Obama's newly retired special envoy to the Middle East explains the President's push for Israeli-Palestinian progress and the region's biggest risks
Where do you stand on recognition from the United Nations of a Palestinian state?
Understand, the UN does not have the authority to recognize states. States are recognized by other states. But a UN resolution—especially if passed by an overwhelming margin—would have profound effects. And those states that voted for it would then move toward recognition on their own. That would, I think, be a harmful development—very harmful for Israel, for the U.S., and for the peace process. The way for the parties to get an agreement, the way for the Palestinians to get a state, the way for Israelis to feel secure, is through a negotiated agreement with active American assistance.
What gets everyone back to the table?
Well, both sides have to accept the President's statement as the basis for negotiations. That will be very difficult for both.
And there's not much time, with regard to the UN resolution.
A matter of a few months. As the President said, the Palestinians walked away from the talks because their demands were not met. Their demand for an extension of the moratorium on new housing in the settlements that had been in place for 10 months was not extended, so they left the talks. ... What the Palestinians have to do is come back.
What do you make of Prime Minister Netanyahu's argument about the Hamas-Fatah agreement?
That's a very serious matter. I think the Prime Minister is correct that it's very difficult for Israel to negotiate with a party that is committed to Israel's destruction. However, what President Abbas has for many years stood for—nonviolence and negotiation—makes him the person Israel and the U.S. should be empowering. We don't know how this Hamas-Fatah thing will develop. [Abbas] says that he is going to organize it in a way that the purpose of it is to hold an election. So we say we're for democracy, Israel says they're for democracy, and we should not be discouraging an election. Obviously we hope that Abbas and Fatah will win.
What impact has the Arab Spring had on Israeli-Palestinian relations?
Very significant. It has created a great deal of uncertainty for the Israelis, for the Palestinians, indeed for everyone else, including us. Make no mistake, what is happening in the Middle East now is a major turning point in the history of that region. And given its political importance, particularly with respect to petroleum, it's therefore a major turning point in the world. We don't know how it will work out. This will take some time to unfold. It will not be quick, it will not be easy, and it will not be even. One of the things that President Obama, I believe, was squarely correct on was the focus on Egypt. Egypt is the largest country that has the longest national history.
And the largest army.
Arguably the greatest influence. What happens there will be very important.
Netanyahu says the crucial matter is security. How can the Israeli public be satisfied on that issue?
Here's the argument I've made to the Prime Minister in the past. Right now in that space between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, the number of Jews is slightly higher than the number of Arabs. But the trends are very clear. In a short time the Arabs will outnumber the Jews. So Israel would have to choose between a democratic state or what Defense Minister Barak has said, an apartheid state. I lived in Berlin, where there was a wall. I was in Northern Ireland, where there was a wall. And now the Middle East, where there is a wall. I can tell you walls provide temporary relief, but they don't solve the underlying problem. And in this case, it's rocketry.
You were one of Obama's first appointments. It's now two years later. Did you fail?
Well, I failed to get a peace agreement from the Israelis and Palestinians, but so has anyone else who's ever tried. In that sense, yes, we've failed, and the consequence is a serious one. On the other hand, we did make significant progress.
You traveled more than you ever planned to.
When I talked to Arab leaders—and I've talked to all of them, the heads of every Arab state—almost all of them are deeply concerned about the threat from Iran. They're also very concerned about the Israeli-Palestinian thing, but they recognize their best interests lie in a resolution of this conflict so that there can be a regional approach to dealing with the Iranian threat to them.
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