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The Mideast Peace Talks in Annapolis [Rush Transcript; Federal News Service]

Speaker: Richard N. Haass, President, Council on Foreign Relations
Moderator: Gideon Rose, Managing Editor, Foreign Affairs
November 28, 2007
Council on Foreign Relations

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OPERATOR: Excuse me, everyone. We now have our speakers in conference. Please be aware that each of your lines is in a listen- only mode. At the conclusion of the presentation, we will open the floor for questions. At that time, instructions will be given as to the procedure to follow if you would like to ask a question.
I would now like to turn the conference over to Mr. Gideon Rose. Sir, you may begin.
MR. ROSE: Welcome, everybody. Delighted to have you with us today for some excellent commentary on the story of the day, which is, of course, the Annapolis Peace Conference.
We have with us as our expert Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, former director of policy planning for the State Department, former senior director on the National Security Council and assistant to the president, a person of multiple talents and gifts, many books, many experiences in policy, and who has worked these sorts of issues himself in government and commented on them from the outside.
So here to enlighten us as to what has happened and why and where we go from here, without further ado -- Richard Haass.
Richard, let me start by -- what we'll do is, by the way, we'll have -- I'll interview Richard for maybe 15, 20 minutes, depending on how it goes, and then we'll throw it open to your questions so you can engage him and he can engage you.
Richard, why did people come here? Why did Annapolis occur in the first place? What were the calculations on all sides that brought the parties together for this conference?
MR. HAASS: Not surprising, Gideon, there wasn't a common calculation. But as your question in some ways suggested there were different calculations by various parties.
For the administration, after seven years of essentially keeping arm's length from what used to be called the peace process, I think there was -- and here I'm speculating -- but I would think it was in part to take advantage of and to reinforce the anti-Iranian orientation of much of the Sunni Arab world, and also, possibly -- and there's been lots of speculation about this -- to change the narrative of the administration's foreign policy in the region, to essentially bring to the fore diplomacy and the obviously widely desired effort to try to broker progress between Israelis and Palestinians.
For the Arab regimes, in particular Saudi Arabia and Egypt, it was more than anything a desire to push back against what I've called elsewhere the spread of imperial Iranian power and reach and influence in the region. And also secondarily, or more specifically, to try to wean or at least drive something of a wedge between Syria and Iran.
For the Palestinians, I believe more than anything else, particularly for Mahmoud Abbas, it was a simple, basic need. Life is miserable, and if it comes down to simply a show of force between Fattah and Hamas, it's not clear that Fattah will prevail under the current circumstances. And what Fattah needs is essentially a stronger political argument to justify support for it and for negotiation, rather than for Hamas and confrontation.
And for the Israelis there's always in principle been an interest in meeting with Arabs face to face. Nothing remotely on this scale had happened since Madrid in October 1991. I also believe that Mr. Olmert's political circumstances reinforce his interest in doing it because it gives him a rationale and in some ways a chance to recover from his political bottoming-out after Lebanon a year ago. And also, for some in Israel it gave an opening to talks with Syria, which is something that many in the Israeli security establishment see as not only desirable but as far more promising than the possibility of a dialogue with the Palestinians at this point.
MR. ROSE: Well, what's notably absent, of course, from your list is a desire, eagerness, and willingness to plunge into the thickets of actual Arab-Israeli peacemaking and settling the very thorny issues that everybody knows are at the heart of the conflict, going forward.
Does the fact that that wasn't particularly high on anybody's list of reasons to come to Annapolis, did that affect whether or not this meeting is likely to issue forward in positive results for the peace process, or get something actually going?
MR. HAASS: That question was so complicated, I'm not sure I can --
MR. ROSE: Is the fact that nobody came here to really make peace going to affect whether peace gets made?
MR. HAASS: I don't believe anybody came there to make peace, because peace is not something you make at a meeting that essentially watches a political process. Nobody was under any illusions. And perhaps more to your point, it was interesting that the joint understanding that was agreed to by the parties, by the Israelis and the Palestinians, was extraordinarily vague and was essentially substance-free. Virtually the entire text of the joint understanding was procedural and process-oriented, rather than, for example, dealing with any of the fundamental issues that would obviously have to be part of any peace agreement.
MR. ROSE: Okay, so given that and what you saw of what's been said since the parties met, what do you think this meeting actually accomplished?
MR. HAASS: Let me suggest -- well, let me begin with some of the positives, because I do think there were some positives, and then I'll turn to the -- then the negatives.
On the positives, I'd list four. One was, in the Woody Allen spirit, the fact that it happened. And you had, if you will, the resumption of high-level, direct engagement of the U.S. administration in the process of peacemaking, at least between the Israelis and Palestinians.
