Webcast Recap

As part of the Joseph & Alma Gildenhorn Middle East Forum, the Middle East Program hosted two panels featuring speakers from the U.S. and the region who discussed the options for US policy towards the Arab-Israeli conflict. The first panel, moderated by Aaron David Miller, a Public Policy Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center, featured Yasser Abed Rabbo, a Member of the PLO's Executive Committee, Matan Vilnai, a Labor Member in the Israeli Knesset, Amjad Atallah, Founder and President of Strategic Assessments Initiative, and Galia Golan, a Professor in the Lauder School of Government, Diplomacy and Strategy, at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya. The panel assessed the options and possibilities for Palestinian-Israeli Peace.

The second panel, moderated by Dennis Ross, Counselor and Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, featured Itamar Rabinovich, President of Tel Aviv University, Murhaf Jouejati, Director of the Middle East Studies Program at George Washington University's Elliott School of International Affairs, and Hisham Melhem, Washington Bureau Chief for the Lebanese daily An-Nahar. The panel presented the options for Lebanon, Israel, and Syria.

Yasser Abed Rabbo spoke about his adamant support for the option of direct negotiations with Israelis- an initiative that he sees as not only necessary at the present moment, but less difficult than many have been stating. Abed Rabbo attributes this common view of the difficulty of the negotiations to a fear of failure. However, he believes that such an initiative would be far more advantageous than the continuation of the present conditions. He discussed the agenda of the Arab states, encompassed in the unprecedented Arab Peace Initiative. A majority of the Arab states currently support direct negotiations with Israel and have expressed a willingness to engage in active involvement in such an endeavor.

Abed Rabbo continued by addressing his lack of optimism regarding a national unity Palestinian government. Nevertheless, he believes that this is a secondary issue preventing the Palestinians from "attacking the major issues and using the old recipe- direct negotiations." Consequently, he concluded that the only option in the short run is a serious attempt to isolate the internal Palestinian crisis from the negotiations process.

Matan Vilnai echoed Abed Rabbo's pessimism concerning the reality of the situation. He emphasized that while ten years ago, it would have been inappropriate for an Israeli politician to mention the idea of a Palestinian state, it is evident now that there is an understanding on both sides that the only possible solution remains the hotly contested two-state solution. However, as a result of the internal weakness of the Palestinian, Israeli, and American leadership, this objective has been increasingly difficult to achieve. Moreover, the Islamicization of the conflict, reflected by Hamas' agenda of denying Israel's right to exist, has no longer portrayed the conflict as one between Palestinians and Israelis, but rather one between Islam and Israelis. Vilnai concluded in stating that the Arab Peace Initiative should be the "first step in finding a solution."

Amjad Atallah stressed the lack of American initiative to pursue a two-state solution since February 2001. He explained that the United States has "missed the causal effect" of the events occurring on the ground. In fact, Atallah stated that the American government ignored the Arab Peace Initiative of March 2002, the PLO's submission of a three-track peace plan in June 2002, the first Road Map of December 2002 (postponed until April 2003), and the Geneva Initiative of December 2003. Furthermore, the current Bush administration exerted no effort in engaging Mahmoud Abbas' government in negotiations upon his electoral victory in January 2005.

Atallah continued by explaining that rather than engaging the democratically elected Hamas government, the United States has taken an approach similar to the Sandanistas of Nicaragua in the 1980s- notably, the necessity of an overthrow of the government. Most recently, the United States has failed to support the Peace Conference with Israel, endorsed by a majority of the Arab states, including the Hamas government. The American preferred response has been one of a "deafening silence." Atallah concluded by stating that a lack of an articulated American policy "by default becomes conflict," in which the United States has been more intent on achieving victory rather than peace.

Galia Golan began by saying, "Unlike my colleagues, I'm an optimist." She stated that despite all the negative aspects of the recent war in Lebanon, it created opportunities in the region. First, the conflict was placed back on the international agenda. Second, an Israeli agreement to an international force in southern Lebanon was an "important precedent." Third, the war brought about an end to unilateralism, a notion that has become irrelevant. "A withdrawal without an agreement doesn't bring security for Israel," Golan explained.

Golan continued in explaining that the war lead to the conclusion among the Israeli public that military force can no longer act as a solution. Such a conclusion arose out of a sense of vulnerability in Israeli society, which may help in partially explaining the inclusion of the ultra-conservative Lieberman into the government. Nevertheless, Golan emphasized that Liebermann's election is not an indication of the policy the Israeli government is intending to pursue. She concluded in stating that Ehud Olmert's small steps in engaging with President Abbas have not, and will not work. Rather, a comprehensive agreement must be reached in order to halt the violence. Golan asserted that the Arab Peace Initiative "offers a basis" for such an important goal that she stated the Bush Administration has been not willing to work towards.

Aaron Miller stated that after having worked for four American administrations, he has concluded that "governing is about choosing priorities." The Bush administration, he explained, has chosen to concentrate its efforts on Iraq, Iran, and the War on Terror, and has overlooked the extent to which managing the Arab-Israeli issue could advance those goals. Furthermore, the real reason the administration has ignored a serious approach is a "fear of failure." Miller explained that several elements required for negotiations are currently lacking. The Palestinian, Israeli, and American leaders are "prisoners of politics," rather than "masters of politics." Moreover, a third party is missing, as well as a mutually agreed upon framework for final status talks.

