TOPICS > Politics

Middle East Maelstrom

February 21, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict looks to two former U.S. officials long involved in the Middle East. Richard Murphy is a former assistant secretary of state and ambassador to Syria and Saudi Arabia. He’s now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. Geoffrey Kemp served on the National Security Council staff in the Reagan administration. He’s now at the Nixon Center.

Geoffrey Kemp, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan said late this afternoon the Israelis and Palestinians are, quote, nearing the edge of the abyss of all-out war.

Do you agree with him?

GEOFFREY KEMP: Not quite, no. I think this is a terribly serious moment and the dilemma, quite frankly, for Mr. Sharon is that he’s being pressured by both his hard right and his left to take much more draconian measures than he has done so far.

The right want him to occupy the West Bank; the left want him to get out. He’s trying to straddle the middle. We don’t know what he means by a buffer zone. Until we do, this is all sort of make-believe.

But the reality is, Jim, in the last three weeks, Arafat’s stock has been rising and Sharon’s has been falling. We had written off Arafat three weeks ago. He was on the ropes.

Now Sharon is pestered from all sides. He’s suffered these setbacks that were displayed in your report, and he faces now a United States that, more than ever, needs some tranquility in this region.

The vice president, Dick Cheney, is going to the Middle East next month. He’s visiting 11 countries, eight of which are Arab. The purpose is clearly to explain their plans towards Iraq.

JIM LEHRER: You’re raising a lot of points here, but I’m just talking about right now tonight, what happens… we’ll get to all your points in a moment. But what is the risk of this thing escalating long before all those things you’re just talking about could happen and into where we have a major conflict? You don’t think that’s a problem?

GEOFFREY KEMP: No, I don’t think… when you say escalate, I mean it’s not going to overlap into Egypt or Jordan or Syria at this point in time.

But this is a warning sign that it could.

JIM LEHRER: Richard Murphy, how do you see the risk of more escalation and more death and more killing right now?

RICHARD MURPHY: I definitely see more killings right now between Israelis and Palestinians. I agree with Geoff.

I don’t see a regional conflict breaking out, but we didn’t hear today from Prime Minister Sharon anything much more than an inspirational message to the Israeli people to be patient, ‘Remember the triumphs of your past and stand behind your government.’

JIM LEHRER: What do you make, Ambassador Murphy of Yasser Arafat’s call for a cease-fire? It was actually a reiteration of a cease-fair call in December.

Do you think that’s going to have any impact?

RICHARD MURPHY: He has in the Palestinian community extremists who are not going to follow him right down the line of an absolute cease-fire. The suicide bombers, he’s not dispatching them individually or collectively. And some of them are very much motivated to keep on the attack.

What has changed though is– and acknowledged interestingly by the Israeli cabinet in a statement just today or yesterday that said we’re in a new phase.

This is not classical terrorism; this is all-out guerilla warfare.

JIM LEHRER: All-out guerilla warfare. Geoff Kemp, just on this one issue of Arafat’s now ability… let’s say that both… neither side… both of them said today they want peace. Okay. All right. Now Arafat says ‘cease-fire I want peace.’

Now, is that statement… can he in fact enforce it from his point of view, from his end?

GEOFFREY KEMP: He can enforce let’s say 80 percent of a cease-fire. He cannot enforce 100 percent. The problem has been that Sharon is essentially been demanding 100 percent for 72 hours if not longer.

And the… nobody believes Arafat can do that, particularly if the instruments with which he would enforce the peace are being attacked by the Israelis and themselves may even be part of the problem.

So I don’t believe he can do it, but he can certainly do more than he has done and he should be pressured more and more to do more.

JIM LEHRER: All right. So now let’s go to the other side.

Sharon’s power to… you went through it earlier, that he’s got pressure on both sides.

I’m trying to get at this idea of who has to do something to stop this right now and who has the power and the will to do it? Can Sharon stop it if he wants to?

GEOFFREY KEMP: Sharon could do a lot more than Arafat because Sharon could, of course, decide to open up negotiations again with Arafat. He would have to slip his ground rules a little, but he has the initiative in that regard.

But politically he’s under great fire from his right wing. That would be considered giving in to Arafat. It would be considered rewarding Arafat at a time when the Israeli armed forces have suffered some of their most serious setbacks in many years.

JIM LEHRER: Now Ambassador Murphy, Kofi Annan also said today that the mistrust between the Israelis and the Palestinians — and he means — he didn’t say it but clearly he means Sharon and Arafat and the folks around them is so severe that some outside interest, either the United Nations or he said the international community in a general way, is going to have to step in to prevent an all-out war.

How do you feel about that? Do you agree with him?

RICHARD MURPHY: I agree with him, Jim. I think they’re locked in a dance of death between the Palestinians and Israelis. I don’t think either one has a clear policy as to how to break this impasse.

Now today in a statement Sharon made a point of referring without revealing any details that he had had a friendly conversation with Mubarak just in the last day.

JIM LEHRER: The president of Egypt.

RICHARD MURPHY: An outside force, the president of Egypt. He was asked in the subsequent Q&A about the American position; he says America understands our position.

So I think there’s a hit there that, yes, there may be an outside force.

Could Mubarak be that instrument? Could it be back to a statement referring back to a statement of the crown prince of Saudi Arabia about mobilizing the Arab world to normalize with Israel if they reach a just peace with the Palestinians?

JIM LEHRER: Do you think, Geoffrey Kemp, that it’s to the point where the international community has to step in whether the Israelis and the Palestinians really want them?

