Caught in the Middle

For three decades, David Ignatius has talked to all camps in the fractious Middle East. Then came Davos, and an effort to "moderate" a conversation between irreconcilable sides on the Gaza war. The center not only cannot hold, he concludes -- it no longer exists.

I still have the press credentials I gathered nearly three decades ago from the Middle East's various combatants: one from the left-wing Druse militia in Lebanon, one from the right-wing Lebanese Christian militia known as the "Phalange," one from the Palestine Liberation Organization, another from the Israeli government. The only common features are the photos of me in my early 30s: scruffy, glowering, determined to penetrate the veil of secrets.

I still have the press credentials I gathered nearly three decades ago from the Middle East’s various combatants: one from the left-wing Druse militia in Lebanon, one from the right-wing Lebanese Christian militia known as the "Phalange," one from the Palestine Liberation Organization, another from the Israeli government. The only common features are the photos of me in my early 30s: scruffy, glowering, determined to penetrate the veil of secrets.

The press cards remind me of a time when you could be in the middle of the Middle East conflict and imagine that you were covering all sides fairly. And when I say in the middle, I mean that almost literally. Back in the early 1980s, you could interview the PLO in West Beirut in the morning, sneak past the snipers along the "Green Line" at midday, and then interview the Israeli-backed Phalangists that afternoon in East Beirut, even as the two sides were shooting at each other.

Not long ago, I found myself wishing I had one of those old press passes, which carried the implicit message: "Don’t shoot; I’m a journalist!" I had just "moderated" a heated discussion of the Gaza war at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland. The session became a minor international incident when I told Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan that, because we had run out of time, he could not have another round of comments responding to Israeli President Shimon Peres, whereupon Erdogan walked off the stage. In the aftermath, I received many outraged messages complaining I had censored Erdogan and sided with the Israelis.

For someone who has spent much of his career trying to operate in the middle of the Middle East conflict and working hard to avoid any appearance of bias, it was an unpleasant situation. Trust me, you would not like to examine the e-mails I got or read the articles in the Turkish press about the incident. There are several explanations I could offer about what happened: that we were 15 minutes late, that each of the speakers, and especially Peres, had abused the time limits, and that the organizers had signaled it was time to end the event.

But that only obscures the larger point. At Davos, I found myself in the middle of a fight where there was no longer a middle. My efforts to do what moderators do — let everyone talk for a while and then find a few inches of common ground — blew up in my face.

Gaza is simply one of those problems for which there isn’t much middle ground. Israelis and Palestinians are both convinced not only that they are right, but that the other side is morally bankrupt. Talking about Hamas’s rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, the normally placid Peres was almost shouting at Davos, angrier than I had ever seen him. Erdogan, in turn, was hot with indignation, voicing a rage that is felt across the Muslim world, and furious that I didn’t give him time to express those feelings fully. It’s understandable, what happened. But it’s not a debate that anyone can "moderate."

Looking at America’s troubled role in the Middle East today, I fear the country finds itself in a position similar to mine — trying to act as a moderator in a bitter dispute, to seek a middle where there is no middle. The United States is perceived as siding with the Israelis even as it claims to be impartial. When someone walks off the stage, Americans wonder what went wrong.

The United States may regard itself as outside the conflict, but in the region it’s seen as part of it. During the Bush years, people began to think of America as a combatant, not a mediator; it’s pretty hard to play the honest broker when you have two armies on the ground. The American laissez-passer credentials didn’t work anymore.

So what should the United States do about the Middle East? It has in Barack Obama a new president who says he intends to talk to all sides — to America’s enemies as well as its friends. But what would this mean in practice? Is the damage of the Bush years irreparable, or is there a path that leads somewhere else — not to the elusive middle, but to a new kind of connection?

I know a little about talking with our enemies because I have been doing it for many years. Not my enemies, mind you (journalists aren’t supposed to have any), but my country’s. I talked with the PLO in Beirut when U.S. diplomats were forbidden from doing so. I visited Libyan officials in Tripoli back when the United States was bombing that country’s leader, Muammar al-Qaddafi. I have twice interviewed Hassan Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah. I have interviewed President Bashar al-Assad of Syria twice as well, most recently last December. And I traveled to Iran in 2006 to interview officials there.

