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Forward from Gaza: How the U.S. Can Lead

By Daniel C. Kurtzer, The Middle East Bulletin , 05.03.08

Q: What should Secretary Rice be seeking to accomplish on this trip, as this administration looks toward the horizon and the situation on the ground it hands over to the incoming team in 2009?
The problem right now is that everyone is looking only at tomorrow. There is no long-term thinking or activity taking place. The Israelis and Hamas are engaged in an effort to hurt each other. Hamas finds it in its own very significant interest right now to not only inflict some pain on Israel but to demonstrate that it has the capacity to hit Ashkelon and to withstand Israeli incursions. Israel, not wanting to negotiate a ceasefire with Hamas, believes that it must inflict pain on Hamas and some degree of pain on civilians in areas from which Hamas is operating in order to raise the price for Hamas to continue operating.
The one exception to this rule was Prime Minister Olmert’s statement at the cabinet on Sunday in which he said that as Israel continues to operate against Hamas it hopes that negotiations with the Palestinians would continue. But that was soon responded to by President Abbas, who said that he needed to suspend the negotiations because of Palestinian discontent within the West Bank population.
Along comes Secretary Rice with a statement that says she is still optimistic about being able to reach an agreement in 2008. But there’s no there there. There’s no U.S. policy activity. We have nobody on the ground. Our monitor who is supposed to be monitoring behaviors is a good man, he’s a very strong lieutenant general, but he’s only visited the region, I believe, twice. And there still isn’t a strong team on the ground either to do the monitoring or to be encouraging the sides to do the tough negotiating that needs to get done. The secretary of state has traveled often, but these episodic trips of one or two days that see no activity in between them become meaningless because the parties, in a sense, go home after the trip and they go about their business the way they had before.
Q: Let’s talk about the team on the ground, the monitoring group. If we had plans, for the horizon of the coming year, what would the ‘right plan’ look like? What would the team look like? What are and what should be the roles of the U.S. team?
There were two integrated aspects of Annapolis that needed to take place. One was negotiations on final status issues, and those negotiations needed to be followed, if not actually attended, by the United States, because we’ve seen time and time again that Israelis and Palestinians even if they intend to move forward, have trouble formulating agendas and getting themselves organized to talk. So there needed to be some presence, if not directly in the room then still of sufficient stature to get these parties to continue to focus. Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas do a good job when they talk together but they’re not actually doing the nitty gritty negotiations, and that’s where this is going to be made or broken.
The second aspect of Annapolis was the undertaking by the two sides to change behavior: the Israelis to stop settlement activity, to remove the outposts, to thin out, if not eliminate, a lot of the checkpoints and roadblocks, and the Palestinians to take strong steps against the terrorist infrastructure and to get serious about building the infrastructure for a state. So you had very specific obligations that the two sides had undertaken. And as we saw in the Clinton administration, when there is an active peace process underway, if you don’t have someone monitoring it the parties simply don’t do what they say they are going to do. And there’s nobody on the ground monitoring. Now General Fraser is supposed to do this and he has traveled to the region a couple of times to try to organize a way to do this using whatever assets he can through the embassy and consulate, and so forth.
But this should have been something we had put on the ground three weeks before Annapolis so that our monitors could get acclimated to the situation, so people would know they were there and so that we would have begun thinking about the consequences of failing to fulfill obligations, because that’s a critical part of monitoring; you monitor, you report, and then something happens if the parties don’t actually do what they’re supposed to do, and we haven’t done that at all.
Q: There have also been people who’ve put forward proposals for pro-active roles, in other words, in addition to monitoring bad behavior, looking for ways that the parties can do things that each side needs to see happen. Do you see that as an additional role that should be played by a U.S. monitor?
I’m a little skeptical of what used to be called confidence-building measures because there have been so many efforts to have them have meaning and they’ve never come to anything. It’s much harder to get the parties to take pro-active gestures in the absence of a very serious process and you end up investing a lot of time and attention in the gestures, when you should be investing a lot of time and attention on substance. I’m not opposed to confidence-building measures, but they have limited value if you haven’t been doing the other things. In other words, if you’re not seriously negotiating and if your behaviors have not changed, then the individual confidence-building measure is not going to impact either population.
