Diplomacy: Exclusive interview with Ambassador Richard Jones

Jones talks to the "Post" about America's Middle East mind-set and modus operandi.

U.S. ambassador to Israel Richard Jones (L), Israel's President Shimon Peres (C) and Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert attend a reception marking the U.S. Independence Day at the U.S. ambassador to Israel Richard Jones' residence in Herzliya near Tel Aviv July 3, 2008. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud  (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
U.S. ambassador to Israel Richard Jones (L), Israel's President Shimon Peres (C) and Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert attend a reception marking the U.S. Independence Day at the U.S. ambassador to Israel Richard Jones' residence in Herzliya near Tel Aviv July 3, 2008. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
Chances are that the names Dan Kurtzer and Martin Indyk - the two previous US ambassadors to Israel - would ring a bell with most Israelis. 
Both men, who played prominent roles in the diplomatic activity in this country for more than a decade, were frequently quoted, heard, seen and photographed. They were household names.
But ask the man in the street who Richard Jones is, and many people would be hard pressed to identify him as the current US ambassador. 
Indeed, most people could pass him on the street and - if he weren't with a large security detail - would have no clue as to his identity. Although Jones has served here during a very tumultuous 16 months, since September 2005, he has stayed very much out of the public eye - giving no interviews, making few public statements and generating little news.
Which doesn't mean he hasn't been active - he has, the very nature of his job demands it - but his style is much more quiet, his approach much more understated than his two high-profile predecessors. 
Jones, a native of Shreveport, Louisiana, is no Middle East novice. He served as the US ambassador to Lebanon and then again to Kuwait, has spent five years in two different stints at the US Embassy in Riyadh, was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's senior adviser for Iraq policy and headed the State Department's Office of Egyptian Affairs. In addition, he has also served as Washington's ambassador to Kazakhstan. He speaks fluent Arabic and Russian, along with German and French, and during the elections here last March was able to follow the campaign ads by reading the Russian subtitles. 
On Tuesday, a day after he accompanied Rice to her meeting in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Jones sat down with The Jerusalem Post in his embassy office overlooking the Mediterranean and - in his first interview with the Israeli press - surveyed the region. 
What is the value added of having Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice take part as now planed in a meeting with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas? 
 I think there is a lot of value added. There is going to be a lot of need for confidence building measures, there may be need for assistance on this issue or that issue, in terms of coming up with ideas or in coming up with resources to make something happen.
Right now I want to stress that the trilateral meeting is really an informal session to talk about some of the issues. Secretary Rice picked up what I think may have been Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni's slogan, or term, of a political horizon. It is important to give both sides, the people of both sides, [an idea] before negotiations start of what they are talking about, what we are getting into here. 
Has Rice adopted Livni's ideas of negotiation toward a state even before the first phase of the road map is implemented? 
Discussions - not negotiations at this point - of the "political horizon," the big picture issues, all the issues that you would have to tackle in a permanent status agreement. [But] everybody is stressing that these are not negotiations, they are discussion of these issues. 
What is the difference? 
In a discussion you can have a more free flowing exchange of views, you can go from one issue to the next, you can think about things. You are less cautious in a discussion, which allows you to play with ideas. In a negotiation, you really have to be very careful what you say. It is the difference between a background interview and something on the record. 
There was an interesting article recently quoting officials in the moderate Arab countries saying they will talk to Rice about a grand bargain, something called "Land for Iraq," meaning that in order for them to get on board vis- -vis Iraq they want to see Israel make territorial concessions to the Palestinians. 
That doesn't sound right. I don't think that is their attitude. They are very concerned about the situation in Iraq. I think they know it is in their interest to help Iraq stabilize, and I haven't heard any such suggestions. 
But if they back the moderates in the PA, won't they expect something in return? What do they want from you? 
You have to understand that peace is in their interest. It is different than in the old days when these countries tended to use the Israeli-Palestinian dispute to kind of keep their publics busy, while they went about their affairs of running the country.
I think those days are long gone, and that they have a much better understanding that the persistence of this issue is not in their interest. For instance, it gives [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad a good argument to exploit. 
I think they are very concerned about his [Ahmadinejad's] goals in Iraq; I think they are very concerned about his relationship with Hizbullah in Lebanon, about inroads Iran has made with Hamas. And they are very concerned what his intentions are vis- -vis them.
And they understand that he is using this issue cleverly to court favor in their own streets. I believe that the Arab states want to take this issue away, they want to take it off the table, for the interest of the Palestinian people first and foremost, but for their own interests as well. 
Do you believe that the Israeli-Palestinian issue is the core to stability in the Middle East? 
I think it would help stability in the Middle East. I don't think by any stretch of the imagination it is a magic bullet or panacea, but I think it would help. And I think it would be good for Israel and good for the Palestinians.
What I want to stress is that they [the moderate Arab states] are willing to help now. 
In 2000 when president [Bill] Clinton was trying to do the deal at Camp David, it wasn't the case. Part of the reason, not the only reason, but part of the reason that [Yasser] Arafat turned down the offer that Clinton and [Ehud] Barak put on the table, was because he wasn't getting support from the moderate Arabs.
