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As the Clinton administration's ambassador to Israel and then its assistant secretary of state responsible for the Middle East, Martin Indyk was centrally involved in president Bill Clinton's abortive bid to foster a permanent peace accord between Israel and the Palestinian leadership.
Such familiarity doubtless helps explain his skepticism about the chances for the Bush administration to succeed where the Clinton administration didn't.
The spectacular bust-up at Camp David in 2000 came despite the long years of personal US presidential involvement, despite the considerable optimism that prevailed back then on both sides of the Israeli-Palestinian divide, and despite the fact that the Palestinians, then, had a leader who could genuinely claim to speak for most of his people.
Today, by contrast, as Indyk points out, the president has only now given Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice the kind of "political mandate" essential to brokering even the first steps at resuming a dialogue. Moreover, he notes, the administration is making a sudden push for peace only at the very end of its term - seeking dramatic progress as its time runs out, which is, as Indyk dryly observes, exactly what would-be president Bush castigated the Clinton administration for doing.
Worst of all, though, in Indyk's view, is the current administration's failure to appreciate that the Palestinians are today entirely incapable of taking effective responsibility for territory that Israel would relinquish within the parameters of a peace accord. If the terrorism-battered Israeli public is not convinced that it has an effective security partner, he reasons, then that public will not support the deal, dooming the whole exercise.
The London-born, Australia-raised Indyk, 56, has been trying to find ways out of the impasse for years. In 2003, he wrote a paper for Foreign Affairs proposing a "trusteeship for Palestine."
This stated the bitterly learned truth that, with Yasser Arafat still in situ, there was no "credible Palestinian partner for any [substantive] political initiative. And it set out the bald, and sadly abiding fact, too, that "on the Palestinian side there is simply no credible institution capable of constraining the terrorist organizations and armed militias responsible for the violence."
What was needed, therefore, Indyk argued then, was a "US-led trusteeship" that would "take formal control of Palestinian territories" from Arafat and the Palestinian Authority "and hold them in trust for the Palestinian people." The trustees would then do something akin to what former British prime minister Tony Blair seems to have been assigned to do today by the Quartet: "oversee the establishment by Palestinians of democratic political institutions, including the drafting of a new constitution, the election of an independent judiciary, and the holding of free elections." The trustees would also reform the PA's economic governance. Critically, a 10,000-strong US-commanded security force would oversee "maintaining order, suppressing terrorism, and restructuring and retraining the Palestinian security services."
This whole process, in Indyk's 2003 vision, would be backed by a legitimizing UN resolution, and by the promise of a three-year timeline to statehood if the Palestinians "fulfilled their commitments," and of continued trusteeship for as long as they did not.
Much has changed in the intervening four years - and very little of it for the better. The impossible Arafat has been succeeded by the impotent Abbas. Israel has left Gaza, only to be followed by constant, unprovoked rocket attacks.
The sense that Israel had been terrorized into withdrawing from the Strip, combined with the corruption and incompetence of Fatah, helped bring Hamas to power in those envisaged "free elections," and Hamas then cemented its hold on Gaza through rather less democratic practices.
Fatah remains determinedly unreformed. And Abbas's lack of credibility is matched, perhaps, only by the dismal standings of Messrs. Bush and Olmert.
In such a climate, Indyk said in an interview last week, it would be a "signal achievement" if this late US-led diplomatic push - which saw Olmert and Abbas meeting this week amid intensifying efforts to convene an autumn regional meeting of sorts - were to so much as get the two sides talking seriously. It would be the height of foolishness, however, Indyk intimated, for the Bush administration to aim for the impossibility of a binding accord before it leaves office. And he has changed his tune on the issue of security control - now recommending a full-blown international force to begin the long process of security reform for the Palestinians, and urging his administration successors to recognize the central need to meet this challenge. Excerpts:
Is the US administration coming round to your idea of babysitting the Palestinians toward responsibility and thence statehood?
There is recognition on the part of Washington and Jerusalem that the Palestinians don't have the institutions or the capabilities to be the responsible, capable partners necessary for a final status deal on the West Bank.
So what can be done to help change that?
I argued for trusteeship four years ago. The administration is not quite there, but elements of what I suggested are creeping in. For instance, I was interested to see the [Israeli] prime minister speaking about international forces in the West Bank a few days ago.
[But] the secretary of state is more focused on getting negotiations going than on worrying about the Palestinians' capabilities. She's got [US Security Coordinator Keith] Dayton [dealing with security assistance to the Palestinians], although his credibility is damaged by what happened [with the violent Hamas takeover] in Gaza. So I'm not sure how much energy the administration is putting behind his efforts to recreate the security services, let alone take a custodian role.
Of course Israel reaches for the Jordanian option when all else fails, so that's back in vogue. Israel recognizes that something is broken and thinks maybe the Jordanians can fix it. But the Jordanians don't accept that logic.
Well, what ought to happen?
