Media Mention of Ghaith al-Omari in - June 28, 2008 - 12:00am

On June 27th, the New America Foundation and the Century Foundation co-hosted “Making Sense of the Arab-Israel Nightmare”, an event which aimed to investigate the status quo, the future available to the Bush Administration, and a measure of “crystal ball gazing” into what one can hope for from the next Administration Special Assistant to Ambassador Morton Abramowitz at the Century Foundation, Jonathan Kolieb, hosted a Q&A-style session with three former practitioners in a lively discussion that explored the lessons to be learned from the current and previous administrations and its implications for the future. The speakers were former State Department negotiator, Aaron David Miller, Director of the Middle East Policy Initiative at New America, Daniel Levy, and former advisor to Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas and current Senior Research Fellow in the American Strategy Program, Ghaith al-Omari. An MP3 audio recording can be downloaded below, while video is available at right.

Kolieb’s first question, directed at Miller, asked what the latter’s assessment was of the Bush Administration what its legacy will be. Miller began by citing former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and James Baker and the Jimmy Carter Adminsitration as the three most successful American efforts at Middle East peace. What distinguished these three was each made peace a top priority and was tough on each side of the issue. Additionally, each had an exquisite sense of timing and did not over-engage or disengage. Finally, each was tenacious and viewed it through the lens of American national interest. For Miller, Bush is the “great disengager” looking to its other priorities even as opportunities for peace came along. For example, it did not take the opportunity given in Fall 2004 when Yasser Arafat died but rather let chance, randomness, and Ariel Sharon dictate the political terrain. It is now, for him, “painful to imagine” a happy ending to the conflict in the short-term. The next six months should, then, aim to do no harm. It should support codifying whatever Palestinian and Israeli talks on permanent issues occur, the Syrian-Israeli negotiations, and prevent a major confrontation between Hamas and Israel. If these were to pass, there would be a remote possibility of serious and good things happening in the new Adminstrations.

Miller turned, then, his attention to the future Administration and observed that the legacy Bush bestows will be important. Miller proposed, then, four ways to change the way America approaches the situation. First, it should be a national priority and Israel-Palestine negotiations will go nowhere without a strong American presence. Second, there must be a chance of success because a young administration will not risk a monumental failure and thus Bush must leave his successor with a viable starting-point on the conflict. Third, America is perceived as weak and incompetent in the Middle East and tough and serious diplomacy is the only way to reemerge as a regional power. Finally, it needs tactical flexibility and strategic independence in its conduct with respect to the Israeli-Arab conflict. If there is the perception that America is the lawyer to one side of the conflict, the minimal level of trust will be inexistent. America’s “special relationship” with Israel is valuable but should not be an exclusive relationship which does not criticize inappropriate behavior by Israelis.

Kolieb’s next question, directed at al-Omari, asked for his take on what the last years of the Administration will look like and his suggestions to it. al-Omari initially observed that the current Annapolis process is dependant on the US because of Olmert’s and Abbas’s political weakness. Additionally, if the next President inherits an active conflict and a dead process, it will have little incentive to work at reviving it. The focus of the next six months should, then, be to strengthen the prospects for peace until the next Administration arrives. To achieve this goal, a four-pronged approach is necessary. This mistake of Annapolis was to focus on the big peace deal while ignoring the reality on the ground. The Israeli and Palestinian publics found no substantial movement in their daily experience and thus the deal had no credibility or support. Furthermore, America needs to assess the situation on final status in order to make sure that the parties do not lock up into orthodoxy and constantly revert to opening positions. America’s role is to be a tough third-party negotiator to ensure things do not go backwards. Major political action is necessary, for example, Israel needs settlement freezing and Palestinians need vigorous action to reassure Israel’s security concerns. Confidence building measures are necessary to create a sense that progress is happening. The fourth prong is to avoid a Hamas-Israel war. If there was to be a major invasion, it would kill the process and be a complete failure for Israel. It is, lastly, the responsibility of the current Administration also for the President-elect.

