Interview with Martin Indyk: "I Must Be Optimistic about Arab-Israeli Relations"
by Daniel Pipes and Patrick Clawson
Middle East Quarterly: Five years ago, you were kind enough to help launch this journal with an interview in its inaugural issue; you are now our first repeat interviewee as we celebrate our fifth anniversary. Much has changed in the interim. Speaking just weeks after the White House ceremony that featured the Rabin-Arafat handshake, you called the moment "a new golden age" for the Middle East.1 What happened?
Martin Indyk: Yes, well certainly the age has been tarnished a little bit in recent years, but I'll always be optimistic.
MEQ: Just a few months ago you described yourself as "fundamentally optimistic that peace can be achieved" between the Arabs and Israel within the next ten years.2 It's hard to see the basis of such optimism.
Indyk: Taking the long-term perspective of history—from the days of Sadat's visit to Jerusalem on—one must be optimistic about Arab-Israeli relations. We have come a long way in the peace process. Israel has peace with Egypt and Jordan; the problems with Lebanon can easily be resolved; the Israeli-Syrian negotiation is relatively straightforward, although very difficult. The issues to be resolved in Israel's permanent status negotiations with the Palestinians—by far the most difficult part of the conflict to settle—are now starting.
THE PALESTINIAN TRACK
MEQ: Turning to the Palestinians, in a much-noted statement in 1997, you said that the "core bargain of Oslo has broken down. Terrorism on one side and unilateral acts ... on the other, have combined to break this trust."3 This gave the impression of moral equivalence between Palestinian and Israeli transgressions, that the building of houses was similar to the terrorism. Was that your intent?
Indyk: Not at all. What I said was the trusts by both sides had been broken because neither side thought the other was fulfilling its commitments. There is no moral equivalence and there can be no moral equivalence. We made that very clear in our successful effort to get an agreement in which both sides fulfilled their obligations. Our whole approach to achieving an agreement is based on sine qua non of security. Security has to come first.
MEQ: But what about equivalence in terms of compliance? Have the two sides fulfilled their agreements over the last five years to roughly the same extent, or are they basically very different?
Indyk: In one sense it doesn't matter, for both sides feel that the other side is not fulfilling its part of the bargain, which led to the breakdown and collapse. In another sense, of course, it does: the Palestinian Authority has failed to fight terror vigorously enough to convince the Israeli side that it is fulfilling its commitments, and this has had some very real consequences in terms of the lives of Israelis. In that sense it matters a great deal that they fight terror more effectively.
MEQ: But let's go beyond terrorism, which no one can completely control, and focus instead on Yasir Arafat's constant use of jihad rhetoric, the Palestinian Authority's failure to extradite murderers, the unwillingness to revamp the Palestinian Charter, and so forth—all things entirely under its control. Looking only at what the Israeli government does control and at what the Palestinian Authority does control, have both sides equally complied?
Indyk: The Wye agreement highlights the issues of critical concern to each side. It tries to deal with the major issues of compliance in as comprehensive a fashion as possible so that both sides are committed to fulfilling their obligations.
Indyk: For the Israelis, security is clearly paramount and a lot of the agreement's text focuses on that. It deals with the specifics of security, not just fighting terrorist organizations. It requires the PA [Paltestinian Authority] to confiscate illegal weapons and close down what we call the "revolving door" (the tendency to release people who have been arrested for their involvement in terroristic activities). It deals with the long-standing, emotional, and important issue, for both Israel and the United States, of requests to the PA for the arrest or extradition of suspects allegedly involved in crimes against Israelis, and in some cases Americans. The agreement very clearly requires the Palestinians to issue an anti-incitement decree.
MEQ: And for the Palestinians?
Indyk: For them, the number-one issue is further re-deployment, and that's also dealt with quite specifically, as are their other priorities in the interim agreement—the airport, seaport, and safe passage between Gaza and the West Bank. The Palestinians are concerned about Israeli incitement, so a trilateral committee of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the United States was established to deal with this issue. The Palestinians can raise their concerns about instances of Israeli incitement to that committee. Although I don't think an objective analyst would say that the cases of Israeli incitement by extremists are equal to those of the Palestinians, the matter is important to the PA. In other words, we tried to put together an agreement that deals with the concerns of each side.
MEQ: The Wye agreement is thus one that treats the two sides as having parallel claims on the other?
