The Carnegie Council's U.S. Global Engagement program gratefully acknowledges the support for its work from the following: Alfred and Jane Ross Foundation, Rockefeller Brothers Fund, U.S. Army War College, Rockefeller Family & Associates, and Donald M. Kendall.
DAVID SPEEDIE: Welcome, everyone, to the Carnegie Council.
To call today's session timely would be a masterpiece of understatement. It's timely for two reasons.
First, after years of basic neglect, the United States has opted to reinsert itself into the Middle East peace process. As pretty much is always the case, this is a fraught proposition—not least because, even as the latest round of talks got underway, they were bound to be constrained, if not condemned, by the resumption on September 26th by Israel of settlement construction. We now read on a daily basis of frantic, behind-the-scenes deal-cutting activity to try to salvage or rescue the talks.
Secondly, it is timely because our guest this afternoon just a couple of months ago conducted polling in six countries in the greater Middle East to gauge public opinion toward President Obama and toward U.S.-Middle East policy.
Without in any way stealing your thunder, Shibley, in terms of the question for this session, "Can Obama Please Both Arabs and Israelis? What the Polls and History Tell Us," it seems clear that the Arab view of President Obama, after the high watershed of the Cairo speech in 2009, is inextricably linked to the view in the Arab street of the Arab-Israeli issue and of U.S. engagement in and policy toward the Middle East. This is what Shibley will be addressing today.
"Can Obama Please Both Arabs and Israelis?" is a momentous question in the current context. There is no one more qualified to address it than our speaker, Shibley Telhami. His remarkable c.v. as a scholar, policy advisor, and expert commentator is with you all, and I will not spend time here by rereading it.
I have known Shibley as a friend and colleague for some 20 years. It was at Cornell that I visited you first, Shibley, and we have managed to find some time to conspire ever since, I'm delighted to say.
I just want to introduce him by reading this piece from his first address when he became the Sadat Chair at University of Maryland:
"I have always believed that good scholarship can be relevant and consequential for public policy. It is possible to affect public policy without being an advocate, to be passionate about peace without losing analytical rigor, to be moved by what is just while conceding that no one has a monopoly on justice. This I shall strive to as the best way to be faithful to the title I now carry."
That makes you both a highly appropriate and welcome guest to an organization that deals with the ethical component of public policy.
I ask my audience in join me in welcoming you.
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Thanks very much. It's really a pleasure for me to be in this wonderful organization. Thanks, David, for this wonderful introduction.
As David said, I've known him for 18 years, when I was still early in my career at Cornell University and Carnegie sought me out and funded one of my earlier projects. I have to say that the Carnegie Corporation of New York has never stopped in any way supporting my work. The polling that I will talk a little bit about today is still funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York. I'm grateful for them.
It all started with David Speedie, so thank you, David, for this.
What I'd like to do is start with a little story and then give you a little bit more about the results of the polling that we have been doing.
A few months ago, I was in Cairo—I go there quite frequently—and I was invited to appear on one of Egypt's leading television shows.
It's interesting just talking about Egyptian television shows. Television, particularly news television in Egypt, has not gotten a lot of viewership with the new transnational competition. Al Jazeera now is number one, even in Egypt. That's unheard of. Egypt used to dominate the media.
There are certain programs that are still pretty influential, and I was asked to appear on one of them that most people watch.
Normally, what the host does is he will go through the headlines in some of the newspapers from that day on issues that he thinks the guest will be able to comment on.
A lot of it had to do with American foreign policy in the Middle East—that's not a surprise—a little bit about the Arab-Israeli issue, and some about U.S. relations with Muslim countries. He picked up a few headlines.
One surprised me. I wasn't expecting it. It came out of nowhere. It was an article that was published that morning in one of the Egyptian newspapers that appeared to be a translation of a Washington Post article. I don't know how well it was translated, but it was about "the private life" which came across as the secret, spiritual, religious life of President Obama. It was talking about how Obama was really very religious and he consults with his ministers about what he does, but he doesn't want to let that out as much as he should. I saw where that was headed.
George W. Bush, beginning with the Iraq war until the year he left, and even the year after he left, including in 2010, is still the single most disliked man in the Arab world in all the polling in an open question.
A lot of the theories about him were that he was an evangelical trying to spread Christian faith in the Middle East. That was talked about here. It was talked about there. It wasn't the biggest theory about American foreign policy, but it was an important one.
I was immediately alert to the fact that this line of questioning was, "Maybe Obama too is a secret evangelical trying to do something behind the backs of everybody else." With all this talk about him being a Muslim here, they were talking about him being a Christian there.
This was really interesting, if you think about it, because it was in my judgment, a symptom of the times.
