U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has announced that the U.S. will make a concerted effort to restart the Middle East peace process. But according to former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk -- one of the world's leading experts on the region -- ending the violence and establishing a lasting peace will take more than tough American diplomacy. It will take, he says, a radical change in the Arab world.
Washington, 21 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Can there ever truly be peace in the Middle East? Not if the other regional governments continue to view Israel as the neighborhood villain.
That, at least, is the view of Martin Indyk, a former senior State Department official and twice the U.S. ambassador to Israel in the last decade, including until earlier this year. Indyk is considered to be one of the world's top experts on the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis.
Indyk held a news conference yesterday in Washington following Secretary of State Colin Powell's announcement that the U.S. will be making a major diplomatic effort to kickstart the Middle East peace process. Indyk offered a wide-ranging critique of Powell's speech and an appraisal of past peace failures in the region.
Fundamentally, Indyk believes the United States is now in a position of renewed influence and power in the Middle East following the 11 September terrorist attacks on the U.S. and Washington's apparently successful bid to cripple their alleged perpetrators -- Osama bin Laden's Al-Qaeda network in Afghanistan, and their hosts, the Taliban militia.
The Australian-born Indyk says that while the U.S. now has "political capital" to spend in the region, Washington must spend it more wisely than it did 10 years ago, when it successfully drove the Iraqi forces of Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait but failed to oust Saddam or make any substantial inroads toward peace in the region.
Indyk welcomed a new U.S. commitment to Middle East peace, but said Powell's speech offered few signs that the U.S. plans to spend its new capital any differently this time around. He said peace cannot be won by simply applying American pressure on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides. He said it is also necessary to acquire the active backing of anti-Israeli Arab governments.
Indyk said the new U.S. drive is partly a response to calls since 11 September by Arab governments such as Saudi Arabia and Egypt for the U.S. to re-engage in the Middle East. But President Bill Clinton's former ambassador said those governments must be willing to make an effort as well: "Ten years ago, we responded to their [Arab governments'] demands after the Gulf War and invested 10 years of effort in trying to solve the Palestinian problem and got very little support from them as we did. This time around, if we are going to engage, then they need to more fully engage."
Arab engagement, Indyk said, would involve dealing with their own internal incitements to hatred against Israel and the U.S.; accepting compromises on key issues like Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees, which they have rejected in the past; and, in the case of Saudi Arabia, signs that it will recognize Israel if Israel is willing to recognize a Palestinian state.
Indyk singled out Egypt as a key state for influencing the Middle East. He said without Egypt publicly backing the recognition of Israel among other Arab states, peace will continue to elude the region: "We should be under no illusion. The heavyweight, the gorilla in the Arab world, is Egypt. Egypt is the critical player."
Indyk also said that besides Middle East peace, the U.S. should spend part of its capital on pressing for reform in oppressive Arab societies whose leaders deflect criticism against themselves onto the U.S. and Israel: "I think that that is very important coming out of the lessons of 11 September -- that we not only pursue peace in the Middle East, but we also pursue a program of political and economic reform if we are to dry up the swamp that has generated Osama bin Laden."
In his speech, Powell said President George W. Bush has appointed a former Marine general, Anthony Zinni, as permanent envoy to begin work immediately in the Middle East to achieve a cease-fire after more than 13 months of violence that has cost some 900 lives, most of them Palestinians.
Indyk praised Zinni's appointment and said it reflects a policy change as the Bush administration, suspecting that neither Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon nor Palestinian President Yasser Arafat is ready for peace, delegates the Middle East conflict to its regional ambassadors: "The fact that he's sending Zinni out with [senior State Department diplomat William] Burns to stay there and twist Arafat's arm and get Sharon to respond is an important step which takes advantage of what I believe is an opportunity that has been created by 11 September."
Indyk, now a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, said Powell's speech was groundbreaking in that it called categorically for an end to Israeli "occupation" of Palestinian territory. But that, he said, is just one end of the deal Bush is offering Arafat, whom Indyk said has still not taken the "strategic decision" to end the violence of the intifada, or uprising.
"That's the bargain here. In other words, [if] you end the intifada, you get the United States involved in an effort to end the occupation. But if you don't end the intifada, we are not going to do our part when it comes to your aspirations."
Indyk also criticized U.S. relations with Iran since 11 September. He said that while the U.S. and Iran have been cooperating lately, Tehran has continued to back the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a terrorist group he says is responsible for much of the intifada violence.
Indyk said that while Arafat, pressed by the U.S., has recently been able to get groups such as Hamas to stop their violence, the Islamic Jihad has continued unabated: "We can't be pressing Arafat to confront Islamic Jihad at the same time as we are cooperating with Iran. That's telling Islamic Jihad to defy him. It's not consistent, and it's not helpful."
Indyk said the U.S. has perhaps until the end of the year to test whether both sides are willing to forge a cease-fire. Otherwise, he suggested, Zinni could probably head home as the world braces for a much longer period of Middle East violence.