The "enemies list" is, more or less, the same roster of states and radical groups the United States must now engage as it seeks to stabilize the Middle East. And though the American mantra may be that it never negotiates with terrorists, the reality is that it always has, when it’s necessary or useful to do so. To take just one example, at the very time the United States officially refused to negotiate with the terrorist PLO, the Central Intelligence Agency was recruiting the chief of Yasir Arafat’s intelligence service as a U.S. asset — with Arafat’s knowledge.

One remembers the inevitable oddities from these encounters: Arafat’s habit of repeating in his post-midnight Beirut harangues that the Palestinians were "not the Red Indians"; the mad look in Qaddafi’s bloodshot eyes as he stared at me in one of his palaces and then stalked out, refusing to conduct the promised interview; the animation in Nasrallah’s boyish face as he talked about Hezbollah’s grim mission; Assad’s almost plaintive warning in 2003 that the U.S. invasion of Iraq would lead to disaster; the sudden softening of an Iranian hard-liner who, when he learned that I was a novelist, insisted on giving me a book of Persian poetry.

Over all these years, I always felt welcome personally as an American. But nowadays, the Middle East’s leaders don’t seem to need the United States as much. With Arafat and Qaddafi, there was a palpable yearning to connect with Washington, and the assiduous courting of Western journalists that came with it. That’s less true today with Nasrallah, Assad, and the Iranians. They want Washington to come to them.

Indeed, a recurring theme in these many contacts over 29 years is "dignity" — in Arabic, the word is karama. That is what Israeli and U.S. actions have offended, even when the two countries thought they were being generous and just. People in the Middle East want to write their own story; they don’t want to submit to outside pressure, even when they know America is right. They prefer their own bad leaders to the "good" ones the United States would impose.

People in the Middle East want dignity, and they’ll die before they give it up. It’s not something that a mediator can fix. You don’t bargain over a nation’s self-esteem any more than you would haggle over a man’s pride. It’s an odd concept for Americans, who have the wealth and self-assurance not to have to worry so much about saving face. But it’s at the heart of the Middle East conflict.

Take the Palestinians. Since 1967, U.S. diplomacy has been framed around the idea that the United States could negotiate with "nice" Palestinians who would, as a precondition, recognize Israel’s right to exist. For many years, the American partner in that dance was King Hussein of Jordan. But even the PLK, as journalists liked to call the "Plucky Little King," couldn’t find a way to bypass the un-nice Arafat.

Arafat gradually softened his rhetoric and recognized Israel, and he finally agreed in 1993 to the transitional Oslo Accords that created the Palestinian Authority. This experiment proved to be a disappointment. Arafat, always worried about more extreme Palestinians, never made the final deal to create a Palestinian state. Why? Bizarre as it sounds, I think he feared losing his dignity (and perhaps his life) by making a final deal that his critics would say was a sellout.

Today, the nice Palestinian is President Mahmoud Abbas. But to his people, he appears impotent. He has been unable to deliver peace and independence. He can’t stop Israeli settlements in the West Bank or incursions into Gaza. And he can’t deliver a state that would meet minimum Palestinian demands. So power flows toward the more radical Hamas.

It’s hard to comprehend Palestinian support for Hamas until you visit Gaza. It is truly one of the most miserable places on Earth — a tiny, densely packed territory full of sullen people who feed on their victimhood and rage. Even back in the 1980s, it had the feeling of a human rat cage. Palestinians cling to the one prize they possess: the dignity that stems from resistance, embodied more and more by Hamas. The Israelis have tried and failed to break this link. Stubbornness is the weapon of the downtrodden against more impatient adversaries.

I witnessed this fierce Palestinian culture of resistance in 1982 when I lived for a week in the West Bank town of Halhul. In those days, Arafat and the PLO were still the unmentionables — it was forbidden even to display their insignia. But they were everywhere: An old grandmother would slyly show you the PLO flag disguised in the knit cover for a tissue box. A town elder would reveal a PLO map of Palestine (with no Israel) hidden behind a photograph on the wall.

