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Diplomacy in Action

A Preview: Challenges in the Middle East

FPC Briefing
Dr. James Zogby
President, The Arab American Institute
Foreign Press Center
Washington, DC
February 4, 2009

Date: 02/04/2009 Location: Washington, DC Description: Dr. James Zogby, President, The Arab American Institute, Briefing at the Washington Foreign Press Center on "A Preview: Challenges in the Middle East." State Dept Photo

2:00 P.M. EST


MODERATOR: Good afternoon. Thank you all for coming. I’m Haider Karzai with the Foreign Press Center. Today’s briefer is Dr. James Zogby. Dr. Zogby is the founder and president of the Arab American Institute, a Washington, D.C.-based organization, which serves as the political and policy research arm of the Arab American community. Through voter registration, education, and mobilization, AAI has moved Arab Americans into the political mainstream. Dr. Zogby will make brief remarks and then we will open it to our Q&A session. Please turn off your cell phones and whatever other devices you have that make sounds.

Dr. Zogby.

MR. ZOGBY. Thank you. I last spoke to you the night – election night, when it was clear that we had a new president and had the opportunity to share with you some of my reflections at the time, both about the election and how it turned out, but also what the challenges the president would face might be. Let me enlarge on them a little bit. Certainly, no person in modern times that I can recall has been elected president facing so many grave domestic and foreign policy challenges all – as he ascends into office, not problems that become problems as he is president. Clearly, we understand the difficulties on the domestic front, which also have international repurcussions. Our economic strength is, in large measure, important for our foreign policy strength. And the degree to which we are in economic crisis at home, creates problems for American leadership abroad.

We will also face problems as we begin to confront the economic challenges. Whether protectionism is an issue or not, and confronts our European allies and our neighbor to the north and the south, will, of course, be issues. Problems of trade and financial credibility with China and with India are going to be problems, problems dealing with the Middle East and our – what was talked about during the campaign, dependence on imported oil, et cetera, all of these issues that are economic will also become problems for foreign policy.

But with regard to foreign policy, not only the two wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, but the deep hole dug by George Bush in the core of the Middle East, problems of the Israel-Palestinian conflict, problems in Lebanon, and problems of extremism across the region, and the new challenge emerging from Iran, these are problems that certainly predated the Bush Administration, but they were exacerbated by that administration. A war in Iraq that destabilized that country, roiled the region, helped metastasize the problem of al-Qaida and extremism generally, so it spread into new forms in many countries in the region, including Iraq where it had not existed before. At the same time, growing sectarian tensions in Iraq, which threatened and did, in fact, spill over beyond Iraq, and also the emboldening of Iran. It wasn’t we only took our eyes off the ball in Afghanistan, but we took our eye off the ball in Iran, and so Iran’s nuclear development and the ability of Iran to continue to pose a challenge not only as it is frequently talked about here to Israel, but more importantly, in the broader Gulf, as it seeks regional hegemony. These are problems that are the result of the failed Iraq policy and the failed policies of the Bush Administration.

Add to that the neglect of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, the failure to apply any pressure whatsoever on the Sharon government, allowing them to not only expand settlements, begin to build the wall and barrier that has so disfigured the West Bank, but then as violence erupted, as it did and accelerated, allowing the Sharon government to reoccupy the West Bank, destroy what was left of the Palestinian Authority and its ability to govern, so that you have a re-conquest of the West Bank, and then unilaterally withdraw from Gaza, laid the groundwork for the current crisis that we have, which is a politically and physically divided Palestinian community and an emboldened settler movement on the West Bank, both of which become problems that are going to be very difficult to undo in any quick time whatsoever.

Similarly, in Lebanon, the horrific assassination of Prime Minister Hariri and the mobilization of popular opinion in Lebanon resulting in the withdrawal of Syria from Lebanon, created possibilities in Lebanon to create national consensus. We squandered that. And applying the same victor/vanquished model that we used in Iraq and that we used with the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, we applied in Lebanon with tragic consequences. The result is that at the end of the day – today – Hezbollah is stronger than it was, the war with Israel that was supposed to destroy and defeat Hezbollah only helped them grow in importance in Lebanon, but also in importance throughout the region. And today, a fragile peace is at work in Lebanon, holding the various political parties together in an agreement that was negotiated not by us, but by the Qataris and with support from the French and others is in place – that agreement is in place, but one cannot predict where Lebanon will go without more careful nurturing in the future.

