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Stateside: Annapolis in the Rearview Mirror

Stateside With Rosalea Barker

Annapolis in the Rearview Mirror

On the day after the Annapolis Conference, I joined an on-the-record conference call that had been arranged by the Council on Foreign Relations so that the media could get the benefit of the views of its President, Richard N. Haass, a frequent commentator on Middle Eastern affairs. There’s no telling how many journalists were on the call, but the ones who got to ask questions came from news organizations both within and outside the United States. The official transcript has not yet been posted on the CFR website. Look for it here: http://www.cfr.org/media/press_briefings.html

Before you get to my transcript of the part of the conference call I was able to listen to, I want to offer the opinion that anyone who says that "failure is not an option" — as the Secretary of State did ad absurdum during the run-up to this conference -- is a fool who is flying in the face of God.

Failure is a divine gift to the human race to counterbalance that other divine gift—the willingness to take risks even when the chance of success is minimal. The arrogance we humans have to summon in order to take such risks absolutely needs the counterbalance of the humility that comes with failure. So failure definitely IS an option.

But perhaps the Secretary was just leaving out a second half of the sentence, some veiled threat. When you read Haass’s comparison of this peace process to the arguments about US having to stay engaged in Iraq, it’s tempting to make the case that the Annapolis Conference was just a set-up to allow the US to blame the Arab world for not giving the Palestinians enough support.

The perception that the US is more pro-Israeli than pro-Arab isn’t helped by the way the 13 stars (representing the original 13 American colonies) are arranged in a pattern that looks like a Star of David on the seal of the Department of State.

(And for the conspiracy theorists among you who subscribe to the view that the CFR is a tool of those seeking to create a New World Order, you might as well know that the name of the bus company the State Department charters for occasions such as the Annapolis Conference is New World.)

::RICHARD N. HAASS CONFERENCE CALL WITH MEDIA, 11/28/07::

Because I was at an earlier event, I didn’t join the conference call until halfway through, so this transcript starts partway through Haass’s answer to an earlier question.

It ought to essentially push hard for an adjustment in Israeli settlement policy so that the unauthorized settlements are removed, so that government subsidies to certain settlement areas end, and it ought to be totally coordinated with the US position on territory. That essentially, US policy towards Israeli settlements ought to be essentially to accept the three principal concentrations, the so-called Three Settlement Blocks, but it ought to oppose or discourage Israeli settlement activity elsewhere. And I think as part of that, the United States should also offer to be part of a very generous international effort to help Israel settle individuals and families who would obviously be adversely affected by a peace agreement that changed, if you will, the map.

QN: You don’t think that the US has a credibility problem here in playing this role—both with the Arabs who will be watching over the process and even internally with Israel [unclear], so-called?

I believe the United States has some credibility problems. There’s always a degree of suspicion because of our special relationship with Israel. I believe also the Administration has compounded, if you will, that traditional problem through things it has done and said over the last seven years, and things it has not done and not said over the last seven years.

But at the end of the day, the Arab world and the Palestinians understand that we’ve reached a point in history where Israelis and Palestinians alone aren’t likely to be able to make peace. They need international help. They need US help. So I believe that the Arab world and the Palestinians will be willing to work with the United States in that they will be prepared to accept our role and our credibility if we act credibly.

So what the United States says and does every day from now on will affect the perception of the United States. I don’t believe that what the United States has done or not done over the last seven years or the last forty years in any way precludes the United States playing a major role now.

QN: Two quick questions if I may. The idea of a Palestinian- and a Syrian-Israeli negotiation, do you think that those could go on at the same time? The Palestinian and Syrian negotiations, so we’d have two tracks at once? And also, what about the issue of Hamas in the Gaza Strip? That really has been the six million dollar, the six million pound giant in the room that nobody talked about.

On the first question, I believe the Israelis could negotiate with Palestinians and Syrians at the same time. If my analysis is correct, the Israeli-Syrian track is likely to progress further faster than the Israeli-Palestinian track and, again, if this analysis is correct, it would mean that an Israeli government—be it this one or the next one—would probably be in a position of presenting an Israeli-Syrian agreement to the Knesset, to the Israeli people, however they were to do it, before they would be presenting an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.

History suggests it would be very hard to present both simultaneously, that it might overload the circuits. I doubt we would have that problem. It’s hard for me to imagine that both would come to fruition at roughly the same time, but if I’m wrong and if that were to happen, I would put that in the category of good problems. Then it becomes a tactical question, if you will, for the Israeli government of the day to decide how to manage the domestic politics. I think we’re unlikely to have that problem.

