"Peace isn't Breaking Out"

I usually try to keep my writing focii separate, so that the music writing stays on 30music, the political on global or arab comment, and the self-indulgent travel-tinted sprawling pieces on this here blog. But, as in the past, sometimes the separate worlds overlap, like the sweetest of venn diagrams.
As such, here is the full transcript of an interview I took with Dr. Bruce Maddy-Weitzman on the events going on here in the recent past and near future. If you're curious about what's going on here beyond the newspapers, this is a pretty good behind the scenes sort of read. If long.
And I have a couple actual, normal blog posts coming soon. So there's that.

The edited, shorter version of this interview can be found here.

Me: What are the general big issues you take out of the conflict, and also the first week of the aftermath – the ceasefire has held so far – and what are the big themes or big issues to draw from?

Dr. Bruce Maddy-Weitzman: Look, to put it in some perspective, this was the 4th major confrontation, violent confrontation we’ll call it, between Israel and Palestinian groups or forces over the last quarter-century, beginning with the 1st Lebanon War, really a war against the PLO, then to the 1st Intifada, the 2nd Intifada, and now this. In between that, of course, you had considerable spasms or incidents of violence as well. The suicide bombings of the 1990s come to mind in particular.

Which means this confrontation, the dynamics change, the personalities change, even the political orientations of the groups change, but we are still in this seemingly intractable conflict. Which is obviously quite discouraging.

This latest round is over. I think that the chances are pretty good that the ceasefire will hold indefinitely, that it will be translated into certain kinds of arrangements which will stabilize the situation, for now. I can’t say how long that will last. I think, just the way the (2nd) Lebanon War ended in summer of 2006, and since then basically the ceasefire has held almost perfectly, so too in this case I think that it’s fairly likely that we won’t see another round like we just saw any time soon.

What did each side achieve from this? Israel went into this determined not only to end the rocket fire, but to also change the “rules of the game”. That, “Hamas shoots rockets, we shoot back,” and this kind of tit-for-tat doesn’t really change Hamas’s behavior.

Beyond that, I think there was also a general desire for Israel to strengthen its deterrent posture. This was clearly on everyone’s mind, and has been for some time. There was a feeling here that Israel’s deterrent posture over the last years has weakened.

Now, “deterrence,” it’s a very watery concept. What does it mean to deter? How do we know it’s working, and how do we know that it’s declining? In this regard, I think the Lebanon War was seen as…the goal of the Lebanon operation as well was to strengthen Israel’s deterrent posture, because there was a feeling that Israel was weaker. This was the metaphor of Nasrallah with a spider web. He described Israel as a spider web that was very intricate, but one big sweep of the hand and it would collapse, very vulnerable in that regard.

Me: And the tipping point for that was the kidnapping of two soldiers?

Dr. Maddy-Weitzman: The cross border attack which actually was probably the killing, probably the soldiers died in that attack.

The response at that time was also with very much in mind the deterrent, “we can’t allow these kinds of things to continue on.” And the message wasn’t just being directed at the non-state actors on our borders, but at their patrons. Even more so at their patrons, particularly Iran.

And Iran’s penetrated into the Arab-Israeli arena in ways that have never been seen before. And frankly, I for one didn’t see it coming, not to that extent. So a key element of the Lebanon war was the immediate attack on the Iranian medium-range missile emplacements, which were mostly taken out at the very first day of the war. That was a message.

Ironically, Hezbollah got the message. I think its behavior has been moderated since then, and we can see that even in its behavior now, that it refused to open a second front.

Now, Hamas didn’t get the message, the previous message. Hamas interpreted the whole Hezbollah experience as something to be emulated: that Israel could be pushed, that Israel was weak. They looked at the shortcomings of the Lebanon war too: Israel’s conduct of the war, the military conduct, the confusion, the lack of preparedness, which was all laid out in the Winograd Commission report, the self-criticism, the hand-wringing, the head-holding. Hezbollah claimed this was a defeat for Israel, and so did a lot of other people.

