Washington took notice when Edward S. Walker retired from the Foreign Service last year and assumed the presidency of the Middle East Institute. Walker had just completed a 34-year career in diplomacy, including stints as U.S. ambassador to the United Arab Emirates (1989-92), Egypt (1994-97), and Israel (1997-99). In his last Washington assignment, he served as assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs (2000-1). Walker, a native of Pennsylvania, enjoys a reputation as a well-rounded Middle East specialist, with an ability to communicate in Arabic and Hebrew. In comments made before this interview, Walker emphasized that the Middle East Institute would build on its traditional strengths: the Middle East Journal, its rich library, language classes, lectures and conferences. At the same time, Walker has raised the Institute's profile in Washington, by providing more policy-oriented programming to the media and Congress. Patrick Clawson and Daniel Pipes interviewed him in Washington on December 3, 2001.
Middle East Quarterly: You're no doubt aware of the various accounts of what happened at Camp David and Taba. How would you apportion the responsibility for the failure to reach an agreement?
Edward Walker: I'm not sure it's helpful to try to assign blame at this point in time. And it's a little hard for me to second guess because I was not intimately involved in Camp David; I went up there for only one day. I would agree with others who have said there should have been more preparation. There was a desire to move quickly, without a clear commitment from Yasir Arafat to the process. And there was no preparation by the key Arab states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan. It was extremely optimistic to think that final status issues could be addressed for the first time ever, and resolved in a two- or three-week period.
MEQ: You've advocated that the Bush administration "move forward aggressively on the peace process."1 Do you want to see President Bush involve himself as much as President Clinton did?
Walker: The president must appear engaged and personally committed to the process. But the president doesn't have to be actively involved on a day-to-day basis, picking up a telephone every time somebody calls. Now the problem is the impression that the secretary of state is engaged, but the president isn't.
MEQ: So, it's a symbolic engagement?
Walker: Yes. People have to be convinced that the president is committed, he wants something to happen, and he's willing to put the power of the United States behind it.
MEQ: In retrospect, was President Clinton overly involved?
Walker: Yes, because he cut out everybody else below him. The minute Arafat could pick up the phone and talk to the president of the United States, why should he talk to Dennis [Ross] or to Madeleine [Albright] or to Sandy [Berger]? Clinton was overly involved. That's part of his personal character, and he's good at it. But that level of involvement should be a last resort.
MEQ: Secretary of State Colin L. Powell gave a major speech on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations that you praised for "refusing the model of the Clinton administration" on Jerusalem. You advocated bringing Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the European Union and others into the negotiations.2 How would their involvement make the Jerusalem issue more tractable?
Walker: I'm not sure I want them at the negotiating table, but it's very important that they be comfortable with the direction and the ultimate result. The Europeans can help us with that. If you get the religious issue dealt with in a way people can accept, an agreement on other issues becomes less problematic.
MEQ: So how do you see the other parties' involvement?
Walker: Basically, the Palestinians and Israel negotiated between themselves on almost all aspects of Jerusalem. Who's going to have what neighborhood? Who's going to have sovereignty? Which flags are going to fly? All of these issues can and must be resolved bilaterally. But the one question that can't be settled between just the two of them is the Haram ash-Sharif/Temple Mount, because it affects so many other people. The other parties should take up the challenge of exploring solutions to this problem.
MEQ: Do you think this is realistic?
Walker: When I went around in the Arab world right after Camp David, I found a lot of interest and desire to find an answer to this aspect of the Jerusalem question.
MEQ: Shlomo Ben Ami, Israeli foreign minister under Ehud Barak, concluded from his negotiations with the Palestinian Authority that mainstream Palestinian nationalism has within it "serious pathological elements," that "want to denounce our state more than they want their own state."3 Your comments?
Walker: I'm not sure this is a problem of the mainstream, but the mainstream changes depending on the circumstances. At one point, you'll have Hamas down to 20 percent, and the next day, it's up to 60 percent. But if Palestinians genuinely thought that they had an option for a viable and sovereign Palestine, I think they would go for it.
MEQ: You've criticized Arafat's failure to define the kind of state he wants to create.4 Is there reason to think the kind of state he would create would differ from the Palestinian Authority he has already created?
Walker: I don't believe that you can achieve peace unless the future Palestinian state is democratic. Were I an Israeli, I would be very reluctant to allow the establishment of a mini-Taliban state on Israel's borders. There has to be an agreement that the Palestinian state will adhere to democratic principles. It must not be autocratic or corrupt. I would not be willing to make compromises to establish anything less.
