Kofi Annan: To bring peace, you have to deal with terrorists

In a new memoir and an interview with The Times of Israel, the former UN chief says it was a mistake not to work with Hamas, blames the US for siding with Israel, and says Syria is headed for ‘the abyss’

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan disagrees with US President Bill Clinton over what went wrong during Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. (Photo credit: Rob Judges)
Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan disagrees with US President Bill Clinton over what went wrong during Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. (Photo credit: Rob Judges)

LONDON — It seems ironic today that when David Ben-Gurion read out Israel’s Declaration of Independence in May 1948, the text mentioned the United Nations seven times. In effect, the organization had given Israel its international birth certificate half a year earlier, when it passed Resolution 181, which declared the partition of Palestine into Jewish and Arab states.

Despite this life-giving early role, the UN’s relationship with Israel quickly grew fraught, and has remained so for most of the 64 years since. Low points included Yasser Arafat’s 1974 address to the organization, while wearing a gun holster, and the passage the following year of Resolution 3379, which defined Zionism as a form of racism.

As secretary-general, Kofi Annan paid his first trip to Israel in 1998, determined to improve relations between the UN and the Jewish state.

To begin with, Annan called for normalization of Israel’s status within the organization, condemning the anti-Semitism of the 1975 resolution (which the organization rescinded in 1991). He did so, he says, because the UN’s role in the Middle East peace process had become non-existent.

“For some time, the secretary-general had not been at the table of negotiating in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. When I got involved, I wanted to change that,” he told the Times of Israel earlier this month, speaking at a hotel overlooking London’s Hyde Park.

‘Terrorists are a reality,’ Annan says. ‘You have to deal with them to bring peace’

In conversation, Annan comports himself with the formality you would expect from a man who has given five decades of his life to diplomacy, but looks considerably younger than his 74 years. Maybe it’s his smart attire. Or it could be his affable smile, which gives him enormous powers of persuasion.

We’re here to discuss “Interventions: A Life in War and Peace,” a new memoir in which Annan speaks candidly about the peaks and troughs of a career spent trying to persuade governments to bring about peace around the globe.

Annan joined the United Nations in 1962, and served as secretary-general from 1997 to 2006. Much of that time was spent negotiating in the Middle East, where he made several attempts to end regional strife.

In the book, Annan describes the dilemmas he faced as a diplomat and negotiator, including how to deal with Israel’s democratically elected governments, which he felt violated international law by building settlements. He also describes his struggles with whether to give voice to movements like Hamas, which embrace violence and glorify terrorism, but also claim widespread support.

In Annan’s view, the last convincing attempt at forging Israeli-Palestinian peace — from all sides of the negotiating table — ended more than a decade ago, in southern Egypt.
“It was in Sharm el Sheikh, in October 2000, [three months] before President Clinton left office,” he says. “It was at this meeting that myself, [Egyptian leader] Hosni Mubarak, Ehud Barak [Israel’s prime minister at the time], King Abdullah II of Jordan and others tried to resolve the peace process. We couldn’t do it, but I think that was the last general real effort to resolve this issue.”

Annan's new memoir looks at topics including the unsuccessful Middle East "road map" to peace.
Annan’s new memoir looks at topics including the unsuccessful Middle East “road map” to peace.

By December 2000, negotiations had stalled, and Clinton, desperate to be remembered as the president who achieved Middle East peace, offered Israelis and Palestinians a last-minute solution.

The so-called Clinton Parameters proposed a Palestinian state on 96 percent of the West Bank and all of Gaza, as well as compromises on Jerusalem, refugees and other central issues. In the years since, both Clinton and Israel have claimed that Barak accepted the terms, and that responsibility for the talks’ failure — just as the region was spiraling into the second intifada — lay with Arafat.

In his book, Annan paints a more complicated picture, arguing that both Barak and Arafat were open to a deal, but that each side needed additional time to address opposition from within their own camps. The Palestinian leader did indeed deserve part of the blame, but Israel wasn’t without fault, Annan says.

“Sure, there were problems on Arafat’s side, but there were problems on the Israeli side, too,” Annan says. “The role of the mediator is to bridge their differences. Both sides had problems in this conflict, but often [the Americans] tended to forget the problems on the Israeli side, and finger-pointed to the Palestinians and Arafat.”

The US tendency to side with Israel would again prove an obstacle, Annan says, as he pursued the so-called road map for peace half a decade later.

At every stage of the negotiations, Annan says, he felt the US was unwilling to fully cooperate with its nominal partners — the UN, EU and Russia.

“The road map wasn’t implemented in a way that we had expected it to be,” he recalls. “Even though we were a Quartet, the US held more control than the rest, and where the US did not lead, it was extremely difficult for the Quartet to move forward.”

When Hamas won Palestinian parliamentary elections in January 2006, the US and the EU — the Quartet’s major funders — said they would not work with the organization, which both classify as a terrorist group. Annan believes this was a mistake — that governments, whether they like it or not, must eventually talk to terrorists if they want to end violence.

“You come to realize terrorists are a reality,” he says. “You have to deal with them to bring peace. We have seen this in Northern Ireland and in other places. In the end, you have to talk. The same thing is going to have to happen in Syria.”

‘He is a very good and able negotiator,’ Annan says of his successor on Syria. ‘I hope he will get the sustained, united support that I did not get’

Annan is well-positioned to know. In August, the Ghanaian-born diplomat resigned as the joint special envoy of the UN and Arab League to Syria, following just five months in the role. He blames the mission’s failure — and the violence that continues in Syria — on the lack of agreement between the five permanent members of the Security Council.

“I resigned because of the divisions at the international level,” he says, “but you should see my resignation as supporting the Syrian people. I wanted the world, and the member states, to know that the way we were going about the issue of the divisions was not going to help the Syrians or the region.”

Predictably, Annan uses diplomatic language in describing the abilities of Lakhdar Brahimi, his replacement in the role. But he does not sound optimistic.

“He is a very good and able negotiator,” Annan says. “I hope he will get the sustained, united support that I did not get. It is that united effort, along with pressure on the parties, which will make a difference. But now we are heading towards the abyss, unfortunately.”

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