Shibley Telhami Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

U.S. Foreign Policy and the Search for Peace in the Middle East: Conversation 
  with Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace and Development, University 
  of Maryland, College Park; 11/8/01 by Harry Kreisler.

 

Page 5 of 6

Seeking a Resolution to the Israel - Palestine Conflict

If we can all agree that the resolution of the Palestinian - Israeli conflict would benefit the region and the world, and U.S. foreign policy, given the complexity that you've just described, what will bring us to that new plateau of ideas that might lead to a satisfactory resolution for both sides to the conflict?

Let me, first of all, say that I do not believe that the United States can impose an Arab - Israeli solution. It just, simply, cannot. Here I'm in disagreement with many experts on the Middle East. I do think that the Israelis, and the Palestinians, particularly -- for them this is an existential issue -- they're not going to give in to the pressure of the United States on the core issues that matter to them. Look at Camp David of the year 2000, between the Palestinians and Israelis, as mediated by the U.S. The Palestinians had a very weak hand. I mean, they were under occupation. They have no military power. They have minimal political clout and economic clout. The President of the United States is invested in having a settlement. Israel is powerful, and you have a desperate need by Israel and the United States for a settlement. They offered a lot, but certainly not enough for the Palestinians. Arafat rejected it, and they couldn't impose a solution on him. Weak as he is, he could walk away and reject it. Yes, he got blamed. He's paying a price. But he did not believe this was going to meet his minimal national security requirements and he didn't accept it. The U.S. is certainly not going to be able to do it to Israel. I mean, if they can't do it to the Palestinians, they're not going to be able to do in Israel. But what the U.S. can and needs to do is create space for them to transcend their domestic politics.

"They" being the Palestinians?

Both the Palestinians and the Israelis, both of them, because what is happening is they're both hostage to a process that they cannot break out of. You cannot create space for yourself when every single day you're hopping from one funeral to another, in both communities. You are not going to be able to, somehow, sit back and ... There are very few people who are like a Sadat or like a Mandela. And we can't expect, therefore, that we can await such time to have the emergence of someone like a Nelson Mandela to be the leader of the Israelis or the Palestinians. Those are few and far between. You can't base a policy a dream of having someone like that in place.

In general, when Sharon does what he does, like go into the Israeli cities, and in the process kill many Palestinians and lose any political support on the Palestinian side for a settlement, he is doing it not because it works in addressing violence. Because we see, despite what Sharon has done since he's been in power, that Israel has had more casualties than at any time in recent years; that Israel has paid a heavier price. Rather than violence coming under control, they are increasingly paying a heavier price. There is no end in sight, and there is no solution in sight. So he's making the Palestinians pay a heavy price, but only by making the Israelis pay a heavy price.

How does he justify it? Well he justifies it by "this is what public opinion demands, this is what the public demands." Well, yes, that's right, but public opinion is driving both into a self-destructive mode, and you need to have space. What you have in a situation like that is the moderates on both sides, who want to deal. Who, by the way, are a majority. Every single poll tell us, on the Palestinian side, on the Israeli side: moderates. These people who want a political negotiated settlement on the basis of territorial compromise are a majority among Israelis and Palestinians. But those moderates have nothing to point to in order to be able to counter the extremists, who say, "Let's use violence." Because the Israeli moderates will say, "Well, we tried it at Camp David and it failed. What are we going to do?" They give up. And the Palestinians say, "What are we going to do? The Israelis are not going to give us what we need. What else do we have?"

So what you need to do is an external intervention that does require some short-term pressure. Yes, it's not a pressure on existential issues, it's not a pressure on the ultimate shape of an agreement, but pressure in the short-term to make them overcome their public opinion problems, and to bring them into a process that opens up possibilities that would then rally support and open up domestic space for each one of them to be able to pursue their objectives. And that is, of course, under the best of circumstances. That is assuming that you have governments in both places that want a solution.

