TOPICS > Politics

Military Moves

April 17, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

MARGARET WARNER: For more on the escalating violence, we’re joined by Talcott Seelye, a retired career Foreign Service officer who was U.S. Ambassador to Syria from 1978 to 1981. Edward Abington also retired from the Foreign Service. He was the American Consul General in Jerusalem during the Clinton administration, and is now a consultant to the Palestinian Authority. And Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a Washington think tank.

Welcome, gentlemen. Rob Satloff, beginning with you. In the last few days we see Israel getting re-engaged militarily in two areas from which it had withdrawn. Give us the big picture. What’s going on here — why two fronts at once?

ROBERT SATLOFF: Well, there are two very different situations going on. First, the North: Over the last year, Israel has withdrawn its forces completely from Southern Lebanon, and there is now an international line across this border that the U.N. has certified. Under Prime Minister Ehud Barak, when Hezbollah, the Lebanese Islamic militia, attacked over this line, the Israelis held their fire because of the peace process. Barak promised to hit the Syrians because the Syrians are the major benefactor of Hezbollah. Arms that Hezbollah uses comes through Damascus into the Bekka Valley and then hits Israel. When Sharon took over as Prime Minister, he promised that he would follow what Barak said he would do but didn’t do, and we’ve just had the first attack, an Israeli soldier died. The Syrians who are the warlord of Lebanon will be held responsible. That’s the northern front.

The Southern front, the Gaza situation, is very different. There, we’ve seen an escalation of magnitude in the sort of violence that we see between Israelis and Palestinians, not just the targeting but at the level and the type of violence; not just car bombs, not just shooting, but mortar fire from within the Palestinian areas into Israel proper. Against this Ariel Sharon had to react in a very strong way. The Israeli public elected him precisely because he wasn’t Ehud Barak, and he did go into the areas. He has said he would not reoccupy them, and he has now begun to leave them.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Abington, how do you see the big picture here — why this violence has suddenly escalated this way?

EDWARD ABINGTON: Well, I think that it’s, you know, it’s very complicated but it basically stems from the breakdown of negotiations at Camp David — I think a real sense of Palestinian frustration that the peace process was not yielding benefits for the Palestinian people, economically the Palestinians have suffered during the peace process. Israeli settlement activity continued throughout this period. And I think you had a very explosive situation. What we’re seeing now is, quite frankly, violence on both sides that I think is out of control. And neither side knows… has the answer to de-escalate the situation and get back to the negotiating table. Nor do I think that in the current circumstance that either side has a particular incentive to de-escalate the situation.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you see it, Ambassador Seelye?

TALCOTT SEELYE: You know, I think that the proposal by the Jordanian and Egyptian governments offers a possible way out.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, let me just interrupt you. You’re talking about a proposal that actually the Jordanians brought to Jerusalem yesterday.

TALCOTT SEELYE: To Jerusalem in order to stabilize the situation and the violence. Now it’s unacceptable at this point to General Sharon, but what it spells out is not moving toward a peace settlement right away but rather Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian towns, lift the siege that the Israelis have posed on Gaza, and also allow the Israelis to read the cease settlements, in which case the Palestinians would stop the violence, you would stabilize the situation and then you move later to the peace process. This may sound unrealistic, but to me it’s the least best or the least worst of the possibilities to resolve this.

MARGARET WARNER: I want to get back to possible solutions, but also let’s analyze a little more what’s happened in the last 48 hours. Rob Satloff, last night was the night that the Israelis went in to Gaza and reoccupied part of it. And, in fact, today the general in charge of it was quoted as saying they’d stay for months if they had to, to end these mortar attacks you’re taking about. Late today, the Israeli government announces they’re going to withdraw. What happened?

ROBERT SATLOFF: I think the General spoke out of school. Ariel Sharon laid down very few red lines for his government’s policy when he took over as Prime Minister. One of those red lines was Palestinian Area A, it’s theirs….

MARGARET WARNER: This is their part of Gaza.

ROBERT SATLOFF: This is parts of the West Bank in Gaza which are under total Palestinian security and civilian control. That’s theirs. We’re not going in to reoccupy. So what happened was they did go in, they went in about I think a mile. They spent the night and now they’re leaving. I think the General spoke out of school.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Two questions. One if that was the case, what did they accomplish by going in for a day and taking this territory? And secondly, are you saying you don’t think it had anything to do with Secretary of State Colin Powell’s criticism of the Israeli government that was issued this afternoon?