MEQ: Benjamin Netanyahu was the prime minister during most of your stint as ambassador to Israel. He could return to that job. Knowing him as you do, how might you characterize him to Arab interlocutors?
Walker: Netanyahu did more than people give him credit for. He changed history, by bringing the Israeli public into some unanimity behind the concepts of peace. This was not the position of the Likud beforehand, and it's a very important change without which you cannot have peace. But he lost faith right after Wye; it was partly a problem of Arafat not delivering and partly the United States not demanding adherence by both sides to their agreements. Then Netanyahu faced domestic problems in his own party, and the Syrian option distracted him. The gains of Wye were dissipated.
MEQ: He's not the ideologue that he's portrayed as?
Walker: I never thought he was an ideologue.
MEQ: Do you think he's an ideologue now?
Walker: Well, if he wasn't then, it's unlikely that he is now.
MEQ: You have said: "Arafat has to decide, once and for all. Is he prepared for a genuine two state solution or not? If he is, then he must break his alliance with Hamas and the PIJ [Palestinian Islamic Jihad], both of which seek the destruction of ‘Israel as a Jewish State.'"5 What do you think are the prospects Arafat will break with Hamas and Jihad? Can you see him doing what he will have to do—disarm them, break their organizations, and ruthlessly pursue the most dangerous of them?
Walker: He's not going to do it if he isn't certain that the United States is going to back him 100 percent, and that the Israelis are going to cooperate as well. Clearly, he can't do it on his own. He's going to need support, also from other Arab countries, because it's going to be a very tough fight. He's let them become too powerful. If he doesn't do it, he's dead. Arafat has no option. Either he's going to make the break, or he's not going to have our support and European support. If he gives up everything to Hamas and the PIJ, he'll become irrelevant.
MEQ: How long does he have to act?
Walker: It's going to have to be fairly soon. He can't equivocate; it's a final decision he has to make—and the kind of decision I've never seen him make.
Indulging Hamas and PIJ is costing him his power; he is losing his symbolic standing as the embodiment of the Palestinian state. He's jeopardizing his place in history by refusing to stand up to these guys who have absolutely no interest in him. They want to eliminate him anyway; I have no idea why he defends them. They're against us; they're against peace; they're against Israel; they're against Palestine within a two-state solution; and they're against Arafat. What are they for?
MEQ: What has been the impact of September 11?
Walker: For a long while, Arafat could play an evasive game. But since September 11, things have changed. And when you come right down to it, the Palestinians have become increasingly disaffected with the intifada as a vehicle for achieving their objectives. This presents Arafat with an opportunity. Whether he's enough of a statesman or leader to take advantage of it, I don't know.
MEQ: You have criticized Israel's targeted killing of Palestinian terrorists.6 Let's say that Arafat detains the people who sent out the suicide bombers responsible for killing nearly thirty Israelis over the past weekend—and later frees them. Would you deny Israel the right to kill them, if the opportunity presents itself?
Walker: Yes. I call it assassination.
MEQ: What is a state to do when it knows that potential murderers are on the loose and knows who they are?
Walker: My feeling is that a policy of assassination is not effective in the final analysis. Israel has used assassination for many years. I just don't see that it really accomplished very much for Israel. When the United States used it in the past, I don't think it really accomplished much for us.
MEQ: But, you seem to be against the policy not on grounds of efficacy but because it offends you.
Walker: I feel that one shouldn't take a life without some kind of a judicial check. Leaving it to intelligence types, basing themselves on intelligence—which can be accurate or inaccurate—omits the checks and balances that are a precondition for condemning somebody to death.
MEQ: Could the Israelis take steps that would assuage your concerns?
Walker: If they were prepared to put an outside check on the intelligence people making the decisions—say, a judicial review—well, that would be acceptable. I'm not opposed to the death penalty.
MEQ: So, you're not against the executions themselves? You're against the specific way they are carried out, the lack of safeguards?
Walker: That's correct.
Hizbullah and Syria
MEQ: You have said that Hizbullah's known present activities do not justify its inclusion in the executive order freezing assets of terrorist groups.7 Are you implying that Hizbullah should be effectively amnestied for previous activities?
