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John Walcott discusses Gaza and the obstacles to a resolution

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Obama and global power

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network, and we’re coming from the McClatchy offices in Washington, DC. And I’m joined by the head of the McClatchy offices in Washington, John Walcott, who recently received the Nieman medal, the I. F. Stone Award for, I think, courageous journalism. I think that’s what the award’s for, and if it isn’t, it should be. Welcome.


JAY: And I say that with some seriousness. You know, The Real News, we have a kind of general critique of much of what’s called mainstream media. But McClatchy offices’ work on many occasions has really stood out.

WALCOTT: Well, thank you.

JAY: And so we accept the reality of it, even if it doesn’t fit some general thesis about the media.

WALCOTT: Well, general theses are often misleading.

JAY: Often. That being said, let’s talk about something that happened just recently. Barack Obama just appointed [George] Mitchell to try to find a peace agreement in the Middle East and [Richard] Holbrooke to try to, I guess, forge a peace in Afghanistan, picking up on Obama’s language. So let’s start with Mitchell and Israel-Palestine. In the introduction to Mitchell, Obama gave a pretty standard version: we will defend Israeli security; Hamas has to stop throwing rockets. There was a reference to the unfortunate violence in Gaza, not even a shade or hair of any kind of a critique of Israel, which has been traditional. So what do you expect from Mitchell? And how do you think Obama changes the dynamic in this story?

WALCOTT: Well, there are a couple of questions that come up immediately. First of all, exactly what will Senator Mitchell’s role be, vis-à-vis the State Department, vis-à-vis the White House? There are a lot of players involved in Middle East diplomacy, including the Congress, which Senator Mitchell obviously knows well. So it’s not quite clear how much autonomy, for example, he will have. What is clear is that this administration is much more serious about pursuing diplomatic initiatives than the previous administration was. Unfortunately, they’re going to confront the same, as Ariel Sharon used to call them, “facts on the ground” that any American, every American administration [inaudible]

JAY: One of those facts is that it seems the more aggressive your posture in Israeli politics, the more aggressive your posture towards Gaza and the Palestinians. And Netanyahu is who I have in mind. Bibi is up in the polls because he said, “I would have gone all the way in Gaza.” And perhaps the players more likely to have worked with an Obama peace plan or a peace initiative may not win this election. So how are they going to deal with that?

WALCOTT: Well, the polls indicate that former prime minister Netanyahu is leading, and that is probably not good news for diplomatic initiatives. He takes a much more hard line. His Likud Party takes a much more hardline view of things. But we’ll have to wait and see what the outcome of the election is, exactly, and what coalitions get formed. If he’s able to form a government in coalition with other hardline or religious parties—National Religious Party, Shas—then the window for peacemaking is going to be much narrower than it is today. And, of course, the other problem, Paul, is that the peace process, as it’s called, is so easily disrupted. A few rockets in Beersheba and a year is lost, at least. And so both sides of that conflict have the ability to derail any sort of peace process. And one of the obstacles that’s never been overcome is the fact that Hamas does not accept Israel’s right to exist, and that’s a hard thing to negotiate.

JAY: Now, when Carter was there, when Carter met with Hamas, Carter reports to the world that Hamas is willing to recognize Israel in every way but actually say words. But de facto, Carter said that Hamas is willing to go with a referendum: if a majority of Palestinians, they make a deal with Israel, Hamas would live by it. Hamas has talked about a 20-year ceasefire, and there seems to be enough openings there. Now, the recent Gaza war seemed to be an attempt to weaken Hamas as much as possible before this whole process begins, but the main leadership seem intact. So where does this leave—?

WALCOTT: Well, the main leadership is intact, and Hamas may, in very short order, have more members than it had before the attack started. That’s the trouble with these tactics. They often, to be blunt about it, create more terrorists than they kill. And we’ve seen what happened now, we’ve begun to see what happened in Gaza, as the press has been able to get in there. And I don’t think you have to think very hard to imagine how people may respond to that in terms of their willingness to negotiate with Israel. What President Carter [brought] back is interesting, but it’s by no means definitive. It’s not anything you can hold Mashal or any of the other leaders of Hamas to, and there’s really no reason to bet on it, that this administration is going to have to start at square one in trying to bring particularly Hamas and Israel together. And then they’ve got a completely separate problem dealing with Fatah, the Palestinian authority, on the West Bank, arguably a more ready participant in peace talks with Israel, but one that’s never been willing to close the deal, as President Clinton learned at Camp David. Yasser Arafat, the late leader of Fatah, walked right up to the edge, but when the time came to shake hands, couldn’t do it.

