Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East

February 9, 2009


JOANNE MYERS:Good morning. I'm Joanne Myers, Director of Public Affairs Programs. On behalf of the Carnegie Council, I'd like to welcome our members and guests, and to thank you for joining us.

Today it is a great pleasure to welcome Ambassador Martin Indyk to the Carnegie Council. The name of his book is Innocent Abroad: An Intimate Account of American Peace Diplomacy in the Middle East.

There was a point in time not so long ago when the talk in Washington was about peace and reconciliation in the Middle East. Israel and Jordan had signed a peace treaty, real progress was being made in defining the parameters for a deal between Israel and Syria, and the policy of dual containment of Iran and Iraq was proving to be effective. It was said then that Israel would also complete a peace treaty with the Palestinians.

However, since that promising handshake between Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn in 1993, the quest for peace between Israel and its neighbors has been a roller-coaster ride, one of many missteps and missed opportunities. What happened to destroy those hopes for bringing calm to the region is the subject of Martin Indyk's new book, Innocent Abroad.

This publication is more than an insightful history. Ambassador Indyk's book is also a poignant memoir of an insider who played a major role in the peace negotiations of the 1990s. As an experienced and savvy Middle East watcher, our speaker first served as President Clinton's Middle East adviser on the National Security Council and as assistant secretary for Near East affairs in the State Department, before serving twice as America's ambassador to Israel.

With the candor and knowledge of one who has had firsthand experience of living and working in the Middle East, Ambassador Indyk offers critical lessons about the Arab–Israeli peace process. In so doing, he perceptively describes how difficult it has been for American presidents, whether it was a Clinton or a Bush, to understand the motives and intentions of Middle Eastern leaders.

Ambassador Indyk takes us from the time of the Clinton Administration's initiatives to the chaos in the Middle East left by President Bush. He talks about the enduring challenges that plagued the Clinton team's efforts to bring peace to the region. In doing so, he draws astute connections between time past and time present.

As we have seen, the Middle East is a uniquely difficult arena for the practice of American statecraft. The recent Israeli operation in Gaza clearly demonstrates that the Palestinian–Israeli conflict will continue to be central to stability, or the lack of it, in the Middle East.

It is self-evident that President Obama will face his own series of challenges in this troubled region. But as long as the Middle East continues to play such a vital role in fueling the global economy, American presidents will feel bound to intervene in this region once again. Accordingly, this administration will need to take into account the lessons learned from past attempts in bringing peace to the region as they chart their own roadmap. Reading Innocent Abroad would be a good place for President Obama and his envoys to begin.

Please join me in welcoming our guest this morning, the very capable and competent Ambassador Martin Indyk.


MARTIN INDYK:Thank you very much to the Carnegie Council for hosting me this morning. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, for coming out so early on a Monday morning to listen. I'm honored to be here.

This book, Innocent Abroad, represents the culmination of a long journey for me. It's not a biography, but it is an attempt to chronicle a time when peacemaking seemed so possible in the Middle East and draw the lessons for a new effort that President Obama has already announced he will undertake.

My journey began 35 years ago, when I was an Australian student studying in Jerusalem, and the Yom Kippur War broke out in 1973. I worked as a volunteer on a kibbutz down in the south of Israel and would stay awake at night listening to the drone of Hercules aircraft as they landed in a base near Beersheba bringing much-needed American materiel that helped Israel turn the tide of battle in those days.

Subsequently, I would listen on my radio to BBC reports, staying up at night, anxiously hearing about the visits of Henry Kissinger as the American diplomat-in-chief sought first to establish a ceasefire and then build a process of diplomatic negotiations, first between Israel and Egypt, then between Israel and Syria, that laid the foundations for what came to be known as the Middle East peace process, and in fact laid the foundations for the Israeli peace treaty achieved under Jimmy Carter.

It was in those days that I somehow reached the conclusion that I wanted to learn as much as I could about the role of the United States in resolving the Arab–Israeli conflict. It was, if you like, some kind of epiphany. Essentially, I have done nothing else with my life (sad to say) for the last 35 years but to study, write about, teach about, and finally, through a series of serendipitous events, come to join President Clinton in January of 1993, when he entered the White House. I was his Middle East adviser, at the very moment when it appeared as if all of the stars were aligned for a breakthrough to a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, an end to the Arab–Israeli conflict.