Indyk: It is based on two fundamental pillars: security and all that goes with it for Israel and further redeployment for the Palestinians. It boils down very much to a land-for-security deal.
A PALESTINIAN STATE?
MEQ: You have spoken of "a potentially very explosive situation" developing as the clock ticks down to May 4, 1999,4 the date when Yasir Arafat has said he will declare a Palestinian state. What do you worry will happen?
Indyk: The likely scenario would be one in which there's no progress in the peace process and a sense of disillusionment is found on all sides. In that context, Arafat declares this Palestinian state, based on the fact that he controls certain territory, which is the fundamental requirement for recognition. I assume a large number of states would recognize him and that the government of Israel would feel obliged to respond in kind, perhaps by annexing the rest of the territories under its control. Then, in the process of the Palestinians seeking to assert the sovereignty of their so-called independent state, and the Israelis seeking to deny it, a clash would seem inevitable. I can see movement from a kind of declaration of independence to a war of independence that would be the absolute antithesis of the peace process.
MEQ: Has the U.S. government taken steps to avert this scenario?
Indyk: The Wye agreement holds out the prospect to avoid that kind of confrontation. It provides for the beginning of permanent status negotiations as soon as the agreement goes into force next Monday [Nov. 1, 1998]. It is our very real intention, of which both sides are aware, to focus on the permanent status negotiations. We hope to reach agreement on permanent status issues so as to avoid this kind of scenario. President Clinton is committed to exercising oversight of those negotiations and bringing the two leaders back to a summit before May 4, 1999.
MEQ: That's a tall order.
Indyk: Yes, it is. But note that Chairman Arafat in the White House ceremony for the Wye signing last Friday [Oct. 23, 1998] made what I take to be a very important declaration. He said twice—at the beginning and the end of his speech—that the Palestinians would never leave the peace process and that they would never return to violence and confrontation.
THE SYRIAN TRACK
MEQ: You've said that you were sent as ambassador to Israel in 1995 "to primarily work with prime minister Rabin ... to achieve a breakthrough with Syria."5 What explains why this breakthrough did not take place?
Indyk: Well, it's a long story but I would emphasize a number of factors. I'll talk in the past tense because we don't have negotiations going now.
First, the mutual mistrust. Both Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and President Hafiz al-Asad really doubted the intentions of the other. If his needs were met, Rabin was willing to withdraw fully from the Golan Heights. Rabin found Asad's demand for all of the Golan up front and only afterwards negotiating on Israel's requirements really unreasonable. He felt extremely uncomfortable with this sort of game. Once he had conveyed, through us, a willingness to withdraw from the Golan at the end of the day if his needs were met, he was not prepared to engage in negotiations over Israel's demands. Yet that was precisely what Asad had in mind.
Asad felt Rabin never really intended to do a deal with Syria but was playing with him. As time wore on, he became more and more suspicious of Rabin's intentions and increasingly questioned whether Rabin could actually deliver a deal. He suspected a ruse to divert Syria or to keep Syria quiet while Rabin stole cards from Asad's pocket—first the Palestinian card, then the Jordanian. He figured the Lebanese card would be next. So, when Netanyahu came into office and talked about "Lebanon first," this completed the conspiracy theory. We kept going to Asad and saying, "Well, you have to wait now, while Israel digests the Palestinian deal, or the Jordanian deal," which only made matters worse. By the time we actually got around to engaging fully with him, the mistrust factor on both sides was very high.
MEQ: From Asad's point of view, are there advantages to a Likud government?
Indyk: Yes. The Syrians see that when a Likud government makes peace it has the automatic support of Labor and the left-wing parties. Therefore, this concern I think Asad has that Labor cannot get a deal with him through the Knesset is far reduced in the case of Netanyahu.
MEQ: And other problems in the negotiations?
Indyk: On the Israeli side there was a greater sense of urgency about the Palestinian track. For strategic reasons, Rabin would have liked to deal with Syria first but there was an immediacy to getting the Palestinian problem on the road to settlement. In Arafat, he had a partner willing to make a deal, to do so in private, and to accept a process that would not give him anything like the whole loaf—all things Asad would never do. Arafat showed his own sense of urgency, something Asad would certainly not do. For all those reasons, the Palestinian track kept bubbling up and diverting attention from the Syrian one. And once the Palestinian track was launched, the Jordanians became the logical next step.
MEQ: What about Asad's responsibility for the negotiations ending in failure?