On the second question, I’m not quite sure how to answer it other than to say that what I was mentioning before about the need to strengthen a Palestinian interlocutor, I believe, is true. Ultimately, groups like Hamas have to understand that if they want to enter into negotiations with Israel, they have to give up violence. That seems to me to be the pre-requisite of a political process. If they try to disrupt the political process, either directly by taking on the Fatah and the Palestinian Authority, or indirectly by carrying out terror against Israelis, then it becomes a challenge to the Palestinian Authority and to Fatah to deal with it. That’s when I said the international community has to provide them—the Palestinian Authority—with the means that they can deal with their internal security challenge.

I think for Hamas, there’s ultimately going to be a choice, which is: If you want to participate, that means giving up violence and co-existing with a Jewish state. My guess is that at some point there’ll be something of a debate, if there isn’t already, within Hamas—as I believe there is. Some in Hamas may actually decide that it’s better to join the political process. There’ll be those in Hamas who I believe will never join a political process because a political process suggests compromise. And it wouldn’t shock me if at some point there had to be a sorting-out on the Palestinian side to come up with an Authority, with a Palestinian leadership that was both able and willing to make peace. That’s the way it’s proven in other parts of the world when you’ve had these processes.

But, again, that’s why I think it’s important to put on the table—as I said before—a very strong, defiant end goal about what is in it for the Palestinians if they give up violence and if they’re prepared to negotiate peace. I think that helps stimulate the debate within Hamas. I think it legitimizes and gains popular support for those Palestinians who are prepared to give up force, and we have to persuade as many people within Hamas as we can that they will not get their way through the force of the gun. So, what’s going to meet both the diplomatic and a security dimension to the policy.

QN: I wonder if you would address the larger strategic context for the United States and where this fits into it. The fact it’s coming so late in Bush’s second term suggests he’s got some legacy-burnishing attempt here. But also you mentioned they’re trying to take advantage of the anti-Iranian feeling amongst many Arabs in senior government. Assess for us where the legacy looks like to you, of our strategy in the Middle East. I know you’ve written about that, but I haven’t heard you talk about it recently.

It’s not ideal, shall we say, that this was left until essentially the last year of the Administration. Ironically, it’s similar to what happened in the Clinton Administration. They tried to accomplish a great deal in the last year and at the end of the day that proved counterproductive. You end up working against deadlines, which isn’t always the best thing when you need to prepare context and prepare external support for a negotiation.

My first point is it’s not ideal. I talked at the beginning about what I thought was motivating the Administration, but if you’re asking me about what I think will be the legacy, on balance I’m afraid it will be quite negative. I believe the Administration will leave this part of the world considerably worse off than it found it, and I believe that overall the position of the United States has been diminished.

The greatest strategic beneficiary of the last seven years has been Iran. Iran has gained through the weakness of its strategic rival, Iraq. It’s gained also because of the inroads it’s made into Iraq. It’s gained also through the growth and strength and influence of Hamas and Hezbollah. Iran has also gained from the fact that the United States and many others have not put into place any serious energy policy, all of which has contributed to the upward pressure on prices, which has filled the Iranian treasury.

So for all these reasons, I think the principal strategic development of the last seven years, I would say: one, it’s the weakening of the American position in the greater Middle East; two, it’s the emergence of an imperial Iran with a significant reach and influence beyond the borders of the country; a third development is obviously the weakening of the Palestinian Authority and the emergence of Hamas as the dominant actor in Gaza; and fourth, and related certainly to the Iranian and the US position, is the disarray in Iraq, which has obviously strained significant US resources, and I believe it’s also proved to be a training ground for terrorists in the region and conceivably beyond. So for lots of reasons, I believe that the Middle East is in worse shape today than it was seven years ago.

QN: Do you regard either Ehud Olmert or Mamoud Abbas as strong enough politically—that is, with respect to their domestic constituencies—strong enough politically to even begin to make the very difficult concessions that would be required to reach a final settlement in a year or so?

I think with Mr. Abbas, I think he can begin the process. I don’t believe he can conclude it or see it through. He will face too much internal resistance. There’s also still the question of how much external support he gets. Again, I think he can begin this process, but I don’t think it’s realistic to expect him to stand up and embrace all sorts of compromises, which he would have to do because that’s what any agreement is going to entail.

Mr. Olmert has recovered somewhat from where he was few months ago and it’s quite possible that he could take to the Israeli electorate a proposal—or he could turn a future election into a de facto referendum. So I’m not sure he could keep his government together as it’s currently constituted to see through an agreement, but I believe he could negotiate one, and then again either have a formal referendum or turn an election into a referendum which he would run, as you will, as a peace candidate but more in the Rabin school of things, as a peace candidate who had taken care of Israeli security. And I think we saw in his speech the other day, and in some of his recent comments I think we’re beginning to see his positioning along those lines.