ROBERT SATLOFF: Well, it may. But I think the overall Israeli government policy is not to stay in Area A. I think what Colin Powell was doing was he saw thresholds being crossed and he put down a marker. Now, it is very interesting that he uses the term “disproportionate,” given that the Powell doctrine itself requires the disproportionate use of force to achieve an objective. But that being said, I don’t think that the Israeli government pulled out just because the Americans told them to. I think it was their policy to get out and Powell– perhaps appropriately from the American perspective– took this opportunity to say, look, this goes beyond what you, General Sharon, said you would do, so don’t do it.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Abington, the other Israeli generals, whether they were speaking out of school or not, said today their purpose was to end these mortar attacks from Gaza into Israel proper. What do you think will be the effect of what’s happened over the last 24 hours? Will it be taken by the Palestinians as some kind of warning? Will it lessen the attacks or not?

EDWARD ABINGTON: No, I think it will have little or no effect upon that. I mean, the problem is that the Israelis have a security agenda. The Palestinians have a political and economic agenda. And they’re sort of like two ships passing in the night. Neither seems willing to seriously address the concerns of the other. And in order to de-escalate the situation, I think you have to have a parallel diplomatic process in which the Palestinians address legitimate Israeli security concerns while at the same time President Arafat knows what the Israelis are going to do in terms of returning to negotiations and easing economic conditions on the Palestinian areas.

MARGARET WARNER: But Prime Minister Sharon says he won’t even start talking until the entire uprising stops.

ROBERT SATLOFF: Well, I think there is a road map out there and while I don’t like all the details in the Jordanian and Egyptian proposal they do have the sequence right. The sequence is security, economics and then diplomacy. They have a lot of things in them which are problematic, but I think the sequence is pretty clear. I think the Americans support that sequence. I think that’s a logical approach. I think many Palestinians recognize that that sequence is the approach that needs to be followed.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Mr. Seelye, let’s turn to the situation in Syria. Are the Israelis right when they say — and as Rob Satloff also says — that the Syrian government is sponsoring Hezbollah, is sponsoring these attacks into Israel proper and if so why?

TALCOTT SEELYE: There’s no questions that the Syrians are tolerating the Hezbollah presence in Southern Lebanon. That’s clear. Iran, however, is the primary support for the Hezbollah, as far as inspiration training and arms for Hezbollah. But the Syrians feel that this is their perspective, that by enabling Hezbollah to operate against Israelis in Southern Lebanon or along the border, they somehow are putting pressure on Israel in the political sense to force Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights. They see this….

MARGARET WARNER: Which Syria claims.

TALCOTT SEELYE: And the interesting aspect is that fundamentally and ideologically, the Syrians are opposed to the character of Hezbollah, which is a hard-line Islamic group, whereas the Syrian government is secular. So… But that is secondary at this point to the first consideration of putting pressure on Israel.

MARGARET WARNER: And so, what impact do you think this attack on the Syrian radar position will have…

TALCOTT SEELYE: Well, the first….

MARGARET WARNER: …on the Syrians?

TALCOTT SEELYE: In the first instance, we’ll get rhetoric. We have heard a lot of rhetoric out of Syria already. I think if there are no more Israeli attacks on Syrian positions, we can expect no Syrian military response. Hafez Al Assad and his son, Bashar, now in power, have always recognized Israel’s qualitative military superiority. So they’ve never wanted rationally to risk a war. The trouble is if Hezbollah continues attacks against the Israelis, Sharon will then respond, as he said he will, and he’s been waiting for an opportunity for a long time to take a whack at installations in Syria.

MARGARET WARNER: In Syria itself.

TALCOTT SEELYE: Yeah, Syria itself. So therefore it seems to me that if we have more of these attacks, then you have a risk of escalation because even though the Syrian government knows that they get a bloody nose, as a matter of national pride and honor– and honor is very important in the Arab world– also pressure is building up in Arab nationalist circles for Syria to do something. Today in the press in the Arab world there have been criticisms not only of the Syrian government but of other Arab governments for failing to… for being supine, as they called it, in the face of this challenge.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Abington, how great is the danger of this conflict widening?

EDWARD ABINGTON: Well, I think that there’s no doubt that Israel has the far superior military in the region. And without Egypt in the Arab circle, there cannot be an Israeli-Arab war again. I think the danger is that the violence is liable to escalate between Israelis and Palestinians. It could escalate with the Syrians and with Hezbollah, and this in turn will put serious strain on moderate Arab governments and it will have an impact on U.S. policy as we try to reshape sanctions towards Iraq, and it will put our friends in the Arab world under serious political pressure.

MARGARET WARNER: Danger of a wider conflict?

ROBERT SATLOFF: I think that the Israel- Lebanon-Syria triangle is one of the hot spots in the world today. We need to– the United States, the United Nations, which is responsible for implementing security along that border, the United States– we need to take measures now to ensure that this doesn’t get out of hand.

MARGARET WARNER: How great a danger do you think there is that if the U.N. or the U.S. doesn’t get involved, it will get out of hand?

ROBERT SATLOFF: I think that Iran and Hezbollah have every interest to create a major conflict, and we have a huge question mark in the new leader of Syria and I think the potential is very real.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, thank you all three gentlemen very much.