TOPICS > Politics

Mideast Agendas

May 7, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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JIM LEHRER: We get more on all of this now from Todd Purdum, chief diplomatic correspondent for The New York Times; Hisham Melhem, Washington correspondent for the Beirut newspaper As-Safir; and David Makovsky, former executive editor of The Jerusalem Post and diplomatic correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Todd Purdum, starting with you, what can you say about the possible fallout there may be from this latest suicide bombing and particularly how it affects all that’s going on in Washington right now particularly the Sharon mission?

TODD PURDUM: Well, Jim it partly depends on what group ultimately may claim responsibility, but it’s not a good thing. Israeli officials made it clear here this week that they were willing to move forward on certain terms toward talking about progress, but that all the progress depended on a cessation of violence, an end to the bombings. This has just been… just as it was when Secretary Powell was in Israel last month, a blow to all those hopes.

JIM LEHRER: Yeah. There’s been nothing that’s leaked… there’s been no immediate reaction, has there, beyond what I’ve just reported about from Condoleezza Rice?

TODD PURDUM: No, not that we’ve heard here. And, in fact, if it should be that the Hamas group claims responsibility for the bombing, for example, we don’t know, that would be a group that Mr. Arafat himself is not on the same page with, so it’s very hard to know what the fallout will be, but it’s not good.

JIM LEHRER: David Makovsky, there have already been suggestions that maybe Prime Minister Sharon will close up his mission and go home. Is that likely at this point?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think it’s possible. I don’t think we can rule it out. I agree with Todd. We don’t know yet who did this, and we have to be careful until we know but the reason why this resonates so strongly, no one could stop 100 percent of attacks but if the Palestinian Security Authority isn’t doing even 5 percent effort, that’s why the focus turns on the PA, but it could be Hamas in this case. So we have to be careful in terms of saying who did it. But I want to be clear what this George Tenet was announced today that he’s going to the region to reform the whole Palestinian security structure, I think that’s very interesting but it’s not all about technical reform. It’s ultimately about political will, and therefore, I think that they’ve tried… Tenet has tried reforms in the past but it’s — the political will to stop the suicide bombing is the key.

JIM LEHRER: We’ll come back to the Tenet and that sort of thing. I’m just trying to get some reading here, just… because I know nobody knows what the reaction is going to be but does this… do you think, Hisham, that it matters whether or not it’s Hamas or whether or not it’s some other group are that did this, or do you think it will have the same effect in the Arab world? What do you think it will be?

HISHAM MELHEM: A lot will depend on who did it.

JIM LEHRER: You think it will depend?

HISHAM MELHEM: Of course to a great deal. After all, those who did it are sending multiple messages; they are sending a message to Sharon saying even after a major invasion you’re not going to stop us. They’re also sending a message to the American president to the Europeans, to the Arab states, to the Saudis, and the Jordanians and those who are interested in reviving the peace process that we are not interested too and we’re trying to undermine you too.

So I would argue that the Saudis and the Jordanians and others will be as angry at this attack as we were against the Natami attack, which occurred immediately after the summit in Beirut. And they saw it as an attack on them too. So obviously if it is Hamas– again we’re only speculating here– then the impact on Arafat and the Palestinian Authority will be less, because nobody can accuse him of being in control of Hamas.

If, if, just a big if, if it’s a group that is somewhat affiliated with the PA, with the Palestinian Authority, then Arafat will come under tremendous pressure and then Sharon could argue or this will embolden Sharon to say let’s focus on the security issue and ignore the political underlying causes of the conflict.

JIM LEHRER: But David, some Israeli officials say it doesn’t matter whether it’s Hamas or whatever, Arafat is responsible. Could that be a prevailing view in Israel?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: In this one case, like I said, we don’t know, but I think you’re right, Jim, that that will be the prevailing view because the feeling is that, (a), there’s a whole climate here of exhorting, going on Al-Jazeera, calling for people to become martyrs, exhorting suicide bombers, the Israeli documents claiming he signed off and made payments to these suicide bombers and their families.

And that’s why, sure, there’s frustration on the ground on all sides by the way, but people want to know is the leadership viewing terror as a strategy? That’s the key issue. And I would say 95 percent of Israelis believe that’s what he’s doing, and therefore, this I think hurts Arafat because the broader picture is that he endorses this approach, whether indeed he endorsed this attack, we don’t know.

JIM LEHRER: But I mean that Arafat, if he wanted to, could have stopped an attack on the day that Sharon… I mean not on the day but literally while President Bush was meeting with Ariel Sharon in Washington?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Well, like I said, I don’t mean to say that we know….

JIM LEHRER: Exactly.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: …if he could have stopped this one attack but the point is that this approach didn’t begin yesterday. We’ve had this for 18 months. It’s in that context that he’s never come out and saying that this is more morally wrong. I mean also the president asked the Saudis and all the other Arabs that Hisham mentioned — he said condemn this. Say they’re not martyrs, they’re murderers. That the Arabs have not done since that April 4 speech of the president.