Halhul was a farming town, and its people were passionate about their grapes ("the best in the world," they kept telling me), growing on ancient vines. I returned there in 2003 to visit the man who had let me stay in his house in 1982. He was pleased to see me again, but when I asked about his grapes he became upset. The Israelis had recently built a special road for settlers to commute to Jerusalem, blocking access to the grapes. He couldn’t water or tend the vines, and they were growing wild — while the settlers whizzed home in their cars. It was a daily humiliation.

It’s people like this whom the United States needs to bring into this process — not the nice Palestinians, but the angry ones, the sullen ones, the ones who look at their withered grapes and dream of revenge. As distasteful as it may be, that means talking with Hamas.

A sensible U.S. strategy would be to split Hamas, drawing the more pragmatic and pliable faction into negotiations. And the quickest way to split them, history shows, would be for the United States to begin secret contacts with those who are prepared to discuss a two-state solution. Arab sources have already reported that Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal has privately made such a statement. Soon enough, if Mashaal or others accept negotiations, Hamas will start bickering — and the hyperextremists will denounce them as sellouts. That’s just what happened in 1974 when Arafat formalized his secret contacts with the CIA and the more radical factions in the PLO split from Arafat’s Fatah organization.

Which is why, if the United States can find members of Hamas who are ready to talk about the formation of two states, Israel and Palestine, then the U.S. government should start talking with them. The process may legitimize Hamas as a political force, but it will delegitimize Hamas as a terrorist organization. Israelis won’t like it, just as they didn’t like it when the United States started talking with Arafat. But it would create new diplomatic space, not illusory middle ground. There are no "nice" alternatives to this now.

Another adversary the United States will need to talk with is Syria, and the Obama administration has already begun traveling the road to Damascus. But it is not a straight route; rather, it’s a path of mirrors, especially because, even by the standards of the Middle East, the Syrian regime can be so harsh. I saw this in a visceral way back in 1982. The Syrian Army had just crushed the Muslim Brotherhood in the city of Hama, and the only way I could get in was the regular Damascus-Aleppo bus, which passed through the center of town. I will never forget the gasps of the Syrian passengers as they saw the devastation of entire quarters of the ancient city. Syrian tanks had rolled up to houses where members of the Brotherhood were hiding and opened fire, point blank. It was like pictures of the rubble of Berlin in 1945. That was the Assad regime’s message: We will do anything — anything — to survive.

The same toughness drives the regime today. Many Lebanese think Syria used assassination as a political weapon to control Lebanon. The alleged victims include Bashir Gemayel, President René Mouawad, and most dramatically, Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Several journalists have also been targets, including Samir Kassir and Gebran Tueni. I spoke at Tueni’s memorial service in Beirut in December 2006 at the request of his father, Ghassan, who was one of my mentors when I was a young journalist in Beirut. Yet I have never stopped visiting Syria, for the simple reason that it’s a place that matters.

When I interviewed President Bashar al-Assad for the first time in January 2003, he was still a neophyte leader, trying to fill his father’s shoes. We met in the guesthouse of the presidential palace on a mountaintop overlooking the dusty sprawl of Damascus. Assad began in fluent English, which he learned as a medical student in London. He talked about the need to modernize Syria, open its economy, and make it a Mediterranean power like Greece or Turkey. Then he switched to Arabic for the interview proper, and the relaxed doctor became more cautious. He didn’t say anything that his hard-line father wouldn’t have endorsed.

When I met Assad again last December, he spoke entirely in English, and he was confident and at ease as he sent feelers to the newly elected Obama administration. He urged Obama to support a Syrian negotiating track, and also Palestinian and Lebanese ones. His blessing for the latter was intriguing because it might open the way for indirect talks between Israel and Hezbollah (which is part of the Lebanese government).

Will Assad break his strategic alliance with Iran, as Israel demands? Probably not, at least not openly. But even a maybe could create new space. In the very act of negotiating with Israel and the United States, Syria would separate itself from Iran. The United States might eventually resume its role of mediator between Syria and Israel. But first there must come something different: U.S. engagement with Syria, in which the two countries explore where their interests converge and where they are opposed. In that act of talking with Syria seriously, the United States would draw the country toward the West.