And I believe this is important in the sense that the last time this had been done was the Clinton administration. And I believe it is important that an active U.S. role in this area not become, if you will, the partisan preserve of either party. It's important that it be truly bipartisan so that, for example, if a Republican were to succeed Mr. Bush, I believe it makes it not just easier for them to continue down this path, but makes it more difficult for them not to continue down this path. So getting the administration, if you will, to legitimize active involvement in what used to be called the peace process is important.
Secondly, the fact that you had so much international and Arab presence. I always thought that one of the biggest shortcomings or flaws of the efforts in the year 2000 by the Clinton administration was that the Palestinians were in many ways left fairly vulnerable. There wasn't an Arab umbrella or protection. And the fact that here you got so much Arab presence I think is potentially a very good thing. And the fact that you've got so much international presence, again, is good because conceivably the Russians or the Japanese or the Europeans could play a very helpful role, be it with resources or potentially also with political influence, say, with a country like Syria.
Thirdly, the fact that you've -- this meeting was not a one-off, but rather it was the beginning of a process, is good. There will be follow-up.
And fourthly, I thought most interesting of all the statements was the speech by Prime Minister Olmert. I thought of the three principal statements, his was the most significant. I thought what he had to say about the Israelis' understanding that there would have to be significant changes from what emerged from the 1967 war was an important statement, not just to the Palestinians, but to the Israeli public.
Part of leadership is preparing your public for what is to come. I thought he also reached out to the Palestinians in some important ways and he also said very -- some positive things about the Arab League initiative.
So that would be my basic list of positives. On the other side of the ledger, let mention, I think, five things.
One, as I already alluded to, it was -- the joint understanding was frustratingly vague. It was, again -- it was essentially concerned with process, which is another way of saying that if they could have agreed on the substance, it would have shown up in the joint understanding and the fact that it didn't meant they couldn't.
Secondly, the speech by the president, by Mr. Bush, I believe was quite disappointing. And it failed to give Mahmoud Abbas Abu Mazin. It failed to give him an argument that he could take to the Palestinian people about where this was likely to end up. I believe it would have been far more valuable had Mr. Bush's speech stated or spelled out what the United States thought were the basic elements of a fair final status agreement -- not to impose it, but to give the Palestinians hope and, more important, to give Mahmoud Abbas an argument that he could take to the Palestinian people and say this is why negotiations offer the far more promising route, and this is why you should not put your hope in violence and confrontation and Hamas.
Thirdly, I didn't see anything that happened -- maybe it's -- I'm maybe only just repeating my previous point, that really strengthened the hands of the Palestinian leadership that was invited to Annapolis. They're not in control of Gaza. There's a lot of disorganization, dissent; there's tremendous weakness there on the ground, so I didn't see that they got stronger.
And one of the things that I've written about this elsewhere, in any peace process, it's not simply enough to have leadership that wants to make peace, and I think Mahmoud Abbas genuinely does, you also need leadership that's able to make peace, that's able to make compromises and sell them to his or her constituency. And I didn't -- I don't believe that he emerged stronger for the effort.
Fourthly, I believe the timetable that emerged wasn't as overly ambitious, and it is unlikely, to say the least, that it can be met. And I think this then sets a clock which at some point then is going to almost certainly lead to charges of setbacks or failure a year from now.
And lastly, I thought the emphasis on the Palestinians underplayed the potential for Israeli-Syrian dialogue. And in Syria you have a leadership, unlike the Palestinian leadership, that is largely able to enter into a peace agreement if it so desired, and I would have put far more emphasis on the Syrian track alongside the Palestinian track.
MR. ROSE: This issue, the relative importance and urgency of the Syrian track versus the Palestinian track, of course, is one that's been debated very hotly in peace-processing circles for almost two decades now. Can you explain why you think the Syrian track is more important?
MR. HAASS: Well, part of the answer, again, is that in order for any peace process to advance, you need leadership that is on one hand willing and on the other hand able to make compromises and sell them to their constituency, to the domestic constituency.
The Syrian track, at the moment you've got a leadership that I believe is able and the Israelis believe that they may also -- there are some signs, let me put it this way, that the Israelis are pointing to that they may be willing.
The Israelis also look at the weakness of the Palestinian leadership and how fundamental questions -- whether at this point the Palestinians are in a position to make significant compromises or control the security situation as would be required.
In the past there was another argument which was that you could sometimes play off the two tracks, that if you pushed the Syrian track that would get the Palestinians to perhaps be more forthcoming and vice versa. I don't think that's the situation here. I think it simply stems from an analysis of the nature, if you will, of the Syrian leadership. And I'd say one other thing is that as difficult as the issues are that separate Israel and Syria, I believe they are an order of magnitude less difficult than the issues that separate Israelis from Palestinians.
