Despite the intense focus on the uprisings across the Middle East, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to command diplomatic attention. Next month, the United Nations General Assembly is slated to vote on Palestinian statehood. William B. Quandt, author of Peace Process: American Diplomacy and the Arab–Israeli Conflict Since 1967, spoke to the Cairo Review on the outlook for progress.
CAIRO REVIEW: In the Spring 2011 issue of the Cairo Review, you assessed the mistakes in President Obama’s approach to the peace process and made some recommendations. Where are we now?
WILLIAM B. QUANDT: At the beginning of the year, I thought President Obama had one shot at trying to put forward a fairly explicit and detailed outline of what the United States would support in terms of an Israeli-Palestinian peace settlement. I thought if he did that, then maybe he could try to mobilize support in the international community. Of course, the Israelis would reject most of it, and Palestinians a part of it, but at least something would be out in the public domain for people to debate and he could begin to shape the discussion.
I think he also thought he could have one more shot, so he chose to give a speech in May. And it was a real disappointment — certainly to me. Instead of putting out a fairly detailed outline about what the U.S. thought was a reasonable basis for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, he spoke in generalities. With the exception of one point in which he repeated what most other presidents have said: the 1967 line should serve as the reference point for defining future borders between Israel and Palestine. And he used the formula of 1967 lines with mutually agreed upon swaps. That’s not exactly new, but it was the phrase that got the most attention.
But we saw what happened. The Israelis rejected this very strongly and the president then backed down in his second speech. He said it doesn’t exactly mean they have to withdraw to 1967. So, I think we’ve run out of speed. The speech didn’t break any new ground, didn’t move anything forward. His special envoy George Mitchell has resigned – something I thought was overdue. He hadn’t achieved anything. And he hasn’t been replaced.
So I think we’re in a place where expectations are very low. The speech didn’t move us forward and everyone is saying, “Well, something will happen in September.” That’s the new focal point. I suppose something might happen in September. Palestinians want some kind of move in the UN to see if they can get support for the concept of statehood. And of course, the Israelis and Americans are saying no.
We’re at a dead end. Whatever slight hope there was that momentum might be reestablished with strong American leadership seems to be gone. We’re drifting into American re-election year which has already started and that has a paralytic effect on American politics on the Middle East. Obama will try to get through elections without doing anything controversial that will lose him support and I suppose we won’t get back to serious Arab-Israeli diplomacy until sometime in 2013. If then.
CAIRO REVIEW: A year ago or so, did you envision we’d be at a different place?
WILLIAM B. QUANDT: I had some reason to believe at that point that the president would make a big speech on the Middle East and that he would use it to put forward something like a more detailed outline or maybe even a plan. I think what happened – as it often does – some people in the administration disagreed. Some people wanted a strong statement. Others thought the timing wasn’t right. So he compromised. And compromise, though it often sounds like a good thing, in foreign policy often means you end up in a weak spot. You have two strongly held views and the compromise between them leaves you with almost nothing.
We don’t have a credible posture. A UN resolution this Fall doesn’t leave me hopeful. UN resolutions are a dime a dozen. They come and go and leave no trace. So I think if people have invested a lot of hope in something coming along in the form of a UN-based initiative, that won’t happen.
Israelis are dug in. TThey have a right-wing government that doesn’t want to move. The Palestinians up until now have been enough divided that it’s an inhibiting factor in their approach. Things are bad now, but they could get worse. So I’m pretty pessimistic right now.
CAIRO REVIEW: What did you make of Prime Minister Netanyuhu’s speech to Congress?
WILLIAM B. QUANDT: He was almost insulting toward the president. He wagged his finger in the president’s face and treated him like a school child who misspoke and had to be corrected. I thought it was actually an embarrassing moment for the president to sit there and nod, without saying “I know what you’re not prepared to do. What I never heard is what you are prepared to do.”
