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Incident at Sea

January 10, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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TERENCE SMITH: For more on this ship and its impact, we get three perspectives: Robert Pelletreau was assistant Secretary of State for near eastern affairs during the Clinton administration. Khalil Jahshan is vice President of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. And David Makovsky is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute, and the former executive editor of the Jerusalem Post.

TERENCE SMITH: Gentlemen, welcome to all three of you. Robert Pelletreau, what’s the significance of the seizure of this ship — and both on the peace process and the way the two parties view each other?

ROBERT PELLETREAU: The significance is that the Israelis now have no doubts about whether they can ever reach a peaceful settlement with Yasser Arafat about his commitment to negotiations, his commitment to live in peace.

TERENCE SMITH: New doubts added to lots of old doubts?

ROBERT PELLETREAU: New doubts added to lots of old doubts. This shipment, if it had reached its destination, would have wreaked tremendous havoc.

TERENCE SMITH: All right, Khalil Jahshan, your view of it?

KHALIL JAHSHAN: Well, there is no doubt that this is significant in the sense that this is the first time at least the Palestinian side, if you will, is caught bringing in weapons to that degree or with, you know, that magnitude.

TERENCE SMITH: It has happened before.

KHALIL JAHSHAN: It has happened before. The fact of the matter, it has not happened in a vacuum. The Palestinian people continue to live under Israeli military occupation. For the past 14 months, or almost a year and a half, they have been in a military confrontation with Israel. Has Israel stopped or deprived itself of the right to bring in weapons during that period? Of course the accusation is that you know, the Palestinians promised a cease-fire a few weeks ago and now they bring in weapons. But let’s think of the logistics for a moment. Let’s listen to ourselves for a moment. An operation of this sort chances are, has been under way for more than a year, to organize, to buy the ship and to buy the weapons and what have you. So it’s totally unrelated.

TERENCE SMITH: Although it could have been turned back, in theory?

KHALIL JAHSHAN: I of course, I agree. But again, there has been no contact, again, to create, if you will, a distance between those who have been managing this operation and those who have been running it. Clearly there has been no radio or other contacts. But Bob is right in the sense that it contributed to adding more distrust, if you will, to the formula, which is not needed. But the fact of the matter, both parties have no option in the future but to come back and talk to one another.

ROBERT PELLETREAU: And the effort is a violation of the Oslo accords, which the Palestinian Authority agreed to.

TERENCE SMITH: All right, David Makovsky, Israel has distanced itself already from Yasser Arafat individually. There was a report today that they are going to cut off all contacts with the Palestinian authority until individuals responsible for this ship are arrested. More distance between the two?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Yes, I mean clearly this… I think this is devastating because really what you’ve seen here is that, as Bob said, this is a violation of what Oslo, the agreements of 1993. But more importantly, beyond that, this is a violation and it goes way beyond the cease-fire, is that the whole premise of this peace process is to set up two states within a 50-mile zone. That’s between the Mediterranean and the Jordan. So for Israel to agree for a Palestinian street on K street, they want to know on L street that there is not Kaytusha rockets that could hit every Israel city, there are no C-4 explosives. These are the same thing the sneaker bomber had that are used for suicide bombings and roadside bombings. And another premise of it was that there would be no military relationships, and here it’s with Iran, which is the most rejectionist state and it’s number one on the State Department terrorism list. So the whole premise of peace making in a certain way has been thrown very seriously in doubt. And it’s very serious. And as the captain we saw in the set-up piece said, he said, “I’m an employee of the Palestinian Authority.” The guy who ran the finances has been… We know was a long-time associate of Mr. Arafat. And the guy who’s been the arms purchaser, Adel Mugrabi has been in charge of weapons requisition. And we know Faci Rasin is the number two guy in the Palestinian navy. So these are four employees of the Palestinian Authority in senior positions, and therefore, the focus is very much on Mr. Arafat.

TERENCE SMITH: Khalil, is it reasonable to assume, then, that Yasser Arafat knew and authorized this shipment?

KHALIL JAHSHAN: Probably Yasser Arafat should have known. Whether he knew or not, I have no… I’m not privy to that information. He definitely should have known, if that indeed was the case. I mean there is evidence out there that indicates that some people associated with the Authority. But that’s not the issue, I mean from a Palestinian perspective, if Yasser Arafat was not bringing in weapons to defend the Palestinian people against Israeli occupation, he would not have been doing his responsibility. Oslo? I mean what Oslo? Defying Oslo at this time, which is defunct — it hasn’t proved any… Look, Israel today, as we speak, you had it in your program, walked in and demolished 70 homes today affecting 109 families, affecting more than 600 people. This is state-administered terrorism using American weapons and using Israeli weapons. Why is the Israeli side allowed under Oslo to continue to arm and continue to administer violence to the Palestinian people, and the Palestinian people are not even allowed to use stones and we describe that as terror when they try to…

TERENCE SMITH: But you go too far, Khalil, in saying that Oslo is defunct. Arafat and the Palestinian Authority wouldn’t even be in Gaza, they wouldn’t even be in Jericho in the West Bank, in Ramallah right now if it weren’t for the Oslo Accords.