So for lots of reasons, without saying -- without predicting success, I simply believe that the prospects are more developed or brighter on the Israeli-Syrian track for the foreseeable future than on the Israeli-Palestinian track..
MR. ROSE: Got it. Netting out all your pros and cons from what came out of Annapolis, are you optimistic, looking forward at this process, or pessimistic?
MR. HAASS: Anyone who's spent several decades working on the Middle East finds it hard to be optimistic, so not surprisingly, I find it hard. And the reason is when I look at the challenges that await us, one is to improve the situation on the ground. This means dealing with the security challenge that Israel still faces, and that would mean professionalizing, consolidating, organizing Palestinian security services and defeating those who want to cause harm.
It means dealing with all sorts of -- all the questions that relate to settlements, be they authorized or unauthorized. It means dealing with the -- all the shortcomings of Palestinian society that have emerged and in many cases worsened, from poverty to unemployment to radicalization, what have you. So there's that, just dealing with the situation on the ground will be extraordinarily difficult, and it's important that one does.
I think it's important that a peace process not operate in isolation. Or to put it another way, it's important that Palestinians and Israelis, when they get up in the morning, see improvement. And that's the only way that they will associate peace with improvement.
Secondly, and it comes back to the joint understanding, the scale of the issues and the number of the issues to be negotiated is impressive, and it's daunting. And everybody on this call knows the issues, from the territorial issues to refugees to settlements to Jerusalem and so forth.
Thirdly, there is the need to strengthen the hand of the Palestinian interlocutor. Coming back to what I said before, we need to find ways to strengthen his hand so a Mahmoud Abbas can make the peace that I believe he actually would like to. And right now, the balance of power, if you will, on the Palestinian side doesn't permit him to do that.
So I think he needs help, not just diplomatically, but I believe he needs help economically and I believe he needs considerable help on the security and military side. I also believe that it's important that the United States drop its resistance to a serious dialogue between Israel and Syria. And the United States has obviously pursued a policy of isolating Syria, and I believe it has been counterproductive. And I think it's important that the United States, at a minimum, stand aside and conceivably support an Israeli-Syrian dialogue which ultimately could bring in other issues, obviously, including Lebanon and Iraq.
So when you ask me to net this out, I don't mean to cop out, but it depends on what the follow-through is. Annapolis can't be judged, if you will, as a 24-hour or 36-hour event. Annapolis can only be judged in retrospect, six months from now, a year from now or longer, when we come to understand it as, hopefully, the beginning of something significant or -- in which case it would be seen as a positive event leading to a beneficial process -- or, if it doesn't lead to meaningful change, Annapolis will be judged by historians quite critically.
So again, it's not a cop-out, but you can't judge a meeting that was designed to launch a diplomatic process until you see what sort of a process it launches.
MR.. ROSE: We'll know whether the fruit is ripe when we bite into it.
MR. HAASS: Exactly.
MR. ROSE: One last thing. A number of the -- before we turn it over to our chomping-at-the-bit visitors. What -- a number of the obstacles you just mentioned were on the ground, in the region, with the local parties. Some of them were with the U.S. interlocutors and other outsiders. What's the relative importance of internal and external factors, and how does that play out? In other words, is the Bush -- if the Bush administration did everything you wanted it to do, if you were made czar of the peace process in the administration --
MR. HAASS: (Laughs.)
MR. ROSE: -- would the chances for things working out be dramatically better, or is it really the problems of the parties themselves?
MR. HAASS: I can't give you percentages, sorry. But I would simply say it's necessary but not sufficient. The United States needs to do more to create the context. The United States in particular needs to do much more to strengthen the hands of the Palestinian interlocutor. If it does that, then I believe it increases measurably the chances that this process can gain traction and conceivably, down the road, succeed.
But again, peace processes don't happen in a vacuum. What they require more than anything else is that -- let's think about it from the Palestinian side here, as an example -- that those who are opposed to the policy -- to the process -- those who are opposed to compromise, come to understand, one way or another, that they can't prevail.
They have to understand that they can't achieve their aims with force, and they have to understand that they can't stop the process with force. Some of those -- some of them will simply have to be defeated. Some I believe can be co-opted, and that has to be part of the context. And together with that, there has to be enough incentive for those who are inclined to enter a process and stick with it to sustain that -- their orientation.
So that means again, a very -- lots of incentives, a very forward-looking or very incentive-oriented diplomacy, and it means strengthening the hand of, in this case, the Palestinian Authority so it can deal with those who are going to try, one way or another, to defeat them or undermine the process through terrorism. Any peace process needs both dimensions.
