Web Chat: The Middle East Peace Process

On Wednesday, July 28, Martin Indyk answered your questions about the current status of the Middle East peace process and the role of the United States in negotiations, in a live web chat moderated by David Mark, senior editor at POLITICO.

The transcript of this chat follows.

12:29 David Mark: Welcome to the discussion, Ambassador Indyk. Let’s get started.

12:29 [Comment From Benjamin S.: ] Clearly no one wants an escalation of the clashes in East Jerusalem and more bloodshed, but the first intifada was a huge factor in getting both sides to the table prior to Oslo. A third intifada, given Hamas’ capabilities, would be far more deadly, but is it possible that it might create the urgency necessary for another breakthrough?

12:31 Martin Indyk: I don’t think there’s any prospect for that and I don’t think it would actually improve the climate for negotiations this time around. At the moment both the PA in West Bank and Hamas in Gaza are acting to prevent violence and that — together with the reduced settlement activity and building in east Jerusalem helps to create a better environment for negotiations now than we have had since the last intifada.

12:31 [Comment From Michael Lame: ] The 2001 Mitchell Report called for Israel to “freeze all settlement activity, including the ‘natural growth’ of existing settlements.” As Obama’s Middle East envoy, George Mitchell renewed that call for a complete settlement freeze, and the upshot has been a year and a half of mostly wasted time on the Israeli-Palestinian negotiation track. Is George Mitchell the right person for the job? Do you anticipate that he will be eased out or replaced after the midterm elections?

12:34 Martin Indyk: In the interests of full disclosure you should know that I have a formal position as an (outside) adviser to Senator Mitchell. So I’m not objective. But from my experience working closely with him I do think he’s the right man for the job of special envoy, cajoling and massaging the two sides toward agreement. His skills in this regard will only become evident at the end of the day (if there is one), especially because he flies under the radar and keeps his cards very close to his chest.

12:34 [Comment From William Koenig: ] The peace process has not brought peace to Israel but it has greatly empowered the terrorist organizations that are major threats to Israel, moderate Arab countries, Europe and the United States. In most countries in the Middle East it is Arab fighting Arab, or for the Palestinians, it is Hamas fighting Fatah. Why should Israel be obligated or forced to make peace with people who speak peace in English and “death to Israel” in Arabic?

12:38 Martin Indyk: Peace is an Israeli and Jewish interest, first and foremost. That’s why Jews pray repeatedly for “shalom,” why the Israeli greeting is “shalom” and why every government since Israel’s creation has set as its objective – “shalom.” As for the Arabs, the tendency you refer to is present, but there’s also something else going on: Egypt made peace with Israel and has stuck to it for more than three decades; Jordan made peace with Israel and has stuck to it for more than 15 years; the Arab League declared publicly in a resolution in Arabic in 2002 that all the Arab states were willing to end the conflict with Israel, make peace with Israel and normalize relations with Israel. To be sure the Iranian regime aims to destroy Israel, as does Hamas and Hezbollah, but that’s no longer the predominant view in the Arab world.

12:38 David Mark: Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is reportedly in deteriorating health. Not to be morbid, but who are potential successors and how might those individuals affect the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?

12:41 Martin Indyk: Good question! His son Gamal is always referred to as the most likely successor. But Mubarak has been trying for many years to put him in line for the succession without apparent success. If that’s the case it suggests that the military are not willing to have him. In which case, it’s likely to be a general, as has been the case from Nasser to Sadat to Mubarak. The most oft-mentioned in that regard is the head of intelligence, Omar Suleiman, and defense Minister Tantawi.

12:42 [Comment From Jennie: ] Was the flotilla crisis a setback in terms of progress towards peace? In retrospect, could it have been a catalyst for negotiation?

12:47 Martin Indyk: The Chinese and Obama say that in every crisis lies an opportunity. In this case, I think the flotilla crisis had three positive effects that can help the negotiations:

1. The closure of Gaza has been significantly eased. This helps to defuse the issue as a major diversion from negotiations. The Turks are reported to be telling other would be flotilla organizers that there’s no need any more.

