Rob Sachs: Our round-table discussion will be on the President's State Department speech and its greater implications for the Middle East policy. Here to talk about wider implication of this issue are two experts, who have been closely watching the region, - Richard Straus, the editor of the Middle East Policy Survey and a consultant on the Middle East, and Asaf Romirowsky, an adjunct scholar at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies and an adjunct fellow at the Middle East Forum. Gentlemen, welcome to both of you.
Kim Brown: The baked news out of yesterday was President Obama's call to have Israel move its border back to where it existed in 1967. Here's President Obama: "We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states. " Richard Straus, let's start with you. This was an unexpected policy change for the White House. Why do you think President Obama chose to go in this direction?
Richard Straus: First, I don't think it's a major policy change. It's long been the case since the Camp David Summit in 2000 that the solution to be found between Palestinians and Israelis will be based on border swaps, land swaps, and the 1967 border is the point at which you look at, and then Israel takes some of the West Bank and in exchange would offer part of the pre-1967 Israel out of Palestine so that it would be made whole in terms of 100% aftermath. So, I think the fact that it has been out there for more than a decade, has been subject for negotiations by successive Israeli prime ministers means that it hasn't changed now. The current Prime Minister Netanyahu hasn't accepted that. And his party has not. So in a sense the fact that President Obama presented it to a man who hasn't accepted it is somewhat confrontational, but it doesn't mean it's different from the policy in the past.
Rob Sachs: But you did write in your survey "perhaps the most damning criticism of the Obama approach to the ongoing crisis in the middle east is its absence of realism." Can you elaborate?
Richard Straus: I think what you find with the President is not just a specific issue - although I think it is also appearing in this issue - is that there is a sort of idealistic view of what this president should be doing, rather than a realistic one. It's idealistic to say we have these borders between the Palestinians and the Israelis, but we have no plan to get there. It's idealistic to say, we're on the side of progressive borders, but we have no plan to get there, say, in Bahrain. But yet, they want the president to be on the correct side of history. But you got to have a plan, you have to be able to deal with each country in a different way, or in a specific way. But I see an absence of that in the way they handled this situation almost in the very beginning and what's called the Arab spring.
Kim Brown: Asaf, you also used to serve in the Israeli army. Do you think President Obama's call for the changing or the moving of these borders is just a pipe dream or is it really viable?
Asaf Romirowsky: From what we've seen over at least few years since Hamas has come to power, I think that the modality of the two-state solution has been really defunct, at least on the ground, because what we are looking at today is that actually at the basis we have three states – the entities of Israel, the West Bank and the mini-state of Hamas in Gaza. And what it does for the formation and changing of the map – it really affects Israel's and America's foreign policy: each states claims, we don't negotiate with terrorist organizations. And the fact is that no American official has ever gone to Gaza since Hamas has come about as the majority party of the Palestinian state at the Palestinian Legislative Council. The practice is that, as for aid to the Palestinian authorities today, it's questionable how this money will be allocated, as regards money going to terrorists. All these late reports that have come about the Palestinian readiness for statehood have been predicated on the idea that Salam Fayyad, the current prime minister of the West Bank, will remain in power. That refers to the report that came out of the World Bank and the IMF. However, with this recent marriage between Hamas and Fatah, I'm quit skeptical whether Hamas will actually allow Fayyad to stay in power. As for tactical concerns, I think that this will change the whole dynamic, not to mention the fact that Israel has put forth the idea that what they need to maintain the security of their citizens is something they call defensible boundaries. Going back to 1967 will not allow Israel to defend its citizens in the way it wants to, and can, and should. And that is part of a challenge of the language that came out of yesterday's speech. It's not that 1967 has not been part of negotiating discussion. But the way it was stated, and those specific lines really do bolster the Palestinian narrative. And in practical terms – even the Palestinians understand it – the differences between Hamas and Fatah that existed until now there are going to be great challenges, and this is not really a practical move forward, though it sounds good in theory.
Rob Sachs: Richard Straus, I want to touch upon something Asaf brought up just a minute ago – the marriage between Hamas and Fatah, and the complications it causes for the western countries like the US to deal directly with them. Hamas is stated to be a terrorist organization, according to the US. They state they don't recognize the legitimacy of Israel. How then do you move forward with this potentially huge stumbling block?
