Could this war produce a Sunni-Israeli alliance?

An old interview (from Aug. 2006), but extremely relevant for Syria and the region today, with Martin Indyk founder of the Zionist Washington Institute for Near East Policy, former US ambassador to Israel, who also served in senior positions the National Security Council.

By Chemi Shalev Aug.28, 2006

Ever since he joined American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) 25 years ago, Martin Indyk has been devoting his life to Middle Eastern affairs and the Israeli-Arab conflict. He established the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, served in senior positions at the U.S. State Department and the National Security Council, was an integral part of the American "peace team" during Bill Clinton's presidency, was appointed the first Jewish ambassador to Israel and, extraordinarily, was reappointed to that position in 1999.

His familiarity with Israeli politics is close and intimate, and at various stages of his career he has been subjected to stringent criticism from both sides of the political map: In the 1980s he was defined as a "rightist" who was supposedly helping frustrate prime minister Shimon Peres' peace plans, and in the 1990s he was defined as a "leftist" who was promoting the Oslo process and supporting the return of the territories.

Indyk currently heads the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C. He is waiting, though he will not admit this publicly, for another opportunity to try to make peace - an option that could be realized if a Democrat wins the U.S. presidential elections in 2008.

Indyk is currently on a lecture tour of Australia. He is there on the invitation of the Lowy Institute for International Policy, founded by Australian Jewish millionaire Frank Lowy, with whom Indyk has close ties. In his lectures, as well as during this interview, held last week in Sydney, Indyk offers a surprisingly optimistic analysis of the implications of the Lebanon conflict - something of a silver lining. Yes, he says, Hezbollah did create the impression of a battlefield victory, but Israel, if it plays its cards correctly, can transform its "loss" into a fundamental and positive revolution in its relations with the Arab countries.

Perception is reality

Mr. Indyk, who won the war?

"I think the verdict is still out. Militarily Hezbollah put on an impressive performance and was able to stand up to Israeli forces. Even if in the end it turns out that they lost every encounter, in the Middle East perception is reality, and the perception is that they gave as good as they got, and the perception is that they achieved more than Israel achieved. When the Israeli Chief of Staff says that 'Israel won on points,' that's not a very reassuring verdict.

"On the other hand, to paraphrase von Clausewitz, the question is who manages to turn the results on the battlefield into political gains, and there I'm a bit more optimistic. The campaign in Lebanon highlighted the dangers facing the Sunni Arab world from the Iranian-led Shia axis, from Iran to Iraq - which has a Shi'ite-dominated government - to the minority Alawite regime in Syria and Hezbollah in Lebanon. That actually provides a common interest to the Sunni Arab world and Israel.

"And you can see that in interesting ways, including the fact that Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia have now had a spat with Syria over their intent to relaunch Saudi King Abdullah's peace initiative, which provided conditions for ending the conflict, recognition of Israel and normalization of relations.

"And there is the fact that the Sunni Lebanese prime minister, while taking the world press on a tour of the rubble of southern Beirut and accusing Israel of war crimes - is nonetheless holding out an olive branch to Israel.

"And we should also watch internal Sunni Hamas, which may be deciding that they do not want their cause dominated by external Hamas, which sits in Damascus and is dominated by Iran. We have to wait and see, but I wouldn't be surprised to see a national unity government emerge, which would enable [Palestinian Authority Premier] Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas] to enter into negotiations with Israel on an interim agreement.

"Secondly, and in a similar vein, I think the campaign has sent alarm bells ringing in the West as well, which will be more concerned about Iranian domination of the Middle East. An early indication of that might be the reaction to the expected Iranian rejection of the Security Council resolution on nuclear enrichment. Their answer may be a no-but - it's not going to be a yes-but - and a strong international reaction may be another strategic gain for Israel.

"Thirdly, I think the war provides a wake-up call for Israel, after the army effectively turned its back on Lebanon, as it dealt with the Palestinian intifada. The army now will have to get its act together, and that's a positive thing. The last time such a thing happened was in the Yom Kippur War, in which Israel suffered a huge loss because of its complacency. This time, though the price was high, it was not as high as it could have been.

"And fourthly there will be an important gain if Israel learns a lesson about the problems of unilateralism. It would be a loss if Israel concluded that it shouldn't give up more occupied territory: The lesson should be that when it withdraws, it should do so in favor of a responsible and capable government.

"The concept of pulling out of the West Bank and tossing the keys over the fence was a flawed one from the beginning, and it was flawed in Gaza as well. Unilateralism is a policy that has very negative consequences: It allows radicals to claim victory and it allows terrorists to fill the vacuum and attack Israel.

"We now know that fences do not work; they engender rockets and tunnels. They may provide some security and stop some suicide bombers, but there are other ways of achieving that. Israel needs quiet on its borders, and someone needs to control those borders, on both sides."

But Israelis will tell you that they've tried that before.

"Yes, and in some cases it worked, like Egypt and Jordan. With Yasser Arafat, Israel did not have a capable and responsible partner on the other side. And that's a lesson too: They have a responsible partner in Abu Mazen but not a capable one. Israel needs to help build his capabilities. Just like Israel now has a potential partner in the Lebanese government, whose defense minister is saying that anyone who fires a rocket into Israel will be treated as a traitor. Those are great words, but he doesn't have the capability to back them up. So it's very important that Israel pay attention to building up the Lebanese government's capabilities."