First, a focus on building Palestinian capabilities. [PA Prime Minister] Salaam Fayad is a very good prime minister and he can rebuild the Palestinian economy. But I don't see him being capable of rebuilding the Palestinian security services, and he doesn't have a political power base; that can only come from the reforming of Fatah.
Security capabilities are vital to control territory that Israel leaves. And the political support, the political apparatus, is necessary to provide public backing and legitimacy. Both are crucial. Both are absent.
Second, what Condi is doing today - providing the political umbrella for progress. For six years, the administration rejected the notion of a need for this. Every envoy - [George] Mitchell, [George] Tenet, [Anthony] Zinni, [James] Wolfensohn - was denied a political mandate. Now she's taken it on. It is essential, so that the Palestinians can see the road ahead to a state and the Israelis can see a capable Palestinian partner.
That's the framework. But the Palestinians can't build security capabilities and reform Fatah in reasonable time. That's the gap. If it's not filled, the whole structure will collapse like a house of cards.
You must have third party involvement - not as trustees but as partners.
What kind of third party involvement?
An international force, under a UN-sanctioned umbrella, including a Jordanian element and other capable forces, doing training and joint operations. So that Israel can have confidence that it would be withdrawing from [territory and handing over] to reliable control, and Israel could test this, and see that it works and that the Palestinians are capable, and this would breed confidence and enable further withdrawals.
How large a force?
Devising the force requires military expertise. But it's not a large population [in the West Bank] and it's not a hostile environment. Israel has mown the lawn: The IDF has destroyed Hamas and Islamic Jihad in the West Bank. This is very different to the situation in Gaza, where I would not recommend an international force.
I would estimate the force would need to be some 10,000 strong, in partnership, I stress, with the Palestinian force.
Jordan could be a component, but not the lead component. It could be Brits, Canadians, Australians, the French. Not the US.
The US is not a good idea - there's too much baggage. Let the US be a broker of the political deal. I used to say the force should be US-led, but I've changed my mind. Nor should it be a NATO force. It's important to avoid the image of an invading, occupying force.
Have you had talks with any of these potential players?
No. But when I first put out the trusteeship proposal four years ago, the British and the Germans both volunteered to me that they'd contribute.
Why doesn't the administration recognize the need for a credible security capability for any framework to work?
They're just more taken with the idea of placing their diplomatic energies into the summit.
But bitter experience has shown that violence on the ground shatters all diplomatic frameworks.
They [feel they] will have Dayton on the ground. But it's going to need a more ambitious effort, like the one I described, rather than Dayton's [mere] training and equipping exercise.
The secretary of state has the view that the big issues and the small issues are hard to grapple with. So one might as well focus on the big final status issues.
And that's the goal of this latest US-led diplomatic push: to reach a permanent accord?
The goal is to jump-start final status negotiations. The Palestinians are on board. The Arabs want it. The secretary of state has accepted that's what they should push for. And the Israeli government seems to be doing so. It's talking of [final status] principles. [Vice Premier] Haim Ramon is talking of final status talks. The prime minister has spoken about negotiating a Palestinian state.
Is it the aim of the Bush administration to achieve a final status accord in its term?
I hope that's not their plan. If so, they'll drive it to a bad end. It's bad to set artificial deadlines. I was burned by that. We saw what happened [in the final months of the Clinton administration seven years ago].
I would hope that the secretary of state is focused on trying to move [the process] forward. [You can] put out lofty ambitions, but I hope there's a degree of realism. It would be a signal achievement for the Bush administration if it could, one, make progress toward talks on final status issues and, two, make serious progress on the rebuilding of Palestinian capabilities to act as a responsible partner. That would be enough of an achievement.
To try to push to a [full, permanent] agreement in the final year of the administration is precisely what George Bush criticized Clinton for doing. It would be ironic indeed if Bush wound up doing it himself.
Where would any of this leave Gaza?
Hamas took over Gaza. I say, leave it to rule on its own, to face the consequences. They've done us a great favor. They've put themselves in a dilemma: What's more important - ruling Gaza or destroying Israel? Leave them to make that decision. But don't create a humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
Israel and Egypt have a shared interest in Hamas coming to terms with Israel. If things move forward on the West Bank, that puts pressure on Hamas to join the process. If the international summit comes off, with the [involvement of] the international community and the Arab League, that would be a positive alternative to the violence, terror, resistance and defiance broadcast by Hamas, [by Hizbullah's] Sheikh Nasrallah and [by Iran's President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad.
Playing devil's advocate here for a moment, maybe Rice is right? Maybe if the diplomatic progress is dramatic, this would create a swell of public support and enable more effective security controls and partnerships?
No, it's a Catch 22. There is no diplomatic achievement unless there is support from a tangible consensus of the Israeli people. And they won't give that support unless they see a responsible partner on the Palestinian side.
For a final status deal you'll need not just skilled negotiation but the will of the people. Since Israel holds all the cards, you must convince the people of Israel. They won't be convinced to give up the West Bank and the Arab parts of east Jerusalem, and that's what we're talking about here, unless they feel there is a responsible, capable [Palestinian] partner.
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