Posted by Joshua on Tuesday, February 23rd, 2010
Austrian Foreign Minister Michael Spindelegger: Hopeful that Peace Talks will Resume and Syria and the EU Will Sign the Association Agreement by July
By Ibrahim HAMIDI of Al-Hayat in Damascus
Exclusive for Syria Comment
The Austrian Minister for Foreign Affairs Michael Spindelegger hopes that the indirect talks between Syria and Israel “will be resumed soon” through the Turkish mediator. He said this after his tour in the region, which included the Palestinian territories, Israel, Lebanon and Syria. Mr Spindelegge believes that the association agreement between Syria and EU might be signed under the Spanish presidency of the EU which comes to an end in July 2010.
Q: The Syrian officials call on Austria and Europe to support the Turkish role, how can that be?
- First we have to talk with the Turkish to know if they are ready to play the role of broker once again, I believe the Turkish side is ready . Secondly, we should convince the Israelis to restart a political process. I understood from my Syrian colleagues that they want to go on in this way and they will do their best.
Q: Will you transmit that to the Israelis?
- First, I will report to the meeting of the Council of the Foreign Ministers of the European Union on my talks in the region. We will see what kind of steps can be taken in the future, in order to overcome the deadlock. .
Q: It has been said that you transmitted a message from the Israeli, is that true?
- The present situation is not satisfactory for any side. The Syrians, as I understood, are ready for a serious start of negotiations. I have the impression from the Isarelis that they too are ready. They want security in their neighbourhood, they don’t want the events of the past to be repeated from the Palestinian or the Lebanese territories .
Q: They are ready to resume the negotiations from where they have been stopped?
- I think it is not useful to talks over preconditions, or without preconditions. First, we should move in the direction, that in principle, we are ready. If you say that, this will be the start for something. But, if you say we are ready according to defined circumstances, this will be a problem. We should overcome this problem.
Q: But for the Syrians, the question of Golan is not an issue for negotiations. Are the Israelis ready to restore Golan?
- It is not up to me to answer for the Israelis. They have to answer themselves. Our role is to help to bring them together (the concerned parties) . Europeans and Americans alike, want to assist in relaunching the process. If the start is through Turkey as broker, then we should move as soon as possible to direct negotiations. Then it is possible to get answers. It is time to say: we are ready in principle.
Q: Do you think we are close to resume shortly the indirect negotiations?
- If the process starts quickly, we might reach solutions, because every part will have to put something on the table.
Q: Has the prelude for a process of launching indirect negotiations started?
- Not yet, but we think that we are close to a step ahead. It is possible (the indirect negotiations) would happen soon.
Q: The Syrians say they negotiated with five Israeli governments, every time when we are close to reach a solutions a new government comes and likes to start from the zero. Therefore, Syria wants to start the negotiations from the point they stopped?
- I understand that there have been many disappointments in the past. But at the same time, we should try again. There is simply no alternative to negotiations. Otherwise it is impossible to achieve anything in the future…
Q: If we go to the Association Agreement, did you discuss this issue with the Syrian side and do you believe it will be signed under the Spanish Presidency?
- We discussed this issue intensively with the Syrian officials. The aim to sign the agreement under the Spanish Presidency. But I understood that the Syrian side still wants to discuss some technical issues. A delegation from the Commission should come to finalize (the agreement) – after that it will be ready for decision and signature.
- My advice to the Syrian Minister for Foreign Affairs is to come to a decision as soon as possible, because we do not know what will happen, if the agreement is reopened. It is the right time to take the decision.
- An Association Agreement between Syria and the European Union would offer both sides many advantages and would strengthen also our political relations. It would establish a framework to discuss all the issues.
Q: Is the Commission ready to reopen the agreement?
- We will have to discuss this in Brussels. For technical issues, there might be room to reach some arrangement. But the core of the agreement should not be reopened to discussion….
Q- What is your position towards the development of the Syrian-American relations?