So the United States can help on both of these. It can help provide diplomatic incentives; it can help provide certain capacities -- economic and security. But at the end of the day also, you still need a local Palestinian leadership that is able and willing, if you will, to be a partner.
So if this is going to succeed, it's going to require an active role by the United States, it's going to require diplomatic cover from the Arab governments who are going to basically have to be prepared to legitimize and bless and tolerate compromises. They're going to have to provide all sorts of economic support. And it's going to require a Palestinian leadership that ultimately is able to prevail within the Palestinian community.
There's also going to have to be, if you will, the emergence of an Israeli actor that has the domestic political support in Israel's political system to make compromises. It's going to have to deal in particular with the issue of settlements and settlers. And this is going to take political strength, and it's obviously going to also require all sorts of economic assistance to do significant resettlement. It's going to require military assistance so the Israelis feel secure.
I thought it was interesting that the one thing the president did in his speech at Annapolis to help in this regard was his specific reference to the importance of Israel as a Jewish state, and I think that was a clear message to the Israelis that any Palestinian "right of return," quote, unquote, would be limited to Palestine, and this was a very reassuring message to Mr. Olmert and one that would buttress or bolster him.
MR. ROSE: Excellent. With that, why don't we turn it over to our listening audience so they can ping you directly.
We'll now get instructions on how to ask questions.
OPERATOR: Okay, at this time we will open the floor for questions. If you would like to ask a question, please press the "star" key, followed by the "1" key, on your touchtone phone now. Questions will be taken in the order in which they are received.
And our first question comes from Ron Bayjance (sp) with Kuwait News Agency.
Q Hi. Thank you.. Just to keep on going a little bit on the diplomatic cover from the Arab governments, economic support that you mentioned -- my notes -- how might that come into the process in the next six months to a year? Is that -- is there any -- I mean, it's sort of chicken before egg. Does somebody have to make some really grand, bold, straight-through move? You know, the Sadat thing comes to mind. Does something have to happen like that?
MR. HAASS: I would recommend two things. One is I would provide -- I would urge that the Arab governments and others at some pledging conference make some financial aid available immediately. I think it's important that there be an infusion of some funds, hopefully an infusion of some investment. It would also be good if certain governments promised to import certain goods from the area and so forth. That -- some of that needs to start right away.
I think one could also then link additional amounts as incentives to certain milestones being reached, but I believe it is important that a pledging effort get underway. We've seen this in other peace processes work. And again, some of it I believe should just happen on a humanitarian basis right away, and some of it I believe could be made conditional on the achievement of certain milestones.
Q You said, "Import goods." Do you mean from --
MR. HAASS: From the Palestinian areas.
Q Okay. (Inaudible.)
MR. HAASS: I mean, the most efficient development tool I know is trade.
Q Okay.
MR. HAASS: Aid is always a mixed blessing, and I think some aid can be -- aid is always useful -- nearly always useful as a humanitarian tool, but aid as a long-term development tool has a checkered history, and trade can actually be far more efficient in job creation; it's less prone to corruption and so forth.
Q Okay. Thanks.
MR. HAASS: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Adam Graham- Silverman with Congressional Quarterly.
Q Hi. Thanks. As you mentioned, the U.S. has been pretty absent as a broker from the peace process during the Bush administration, and to the extent they have been there, they've sided with Israel. So now the U.S. is going to be in a position to judge and take sides in the particular disputes and will probably have to rule against Israel. I'm wondering two things: First, that -- where do you see these decisions taking place? Where is it going to be? Where are the key issues on which the U.S.. will be tested as being an honest broker and a credible broker in this process? And how do you think the U.S. can restore its credibility as an honest broker going forward?
MR. HAASS: Fair question. Let me say one thing, though, about the question. The fact that the United States, to use your expression, "sides" with Israel I think is understood, and actually I've often seen it as not simply reality but also potentially an asset. It gives the United States a special relationship with Israel, and that -- what comes with that can be influence. And also one of the reasons that the United States has historically been able to play a brokering role is that the Arab governments and the Palestinians know the United States has a special relationship with Israel, which again gives us influence and gives the Israelis confidence.
So the fact that the United States is now beginning to play a more active diplomatic role doesn't mean to me that we -- that the United States should somehow distance itself from Israel or somehow become, quote unquote, "even-handed." I think it's important that the United States remain close to Israel, but that's part of a -- again, that to me is part of what makes -- gives the United States a special role in this process.
Where the United States is likely to be tested -- let me suggest two things early on. One is on the territorial issue. I believe it would be extraordinarily helpful if the United States say that the Palestinian state -- which the president and secretary of State and others reiterated that the United States supports creating -- that its territory should be based upon the 1967 lines and that where there are changes made to accommodate certain Israeli demographic and security realities that there should be compensation, be it in the form of territory or money or both, for the Palestinians. So I believe -- is one of the -- I wish there had been a statement like that in the president's speech yesterday, but at some point I believe the United States has to be seen as supporting the notion of a peace agreement based upon the 1967 lines with territorial adjustment as required and with compensation for those adjustments.