The content of Netanyahu’s speech [before Congress] was totally uninteresting in terms of breaking any new ground. He didn’t say one single thing that to a trained ear hinted at any flexibility or any new ideas. Yet he got 29 standing ovations, which tells you something about American politics today. Both parties are solidly in Israel’s corner. Both parties think you have to be seen as very visibly and uncritically supportive of Israel. They don’t buy the line that you can support Israel and still disagree with an Israeli government that doesn’t seem very interested in peace. The debate within Israel is much more open and dynamic than the debate over Israel-Palestinians issues in the U.S. Congress.
CAIRO REVIEW: How does the ‘Arab Spring’ affect, if at all, the dynamics at play regarding the conflict?
WILLIAM B. QUANDT: We don’t know how these revolutions will play out, but if the general trend we see in Tunisia and Egypt continues — which is that of moving things in the direction of more popular governments — then it will be more responsive to views of the people. Egypt, I think, will be in a position in which it no longer plays the role of enforcer of American-Israeli preferences. It’ll have a more independent view, especially toward Gaza.
As Egypt gets its own house in order, it will play a larger role in the Arab world again. At the same time, we don’t know what’s happening in Syria. Syria looks like it’s in a deep and potentially prolonged crisis. So one of the countries that’s been supporting Hamas, for example, is probably going to be a less reliable support for them. So maybe this means Hamas will have to pay more attention to Egyptian preferences, which on the whole is consistent with the idea of promoting unity between Fatah and Hamas. I think this is a good thing.
Israel seems to be getting more and more dug into a mindset and set of policies where there is no negotiated solution that they can accept –that the only steps that can count for anything are the ones they unilaterally decide. And basically, it all comes down to just maintaining security presence and a relationship with the United States. They lost their relationship with Turkey. They’re losing it with Egypt. They have no partners left in the Middle East and no prospect of negotiating seriously any time soon.
On the American side, I think on some larger level, Americans are disenchanted with remaking the Middle East initiatives that cost a lot in lives and dollars. We’re in bad shape financially in the US. No big initiatives can be tackled in the future.
And as people look around the world, the Arab-Israeli arena and the Middle East might not be the most important strategic region for the United States. Long term it’ll be Asia, specifically China. Immediate term, it’s actually the Pakistan-Afghanistan-India mix that’s urgent. I think we’ll see a shift in emphasis. Arab-Israeli issues will go to the back-burner. There might be UN initiatives but I don’t think they’ll produce results. They’ll give illusion of movement, but not real results.
CAIRO REVIEW: So how would you advise Obama?
WILLIAM B. QUANDT: If you’re going to convince the American public that it’s worth putting money and resources into solving this conflict, you need to explain what national interest is being served in doing so. Obama goes back and forth on this. He says yes it’s important, vital to our national security to get this issue solved. Then he says it’s their problem and we can’t want peace more than they do. These are two diametrically opposed visions and he holds them both simultaneously. Make up your mind. If it’s in the national interest, develop a strategy and get on with it. If you don’t think that it is a national interest — that we’re doing this to be nice to them — then you need to wait until they’re ready. And they won’t be ready.
CAIRO REVIEW: Do you think it’s in America’s interest?
WILLIAM B. QUANDT: I do. It’s not the only thing that matters, but if we had resolved the conflict in the 90s when it was doable, think: a lot of things might have been different. We might not have had the invasion of Iraq. The Arab Spring might have come much earlier because Arab dictatorships might not have had this issue to play with. Who knows if 9/11 would have happened. In the early 1990s, Al-Qaeda was barely in existence.
The region would be better off, the region would be better off, if this problem could be solved. And we can’t stand aside and say nothing. It takes a toll on our credibility. People see us as locked in. Why is American popularity in the Middle East so low today? We’re dealing with historically unprecedented numbers. It’s low partly for our invading Iraq, but because of this problem. Time after time after time, if you ask which issue really annoys people the most in the Middle East, it’s this issue. This issue won’t go away.