Miller continued by explaining that in the two years remaining for the Bush administration, it is highly unlikely that a two-state solution will be achieved. However, the administration should aim towards achieving a suitable environment for negotiations to achieve such an outcome. In doing so, Miller suggested that the administration "broaden the problem" to include three Road Maps: the Israeli-Palestinian Road Map, an Arab state Road Map laying out what steps Arab states are prepared to take toward Israel and the Palestinians, and the American Road Map, focused on laying out parameters for a final deal.

Dennis Ross introduced the second panel by outlining the two major schools of thought currently being entertained surrounding U.S. policy towards Syria. The first option calls for the United States to begin talks with Syria in an attempt to transform the region by ending the Syrian-Iranian "marriage of convenience". Ending this alliance would cut off Iranian aid to Hizbullah, and engaging Syria would affect Hamas by targeting leadership located in Damascus. The second option states that engaging Syria would have no effect on the region. According to this school of thought, Syrian President Bashar al-Asad identifies with Hizbullah on an ideological rather than political level; therefore no incentive that the U.S. could offer would sway him from his current stance. In light of this debate, Ross asked the panelists "should the United States engage Syria or not? Or is there a third way?"

Murhaf Jouejati began by stating that the U.S.'s current "sticks only policy has failed". For this reason, he believes that engagement is the only way for the U.S. to successfully change the situation in the region. Current policy drove Bashar al-Asad into an alliance with Iran by playing on fears surrounding his political legitimacy, and has caused a clamp down on emerging civil society in Syria. Syrian involvement with Hizbullah and Hamas stems out of a fear of marginalization due to the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, the possibility of a separate peace between Israel and Lebanon, and a growing sense of encirclement by the U.S. and its allies. According to Jouejati, the return of the occupied Golan Heights is the best way to allay these fears, and is a win/win situation for all the parties involved.

Return of the Golan Heights would give the Asad regime the legitimacy it lacks to ensure its security, thus making support for groups like Hamas and Hizbullah ideologically unnecessary. It would also bring about the end of the existing Martial Law by ending the state of war with Israel. Engagement through the return of the Golan Heights would give Syria regional recognition, and would be conditional on the end of Syrian interference in Lebanon as well as the end of the Syrian-Iranian alliance. This in turn would weaken Hizbullah, Hamas and Iran, who would lose their proxy in the Levant. This course of events, however, is seems unlikely to Jouejati due to the weakness of the leaders of all states involved, as well as the lack of trust between them. The United States would be best served by working to foster the atmosphere of trust needed to create dialogue between all parties.

Itamar Rabinovich began by stating that the most immediate problem for Israel is the lack of Lebanese sovereignty over their southern border. The problem of Lebanon, however, fits into a larger framework which necessitates peace talks with Syria. Historically, Israel has focused on a sequential plan for Arab-Israeli peace, in which states would be addressed individually in an attempt to reach a lasting peace. However, with the election of the Sharon government in 2000, the focus shifted to a "Palestine first" or a "Palestine only" policy, which withdrew from negotiations with other states such as Syria. Prime Minister Olmert, being a disciple of Sharon, has continued with this policy, and has refused to engage with Damascus or deal with the issue of the Golan Heights. According to Rabinovich, this policy has been detrimental, and in order to move forward Israel should once again focus on engaging Syria.

In order to successfully negotiate with Syria, Rabinovich outlined two main points that should be implimented. First, Israel should adopt a "Yes, but..." policy, in which lessons of past negotiations are taken into account and adopted into current policy decisions. First and foremost, the resumption of talks with Syria should be dependant on a commitment to cut ties with Hizbullah. Secondly, Israel should coordinate with the U.S. to achieve the most effective mix of confidential, exploratory talks with Syrian officials and public diplomacy aimed at changing the current attitude of the Israeli constituency towards Syria. This policy of "qualified engagement", according to Rabinovich, is the only way for Israel to move forward.

Hisham Melhem focused initially on the current political situation in Lebanon. He believes that the country is in a state of crises, with a battle being fought for control between Hizbullah on one side and the Western oriented "ancien regime" on the other. In essence, the outcome of this battle will determine whether Beirut will retain its traditional Western orientation, or become the "Tehran of the Mediterranean" that Hizbullah envisions. In light of these circumstances, Melhem believes that the situation is not ripe for a Lebanese peace with Israel, or even a regional peace any time within the next few years. The U.S. is focused on the situation in Iraq, Israel is facing a crisis of leadership, and Syria is a weakened state under the rule of Bashar al-Asad and will not be willing to open up the country in the way that a regional peace would demand.

Melhem continued by stating that the U.S. moment of power in the Middle East is coming to an end. Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas, which represent the polar opposite of Bush's policies in the region, are gaining ascendancy and will only become stronger. In order to counter this tendency, the U.S. needs to reverse its stance and assure all regional players that regime change is no longer a pursuable option. "Engagement, not acquiescence" with Syria should be undertaken, using carrots rather than sticks, on the condition that they stop interfering in Lebanese affairs. Melhem also stated that the U.S. should engage Iran to discuss options for Iraq, and should facilitate negotiations between Hamas and President Abbas in order to create an environment in which peace in the region will be possible.

Middle East Program
Drafted by Joyce Ibrahim & Carmen León