The Soviet Union had just collapsed. Saddam Hussein's army had just been booted out of Kuwait. There was no longer any potential for an eastern-front Arab war coalition against Israel. All of Israel's Arab neighbors, including the Palestinians, were sitting at the negotiating table with Israel, as a result of the efforts of President George H.W. Bush and Secretary Baker. Yitzhak Rabin had just been elected prime minister of Israel with a mandate to make peace.

I said to the president at that moment, "If you put your mind to it, you could have four peace treaties in your first term and you could end the Arab–Israeli conflict."

He looked at me and said, "I want to do that." As simple as that.

For eight years, he devoted a lot of his energy and the prestige of his office to that effort. The first two years, we seemed to be making the headway that I had boldly predicted. We had hosted Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat on the White House lawn for the Oslo Accords and that famous handshake. We had traveled to the Wadi Araba between Israel and Jordan to witness the signing of the Israel–Jordan peace treaty. Then President Clinton sent me out, as the first American-Jewish-Australian ambassador to Israel, to work with Yitzhak Rabin on the secret negotiations that we were having then with the Syrians, in which we had conveyed to the Syrians Rabin's willingness to withdraw fully from the Golan Heights to the line of June 4th, 1967. I went out to Israel in April of 1995 believing that we were actually going to finish this conflict.

Five months later, Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated, and the whole process cratered.

I went back to Washington as assistant secretary of state to Madeleine Albright in Clinton's second term. We struggled hard to keep the process alive, while trying to engage the Iranians and contain Saddam Hussein. But the whole effort became incredibly difficult, partly because lack of progress on the peace-process front made it much more difficult for us to succeed with our objectives in the Gulf.

Then, suddenly, Bibi Netanyahu's coalition fell apart. Ehud Barak was elected prime minister of Israel, with a mandate to take risks for peace. He came to Washington, and sat down with Bill Clinton. They reached a quick pact that they would seek to fulfill Rabin's legacy and end the Arab–Israeli conflict in Barak's first year in office and Clinton's second year in office. Barak said, on his way out the door, "By the way, I want you to send Indyk back to Israel to help me with this effort."

So I went back to Israel at the beginning of the last year of Clinton's last term, believing that here was the second chance to finish what Rabin had started and to end the Arab–Israeli conflict. Five months later, it all cratered again. First, we missed the deal with the Syrians, which was a tragic matter of ships passing in the night. When Assad, who had played around with us for seven years, finally decided to go for the deal, because he was coming to the end of his life, Barak was not ready. Three months later, when Barak was ready to commit to full withdrawal from the Golan Heights, it was too late for Assad. He had only one act left in him, which was to put his son in power, before he died a couple of months later.

Then we turned to the Palestinian track to try to get the Palestinian deal, but the whole political dynamic had now changed. Had we made the deal with the Syrians, it would have opened the way for the other Arab states to join in peace with Israel, and Yasser Arafat would have found himself running to catch up. And I think his response to the offers that were made to him by Clinton and Barak would have been different.

But now Arafat was in the catbird's seat and we were running after him. He, therefore, felt no particular pressure to make the deal. Even though, at the end of the Clinton administration, when the offer that Clinton and Barak made to him had improved substantially from the offer that they had made to him at Camp David six months earlier; even though we felt that we had met everything that he had required for the deal—which amounted to a state in 95 to 97 percent of the West Bank, with territorial compensation for the rest, and all of Gaza, the corridor connecting them, with sovereignty for the Palestinians over the Arab suburbs of East Jerusalem and two quarters of the Old City, the Christian and Muslim quarters of the Old City, and sovereignty of the Haram al-Sharif, the surface of the Temple Mount, where the al-Aqsa Mosque is located, and a fair resolution of the refugee problem such that the Palestinian refugees would have the right of returning to Palestine and compensation and resettlement and so on, but would not have the right to return to the state of Israel—at that moment, at the end of the Clinton administration, Yasser Arafat chose, I believe, to listen to those of his aides who said to him, "Wait for George W. Bush. He'll get you a better deal."

Shimon Peres at the time said that history is like a horse that gallops past your window, and the true act of statesmanship is to jump on that horse or let it pass you by. Arafat chose to let it pass him by, and Palestinians and Israelis have been mired in this bloody conflict ever since.

