Beirut, Damascus, Tehran, and Tel Aviv: The Moment of Reckoning is Near

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Introduction

JOANNE MYERS: I'm Joanne Myers, and on behalf of the Carnegie Council I'd like to extend very warm greetings to all our members and guests and take this opportunity to wish you all a very happy holiday season.

This morning we have a special opportunity to listen to the kind of scholar and journalist that is admired by both those in the Middle East and in the West. To say that Rami Khouri is someone with immense knowledge of the region is an understatement, as a reading of his bio will indicate. When this familiarity is combined with analytical creativity, keen observation, and intrepid reporting, I know you will find that what he has to say will give you fresh insight about a region of the world that has many layers, many plots, and many subplots.

I don't have to tell you how convoluted the politics of the Middle East are. The political challenges are enormous, the issues complex, and the problems never go away. In almost every country in the region there are tinderboxes waiting to ignite.

Although the Middle East has always had a reputation for being a region of devilish intrigues, power games, and religious conflicts, some countries are more prone to instability than others. For example, Lebanon, which is a focus of our discussion this morning, has been a flash point, especially for Arab-Israeli violence and military confrontation since the mid-1970s. It is a battleground in a regional confrontation between Iran, Syria, and their allies on one hand, and the U.S., the Sunni majority of Arab states, and their allies on the other. Its political system is weak, and outside parties continue to vie for political advantage as part of a larger regional conflict.

For example, Syria and Iran provide support for the militant Islamist group Hezbollah as a strategic asset to pressure Israel. As a result, Hezbollah now controls most of southern Lebanon, while its political wing has developed a strong presence in the Lebanese parliament.

Since the July-August 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, which killed and displaced many thousands of people and destroyed much of Lebanon's infrastructure, Hezbollah has steadily rearmed in contravention of UN Security Council Resolution 1701. Its arsenal is more potent in quantity and quality today than it was in 2006. Although the border between Israel and Lebanon is quieter than at any time in the previous decade, speculation that a third Lebanese war will occur in the next 12-to-18 months has been steadily rising.

But that's not all. These days political tensions are running higher than usual, while fears of instability continue to mount in anticipation of the soon-to-be-released findings from a United Nations-backed Special Tribunal [for Lebanon] that could indict members of the Hezbollah over the killing of Rafik Hariri, the former prime minister. The battle over the tribunal, which Hezbollah wants derailed, if not destroyed, is the latest chapter in this long, drawn-out political drama. It is a struggle over control of the state, but it also reflects broader regional tensions that often play out by proxy on Lebanese soil. The saga never seems to end.

As the day of reckoning draws near, you might be wondering, where will this lead? For an astute analysis, please join me in giving a very warm welcome to a man of sagacity, acumen, and penetrating insight, our guest today, Rami Khouri. Thank you so much.

Remarks

RAMI KHOURI: Thank you very much.

I'm very happy to be here and meet so many of you. I wish I had more time to engage with many of you personally, but I look forward to other opportunities in the future. For everybody here, Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, and may your favorite football team do well in the bowl games.

I've spent my whole life going back and forth between the United States and the Middle East, the Arab world, Europe, and I'm very much a bicultural person. I was the chief umpire of Little League Baseball in Jordan for six, seven years. I'm well aware of the subtleties of both American culture and Arab and Middle Eastern culture.

The most useful thing I can do in a situation like this, with so many distinguished and knowledgeable people, is to share with you what are the really important actual things that are happening in Lebanon, in the Middle East, and in the relations between the Middle East and much of the Western world and other parts of the world.

There is a danger often to look at a country like Lebanon. I'm not Lebanese, by the way; I'm Palestinian, Jordanian, and an American citizen, but I live in Lebanon. This is the third time I've lived in Lebanon. I was there as a small child, when my dad worked there in the late 1950s; I was there in the early 1970s—my first journalism job was in Beirut after I graduated from university here in the United States; and I'm there now for the third time.

It's not coincidental, but it's the reality that every time I've lived in Lebanon there has been some kind of American military presence either in the country or offshore. There's something going on in the Middle East that is related to both the Middle East but also to wider forces and issues.

The most useful thing that I can do in my limited time is to share with you what are the real dimensions and implications of what is going on in Lebanon and how this helps us understand wider issues and trends in the region.

The international tribunal that is soon to give its indictments presents an immediate crisis in terms of the implications if they name Hezbollah people and link to Hezbollah.

That is just one more immediate crisis within Lebanon. But, like most of these things, it reflects much wider forces, and I'd like to give you a few thoughts on what these forces are.

Everything in Lebanon that's going on now or in recent years is best seen as a microcosm of the entire Middle East and the forces that are at play within and between the region. Those forces can be summarized as purely local political, ethnic, ideological, and economic tensions between various actors within countries.

