U.S. Victory in Iraq Opens Possibility of Palestinian-Israeli Settlement

Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk
Martin S. Indyk Former Brookings Expert, Distinguished Fellow - The Council on Foreign Relations

April 9, 2003

Wednesday, April 9, 2003, will be a day that will go down in history. You will probably remember and even tell your grandchildren what you did on this day. It’s not quite the same, as some of you who will recall, those of you who are older in the audience, as the day that John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Or some others of you will recall the day that Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat shook hands on the White House lawn. For history afficionados, that was September 13, 1993. But Wednesday, April 9, 2003, will go down in history and certainly it will go down in Middle Eastern history, as the day that an Arab tyrant was removed from power by American force. And it will go down in history because I believe that its impact on the Middle East will be quite dramatic.

What I wanted to do today was to try to assess from an immediate perspective what that impact is likely to be, first all in the Arab world and then on the prospect for moving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict out of the deep rut that it is now in and back on the road toward reconciliation and peaceful settlement.

First of all in terms of the impact in the Arab world. What we are witnessing today is the only regime change that has taken place in the Middle East in four decades, with the notable exception of the revolution in Iran, which of course is not an Arab country, and of course the multiple changes of government that have taken place in Israel, which is the only democratically elected successive governments in the Middle East.

In the Arab world it is extraordinary to think that in almost four decades there hasn’t been a change in government. What we have is essentially frozen regimes. It is true that sooner or later the leaders die. But we have this strange phenomenon that we observers of the Middle East have come to term the phenomenon of the son also rising. That is to say, not just in the case of the monarchies of the region, in which King Hussein of Jordan dies and is replaced by his son, or King Hassan of Morocco dies and is replaced by his son. But the phenomenon of President Assad of the Syrian Arab Republic dying and being replaced by his son, and before long we are likely to have President Mubarak of Egypt passing from the scene, and lo and behold, his son is being promoted. So the notion of change in the Arab world is a very unusual phenomenon. In fact, it takes some 250,000 to 300,000 American troops, it seems, to dislodge the regime. And we see even then how difficult it appeared to be, at least for the first week.

The Four Dinosaurs

And that tells you something about the nature of Arab politics. In a region which was assumed to be and has the reputation of being very unstable, a volatile region, in fact it has been extraordinarily stable when it comes to the regimes of the Arab countries. In particular what we have in the Arab world is four Arab regional powers, the main Arab countries: Egypt, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq. They dominate the scene politically in the Arab world, and they have been like dinosaurs, absolutely frozen in time in terms of their politics, in terms of their failing to meet the basic needs of their people, particularly in giving them any room for political expression.

Change that has occurred in the Arab world has really only happened on the periphery, in smaller countries, where even though you have the same phenomenon of the father passing on power to the son, at least you have a younger generation of leadership emerging. We see this in places like Morocco, Bahrain, Qatar, and Jordan, where these younger leaders are more attuned to the needs of their people in the 21st century and are embarked on a program of economic and political reforms—very gradual, very careful, yet it is happening in these countries. But not in the major parts of the Arab world.

A Ripple Effect from the Fall of Saddam Hussein

Now, you have a phenomenon that we are witnessing today of one of the major regimes, one of the most repressive, probably the most repressive, regimes, being taken out and hopefully replaced by a more pluralistic government that will be more representative of the various communities of Iraq and more sensitive to their basic needs. And you can produce a profound ripple effect. Not a domino theory. I think it is a wrong notion to imagine that the change of regime in Iraq is going to produce changes of regime in the short term in other countries like Egypt, or Saudi Arabia, or even Syria.

But I do think that it will have a profound impact over time on the politics of the Arab world. That will depend, of course, on how successful the regime change actually is in Iraq. If it turns out that we move in and establish a military occupation and impose a leadership on the Iraqi people which becomes unpopular and unable to meet their needs, then the impact can be quite damaging and dangerous to the whole region.

But if instead we follow the rhetoric that our President has espoused in the last couple of days and move quickly to establish an Iraqi Interim Authority of the Iraqi people that is representative of all of the different communities of Iraq and that essentially assumes responsibility and guides the process of reconstruction by the Iraqi people and for the Iraqi people, and if as a result of that interim process we get an election and an Iraqi government that is more or less stable and more or less able to rebuild the country and take advantage of the extraordinary resources that Iraq has, then there are reasons to be optimistic about the outcome. Iraq, after all has a secular population that is educated, a large middle class, some of the largest oil reserves in the world, the Tigris and Euphrates rivers for a bountiful supply of water, fertile land. In other words, all of the necessary resources to become a model for the Arab world. That, together with the changes on the periphery that are already taking place in the smaller countries, can have a profound impact over time on the other three dinosaurs—Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Egypt.

