Annapolis and Beyond: The United States and the Pursuit of Arab-Israeli Peace

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

CHRISTOPHER ISHAM: I'm very pleased to be here today. We've got a very distinguished panel. Our topic is Annapolis and Beyond: the United States and the Pursuit of the Arab-Israeli Peace.

To my immediate left, Aaron David Miller, public policy fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. Prior to that, he served in the Department of State as an adviser to six secretaries of State, where he was right in the middle of U.S. policy on the Middle East and in the heart of Arab-Israeli negotiations.

To his left, Shibley Telhami is the distinguished professor at the University of Maryland College Park, I'm sure familiar to many of you as a frequent commentator on television and in print. He also served on the Iraq Study Group and is the author of numerous books.

Robin Wright is, I think, probably one of our most important foreign policy reporters writing today, covering the Middle East and foreign policy in general. She writes, of course, for The Washington Post. She, too, is the author of a number of very important books, "The Last Great Revolution: Turmoil and Transformation in Iran," "Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam," and "In the Name of God: The Khomeini Decade."

We -- I should say that, in the shameless promotion department, we have two books by Robin -- one book by Robin Wright called "Dreams and Shadows: The Future of the Middle East," which is available outside for sale -- please buy it -- and by Aaron Miller, "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace." So buy these books. They're excellent and very valuable contributions to this issue.

I should also tell you this briefing is on the record. That means that anything you say can and will be used against you. And please turn off beepers, pagers, shoe phones and the like so we don't -- we're not interrupted.

I'd like to begin, really, by asking each of our panelists to give us a brief overview on where you think we are in this process. And with your experience in the so-called peace process, it seems like it's a dance we've been through many times before. The names Wye River and Camp David and Camp David again and Annapolis and Oslo come to mind. Where are we today? And do you think that there is any chance that the president will achieve his objective of arriving at an agreement by the end of his term?

AARON DAVID MILLER: I really will be brief.

I spent nearly a quarter of a century providing advice to six secretaries of State -- some of it good, a lot of it bad. I mean, one of my conclusions is that there ought to be term limits imposed on advisers to secretaries of State. But based on those 25 years -- and I'm not running for anything and I'm associated with no campaign -- to have a serious negotiation and an agreement that lasts, you need four things. And unless we're prepared to basically face up to it, the odds that we're going to be able to facilitate and assist or broker, it's not going to happen.

Number one, you need leadership. You can't make bricks without straw. Every time we've succeeded in the Middle East, it has not been as a consequence of an imposed, or even disposed, American settlement. We had Sadat and Begin; we had Shamir and Baker; we had Jimmy Carter trying to broker an agreement and succeeding. So we need leadership, and right now, you have Israeli and Palestinian politicians who are prisoners of their constituencies, not masters of their own politics. That's a real problem.

Second, you need urgency. People only take existential risks when they're in a hurry and when there are sufficient incentives or disincentives to do so. Now, you might argue that there's plenty of pain, and that's absolutely the case. But I would argue back that, given the risks and the decisions that Israelis and Palestinians have to make, they have not yet reached the point, nor have their constituencies, that the kind of urgency that exists either generated through crisis or opportunity to take those risks. So you have a pain-gain balance that is still imbalanced.

Third, you need a third-party broker. You can't make bricks without straw, but you need a brickmaker. And when I say third party, I mean America, because there is no other party that can broker this, in large part because we're the only actor in the international system that has relations -- intimate relations -- with both sides to the conflict, particularly Israelis. And you need that special relationship. As long as it doesn't become an exclusive relationship, we can be effective, as we had in the past.

And finally, you need a doable project. You need something that you can actually accomplish. Now, Kissinger's three disengagement agreements, Jimmy Carter's separate peace between Egypt and Israel, Jim Baker's efforts to convene Madrid -- these were all doable deals. Right now you've got a project that is excruciatingly painful and complicated -- Jerusalem, borders, refugees and security, the crown jewels of the Arab-Israeli, Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

So on balance, my own assessment is you'll not have a peace treaty by the end of the year; you'll not have an implemented agreement by the end of the year. What you might have -- my final point -- is, because for the first time in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict you've got two guys, Abbas and Olmert, who have been having hours of conversations with one another on the four core issues, it is conceivable that by year's end, with or without the help of our secretary of State or president, that you could have a piece of paper emerge that would create parameters on Jerusalem, borders, refugees and security, which would be historic. But the problem is when the text meets the context, and therein lies the problem that we're going to face.

ISHAM: Thank you.

Shibley, you've just returned from the region. I wonder if you could give us some brief comments on your view of where -- what perceptions are on the ground today and whether you see any openings there.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, I hope you're not looking for any optimism from me. Actually, I happen to agree with pretty much everything that Aaron said. But what I'd like to do is give you a little bit more of a regional context to this issue.

And I think at some level we have to sit back and look at it not just as is peace possible this year, next year. I think we're facing a problem where the prospect of a two-state solution is diminishing every single day. And more importantly, the perception that it's diminishing every single day is widespread across regional elites as well as Palestinian elites, and increasingly even Israeli elites. And I see a lot of people bailing out intellectually on it in a way that is really eroding even the prospect of creating a constituency that would have trust in the kind of process that is going to be needed to make it. So there is a huge, I would say even transformational, change that I'm observing. We'll talk about that a little bit later on.