Let me say that – finally, the other consequence of this Bush policy is not only the problems that have grown, extremism that has intensified, and Iran that has become emboldened, and moderates that have been weakened, but also the fact that – and I hinted at that with the Lebanon situation, that positive developments that occurred, negotiations that were taking place that made sense, were actually taking place by others, not the United States. We ended up losing such legitimacy, and also just ceding the ground to others, so that in Lebanon it was the Qataris and the French. With Palestinian unity, it was the Saudis, and one at the point the Senegalese got into the act. And another point, it was the Egyptians. In Israeli-Syrian talks it was the Turks and, again, at times, the French. The result is that we simply abandoned the field to others, and that may be a good thing. It was of necessity at one point, but the fact is that done of them have the ability to ultimately solve problems as the United States leadership can and has been able to in the past. So this is the world Barak Obama inherits, and it’s not one that one should envy him of.

Let me say, though, that in the packet that I’ve given to you, I have a number of articles that I’ve written – one called the “Best of Obama.” It’s a collection of some of the rather extraordinary things that he said during the campaign. This is a person who is probably the best equipped individual to be president, in terms of dealing with the Middle East, of anybody that I’ve known and run across in my readings, cause in – you know, going back 40 years or so, I didn’t get to know these individuals. I don’t know anyone who knows the region and has a more nuanced understanding of it as this man, and displayed it throughout the campaign.

People in the Arab world focus on one speech, the speech he gave to APEC, without focusing on the body of his formal remarks and informal conversations that he had with Jewish leadership and Jewish audiences and remarks addressed to Arab Americans throughout the campaign, is a person who is both understanding of the conflict and all of its -- the requirements of solving it, knows the limitations of what is possible, but also understands what must be done, and has a almost an inherit sense of balance, and also a desire to bring people together, to reconcile differences. He’s displayed that in his Senate career, in his state Senate career, but also in terms of his approach to the Middle East.

And I think that coming out of the gate, his inaugural address, which had some interesting remarks of their own, were followed quickly by, on his very first day in office, calls to four Mideast leaders. First of which was the President of the Palestinian Authority Abu Mazen, significant in and of itself, because that was the first call he made; followed the second day by the announcement of George Mitchell, who is himself probably our finest living statesman, remarkable accomplishment in Northern Ireland, and a brilliant Mitchell plan for the Middle East that was never followed up on by the last administration; but a person himself very tuned to the art of negotiation and the requirements of real negotiations, and has not only done it but has written about it and thought about it and reflected upon it in ways that make clear that he understands what negotiations are about and what is necessary to make them successful.

And then that was followed by the interview with Al Arabiya that itself contained, I think some rather magnificent nuggets that we will be working on and studying for weeks to come. And then his remarks as he dispatched Mitchell to the Middle East that, again, contained some, I think important notions of how President Obama thinks and how he sees Mitchell’s mission. And here we are today: Mitchell is back and we’re beginning now to sort this out.

Let me just note, as I close, a couple of the observations that he made as he dispatched Mitchell that I hoped that we’d paid attention to, because I think that they were – they were important. The one was when he noted – this is actually in the Arabiya speech – he said that – and so I told him to start by listening, because all too often the United States starts by dictating, and we don’t always know the factors that are involved. So let’s listen. He’s going to be speaking to all the major parties involved, and then he’ll report back to me, and from there we will formulate a specific response. And then he says again, and so what we want to do is listen, set aside some of the preconceptions that have existed and have built up over the last several years. And I think if we do that, then there’s the possibility of achieving some breakthroughs.

And so we’ve – those who are prejudging, and there are some, I know, in the Arab world who are prejudging what President Obama said or didn’t say, what George Mitchell has said or didn’t say, I think are wrong. This was, in fact, a beginning. He understands that we have too often dictated and begun with preconceptions that have colored our thinking. And this is an opportunity to begin a process, look at a process, understand the conditions of that process, and then recalibrate a response as we move forward. That’s what he did in Ireland. That’s what Mitchell did in Ireland. And I think that’s what you’ll see here. I think we have some surprises ahead as to how he will approach this.

