Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Why Jordan’s Foreign Minister is Optimistic about Middle East Peace: A Personal Report, by Gidon D. Remba

(And why President Kennedy’s principal advisor, the legendary Ted Sorenson, challenged him)

I had the opportunity to be part of a group of several dozen NGO leaders and diplomats who met for a discussion with Jordan’s Foreign Minister, Nasser Judeh, at the Century Foundation in New York on Sept. 27. The exchange, moderated by Professor Alon Ben-Meir, director of NYU’s Center for Strategic Development and hosted by Century Foundation fellow Michael Wahid Hanna, took place as Israel chose not to renew its partial settlement freeze, and as settlers celebrated a new spurt of building in the West Bank. These blows added fuel to the fire of widespread skepticism about the prospects for the new round of direct Israeli-Palestinian peace talks mediated by the Obama Administration. So many peace initiatives have come and gone, some leading to partial and important breakthroughs, and many others falling by the wayside. Mah mishtana? Why is this new peace effort different?

Mr. Judeh set the stage by recalling Jordanian King Abdullah’s remark that the Arab-Israeli conflict is not only a local conflict, but one with global ramifications. Peace in the Middle East means peace of mind for the rest of the world. Jordan’s aspiration is for a comprehensive permanent peace settlement between Israel and the entire Arab and Muslim worlds. The path to that goal is illuminated, he believes, by the Arab Peace Initiative (API), which calls for a two-state solution, an independent, viable, sovereign and territorially contiguous Palestinian state living in harmony next to a secure Israel, and a mutually agreeable just resolution to the refugee problem. A comprehensive peace will bring Syria and Lebanon into the circle of peace first drawn by Egypt and then Jordan, extending to the entire region. Not only have all 22 countries in the Arab League endorsed the Arab Peace Initiative, but so have all 57 Muslim countries in the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC).

Mr. Judeh acknowledges that the gap is vast between the two sides – yet he believes there is reason for optimism this time. All issues are on the table, reflecting the seriousness of Israeli and Palestinian leaders; and the goal is to reach an agreement within one year. He acknowledges that the pessimists have every reason for their views. Some say that the definition of a pessimist is a well-informed optimist. But Foreign Minister Judeh believes we cannot allow ourselves to think this way, bringing to mind a classic line from the great Enlightenment philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who wrote in a prescient essay called “Perpetual Peace:”

“Even if the realization of this goal of abolishing war were always to remain just a pious wish, we still would not be deceiving ourselves by adopting the maxim of working for it with unrelenting perseverance.” In other words, even if we can’t fully realize the goal, if we work towards its realization, undaunted by the many obstacles and setbacks along the way, we will all be better off. Judeh is perhaps the first Arab Kantian, in theory and in practice.

Why, then, is this new effort different, offering real hope?

First, the Obama Administration has engaged on the issue of Middle East peace from day one. President Obama called Middle East leaders on his first day in the Oval Office – even in the first hour of his presidency, signaling his commitment to engaging aggressively with the issue during his presidency. On the second day in office, when people might have expected him to be more preocuppied with domestic issues, he visited the State Department and appointed George Mitchell as his Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, deploying Mitchell to the region soon thereafter.

However, Mr. Judeh did not stress enough the difference in the way the Obama administration is shepherding the talks from beginning to end versus the laissez-faire approach that the Bush Administration took to negotiations during the Annapolis phase under Olmert and Abbas. This reinforces his point about the difference in the kind of commitment and engagement that the Obama administration is displaying, and it is unquestionably a reason for optimism.

Second, Foreign Minister Judeh believes that the current Palestinian and Israeli leadership have realized that this time they must see the process through to the end. When Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu met with President Abbas in the White House a few weeks ago, he affirmed that “we seek a peace that will last for generations” and said “President Abbas, you are my partner in peace.” Abbas, for his part, promised that there will be no provocative Palestinian actions that will undermine the negotiations – there will be no violence.

