come out with a peace plan, because if the environment was hostile before, it seemed to have grown even more hostile because of the Palestinian agreement negotiated by the Egyptians.

But the killing of Osama bin Laden could play into the debate that has been raging within the Obama administration for three to four months about whether to give a speech, when to give a speech, and what would be in the speech. The killing of Osama bin Laden suddenly gives Obama a lot more credibility than he had before in the Middle East, both in the Arab world and with the Israelis. Some influential people in the administration say that the opportunity of the president giving a "winds of change" speech, in which he frames America's approach to the ongoing Arab awakening and lays out his approach to solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may well be strengthened by the killing of bin Laden. The argument is that now would be a good time for the president to show that he has a strategic approach to the whole region, that the killing of bin Laden was only one part of a broader approach to the Arab and Muslim world.

Do you think he should give such a speech?

My feeling is that he does need to frame America's approach to the Arab uprisings now going on. In such a "winds of change" speech, he does need to present America's approach in broad outline to resolving the Palestinian conflict, but anything beyond that--going into the kind of detail he is being urged by some to enunciate--only makes sense if the speech is part of a broader strategy to get the Israelis and Palestinians back into direct negotiations that can produce results. At this moment, when the president has redeemed some credibility for the United States in the Arab and Muslim world, it would be a mistake to squander it by giving the impression that the United States, through the president making a speech, can actually deliver an Israeli-Palestinian agreement. We seem to be very far from that today, and the Hamas-Fatah agreement only complicates matters. The president should be careful to avoid eliciting expectations that he has some kind of magic wand he can wave that can produce an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

So you are saying that he should give a broad speech, but not necessarily hold out expectations for immediate results?

I couldn't have said it better.

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