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U.S.-Israeli Dispute Raises Questions on Fate of Mideast Talks

March 16, 2010 at 6:07 PM EST
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Recent rifts in U.S.-Israeli relations have raised new questions on the Mideast peace process and the state of diplomacy in the region. Jeffrey Brown gets two views on the deepening tensions.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And more now on what is going on from David Makovsky, senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, and co-author of “Myths, Illusions, and Peace: Finding a New Direction for America in the Middle East,” and Amjad Atallah, co-director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation. From 2000 to 2003, he acted as a legal adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team in its talks with Israel.

Welcome to both of you.

David, starting with you, how serious a rift is this? There’s been a lot of undiplomatic talk. What does it add up to? What do you think is going on?

DAVID MAKOVSKY, senior fellow, Washington Institute For Near East Policy: Well, I think the peak of the crisis has been over the last few days. I think we’re in the beginning of the de-escalation phase.

I think, in the setup piece that you just showed, Hillary Clinton made clear that she’s not questioning the underpinnings of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, which — which was the very reason why Vice President Biden went to Israel last week.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the first place.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: And it was so effective. It was a pitch-perfect visit. It was a fence-mending visit to demonstrate to the Israelis that, whatever the differences may be, the relationship is very close.

It seemed that Biden’s commitment was — was thrown into doubt by a spokesman in the State Department on Friday who spoke about a public rebuke of Israel, and talked about Hillary Clinton’s call to Netanyahu, and then said what — and the commitment to the relationship is in question.

That’s what set it off. And I think what we saw with Secretary Clinton today, I think the White House are also working the phones with Israel. When the news magazines or others write about this whole thing, I think they will find out that Vice President Biden trying to solve this, too. He was at the start of it, and he might be at the end of it.

So, I think it’s going now in a downward — the crisis is past its peak.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you say, Amjad Atallah? Is it past its peak or is it something more serious here?

AMJAD ATALLAH, co-director, New America Foundation Middle East Task Force: Well, I think the public part of it is past its peak. I think David is right about that.

The administration doesn’t benefit from fighting with Israel over this publicly every single day, especially when there’s a major health care vote coming up and there are other issues are at stake. It hasn’t resolved any of the underlying disputes.

JEFFREY BROWN: It represents something more serious, you’re saying.

AMJAD ATALLAH: It represents — as a matter of fact, Netanyahu put his finger on it in the clip you showed, where he said Israel will follow its key interests.

He said, we have common interests with the United States, but Israel will follow its key interests. And he defines those key interests in a way that contradict the way the United States defines its key interests.

What the United States hasn’t been able to figure out is how to bridge the gap between Israel and the United States on fundamental differences on national security. If Netanyahu is convinced that he must keep East Jerusalem, if he’s convinced that he’s going to build on Palestinian territory in the West Bank, then that is going to challenge America’s perception of what a two-state solution looks like, and it’s going to challenge what America needs to create contextually in the region.

JEFFREY BROWN: It certainly looks as though the Obama administration has pushed back pretty hard. And we saw Secretary Clinton says — she’s talking about steps that we think would demonstrate the requisite commitment to this process. That’s what she is calling on Israel for.

Is — is the Obama administration right to be upset, A, and, B, to be demanding some concrete steps now?

AMJAD ATALLAH: Well, I think it’s absolutely right to be upset, but there’s no benefit in politics to being upset, unless it serves a tactical advantage.

The United States — this isn’t an emotional issue. This is about a clear-headed difference of opinion about what national security for the United States means and what it means for Israel. The United States has to find a way of bridging that gap with Israel.

Now, Israel continually has told the United States no publicly, and has not paid any consequence for it. If I were Benjamin Netanyahu’s adviser, I would say, keep doing it. As long as you can get away with it, it’s — your poll numbers inside Israel with your right-wing constituency go up, and the United States offers you no consequence.

So, the United States is in a position, I think, where it needs to put up or really shut up. If — if the United States isn’t prepared to apply consequences to Israeli misbehavior, even when it applies to U.S. national interests, then the United States is going to be in a worse position than if it never asked for it in the first place.

JEFFREY BROWN: Your response. What do you see?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Look, I disagree with Amjad.

I think, you know, for this — I don’t agree with the Netanyahu government on every point, but it has agreed to a qualified settlement moratorium, more than any of its predecessors, for a 10-month period, reduced checkpoints, all but — it was at 41. Now it’s down to 14.

And I think that the key is, keep our eye on the ball. Our ball is to — to solve this problem, not to deal with the symptoms. And that’s through the proximity talks, which will be a transition to direct talks.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just to explain that, the proximity talks are a way of getting towards the much larger, deeper issues, right?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Right. Right. Right.

