Lakhdar Brahimi, a leading United Nations troubleshooter in the Middle East, who also presided over the Bonn conference in 2001 that created the post-Taliban government of Afghanistan, is a former Algerian foreign minister who has tracked the growth of Islamic militancy across North Africa and in the wider Muslim world. In an interview with The Nation, Brahimi talks about the potentially dangerous fallout in the Mideast and beyond of the Israeli bombardment of Gaza, and the burden it puts on president-elect Obama as he tries to improve the image of the United States.
Why have the Israelis done this now?
What I’m hearing and reading is that it must have a lot to do with the forthcoming election, and that the people who are in not doing so well in the polls. They want to improve their ratings once again at the expense of the people of Palestine. That may be one reason. But whatever the reason, this is going to make things much worse, not only for the Palestinian people, but also I think for the whole region.
And this is not going to make things easier for the next [American] administration to deal with the problems of this very, very sensitive region–not only Palestine itself but a host of other problems, from Iraq to Afghanistan.
It has been suggested that the Israelis are showing their muscle to compensate for their disaster in attacking Hezbollah in Lebanon.
That is quite possible, too. But it is so terribly sad that whenever you have a problem, then you just punch the Palestinians and you think you can solve some problem. Because you didn’t do well against the Lebanese two years ago, well why don’t we do much better against the Palestinians. This is a reminder of the invasion of Iraq–that we’ve been attacked by a group of Muslims, so let’s attack a Muslim country, even if we know perfectly well that the given country had absolutely nothing to do with the 9/11 attack.
Mahmoud Abbas, the Egyptians and others simply cannot sit by and watch this assault on Gaza go on, can they?
I’m afraid they are. This is at the very least a terrible embarrassment for Mahmoud Abbas, who has put all his money on working with the Israeli establishment, and also with the American administration, believing–as I suppose he has–in the promises that some kind of solution will take place, or at least some improvement in the condition of the Palestinians. But he has absolutely nothing to show for his line of policy.
I think the Arab governments that supported him must share in his embarrassment. And once again the so-called militants, the resistance, those who people call extremists, will be in a position to say once again, We told you so; we told you that your belief in the magnanimity of the Israelis, your belief in the promises of the American administration–that there will be a two-state solution before the end of this year–was naïve at best and irresponsible, probably, at worst.
What will happen in the West Bank as the result of the assault on Gaza?
If the past is anything to go by, these kind of total attacks that do so much harm to civilians generally reinforce the so-called extremists, not the moderates. I think it was said in Ha’aretz that no military action has reinforced the moderates in the history of Israel. One has to suppose that in this particular case Hamas will come out politically reinforced, no matter how much they will lose militarily. That is true not only in Gaza but also in the West Bank.
I’m afraid it will be true also in the rest of the Arab world. The Islamist political movements in the Arab world live really on the lack of success of the so-called moderates, the people who are cooperating with the West. They thrive on their failures, an in particular on their total impotence to help the people of Palestine. I’m sure that from Morocco to Indonesia really, the Islamists will gain capital out of this.
Does this worsen bad feelings about the United States just at a time when there was hope that things could soon be different?
The statement read by the spokesman of the president of the United States, it is predictable. Still, it will be heard with a deep sense of outrage in Palestine, in the Arab world, in the Muslim world and, I think, in the Third World in general. While people are looking at their television screens at the corpses which you do not see on American television, of kids being killed, [for] the president of the United States to go out and say, this is the fault of the Palestinians, that is beyond belief. This will certainly not improve the standing of the United States.
Will people understand that Obama seems silent now it is because he does not want to pronounce on foreign policy while the Bush administration is still in office?
As a government bureaucrat myself, I understand that. Whether the common people understand why you don’t do anything in a case where humanitarian law and international law is ignored and broken in such a brutal manner, I’m not sure.
The US has almost always kept the issue of Israel out of the United Nations Security Council, and this does not help in finding internationally backed solutions.
Of course not. The United States very, very definitely could be the honest broker. They certainly have the tools to help solve this problem. And I think the parameters of solving this problem are already there now. Even the Israelis speak now of a two-state solution. The thing is to make it happen. The Americans can certainly do that, but they will definitely not do it if they continue to support Israel, whatever Israel does. With that attitude they are ruling themselves out as a truly honest broker.
The Arab governments are facing now a very difficult choice: to continue to pretend that the Americans can be an honest broker or to actually join their people and say, the Americans have chosen to be on the Israeli side. So let’s treat them as such; let’s treat them as they want to be treated, recognize them as they want to be recognized, as supporters of Israel no matter how outrageous its actions are.
When this is over, is there any way to bring Hamas into a serious conversation about the future of the Palestinians?
Absolutely. Hamas won an election, and what should have been done is immediately after the election is to go to them and tell them, congratulations: you have won and now you want to govern. We would like to help you govern. But for that there are conditions.
But what was done was the entire international community–and, I’m sorry to say, some Arab countries–told Hamas, No, we don’t want to talk to you. It’s not impossible to go to Hamas and tell them, If you want to play an important part in the leadership of your people you’ve got to talk to others and listen to views other than yours. I’m almost certain that they would.
To whom would they listen?
I think they would listen to anybody, and certainly to the Americans. [But] the Americans have acted to stop anybody talking to Hamas. Even Abbas. They have been putting a lot of pressure on him. I know this for a fact. And they have been telling the same thing to the Arab governments. They have adopted the Israeli line not 99 percent but 100 percent.
Is the US going to pay a price for not talking with Iran, which backs Hamas, or with other countries in the region?
I think now that in the region they know that the present administration has been consistent in being hostile to the people of the region. But what they are saying is, OK, this administration is out in twenty days. Let’s see if the next administration will act a little bit different or not.
Where are the Europeans? Can they play a role in influencing Israel at this point?
I’m afraid they are nowhere. Europe may have become an economic giant but it is politically a midget. They don’t exist politically, not collectively. In private discussions with Europeans at the highest level, they will say something. But publicly they show absolutely no courage in backing their talk about human rights and fairness and democracy with concrete attitudes. Though there are shades of difference among European countries…I tell my friends in Europe they have really disqualified themselves to speak of human rights and democracy.
What is the game plan you would draw up for Barack Obama now, given what has happened in Gaza?
He said that he will pay attention to this problem from day one. He also said when he went to Israel–and this is being quoted again and again–that if rockets were raining on my house I would definitely do something to stop it. Yes, do something. But what is it that you do? Kill innocent Palestinians because innocent Israelis are under threat? I think you look at the problem and you see that at the root of the problem is occupation. So if you want to protect your daughters, work to end occupation. There are lots of Israelis who share that view. Why do you support the most extreme Israelis? Why not look out for those brave Israelis who have very strong Zionist credentials, who fought for Israel, who believe in Israel and who think that what [their] government is doing is wrong? Why not take their view into consideration?
He must have made his analysis of what his inheritance is and what needs to be done to re-establish the kind of leadership the people of the United States have the right to aspire to. Do they want people to fear them, hate them, or do they want people to admire them and look up to them–a country that people have confidence in? I hope he will take the kind of decisions that will be good for the people of America.
Is there still enough good will out there after these recent events in Gaza? Does he have half a chance to turn the image around?
I think he has, but I think this administration is doing their damnedest to reduce his chances.