How, contrary to the skeptics and the naysayers, Obama, Netanyahu and Abbas resolved the settlement freeze:  And although the partial settlement freeze expired yesterday, Mr. Judeh is encouraged by the fact that Netanyahu asked the settlers to exercise the same restraint as when the moratorium was in place. Even if there will be no official freeze in place, Netanyahu will limit construction starts in practice so that there is no practical difference between the period during and after the official freeze.   This might be Netanyahu’s way of squaring the circle. (Ynet confirms, in a report filed yesterday, that this apears to be the formula for threading the needle:  "PA says 'quiet' construction freeze to go on:  Israel will only be allowed to build in settlement blocs, talks to continue, senior PA source says."  "Other Palestinian sources believe that the compromise in respect to West Bank construction will take the form of a 'quiet freeze,' with Israel's Defense Ministry holding up construction permits.") 

In any case, Dror Etkes, Peace Now's former Settlement Watch director, reveals that the data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics show that the “settlement freeze” was largely a hoax, a PR stunt, “Israbluff.” ("Settlement Freeze? It was barely a slowdown," Ha'aretz, Sept. 28, 2010).  The reduction in the number of houses being actively built at the end of 2009 versus the end of March 2010 - from 2,955 to 2,517 - was little more than 400, or 16%.   In fact, notes Etkes, during the "freeze," “a relatively large part of the houses were built on settlements that lie east of the separation fence,” which are not in the settlement blocs. So if Netanyahu is agreeing now not to build in settlements beyond the settlement blocs when there is no official freeze, he may, without a “freeze,” actually be improving upon what he did during the official “freeze,” when he allowed housing to be built in far-flung settlements that will certainly not become part of Israel in any peace agreement.

The Palestinians, explains Etkes, “agreed to turn a blind eye to the construction so long as the official freeze policy of the Israeli government continued.” So, all the lamentations and wailing about Israel’s allowing the settlement freeze to thaw simply buys into the settlers' and Netanyahu’s fiction that there was any kind of serious settlement freeze in the first place.

Mr. Judeh says that there should be zero tolerance for any unilateral actions, by either side, which could undermine trust and confidence.   While there is, he believes, a need for an extension of the settlement freeze (in practice if not in name), Israeli and Palestinian leaders should stop negotiating across the airwaves, forcing each to posture for certain audiences. Coalition politics pose understandable difficulties, but leaders must have long-term vision of their peoples’ and countries’ needs. Actions and words must be in synch; one can’t profess peace and then act contrary to its requirements (at least if one’s claim to be a peace-seeker is to be credible).

The settlements are illegal and illegitimate; this is the US position, not only the international consensus. Once the borders are established by agreement, both sides will know where Israel ends and Palestine begins, and where it is legitimate for Israel to build settlements. Changing the demography on the ground will completely derail the current momentum and erode the chances for a contiguous Palestinian state. When Israel confiscates Palestinian land and property; when it evicts Palestinians from their homes and takes other unilateral measures in Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, including excavations in areas of religious sensitivity, these steps undermine confidence and the negotiations themselves.

(Some American Jews, I would add, still don’t grasp why settlement construction undermines confidence during peace talks, and as public support for diplomacy wanes and support for violence rises, can sabotage them.  They imagine that the settlements are not part of the problem, that the only problem is Arab recognition and acceptance of Israel, as right-wing propagandists often say. But this turns reality on its head and ignores the obvious. Palestinians seek a territorially contiguous state in the West Bank and Gaza, while Israelis seek acceptance and security. For Israelis, the thing that most undermines their trust in Palestinian intentions is the resurgence of violence and terrorism, particularly when the Palestinian leadership (e.g., under Arafat) not only failed to do enough to stop it, but sometimes encouraged it. But that is a thing of the past; the consistent and effective efforts of the Palestinian Authority’s US- and Jordanian-trained security forces in countering terror under Abbas have been frequently hailed as unprecedented by Israeli security officials. And President Abbas has now re-affirmed his commitment to continued cooperation with Israel in preventing the extremists from launching attacks against Israelis.

