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Indyk: Rice Can Put Israeli-Palestinian ‘Peace Train’ Back on Tracks

Interviewee: Martin S. Indyk, Director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, Brookings Institution
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor
February 20, 2007

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Martin S. Indyk, who was assistant secretary of state for near eastern affairs in the Clinton administration, and twice ambassador to Israel, says that the decision by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to mediate between Israelis and Palestinians marks a major change in the Bush administration’s approach to the Middle East. While doubting she will be able to achieve a “breakthrough,” Indyk, who heads the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy, says Rice can be successful in “putting the peace train back on the tracks and maybe even moving it forward.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice had a round of talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas [Abu Mazen] and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, separately and then together, and today she’s been in Jordan meeting with King Abdullah II,  plus a number of security advisers from Arab states, to assess the possibilities of any movement on the Israeli-Palestinian front. What strikes you particularly from these talks?

These talks are qualitatively different from anything that she or the Bush administration has done before. And that’s for two reasons. One is that she has committed herself to a discussion between Abu Mazen and Olmert about the framework for a final status agreement, or what she calls a “political horizon.” And what Rice is doing is discussing—not negotiating—what a future Palestinian state would look like. Now, that is different from anything the Bush administration has done in its previous six years in office because they absolutely refused to have any “political horizon” in any of the things that they’ve produced. So, for instance, the “Road Map” talks about a two-state solution as a final objective but gives no details about what that final agreement would look like. This is an attempt by her to give greater granularity to the president’s vision of an independent, democratic Palestinian state living alongside Israel.

‘What Rice is doing is discussing—not negotiating—what a future Palestinian state would look like. Now that is different from anything the Bush administration has done in its previous six years.’

The second thing is that she has committed to a sustained engagement. One of the things she said at the end of her remarks on Sunday was that “I will be back shortly.” And she has said elsewhere that she’s going to be coming back once a month. That’s qualitatively different because the Bush administration has never had a sustained engagement in peacemaking on the Israeli-Palestinian front. They talked a good game but always walked away from any kind of sustained engagement.

Now, what do you think has brought about this change? There’s only two years left in the administration, and even though that doesn’t leave much time, President Clinton negotiated up until his last days in office, so it’s possible to keep going I know. What’s brought about this change?

Well, there’s a new opportunity here. And the opportunity does not come from the election of the Hamas government or the Mecca agreement to form a national unity government of Palestinians. It comes from the sense that the Sunni Arabs—that’s Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the Sunni Arab leaders like Abu Mazen and Fouad Siniora in Lebanon—face a common threat from Iran and its allies, Syria, Hezbollah, and until the Mecca agreement, Hamas as well. And that they have a common interest with Israel in finding a way to counter the challenge from Iran. One important way of doing that is to make progress on the Palestinian issue because that enables the Sunni Arab leaders to say “our way works better than the way of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or Hezbollah leader [Hassan] Nasrallah.” They can say the other side’s way is one of perpetual conflict, violence, and terrorism. They can say “our way is the way of peace, and our way can meet the needs of the Arab people better than their way.” Movement on the Palestinian front can also justify greater engagement with Israel in this virtual alliance against the Iranians.

Do you think this is an argument that really stands up?

I do. But it doesn’t stand up the way the administration, in its naiveté, wants it to. President Bush has, in discussing a strategy for Iraq, said that what we face in this region is a battle between moderates and extremists. But that’s not the way the region sees it. The way the region sees it is a battle between Sunnis and Shiites. It was Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia that were the first to point to the Shiite threat, at the same time as we were busily reinforcing control of the Shiite parties in Iraq. From their point of view, Hamas is a Sunni organization, not an extremist organization. And that’s why the Saudis brokered this deal, not because they want a deal between Hamas and Abu Mazen, but because they do not want Hamas on the other side of the great divide dependent on Iran.

So you’re saying there will be great pressure from the Sunni Arab states for the United States to deal with this unity government? 