And I’ll – I will stop right there and say that I am – someone has asked me, am I optimistic. And my response always is that no, I’m never optimistic. I’m too old and I’ve been doing this too long to be optimistic, but I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful because we have a President who understands, a Mideast negotiator who is probably the best qualified person that we can have.

But we must all live with the reality, and that is that real damage has been done, not just in the last administration but in the administrations before it. And there is tremendous overgrowth of hatred, of division, of all of the stuff off of which extremism grows. And it will not be an easy task to unwind that anytime soon. But we are today, I think, turning a corner and on the right path, and I am very, very hopeful that George Mitchell and his boss, our President, is the best people to have in this job at this time.

So I’ll stop there and take questions.

MODERATOR: Please before you ask, please wait for the mike, introduce yourselves, your organization, and your country. First two questions from Washington and then we will go to New York.

Right here.

QUESTION: (Tarik Rashed—Egypt) Thank you, Jim, for this great introduction, and I appreciate your hopefulness and your optimism.

MR. ZOGBY: No, I said no optimism, just --

QUESTION: (Laughter.) Let’s say hopefulness.

MR. ZOGBY: Yeah.

QUESTION: But what – or does Obama have this magic wand to make a difference in an issue that has been swelling for 60 years, and almost tens of administration has passed without resolving it, while adopting that same rhetoric that failed during Bush’s Administration? That’s not talk with Hamas – Hamas is a terrorist organization – while Hamas is a real player, actually, on the ground now.

MR. ZOGBY: Let’s take this apart. First of all, the conflict is, as you note, not just 60 years. Actually, it is longer. It goes back to the beginning of the last century when the colonial displacement began. But George Mitchell made clear that the Irish issue had been with us for 800 years. And any problem, as Mitchell said, that was created by humans can be solved by humans.

I followed very closely – because after the Arab world, my second love in this world is Ireland – and so I followed very closely and travel frequently to Ireland. My wife is Irish and I have a deep affection for that country and its people. And marveled not only at what Mitchell was able to do, but how, as it was being done, attitudes in Ireland changed rather dramatically from a conversation that you would have with just an average shopkeeper on the street who would speak about the bloody Brits and what they had done, referring to some action 400 years earlier. I mean, they live their history and the sense of injustice as Arabs do.

But as justice began to become – a path to justice became clear to them, and as negotiations were taking place that held open hope that change would occur, that sense of remembrance and history began to fade. People stopped thinking the way that they have thought in the past and began to think new ways about their own lives, and coupled with that, prosperity helped and the attitudes in Ireland, north and south, began to change. Some are still hanging on to the old – the old dreams and the old hatreds, but most people have changed. And it is significant that that change has occurred.

That can happen in the Middle East. I think all of us saw it back in ’93 and ’94, and I fault the Clinton Administration for when that door initially opened for not moving more quickly to deal with it and consolidate it. Instead, the bad advice that was given was, let the parties negotiate it themselves. They were incapable of negotiating it because the asymmetry of power was such that you didn’t have negotiations; you had dictation and Palestinians had no opportunity to do anything but say no along the way. America had to play a stronger role.

Look at how Mitchell dealt with Ireland and how new ideas were proposed and how the combination of support from the President of the United States, the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, and the Prime Minister of Ireland created the context. So people ultimately realized that they had to make a choice about the direction to move forward. Note in the President’s dispatching of George Mitchell he talks about the full support that he is giving him. This is not Mitchell 2000, 2001, where he got a job and then had the rug pulled out from under him. This is a President who’s saying that “I will support you fully as you go. When you speak, you speak for me.”

And note that as you are correct in saying that Hamas is a reality and the conditions that are imposed upon them are still there. But I would argue with you that at this point, those conditions should still be there, and it is important that Hamas recognize that they have a responsibility as a governing partner to accept agreements that were passed and to understand that they cannot both be a resistance movement and a governing force at the same time.

But also understand something else, and that is that when the Mecca accords were passed, and to some degree, Palestinians had achieved a national unity based on some concurrence with those international conditions that were imposed, what did George Bush do? He said it wasn’t enough, and so the conditions stayed, and there was no incentive for Hamas to move forward to national unity and acceptance of those conditions, because the conditions never got removed. So I would be very surprised and deeply disappointed if this Administration reacted the same way.