QN: Given all the negative factors you’ve raised here, and given your article last year on the New Middle East, a) was this attempt worthwhile making, and b) what are the consequences of failure?

The question of whether it was worthwhile, I come back to saying we’ll only know that when we look in the rearview mirror. In and of itself… I’ll put it another way: It’s only worthwhile if we follow up significantly. By that I mean it’s only worthwhile if the United States undertakes major actions to strengthen the hands of the Palestinian leadership, if it supports an Israeli-Syrian dialogue, if it articulates certain positions on final status which provide a context for negotiations to move forward. If the United States is prepared to do those things, then I believe this will be seen as the down payment on what could prove to be a wise investment. If, however, the United States doesn’t do these things and doesn’t see this through, then I believe Annapolis will come to be seen as counterproductive because it would then fail.

If the United States isn’t prepared to do these things, it runs a high risk of failure, in which it then enters the narrative of the Middle East as but the latest example of why negotiations at the behest of the United States are bound to fail. And it would simply add to the frustration in the region, and it would simply strengthen the hands of the arguments of those such as Iran or Hamas or Hezbollah who are saying that the only path for Palestinians to realize or satisfy their ambitions is through confrontation and terrorism and violence.

So now that the United States has made this choice, I would say that the United States has raised the pressure on itself to see it through and to succeed simply because the costs of failure would, I believe, be extraordinarily high.

QN: Do you have a sense that the Administration is prepared to follow through the way you’re talking?

I don’t have a sense. All I’m saying is, I came away from listening to the speeches concerned. I came away concerned by what the President and the Secretary of State were not prepared to say yesterday about laying out a political vision. I’m concerned also because there’s only a year left in the Administration and the Administration does become at some point a lame duck. I’m concerned also about—given the scale of the problems—if it had been left to me, I would have sequenced things differently.

I would not have launched such a high-pressure, high-profile initiative until more had been done to increase the odds it would succeed. I would have first given a major address about what the United States thought a peace process should lead to. I then would have taken steps to strengthen… I would have begun the process of strengthening the hand of the Palestinian Authority. I would have taken steps to have bolstered an Israeli government. Only in that context would I have launched a specific initiative. So I believe the Administration has increased the stakes and in some ways increased the pressures and the difficulties by beginning the process with such a visible, high-profile event. It would not have been my recommendation.

But that’s it. We are where we are. This has happened. People like me who were wary of proceeding in this route, it doesn’t change the argument that now that the United States has begun the process, it is important that it not fail.

In some ways, this is reminiscent—ironically enough—of the Iraq argument. Whether you thought it was right to get into Iraq, at some point the argument became that it’s important it not end in disarray or as a debacle. And I’d say the same thing here. Whatever you thought about the wisdom of convening Annapolis, it is now important that the follow-through, the follow-up be intense, be sustained, and be comprehensive, that it deal with diplomatic and security and economic dimensions, because otherwise the cost will be enormous and it will only strengthen the hands of those who have no interest in peace.

MODERATOR: The issue of Iran, as you said, some of the Arab states are coming precisely because they want to be part of a coalition, or worry about Iranian power. This question about whether a stable Sunni-Israeli-US counterbalancing alliance is possible or desirable or whether that’s something to shoot for, that’s getting a lot of discussion. What’s your take on that?

In my view, alliances or arrangements tend to need more than shared opposition to be sustainable. I thought it was interesting that, for example, the Saudi foreign minister made a public statement, if you will, out of not shaking the hand of his Israeli counterpart. And at the end of the day, you need him to do that. So, the common concern about Iran may have gotten people in the room, but it won’t be enough to propel this to success. At some point, Israelis and Arabs have to be able to forge some common agreements about what they’re for and not simply what they’re against. Otherwise this simply won’t be sustainable.

QN: I just wanted to seek your comment on how serious is President Bush about getting personally engaged with the Israelis and Palestinians against the context about he’s belatedly trying to [unclear] the Middle East peace as a way to counter Iran, hold Lebanon together, and keep Syria contained.

Well, it’s always difficult for outsiders to make those kinds of assessments. I would simply say that he’s placed a lot of his personal prestige and that of the Administration on the line by having convened Annapolis. On the other hand, I was struck by the fact that he still seemed to be keeping some distance. He was only there for several hours. He’s made it clear that the principal work will be done by his Secretary of State. This is not a President, I believe, who sees as his role model what Bill Clinton did at Camp David. This is a President who I believe is going to remain in that sense one step removed.