GEOFFREY KEMP: No, I don’t think the international community can step in, but I do think I agree with Dick that something clearly Arab leaders can do, there are certain things the United States can do, and there’s things the EU leadership can do. They’re all three very important components of this.

My sense is that the United States will be motivated because of what’s happened in the last two or three days to at least have another go at stabilizing this situation before the vice president goes to the region. They have to.

JIM LEHRER: Stabilize it in what way? How would they do it?

GEOFFREY KEMP: Well, look, if Cheney’s primary purpose is to build support for an operation against Iraq, the last thing he needs is violence and chaos in the West Bank and Gaza as he visits all the Arab countries.

So, from a purely short-term strategic perspective, the United States has got to do everything it can to make sure those conditions do not pertain when he goes out in March.

JIM LEHRER: But what can the United States do? You know, we’ve had all kinds of peace missions and nothing seems to happen. You’re talking about a higher level peace mission?


JIM LEHRER: Something different?

GEOFFREY KEMP: No, I think what the president or the secretary of state have to do is to encourage Arafat — he did arrest three suspects yesterday who have been accused of killing the minister of tourism in Israel — to do more of that, to do it seriously to be seen to be doing it, to talk in Arabic that he’s doing this.

And, to Sharon I think the administration should say, “you have got to come up with some vision of where you are taking this because we don’t know what your plans are, the Israelis don’t know what your plans are, the Palestinians don’t know what your plans are, and you have got to ultimately offer Arafat something to stop the violence.”

JIM LEHRER: Does that look like a formula for something that might work to you, Ambassador Murphy?

RICHARD MURPHY: Possibly. I think the fact that Sharon was so vague today is because he did not want to break his government. And if he became too specific about any plan or any vision, he’s going to lose the far right or the far left. He doesn’t want to lose anyone right now. He wants to keep everybody together.

I think there is something more specifically that we could do, and that’s to pick up and push, if we can, if there’s real substance there, what the Saudis have put out as a proposal, see if that resonates in the Arab world and encourage it through Saudi Arabia, through Egypt, in every capital, to come together at the Arab summit next month, about four weeks from now, as scheduled at least, and make a proposal, which would be really new and significant in Arab politics.

JIM LEHRER: So you believe that there’s that kind of time?

I mean you don’t think that this thing is going to escalate out of control and that tomorrow there will be another series of attacks and then counterattacks, we’re going to have more of the same over the next several weeks?

RICHARD MURPHY: There will be more of the same over the next several weeks.

When the Israelis called it full-scale guerilla warfare, they were acknowledging that they are not able to stop everything, which involves speed, surprise and suicide.

JIM LEHRER: What do you make, Ambassador Murphy, of the… you mentioned it earlier but expand on it a little bit…the buffer zones that Prime Minister Sharon made — he didn’t give any details but how does that sound to you as an idea to at least have peace?

RICHARD MURPHY: Jim, the one depressing part of what Sharon said was when he was pushed to define what the buffer zone will mean and it’s to protect Israelis wherever they are.

Now this is a leader who has all his life been committed to settlements and development of settlements and where Israelis are is all over the West Bank and Gaza. And I hope that that’s not a hint that they will… he’s committed to have them stay where they are.

But buffer zone is a small step towards meeting the rising demand in Israel for unilateral withdrawal, separation. He doesn’t like it. But he acknowledges he has to talk to the issue of how to provide some greater security for the Israeli citizen.

JIM LEHRER: How do you read the buffer zone thing, Geoffrey Kemp?

GEOFFREY KEMP: Well, until we know where it is it’s very difficult to read it because if the buffer zone were, for instance, along the 1967 borderlines, the most primarily protecting Israel proper from the occupied territories, this would be a massive reversal for, I mean, a Likud leader who at one point wanted a greater Israel where the buffer zone would be the Jordan Valley.

But I don’t think that is Sharon’s plan at this point in time. But certainly I think people on the left will see this as the beginning of a process, which could lead to unilateral withdrawal where, of course, the purpose was to pull back but to build a big fence and to essentially separate Israelis from Palestinians in order to protect each other.

JIM LEHRER: So this could be… may not be as inflammatory as it appears as a step, in other words?

GEOFFREY KEMP: No, I don’t think so. Again, the devil is in the detail. It always is in this part of the world.

And where those buffers are on the map depends, as Dick said, is this going to include all the settlements in the outlying areas or is it primarily going to be along the areas where the major Israeli population overlaps with the Palestinian population?

If it is the latter, then you could say it may be the beginnings of something called withdrawal.

JIM LEHRER: And the beginning of a process that could end in peace — in other words — is what you’re suggesting.

GEOFFREY KEMP: Well, but it could end up where everybody I think believes it has to end up, where certainly poor Prime Minister Barak wanted it to end up, namely where the Israelis get out of most of the occupied territories and the Palestinians get a state and you then reach some agreement on Jerusalem.

JIM LEHRER: Ambassador Murphy, on this other thing about Arafat, the arrest today of the three… of three Palestinians who are accused in the killing of the Israeli minister, that was one of the conditions, was it not, that Sharon laid down for allowing Arafat out of his compound, to have free reign?

Do you think it’s important now that Sharon act on that, or how important is that as an issue?

RICHARD MURPHY: Well, I think it’s important, Jim. I think he hedged on that by saying now the Israeli cabinet will consider what has been done. He’s heard promises in the past that not only will suspects be arrested but they will be tried. Arafat has said flatly they will be tried in Palestinian courts, not in Israeli courts, but I don’t think he’s going to immediately say go where you will. He’s going to want a period of testing.

JIM LEHRER: Okay. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.