What’s Next in the Mideast
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MARGARET WARNER: Now, where do the events of the last 24 hours leave the prospects for Middle East peace? To explore that, we turn to three people who have been involved in earlier Arab-Israeli peace efforts.
Robert Malley was director for Near East and South Asian Affairs at the National Security Council during the Clinton Administration; he was part of the U.S. team at the Camp David peace talks in July 2000. He now directs the Middle East program at the International Crisis Group, a non-governmental organization that analyzes crisis areas around the world.
Joel Singer was a legal advisor to the Israeli defense and foreign ministries while Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister; he was involved in negotiating the 1993 Oslo agreement, and he is now practicing law in Washington. And Mohammed Wahby was minister of information at the Egyptian embassy in Washington during the time of the Madrid peace process that followed the Gulf War; he is now a columnist for al Mussawar Magazine.
MARGARET WARNER: Welcome, gentlemen. Mohammed Wahby, we’ve had these two events back to back in 24 hours, the suicide bombing, then the endorsement of the Saudi peace initiatives. Where does that leave things? Where do things stand now?
MOHAMMED WAHBY: I think there’s no doubt at all that today despite what happened in Israel, which everybody, of course, feels very bad about, I think it’s a big day for the Middle East. There’s no question we are starting a new page in the Middle East. And the unanimous resolution by the Arab states with no dissent whatsoever, not even by Libya, is very important that now the Arab states are not only willing to make peace with Israel but they are willing to end the conflict. That’s very, very important.
MARGARET WARNER: A new day, Joel Singer?
JOEL SINGER: It’s a new day in some respects. I think that the Arab summit resolution, the peace initiative is an important step forward. It may have come late. It doesn’t include all the necessary elements, but it is important. But the terrorist attack that came together with it demonstrates once more that it is more important what is being done than what is being stated.
MARGARET WARNER: You mean what’s being done on the ground.
JOEL SINGER: Absolutely.
MARGARET WARNER: Your view, Rob Malley. Is this the beginning of a new era?
ROBERT MALLEY: It depends. I think we’ve seen the disconnect between what’s happening on the ground and the possibility of peace. And what the Arab League adopted today, with some corrections, is a platform that I think most observers agree would be a just and final settlement, as I said, with some modifications. But you need to make a link between what’s happening on the ground and that vision of peace. That’s going to take forceful action by a third party. I believe that’s the United States.
MARGARET WARNER: Joel Singer, Israeli Prime Minister Sharon called a cabinet meeting for tonight saying some decisions had to be taken after last night’s attack. How do you read the prospects for an Israeli military retaliation?
JOEL SINGER: Well, based on past experience, it will likely come sooner or later. Again, this emphasizes the fact that something must be done to stop terrorism. And I see the Arab summit resolution, the peace initiative, the major problem with it is that it only called upon Israel to do a series of things and there was no call upon the Palestinians to stop terrorism. That’s the basic flaw of this summit resolution.
MARGARET WARNER: Mohammed Wahby, this afternoon, Yasser Arafat said he was ready for this cease-fire. What do you see… do you see that as significant?
MOHAMMED WAHBY: Yeah. At this time actually he immediately followed what he said, you know, immediately by arresting quite a number of terrorist leaders, which I can also call terrorist leaders immediately. And he is putting some already in prison. The point that Mr. Singer is making about Arafat stopping everything, Israel has not been able– with all its power– has not been able to prevent what’s happening.
So I mean, what is requested from Mr. Arafat is 100 percent effort and not 100 percent results because 100 percent results are not even made by Israel. So you cannot call on Chairman Arafat to do or to have 100 percent success in preventing these attacks. Israel cannot prevent them either. So there should be some time for Arafat also in order to be able to implement after Israel has completely destroyed all his security infrastructure. So give him some time and I think we’ll have results.
MARGARET WARNER: How do you rate the prospects for… I mean, do you think that Yasser Arafat has the incentive to stop the violence now? Does the Saudi peace plan give him the incentive or is it to the contrary?