Do you think the cease-fire in Lebanon will hold?

"It's very hard to tell the impact of the war on Hezbollah, because Hezbollah has purposely hidden the impact of Israel's military operations. But it's possible that the Israeli army did real damage to Hezbollah, and just like Hamas declared a hudna because it couldn't carry on, it is possible that Hezbollah will have an interest in maintaining the cease-fire now.

"Secondly, Hezbollah is now far more focused on reconstruction than it is on destruction. They have the pulse of the Shi'ite community, and the devastation is their responsibility, and a renewal of the fighting could really backfire on them."

So, by that account, Israel was right to bomb villages and infrastructure in Lebanon.

"Well, first it's not clear that that is indeed the outcome, and secondly there are other serious costs involved in terms of civilian casualties on both sides. Nonetheless, it's not impossible that people in Lebanon will come to the conclusion that Hezbollah behaved irresponsibly - and other people had to pay the price. Hezbollah created a state within a state, and the Shias had their houses destroyed, which raises a big question mark, which is why Hezbollah is now handing out cash payments for reconstruction.

"On the Israeli side, obviously the army will want to prevent Hezbollah from resupplying, but any Israeli military operations may be met by Hezbollah retaliation, which may raise questions in the Israeli public, which wants quiet, and this may deepen further the current crisis of confidence.

"So I think both sides have their reasons for wanting to maintain the calm for the time being, but I don't think it's a stable situation over time. Over time it will depend on who wins the competition between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government over the hearts and minds of the Lebanese people."

No more 'Syria first'

Given that Iran is facing a confrontation with the international community, how should Israel deal with the other Hezbollah backer, Syria? Should it extend an olive branch, as some in Israel are now proposing?

"Look, I was personally involved in trying to achieve a peace treaty between Israel and Syria during eight years of the Clinton Administration. I personally argued throughout that period that the U.S. needed to give priority to a Syrian-Israeli deal, because it had obvious strategic benefits: breaking off Syria from Iran as well as the ability to disarm Hezbollah with the 15,000 troops that Syria had in Lebanon at the time, and to increase the pressure on the Palestinians to move forward and to break the logjam. There were lots of advantages then to doing a deal with 'Syria first.'

"But I don't feel the same way now. There's nothing wrong with talking about talking with Syria. Israel should always be interested in negotiating peace - but as a matter of strategy I think it's a mistake.

"The main thing now is to recognize the commonality of interests between Israel and the Sunni Arab world, and the regime in Syria is not a Sunni regime. Its opposition is Sunni, and I'm not just talking about the Muslim Brotherhood.

"Bashar Assad, unlike his father, is dependent on Hezbollah. His father used Hezbollah for tactical purposes, to put pressure on Israel to negotiate over the Golan. But his son, because his troops are out of Lebanon, depends on Hezbollah to maintain Syrian interests in Lebanon. Bashar has been building up Hezbollah because he needs Hezbollah to hold up an Israeli advance on Damascus through the Bekaa. That policy has paid dividends for the son, and he is crowing about it.

"Syria is allied with Iran, for good reasons of strategy, from their point of view. And the notion that you can somehow split them is, I think, fanciful. And to talk to Assad now would have the effect of inviting him back into Lebanon, because surely the purpose of talking to him is to get him to control Hezbollah, and I think that's a mistake.

"Israel should at least try to work with the Lebanese government, which is an anti-Syrian government. Because that government is signaling that it wants to deal with Israel, that it wants to return to the provisions of the 1949 Armistice Agreement between the two countries, and the Lebanese prime minister had made it even more explicit in recent days.

"And thirdly, there is the issue of the Palestinians that's the raison d'etre of this Israeli government. The mandate it got from the people was to solve the Palestinian problem, to withdraw from the West Bank, and there were good reasons for that, demographic reasons, and to prevent terrorism.

"So that's where the focus should be, but not in terms of a unilateral withdrawal. It is a fact that both the Israeli prime minister and the foreign minister said they would devote the next year to seeing whether there was a Palestinian partner, and that's where I think the focus should be.

"In the context of a tacit alliance with the Sunni Arab world against Iran, working out a deal with the Palestinians is very important, and that's the relationship that's available now."

Lousy implementation

What is your assessment of the performance of the Bush Administration during the crisis?

"I think it had good motivation - and lousy implementation. The idea that Israel should be given time to destroy Hezbollah missiles and to free southern Lebanon from Hezbollah made a lot of sense, but the way they tried to implement it created the impression that they were blocking the efforts to secure a cease-fire and cold-bloodedly allowing this conflict to rage, allowing rockets to land on Israel and Israeli bombs to land on Lebanon. You know, Kissinger would not have handled it that way. He didn't handle it that way in 1973, even though he gave Israel time to pursue its war aims.

"The second problem is not theirs: The objective of allowing the Lebanese government to control southern Lebanon required that southern Lebanon be cleaned of Hezbollah, and Israel didn't do that. So therefore we have a situation where Hezbollah is still there, the Lebanese army is weak and not in a position to confront Hezbollah, and the international force is weak because no one wants to go in there and fight Hezbollah.

The Bush Administration has given $230 million.

"Yes, and that was the right thing to do, though it should have given $500 million. It should also have organized a Donors' Conference, but again it's been rather flat-footed in its response. But Bush's whole policy in the area has really run aground."

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