Hamas, I think, looked at matters that way, and so did Iran, to an extent. One of the goals, I think a central goal of this operation, was not just to teach Hamas a lesson and to press home the point that Israel has the capacity and willingness to strike back “disproportionately”, what they would consider to be disproportionate, against Hamas, but also to send a clear message to the rest of the region and the world that it wasn’t going to allow an Iranian client-state to develop on its borders.

In that regard, I think it’s clear, we can say Hamas was not Hezbollah. They certainly hadn’t achieved the level of weaponry, of military sophistication, of capacity to do to Israel what Hezbollah was able to do. And a lot of the Hamas slogans – we’re going to make the Gaza a hellhole, a graveyard for the Israeli soldiers – obviously turned out not to be the case. Hamas turned out to be far weaker than we had anticipated, and in that regard, I think Israel has significantly improved its deterrent posture.

It’s not just the fact that they hit them hard, and showed everybody that if you mess with us, we’re going to hit you back, but it’s also the incorporation of the diplomatic elements into the picture. At least on paper, the support for a change in the strategic alignment, the strategic parameters governing the Gaza area, the support for Israel’s desires is considerable. The French are patrolling off the shores of Gaza, the Americans signed a memorandum of understanding, they’re training Egyptian troops dealing with smuggling, they’re talking about interdicting Iranian ships in the Gulf of Aden.

Hamas’s alignment with Iran did not play well in Western capitals. It gave Israel room for time, and room for action, in a way similar to the way Hezbollah’s alignment with Iran did as well.

What you see also is the Arab world dividing on this matter. Especially Egypt, which was very unhappy Hamas’s behavior, very unhappy with Hamas’s provocation of Israel, very unhappy with its cozying up to Iran at the expense of the relationship with Egypt. Egypt is losing influence with Hamas vis-à-vis Iran. Hamas being the daughter organization of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

All of these things led the Egyptian leadership to feel that enough is enough, that Hamas is going too far, and they need to be taught a lesson. They need to be cut down to size. Especially since this is taking place on Egypt’s borders, and Egypt is looking like it can’t control its own borders, and is being blamed by Hamas for Palestinian plight and all that. And that didn’t sit well with the Egyptians at all.

The Egyptian participation in this sort of Western framework is a gain for Israel as well. It remains to be seen whether this framework will have real teeth and do what it’s supposed to do. People point to a similar type of framework that was established after the Lebanon War under resolution 1701, which was supposed to interdict smuggling. And it hasn’t; Hezbollah has more weapons now than it had then. Obviously, one needs to monitor the real commitment to implementing these kinds of things.

But, unlike Hezbollah, Hamas doesn’t have the kind of strategic depth that Hezbollah had. Hezbollah had Syria for strategic depth, with Iran further back. Whereas Hamas has the sea and Egypt. It’s not the same kind of setup.

So from that regard, one can say that Israel’s achievements in this operation were considerable. Now, they came at costs, obviously. Israel’s image has been damaged to a considerable extent among public opinion. In the West, pictures of wholesale destruction of civilian areas are disturbing. All the more so in the Arab world, and among Palestinians as well. There’s no question that more hate towards Israel will have been generated by this operation, which doesn’t bode well if you talk about the need for a long-term reconciliation or a modus vivendi.

You can even suggest the possibility that radical forces might become even stronger, particularly among Palestinians. If Palestinians can’t achieve a newly-reconstituted national unity government, if opinion continues to fragment, there’s a possibility of splintering off from Hamas to represent even more Islamist, jihadi, Bin Laden-type radical views, which would make Hamas look like a positively moderate force in comparison.

You’re going to have to watch that very closely. It’s very likely that you will find at least small groups of Palestinians going in that direction.

Me: How does Hamas come out of this? Obviously they’re claiming victory, which is not surprising. A lot of people talked about how now they’re going to be the representative (for the Palestinian people). Israel doesn’t want to speak with them and dignify them. Has Hamas achieved that? Is there a chance that they become moderate in the sense of Hezbollah, where they have responsibility now, or is that unlikely? Is it a bigger fear that we’ll go extreme?

Dr. Maddy-Weitzman: Hamas has always had a number of different viewpoints within it. Not in ideological terms. On that they’re united: the creation of an Islamic state in Palestine to replace the state of Israel, in all of Palestine. In terms of how one achieves that, there have been different trends. One can point to pragmatic kinds of thinking, and I don’t say moderate, I say pragmatic, adapting to particular circumstances.