But, there are also tensions between countries: Lebanon-Syria; Lebanon-Israel are still technically at war; and other forces at play in the region.

There are new complications and dimensions with Iran now playing a much bigger role in Lebanon through its links with Hezbollah.

There is the emergence of new groups such as Hezbollah, which didn't exist until the early 1980s. Imagine if the Arab-Israeli conflict had been solved in 1975. Hezbollah and Hamas wouldn't exist probably, because they grew up heavily—not totally, but heavily—in response to the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank in South Lebanon. The Iranian link in the Arab world therefore probably wouldn't be so complicated.

That highlights the absolute critical priority of resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, which the Obama people have absolutely right. This is a critical issue for the Arabs, Israelis, and others in the region, as well as for the strategic interests of the United States. Resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict is the number one priority, because it impacts so many other things in the Middle East.

The Iranian linkages now in Lebanon, the Iranian relation with Syria, Israeli concerns about Iran are all factors that weren't there 25 years ago, but they are there now. Time is not on our side. Time is on the side of greater conflict and greater tension.

There are other issues in the region that play themselves out in Lebanon—Syrian-Saudi relations, Egyptian-Syrian relations, the relations among and within purely Arab countries.

The Lebanese have this tendency to push these conflicts to the very brink, and usually they pull back at the last moment; occasionally they slip over and get into conflict, but then they pull back. They have turned brinkmanship into a normal operating procedure.

What you are seeing in Lebanon is the convergence of many regional conflicts; conflicts that are linked together; and conflicts that are seen by the protagonists themselves as existential conflicts.

Many of the actors in Israel, Hezbollah, Iran, and Palestine talk about the survival of their people and their state when they talk about issues. They see this as an existential conflict.

This isn't like an American election where you lose, you win, you come back in two years, and do it again. If you lose, you're gone. This makes these things much more difficult. People tend to take fewer chances when they are fighting what they believe to be existential conflicts.

The tribunal has brought to a head forces that have been at play on local and regional issues, not just for the last two or three generations, but the global tensions that have plagued the Middle East since Napoleon marched in with his army.

For almost 200 years, we've had one overarching conflict or dynamic tension in this region among various actors: a struggle between an indigenous Arab, Islamic, nationalist form of identity and sovereignty versus a Western-driven interventionist form of political, if not dominance, then at least political influence in the region.

It used to be the British and the French, and now it's the Americans, who send their armies and try to rearrange the area for democracy, stability, peace, or whatever issue they think they are rearranging the area for, through covert operations and supporting proxies in local fights.

There has been over 200 years of almost nonstop tensions and confrontations that occasionally break out into active fighting between an indigenous Arab/Islamist/Middle Eastern identity and sovereignty and a Western, often militarily driven, form of intervention.

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon created by the Security Council by unanimous vote and the Hezbollah/Syrian resistance to this tribunal represents the high-water mark of the two most powerful forces that have defined and plagued this region for the last two centuries. Hezbollah/Syria with Iran represent the most effective and most widely spread regional version of this Arab/Islamist/Middle Eastern indigenous nationalist identity resistance and sovereignty. This is the high-water mark.

I'm not saying these are great people. I'm not saying that I agree with them and that everything they're saying is right. I'm just analyzing them. You feed this stuff into a computer, and what it tells you is Hezbollah/Syria/Iran represent the most effective form of Arab/Islamic/Middle Eastern nationalist resistance and defiance. It's no surprise that the last wars that Israel has fought have been not with Arab armies, but with Hamas and Hezbollah, who are closely linked to Syria and to Iran.

On the other side, you have the tribunal, which symbolically represents the high-water mark of Western, American, and European interventionist manipulation of identity, sovereignty, political expression, and self-determination in the Middle East. These forces are now fighting back. We've got an unstoppable force hitting an immovable object.

We are coming to this moment of reckoning—which as the title of my remarks notes—is not about Lebanon; it's not about secular or religious; it's not about Christian or Muslim; Sunni or Shiite; or any of these divisions.

It's about a whole region defined by Lebanon, Syria, Israel, and most dramatically, Iran, that has now started to behave as an entire region to a large extent in, as they see it, confronting, defying, resisting, and opposing what they see as a threat coming at them from the West. The West for many of these groups includes Israel, many Europeans, and the United States, which are symbolically represented by this tribunal. This is how they see it. I'm not saying this is exactly accurate, but this defines this dynamic.

The fact that these defiance and resistance groups are able to do what they are doing is very telling. It's important to step back a moment from any kind of ideological sentiment—you like Hezbollah, you don't like Hezbollah; you like Israel, you don't like Israel; Syria, Iran, Saudi Arabia—whatever your views are personally about these different groups, you have to step back and analyze them dispassionately.

