On the Record

Bin Laden Peace Dividend for Middle East?

Martin S. Indyk

In an interview with Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for CFR.org, Martin Indyk explains how the killing of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden could mean enhanced leverage for the United States in Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. According to Indyk, this development could increase President Obama’s credibility in the Middle East, both in the Arab world and with the Israelis.

Bernard Gwertzman: After Sunday night’s surprise announcement by President Obama that the United States had killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan, al Qaeda is back in the news after a period of being back-burnered. What impact do you see his death having on the overall Middle East situation?

Martin Indyk: Al Qaeda was already suffering a serious blow to its standing as a result of the Arab awaking of recent months. Bin Laden’s message to the Arab people over the last ten years had consistently been that violence and terrorism were the way to redeem Arab dignity and overthrow pro-Western, pro-American governments that had made peace with Israel. Al Qaeda’s message was that through violence and terrorism, the rights of Arabs, Muslims, and Palestinians would be redeemed. The recent narrative that the Arab people have been writing for themselves in just about every country across the Arab world recently has been a very different one: that peaceful, non-violent demonstrations are the way to topple unpopular leaders and redeem the dignity of the Arab people. It is very much about dignity. They have shown that the opposite way from al-Qaeda works, and that’s the context in which al Qaeda now suffers the body blow of the killing of its iconic leader. Al Qaeda is now faced not only with a leadership crisis but a credibility crisis and a narrative crisis.

Gwertzman: The Egyptians were able to successfully mediate a unity deal between the two main Palestinian factions–Fatah and Hamas–and there is supposed to be an agreement signed this week. Yet, after the announcement of Bin Laden’s death, Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh condemned the United States (Reuters) for the killing and a Fatah spokesman praised it as a step toward peace. Will this make Palestinian reconciliation more difficult?

Indyk: The reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas has been going on for four or five years now. Each time they reach an agreement, it falls apart pretty quickly because they are fundamentally adversaries. They have very different approaches to resolving the Palestinian conflict. President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority, who heads Fatah, promotes the two-state solution and wants to achieve agreement with Israel through peaceful negotiations that lead to the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. The Hamas organization seeks a one-state solution–that is to replace Israel with the state of Palestine and do it through violence and terrorism. To that extent, they have a common agenda with al Qaeda, which probably is part of Haniyeh calling Bin Laden “a great martyr.” Haniyeh is also under pressure from Hamas’ militant wing, which doesn’t want to go along with Fatah and Abbas and the implications of coming to terms with Israel. I suspect he may be playing to that audience in his statement.

Whatever the case, it underscores the distance between the two approaches. Hamas is probably at this point reconciled with Fatah, not because it is changing its stripes, but because it is responding to popular pressure, particularly in Gaza, from young people who have been demonstrating in the streets and demanding unification. [Also,] Hamas’ position in Syria is in jeopardy because the uprising in Syria has put a real strain on the relationship between the regime of President Bashar al-Assad and Hamas, which has its external headquarters in Damascus. Hamas philosophy is closer to the Muslim Brotherhood, which is at the moment an enemy of Assad. So, suddenly Hamas’ external headquarters is looking at the possibility that it is going to be thrown out of Damascus and [there’s] talk about relocating to Cairo and Doha. A lot of these pressures aren’t always visible in the United States.

Read the full interview at cfr.org »