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U.S. Standing in Mideast May Pivot on Palestinian Statehood Bid

September 21, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
Zbigniew Brzezinski, a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, join Jeffrey Brown to discuss the state of diplomacy in the Middle East as Palestinians push for statehood.
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JEFFREY BROWN: And to a bigger-picture look at all this now with two men with extensive high-level diplomacy experience.

Zbigniew Brzezinski was national security adviser during the Carter administration and is now a counselor at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Richard Haass served at the State Department and National Security Council for Presidents George H.W. and George W. Bush. He’s now president of the Council on Foreign Relations.

Richard Haass, start with you.

From the U.S. perspective, is this diplomatic tussle at the U.N. a problem or an opportunity?

RICHARD HAASS, President, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, it’s a problem.

It only becomes an opportunity if somehow this threat of action in New York leads to the resumption of direct talks, and then those talks actually go somewhere. But you would have to be a wide-eyed optimist to believe that. So it’s really a problem, because the United States, in the midst of the so-called Arab spring, doesn’t want to have to cast a veto, if things come to that, given the repercussions that would have, the anti-Americanism it would likely generate in the region.

At the same time, the United States would cast a veto and is compelled to cast a veto, given its commitments to Israel and its long-held view and the historical record that progress only comes through direct talks, and you can’t do a runaround through the United Nations.

JEFFREY BROWN: Zbigniew Brzezinski, how do you see it?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI, Former U.S. National Security Adviser: I thought the president’s speech, in a way, unintentionally, signaled the fact that the U.S. role in the peace process has fallen victim to our domestic politics, because his posture was one of kind of general encouragement for the peace process, but he didn’t convey much sense of urgency.

The contrast between his speech and Sarkozy’s speech was really dramatic. The president’s speech first of all, dealt with the Palestinian issue in a much larger context, so he dealt with it very briefly. Sarkozy’s speech was focused. And it conveyed a sense of genuine concern that, if there is no progress towards peace soon, things will deteriorate and that the parties to the conflict, both the Israelis and the Palestinians, need peace, deserve peace, but they have to be helped, actually helped from the outside to get that peace.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think that there is an opportunity here out of what’s this effort to come to the U.N. this week?

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: I think, if we engage in some serious negotiations, I think perhaps there is an opportunity. But the United States will probably not be taking the lead.

I suspect the Europeans will be taking the lead to a greater extent. I would be much happier if, instead of threatening to veto the Palestinian resolution, we were prepared to offer an alternative resolution, our own or with our friends.

And that resolution could make several very important, but relevant points. One, it could endorse U.N. support, which goes back to the early — late part of the 1940s, support for an independent Jewish state, democratic Jewish state. Second, it could also indicate support for a democratic Palestinian state.

Third, it could outline the framework for the peace negotiations, much in keeping with what Sarkozy was saying, and commit the parties, that is to say, the Europeans, the Quartet, ourselves, to an active role in the process. I think that would be much more constructive.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Richard Haass, let me ask you, what did you hear in the president’s speech and do you see some diplomatic way forward here?

RICHARD HAASS: Well, the president spoke in clear generalities. What was noticeable was the lack of specifics. And I think it reflects in some ways an acknowledgement that the situation is not terribly right.

The Israelis are understandably concerned about what’s going on, on their borders. They look at Egypt, they look at Syria, they look at Jordan and so forth. So they are very wary about moving forward with the Palestinians, given all that uncertainty. Meanwhile, the Palestinians, they look out. They see the growing public pressures in the Arab world. I think it makes them less likely than ever before to compromise.

So, against that backdrop, it’s very hard to see the raw material of progress. Again, the only way I could see something coming out of this — and I don’t think it’s terribly likely — is that all this pressure in New York leads to some sort of a — the resumption of direct talks.

More likely, though, is the situation in New York comes to a head. Either the United States uses its veto in the Security Council or the Palestinians can’t even muster the nine votes they would need. The situation then goes to the General Assembly. There, you do have the overwhelming passage of some watered-down increase in Palestinian legal standing.

And then you face the problems on all sides, where the Israelis could retaliate, make life much more difficult for the Palestinians. Congress may cut off aid. I’m not recommending it. I think it would be a mistake, but you could see that.

And even the Palestinian people, a few days after it, would say, hey, what’s changed? How has our reality improved? So, rather than helping Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian National Authority, this could actually boomerang on him. I don’t think the Palestinians have thought this through, what it is essentially they have started here.

JEFFREY BROWN: What about — Zbigniew Brzezinski, we have now — several — we have all raised this larger context. The president called it the remarkable year of the Arab spring, but that’s clearly brought some new complications to all this, and also — I mean, including the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but the entire U.S. posture vis-a-vis the Middle East.

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, you’re absolutely right.

I think what’s happening in the Middle East is clearly a sea change in the direction of continued decline, accelerating decline, and eventually termination of the central role that the United States has been playing in that region since the end of World War II. We were welcomed into the Middle East by the Arabs because they saw in us a party that wasn’t part of this imperial colonial tradition of the British and the French that were dominating the region.

But over the last 50 years or so, they have become increasingly dismayed by our unwillingness to address seriously the problems particularly arising out of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I think this week may be decisive. If we don’t recoup, I think we will really be witnessing in the near future the end of the American role in the Middle East. And that will be disastrous for the United States in the first place, in the longer run for Israel.

So, in fact, a lot of issues are at stake here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you think the stakes are that high, Richard Haass, in terms of this larger context?

RICHARD HAASS: No. I think there is a general decline in U.S. influence in the region, not so much for the reasons Dr. Brzezinski mentioned, but really because of other changes, the rise of Iran’s power, the rise of Islamic appeal, the reduction in the strength of certain governments such as we have seen in Egypt that had tilted towards the United States.

So I think those are all the — those are all part of the realities. But peacemaking, historically, has thrived less because of what any outside power, including the United States, did than it did because of what the locals themselves did, whether it was an Anwar Sadat or a Yitzhak Rabin or a Menachem Begin.

History suggests that peace works when you have local leaders who are willing and able to take risks for peace, to make compromises, and then they can sell those compromises to their own people.

The problem is, you have got a Palestinian leadership that is very weak and not in the position to compromise, and you have got an Israeli government that’s very conservative, it’s not terribly inclined to compromise, and, again, looks out and see this changing strategic picture, which makes them very unwilling to make long-term decisions, given all the uncertainty.

So it’s hard for me to imagine a context in which the prospects for peace are poorer than they are now. So it’s not really a function or a question of what the United States is willing to do. I simply think, in this context, no outside force, including the United States, can accomplish a lot in the absence of more raw material to work with.

JEFFREY BROWN: Dr. Brzezinski, less leverage for the U.S., but still better to leave it to the parties…

ZBIGNIEW BRZEZINSKI: Well, that’s a rather dire prospect, isn’t it?

In the first instance, it does mean the gradual expulsion of the United States in the region. And that will have very major geopolitical consequences for our position in the world and for the stability of the region. But, beyond that, it’s a very dire prospect for the Palestinians and the Israelis.

In the first instance, the Palestinians at some point will erupt and they will get crushed. They will get crushed. And what has been accomplished over the last several years will be reversed. And the Israelis, in the long run, will become an island in a sea of hostility. And the marginal advantage that they have had militarily is going to decline.

Look at the following simple fact. Thirty years ago, we had good relations with Iran, with Saudi Arabia, with Egypt, and Turkey, and they were our friends. Think of how much that has already changed. The implications of that are far-reaching.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will have to leave it there.

Zbigniew Brzezinski and Richard Haass, thank you very much.

RICHARD HAASS: Thank you.