I don’t know about great pressure, but I think the administration, in particular the secretary of state, was proceeding on the assumption that Abu Mazen was going to split with Hamas and force them out of government and go to new elections. The whole strategy was based on a Saudi, Egyptian, Jordanian, Israeli cooperation to help Abu Mazen overcome Hamas. And the Saudis, Egyptians, and Abu Mazen instead got into bed with Hamas. That was not what she planned. And it’s an embarrassment. But she’s pressing ahead anyway, and the way she’s doing it is to simply ignore the fact that Abu Mazen is now in alliance with Hamas. And she’s able to do that because the Israeli prime minister is willing to overlook that inconvenient truth as well.

But I thought the Israelis had said no dealings with this interim government?

Correct, but they will deal with Abu Mazen. What I’m saying is that both Rice and Olmert are essentially turning a blind eye to the fact that the Palestinian partner they have for this exercise in defining what the end game is going to look like is actually in a cohabitation agreement with Hamas. And that may have its advantages.

Of course, there are many people who are saying you can’t have an agreement with Abbas without Hamas signing on, right?

Well, the alternative strategy which they had depended upon was Abu Mazen confronting Hamas. And Abu Mazen looked into that abyss. He started down that track with the confrontation in Gaza between Fatah and Hamas, and he pulled back, because he is not a confrontational type, because he doesn’t want to be the one that split the Palestinians and helped to cause this bloodshed. And because he would rather co-opt them if he can than confront them. So that is a reality that they’ve got to deal with. Can they, by dealing with Abu Mazen and by helping to define the end game in these informal talks, at the same time strengthen him?

For the Arab world’s Sunni governments, ‘movement on the Palestinian front can also justify greater engagement with Israel in this virtual alliance against the Iranians.’ 

I presume that that’s why Rice is meeting with the Egyptian-Jordanian security chiefs and why the administration is still asking congress for $86 billion in security assistance for Abu Mazen. The whole idea is you strengthen him economically, you strengthen him politically, you strengthen him in security terms, so that at the right moment he can turn to his people and say, “Here’s what the deal for a Palestinian state is going to look like,” and he will put Hamas in a position where it will have to decide whether it will agree to it because the Palestinian people want it, or reject it and risk losing the support of the people.

Rice is going on to Europe to meet with the other members of the “quartet.” Do you think there should be any easing of the aid embargo against the Palestinians right now?

No. I don’t, and I don’t believe there will be. I think that’s a straw man. And it’s about time people now admitted it. There is no blockade of the Palestinian people. Aid to the West Bank and Gaza last year, the year of the so-called blockade was three times what it was the year before when there was no blockade. It’s not going to the Hamas government—maybe the Iranians are providing money to Hamas—it’s going to Abu Mazen and the office of the presidency. It’s going to the temporary international mechanism, which the Europeans set up to give direct aid to the Palestinian people. Or it’s going through NGOs, which is the way that most of theU.S. aid is going.

So the issue is not so much whether this economic leverage is going to turn Hamas around when it comes to recognizing Israel. I don’t think that was likely to happen before, but it’s certainly not likely to happen now. The issue is whether the quartet will recognize this new government when Hamas has manifestly refused to accept the quartet’s conditions. And I believe the answer will be no, they won’t.

What would you say the odds are of any progress being made in the last two years of the Bush administration?

If the secretary of state remains engaged, if she has the support of the President, if Olmert is able to stabilize his own domestic political situation, then it is possible she can make some progress. She hasn’t reached the point where the prime minister of Israel feels that she’s undermining his interests. And when that happens, we’ll have to see where the president is. I would be very surprised, given everything else that’s going on, and all of the conditions that I just laid out, that she’s going to make a breakthrough.

But what she can achieve is putting the peace train back on the tracks and maybe even moving it forward. If she does that, it will defuse the immense antagonism toward the United States throughout this region, and make it easier for these key Arab allies to work with the United States and in parentheses, with Israel, to counter this threat they all face from Iran. And that at least will give the next administration something to base its diplomacy on. And so that would be a contribution to American interests. In order for her to be able to do that, expectations have to be lowered, which is what she tried to do on this trip, and people have to understand—the media has to understand—that her success should not be measured in terms of whether she achieves a breakthrough or not. The mere fact that Abu Mazen and Olmert are going to begin talking about final status issues is an achievement in itself.

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