It’s clear that there were sharp differences of opinion within Hamas over the decision to tear up the ceasefire and goad Israel into an attack, which Hamas believed was going to be beneficial for it, that an improved set of arrangements would be established. Clearly, that wasn’t the case; they paid a horrific price for that thinking.

Hamas is likely to demonstrate a greater degree of pragmatism, to seek accommodations, both within the Palestinian camp – again, not giving up their hegemony over Gaza, but seeking to present some kind of common front, so that the Palestinians, with Mahmoud Abbas, so that they can then move on and say, “this is how we’re going to deal with the opening of the crossing points, the passages to ease the siege.” This is an immediate issue for them, so they can engage in reconstruction, and get legitimized as an interlocutor by the international community.

It is possible that they will achieve that over time, that more and more we’ll hear voices in the West: “You need to engage in dialogue. They’re an important force. You can’t just ignore them. You have to find ways.” And that’s a double-edged sword. By Hamas engaging, they may have to modify their behavior in ways which eventually threaten to clash with their principles. On the other hand, it means that they may be getting legitimized in a way that’s to their benefit, without them giving things up.

I think that one’s likely to see more and more efforts by various parties to get that kind of indirect dialogue with Hamas, trying to nudge Hamas. Israel has difficult choices to make on this, because there’s more pressure now to negotiate a deal to return Gilad Shalit, so the question is, what price do we pay? Same thing to do with the opening of the crossings, well who’s in charge of the crossings? Who’s in charge of the reconstruction aid? Can Israel and the international community achieve a kind of arrangement where Hamas isn’t the main beneficiary for getting the credit for the reconstruction, or not?

Hamas clearly will want to maintain its hegemony over this matter, and all the parties are going to be maneuvering in the weeks ahead to see how much benefit they can gain in this next round of picking up the pieces.

Me: In the whole region, I feel like a lot of interesting things came up; like you said, the split of the two axes. To me the three most interesting things were Egypt on the one side becoming very strong for Israel, but then Syria, with whom we were negotiating, and it almost seemed like there would be a thaw, or an opportunity. I’m curious what the significance is to Syria’s statements.

Dr. Maddy-Weitzman: Yes, I’m thinking about that too. On the face of it, a Syrian-Israeli agreement is much easier to achieve than a Palestinian-Israeli agreement. It’s straightforward, it’s between states, you deal with territory, you deal with sovereign countries, with authorities, you make arrangements; it’s not an existential matter, per se. It’s not an inter-communal conflict on core ideological matters.

But Bashar Assad, I think, is going to be reluctant to pay the price that he has to pay for a peace treaty, which is shifting his alliance orientation. Moving out of the Iranian radical camp – supporting the radical groups and getting support from Iran – and moving into the Western camp. I don’t think he wants to do that, I think he wants to have both. I think he wants to maintain his connections with Palestinian and Lebanese forces, he wants to maintain his connections with Iran, [i]and[/i] he wants to have better ties with the West, and he was trying to work through Turkey to get that.

But his militancy on these matters is very off-putting. I think it’s probably less likely also that the new Israeli government will want to pick up where the Olmert government left off. So I think we’ll probably again see a hiatus in the Israeli-Syrian track. Especially since the Turkish President has gone and alienated the Israeli political class with his behavior.

Me: And that’s the other country that was interesting was Turkey all of a sudden. Do you view that as a serious blow to the relationship?

Dr. Maddy-Weitzman: It’s problematic. The Israeli-Turkish relationship is based on common strategic interests. The forces in Turkey that are the guardians of those strategic interests are still there, and still appreciate those values, the value of that relationship.

Politically, of course, the elected leadership is an Islamist party and an Islamist government, which has a different set of considerations. And certainly a significant segment of public opinion in Turkey identified strongly with the Palestinians and is very hostile towards Israel, and we saw that during the war. This is a cause for concern, and for worry. Turkey’s stance is going to be watched very, very closely.