TERENCE SMITH: Robert Pelletreau, what is the involvement of Iran, if in fact it is confirmed as the source of these weapons, say to you? And what does that do to the balance of power in the region?

ROBERT PELLETREAU: Iran has been involved for a long time, we know, in the financing and the supplying of Hezbollah, and it’s not yet clear exactly what the role of Hezbollah and the role of Iran and which groups of Iran are in this shipment. But if it does come out that Iran, in its and its government entities, is involved now, has made a decision to be supplying arms to Palestinian groups in the Palestinian areas, this is an escalation. This is a new development, and quite a serious one.

TERENCE SMITH: And what does this do to the idea of the United States and Iran increasing discussions of late over terrorism issues?

ROBERT PELLETREAU: Well, it makes it much harder for the United States and Iran to take the next steps toward a normalization.

KHALIL JAHSHAN: It definitely makes it more complicated for the United States in dealing with Iran and other actors in the region. But we do not know whether Iran, in terms of the government itself, has been behind this or not. It is important, I think, we should be clear before this audience that the relationship between the PA, generally speaking, and Iran, has not been a warm relationship. And that’s why this is surprising and there must be, if indeed there is an Iranian party I doubt that it’s the Iranian government, which has been opposed to the PA, opposed to the peace process or whatever is left of it, and have not been involved in arming anybody related to Yasser Arafat. So why all of a sudden?

TERENCE SMITH: David, this strategy of the Israeli government, of distancing itself from the Palestinian Authority, I mean in the end, don’t you have to negotiate with your enemy to get anywhere?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: There’s no doubt that you have to. But the whole premises of Oslo in 1993 and to continue on Bob’s point, is that somehow Arafat would be a Mandela, that he would be transformed, he’d have a stake in this process and therefore, have a stake in its success. What we’ve seen by his actions that he’s not Mandela, he’s act can like Mugabi and the net effect is you will not find a phone booth of Israelis who are willing to state willing to have the sort of state that Khalil Jahshan just talked about. If you were to say bring us right to your borders and have Kaytusha rockets aimed at you and C-4 explosives aimed at you and have dozens of car bombs, suicide bombings go out, nobody would agree to this. And that was just… At the center of Oslo was that this would be side by side states, and I think the Palestinian people deserve, frankly, better leadership. 60%, according to the most poll say they want a cease-fire. And I think, frankly, the United States has to think the way… The same problem in the ’90s with Yeltsin, which goes you get behind the man and you forget the principles. For the last decade, all the U.S. has been thinking about is the man. He is the only alternative to Hamas, to the militants. But instead, I think there needs to be a rethink and say, “Hey, what are the principles here? Maybe some of the younger generation is what we’ve got to look to because this policy is becoming a disaster.”

TERENCE SMITH: Let me ask you both about that.

KHALIL JAHSHAN: Look, the rethink doesn’t belong to you or me, it doesn’t belong to President Bush. The rethink belongs to the Palestinian people. It is their right to replace Arafat…

TERENCE SMITH: Is there rethinking going on?

KHALIL JAHSHAN: There has always been rethinking, but unfortunately, we have not help the Palestinians since ’94, when the Palestinian Authority was formed and Yasser Arafat went in to focus on that, on building a civil society, on building the infrastructure of a state. Instead, we focused on…

TERENCE SMITH: Is he still the man to deal with, Yasser Arafat?

ROBERT PELLETREAU: Yes, he is. Before we jump in to what would be a successor government, let’s be real here that this is going to be a period of chaos after Yasser Arafat goes. He is the symbol of Palestinianism, the Palestinian identity. He does not have a designated successor. He hasn’t allowed anyone to develop. So much as we dislike him in some ways, much as the Israelis are frustrated with him, he is the answer box right now.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: You right, but you’ve got to admit Bob. I’m talking about what Palestinians are saying – what Shakaki wrote in Foreign Affairs – what Saber — there’s with a new generation of Palestinian leaders that are coming to the fore that are saying, “this current strategy of confrontation has been a disaster for us as Palestinians, and we’re so whetted to this old think, I think we need to revisit it. And I think the U.S. shouldn’t be alone, by the way. Work with the Europeans, work with the Arab governments who keep saying this is important to them. It was only that sort of multilateral effort in December that even got Arafat to go as far as he did. But I think the key actors here have to rethink their whole policies.

ROBERT PELLETREAU: And how long would it take?

TERENCE SMITH: All right, we’ll have to find out. Thank you, all three, very much.