- We welcome the appointment of an American Ambassador to Syria. This is a positive sign for the future and for a normalization of ties with the USA. This is valuable for both sides and for the whole region. Syria is and remains a key partner in the Middle East.
Baker Says Middle East Agreement Still Possible
FORMER SECRETARY OF STATE AND HIS INSTITUTE WORK TO BREAK THE IMPASSE BETWEEN ISRAELIS AND PALESTINIANS.
by James Kitfield
Saturday, Feb. 20, 2010
….NJ: Secretary Baker, do you fault the Obama administration for initially insisting on a “freeze” on Israeli settlements, a proposal that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected outright?
Baker: I don’t fault President Obama for making settlements an issue, but I do fault him for caving in. You can’t take a position that is consistent with U.S. policy going back many years, and the minute you get push-back you soften your position. When you are dealing with foreign leaders, they can smell that kind of weakness a thousand miles away. Both Democratic and Republican administrations have long endorsed the U.S. policy that settlements are an obstacle to peace. If “land for peace” is the path to a resolution, then settlements clearly create facts on the ground that foreclose the possibility of negotiations.
I would also stress that United States taxpayers are giving Israel roughly $3 billion each year, which amounts to something like $1,000 for every Israeli citizen, at a time when our own economy is in bad shape and a lot of Americans would appreciate that kind of helping hand from their own government. Given that fact, it is not unreasonable to ask the Israeli leadership to respect U.S. policy on settlements.
NJ: You were the only senior U.S. official to ever use the leverage of U.S. aid to try to halt the continuing construction of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories. Did you ever regret that decision?
Baker: No, because if we hadn’t done that, the  Madrid Conference would never have happened. But you have to remember the context. At the time Israel was asking for $10 billion to help them settle Jewish émigrés from the Soviet Union and elsewhere, on top of the $3 billion we were already giving them annually. We had also recently repealed a United Nations resolution equating Zionism with racism. We had just decimated the Iraqi military machine, removing a major threat to Israel.
Against that backdrop, we had an opportunity to convene a historic conference where the Arabs were willing to reverse 25 years of policy and meet face-to-face with Israeli leaders. So we told the Israelis that we wouldn’t give them the extra $10 billion unless they agreed to respect the U.S. position regarding settlements. Israeli leaders told us they would just get the money from the U.S. Congress. Our reply was, “We’ll see you on Capitol Hill.” And we eventually won the vote on that bill. So I don’t regret that decision at all.
NJ: Do you see parallels to current U.S. efforts to get both sides to the negotiating table?
Baker: Today we are discovering once again that as important as the United States is to finding a solution to the problem, we cannot want peace more than the parties themselves. If both parties just assume that you have to keep giving this issue maximum effort no matter how recalcitrant they are, then you won’t make any progress. Before the Madrid Conference, for instance, there was a point where our peacemaking efforts just collapsed. And I told both the Arabs and the Israelis at the time, “When you get serious about peace, give us a call. Here is our number.” And guess what? They got the message. Both sides called, and after that they were more willing to compromise for peace.
NJ: Ambassador, why did your report call for a specific U.S. “bridging proposal” on territory and borders, instead of proposing that the two sides just get back to the negotiating table to settle those issues themselves?
Djerejian: Because absent a proactive American role in bringing the two parties closer together and showing them that the necessary territorial compromises are possible, this issue will not be resolved simply by direct talks between Israelis and Palestinians. That’s why a U.S. bridging proposal is so important. President Obama will have to spend political capital, however, because there are elements on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides, and perhaps domestically, who will attack a bridging proposal.
On the Israeli side, Netanyahu’s government is based on a narrow, right-wing coalition that somewhat inhibits his policy options. On the Palestinian side, the split between the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza looms large. So leaders on both sides of the conflict face constituencies and internal political dynamics at home that often make it more comfortable for them to say no to a peace deal rather than yes. American leadership will be critical to bringing the parties close enough together to get to yes.
NJ: Given the myriad problems he faces at home and abroad, why should Obama spend his already depleted political capital on an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that has eluded so many presidents over so many years?
