Experts Discuss Increased Violence, Future of Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
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GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: Proud to have you here.
RAY SUAREZ: While their comments on Iran drew the most attention, President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert also discussed another major piece of unfinished Mideast business: the increasingly violent deadlock between Israel and the Palestinians.
Olmert came into office promising action, unilaterally or through negotiations, with the Palestinians. But after an Israeli soldier was kidnapped in Gaza and Israel fought Hezbollah in Lebanon, Olmert put any West Bank withdrawal on hold.
The Israeli government also has refused to work with the Palestinian Hamas-led government, but today Olmert said Israel might be ready to start talks with a new Palestinian government.
EHUD OLMERT, Prime Minister of Israel: Indeed, we hope that the new government will be established soon, on the basis of the quartets and the road map, and that will allow an immediate contact between him and me that I’m sure will lead into a serious negotiating process.
RAY SUAREZ: Meanwhile, over the past month, violence in Gaza has escalated, despite Israel’s unilateral withdrawal a year ago. The Israeli army has been battling Palestinian militants, launching rockets into Israel from Gaza. Nearly 100 Palestinians have been killed since the beginning of November.
The bloodiest day of fighting came last Wednesday, when Israeli artillery fire killed at least 18 members of one Palestinian family in the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun. The deaths sparked outrage and brought tens of thousands of mourning Palestinians to the streets for the funeral. The Israelis apologized, saying the shelling was an error.
Today, rival Palestinian factions, Fatah and Hamas, moved toward an agreement on a new technocratic government that would be headed by Mohammad Shabir as prime minister. Shabir’s candidacy has to be endorsed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who heads Fatah.
For more on the Israeli-Palestinian stalemate, we’re joined by Martin Indyk, assistant secretary of state for Near-Eastern affairs and twice U.S. ambassador to Israel during the Clinton administration. He’s now director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
And Robert Malley, special assistant to President Clinton for Arab-Israeli affairs and a director for Near-eastern affairs on the National Security Council staff, he’s now Middle East program director at the International Crisis Group.
And it’s been a while since we’ve sort of caught up with what’s going on in that relationship. What is the state of play in the Israeli-Palestinian crisis today, Robert Malley?
ROBERT MALLEY, International Crisis Group: Well, what you have is basically no engagement between Israelis and Palestinians at any significant level since the Hamas government was elected. And at the same time, you have renewed and intensified violence.
You just mentioned what happened in Beit Hanoun last week, so it’s a stalemate with no prospects at this point of things changing, unless you see a change in the Palestinian government and reciprocal change in the attitude of the international community, which would agree to deal with that government.
We’re still a ways away from that, but that’s the way forward, is to have a government that could govern, that could impose a cease-fire, and on the Israeli side allowing that government to govern and dealing with it as it has dealt with other Palestinian governments in the past.
Hamas and the Palestinians
RAY SUAREZ: Ambassador Indyk, did you think that the Israelis believed that the Palestinians would capitulate sooner on their demands that Hamas not be the face of the Palestinian people to the outside world?
MARTIN INDYK, Saban Center for Middle East Policy: No, I don't think so. I think, actually, the Israelis in the meantime -- while this process has been going on that Robert has described, which is really not a process at all -- have been engaged in their own re-evaluation of a policy that Ehud Olmert was given a mandate to pursue, which was a unilateral withdrawal from the West Bank.
But that whole policy was shown to be bankrupt in Lebanon, when the unilateral withdraw which had taken place six years earlier led to this Hezbollah buildup there, in the sense that it didn't make any sense for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank, for which Olmert essentially had a mandate, if he wasn't going to withdraw, in favor of some responsible, capable partner.
So while all of this has been going on, on the ground, increasing violence, what we've had is the Israelis coming to a position that they're going to have to find a partner on the Palestinian side.
So, at the same time as the Palestinians have come slowly but surely to accept that they're going to have to find a way to comply with the international requirements -- recognition of Israel, renunciation of terrorism, acceptance of previous agreements -- the Israelis have come to recognize that they're going to need a partner.
So I'm actually feeling that things are -- even though we see only slight progress -- the ground is being prepared in a rather positive way.
RAY SUAREZ: Do you agree that the war with Hezbollah discredited the idea of disengaging militarily from Israel's neighbors, including the occupied territories?
ROBERT MALLEY: I think that was the final nail in the coffin. I think that already the fact that, in Gaza, things are not stabilized, despite the withdrawal, was making many Israelis doubt the wisdom of a unilateral withdrawal, without any contact with the counterpart. I think what happened in Lebanon put an end to that, at least for the time being.
I share some of Martin's optimism, although I think our listeners have to be aware of the fact that there is no agreement yet on the new government. And I don't think the new Palestinian government is going to abide by the three quartet conditions of recognition of Israel, and renunciation of violence, and respect of past agreements.
Hamas very clearly has said it's not about to shift its policy; it's not about to shift its positions. And so I think people are going to have to face a situation of a government that is better than the government we have now but that does not adhere to these conditions.