But let me tell you a little bit more about where the public is, where the governments are on this issue, based on the public polls that I conduct every single year -- I'm about to release the newest one in two weeks -- that I conduct in the Arab world, and also interviews that I've been doing in the region with government officials, elites and other groups.

First, over the past six years, I asked a question, even in the middle of the Iraq war, the war on terrorism, focus on Lebanon, about the centrality of the Palestinian issue in public priorities. And I say public, nongovernment. I get the same answer every single year. Roughly three-quarters of the Arabs say it is either the single most important issue or in the top three in their priorities, consistently, every single year. It hasn't declined, hasn't changed. Even in the intense years of the Iraq war, it hasn't changed. We still have people thinking it's core to them.

And when you go to the Middle East, even now there's an obsession with our politics -- you know, with Obama, Hillary, McCain. In Saudi Arabia, all they wanted to talk about was our elections. And the first question is, what is their position on the issue of Palestine-Israel? That is the same kind of question that we're talking about here in America, that you get in some of the constituencies for the Arab-Israeli conflict. That is one question there. Every government cares about it with the possible exception of the small GCC states; but even the Saudi government, for their own reasons, they see it as a central question.

Second, they see this as the single most important issue that affects their relationship with the U.S. That we see in all of the questions that we have.

Third, as of 2007 -- the 2008 poll I have not done -- majorities in the Arab world, in every single country that I've polled, including Saudi Arabia, are prepared to accept the two-state solution based on the 1967 border. That's important because up until now we really didn't have that kind of data, particularly in countries like Saudi Arabia and Morocco.

But here is the bad news. The bad news is, if you add the minority that doesn't want peace with Israel at all and the plurality that doesn't believe that Israel will ever accept to the kind of concessions that would be required, you have a huge majority who is in effect pessimistic about the prospects of any kind of peaceful settlement with Israel. In fact, in some of the polls last year, we see that over two-thirds and, in some cases, even 80 percent of public opinion that thinks that peace between Israel and the Palestinians is not possible.

That by the way is very similar to the dynamic between Israelis and Palestinians, where you had majority support the notion of peace but don't believe the other side wants it. And they can be pro-peace and support militancy. But in effect, you have people who are mobilizing behind militant groups, because they've given up on the prospect of peace.

When you look at how they take positions along the Palestinian divisions, as of 2007, their view was that they'd prefer a unified Palestinian entity, with Fatah and Hamas coming together. But if they didn't have that, by a ratio of three-to-one, they support Hamas over Fatah. And if -- what is most -- and I expect it this year to be even higher in the Arab world. I expect it to be higher than the three-to-one ratio.

And in effect, when you look at our policy of, quote, "showing that militancy doesn't pay," isolating Hamas, bolstering moderates, if you look at the findings, not only in the Arab world but among Palestinians, the most recent poll -- (inaudible) -- among Palestinians was Hamas's numbers rising, Fatah's numbers going down. Hamas's prime minister would win an election against Abu Mazen if elections were to be held today for the presidency. It is clear that they see our policy as having failed, and it's generating more support for Hamas.

And Abu Mazen, by the way, is not taken seriously in the Arab world, even among the moderate Palestinians who are his core constituency. I met with many of them, people who even generate money for them, and they mostly just see him as being ineffective.

And that brings me to the final point about how they see the role of the United States. In general, everybody in the Arab world agrees with one of the components of Aaron's position, which is that without an active American role, you're not going to have peace between Israel and the Palestinians. I happen to agree with that as well, and you still hear that among Arab governments.

But there is one thing that you now hear that I didn't use to hear, and I'm talking about within governments. I'm not talking about public opinion; in interviews with officials. As I did with one high level official, minister in the Saudi government, who said to me, he said, do you want my honest opinion? I said, yes. He said, but don't quote me directly on this. I said, I won't.

He said, leave us alone. Everything you touch, you mess up. We used to believe you can fix it; we now don't think you can.

So there is a degree of frustration and mistrust even in our own capacity that people are trying to figure out where they are. Where does that leave us? I think it's a desperate situation without the kind of element, that Aaron put on the table, of an immediate urgency to drive the point home. And that's the worst kind of conditions you want to have.

ISHAM: Thank you.

Robin Wright, if you could, you've written a lot in the past about Iran and Syria and, of course, countries throughout the Middle East. But I wonder if you could give us a little bit of your perspective on the wider regional context of this problem and some of the impact of certain players like Iran and Syria on the process at this point.

ROBIN WRIGHT: Well, I'd like to pick up on two words by my colleagues -- context and transformation.

I've been covering secretaries of State trying to make peace in the Middle East since Henry Kissinger. And it's really striking to me how so many of the basic dynamics have changed.

It's 25 years ago this month that we saw the first suicide bomb against an American target. And since then, we have seen the militants move from real margins and underground into a much stronger position.

When you look at the particular -- the specific countries Chris asked about, Iran has arguably never been stronger, in part because of the United States intervention in Iraq. But it also has very steadily, consistently beefed up its allies in the region -- Hamas among the Palestinians, Hezbollah in Lebanon.

Hezbollah today is better armed than it was on the eve of the war in 2006 with Israel, despite a U.N. clampdown, despite the deployment of additional troops along the Israeli-Lebanon border. Hamas obviously has won electorally and is now a major player. Iran is, for the first time, courtesy of Hamas, a player in the Middle East peace process, despite attempts by the outside world to isolate it.