Indeed these countries were already feeling the pressure for change as a result of the change in our approach to them following 9/11, when we had started to press for a different kind of agenda, of reforms of their political systems, of their education systems, of their religious systems, and of their economic systems. But this change in a major Arab country will impact that dynamic that has already begun in a way that I think will be quite profound.

The Overturn in Iraq and the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

How will this impact the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Well here, first of all, a little bit of history. If you look at the periods in which major breakthroughs were achieved in the Arab-Israeli conflict, you will see that they came after major wars in the Middle East. First in 1973, the Yom Kippur war generated a sustained American engagement by the Republican administration of Richard Nixon with his Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, followed up by Gerald Ford and Henry Kissinger, which produced three disengagement agreements, two between Israel and Egypt and one between Israel and Syria, which laid the foundations for the Israel-Egypt peace treaty, which was a direct outgrowth of the Arab-Israeli war of 1973.

Again in 1991, the Gulf War which produced the liberation of Kuwait, as a result of sustained engagement under the Republican administration by this president’s father and his Secretary of State James Baker, the United States was able to bring together Israel and all of its Arab neighbors, launching a negotiating process in Madrid in October 1991 that produced over time, in a couple of years, the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians in 1993. In 1994 it led to the Israel-Jordan peace treaty, and almost produced peace agreements between Israel and Syria, Israel and Lebanon, and a final peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

So if history is a precedent, this war, if it generates sustained American engagement, to take advantage of the changes that will be produced in the region, can well produce an opportunity for a renewed Arab-Israel peace process that could finally resolve this conflict. I say could because it is by no means certain. There is no doubt in my mind that there is an opportunity here, and it comes from the following factors. First of all, what we have done in Iraq will have a profound immediate impact on the balance of power in the region.

The Absent Superpower

We are the hyperpower, the superpower, and we dominate international politics these days. But in the Middle East we have been essentially absent from the region’s politics for the last two years. Certainly absent from the Arab-Israeli process. Because President Bush decided that the game wasn’t worth the candle, that it wasn’t worth being engaged in the effort to promote Arab-Israeli peace. And therefore we have not brought our influence to bear.

Now, as a result of what we have done in Iraq, we dominate the Middle East. We are in the Middle East. We have a vast army in the heart of the Middle East in a way that gives us dramatic influence over the whole region. In particular, those regimes that we have already pointed the finger at as rogue regimes, that sponsor terror and seek weapons of mass destruction, the regimes of Syria and Iran, those regimes will now be very much on the defensive.

Just as an aside here, it is interesting to see the different ways these two regimes are dealing with the situation. The Iranians are keeping their heads down. They are quite happy to see Saddam Hussein taken out. He was, after all, the man who launched war against Iran and fought them and defeated them over ten years, with tremendous damage in terms of casualties to the Iranian people. The Syrians, on the other hand, are sticking their heads up, almost as though they wanted to be the next target. Their cooperation with the Iraqis, which continued until a couple of days ago, was baffling behavior; baffling I say because this son’s father, Hafiz Al-Asad, the man who ruled Syria since 1970, would have never made such a mistake. He calculated the balance of power like a computer. That’s why he joined our coalition in 1991, which was an unusual thing for Syria to do at the time. But his son seems to have completely miscalculated and instead joined with Saddam Hussein. This has earned him the focus of Donald Rumsfeld’s attention. If you look at the remarks of our Secretary of Defense today you will see that there can be no doubt that he intends that Syria will be next. But my broader point is that both of these regimes are going to be very much on the defensive now and will need to be very cautious about how they behave.

Terrorist Groups Linked to Iran and Syria Now on the Defensive

And the terrorist organizations that they support will also be very cautious. You may notice that Hezbollah, the Lebanese terrorist organization that has been operating in southern Lebanon against Israel for many years now, has been extraordinarily quiet over the last three months during the buildup to this war. And the other, Palestinian, terrorist organizations, that have their headquarters in Damascus, like Palestine Islamic Jihad, or Hamas, which draws succor from the Iranian regime and from Syria, have also been relatively quiet. In fact there has been only one terrorist attack in the last 2 or 3 months. And that, I think, is an indication that they understand that in these circumstances they need to be very careful.

This presages a shift in the balance of power in the Arab world in favor of the moderate regimes and against the more radical regimes. In favor of those who would seek to put an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict and against those who would seek to continue it by sponsoring terrorist attacks against Israel. And that creates a much more favorable context than we have had in the last couple of years for trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Situation of the Palestinians and the Israelis Today

It happens to coincide with developments that are taking place on the Israeli-Palestinian front independent of what has happened in Iraq, but which can also benefit the prospect for peace making.