I don't think the Saudis were supporting him. In fact I think the reverse. 
I think they were telling him not to do the deal. I'm not sure about the Egyptians, but I heard that they were not very happy with the possibility of whatever was on the table. Now I think the situation is different. It's not that they are trying to twist arms to get Israel to make concessions. I think they are willing to help, and that's a big difference. 
What would the US like to see these countries do to keep Iran from going nuclear, what are the us expectations? 
Our expectations are that they fully cooperate with the UN Security Council resolution [imposing sanctions on Iran].
[Also] if they help us stabilize Iraq, that reduces the likelihood that Iran can take advantage of that situation. 
Is the administration confused by the different voices coming out of Jerusalem? You've got Livni talking about her ideas, Defense Minister Amir Peretz talking about his plan, Olmert, Avigdor Lieberman. Do you know what the government of Israel wants? 
 Let's put it this way: There are a lot of creative ideas out there and we are talking to a lot of people. I don't think there is necessarily that much [difference], and we are all hoping that we make progress on these issues that will help pave the way for a negotiation process. 
Both Olmert and Abbas are politically weak. Can they deliver anything? 
That's why you have to take it slowly. If you rush right into negotiations, everyone would say they are just trying to save their skins, there would be a lot of cynical stuff. We need to take our time, do it right and talk about all the issues without putting anybody in an awkward position. 
If we let the process take time, people will see it is a serious process, see that the US is engaged. If they then start seeing it come together, I think it will strengthen people. So don't assume that they [Olmert and Abbas] will be as weak at the end of the process as they are now. I think they could reinforce one another if people see they are serious about peace and working for peace, 
I think it will strengthen both sides. 
Is the $85 million that the US has earmarked to go to the Palestinians going to go to build up Abbas's Presidential Guard or security services? 
It is going to go to several things. Part of it will go for improving security at the Karni crossing, which is definitely in Israel's interest.
And we are going to use it for security service reform. We will use it for training and non-lethal equipment.
There has been a lot of stuff in the press about Americans trying to promote a civil war. Hamas has put out a lot of propaganda. The fact is that the US is not going to purchase lethal equipment, we are only providing non-lethal equipment. 
Regarding the Kassams, has Israel's policy of restraint in Gaza hurt our deterrence? 
What is interesting to me is that you haven't been hitting back, and what have you seen on the Palestinian side? There is a lot more turmoil on the Palestinian side. 
Is that a result of the Israeli restraint? 
I'm not sure, I'm not saying it is. But it is kind of an experiment here. Normally you hit back, and they hit back. But it seems to me that right now they are spending more of their effort vis-a-vis the competition between Hamas and Fatah than they are with you. So I'm not saying there is a cause and effect, but I am saying it is an interesting point.
I often believed that back in the days of the second intifada, Hamas had a good deal. They could hit you, and you would hit back at Fatah. So by hitting you they showed themselves "we are the resistance," they built themselves up in people's eyes in the Palestinian community and you were weakening their enemy. You were making them stronger politically and you were making them stronger militarily vis-a-vis their rival within the Palestinian community.
Israel was also hitting Hamas as well. 
Yes I suppose you were, but there was a lot of hitting back at the Palestinian police in the early days of the intifada, and trying to force Arafat to "shoulder his responsibility," I think that was the term in use at the time.
Now you are showing restraint, and why are you showing restraint? 
Because there is a cease-fire. So, okay, the fringe groups can get away with violating the cease-fire, because they don't care about public opinion, they are terrorists for hire, everybody knows that; they are people just doing it because they are getting money from Syria and probably Iran.
But Hamas, which has a political equity, has entered in the cease-fire, they are not going to abandon the cease fire lightly. And you're showing restraint, you are not hitting back against the Palestinian people. 
All of a sudden they are not getting any legitimacy from your activities, and so there seems to be this tension growing with Fatah.
Fatah is trying to reform itself a little bit now. For the first time, you actually saw some activity, they had some rallies, they appointed some new people apparently, and so all of a sudden what is Hamas doing. Hamas is the only one out there killing Palestinians, and they are killing Fatah activists... Of course Fatah hits back, but I think this is good to show Hamas for what it is - it is a terror organization, and they exercise terror against Israelis normally, but they also exercise terror against their own society. 
All of a sudden reducing the Israeli-Palestinian violence shows the real problem here, which is terror, and I think that [highlighting that] is good for you. So I think it [the policy of restraint] is improving your security in the long run.
You really haven't suffered that much in terms of loss of life [from the Kassams] and you have given Gaza a little breathing space. You are still operating in the West Bank, you are still fighting terror there, because you didn't extend the cease-fire there. If you look vis- -vis Gaza, Israel is no longer doing anything against the Palestinians in Gaza, but still bad things are happening to Palestinians, so [juxtaposing those facts] is good for you because it shows the Palestinians that terror is not in their interests because it will be directed against them. 