The reality is that you now have a regional situation which is far different than what we've ever had. What we had historically in regional or global confrontations is one person and one country in the Middle East—maybe Egypt under Nassar; maybe Iraq under Saddam Hussein; sometimes the Palestinians under Arafat were leading a political wave, though they weren't very strong; at one point Khomeini in Iran. These are individuals who tried to lead a regional process, and of course they were whacked. Every time they were whacked, whether it was Libya, Egypt, Hezbollah, or Syria.

But now there is a much more difficult constellation of forces to deal with because you have individuals, non-government groups, armed groups, civilian groups, governments, and they transcend all of these divisions. You can't just hit them because you don't know where to hit.

It's very popular here in the United States to talk about Sunni and Shiite. This is Orientalist nonsense for the most part. Of course, Sunnis and Shiites are killing each other and having problems, but this really only started after the Americans and others went into Iraq and unleashed this genie.

The reality is that this constellation of forces is challenging and opposing the United States, Israel, conservative Arab governments and others. There are Iranians and Arabs, Sunnis and Shiites, monarchists and non-monarchists, Arab secular republics like Syria and Islamist groups, and governments and non-governmental organizations. All of these need dichotomies that are often presented, particularly in the Western press.

I know this very well because I've worked for it for most of my life. I respect so much of what I see in the American press, except for their coverage of the Middle East, which is pretty atrocious. Professionally speaking, it's very poor. Even the quality press falls down on this.

The reality of the Middle East is much more complicated than is presented, and you don't have these neat divisions of Sunni/Shiite, Islamist/secular/religious, Islamist/republican, and Irani/Arab. What you have is a whole range of people in this region, and if you put the Turks, the Iranians, and the Arabs together, which is the Muslim majority region, you're talking about approximately 500 million people.

Of those 500 million people, easily 300-350 million support this general grouping that challenges and defies the other side, which is the American-led conservative Arabs, Israel, and the Europeans, which is represented very much by the tribunal.

We need to look at this region in a much more nuanced and accurate manner, and without saying who's right or wrong. We need to just say, "This is the reality. Here is why we have these two conglomerates of people, countries, movements, individuals, and militias that are confronting each other."

When you look around the region you ask, "How did we get here?"

Why is it that a region defined historically for most of my life—and I can see from the white hair and the distinguished-looking people, most of your lives—has been defined by the Cold War, and then the end of the Cold War. For most of our lives we had two big conflicts in the Middle East: the Cold War and the Arab-Israeli conflict. There were little occasional things, but they were proxy battles for the Cold War or the Arab-Israeli conflict, and they often coincided.

The Middle East today is very different. There are at least half a dozen major conflicts—Arab/Israeli; Iraq/Afghanistan; Iran's nuclear issue and the challenges with the people who are confronting it in the West generally, but also some Arab governments; Sudan/Somalia; Yemen/ Lebanon. There are at least six major conflicts and a whole bunch of smaller ones.

One of the other critical new dimensions is that they are all linked together now. You can't say, "Let's look at the Arab-Israeli conflict," or, "Let's look at Iran," or, "How about Yemen?" or, "What are we going to do about Somalia?"

You can't isolate these conflicts anymore because in the eyes of the people of the region, particularly these 300-350 million people who are critical of the United States and the West, they see all these issues as part of one big regional dynamic.

What we have now is a regional cold war, which is like the old Cold War, fought through many different mechanisms—cultural, economic, ideological, military (occasionally they fight), and through proxies. This is very much what we see happening in Lebanon.

Lebanon is the granddaddy of proxy battlefields, unfortunately for the Lebanese. I don't know how many of you have been to Lebanon, but it's the most dynamic, creative, productive Arab country. It's the only place in the Arab world where people are allowed and able to use all their human faculties. They can think, speak, debate, be creative, discuss ideas, publish, do serious research, and talk about sensitive issues. They can do all the things that normal human beings like to do.

In most of the Arab world you can't use all your human faculties because of security constraints, lack of political rights, and cultural, social, religious, and other constraints. If you go to any Arab country, without naming any of them, you don't have a full political debate. You don't have discussions about gender issues, minority rights issues, and sensitive Arab-Israeli issues. Big-sticker items are simply not seriously discussed in public throughout the Arab world.

Lebanon is the only place to have these discussions. Because of the frailty of the country politically, it has this liberalism and openness, and people have filled these open spaces with productivity, creativity, and dynamism. You therefore very clearly see the challenges in Lebanon because people speak out, they write, and they debate. Everything is out in the open.

