By Farah Stockman, Globe Staff
WASHINGTON -- Senator John F. Kerry, who recently returned from a Middle East trip that included stops in Syria and Gaza, called today for loosening sanctions on Syria, which he praised a for opening a stock market and sending an ambassador to Iraq.
"Loosening certain sanctions in exchange for verifiable changes in behavior can actually benefit US businesses," Kerry, the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee told a packed auditorium at the Brookings Institution. "The sanctions can always be tightened again if Syria backtracks."
In his speech, the Massachusetts Democrat urged the Obama administration to play a role in mediating ongoing peace talks between Syria and Israel -- a move that he said Syrian President Bashar Assad would welcome.
The Bush administration shunned Syria for more than four years, accusing the regime of fostering the insurgency in Iraq, meddling in Lebanon's affairs by assassinating its elected leaders, and supporting anti-Israeli militant groups Hezbollah and Hamas.
But the Obama administration has signalled a thaw in relations, in an attempt to encourage Syria to make peace with Israel and to pry the regime from its close alliance with Iran. Syria's ambassador to the United States, Imad Moustapha, who attended Kerry's speech yesterday, met last week for two hours at the State Department after years of relative diplomatic silence. Under Obama, the Treasury Department has also authorized the transfer of $500,000 of Syrian funds which had been frozen to a Syrian charity and the repair of aircraft with US parts.
US laws still discourages trade with Syria. Medicine and food can be sent to Syria, but other goods must apply for special permission.
Critics called it premature to loosen sanctions. David Schenker, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a conservative-leaning think tank, said that Syria is still "actively undermining every US interest in the Middle East."
In today's speech, Kerry also described his visit to the town of Izbet Abed Rabo in Gaza, a rare trip for US officials who have avoided the territory for years because of the danger of militant attack, and because it is controlled by Hamas, which the United States considers a terrorist organization.
"I saw little Palestinian girls playing in the rubble where, just months ago, buildings stood," Kerry said. Upon seeing the ruins of the American school there, he said: "I was moved by the enormity of the humanitarian challenge."
Kerry called for a regional "road map" based on a 2002 Saudi peace initiative in which Arab states would commit to specific actions -- such as ending support for Hamas -- to bring about a regional peace with Israel.
He said he believes that Israeli prime minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu, despite his hard-line reputation, is prepared to do "important things" for peace. Kerry also called on the Obama administration to take measures to ensure that Israel freezes settlements in the West Bank.
"Nothing will do more to make clear our seriousness about turning the page than demonstrating - with actions rather than words - that we are serious," Kerry said. "For decades, American presidents, Democrat and Republican alike, have opposed new settlement activity and recognized that the settlements are an obstacle to peace. But in our honest moments we would all acknowledge that this policy has usually existed on paper alone."
Thank you very much, Mr. Ambassador, you’re a friend and counselor. I’m very, very appreciative for the opportunity to be here today. I’ve just come from a joint session with the prime minister of Great Britain, Gordon Brown, who announced that the queen is giving an honorary knighthood to Ted Kennedy: Sir Edward Kennedy. Sounds good to me.
But it hit me because when Martin said, John Kerry is still a junior senator, I think of 26 years and I’m still the junior senator –– Ted and I are now the longest serving junior-senior act in the United States Senate. The longest, I think, before us was Strom Thurmond so there’s hope for all of us folks.
I really want to thank Martin Indyk and the Saban Center and the Brookings Institution for hosting me today. In the nearly seven years since its founding, the Saban Center has made its name as an invaluable forum for dialogue on America’s Middle East policy. And it’s a special honor to be here with Martin, who, as America’s ambassador to Israel and a member of President Clinton’s Middle East negotiating team, knows firsthand the pitfalls and the promise of making peace.
And that’s what I’m here to talk about today. We have reached a new moment in an old conflict – a conflict that has confounded leaders and diplomats for decades and which to many seems more intractable today than at any time in recent memory. But I am convinced that despite Palestinian divisions, renewed outbreak of war, continued firing of rockets from Gaza – over a dozen in the past week alone – and Israel’s political turns, despite all of this, this can actually be a moment of opportunity.
We all understand that peace will not come to the Middle East overnight or easily. But, my friends, there is a path forward. And if we are to avoid greater conflict and perpetual confrontation and countless lost opportunities and lives, we must pursue that path now with urgency.
