Short answer: extremely.
In case anyone is in any doubt, they should read the transcript of what Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said at the end of his meeting with Hillary Clinton in Washington yesterday.
The core of what he said there:
- I would be remiss if I didn’t express our thanks and appreciation to President Obama and to Secretary Clinton for their early and robust focus on trying to bring peace to the Middle East…
It is time for all people in the Middle East to be able to lead normal lives. Incrementalism and a step-by-step approach has not and– we believe– will not achieve peace. Temporary security, confidence-building measures will also not bring peace. What is required is a comprehensive approach that defines the final outcome at the outset and launches into negotiations over final status issues: borders, Jerusalem, water, refugees and security.
This is a resounding slap in the face for the approach of using lengthy “interim” periods and “confidence building measures” (CBMs) that was a hallmark of Israeli-Palestinian conflict management (not conflict termination) diplomacy, as practiced by Dennis Ross for eight years under Pres. Clinton.
CBMs, of course, were a concept first developed in great detail in US-Soviet diplomacy in the ramp-down phase of the Cold War. That, indeed, was the field in which Dennis got his core academic training. He later rebranded himself, never terribly credibly, as a “Middle East expert.” His main credential in this new field ended up being the abysmal record he racked up as a failed “peacemaker” for those eight years in the Clinton administration.
Oh, and then there was the term he served as founding president of the Jerusalem-based Jewish People Policy Planning Institute from 2006 through earlier this year… Did that make him a “Middle East expert”, I wonder?
This whole concept of CBMs has made an eery comeback into Washington’s Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy since the arrival of Dennis Ross in the White House at the end of June.
Laura Rozen blogged last week that she had,
- confirmed that President Barack Obama has sent letters to at least seven Arab and Gulf states seeking confidence-building measures toward Israel, which Washington has been pushing to agree to a freeze of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
One former senior U.S. official who was aware of the letters said they had been sent “recently” to seven Arab states, including the leaders of Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. The letters reinforce “the Mitchell message re: the need for CBMs [confidence-building measures] in exchange for [settlement] freeze and to [get] peace talks restarted,” the former senior official said by e-mail.
“These letters were sent some time ago,” a White House official told Foreign Policy Sunday, when asked about them. “The president has always said that everyone will have to take steps for peace. This is just the latest instance of this sentiment.”
The official declined to provide a date of the letters, but said, “they’d been reported before a month or two ago.”
Coincidentally– or not– one of the big campaigns that AIPAC is currently running is to get US legislators to sign onto a letter “urging” Obama to push Arab states to give up-front CBMs to Israel…
Arab leaders and their citizens have seen this movie before.
In the 1990s, many Arab states moved to end the “secondary boycott” they had previously maintained against international companies doing business with Israel; and some, like Qatar, even took some other small steps toward “normalization” like opening an Israeli trade office in their capitals. That was entirely predicated on Israel making the real progress that was mandated by the Oslo Accord to concluding a final-status peace agreement with the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), before the defined deadline of May 1999.
Never happened. The deadline came and went. The Israeli government just went on waffling, with the ever-eager help of Dennis Ross in the White house. And the Israeli government also kept on shoe-horning additional tens of thousands of new illegal settlers into the occupied territories each year…
In the piece that Roger Cohen has in tomorrow’s NYT magazine on US policy toward Iran, there is a telling vignette that reveals just how deeply Dennis Ross does not qualify as anything even approaching a “Middle East expert”:
- On April 29, in Dammam, in Saudi Arabia’s eastern province, Ross sat down with King Abdullah. He talked to a skeptical monarch about the Obama administration’s engagement policy with Iran — and talked and talked and talked. When the king finally got to speak, according to one U.S. official fully briefed on the exchange, he began by telling Ross: “I am a man of action. Unlike you, I prefer not to talk a lot.” Then he posed several pointed questions about U.S. policy toward Iran: What is your goal? What will you do if this does not work? What will you do if the Chinese and the Russians are not with you? How will you deal with Iran’s nuclear program if there is not a united response? Ross, a little flustered, tried to explain that policy was still being fleshed out.