The point, in other words, is if you tell someone, “You really ought to be doing this, it’s a better way to go, and we really need Palestinian unity in order to move forward,” and if they do all the things required to achieve that unity, you have to accept that and work with it and see them as a negotiating partner. And going back to the Ireland situation, understand that when the IRA moved into a position of power – not as exclusive power, but as a partner on the Catholic side – there were still those on the unionist side who said, “We can’t sit down with them,” and there were extremists on both sides.

But when they both – the extreme side on the Irish – the Catholic side and the extreme side on the unionist side – when they both ended up sitting at the table together, Mitchell understood that was going to make the job more difficult, but it also made it possible to achieve a breakthrough, because if you don’t have them sitting at the table, no breakthrough is going to happen. But what you don’t want to happen now is a situation where the President were to come in and say Hamas is the real negotiating partner and then undercut Abu Mazen, cause whether people agree or not, there are, in fact, two Palestinian camps.

Both have to be dealt with. The point is is that you can’t play one off against the other, which – or see the division that exists in the Arab world around those two camps as a permanent factor with two axes competing with each other. The issue is ultimately Palestinian unity, but there has to be enough trust that if that unity is achieved, and it’s achieved on the basis of accepting the international conditions that make for negotiations to be possible, which is of course – you know, you can’t sit down and have negotiations with somebody who is still throwing rockets at you. There has to be an end of violence for negotiations – both sides have to agree to an end of violence for negotiations to take place. Both sides have to agree to that. That’s what happened in Ireland.

If they do that, then we have to be able to say that’s enough, the – we accept it, we will work with the negotiating team that you put together, whoever is included in that negotiating team, and we will continue to push for – not push for, but we will end the blockade, we will end the stoppage of aid and international support and commerce with you, et cetera. All the things that should have happened when the Mecca accords were passed should happen now, and I believe that that will happen with George Mitchell.

MODERATOR: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Hi, James. I’m Felicia Sonmez with the Asahi Shimbun. Thanks so much for coming.

MR. ZOGBY: Thank you.

QUESTION: It seems that the President has gotten off to a quick start on the Arab-Israeli issue. But one thing that some scholars are saying that may be even more of a pressing issue for him is the situation in Iran. And Martin Indyk and Richard Haass came out with an article in Foreign Affairs recently arguing that Iran is really the key to the region. So far, the President hasn’t taken many actions. It’s been mostly limited to rhetoric saying that Iran’s actions are unhelpful and provocative with the satellite launch yesterday, but what do you think? Has he – does he need to take more action on Iran as opposed to the Arab-Israeli conflict?

MR. ZOGBY: Well, there’s a school of thought that thinks that if Iran went away, all the problems in the Middle East would go away. That’s the same school of thought that thought that if you defeat Iraq and beat it up badly enough, the path to peace in Jerusalem is through – is through Baghdad. That school of thought, I think, is transparent and wrong, bottom line. The best way to build up the kind of international coalition that will be able to sidetrack Iran to some degree is by doing what the President is doing right now: moving more effectively on Iraq to disengage to the degree that it is possible to do that quickly, and to take action on the Arab-Israeli front that is real – not only real and sustainable, but actually begins to produce results.

We have a credibility problem in the Middle East. And what we don’t need is to continue to flex – I mean, if Barack Obama is to put himself in the position of pursuing exactly the same policies as George Bush vis-à-vis Israel-Palestine, vis-à-vis Iraq, vis-à-vis Iran, we actually will get four more years like we had the last eight years, and that’s exactly what he’s not going to do, and so I am confident that as he approaches Iran, we will probably not see anything dramatic until the Iranian elections are over.

And then you’ll begin to see a diplomatic approach. Sanctions will be tightened, but also carrots will be very clear and very desirable, I would hope -- larger carrots with the threat of isolation. But we are not in a position today to do that kind of diplomacy that they’re proposing, because all it would do is cast a pall over the hope that exists now in the region that Barack Obama is actually going to make a difference.

There are people concerned about Iran. And we may have lost sufficient ground that there will be no ability to turn back Iran’s nuclear program. I’m not confident that the ground we’ve lost and they’re – and the movement forward is such that we can – but the options are just not there. To bomb Iran is not going to help move the situation forward, to threaten more when we can’t threaten more, because there are countries that we need to be included in this international sanctions regime that aren’t going to be supportive unless we take a different path.