But since the Palestinians seek a contiguous state in the West Bank, when Israel builds new homes in West Bank settlements – not only the settlement blocs near the 1967 border, but in the far-flung settlements near major Palestinian West Bank population centers like Ramallah, Nablus and Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem – it sends a message to the Palestinians that it has no intention whatsoever of relinquishing the territory in a peace agreement; that there will be no contiguous Palestinian state or viable two-state solution. When faith in diplomacy and dialogue fade, support for violence rises – and so, in the end, does violence. That’s how you destroy the chance for peace. Moreover, by unilaterally deciding where it will continue to build in settlements, Israel sends a message to the Palestinians that it intends to unilaterally determine the final borders, rather than negotiating them. It wields its greater power over the Palestinians to force the outcome. It suggests that Israel is prejudicing the contours of those borders before an agreement has been reached, in effect compelling the other side to accept a fait accompli – something the parties previously committed not to do.

Breaking that promise clearly undermines Palestinian confidence in Israeli good intentions, and has contributed to the eruption of both the first and the second intifadas, and a loss of hope among Palestinians; just as the resurgence in Palestinian violence helped undermine Israelis’ trust in Palestinian good intentions, leading to a loss of hope in the chance for peace among many Israelis, even if they long for it and still favor a two-state solution. So contrary to rightist claims, while terrorism and settlement expansion can’t be equated morally, they are functionally equivalent in the role they play in sapping confidence in peace for the other side, and thus in undermining peace talks.)

The third reason this peace effort is different, giving reason for optimism, is this: there is international unanimity that we’ve had enough of the Arab-Israel conflict, and that it must at long last be brought to an end.

Fourth, the US under Obama recognizes the importance of pursuing peace as a regional goal, not simply piecemeal between Israel and the Palestinians or between Israel and Syria. The Arab Peace Initiative, and the Obama administration’s recognition of the role it can play in promoting a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace for the entire region, is another reason why the new peace effort may be different.  Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was in Jordan two weeks ago and emphasized the importance of the Arab Peace Initiative. The US is seeking to bring Syria and Lebanon into the mix, testifying to its understanding of the need for a regional approach.

Jordan has played a lead role in advising the Saudis on the Arab Peace Initiative, a win-win proposition. Israel gains peace and real security and will be genuinely integrated into the region. Once a Palestinian state is created, a just solution is agreed with regard to the refugees, and Syria and Lebanon recover their occupied territory, the Arab states will consider the Arab-Israel conflict to have ended, and all Arab states will establish normal relations with Israel. Moreover, the API affirms the security of all states in the region, including Israel. Israel’s quest for security is legitimate. Treaties and agreements will make Israel’s security a collective responsibility. The opportunities for cooperation between Israel and the Arab states are many: on water, energy, transportation and in other arenas. In fact, every Middle East leader at the UN this week spoke about the desire for regional cooperation in these areas. We need to create a political environment that will make such cooperation with Israel possible.

The Arab Peace Initiative Committee will be meeting in Cairo on Oct. 4th. Foreign Minister Judeh recognizes that more needs to be done to promote the API and its benefits to Israelis. He has been planning a conference of civil society leaders on the Arab Peace Initiative – NGO leaders, academics and others, Israeli, Arab and international – as a way to strengthen awareness of its value among peoples and governments. Originally planned for this past spring, it was postponed when the Gaza flotilla incident unfolded, and has yet to occur.

But Mr. Judeh’s message is simple and direct: If we fail now, the radicals will say, “we told you so; our way is better.” We cannot allow the forces of rejection to prevail.

For the Q&A with Jordan's Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, and why Ted Sorenson, President Kennedy's legendary principal advisor, challened him, please click here.

