At City Club 11.04.05: Ambassador Richard Fairbanks Discusses Progress in the Middle East

Submitted by Sudhir Kade on Wed, 11/09/2005 - 15:23.

In a fascinating discourse Ambassador Richard Fairbanks
the City Club Friday Forum and discussed important progress
toward peace in the Middle East. Fairbanks has remained quite active in
foreign policy matters, he was special negotiator for the Middle East
process and then named Ambassador at Large to the region . He has also
served on a
taskforce on U.S. government international broadcasting and worked for
the Center for Strategic Policy on International Studies. He currently
serves as chairman of the nonprofit Layalina, which works through the
media to enlighten viewers to diverse beliefs and democratic ideals.

In his humble and amusing way Fairbanks capped off the
illustrious introduction with the humorous quip.. ‘I’m also a notary
public!’. Fairbanks reflected on a career in politics spanning back to
his years as President Reagan’s negotiator to the region and reflected
on the fact that every U.S. administration has been deeply committed to
ending the enduring conflict between Israel and Palestine. As he
eloquently put it, 'No other conflict saps our image and is a greater
contributor to undermining U.S. credibility'. Fairbanks then shared the
oft-quoted canard:
‘The difference between an optimist and a pessimist in the Middle East
peace process is that the optimist is always wrong!’

Israeli Prime Minister Sharon has joined a long line of former
Israeli leaders to conclude that endless occupation is NOT a successful
strategy for a democratic Israel- and has acknowledged that leaving
battle-torn Gaza is a good thing. This is a good start toward peace for the region.

On the Palestinian side, Abbas has made great strides toward
democratic progress for the region. Of the quartet which authored the
recent peace plan for the region (European Union, United Nations,
Russia, and the United States) only we can play the role of
truly effective facilitator. The upcoming January elections raise some
key questions, one being: can Hammas leaders stand for election, when
many consider them terrorists?
Palestinians say that excluding Hammas candidates renders the election

In regards to the democratization of region - Fairbanks stressed that it is central 'To lance the boil of extremism through
participation in a democratic process'. Hence elections are critical.

Three key areas of crucial importance in considering U.S policy for Israeli-Palestinian relations:

1. The American position on settlements and Gaza access needs to be clearly elucidated to achieve the agreements necessary
– the steps, commitments, and timetables need to be shared publicly and with transparency.

2. Administration should move quickly to name a high profile
emissary with international standing and credibility – with access to
the president. Possibly a two-person team could be used (Baker and
Nichols were raised as one possible dyad) – with knowledge of the region and
both parties involved in this democratization process. Former chair of
the world Bank Wolfenson was also listed, but likely would be limited in
speaking forand to American top leadership on the full range of
issues spanning economy and security.

3. Flesh out the thorny issue between the two parties: if
positive momentum continues, there will be a need for quick transition
– President Bush wanted the resolution in three years – at this point
this has failed, so just clearing this up before expiration of his term
would be positive progress.

As for comments on Iraq, transition to civil society has been
abysmal - there is still a bipartisan consensus that we owe it to the
nation to provide a political framework with a genuine chance for
. The infrastructure is improving, and recent elections were
hailed a success with high voter turnout. The majority of Iraqis polled
are optimistic and hopeful for success. The last two elections have
been deemed fair and impartial.

One can also point to success with the
media – as hundreds of newspapers and TV outlets have emerged without
the typical Saddam-stranglehold and censorship from times past. The U.S.
has also taken a flexible approach in not pressuring Iraq to shun the
regime in Tehran – diplomatic freedom of the new government has thus been respected. The
overall consensus is that the majority of Iraqis want democracy -and the
U.S. wants to facilitate the process.

Elsewhere in the region, the democratization of region is not
nearly as advanced - elections have not been as fair as they could have
been or we could have hoped for. Saudi Arabia recently held its first
elections in the last four decades (but half of the elected
positions remain under royal family control and most of the open spots
were for weaker, municipal positions). It remains an absolute monarchy
with a dreadful human rights record.

Kuwait, on the other hand, has a vibrant legislature, an
eye-opening, progressive constitution featuring the right to vote for
women, and the right for women to represent in legislature. Fairbanks
is hopeful democracy will prevail when seeing positive movements in
Kuwait, Lebanon, and Egypt.

Regarding Iran, Fairbanks noted, we have great tensions with a
nation with nuclear potential. At a recent public gathering Iranian
leadership announced
that Israel should be wiped off of the map. This has been a consistent position since
the demise of the Shah - still, it shows how little progress has been made there. Iran is a
great danger: in this coming generation it is hoped the
ability to change society for the better via internal political process
will move progress through moderates. The current U.S. position is to deal with
Iran through third parities and let Arab nations take the oar and make this
happen. For decades, oppressive regimes shielded news from the public to
retain control: Arabs have tried to control written media, but TV
control today is impossible. Lebanon and the Persian gulf source most of
the TV media and this allows open criticism of Arab regimes: most analysts feel this
change is likely to positively affect political reform in the Arab

What Fairbanks is doing with Layalina is impresive - 40,000
Arabs were put out
of work who used to censor the access to media, information. We as
U.S. taxpayers spend 175 M every year on free press for the region. One
radio outlet called Alsawa (music stations with bursts of news) but
there are problems: this TV station , being U.S. run, is tuned
out mentally by Arabs. So a recently attempted strategy is to have NPO
and private sector organizations in the region talk to Arabs in
their own

The TV station which is the biggest in the Arab world now
supports six new pilot programs
: one of the most successful depicts Arab students coming to the United
States (a reality TV show). These
Arabs hail from Cairo, Jordan and Beirut. One of their first visits in
Indianapolis, Indiana includes a
spiritual journey which includes mosques, churches, and
synagogues. Fairbanks and Layalina is thus opening eyes and working to
shift old biases and stereotypes that have prevailed in the Middle

Another show called Sister Cities features Chicago and Casablanca
– and is literally titled ‘White City, Windy City’. For the first time in
history the Imam of a major mosque in Casablanca that holds over 80,000
people permitted the station to film inside the mosque. The focus of
this show is on the role of women and religion in the two societies.

Generation after generation of hatred
and distrust have created a learned behavior in the region. It is
important to realize, however, that the business potential of certain
efforts can create eye-opening outcomes, such as Land for Peace and
business partnerships between Jews and Arabs (which are growing in
number. The
key is having a negotiating partner on the ‘other side’ and Abbas is
described by many as a considerable improvement over Arafat. This U.S.
wants to build up his success economically and give him the power to
hold down insurgents and terrorists.

In summation, the Palestinian question is the one and biggest
problem that needs to be fixed - the widespread belief is that we have
sold out to Israel and are nothing but total allies of Israel and this
is poisonous to our image! The need to diffuse the tensions in the
region was emphasized by Fairbanks as being absolutely critical to movement toward lasting peace in the region.