On my recent trip to Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, I felt first hand, in personal ways, the frustration and the hunger of people on all sides who have grown tired of broken promises, tired of peace talks that lead to more war, tired of more war that leads to more desperation and more cynicism. I saw a region made wary by the failures of the past, but also keenly aware of critical two truths, if you will, about this particular moment:
On the one hand, the election of not just a new president, but of Barack Obama in particular, presents an extraordinary chance to signal a new approach, a new pragmatism, a new spirit of possibility – and especially a renewed willingness to listen and to lead. On the other hand, we have reached a moment of great danger when rising extremism and facts on the ground threaten the basic future viability of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
Leadership, quite simply, leadership, will determine which side of the ledger we will fall on. Leadership by all – by each state in the troubled region – but, let me tell you, above all, leadership by the United States of America. There is a window of opportunity that we have to seize by showing, with actions more than words, that it will not be just business as usual in the Middle East.
Our response to this challenge will have major implications for our new president’s foreign policy on a worldwide basis. It will either be a cornerstone as we rebuild our moral authority or a millstone that weighs down every effort we make to find partners in the Muslim world and beyond. One thing is clear: What we do will have a profound impact on our security for decades to come.
It also has a profound impact right now, because the failure to make peace translates daily into very real human consequences. Nothing drove this home to me more forcefully than a recent day I spent visiting the southern Israeli village of Sderot and then the Gazan town of Izbet Abed Rabo.
In Sderot, which has been the target of thousands of rockets over the last eight years, security officials told me that, from the moment they know a rocket has been fired from Gaza, people have just 15 seconds to find safety. We learned about children in the second grade who had spent literally every day of their lives never more than 15 seconds from danger. No child should live that way.
In Izbet Abed Rabo in Gaza, I saw little Palestinian girls playing in rubble where, just months ago, buildings stood. I’m no stranger to war and to destruction, but I was moved by the enormity of the humanitarian challenge. I couldn’t help but be impacted standing in front of the ruins of the American school there and seeing the breadth of the damage. But I also saw a glimmer of hope in the faces of average Palestinians determined to carry on with their daily lives.
As I said in Gaza and I said it in Sderot, if terrorists in Quincy, Massachusetts, were launching rockets into Boston – and it’s about the same distance apart – we’d have to put a stop to it, just as the Israelis were forced to respond. But despite the differences on either side of that narrow strip of land, I was inspired by the determination of all who live with the daily reality of this conflict. If the kids on both sides can hope for themselves, if they can persevere for a better future, then we must help them get there. And we all know what it’s going to take: two states living side by side in peace and security.
Now, given the war in Gaza and a divided Palestinian leadership, given the failure of Israel’s unilateral disengagements from Southern Lebanon and Gaza to bring peace, given Hamas’ control of Gaza and uncertainty about the next Israeli government’s commitment to a two-state solution, some would look at that and say the prospects for peace are further away than ever.
So why do I believe we can succeed now – and I do believe this – where we have failed before? I believe it because broader trends represent an opening to make peace possible. In fact, I see four major causes for hope, which together comprise a powerful case for action.
The first and most important is a tectonic shift in Middle East geopolitics. The rise of Iran has created an unprecedented willingness among moderate Arab nations to work with Israel. This re-alignment can help to lay the groundwork for progress towards peace.
Second, the Arab Peace Initiative has emerged as the basis on which to build a Regional Road Map that enlists moderate Arab nations to play a more active role in peacemaking and to paint a clearer picture than ever before of the rewards that peace would bring to all parties.
Third, the outlines of a final status agreement are in fact clearer than they have ever been. The challenge is not what it looks like; it’s how to get from here to there. I believe the answer is to move simultaneously on capacity-building in the West Bank and on the final status talks.
Fourth, the Obama administration presents an extraordinary opportunity for a new beginning where America reclaims the role of an active and creative agent for peace. We can capitalize on this by charting a new path that will empower moderates on all sides who, frankly, have been lacking political cover and losing political ground.
To start with, we need to fundamentally re-conceptualize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a regional problem that demands a regional solution. The challenges we face there – Iran, Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and the Middle East peace process – form an interconnected web that requires an integrated approach.
