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Prospects for Peace: The Conflict in the Middle East

May 2, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: Now some perspective on where it all stands at this moment in the Middle East. Joel Singer was a legal advisor to the Israeli defense and foreign ministries, and was involved in negotiating the 1993 Oslo agreement. He’s now practicing law in Washington. Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland. And David Shipler is the former New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief, and author of the Pulitzer Prize winning book Arab and Jew: Wounded Spirits in a Promised Land.

Speaking of wounds, David, how bad are those that have been left by these events the last few weeks?

DAVID SHIPLER: Oh, I think they’re very deep and hard to assess they’re so profound. I just got an e-mail from an 18-year-old Palestinian girl in Ramallah I met last year at a school where I was interviewing who said that people in Ramallah now, high school students are going around trying to help little children get over their fears.

She talked about an incident where Israeli soldiers were pointing guns at little kids and they were crying. She asked the question in her e-mail, what kind of people will they grow up to be? The same kind of thing could be said about people on the Israeli side. I think that it’s so bad because it was so good. It was so close to a peace agreement, so close to a real resolution that the disillusionment is quite severe.

JIM LEHRER: And yet Joel Singer, today — Secretary Powell — we just ran it in a news summary a moment ago– said now there is a new window of opportunity. He believes and he called for this international peace conference sometime in the summer. Do you see a window of opportunity?

JOEL SINGER: Yes. It’s often the case that progress is gained by catastrophe. You need the real….

JIM LEHRER: This has happened before.

JOEL SINGER: Oh, all the time. So you need a real crisis in order to then gain a real progress. And we are in the right way in the sense that we have seen a real catastrophe already.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about it, Professor Telhami? Do you see a pocket here now that didn’t exist 24 hours ago, 48 hours ago, a week ago?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: There’s an opportunity. The main reason for the opportunity is not only that both Israelis and Palestinians have suffered a lot but also because I think the international community is terrified by the prospect of escalation especially Arab leaders who are fearful for their own governments, European leaders who are fearful of the consequences for their own interests and they’re all mobilized in a way that gives the United States an opportunity to lead.

At the same time I think we can’t exaggerate those opportunities. They’re there and they require extraordinary leadership — in part because there’s no indication that the interests of the parties are converging strategically. In fact the release of Arafat was done in a way for tactical reasons and clearly at some cost and at some potential risks because, for example, if you… we should witness more suicide bombings unfortunately in the next few weeks, certainly Arafat is going to be blamed and clearly it will be hard for the U.S. to restrain the Israelis and, in fact, the U.S. itself may be sort of blamed for restraining Israel earlier.

I don’t think frankly Arafat at this point is capable of completely stopping violence. I think what David Shipler said is very important. I think that the collective psychology not only in the Palestinian areas and in Israel but also in the region is profound. It has been not only exacerbated by the violence of the past month but also by the new media.

I think it’s asking in a way in the Arab mind it’s really akin to the 1948 Arab defeat. There is a sense of helplessness, a sense of disgust with the international system, a sense of disgust with government. No one can tell how that’s going to play itself out.

JIM LEHRER: But David Shipler, the disgust is not just… it’s not just a Palestinian and an Arab world disgust either. There’s a huge disgust among Israelis too, which has been reflected even among people who were in the labor government, et cetera.

DAVID SHIPLER: That’s right. I think that what’s happened in the last year-and-a-half is that the arguments of the Israeli left and center have been undermined because they always argued that if the Palestinians had some political entity leading to a state, they would want to preserve it by restraining the violent people who would be inclined to attack Israel and that at the worst if that didn’t happen, Israel could guarantee its security by reoccupying the areas.

Neither of those propositions has turned out to be correct. The Palestinians did not see themselves as having enough stake in what was given to them under the Oslo Accords to preserve it. And when Israel went back in, it was… it triggered a huge uproar throughout the world.

I think Israel must now be — I’m not there, but I would imagine that there’s a siege mentality that’s taken over, that the liberal Israelis don’t have much of an argument to make right now. The one argument they could begin to make — and I think that they will when things settle down– is to get rid of the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and Gaza.

Most Israelis according to polls are willing to relinquish those settlements. Even Sharon would probably relinquish a good many of the small scattered settlements if he could get security guarantees.

JIM LEHRER: Joel Singer, do you agree that it’s that kind of thing that now must be discussed, that this thing has to… of course the Bethlehem thing remains to be resolved but now that Arafat is… the siege is over of Arafat — there’s now going to be an international peace conference. It’s the settlements issue and things like that that must now be on the table everywhere.

JOEL SINGER: Well, I see it a little bit different. I think that the final deal has already been written. It is there. Everyone knows what is the final deal. All you need to do is get the parties to sign it.

In the Camp David discussions and in the Tabah talk, the two parties were following the proposal of President Clinton, elaborated on the final deal, and they know exactly what each of them must do in order to get there. Israel accepted the deal; Arafat for some reason rejected it. But everyone understands that this is the deal. There will be no other deal.

JIM LEHRER: Side by side states.

JOEL SINGER: Side by side states. No right of return. The Palestinians live in a Palestinian state. The Jews live in a Jewish land. The settlements go back to Israel, and the Palestinian refugees go to Palestine. That’s the deal.

And the 1967 border more or less is the border. Now how do you get the parties to sign this deal, that they understand that this is it, that’s the issue? And the way to do it, to me, is very clear. The U.S. Administration has now understood it as well.

You have to involve the Arab world to work in tandem with the United States government so that each one is doing its share, a division of labor. The United States Government works with Israel to get to this final deal; and the Arab world will work with the Palestinians.