ROBERT MALLEY: This is not a matter for Yasser Arafat. It’s a matter of do the people on the ground, the Palestinians who are leading this fight, do they have an incentive? Do they have the desire?
Having just come back and spoken to some of the people there who are involved in the fighting, my sense is they’ll stop when they think that there’s a political resolution that meets more or less the aspirations, that looks palpable and tangible and before that they feel like to lay down their arms would simply be to postpone the resolution of their political problems.
So I think the focus on Arafat, obviously he’s the leader, there’s a lot he can do, but let’s deal with the political problems that are bedeviling all of us and that are causing tragedy for the Palestinian and the Israeli people.
MARGARET WARNER: But then are you saying that to get this process going, even to get the cease-fire, that Israel would have to be willing to negotiate on some real political issues at the same time while the violence is going on? I mean, as you know, that’s been the stand-off in trying to get any kind of deal at all.
ROBERT MALLEY: Personally I’ve lost some faith in the negotiating, in the prospects of negotiating between the two parties — I’ve been involved in some and I just think right now the issue is not having the two parties negotiate. We’re not going to get an agreement between Prime Minister Sharon and Chairman Arafat.
What I say is that a third party, the United States, with the backing of other countries, needs to come with a comprehensive plan that has security and political steps together. Otherwise there will be a cease-fire maybe that Yasser Arafat will take some steps now. I personally don’t believe that the steps will be adequate. I don’t think that the Israelis are going to lay their arms down. They’ll counterattack. There will be another terrorist attack and we’ll be back here in a few weeks saying the same thing.
MARGARET WARNER: Mohammed Wahby, what’s the game plan for advancing now the Saudi initiative as you understand it?
MOHAMMED WAHBY: Yes, actually they have not only taken this resolution, but they have also adopted a kind of mechanism. You see, there will be now a follow-up committee. And this follow-up committee will take the unanimous will of the Arabs to make peace. This is the first time that there is a unanimous will by the Arabs to make peace with Israel.
They will take it to the United States and Crown Prince Abdullah is coming soon to Washington; in the next two weeks he will be here. They will also take it to the Security Council. There will be a follow-up. There will be an assertion by the Arabs on the ground and everywhere in every milieu that we are willing to make peace. This is very important now — That they are not thinking a rhetorical stand, that we are ready to make peace, but, no, we are ready to make peace and we will follow through.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Joel Singer, how do you think Israel is likely to respond to this? Will it get engaged in this?
JOEL SINGER: It will depend on a number of things, but let me just respond or perhaps add a little bit to what you just said. I totally agree with you that in the current situation, Arafat and Sharon are not capable of negotiating a resolution. What is required now,
MARGARET WARNER: Let me just interrupt you. You’re talking about even a cease-fire.
JOEL SINGER: Even a cease-fire. Because the televised call by Arafat for cease-fire, they mean nothing. He is not able, as you said, to impose his will. He’s not really ruling the Palestinians now. And there will be no negotiations. They will not even start let alone be concluded so long as terrorist attacks are being carried out. And he cannot stop them.
So what is needed now, perhaps to take advantage of the Arab readiness to involve themselves now – which — this is new– is to take advantage of this, but shifted a little bit because the United States can talk with Israel and convince Israel to make concessions, and the Arab League can talk with the Palestinians and convince them to make concessions. This is the right way of dividing the work between the United States and the Arab League.
The Arab league thus far has only called upon Israel to do things. What they need to do is talk to the Hamas and talk to the Islamic Jihad. After all, who is providing them weapons? Who is funding them? Saudi Arabia, Iran, the same countries that supported this resolution.
MARGARET WARNER: But at the Arab League summit and in another part of the document, they actually supported the Intifada. There was –
JOEL SINGER: Absolutely. This is something that needs to be adjusted. They now need to follow up on this resolution, which talks about principles and put it into action. Talk with the Palestinians, help Arafat regain control over his opposition forces. They cannot say, “we are for peace with Israel. We will have normalization, but you continue fighting.” They have to reconcile what they are doing towards Israel and towards the Palestinian Hamas and Islamic Jihad groups that commit suicide attacks.