Over the last decade, the geopolitics of the Arab world were fundamentally shifted. They were, in fact, turned upside down not by something they did, but by something that we did. By removing Saddam Hussein, we unwittingly created a power vacuum which Iran has filled. But just as the war in Iraq separated us from many in the Arab world, I believe its winding down now offers an opportunity to strengthen ties and to advance the peace process, to work towards what President Sadat called, as Martin reminds me, a full partnership in the effort for peace.
Whereas once the Arab world voted unanimously for the “three no’s” – no dialogue with Israel, no recognition of Israel and no peace with Israel – there are now three very different no’s which dominate many discussions in the region: no Iranian nukes, no Iranian meddling and no Iranian hegemony.
To Israel, Iran poses both an existential threat and a major obstacle to peace. And it’s easy to understand why. Israel withdrew from Southern Lebanon and Hezbollah wound up with Iranian missiles. Israel withdrew from Gaza and Hamas wound up with Iranian rockets. The Israelis are not about to let the same thing happen in the West Bank -- and nor should they.
So there’s a new reality: Moderate Arab countries and Israel alike are actually more worried about Iran than they are about each other. As a result, they are now cooperating in ways that were unimaginable just a couple of years ago. The truth is that an international initiative to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon is an essential building block of stability in the Middle East. If we succeed, Arab moderates will be stronger and Israel will be much more likely to take risks for peace.
The president is right to open the door to direct engagement with Iran. And all of us hope that a more productive relationship can emerge by exploring areas of mutual interest – and, believe me, there are some – like Afghanistan, where we have worked cooperatively in the past, and that by showing the path to greater integration into the international community if Iran changes its behavior, we can make progress. I have long advocated this approach realizing that, even if it fails to achieve our goal, it will establish our own and our allies’ bona fides for the tough measures that may have to follow.
Regrettably, the Bush administration drew red lines which it lacked the ability to enforce. The challenge for the Obama administration will be to choose clear red lines and build coalitions willing to back them up. And, at a minimum, we need to make an enhanced inspections regime with intrusive verification capacity a major priority.
This is important. A lot of countries have made a decision about no Iranian nuclear weapon, but they have not really made a policy decision about what to do: Who does it? How? If a nuclear-armed Iran is indeed unacceptable – and I believe it is, and I heard from moderate Arab countries in the region that they think it is – if it is indeed unacceptable then we must urgently build consensus around the actions necessary to avoid one. The use of force should never be taken off the table. But, I’ll tell you, given the costs and risks which everybody can measure, it is imperative that we have a strategy of diplomatic engagement backed by escalating, multilateral sanctions which we hope we never have to employ because we can find the measure of reasonableness. And if we are serious about sanctions, greater Russian and Chinese cooperation must be a top priority in our bilateral relations.
We can also make progress with Iran and progress toward peace by making progress with Syria. I commend the administration for initiating the dialogue with Damascus. And I thank the ambassador, who is here, for the visit that we had and the time we spent with President Assad -- the clear perception that I took from that meeting is that there are several avenues of immediate focus where we can make that progress.
We should have no illusions that Syria will immediately end its ties to Iran, but that shouldn’t threaten us as long as their relationship ceases to destabilize the region. It benefits us, it benefits the region and it benefits Syria if President Assad looks to the West for new relationships.
Moving in this direction is not wishful thinking. Remember, when the war broke out in Gaza, the Syrians were talking indirectly to the Israelis through Turkey. And this was done over the objections of Iran. Syrian President Bashar al Assad told me in Damascus that he is prepared to resume peace negotiations with Israel and embrace the Arab Peace Initiative once again. Syria would like direct American participation in these peace talks, and we should play that role if our presence can indeed help move the process forward.
Syria, I have no doubt, will still play both sides of the fence, as other nations do when they believe it is in their interests. And we need to make it clear that negotiations will never come at the expense of Lebanon or of international justice. But I believe, and I think President Assad understands, that as a secular Arab country with a Sunni majority population, Syria’s long-term interests lie not with Iran but with its Sunni neighbors and with the West.
We also have financial incentives to offer Syria that have much greater value to them than cost to us. It is telling that, even as global markets are in freefall, Syria is opening a stock market for the first time. Loosening certain sanctions in return for verifiable changes in behavior could actually benefit U.S. businesses. And the sanctions can always be tightened again if there is a backtracking.
Our challenge is to translate these regional dynamics and opportunities into tangible progress toward peace. We know that among the reasons Camp David failed was a lack of buy-in from Arab states whose support would have given Israel the broader peace that it seeks and Palestinians the necessary cover to make difficult decisions. That is a shortfall we can now address now.
