America's Man in the Middle East

The plight of Syrian President Bashar Assad is Israel's opportunity to put an end to the conflict with Syria, says Thomas Pickering. Few Americans are as well informed about Israeli politics as this former U.S. ambassador.

"I think I ought to announce that I am joining Kadima," Thomas Pickering said at the outset of his talk in a Herzliya hall, a few hours after Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz declared he was bolting the Likud to join Ariel Sharon's new party. Few Americans are as well informed as Pickering about Israeli politics, about its tangled connections with American politics, and about the influence that interaction exerts on political and diplomatic processes. He has been closely following the developments in Israel for more than 30 years, since he accompanied Henry Kissinger on the shuttle missions which led to the separation-of-forces agreements with Egypt and Syria after the 1973 Yom Kippur War, until he retired as undersecretary of state for political affairs in the administration of president Bill Clinton. At various times in his career he was U.S. ambassador to Jordan and Israel and to India and the Russian Federation. During the Gulf War of 1991 Pickering observed the events in the Middle East from his office as his country's ambassador to the United Nations.

This week he was in Israel to do business in the air. For the past few years he has been senior vice president for international relations at Boeing, the aircraft manufacturer, and responsible for the concern's ties with foreign governments. On Sunday he found time to deliver a talk on the situation of the United States in Iraq and on the Iranian problem. A professional diplomat does not wash his country's dirty linen in public. His criticism of the Bush government's policy has to be sought between the lines. He said it is very possible that the decision makers in Washington do not need his advice - for example, his advice to have the international community share in consolidating Iraq, or to get Iran and Syria to take part in that endeavor. If Washington is already doing that, he said sarcastically, then something is apparently amiss with the performance.

In an interview to Haaretz the next day, Pickering spoke of the need "to corral and cajole Syria" and noted, "I don't think you can have a satisfactory solution in Iraq without at least making sure that Syria and Iran are not playing on the other side of the ball field." It is precisely now, when Syria is under pressure, that he identifies an opportunity to wield what he calls "positive pressure - toward a helpful solution." He would also bring Iran into a "contact group," or as an "adjunct" to such a group, which would be formed to bring in the entire international community on the Iraq issue. He notes that it is impossible to expect that Syria and Iran will line up on the side of the United States before regional countries such as Saudi Arabia, Turkey and perhaps Jordan do.

The plight of Syrian President Bashar Assad, Pickering says, is Israel's opportunity to put an end to the conflict with Syria. "Back in the old days I used to watch this very carefully, originally from Jordan," the lanky diplomat recalls, "and I always thought Hafez Assad never wanted to be the first in the peace process, but I also believe he never wanted to be the last. And now Bashar, in a sense, has put himself in the position of realizing his father's nightmare on this issue." According to Pickering, "the longer Syria believes it will be last and the longer Syria feels the pressure of isolation, the more constructive that pressure might become on bringing about a kind of settlement that both Israel and Syria could live with."

No reason for frightIn the meantime, Pickering says there is no reason to take fright at what appears to be the victory of the extremists over the peacemakers and the derailing of the peace process under the constraints of violence. No, he would not have been dumbfounded had he been told in the mid-eighties, during the period of the London agreement (between Shimon Peres, then foreign minister, and Jordan?s King Hussein), when Pickering was ensconced in the embassy on Hayarkon Street, on the Tel Aviv beachfront, that 20 years later he would be sitting high up in the nearby Hilton as Israelis and Palestinians continued to bash and kill each other. He is not surprised the conflict has not ended, "because when the whole process began I worked for Dr. Kissinger both directly during the Yom Kippur War − he had just come over to the State Department - and then from Jordan, many of us believed the closer we got, the more violent the process would become, and the more dug-in the opponents would be because of their deep concerns and uncertainties about the consequences of peace ... I also later came to believe that underlying both Palestinian and Israeli popular interest is a firm core of people committed in a conceptual way, not to details, to a peace process, that the longer the violent opposition went on, the more significant would become - what I would call - the 65 percent of the popular vote both among Palestinians and Israelis for a successful peace process."

In the second half of the 1980s, ambassador Pickering was present at the birth of the London agreement of 1987 and there is no better witness than him to its crib death: "The principal problem there was how to work out an alignment of forces where the United States was not willing to deal with or recognize the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] as a negotiating authority, and where Hussein would come in as the bridge."

Pickering hints that perhaps Peres' confidence about Hussein's readiness to sign the agreement and become the representative of the Palestinians was exaggerated. "Hussein himself ... recognized that this was a fearfully dangerous course for him to take, particularly if he didn't have the rest of the Arab world."