They had decided a year after, that they don't like him much anymore. Once they've decided that, they redefined him.
Early on, they weren't sure what he was, and they would talk about his father's roots in Muslim countries. They were very positive about him. They were prepared to listen to him.
Now that they had changed their minds, they were redefining him in some ways. They were thinking about him from a different perspective. That is not really why they decided they don't like him, because they were speculating that he's an evangelical, but it is an outcome of their deciding that they don't like him as much as they did a year ago.
What happened in the past year is that a lot changed in the way people saw President Obama. But also, we misunderstood how Arabs viewed President Obama from the beginning.
There was an assumption here that most people in the region saw him and liked him—and they did. In my poll right after he was elected, in April-May of last year, before he gave the Cairo speech, in the poll that I conducted in six countries—Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon, and the United Arab Emirates—45 percent said they had a favorable opinion of him.
Those who said they had a negative opinion of him were less than 20 percent, which is unheard of about an American president. We haven't had that at all. So there was a positive view of him. In some countries, it was a majority who had a favorable view of him.
This year, two-thirds of Arabs polled had a negative view of him. That is a huge difference in one year.
The question is: Why did that happen?
When you look back, you see that we misinterpreted the attitudes from the beginning. It was never about who he was. This was a complete misinterpretation of public sentiments towards the president of the United States.
It was never about Obama having roots in the Muslim world. Frankly, of course, these things initially matter a little bit. They try to get clues when people don't know who you are, they don't know what your positions, and you're new and not known. They try to find any clue. Every little bit helps. Sure, that was factored in.
As you'll see in my talk, the Israelis factored that in too, and they assumed negatively, that they didn't like him from the beginning.
Those were early clues. In fact, the evidence shows that those clues did not define their positions.
Even before President Obama was elected, during the 2008 election year, we conducted a poll asking the public who they thought would advance Middle East peace most of the three remaining candidates. At that time, Obama was a candidate, Hillary Clinton was a candidate, and McCain had won the Republican nomination. So there were three of them.
Not surprisingly, McCain didn't get a lot of support. He had less than 6 percent support. The reason for it is complex. He was associated with Bush, and they didn't like Bush at all. Also, he was running a campaign on what he called "Islamo-fascism" being the biggest threat, and that was played out in the Arab world. Clearly people didn't like him.
Hillary Clinton got 13 percent.
Obama got 18 percent, barely above the margin of error more than Hillary Clinton.
The largest segment of the public in 2008 said "none of the above"—it wouldn't make a difference, they're all alike.
People were not embracing Obama because he was an African-American or because we were talking about him as having roots in the Muslim world. That was not the case. Maybe some people would prefer to listen to him, but that was not the case.
The Cairo speech didn't have as much of an impact as people think. It had more of an impact here than there. It had an impact, but I'm not sure it's even measurable. I say that having somewhat contributed to that speech, having been in the meeting and written a memo for the drafting of that speech. It was a good speech, but that was not what changed public opinion.
Already, before this speech, when you asked people in the Arab world what they liked about the first few months of the Obama Administration, it was very clear from day one that it was always about the issues.
First, they liked that he said right after he got elected that he was going to stick with his promise to pull out of Iraq. That was hugely popular in the Arab world. That registered. That was highlighted.
The fact that he was saying he was going to close Guantanamo and end torture mattered a lot in the Arab world, because people believed that those policies of the Bush Administration were actually aimed at them. Whether correctly or not, they saw it as anti-Arab/anti-Muslim policy, and the fact that Obama said he was going to stop it, they liked a lot.
They also liked the fact that in his first week in office he said, "I'm going to deal with the toughest issue, the Arab-Israeli issue, even with my crowded agenda, the terrible economy and two wars. I'm now appointing George Mitchell as a special envoy."
They rewarded him for issues. That is why most of their projections in 2009 were projections of hope.
For the first time, a slight majority in 2009 said they were "somewhat hopeful" about American policy in the Middle East. That is amazing, given where we were for the past decades. It was a real transformation.
In the past year, there has been a complete reversal.
The favorability view of the president is down dramatically. A majority is "pessimistic" about American policy in the Middle East, as opposed to what happened last year. We are back really to square one, to where we were before.
The only difference is that to this day President Obama is not identified as one of the most disliked leaders in their mind. So far, people are still not going to the other extreme of saying "we don't like him." They are just not expressing favorable views of him. They are not passionately opposed to him.
They were never passionately in favor of him, even in 2009, when 45 percent said they had a favorable view of him.
I ask an open question every single year in a poll: "Name the two leaders in the world that you admire more than anyone else." They can name whoever they want.
Obama was not on the list of top ten in 2009. He's certainly not this year. He was also obviously not on the most-disliked list.