On the Palestinian side, we have a situation in which Yasser Arafat finds himself under intense pressure from his own people to change his leadership. And that pressure has resulted now in something that is unprecedented in the Arab world: the appointment of a Palestinian prime minister who actually has power. There are many prime ministers in the Arab world, but none of the others has any power to form their own governments. None of the others have independent backing from the legislative councils as Abu Mazen, the appointed prime minister of the Palestinians, now has.

This combines with what I would call the exhaustion factor on the Palestinian side. After more than two and a half years of the Intifada, the Palestinians are exhausted. Unemployment is very high, their economy is devastated, the majority of Gazans live below the poverty line, something like 40-50% of West Bankers live below the poverty line now. They are in desperate straits. And the terrorist groups are quiet for the time being not only because they sense the winds of change in the region, but also because they sense the winds of change in the Palestinian community, too.

The Intifada Has Been a Disaster for the Palestinians

The Palestinian people cannot put up with the kind of Israeli responses that the terrorists generate. The Israeli army is now in control of most of the West Bank and large parts of Gaza. And with that comes a recognition on the part of the Palestinians that the course that they have embarked on over the last two and a half years has been a disaster for their cause. That they went from a situation where President Clinton was offering them a 97 percent solution, that is to say, 97 percent of the West Bank, all of Gaza, Arab east Jerusalem, sovereignty over the Haram-esh-Sharif over the Temple Mount in Jerusalem where the holy mosques are, and a fair resolution of the refugee problem. They went from having that on the table to having nothing at all. With, as I said, their economy devastated, the Palestinian Authority in an advanced state of collapse, and Yasser Arafat no longer welcome anywhere in the world, particularly not in the capital of the superpower.

Possible Peace Initiatives from Israel

On the Israeli side, you see a similar exhaustion after two and a half years. Their economy is also in dire straits. The standard of living has been dropping dramatically in the last six months. One in five Israelis is now under the poverty line. Unemployment is 12 percent and rising. The government faces a blowout in the deficit such that the Finance Ministry is now reporting that it won’t be able to pay salaries in the next couple of months. And the political leadership in Israel is now saying that Israel needs to take a political initiative combined with economic reform measures to get the economy out of the rut.

In addition, we see this only in part but it is a developing phenomenon, Israel’s army, which is a reserve army, now in the West Bank and Gaza is beginning to complain seriously about the duty that they are required to undertake. And as a result we see the defense minister, the former chief of staff Shaul Mofaz, now saying that it is necessary to take a political initiative. The time has come for Israel to take the initiative to get out of this situation.

So, independent of what is happening in Iraq, there is more fertile ground among Israelis and Palestinians for a political move that could get the two parties back on the path towards a negotiated solution.

Is the Leadership There?

The critical question has been in the past, and always will be when it comes to resolving the Arab- Israeli conflict, the question of whether the leadership is there to achieve real progress. On the Palestinian side there is a very real question mark. Yasser Arafat is clearly a failed leader and there is no way in which any Israeli government will make a deal with him again. He is viewed universally in Israel as a serial breaker of agreements.

Abu Mazen, as prime minister, holds out the hope of a more responsible Palestinian leadership emerging from this situation, one that can fight the terrorists, engage in a negotiation, and reach an agreement. Abu Mazen, after all, is the man who oversaw the Oslo negotiation. Abu Mazen, after all, is the man who from the beginning of the Intifada has stood against Palestinian use of violence and terrorism, who has argued to his own people that this has not only been a disaster for their cause but has also been morally wrong for Palestinian suicide bombers to go into the heart of Israel and blow themselves up, killing innocent people in the process.

Abu Mazen’s Three Problems

But Abu Mazen has three problems. The first is Yasser Arafat, who is still around. And having appointed him [Abu Mazen] is nevertheless determined to prevent him from actually wielding real authority. Abu Mazen was supposed to present his new cabinet this week, but it does not look as though he will be able to do so precisely because Arafat is blocking the kind of changes that Abu Mazen would have to make to remove the old guard that is identified with the corrupt and arbitrary rule of Yasser Arafat.

The second problem is Hamas. Abu Mazen has been negotiating with Hamas to try to get them to agree to a unilateral cease fire, stopping all terrorist attacks, not just in Israel but in the West Bank and Gaza as well. But he has not succeeded, at least not yet, and it is unlikely that he will unless he is prepared to confront them. And the problem with confronting them is that he doesn’t have anymore a Palestinian security apparatus capable of confronting Hamas.

And his third problem is, unfortunately, Abu Mazen himself. He is a man whom I respect greatly. But he is an old style Arab politician who believes much more in building consensus than in confrontation. And in these circumstances building consensus advantages Yasser Arafat, not Abu Mazen.