2. Obama and Netanyahu learned that they could achieve more by working together rather than against each other — and that led apparently to Bibi telling Obama how far he is willing to go in terms of creating an independent Palestinian state.

3. I think it helped to generate a mood-shift among the Israeli public, where they came to recognize that their leaders needed to take a political initiative. Prior to the international condemnation that accompanied the flotilla crisis they saw no need to do anything on the political/diplomatic level.

12:47 [Comment From Carmen D.: ] It’s been a year since President Obama gave his speech at Cairo University in which he vowed that “America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for . . . a state of their own.” Since then, the U.S.-sponsored peace initiative does not seem to have made much progress. Is there great disappointment in the Palestinian world? In Israel?

12:50 Martin Indyk: President Obama’s standing among Palestinians has apparently dropped to 17 percent. In the Arab world it’s probably a bit higher than that but it has certainly dropped since the heady days of the June 2009 speech in Cairo. That’s a consequence of dashed expectations. But IF Obama and can now get the Israelis and Palestinians into direct negotiations — which I believe is in prospect in the next month or so — and then if he can produce an agreement, he will rebound dramatically. As in domestic politics, it’s results that count.

12:51 David Mark: Friction has recently bubbled up between Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. What are the chances of Netanyahu seeking a new coalition that might have more flexibility in negotiations with the Palestinians?

12:53 Martin Indyk: Very low in my opinion, at least for the time being (in Israel the political landscape can change at a moment’s notice). Lieberman will likely leave the coalition when he believes elections to be on the horizon and he calculates that he can gain more from distancing his part from the government rather than supporting it. In the meantime, Liberman’s strong advocacy of separation from the Palestinians makes him quite comfortable supporting a government that enters negotiations on the basis of giving up territory (as long as it relieves Israel of responsibility for as many Palestinians as possible).

12:53 [Comment From Peter Fettner: ] How strong is the pressure on the state of Israel for reconciliation with Palestine and Gaza from Israeli civil society, and how can America connect with Israeli civil society in improving the state’s conduct?

12:56 Martin Indyk: Civil society in Israel is preoccupied with battling for the rights of minorities within Israeli society, and protesting against the barrier when it separates Palestinian villagers from their farm land. The sad reality is that the advocates of peace in Israel that used to be so vocal seem to have lost their voice. That’s because of the damage done to the belief in peace on the Israeli side by the intifada and the accompanying suicide bombings and rocket firings.

12:56 [Comment From Benjamin S.: ] On the Mubarak topic, is that likely to be a peaceful transition? What kind of activity should be expected from radical groups in Egypt?

1:00 Martin Indyk: Even the Egyptian “revolution” in 1952 was peaceful. And the transitions since then have also been peaceful. Today, the military and internal security forces have a strong grip on the country, so it seems unlikely that there will be violence or instability. However, there will be a political vacuum and the uncertainty that will accompany that. Egypt is a country used to one-man rule since the Pharaohs. But when this Pharaoh passes it will take some time for the next one to establish himself. And that could be a problem because Egypt — as the largest and militarily most powerful Arab state — has a critical role to play in regional affairs.

1:01 [Comment From Faisal: ] What’s behind Turkey’s coolness toward the United States and its anger toward Israel? How much is politics? How much are there genuine differing state interests?

1:07 Martin Indyk: I’m not sure that I would describe it as “coolness” toward the U.S. Erdogan and his foreign minister are keen to establish Turkey as an independent player on the world stage and in its immediate neighborhood in particular. There’s a natural pulling away from the U.S. as a result. But they show every signs of wanting to remain a NATO ally. On the other hand, Erdogan has been deliberately distancing Turkey from Israel in order to curry favor in the Arab world. This has been dramatically successful in erasing the memories of Ottoman Turkey in its former Arab colonies. There’s a Turkish frenzy in the Arab world today. But as the Turks discovered in trying to settle their long-running dispute with Armenia, it’s easier to assert a desire for “zero conflicts” in its neighborhood than it is to achieve it. So, for example, if Turkey wants to be a player in the ME it has to be able to show that it can help resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. It can’t do that without have a relationship of trust with Israel. And so, now we begin to see the first signs of a Turkish-Israeli rapprochement.