How do we begin? By building on the Arab Peace Initiative. This bold step, frankly, never received the focus it deserved when Saudi King Abdullah proposed it in 2002. We cannot underestimate – as we have for the last six years, since it was made – we cannot underestimate the importance of the fact that through this Initiative, every Arab country has now agreed to the basic formulation of land for peace and of the recognition of the state of Israel and the normalization of relations.
Now we need to expand this premise into a Regional Road Map that fleshes out the promise of the Arab Peace Initiative. Palestinians have the Quartet’s Road Map – but a Regional Road Map would sign all of the key players onto a series of specific steps and commitments. This will take more than a brief conference, folks: It will require a sustained multilateral effort like the one that followed the first Madrid Conference in 1991. But a Regional Road Map would pay dividends by formalizing the more immediate role that Arab nations must play – and it would provide real accountability.
Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan have already made major contributions to the cause of peace, but all Arab nations must increase their efforts at this critical juncture. The most vital and immediate contribution the Arab community can make right now is, frankly, to pressure Hamas to stop firing rockets and agree to a Palestinian unity government acceptable to all parties that agrees to the Quartet requirements of ceasing violence, recognizing Israel and honoring previous agreements.
Going forward, Egypt must do everything possible to prevent the smuggling of weapons across its nine-mile border with Gaza. Jordan can expand upon its role in training Palestinian Authority forces. And the Saudis need to follow through on a significant commitment to development in the West Bank. Other Arab states have a role to play as well: Qatar, for example, can’t continue to be an American ally on Monday that sends money to Hamas on Tuesday.
Building on the Arab Peace Initiative requires that we work with Arab nations to create a step-by-step process – not just a final promise – to improve relations with Israel. Right now, the Arab Peace Initiative grants Israel recognition and peace with the Arab world in return for concluding a final deal. That’s not enough. Interim steps on all sides will be needed to build confidence and momentum along the way.
And, finally, the Regional Road Map must include the commitments that each country is willing to make in support of an eventual Palestinian state. For our part, we need to be clear on what the United States and the Quartet will provide as well. This would expand the pie and increase the incentives for the parties to make peace. Offering a clear look at the benefits at the finish line will help the parties overcome their mistrust after years of conflict, and it will empower those willing to take the necessary steps to get there.
My third reason for hope is that we have much to build on in reaching this final deal: Negotiations since Annapolis have brought considerable progress on many final status issues. Back in 2000, President Clinton laid out what he thought were the final parameters. The time may well come, sooner rather than later, when President Obama needs to do the same.
Ultimately, however, the decision on a final peace deal belongs to the Israelis and the Palestinians themselves. They are the ones who have to sell the final deal to their people and they are the ones who will ultimately live with the results.
But, as Prime Minister Olmert told me, the agreement should drive the details – not the other way around. The sooner the parties work through the big three issues – borders, right of return and Jerusalem – the more the pieces will come together. Strengthening security, hammering out the details of governance, attracting investment, building the economy – all of these things will be so much easier the closer we get to a final deal. And I repeat: We know today, all of us, the essential shape that that final deal will take.
Of course, even if the parties can agree on the final boundaries and other key issues, the implementation doesn’t happen immediately. And it won’t happen immediately, especially on the security front. That’s going to take place over a period of time, maybe a few years. All of the key elements of building Palestinian ability to actually run their own state, including progress on building security forces and institution-building, they’re going to take time. That’s why it is vital that we move quickly, with the Arab world, the quartet, to build Palestinian Authority capacity. But the clarity of laying out the finish line – and arriving at an understanding with respect to it -- makes it easier for people to believe in that process.
For years, everyone has talked of the need to give the Israelis a legitimate partner for peace. But the truth is, we all failed to do all we could to help President Mahmoud Abbas develop governance capacity and build legitimacy. I know this because I will never forget being in Ramallah with President Abbas on the very day that he was elected in 2005 and hearing him lament his lack of resources compared to what Hamas had. But for too long, we did far too little – sometimes almost nothing – to make up that difference. We cannot repeat that mistake. We have to help the Palestinian Authority deliver for the Palestinian people. They have to perceive a change for the better in their lives and we have to do that now. In Gaza, we must ensure that we deliver desperately needed humanitarian aid and reconstruction assistance without, obviously, empowering Hamas in the process. Having courted destruction, Hamas and Iran cannot be allowed to take credit for the rebuilding, just as Hezbollah did in the wake of the Lebanon war in 2006.