People were not passionate about him; they were open to him. We misread that. It wasn't about who he was; it was about the policies that he articulated.
A year later, I asked them: "What is it that you don't like about the last year of the Obama Administration and what is it that you do like about the Obama Administration policy?"
In terms of what they like, they are really scattered. But most of them say, "We don't like anything."
The largest segment, about 20 percent, say, "Above all, we like his new attitude toward the Muslim world, the new language toward Islam." They recognize that that's an important thing that happened in the discourse.
When you ask them, "What is the thing that you dislike the most; what is the thing that you are most angry about over the past year?" 61 percent say the Arab-Israeli issue.
We can run around it all we want. You package it as you wish. You talk about all the things that we do in terms of economic aid and democracy promotion and changed rhetoric—all these things do matter to people in the region.
Human rights matters too, by the way. The people do see it, and people want freedom and human rights. Whatever anybody tells you, they certainly want it.
When you ask them to rank issues, there is no question that most Arabs and many Muslims still see America through the prism of pain of the Arab-Israeli conflict. I call it the prism of pain because that is the issue that defines their outlook toward the world, but particularly toward the United States of America.
When they are angry over that issue, they are angry toward the United States. It's not that this issue is the core issue for them or it solves all the problems in the Middle East. It is a perception issue through which Arabs define the world. We see it in the polls year after year.
You see it in other questions. I ask people every year, "Name the leader that you like most in the world." I ask that question not because I am looking for a popularity contest. My reason is to see what prism they are using to look at the world when they are answering that question.
Think about this. In 2004-2005, right after the Iraq war, we were in the middle of our conflict between the West and Muslim world. We had the whole rhetoric about the clash of civilizations, conflict, the promotion of democracy, and West and Muslims. I asked "Who is the leader that you admire most in the world?" The number one answer to that open question in 2004-2005 was Jacques Chirac.
You'd ask, "Are you kidding me? With all the colonial history that France had, the immigration policy problems, the veil issue in the schools that was talked about, and they like Jacques Chirac?" They like him above any Muslim leader. No big-time Muslim sitting leader appeared on that list of the top three.
How do you explain that? It is very simple.
In 2004 Jacques Chirac hosted Yasser Arafat when he was dying and treated him like a hero and with the respect and dignity of a head of state, and they rewarded him for it. He also opposed the Iraq war. Those two combined were enough to say, "I forgive him for all that he had done."
I don't just go by the polls; I visit the region multiple times, I appear on television, I speak to university audiences and other groups in the region. Interestingly, just at that time, I was watching Al Jazeera, and a very influential Islamic leader, Yusuf al-Qaradawi [phonetic], who appears on Al Jazeera quite frequently analyzing Islam, was asked to criticize France from an Islamic point of view because of what they were doing on the issue of the veil in schools.
He couldn't bring himself to criticize France. He said, "Why are you asking about France? Why don't we talk about Tunisia, which doesn't allow veils in some places?"
In 2006-2007 it was Hassan Nasrallah of Hezbollah who was the most favored, because of the war in Lebanon.
Look back to 2006-2007. What is the discourse here? Sunni/Shia divide. We are saying the Middle East now can be seen through the Sunni/Shia divide.
Most of the polling that I'm doing is in Sunni Arab countries: Egypt, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. They say they like the Shia leader of Hezbollah, Hassan Nasrallah, above their own. That tells you again that they are looking at these leaders through the prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Does anyone want to guess who the number one leader is this year? If you look through that prism of the Arab-Israeli conflict, who would be the favorite leader of the world?
PARTICIPANT: Hugo Chávez.
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Chávez was last year and he's still high this year. It was because of the position he took on Gaza, absolutely.
Since then we have had the Gaza flotilla and the poll was taken after the Gaza flotilla. So who would it be?
PARTICIPANTS: Recep Erdogan.
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Yes, absolutely he's the number one. It's predictable, if they look at it through that narrow prism of the Arab-Israeli issue.
In many ways there's no escaping it.
When you look at our diplomacy in the Middle East and you say, "Can they not recognize that this president is trying? He has a special envoy, the diplomacy is focused on it." That's not the way it is seen in the Middle East.
They have seen the process of talking over and over and over and over and over again. Both Arabs and Israelis don't believe it anymore. They want to see results. They don't see results. All they see is more trouble.
Gaza is a big issue in the Arab world, to this day. Gaza we don't talk about much, because when there's no firing we forget it. It is not a forgotten issue in the Arab world. It is a constant issue that people hammer at every day of the week. This issue for them is not dead, it is not resolved. They don't see anything different on it.