JAY: There is lots of controversy over that moment, ’cause there’s a whole body of literature, including people who were at the meeting, that say it was the reverse.

WALCOTT: Yeah, but there’s a whole body of literature of people who say it was Arafat, and they’re—.

JAY: At least it’s quite controversial who walked away from there.

WALCOTT: There are ample reasons to believe, though, Paul, that Arafat just could not take that last step. It was too risky for him. And he was in some ways, oddly enough, a rather cautious man, despite his past. So the point is it is a very difficult decision for any Palestinian leader, particularly one from a militant group such as Hamas, but even for the Palestinian authority.

JAY: Does Obama have to do something symbolic to the Palestinians and the Arab world to say that we’re not just going to be as one-sidedly, as certainly the Arab world, much of the world sees the United States—? Nobody sees the United States as an honest, equal broker; everyone sees the language has been clear: Israel’s our ally. And that’s been quite definitive. Does he need to do something to change the language around this?

WALCOTT: Well, he might have to do something, but something symbolic won’t do it. And, in fact, probably the bar is a little bit higher because of his choice of Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state.

JAY: Why is that?

WALCOTT: Because she has a very strong pro-Israel record. She was a senator from New York. Nothing surprising about that. But it’s going to be very difficult for him to establish his, if you will, “neutrality,” if he chooses to be neutral. And in a fight between Israel and groups such as Hamas or Hezbollah, both of which have practiced terrorism, it is hard for an American president to be neutral for all sorts of reasons, of which politics is only one. So it’s not clear. He, I think, does intend to make an early trip to an Arab capital, maybe Cairo, present a new American face to the Arab world. But he’s going to have a lot of convincing to do, not just because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but because of the US invasion of Iraq and US policies elsewhere in the Arab world.

JAY: In the election campaign, particularly in the primaries, Obama talked about it’s not enough to tinker with US foreign policy; on several occasions he said there has to be a new mindset. During the election campaign itself, I’m not so sure we heard anything about a new mindset. Do you get any indication? Is there a new mindset? And if so, what would it be?

WALCOTT: Well, there’s clearly—.

JAY: By “mindset,” by that I don’t mean Bush, term one. I mean, is there any difference between the traditional pragmatic US foreign policy? Is there any new mindset compared to that? Or is Obama simply—is the new mindset to go back to traditional pragmatism?

WALCOTT: Well, you’re really asking two questions. It is absolutely a new mindset, in contrast to the last eight years. The embrace of diplomacy is a new mindset, diplomacy as opposed to dictation—”Take it or leave it,” You’re with us or you’re against us.” That mindset clearly is gone, and it’s been replaced by its absolute opposite, the willingness to reach out, to listen, rather than to issue orders. So, yes, in that sense, absolutely. The larger question is the second one you posed: is this more than simply a return to traditional American pragmatic diplomacy, if that means anything? And there, that’s a hard question to answer, I think, because the world in which that diplomacy was forged no longer exists. We’re now dealing in a world in which this country is in hock up to its eyeballs in China, dependent on the rest of the world for its energy supplies, economically interdependent far beyond what it ever was before, and not locked in a bipolar struggle with a rival superpower.

JAY: Well, in the next segment of our interview, let’s discuss whether foreign policy thinking has caught up with the world you just described. Please join us for the next segment of our interview with John Walcott.


Please note that TRNN transcripts are typed from a recording of the program; The Real News Network cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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John Walcott is the Washington Bureau Chief of McClatchy Newspapers. He has served as the Foreign Editor and National Editor of U.S. News & World Report, as the National Security correspondent at The Wall Street Journal and as a correspondent at Newsweek. He is co-author of the book Best Laid Plans: The Inside Story of America's War Against Terrorism