Link Between Mideast Talks, Iraq Peace Questioned One recommendation of the Iraq Study Group is for the U.S. to deal directly deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict. But will progress in that area translate to peace in Iraq?
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Link Between Mideast Talks, Iraq Peace Questioned

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Link Between Mideast Talks, Iraq Peace Questioned

Link Between Mideast Talks, Iraq Peace Questioned

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

One observation of the Iraq Study Group, in its report that was released this week, was this. There must be a renewed and sustained commitment to a comprehensive Arab/Israeli peace on all fronts. Just as the first Gulf War was followed by a big Middle East peace conference, the one in Madrid in 1991, there should be a similar conference.

Richard Haas, who is president of the Council on Foreign Relations, was on the National Security Council staff handling the Middle East back in those days. And Richard Hass, I'd like to talk with you today about the prospects for diplomacy and also the relationship between the Arab/Israeli conflict and Iraq. Do you accept the reasoning that without an Israeli/Arab peace or some progress toward one, you can't get a stable result in Iraq?

Mr. RICHARD HAAS (Council on Foreign Relations): The short answer, Robert, is no. Let's put it this way. When these people in Iraq get up every morning and pick up their guns, the reasons that Shia are killing Sunnis and Sunnis are killing Shia is not in order to promote some Palestinian state or some vision of Jerusalem or anything else.

They are fighting, quite bluntly, over the future of Iraq and a division of spoils in Iraq. So tomorrow, there could be peace between Israelis and Palestinians, which would be a wonderful thing for many reasons, but the one thing it wouldn't stop is the civil war inside Iraq.

SIEGEL: Then what is the step from addressing the violence in Iraq toward proposals for a more vigorous U.S. diplomatic role in promoting a Middle East peace between Israel and Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians?

Mr. HAAS: I think it has probably two reasons. One is with Syria there could be a connection. The Iraq Study Group and others are obviously concerned about the flow of fighters and arms and money across the Syrian border into Iraq. It's obviously exacerbated the situation inside Iraq, and there is a thought that there's potentially a bargain with Syria, where Syria would cooperate and close its border.

And what it would require in exchange, possibly, is progress in its relationship with Israel. So one could imagine some sort of a grand bargain with Syria where it would make peace with Israel. In exchange, it would get the Golan Heights. But what Israel would get, in addition to peace with its neighbor, is it would get a Syria that was no longer supporting Hezbollah or harboring Hamas, and that there may again be some sort of a package that would help the situation in Iraq and also bring peace between Israel and Syria. So there's that possibility.

The other possibility that explains the surprising emphasis in the study group report on the Palestinian issue and all that is a way of bucking up the Arab countries. Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the rest are distressed, to say the least, over what is going on inside Iraq. This is something that means a lot to them. This is something that would make these leaders feel less insecure. So I believe it is simply something that the study group is recommending since quite honestly, we can't do much about the situation inside Iraq itself.

SIEGEL: How do people address this problem within the offices of government, which is a grand bargain with the Syrians? Some people would say you'd be rewarding Syrian meddling in Lebanon and permitting people to enter into Iraq by sitting down to negotiate a process in which Syria would ultimately have to gain something from it.

Mr. HAAS: Quite frankly, I don't understand that perspective or mindset, and here I find myself squarely in Jim Baker's camp. Almost invariably, when you sit down to negotiate, you're sitting down with governments that are conducting foreign policies that give you heartburn or worse. That's why you're bothering to negotiate them in the first place.

If you describe - I don't mean you personally - but if one described any negotiation as somehow rewarding a government that was carrying out bad policies, then we would never have a negotiation again. What matters is not that kind of perspective, it's simply, the basic question is can you come up with a deal which would leave you better off than you are currently without such a deal? That ought to be the only yardstick.

SIEGEL: Let me play for you a recording of what President Bush said at his joint news conference with Tony Blair yesterday when he was asked about the U.S. talking with Syria. Here's what he said.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: If we were to have a conversation, it would be this one to Syria. Stop destabilizing the Sinora government. We believe that the Sinora government should be supported, not weakened. Stop allowing money and arms to cross your border into Iraq. Don't provide safe haven for terrorist groups. We made that position very clear.

SIEGEL: He was speaking of the government of Lebanese Prime Minister Fouad Sinora. A conversation to Syria was the president's phrase there. That's not much of a conversation he's talking about.

Mr. HAAS: Well again, with all due respect, I disagree with the president there. I mean, he's right to say that we want Syria to stop destabilizing Lebanon. We want Syria to stop allowing fighters and arms to come into Iraq. But we can't set those as preconditions for negotiations. We can't expect they're simply going to say okay, we're going to stop doing all that we're doing.

Rather, that needs to be part of the overall negotiation. In order to get those things, we're going to need to be prepared to give certain things. What matters in a negotiation should not be so much where you begin or the meeting of preconditions. That seems to me a recipe for never getting anywhere. What ought to matter is where you come out, and whether at the end of the day, you have a package that on balance serves your interests.

So if I were advising the president, I would say don't demand that the Syrians stop all this objectionable activity up front. Rather, design a negotiation, design a package that at the end of the day will get them there at a price we're prepared to pay.

SIEGEL: I've heard some people react to the proposal of getting an Arab/Israeli peace done as saying one could cut the Gordian Knot in Baghdad if only you could solve the four dimensional Rubik's Cube first here over here in the West Bank, Southern Lebanon, and the Golan Heights. It's not very encouraging to say first let's solve the 50-year-old, 60-year-old conflict between Israel and its neighbors. Then we can figure out things in Iraq.

Mr. HAAS: Only in the Middle East would one apply such logic to think that by trying to solve the entire regional problem you would be able to improve the situation in Iraq. Again, I just don't think one, it's possible, but two, it's not going to work that way. The dynamics that are fueling the internecine conflict inside Iraq would simply not go away or be materially affected by progress on the Arab/Israeli dispute, or in particular, the Israeli/Palestinian dispute.

Secondly, now is not a particularly good time, Robert, to get ambitious about solving the Israeli/Palestinian dispute, in large part because it's not clear to me you have a Palestinian partner. You've got one gentleman, Abumazin, who may be prepared to make peace, politically and intellectually, but simply doesn't have the capacity to do it physically. And then you have groups like Hamas that could make peace if they so wanted, but show no inclination to do so.

So I would simply say this is probably not a moment to get terribly ambitious about bridging the gap between Israelis and Palestinians.

SIEGEL: Well, Richard Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, thanks for talking with us once again.

Mr. HAAS: Thank you.

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