Walker: Not exactly; that's what the Arab press said I said during my recent visit to Lebanon. The Lebanese government claims that Hizbullah are not terrorists because they were engaged in legitimate resistance against Israel, which was in occupation of southern Lebanon. In that specific case, I happen to agree with them. What Hizbullah did in south Lebanon was not terrorism; it was resistance, because it was directed solely at military targets. But this is not the sum of Hizbullah, which is on the terror list for a host of other reasons—for its terrorist actions. It is a terrorist organization. Absolutely.
MEQ: You have urged that any available evidence of Hizbullah's alleged terrorist role be made public.8 "Any available evidence" presumably includes intelligence data; do you want this made public?
Walker: I actually did say that. There is releasable material that would undercut the argument of those who say that Hizbullah should be considered a resistance organization. It's important for people to understand what these organizations are up to. It is possible, without revealing sensitive sources, to prove (for example) that Hizbullah has supported Hamas.
MEQ: In other words, you would like to make a better case against Hizbullah by revealing low-grade intelligence?
Walker: Absolutely. Just saying Hizbullah is a terrorist organization, when many people simply don't believe it, is a very weak position.
MEQ: Despite the determination by the United Nations Security Council and the U.S. government that Israel completed its withdrawal from Lebanon, Hizbullah says it hasn't, citing the Shib‘a Farms.
Walker: Hizbullah's acts in that area are violations.
MEQ: What do you think Hizbullah's ultimate goal is? Is it restricted to Lebanon or has it to do with the claims on Jerusalem?
Walker: It is Syria that prompts Hizbullah to push on. Jerusalem is not that important to Hizbullah. But the Syrians are very afraid that the world is going to forget them. Their own issue, the Golan, has dropped off the agenda, and they can't put it back at the top by launching a confrontation across the Golan. Irritating the Israel-Lebanon border is the sole way they can keep the world from forgetting the Golan. They control the situation in south Lebanon, and it's not going to escalate, but it reminds everybody that there is still a Syrian grievance.
MEQ: You praised Syrian president Bashshar al-Asad for his letter of condolence to President Bush for September 11. You wrote: "I was moved by his words."9 Does this suggest you are content with Syria's role in the war on terrorism?
Walker: No. I would like to see Syria follow up. But I'm a sucker for a story with good news, particularly when I haven't heard one for so long from some place. I have been impressed with the kinds of things that President Bashshar has said in our meetings that we've had, and in his letter to President Bush. He has some extremely good instincts. The question is whether he can deliver, and in what timeframe. He obviously works under a lot of constraints, given what he inherited.
MEQ: Is he his own man?
Walker: That's a good question. I honestly don't know. He hasn't yet built a coalition that would enable him to do some of the things he's talked about. When he has gotten too far out front—opening the banking system, allowing more internal debate—he's had to pull back rather quickly. He is testing the waters, taking two steps forward and one step back—and, sometimes, one step forward and two steps back. It's difficult to predict where he is headed, and how far he will go.
MEQ: What do you make of the offensive anti-Semitic remarks that Bashshar made during the Pope's visit to Syria?
Walker: I don't know. Asad, the father, never would have done that. It's partly lack of experience.
I have my own theory as to why Arabs periodically emit these anti-Semitic comments. Unfortunately, we never really challenge them. They say to themselves: Americans don't seem that worried about it, so what's the big deal? They can pander to the prejudices of their peoples, without paying a price.
Then there is sheer ignorance. They've heard these sorts of things all their lives; they can't see the anger these statements create. I once attended a conference with a number of leading Jewish Americans, some Israelis and a couple of Egyptian businessmen—savvy Egyptians in the forefront of creating linkages to Israel, to help cement relations and also to make money. One of the Egyptians let fly the most offensive Nazi joke I've ever heard. He assumed everybody would laugh. Instead, jaws dropped. I took the poor fellow aside and explained to him what he'd done wrong.
But there's also another element: plain viciousness. Sometimes an anti-Semitic slur really is the work of an anti-Semite. That, too, is part of the Arab scene.
MEQ: You have been quoted as saying there are "people [in Washington who] believe that we should not only be attacking Usama bin Ladin in Afghanistan, but also Saddam Husayn in Baghdad."10 It sounds like you disagree.
Walker: Yes, I do. Two administrations, probably more, have had as a basic premise that we can't have a natural or normal relationship with Iraq as long as Saddam Husayn rules. That's still the case today. Nobody I know of thinks that Saddam should remain in power, and if we have a chance to remove or eliminate him—by all means. But before that, we have to win a war and fulfill a role in Afghanistan. It's important to get that out of the way. Then, there are some 150 other cells of al-Qa‘ida around the world that we need to roll up. That's going to require a lot of international cooperation. Iraq is on the list of priorities, but it's much further down.