Q & A with Jordan's Foreign Minister & Why Ted Sorensen, Pres. Kennedy's advisor, challenged him

This post is Part 2 of "Why Jordan's Foreign Minister is Optimistic About Middle East Peace."  Click here for Part 1.

The Q & A with Jordan's Foreign Minister, Nasser Judeh, raised some intriguing points about the US role in peace talks, Israeli public skepticism about Palestinian and Arab intentions, and whether the peace process can succeed without the participation of Hamas, Syria and Lebanon; whether Iran can sabotage peace efforts; the importance of promoting Arab-Israeli cooperative projects in business and civil society now as a way to build mutual confidence; and finally, Ted Sorenson’s provocative question.

1. Michael Hanna asked how the US can play a constructive role in the peace talks. Mr. Judeh responded that the President Obama has affirmed that Middle East peace is a US national interest. The idea of a US plan was discussed last year; but we’re beyond that now. The parties are negotiating directly. Let’s see what happens; Clinton and Mitchell are there with the parties. Perhaps the US will later need to present bridging proposals if the parties can’t reach common ground.

This is why Mr. Judeh is a diplomat: perhaps? As he acknowledged earlier, the gaps are vast; I believe it is inevitable that the US will have to introduce bridging proposals. But the Jordanian diplomat is right that this can only happen once the parties have made a concerted effort to reach an accommodation and it becomes clearer how best to bridge the gaps between their positions.

2. Q: Prof. Ben-Meir: The Israeli public is skeptical of Palestinian and Arab intentions due to the second intifada, the results of the withdrawal from Gaza and from Lebanon. When an ordinary Israeli heard about Prof. Ben-Meir’s work to promote, and operationalize, the Arab Peace Initiative, he remarked: the term “Arab peace” is an oxymoron, reflecting the common skepticism and cynicism in Israel. Ben-Meir wondered whether the Arab states can do something to influence Israelis and show them that they genuinely want peace with Israel.

Mr. Judeh responded that Arab publics are skeptical as well that Netanyahu wants peace. But we have to change these perceptions. Netanyahu is showing seriousness of purpose; but it can’t be selective. We should have mutual gestures to show seriousness and sincerity, by both sides avoiding provocative unilateral actions. The problem we face is that often when there is progress, something negative happens to derail it: the Goldstone Report, the Gaza flotilla, announcing that 1,600 new Israeli homes will be built in Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem.

It’s clear that Mr. Judeh supports Arab gestures to operationalize the Arab Peace Initiative and help build confidence with the Israeli public. But he did not call on the other Arab states, or announce Jordan’s intention, to pursue such steps, preferring instead to focus on the ways in which Israel has bred skepticism among Arabs of its good intentions. By raising Goldstone and the flotilla, I understood him to be implying that the way Israel neglected to show sufficient regard for Palestinian civilian lives during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza, and the way it bungled the operation on the Mavi Marmara, killing 9 passengers, for a self-defeating policy of blockading Gaza, cast a pall over Arab confidence in Netanyahu’s peaceful intentions. I would have liked to hear Mr. Judeh map out a path to mutual confidence-building gestures, and was disappointed that he did not do so. (More on that in a moment, when I get to Ted Sorenson.)

3. Q: Hamas is not part of the current peace effort; can it succeed without Hamas’ participation?

Mr. Judeh responded that if Palestinian dreams of statehood become within reach, if it’s for real, and a date is attached to the realization of a Palestinian state, he believes that we will hear a different tune from Hamas. The only answer to the radicals is progress on the ground. At the Arab foreign ministers dinner after the UN meetings this week, it was noted that some three out of four Israelis support a two-state solution, with similar percentages on the Palestinian side. Palestinians want a normal life. If we guarantee them the apparatus that will give them a normal life, attitudes will change – in other words, Hamas will be hard-pressed to continue its opposition to a two-state solution, as it sees the majority of Palestinians embracing the unfolding promise of an independent viable state.

