With the Israeli-Palestinian peace process at a standstill, USIP’s Ambassador Hesham Youssef talks about a new, diverse quartet of states that can help reinvigorate talks, saying, “joining hands, they can influence both the Arab position and the European position.”
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(News audio clip) It was shocking. So the first thought that I had was that it was an assassination attempt because it was near downtown area Beirut just where usually the car bombs where the assassination of multiple personnel happen.
Tim Farley: That is Hadi Nasrallah, who was a witness to the explosion in Beirut yesterday, which by the latest count, has at least 100 dead, scores wounded. There were two explosions, evidently, and it's not the reason why we were having our next guest on, it just so happens that his expertise does cover this area of the world. And while we don't know about some of the forensics surrounding the specifics on the explosion itself, we can get a sense of how people are viewing this with Ambassador Hesham Youssef, who is the USIP, United States Institute of Peace, Jennings Randolph Senior Fellow. He is tweeting @USIP and is joining us. Mr. Ambassador, thank you for being here on POTUS today.
Ambassador Hesham Youssef: It's a pleasure to join you.
Tim Farley: I know that, as I said, this was not the reason why we had scheduled to have this discussion. But I am curious, when you heard the news, and you started seeing the video, which I'm assuming you've seen, what were your thoughts?
Ambassador Hesham Youssef: Well, it’s such a devastating explosion. And, as you mentioned in your introduction, more than 100 people died, around 3,000 people have been injured, 300,000 people have lost their homes as a result of this explosion. So, it has a huge magnitude of devastation. And I think the whole world has sympathized with Lebanon in facing this catastrophe, and I'd hoped that assistance would be forthcoming for the Lebanese people in order to help overcome this devastation.
Tim Farley: That said, there are questions about what that huge supply of ammonium nitrate was doing in that building, whether or not there was an attack, in other words, was this just an accident there? A lot of speculation about this. Any thoughts on the context behind those kinds of accusations or at least suspicions?
Ambassador Hesham Youssef: Well, there has been some reports about this shipment that has been there from 2014. And our speculations, as you said, that this is the reason behind the explosion. But I think we will have to await the outcome of an investigation. The Prime Minister indicated that it would be fast, and it has to have implications on those responsible for what's happened. As for other speculations, you know, Lebanon is always full of speculation, because of all kinds of circumstances surrounding this situation in Lebanon. But I think the wise thing to do is to await the outcome of this investigation and an official report as to what the reasons were for this devastating explosion.
Tim Farley: There you go. So, we will await more results of investigations on that. So, let's turn to, one of the things, the reason we wanted to have you on, as much has been made about the possibility of a peace accord in the Middle East. And you have noted, recently, that a European-Arab group takes a stand to avert Israeli annexation returned in negotiations. Good news for Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking seems rare, but this month's diplomatic initiative by four states, influential in Europe and the Middle East, is a constructive development that should continue, noting that on July 7, Egypt, France, Germany and Jordan joined to oppose Israel's declared intent to annex territory that it had occupied since 1967. Why do you see this as good news?
Ambassador Hesham Youssef: Well, we have been at an impasse as a result of all kinds of developments in trying to advance peace efforts between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And I think that these four countries, in particular, have a huge role to play. Egypt and Jordan are the two countries that have peace treaties with Israel, with Egypt it has been over 40 years of solid peace there and with Jordan 25 years, also, a solid peace, and despite difficulties in relations in some aspects, but I think things have been fine. On the European side, both France and Germany are the most influential countries in Europe, and their position has a huge influence on the whole position of Europe in relation to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. So, joining hands, they can affect both the Arab position and the European position and can contribute to influencing the international effort that is supposed to be done in order to address this issue. Also, both default countries have good relations with Israel and have good relations with the United States and are respected by public opinion and by [Israeli and Palestinian officials]. So, we hope that this would help the process because we are at a very difficult moment now.
Tim Farley: As you note, again, Ambassador Hesham Youssef here on POTUS with us, this quartet, the countries that are involved in this, Egypt, France, Germany and Jordan. It's not the first quartet ever. The original, going back to 2002, the Middle East quartet was the United States, Russia, the European Union and United Nations. That was replaced by Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates called the Arab Quartet. So, where have previous, if you will, quartets failed to get the music right, and why would this one have any better chance for success?
Ambassador Hesham Youssef: Well, the two other quartets are still with us. So, no one is replacing anybody. And this is, you know, part of the role that can be played by this new quartet. It can be a bridge between these two quartets, one at the international level and the second at an Arab level. But, you know, failure has been, you know, something that we have been accustomed to in trying to achieve peace for several decades, whether it's the efforts that were done by President Clinton, President Obama, you know, the advocacy initiatives, and now we have a Trump plan that, you know, is, has been opposed by the Palestinians, welcomed by the Israelis. But we are at an impasse, and I think what we need to do now is to see how we can overcome this impasse with the help of all those who are trying to achieve this objective. And I think that this quartet, bridging between these two quartets, can play an important role in achieving this objective.
Tim Farley: So, obviously the role of the United States and the role of all these countries is important. Talk about Israel and the Palestinian government, the Palestinian Authority. And in Israel, obviously, Prime Minister Netanyahu has his own problems, because he's headed toward, it looks like, a turnover in the government when the agreed upon coalition government is out of date. I just wonder who's calling the shots? And is there a sense that there's clear leadership of positions in each of those two respective countries?
Ambassador Hesham Youssef: Well, Israel has had three elections in around a year, and if it heads to a fourth election in less than two years, this, also, is a sign of how volatile the situation is. And then, as you mentioned, also, the proceeding authority is having huge difficulties as a result of, you know, financial situation, political situation, division between the major political forces on the Palestinian scene between Fatah and Hamas, and so on. So, you're absolutely right. Both sides have huge problems internally. And they also need to get their act together in order for things to advance. In addition to that, we have the COVID pandemic that initially shows some cooperation between both sides. But, as a result of calls for annexation, the Palestinian authority has stopped the coordination, which is making things even worse. So we have our work cut out for us and we need all the effort that can be done by all those who are concerned in order for us to see some progress and some advancements, in order to de-escalate the situation and allow us to try to get back to more reasonable positions where they can talk to each other in order for us to advance. But this is, unfortunately, unlikely in the foreseeable future.
Tim Farley: Ambassador Hesham Youssef, thank you for joining us on POTUS today.
Ambassador Hesham Youssef: It was a pleasure. Thank you.
Tim Farley: Ambassador Hesham Youssef was a career diplomat with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs from Egypt. He was assistant secretary general for Humanitarian Cultural and Social Affairs for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation. He is now, and was with us because he is now, a Jennings Randolph Senior Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace, some thoughts on the bombing in Beirut as well as the prospects for peace in the Middle East between the Palestinians and the Israelis, an ever elusive target. He is tweeting @USIP.