Indyk: Asad's negotiating style was extremely cautious and suspicious. We used to say he was the Frank Sinatra of the peace process, because he wanted to do it "My Way." He would not go to Jerusalem, he would not meet with Israelis, he would not let his negotiators meet secretly with Israelis. Before engaging in serious direct negotiations, he insisted on knowing what their result would be.
MEQ: You mentioned Rabin's willingness to leave the Golan Heights; did Asad show a similar flexibility?
Indyk: He agreed to do what he had to do in terms of normalization. The security issue became very difficult but I think it ultimately could have been resolved.
MEQ: You see the absence of an agreement, then, as a near-miss?
Indyk: All sides, not just on our part, feel that an opportunity was missed. Even though the interest was there on both sides, all of the above factors made it difficult to bring this deal together.
MEQ: What's stopping the negotiations now? They ended in early 1996 and have been defunct now for two and a half years.
Indyk: A lot of the old problems still exist. Israel and the United States are still preoccupied with the Palestinian issue; it's taking all our energies just to get it back on track. The Syrians have made it very clear that they would like to re-engage in negotiations but they have also said they want it to begin at the point where it left off; that's something this Israeli government is not prepared to agree to.
MEQ: Isn't that a contradiction? How can one want to continue negotiations but lay down preconditions unacceptable to the other side?
Indyk: Yes, but, if you look at it from the Syrian perspective, they say "We've gone through this once before, so how can we renegotiate what we've already achieved?" They see returning to the beginning as a concession on their part.
MEQ: Don't you think it possible that Asad was merely engaging in negotiations as an end in themselves, that he was interested in the peace process rather than peace? The negotiations with Israel might function as a shield that distinguishes Asad from his counterparts in Iraq, Iran, Libya and Sudan, as a vehicle for maintaining relations with the United States rather than establishing them with Israel.
Indyk: The problem with that theory is that Asad did pay a price without getting much benefit. Syria did engage in direct negotiations with Israel, the chief of staff of the Syrian army met with the Israeli chief of staff; these sent a signal to the whole Arab world that it was okay to engage with Israel. This was antithetical to the Syrians' interests, for they wanted everyone else to wait until their deal was done. This explains why, even while they were engaging with Israel, they objected vehemently to the multilateral talks and the normalization process. To this, the other Arabs said, how can you criticize us when you're meeting with Israelis?
MEQ: And now, why do you think Asad wants a deal?
Indyk: In part because he wants to build relations with the United States, yes, but also because he would like to settle the conflict with Israel. He's clearly preparing the ground for his son Bashshar to assume control and one way is by securing the return of the Golan Heights. He understands very well that the price of that is peace with Israel.
MEQ: Does the Syrian-Israeli track have importance beyond the two countries involved?
Indyk: Yes, peace between Israel and Syria has a number of strategic advantages from the American point of view. Syria is the last Arab state on Israel's borders with an army capable of engaging Israel. Therefore, if you resolve the Syrian-Israeli conflict, through peace with security arrangements, you have in effect ended
MEQ: What about Iraq, Iran, and other states not bordering Israel but acquiring weapons of mass destruction?
Indyk: A Syrian peace with Israel would preempt the emergence of a potential alliance between Syria, Iraq, and Iran. That increases the isolation of Iraq and increases the pressures on Iran also to moderate its policies. It achieves a comprehensive peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict, stabilizes the situation on all of Israel's borders, isolates Iraq, and increases pressure for moderation on Iran. That is what underlies our interest in trying to achieve peace between Israel and Syria. That's why I say that, if we can achieve peace between Israel and Syria, we really have an opportunity over the next few years to bolster the whole process of making peace in the Middle East. It would be a mistake of historic proportions to go into the twenty-first century without achieving an agreement between Israel and Syria.
MEQ: And if the Syrian-Israeli track remains moribund?
Indyk: The alternative to this effort is the potential for emerging axes. The one would include Syria, Iraq, and Iran; the other Israel, Turkey, and possibly Jordan. That would return us to the balance-of-power game and to a struggle for power between blocs that would be immensely destabilizing, particularly because of other developments, especially the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and long-range delivery systems.
MEQ: Are you concerned about the direction of U.S.-Israel relations?