Secondly and consistent with that, I think the United States ought to be more specific about Israeli settlement activity, about what -- and it ought to essentially push hard for an adjustment in Israeli settlement policy so that the unauthorized settlements are removed, so that government subsidies to certain settlement areas end. And it ought to be totally coordinated with the U.S. position on territory, that essentially U.S. policy towards Israeli settlements ought to be to essentially accept the three principal concentrations -- the so-called "three settlement blocks"; that it ought to oppose or discourage Israeli settlement activity elsewhere. And I think as part of that, the United States should also offer to be part of a very generous international effort to help Israel resettle individuals and families who would obviously be adversely affected by a peace agreement that changed, if you will, the map.
Q So you don't think that the U.S. has to -- has a credibility problem here in playing this role -- I mean, both with the Arabs who will be watching over the process and even, you know, internally within Israel, at the source, to make some of these tough calls?
MR. HAASS: I believe the United States has some credibility problem. There's always a degree of suspicion because of our special relationship with Israel. I believe also the administration has compounded, if you will, that traditional problem through things it has done and said over the last seven years and things it has not done and not said over the last seven years.
But at the end of the day, the Arab world and the Palestinians understand that we've reached a point in history where Israelis and Palestinians alone aren't likely to be able to make peace. They need international help. They need U.S. help. So I believe that the Arab world and the Palestinians will be willing to work with the United States and that -- how would I put it? -- they will be prepared to accept our role and our credibility if we act -- if we act credibly. And so what the United States says and does every day from now on will affect the perception of the United States.
I don't believe, I guess -- I don't believe that what the United States has done or not done over the last seven years or the last 40 years in any way precludes the United States playing a major role now.
Q Thanks.
MR. HAASS: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Stewart Ain with New York Jewish Week.
Q Hi, Richard. Do you -- two quick questions, if I may. The idea of a Palestinian -- of a -- and a Syrian-Israeli negotiation -- do you think that those could go on at the same time as the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, so we'd have two tracks at once? And also, what about the issue of Hamas in the Gaza Strip? That really has been the six-million-pound giant in the room that nobody talked about.
MR. HAASS: Well, on the first question, I believe the Israelis could negotiate with Palestinians and with Syrians -- if my analysis -- at the same time. If my analysis is correct, the Israeli-Syrian track is likely to progress further, faster than the Israeli- Palestinian track. So -- and again, if this analysis is correct, it would mean that an Israeli government, be it this one or the next one, would probably be in a position of presenting an Israeli-Syrian agreement to the Israeli Knesset and the Israeli people, however they were to do it, before they would be presenting an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
History suggests it would be very hard to present both simultaneously, that it might overload the circuits. I doubt we would have that problem. It's hard for me to imagine that both would come to fruition at roughly the same time. But if I'm wrong and if that were to happen, I would put that in the category of good problems. And then it would -- then it becomes a tactical question, if you will, for the Israeli government of the day to decide how to manage the domestic politics. I just think we're unlikely to have that problem.
On the second question, I'm not quite sure how to answer it other than to say that the -- (inaudible) -- what I was mentioning before about the need to strengthen a Palestinian interlocutor I believe is true. And ultimately groups like Hamas have to understand that if they want to enter into negotiations with Israel, they have to give up violence. That seems to me to be the prerequisite of a political process. And if they try to disrupt the political process -- either directly by taking on the Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, or indirectly by causing -- by carrying out terror against Israelis -- then it becomes the challenge to the Palestinian Authority and to Fatah to deal with it. And that's when I said the international community has to provide them -- the Palestinian Authority -- with the means that they can deal with their internal security challenge.
So I think for Hamas there's ultimately -- there's going to be a choice, which is if you want to participate, it means giving up violence and coexisting with a Jewish state. My guess is that at some point they'll probably be something of a debate, if there isn't already, within Hamas, as I believe there is. Some in Hamas may actually decide that it's better to join the political process. There will be those in Hamas who I believe will never join a political process because a political process suggests compromise. And it wouldn't shock me if at some point there had to be a sorting out on the Palestinian side to come up with an authority -- with a Palestinian leadership that was both able and willing to make peace.. And that's the way it's proven in other parts of the world when you had peace processes.
But again, you -- I think -- that's why, again, I think it's important to put on the table, as I said before, a very strong and defined end goal about what is in it for the Palestinians if they give up violence and if they're prepared to negotiate peace. I think that helps stimulate the debate within Hamas. I think it legitimizes and gains popular support for those Palestinians who are prepared to give up force. And we have to persuade as many people within Hamas as we can that they will not get their way through the force of the gun. So one's going to need both a diplomatic and a security dimension to the policy.