Kolieb’s follow-up question asked what the bright spots were in the current disaster in Palestinian politics. Al-Omari bluntly stated there were no bright spots but insisted the only way to fix it is to have the US stop trying to control it. Palestinian politics is obscure and opaque to Western visions and every attempt at manipulation has ended in failure. The US should negotiate with Abbas but, at the same time, not constrict his domestic readings. If he wants a Hamas truce, then the US should not try to block it and let the Palestinians manage their own affairs.

Lastly, Kolieb turned to Levy for his own assessments and advice of the Bush Administration and the next one. The first thing Levy indicates is to let the cease-fire work and prevent a catastrophe between Israel and Gaza. His reading of the situation sees active American opposition to the cease-fire no longer existing but the latter is still fragile. There have been a half-dozen rockets landing in Israel running parallel to military operations in the West Bank, Gaza, and economic closures. There is furthermore a need to abandon the Clinton approach of forcing an agreement on a peace of paper. The Middle East is still not ready for the kind of deal that America insists upon. While he is pessimistic on the prospects of this happening, he suggests a non-public paper to reflect where the parties are at. Another proposal, although he is again pessimistic on this, is to repeat the Camp David parameters but making it such that it will pass over to the next Administration and does not force the timetable upon the Israelis and Palestinians. If they get the content of the parameters correct and choreograph this with the next President, then these measures would work. However, Levy warns against a managerial approach to the conflict as long as there is occupation and its attendant insecurity. If the decision is for an agreement and the political will exists then one should push forward but, if it does not, an extension of time will not necessarily create it. He concurs with al-Omari in saying confidence building measures would be helpful

Kolieb followed up by asking the status of Israeli politics and whether its instabilities are endemic. Levy responded by observing the immediate term still sees some measure of decision-making capacity despite Olmert’s weakness albeit shallow and unable to create a peace deal with the Palestinians. The road ahead will either see the Kadima party elect a new leader in a primary who will create a new coalition and avoid elections or disunity in the Kadima party leading to elections happening which would bring in Benjamin Netanyahu. The last possibility would be an election loss for Netanyahu although most polls show him winning if there was to be an election. In general, Israeli coalition politics is extremely fractured with thirteen parties answering to often sectarian, sometimes ethnic constituencies. This creates a structural weight for a Prime Minister and serves as a constricting factor in the ability to make big decisions.

Kolieb’s next question was to Miller. He asked how America should deal with the two polities’ systems. Miller is dismissive of the US capacity of being able to soberly assess and act in their politics. A unified Palestinian political voice is a prerequisite for even the beginnings of a resolution. It is, for Miller, a delusion to believe that Israel would make existential concessions. Israeli political fractures have prevented a leader with the moral authority and legitimacy to emerge. Miller concurs, in the end, with al-Omari’s injunction to have the US stop meddling within domestic politics.

The next question had al-Omari discuss the importance of the US. The US is key because it is the only member that Israel trusts and is comfortable in negotiating with. Yet, this should not mean American monopoly but rather a reinvigorated multilateral effort to resolve the Israel-Palestine dispute is necessary. Finally, engaging Arabs is necessary to give them the incentive and a level of dignity so they can be constructive partners in negotiations.

-Kailash Srinivasan, Research Intern for The Century Foundation

06/27/2008 - 9:30am
06/27/2008 - 11:00am
New America Foundation
1630 Connecticut Ave, NW 7th Floor

Washington, 20009

United States

See map: Google Maps


Featured Speakers

  • Ghaith al-Omari
    Senior Research Fellow, American Strategy Program, New America Foundation
    Advocacy Director, American Task Force on Palestine
    Former Foreign Policy Advisor to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
  • Daniel Levy
    Senior Fellow and Director, Middle East Policy Initiative, New America Foundation
    Senior Fellow and Director, Prospects for Peace Initiative, The Century Foundation
    Former Senior Policy Adviser in the Israeli Prime Minister's office
  • Aaron David Miller
    Public Policy Scholar, Woodrow Wilson Center
    Served under six Secretaries of State, most recently as senior adviser on Arab-Israeli negotiations
    Author, The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace
Attachment Size
MP3 Audio Recording of this Event 11.85 MB


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