In the polls, when I ask them if they support a two-state solution, two-thirds of the Arabs are in principle open to a two-state solution based on establishing a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. This is remarkable. In fact, that has not declined over the past three-four years. If anything, it has increased slightly.
What is troubling is that a majority of all polled believe that it will never happen. In effect, while in principle they are open to it, they have given up on it happening.
I want to just spend a couple minutes to give you the mirror image on the perception in Israel. We have misunderstood in some ways the Arab world, in the sense that we're thinking that our rhetoric toward Islam is going to make a transformation. We didn't understand that it's really about issues, not just the general rhetoric. At the very same time, that rhetoric about Islam has really scared the Israelis in ways that may not be obvious.
Public opinion in Israel was not favorable to the president even before he got elected, before anybody knew about the Reverend Wright, and before anybody knew what his position was going to be on the Middle East. In fact, it was probably because people didn't know him and they knew almost everybody else. The people who ranked high in Israel were John McCain, who was number one in Israel throughout the campaign, and then second was Hillary Clinton. Obama was at the bottom of all democratic candidates from the beginning, when there were like two dozen names put on the table.
Haaretz newspaper had a panel on the evaluation of candidates, and Obama was at the bottom. People speculated, even in Haaretz, that maybe because he's an African-American that he tends to be more sympathetic with the underdog. Maybe there's reason here. That's possible.
That was a misread. It's true that just like in the Muslim world, people looked for clues. However, in the end, Obama scared the Israelis for multiple reasons. The biggest reason is that his very outreach to the Muslim world scared the Israelis.
We don't quite understand that. Why would that be the case?
Think about it for a minute. The Israelis see America as their biggest backer. They certainly saw America as their biggest backer after the Second Intifada and the collapse of the Camp David negotiations in 2000. The game again became a zero-sum game between Israel and the Palestinians, with the Palestinians trying to garner Arab and Muslim support and the Israelis trying to grab hold of America as their biggest ally. It polarized the zero-sum environment.
Then you had the tragedy of 9/11, which was particularly threatening to the Israelis. Why?
One interpretation could have been in the American mainstream that 9/11 happened because of America's support for Israel. That kind of interpretation is particularly terrifying to the Israelis. They think that that would be the end of their relationship, and would result in an abandonment of Israel.
As a consequence, the Israelis were especially happy to hear President Bush say: "It's a clash of values. They hate us for who we are. They hate our democracy. They hate our values. It's not about the Arab-Israeli issue. It is really a clash of values, not a clash of policies."
That's music to Israeli ears, including liberals, because it wasn't really a left/right division; it was an Israeli polity that is very much focused on maintaining support from the United States. The Israelis have become comfortable with the paradigm that emerged in the Bush Administration, which is that it is a clash of values, it is not about the Arab-Israeli issue.
What is this administration trying to do, or what did it try to do in the first week?
Number one: They established that it is not a clash of values. We are taking Islam out of the terrorist war, and we are saying the Arab-Israeli issue is an important American interest that deserves presidential intervention. We're not only doing this as a favor to the Israelis, Arabs and Palestinians; we're doing it because it is good for America. We're elevating this in our priorities.
That was particularly threatening to the Israelis. The fear in Israel about the policy of this administration is not about Obama. Some people say Obama should have gone and delivered a speech in Israel after the Cairo speech. It may have helped. These things do matter, just like the Cairo speech helped a little bit.
But look at what happened with the Cairo speech. In Cairo, if you go and poll people in Cairo a year later, it raised expectations, they weren't met, and people are more angry than before.
The same thing would have happened in Israel. It may have helped a little bit, but in the end it is not about speeches and it is not about who the president is personally, but what is the policy.
The paradigm that the Obama Administration is putting through is undermining the Israeli sense of psychological security.
There is no way, in my own judgment, to carve out a strategy to win both Arabs and Israelis before you have an agreement. It is impossible. Why?
For one thing, a majority of Arabs and Israelis no longer believe peace is possible, so they are operating in a zero-sum game. When they operate in a zero-sum game, how America defines itself and its relation with the other is always going to be something you care about deeply, and far more than the outcome.
What my proposition has been, is to put aside public opinion for now for American diplomacy.
Public opinion matters a lot in the long haul. We can't ignore it. But in the short term we can't win it.
Both the Arabs and the Israelis need to put it aside. Build a peace, build an agreement, and both of them will come.
We saw that in the past, we have made too much of trying to build "public support" for an agreement beforehand. That's nice if you can do it. Coalitions are important. You can argue that, particularly in democracies, you need that.
But when you look at all the profound changes that happen in relations between Israel, they have happened without any real preparation.
If you look at the Egyptian-Israeli treaty, there was no public preparation, there was no selling, and there was a profound transformation that happened after there were concrete steps. It was Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, then the Camp David Agreement, and then the bilateral treaty between Israel and Egypt. Only after that happened did the relationship change.
The PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization] was a terrorist organization in Israel's mind until that exchange of letters between Rabin and Arafat. Israelis and Palestinians didn't think they could ever make peace in 1992, and even in 1993.
In 1993, they signed the Oslo Agreements, which were flawed and limited, but they created a sense that peace is achievable and, more importantly, a bet. Most people in the 1990s believed that, whether they liked it or not, peace was coming and they better start betting in terms of coalition building and policy, and betting on peace coming.
What has happened since 2000 is the bet is going the other way. People are betting against it.
It is not possible to create the positive bet without putting something on the table. I am at the point of suggesting that the Obama Administration should move rapidly at this point to put some agreement or plan on the table. If it does, it has a good chance of both Arabs and Israelis supporting it. Without that, it is impossible to win both Arabs and Israelis, and, more likely, we can lose both of them, as we have over the past year.
Thank you very much.
Questions and Answers
QUESTION: Two questions.
One about the subjects that you quiz. Could you tell us who they are? Some of your responses sounded a little sophisticated, and it didn't sound like the man in the street. That's number one.
Number two is about the right of return. It seems to me that that's the major stumbling block. If the president were going to put down an agreement, that would be the number one problem. Is that correct?
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Let me answer the first question.
The polls that we do are a sample of 4,000 in six countries. They are all face-to-face interviews.
They are done between 14 to 18 urban areas in six countries: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Morocco, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, and Lebanon. It is the man in the street.
They are demographically representative, certainly in terms of age and gender. I pay a lot of attention to income and education. In places where religious diversity is important, like in Lebanon, we make sure that we apply weights to compensate if we don't have enough Sunni Muslims, Shia Muslims, Christians, and Jews—those are the four that we control for.
It's a pretty good sample. The evidence that we have is very representative, and it has been pretty consistent over the years. This is the ninth of a ten-year project.
I just focus on attitudes toward the United States and the Arab-Israeli issue.
This is not really just a snapshot poll. This was designed from the beginning to be a ten-year poll, because there is a big analytical question driving this, which is the relationship between the new media and political identity and opinion in the Middle East.
I started this with the advent of Al Jazeera, and now with the expansion of the Internet, to see whether these new transnational media outlets are having an impact on how people define themselves.
We have a lot of identity questions. A lot of the social questions that we ask, including gender questions and attitudes toward religion, are really intended to look at the collective political identity, and to see whether the media has an impact or not.
We run statistical analyses with the data. We control it and divide it. We look at all sorts of variables, because we have, in addition to the obvious ones that I mentioned—education, income, gender, and age—we also have whether or not they speak English, ethnic identification, and so forth. So, we have a lot of data.
In some instances, I do another control. It is a public opinion poll among the Palestinian citizens of Israel, to see whether their opinion is different from the rest of the Arab world, given that they have an environment that includes Israeli television, since they are also fluent in Hebrew.
There I ask questions about the second question you asked, which is their attitude on the right of return issue, because obviously it matters.
I try to divide them. One of the variables I use is whether they have personal relatives who became refugees in 1948 or not. I find in that sample about roughly half of the people have relatives who became refugees. It turns out that that question explains their attitudes, more so than the religious division on a whole range of issues, including even what television stations they watch. It's very interesting to see.
I don't think that the right of return is the most important issue in the Arab world. This year I asked, "Of the following three issues, which one is the most important: number one, the Palestinians having a state on the West Bank and Gaza; number two, Arabs having sovereignty over East Jerusalem; and number three, the refugees having the right of return to their home?"
The number one answer by a majority was having a state. The second answer was Jerusalem. The third answer was refugees.
The refugee question is important. It's very important to Palestinians, much more than it is to some Arabs. It's important to the Lebanese because they want the Palestinians out of there. But the Jerusalem issue is much more important. In fact, I would say the Jerusalem issue is the single most important issue. That's one thing that was misunderstood.
I am in the middle of finishing the draft of a co-authored book on the Camp David negotiations in 2000. You can see how the American team and the Israeli team misunderstood the Palestinian position, as well as the Arab position and the Saudi position, particularly on the issue of Jerusalem.
They are all important, but to my mind Jerusalem is a bigger issue than refugees in the Arab world.
QUESTION: James Starkman. In the press in recent days, there have been references to inducements which the U.S. administration is offering following the collapse of the settlement moratorium and the threat of the Palestinian side walking away from the talks.
Do you have any indication of whether those inducements are in the form of aid? Or, are they in the form of a plan, such as you have referred to, which is a hard plan proposed by the United States to put on the table to get reaction from both sides?
