February 10, 2006 — A delegation from the Council for the National Interest that participated as international observers to the recent Palestinian elections and met with government and opposition figures in six Middle East countries called yesterday on President Bush and his administration to deal honestly and openly with the new Islamist opposition that has been brought to power by democratic means in several Middle East countries.
The members of the delegation, including two ambassadors, were among the first American retired foreign service officers to meet with Hamas leaders Mahmoud al-Zahar and Khaled Meshaal, whom they described as eager to talk to American officials, and even to reach a peace with Israel.
“There seems to be a lack of dialogue with leaders in the Middle East,” said CNI President Eugene Bird in a public hearing on Capitol Hill Thursday morning. “Many U.S. diplomats are not talking to people they should be, and this has been shocking for us to see this.”
“Our officials in the Middle East,” Elizabeth Viering said, “are not listening to the people. They are isolated and cut off.”
Ambassador Robert Keeley, chairman of CNI, said, “People everywhere we went have admiration for the U.S. and its democratic procedures. There should be free and fair elections; winners need to take power; but then after they take power, we can’t impose conditions on the parties that are democratically elected.”
Regarding the Palestinian election, the delegation concluded that the Palestinians “wanted change and reform,” said Keeley, “and a better strategy for dealing with Israel, which Fatah had not been able to deliver on.” “These are not al-Qaeda,” Bird added, “these are nationalists who happen to be Islamic nationalists.”
The delegation also met with President Bashar al-Assad of Syria and President Emile Lahoud of Lebanon, with Amr Mousa, secretary general of the Arab League, with Islamist and other opposition leaders in Egypt, Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria and Israel. “We heard from many people insisting that the U.S. must put its weight behind a fair and just solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict,” Keeley said.
“Our policy in the Middle East is stupid, to be blunt,” Ambassador Ed Peck said, “We are not advancing Israel’s interests. Its security will come from good relations with its neighbors,” a fact that even Menachem Begin realized when he made peace with Egypt in 1979. He expressed a fear that current policy is being “shaped by arrogance and a low level of understanding.”
Keeley believed that neither Camp David nor the Oslo Accords had delivered on promises made to the Palestinian people. He thought that it was time to revisit the Arab Peace Plan, advanced in 2002 by then Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. Keeley said, “This is a generous offer - to paraphrase what was said about Ehud Barak’s suggested terms of peace to Yasser Arafat - and it is balanced and humane. Regrettably, no response has come from either the U.S. or Israel.”
Peter Viering, a CNI board member from Connecticut, said that even Israelis were saying that they needed to deal with Hamas if peace were to be achieved. “But the U.S. Congress doesn’t seem to have received this message.” Instead, it is supporting the continued expansion of settlements and the military occupation of Palestinian territory, and the U.S. is paying the cost.
“Israel needs to confront its past if peace is to be achieved,” Viering said. “Israel needs to face up to its responsibilities to the Palestinian people,” and propose ways in which they can be compensated for the loss of lands and livelihoods.
The CNI delegation included Ambassador Robert Keeley, Ambassador Edward Peck, former Counselor of Embassy Eugene Bird, Peter and Elizabeth Viering, Dr. Hassan Fouda and Christopher Belcher.