TOPICS > Politics

New Peace Effort

May 21, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: For more on today’s diplomatic developments, we get two perspectives: Geoffrey Kemp was the special assistant to the president and senior director for Near East and South Asian affairs at the National Security Council during the Reagan administration. He is now director of regional strategic programs at the Nixon Center, a research organization. Robert Malley served on the National Security Council staff during the Clinton administration as special assistant for Arab-Israeli affairs. He is now a senior adviser at the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Cooperation, an organization which seeks to promote Arab-Israeli peace.

Geoffrey Kemp, what do you see as the significance of today’s statement from the secretary of state?

GEOFFREY KEMP: Well, it was a forceful statement. It was the most forceful statement he’s made yet on the peace process. It’s not something he wanted to do. He has other agendas in the Middle East including the crisis with Iraq, but the events of the weekend and the very balanced Mitchell report gave him the benchmark he needed, I think, to make the statements he did today.

The fact that he announced that Bill Burns, our ambassador to Jordan, will become essentially his special assistant and an envoy to the region shows that the Bush administration is slowly edging in to the same sort of level of commitment that the Clinton administration had, perhaps not at the Bush level yet, but certainly the United States is now going to be more deeply involved on a day-to-day basis and Burns’ appointment points in that direction.

RAY SUAREZ: Robert Malley.

ROBERT MALLEY: I think that’s essentially right. I think there are two fundamental things in the statement today. One is a matter of process. The United States is back and back as it has gradually inched itself reluctantly but inched itself back into the process. Second of all, on the substantive level, this is the beginning of the formation of a package, of a U.S. package that includes cessation of violence and confidence-building measures — by endorsing the Mitchell report basically the administration is saying, yes, settlements have to be a part of any solution to the current crisis as do other confidence-building measures. So on the substance and on the process we’re seeing something new, but I don’t think we’ve seen the last word yet.

RAY SUAREZ: Now you say the United States is back. Geoffrey Kemp mentioned this was a statement the secretary of state didn’t want to make. But at the same time I think the Bush administration would deny that it was trying to ignore the Middle East or step back from the Middle East. Is this a way of edging in without making too much of a big deal about it?

ROBERT MALLEY: Yes. I don’t think this was their, neither their timetable nor their preferred way of getting in but I think it was inevitable both because of what was happening on the ground because of the call from Arab leaders, European leaders and commentaries here that were saying where is the United States? I think we’ve seen this evolving over the past few weeks; slowly but surely but reluctantly the administration is becoming more involved. As every administration starts off by saying it doesn’t want to be involved — the Clinton administration said that at the beginning if you recall. But events take hold and they become more involved.

RAY SUAREZ: Was that ever going to work?

GEOFFREY KEMP: Look I think it would have worked if Bill Clinton had pulled off a coup and there had been a peace treaty between the Palestinians and the Israelis. I think the Bush people would have praised that because then they could have gotten on with their broader Middle East agenda, which is to rein in Saddam Hussein and try to forge a better relationship with Iran and to deal with our energy needs out there.

But you cannot deal with this broader agenda as long as there is perpetual violence between Israel and the Palestinians. And last week the Arab League essentially talked about breaking full diplomatic relations with Israel. Jordan and Israel and Egypt might eventually break diplomatic relations with Israel. That would be very, very serious. So I think Powell understands that without an active American involvement, far more active than we’ve seen to date, things can only get worse. If things get worse, it’s worse for us and other interests we have as well as the peace process.

RAY SUAREZ: The secretary said he’d like the Mitchell commission report to serve as the basis for a new set of talks, a new way of moving forward. Where does that… what does that leave the administration to start with?

GEOFFREY KEMP: Well, the Mitchell report is very balanced. That’s essentially why the Israeli government endorsed it, with the exception of the call for a freeze on settlements, and why the Palestinians have been overjoyed, I would say, with the report. In fact, were here last week in strength saying how much they approved of what Mitchell had done, particularly his call for an end to violence and his call for a settlements freeze. Now, implementing this, of course, has one prerequisite: The violence has got to stop. So there’s no point talking about settlement freezes until there is a ceasefire on the ground.

You’ve got to have a ceasefire, then you can initiate confidence-building measures including a settlements freeze if you could ever get it, and only then could you talk about resuming negotiations. This is going to take time, and it’s going to take effort. The former negotiator, Dennis Ross, in an article in The Washington Post this weekend talked about setting out time lines and having monitors in place so that we could actually see what progress has been made and essentially give each side credit if they do… if they fulfill their time lines but dismiss them and rebuke them if they fail to meet these time lines.

RAY SUAREZ: Robert Malley, does the Mitchell commission report give the new administration much to work with?

ROBERT MALLEY: I think it gives it everything it needs right now to work with. And I think in fact it gives them a way to say that they’re not endorsing the notion of negotiation while violence is going on while in effect doing it because the Mitchell report says you need a settlement freeze, you need confidence- building measures. And even though the violence has to cease first, what the Palestinians want to know is what comes next.

