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Brzezinski: Obama Must Press Agreement on Israelis and Palestinians

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In order to get beyond the stunningly superficial analyses of the Israeli-Hamas conflict one might find on MSNBC's Morning Joe, I called up Zbigniew Brzezinski -- former national security adviser to President Jimmy Carter, Obama supporter and eminence gris of American geostrategic thinkers -- to offer him a serious opportunity to talk about the challenges to Obama in facing this Middle East mess. We also talked about Obama's other immediate test: the mounting tensions between India and Pakistan after the Mumbai attacks. Finally, in light of these conflicts, we assessed the "clash of civilizations" thesis propounded by Havard's Sam Huntington, who died last week.

Here are excerpts of the interview:

Nathan Gardels: As President-elect Obama prepares to enter the geopolitical fray, he faces two looming crises -- the war between Israel and Hamas, and the mounting tension between India and Pakistan after the Mumbai attacks. First, Israel and Hamas.

How can there ever be a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians with an armed, hostile and rejectionist Hamas in Gaza?

Zbigniew Brzezinski: There will never be a deal unless there is on the table a comprehensive outline of a solution that is attractive to the majority of the Israelis and Palestinians, particularly if such proposed solutions stand in clear contrast to the consequences of the failure of either side to accept such an agreement --- in other words, the relentless cycle of violence we are witnessing yet again today in Gaza.

By now it should be quite evident that the two parties to the conflict will never reach an agreement on their own. The Palestinians are divided, which complicates their ability to negotiate effectively. The Israelis are reluctant to move forward with a compromise deal because some feel comfortable with the status quo while others aRE quietly using the stalemate to expand settlements in the West Bank.

The only way, therefore, to move forward is for the international community, led by the United States, to put on the table the framework of an eventual agreement. This agreement should be based on four fundamental points:

-- No right of return for the Palestinian refugees. This is a very bitter pill for the Palestinians to swallow, though it can be sweetened by an international acknowledgment of their suffering.

-- Jerusalem has to be equitably shared as the capital of two states, Israeli and Palestinian. Admittedly, this is a bitter pill for the Israelis. But the fact of the matter is that no peace will be viewed as equitable without this.

-- An equitable territorial arrangement based on the 1967 lines, with some changes permitting the incorporation into Israel of some heavily urbanized communities beyond the 67 lines. In return, the Palestinians would be compensated with other territory, perhaps in Galilee and the Negev.

-- A demilitarized Palestinian state with the deployment of American troops along the Jordan River, thereby insuring Israeli security XXX by providing "strategic depth."

Such an agreement would, in my view, be supported by the majority of Israelis and Palestinians, and would isolate the extremists on both sides, both THE settlers and the right wing of Likud in Israel as well as Hamas.

Gardels: Khaled Mishaal, the Hamas leader, has often said that while Hamas won't accept the existence of Israel, they will accept a "long term truce" -- he told me 20 years in one interview. Must Hamas recognize Israel's existence as a condition for the US to talk with them, or, pragmatically, can the truce idea lead somewhere?

Brzezinski: I doubt a truce is sufficient. After all, If there is to be a peaceful settlement based on territorial arrangements, I don't see how those arrangements can be conditional, as they would be in such a truce. The notion of a truce precludes some of the elements of a comprehensive agreement. A truce, as such, would only preserve the status quo, which is untenable.

Gardels: During the Bush administration, there has been very little daylight between the US and Israel. If Obama is to leverage his "soft power" in the Arab and Muslim world to regain American presitige, musn't he put some daylight between the US and Israel?

Brzezinski: Doing it in this fashion would not be productive. It would create great insecurity in the American Jewish community and in Israel itself. What is needed, is a serious and determined engagement in the peace process. That in itself makes the US a constructive mediator instead a passive participant -- as the US has become during the Bush years.

Gardels: India has said they have the right in self-defense to strike militant sanctuaries in Pakistan if Pakistan can't, or is unwilling, to do the job. This is what Bush has done; it is what Obama has promised to do. Why should India not do the same?

Brzezinski: Theoretically, from a debater's point of view, the argument you have laid out is correct. However, any sane person has to ask "what has the US gained" by attacking these sanctuaries other than inflaming Pakistani public opinion? Have we destroyed the Islamist networks? Why would India be able to do any better?

The real risk of any Indian attack on Pakistani territory, which otherwise might be morally or internationally justified, is that it could lead to a major war between nuclear powers. Any major war between the two--even if Pakistan is defeated -- could unleash tremendous internal turmoil in India, with its large Muslim population that is increasingly resentful and restless. That would threaten the very integrity of the Indian state.

So, yes, India would have the right to attack the sanctuaries. But, so what?

Gardels: In other words, it wouldn't be wrong, but stupid.

Brzezinski: Precisely.

Gardels: Last week, Harvard political scientist Sam Huntington died. He was most noted for his controversial thesis of "the clash of civilizations." The conflicts we have been discussing -- Israel vs. Hamas; Hindu India vs. Muslim Pakistan -- run along civilizational lines. Was Huntington right in the end?

Brzezinski: He was more right than wrong. He was certainly more right than his critics. He clearly put his finger on something. I had reservations in the beginning, even though he was one of my closest friends. Huntington's analysis made the clash of civilizations seem inevitable, but I think it was avoidable. I fear that historians will think that the US, Bush particularly, made a very substantial contribution to proving Huntington right.