Syria, I think, is in many ways more vulnerable than it has been in a long time, in part because Bashar Assad is not his father, does not have the strategic vision. I think he would like to be re-engaged in the peace process, but doesn't have the leverage. It's arguably the must brutal regime in the Middle East today.

And in the aftermath of the Arab League summit last week, he's feeling less popular, less powerful in the region than ever before. He's isolated by some of the most important players in the region -- Hosni Mubarak from Egypt, the king of Saudi Arabia not attending the Arab League summit because in protest for Syria's involvement in Lebanon and its refusal to allow Lebanon to hold its presidential election, which has been stalled since November.

I agree with both of them in their pessimism. But at the same time, I think, there's a little bit more nuance in the region. And one of the things that struck me, and I have a figure from a poll taken in Iran, for example, last month, showing that 6 out of 10 support aid to Hezbollah and the Palestinian militants.

And less than 1 in 4 would recognize Israel even if the Palestinians got a state. But 45 also said they would recognize Israel as part of a broader deal with the United States, in other words, the grand bargain that's often talked about. And it was 55 percent, in other words, the majority just last June, which is almost 30 years after the revolution. So there is still potential there.

I think what's striking when you look at the militant groups as well is that many of them have gone through their own transformations. And there is a real spectrum among the Islamists today, that they are not all rejectionists, whether it's in Turkey or the Party of Justice and Development, in Morocco, which is now the largest opposition party in parliament.

Both recognize a two-state solution. Both are prepared to recognize Israel. They're not calling for an Islamist state. And so when we talk about, you know, Islamist movements, they are not -- they do not speak with one voice.

And what's striking to me, having also watched the likes of Hezbollah in Lebanon, is that they are increasingly looking at their own internal situation and looking at the political role. And if there was some kind of catalyst for a broader change, I think, we'd see the dynamics change in ways that might surprise us.

ISHAM: Thank you. Well, that was a very helpful but not terribly encouraging introduction to this.

Aaron Miller, I wonder if we could just go back a little bit to Annapolis. As I understand it, the understanding there was that there would be an attempt to implement the phase one of the road map, which would be essentially a freeze on settlements on the part of the Israelis and steps taken by the Palestinians to improve security vis-a-vis the Israelis and round up some of the bad actors on their side.

Does not appear that either one of those things has happened yet. Why not?

MILLER: There's never been a self-immolating document in the history of the Arab-Israeli peace process.

The road map is a perfectly fine document. It was drafted in '02 and '03 by the administration that, at the time, was not serious about pursuing Arab-Israeli peace, wanted to share responsibility with the Europeans and contain and control them at the same time.

But we have never, in the last seven years -- I worked for Colin Powell for two years. He got it, I think. We have never, in the last seven years, understood that Arab-Israeli peace doesn't grow in a bell jar. It's not a consequence of spontaneous combustion.

The road map is an American document endorsed by the Quartet. If we want it implemented, then we -- we -- need to work in a very serious way with both the Israelis and the Palestinians and the Arabs in order to get it implemented.

We've never really understood that. We've never been able, willing to impose the accountability on either side or frankly do the diplomacy. And I'm not suggesting it wouldn't be excruciatingly painful. It will be. But you know, nobody's going to plant a tree in your honor if you succeed in this.

This is an American national interest and it's been viewed as an American national interest for a long time by both Republican and Democratic administrations. We simply -- governing is about choosing. And we, over the course of the last seven or eight years, chose other priorities.

To implement the road map, you have to have a lot of conversations with Israelis and Palestinians. The president would have to make it unmistakably clear that whoever he appointed an envoy and if it's the secretary of State, then empower her to do serious diplomacy or find somebody else to work with her that has the confidence and trust of the president in order to do this.

And the Israelis and Palestinians will push back at every conceivable opportunity. So the odds that the road map will be implemented and the Israelis will respect their obligations and the Palestinians will be able to acquire a monopoly over the forces of violence in their society, which is the greatest threat, at least on their side, to this process -- chances of that happening are slim to none.

And the Israeli press this morning is filled with reports of 1,900 new housing units that are to be constructed by the end of 2008 -- 1,900 new units which almost exceed the number that were built during the 1990s. So the Israelis and Palestinians are not serious about this. And I think both the secretary and the president understand that.

ISHAM: What -- I mean, these are two very specific issues, here. What pressure do you think could be brought on them by the United States to really bring them into compliance? What would it take?

MILLER: First of all, it would take a complete change in the software of this administration. And you're not going to have that. It's a thought -- your question was a good one, but it's a thought experiment. And it's too late in the game, too late in the day. I mean, it's April of 2008. We're in the middle of a very interesting and contentious race for the presidency.

This president and this secretary of State hope against the odds that Olmert and Abbas will produce by year's end a piece of paper that they can hand off to the next Republican or Democratic president, in order to basically say, "You see the hand that we inherited" -- which, rightly, was an awful hand, from the previous administration -- "we have the consequence of our diplomacy, our restraint, our toughness, particularly with regards to the Palestinians, to create a situation where it's better."

But the odds that we're going to do serious diplomacy or bring pressure on the Israelis or Mahmoud Abbas, who is so weak, I think the chances of that are zero.