When you look at Lebanon today, you say: "As a microcosm of the Middle East, what are the big issues that plague or challenge the Middle East?" There is a series of them.

The first is constitutional power sharing. Lebanon, like every Arab country, without exception, has not resolved the issue of how do you share power among different political, ethnic, and religious groups in the country under a constitutional system. Lebanon hasn't resolved this and neither has any Arab country.

The second big-sticker item is the question of individual, communal, and national identity. Religious, ethnic, tribal, professional, and ideological identity is the driving force for so many of the movements in the Middle East today. We have a marketplace of identities rather than a marketplace of ideas.

The Cold War was one of the lids that kept this region pretty much frozen ideologically. When those lids came off around 1990, all these identities resurfaced. That's why you look around the region today and you have all of these different kinds of active religious, political and ethnic groups.

National identity is one of the key themes of this group of countries. I mentioned the movements of the defiance and resistance. They talk. They say the battle in Lebanon is about identity: "Are we an Arab/Islamic/Middle Eastern country?" There's a big Christian minority in Lebanon, which Hezbollah and others recognize.

One of the big debates in Lebanon is "Are we an Arab/Middle Eastern/predominantly Islamic region, or are we an appendage to Western secular nationalism?"

The third issue is relations with external powers. It's quite amazing, but we still don't know today if the majority of people in the Arab world want to make war or peace with Israel. We also still don't know if the majority of Israelis want war or peace with the Arabs.

If you look at some of the quite racist things being said about Palestinians by some Israelis in their political/religious/military leadership, you have to ask questions about both Israel and the Arab world. What do they want from each other? Are they prepared to coexist? Do they recognize the legitimacy of each other? We really don't know.

We don't know if the majority of Arabs think that the United States is our friend or our enemy. We don't know if the majority of people in the Arab world fear Iran or like what the country is doing.

It's quite extraordinary. On these big-sticker items we just don't really know what it is that defines the relations of Arabs with non-Arabs. This is something that is very clear in Lebanon.

The fourth big-sticker item is about basic stability and development—human development, addressing basic human needs; a sustainable, productive economy. Nobody has really met this challenge in a serious way yet. The amounts of oil money floating around the region have camouflaged this basic weakness.

The fifth big-sticker item relates to the issue of citizenship, statehood, and the rule of law. Citizenship at the individual level and statehood at the upper level, are the highest and the lowest forms of national configuration. Throughout the Arab world, both the citizen and the state remain perplexingly imprecise in their definition.

What is the responsibility and what are the rights of a citizen? What is the limit of state power, and what is the responsibility of the state?

Most stable, developed, legitimate states believe that they should give their citizens security, opportunity, the rule of law, a chance to live a better life, and the expectation that their kids will have a better life. At that level, most of the Arab states are not doing very well.

There's a huge problem in the Middle East, which I will give you with just one World Bank statistic from the latest World Development Indicators. If you take the period from 1980 until today—and remember this is a period when hundreds and billions of dollars have been sloshing around from oil and other revenues in this region—if you take the entire Arab population of 22 Arab countries, today it's around 350 million people, and if you take the entire Gross Domestic Product and you calculate that the average per capita Gross Domestic Product in constant-dollar terms adjusted for inflation, et cetera in the 1980s the average was $2,671 per individual Arab across the whole region. Thirty years later, the average has gone down to $2,556.

That's an average for the whole region. If you take away the oil states, 15 percent—Kuwait, Qatar, very wealthy, where per capita GDP is $50,000—you are left with the Egypts, the Moroccos, the Sudans, the Yemens, who make up the majority of the Arab world, and you're talking about 350 million people in the Arab world probably, their per capita income is close to $1,000.

There are three striking things about these figures:

  1. Most of the Arab world is poor;
  2. It has gotten more poor in the last 30 years on average;
  3. It has been very erratic.


I gave you the figures for the 1980s and the 2000s. In between it went down. From the 1980s to the 1990s it went from $2,671 to $2,035, a drop of about 20 percent, and then it went back up to $2,556 in this decade, which is still lower than it was 30 years ago.

So it's low, it's dropping, and it's erratic. This is a catastrophe for any concept of stable national development. There are many other figures like this that we can use.

The reality is that there is economic stress, political governance challenges, foreign relations issues, and security issues. There is also the emergence of new forces—Hezbollah and Hamas are the most dramatic, but there are hundreds of groups in Arab societies—women's groups, student groups, environmental groups, community groups. These groups are emerging because the central Arab state has largely been unable to fulfill its role to the majority of its citizens, and people are looking for other sources of identity, representation, and political change.

We had this change going on for about the last 20 years. All of this was there before the end of the Cold War, but it was hidden below the surface, because of the modern security state during the Cold War and the Arab-Israeli conflict. It started in the late 1980s and came up onto the surface after 1990. We've watched this process.