I came back to Washington. I served as George W. Bush's ambassador for six months while he was getting a new ambassador in place. I came back to Washington with Ariel Sharon, the newly elected prime minister of Israel, who had been elected in a landslide after the failure of this effort by Barak. After the meeting between Bush and Sharon, the president asked me to stay behind.

He said to me, "What happened?" He knew that I had been associated with Clinton's effort.

I said, "Well, Mr. President, there's a lot of blame to go around, but essentially it was a lack of leadership."

He stopped me, not being a curious man, and he said—I had a few more things to say, but he had heard enough—he said, "That's right. No leadership. Barak and Clinton were two desperate men chasing after Yasser Arafat. Arafat rejected a very good offer and resorted to violence. Now that Sharon is prime minister, he's not going to offer what Arafat has already rejected, so there's no Nobel Peace Prize to be had here."

If you think about it, the analysis was right, but the prescription was fundamentally wrong, in my view. George Bush decided to walk away from the effort and leave the Israelis and Palestinians to have at it. Absent an active American presidential engagement, that's exactly what they did. For five years of the intifada, the most horrendous violence from Palestinian suicide bombers and the Israeli Army retaliating led to 3,000 Israelis and Palestinians being killed and thousands more casualties and, of course, the destruction of the edifice of peace that we had tried to construct in the previous eight years—in fact, in the previous 30 years, going back to those early days with Henry Kissinger.

It was, in my view, an immense tragedy. I left the government and tried to write a book that would make sense of it, be as honest as I could be about the mistakes we made and to try to draw the lessons for the time when a new president would come forward and decide to devote his energies to trying to end the Arab–Israeli conflict. I did not know when I was writing this book nor its conclusions that Barack Obama would be elected president and that he would, on his second day in office, commit himself to this challenge.

But the time has come again. It is necessarily much more difficult today than it was back in 1993. None of the stars are in alignment in the way they were then. In fact, the situation is in many ways the opposite. The trust between the Israelis and Palestinians has been destroyed. The hope that a two-state solution can meet Israeli aspirations for security and acceptance and Palestinian aspirations for a viable Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza—the hope that that two-state solution can meet Israeli and Palestinian expectations is quickly evaporating.

While the Palestinians and Israelis, majorities on both sides, support that as a solution, they don't believe in it anymore. Israelis who see rockets being fired from territory that Israel withdrew from—whether it's southern Lebanon or, in particular, Gaza—are convinced that that's what will happen if they withdraw from the West Bank. Palestinians, who see Israeli settlements expanding in the West Bank, are convinced that there won't be a viable Palestinian state to be had at the end of the game.

Instead, what we have is a situation in which those who oppose peace, those who propound the destruction of the state of Israel, whether it be Ahmadinejad in Iran or Nasrallah of Hezbollah or Khaled Mashaal of Hamas—they are the people that are on a roll. They are the people that have credibility in the Arab world and beyond, and certainly amongst Palestinians.

Their message is that violence, terrorism, defiance of the international community, threats to destroy Israel, is the way to achieve justice and dignity for the Palestinian people and the Arab people. They are the ones that have credibility these days. That would make peace, including the leaders of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the other Arab states from the Gulf who have stood up together and endorsed an Arab League peace initiative, offering Israel not a two-state solution, but a 23-state solution—peace with all of the Arab world—they are the ones who are on the defensive now. And as a result of this latest conflict, they are deeply divided between Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia on one side and Syria, Qatar, Iran on the other side. So the hope that we could work with the Arab states to make up for the weakness of the Palestinians now also seems to be an illusion—for the time being at least.

So what is Barack Obama to do? Let me quickly just summarize the lessons from Clinton's experience.

The first is to be realistic. I call this book Innocent Abroad because of a trait in America's encounter with the Middle East that is a kind of naïveté that is one part of this wonderful innocence that we have as Americans—a belief that we have a responsibility to help transform this very troubled part of the world. But there is another part of that naïveté, which is a kind of ignorance and arrogance, that we know what's best for this part of the world, that we assume it to be like us and to have the same aspirations that we have. That is one part of what trips us up in this effort.

It struck me as I was writing this book that even though George W. Bush pursued a very different approach to Bill Clinton—Bill Clinton's mechanism for transformation was peacemaking and George W. Bush's was war-making, regime change, democratization—they both sought to make the Middle East over in America's image, one as a more peaceful place, one as a more democratic place. They both failed. I think what's very important as a first lesson is to be more humble, more realistic, to be more modest in our objectives, listen more than we talk, and be much more aware of the unintended consequences of our good intentions.