ISHAM: Shibley Telhami, you said something, I think, which was disturbing, I think, which was that you've found that there's an erosion of faith in the notion of a two-state solution, which I think has been the bedrock of most thinking about this problem. What's the alternative, if the two-state solution is not the objective, or if that really does evaporate? What's the alternative?

TELHAMI: I want to answer that, but I want just to say one thing about what Aaron said. I think I agree with him, by the way, that this -- it's too late for this administration. But I think it's not really what you do that matters. It is whether or not mediating Arab-Israeli peace is a presidential priority, the term is priority.

If it's not a priority for a president, no matter what you do, it's not going to work. It's just too hard. You have to put the weight of the presidency behind it domestically, internationally. It's just not going to happen.

So you're sailing on status quo, unless you put the -- and this has not been a priority for the president. It wasn't from day one. He didn't believe this was an important issue. And of course, once he made a decision to go to war with Iraq, even if he wanted to make it a priority, he couldn't, because it's Iraq, Afghanistan, war on terrorism. War is the priority.

We saw it in the way he dealt with the possible Syrian-Israeli negotiations. He said, Syria isn't cooperating over in Iraq, therefore, they shouldn't be rewarded through peace with Israel. So clearly, it's not a priority for this administration.

The next administration, is it going to be a priority? If it isn't, it's not going to work. It's just simple as that, you know. That's the decision number one: Is this a priority issue or is it not a priority issue? I think that's the question.

On the two-state solution --

ISHAM: I mean, the administration, of course, would dispute that. They would say that, well, maybe we were a little late to the party, but --

TELHAMI: They can dispute it all they want --

ISHAM: After Annapolis --

TELHAMI: But there is a reality out there, where if you look at it intellectually in terms of how they're forming all of their policies, even what they sent Powell to do even before 9/11, to focus on Iraq instead of the Arab-Israeli issue -- and then the fact is that once you are in war, that's the priority, whether you want it or not. It's just not -- you know, that's just the fact of life, for your public opinion, for your Congress, for your budget, for your resources, for your military, for your -- you know, that's an objective analysis. I don't think it needs to, you know, sort of -- they can say what they want, but we know what the priorities are.

I think the two-state solution, if it really dies as an option for both sides, we're in for a generation of miserable conflict, containment, conflict management, and moral -- very difficult moral choices that we're going to have to make. And that's going to be the reality. So it's not that there is an alternative that's predictable.

I think it's just that it's a period of conflict for the following reasons: Zionism isn't going to fold, so people are not -- you know, Israel and most Israelis and the Zionist movement is simply not going to accept a one-state solution in which Jews are a minority. So that's not going to happen, you know, just because a two-state solution isn't going to be. So there's going to be a fight for it.

What Arab governments are probably going to do -- they might be able to accept accommodations, because they don't want instability. So they're not going to solely support the maximalist positions of people who are advocating for one state, because they want more stability. So they may be able to play.

But the problem will be that for the Palestinians, for almost all Arab intellectuals, and particularly for Palestinian intellectuals who jumped on the bandwagon of the two-state as a pragmatic, moral alternative to their original vision, they will only have one place to go morally. There's only one thing they can support intellectually, and that is the one-state. And so even if there's accommodations and rejection by Israel, the bulk of the intellectual position among Arab intellectuals, including liberal, moderate Arab intellectuals -- (inaudible word) -- intellectuals -- I would even argue the bulk of many of the intellectuals around the world who jumped on the bandwagon of two-state, in Europe, particularly, will start coming on the side of the one-state, and that will create even more insecurity in Israel. And therefore, it's a recipe for additional conflict.

So it's not a very -- it's hard to envision anything good coming out of it, because the reality of it is in this generation, there's only one possible relatively stable outcome of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and that is a two-state solution.

ISHAM: What I'd also like to follow-up with you on is the question of the media, in the -- and particularly in its influence on public opinion. What is your view on -- there was a very interesting article in The New York Times the other day about Hamas TV and the trend-lines there of putting on increasingly not just anti-Israeli but anti-Semitic programming.

TELHAMI: Well, first of all, you know --

ISHAM: What is the impact of that? And what impact do you think that has on public opinion?

TELHAMI: You know, race is an incitement, obviously in principle against it, no matter what the impact is. It's just in principle, you know. That shouldn't happen.

ISHAM: Right.

TELHAMI: But if you're looking at the outcome -- I mean, Hamas TV? I mean, the vast majority of Palestinians watch satellite. They simply won't go muffing over information, a little TV station. People watch --

ISHAM: They watch Al-Jazeera --

TELHAMI: When they sit down, they watch Al-Jazeera, Al-Arabiya -- there is hundreds of them. And you know, I could give you the poll, because I do this, I track it every year. Al-Jazeera alone gets 53 percent of the Arab public who say they're their number one choice. The vast majority of Arabs watch it, over 90 percent. So I think the Arab satellites are the ones that dominate.

And here, I might give you something that might surprise you, because I've done this analysis -- I've done statistical analysis of the relationship between media and opinion in the Arab world. I particularly looked at those who watch Al-Jazeera and the extent to which their views differ on things like the United States or militancy.