Most importantly, this means strengthening General Dayton’s efforts to train Palestinian security forces that can keep order and fight terror. Many people aren’t even aware that that’s going on. It’s one of the most significant things that has happened in the past months. Recent developments have been extremely encouraging: During the invasion of Gaza, Palestinian Security Forces largely succeeded in maintaining calm in the West Bank amidst widespread expectations of civil unrest. Obviously, more remains to be done, but we can help do it.
This brings me to my final point: While I believe there must be an enhanced role for the regional players, nothing can substitute for our crucial role as an active and creative agent for peace.
Let’s be clear. Israel is one of our closest allies in the world and it will always be. We have a special relationship, unshakable bonds, and an unwavering commitment to Israel’s security that will never change. We are absolutely committed to helping the people of Israel live in peace.
In the past, we came closest to peace when we had American leadership that encouraged everyone to make hard choices and earned credibility with all sides. And after eight years that too often just left the parties to their own devices, Israel has been through a second intifada and two wars that have violated Israeli territory. Clearly Israeli’s security is strengthened when the United States is actively engaged. George Mitchell’s appointment is a promising step in the right direction and I am confident that he will live up to the immense respect in the region that he brings to this task.
Even as we work with the international community to provide more support for the Palestinian Authority, we need to ask more in return. It’s no secret that Fatah lost the 2006 election to Hamas in part because of a widely held perception that they were corrupt and inefficient. Prime Minister Fayyad has done a great deal to bring reform to the Palestinian Authority, but they still need to increase their capacity to govern effectively if they are to earn back the trust of the people they represent. And to earn the trust of the Israelis, the Palestinian security forces must demonstrate that they are willing to crack down on terrorists in a serious and sustained way.
On the Israeli side, nothing will do more to make clear our seriousness about turning the page than demonstrating – with actions rather than words – that we are serious about Israel freezing settlement activity in the West Bank.
For decades, American presidents, Democrat and Republican alike, have opposed new settlement activity and recognized that the settlements are an obstacle to peace. But in our honest moments we would all acknowledge that this policy has usually existed on paper alone. And as recently as 2007 at the Annapolis conference, Israel recommitted to implementing its obligations under the Road Map, which include freezing all settlement activity.
We will defend Israel’s security unflinchingly. But the fact is, Israelis themselves decided that the settlements make it more difficult to protect the security of their citizens. They’re not just fragmenting the Palestinian state – they fragment what the Israeli Defense Forces have to defend.
None of us can afford to continue on the present course. In the Middle East, nothing stays the same for long. On both sides, facts on the ground are conspiring to make a solution more difficult: A younger and larger population across the Arab world, particularly in Gaza and the West Bank, will make peace impossible if they are left to grow up in a state of perpetual war and disenfranchisement. For the Middle East to avoid living in endless conflict, confrontation and outright war – a future, believe it or not, more dangerous than today – we must redouble our commitment to making peace now.
Each day without peace, a Jewish state becomes less Jewish, and a mosaic of settlements continues to grow, threatening the possibility of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state. And radicalism and religious fanaticism grow precisely because there is no agreement. We are all caught in a vicious cycle, spiraling downward in the wrong direction. And we can only reverse that with courage, leadership and risk-taking in the peace process.
If we fall back into the same patterns of incomplete, stalled talks, and small-bore negotiations, we will fail because we will empower those who don’t want peace to veto the process. We will lose for years to come the goodwill and commitment of those Palestinians who have put their lives on the line to stand up for a moderate process, but who are faulted because their promises failed to produce peace, let alone a significant positive change in the quality of life for their people. No politician can long survive too frequently dashed hopes of their constituency.
This won’t be easy, but what I have presented today, I believe, is a case for hope, and – more importantly – I believe it’s a plan to translate that hope into action. We have all witnessed years where moderates have lost strength in the Middle East, and too many have lost faith in making peace. I believe we must make these the years when we restore that strength and revive that faith and finally achieve peace in this troubled region. Thank you.
About Political Intelligence
Glen Johnson is Politics Editor at boston.com and lead blogger for "Political Intelligence." He moved to Massachusetts in the fourth grade, and has covered local, state, and national politics for over 25 years. E-mail him at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @globeglen.