And are we going to continue a policy, which I think has been self-defeating, of isolating the government, of hurting the Palestinian people, of trying to marginalize Hamas, when in fact it is not being marginalized -- it still has strong popular support among Palestinians -- and all of that for what, since we continue to have a stalemate and more violence between both sides?
Conceding to Israel's demands
RAY SUAREZ: After the Palestinian elections, the demand was made that Hamas not lead the Palestinian government. There seems to be some concession to that demand, if, as Robert Malley suggests, Israel doesn't get those other things, recognition, renunciation of violence. Can you still move ahead?
MARTIN INDYK: Well, the question really is whether both sides now have an interest in finding a way to finesse these issues. Hamas standing aside and allowing a technocratic government to be appointed, in which not only will we have a non-Hamas prime minister, but it appears to be a finance minister, Salam Fayyad, who's very credible internationally, and a foreign minister, Ziad Abu Amr, that's, in fact, who is also accepted internationally, that maybe -- and, again, I don't want to guild the lily here -- but maybe they are seeking a way to finesse it.
And Prime Minister Olmert, who in your clip there showed a kind of forward-leaning attitude towards dealing with a new government on the Palestinian side, has his own problem, because his way forward has now collapsed. He needs to present a new vision to the Israeli people.
He stabilized his political situation, but there's a crisis of confidence in his leadership. And he has to find a way to show the Israeli people that he has a way of dealing with their most serious problem, which is the Palestinians.
And so I think that there is possibility -- I don't want to say more than that -- that both sides are looking for a way to finesse this issue.
Engaging Israel's enemies
RAY SUAREZ: It's been talked about in Washington that one of the recommendations coming out of the Iraq Study Group is that the United States should engage the neighbors, namely Syria and Iran. Now, they also happen to be two terrible enemies of Israel. Where does that leave the Israelis, when they watch the Americans and how they have to solve the Iraq crisis? And what's in it for Iran and Syria?
ROBERT MALLEY: Well, I think it is a recommendation that I suspect that the Baker-Hamilton commission is going to make. It's a recommendation many others around town have been making for some time, that if you really want to deal with what Senator Hagel just said is the most combustible situation in the Middle East, at least in our memory, then you're going to have to talk to those people who are making it so difficult, which doesn't mean surrendering to them, or acquiescing in what they're asking, but you're not going to be able to change a situation if you only talk to people who you agree with.
Now, the question, of course, is: What is the dialogue with Syria going to be about? And what is the dialogue with Iran going to be about? They're going to want their interests on the table, just as we're going to want ours to be put on the table. And it's going to be a tough process.
But if we really want to shift the reality in Iraq, Palestine and Lebanon and elsewhere, there's no two ways about it: We're going to have to sit down and talk to people who we don't agree with, who we don't like, that who hold today far more cards than they did before we decided that we were going to boycott them.
Israel's view of Iran and Syria
RAY SUAREZ: Well, what's the Israeli posture toward American overtures to two of its biggest enemies in the region?
MARTIN INDYK: Here, ironically, there are many Israelis who are saying we should respond to the Syrians. And it's Washington that is sending the signal to Jerusalem saying, you know, that would not be welcome.
This is not true of the prime minister, but others in his cabinet have been saying, "We should engage with Syria." And there is the general principle that Israelis have always upheld that, if an Arab leader offers to talk peace, Israel should not be seen as rejecting it.
So I think -- and beyond that, there is the feeling in Israel, which is not shared in the Bush administration, that Israel is actually better off when Syria was in Lebanon and able to serve as the address to control Hezbollah, that Israel could insist that Syria, threaten Syria if it didn't control Hezbollah. Once Syria is out of Lebanon, there was no means of doing it, except directly, which didn't work very well.
So, from the Israeli point of view, engaging with Syria is an interesting idea. The prime minister himself is putting conditions on it, I think out of concern for Israel's friendship with the Bush administration.
When it comes to Iran, on the other hand, the Israelis have a real problem, because here you have Ahmadinejad, the president of Iran, threatening to destroy Israel, from their point of view, hell-bent on acquiring nuclear weapon. They have the missile delivery systems.
So the Israelis take very seriously the growing nuclear threat from Iran, but they would like to see the diplomacy be more effective on the American side for fear that, if that doesn't work, then they're going to have no choice but to resort to military action.
RAY SUAREZ: Quick response on Iran and Israel's view of Iran?
ROBERT MALLEY: No, I think that's right. I think the Israelis have -- I mean, the fact is, on Iran, neither the United States nor Israel has a good answer.
Here's country that is intent on developing a nuclear program, that feels emboldened because of the price of oil and because of the quagmire in Iraq, and because of the rapid growth of a more radical ideology in the region that they are backing. So they feel emboldened.
Sanctions are unlikely. If you get sanctions, they're unlikely to bite. And if they bite, they still may not change Iran's position. So you're going to face -- this is a difficulty that we face, that the Israelis face. There are no good answers.
RAY SUAREZ: Robert Malley, Martin Indyk, thank you both.
MARTIN INDYK: Thanks, Ray.
ROBERT MALLEY: Thank you.