Q Thank you.
MR. HAASS: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from James Kitfield with National Journal magazine.
Q Yeah. Richard, I wonder if you would address the larger strategic context of the United States and where this fits into it. The fact that it's coming so late in Bush's second term, you know, suggests he's got a sort of legacy-burnishing attempt here. But also, you've mentioned that, you know, they're trying to take advantage of the anti-Iranian feeling amongst many Arab-Sunni governments. Assess for us where the legacy looks like to you of our strategy in the Middle East. I know you've written about that, but I haven't heard you talk about it recently.
MR. HAASS: (Laughs.) Thank you, Mr. Kitfield.
Well, it's not ideal, shall we say, that this was left until the -- essentially the last year of the administration. Ironically, it's similar to what happened to the Clinton administration -- that they tried to accomplish a great deal in the last year and that, at the end of the day, proved counterproductive. You end up working against deadlines, which isn't always the best thing when you need to prepare contexts and prepare external support for negotiation. So my first point is, it's not ideal. I talked at the beginning about what I thought was motivating the administration.
But if you're asking me about what I think will be the legacy, on balance I'm afraid it will be quite negative. I believe the administration will leave this part of the world considerably worse off than it found it, and I believe that overall the position of the United States has been diminished. I believe the greatest strategic beneficiary of the last seven years has been Iran. Iran has gained through the weakness of its strategic rival, Iraq. It's gained also because of the inroads it's made into Iraq. It's gained also through the growth and strength and influence of Hamas and Hezbollah. And Iran has also gained from the fact that the United States and many others have not put into place a serious energy policy, all of which has contributed to the upward pressure on prices, which has filled the Iranian treasury.
So for all these reasons, I think the principal strategic development of the last seven years -- I'd say one is the weakening of American -- the American position in the greater Middle East; two, it's the emergence of an imperial Iran with a significant reach and influence beyond the borders of the country. A third development is obviously the weakening of the Palestinian Authority and the emergence of Hamas as the dominant actor in Gaza. And fourth, and related certainly to the Iranian and the U.S. position, is the disarray in Iraq, which has, obviously, strained significant U.S. resources. And I believe it's also proved to be a training ground for terrorists in the region and conceivably beyond. So you know, for lots of reasons, I believe the Middle East is in worse shape today than it was seven years ago.
Q Thanks.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Robert Caldwell with The San Diego Union-Tribune.
Q Richard, do you regard either Ehud Olmert or Mahmoud Abbas as strong enough politically, that is with respect to their domestic constituencies, strong enough politically to even begin to make the very difficult concessions that would be required to reach a final settlement in a year or so?
MR. HAASS: I think with Mr. Abbas, I think he can begin the process. I don't believe he can conclude it or see it through, and he will face too much internal resistance. And there's also still a question of how much external support he gets. So again, I think he can begin this process, but I don't think it's realistic to expect him to stand up and embrace all sorts of compromises which he would have to do, because that's what any agreement is going to entail.
Mr. Olmert has recovered somewhat from where he was a few months ago. And it's quite possible that he could take to the Israeli electorate a proposal or in some ways, how to put it, he could turn a future election into a de facto referendum. So I'm not sure he could keep his government together as it's currently constituted to see through an agreement. But I believe he could negotiate one and then, again, either have a formal referendum or turn an election into a referendum in which he would run, as you will, a peace candidate but more in the redeemed school of things as a peace candidate who had taken care of Israeli's security. And I think we saw it in his speech the other day and some of his recent comments. I think we're beginning to see his positioning along those lines.
Q Thank you.
MR. HAASS: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Okay, thank you, sir. Our next question comes from James Klurfeld with Newsday in Stony Brook.
Q Richard, given all the negative factors you've raised here, and given your article last year on the new Middle East, a, was this attempt worthwhile making? And b, what are the consequences of failure?
MR. HAASS: Well, again, Jim, the question of whether it was worthwhile I come back to saying we'll only know that when we look in the rearview mirror. In and of itself -- I'll put it another way. It's only worthwhile if we follow up significantly. And by that I mean it's only worthwhile if the United States undertakes major actions to strengthen the hands of the Palestinian leadership, if it supports an Israeli-Syrian dialogue, if it articulates certain positions on final status which provide a context for negotiations to move forward. If the United States is prepared to do those things, then I believe this will be seen as the down payment on what could prove to be a wise investment.