By the way, I think Barack Obama understands this instinctively, in the way that he relates to the people of the Middle East—with respect.

But on the other hand, the second lesson is that it is essential not to walk away from the effort to make peace, even as difficult as it may seem at this moment. Bill Clinton's basic approach was that it was better to try and fail than not to try at all. George Bush's approach to peacemaking was essentially, Clinton failed; therefore, it's better not to try. I think that was a fundamental mistake and that it's essential to try, which Barack Obama is doing.

Third, it's really important to start early. Osama bin Laden is quoted—I don't know whether he actually said it, but he is quoted—as saying, "You Americans have the watches. We Arabs have the time."

It's an interesting point. We're always in a hurry as Americans. We think it's only a matter of figuring out the solution and applying it, and that will be it. Presidents are particularly in a hurry because they only have four-year terms—at most, eight-year terms. Israeli prime ministers tend to be in a hurry because their terms—although they are four-year terms, the iron law of coalition gravity in the Middle East means that their coalitions fall apart after the first two years or so. I was in Israel for a total of four years. I served with five Israeli prime ministers.

But on the Arab side, there are no term limits, except the terms of their natural lives. So, as a general rule, they tend to be the custodians of the status quo. They are not in a hurry.

Synchronizing these clocks becomes a very important part of the process. How do you do that? It's a complicated story. I would be happy to get into it in the Q&A. But there is one very important thing that the United States can do, and that is to shape the strategic context for peacemaking. In this case, Iran is making a bid for dominance in the Arab world, and that is creating a dynamic of fear, of a sense of threat that the Arab leaders feel that is coming from Iran, that is enhanced by Iran's nuclear program, which by the end of this year may give them enough stockpiled uranium, enriched uranium, that they can quickly put back through the centrifuges and have enough for one to three bombs. They have the delivery systems, and we think they have the know-how to make a bomb. That will change the whole dynamic in the region, for Israel and for the Arab states.

But Iran, beyond that, is using its alliance with Syria to spread its influence via its proxies, Hezbollah and Hamas in Gaza, into the Middle East heartland, into the most sensitive areas of the Middle East—Palestine and Lebanon. That, too, is deeply troubling, to both Israel and the Arab states. So there is a sense of common threat and a potential common interest. The glue for that virtual alliance, which is a peacemaking alliance, comes from an effort to resolve the Palestinian conflict and to try to bring Syria out of the Iranian camp into the American-led peace camp through a peace process there, which the Turks have been mediating for the last year and essentially have laid the basis for that negotiation for the Obama Administration to pick up.

If we do those things, if we try to engage Syria in a negotiation with Israel, try to move the Palestinian-Israeli peace process forward, we can create a dynamic that will change the calculations of the leaders in the region.

There is one important lesson from Clinton's time, when he tried to engage the Syrians, that needs to be borne in mind here. We pursued—and I detail it in the book—a Syria-first strategy, where we were trying to make peace with Syria because of the strategic advantages, similar to the ones I have described. But at the same time, we were trying to isolate Iran. We articulated that as our objective. The Iranians understood that the best way they could break out of their isolation was to prevent us from making peace between Israel and Syria. And they did that quite effectively, as I explain in the book.

This time it's really important to try to make peace with Syria, not first, but alongside the effort to rebuild hope in the two-tate solution between Israel and the Palestinians, but also to put out our hand to the Iranians, just as Barack Obama has said. If they are ready to unclench their fist, we are ready to meet them with an open hand, so as to give them a sense, not that we are trying to isolate them, but we are prepared to have them as part of this new, more peaceful order that we are trying to establish in the Middle East. Let it be their decision to isolate themselves.

Essentially, what's needed here are three initiatives run simultaneously towards the Palestinians, the Syrians, and the Iranians, such that we can create a synergy between them that may make up for the incredible difficulties of the current situation.

Finally, it's really important for the president to keep his radar tuned for those unexpected moments. Because we are the outside power, because we don't understand well the factors which affect the calculations of the leaders in the region, whether they be Iranians, Israelis, or Arabs, and because we are the superpower coming into the region intending to change it, they all react to our intervention. They have been doing this for centuries. It's in their DNA. They have had, from Alexander the Great to Napoleon, to the Ottomans, to the British, to the French, and now the Americans are coming—they know how to resist us, they know how to divert us, and we can't know exactly how they are going to respond.

