TOPICS > Politics

Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s Visit

March 20, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT

GWEN IFILL: Joining us to discuss Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s visit: Dennis Ross, who was special Middle East coordinator during the Clinton administration. He is now with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Israeli diplomat Mark Regev– he is the spokesman for the Israeli embassy in Washington. And, Edward Abington, a retired career foreign service officer. He was the American consul general in Jerusalem during the Clinton administration, and is now a consultant to the Palestinian Authority. Mr. Regev, was this really a get-acquainted meeting, this meeting between Ariel Sharon and George W. Bush today, or are we way past that?

MARK REGEV: Well, I think the two men have met in the past. When the president was still governor of Texas, he visited Israel at the time. Prime Minister Sharon was foreign minister in the government of Bibi Netanyahu and he actually took the president, then the governor, around Israel and they do know each other. Of course we also know very well from their previous roles, Secretary Powell, Secretary Rumsfeld, it’s getting to know you again.

GWEN IFILL: It’s getting to know you again. So what was it that Ariel Sharon came here hoping to hear or hoping to get or ask for?

MARK REGEV: I think the primary focus of the visit was to talk about the broader strategic issues. When we deal with the Middle East today, vis-à-vis the peace negotiations and the larger threats to common interests in the area, I think we’ve come out of these meetings and Sharon is flying out now as we speak, he’s flying up to New York. I think there is an understanding between the Israeli side and the American side of what is possible, what is not possible; what is the right way to go forward to try to create, once again, a more positive atmosphere in the region. And I think on those issues, there’s a large amount of common ground between the new government here and the new government in Israel.

GWEN IFILL: And is that common understanding, go slow, this is not the time to try to launch a long-term peace solution?

MARK REGEV: Well, I think the attitude now is that, to go for the endgame, to go for that final status deal where we solve the historic problems of the Israelis and the Palestinians, that we find a perfect solution, that’s no longer a feasible policy option. It was tried under the previous Israeli government and the previous American government. It was tried almost under optimal conditions. We had an American president who was willing to do what it takes. We had an Israeli prime minister who was willing to offer unprecedented flexibility. And we found that, we would argue, that the Palestinians were not ready for the sort of historical compromises required. Having said that, policymakers today can’t say all or nothing, so the big breakthrough is not feasible today. That doesn’t mean we have to resign ourselves to violence. We’re talking about tangible measures on the ground to move forward, and we’re hoping that’s possible. Sharon’s focus point here I think during the visit was the first step has to be terrorism, that the Palestinian Authority has to do something substantial to lower the level of violence.

GWEN IFILL: And, Mr. Abington, what is the Palestinian Authority’s response to this? Certainly he couldn’t be more clear. He’s said it everywhere he’s gone.

EDWARD ABINGTON: Well, I think that, obviously, there are two sides to every story. And I think that the Palestinian Authority feels that the major problem that they have been confronting is the Israeli siege around the cities, the Palestinian cities. For example, unemployment has increased four-fold over the last six months. One in three Palestinians live below the poverty level. So I think each side has to do something to move the process forward — maybe in parallel. There does need to be a reduction in violence, but at the same time, the Israeli army needs to restrain itself. It needs to relax the economic pressure on the Palestinians.

GWEN IFILL: It sounds like we’re arguing over which is the cart and which is the horse. Does peace happen first? Does economic relief for Palestinians happen first? Isn’t that a recipe for deadlock?

EDWARD ABINGTON: It can be a recipe for deadlock. I think that’s why the American role is very important. I think the administration has signaled that it’s going to play a different role than the previous administration. I think the Bush administration is still trying to formulate its policy. But historically, the American role has always been critical in helping the two parties move forward as a facilitator, sometimes as a direct negotiator. And I think we’re at a very critical period. It could deteriorate seriously with ramifications outside the Israeli-Palestinians’ fear.

GWEN IFILL: Dennis Ross, speaking of the American role, you certainly had a big hand in the American role up until now. Is the American role now… has it changed, and does it need to change, given the current set of events?

DENNIS ROSS: Well, I think the American role at this point is a little different, but I think the circumstances are also different. We were in the last year focused on a solution. We had an Israeli government that was on a mission to try to end the conflict. You had President Clinton, who in light of that, felt it was possible to end the conflict. We had certainly heard from Chairman Arafat that that was his interest, as well. As it turned out, you couldn’t do that.

I would argue you couldn’t do it largely because, in the end, Chairman Arafat was not able to accept the ideas that President Clinton put on the table. If you can’t end the conflict, then you have to focus on a way to prevent endless conflict. And I think you have to move from what was a solution approach to a management approach. And here again, I think what you really have to focus on is: How do you change the realities on the ground? There is an economic reality, it has got to be addressed. There is a security reality that has got to be addressed. There is a day-to-day reality in terms of the how the two sides interact with each other that has to be addressed. Those three elements can be I think dealt with right now. The question of resolving the larger political questions will probably have to wait until you first change the environment on the ground and change those realities.

