William B. Quandt, a leading historian of Middle East diplomacy, says that modest progress is possible toward an eventual Palestinian-Israeli agreement based on the U.S.-backed peace plan known as the road map. But he warns that President Bush, who will meet this week with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, must demonstrate his serious engagement, either personally or through the appointment of a senior envoy. Otherwise, Quandt says, forward movement will be difficult.
Quandt, vice provost for international affairs at the University of Virginia, was the National Security Councils Middle East staffer in the Nixon and Carter administrations and is the author of Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab-Israeli Conflict Since 1967. He was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on May 29, 2003.
What is motivating President Bushs sudden move to involve himself personally in the Israeli-Palestinian negotiating process?
Its hard to read his mind, because he has studiously kept his distance from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict up to now, with the exception of an occasional speech. I think the explanation probably has something to do with some new realities that he wants to at least explore, one of those being that Palestinians finally do have a new face to deal with, Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen. Washington made a big deal out of trying to marginalize [Palestinian leader Yasir] Arafat, and if we leave Abu Mazen out there with nothing to show for his efforts, of course that will undermine the chance of having a Palestinian moderate voice.
To some extent, Bush is trying to build up a political leader in whom weve invested a lot of hopes, but who clearly is not a tested leader on the Palestinian scene, and needs to be able to produce some results for his people. I suspect that people around Bush who were very intent on keeping him out of these negotiations as long as Arafat was running the Palestinian side now are saying, If you want Abu Mazen to succeed, you have to get out there and show him a little bit of support.
How is this connected to the Iraq war?
It is connected in the sense that the United States is now a big power in the Middle East. People may not like that, and certainly theres a lot of anti-American sentiment in the Middle East, but we are for better or worse in a position to influence events dramatically. None of its going to happen easily and none of its going to happen automatically. There was a lot of wishful thinking about what might happen in Iraq after Saddam was gone. But, clearly, were going to be shaping the political map of some kind of a new Middle East, and I think that that means the Egyptians want to talk to us, the Saudis want to talk to us, the Palestinians certainly want to, the Jordanians want to, and the Israelis want to. None of them wants to get on our bad side at this stage.
In your writings and, in particular, in Peace Process, you stress the importance of American presidential involvement in negotiations. What should Bush do next, appoint a solid Middle East negotiator, someone like a Henry Kissinger?
Theres no single model that has always produced results, but, one way or the other, the president has to demonstrate after [the Abbas-Sharon] summit that this wasnt just a one-shot public relations venture, or just an effort to pay off some debt to [British Prime Minister] Tony Blair by going through the motions. [Bush must show] that he is going to continue to be involved, not necessarily in a personal way, the way that Bill Clinton did or perhaps even Jimmy Carter, but that hes seriously engaged now, and that requires that whoever takes on the job as the senior diplomat, whether its Colin Powell or a special envoy, has to be clearly speaking for the president. Perhaps weve spoiled the Middle Easterners, but the one thing that doesnt work is just to send the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs out as your representative. Everybody will read that as a minimal commitment. At this point, its either going to have to be the president himself, or the secretary of state, or somebody of the stature of [former senator and presidential envoy] George Mitchell or [former secretary of state] James Baker, or a fairly senior political figure.
What enabled the Nixon, Ford, and Carter administrations to churn out so many Mideast agreements in the 70s?
First, you had a context in which there was a certain amount of momentum growing out of events in the region. After the 1973 war, the Nixon administration, which had previously been rather stand-offish toward Arab-Israeli peacemaking, all of a sudden decided that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat was a leader with whom the United States might be able to work. The Nixon team put him to the test, perhaps the way were about to put Abu Mazen to the test, and I think Kissinger very quickly discovered that Sadat was the real thing, that this was a guy that he could work with. Secondly, we had our own national interests at stake. We had just gone through a crisis [in the 1973 war] in which we came eyeball to eyeball with the Soviet Union, and I dont think too many people wanted to see endless numbers of Middle East crises that might provoke confrontations of that sort.
And then there was the oil embargo [launched by Arab states in the aftermath of the 1973 war] that brought home the message to ordinary Americans that what happens in the Middle East can affect their well-being. So we had a domestic political context, we had an international environment, and we had leaders in the Middle East with whom we could deal.
Thats a combination that we may not have today, but some of those same elements are there. We have a strong president on the American side. That always helps. We have a strong Israeli prime minister right now, who is perhaps capable of surprising us, although Im still not quite sure how much to make out of his recent comments. We have a new untested figure on the Palestinian side, and a dramatically new regional context in the aftermath of the defeat of Saddam Husseins regime. Now whether that can all be used to create something genuinely positive is still a big question. The objective situation on the ground remains extremely difficult, so I still remain skeptical, but Id certainly give it a try, because you do have some new elements to play with.
What do you make of the road map peace plan?