The Arab world today is defined by a wide range of indigenous groups, all of whom are in one way or another expressing or representing sentiments of their people, and competing for a share of the public decision-making process.

We see this in Lebanon as a microcosm of the region, and this is why this tribunal has accentuated these tensions. We not only have the tensions of the foreign interventionist coming and being met by the resistance from the indigenous groups, but you have now in the region a very new situation. It is healthy at one level, which is that many groups have emerged and now operate in society and compete with one another, challenge one another, and share government power.

You have three broad groupings in each country throughout the Arab world, but you see them most clearly in Lebanon. They are the mosque, the monarch, and the mall.

    • The mosque is the intangible identities of religion, tribalism, ethnicity, the identities of the heart, and these are very powerful in society.

 

    • The monarch is the ruling political power. Whether it's a republic or a monarchy, it doesn't make much difference in the Arab world. It's the only collective and chronically non-democratic region of the world. It doesn't matter what kind of system you have. They're all top-heavy and there isn't real democracy. The monarch is the political power with this massive security system that operates with it, supported mostly by Western countries like the United States and others.

 

  • The mall is the free-market forces, civil society, all these other groups, that are not government, religious, or ethnic.


These three groups you see all over the place to different degrees. In some countries, the monarchy is stronger; in others, the free-market forces. But you have these three broad conglomerate groups of people, forces, and parties, and they are creating a very novel form of checks and balances in society.

This is why in Lebanon, Hezbollah can't take over the place, atlhough they don't particularly want to. Hezbollah can't take over the country, neither can Hariri and the free-market forces, nor can the government. No one group can totally dominate the others. You have these interesting checks and balances, which provides a certain stability for a transitional period.

This is not sustainable for a long period of time. It's a healthy situation to the extent that we now can see all over the region what a lot of ordinary people feel because they have groups that speak for them and they compete for power.

In Lebanon, you have a very bizarre situation, which is healthy. You have Hezbollah and Hariri in the same government. It's the first Iranian-American joint venture in Arab governance. It's working. To a certain extent it's working, but it's not very stable.

This is a model for the future because these two broad camps have to share power and figure out a way to live together. Hamas and Fatah will do the same thing in Palestine eventually. The same in Yemen and in Somalia. We are at a transitional moment, and you see it all over the region.

The tribunal raises important questions about whether this system will evolve quietly and steadily into something more stable and more permanent, or whether we are coming to a real physical, military, or political clash.

If we do move to a clash, it's a real problem because it won't be confined to Lebanon. This is where the Israeli-Iranian-Arab triangle becomes more problematic.

It is critical that we, first of all, understand what is really happening in the region and what these different forces represent. What do the Israelis really want? What do the Arabs want, the Iranians, et cetera?

Within the Arabs, you have so many different groups now, that it's become much more complicated. It doesn't need the kind of simplistic Orientalist approaches that you often get in the public sphere in the United States or Europe. It needs a much more sophisticated, nuanced, accurate analysis.

You can be positive about some of these elements in the region because, for the first time, everything is out in the open, which is a healthy thing. People are actually competing and negotiating at the same time. All of this is very clear in Lebanon.

The two things that override everything else are the Arab/Israeli conflict and the Iranian/Western confrontation. Those two are the big-sticker items. If one of those makes a breakthrough, then we can see possible movements for peaceful resolution of these conflicts. If not, a clash in Lebanon is a real possibility, which will spill over possibly to Israel and Syria, which might bring in Iran. The Armageddon-type scenario is actually a possibility in this case. It's very frightening, but it's a possibility, because of the linkages now among these countries.

We need sober, honest, rational analysis, but most of all an ethical analysis anchored in the rule of law and equity. That's what you are all about, and that's why I'm so happy to be here and share these thoughts with you.

Thank you very much.

Questions and Answers

QUESTION: Jim Traub, The New York Times Magazine.

Thank you so much for that talk. I had trouble in a way putting together what seemed like the two parts of it.

In the beginning you were explaining the overall conflict as being one between indigenous forces and the West, but then you talked a great deal about state failure, the failures of human development, autocratic failures, the isolation of elites, and so forth.

Is the problem at bottom the long-term anger at, resentment towards, this Western intervention? Or, is the problem at bottom the people's sense of embitterment and alienation towards their own failed regimes, which the regimes, among others, have proved to be very deft at channeling in the direction of outside actors?

RAMI KHOURI: It's really a combination of the two. You can't separate them. In the eyes of most of the people in the Arab-Islamic societies, the two are really synonymous.

You have multiple levels of problems. You have political problems, lack of democracy, corruption, economic stress, social change, and disparities. There's a lot of problems caused by different groups and different dimensions of society.

