President Obama hosts the leaders of Israel, Palestine, Jordan, and Egypt this week in an attempt to find new momentum on the long-stalled Israeli–Palestinian peace process. In a Q&A, Marwan Muasher, former foreign minister and deputy prime minister of Jordan who played a central role in developing the Arab Peace Initiative and Middle East Road Map, looks at the U.S. effort, the major roadblocks, and the role of Arab states in the process.

Muasher explains that with little chance for a breakthrough in Israeli–Palestinian talks, the best hope for the Middle East is a regional approach that secures peace between Israel and the entire Arab world. “The United States will soon need to put a plan on the table that is a combination of the Clinton parameters and the Arab Peace Initiative—the mix of these two provides a reasonable and regional framework for an agreement that would solve not just the Palestinian–Israeli conflict, but the regional component too,” says Muasher. “A regional solution is both desirable and attainable—unlike a bilateral agreement.”


How did the United States convince both sides to restart direct talks?

The United States had been trying hard to move the two sides from proximity, or indirect talks, to direct talks. The Palestinians had been insisting on some general terms of reference before they would agree to such talks—mainly that the talks should be based be on the 1967 borders and that there should be a halt to settlement activity before such talks can be launched. Whereas there has been no direct terms of reference from the United States specified, in the end the Palestinians agreed to a Quartet statement, which basically included the 1967 borders and a halt to settlement activity.


What is the structure for the upcoming dialogue?

It is not clear what modalities the talks will assume. They will be launched in September, here in Washington. Discussions are going on right now over where the talks will take place, whether they will be in the region or in Washington. If, for example, the two sides want the United States to be closely involved, then they would obviously choose a Washington venue. And as far as the time table is concerned, the United States has said, or expressed its belief, that the talks can be conducted in one year. Whether they indeed will be done in one year or not is still an open question.


What are the prospects for success?

The chances for a breakthrough from bilateral talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis are bleak. For the Israelis, peace with the Palestinian Authority will not include Hamas, will not include the wider region, and is therefore, I think, not worth the compromises that they believe they will have to make in order to arrive at such a solution.

And the Palestinians will also have to provide some painful compromises—on, for example, the right of return for refugees, or on Jerusalem—and they will not be able to do that without Arab and Muslim cover. And if you take how to solve the Syrian–Israeli part of the conflict as well, it also will not be preferable to give back the Golan Heights without a solution to the relationship that Syria has with Iran, with Hezbollah, and with Hamas. Therefore security guarantees would have to be put in that can only be put in if there is a regional solution.

The problem with time, also, is that it has basically run out. Even the most ardent optimists regarding the two-state solution will tell you that the two-state solution is on its deathbed, and therefore, we do not have time for an incremental approach that might take years, particularly given that the status quo is not static on the ground and settlement activity continues.

Because of all these factors, because of the lack of time, and because conditions are not there for a separate peace agreement, either between Syria and Israel, or between the Palestinians and the Israelis, a regional approach within a reasonable time frame—we’re talking a few months here—is the only way to salvage a two-state solution.

What are the major stumbling blocks?

There are many stumbling blocks. Jerusalem is one of them. How do you divide Jerusalem and make it the capital of the two states, but at the same time, keep it open, and what security guarantees do you need? The refugee matter is a huge issue. What do you do and how do you exercise the right to return in a practical manner that would not torpedo a solution? Israel, on its part, is insisting on keeping the Jordan Valley. How do you do that and keep a viable two-state solution?

And then, if you look at the wider region, of course Hamas and Hezbollah are the next sort of stumbling blocks. How do you arrive at an agreement that would ensure the transformation of these parties into political parties and therefore basically giving up their arms? And then you have to deal with the issue of Iran. Iran is not a signatory to the Arab Peace Initiative so how do you ensure that in a wider agreement all logistical and military support to groups like Hamas and Hezbollah are cut off so that we indeed have peace and security with the whole region?


What will this mean for the Palestinian divide?

Because of the present rift in Palestine between the Palestinian Authority government in the West Bank and Hamas government in Gaza, any separate agreement would be reached between the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and Israel, therefore excluding not just the Hamas government, but also the sizable Palestinian community which supports Hamas and opposes a separate peace agreement. For all these reasons, I think it is not possible to reach a separate peace agreement, nor would it be accepted, either by a majority of the Israeli public or a majority of the Palestinians. Palestinian reconciliation is of the utmost importance, and will have to be done so that both Hamas for the Palestinians, but also Hezbollah in the wider context can be included in a regional settlement that would ensure security for all countries in the region including Israel.


