The Four Questions: Martin Indyk on the Failure of Peacemaking

Martin Indyk's new book, Innocent Abroad, about the failures of American peacemaking in the Middle East, is an incisive, honest (sometimes caustically so), and -- I know this might sound strange when talking about a 528-page book about a peace process that ultimately went nowhere -- compulsively readable tour of the recent, and tragic, past.  I asked Martin four questions (actually six, but I like calling this feature the Four Questions) about his book, and his work. Here is our exchange:

Jeffrey Goldberg: When I was listening to Barack Obama talk about the events of the past month, particularly when he spoke of Hamas, it almost sounded as if he were giving us George Bush's understanding of the Middle East. Do you see significant change coming down the road?

Martin Indyk: I too was struck by how close Obama stuck to requirements enunciated by Bush: the need for a two-state solution to the Palestinian problem; Israel's need for security and its right to defend itself; Hamas's need to recognize Israel, forswear violence, and accept previous agreements; and the need to support the Palestinian Authority (particularly as the primary vehicle for channeling aid to Gazans in the wake of the latest conflict). But Obama's appointment of George Mitchell as Middle East peace envoy and his immediate dispatch of this heavy-hitter to the region, together with his promise of sustained, persistent American diplomatic engagement, highlight his differences with Bush who preferred to sit back and leave the parties to their own devices. This return to energetic peacemaking diplomacy of the kind the United States undertook in the 1990s actually makes Barack Obama sound more like Bill Clinton than George Bush. The peace process is back!

JG: Name the single thing American negotiators could do differently that might produce a better outcome than the one you experienced.

MI: If you confine me to one thing, I would say they have to hold both sides to their commitments: the Palestinians have to stop the violence and terrorism and dismantle the infrastructure of terrorism; and Israel has to stop the settlement activity (including natural growth) and dismantle the unauthorized settlement outposts. These are not moral equivalents but they are equivalent in the damage they have done to the hope of peace and the viability of a two-state solution. Nothing did more to undermine Clinton's peacemaking efforts so it was no coincidence that at the end of the Clinton Administration George Mitchell made the same recommendations in his report on the origins of the intifada. Those recommendations were incorporated in the Road Map which the Government of Israel and the Palestinian Authority accepted and committed to implement.

JG: Could the Jews in the settlements east of the security barrier be removed by force without sparking civil war?

MI: I don't believe that force would be necessary if the evacuation is presented to the Israeli public as part of a package that would include the following elements: financial compensation equal to that provided to the Gaza settlers; resettlement in the blocs that would be incorporated into Israel by agreement with the Palestinians; an end to the territorial claims of the Palestinians; security arrangements that ensure that all violence and terrorism against Israelis ceases; international guarantees of freedom of access for Israelis to Jewish holy places in Judea and Samaria; and peace with all the Arab states.

JG: Would the Palestinians respond to a reversal of the settlement project by marginalizing Hamas?

MI: Hamas enjoys popular support in the West Bank as well as Gaza because it has been seen to be more effective and less corrupt than Fatah and the Palestinian Authority. Under its current leadership Fatah is incapable of reforming itself and as long as that is the case Hamas will enjoy an advantage. However, the Palestinian Authority under non- Fatah PM Salam Fayyad is showing that it can establish order and promote economic development in the West Bank. This has improved its credibility and is one reason that Hamas decided to break the ceasefire in Gaza (because they felt they were losing ground politically). In the wake of the Gaza war, a real West Bank settlements freeze and the dismantlement of unauthorized outposts would do more than anything else to enhance the PA's credibility because it would show in a tangible way that moderation pays where violence only brings devastating destruction.

JG: You say George W. Bush is at fault for ignoring the conflict until well into his second term. But he inherited an intifada, a Sharon government and the controversy over the Karine-A, a boat full of weapons dispatched by Iran to help Yasser Arafat. What was he supposed to do, given these unhappy realities?

MI: I was Bush's ambassador in Israel for his first six months in office, which coincided with Sharon's. What he should have done was intervene to stop the violence and terrorism of the intifada. Remember the intifada had only been raging for three months when he entered the White House (it continued for five years on his watch). Sharon was willing to deal with Arafat - he sent his son Omri to meet with him as a manifestation of that, telling me that Arafat would understand the gesture of sending him his first born son. He was willing to freeze all settlement activity for six months if the violence stopped. When Hamas bombed the Dolphinarium discotheque in Tel Aviv in June, 2001, killing 19 Israeli teenagers, which signaled the advent of suicide bombing, Sharon did not retaliate. In the face of ever-increasing Palestinian terrorism, Sharon actually waited for 15 months before he sent the Israeli army into the West Bank to reoccupy Palestinian cities and towns. He was waiting all that time for Bush to intervene and pressure Arafat to stop the terrorism. But Bush was determined to remain detached, explaining to me at the time that "there was no Nobel peace prize to be had here."

JG: Does the road to peace run through Jerusalem, or Tehran?

MI: I don't believe Tehran can veto peace if Israel and the Arabs are committed to making it. But Iran certainly has the ability to subvert the process of peacemaking through support for its violent opponents - Hezbollah, Hamas, and Palestine Islamic Jihad. Iran would have real problems maintaining that support if the Syrians, who provide the conduit, were to make peace with Israel. That is why it is so important to advance on the Palestinian and Syrian tracks simultaneously while making clear to Iran that if it wants to become a supporter of peace it is welcome, but if it wants to oppose peace it will be isolating itself. During the Clinton years we chose to isolate Iran; this time around Iran should be the one that has to make that choice.

JG:Which is the more durable Middle East problem: The Arab-Israeli dispute, or the Sunni-Shia dispute?

MI: History has already rendered that judgment in favor of the Sunni-Shia dispute which has been waged for hundreds of years and shows no signs of abatement. If one takes the long view of history, the Arab-Israeli conflict has actually progressed toward resolution, notwithstanding the regular interruptions caused by the eruption of wars and intifadas. The proof of that lies in the steady progression of Arab states which have made peace with Israel, starting with Egypt in the 1980s, Jordan in the 1990s, and the offer of peace from the 23 Arab states of the Arab League in the first decade of the 21st century. Slowly, incredibly painfully, and accompanied by violence, heartbreaking setbacks and misery, Arabs and Israelis are coming to terms with each other. But when you look at the progress that has been made over the last three decades it has only been produced by the active diplomatic intervention of the United States, working with courageous leaders like Anwar Sadat, Menachem Begin, King Hussein, and Yitzhak Rabin - leaders who were willing to say "enough of bloodshed!" and break the mold of conflict. Such leaders do not appear to be present today on either side. But it's the nature of the Middle East that something always turns up, and it's not always bad.