Dennis Ross, let’s remember, supposedly dealt closely with the Saudis throughout the eight years he was Pres. Clinton’s chief Middle East adviser. He also dealt closely with them, though in a subordinate role, when he worked for Sec. of State James Baker during and after the 1990-91 Gulf crisis and war.
But then, he didn’t even really know to deal with them at all, come 2009? He just talked (and talked and talked…) at the Saudi monarch– and couldn’t even deal with the few, to-the-point questions that the king came back to him with?
I don’t know if he tried to raise the issue of CBMs-for-Israel with King Abdullah during that meeting. But evidently, this issue has been pitched to Riyadh as well as other Arab capitals in recent weeks.
And now, Prince Saud has come to Washington to give a definitive and very public answer on the CBMs question.
Of course, it riles the heck out of many Americans, including especially many members of Congress, that they can’t just wave the wand of economic aid over the big Arab oil-exporting countries like Saudi Arabia to get to do what they (and AIPAC) want them to do….
Also significant: In that same State Department transcript, Sec. Clinton uses a significant– and in my view, significantly flawed– way to describe the US’s role in the current Israeli-Palestinian pre-negotiation.
- There is no substitute for a comprehensive resolution. That is our ultimate objective. In order to get to the negotiating table, we have to persuade both sides that they can trust the other side enough to reach that comprehensive agreement.
This is completely, still, that same “trust-building” or “confidence-building” approach to mediation/negotiation that was used to such dismally unsuccessful effect during the Bill Clinton administration when– acting on Dennis’s advice– Pres. Clinton saw his role as only that of a facilitator trying to build “trust” between the two parties.
No. The US is not just a “facilitator”. The US is a party with a strong and direct national interest in getting all the strands of the Arab-Israeli conflict speedily and finally resolved in a way that is sufficiently fair to all sides that the outcome is sustainable for many generations to come.
So the role of the US “mediator” is not just to “persuade” and nudge the countries to the point where they can “trust each other” (and to do this prior to the negotiation starting???) But rather, the US role should be to:
- 1. Reaffirm its own strong interest in a speedy, fair and sustainable end to all dimensions of the Israeli-Arab conflict;
2. Reaffirm that the outcome it seeks is one based on international law and the longstanding resolutions 242 and 338 of the UN Security Council;
3. Affirm (for the first time in many decades) its readiness to use all the instruments of national power at its disposal to win the speedy, fair, and sustainable final peace agreements between Israel and all its Arab neighbors; and
4. Reaffirm that it stands ready to work with its partners in the Quartet to provide all the guarantees the parties might need regarding monitoring all steps of the (most likely phased) implementation of these peace agreements.
In other words, it is at that stage– the stage of implementing the different phases of a final peace whose full content has already been agreed– that the sides themselves can really start to build the “confidence” or trust of the other side…. And the US and its peace-monitoring partners can certainly help that process along.
But to imply that you need full trust between the two sides to the dispute before you expect them even to sit down at the peace table?? That’s nuts!
The process of so-called “confidence building” that Dennis Ross was so happy to see dragging on for years and years in the 1990s did not end up building up any trust at all. Just the opposite. It built mistrust– on both sides. Not least, because people still locked into the dispute on the ground had no idea where the final process was heading– so every little altercation between them became a huge existential issue that had to be fought over “to the death.”
And meanwhile, Ross’s good friends in the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute were able to implant thousands of additional settlers into occupied Jerusalem and the rest of the West Bank. How “lucky” for them, eh?
This time, someone should tell Sec. Clinton– and best of all her boss, the president– that you don’t need to build full trust between the sides before the negotiation starts.
What you need to build is a healthy and realistic recognition from each of the parties that:
- * the US has its own strong interest in the success of this peacemaking project,
* the US is prepared to use its national power to secure fair and sustainable final peace agreements between all the parties, and
* the US stands ready to use its national power to help guarantee the implementation of these agreements.
So now, Pres. Obama, let’s get on with it.
I also note, parenthetically, that Saud al-Faisal seemed to be placing more emphasis on getting the final peace negotiations started than on getting Obama’s demand for a complete Israeli settlement freeze implemented. I think that’s the right emphasis.