But in any case, it’s not at all clear that the new Israeli government will give the Syrian-Israeli track a priority. Especially since everybody knows that that means accepting the idea of withdrawing from the Golan. Assuming that it’s a Netanyahu-led government, he would be unlikely to want to send that message early on in his term of office.

I’m not so sure the Americans are going to be so keen on renewing that track either, even though there’s been a lot of advice in Washington that’s said, “go for the Syrian-Israeli track right away, because it’s more doable.” Well, I’m not sure it is.

Me: Are you not sure it is now mostly because of the Gaza conflict and the issues that were raised during the conflict? Or do you think it was the same before?

Dr. Maddy-Weitzman: I was skeptical before. I’m more skeptical now. And I think because the Israeli government is about to change, that also is going to play a role here.

Now, if the Americans do get clear signals from the Syrians that they want to play, that they want this to go forward, which is very possible…everybody’s waiting for Obama. Bashar Assad’s going to want to find out where does Obama stand on this. And if he does send the appropriate signals, that will get America’s attention. And that in turn will get Israel’s attention.

But again, getting attention and talking doesn’t automatically lead you to an agreement. A bunch of water has to flow first, under the drain, under the bridges, in the Jordan River. And there’s not much water there. Maybe that tells us what the prospects are.

Me: I think most people don’t expect much in terms of these tracks from the Netanyahu government, which is all but sure to happen. What’s the significance on a broader scale that Israel, even before the war, was leaning towards Netanyahu, and just that the population is in a more right wing, security-based view – or maybe it’s the economics – but what does it say about the broader future prospects of Israel and peace if they’re swinging to the right?

Dr. Maddy-Weitzman: I don’t think the economics are playing any role in any of this. Israelis usually vote on security issues, and not on economics. And they also vote on tribal orientation. People don’t change their orientations. They may shift between parties, but they don’t shift between blocs.

You’re right about Israeli public opinion becoming more right wing, and it’s something that’s been true over the last eight years. It’s a result of the ongoing violence and the failure of politics to produce a lasting peace; it’s a failure of the diplomacy.

And yet, when you ask people how they outline a settlement, you’ll find a solid majority of public opinion is in favor of a two-state solution, in favor of a centrist kind of solution, not a right wing solution. There is a consensus on that.

There’s probably less consensus in Israel about the kind of hard steps that Israel would have to take to help the dynamics of a diplomatic effort, particularly on settlement matters. It’s a divisive issue, and the lack of leadership on it has just made it that much more difficult to move forward on the idea of dismantling even illegal outposts, let alone settlements. It’s clear that in any final peace agreement, that some settlements will have to be dismantled. But that day is not even around the corner, so it may not seem very relevant to most people at this point.

Israelis underestimate the symbolic effect that settlement expansion on public opinion in the other side, and also on the opinion of leadership on the other side. Continuous settlement building is seen as an example of massive Israeli bad faith. And Israelis don’t appreciate that to a sufficient degree.

With regard to the Netanyahu government, the likely Netanyahu government; I mean, maybe, you never know, but one could suspect that most likely he will be the next prime minister, well that also depends on the nature of his coalition. It seems very likely to me that Ehud Barak will be his Defense Minister, which means the Labor party is in the coalition.

Which means you’re talking about a center-right government, but not a right wing government. And that’s a big difference. It means you have a government that can engage and will engage with Washington, that will try to avoid confrontation with Washington. You can see already in Livni’s campaign, that she’s trying to campaign on the basis that Netanyahu will result in a confrontation with Washington, and we don’t want that. Netanyahu clearly will not want to be in open confrontation with Washington. He will try to balance off the competing domestic political forces and the need to be a statesman. And that’s why Barak will be very important for him to have.

If he went even farther, let’s say, and had a broad three-party (Labor, Likud, Kadima) coalition, that would be welcome by a lot of people, because it would mean a government less beholden to smaller religious or right wing parties. But it remains to be seen whether that’s going to happen or not. That’s more of a long shot, I think.

But it’s very possible. Don’t forget, who is Kadima? Most of it is ex-Likud members…

Me: It’s not such a leap for them to join…

Dr. Maddy-Weitzman: No, no, it’s more to do with the personalities. It will be interesting to see how it plays out.