And I ran statistical correlations from data over five years. And I not only ran it myself, but I went with two statisticians, prominent statisticians to do some additional analysis to make sure I got it right, because the results were coming uniform, which is there is no statistically significant relationship between what people watch on television and their attitudes on those issues, that is attitudes toward the U.S. or attitude toward militancy.

And that's because I think those issues are what I call identity issues, where people go to the stations that reflect their views rather than the other way around -- and then dump the ones that don't reflect their views. They're influenced by those stations on secondary issues, but not on primary issues. And we found that in the polls over and over again.

And this notion that our trouble in the Middle East is a function of what the media is saying, like we're troubled that people don't like us in the Middle East because Al-Jazeera's telling them to hate America is ridiculous, because then why do they hate us in Latin America and Africa and elsewhere? And when we do polling on foreign policy issues and I look at the views of segments of the American public, including Arab Americans who see Fox News and CNN and so forth, their views are not profoundly different on those foreign policy issues from people who actually reside in the Middle East and who are watching Al-Jazeera or Al-Arabiya television.

So I think we exaggerate the influence of media. I think the influence of the media isn't what they're putting on. The influence of the media is the new satellite phenomenon has made it impossible to hide stories. And so if there's a story to be told, people are going to do it.

The old days when -- the Saudi government, by the way, when Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the Saudi press didn't publish a report about that for three days. They didn't tell their public that Iraq invaded Kuwait because they didn't know whether they were supposed to be against it or for it or neutral until the government made a decision to accept American forces on American soil (sic), then they could take a line in the government.

So that is gone. So we have a new phenomenon, but that phenomenon doesn't mean that what the media articulates every single day is the reason people feel what they do on those core issues. They're in war. They're watching what's happening in Iraq and Palestine. These are issues that are core to them. They're affecting all of them. If you're a Jordanian, you've got a million refugees from Iraq. You see what's happening in Palestine affects you. If you're Syrian, you've got, you know, the same thing. So people are directly affected by these things, they're making their judgments, and I think we exaggerate the role of the media.

ISHAM: One question for Robin Wright, and then I'm going to open up the floor for questions. Robin, you kind of glanced on the issue of the war in Iraq, which has been, obviously, the dominant conflict in -- over the past five years. What is your view on where we are in terms of the war in Iraq and its impact on the Arab-Israeli issue?

WRIGHT: Oh, where to begin? Can I make one other point?

ISHAM: Please.

WRIGHT: To follow Shibley, one of the things that strikes me is that we're so absorbed in looking both at Iraq and the Arab-Israeli conflict that we are often are not looking at what's happening inside counties. I think there's a real dynamic, a real crisis or tension for change, that there -- in virtually every country is a growing a pressure demanding internal change. And governments are trying to use that or try to counter that, repress that, by arguing that look, we still have these regional crises to focus on -- Arab-Israeli is what's important. They're enhancing their position in the outside world, Hosni Mubarak being the primary case, saying, "I am of such value to you," the United States, "that let's not talk about democracy, let's not talk about human rights abuses," that our focus has to be on settling regional conflicts.

And the Bush administration has basically gone along with that, and that's one of the reasons that slowed the whole momentum of change in the region. In 2003 President Bush gave a very good speech, actually, in which he called -- and he pointed specifically to Egypt and Saudi Arabia and said, you know, things can't continue the way they are. And then we went back to the whole issue after that very bold speech of preferring stability over regional change, in part because of the Arab-Israeli conflict and in part because we want those governments to help us in whatever way they can on Iraq. None of them have been willing to. Saudi Arabia has still refused to see, to host the prime minister of Iraq, and despite the personal intervention of the vice president on his trip, a special envoy who set out from the State Department and most recently in President Bush's trip to the region.

Iraq has skewed everything. I mean, there was the argument of the neocons that the road to Jerusalem was via Baghdad, and that has proved not only to be wrong but to be as counterproductive as anything we've ever done. We have been totally discredited in the region, in ways that have given an edge to militant groups, anti-American groups. There are those who -- and I'm sure Shibley will at some point take a poll, if he hasn't already -- who say that if polled, many Arab societies would vote for groups that are opposed to the U.S. vision of peace, just because it's the United States, and people are so afraid of what the United States now represents and what the United States wants. Anything anti-American is preferable, because of our failure in Iraq. We didn't -- we don't understand what's going on inside the region, and as we didn't understand what was going on inside of Iraq.

So Iraq, you know, shadows everything. It used to be that Arab-Israeli -- you know, shaped and colored all U.S. policy, and today Iraq -- more than anything else, people are afraid of that kind of instability, and that's backfired on every U.S. initiative and every U.S. foreign policy goal.

ISHAM: Thank you. Well, at this point let's open up the floor. And wait for the microphone. Please stand, identify yourself and ask a question and limit the speeches. That would be great.

Lesley Stahl. Wait, wait, wait, wait for the microphone.

QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)

ISHAM: Is that on? Okay.

QUESTIONER: Can you hear me? Oh --

ISHAM: Okay. We can hear you.

QUESTIONER: It's a two-parter.

STAFF: Now it's on.

QUESTIONER: Now it's on. First of all, Shibley, when you were asking the questions of the world leaders and intellectuals, did you get a sense that the -- that if the president changed, that opinion could be changed? How much is this about Bush?

And secondly, can we really have dialogue if we don't talk -- I mean, in the Palestinian-Israeli situation, can the United States be effective if we don't talk to Hamas?