When I saw Assad in December, I said that when I saw pictures of him and his stylish wife visiting Paris, I could not imagine that his regime was destined to ally with the somber clerics of Iran. He responded that the alliance with Iran was a product of Syria’s strategic position, implying that if Syria’s position changed (meaning that it was no longer threatened by Israel), then its alliances might change, too.

The politics of survival have made the Assad regime a tough adversary, but the hardness of the regime also makes it a potentially serious partner. A government that could level one of its major cities to stop the Muslim Brotherhood knows that, in the end, it must find allies against al Qaeda. That’s the raw self-interest driving the Syrian regime toward negotiations.

When interviewing Hassan Nasrallah, a visitor enters the parallel universe that Hezbollah has created in Lebanon. From its headquarters in the southern suburbs of Beirut, a short 15-minute drive through a maze of narrow streets from the city proper, the Shiite militia has built a ministate — with its own military force, intelligence service, telephone network, health and welfare department, television station, foreign ministry… the list goes on. As long as Hezbollah maintains this separate existence, it will remain a destabilizing force.

Hezbollah is one of the unintended consequences of Israel’s 1982 invasion of Lebanon. Israel had imagined it could manipulate the country’s Shiite community, but that was one of the many illusions of the assault. It shattered Palestinian power in south Lebanon, while opening the door for poor Shiites who had been under the PLO’s heel. Tehran sent its best cadres into Lebanon to organize the Shiite militants into what became Hezbollah, and it has proven to be a disciplined and relentless foe. As with many other rising powers in the region, Hezbollah sought to answer the Arab yearning for dignity by defying Israel.

In Nasrallah, that answer has taken shape. He is one of the Arab world’s most charismatic figures, with a piercing intelligence and an unyielding anti-Israeli line. During our first interview in October 2003, I asked if Palestinian militants would ever halt their attacks against Israel. "I can’t imagine a situation, based on the nature of the Israeli project and the nature of the Israeli leaders, where the Palestinians would agree to lay down arms," he replied.

Judging by that inflexible statement, you’d think the only thing Nasrallah would discuss with Israel would be its surrender. Yet that very week, he was negotiating indirectly with Israel about the terms of a prisoner exchange. It was a reminder that what people say and what they do aren’t always the same.

When I interviewed Nasrallah again, in February 2006, he was flexing his muscles. The Lebanese government had questioned Hezbollah’s status as an armed resistance movement, and he had retaliated by pulling his two ministers out of the cabinet, creating political paralysis. I was asking Nasrallah about this crisis when the phone rang. He dickered on the phone with his aides for a few minutes and then told me the stalemate had been resolved. Hezbollah would get to keep its weapons, and its ministers would end the boycott. I went away convinced that disarming Hezbollah would be impossible without a broader settlement with Syria or Iran.

Today, Nasrallah’s movement wants two conflicting things: It demands a strong role in the Lebanese government, but it also insists on maintaining separate "resistance" status. It talks about fighting Israel, but since the summer war of 2006, Nasrallah has been careful not to provoke another attack. When I asked him at the end of our second interview if he could imagine the Middle East changing so much that Hezbollah wouldn’t be on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations, he answered: "The whole world will change. This is the law of life." What did that mean? I don’t know, but I cannot imagine that Hezbollah would be more threatening if, as a part of the Lebanese government, it were drawn into a process of negotiation with the United States and Israel.

What’s haunting about Lebanon today is not so much Hezbollah’s uncertain evolution, but the waning U.S. influence in what was once the most pro-American country in the Arab world. The biblical inscription over the gate of the American University of Beirut — "That they may have life and have it more abundantly" — summed up America’s generous image there. Now, too many Lebanese see the United States as part of the problem. When I visited Beirut last December, I wrote that the country had entered a "post-American era." The United States had become so feeble diplomatically that it was unable to break last year’s political impasse over the election of a Lebanese president; the mediator’s role was taken instead by little Qatar.

And then there’s Iran, the hardest nut of all. Even with the U.S. military on its borders in Iraq and Afghanistan, it has defied American power successfully. Through Hamas and Hezbollah, it has projected influence to the shores of the Mediterranean. I cannot imagine a stable security framework for the Middle East that does not include Iran, a point on which I found little disagreement when I visited Tehran several years ago.