So we have to be very sensitive to those moments when a leader in the region breaks the mold of expected behavior. Those moments do occur. We can't predict when they are going to happen.

When Anwar Sadat stood up and said, "I'm ready to go to the ends of the earth, even to Jerusalem, to make peace," when King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia sat down with Thomas Friedman of The New York Times and said, "I'm ready to lead the Arab world to peace with Israel"—those moments—when Yitzhak Rabin went off to make a deal with Yasser Arafat behind our back—are the moments when breakthroughs become possible. When Hafez al-Assad said to us, after seven years of playing around with us, "I'm ready to finish it, but we have to do it quickly"—those are the moments when we have to be ready to grab their hands and not let go and guide them to the promised land of peace.

I honestly believe that it can be done, that something will always turn up in the Middle East—usually bad, but sometimes good—and that the effort to try to make peace there is profoundly in our interests. And just maybe, this time, we'll succeed.

Thank you very much.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: How would you respond to Luttwak's comments that one side or the other would win before anything happens?


MARTIN INDYK: What does winning mean? Unfortunately, we don't have Edward here to explain himself. We saw the latest round of an effort to use force to try to impose a solution. The Israelis went into Gaza. But they weren't prepared to do what Edward would have them do—that is to say, to go in, to clean out Hamas, to topple the Hamas regime there. I think the major reason for their not doing that is that the end result would be that they would be back in control of Gaza, which was precisely the reason they left five years earlier, because they didn't want to be in control anymore; they didn't see any purpose. The idea that they could somehow impose Abu Mazen's rule on the back of an Israeli tank, they dismissed as fanciful. There's no way that the Palestinians would have accepted that kind of imposed solution.

I could imagine a way in which it would have been done, in which the Israelis came in and basically took control and then decided to exit in favor of a UN-mandated international force that would take control of Gaza, look to the needs of the Palestinian people, eventually hold an election, and then a legitimate leadership could emerge from that process.

But the Israelis don't trust the United Nations, don't believe that they would do the job properly, and they were not prepared to pay the price in terms of the international condemnation that would come from all the Palestinian casualties involved in that kind of operation—street-to-street fighting in the refugee camps and so on. And they weren't prepared to pay the price in terms of Israeli casualties that would be inflicted as a result of that.

So it's fine to make the theoretical argument that one side should win and impose a solution. But, in fact, the Israelis have had superior force, massively superior force, for almost all of this conflict since 1948, and they have not been able to win militarily against the Palestinians. At the end of the day, what are you going to do with the people?

So there is only a political solution, and the only rational solution is a two-state solution, a Palestinian state living alongside Israel, which was what the United Nations first suggested back in 1947. Somehow we have to find a way to reinfuse hope in that situation. Military force can make a difference in terms of shaking up the situation, but it cannot succeed in winning, because winning doesn't solve the problem of what you do with the people.

QUESTION: The comment is that Innocent Abroad is not only informative and thought-provoking, it's a good read. Thank you very much. I recommend it as a good read to those interested.

My question is this. Given the legitimate fear that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan have of Iran, given the fact that Iran, on the other hand, may very well see in the June elections Ahmadinejad replaced by a more rational person (which I think is a real likelihood), given the fact that Syria is sending undercover signals as loudly as it can that it wants to get out from under Iran and it wants to rejoin the West—given all these various factors, that both sides may be nearing exhaustion—and above all, given the fact that you have a new American administration ready to play an active role and having appointed a negotiator who comes with clean hands, no apparent biases, and a track record in Ireland of having brought parties together—given all of those, what is the prospect or the possibility that a hard-line Israeli leader could replay Richard Nixon in China? Just as a Democrat couldn't have opened relationships with China—you remember the question, who lost China?

What is the prospect that a hard-liner coming on, who is known to be able to deliver Israel if he gets sufficient insurances—what is the prospect for that scenario, another Nixon going to China, only this time it's an Israeli going to meet the Palestinians?

