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Martin Indyk: Courage and Leadership Needed

 Middle East Bulletin Interview with Martin Indyk


Martin Indyk, vice president for foreign policy, the Brookings Institution; former U.S. ambassador to Israel (1995-97, 2000-01).

Interview with Middle East Bulletin

via Middle East Bulletin (click here for link to original)


What is the current status of Israeli-Palestinian talks?

They are very much in flux. The question of the moment is whether the settlement moratorium will be extended for a shorter period of time–perhaps sixty days. But now the Palestinians seem to be moving the goal posts somewhat in saying it’s not just an extension of the moratorium, there has to be a total freeze. I don’t know what exactly that means but we may find ourselves in a situation in which the moratorium gets extended but the Palestinians say that’s not good enough. That’s just a way of underscoring that the situation is very unclear at the moment. The Arab League foreign ministers met over the weekend and endorsed the Palestinian position, but gave the United States a month to work things out. Meanwhile Netanyahu appears to be moving right in order to move left: shoring up his right-wing support by demonstrating that he is protecting the Jewish nature of the state, while now openly discussing the extension of the settlements moratorium. My guess is that the moratorium will be extended but then what happens on day sixty-one if there’s no real progress on defining the borders of the Palestinian state? We’ll be right back in this hole.


What is your assessment of the reported letters or assurances that have been offered to both the Israelis and the Palestinians to get them to stay engaged in negotiations?

It’s hard to comment on the substance since we don’t know exactly what is going to be in them. The press reports may not be accurate because the letters are also in flux. So the only thing I can usefully comment on at this point is the idea of providing these kinds of assurances. This is a well-established practice on the part of the United States in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations because both sides feel that they can’t get what they need from the other side and so they look to the United States to provide what’s sometimes referred to as ’hamburger helper.’ There’s nothing wrong with it in principle, but there are certain other principles that need to be respected. Nothing should be said in those letters that would undermine the prospects of achieving a negotiated agreement. And the United States has to be careful not to preempt issues that would have to be negotiated.


You were quoted as saying in regards to the letters that the United States needs to be careful not to pay for tactical breathing room with strategic coin. How would you advise the administration to ensure that that doesn’t happen?

That’s another principle that needs to be observed here. If we make commitments that we would need to use to secure a final agreement merely in return for a two-month extension of a settlement moratorium, then we will have undermined our ability to achieve the final agreement. In other words, if we are going to make strategic commitments, it needs to be in return for strategic concessions not tactical ones. That’s very important here: we shouldn’t debase the currency that will be critical in terms of getting the parties to an agreement just for the sake of getting them into the negotiations again.


How do you foresee or imagine that the process might unfold from here?

The way we seem to be headed is towards a two-month extension of the settlement moratorium and two months of negotiations. The problem with that—if that is indeed the outcome—is what happens at the end of the moratorium extension? Are we going to face another breakdown—another crisis? The administration has already spent the better part of eighteen months in this particular settlement sandbox trying to find a way to reconcile the demands and constraints of the two sides. I hope that we can find a way through what’s happening now to get out of this particular sandbox and into the real one, which is supposed to be about resolving this conflict. And that’s my concern about where things are going at the moment. 


What options do you think are available to the administration to move beyond the current sandbox?

At this point, there aren’t any good ones. It’s very complicated. Perhaps we need a clarifying moment in which both sides need to take a look again at what’s at stake here. There’s this old line that everybody uses at these kind of junctures: ’We can’t want it more than the parties themselves.’ It happens to be true. And at the moment, I think both sides have the sense that we do want it more than they do. Perhaps we need some clarity as to who are the primary stakeholders here.


Is there something that either European leaders or Arab leaders should be or could be doing to help move the negotiations forward?

I think that they probably are and should be weighing in with both sides and making clear that they want to see this resolved and that both sides need to find a way to get back to negotiations and do what’s necessary for that purpose. This is where outside powers, beyond the United States, have a very important role to play in working with both sides to encourage them to get on with it. The first responsibility this weekend will be with the Arabs, but I think the Europeans and the Russians, the Quartet and everybody that has a stake in this should be actively working to get both sides to see that their interests lie in a substantive and serious negotiation.


