Middle East Progress (Interview)
August 11, 2009 - 12:00am

What do you think administration officials are referring to when they say that Arab states have responsibility toward the Palestinian Authority, toward improving relations with Israel and for preparing their publics for peace?

In terms of supporting the Palestinian Authority, there are two kinds of obligations, or two kinds of things that Arabs can do to help the Palestinian Authority. One is financial. So far we are seeing that some Arab countries are unwilling to pay to financially support the Palestinian Authority, or are basically sticking to their minimalist obligations according to the Arab League. Some are using this as a way to pressure the PA into reaching a national unity deal. We need to see more robust financial assistance for the PA, on the one hand. On the other hand, we need to see some political support, in terms of some of the political positions the PA will take, in terms of the negotiations, and also later on during the peace process, the Arabs will have to support the Palestinians in terms of some of the difficult concessions on the various permanent status issues, and we will have to see some kind of sharing the burden once the time comes for these decisions to be made.

In terms of Israel, if we start seeing progress in the peace process and progress from Israel, the Arabs also have an obligation to take some steps to show that they are willing to improve their relations with Israel in order to create more space for the Israeli government to move forward with the process.

Senator Mitchell said last week that the administration is making demands of all parties. What are concrete examples of steps that the Obama administration is or should be asking for from the Arab states?

We don’t know what they are asking for specifically, but there are a number of categories of issues that could be discussed. Some would relate to going back to the status quo ante before the intifada. Some of the Arab countries had trade offices or rep offices in Israel, and these could be re-opened. Some relate to new concrete steps such as the over-flight rights and allowing for visas or trade, or things along these lines. And some of the issues relate to public messaging. What are we hearing from the Arabs? Willingness to improve relations? Willingness to be supportive if there is progress in the peace process? These are all things the Arabs can do. They can even start elaborating what final normalization post-peace deal would look like. In the context of negotiations, we can revive the multi-laterals, where the Arabs would be sitting with Israel in the same room, in the same forum. We can create new multi-lateral groups to focus, for example, on what the post-peace normalization would look like. So there’s a myriad of issues than can be used.

You keep saying ‘once the peace process starts again.’ Do you think that the administration won’t or can’t ask the Arab parties to do anything until the peace process is restarted?

First, let me be clear. I do not believe in a mechanical quid pro quo approach. One of the smart moves by Special Envoy Mitchell is the way he has separated the tracks: one track for discussions with Israel on a settlement freeze, and a separate one for discussions with the Arabs, with the U.S .deciding when enough has been achieved. This approach should be maintained and each party should be urged to do its part. If we move towards conditionality we will see a familiar—and highly counterproductive—pattern of horse trading, where each side will use the others’ perceived inaction as an excuse not to live up to its own obligations.

That said, I believe that a settlement freeze is essential to trigger a positive dynamic. If we see significant progress on the issue of settlements, we can expect the Arabs to give something in return. And as the peace process progresses, obviously they will be called upon to do things to make sure that the momentum is maintained. But it’s very hard to imagine the Arabs doing anything before we have significant movement on the issue of settlements, and obviously including Jerusalem.

In terms of responsibility toward the Palestinian Authority, what kind of role can they play with regards to internal Palestinian reconciliation?

I think that U.S. allies among the Arab countries should definitely make sure that any Palestinian unity deal that might emerge sticks to the international Quartet conditions. Any attempts to pressure the PA to enact a unity agreement that falls short of these conditions will not be doing the Palestinians any favors and will actually hurt the Palestinian cause, and definitely hurt the Palestinian Authority. So, I think we should see more support for the Quartet conditions and for Abbas’ position in these internal negotiations.

On the other hand, Arab countries that have contact with Hamas should continue to urge it to move towards the Quartet conditions. Syria, which hosts the Hamas leadership, has a particularly important role to play. If Syria wants to end its international isolation and signal its willingness to rejoin the international fold, it should play its part.