Saudi Arabia has now agreed to shoulder this responsibility, but Egypt still needs to join it. I have worked with the Palestinians negotiating for three years — many, many Oslo accords agreement. We have negotiated in Norway, in France, in Italy, in England, in the United States, and I can tell you the best negotiations took place in Egypt when President Mubarak, when Amr Moussa who was then the minister of foreign affairs, now the secretary general of the Arab League — when Nabil Fahmy, the Egyptian ambassador now — then involved in the foreign ministry were around and were helping. They are not pro Israeli. They are pro Palestinian. This is why it worked.

JIM LEHRER: Do you see that, Professor Telhami, that that’s the new wrinkle here, the division of labor?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: I agree actually with a lot of what Joel said. I think clearly the final settlement agreement is roughly clear to most people. The problem, the obstacle now is not just that Arafat had been reluctant to accept certain components of it or all of it but also that we also have a different prime minister in Israel. Mr. Sharon who has clearly rejected that idea altogether — you’re going to have to find a way to test him on it.

I think it exactly along the lines that Joel suggested in the following sense. Arafat and Sharon are a lot likely to be able to negotiate a deal together. Therefore you have to create a negotiation where the role is somewhat diluted, where you have other parties who have interest in a deal — the Arab countries — certainly perhaps even the Europeans.

It certainly requires American leadership. If you put a deal on the table and it has to be sort of a top- down approach, then perhaps it will create pressure on both leaders in terms of the domestic politics but that requires an American vision and an American leadership not only reacting to events on the ground and allowing yourself to be preempted by the players on the ground especially if they have different strategies than you do. So it requires the kind of policy that we have not yet seen and hopefully this is what’s developing.

JIM LEHRER: Joel, if I read what Joel Singer was saying, what I read today, one of the… a lot of people would say the U.S. has been involved in the past with… in the Clinton Administration, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, but the Arab world was never involved and that’s the new wrinkle. You don’t think that it requires that to get it done this time, that the U.S. can’t do it alone?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: By the way, if you think about why the Arab states weren’t involved before Camp David, Joel could actually speak to that. Ehud Barak, the former prime minister, really wanted to marginalize the role of the Arab states before the negotiations at Camp David and the U.S. went along with it.

That was I think it turned out to be a bad strategy. Now it’s clear that it’s a bad strategy because ultimately Arafat really could not reach a final settlement on issues like Jerusalem without the approval of major Arab and Islamic countries.

I think it’s very important to involve these countries because they have a stake too. This is a broader issue than just the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. We’re coming to grips with that. It certainly has consequences not only for the entire region but perhaps globally.

JIM LEHRER: As you said earlier, there’s fear in everybody’s bones over this one now, right?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: The fear is very deep. I think that in a way it explains why the Saudis took the initiative. It explains why Arab states for the first time unanimously supported the Saudi proposal at the Arab summit conference.

On the one hand, they are being pushed to the limit by their publics. Again, they can’t control public opinion because of that free media that conveys all of the pain. They’re under tremendous pressure.

At the same time they understand that their interests and their survival depends on a relationship with the west and especially with the U.S. There is no way you can reconcile the two unless you put this issue under control. And clearly they have realized that they are going to have to invest some of their own energies mediating.

That is to our advantage. And therefore it does open up a new opportunity for American diplomacy but as I said it would requires a vision, it requires leadership not merely reacting to events.

JIM LEHRER: How do you feel about what is required now, David, listening to what both these other gentlemen have said?

DAVID SHIPLER: Well I think they’re both right. As usual in the Middle East every side is right. Joel puts his finger on it.

JIM LEHRER: Every side is right in the Middle East.

DAVID SHIPLER: And wrong at the same time. Joel is absolutely right.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Including us Americans, David.

JIM LEHRER: Pardon?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Including us Americans.

DAVID SHIPLER: Well we’re not always right. I think that Joel put his finger on it. The deal has been worked out as an Israeli attorney said to me about a year ago, gruesomely it’s all over but the body count. I mean there is… it’s pretty clear what has to be done, what has to be conceded but I think it’s important to remember that the… this is a coexistence that they’re aiming for between two peoples not just between leaderships.

They live just down the street with each other — from reach other. They’re neighbors. They do coexist. The question is what kind of coexistence? And that means that the resolution is not going to be brought about just by men in suits sitting around a negotiating table. It has to reach down into the streets, into the homes, into the schools.

And I think one of the failures that Arafat particularly has been responsible for in these last eight years, nine years, has been the failure to lead the Palestinian people to a posture of compromise on two very fundamental issues. One Joel mentioned: The right of return. Now I spent some time in a couple of refugee camps last spring where I saw that Palestinian kids were still being educated to say the names of their grandparents’ villages inside Israel proper as their homelands — villages that had been destroyed in the 1948 war, that no longer existed but villages to which they felt they had a right to return.

Now that’s a nonstarter with Israelis. It’s not going to happen. Arafat needs somehow to wean the Palestinian people away from that yearning. The second issue is Jerusalem. Both sides need to make compromise on that one.

JIM LEHRER: I think what you’re saying, David Shipler, is that if anybody believes there’s going to be a peace conference in the first part of summer and suddenly it’s all going to be over and everybody is going to be … forget it.

DAVID SHIPLER: Forget it.

JIM LEHRER: It’s a long time coming.

DAVID SHIPLER: In a way it’s almost back to where we were in the early ’90s at the Madrid Conference. It’s a sad situation that the clock has been turned back.

JIM LEHRER: Gentlemen, thank you all three very much.