JIM LEHRER: Why have they not done that Hisham?

HISHAM MELHEM: Arafat did it in English, he did it in Arabic, he did it in major speeches. He did it in interview. The grand mufti of Saudi Arabia did it; the grand mufti of the university in Cairo did it; they’ve done it many times. What the Israelis want is a blanket condemnation from the Arabs of all kinds of resistance against the Israelis. Yes, you condemn and you should condemn the killing of civilians and innocent people in Israel just as one should condemn the killing of Palestinians by Israelis. But you cannot ask the Arabs or even Arafat himself to say any active resistance against a heavily armed Israeli soldier in Nablus or in Tulkarem on Palestinian soil is an act of terror. That’s the problem.

When you talk about the word … martyr, everybody in the world Arab world whether Christian or Muslim who dies in an Israeli attack is referred to as martyr. It’s a cultural thing — whether your name is Mohammed as a Muslim or George, and there are many Palestinian Georges too. It’s a cultural thing. So when Arafat says I’m here, I want to fight, they want me to surrender but I would rather die, what do you expect him to say? It doesn’t mean that he is inciting…

DAVID MAKOVSKY: But your point they don’t won’t do what you just said publicly – they won’t do that and attack those who are killing innocent civilians inside Israel, women and children, even that standard which some of us might think is insufficient they won’t do that minimal standard that you just condemned here.

JIM LEHRER: Let me go back to Todd to the context for all of this here in Washington. The mission that Ariel Sharon came with was to isolate Arafat, right, and get the United States to go along with that?

TODD PURDUM: I’m not sure how much he really thought the United States would be willing to go along with it, but it’s certainly the point he wanted to make about the unreliability of Mr. Arafat as a peace partner. Of course he’s leaning on an open door in President Bush who has never met Mr. Arafat. This was his fifth meeting with Prime Minister Sharon. But Prime Minister Sharon also came with proposals for increased security, buffer zones, a fence, if you will, dividing Israel and much of the West Bank, that he felt would be the first step toward any resumption of serious discussions of peace.

He’s made it quite clear that he’s willing only to move in interim steps toward some version of a Palestinian state that remains ill-defined. It’s also not clear exactly how aggressively the Bush administration wants to move to that goal although President Bush repeated again today that that is his goal, a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel.

JIM LEHRER: Now, while that is Mr. Sharon’s mission, the various Arab officials who are coming to Washington are coming here with an entirely different agenda, are they not? They want something more long range than just interim steps?

TODD PURDUM: Absolutely, they want guarantees, timetables. They want something focused. Today Saudi Foreign Policy Advisor Adel Al-Jubeir had an unusual news conference at the Saudi embassy to rebut some of these allegations of Saudi financing for suicide bombers, families and so forth, and his point was that peace conference would be fine but not if it’s just to talk about, as he said, modalities and concepts. It has to talk about concrete steps.

JIM LEHRER: Is there any authoritative reading you could give us, Todd, on where the administration stands on these two conflicting approaches?

TODD PURDUM: I don’t think there’s any authoritative answer, Jim. I think segments of the administration stand more forward-leaning; others are more cautious. Others are more cautious about the prospects for any short-term resolution. So I think the administration itself continues to make it clear that it hasn’t reached a final conclusion — and in part one of the things it hopes to get from a peace conference of ministers this summer is a further discussion of what the best ideas out there are. That’s clearly not enough for many in Europe, for many… most in the Arab world. But at the moment it seems to be as far as the Bush administration is willing to go in a firm way.

JIM LEHRER: And it would only be speculation to try to figure out how today’s events in Israel, the bombing, could affect any decision of the administration, right?

TODD PURDUM: Any time the violence continues, it makes it harder for those people to argue for the supporters of an aggressive peace process to argue that there can be serious negotiations because the president’s view as well as Prime Minister Sharon’s is that you cannot deal with terrorism and you cannot accept it as a fact of life.

JIM LEHRER: All right. Let me bring Hisham and David back into this. There are two ways to look at this. There’s a bombing today. That means we must have a long-term peace agreement. Some people would argue that. This is proof of that. And then there’s others who would argue, no, no, this is proof of just the opposite. Take it one step. Security is first and whatever. Where do you think it’s going to go?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: It comes down to land for peace: A land for the Palestinians, peace for the Israelis. I think we demonstrated the whole world when it saw what Barak offered a 97 percent that the land part, the Israelis are willing to do. All they want is the peace part. And if Sharon isn’t willing to do the land part, the Israeli public will find someone else if they think the Palestinians will do the peace part.