And, frankly, we don’t have the credibility right now in the region to build the kind of alliances that we need to build in order. Even if Iran got nuclear capability, we would still be facing the same problem of a rather extremist regime wishing to impose its hegemony on that region and having popular support. We have to dry up that popular support. We have to win back support from the Arab street, which ironically, in some countries that are the most conservative of countries, you do a poll and you’ll find Nasrallah and Ahmadinejad very high up – Ahmadinejad very high up in the – in rankings in terms of their popularity. That is a danger to America. And it means that we don’t have regional credibility to be doing the things that some people are proposing that we do.

So no, this crowd was wrong before, and they’re still wrong now. And I would hope that they would have learned a lesson from this election. The policy, the candidates that they supported lost. The candidate who proposed a different approach won. And I think it would be important for them to sort of get on board and stop pushing for the same old stuff.

MODERATOR: We will go to New York.

STAFF: Just one moment, Washington. We have a question.

QUESTION: (Inaudible). Thank you very much. I have a question – two questions, really. How much pressure do you see Obama put on the Israeli and the Palestinian parties? And also there’s an Israeli election coming up. What do you think about the results now that will influence Obama’s efforts in the Middle East conflict? Thank you.

MR. ZOGBY: Well, how much pressure would I see President Obama using on Israel? I think that’s the wildcard in this. That’s the issue that we can’t predict right now. I would hope, that as we see in Haaretz, the settlement expansion that has increased -- I would hope that if it continues to increase that he would, in fact, take very strong measures. I have personally lost any and all confidence in the use of quiet diplomacy on this issue. It’s actually striking to me. I’ve been doing this work for more than 30 years now full-time. And I remember the first settlement freeze that came at the time of Camp David. And since then, we have had – I don’t even know how many settlement freezes that Israel has agreed to. And yet, settlements have quadrupled in size from where they were back then. And so it is -- even during the Oslo period, they doubled, and there was an agreement in Oslo that no actions be taken that predetermine.

And even, I would add, that we get into the – and here’s a problem I have with the way that President Obama has spoken about this issue and others have. People will say -- even the very best formulations of what peace involves say we have to return of the ‘67 borders pause with land swaps for accounting for realities on the ground. Realities on the ground meaning illegal settlements that were built because every settlement that is built is illegal – it’s on occupied land and should not be there – and is there for one purpose and one purpose only, and that is to make the contiguity of a Palestinian state more and more difficult.

That is why they are where they are. They’re on hilltops. The topology of the West Bank is such that if you have the blocks that are agreed to by the Israelis and George Bush in 2004, where he said that the realities would be accepted and we would continue – if you keep them where they are, the topology of the West Bank is such that you make a contiguous state impossible. The only way it would be achievable would be digging huge tunnels under mountains, which requires more Palestinian seating, more land, to accommodate these settlements that never should have been there in the first place.

This is a huge issue. And if the President doesn’t deal with it, there will be a problem. And I would hope that he would. I mean, he’s been very clear about the fact that settlements are an impediment and he has spoken in some of his conversations with the Jewish leadership obliquely about the use of pressure. I would hope that if push comes to shove, we go from oblique to very clear. But that’s not a situation that I expect him to show his hand until we get to a point where it actually has to be done.

With regard to this election, I think that we’re in a really difficult position here. The good guys right now have too much blood on their hands, and the bad guy has a legacy of ending the Oslo process. And so from the side of those of us who want to see a peace settlement, I think it’s going to be difficult for – to see Netanyahu as a partner in this. And I think it’s equally difficult right now for Foreign Minister Livni to be in a position where she can earn trust enough to negotiate. So Mitchell has his hands full.

Again, I don’t know anyone more capable of achieving what needs to be achieved than Senator Mitchell. But it is not an easy – it is not an easy task that he has ahead of him. It’s not as if the choice on the Israeli side is a clear one between a true dove and a true hawk, or on the Palestinian side, that you have a strong leader of the PA versus a – sort of a smaller group that is engaged in terrorism et cetera. No, you have sort of a weak leader on the peace side, on the Palestinian side, and a strong group that is in control of Gaza that has engaged in terrorist actions, and then you have an Israeli policy – politics – polity, rather, that is at least – and this is the most hopeful scenario – divided down the middle. And it’s really not. I mean, if Netanyahu is going to get 68 seats in the next Knesset from the far right, it becomes very difficult to imagine how Kadima and Labor and Meretz and the Arab parties can form an effective block against that or how they actually get to the 60 that they would need to win.