Therefore you think that the Palestinians will get rid of Hamas? 
I think it is leading to a decline in their support - absolutely - and an increase in the support for Fatah, and Fatah accepts the three principles, so that's good for your security. 
Regarding the settlements: Is there an informal agreement between Israel and the US that construction can take place within the construction lines, or perimeter, of settlements in the major settlement blocs? 
No, not to my knowledge. I have never heard anybody on the American side say this. We believe that Israel has a commitment to us and should honor that commitment. 
Israeli officials say that there is an understanding with the US that when the road map says there should be no settlement construction, even for natural growth, that doesn't mean inside the settlement blocks. Is that wishful thinking? 
We have a continuing dialogue. We explain our views and they explain theirs, but Israel is a sovereign country. 
Is there a difference in your eyes between Maskiot in the Jordan Valley, where new construction was recently approved, and Ma'aleh Adumim, where tenders for construction were issued this week?
It depends on whether or not you believe that Maskiot was an exiting settlement or a new settlement. If you consider it an existing settlement, they are pretty much the same, but if you consider it a new approval, which we did, then it's [different].
The US protested the building at Maskiot, will it now protest the construction in Ma'aleh Adumim?
We let them know our views, as we do periodically. Quite honestly, Ma'aleh Adumim is a new issue that we haven't gotten to the bottom of, we are still looking at it. 
Regarding Syria, is the US keeping Israel from talking to the Syrians? 
I don't buy that. I don't get the sense that the Israeli government as a policy-making body is chomping at the bit to engage in discussions with Syria. 
Does the US not want Israel to engage with Syria? 
The US doesn't want to reward [Bashar] Assad's intransigent behavior. 
How about "track two" contacts? 
Well, nobody can stop that, Israel is a democracy. People have a right to free speech, free association. 
Do you know anything about the story this week about secret Israeli and Syrian contacts leading up to the outlines of a peace agreement? 
I don't know. When I first saw the headline I thought this was something, but when I read the article, I said, okay this is another one of those private initiatives, and I assume these things happen all the time, and that's not bad. But I didn't see anything to cause me to believe there has been something major going on that the US would want to know about. 
Regarding Lebanon, six months after the war, many in the Israeli intelligence community are saying Hizbullah has rebuilt itself in Lebanon. 
That's a little too strong. The sense I get is that people are not completely satisfied with the situation, but they do agree it's better. For the first time you have Lebanese forces deployed in the south, along the border. UNIFIL does respond to information brought to their attention.
They are not necessarily as proactive as Israel or the US would like, but they don't just ignore the information that is supplied, they have in some cases acted on it. I think that is an improvement.
For a long time before the events in the summer there was no control whatever on arms shipments [to Hizbullah], so I can only imagine what kind of volume of shipments there was. Now there is an official prohibition against it. I think they are more circumspect because they know that this could be something they could be held accountable for in the Security Council. 
Are there talks between the US and Israel regarding the Shaba farms? 
I think there has been some discussion in the UN, and I think the UN might go ahead and try to work on demarcation of the border. But since I'm here I haven't had any discussions with the Israeli government about it. This is viewed as more of a New York [UN] issue, or more of an issue about Syria and Lebanon. 
Going back to Iran, former ambassador to the UN John Bolton said in an interview this week that sanctions are a waste of time. Do you think that sanctions have a chance of stopping Iran? 
Yes, I do. Iran is a mixed economy and they have a private economy. One of the reasons that the shah's government collapsed was that the bazaar deserted the shah.
I think it is inevitable that the sanctions will have an effect on international economic involvement in Iran, and I think that will effect individual businessmen in Iran, and I hope they let their government know about it. 
And some of these ayatollahs are involved in business themselves and they may start feeling the pinch.
Business people hate risk, and if you see a country under [UN Security Council] Chapter 7 sanctions and you think there is a looming crisis or confrontation between it and the international community on the horizon, you are not going to put your money in there, you are not going to send your people there. 
People don't need to make a decision, they just need to delay a decision and still have a chilling effect on the economic relations. And that will potentially have an impact. I just don't know how strong the consensus is inside Iran. In any country there is a spectrum of opinion, and it may be that you don't have to shift the spectrum too far in order to tip it. 
Is the military option against Iran still out there?I think the president has made it clear that we are not taking any options off the table. It is also clear that we are really pursuing the UN route; we are pursuing the international legal route. We are pleased we got Chapter 7 sanctions. I think that is a big step forward, and it is still early in the game on that. 
Everybody says the moderate Arab regimes are concerned about a nuclear Iran, and that this comes out in private meetings. Why don't they say it publicly? 
I think you might see that type of statement at some point. I think what they've said instead is, "Well, it looks like we will have to have an interest [in developing their own nuclear capacity]." You've seen Egypt say that and Saudi Arabia say that, it's their way of [expressing concern about the Iranian nuclear program].
You have to understand that they come at things from a different perspective than Israelis and their way of expressing themselves is a little more oblique, not as blunt as Israel's are. But if you know them it comes through pretty clear, and I think those statements are pretty clear.