Second, unless Syria is brought into the mix, Hamas can’t be brought along. Judeh pointed out that Syrian Foreign Minister Moallem met with Secretary Clinton today. (The Wall Street Journal reports that “Secretary of State Hillary Clinton intensified American efforts to woo Syria into backing the U.S.'s Middle East strategy, holding her first direct meeting with her Syrian counterpart in a bid to find common ground on Iran, Lebanon and the Arab-Israeli dispute.” (“U.S. Woos Syria in Mideast Peace Push,” WSJ, Sept. 28, 2010). Jordan believes that Syria and Lebanon must be brought in to the process.

4) Q: Can Iran derail the peace process and influence the “Arab street” in destructive ways?

Judeh tells of a European diplomat who, when he met his Iranian counterpart this week at the UN, spent the entire time discussing the Arab-Israel conflict. Now imagine if in two years the Arab-Israel conflict has been resolved, he asked the European. What will you talk about with Iran? Mr. Judeh believes that Iran has exploited the Arab-Israel conflict for its own ends. His response to this problem mirrors his strategy for keeping other radicals, including Hamas, at bay. We have to answer them with positive, peace-building actions; and we have to answer them by succeeding at reaching a comprehensive agreement.

5) Ted Sorenson is widely viewed as having been among President John F. Kennedy’s closest advisors, his chief speechwriter and part of Kennedy’s inner circle. He played a key role in advising Kennedy on dealing with Khrushchev during the Cuban Missile Crisis. Co-author of Kennedy’s Pulitzer-prize winning book, Profiles in Courage, he is often credited with Kennedy’s celebrated Inaugural call to service: “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country” (though he insists that Kennedy authored the phrase himself).

Sorenson was born of a Russian Jewish mother in Nebraska, and was among the early endorsers of Barack Obama in 2008, often comparing him to John F. Kennedy. Sorenson, who was seated a few rows before me, challenged Foreign Minister Judeh: Why, he asked, call off the Arab Peace Initiative conference because of the flotilla incident? Why allow a major initiative to be derailed by such an event?

Foreign Minister Judeh explained that this wasn’t a conference of the Arab states, but a civil society initiative to influence various governments - in Israel, the Arab and Muslim states and around the world – about the benefits of the Arab Peace Initiative. After the flotilla incident, we felt that we could not escape the politics of the day. There was no way to get people to be willing to come together to talk about the fruits of peace when they are talking about the flotilla, or 1,600 new Israeli homes in Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem. To convene a conference of this sort, we need an atmosphere of calm. If the new Israeli-Palestinian negotiations progress, the atmospherics will be conducive, and we’ll convene the conference.

Let's drive home Ted Sorenson’s point: Mr. Judeh’s reply is well-taken, but he dodged the real question: if Israel were to make sufficient confidence-building gestures towards the Arab world, such as extending the settlement construction freeze and applying it to non-Jewish neighborhoods in East Jerusalem, what would the Arab states be willing to do to help build Israeli confidence in Arab and Palestinian intentions?

The Palestinian Authority, under President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, has made great strides in cooperating with Israel on combating terror, as Israeli security officials often acknowledge. This, by itself, is a crucial confidence building measure for Israel. But if the Arab states want Israelis to be swayed by the sincerity of the Arab Peace Initiative, a series of escalating mutual confidence building steps that both Israel and the Arab countries could take during the peace talks would go a long way towards creating a positive atmosphere for the negotiations, bolstering public support for them both in Israel and in the Arab world. Why shouldn’t the Arab states propose a series of normalization measures with Israel, along with their expectations for Israeli step-by-step reciprocation? The more each side would give, the more it would get.   Worst case, they'd call Bibi's bluff; best case, something good might happen. 