TELHAMI: The issue of the president -- I think it's a really important issue. I think one of my worries in the polling over the past seven years is that, I mean, historically, if you look at how people looked at America, not just in the Middle East in other parts of the world, they said, "Well, we like the American people, but we don't like the American government."

And you see that still in the Middle East, because, for example, they value American education, they value American democracy, they value American freedom. We have -- I take polls on this, so we know that for sure. But what we've seen over the past seven years is a narrowing of that gap, where G.W. became America. And if there is a prototype image of America, it is the evangelical cowboy America.

And that's why people are really fascinated by Obama. They see him -- if there's anything that, you know, looks like -- conflicts with the vision they've developed in America over the past seven years, it is Obama. And they -- they're -- but that's why universally, universally -- intellectuals, people I talk to, governments -- don't believe he's going to be the next president of the United States. They just don't believe he's going to be the next president of the United States. But if he is --

QUESTIONER: (Off mike.)

TELHAMI: Yes. I mean, I'll give you the broader good news, which is that -- you know, I co-convened with Martin Indyk this U.S.-Islamic World Forum. We held it last month in Doha, Qatar. And we've been doing it for the past, you know, six years. And when I look at -- if there's any kind of -- you know how we say there's a mood of change in America; we want change -- and obviously people are capturing that. You know, even McCain is talking about change. He's 70 years old or whatever, but -- (soft laughter) -- but it's the change thing.

And you know, in the Arab world, as in the rest, I think, of the world, people don't really want to hate America. And I think there are people who really -- I mean, they -- everybody understands we still are the only superpower, with all our weakness, and maybe they're frustrated. And they would like to like us. And we saw in the forum really a different reflective attitude of trying to look forward.

So I think there is an opportunity. I think for the next president there's going to be an opportunity. It's going to be a tough sell, and I'm -- in the current public opinion poll that I'm conducting, I'm actually asking that question, whether they think leaders are going to make a difference or whether they think everybody's going to be the same.

I heard a lot of say they're all the same, unfortunately. But I also heard a lot of people who are just captured and captivated by Obama.

ISHAM: Robin, do you have something to add to --

WRIGHT: Yeah, I just want to add something quickly. I was at the Palestinian election in 2006, and one thing that was really striking to me is the number of people who voted for Hamas not to vote for Hamas but against Fatah. And I think that what we don't understand about two of the most controversial elections recently, the election of Ahmadinejad and the election of Hamas, was that people were voting against the status quo. They were breaking the monopoly of an ideology, an individual, a party that in -- with the Palestinians had dominated for a half century, and with -- and in Iran had dominated for 30 years. They were rejecting the religious clerics. It was the turban versus the hat, and for the first time they voted for someone who was not a cleric. In the same way, they voted against Yasser Arafat's Fatah because it had dominated for so long.

In many ways, we should find in that a hopefulness, that people are willing to reject the status quo, to get out and use their vote in a way to change, however limited that change may be.

The number of people I interviewed who did not Shari'a law, did not want Hamas to form the government, but didn't want Fatah -- the question is, if we don't move fast enough, do they vote for Hamas the next time because they're so angry at Israel and the United States, they really do want Hamas? That's the key question.

The dilemma for us, is we can't deal with -- we can't hold -- we can't deal with Hamas in a way that we refused to deal with the PLO. We have to get them to say the same things the PLO did in 1988, renouncing terrorism and recognizing Israel's right to exist.

But I agree that the one thing that -- when I think about what the next administration can do, it's really striking to me that there is -- that it's a catalyst, a new opening, going beyond the conventional thinking, saying, "I'm willing to talk to others," that -- even small steps -- it needs to be more than rhetorical -- would change, I think, the dynamics. And I think that an election of someone -- I think McCain will not do that, I think Hillary will not do that -- but that someone like Obama will just change the mood, open up things; there will be a greater acceptance to kind of deal with us, and new approaches.

ISHAM: Do you want to -- (inaudible) -- that?

MILLER: Yeah, let me add just a brief counterpoint to this, because there's an enthusiasm and a breathlessness here which I think has to be put in perspective. The issue is not who becomes the next president only. The issue is whether or not the next president is going to think strategically and be prepared to take some of the tough choices that are required.

There's an expectations trap that we're going to fall into, it seems to me, and we have to be very careful. The problems we face in this region are galactic in character. Extricating ourselves out of the hole that we've dug for ourselves in Iraq is going to take time. Dealing with the Arab-Israeli issue is going to take an excruciatingly painful set of choices for the next president. Dealing with the issue of democratization and the authority deficit in places like Palestine, Iraq and Lebanon, where small groups every day make a mockery out of central authority and willfully ignore American military and political power -- these are the questions that the next president is going to face.

We need to stop thinking in terms of administrations, stop thinking in terms of presidential candidates, and start thinking the way our enemies and our friends out there think: generationally. And you know, whether it's Barack Obama, John McCain or Hillary Clinton, first of all, they're going to have to stop digging and then begin to make an accurate assessment on what we need to do in order to begin to improve our image and our policies.