If, however, the United States doesn't do those things and doesn't see this through, then I believe Annapolis will come to be seen as counterproductive, because it would then fail. If the United States isn't prepared to do these things, it runs a high risk of failure in which case it then enters the narrative of the Middle East as but the latest example of why negotiations at the behest of the United States are bound to fail. And it would simply add to the frustration in the region, and it would simply strengthen the hands and the arguments of those such as Iran or Hamas or Hezbollah who are saying that the only payoff for Palestinians to realize or satisfy their ambitions is through confrontation and terrorism and violence.
So now that the United States has made this choice, I would say the United States has raised the pressure on itself to see it through and to succeed simply because the costs of failure would be, I believe, extraordinarily high.
Q Do you have a sense that the administration is prepared to follow through the way you're talking?
MR. HAASS: Well, I don't have a sense. All I'm saying is what I came away from listening to the speeches concerned. I came away concerned by what the president and the secretary of State were not prepared to say yesterday about laying out a political vision. I'm concerned also because there's only a year left in the administration, and the administration does become, at some point, you know, a lame duck. I'm concerned about also, given the scale of the problems, and if it had been left to me, I would have sequenced things differently. I would not have launched such a high-pressure, high-profile initiative until more had been done to increase the odds it would succeed. I would have first given a major address about what the United States thought a peace process should lead to. I then would have taken steps to have strengthened -- I would have begun the process of strengthening the hand of the Palestinian Authority. I would have taken steps to have bolstered an Israeli government. Only in that context would I have launched a specific initiative.
So I believe the administration has increased the stakes and, in some ways, increased the pressures and the difficulties by beginning the process with such a visible, high-profile event. It would not have been my recommendation. But that said, you know, we are where we are. This has happened. So even people like me who were wary of proceeding in this route, it doesn't change the argument that now that the United States has begun the process, it is important that it not fail.
And in some ways, this is reminiscent, ironically enough, of the Iraq argument, whether you thought it was right to get into Iraq. At some point, the argument became it's important that it not end in disarray or as a debacle. And I'd say the same thing here. Whatever you thought about the wisdom of convening Annapolis, it is now important that the follow-through and the follow-up be intense, it be sustained, it be comprehensive, that it deal with diplomatic and security and economic dimensions. Because otherwise, the costs will be enormous, and it will only strengthen the hands of those who have no interests in peace.
Q Thank you.
OPERATOR: As a reminder, if you would like to ask a question, please press *1 at this time.
MR. ROSE: Richard, let me jump in here with a question. It's Gideon.
The issue of Iran -- back to Iran. As you said, some of the Arab states are coming precisely because they want to be part of a coalition or are worried about Iranian power. This question about whether a stable sort of Sunni-Israeli-U.S. counterbalancing alliance is possible or desirable and whether that should be (shooted ?) for, that's something that's getting a lot of discussion. What's your take on that?
MR. HAASS: In my view, alliances or arrangements tend to need more than shared opposition to be sustainable. I thought it was interesting that, for example, you know, the Saudi foreign minister made a public statement, if you will, out of not shaking the hands of his Israeli counterpart. And at the end of the day, you need him to do that. So that the common concern about Iran may have gotten people in the room, but it won't be enough to propel this to success. At some point, Israelis and Arabs have to be able to forge some common agreements about what they're for and not simply what they're against. Otherwise, this simply won't be sustainable.
MR. ROSE: Okay.
OPERATOR: Okay. We have a question from Parim Swarem Panurai (ph) with AFP.
Q Yes, sir. I just wanted to seek your comment on, how serious is President Bush about getting -- (inaudible) -- engaged with the Israelis and Palestinians? And again, it's a context about he (militantly ?) trying to tackle the Middle East peace as a way to counter Iran, hold Lebanon together and keep Syria contained.
MR. HAASS: Well, again, it's always difficult for outsiders to make those kinds of assessments. I would simply say he's placed a lot of his personal prestige and that of the administration on the line by having convened Annapolis. On the other hand, I was struck by the fact that he still seemed to be keeping some distance. He was only there for several hours. He's made it clear that the principal work will be done by his secretary of State. This is not a president, I believe, who sees as his role model what Bill Clinton did at Camp David. This is a president who, I believe, is going to remain, in that sense, one step removed. And what remains to be seen, though, is whether he is prepared to authorize certain policies and whether he's prepared to say certain things himself to create a context in which his secretary of State can succeed.
Secretaries of State, as important as they are, can't by themselves succeed in the Middle East. Secretaries of State require that everyone perceive that they are acting with the full backing of the president. That, I believe, explains why Jim Baker was so successful. It explains why, I believe, someone like Henry Kissinger was so successful. It also explains, in part, why my boss, Colin Powell, was not terribly successful, because people understood he did not have the full support of the president or the administration.