Richard Straus: I think the administration does recognize they have a problem there. As long as Hamas does not recognize Israel's right to exist the US has to deal with it. I think the hope – not the assumption, but the hope – is that, like PLO back in the late 1980s, Hamas will come around and abandon that portion of their charter that calls for elimination of the State of Israel. I think what they expect in the meantime – more than hope, but expect – is that the Palestinian authority, which does recognize Israel's right to exist and has been doing business with Israel in a variety of ways for a number of years, would continue to represent the Palestinians in any kind of talks. It's not going to be easy. But that's what I think they are trying to do – they are trying to create a cabinet of technocrats, they are trying to continue to have Mahmud Abbas, who is the head of the Palestinian authority. The idea is that somehow keeping Hamas at an arm's length they continue to do business with other Palestinian authorities. That's not going to be easy, but I think the assumption there is that Hamas stays in the background and the Palestinians are represented by people who recognize Israel's right to exist. I don't mean to say that Israel's going to accept that. But it'd be easier for Europeans and particularly for the US to accept that formulation.
Kim Brown: One central issue is what exactly to do with Jerusalem, where all sides want to claim that as their own. Israel has recently announced that it would be expanding housing in East Jerusalem and that negotiation for dividing Jerusalem was off the table. How do you see this part of the dispute being resolved?
Richard Straus: Jerusalem and the Right of Return for refugees are two of the hardest problems. I think one of the reasons the President has focused on borders is because that out of three main issues this is the easiest one – but only relatively speaking. And I don't think people have one or straightforward way in trying to deal with the Jerusalem issue. Both sides claim it. The Palestinians want East Jerusalem as their capital and the Israeli want to have Jerusalem unified. There have been some attempts by previous Israeli prime ministers to figure out a way for Israelis to have access to the capital so that the Palestinians can have eastern side as their capital – it's a very tough issue, and nobody has a simple answer to it.
Rob Sachs: Asaf, what do you think about Jerusalem? Obviously, it's not just a political discussion but one that is wrought with a lot of emotion, people saying this is my homeland, this is my capital, this is the centre of my religion. How then do you attack that issue and come to some sort of resolution unraveling all these deep emotional issues that are associated with dividing Jerusalem?
Asaf Romirowsky: for sure, the issue is always that you can't deal with politics in the Middle East, with the Arab-Israeli conflict without understanding theological correlation between politics. Jerusalem is the nucleus and the major obstacle in this issue. The fact is that under Israeli governance Jerusalem remained an open city allowing Christians, Muslims and Jews to have access to the whole area. The challenge in this sphere on the Israeli side of the things has to do with the fact that if it fell under Muslim or Arab, then they would lose access to it. I mean, over the past few decades, there's been wide denial of the Jewish presence in Jerusalem, which was minimized by Israeli presence in those areas. That on the theoretical, theological basis is adamant evidence of the fact that ongoing denial for Jewish archaeological artifacts and the fact that they won't have any kind of connection between the city and people themselves. Again, if you go back to the negotiations as far as 2000, when Prime Minister al-Barak and Bill Clinton met, there was a proposal of having Jerusalem divided and given to what then would be the Palestinian state. It was rejected. The question, pragmatically speaking, is you even divide up Jerusalem. It was divided following the Six-Day War of 1967. The idea would be the east and west part of it. But from the Jewish and Israeli point of view, that also prevent access to the Western Wall, and the City of David, and all the other holy Jewish sites that was part of what Jerusalem was all about, not to mention that fact that it is also a whole debate within Israeli politics about the unification of Jerusalem. Since 1980 there's been a law in the Israeli Parliament which calls for Jerusalem as a united city and the capital of the state of Israel. That has deep roots in Israeli politics. And as far as 1967 is concerned, again Jerusalem is a part of the debacle that happened when Vice President Biden paid a visit to Israel. There was a discussion about whether or not Jerusalem was a settlement. Jerusalem was never a settlement. It was never part of a discussion vis-à-vis a settlement discussion and land swaps. It was part of the anger of Israeli society with the government of Netanyahu, which by opening up a kind of Pandora box in regard to 1967, although then it wasn't discussed in particular terms, though he stated clearly that Jerusalem will never be left for the final status negotiations. Opening this up caused a lot of irritation on the Israeli side. Another point worth mentioning is that the last Intifada, al-Aksa Intifada, – it was said in excuse – had to do with Ariel Sharon's , then Israeli Prime Minister's, visit to the Temple Mount. There was a lot of anger going around these issues. But the main issue, as far as Jerusalem goes, if there will be a free and open access to the holy sites. And from the demographic perspective – it's also a point to understand – the most of the residents of East Jerusalem are Arab Israelis. So, in practical terms, those Arab Israelis are Arabs, who are Israeli citizens, and they actually, if the latest polls were to come out, prefer to live under Israeli governance than under any kind of Palestinian governance, given the corruption and the challenges that the Palestinian authorities face, so that they know they'll be treated fairly under the Israeli governance.