And the report says you’ll get a settlement freeze, you should get, and you should get a resumption of permanent status negotiations and other negotiations to fulfill the non-implemented agreements so far. So, in other words, it allows for the full package and not only a cessation of violence. And that’s what we need right now. The Israeli government has demanded an immediate cessation of violence. The Palestinians have demanded a political road map. Where do we go from there once the violence ends? The Mitchell report combines the two.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, we’ve been talking about this reassertion of United States interest in this region as if it is a tangible thing, a meaningful thing. When we talk about something like ending the violence, what is the American role in that, if there is one? Or do we just have to sit to the side and wait until that happens?

ROBERT MALLEY: Well, we can’t sit to the side. I think that’s what the past few months have shown. What the U.S. has is credibility with both parties. It has influence with both parties, economic, military and diplomatic with the whole region in fact. And, therefore, when the U.S. speaks, people usually listen. And the Palestinians over the past few months have been saying they need the U.S. back in. The United States is Israel’s strongest ally, a unique ally and, therefore, can play this role of bringing both sides to the table and making them abide by agreements.

I think one of the reasons the Bush administration has been reluctant to get in is because unfortunately of the experience of the Clinton administration, which did not get the permanent status agreement it was looking for and was not able to end the violence. And they’ve learned from that, perhaps over learned from that, that U.S. involvement carries a risk, which is failure, which means an erosion of credibility. And I think that’s why they’ve been reluctant but they’ve been forced in the end to come back and to play the more active role that the U.S. is accustomed to.

RAY SUAREZ: Geoffrey Kemp.

GEOFFREY KEMP: Well, look, I think one of the things that’s clear is that the Palestinian Intifada has not worked. It has not succeeded in the sense that Palestinians are no nearer to a state today than they were when the Camp David talks broke down. The only thing it has achieved is to have the Bush administration reassess its policy. But ultimately the Palestinians have realized that you cannot ignore the United States. You can flirt with your Arab friends. You can even flirt with Saddam Hussein, as some Palestinians have been doing.

But this is not going to get you what you want. You have to have the Americans on board. And this administration has made it very clear that they hold Arafat responsible for a lot of the violence. And while they have been critical of Sharon and some of his tactics, for instance, the use of the F-16s, by and large this administration has cut the new Israeli government a certain amount of slack. And I think the Palestinians are trying to recoup their good graces with the United States. Remember, President Bush has met with Sharon. He’s met with Egyptian and Jordanian leaders. He has not met with Arafat. There is no date for a meeting with Arafat.

One thing I think they want to avoid is Arafat’s presumption that he can visit the Oval Office more times than any other foreign leader, as was the case under the Clinton administration. Arafat has to realize that, you know, to get back into the real good graces of the United States, to have the United States do what they want us to do, put pressure on Israel, they have to respond by stopping the violence.

RAY SUAREZ: Has there been any miscalculation on the Israeli side to match the apprehension perhaps that the Palestinians have labored under?

GEOFFREY KEMP: Well, I think there’s been a fundamental misapprehension over the years that hard-line tactics, blockades, checkpoints, confiscation of property, demolition of property and expanded settlements activity, you know, will not have a permanently souring effect on the Palestinians. I think the Israelis are beginning to realize that tough measures against the Palestinians are not going to bring about a final end to this conflict; that you have to have confidence-building measures on both sides.

And while I think the Israelis are absolutely right to insist that terrorism has to stop, so I think the Palestinians make a very powerful case that for them to have confidence, the Israelis have, as Rob said, they have to have, have to give them some road map as to how their conditions are going to improve both on a day-to-day basis and in the long run.

RAY SUAREZ: With today’s announcement, is there a sense of urgency that engages all the partners? Are we going to see some quick movement here?

ROBERT MALLEY: Well, that prediction has been made so many times in the past including during the Clinton administration that I wouldn’t venture that prophecy, but I do think that we have heightened involvement not only by the U.S. We have the European Union’s envoy, Javier Solana, who is in the region now. And we’re going to have the Europeans and the U.N. making statements as well. But urgency has existed now for some time and it’s not clear to me that this will be enough. But again I think we’re in the right direction in terms of the international environment. Now the job is up to the Palestinians and the Israelis and the events on the ground are taking a turn for the worse rather than for the better.

RAY SUAREZ: But does that create a possibility for everybody to step back as bad as it gets week after week?

ROBERT MALLEY: I think it’s clear that from the leadership perspective both Chairman Arafat and Prime Minister Sharon would like a way out but neither one has found that way, and neither one wants to blink first. So they’d both like to find a way out, and I think what happened today is a potential ladder for both to climb down from the high tree they’ve been climbing over the past few months and to get back to what they really want, which is get back to the negotiating table.

As I said, it’s very difficult because there are people on both sides who are very angry. And anger has only increased over the past few months and particularly on the Palestinian side. You have groups that have no interest in going back to the process that they’ve been disillusioned with over the past eight years.

RAY SUAREZ: Gentlemen, thank you both.