GWEN IFILL: When Secretary Powell and President Bush talk about the United States stepping back, not entirely out of this, but stepping back and letting the parties on the ground do the work, is that a realistic way of approaching this right now, or does this whole conflict have a way of sucking the United States back in, no matter what its intentions are?

DENNIS ROSS: Well, certainly the Middle East has a way of imposing itself on the United States. I think you have to strike a balance. The balance is, on the one hand, making certain that you see responsible behaviors that would justify and make worthwhile the American role. On the other hand, if we sit back too much and we wait for them to create productive behaviors, we may find that the situation gets much worse. And if it does and the potential for a greater explosion takes place, then you run the risk of the United States being sucked in in a way that requires even greater interventionism. So I think, as I said, strike the balance, focus on what you can do to change the environment right now, create a pathway towards moving back towards peaceful co-existence over time.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Regev, Prime Minister Sharon has talked about trying to punish the Palestinian leaders without punishing the Palestinian people, but Mr. Abington here and others have said that these blockades around cities on the West Bank do have the effect of punishing Palestinian people. Is there any chance that that’s going to change, or is that part of what’s on the table, the chip that’s on the table?

MARK REGEV: I think Sharon has said a number of times, and it said it today in Washington as well, that there is no policy of the Israeli government to hurt or to bring harm to the civilian population. We have a real problem of terror. For that reason, the border is closed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. We don’t want people coming in who could theoretically hurt and maim Israelis and not just theoretically. We have a real terrorist threat. Bombs have gone off, people have been killed, and we know the threat is very much still alive. So the border is closed. That causes economic hardship for all the Palestinians who want to come into Israel and work, and I don’t deny it. But in many ways, I think there’s a very clear answer.

The border was open until the Palestinian Authority orchestrated the current wave of violence. If the violence stopped, then much of the economic situation would fall into place. I would also argue, towards the end of last week, the Israeli government took a few substantial steps to try to ease the closure and the military on the ground moved out, checkpoints were taken out, roads were opened. And unfortunately, we had over the weekend today, yesterday, we had more Palestinian violence. It’s almost as if, as he goes into the Arab summit now at the end of this month, that Chairman Arafat is not interested in stabilizing the situation. Some of our people believe that he wants to go into this Arab summit with a grievance so he can get political support and so forth.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Abington, you want to respond to that?

EDWARD ABINGTON: Well, I think the situation is much more complicated. It’s not just a question of closing a few roads or opening a few roads. I think the moves that have been made by the Israeli government, the ideas are primarily cosmetic in nature. The nature of the siege is… I think Americans don’t realize it. I have Palestinian friends and contacts who have not been out of Ramallah for five months. They cannot leave Ramallah because the city is blocked off in all directions. And that is generally the situation throughout the West Bank. There is a decrease in the ability of President Arafat to control the situation, precisely because of the siege that the Israeli government has placed on Palestinian cities in the West Bank and in Gaza. So there have to be parallel moves by each side to deescalate the situation. One side can’t do it all by if itself.

GWEN IFILL: Does Yasser Arafat have the power to stop the violence, as Ariel Sharon says he does?

EDWARD ABINGTON: He cannot turn it on and off like a water spigot. He can start the process, but it is a reciprocal action by both sides, a strong commitment by both sides needs to be made, and that’s where I feel the American role is really critical in helping the two sides find a pathway forward.

GWEN IFILL: Dennis Ross, is the American role critical?

DENNIS ROSS: Well, I certainly think that we can play a very important role in terms of helping them out of the current situation. I do think, however, as I said before, the Bush administration is probably right to want to see some demonstration of responsible behaviors. We can’t get anything done with the violence. The violence creates an environment that undercuts everything else. The violence creates a set of actions and reactions, which basically makes it very difficult to transform the situation on the ground. I do think both sides will have to take very concrete steps. It would help to see Chairman Arafat make every effort to control the violence. It would help for the Israelis, in response, to ease the siege in a way that begins to build the kind of reciprocal momentum between the two sides. We have right now both sides being consumed with a sense of grievance. You’re going to have to transform that situation. You’re going to have to see very specific steps taken – I would say very tangible steps, concrete steps — in particular areas and there should be a kind of parallelism, there should be a kind of responsiveness. If one side is in fact taking steps, then the other should respond and vice versa.

GWEN IFILL: You talk about the sense of grievance that both sides feel. Given all of that, on a scale of one to ten, what do you say are the chances that there will be peace talks restarted at some point in a reasonably near future?

DENNIS ROSS: Well, again, I think it depends on what you mean by peace talks. There are contacts today between the two sides. There should be talks between the two sides now to figure out a set of specific steps that each will take over a finite period of time. Now, maybe that doesn’t deal with the political questions yet. You deal with the more immediate challenges of what’s happening on the ground. That’s where the focus has to be. If in fact, over a period of a week or two weeks, you begin to make headway there and you begin to change the environment, you can become more ambitious in terms of the issues that you tackle. We are still fundamentally in a period where you’re going to have to manage the situation. You’re going to start with tangible concrete steps that each side takes to change the realities on the ground, and then from there, you begin to tackle those political issues that you can tackle.

GWEN IFILL: Gentlemen, thank you all very much.