What is peace? Peace is reconciliation between peoples, counter terrorism and a sense of reform. And I think that is the equation. If the Israelis have a sense they’re going to get peace, they’re going to give that land for sure, I have no doubt about it. But if they feel that they’re going to get bombed out of there and people think that you can, you know, like it’s going to be like Lebanon, you just bomb them and they’ll run away – then if it’s land for nothing, if it’s land for terrorism, this isn’t going to work. So I come back to land for peace. If we have a balance between these two ideas, we’ll have states for two peoples and dignity for each side, which is what I think we all want.

JIM LEHRER: Hisham?

HISHAM MELHEM: I don’t want to revisit what happened at Camp David. I don’t think the Palestinians were offered 97 percent and definitely Ariel Sharon does not subscribe to this kind of vision — dismantling settlements and giving the Palestinians their territory along the borders of 1967. But I agree there has to be peace for the Israelis and land for the Palestinians. And we all agree on the vision of peace: Two states living side by side. The problem is I’m not sure this prime minister of Israel is committed to this.

Again, also in Washington, the $64,000 question is whether George Bush is going to engage personally and directly and in a sustained way to lean on Ariel Sharon to deliver on this. There are more than one school of thought in the administration. You have Colin Powell leaning towards the international community’s consensus that there has to be a linkage between security measures and reviving what we call the political process or the political horizon. You have other groups, the NSC, the National Security Council, and the Defense Department who are instinctively supportive of Sharon. Sharon has benefited from this. He’s benefiting from the support that he gets in the Congress.

From that new strange alliance now with between Israel’s traditional friends in the democratic party, the liberal wing of the democratic party and the right wing Christian right. He goes to the president, looks him in the eye and he says, look, I have domestic immunity system against any kind of potential pressure that you’re going to put in my face, and that’s really part of the problem now.

JIM LEHRER: Let me bring up an awful possibility, not awful but awful for the people on the ground, on both sides — that there could be… that this starts a whole new, in other words, the Israeli troops, David, have just pulled out of the West Bank. Is this likely — is there likely to be pressure on Sharon to go back in?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Sure. I mean they’ll say, you know, when the bomb stop, the incursion will stop — if the bombs don’t stop, the incursions don’t stop. I think it will be very grim if again if we can’t find a way out. I just challenge Hisham here and everyone I think it’s normal. It’s not about politics, Hisham. It’s about policy. There’s not a person on earth, I think, that would say, here, I’m going to divide the city in two to the people who want to blow me up. All they want to know is they don’t want to get blown up. If they have a sense they have a leader, which Arafat has totally shown incapable to do, who wants to accept them and say welcome to the neighborhood, then they will give the land. There is no ideological… there might be among a few, but the majority are willing to do it. They just want to know they’re not going to get blown up.

HISHAM MELHEM: David, this is a political problem with the security dimension. You know that. There were periods of time when there were no suicide bombings, when Arafat did arrest Hamas people. You have to give the Palestinians an incentive to crack down on the so-called evil doers and those who are committing these acts. Obviously, Arafat at this stage today can never benefit from something awful like what we’ve seen today in Israel. There’s no way he can benefit politically from it.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: You would agree Hisham that it’s five-and-a-half out of seven years he didn’t do it.

JIM LEHRER: Let me go back to Todd finally on this. You heard what Hisham just said and everybody keeps saying this, Todd, that the United States is now involved. In ways that they never wanted to, at least the Bush administration did not want to get involved. I think everybody would agree on that. How involved are they now and how does this latest turn, how is it likely to affect the involvement of the president and the secretary of state, the man you went with, you were on that trip, of course — when Secretary Powell went over there.

TODD PURDUM: I think, Jim, they’re pretty involved — if only because they realize as Vice President Cheney said a month or so ago, there’s nobody but us. That’s always been true. It’s been true through all of Israel’s wars. It’s been true really since the founding of Israel. The United States is Israel’s guarantor of security on the world stage. The United States for better or worse, for all the intense feelings on the ground, is still seen by both parties as the only honest broker with enough clout to make a deal happen. And I think the administration is also increasingly realized that all its broader strategic goals in the region whether it has to do with toppling Saddam Hussein in Iraq or securing a stable Middle East and a steady flow of oil, they all involve the Middle East and I think every administration goes through this period. Every administration has this learning curve and I don’t think this one is any different. It is still a question exactly what timetable they’ll push on and how hard and how fast they’ll push. I don’t think that internal discussion within the administration is even close to over.

JIM LEHRER: Well, what about events of today? Is it likely to escalate that discussion?

TODD PURDUM: I think every time there’s an event like this, it just adds fuel to the fire, rubs the scab raw of the situation for the parties in Israel and in the Palestinian areas, and it rubs raw the internal policy debates of the administration about what the best way to proceed will be.

JIM LEHRER: Thank you, Todd. Gentlemen, thank you.