Rob Sachs: Now we are joined by Marwan Kanafani, the former Senior Advisor to Yasser Arafat. What was your response to that, Sir?
Marwan Kanafani: Mr. Obama was yesterday the first American president to say that Israel should go back to 1967 borders. But what he proceeded to talk about is not a new issue. Mr. Obama then said that the Arabs and the Israeli should have land swaps to compensate for the settlements the Israeli are building on the West Bank. The fact is that, even despite all that was said before, it's a war. I was in the negotiating group in 1998, and the fact is that we never had a serious progress in negotiations, because from the beginning Israel wanted to have peace and at the same time everything it got – the land, Jerusalem, no refugees, water, which is a problem too. Nothing has changed since then, and I'm sorry to say that. Nothing has changed since the beginning of the peace process. Mr. Obama was serious when talking about a sovereign Palestinian state and about the right of the Palestinians for their homeland. I remember I was the first Palestinians official who said that Jerusalem should be unified. That was in 1994. But this proposal wasn't accepted by Israeli, because they think that if Palestinians want peace, including Jerusalem, including the right of refugees to return and including the sovereign Palestinian state. But it's not going to work that way. If you want to have peace, you should try to make both sides content about this peace. It's obvious that the Palestinians are not happy about what's taking place now.
Kim Brown: Our next question is for Richard Straus. Where exactly do we go from here as it relates to American intervention? We are trying to negotiate with them the peace process between Israel and the Palestine. Is it even feasible that America can have a significant role in this? Obama, unfortunately, is the latest American president to get this accomplished. Prior to him Mr. Bush had an accord in Annapolis, then prior to this Bill Clinton had the Camp David accord, and we just keep going back, and back, and back. Is it even reasonable at this time to expect that an American president is going to play an integral role in making peace between Israel and Palestine a success?
Richard Straus: I can't figure out at what time in recent memory the circumstances were as difficult. One is because you have an Arab spring, and all the things that are going on throughout the Arab world, which is changes occurring daily, and this is what makes Israeli government really uncomfortable about taking chances. The second thing is that you have, on the Palestinian side and also on the Israeli side, leadership that is not really willing or able to make the kind of deal that is necessary. I think the real truth is that George Mitchell has left his job, not that President Obama has given his speech. There's no root, there's no map, there's no road we can see going forward anywhere in the near future that is going to improve the situation.
I think the problem the President has is that he is under a lot of pressure from the outside world, not from the US, but from the outside world – not just from the Arab world, not just from the third world, but from the Europeans. There's a tremendous amount of pressure that the President, the State Secretary see from allies, friends, and other the world to do something. They are trying to react and prevent some other things from happening, such as the Palestinians going to the UN and asking the UN to declare that they are a state. And that's what the US is trying to prevent. So, I think that, to a large extent, what the administration is doing now is not really trying to promote peace but trying to stop the process from getting worse.
Rob Sachs: Mr. Kanafani, we want to talk a little bit about the large implications of this Arab spring. What do you think was the catalyst for what's happening here, and how do you think this year has been different from some other years in that you've seen so many people coming together and protesting against the government all throughout the Arab world?
Marwan Kanafani: What's happening in the Arab world now is that most of Arab protests are very encouraging. Peoples of the Middle East are not subject to all kinds of dictatorship. And what's good about that is that people of Egypt and Tunisia – and you know that other states have their kind of civil revolution – agree that the Palestinian issue should be solved in a way that is fair and just.
Kim Brown: Joining us now is Mr. Lance Korb, a senior fellow at the Centre for American Progress, a senior advisor to the Centre for Defence Information, and an adjunct professor at Georgetown University. Thank you so much for joining us. The first half of 2011 has begun with a lot of social and political turbulence, especially within the Middle East and North Africa. With two heads of state already deposed and other facing strong resistance within their own countries and from the international community, the destabilization of this region continues to unfold. So, gentlemen, let's start with Libya. Muammar Gaddafi continues to fight with the so-called rebels. Ground has been gained and lost repeatedly on both sides. Mr. Gaddafi has just recently buried his son and grandchildren, who were killed in a NATO-led airstrike on Tripoli. Mr. Korb, is Muammar Gaddafi ready to advocate power in this conflict?
Lance Korb: I think time is not on his side. I mean, some of his ministers are defecting, and the fact is that eventually his Oriental resources are going to dry up. He won't be able to pay a lot of those mercenaries he's using to fight. And I think the NATO air strikes will be getting closer and closer to his home. So, I do think that if the NATO is patient, then Gaddafi will eventually leave one way or the other.
