GW Welling Visiting Professor and noted expert on the Middle East William Quandt discussed his skepticism about peace between Israelis and Palestinians at the Elliott School Thursday evening.
“I’m never going to say (peace) is impossible,” he said. “But I don’t think the recent up-tick in optimism is going to prove warranted.”
Quandt referenced optimism in regard to recent meetings between Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. A summit between the two leaders is scheduled for later this year, but few of the details of the summit have been agreed upon.
Simply agreeing to sit down and talk means very little, Quandt said.
“Most initiatives don’t mean much,” he said. “Once or twice a year, we get a new initiative to do something about the Arab-Israeli conflict.”
Quandt said real progress is made when both sides have strong leaders because these individuals are capable of implementing agreed upon initiatives.
“Every good agreement occurred when you had strong Arab and Israeli leaders like Begin and Sadat,” he said, referring to the Camp David Accords signed by Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat in 1978. Quandt, who served on the National Security Council from 1977 to 1979, was involved in the deliberations.
Beyond strong leaders, the chances for success dramatically improve when the United States takes an active role in leading negotiations, Quandt said.
“For too long, we’ve thought that peacemaking was just putting two parties in a room and letting them work things out,” he added.
Quandt said today’s reality unfortunately involves two weak leaders and an American president all equally unwilling to take an active role in the peace process.
“The trends say that the upcoming meeting will at best reach an agreement, and that there is little chance at implementation,” Quandt said. “There’s no precedent for weak parties and weak American involvement.”
Quandt said he considered Olmert weak because of his need to form a coalition government with Ehud Barak, a former prime minister himself who in fact hopes to regain control of the office. As such, Barak is unlikely to support negotiations led by Olmert.
“Negotiations are tricky when half of your government wants you to fail,” Quandt said.
Abbas’ ability to negotiate effectively is clouded by Hamas, Quandt said. The State Department considers Hamas an extremist terrorist organization, yet the group won a majority of seats in 2006’s Palestinian parliamentary elections.
Quandt also said the United States has been an ineffective mediator since President Bill Clinton was in office.
“The Clinton years were a great missed opportunity,” he continued. “After seven or eight agreements the framework unraveled. It’s sad, that might have been our last chance for peace.”