And, then, frankly, the reason why we’re at proximity talks, where — that they’re — you know, Mitchell is going to be shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah, a 15-minute car ride, is precisely because of the advice that says, if we only, in America, take a tougher position, that we blow the whistle on Netanyahu more than we blow the whistle on the Palestinians, we will win good points with the Palestinians.

And I think that approach, in 2009, drove us into a ditch, and we haven’t gotten out of it. Could you imagine that we would be in the second year of an Obama administration, and there’s no direct talks? The Israelis are ready for direct talks tomorrow morning.

JEFFREY BROWN: How is this being seen in Israel right now over the last few days, and how does it tie into internal Israeli politics?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Right. It fits into a broader context where they feel a certain coolness of the Obama administration, which is why Biden was sent over for this fence-mending mission.

He hasn’t visited there. He’s gone three times to the Middle East. There’s been issues here in that relationship. I think it’s also stylistic, that Obama’s demeanor is that he’s cerebral and detached. And he is not the instinctive guy, like Bill Clinton, who will hug you and feel your pain. There’s a lot of different stylistic differences here.

But they feel it’s premeditated on the part of this administration, that the way to get closer to the Arabs is to distance themselves from Israel. I think that interpretation is somewhat alarmist, and that the administration wants to keep its eyes on the ball.

I think they mess up tactically. Amjad and I may agree on that, but for different reasons. And I think the main event is to ensure that you come out of this crisis with these talks invigorated, and that they transition to direct talks to actually solve this conflict, and not just complain about it.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about the wider — let’s widen this out a little bit. And we just saw General Petraeus, a little bit unusual, I think, a public airing from a military leader to kind of tie the lack of progress — he — I think he said, it has an enormous effect, was the quote, on the larger region.

What — what — what is he saying? What’s he getting at?

AMJAD ATALLAH: He’s basically said what everybody who has served in the U.S. military or served in Iraq or Afghanistan has noted, which is that everybody in Afghanistan, everybody in Iraq, everybody in any area that the United States is operating in actually cares about Palestinians as much as Americans care about Israelis.

We don’t have to say it’s right or wrong. We care about Israelis for a host of historical and religious reasons. And they do as well. The problem is, of course, that, every time there’s a conflict in — between the Palestinians and the Israelis, it has spillover effects. It has spillover effects everywhere.

It’s not a panacea. Solving the Arab-Israeli conflict isn’t going to make all of our problems go away in the Middle East. It just increases our leverage and our political capital to address those challenges.

And that’s what I think — the military has begun to say publicly what they have said privately for so long, because there’s been so much frustration that the consequences of our failure to resolve the conflict — and here I agree with David. The goal is to end the conflict. The goal is not to fight with Israel for the next year over whether they’re going to build in East Jerusalem or not.

We have wasted one year negotiating with Israel on settlements, and that was a wasted year. We should have been negotiating with Israel only over the terms and the parameters of a permanent status agreement.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, how does this particular rift or this — to the extent that it is a testing of the relationship between the U.S. and Israel, how does that play into these kind of wider issues that General Petraeus and others have raised?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think that this is a — this is a very contested point that General Petraeus raised today, because, look, Amjad and I would agree. And nobody serious believes that, if you solve this conflict, it is an open sesame, and it unlocks all the other or any conflicts in the Middle East.

We agree there. Where our disagreement is whether this will fundamentally make a difference in the way America is perceived. I mean, we all would agree, I would think, that, you know, if people are shooting at America in Iraq or Afghanistan, it’s because of that local conflict.

They don’t say, oh, there was progress on the Arab-Israeli front, no shooting today. So, that’s not the issue. The issue is, is this a layer of anti-Americanism that is fundamental? And I would argue that there is like 20 layers there. This might be one out of 20, and it should be resolved for its own reasons, but it’s not decisive in these other theaters.

But we should solve it for its own reasons. And I would agree with Amjad that it is evocative in the region, but to a point. And I think we have to be careful not to be carried away with it. We want to solve it because we want to also take a hand out of the extremists.

But does any of us think that al-Qaida will go away if this issue is solved? They never cared about this issue at all. They’re a Johnny-come-lately to this question.

JEFFREY BROWN: Just in our last minute, how would you see this, the testing here, the particular rift playing out, into this larger question?

AMJAD ATALLAH: Well, I think the United States right now is — there are two narratives in the Middle East. One says that the United States can solve the problems of the region, can be a force for stability, and we — and will end the Arab-Israeli conflict through peaceful means.

There’s another narrative that says only through violent resistance are the Palestinians ever going to be free. The United States is trapped by Israeli interests. It can’t even defend itself. And, so, the United States should be opposed as well.

Now, those two narratives are fighting with each other. Whether we succeed in ending the Arab-Israeli conflict or not will determine which — which narrative is the dominant one for the majority of people of the Middle East.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will leave it there, with the narratives diverging or converging. We will see.

Amjad Atallah and David Makovsky, thank you both very much.

AMJAD ATALLAH: Thank you.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Thank you.