So George Mitchell made it very clear. This is not something that’s going to happen in a couple of months. There’s no magic wand to wave. You’re going to have to be changing the societies while you go. He negotiated in Ireland for years before he came to a conclusion. And if you go from the beginning of the peace process in Ireland to its conclusion, you had a very long period of time. And this will take as long a period of time to gestate and finally come to a conclusion. There’s no magic wand here.

QUESTION: Thank you. Nadia Bilbassy with Middle East Broadcasting Center, MBC TV. Thank you, Jim. I guess most of my questions were asked, but I look at a different detail, which is Senator Mitchell said that his priority now is to consolidate the ceasefire in Gaza and humanitarian aid to people there.

MR. ZOGBY: Yeah.

QUESTION: How do you see the bigger picture? Because some elements in the region are saying basically that a side effect of the Gaza crisis that Abu Mazen might not survive a year to come in the next election, and therefore it might be even another partner for them on the peace side to speak to. How will this complicate the efforts for Senator Mitchell?

MR. ZOGBY: If Abu Mazen loses?


MR. ZOGBY: Of course, it complicates it. But this is the price that Israel exacted of the Palestinians. I mean, they have done everything they could have possibly done since 2004 to destroy Abu Mazen’s ascendancy. From the time Yasser Arafat died until now, everything that’s been done has almost been designed to tell Palestinian moderates that you are irrelevant and we will make you irrelevant. Ministries were destroyed. The conquest of the West Bank reduced them to mere shadows, where they had no functional authority, and yet it continued to be said you have to crack down, you have to crack down, and they had no capacity to crack down because the ministries had been destroyed and their capacity had been destroyed.

And then, I mean, how many prisoner swaps with Hezbollah, and what has Abu Mazen gotten? And what has he gotten in the way of anything as confidence building? Even the withdrawal from Gaza was done in a manner to humiliate him; that is to say, to sideline his role. And even the agreement that our Secretary of State negotiated in 2005, the Memorandum of Understanding, never has been implemented. Even the United States was ignored in this process.

And so I – my sense here is that we have embraced him, but hurt him, both with the embrace and what we did when we weren’t actually embracing him. Nothing was done to pressure Israel, not only to stop building settlements and do the – but to make his presidency work. And so, you know, you reap what you sow.

And the reality here is that these will be difficult days ahead. I have no question about it. I do not think that you are going to see in an election, if it occurs at all, a sweep of one side or the other. Palestinian politics is divided, and the last election showed that it was divided. And Hamas pretended as if, after the election was over, that they were the clear winner, and they weren’t. And Fatah has behaved in the past as if they were the only party, and they’re not.

There ultimately must be some form of Palestinian unity, and it should be a responsible unity based on conditions that make Palestinians – put Palestinians, rather, into the position where they can ultimately earn the role that they need to have in the world. That is not surrendering or selling out, but when you are leading millions and millions of people, you have a choice, and the choice is either you continue to condemn them to the conditions that they’ve been living under or you try to lift them out of those conditions.

And the bluster and the bravado and the quote/unquote resistance, I mean, Hamas wants to send a suicide bomber, that’s one thing. But Hamas wants to lead a government based on suicide of an entire people, that is horrible. And the fact is, is that they have to find a way to seek the moral high ground so that they not only win the angry street, but they ultimately win the opinion of the world community that says even despite the errors of Hamas, world support was with Palestinians.

Hamas needs to build on that and behave responsibly now. That means they should not seek to destroy Abu Mazen. They should seek to partner with him. And neither should Abu Mazen seek to destroy Hamas, because at the end of the day, as the earlier question noted, these are two realities that have to be dealt with. They are two distinct political views in the Palestinian camp, and they ultimately must be reconciled in a way to achieve some degree of unity sufficient enough and based on conditions acceptable enough to the world community that Hamas can become a partner in negotiations.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) how do you see the role of Syria (inaudible)?

MODERATOR: Wait for the mike, please.

QUESTION: Sorry. How do you see Syria and Iran playing a role in terms – because the Arab world and the Muslim world is divided over (inaudible) two camps, as you know.