What Can We Expect from Ariel Sharon?

On the Israeli side there is the potential for leadership from Ariel Sharon. After all, he has a very strong mandate from his people. He’s a man who is looking at the last years of his rule, who, I believe—I worked with him for his first 6 months as prime minister—I believe he is a man who would like to go down in history with something on his record other than the fact that he was the one that put the Israeli army into Lebanon and got them stuck there for ten years and then put the army back into the West Bank and got them stuck there for another ten years.

But there are other Sharons competing for the mind of the prime minister. The general, who would like to do away with Yasser Arafat and the Oslo accords and has no intentions of giving up significant territory in the West Bank, let alone evacuating any more than a few settlements on the periphery. And Sharon the politician is a man who has a coalition that he didn’t want. He wanted a broad coalition with the Labor Party that would have given him a lot more flexibility to respond to actionis that Abu Mazen might take on the Palestinian side. But he doesn’t have that coalition. He has a right wing coalition that is pressing him to engage in more settlement activity and pressing him to oppose the Palestinian state that he himself has proposed in the past as a way of resolving the conflict. So with Sharon there is a question mark as well.

Without Sustained American Engagement Nothing Can Happen

And then there is George Bush. The only way in which the dramatic events and dynamics unleashed by war in the region can be turned to advantage for the peace process would be through sustained American engagement. If there were sustained American engagement now, the problems that I have highlighted for Sharon and for the Palestinians could be overcome. But without sustained American engagement nothing can happen. First, because the Palestinians and Israelis now so mistrust each other, there is so much hatred, that left to their own devices they cannot take advantage of the positive circumstances that I have described.

It’s one thing to build confidence between enemies, to reach agreements, and then to implement them. But we’ve been through all that on the Israeli-Palestinian front. And it has been broken. And destroyed. And now to rebuild it is a much more difficult task and can’t be done by the parties themselves. Only the United States, which has the trust of Israel and influence over the Palestinians and the other Arab states that need to support this process, can lead the parties to the promised land. And now the United States has dramatic influence on the whole situation.

It Is Up to George Bush

So it is up to George Bush. And the question is, what will he do? Well, on the one hand he feels very strongly that it is a mistake to get involved in this conflict. That has been his default position for the last two years. He considers that Clinton and Barak were two desperate men trying to make a deal. Arafat rejected that deal and resorted to violence and there is no point, therefore, in trying to broker a deal between Sharon and Arafat.

But something has happened in the last month which has captured his attention. After months of telling the Palestinians that they must get new leadership, the Palestinians have now acted. And the President has taken notice. This Abu Mazen guy he likes. He told his staff yesterday that he wants to see him. Of course Abu Mazen is not too keen to be embraced by George Bush right now, as Yasser Arafat will paint him as America’s choice and undermine him with his own people.

Yesterday you may have heard the President in his press conference with Tony Blair saying that he is quite hopeful about the situation in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, and that he is committed to working as hard as Tony Blair has worked in Northern Ireland to make this process a success. Last week he told his principal advisors—secretary of state, secretary of defense, vice president, national security advisor—that he wanted to do something big in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And of course, he has Tony Blair and his daddy telling him that he really does need to do something on the Israeli-Palestinian front if he is to present a more benign face for the United States to the Arab world following the war in Iraq.

We Need Two Policies

Indeed, I think it’s absolutely correct that we need to develop now two policies. One to stabilize the situation in Iraq and give the Iraqi people a chance to establish “institutions of liberty,” as the President calls them, to rebuild their country in freedom. And at the same time to develop a policy for promoting Israeli-Palestinian peace as a way of presenting a more benign visage to the region and protecting our interests. And by the way, along the way, promoting Israel’s interests as well.

And of course he’s going to hear exactly the same thing from President Mubarak and Crown Prince Abdullah [of Saudi Arabia] and King Abdullah [of Jordan]. That this is essential for them as well. But the President has other priorities. Whether it’s Iraq or North Korea, or the economy, and certainly, his reelection. And when it comes to his reelection, he doesn’t want to alienate the Christian Right, which is opposed to his engagement in trying to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians. And he doesn’t want to alienate potential Jewish voters that he has won over by his policy of standing back from engagement in the process.

So it’s still a question mark. If I read the tea leaves in my willful optimism, I would say that I do think the President is going to take advantage of this opportunity. I hope he will, because, as history has suggested, there is an opportunity here. And with sustained American engagement we can achieve much, not only in Iraq but in the Israeli-Palestinian arena as well. To turn from making war to making peace in a region that has known little of it and certainly deserves it.