Indyk Sees Opportunities for Mideast Peace Once Saddam is Ousted

February 4, 2003

Interview
To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Martin Indyk says the ouster of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein will present “new opportunities” for promoting peace talks between Israel and Palestinians. A former diplomat who twice served as U.S. ambassador to Israel in the Clinton administration and also as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, Indyk says a push for peace would require President Bush “to roll up his sleeves and commit to a serious effort to try to drag the Palestinians and Israelis out of this rut that they’ve managed to put themselves in while we stood on the sidelines and watched.”

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Currently the director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy of the Brookings Institution, Indyk also says he believed Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is interested in promoting peace talks. Indyk was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on February 3, 2003.

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With change in Iraq likely to take place soon, either through war or other means, as well as the recent elections in Israel, the Middle East looks like it’s open to some important changes in the next months. What do you think the United States priority should be?

We won’t have a choice. If we are going into Iraq to remove the regime of Saddam Hussein, we will then “own” the problem of Iraq. What that means is that we will have to take responsibility for the liberalization of the country and the reconstruction of a new government. Hopefully, it will be pluralistic and representative of the various communities in Iraq. That’s a big problem to take on. If we have to go in with only a few allies, then it’s going to be an even greater burden.

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Is it very important for the United States to get Security Council backing for an invasion?

No. I think we have all the legal justifications we need. I think it is fairly clear we will have good support from the regional neighbors of Iraq, and from Canada and Australia, and significant states in Europe as well. I think we will have fairly broad support without a resolution. Obviously, it would be much easier to garner international support if we have the cover of a Security Council resolution. That would certainly help our Arab partners in this. But it’s very clear they are going to be with us anyway.

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After the war, we are inevitably going to have our hands full with Iraq…. After all, this is a part of the world that is vital to the free flow of oil, to the stability of the region, and to our interest in avoiding the eruption of a broader regional conflict as a result of our action. [Iraq] has to be the first priority. But having said that, I do think there will be new opportunities created by the removal of Saddam Hussein, assuming we can succeed in that task fairly quickly, with fairly limited casualties, and be able to stabilize Iraq in the aftermath.

If that is the case, then we will have succeeded … in tilting the balance of power in the Middle East region fundamentally in our direction and the direction of our friends in the region. That is what happened after the 1991 Gulf War. We became the dominant power in the region, and we had a great deal of influence to wield in the aftermath. At that time, President Bush’s father decided to spend his political capital on convening the Madrid peace conference and pursuing Arab-Israeli peace negotiations. He did that because he incurred an obligation to the Arab allies that were with us in that war with Iraq. He promised them as the price of their partnership that he would make such an effort.

There is no indication that his son has made such a commitment or has been required to make such a commitment as the condition for getting the Arabs that we have on board at the moment. So, there is not the same obligation. But there will be somewhat of an opportunity. It is qualified because, given the Palestinian intifadah and given its dramatic impact on the destruction of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, it is not so easy to simply bounce off a successful war in Iraq into the launching of a successful Arab-Israeli peace process.

What other opportunities are there, if not in the Israeli-Palestinian arena?

I do think there is an opportunity there, in the Israeli-Palestinian arena. I just don’t think it is the same as existed in 1991. But no doubt [the United States] will have a great deal of influence. The countries in the region will look to [Washington]. The opponents of Arab-Israeli reconciliation will have suffered a major setback. Saddam Hussein was one of the leading opponents of the peace process. The Iranians, who have been aggressively promoting Palestinian terrorism in the last two years, will be on their best behavior. They are improving their behavior already in terms of restraining Hezbollah. And there will be a concern on the part of Syria and Hezbollah that they are going to be next in phase three of the war on terror. The rogues, radicals, and rejectionists will be momentarily at least on the defensive. And the moderates and those who would like to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict will be somewhat strengthened.

So that’s the kind of broad change in the vectors of the Arab-Israeli dynamic that can help make peace. But it would require the president of the United States to do something he has been unwilling to do in his first two years in office.

Which is?

To roll up his sleeves and commit to a serious effort to try to drag the Palestinians and Israelis out of this rut that they’ve managed to put themselves in while we stood on the sidelines and watched.