You have internal problems within countries; you have problems among countries' Arabs; you have Arab-Israeli and now Arab-Israeli-Iranian tension; and you have issues with the West. You've got multiple dimensions that you have to fit together, and you can't just isolate one and say, "This is the problem."

This has been the failure of most Western approaches, both by governments and NGOs. People say, "It's just the education system. Get rid of those madrassas, educate the girls, take away these preachers, and things will be hunky-dory." That's not how the world works. We know that from fighting drugs and crime in this country. It's not just one issue. It's jobs, a sense of decency, a rule of law, economic opportunity, environmental protection, and most of all a perception by the individual human being that their dignity and their rights are addressed.

From the perspective of many people around that region, that sense of dignity is deeply deficient. They blame their own governments and societies, regional (mostly Arab-Israeli) issues, and foreigners. The three levels all come together. This is why it's much more complicated now than it was 20 and 40 years ago.

QUESTION: Warren Hoge of the International Peace Institute.

Around the UN there's a lot known about the Hariri Tribunal. As you know, the record of the investigation has sort of been serpentine; it goes up and goes down.

We are told on pretty good authority that the investigation has been pretty terrific, that they have gotten into cell phones, and that through the cell phone records they have established that there was a network of ten or 12 people that lit up right before Rafik Hariri drove by and went silent right afterwards. Through that cell phone investigation, they can actually place individual people. They seem to have pretty good evidence of a conspiracy.

The reason I mention that is there's a great driving force now with the tribunal. Even at the UN, where individual Security Council members are very wary of moving forward, there is a great impetus now to move forward, meaning there probably will be indictments, and we're told that those indictments will name leaders of Hezbollah, maybe even Hassan Nasrallah himself. Hassan Nasrallah, as you know well, has said this would be "unacceptable," an ominous statement from somebody who was formerly in the government.

You said at the very beginning there are moments in Lebanon where things spill over and there are moments when people pull back. If this clash that I've descbribed happens soon, will this be the pullback or the spillover?

RAMI KHOURI:
I don't want to appear indecisive, but the reality is that both of those things are happening at the same time.

There is massive brinksmanship and people challenging each other every day in the government. Yesterday the government met and they couldn't agree on something. They postponed the cabinet session. They'll meet again a couple of weeks after Christmas and New Year.

There is an intense effort going on for the last two or three months in the country as well as regionally, driven mostly by the Syrians and the Saudis, to find a political resolution to avoid the conflict.

At the same time, there is intense confrontation going on, the government saying, "This has to continue, this tribunal has to do its work," and Hezbollah saying, "We will not accept this, we will stop it."

What Hezbollah and other in Lebanon have done, is they have presented intriguing arguments that are not necessarily absolutely compelling, and have raised some significant doubts about some elements of the investigation.

I think you're right. I've talked to the investigators in Lebanon. What they've done has been extremely professional and high quality. But it has been done in a context in which it also had witnesses who gave evidence and were proved to be planted, and on that basis the investigation went a certain way.

Hezbollah and others are demanding that those witnesses be figured out first—who sent these people, what's going on, and what evidence is there that the investigation using that came from these false witnesses who said something and then took it back and then fled?

The second thing is that there has been massive Israeli intelligence spying in Lebanon, which is now very well documented, in the cell phone system. It doesn't mean that the cell phone evidence is not credible. It means that there is a problem in the cell phone system with Israeli spies, and Lebanese who have been caught and convicted in court.

It doesn't negate the investigation. It just raises elements of doubt. What Hezbollah is trying to do is not to smash the tribunal necessarily—some people would like that to happen, to bring it to an end—but they are doing what you see when you watch CSI and Law and Order, which is to raise doubt.

Here you have to be found "guilty beyond a reasonable doubt." They are trying to sow the seeds of reasonable doubt by saying, "There are elements here that cause us to doubt whether this case is quite so ironclad." The evidence hasn't come out yet, but its quality is going to be critical to how people respond to this.

The majority of Lebanese want the tribunal to find the killers, give them a fair trial, and hold them accountable. There's no doubt about that.

You [International Peace Institute] just released a poll which is very important. If you haven't seen it, go to ipinst.org They've done a public opinion poll in Iran, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, and Iraq.

It is very important because it shows what ordinary people think. This is one of the new elements that's so important now in the region. We didn't have public opinion polls 20 years ago. We do now, and we have a much better idea what large numbers of people think.

The majority of Lebanese we know want this tribunal to work and they want the killers to be found. They want these assassinations to stop; they've been going on for 40 years.

But they don't want it to happen at the expense of blowing up the country. This is the problem.