Kim Brown: Mr. Korb, you did mention his resources perhaps not being endless. The Swiss government has recently announced they had frozen roughly 400 million dollars of the Libyan leader's assets. Does he have the resources to keep this fight going? Can he even win?
Lance Korb: No, not much longer. In fact, the US alone has frozen 33 billion dollars in his resources. And I think that's exactly what you are trying to do - that is saying, he can't prevail and then watch out for some way where he can advocate his power and do this in a way that minimizes the casualties on both sides. I think he's being pressured by some other members of the Arab League. Eventually, I think if we are patient, this strategy will pay off.
Rob Sachs: What about the charges? We've always had here, in the US, the notion that we don't assassinate heads of state. But we've already seen NATO strikes go directly towards Gaddafi and almost get him. It seem like we're almost tiptoeing on this line – if he happens to be in the line of fire, so be it. But we are not expressly going out to assassinate him, what is this stance of the Obama administration on, perhaps, taking out Gaddafi or seeing uprisings in Libya take him over.
Lance Korb: I think it's obvious. Now that the operation is being run by NATO now, as NATO commanders have said, they are going after the headquarters that run the operation, that are killing innocent civilians and they are not targeting him directly. But if you have intelligence on the place where he lives and from where he directs operations, then you'd be possibly going to see him or some of his top leaders killed. And I think that's the difference. We are not sending in the CIA to kill him or anything - that would be against American law.
Kim Brown: Mr. Kanafani, as regards to Mr. Gaddafi in Libya, how is his resistance both on the side of rebels and his determination to remain in power playing out amongst other nations in the region? What is others' perception of this conflict?
Marwan Kanafani: I think there are two sides to this story. First, everyone is insisting on the principle of protecting civilians – this is a sacred job, while more civilians are being killed. But on the other hand, there's an almost unanimous feeling among all Arabs that it should not escalate to an invasion, and secondly it should not result in killing civilians on our own too. I think there's a delicate line between what should be done politically, mostly, and economically, and what should not be done during military raids and as a foreign invasion.
Rob Sachs: Mr. Kanafani, do you feel that we want to move alone too and see that all things are going – not just in Libya, but also in Syria, where we had President Bashar al-Assad, who isn't giving up on his efforts to quell the massive protests against his rule. President Obama addressed that in his speech at the State Department yesterday. He had a message directly for Bashar al-Assad.
Marwan Kanafani: I think that President Obama was right when he talked about democracy in the Middle East. People should be given their rights, they want to be free, and they have proven during te last few months they are willing to do everything.
Kim Brown: Mr. Korb, President Obama announced economic sanctions on Syria the day before giving this speech. What is the extent of these sanctions? Are they likely to have an impact on President al-Assad in his aggressive action towards his own people?
Lance Korb: That has some impact, but it's not going to be defining because, unlike the sanctions on Libya, we didn't get help of the whole international community. We couldn't get a UN resolution, because of the opposition particularly from Russia and China. But I think it's basically the US saying we got to do something, we can't just stand by here. And of course, the President followed it up yesterday, saying, basically, work with this people or get out of the way. And I think that was a very strong statement. But again, there's always so much the US can do. We can't force him out by ourselves, but I think we got to send the message that if you stay in you will be an international pariah.
Kim Brown: I'm glad you brought that up, Mr. Korb, because there's a UN Security Council resolution on Syria – it's on the table now. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev said he would not back it. Let's listen to the Russian President.
Dmitry Medvedev: "I will now support resolutions on Syria. Frankly speaking, they were disregarded by the actions that some states took, even though Russia initially supported the first resolution and didn't veto the second. What happened after wards demonstrated that this kind of resolutions can be manipulated. This is deplorable, because it undermines the authority of the UN."
Rob Sachs: What's your reaction to that?
Lance Korb: I think, basically, given how it all started, the international community was outraged that somebody would treat his own people like that. And I hope the Russians realize that they don't want to say this is a new standard of international behavior, and there's got to be some price paid for it.
Rob Sachs: Thank you so much for joining us, Mr. Korb.
Kim Brown: As we wrap up our round-table discussion this afternoon, it's very clear that the attempted resolution put forward by President Obama in his speech to the State Department yesterday, especially regarding the possible returning to the borders of 1967 is not necessarily playing well on either side between Israel or Palestine. President Netanyahu has already given a pretty frosty response to President Obama's suggestion. And we've heard some of the Palestinians remarks earlier today.