Sameer Lalwani is a policy analyst in the New America Foundation’s American Strategy Program
Last night, the New America Foundation co-hosted a dinner with The American Prospect around their June “Middle East issue” that featured a number of important pieces by my American Strategy Program colleagues. While the special issue centered on the broader strategic questions emerging out of the Middle East including our options for dealing with Iraq, Iran, and Saudi Arabia, the evening’s discussion narrowed in on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and “Ten Commandments for Mideast Peace” co-authored by former negotiators Daniel Levy (Israel), Ghaith al-Omari (Palestine), and Rob Malley (U.S.). Levy and al-Omari are currently both fellows at New America, Malley is the International Crisis Group Middle East Director.
Unfortunately Ghaith al-Omari had to undergo a last minute dental procedure and Steve Clemons, who was scheduled to host and moderate the event, was stranded on a tarmac in Providence due to inclement weather (a recurring event for Clemons). So Flynt Leverett–who also had an excellent memo laying out our options in the June issue titled “To the Incoming President: On Iraq“–stepped in along with Bob Kuttner, to host the evening.
The timing of the dinner couldn’t have been better as it followed on the heels of the Bush administration’s proposal last Monday to bolster Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and PM Salam Fayyad’s government by renewing financial assistance, offering security assistance, working with Israel to release prisoners and ease its chokehold of checkpoints, and, most significantly, creating a political horizon with a regional conference scheduled for the fall.
Malley and Levy started off the evening sketching out the terrain of the post-Palestinian-split environment and whether the administration’s recent proposal was both serious and substantial enough to change the dynamic in the region. Though the meeting of regional actors on the peace process, proposed for the fall, has been likened to the 1991 Madrid conference, Malley pointed out the significant differences in this climate–the fragmentation of the Palestinians, the polarization of the Middle East, the interconnectedness of regional problems increasing the propensity for interference, the collapse of US credibility, and the absence of a shared vision–shatters the analogy.
Levy underscored that the absence of a substantive, not merely nominal, referee in the process has had a devastating impact on calculating risk. The Winograd Commission interim report reveals that a number of ministers, who signed on to the bombing campaign against Lebanon last summer, had the assumption of US intervention after 48-96 hours built-in to their decision-making process. Without the US reining everyone in, Israel was locked into a downward spiral of escalation.
The general strike against the administration’s strategy of isolating Hamas and bolstering Fatah in the West Bank is that no one has a real strategy for the day after, for “retaking Gaza,” which suggests the complete isolation of Hamas will not be possible indefinitely. Former Secretary of State Powell stated less than a week ago that the US needed to find some way of talking to Hamas:
I think you’d have to find some way to talk to Hamas. I don’t want to insert myself into what Secretary [of State Condoleezza] Rice is doing or what the president is doing. But they are not going to go away. And we have to remember that they enjoy considerable support among the Palestinian people. They won an election that we insisted upon having. And so, as unpleasant a group as they may be, and as distasteful as I find some of their positions, I think that through the [Middle East Quartet, which consists of the United States, the European Union, Russia and the United Nations] or through some means, Hamas has to be engaged. I dont think you can just cast them into outer darkness and try to find a solution to the problems of the region without taking into account the standing that Hamas has in the Palestinian community.
In order to navigate this and talk to Hamas, Levy proposed some innovative diplomatic tricks to have Hamas represented without formally being at the table. For instance, in ’91, the Palestinians had to be brought in as part of the Jordanian delegation allowing them to claim their own seat at the table while Israeli negotiators were able to defend this to a domestic polity. But like former Israeli PM Yitzhak Rabin’s firewall between the peace process and combating terrorism (an effective policy to prevent spoilers from derailing the peace process), this dual-delegation strategy would require a political willingness and strength that most agree is a largely absent.
The skepticism of the speakers was rivaled only by the attendees of the dinner (composed largely of journalists). But despite their doubts, the former negotiators actually suggested some possibilities for taking advantage of the President’s speech to build up a real expectation of a regional conference. Some options being considered by Israel that might bolster the process included addressing the re-launch of the Arab peace initiative with some early deliverables or even another plan for “convergence” and removal of West Bank settlements.
In a departure from Steve Clemons who has derided Tony Blair’s appointment as Middle East envoy, Levy and Malley offered cautious support for Blair because of his achievements in Northern Ireland bringing together the hardliners of both sides, which was attributed his keen sense of timing and the politics. Blair has a slightly different take on the direness of the situation yesterday expressing a “sense of possibility” and a confidence in his ability to extend beyond his economic portfolio to advance peace talks. Another former negotiator has mentioned to me that Blair’s stature and closeness to Bush can be real assets that enable him to bypass the President’s gatekeepers, some who may impede serious efforts to restart a peace process.
As Levy and Malley struggled to present possible upsides to what one of them described as the administration’s plan to “push the accelerator on a failed policy,” it seemed as if they were reaching deep into a hat to extract a rabbit that just wasn’t there.
Towards the end of the evening, facing continued questions on the perpetual impasse (Israel’s demand for a real partner to begin negotiations and Palestinians’ demand for an easing of harsh conditions to preface negotiations), Levy proposed a path breaking action–if Israel issued a decisive statement of intent that they wished to return to the 1967 borders with negotiated adjustments, that they saw “no future in the occupied territories,” it would have a dramatic impact on the Palestinian dynamic and the Arab world’s willingness to see this process through. (It is rumored earlier drafts of President Bush’s speech with more State Department input referenced the magic numbers “67” but they were scrubbed away in successive drafts).
Perhaps because the US referee Israel once counted on to cue their “next move” has since disappeared, Israel may begin to take a long hard look at its options and decide this ’67 declaration is just the Gordian knot maneuver it needs to begin normalizing ties with the Arab world.