This is not a "normal" country that resolves its issues like the United States did in the election with Bush and Gore, where you go to the courts and the courts decide and then everybody obeys the courts. [Laughter] It doesn't work that way, unfortunately.

There's a much more complex mechanism, which is negotiating consensus. This is what's going on. Negotiations are going on while the brinksmanship is going on at the same time.

QUESTION: Ron Berenbeim.

You've talked about the centrality of some kind of resolution of the Israeli-Arab conflict. You've also talked about the centrality of the Iran nuclear situation and said that the Obama administration has got it exactly right.

What have they got exactly right? The centrality? Because the modalities don't appear to be working out too well at this point.

Could you also comment on the relationship between these two crises, because if the Israelis were to settle their Palestinian or Iranian flank, would that make them more obdurate with respect to the second of the two problems?

RAMI KHOURI: It's not the Iranian nuclear issue; it's the issues that the Iranians define much more widely than the nuclear issue. The Americans and the Israelis tend to focus only on the nuclear. The reality is there's a lot of other issues that the Iranians raise.

Where the Obama people are right is focusing on pushing hard and persistently. Even when they make mistakes, and they get pushed back and they change their mind, like they did last week, when they realized it wasn't working to stop the settlements, they tried another track. This persistence on trying to find a negotiated solution that's fair to both sides is exactly the right thing to do.

We need to have the Americans as credible mediators. In other words, addressing the key concerns and rights of both sides, to be seen as fair and impartial mediators, while giving ironclad security to Israel, which is the American position, but not making ironclad security for Israel the starting point for negotiations. That's why negotiations have failed, because the negotiations have been premised on the stipulation that Israel's security must be guaranteed in perpetuity, and then we can see where we go next. That approach doesn't work, and that's why all of these attempts have failed.

The same approach is being used with the Iranians. The Americans are saying—and Dennis Ross gave a statement the other day which confirms this—the tone, the manner of approaching Iran, is not working.

This is what makes this group of people I mentioned and these forces different. They are prepared to stand up to the West, to Israel, to conservative Arabs, to the UN and whoever they think is ordering them or threatening them and to say, "We have rights that need to be accepted. We are prepared to live with Israel and its rights, but they have to be done equitably." This is what's new today.

The approach has been good in terms of Obama saying, "We've got to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict and to mediate actively."

Addressing the Iranian issue was a good thing to do, though it was more rhetoric than reality. The approach that Obama has used has veered to the side of threats and sanctions and not taking anything off the table, which is going to be a failure. We know that.

How many of you have been to Iran in this room?

Quite a few. For an American audience that's more than usual.

I've been to Iran recently, and I also know many Iranians in the government and the opposition and I talk to them all the time. The Iranians won't play by the old rules. They insist on a different rule book in terms of the negotiations, and addressing their rights as well as other people's rights simultaneously.

Both the Arab-Israeli conflict and the Iranian issues are resolvable, and the majority of Israelis, Palestinians, and Arabs are prepared to coexist in peace, but only in equal rights. The big missing factor is the equality of national and individual rights, self-determination, statehood, and sovereignty for Palestinians and Israelis. Iran is eminently solvable.

You can't do both together probably. This is a Gerald Ford moment, where you can't walk and chew gum at the same time. [Laughter] You have to do one or the other. I say that with admiration. Gerald Ford was a good guy. But I don't think it's doable simultaneously; you've got to look at one or the other.

And frankly, Iran is much more easy to agree on right now. Imagine, if you had an agreement with Iran, the implications for Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas. It would have ripple effects.

The other thing you can do is look at a Syrian-Israeli agreement, which is much easier to do than Palestinian-Israeli.

There are openings and possibilities, and then these link to other issues in the region. Start addressing the issues one by one and then they come together.

QUESTION: I just want to follow up on the last question. I had the same theme in mind. On the Israel-Palestine issue, Tom Friedman has repeatedly written that he basically thinks this whole U.S. approach is a total failure. This constant effort to be in front of these people and push them when they don't want to make concessions is simply not going to work, and that we should back down until they are more willing to make concessions. I wanted to draw you out further on that. Your comment on this was that we need more of the same on the Obama approach to Israel-Palestine.

With regard to Iran, what is it when you said "it's eminently solvable" that you have in mind? In other words, should the sanctions be dropped? We're now in the fourth round of sanctions, or at least the third. The general feeling is it's a total waste of time. But that seems to be what's constantly being proposed—if this doesn't work, up the ante with more sanctions.

In other words, Obama is just continuing previous policy approaches, which have been around for a long time. Your point about these was that these are the core issues for a resolution of the broader issues. What other thoughts would you have here besides the points you've just made in answering Ron?