The Middle East is a dangerous place. The question of Iran’s nuclear program is something that’s going to be high on everyone’s agenda in the next year or two, and we’re going to need wise heads.

Me: What do you view as the likely shifts on that case? Iran almost seems unrelated to what just happened, but obviously it’s the elephant in the room.

Dr. Maddy-Weitzman: It’s very related. I don’t know. Clearly, the U.S. administration is going to see if it can critically, and constructively, and robustly engage Iran on this matter. I think the fact that Dennis Ross has been appointed to be the point man on that, I think that’s an interesting choice, actually.

I know that Ross is a proponent of this sort of approach, robust engagement. Which means, find out what the Iranians are thinking, see what you can do, but also make sure that you have sticks as well as carrots. I think the fact that he knows the Israelis well, and the Israeli thinking well, will be an asset perhaps, to make sure the Americans understand where the Israelis are, and the Israelis understand where the Americans are.

But I don’t know where it’s going to go, and a lot of it depends on internal Iranian things, which I don’t have a good enough sense of.

Me: Their election is soon.

Dr. Maddy-Weitzman: Yes, their election is soon. There’s always been a broad consensus in Iran that Iran should be a nuclear power. But that doesn’t mean that everybody’s in agreement on the path to get there, the timing, and how to respond to particular international pressures or incentives. It remains to be seen.

Me: Would you say the same thing about the new U.S. administration? We’ve talked about it, obviously, but a new Obama administration’s effect on the region, is that still sort of an unclear thing? Do we need to just see what his line is on Israel-Syria, Israel-Palestine?

Dr. Maddy-Weitzman: I think everybody expects the Americans to take a higher profile on the Israeli-Palestinian, or Arab-Israeli tracks. Nobody doubted that they would be intimately involved with the Iranian matter, and how much continuity and how much change there will be remains to be seen. After all, the American positions have already changed to some degree. And the continuity is there with (Secretary of Defense Robert) Gates, for example. Even though Obama will be the one to set the tone.

There’s a lot of expectation out there for Obama. And undoubtedly it’s exaggerated, which can lead to disappointment. But it seems to me that a lot of people in this region understand that, and want America to play a positive role here.

Me: On both sides.

Dr. Maddy-Weitzman: Yes, absolutely. The trick for the Administration will be translating that desire and good will into something that makes sense for the regional actors, and makes sense for America’s interests. Big concepts, but then you have to have incremental steps. This is how things are done.

Then maybe you can look around in 2-3 years and say, “Wow, things have really moved.” As opposed to this tremendous breakthrough, a sudden breakthrough on these issues, which are close to being intractable, but they need attention. And one hopes that they’ll receive the right kind of attention.

Me: What do you think the trends are, because there are a few different things – between Obama, between the war, between Netanyahu – what do you see as the trend? Is it a positive one, will we be making incremental steps? Or will it be mostly disappointment?

Dr. Maddy-Weitzman: I think there’s room for some progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front, for some incremental improvements after the war. Which ideally should be accompanied by proactive measures in the West Bank. Showing some improvement in the daily lives of people.

I think that there are some opportunities there for incremental improvement. As I said, I think that Hamas has been humbled by what happened, and that’s to the good. They’ve been taken off their high horse, even if they haven’t been crushed. If anybody thought that was going to happen, they weren’t being realistic.

Obviously, peace isn’t around the corner. I’m not overly optimistic on that regard. The Palestinian state-building project of the 1990s was a failure, and that’s one of the reasons why the peace process failed. What we have now are two de facto Palestinian entities, and they’re going to have to work mightily to bring a semblance of unity to their own camp. It’s essential if there’s going to be any progress on the big political issues.

I can’t say that I’m overly optimistic about that, but maybe Hamas’s weakening does provide the possibility for a return of an increasing strength of the Palestinian Authority, of Fatah, with Arab help, with Egyptian help, with international help. But they’re not going to be just replaced. There’s a lot of work to be done on their side. And on our side, we’re going to have to make some hard decisions too.

Peace isn’t breaking out, that’s for sure. Let’s hope that we can start taking some positive steps, some incremental steps, and start repairing the damage that’s been caused over the last eight years.