Djerejian: Fundamentally, because this issue affects the United States’ core national security interests. The Arab-Israeli conflict, and especially the Palestinian issue, remains one of the most contentious and sensitive issues in the entire Muslim world. The Palestinian issue can get Muslims demonstrating in the streets from Jakarta to Nigeria to Lebanon. Osama bin Laden exploits the plight of the Palestinians, as does [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad, as did [former Iraqi President] Saddam Hussein.
When the United States is expending its blood and treasure fighting insurgencies in overwhelmingly Muslim Iraq and Afghanistan, the dots are even easier to connect. It’s all part of a very important whole. We would be naive to think that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will eliminate the problems of terrorism and radicalization in the Islamic world, but it will go a long way toward draining the swamp of issues that extremists exploit for their own ends. So I think any American president would be well-advised to tackle this issue. How much political capital to spend at any given time, however, is a decision only the president himself can make.
NJ: Secretary Baker, how do you assess today’s prospects for a peace deal?
Baker: Well, the situation is difficult, but there are some new dynamics in play. First and foremost, there is a general appreciation on the part of the Israeli body politic that Israel will be unable to maintain both its Jewish and democratic character as long as it continues to occupy Arab lands and, in particular, the West Bank. More and more Israelis understand that sooner or later, the demographics of occupation [given higher Arab birthrates] are going to overwhelm them. If Israel doesn’t want to become an apartheid type of nation — and as a democracy I don’t believe it does — then in order to retain its Jewish, democratic character Israel will have to find a negotiated peace. As positive as the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza was, it showed that unilateral actions alone will not bring about a lasting peace.
NJ: Do you think that the Israeli and Palestinian leaders are really willing and able to negotiate a peace deal?
Baker: I’ve dealt with Bibi Netanyahu personally, and I think underneath it all he would like to be the prime minister who brings peace to his people. He’s more pragmatic than a lot of people think. Remember, in the run-up to the Madrid Conference, I was dealing with a very hard-line Israeli leader in [former Prime Minister Yitzhak] Shamir, who used to say that Bibi was too soft! But despite our policy differences, Shamir and I developed trust and even personal fondness for one another. I actually wouldn’t be surprised to see Netanyahu negotiate a peace deal with Syria, though that will be easier to accomplish than a deal with the Palestinians.
NJ: Does Netanyahu have a reliable partner for talks?
Baker: On the Palestinian side of the equation, the situation is more complicated, with the Palestinian Authority governing in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza. The reason I mentioned a possible peace deal with Syria, however, is because the headquarters for Hamas is in Damascus, and Syria has great influence over the group. If you reach a peace deal between Israel and Syria, you will probably find a negotiating partner on the Palestinian issue.
Of course, Hamas’s refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist makes it difficult to sit down and talk to them, but we confronted a similar situation in the 1980s and 1990s with the [Palestine Liberation Organization], which was considered a terrorist organization. To get around the problem, we found Palestinians in the occupied territories who were not PLO officials, and we used them as interlocutors. That cutout allowed us to have indirect discussions with the people calling the shots in the PLO. A similar arrangement could conceivably work today in dealing with Hamas through third parties in Gaza.
NJ: Ambassador, of all the final-status issues, why did your report focus on territorial issues and borders?
Djerejian: We came to the conclusion that the territorial aspect of the conflict was the easiest to address, relatively speaking, and that progress on borders could spur movement on other final-status issues such as Jerusalem, the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and security arrangements. Both the Palestinian and Israeli participants agreed on the 1967 borders as the starting point, with a 1-to-1 ratio for land swaps to incorporate several big settlement blocks into Israel. In the end, we got the two sides within a few percentage points of West Bank territory, with the Israelis wanting to annex settlements comprising between 4.4 and 7.3 percent of the West Bank, and the Palestinians willing to swap between 3.4 percent and 1.9 percent of land. We recommend that U.S. negotiators work within that band.
NJ: Why did you stress the need for a “master plan” for the division of Jerusalem?