What is your assessment of the capabilities of each side to take the necessary decisions and the necessary risks to move forward and to really come to an agreement?

I have this belief, based on public opinion polls, that the publics on both sides are ready for the deal and essentially understand the compromises and difficult concessions that would have to be made . I think they are ahead of their leaders in this regard. What really is necessary is for the leaders to have the courage to go forward rather than to fear that their publics won’t be with them. In the end, it can’t be done unless the leaders make the decisions. The United States and the international community can provide the safety net for that, and the encouragement, but in the end, it is the decision of two men, Abu Mazen and Bibi Netanyahu. And they seem to be more fearful of their politics than they are forceful in reaching across the divide and finding a way to resolve this conflict


Do you think that the Israeli governing coalition is strong enough to make such concessions?


Again, I find that the arguments about the difficulties of this coalition in Israel miss the point. This is the most stable governing coalition that Israel has had since the start of the Oslo negotiations, in terms of a government that’s engaging in an effort to resolve the conflict through the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Rabin and Barak entered negotiations with minority governments, or close to minority governments, and that’s not happening here. The foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, has declared that he’s not leaving. That’s because, I suspect, he knows that if he leaves, rather than the government coming down, Netanyahu can turn to Kadima and form a different coalition and he’ll be out in the cold and forgotten.

So, Bibi has a lot of leverage over his coalition partners. And, if I am right that the public is ready, he can go over their heads and appeal to the public. So, I don’t believe that his constraints are as great as some make them out to be. But, of course, that’s easy for me to say; I’m not sitting where he’s sitting. 

In the same manner, how much leverage or how much power does President Abbas really have within the Palestinian constituency, considering the divide between the West Bank and Gaza?

Look, there’s no doubt that he’s in a weaker position than Netanyahu because of the Hamas-Fatah split and because there are a lot of people around him who are carping and opposing what he wants to do. And he feels, I think, embattled and lacking support. But again, the public will be with him. And the president of the Palestinian Authority and the chairman of the PLO—he wears both hats—just like the prime minister of Israel, wields immense authority.

I know it sounds facile, but it’s a question of leadership. Both of these leaders need to stand before their people and explain to them that the time has come to end the conflict and that that’s going to require painful concessions and that they’re going to go ahead and try to resolve it.

One of the reasons that I was optimistic after the convening of the leaders in Washington at the end of August was that both of them seemed to be in that mode. They both spoke in those kind of terms. But now we’re back in the hole again arguing about settlements. I think they both need to rekindle the spirit of engagement that they had in Washington at the beginning of these negotiations.


How do the Palestinian Authority’s state-building efforts tie in with the political aspect–the negotiations?

They are critically important in terms of ensuring that if the negotiations succeed there is an institutional base for the fulfillment of commitments that the Palestinian leadership will undertake. There have to be credible, responsible, accountable and transparent institutions of government on the Palestinian side. And Prime Minister Salam Fayyad has made great progress with the help of the international community in building those institutions. That process needs to go forward as the negotiations go forward.


Is there anything else that you think is important to mention—about Syria, Gaza or anything else?

It is important that we never lose sight of the broader context in which all of this is happening. Iran is still engaged in very aggressive efforts to assert its dominance in the region: in Baghdad, in Beirut and in Gaza. And at the same time it’s still pursuing its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons capabilities. I think that the leaders in the region are conscious of that, and can see it unfolding in these days—Ahmadinejad is about to go to Beirut.

If the negotiations break down and we’re unable to move forward, it will not only damage American credibility, but it will be a real boost to Iran’s ambitions in the region. Because what’s at stake here is a battle over an idea. Our idea is that negotiations, compromise, reconciliation, and peacemaking can help to resolve the region’s problems. And the Iranian idea runs directly contrary to that; that violence, terrorism, defiance of the international community, threats to destroy Israel, are the way to achieve dignity and the rights of the Palestinians.

If the negotiations break down, then their idea will receive a very large boost that will help Hamas and Hezbollah and Iran. That cannot be in the interests of Israel or the Palestinian Authority or any of the Arab governments supporting the peace process. It’s really important that everybody understand and remember what’s at stake here. It’s not just about resolving the conflict; it’s about a much bigger challenge across the region.