This is probably, in part, the evolution of my own ideas over time, [but] I do not take what a leader says as his objectives at face value. I think that Sharon, ultimately, is a politician. There are some who are ideologically committed, but Sharon, ultimately, is a politician: he wants to succeed, he wants to get elected, he wants to be popular. If he was elected to end violence and he doesn't, then he's defeated. If he sees that public opinion is emerging that wants him to make an agreement, he's going to move in that direction. I think that leaders reflect the environment around them. They can affect it, no question, they can sometimes transcend it. But, by and large, their positions are fluid, they're not as fixed as someone people assume.

How do ideas matter in this context? Shape that environment so politicians like Sharon -- and Arafat, for that matter -- respond.

What we have, for example, is a narrative that emerged after Camp David.

The most recent Camp David?

The most recent, Camp David of 2000, between Israel and the Palestinians. Once those negotiations collapsed, you had a prevailing paradigm in the Israel arena and a counter-paradigm in the Palestinian arena. In Israel, there's an interpretation that you can't penetrate right now, which says, "The Palestinians were given everything and they rejected it. They rejected it because they really don't want to accept Israel as a state. And they initiated the need, because ultimately they want nothing short of the destruction of Israel. This all tactical." And you have majorities of Israelis believing that, and that's an idea. If you believe in that idea, it's going to be impossible to find an alternative.

On the Palestinian side, you have a counter idea, which is, "They offered us nothing. They offered us very, very little. They want to fragment us into Bantustans in the West Bank in Gaza, control us and not give us real sovereignty, they want to control Jerusalem, and they want to impose it on us -- take it or leave it -- use the military power, send Sharon to the Amir Shariff, in order to cow us into accepting what we simply cannot accept."

And so there are two prevailing paradigms that are, clearly, not in touch with reality. There's a lot of blame to go around. There are some shades of truth to both, but not quite accurate. But there are ideas that are dominant, and they dominate the mainstream -- they don't only dominate the fringe. That really cripples the politics of reconciliation, it cripples the moderates. One has to find a way to transcend that -- to break through that.

I must say that I understand how hard it is to penetrate those ideas. We think that they're almost impossible to penetrate, but then you look back at it and you see how individual acts of leadership can do a lot. You look at what Sadat did, to mention Sadat. One can be critical of what he did or didn't do here and there. He was, by no means, a perfect man. But he was a great man, in the sense that he understood the power of leadership, and he understood the power of psychology. He understood that the way to break a paradigm is through bold acts of leadership. When he went to the Knesset at Israel, which shocked everyone, if you read his speech at the Knesset in Israel, in 1977, that speech repeated the same position that he had been saying for a long time. He didn't say all that much new. He did say some very important things -- "No more war," to the Israelis. But the very act of him going there to accept Israel suddenly transformed the psychology about the possibility of peace. The psychology, that was all the psychology where "you can't ever deal with Arab leaders." And yet here's the man who waged the Arabs' most successful war in 1973 against them, who is the leader of the greatest Arab nation, the nation that has led that Arabism in the region, getting on the airplane and going to the Knesset and speaking to them. It was an act.

In recent months, by the way, you find a very small speech by a single Palestinian, Sari Nusseibeh, who was appointed by Mr. Arafat to replace Faisal Husseini, to be in charge of Jerusalem affairs. He's the president of El Potz University, a respected academic, himself a philosopher. He went and gave a speech at the Hebrew University in which he said, "Israel should become our closest ally. We should compromise on the issue of refugees, so as not to threaten the security of Israel." It's amazing how much debate that has created in the Israeli arena, in the American-Jewish arena, in terms of the possibilities, suddenly, that people see, well, maybe, in fact, there is room for a deal. On the Israeli side, you need to have something like that. At the leadership level, since the election of the Sharon government, we really haven't seen anything like that. There needs to be things of that sort. Ultimately, it's acts that help break these cycles, not ideas.

Acts by ... by leaders?

By leaders. By leaders.

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