1:08 [Comment From Arnold D: ] There have been some U.S. critics of the Obama administration who say it’s really important for him to make a trip to Israel to reassert his hopes for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Do you think a trip like this, which would have to also include the West Bank, would be helpful?

1:08 [Comment From Tom: ] Back to the Cairo speech…is it time for President Obama to address the Muslim world again?

1:13 Martin Indyk: I’ll answer both these questions together. President Obama makes great, inspirational speeches and the public abroad responds very positively to them. However, as I noted in an earlier response, unless there’s follow through that produces visible results, the publics tend to become disappointed — and the higher the expectations he generates, the greater the disappointment. So, Obama should only address the Muslim World again when he has something real and positive to point to.

On the Israeli side, I think the administration has made a mistake in failing to reach out to the Israeli public. There Obama has the lowest standing of anywhere. That was an unnecessary “own goal,” which must be corrected for one simple reason — if the president wants to achieve his goal of Israeli-Palestinian peace he cannot achieve that without the support of the Israeli public. And if they don’t trust him, they’re not going to press their own leadership to respond to his calls for peacemaking. So, yes he should go to Israel and speak to the Israeli people “yesterday.”

1:14 [Comment From Peter Fettner: ] How would you respond to the suggestion by General Petraeus, Stephen Kinzer, and others that our support of Israel, under present conditions, is undermining the United States’ position in the Middle East?

1:18 Martin Indyk: I think we need to be careful not to misconstrue Petraeus’ remarks. He said that the failure to make progress in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict makes it more difficult to make progress on our other vital interests in the region. I agree with him. Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict won’t resolve the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, or any of the other conflicts in the region for that matter. But it will enhance America’s standing and influence in the region, and make it easier for Arab governments to associate with our regional strategy.

1:18 [Comment From Jakob: ] With Iran continuing its drive to nuclear power and potentially nuclear weapons – what impact does this have on Arab-Israeli relations? Should Israel conduct a military attack on Iran, will this hurt or spur on the peace process? What results could come from such a development?

1:23 Martin Indyk: Iran’s efforts to dominate the Middle East region, backed by its nuclear program and its backing for Hamas and Hezbollah, pose a threat to Arab governments as well as Israel. That has the potential to translate into a common effort to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict in order to deny Iran the ability to exploit that conflict to advance its hegemonic ambitions. However, for that potential to be turned into a reality requires a process that builds trust between Israel and its Arab neighbors and, unfortunately, we’re only at the start of that effort.

An Israeli attack on Iran would probably make it more difficult to promote Arab-Israeli peace because the Arab people would turn against Israel, even though their governments might quietly welcome the attack.

1:24 [Comment From Michael Lame: ] Hamas can play the spoiler role either from inside or outside a Palestinian government. Which way offers the most potential for a negotiated settlement – including Hamas in a reunified PA or keeping it out until and unless it adheres to the Quartet requirements?

1:26 Martin Indyk: Michael has posed one of those Middle Eastern questions that don’t have a good answer. Hamas outside the peace tent can play a spoiler role; Hamas inside the tent can paralyze the negotiations. The best way, in my view, is try to move ahead with negotiations with the PA and the PLO, while keeping the door open to Hamas’ entry into the process should they be willing to accept the Quartet conditions.

1:27 [Comment From Peter Fettner: ] Your answers today reflect a strong sense of the difference between people and government. Generally, do you see a larger role for civil society in Middle Eastern international relations?

1:29 Martin Indyk: I strongly believe in a top-down and bottom-up approach. Without leadership on both sides determined to make peace, it’s extremely difficult for civil society to make a significant difference. But without civil society actively engaged in the effort to reach across boundaries and connect with the people on the other side of the conflict, it will be impossible to secure a lasting peace.

1:30 David Mark: Thanks for joining us in the chat today.