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Let me, first of all, put my cards on the table. I am an advisor to the Obama Administration on this issue. I advise Senator Mitchell pro bono. I'm an advisor, but from the beginning I agreed that it would not be for pay because I want to maintain my independent views on this. I'll give my views. If you want to take them, fine; if not, I'm a free agent on the outside.
What I can tell you is what the reports are obviously saying, if you read The New York Times or read the Israeli press.
I read the Israeli press regularly, just like I read the Arab press regularly, as well as our own. The Israeli press on this issue is a little complicated, because very often you will get some really cutting-edge information before our press will have it. Very often it is deliberate leaks from the government to tell a story before we even have a take on it. You have to take it with a grain a salt and understand that it's part of the tactics of negotiating, to leak a story that may or may not be accurate.
So what the exact content of the American offer is, I cannot say.
In The New York Times report, obviously there were all kinds of assurances—not so much about aid, although that is true in terms of the military side of it. But it's more of a commitment down the road for things that have to do with the United Nations. For example, no UN veto while Israel is negotiating with the Palestinians.
In the end, I'm not sure what the result will be.
I met with Secretary General Amr Moussa of the Arab League two days ago in Spain, before he went to meet with Mitchell in Cairo. Today the Arab League is meeting. I have been too preoccupied to know what the decision was to authorize support for President Mahmoud Abbas returning without a particular commitment on settlements.
The Arab League's position was that if there is no settlement freeze, they want to see a UN resolution that at least lays down the rules on the negotiations and the settlement. It is a very tricky issue, because if we don't get over this particular obstacle in the short term, it is going to be very hard to move forward.
But Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, does have a legitimacy problem at home. People see his return to the negotiations without having a settlement freeze already as a concession, not an accomplishment. That's one reason why he goes out to the Arab world to get support and the reason he is seeking the support of the Arab League, as he did when he returned to the negotiations. He is trying to create regional legitimacy to support his return to negotiations.
QUESTION: I'm also a pollster. I would largely concur with the analysis that you presented on the public opinion.
I was a little surprised by the conclusion about the strategy. If you look at the two great breakthroughs in the past, both Oslo and Sadat's trip to Jerusalem, neither of those was an American initiative. The question of how one breaks the deadlock, especially how one somehow convinces one side or the other—perhaps the Israelis—that there is actually a possibility of movement, would seem to me to suggest initiative by the parties.
I've been intrigued, for example, by Tom Friedman's suggestion that the king of Saudi Arabia should invite Bibi Netanyahu to Riyadh. One could also imagine him traveling in the opposite direction.
I'm wondering if one shouldn't be looking as the administration has, but perhaps even more dramatically than the administration has, to these kinds of dramatic gestures that might actually be game changers, even if they are symbolic rather than substantive.
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: In theory, obviously these things matter. We know that Sadat's visit to Jerusalem mattered. We know that Rabin's and Arafat's handshake mattered. Those were symbols that had a lot of power. But they had a lot of power because they came unexpectedly, they signaled profound change, and they were transformational.
People have been jaded. It has been a long journey, and when people see Mubarak and King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz and the president of the United States and the president of this and that meeting again, it's not something that really captures the imagination.
If there was a huge breakthrough on the Syrian-Israeli front, it could change things. I don't think you could ever clinch an Israeli-Syrian deal fully without resolving the Palestinian issue. It would be derailed. The two are linked and we have to shoot for a comprehensive peace. But on the symbolism, that's an area where you could possibly have a breakthrough.
I don't see in the environment in the region right now what you suggest about the Saudis. Knowing what I know about the politics of Saudi Arabia, how the king sees Israel, and what they have done in terms of the Saudi plan—I see that as a nonstarter. In the Arab world it wouldn't sell very well. It would in Israel, possibly.
From the Arab point of view, the Saudis see themselves as the last out-card. They see that normalizing with Israel is the final big thing that Israel wants. Frankly, when Israel says "We want normalization with the Arab world," they are not talking about Qatar or the UAE; they are talking about Saudi Arabia. The North Africans are prepared to do it. They already have relations with Egypt and Jordan, and even with the Palestinians, obviously.
The Saudis see themselves as the final arbiter. They want to play that card primarily on final status issues with the Palestinians, and particularly on the Jerusalem issue. I don't see it as something that is within the realm of what's possible.
QUESTION: Thank you very much for your presentation.
When you explained to us how important something substantive is now, what I'm thinking about is this. Asking for another two months. It doesn't seem like much can be done in two months. Do you think that the Arabs and the Israelis will feel that the United States is really losing its credibility because this is only to get us by the next election, so that at the time of the next election people are talking rather than not talking?