What role are Arab states playing?

Arab states put on the table an important initiative in 2002, the Arab Peace Initiative, which basically committed the whole Arab world to peace with Israel, normal relations, security guarantees for all countries in the region including Israel, an agreed solution to the refugee problem, an end to conflict, and no further claims. Since then, Arab states have not done enough to market this plan, but with time, the importance of this initiative is becoming clearer to all sides concerned, including in Israel, and certainly with the Obama administration.

What Arab states can do now is to provide a regional safety net, and to make sure that in return for a viable Palestinian state—that, in my opinion, has to include East Jerusalem, otherwise no Arab or Muslim country would be able to live with that solution—the Arab world can play a positive role in providing this regional safety net to Palestinians and in assuring Palestinians that they can sign an agreement without being called “traitors” or “compromisers.” 


Should Saudi Arabia play a part?

Saudi Arabia is key to a solution. Today, Saudi Arabia is a leader in the Arab world and in the Muslim world. Saudi Arabia is the author and initiator of the Arab Peace Initiative and King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has the stature, both in the Arab and the Muslim world, to make such an agreement stick. It will be important to reach an agreement during the life of the Saudi monarch, because I think that he can do a lot to ensure Arab and Muslim support—not just for the Arab Peace Initiative but for any eventual agreement.


Will Iran be an issue?

A lot has been said about Iran’s role in the peace process. Certainly, Iran is not an Arab country, and therefore not a signatory to the Arab Peace Initiative. However, it will be difficult for Iran to continue to oppose the peace process in a militant fashion if we arrive at a regional settlement, in which all countries in the region, including, for example, Syria, would commit to security guarantees and to the transformation of Hamas and Hezbollah into political parties.

In fact, this is another strength of the Arab Peace Initiative, that the security guarantees and the transformation of Hamas and Hezbollah become an Arab responsibility rather than an Israeli one. Israel tried, after all, to disarm Hamas and Hezbollah in Lebanon and in Gaza, and failed on both occasions. I also think the Iran nuclear program certainly is an issue to reckon with and deal with, but it has less to do with the Arab–Israeli conflict and more to do with Iran’s wish to be recognized as a regional power.

We also need to remember that some of this is just Iran’s rhetoric. Iran has collaborated with Israel a number of times in the past: in the 1980s when Israel supported Iran militarily, during the Iran–Iraq war, and during the Iran Contra affair when the United States sold arms to Iran via Israel, hoping that they’d secure the release of U.S. hostages at the time in Iran.


What is the history of U.S. involvement in the peace process?

The United States has been very involved in the peace process since its inception in Madrid in 1991. After all, it was the United States that brought the parties together then. The Oslo agreements, of course, were signed here in Washington, and the Clinton administration was closely involved in negotiations that led, in the end, to the Clinton parameters being offered to the two parties in late 2000. The Bush administration was not, at first, interested in the peace process, and its interest came too late for any agreement to be reached.

There is no question in my mind that if there is an agreement to be reached, the United States needs to put something on the table that is a combination of the Clinton parameters and the Arab Peace Initiative. A mix of these two provides a reasonable and regional framework for an agreement that would solve not just the Palestinian–Israeli part of the conflict, but the whole regional part of the conflict as well.


How is the Obama administration approaching the issue?

President Obama appointed Senator Mitchell as his envoy for the Middle East on the second day of his administration. So far, their strategy seems to follow an incremental approach which has not resulted in much progress.

The hope going forward is that the direct talks starting now would have active U.S. involvement and would not adopt an incremental approach because time is not on our side. If there is any hope to salvage a two-state solution, these talks cannot last more than a few months, a year maximum, if any viable solution is to be reached. And frankly, it is not yet clear what approach the United States will take during these direct talks.


How will the direct talks impact the region and world?

Obviously, a solution to the Arab–Israeli conflict will have major ramifications on the region—positive ones. Not only in terms of an end to the conflict, but also in terms of the other challenges facing the Arab world, particularly on governance and reform. The Arab–Israeli conflict has both been an impediment and an excuse for not moving on other challenges facing the Middle East, and a Palestinian state would not just bring stability to the region and freedom to the Palestinians, but it would also usher in a new era where attention to these other issues will have to be given by the Arab world.