Yitzhak Shamir, the prime minister at the time under the rotation agreement between Likud and Labor, did not want Hussein - and ended up with the PLO. A year and a half after burying the London agreement, Pickering was instructed by Washington to inform Shamir that the United States was about to launch an open dialogue with the PLO. It happened so urgently that he had no chance to see the PM and he told him the news over the telephone. "Of course you can imagine what his reaction was," Pickering says with a smile.

Peres once asked him why he did not persuade George Shultz, the secretary of state at the time, to visit Jerusalem and present the agreement to Shamir as a fait accompli. Pickering retorted with a question of his own: Why had Peres not stopped Moshe Arens, then a cabinet minister, who had gone to Washington to persuade Shultz to stay home. Since then Pickering has not been an advocate of unity governments. In the case of the London agreement, he says, and in general, "my view is that combinations of governments, with different approaches, different ideological mindsets, different visions, particularly in domestic policy ... makes it very hard to govern. In a sense, we've seen the Germans try this now with Angela Merkel, and they're having their troubles. It took them a very long while to try to work it out, and with typical German thoroughness they had an 80-page document that covered every conceivable issue to try to predefine it. And if there was a problem in the Israeli national unity government, there was no 80-page document."

Kissinger's famous quipPickering has no problem in attributing to the Americans, too, Kissinger?s famous quip that the Israelis have no foreign policy, only domestic policy. "I think that it was, in a sense, an unwillingness on the part of the United States to try to force on the national unity government, which had a divided view on what Peres was trying to achieve in London in his meeting with King Hussein, that, in effect, put the United States in a position of not wanting to choose," he observes. In his view, Shultz was apprehensive that intervention on an issue that was so deeply controversial domestically in Israel was liable to have an adverse effect on the status of the Republican Party in the American political arena.

"Indeed," Pickering goes on, "you could say that was almost prescient in a way, because after all, George Bush the first, in his very, very tough treatment of Shamir over the loan guarantees [for absorbing new immigrants, which Bush made conditional on an Israeli freeze in construction] in the West Bank settlements, had some of the same problems. And while I'm not the definitive analyst of his loss in the elections to Clinton, it's clear to all of us that that particular issue played some role in the shift - although traditionally, the American Jewish community tended to vote much more largely Democratic in those days than they did Republican."

He is convinced that the lessons of that affair continue to hover in the skies of Washington and can explain how dozens of settlements were built and tens of thousands of Israelis settled in the occupied territories under the nose of the United States despite its official policy. "I think you put your finger on one of the long-term, most difficult sets of issues," he says. "Most Americans believe that in the relationship with Israel, the issue of 'enforcement' is not a central tenet of American policy." Moreover, on the issue of the settlements "there is a tendency on this issue to appeal much more to emotion than reality." Even though the settlement movement "cannot be in keeping with what we know to be a principle whose currency is growing, that Israel also needs to deal with the problem of being both a Jewish and democratic state - and that is incompatible with occupation" - the fact is that "many who are very strong supporters of the settlement movement here in Israel have also had a strong influence in their discussions in the United States, not just in the American Jewish community but beyond" ?(a clear reference to the Christian right, the allies of MK Benny Elon and his backers?).

The 'Evangelical constituency'The "Evangelical constituency," Pickering says, is "a growing factor in American domestic politics. This is a well-organized community. It has very specific views on things like abortion and has built itself close links in the Holy Land, which it sees in biblical terms. It has a tendency to see the Holy Land much more clearly through its New Testament activities than its Old Testament affinity. And as a result, obviously, while it clearly sees the State of Israel as an embodiment of some of the direction for the future, I suspect that a careful reading of its New Testament theology would not overall, necessarily ratify the sense of deep comfort, perhaps, that Israelis might otherwise draw from that relationship.

"I'm the last person in the world to introduce religion into politics, but it's there. And one has to analyze very carefully these kinds of approaches and these sorts of activities ... What I think in the United States would be most difficult - just speaking as an American in domestic terms - is if this group intended to legislate its religious views or religiously-based views for the rest of the American public. And I think to some extent, obviously, one wants to know how it sees itself in the long run in connection with a strong affinity for Israel. Is this a stepping-stone or is this, indeed, a commitment that has an enduring quality to it? I don?t know the answer to that. It's important, obviously, as you here in this country analyze that part of the relationship, to keep that in mind. My own view is, quite frankly, that in the long-term settlements in the region, the various religious communities have an overwhelming interest. The really difficult and tricky part would be working out settlements for all of these difficulties in which you try to avoid religious imperatives while respecting historical religious positions. I can remember Henry Kissinger on a number of occasions saying that the Middle East was already terribly difficult, but negotiating with people who felt they got their instructions from God made it even harder."