Interview: War, peace and optimism for an embattled region of sorrow

Bernard Reich, professor of political science and international affairs, has devoted much of his life to studying the Middle East. He sat down with The Hatchet on April 18 to explain the war between the Israelis and Palestinians.
The material for the Arab-Israeli Conflict class he teaches finds itself on the front pages of major newspapers around the world, with suicide bombers and military offensives comprising just a fraction of what is covered in class.
He is the author of many books on the subject, including
Quest for Peace: United States-Israel Relations and the Arab-Israeli Conflict, and his most recent book, U.S. Foreign Relations with the Middle East and North Africa.
Away from the classroom, Reich trains and educates U.S. diplomats on their upcoming tours of service in the Middle East, testifies before on Congess and travels around the world lecturing people on one of the world’s oldest, bloodiest battles.

Hatchet: Secretary of State Colin Powell left the Middle East with virtually nothing to show for his efforts, aside from a possible ministerial-level peace conference. What role do you think he can play now?

Reich: At this point the primary move, in my mind, is to eliminate the violence to the extent that that can be done. Try to re-establish some form of confidence or trust between the two parties so that there can then be some movement toward a more final arrangement. Until the violence stops, until the two sides have some reason to trust each other and to participate in a process of renegotiation, we are doomed to have more violence, more killing, more deaths mired in disruption, which is in nobody’s ultimate interest.

Hatchet: Do you see (Israeli Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon and (Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser) Arafat accomplishing that, because they have a sordid history with one another, or do you see a new generation of leaders taking over and having better results?

Reich: This is not Sharon’s war, as The Economist said. This is not Arafat’s government. Yes, they have a sordid history, but the Palestinians and the Israelis have a sordid history.

Arafat turned down an offer, a deal from negotiations with (former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud) Barak, who is the antithesis of Sharon in so many respects. Before that he couldn’t reach an agreement with (Benyamin) Netanyahu. Before that he couldn’t reach an agreement with (Shimon) Peres. Before that he didn’t reach a final arrangement with (Yitzhak) Rabin.

It is not one person; it is the issues that they represent.

Hatchet: How do you think your students are handling the war that is going on right now between the Israelis and the Palestinians?

Reich: We have seen no violence in class, we have had no shouting matches and we haven’t had them in all the years this course has been taught at GW, which is now the better part of 30 years. Hopefully, when the class is done, they have much greater information at their disposal. Whether the information changes their point of view is another thing.

Hatchet: Do you attempt to appear neutral on the issues in your classes, and do you think you have been successful in doing so?

Reich: All of us are individuals; all of us have points of view. If you were to ask me what my point of view was, what I would do, what I think is more appropriate, I’ll be happy to tell you sometime. But my basic goal in the course is for people to understand what has happened, what is happening, what the issues are, how one might deal with them, what the facts are, what the documents talk about, what the parties have agreed and disagreed to.

What you or I might believe ought to be done or should be done or could be done is not what the course is about. We are studying the politics of this conflict, as it has existed for a hundred years. In that machine we are very small cogs.

Hatchet: Getting back to the conflict itself, where do you see the violence going right now? Do you see a wider conflict emerging?

Reich: I think that the conflict, at this point, is fairly well-contained. Partly it’s contained because the secretary of state made it clear to both Syria and Lebanon that continued shelling into Israel from Lebanon would in fact threaten an escalation. I think that message got across. I think that Syrian and Lebanese governments understand that they do not want to get involved in an exchange with Israel.

Hatchet: How much of a factor is Iraq in all of this? Obviously the president has made it clear that he supports a regime change over there. Do you think that what is going on in Israel is a thorn in the side of that policy?

Reich: The two are related. (Iraqi President) Saddam Hussein in 1991 fired more missiles into Israel than he did into Saudi Arabia. Saddam Hussein has regarded Israel as the enemy since the day they took out his nuclear reactor back in 1981.

As the U.S. gets closer to doing something about Iraq, these issue will become more concrete. They will have to be examined; we will have to negotiate with every one of the allies, both European and Middle Eastern. So it is a factor, and it will affect things.

Part of the time Saddam Hussein simply blusters about it and talks about doing things with the Palestinians when, to put it bluntly, he has no real interest in the Palestinians. Just as Osama bin Laden did this, and he had no interest in the Palestinians, except as a diversionary tactic to help himself out with regard to the U.S.

Hatchet: He (Hussein) built political support for himself.

Reich: Built support from the Arab states to prevent the Arabs from siding with the U.S., to muddy the waters a bit, so that the U.S. thinks twice about taking on action. In the case of bin Laden, we acted. In 1991, we acted against Saddam Hussein; the year 2002 is a little more complicated, but we will act.

Hatchet: Will there be peace in the Middle East?

Reich: Absolutely. It is not simply a matter of making sure there is enough oil. It is not simply a matter of making sure that people are well taken care of. But I think what happens in this very important part of the world affects everyone, and we all believe that. So we have to work under that assumption that peace is possible and then figure out the mechanism that is going to get us there.

From children getting killed on street corners, in school rooms, all the way across to the potential and eventual use of weapons of mass destruction, which can be much more deadly than anything we have seen thus far. This is a region where weapons of mass destruction exist, where some have been used, Iraq in particular, and which ultimately could threaten far more devastation than the attack on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and similar events elsewhere. So we have to have the optimism.

Now can I back it up with good, sound political detail? Not yet, but I wish I could.
-The interviewer, a senior majoring in economics and public policy, is Hatchet opinions editor.

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