MARTIN INDYK: Thank you. Of course, you paint a best-case scenario for all those things. I fear that Khatami will not win the election in Iran and it will, instead, be Ahmadinejad for a second term, in which case a lot of the other things become less possible. But assuming that Bibi Netanyahu wins the elections in Israel, which will take place tomorrow—and it looks like he will form the next government, although one can never tell—it will depend entirely on what kind of coalition he has.

When I was ambassador during Netanyahu's time as prime minister, he would often remind me that Israeli politics are tribal. He would explain to me that, "My tribe is bigger than the opposition's tribe, but in order to keep it that way, I have to feed them." What he was referring to, of course, was settlement activity.

In those days, he had a center-right government. A center-right government could not make territorial concessions in the West Bank and stay together. That is, in fact, what happened. We managed, after two years of effort, to get Netanyahu to agree to give up 13 percent of the West Bank, and his government collapsed within weeks. If he has a center-right government, that will be the case again. He will not be able to give up territory in the West Bank.

But the interesting thing about the last time Netanyahu was prime minister was that, facing pressure from a president who wanted to make peace, like Barack Obama does today, and knowing that he needs to find a way to manage the relationship with the United States, because the United States is so important to Israel, what did Bibi do? Behind our backs, he went off and tried to negotiate a deal with the Syrians.

That is what I predict he would do again this time, if he has a center-right government. That is to say, he will fend us off in the West Bank with what he calls an economic peace—major efforts to boost the West Bank economy, but no willingness to give up territory there, and more settlement activity, which he will justify under the words "natural growth." But he will find a way to try to exploit the interest of the Syrians that you pointed to, to do a deal with the Syrians, calculating, perhaps correctly, that given our concern about Iran and the impact that an Israeli–Syrian peace would have on the overall strategic environment, we would support him on that.

So just like Menachem Begin gave up the Sinai in order to keep the West Bank, and Ariel Sharon gave up Gaza in order to keep the West Bank, Bibi could give up the Golan Heights in order to keep the West Bank.

Now, if he forms a national unity government with Labour and Kadima, which is his other alternative, then he is in a different political situation altogether. Then, perhaps, he can fulfill the Nixon-to-China model that you talk about.

I don't think Bibi has ideological convictions about the West Bank. If you read the story in the Times this morning about Evet Lieberman, the right-wing Russian candidate, who is rising like a meteor in the polls, you will see that he too has no ideological conviction about the need to keep the West Bank.

Therefore, with a national unity government, Labour and Kadima, even with Evet Lieberman and his party in that coalition, you could perhaps see them doing a territorial deal on the West Bank. So it's not a hopeless situation. It's another example of why it's really important to try, because Bibi will respond to us and do something that we can then take advantage of.

QUESTION: I have a remark and a question.

The remark is that the problem in the Middle East is the lack of hope or the lack of a political horizon at the end. We see a very shaky light at the end of the tunnel, but we don't know what this light is. Is it a way out or is it a train coming at us? It is with that in mind that we look to the United States to propose something and to try to work a way out.

I lived with the negotiations in Camp David, too, and the negotiations in Taba during my previous posting as diplomatic adviser to my president [of Egypt]. I share your point of view that we were very close to agreement. But it all fell on the issue of Jerusalem. I remember President Clinton giving my president a phone call in the middle of the night and asking his help to convince Arafat to accept what was on the table on the Jerusalem issue.

But the fact that the United States did not want Egypt and Jordan to be part of that conference of Camp David, I think that was a mistake. Had we been there, had my president and the king of Jordan been there, I think at that moment, when all other parts of the puzzle—territories, settlements, water, security, end of conflict—had almost been settled, we would have done some good deal at that particular time. We tried to do that in Taba, but, of course, time, as you said, has come up.

Would you advise the new president of the United States to present such a comprehensive plan again early on? When do you think that this—I believe it should be earlier on rather than later on. Would you advise him to put something comprehensive and start real negotiations on these issues?

I think this in itself is going to isolate the extremist parts and is going to show that there is really a way for peace, rather than trying to counter the extremist parts and then looking for peace afterwards.

That's my question to you.

MARTIN INDYK: I agree with you, it was a mistake not to involve Egypt and Jordan in the preparations for Camp David, in a way that would ensure that they were supporting a compromise at Camp David. That was our mistake.

But it was a mistake borne of a certain frustration at the time that your leadership and the Jordanian leadership—the leadership of the Arab states at the time wanted Arafat to be the one to do the deal, to make the compromises. They would support him, but they would not press him to do it, because they feared that he would turn around and accuse them of betraying the Palestinians. So he was kind of put out there to do the compromise.