Q: Given the situation at hand and the serious U.S. interests at stake, where do we go from here?
For both long- and short-term reasons, it is not too late for the United States to commit itself more actively to try to make this Annapolis process work. For long-term reasons, it’s because the president says he wants some kind of an agreement by the end of his administration. If that’s serious then he’s got to show it. And that means much more U.S. activity than we have seen until now. But even in the short term, while people think there’s no alternative way to deal with Gaza other than through violence, the reality is that the more the moderate Palestinian leadership gets empowered through negotiations and gets empowered through a process of peace-making with Israel, that’s the way to undermine Hamas in the Gaza Strip. This is not a zero-sum game where you either have to accept Hamas or destroy them. You can also empower Palestinian moderates so that they begin to prevail again as the deciding force within Palestinian society. And the way they prevail is twofold: number one, through the peace process and number two, through active internal reforms, which they have not yet engaged in, but which they should be encouraged to do immediately.
Q: What are the specific steps that the United States should press in these areas?
I would make sure that General Fraser is given the resources that he needs to get a monitoring group on the ground immediately, number one. Number two, I would let the parties know that this is not simply a show; that we intend to hold them to their commitments and to exact some consequences for the side that doesn’t fulfill commitments. I would appoint a senior American official to work cooperatively with General Fraser, but on the political negotiations – to let Prime Minister Olmert and President Abbas know that even if Secretary Rice and the president are not physically in the region they have a fully empowered person who is going to report to them about whether or not there are serious talks going on, including encouraging the Palestinians to undergo the kind of reforms that are necessary. Now people don’t substitute for policy, and you need good policy. But in this case, the administration says it has a policy and it just doesn’t have the people doing the work to fulfill it.
Q: How does this address the very real and very difficult situation in Gaza, both in terms of what’s happening to the population in southern Israel and what’s happened to the population inside Gaza?
Again, it’s a short-term, medium-term issue. Short term, there is no solution right now other than this military engagement, because both sides feel they have to prove something. The way out of military engagement, however, is to give Mahmoud Abbas and Ehud Olmert something to believe in that undermines Hamas’ appeal. But you’re not going to do this by trying to undermine Hamas. What you’ve got to do is give the Palestinian people reason to believe that Fatah can deliver. And for Fatah to deliver it means that you have to have a serious peace process, you have to have change of behaviors, they’ve got to see something happening on the ground that they have not seen until now.
Q: How do you react to the Israeli polls that show that the majority of Israelis would like to have a ceasefire with Hamas? What impact would such Israeli outreach to Hamas have on moderate Palestinian leadership?
I think that it’s exactly the wrong way to go. I understand Israeli short-term thinking. You’re in the middle of this constant rocket fire, 250,000 people are affected by it in the surrounding population and they hear the words cease fire and it sounds very tempting. But I think a ceasefire in the short term will end up empowering Hamas and will cut across all the things that the United States, Israel, and Fatah say they want to do. A ceasefire may seem alluring, in the context of the immediate term, but I think it’s a trap, which will not help matters in the longer term.
Q: You and Scott Lasensky, with a distinguished group of colleagues, have just written “Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East,” published by the U.S. Institute for Peace. What did you learn in researching the book and from your career experience that would apply most directly to what’s going on now?
Several lessons were, in fact, applied in this interview. The idea that presidential leadership is not simply a matter of articulating a position, but letting the parties know that a president is serious. It doesn’t mean that the president becomes the negotiator, but it means that the parties know that the president of the United States actually means what he says because there’s follow up. Number two, the idea of monitoring and accountability. We know it’s important in our daily lives when we do contracts or we buy a house, when we interact with other people. It is as important in diplomatic negotiations and agreements as well. And third, is the empowerment of a team with experience and expertise that understands the sensitivities of Israel with respect to security, that understands the sensitivities of the Palestinians with respect to dignity and the need for political independence. And you put that kind of team together drawn the from the reservoir of experience and expertise within the U.S. government and that’s also a demonstration of U.S. leadership and seriousness.
Daniel C. Kurtzer is the former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt and the S. Daniel Abraham Professor, Princeton University.