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Diplomat Discusses Next Steps For Israeli-Palestinian Conflict


As we just heard, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to head to the region soon with a cease-fire in place and holding for now. So now we want to turn to the question of what could be next. Specifically, we want to ask, what should the Biden administration be going for? To try to push the ball forward for a lasting peace, the long-term U.S. goal of a two-state solution or just maintain the quiet for now, however fragile?

Ambassador Martin Indyk just wrote about this for Foreign Affairs. He has a lot of experience. He is a former U.S. special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. He's now a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, and he's with us now. Ambassador, welcome back. Thank you so much for talking to us.

MARTIN INDYK: Thank you, Michel. Good to be with you.

MARTIN: In your piece for Foreign Affairs, you wrote that President Biden was hoping to take a less proactive approach to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians than his two predecessors, both of whom people may recall failed to make significant inroads toward peace in the region. And you ask if, given that this crisis sometimes creates, you know, opportunity, should he try for more? And you conclude that, unfortunately, no. I mean, you say that the conflict actually requires management because conditions simply do not exist for its resolution. So tell us why you say that.

INDYK: Well, I think you have to first of all, look at who we're dealing with in the circumstances of this latest round of conflict was started by Hamas. And Israel and Hamas engaged in 12 days of fighting. But Hamas is not interested in final status negotiations to end the conflict with Israel and make peace with it. It rejects that in favor of its ultimate objective, which is the elimination of Israel. And so on that side, what do we have to deal with? On the other side, the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank but not Gaza, is run by Abu Mazen, who's 85 years old, not in great health in the 17th year of his four-year presidential term. And from my engagement with him and we know each other very well, I believe that he's decided that he will go down in history as the leader of the Palestinians who did not compromise Palestinian rights.

So, you know, on the Palestinian side, it's very hard to see how we could work towards a final status agreement. And on the Israeli side, there looks like they're going into a fifth election. They have a caretaker government. Netanyahu has tried to form a right-wing religious government, which is isn't interested in a two state solution anymore than Hamas is for their own reasons. And so I think that at least for a time, we're going to have to see what emerges from Israel's political process. But there's no way that we have an interlocutor in Israel that has a mandate to make peace either.

MARTIN: I have to say, and this is relevant to my next question, the Palestinians argue that this latest conflict, while it's true that Hamas started firing rockets at Israel, they argue that this latest conflict that the sort of the match to the tinder was the evictions in East Jerusalem and also what as Palestinians consider sort of provocations by the Israeli police.

INDYK: Yeah. Right.

MARTIN: And so - and the reason that that's relevant, it's that the Biden administration has come under a lot of pressure from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party to do more, to stand up to Israel, to be more assertive about the treatment of Palestinians. But President Biden has been careful to emphasize that the United States always supports Israel's right to defend itself. And given the facts that we just discussed here, was that the right answer at the time like this? Was that the right response from the president at a time like this?

INDYK: Well, first of all, I agree with the Palestinians that the spark was certainly the evictions or the threatened evictions, and the behavior of the Israeli police in the al-Aqsa mosque. But having said that, I think that President Biden, first of all, is fundamentally pro-Israel and his approach has been for all of his time in the Senate. I think it's instinctive for him. It's in his DNA and that's who he is.

Secondly, though, I think he recognized in this crisis because he knows Prime Minister Netanyahu very well, having dealt with him for many years, that the best way that he could move Netanyahu to cease firing, if Hamas were prepared to end its rocket fire in Israel, was to put his arm around Netanyahu. Make it clear that the United States supported Israel's right to defend itself. But once he had a reassuring arm around him, to push him forward to agree to a ceasing fire.

So I think that's Biden's approach. It's not exactly a new approach. It's been practiced in the past. And I think he feels that it worked quite well this time around that had he not done so, had he tried to follow the advice of the progressives and demanded that Netanyahu cease-fire, it probably would have prolonged the fighting.

MARTIN: Well, before we let you go, you've written that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is like riding a bicycle. If you're not pedaling forward, you fall off. So given what you said in reminding us of what you said at the beginning, that this - that the conditions require management because you said that this requires management because conditions just don't exist for resolution. What needs to happen now, in your view, to keep moving forward?

INDYK: Well, as the secretary of state is going out to the region, I think he should be focused on several important issues now. The first is rebuilding reconstruction in Gaza. The president has said that he wants to do this through the Palestinian Authority. Of course, Hamas controls Gaza. So it's not going to be so simple. But I think the idea that of reintroducing the Palestinian Authority through the reconstruction process is something that should at least be tested. That's for Gaza.

In Jerusalem, he's going to need to reach some understandings with the government of Israel about things that will not happen there, such as the evictions, such as the egregious behavior of the Israeli police on the Temple Mount, Haram al-Sharif, the way the al-Aqsa Mosque is. And then in Jordan, in Jordan is the custody of the al-Aqsa Mosque. And Jordan needs to be brought back in to playing its role there, which is something that Israel and Jordan can talk about with American encouragement, so that there's a way of calming the situation down at the mosque through Jordan's role as the custodian.

MARTIN: That was Ambassador Martin Indyk. He is a former U.S. special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. He's a distinguished fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. And we're talking about a piece that he wrote for the magazine Foreign Affairs. Ambassador, thanks so much for sharing your insights with us once again.

INDYK: Thanks for having me, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.