Indyk: Quite the contrary, I'm very optimistic about them. First, a lot was done during the honeymoon period of the Rabin and Peres governments to strengthen and deepen the relationship. Second, in their focus on the tensions that pervade the relationship between the Clinton administration and the Netanyahu government over the last two years, a lot of people miss the fact that we never strayed from the principle of working with Israel and not working against Israel. As you know, there is an alternative view of how to deal with Israel—by distancing ourselves from Israel, sanctioning it, pressuring it by cutting aid or suspending arms deliveries, so as to force it to submit. The agreement just signed [at Wye] is a vindication of our approach. It's been tough for Prime Minister Netanyahu as much as it's been tough for us, but we stuck with that principle, he stuck with it, and it's produced results.
MEQ: You are not tempted to adopt the strong-arm approach?
Indyk: No, I don't see any temptation. Despite the difficult days we've gone through, President Clinton and his foreign policy team have never subscribed to that formula because of a fundamental commitment to Israel's security and a fundamental belief that the only way to achieve peace is by working with Israel and not against it. I have to say that that proposition has come under serious questioning in the last two years. That we have the Wye agreement, just like the Hebron agreement before it, vindicates our approach, and that's very important in terms of the future of the U.S.-Israel relationship.
MEQ: Do you find the Netanyahu government inflexible as its critics allege?
Indyk: No. People should not underestimate the decision of a Likud government to negotiate a permanent agreement with the Palestinians, even though that implies giving up parts of the land of Israel. This is very significant; it means that the broad spectrum of Israel is now coming to terms with the Palestinians. I don't underestimate for a moment how painful and how difficult that is, and how it requires a good deal of courage on the part of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his ministers to go forward and do this in the face of what is really strident opposition by a minority in Israel that is very strongly affected by this. But that is in itself a historic development and it further justifies my optimism.
MEQ: Would it be fair to say that one of the hallmarks of your approach to the Middle East has been that improvements in the Arab-Israeli conflict have substantial benefits outside of that arena?
MEQ: And by implication, the reverse as well; if things go badly in the Arab-Israeli arena, things worsen elsewhere?
Indyk: It makes things more difficult elsewhere, yes. But that's not to say—and people misinterpret this—that we would therefore expect Israel to make concessions jeopardizing its security to further U.S. interests elsewhere in the region. That is not what we're interested in doing.
MEQ: But in the broader Middle East, don't you want Israel to make things easier for U.S. foreign policy?
Indyk: Nothing we have done with Israel has been done with the sense that Israel should pay for our designs to do other things in the Middle East. We share common interests with all governments in Israel to achieve a secure peace. This government, like its predecessor, is interested in negotiating with Syria and in putting the Palestinian track back into better shape. That's why we just had an agreement at Wye.
MEQ: You're saying their interests and our interests really are very compatible.
Indyk: Yes, absolutely.
MEQ: Let's look at a specific case. Does progress in the peace process affect the situation with Saddam Husayn and our ability actively to pursue the matter of his lack of cooperation with the UNSCOM [United Nations Special Committee] inspections?
Indyk: Well, progress in the peace process does have an effect overall of making it easier for us to make the case to many of our friends and allies in the Arab world that they should stand firm with us against Saddam Husayn, but I wouldn't exaggerate it. When it comes to Iraq, they have their own calculations independent of what happens in the Arab-Israeli peace process. We have to pursue Iraq's full compliance at the same time as we pursue Arab-Israeli peace. To paraphrase Yitzhak Rabin, we must pursue Saddam as if there were no peace process, and pursue peace as if there were no Saddam.
MEQ: Continuing on the same topic, is Saddam Husayn living up to his February 1998 agreement with Kofi Annan?
Indyk: No, he has not. The Security Council has made it clear that his actions are totally
unacceptable. Kofi Annan himself has said they are in violation.
MEQ: What can the U.S. government do to get Saddam to live up to that agreement?
Indyk: In the first instance we feel it is up to the Security Council to make clear to Saddam that this is, as they've already said, totally unacceptable, and for the Security Council to take steps to bring him back into compliance. That is the process that we are now engaged in with the Security Council. We will see, I think fairly quickly, whether in fact he's going to respond to that requirement. If he doesn't, then the Security Council will have to take further action. If the Security Council fails to bring him back into compliance then we will have to look at other options. We have made clear that the option of force is on the table.
MEQ: Is it fair to say that none of the Security Council members wish to use force against Iraq?
Indyk: That's probably an accurate characterization of just about every member at this point except the United States.
MEQ: But the months are ticking by since the last inspection in early August 1998.