What do you think are the main concerns the administration is hearing from Arab leaders?

There are a number of concerns. One is, if you wish, theoretical, in terms of why should the Arabs reward Israel for meeting its obligations under the Road Map and international law, that is a settlement freeze. And even more, why should the Arabs reward Israel for doing less than its obligations if it only agrees to a partial or temporary freeze? So that’s one of the concerns. Another concern relates to diminishing returns. There is a concern that if we start with normalization now, come the peace deal, come the end game, full normalization will have lost its luster, lost its draw.

I think these will be the major issues. And the argument is that the Arabs will put everything on the table once they release the final peace initiative. These, I think, will be the kind of arguments that the administration will be hearing from them.

What kind of response do you think the administration might give to the Arab countries when they hear those things?

Again, I can’t speak for the administration, but what I would say is that these issues might be legitimate, but ultimately the benefit that we will get from movement from the Arabs, in terms of resuming or restarting the peace process, outweighs these concerns. And finally we have an administration that seems to be pushing energetically for resumption of a credible peace process. The Arabs who have always had concerns about the lack of a peace process should support the U.S. Administration towards reaching peace. We should not make the perfect enemy of the good. I think we have to think practically and pragmatically rather than ideologically. This is how the Arabs should approach this.

Is there one Arab country that stands out as a potential leader in this process?

There are two kinds of leadership, I would say. The first category is leading Arab countries that have to create the space for others to make concrete steps. In this category, one has to talk about Saudi Arabia and Egypt. While Egypt has nothing to offer on the normalization front because it already has full relations with Israel and while Saudi Arabia will most likely not move in the short term, without these two countries giving the green light—the cover— to the other Arab countries to proceed, it’s going to be hard for anyone to make any of the moves. So that’s in terms of creating the space.

In terms of the actual steps, many Arab countries have expressed willingness. The crown prince of Bahrain recently wrote an op-ed that referred to that. Some countries like the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, and some other North African countries can make some of these steps. And again, some of the Arab countries which already had relations with Israel prior to the intifada can simply revive these relations.

How does this compare to efforts during the Oslo period, when some of those efforts began?

I think the main difference during Oslo, when things were much better and more forthcoming, was that there was a sense of possibility. There was a sense that the process might go somewhere. After many years of setbacks, I think people are very concerned. There is a sense of inertia. The peace process itself has been discredited domestically in the Arab street, and that is a difference between Oslo and now. I think if we manage to get a peace process that is credible, based on a significant settlement freeze, then we might recreate the energy and good will that prevailed during that period.

What do you make of public statements that different parties have made thus far with regard to requests from the administration?

There are varied public responses. On the one hand, you saw what the crown prince of Bahrain said which was very, very productive. It helped a lot, as did the Jordanians moving in that direction. On the other hand, some other public statements have closed the margin for the administration in some ways and have made it difficult for other Arab countries to take the lead. I’m thinking of some statements by Saudi Arabia, in this regard.

But ultimately, I think, not as a reward for Israel, but as support for this administration and for its efforts, the Arab countries should be more forthcoming in their public statements. And some of the leading Arab countries should create the space for others to move.

Some people are saying that what is happening publicly and what’s happening privately is really different. Do you think that that is possible?

That’s very possible, but it creates problems because if you take hard-line public positions, the political price you will pay ultimately for your private commitments will be higher. Arab countries that are taking a hard line right now will find it more difficult to ultimately implement some of these issues. So translating the public to the private might become more difficult and I think it makes more sense to stay public in a positive way. That’s essential.

How does the Arab Peace Initiative fit into this picture?

Well, the Arab Peace Initiative is the framework. As it stands now, the Initiative is an all-or-nothing proposal. Once the occupation has completely ended, we will have full normalization with Israel. That in itself is not enough to create a new political dynamic, in my view. However, as we make progress towards a final peace deal, we make progress towards implementing the Arab Peace Initiative, understanding that full normalization comes with full peace.


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