6) Joanne Mort (who writes frequently in Ha’aretz and the American Prospect about Israel and the Middle East and who travels there regularly on business) raised the fact that Al Quds University now has in place a boycott on all joint activities with Israel. While she herself supports a boycott of products made in the West Bank settlements, she believes that a blanket boycott on joint Arab-Israeli projects is deeply counter-productive. She suggests that Jordan can play a role in fostering such cooperative efforts. Echoing Sorenson’s point, she noted that we cannot let bad acts and negative events rule the day. There were numerous, and far worse incidents, during the previous peace effort (Oslo), but nonetheless Arabs, Palestinians and Israelis got together and did much collaborative work.

She reports that there are tons of joint Arab-Jewish business ventures going on right now in the Arab world – but people don’t want to talk about them (implying that this is a mistake). The settlers should not be the only ones influencing the Israeli street. We should be fostering hope among Israelis by showing that it’s being done right now. Mr. Judeh agreed whole-heartedly, but, regrettably, did not take Joanne’s idea as a basis for any specific Jordanian initiative.

7) Prince Zeid on Israel and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – Can the Middle East become a nuclear weapons-free zone?  Prince Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein was until recently Jordan’s ambassador to the U.S. and is now its UN ambassador. I’ve had the privilege of meeting with him in past in Washington as part of a group from ALLMEP, the umbrella group for the more than 60 Arab-Jewish-Israeli people-to-people peace-building and coexistence NGO’s. Every American Jew who has an opportunity to spend any serious time talking with Prince Zeid leaves with greater hope for Arab-Israeli peace. Prince Zeid is, quite simply, a mensch. He’s the real deal.

Foreign Minister Judeh asked Ambassador Zeid to speak about Jordan’s wish to see the entire Middle East become a nuclear-free zone (meaning, a zone free of nuclear weapons). Ambassador Zeid believes that if we can make real progress towards peace, it might be possible to explore with Israel the extension of the NPT (the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty) to the entire Middle East. I think he has a point: ultimately, if there’s to be any chance of gaining Iran’s agreement to a robust, intrusive inspection regime – the best way to insure that it does not develop nuclear weapons and, as many Israeli intelligence experts believe, far more effective and preferable to an Israeli military strike – we cannot expect Iran to accede to international demands on its nuclear enrichment program without bringing Israel into the NPT as well. Israel has resisted so far, but the day may come when it will have to play ball.

And yet, given the world as we know it, it’s hard to imagine Israel feeling secure enough to give up its nuclear weapons; and why should it? The US, Russia, China, the United Kingdom and France all maintain their nuclear arsenals, and are signatories to the NPT. India maintains its nuclear weapons and agreed to place 14 of its 22 nuclear power plants under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards. The NPT itself does not truly require complete disarmament by the nuclear weapon states (NWS). The treaty speaks of the signatories’ obligation to move in the general direction of nuclear disarmament someday and to negotiate in good faith towards that end.

The goal for the Middle East should be to reach an international agreement with Israel to join the NPT inspection and safeguards regime, once there is a comprehensive and permanent Arab-Israeli peace treaty; the goal should not be for Israel to eliminate its nuclear weapons.

Once there is a comprehensive Middle East peace treaty, it is not beyond the realm of imagination that Israel would join NATO. The US positions and shares nuclear weapons with NATO countries in Europe. Extending the US nuclear umbrella to Israel, and providing it with the guarantees of mutual military defense by other NATO countries, would go a long way towards easing Israeli insecurities after a peace treaty were signed and all Arab and Muslim states established full, normal diplomatic ties with Israel.

A Middle East nuclear weapons free zone should be a distant future goal, but even under a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, I don’t foresee it happening, or advocate it as a practical objective. I believe that nuclear stability can be achieved, and nuclear war prevented, if Israel, Iran and the Arab states all agree to a safeguards and inspections system under a reformed NPT. Disarmament can come when the Messiah rides his donkey down Mt. Zion in Jerusalem and nations beat their swords into plowshares.