QUESTIONER: My name is Kenneth Bialkin. I attended a lecture recently by a respected professor who observed that the Arab-Israel conflict has evolved from a secular conflict to a religious conflict. A, I wonder if you agree or would consider that. And B, if that's true, that it has evolved essentially to a religious conflict, can it seriously be discussed in isolation in a narrow region, or whether it is -- be part of a broader issue having to do with Islamic extremism in so many parts of the world?

TELHAMI: Yeah, as Dennis Ross notes, I was actually the first one to warn against the transformation of the conflict from a nationalist conflict to a religious conflict in the late '90s. That was my greatest worry in my writings, that this was going to in fact happen, because of the crisis of legitimacy, but not just because of the crisis of legitimacy and the failure of Fatah, but also because at some point, the Palestinians who felt that in their bilateral relationship with Israel, they were becoming extremely weak. As the negotiations were failing, they needed to rally Arabs and Muslims, and in part, they saw Jerusalem as being a, you know, part of the rallying point -- issues, even beyond the internal Hamas-Fatah division.

I think up until this point that conflict remains largely a nationalist conflict, because I think even Hamas, which is a religious organization, if you look at its rhetoric, the causes, the issues, the priorities, the way they behave, they're primarily a nationalist organization. That is why they were criticized by groups like al Qaeda when they entered the elections. They were -- they and Hezbollah, by the way, have always been criticized as non-Islamic and being nationalist local groups by groups like al Qaeda because they don't send fighters to fight in Afghanistan or Bosnia or other Islamic causes.

So I think the issue is that Hamas shouldn't be an indication it's become religious. I worry about it becoming religious in the following way: that if you don't have the two-state solution, which is based on a nationalist notion, then people are going to come up with different schemes. It's going to be a scheme of either Muslims versus Jews or an intellectual -- the one-state solution is going to be the moderate solution. It's going to be the intellectual, egalitarian solution, "We're all equal," no religion; let's have one state, democratic state, where Arabs obviously would be a majority. And so that's the worry.

And I think the chance that that's going to happen is increasing. We see that this kind of polarization that is happening between Israel and the Palestinians is not only having -- empowering religious groups, even if indirectly -- and I think Robin is absolutely right. You know, Hamas's support isn't an embrace of the Islamic agenda. They're embracing their methods. They think they're more effective. And it's a rejection of Fatah. It's not about "we want an Islamic state." That's -- there's nothing in the polls that show people want an Islamic state.

But there's also the Israel side of this that we can't ignore, that there is an increasing Jewish identity into the state that is affecting in a very significant way the relations between the Arab citizens of Israel, who are almost 20 percent of the population, and the Jewish citizens of Israel in ways that we have not seen. And the most recent poll from the Knesset channel is very disturbing about the way Israelis now look at the Arab citizens of Israel. And there was a majority prepared to see them removed from the state under certain circumstances.

So those are troubling trends, and I think those are the ones that make me pessimistic. The minute you dump the two-state solution as an option, you're going to this very complex set of framings that only spell trouble for the region.

MILLER: There's one additional point, and that is Jerusalem. First of all, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has always been a conflict over land, political identity and religion. And it's gotten worse, there's no question. But in July of 2000, on the eighth day of the Camp David summit, Jerusalem becomes the focal point of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

And imagine the scene. There are Americans trying to persuade Israelis and Palestinians, among the many fixes that we tried, to take sovereignty over the Haram ash-Sharif, the Harabayat (ph), the mosques and the remains of both the first and second temple which lie below the mosque. We're trying to convince the Israelis and Palestinians to take sovereignty, which they assert, and reposit it with God. That's an American approach. Or we'll give the Palestinians sovereignty above ground, and you Israelis will have sovereignty below. We don't get it.

History teaches that Jerusalem is not to be shared, Jerusalem is to be possessed, is to -- always in the name of God, in the name of religion, in the name of the tribe. The notion that we now face a religious conflict is a -- or more of a religious conflict may be true because Hamas is politicizing, the evangelicals here are politicizing, and there's been a lot of ultra-orthodox Jews politicizing the issue of Jerusalem. But the primary issue remains a religious manifestation of Israeli and Palestinian nationalism, and we're no closer to resolving that religious issue than we were eight years ago this July.

ISHAM: Robin?

WRIGHT: Yeah, I just want to add one small thing. I want to return a little bit of sanity to this discussion about Islam. I mean, the majority of people who use Islam, whether it's Hamas or Hezbollah or any of them, turn to it because there's no other alternative in the region; that our allies often, the autocrats, have exiled, executed, put under house arrest the liberals, the nationalists, the democrats, and there is no alternative. They have emerged as a phenomenon of no other alternative.

Religion is also often, if you look at historic transitions throughout the world, even what's happened in the last 30 years in other parts of the region, where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated, Desmond Tutu was the leader of the anti-apartheid movement, the Dalai Lama in Tibet, Nobel Peace Prize winner, that this is a common phenomenon. And that I understand on Jerusalem is a special case, but when it comes to this whole issue of religion as an idiom of opposition or whatever it is, it is still a -- with secular goals, it is a function of a transition. You know, the Catholic Church was important in Solidarity in Poland, and Ferdinand Marcos, people power in the Philippines, but it is not what people want at the end of the day in most societies.


QUESTIONER: Thank you. I'm Marty Gross. The reason the deal on Jerusalem didn't work is God didn't want it. He didn't want to get involved. (Inaudible) -- what a problem it was.