So believe, again, that the president needs to go on record and needs to deliver a very developed statement about what it is he and the United States and his administration are prepared to support. Again, not to impose it on the parties but to create a context in which his secretary of State can operate effectively and in which, in particular, the Palestinian leadership can justify why it is they are opting for negotiation over violence.
Q Thank you.
MR. HAASS: Thank you.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question from Alix Van Buren with La Republica.
Q Yes, hi. Two quick questions. First, what does Abu Mazen have in his hands to bring back to the Palestinians? Secondly, regarding Hamas in Gaza, you only address the political part of the issue, which is trying to convince Hamas to abandon violence and pursue negotiations. What about the humanitarian condition in Gaza? And how do you convince that 1.2 million people who are now, 80 percent of them, below the line of poverty to espouse negotiations?
MR. HAASS: Two good questions. On the first, the only thing Abu Mazen really left with was a political process, and that won't provide him much for long. Very quickly, he needs to be able to point to one of two things, either an improving situation on the ground, and that could mean economic aid flowing in, Israeli settlements being dismantled. He needs to be able to say this is different. Or he needs to (be able to point to words ?). He needs to be able to point to statements, say, by the president of the United States or by the prime minister of Israel, which stake out new and more forthcoming positions about the promise of the political process to the Palestinians. And the sooner all this happens, the better. Otherwise, he will be left quite exposed.
And literally, this is a similar answer to your second situation, I agree the humanitarian situation need to be addressed. Poverty rates are extraordinarily high. The literacy rates and education rates are going down. People used to say the Palestinian society was the most bourgeois in the Arab world. I don't think that's true anymore. And there's been a real deterioration in the quality of life, particularly in Gaza. So again, I think it's essential that the international community and, in particular, you know, a lot of the Arab governments that have benefited tremendously from the high price of oil that there be a major infusion of resources and international relief efforts into the Palestinian areas and that this be associated with peace. I think it's important that it be done in a way that -- how to put it -- that, to the extent possible, that Mahmoud Abbas get the credit. That this be seen as a reward for what happens when Palestinians engage diplomatically.
MR. ROSE: Okay, we'll take one more question.
OPERATOR: Okay, the next question comes from Thomas Getlag (ph) with The Examiner.
Q Hello, Mr. Haass. What do you think about Frank Gaffney and other neoconservatives who say and compare Annapolis to (a rape ?) or to Munich in 1938?
MR. HAASS: (Laughs.)
Q He wrote an article in The Washington Times pretty much saying that -- I don't know if you read it.
MR. HAASS: No, I did not. Since I didn't read it, it's hard for me to -- but --
Q Well, I mean, I could give you a quote. He says despite official efforts to lowball its significance, Ms. Rice's attempt, "is shaping up to be a gang-rape of a nation on a scale not seen since Munich in 1938."
MR. HAASS: Well, that seems to be absurd on the surface. The administration went out of its way to be clear that it was not imposing anything on anyone. It made clear that its role was to facilitate a process, and that the heavy lifting would have to be done by Israelis and Palestinians themselves. The administration, the president also explicitly said that it was committed to not simply Israel's security but to Israel's Jewishness. So all of this seems to me quite consistent with the reality that at the end of the day, the Israeli government is going to have to decide what it is prepared --
Q You don't think Gaffney is wrong, thoroughly wrong?
MR. HAASS: Look, I would simply say that I would disassociate myself completely from those sorts of remarks about what it is the administration is doing or the United States is doing. It seems to me not just wrong but offensive in the choice of language. This administration has been extraordinarily supportive of Israel and remains extraordinarily supportive. The idea -- my biggest problem besides the language which, again, is truly offensive is the idea that somehow when a U.S. administration gets actively involved in promoting the cause of peace in the Middle East that somehow that is in any way an anti-Israeli policy is just deeply and fundamentally wrong. Israel desperately wants and needs peace, not at any price but it desperately wants and needs a peace that preserves it as a Jewish, secure, democratic, prosperous country.
And the United States can help do this. And if Annapolis succeeds in the way that people such as myself would like it to, then I believe it is entirely consistent with Israel's interests and would actually make Israel stronger and more prosperous and would preserve its democratic and Jewish identity. So this is something that is potentially, fundamentally in Israel's interest. And the United States is not going to, as I understand it, impose its preferences on any of the parties.
MR. ROSE: And with that, I'd like to thank Richard Haass, president of CFR.
I thank all of you for participating.
A relatively chipper note to end on for a change given the relatively gloomy prospects looking forward for all of this. But the one thing it does do is guarantee there will be more opportunities for more calls and more discussion of these subjects down the road for sure.
Thank you very much, everybody, for participating.
MR. HAASS: Thank you, all.
OPERATOR: This concludes today's presentation. You may now disconnect your lines.

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