Djerejian: We worked on the assumption that Jerusalem would be the capital of both states, with eastern, Arab neighborhoods residing in Palestine and western, Jewish neighborhoods in Israel. Without such a division of Jerusalem, there is no possibility of a peace settlement. Even dealing with just the municipal-boundary issues, some of the most contentious outstanding disputes between our Palestinian and Israeli participants involved settlements in and around Jerusalem.
NJ: Does the fact that Palestinian and Israeli participants declined to even put their names on the report indicate the sensitivities involved in such negotiations, even among former officials?
Djerejian: Yes, that shows you just how controversial these issues remain. The truth is, there are extremists on each side who are eager to blast Israeli or Palestinian officials who are perceived as “giving away the store.” The very first brainstorming session we had here at the Baker Institute quickly turned confrontational, for instance, with a lot of pent-up anger and frustration on both sides. At one point, it got so heated that the Israelis started cursing at the Palestinians in Arabic, and the Palestinians were cursing back in Hebrew! I stopped them and said, “Do you guys realize what you’re doing?” At that point everyone started laughing, and it sort of broke the ice. But it shows you just how close the Israelis and Palestinians are as people but also how far apart they are in their political psychology.
NJ: Bottom line: Is a two-state solution still achievable?
Djerejian: My bottom line from this exercise is that a two-state solution is still possible, but it will take strong, unwavering political will on the part of all concerned to achieve it. We’ve gotten close before, but one side or another proved a weak link. We’ve also seen major steps forward, however, whether it was the Israel-Egypt peace signed at Camp David, the Madrid Conference, or the Israel-Jordan peace deal. The key is to shape a diplomatic landscape that makes it hard for the two parties to say no. That will only happen if there is strong political will in Jerusalem, Ramallah, and Washington. That has always been the key ingredient and often the big flaw in this equation. Political will on all sides is essential for peace.
NJ: Secretary Baker, given current circumstances and your long experience with this problem, is a two-state solution still attainable?
Baker: Yes, because everyone knows what a two-state solution looks like and the general formula for getting there. Ed is right — the tough thing is marshaling the necessary political will. In that regard, I always stress a few axioms for negotiating the Arab-Israeli conflict. First, because of our special relationship with Israel and the fact that we’re trusted by the Israelis in ways that other nations are not, you will get no progress toward peace without active U.S. participation. Second, there is no military solution to this conflict, meaning a lasting peace depends on United Nations Resolutions 242 and 338. Three, it’s the hard-liners on both sides that are the real problem.
My fourth axiom is the real Catch-22: Israel will never enjoy real security as long as it occupies Palestinian land, and Palestinians will never achieve an independent state as long as Israel feels insecure. The most important thing the United States can do is help them both out of that conundrum.
The Project on Middle East Democracy and the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies (CIHRS) hosted an event to examine the current state of human rights in the Arab world.
….Radwan Ziadeh spoke next, describing what he believes is the main problem in the Arab world: the “human rights circle.” The first element of this construct is the never-ending emergency state, which at least five Arab countries have used to justify draconian policies for years or even decades. This leads to a deficit of constitutional rights, the second element. Both the emergency state and flexible constitutionalism lead to the third element: impunity and a lack of accountability.
Ziadeh then explored three country case studies. First, he relayed that Egypt continues to top the list of countries in which torture is routinely and systematically practiced. Its emergency law has been widely used to harass and detain bloggers without charge. Second, he looked at Syria and described how its government has failed to take even one step to reconsider laws that are inimical to human rights, leaving it in a much worse situation than Egypt. Finally, Yemen is an example of a country where U.S. aid has increased significantly, but the human rights situation has yet to improve. Ziadeh diagnosed U.S. foreign policy as having a “lack of understanding of the nature of authoritarian regimes in the Arab world.” He provided three recommendations: Democratization must become a goal for this administration; the U.S. needs to establish a long-term commitment to this goal; and efforts to advance democracy in the region should be unique to each country’s level of development and social and economic rights.
Radwan Ziadeh, Director of the Damascus Center for Human Rights Studies.