Tuesday, September 28, 2010

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.


Anonymous said...

I attended the Q & A with the Jordanian Foreign Minister and I don’t think that Ted Sorenson challenged the Minister; indeed he was impressed by his frankness and realistic analysis. Plus, explaining that the conference was intended for civil society and that one cannot escape the politics of the day cannot be considered as dodging the question but more of describing thins as they are.

Gidon D. Remba said...

Hi Anonymous, I agreed that Mr. Judeh made a valid point when he said that the conference was intended for civil society and that the politics of the day can't be escaped in that context.

However, I didn't say that Mr. Judeh dodged Ted Sorenson's question, but rather the larger point: if Jordanian leaders want the Arab Peace Initiative (API) to influence Israeli public opinion, and to help catalyze public support in Israel for the new peace effort, why don't they propose ways to operationalize the API by persuading other Arab states to say what normalization gestures they would be willing to take if Israel reciprocated with steps that the Arab states would specify? The point is: the Arab states should take the initiative to influence Israeli public opinion by offering an exchange with Israel. Then we'd have an Arab Peace Initiative that would be having an impact on the current state of play.

By doing this, the Arab countries could positively affect Israeli public opinion, and strengthen support for Israeli politicians and parties that favor a more serious and sincere effort to make peace with the Palestinians and with Syria.

Anonymous said...

keeping the Arab Peace Initiative on the table for so long is by it self a confidence building measure. However, what the current Israeli government had offered for the past year were, unilateral actions on the ground, continuous opposition for the international consensus on the need to stop the settlement activity and more provocative statements of its foreign Minister.

Gidon D. Remba said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Gidon D. Remba said...

I couldn't agree with you more. But I draw different conclusions from our common recognition of these facts. Arab leaders must ask themselves the question: as good and important as it is that we have kept it on the table, has it been enough to sway Israeli public opinion to want to seriously negotiate on its basis? Has it been enough, by itself, to motivate enough Israelis to want to press their government to stop the unilateral actions on the ground and to form a coalition without this provocative foreign minister, replacing him and his party with Kadima and Tzipi Livni as foreign minister - which will be an important step towards creating an atmosphere, and a reality, more conducive to successful negotiations. Has it been enough to motivate the Israeli public and its representatives to do that?

Arab leaders must understand that there is one overriding issue that determines whether a more dovish or hawkish coalition is formed - Israeli public trust in Arab intentions. The Arab states hold some very powerful levers to affect the Israeli public's level of trust in the sincerity of Arab leaders' intentions to make peace with Israel. Keeping the Arab Peace Initiative on the table, but not offering to do anything incremental and concrete to influence Israeli trust, hasn't been enough.

I've not asked Arab leaders to offer unilateral gestures of normalization while Israel continues to engage in provocative actions which undermine Arab trust in Israel's intentions. To the contrary. I've suggested that they go over the heads of Israeli leaders and say to the Israeli public - through the media - if Israel demonstrated a real commitment to peace by stopping unilateral actions on the ground in Palestinian neighborhoods in East Jerusalem - areas which are disputed and about which we want to negotiate a peace agreement - and in the West Bank, and if it had a government that did not make provocative and confidence-sabotaging statements (like those of FM Lieberman at the UN), a group of Arab states would be willing to take some initial steps towards normalization to demonstrate our good will and our sincerity about integrating Israel into the region.

That would only strengthen trust and dovish tendencies in the Israeli body politic. I haven’t said that the Arab leaders must TAKE those steps yet – just that they should offer them to the Israeli public if Israel changes course and does its part to build confidence and trust.

We have stop making excuses for our leaders - on BOTH sides. What they are doing isn't enough. What they need to do is what it takes to actually build trust on the other side, and neither side is doing it at this point. But I think it's clear what both sides need to do. Instead of arguing against what I'm suggesting, I hope you'll support it - because it's the best way to clear a path towards real peace.

We have a US president who is genuinely committed to making this process work, to break through to a historic, unprecedented agreement which will create a viable, contiguous Palestinian state in the equivalent of 100% of the West Bank and Gaza, with Arab neighborhoods in East Jerusalem as Palestinian capital, next to a secure Israel. I say to the Arab leaders: help him help your countries, the Palestinians and Israel overcome the obstacles to real progress that will change the face of the region for the better.