MR. ZOGBY: Yeah. And you know, again, as we begin to alter our policies in the region, one of the things we have to take into consideration is how do we reduce the tension between the camps and how do we wean people away from camps and create a more responsible approach? I mean, I think that the approach that was – that we took towards Syria did not accept the possibility that Syria could move, and we never tested whether they would move at all. We also never tested whether the Iranians would move at all. I mean, on the one hand, we emboldened them; on the other hand, we threatened them. What we never did was test their intentions and see whether or not a different path was possible. We had simply given up totally on the possibility that change in behavior was –

Now, I think that the change in behavior wouldn't come because it was pretty clear that the United States wouldn't accept even a change in behavior. I mean, the Syrians tried on a number of occasions to modify behavior and things they did on the border with Iraq, et cetera, and we never accepted it.

And so the point is, is that sometimes nations behave in manners that defend their own interests, and I think we see a situation like that. The question here is can we alter our approach sufficiently enough to allow them or to encourage them to alter their approach so that we can change the politics in the region. I think we can. But – and I think that when the President speaks about, you know, listening more and less preconditions and formulating then an American response that can actually move the situation forward, that gives me a sense of hope that he understands that playing by those rules, as per the question I got before about the let’s go get Iran crowd because the path to peace in the Middle East is through the destruction of Tehran, that’s not going to work. It didn’t work with Baghdad. It won’t work here. And so we need some thinking, and I think we got a President who knows how to think. And that’s a good thing.

MODERATOR: We will go to New York. New York.

MODERATOR: Thank you, Washington. We have no question at this time. No question.

MODERATOR: I’ll go to Kuwait News Agency. Wait for the mike, please.

QUESTION: Thank you. Hi, Kuwait News Agency. I’m Heather Yamour. I wanted to ask you, you know, with Mitchell being sent to the Middle East, that was a positive step. But what would your advice be for the Obama Administration in terms of crafting out a policy towards Gaza?

MR. ZOGBY: You mean now?


MR. ZOGBY: Now. Well, I think that they’ve been very clear on the fact that humanitarian aid should be allowed through immediately. I fault them for not doing more dramatic things. We’ve actually encouraged them to do more dramatic things. I see no reason why U.S. naval ship is not – a hospital ship is off the border of Gaza right now. I see no reason why we have not airlifted supplies in. We know how to do that. We know how to helicopter supplies into an area that needs dramatic assistance. I think it would do an incredible amount of good for the United States of America in its image, but it would also be very important for the people of Gaza to see the blockade broken by direct assistance coming from the United States in the form of a hospital ship off the coast, U.S. army hospitals off the borders, and airlifting emergency supplies to hospitals. We can work through UNDP and UNRWA that have staff there in the region. There’s plenty of opportunities to do things.

So yes, it’s important that we continue to say that the blockade must end, as the President has said and as Mitchell has said. And it’s important that the traffic in arms ends as well, wherever they are coming from. It has to end. But the tunnels only exist because the blockade existed. That’s why the tunnels existed and why the tunnels flourished. And so the most immediate and dramatic gesture we can make is to take an action on our own to provide the assistance that the people of Gaza need.

Now, going beyond that, I am afraid that we’re going to wait till this Israeli election is over before you will see anything more concrete occurring, in part, because as long as you have the talks in Cairo that don’t include all the Palestinian parties, and therefore some of the parties are testing their limits and playing silly games, which aren’t silly at all but are very dangerous games, and as long as Hamas has encouraged this behavior in the past and is not in a position to rein it in, I mean, I don’t know how you fire off a Grad missile at all at this point and do it with any conscience or any sense of responsibility to the people that you’re – that you claim to represent.

I don’t know who did it or where it came from, but it was a stupid and indecent act, not only in terms of what it does and the fear it creates in Israel, which is how America looks at it most of the time, but in terms of what it means for your own people, who then are put in the position of knowing that the retaliation will come and that they ultimately will pay the price. I mean, this is very clearly a situation where – I’ve long used the adage, “You never pick a fight you can’t win.” This was picking a fight they couldn't win. They knew they should have taken a different course. They didn’t. It was a fight that Livni and Barak wanted and kind of needed in order to look tough and strong in the face of Netanyahu.