There's a big myth that's going on here that has really pervaded so much of our talk about this, and I'd like your reaction to this concept. At the end of the day -- we talk about American engagement. At the end of the day, this isn't about us, this is about them. Okay? It wasn't the lack of -- America had nothing to do with the Arab decision to invade Israel in 1948. It had nothing to do with the '67 war. We didn't cause the '67 war. We didn't cause Arafat to reject Camp David and not give a counter-offer. We didn't cause Gaza to go to Hamas. As much as we can do, at the end of the day this isn't about us, it's about our inability to prevent other groups in many cases from just making incredibly bad decisions on a repetitive basis. So let's not forget that.

And to Shibley: On the two-state solution bit -- and I really appreciate Chris's question as to if the two-state solution isn't there, what is? Okay?

You referred to the Arab intellectuals. I just finished reading the study of Palestinian textbooks: grades one through 10 that read what Arafat wrote; grade 11, minor changes by Abbas; and back to grade 12, unmitigated disaster. Where the Arab intellectuals that are giving up on a two-state solution when those intellectuals have had apparently absolutely no impact on what Palestinian children read every day they go to school? Where are these intellectuals that are going to give up that have done nothing so far?

TELHAMI: First on, you know, the American role, of course, you know, in the end, the people who are going to pay the biggest price for the disaster is the Israelis and Palestinians, and it's their conflict for sure. But it's really wrong to look at it only that way, because I mean, while it's true -- you know, we're not -- we can't be blamed for all the failure, obviously. And there -- you know, all of their views, if you, you know, whether it's going to -- Aaron's book, which just came out, or the ones that we just put out with the USIP with Dan Kurtzer, Scott Lasensky reviewing American diplomacy for the past 17 years, interviewing everyone on the American side, almost all of our -- all of the people we interviewed, including Aaron -- and I won't attribute anything to him because it was without attribution -- said we failed most of the time in our effort.

And it's -- the issue here is our diplomacy in the Arab-Israeli issue is not charity work; it is a vitally important issue to us. It affects everything else we do. And that's certainly the proposition that I would advocate; that is the proposition that I think almost everyone we interviewed within the American government over the past 17 years have come to believe. And in that sense, you have to say, are we doing something right or something wrong?

At Camp David, with or without Arafat -- and I think Aaron could speak to that more -- it was bound to fail. It was designed to fail, and in part because this is -- the meeting should not have been held. We sort of knew that, but we went along with it. And so in some ways, the failure of Camp David is far bigger than what Arafat decided or even what Barak decided there. It had to do with, in good part, with our diplomacy. There was a lot of evaluation here.

So let's not deflect our own responsibilities. We're not here to address what the other sides are doing wrong, it's about what we can do that's right, because we do have interests here. So that's the focal point.

MILLER: Before we leave this, this question is critical. Just one brief comment.

You're right, this is not our problem in the main. I mean, we live here with non-predatory neighbors to our north and south and fish to our east and west. We have remarkable security and remarkable physical isolation. We can ignore all that.

But we have put ourselves in a position, through the importance of our support for Israel, our need for access to oil at fairly reasonable prices, Iraq with all the galactic failures that it has caused -- we are out there, and we will be there for a generation. And the sooner we understand this, the wiser our policies will be.

I'm in the right city to say this. The late Yankee manager Casey Stengel said that the key to good management was keeping the nine guys who hate your guts away from the nine guys who haven't made up their minds. And he was right. There are a lot of people out in that region who have yet to make up their minds about America. This issue will not provide the key to protecting American interests. It won't. But it resonates with a power and an intensity and a fury out there that will undermine our friends and provide extraordinary opportunities for our adversaries.

One last point. We have demonstrated over a 40-year period that we can actually help Arabs and Israelis when we pursue wise and effective diplomacy. That's our national interest, and we shouldn't be embarrassed or defensive about promoting it.

I'm sorry for the speech, but it's really, really -- it's an important point.

QUESTIONER: I agree with -- (off mike). I'm not saying it's not our problem. You're absolutely right, it is our problem and it is our predicament. But let's at least keep perspective as to the limits of what we can do.

MILLER: Absolutely.

WRIGHT: Can I just add one small thing?

I mean, the fact is, when you ask where are the intellectuals on this, where's the leadership, we have seen a change. The king of Saudi Arabia in the last two weeks has talked about a dialogue between Christians, Jews and Muslims. That's a beginning. The Arab League has put forward an idea that began in 1982 with the Fahd plan and has evolved into the Arab League plan talking about a two-state solution. The terms are unacceptable, everybody knows that. There has been, for the -- you know, an acceptance of the fact there's going to be a two-state solution. The Islamic Conference met again in the last two weeks, and the President of Senegal who hosted it said, "It is time for an end to jihad and the era of conflicts between religions."

There is leadership out there. We're not giving it enough space in our media, enough attention or acknowledgement, but there is something that has begun.

MILLER: Well, I think we've come to the end here. I want to thank our panelists for a very interesting discussion and a lively one, although not a terribly encouraging one. (Applause.)

I also want to do one more plug here, and that is for a new crisis guide, which -- I think there's some fliers out there which will be going up shortly on the website, which will be the ultimate in websites on both this conflict and other conflicts. I recommend you take a look at it. Give it about a month or so and it ought to be there.

Thank you, everybody.









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