MARGARET WARNER: Does that sound workable to you? I mean, does that sound possible to you that essentially I think what you both are saying is the U.S. and the Arab League divide the labor here and each work with its own essentially, well, what might be perceived as client or best friend in the region?
ROBERT MALLEY: I basically agree but I would put it somewhat different. I think the onus is on United States to create an international coalition that would have Arab countries and others and to force both sides, Israeli and Palestinian, to confront the tough decisions that they’ve been avoiding and to put it down to them.
Obviously each side… the Arabs have more influence with the one side and the Europeans with one side and the Americans with another but altogether have to put this down and tell the parties, enough of the violence, enough of these protracted negotiations. Here’s the outcome. You want to do it? We’re with you to back it up. And, if not, you have to live with the consequences.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. And how does that differ from what the U.S. is doing right now in terms of the Zinni mission, Tenet, Mitchell, the sort of buzzwords that we,
ROBERT MALLEY: In so many ways, with all,
MARGARET WARNER: I mean, lay it out for viewers who may not,
ROBERT MALLEY: I mean, the focus right now is on, it’s purely the security side with some political elements being thrown in. But it really is to try to achieve a cease-fire. The notion you’ll achieve a cease-fire when there are Palestinians who are fighting in order to achieve political goals — they’re not going to lay down their arms, whatever people here may think about it, before they see those political goals at least in the process of being achieved.
So my sense is there’s a complete disconnect between what General Zinni and the Americans are doing right now and the political reality on the ground. And in the way they’re having this artificial conversation with political leaders who have no sway over what the people are doing and are not even going to have the capacity to impose the real measures that the Tenet plan requires, which is confiscating weapons, arresting people. That’s not going to happen.
And we should stop the charade of believing that these conversations really have a purpose and we should turn to the political program.
MOHAMMED WAHBY: Actually I fully agree with Rob. There’s also one thing that one has to look into. If you confine the process to security measures, Sharon will always have an excuse to say, “see what they are doing” and there will always be a crazy man who is ready to do one thing or another.
So that’s why I agree with Rob. You have to revive the political process in order to revive the hopes among the Palestinians that, yes, there is a light towards the end of the tunnel. This is extremely important. As for what Mr. Singer was saying about they have, no, they have called on the Arabs for the first time to have normal relations, full normal relations with Israel, to have all kinds of relations with Israel. This is a huge, big leap into the future. And then you tell me that they have not told the Arabs… they have not specified what the Arabs should do?
JOEL SINGER: No. I said the Palestinians.
MOHAMMED WAHBY: The Palestinians, I’ll tell you what happened. What the Arab League… what the Arab summit has done is to arrive at the great principle– and they said we’re leaving it to the Palestinians and the Israelis to decide what to do regarding the details.
We are leaving it to the Syrians and the Israelis to do what they are going to do… and we are leaving it to the Lebanese to do what they are going to do. So they have left room for maneuver for the Palestinians and for the Israelis to arrive at a practical solution to their problem. They are not sticking to one fundamental dogma. They are not doing that.
MARGARET WARNER: In terms of getting out of this current state though, Joel Singer, the Israeli government has wanted these talks, these current talks to be strictly about security, isn’t that right? The Sharon government doesn’t want it to be about the larger issues yet.
JOEL SINGER: I think that the ultimate solution is clear to everyone. I think that the words, everyone knows what the final solution is. The only problem is that the two parties cannot get from where they are now to this final solution. Everything is there.
In order to go there, you need to stop the violence because it is impossible… this is such a fundamental dispute that it is difficult to resolve it even when it is… there is no violence — let alone with bombs exploding every day. So this is why putting the parties back to the negotiating table in order to help them cross the T’s and dot the I’s, requires that they first stop killing one another.
This is why the security issue is so important to deal with first. It doesn’t mean that it’s only security. It means that in order to get to the negotiating table you first must stop shooting one another.
MOHAMMED WAHBY: Which violence,
MARGARET WARNER: Gentlemen, I am sorry but we are out of time at least for tonight. Thank you all three.
MOHAMMED WAHBY: Thank you.