Former PLO negotiator Yezid Sayigh speaks to MEMO: Unless the US is willing to challenge Israel, none of its parameters or proposals will work

Yezid Sayigh

Yezid Sayigh, senior associate at the Carnegie Middle East Centre, on the US and the Middle East: "The idea that the US pretends it is somehow not just neutral but a helpless party in all this and they're just people with good will and good intentions that are coming to try and help us talk to each other, I think that's entirely dishonest."

When I speak to Yezid Sayigh on a Friday at the beginning of September, his office is closed. The Carnegie Middle East Center, where he is a senior associate, is based in downtown Beirut near to the mosque built by former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

Since August saw a deadly car bomb explode nearby, killing and injuring many, security measures mean that ‘no parking' signs are in place around the mosques, and the streets surrounding them are closed off.

The attack was reported to be an overflow of the fighting in Syria. Hezbollah's decision to send fighters across the border to support Assad angered many, inviting retaliation in the form of these blasts.

The conflict has long been a regional issue, believes Sayigh, which not only has an impact on Lebanon but involves the US, Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar. But though it is "spilling over in growing tensions" this doesn't necessarily mean there will be a regional, military confrontation that will "spill into wide scale violence."

"There are a lot of people who worry about having some sort of blow up here, Hezbollah attacking Israel, Israel attacking Hezbollah, maybe between the lines Sunni and Shia and whatever militias taking each other on. There's a lot of this sort of alarmism and concern and fear, but I don't see specific organised groups that might actually start anything" he says.

To add to the mix, it wasn't long ago that President Obama started weighing up the possibility of striking Syria following a chemical weapons attack, thought to have been carried out by Assad, which killed 1,000.

But pursuing the Syrian President is not a priority or concern to Obama, believes Sayigh, rather the US are being forced to act considering the red line the President set over chemical weapon usage has been clearly crossed.

"He really doesn't want to get pulled into this any further and so I think the Americans are attaching a lot of hope, or have a lot of hope riding on this somehow being manageable."

This is not, believes Sayigh, about credibility as many analysts have suggested. "There are a lot of people who make this argument that it's important for credibility to do something. I think that actually is not really at all a concern of the administration, but really to somehow manage to do this and then somehow forget about it."

Because US strikes on Syria were not planned, "they're devising a strategy on the go," says Sayigh, and it is hard to work out what the American administration want to do and why they want to do it. Their moral grounds for intervention are also hypocritical, he suggests.

The International Criminal Court (ICC) was set up "to deal with miscreants, people who violate human rights or commit war crimes in big ways," yet the US is not a signatory to the court, points out Sayigh, and has big reservations about joining it.

"It can't really conduct military action against enemies on the same grounds as the ICC is based while at the same time refusing to join the ICC, it can't do that. So none of these things are real. I mean we talk about international law and some of these norms as if they have some divine power, that there is a framework that we all acknowledge and respect and that really binds us all, such as the chemical weapons convention, but then what we do about that is not necessarily as clear cut a part of international humanitarian law."

"Those with the power to do it interpret the laws and the norms behind them according to purpose and need," he adds later.

So whilst Obama toys with the idea of intervening in Syria and winning the backing of Congress, to the south of the country US Secretary of State John Kerry is working on negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Given the US and Israel's special relationship, critics question the superpower's ability to be an honest broker between the two countries; whilst they are still "tremendously influential and important and may even be critical to securing a deal," an honest broker "they're not" says Sayigh.

"I personally stopped thinking they were an honest broker a long time ago, which doesn't mean they cannot or should not play a key role, simply that let's stop pretending that they're even handed or they're a neutral mediator, they are not" he adds.

The big challenge facing Kerry today, says Sayigh, is that "unless the United States administration is willing to challenge Israel on issues dealing with borders and settlements and Jerusalem, then none of the parameters, or proposals that the US has endorsed in the past, or might endorse today, are going to be able to go through and so the US is in this position of saying, well we know what we think should happen, and would like to happen and we wish we would do this and they're unwilling to exert the influence needed with Israel to change the incentive structure for the Israeli voters who bring in these governments."

In the beginning of the 1990s, he continues, George Bush senior "made it clear that there was a price, a financial price in this case, for continued settlement." But that is no longer happening. Days before the start of this round of talks, for example, Israel approved 1,200 new settlement homes.

"The idea that the US pretends it is somehow not just neutral but a helpless party in all this and they're just people with good will and good intentions that are coming to try and help us talk to each other, I think that's entirely dishonest."

So have the US, as some critics suggest, designed the peace process to be on going? "A lot of that type of thinking assumes immense powers of agency, foresight, adherence and a sustained agreement on these issues among these great powers," he says.

"And great powers are great powers and they're powerful and influential and they do have sort of enduring interests which may change over time, but not radically and suddenly and erratically. However, the idea that everything they do is all planned and it all fits in, it all is comfortably coherent is just not true either, it's just not how things happen."

If all that were true, Sayigh believes, we would not see any difference between having an Obama, a Bush W. administration or a Clinton administration.

So, in light of this, who would make a better broker? "Bottom line is there are almost no parties that are as engaged as the US. The EU, which is very engaged with the Middle East, doesn't have the unity of views and foreign policy coherence to play any role, and is clearly not intending to play that role" says Sayigh.

Besides, "the EU has been unable to go from unhappiness with the US behaviour to actually getting anything together. We're sort of stuck in that if the US won't do it, no one else will" he adds.

But what about a more Arab focussed response?

"Whether the Israelis or the Palestinians can't or shouldn't somehow get beyond having the US or some outside player get them to the table, ideally yes and I personally believe that's far more important than worrying about the US because then you have to change the US and then you know that's a multi-generation thing."

Written by Amelia Smith

Published in Middle East Monitor