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: On the public opinion side the battle is lost. People are not taking these negotiations seriously. They are already being dismissed. "This is a game for the big players," meaning the governments, and even those don't have a lot of confidence in what is happening.
What is the idea of the two months? The idea of the two months is the following. Whether it is workable or not is another issue.
You can deal with the border issues in two months, in theory, if you have both Israel and the Palestinians really wanting to. If that's what is driving them, it's not impossible to do a border deal within two months, because they have advanced a lot.
If you look at the Olmert-Mahmoud Abbas negotiations, it was remarkable how far they advanced on the exchange of land, and even which settlements would be included and would not be included. There was even a rumor that they at least talked about the most difficult settlement, the Ariel settlement, and what might happen with that.
In theory, you could have it, except for one problem: Jerusalem. You can't even talk about borders without talking about Jerusalem boundaries.
Jerusalem is to my mind the biggest issue in the negotiations. It is very tough to resolve the Jerusalem issue in two months. If you do that, then you have really solved the problem.
In theory, if you could solve the border issues within two months, you can have them say, "Okay, so the following blocks will be incorporated in Israel." Maybe the Israelis will have a different rule about settlements within these blocks, and the Palestinians may be given some more freedom in the territories that they know are going to become under the sovereignty of the Palestinian state.
That is the general theory behind it. Whether it will happen or not, I don't know. But clearly, the border issue is going to be one of the first issues they are going to tackle in these negotiations.
QUESTION: Bryn Cohen. Thank you so very much for your most informative presentation.
I'd like to ask a question about the underlying credibility of the talks. After all, we do have Netanyahu gabbing with Abbas, who really only represents the PLO. My question is: To what extent can Hamas come in at the end of anything that's accomplished and be a spoiler?
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: I have to give you my own opinion on this, because it's obviously a little bit different from the administration view on this.
For one thing, let's keep in mind how tough the hand is that this administration inherited. You've got division within the Palestinians, even physical geographic division between Hamas and the West Bank, and then a right-wing Israeli government with coalition members who, if you look at their careers, have not supported the idea of a two-state solution. It's a very tough hand to have inherited.
My own view is the following. On the Palestinian side, I do not believe that a final status agreement can be reached and delivered in the end without finding a way to bring Hamas in. I just don't think it's going to happen. It's not possible. No one can tell me how you are going to resolve that issue.
Hamas is not just a group; they control a territory, unless you want to go to war with them again. Also, they represent a good chunk of the Palestinian public. So a way has to be found out.
Obviously, they have to play. If they are going to be part of an agreement, they are going to have to accept certain conditions. But at some point—what that point is, is obviously debatable—a way has to be found to bring about Palestinian unity before you sign a final status deal.
I don't think you can just have a deal with the hope that they are going to go away, or that you are going to marginalize them, or defeat them by selling it directly to the public. That doesn't work. We have Arab governments that have not been popular for decades and they are still in power. You can win the game of public opinion without creating transformation. So I don't see it that way.
On the Israeli side of the equation, I don't know whether this Israeli government is capable or not of an agreement. I go back and forth on that. It's a tough one.
There are certainly members in this coalition who clearly do not support the kind of agreement that would have to be made.
I take the view that we don't know for sure. Some people think the prime minister of Israel may have gone through a transformation. The more prevalent theory is that he is more a political opportunist than he is an ideologue.
When you enter a negotiation, you have to enter in good faith. You can't enter a negotiation thinking that one side cannot deliver. We have seen in the history of negotiations, people who nobody thought could deliver who ended up delivering.
You have to create an environment where you have choices before them. They have to make choices constantly.
We haven't put Netanyahu in a position to make the kind of tough choices he is going to have to make, and at some point he'll have to make them.
I don't buy the argument that his coalition paralyzes him, because this is a coalition of choice, not a coalition of necessity. He entered into this coalition.
He still has Kadima, which has proven that it can negotiate. He can bring them in and he can dump some of the members who don't want to negotiate.
The view in the United States, as well as in Israel, is that at some point that is going to be the test. Maybe it is not the time for him to do that because the choices are not clear yet, but at some point in the next year, if we are going to make any progress, some tough choices are going to be made.
I clearly don't believe it's impossible. It could be done. No one can underestimate how difficult it is. That's why you have a lot of pessimism. It requires not only extraordinary diplomacy, but in the end it requires presidential priority.
The United States is indispensable for reaching an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. They are just not going to be able to do it on their own.
I'm not talking about imposition. This is an existential issue for both. I'm talking about a very tough hand to play with both sides. That is never going to happen unless you have a president who is involved, who is determined to make this a top-priority issue. It can't happen on the cheap.