Indyk: Yes, and this situation cannot go on indefinitely. I agree. Absolutely. UNSCOM is only able to operate on two pistons—and that's not acceptable either for the United States or for the whole Security Council. So he's going to have to come back into compliance and into cooperation. And there is a process underway to try to get him to do that. If that doesn't work then we're going to have to look at other steps, and in the first instance the Council is going to have to do that.
MEQ: Is the threat of force an effective way to affect Saddam's decisions about whether or not to comply with the UNSCOM inspections and the Security Council resolutions?
Indyk: Our approach to Saddam has always required the option of force, but when and how we bring that option to play is the question. We are determined it will be on our terms, not his. We are not going to play the mug's game whereby he provokes, we respond by threatening to use force, we build up a great army that costs the U.S. taxpayer some $1.5 billion, that strains our relations with nearly the entire Middle East, and has Israelis lining up for gas masks—only to have Saddam Husayn back down at the last moment, wait until everybody settles down again, and then start the routine all over again. We will not play that game.
MEQ: What is the alternative?
Indyk: We make it absolutely clear, first, through Security Council actions, that the sanctions are not coming off, in fact there won't even be a sanctions reviews as long as he's not cooperating with us. And then we deal with the problem according to our timetable, not his.
MEQ: Many analysts (including your predecessor, Robert Pelletreau)6 distinguish between moderate Islamists who are in the political process and extremists who engage in violence. They say the U.S. government should accept the former and fight the latter. What's your view?
Indyk: I don't want to take part in that debate. President Clinton and this administration want to make very clear that Islam is not our enemy—because Islamic extremists would like to portray differences between them and us as a clash of civilizations where they represent Allah and we represent the great Satan. Our concern is with extremism, whether it's religious extremism in the form of Islamic fundamentalism or manifested in other ways. We have to worry about extremists because they target us, our interests, and our friends.
MEQ: Is extremist defined only as someone who resorts to violence, or can one be extremist without resort to violence?
Indyk: In theory, yes, without violence. In practice, extremists resort to violence. That is one characteristic of their extremism. So violence is our focus.
MEQ: In his speech announcing the U.S. attacks on Sudan and Afghanistan, President Clinton praised Islam and said that the terrorists' Islam is a "horrible distortion of their religion."7 Now, the president is no scholar of Islam; why does he declare what is correct and incorrect Islam?
Indyk (laughs): Well, I'm sure he was advised by experts on Islam.
MEQ: You personally have become an individual of some controversy among Arabs, Israelis, and American Jews, and we'd like to give you a chance to reply to your critics. First, Arabs. There is much talk about you being part of a Jewish conspiracy taking over the U.S. government. You have sometimes specifically denied this charge and pointed out that you are an American pursuing American national interests.8 Does this perception affect your work or is it just water off the back?
Indyk: In the recent positions that I've occupied—as the first Jewish ambassador to Israel and as the assistant secretary for the entire Middle East (which means that I have a responsibility over twenty Arab states and the Palestinians as well as Israel)—it's inevitable that I'm going to be the subject of criticism. Those who don't like the policies the Clinton administration is pursuing, whether from the Arab side or the Israeli, have turned me into a lightning rod. The Arab-Israeli conflict is full of passionate conviction and there is an inevitable tendency to personify one's enemies. So I see this coming with the territory and I've tried to develop a thick skin.
I know who I am and I know what I'm trying to achieve in supporting the president and the secretary in the Middle East: the survival and security of Israel, peace between Israel and its neighbors, advancing our interests in the Arab world with friends and allies there, and opposing those who would threaten us or thwart our interests. My compass is clear and I'll just push ahead.
MEQ: You began your U.S. career at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee [AIPAC], the Israel lobby; yet earlier this year, when you defended the Clinton administration's policy on the peace process, an AIPAC audience broke with all precedent and hissed you.9 What do you say to those hecklers and those who are now seeing you as part of the problem?
Indyk: It's an unfortunate aspect of Jewish politics that we eat our own. This celebrated incident at AIPAC did take place but I think that there were a lot more people who applauded than who hissed. There is a very small minority of people in this community with strongly held views who feel it necessary to create bogeymen; some even charge that I'm part of an anti-Israel conspiracy. But I don't find that the general view in the community or of most of the leadership. And so it really is of no import.
1 "Perspectives from the White House," Middle East Quarterly, Mar. 1994, p. 61.
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