MEQ: But Iraq is developing nuclear weapons, according to knowledgeable sources such as Khidhir Hamza.11
Walker: We need the time to recreate the coalition in the Security Council. Otherwise, Saddam will play us off against one another. If we go in unilaterally right now, we'll probably lose the cooperation of the Saudis, the Turks, the Europeans, and the Russians. The British would be on board, but that's not a whole lot of comfort if others begin to walk away from us on counter-terror cooperation, like intelligence sharing and shutting down terrorist finances.
MEQ: In other words, you are for bringing down Saddam Husayn but not quite yet?
Walker: Precisely. I was thinking of waiting six months until the next rollover of U.N. sanctions, in order to establish a coalition against Iraq.
Saudis in Doubt
MEQ: For the first time since the 1973 oil embargo, Saudi Arabia has incurred the wrath of many Americans. Do you think that U.S.-Saudi relations should continue as in the past or undergo some changes?
Walker: Saudi-U.S. relations have depended on two basic U.S. interests. First, we have a strong defense interest in Saudi Arabia. Saudi support may be critical if we do decide to move on Saddam. It's certainly not in our interest to throw away a key element of our footprint in the region, if we can avoid it. Second, we have a very critical interest in maintaining a stable price on energy. The Saudis have been constructive in that regard over the years. We have the occasional problem, but on the whole, the price has been relatively stable, thanks to the Saudi willingness to close or open the tap.
MEQ: How do you respond to the charge that the U.S. government is obsequious in its relations with Saudi Arabia?
Walker: I wouldn't call it obsequious; that's the wrong term. The United States has not wanted to rock the boat; it's perfectly comfortable as long as the price of oil stays within reasonable bounds and we can maintain and manage the defense and strategic relationship. We have never felt the obligation or the necessity to intervene to try to change Saudi society. But we should take another look at the kingdom and join the Saudis in asking whether their current practices do or don't assure their long-term prospects for survival.
MEQ: What is your view of the growing sense that Saudi official culture is a breeding ground for anti-American extremism that has led both to Usama bin Ladin and the fifteen Saudi suicide hijackers? If so, what would you advise the Saudis to do about this?
Walker: There's a huge difference between generations in the Saudi elite, as a number of Saudis have accurately noted. The fathers went to university in the United States or Britain. They knew English better than they knew Arabic. But now that money is tighter, fewer Saudis are able to come up with the $33,000-plus it takes to attend certain American universities, and there are no scholarships for Saudis. Then they've got the large investments they've made in their own universities, where the religious authorities have a powerful influence. So the younger generation is narrower, more conservative, more Islamist, more anti-American. They also don't always get jobs; unemployment is at 20 percent. I am repeating what Saudis are telling me—which at least suggests that they have identified the problem.
MEQ: Is it time for us to conduct our own debate over Saudi Arabia?
Walker: Saudi Arabia is the Arab country that epitomizes all the stereotypes that Americans have about the Arab world: they wear funny headdresses; they're rich; they don't work for a living. Women don't drive; when they do, they get slammed. They wear veils. There is a cultural gap of enormous proportions between the Saudis and us. They don't really understand us, and we don't really understand them. On most days, both sides just look the other way. But nowadays, everybody is paying close attention—and they see a country where the practices are very alien to our own. Then people start asking hard questions. Is the regime stable? Will it survive in the long run? Is this the way to go or should there be some thought given to a different direction for Saudi Arabia? These are legitimate questions that need to be addressed—and debated.
1 Interview, Daily Star (Beirut), Nov. 12, 2001.
2 Edward S. Walker, "A Message from America—Secretary Powell's Speech on the Middle East," Nov. 27, 2001, distributed by the Office of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.
3 Shlomo Ben Ami interview, Ha'aretz, Sept. 13, 2001.
4 Walker, "A Message from America."
6 Edward S. Walker, "No Exceptions for Israel," The Washington Post, Aug. 21, 2001.
7Interview, Daily Star, Nov. 12, 2001.
9 Edward S. Walker, "Letters from Washington," Al-Hayat, Sept. 25, 2001.
10 The Jordan Times (Amman), Oct. 31, 2001.
11 "Khidhir Hamza: ‘I Can Foresee Saddam Controlling the Middle East,'" Middle East Quarterly, Fall 2001, pp. 67-68.