Right now the president intellectually believes it is important. He is empowering others to do it. He hasn't yet put his presidential weight behind it. At some point it has to be done, and it has to be done in relatively short order if we are going to make progress in the next year.
DAVID SPEEDIE: We can take two questions, and then we'll have to wrap up.
QUESTION: What can you tell us about Iran as a factor in this whole situation?
QUESTION: My name is Robert Adler. With regard to the point you made at the end of your presentation, that one should ignore the public opinion and just present a plan. The Arab world is comprised mostly of countries that have pretty authoritarian, not to say dictatorial, governments, and they can perhaps ignore public opinion. As you just pointed out, the Israelis have a kind of disputational democracy and it has to deal with public opinion one way or the other.
What are the risks that you see of those two blocs erupting into some sort of turmoil if in fact a plan is proposed and installed and public opinion has not been accommodated?
SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Let me start with your question first, because I don't want to be misunderstood.
I don't say ignore public opinion. Public opinion is important. It's very important in the Arab world. I can give you a whole lecture on why. I wrote a chapter in my book, "Does the Arab Public Opinion Matter?" which includes obviously, authoritarian countries. It matters for a lot of reasons, and it cannot be ignored. We have to pay attention to it.
What I'm suggesting is that in the short term we, the United States of America, simply are not going to be able to win public opinion. We can win them by delivering goods. Words or strategies, just a public relations strategy or a public diplomacy strategy, have no chance of winning. The only way to win the public is by delivering some concrete results on the Arab-Israeli issue. That's the only way to win both Arabs and Israelis.
We can win the public, and we should win them, and we should not ignore them. In the short term we are not going to be able to win them until we put something on the table to win them by. That means forget about the little noise outside for now, work hard in a short order to put something on the table, and then you'll win them. Then they will have to do another strategy if they want to grab more.
On the Iran issue, it is very interesting. In fact, I have been engaged in a debate on this because the findings have been very interesting.
Arab public opinion does not have a love for Iran. By and large, Iran was engaged in a war with an Arab country, Iraq, and they don't see them as an ally or as a friend, to start with.
What has happened consistently over the past few years is that they no longer see Iran as the biggest threat. When I ask people in the Arab world "Name the two countries that pose the biggest threat to you personally," roughly 90 percent say Israel, roughly 80 percent say the United States, and roughly 10 percent say Iran. What happens in that ranking game is that the anger with the United States and Israel translates into a positive for Iran.
I did a poll over the summer, which happened after the Gaza flotilla. The nuclear issue was rapidly discussed because of the Nonproliferation Treaty which brought up the issue of a nuclear-free Middle East. I asked Arabs, "If Iran should have nuclear weapons, would that be a positive or a negative for the Middle East?" about half of Arabs said it would be positive for the Middle East.
I asked them, "Do you believe that the international community should pressure Iran to stop its nuclear program or that Iran should be allowed to pursue its nuclear program?" A majority said that Iran should be allowed to pursue its nuclear program.
Why are they saying that? Because it's the double-standard argument, the Israel argument, the anger-with-the-U.S. argument, the anger-with-Israel argument. It's saying essentially "Iran is the enemy of my enemy."
They're not embracing Iran. They would rather have a nuclear-free Middle East. That is at the public level.
At the government level, it is a different story altogether. Arab governments have a complicated relationship with Iran. Some want to see a war with Iran. Particularly, some of the small neighbors worry about the consequences for them with Iran.
The United Arab Emirates, of course, worries about Iran the most, because Iran controls three islands that the UAE claims as its own.
Outside of the immediate neighbors, including Egypt, Jordan, and Morocco, which are all friendly states to the United States, the worry about Iran is not military. They are not worried that Iran is going to occupy them, attack them, or send a missile their way.
There is some silver lining if you're talking about the Iranian nuclear issue for Egypt. It highlights the double-standard issue and it empowers them to talk about their favorite subject, which is a nuclear-free Middle East, including no Israeli nuclear weapons.
What they worry about is Iran's influence with their public. With groups like Hezbollah and Hamas, it is clear that they are popular in the Arab world. When I ask people in the Arab world about popularity within the Palestinian Authority, Hamas is slightly more popular than the Palestinian Authority. Either one is very popular.
Hezbollah is popular. Hassan Nasrallah is popular. Iran's allies that are seen as a threat by Arab governments are popular.
They worry about the political influence of Iran in the Arab world. Egypt, Jordan and Morocco see that the easiest way to contain Iran is to resolve the Arab-Israeli issue, which they see as the mobilizer behind the allies of Iran in the Arab world.
It is a very complicated, not unified, picture. It is much more nuanced than we think both at the public level and government level.
DAVID SPEEDIE: Thank you for some terrific questions.
Please join me in thanking Shibley Telhami.