What remains to be seen, though, is whether he is prepared to authorize certain policies and whether he’s prepared to say certain things himself to create a context in which his Secretary of State can succeed. Secretaries of State, as important as they are, can’t by themselves succeed in the Middle East. Secretaries of State require that everyone perceive that they are acting with the full backing of the President. That, I believe, explains why Jim Baker was so successful. It explains why, I believe someone like Henry Kissinger was successful. It also explains why my boss Colin Powell, was not terribly successful—because people understood he did not have the full support of the President or the Administration.

So I believe, again, that the President needs to go on record and needs to deliver a very developed statement about what it is he and the United States, and his Administration, are prepared to support. Again, not to impose it on the parties but to create a context in which his Secretary of State can operate effectively and in which particular the Palestinian leadership can justify why it is they’re opting for negotiation over violence.

QN: Two quick questions. First, what does Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] have in his hands to bring back to the Palestinians? Secondly, regarding Hamas in Gaza, you only addressed the political part of the issue, which is trying to convince Hamas to abandon violence and pursue negotiations. What about the humanitarian condition in Gaza, and how do you convince 1.2 million people who are now—80 percent of them—below the line of poverty to espouse negotiations.

Two good questions. On the first,the only thing Abu Mazen really left with was a political process. That won’t provide him much for long. Very quickly, he needs to be able to point to one of two things: either an improving situation on the ground—and that could mean economic aid flowing in, Israeli settlements being dismantled—he needs to be able to say, This is different; or he needs to be able to work. He needs to be able to point to statements by the President of the United States or by the Prime Minister of Israel which stake out new and more forthcoming positions about the promise of the political process to the Palestinians. The sooner all this happens the better, otherwise he will be left quite exposed.

In terms of your second question, I agree. The humanitarian situation needs to be addressed. Poverty rates are extraordinarily high. The literacy rates and education rates are going down. People used to say the Palestinian society was the most bourgeois in the Arab world. I don’t think that’s true anymore. There’s been a real deterioration in the quality of life, particularly in Gaza. So again, I think it’s essential that the international community—and in particular a lot of the Arab governments that have benefited tremendously from the high price of oil—that there be a major infusion of resources and international relief efforts into the Palestinian areas and that this be associated with peace.

I think it’s important that it be done in a way that this be done to the extent possible that Mahmoud Abbas get the credit. That this be seen as a reward for what happens when Palestinians engage diplomatically.

QN: What do you think about Frank Gaffney and other neo-conservatives who say and compare Annapolis to a rape or to Munich in 1938. He wrote an article in the Washington Times pretty much saying that. I don’t know if you read it.

No, I did not. Since I didn’t read it, it’s hard for me to..

QN: I could give you a quote. He says: Despite official efforts to low-ball its significance, Miss Rice's attempt is shaping up to be a gang-rape of a nation on a scale not seen since Munich in 1938.

That seems to be absurd on the surface. The Administration went out of its way to be clear that it was not imposing anything on anyone. It made clear that its role was to facilitate a process and that the heavy lifting would have to be done by Israelis and Palestinians themselves. The President also explicitly said that it was committed to not simply Israel’s security but to Israel’s Jewishness, so all this seems to me quite consistent with the reality that at the end of the day, the Israeli government is going to have to decide.

QN: So do you think that Mr Gaffney is wrong, totally wrong?

I would simply say that I would disassociate myself completely from those sorts of remarks about what it is the Administration is doing or the United States is doing. It seems to me not just wrong but offensive in the choice of language. This Administration has been extraordinarily supportive of Israel—and remains extraordinarily supportive. My biggest problem besides the language—which, again, is truly offensive—is the idea that somehow when an American government, when a US administration, gets actively involved in promoting the cause of peace in the Middle East that somehow that is in any way an anti-Israeli policy is just deeply and fundamentally wrong.

Israel desperately wants and needs peace—not at any price, but it desperately wants and needs a peace that preserves it as a Jewish, secure, democratic, prosperous country. The United States can help do this, and if Annapolis succeeds in the way that people such as myself would like it to, then I believe it is entirely consistent with Israel’s interest. It would actually make Israel stronger and more prosperous, and would preserve its democratic and Jewish identity. This is something that is potentially fundamentally in Israel’s interest, and the United States is not going to—as I understand it—impose its preferences on any of the parties.

MODERATOR: With that I’d like to thank Richard Haass, President of CFR. I’d like to thank all of you for participating. A relatively chipper note to end with given all the gloomy prospects with this looking forward. One thing it does do is it guarantee there’ll be opportunity for even more calls and more discussion of a few subjects down the road, for sure. Thank you very much everybody for participating.

END OF CONFERENCE CALL

*************

rosalea.barker@gmail.com

--PEACE--

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