I think the flawed assumption on the part of your leadership was that he would make the compromise, that he was the kind of leader, like your leaders, that would be prepared to do it. In the end, he wasn't. You know that Egypt supported the Clinton parameters and pressed him to do it, but he escaped; he ran away. He was very good at that.

Now to lay out an American vision of what a two-state solution would look like in the context of a comprehensive settlement of the Arab–Israeli conflict and a new regional security structure is, I think, an important thing for the president to do. But we have learnt from previous experiences, all the way back to when Ronald Reagan put out a plan, the Reagan Plan, that was summarily rejected by all the sides—and that was the end of it—or the Rogers Plan, if you go back even further, to 1969. All of these plans are still very relevant in terms of the vision they have of the solution. There has been very little shift in American policy in all those years.

But if the United States puts out this plan and then doesn't have buy-in from both sides, then it's a wasted effort, and it damages our credibility as a negotiator. So we have to find the middle way. We have to prepare the ground so that we know that when we put the plan out there, it will have enough resonance to create the momentum that will make it possible to actually negotiate the deals. That's where we have to shape the strategic context better, to not do it now. We have to create an environment in which people are ready to invest in a process that President Obama will lead.

That's George Mitchell's challenge. It may take one or two years. We can't do it after that. It will be too late then, in terms of the timing. But I don't think we should jump in and do it too early, before the groundwork has been laid.

QUESTION: Martin, with the withdrawal of American influence that you spoke of with George W. Bush and the gigantic loss of American credibility as a peacemaker in the Middle East, at least three countries in the region came forward to offer mediation: Turkey, in the case of Syria; Egypt, in the case of Gaza; Qatar, in the case of Lebanon.

As the Obama people look at the future, are those three regional mediators the people that we ought to be encouraging, at a time when America is going to have to spend some time rebuilding our own credibility, and therefore we need the credibility of some of these regional players—who, by the way, it's my impression, paid quite a price for that in the aftermath of Gaza with other Muslim countries in the region?

MARTIN INDYK: I think it's a very good point. The reality is that unlike when Bill Clinton decided to set as his objective a comprehensive peace, we are no longer the dominant power in the region. Our hard power has been reduced by the two wars that we are fighting, with our forces tied down. Our soft power—our brand name has been tarnished and our influence has been affected. Therefore, we have to work with others. We don't have the choice. That's a very important change. It was reflected first in Condoleezza Rice's efforts to try to engage with others, starting with the Europeans, to try to form a coalition to deal with Iran's nuclear program. It will certainly be, I think, a feature of Obama's approach.

The particular countries that you spoke about—Egypt, of course, has been our partner in the peace process and will have to be our partner in the future. We are already working closely with Egypt, particularly when it comes to dealing with the Gaza situation and dealing with Hamas.

Turkey, as you no doubt have all noticed—because it was very visible—got into quite a public spat with the leadership of Israel. Things are going to have to calm down a little bit before the Turks can resume their mediating role. But they will calm down. The Turks have a strategic relationship with Israel. They, I think, understand very clearly that it's not in their interest to make a huge deal about things like treating foreign populations badly, since it won't be long before there is a new Armenian genocide resolution in the Congress to make that point, and that will make things even worse. So I think they understand that, especially if they want to be a mediator, they need to have a relationship of trust with both sides. But it's going to take a little time for that to clarify itself.

The Qataris can play a useful role with the bad guys that we are trying to approach in a different way. But they normally straddle the fence and play both sides, quite effectively. They host an American airbase, the largest in the world, which they pay for, and they host Al Jazeera, which spews out harsh criticism of the United States, at the same time. They are like a belly-dancer: they usually kind of move back and forth with great style. Now they have managed to put themselves on the Iranian side of the fence, as a result of this Gaza crisis. They, too, need to find a way to get back up on the fence, rather than on one side of it, in order for them to play an effective mediating role.

We can use all of them in these ways—and the Europeans as well, by the way. But there is a basic reality that would-be mediators have to understand, as difficult as it may be for them to come to terms with it, which is that the United States is effective because it has a close and strong relationship with Israel. It can use its influence with Israel. People argue that it doesn't use it enough for some. But the bottom line is that Israeli leaders have to pay attention to the American president because of the relationship of trust that we have built with them.