RAMI KHOURI:
Tom Friedman's a good friend of mine and he has many great qualities. His great weakness is he's a Minnesota Twins baseball fan. [Laughter] Those of you who watched television recently and saw the roof of the dome in Minnesota, you understand that there are great flaws.

Tom's analysis is broadly correct, but I disagree with him on the idea that the United States should just leave these people alone. I don't think you can make that kind of argument and at the same time have the United States deeply involved in so many aspects in the region. Therefore, just pulling out of the Arab-Israeli talks is not realistic because it's still a player in the region.

What the United States should do is what it's doing now, which is not only to try to be a fair and decisive mediator, but to build a coalition around a position that the United States can bring to the table, which is probably going to happen soon.

The United States should start making suggestions about what it feels is an equitable solution. It should not be done as only a U.S. proposal, in order to rally people from the international community, from the Arab world, different groups within this country, and then build a coalition of people committed to a reasonable, equitable, permanent peace agreement, which it has never tried to do. It has built coalitions for sanctions, for war, and for regime change. It has never built an international coalition for an equitable Arab-Israeli peace. This is the time to do it.

It's doable. The majority of Israelis and Palestinians are ready for a fair, reasonable compromise if their key issues are addressed. I know this firsthand as well as from polls.

For the Israelis that means acceptance as a Jewish-majority state, security, and normal relations, like they have with Egypt and Jordan.

For the Palestinians it means addressing their refugeehood—not '67 borders. The Palestine issue is about the refugeehood, the exile of 1947-1948. That issue is a live issue. It has to be addressed. That doesn't mean 4 million refugees are going to go back to Israel and the country stops being a Jewish-majority state. It means you address the issue seriously in terms of refugee rights, in terms of accountability, culpability, responsibility, and mechanisms to resolve the issue.

There is a whole range of mechanisms. We can do another talk next year on how to solve it. I've got a piece coming out soon by the U.S. Institute of Peace that I have been working on for some years. I have been interviewing Israelis and Palestinians to find that middle ground based on what Israelis and Palestinians say about where they're willing to acknowledge these issues to each other. This is critically important and this is where the United States should be pushing.

On Iran, the Iranians have serious issues about national sovereignty, and they have issues about rights to nuclear enrichment for peaceful purposes. They're perfectly willing to have international inspections, as they have for years.

Their most important issue is an intangible one; it's about respect. This is a difficult thing for Americans to deal with because you're not used to dealing with this kind of international foe. The U.S. is, however, used to doing it in the Cold War, and this is what it should do with the Iranians.

During the Cold War, the U.S. did the Helsinki baskets, and it worked when Lech Walesa came along and brought down the system from within after ten years.

The United States should do a Helsinki accord with Iran. You should sit down with them and say: "What are they concerned about?" Not being invaded, economic issues, energy development, peaceful nuclear energy—these are all reasonable issues. Most of the issues that the Iranians raise are reasonable issues, and they're anchored in legal rights. The United States should call their bluff, and the Iranian system will calm down, and then from within they will change.

Those of you who have been to Iran, recently especially, know that this is a place ready for major change. It's not a stable system. It's like the Soviet Union in the 1970s in many respects.

Do a Helsinki accord with the Iranians. Swallow your pride and stop being so hung up on "we're going to take nothing off the table." Of course you should take stuff off the table. That's how good negotiation works. You put stuff on the table; if it doesn't work, you take it off, you put something else on the table. There's nothing sacred about what's on the table. This isn't a religious ceremony. [Laughter] This is a bargaining process.

The United States needs more rational thinking. Some of the people in the State Department working on Iran are people who have long records of failure. This has to be addressed. The quality of many of the people in the State Department and the government working on these issues is a problem here in the United States.

You've got wonderful, smart people in this country, some in the government, some in academia, some in institutions like this. You need to draw on the best minds you have in this country and rethink Iran, like you're rethinking Arab-Israeli negotiations.

It's doable. The Iranians are ready for it. The Turks and the Brazilians have given the United States the opening.

The United States just needs to swallow its pride a little bit and really negotiate. Hillary Clinton says, "We need to have a conversation about this." I keep saying, "In the Middle East we don't have conversations; we have negotiations."

You have to negotiate everything. You negotiate relationships. Leave the conversations for when you go to Kansas or Los Angeles, and when you come to the Middle East, come ready to negotiate, but come ready to negotiate like you negotiate a baseball player's labor agreement or when you're doing a three-way trade between the Knicks and the Rockets and the Nuggets. You do that complex negotiation and in the end you come up with a win-win situation.

You need to use that approach with the Iranians and the Arabs and the Israelis.

JOANNE MYERS: You may want to negotiate, but I say you come back next year. Thank you very much.

RAMI KHOURI:
Thank you very much.

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