I think America should have stopped it early on and been decisive in trying to stop it so that Livni and Barak could have gone to the electorate and said we couldn't do it, America wouldn't let us, I mean, listen to what the President just said. And that would have then even worked against Netanyahu that he was flying in the face if he continued to put pressure in the face of an American President known to be an ally of Israel, as George Bush was.

But it happened. I don’t think that you’re going to get President Obama taking preemptive measures, saying to Israel don’t retaliate as long as this is going on and the election is this close. But certainly, if something were to happen, I would hope that he would be very clear in providing Israel with the excuse to not go too far by telling them to stop in a public way. When that’s happened in the past, when Bill Clinton told Israel to stop in Lebanon in ’94 when Rabin did it, guess what? It stopped like that. When – we all remember after way too long in Lebanon in ’82, Reagan didn’t even have to say a word, he just stared at Shamir across the room in the Oval Office and didn’t smile at him, and that was enough to get the message that it had to stop.

I mean, America has the ability to restrain Israeli behavior. And sometimes the Israelis will – let me tell you a story. In 1996, Israel was invading Lebanon, bombing Lebanon, just – it was mass bombing. There had been a series of Hamas attacks in Israel and there had been a series of Hezbollah raids as well. And there was – right in the middle of an election, right in the lead-up to the election. And Peres is being attacked by Netanyahu for being weak on terror, and he’s not doing anything. And rather than go after Hamas, which is something that would have created problems in the peace process, he decided to take off after Hezbollah.

And so aerial bombardments of Lebanon in the south. And the point Rabin was – that Peres made was we will force them to flee – 450,000 refugees – we’ll force them to flee to Beirut to take a message to Lebanon, to Lebanon’s leaders, to tell them to stop. Well, they did take a message north, and the message was, you know, we’re with Hezbollah and we hate the Israelis, and it actually helped Hezbollah grow. But it lasted for too long, and hundreds were victims of this.

In the middle of it all, I was invited to do Crossfire with then-Minister in the government, Justice Minister Yossi Belin. And I respected Yossi Belin. I mean, we’ve known each other, and in the peace process he was a real champion, one of the architects behind the scenes in Oslo. Anyway, in the middle of the debate, I said to him this is one of the hardest debates I’ve ever done because I respect you and can’t believe that you are supporting this. And he didn’t say anything. We were on camera, and he didn’t respond to it. He just sort of got quiet and then Bob Novak or somebody asked a question and we went on to the next thing.

In the green room after the show, he said to me it was one of the hardest debates I ever had to do, because we didn’t want to do this. We didn’t want to do this. We were being pushed by Netanyahu, we knew we had to do something or else we were going to lose the election. And when it started, we hoped that America would stop us so that we could go to the voters and say we can’t do this because listen to what the American President Bill Clinton is saying to us. When nothing happened, we had to continue on the path that we were on, knowing that it would ultimately be a disaster. Peres lost the election and everybody understood in Israel that he lost the election because 110,000 Arab voters cast blank ballots, and he lost the Arab vote in that election.

Now, the interesting part of the story is that a few months later I was in the Oval Office with Bill Clinton – not the Oval Office, I’m sorry, it was in the Roosevelt Room – and I said to him – I said, Mr. President, you know, you really disappointed us by letting Lebanon go on as long as you did and not doing anything to stop it. And he said, well, you know, he said, I was just trying to help this guy win the election, and I didn’t want to criticize him because I wanted him to win the election.

Now, that’s the judgment we make, and it is a wrong judgment that we make. The fact is that Israel sometimes needs restraint and wants restraint, because they are facing an internal right wing opposition that is stronger than the other side. The only counter balance – countervailing force to the right wing in Israel is America, and historically that has been the case. Ford did it. Kissinger did it. Reagan did it. Carter, at one point, did it. I mean, we have done it, but we have used that tool of public pressure too little and the consequences have been very great.

And so I will – I think we’re going to end there or take one more, if there’s one more.

MODERATOR: I think we’re done.

MR. ZOGBY: Okay. Thank you all very much.

MODERATOR: Thank you all for coming. Tentatively, please mark your calendar for next Wednesday, the 11th, with Dr.

David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. He will be with us at 11 o’clock. So that will be another very interesting briefing. Thank you. Thank you all for coming.

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