Would-be mediators have to have that relationship as well. If they are just on one side, if they are just on the Arab side, then they are not going to be able to influence Israel. Egypt has played this game very well, I think, in terms of understanding the importance of it. You see now the leadership of Germany, Britain, and France also building relationships of trust with the Israeli leadership so that they, too, can play that role. It's that that is critical as we try to work with all of these players, because so much damage has been done and there is so much repair work to be done, and we can't do it on our own.

QUESTION: I'm curious about how you see setting up the dynamic so that there is actually potential to address the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. I understand from some of your writings that if we engage Iran, you think that might shift the dynamic enough to begin. But at the moment, when you see such deep alienation, lack of faith in a two-state solution, the post-Gaza trauma, and so on, I'm curious about how you see the steps forward to change that.

MARTIN INDYK: There is a lot of work that has to be done. Tom Friedman had a column yesterday in which he talked about building the institutions of governance in the West Bank. Progress is being made there, mainly because of the efforts of Salam Fayyad, technocratic prime minister, who is a banker, who knows how to jumpstart the economy. If Bibi is prime minister, he will get a boost in that effort. The security forces are being trained in Jordan, and that will give the Palestinian Authority a capability, over time, to exercise control in the West Bank, in areas that Israel would withdraw from.

So having the institutions of governance is critical, not just in terms of controlling the territory and giving the Palestinians in the West Bank a feeling that there is an alternative to violence that can work for them and change their daily lives, but also because it sends a message to the Israelis that they have now a responsible partner. That process is beginning to work, but it obviously needs to be given a boost.

It's impossible to imagine, with all of the factors that we have talked about, that you can have a viable negotiation that will lead to a compromise solution, as long as the Palestinian leadership—let's say it's Abu Mazen, the president of the Palestinian Authority—is looking over his shoulder at Hamas, and behind Hamas are the Syrians and the Iranians, who will accuse him of betrayal if he makes any compromise whatsoever. By all accounts, he was offered by Ehud Olmert the same deal that Yasser Arafat was offered by Bill Clinton, eight years later, and he did not take it. He didn't take it because of Hamas.

Now, the Palestinian polity is deeply divided. There is a great deal of antagonism between the nationalist party of Abu Mazen, Fatah, and the Hamas Islamic fundamentalist party. They are divided geographically now. One controls the West Bank, with the help of the Israeli Army, and the other controls Gaza. The Israeli Army did not take that away from them. So they are there. Hamas is not going to disappear.

So the question is, how can you achieve a reconciliation between the two? That is something that Egypt is working on, that Israel may actually be prepared to give a boost to, if the reports from yesterday are correct—and I don't know if they are correct—that as part of a prisoner deal in which Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier that has been held hostage by Hamas for, I think, more than two years, is returned for a prisoner release that would include the release of Marwan Barghouti, who is a Palestinian Fatah leader who has credibility both with the people and with Hamas. The Israelis have basically set him up there, in prison, in a dialogue with Hamas, which they essentially seem to have encouraged.

So it's possible that you could create a dynamic here, as a result of the Gaza ceasefire, in which the Palestinian Authority is introduced back into the passages and the flow of reconstruction aid goes through the Palestinian Authority, that Hamas will see it in its interest to stop firing on Israel and instead focus on feeding the people. Maybe Barghouti will be released, and that will create a new dynamic on the Fatah side.

All of these things could come together in a way that produces a unitary Palestinian actor capable of entering into negotiations with Israel, with legitimacy amongst its people, because Hamas would be supporting those negotiations. That's a lot of things that have to happen in the right way, much like the previous questioner's description of how things are going to break positively, more generally. It's not impossible, and certainly it's worth trying for.

I think it's important here that Obama cannot take the lead in an effort to reconcile Hamas and Fatah, because any U.S. engagement with Hamas will undermine Fatah and Abu Mazen. But he can at least not stand in the way of it. That, I think, while trying to help the Palestinian Authority show that moderation works, through the things I described in the West Bank and through having the P.A. [Palestinian Authority] deliver the aid to Gaza—in that way, he can help create those positive dynamics, which may in the end produce the necessary result for a successful negotiation.

JOANNE MYERS: More than a lantern but a beacon, you shed a lot of light on the Middle East and I thank you.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Read MoreRead Less