Now that he’s been re-elected, what kind of coalition cabinet can Ariel Sharon put together?

He’s got three choices in these early days of the coalition-negotiating process. His first choice is a narrow right-wing government, which would include religious parties like Shas and extremist nationalist parties. The second option is a center-left coalition, which would in effect be a secular coalition for the first time in Israeli history, in which Sharon’s Likud party would join with the Labor Party and the Shinui libertarian, anti-religious party. The third option is for a center-right coalition in which he would bring Shinui into the government, but would be unable to persuade Labor to join and would put together a majority of perhaps 65 to 70 [Knesset seats] on the basis of smaller parties, but not the Shas Sephardi religious party or [Avigdor] Yvette Lieberman’s right-wing nationalist party.

My prediction at this point is that the Labor Party won’t join the coalition. Amram Mitzna, the leader of the party, is very determined to stick with his strategy, which is a two-election strategy for winning. He expected to lose this election and then take the Labor Party into opposition and rebuild it as an alternative to the Likud, rather than serve as its handmaiden in the government.

Then, when Sharon’s policies would seem to fail and the government would collapse, Mitzna would have a better chance of winning….

However, the idea of a secular coalition, with Labor and Shinui, is very popular in Israel among the people. That could end up exerting pressure on others in the Labor Party who would like to become ministers and have a share in the government rather than sit on the cold benches of the opposition…. What is clear is that Sharon will do his best to bring the Labor Party in. That in itself is interesting. He declared during the elections, in his victory speech and now, that he wants Labor in his government.

Why does Sharon want to bring Labor in?

My sense of him is that whereas the status quo suited him for the last two years, because he believed there was no alternative but to try to wear down the will of the Palestinians to pursue violence and terror, there now is a different calculus. That’s because the Israeli economy has tanked. People are really hurting economically. One in five Israelis is under the poverty line. There is a good deal of concern that if this keeps going, people will start to leave the country. Certainly, you see the number of migrants coming to Israel has dropped, and there is no capital inflow either, and certainly no tourists. So the longer this goes on, the more devastating the impact on Israelis. And that is leading him to want to take a political initiative. He has laid the groundwork for that by saying that there are Palestinians he has talked to who recognize it was a mistake to resort to violence and terrorism. He’s actually put out in the press that he has been talking to these people, without giving details.

And he has told President Bush that he is committed to the president’s vision of a two-state solution, although he has some problems with the road map that the State Department has drawn up. But in order for him to take a political initiative, he is going to need two things. One is a broad, secular coalition that will support him, rather than a right-wing coalition that would bring his government down. And the second thing is the removal of [Palestinian Authority President Yasir] Arafat’s influence on the negotiating process.

What is the lineup on the Palestinian side likely to be?

What we see on the Palestinian side is a similar exhaustion to what I described on the Israeli side. They are capable of absorbing suffering more than the Israelis because they have lower expectations. But, nevertheless, life is miserable for the Palestinians and they’ve basically had enough of it. That exhaustion in the street is combining with an overwhelming demand among the elites on the Palestinian side for a change in government. Under the rubric of reform, they are demanding an end to Arafat’s corrupt, arbitrary rule. The trouble is that the reformers have not succeeded in any significant way. They’ve made some inroads on the financial side. But Arafat for all intents and purposes still retains his power even though the Palestinian Authority is collapsing all around him.

Who would succeed Arafat?

I think it would be a kind of coalition of successors representing the different groups vying for influence. There is no one person that has the power or authority to replace Arafat. He has for years mastered the technique of divide and rule. And anyone who threatened him, he has been able to demolish politically. So he’s still there, and as one of his aides said to me, when there was talk of reform: “There are two kinds of Arab leaders. Those who have all power concentrated in their hands. And those who are dead. Don’t expect Arafat to give up power. That’s a basic reality.”

Would the removal of Saddam Hussein make a significant difference in the Palestinian context?

On its own, I doubt it. But if it was combined with a political initiative from Sharon, a willingness of President Bush to become directly engaged, and a constructive effort by moderate Arab states, then you could see that the fluidity that exists on the Palestinian side could actually produce changes there for the better.

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