A Western visitor imagines Iran as a Muslim version of North Korea — controlled, regimented, hobbling into the future in leg irons. But it’s a far more open and complicated place. I met with editors of competing newspapers who offered sharply differing views about President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I visited a dissident ayatollah in Qom who argued that the current regime was defaming Ayatollah Khomeini’s legacy (and insisted on videotaping the conversation for his records). Wandering in the bazaar, I encountered every possible strand of political opinion.

At the famous Friday prayers at Tehran University, people still shout "Death to America," but the crowd looks pretty long in the tooth. Afterward, I asked a younger man what an American should make of all the chanting, and he looked embarrassed. People don’t want to kill Americans, he said — they just don’t like U.S. policies.

So why do Iran’s leaders take such inflexible anti-Israeli and anti-American positions? One answer is that they spout this venom because people pay attention to it. The same logic may drive Iran’s nuclear program. They take it so seriously because the rest of the world does, too.

Like everyone else in the Middle East, Iranians crave respect. Not without reason, they think the United States has manipulated their politics and suppressed their national ambitions. That makes people angry. And yet, every Iranian seems to have a relative who has been successful in the United States. They are funny, charming, prickly, vain, hypocritical, and arrogant. Just like Americans, you might say. What they want — respect, self-confidence, a sense that they have arrived — others can’t give them. But there is a core of rational self-interest in the Iranian regime, and that’s the point of engagement.

The 30-year division between the United States and Iran isn’t working for either side, but attempts to find middle ground have proved futile. America should look instead to walk across the divide. Iran may not be ready to let the United States do so, given how threatening Iranian leaders find contact with the United States. But even an Iranian refusal to meet an outstretched American hand would have a clarifying effect.

I was in Lebanon in 1982 as the Israelis rolled to the gates of West Beirut. I still have one of the pink Arabic leaflets that floated down on the city in the first week of the war that June. The Israeli Army will soon enter West Beirut. Protect yourself and your family. Flee for your life.

But to the consternation of Israeli Gen. Ariel Sharon, Palestinian fighters mostly held their ground. By midsummer, the Israelis were bogged down. To take the city, they would have to destroy it on television — not a viable strategy in modern warfare. By the time Israel finally withdrew from Lebanon in 2000, most Israelis would probably say about the 1982 invasion what most Americans would say about Iraq: It was a mistake.

We sometimes speak of the fight against Muslim terrorism that began after Sept. 11, 2001, as "the long war." The United States is undeniably at war with al Qaeda and related movements whose mission is to kill Americans. But that conflict does not lock it into a general war against Muslim adversaries. Iran also opposes al Qaeda. So do Syria and Hezbollah. Everywhere al Qaeda has been active, it has made new enemies. This war is winnable — especially if the United States can disentangle the other strands.

American leaders must give up the notion that they can transform the Middle East and its culture through military force. George W. Bush tried that. He sought to alter the dynamics of the region by knocking down the tent pole, just as Sharon thought in 1982 that, by going all the way to the PLO stronghold of Beirut, he could transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But the Middle East doesn’t lend itself to transformation.

Everything I know about the region tells me that military power will not break the resolve of America’s adversaries. The Israelis have tried that strategy against radical Palestinians for decades, without much success. It turns out that even the most wretched, desperately poor resident of Gaza will sacrifice his home, his job, his security, his life — before he will give up his dignity.

It’s time to try something different, and Obama offered the right formula for it in his inaugural address: "To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect."

All wars end. Even people who claim to despise each other eventually find a face–saving way to begin talking. They don’t stay in the middle of a conflict where there is no middle. They move on. That’s what I hope is happening for the United States in the Middle East. America is beginning a serious and sustained process of talking with its enemies. That process means listening carefully and speaking frankly, and giving up, too, the pretense of "moderating." America needs to get out of the elusive middle, step across the threshold of anger, and sit down and talk. Even if these negotiations fail, America will have moved into a different, and better, place.

David Ignatius is a columnist for The Washington Post.

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