Its like an awful lot of other documents. Ive made a career out of reading these, trying to study the nuances in them. The documents by themselves usually reflect a kind of minimal consensus at any given point in time, and thats about what this represents. It calls on each of the parties, Israelis and Palestinians, to do one serious thing upfront, as a kind of test of their intentions. On the Palestinian side, its the rather tough requirement that they have to crack down on their extremists. On the Israeli side, theres a very explicit demand on Sharon to reverse course on settlement activity, to dismantle some of the so-called illegal settlements, and to make it clear that, over time, some of the occupation that has taken place in parts of the West Bank and [the construction of] new settlements will be reversed. The rest of the road map remains highly theoretical unless each side is able to take those initial first steps.
Abu Mazen has been quoted as saying that he expects to reach an agreement with Hamas on ending attacks on Israel before the summit meeting.
I think his preference is to reach a political agreement with Hamas, and that may be possible. But, of course, Hamas is probably not of a single mind; there are factions within it, and there are other Palestinian groups that might not be prepared to go along. So even if the mainstream of Hamas was prepared for some kind of a truce, the possibility of continued violence is still there. Nonetheless, its an interesting possibility that, with Abu Mazen politically pushing Hamas, this may be one of the moments when there can be a kind of calming down on the Palestinian side without a real bloodbath. Theres some evidence as well that the Egyptians have been weighing in with Hamas through their head of intelligence. Abu Mazen doesnt have many troops at his command and I dont think hes prepared for a military showdown with the hardliners. If he can at least get a period of quiet, it makes it possible for the road map to be put to the test.
There are still an awful lot of landmines out there that are still likely to go off, and they can take the form of groups that are not entirely under anybodys control trying to disrupt this process. Thats always happened in the past; there are always extremists who dont want this to succeed, and we have to assume that there will be some of those in the present situation as well.
Can you compare Sharon with former Prime Minister Menachem Begin? When Begins Likud party won in 1977, there was a lot of gloom in the American delegation that progress toward peace would be impossible, and yet he pulled it off.
My sense is that Sharon and Begin are different on one very important issue. Begin was genuinely ideological, [particularly] when it came to his commitment to the West Bank. He always called it Judea and Samaria, and I think he really meant it when he said he would not be the prime minister who agreed to relinquish Israels claim to any of that territory.
Sharon comes out of a different political tradition. Hes usually characterized as a hardliner, and I think thats true, but his hard line has usually been anchored in a security argument, not an ideological one. He was much more willing to talk about a Palestinian state than Begin ever would have. Sharons red lines, it seems to me, are going to be on security-related things and settlements and roads and things that he has over the past 20 years been responsible for putting in place. Id find it shocking if he were to say, Okay well give up Ariel, a big settlement in the northern part of the West Bank, for the sake of peace, or, Wed be prepared to share Jerusalem with the Palestinians.
Those are the key issues in stage three of the road map.
Thats right. If you were immediately to jump to stage three of this road map, I think we would see a total deadlock between Sharon and Abu Mazen— as we would have seen between Begin and Arafat. The personalities are similarly constrained. But I dont think were at that stage. We can be more hopeful about phase one of the road map, and of course the game of diplomacy is always to get the first step taken in hopes that it opens the way for the next step to be taken later, perhaps even with different political leaders. Neither of the leaderships is exactly on the young and vigorous side. Were dealing with political leaders who before too long will be superseded by others, and to some extent the game now is to get something under way that can reverse the tide of public opinion that now belives no settlement can ever be reached. We still see that many Israelis and many Palestinians would like to just get the damn thing settled, because theyre tired of the conflict and the killing and the disruption of their daily lives. But at a certain point, if it doesnt get resolved through politics, people are going to say, Well, weve got to get on with our lives some other way and we cant put up with things the way they are. And theyll throw their support to more extreme political leaders.
Conventional wisdom holds that, with the U.S. presidential election occurring next year, diplomacy is about to end as far as the Middle East is concerned. Is that the case?
President Bush is going to be very careful not to get into a big fight with Ariel Sharon as he approaches the election year. He knows what happened to his father. Many conservative Republicans think Bush Sr. made a mistake in 1992 in his confrontation with the [Yitzhak] Shamir government over settlements. I dont think that was the reason that Bush Sr. lost his bid for re-election, but I do think that the crowd around the president is not going to take any risks.
If we were dealing with [the road maps stage three] issues, I think youd find the United States very cautious about getting ahead of where the Israelis wanted to be. But the strategy in the road map is to postpone those issues, so that they dont come up during the election year, and to try to count on everybodys understanding that the next year-and-a-half is going to be designed to get through the first two steps of the road map, while leaving the third step for later.
Now, is there enough in [stages one and two] to convince the Palestinians that its worth playing along and not forcing the issues of the final borders in Jerusalem and all the things that will become very difficult for the United States to deal with? Can they be satisfied with this notion of an interim Palestinian state in a small portion of the West Bank and Gaza? Is it worth their while to get the cities back under their control? Is it worth Sharons while to gain some time in the next 18 months or so, without having to confront Palestinian refugee claims, or Jerusalem, or final borders? I dont know. Thats the strategic question in all of this. Can we count on Sharon, Abu Mazen, and perhaps the Egyptians and the Saudis to go along with our need to go slow for the next 18 months?