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Mideast Summit Prospects

March 27, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: Joining me from the summit in Beirut is the Middle East bureau chief of the “New York Times,” Neil MacFarquhar.

Neil, beginning first of all with the bombing in Israel today, the suicide bombing: What has been the reaction at the conference there?

NEIL MacFARQUHAR: Well, the news reached here just as ministers were heading out to a rather formal dinner, so there was no reaction from the summit conference itself, but the spokesman for the Arab League said that he didn’t think the bombing was a direct attempt to damage what they were doing here. They’ve been happening too frequently for that.

But he said that their attempt to create a peace initiative here was aimed at that very thing, that there is too much despair in the occupied territories, that they want some sort of hope that the occupation will end, and that’s what the peace initiative is trying to do, is try and give them some form of hope so that the violence will diminish.

MARGARET WARNER: But Hamas, which claimed responsibly, is a group that rejects not only peace with Israel, but even negotiations. Do any delegates there fear, at least, that it will cast a pall over what they’re trying to do?

NEIL MacFARQUHAR: It certainly is clear there are people that oppose negotiations with Israel and oppose this initiative, but their feeling is that if they get what’s in the initiative in terms of the Israelis withdrawing from occupied territory, a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital, and some refugees sent back, that, you know, that that will overcome that kind of opposition.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, tell us today about sort of the atmosphere when Prince Abdullah gave his speech and made his initiative. I gather you were watching it on a closed-circuit TV.

NEIL MacFARQUHAR: We’re about 2,000 reporters here, so we don’t always get into here the main action is happening, but it was very emotional speech. He used language about how the Palestinian lands were dear to all Arabs and always would be, and he sort of uses an avuncular tone when he addresses the Palestinian people, you know, to sort of try and let them know that they’re not alone.

And he also made, you know, very many of the remarks were directed to the Israeli people, saying that this violence has been going on for too long, and that they needed to try an alternative just as long as they were willing to give the Palestinians back the occupied territories that the other Arab states would accept them in the neighborhood.

MARGARET WARNER: And that had to be a first, didn’t it, the head of… or a leader of Saudi Arabia directly addressing the Israeli people by name?

NEIL MacFARQUHAR: Yeah, it’s a very unusual sight because the late King Feisel once said that Saudi Arabia would likely be the last Arab country to recognize Israel. So to have, you know, the crown prince as the de facto ruler of the kingdom coming right out and sort of leading the initiative to make peace was an extraordinary moment.

MARGARET WARNER: Now it seems as if he had to amend his proposal ever so slightly to bring other states in line. I’m thinking of his use of the term “normal relations,” tell us about that.

NEIL MacFARQUHAR: From the very moment he first proposed it they have been trying to keep it simple. They want it to be basically sort of a land for peace deal and not loaded down with a lot of conditions that would lead anybody to reject it and they want the negotiations on the actual peace deal to be left up to the Syrians, Palestinians, Lebanese and Israelis.

So they didn’t want to put too much language in there but obviously they wanted input from those countries on what they thought. And “normalization” is a word that troubles the Syrians for a number of reasons.

One they think it’s kind of a reward that if you tell Israel from the outset that you’re going to normalize relations, then they might not get all of the Golan Heights back, and so that was too much to put on the table at the outset.

Two, it’s the word that Israel favors and they’re looking for normal relations and open borders, and so they don’t want to use that term.

And, three, they sort of – their lexicon, the words they use when talking about peace were sort of what the late President Hafez Assad said in his land – his terminology was full peace for all the land back, so they don’t want to use normalization.

So the term came out “normal relations” and all the ministers and officials basically say it’s the same thing and also that you can’t dictate from the outset what each individual country’s relations are going to be with Israel. But that’s going to have to be negotiated between each one and some are going to treat them as a neighbor more than others.

MARGARET WARNER: So where do things stand in terms of trying to get the conference to endorse this proposal by tomorrow?

NEIL MacFARQUHAR: They’re telling us it is 95 percent completed. The holdout is something that sort of refers to the previous question, which is that they — from the outset they wanted the reference to refugees based largely on a 1948 U.N. Resolution, which states that the refugees driven out at the time have the right to go back or to be compensated and the Lebanese don’t like that particular resolution because there is about 370,000 Palestinians now in Lebanon who are refugees and they want them not to settle here.

They don’t want them to settle here, so they don’t like the compensation bit and they want the wording to say specifically that they will go back and at least leave Lebanon. And that’s where the last debates and discussions are going on surrounding that particular idea.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay, tell us about the flap that when we all got up this morning what we were reading and seeing there was a flap this morning where Chairman Yasser Arafat didn’t get to address the conference over closed circuit TV. Anyway, tell us about that.

NEIL MacFARQUHAR: I should preface these remarks by saying that these conferences are incredibly complex and confusing because you have 22 heads of state or senior ministers in a room and all their aides are swirling around and speaking in the lobby.

So any time there is an incident like this you get a lot of different versions but it seems that Arafat was ready to sort of take part in the conference via satellite linkup of some form and the Lebanese balked either because they thought that it should be prerecorded so the satellite feed couldn’t be interrupted by Israel or because they were afraid he was going to make some kind of remark that would overshadow the peace initiative and, you know, create problems for them on that front, or that, perhaps, you know, it was some outstanding leftover dislike of Arafat from all the years he lived here, and so they didn’t want to accord him that privilege.

So it created a great amount of controversy, naturally, and the Palestinians threatened to walk out of the conference. And some of the other countries also said they would leave in solidarity and then, you know you sort of had the ministers coming out again circulating through the lobby and the television cameras chasing them.

They were rather harsh on the Lebanese. You know, they said that Arafat is under more or less house arrest by the Israelis. He doesn’t need to be under further sanction or further barred from speaking by the Arabs. And by late tonight it looked like a compromise had been worked out, and that Arafat when he couldn’t speak to the conference he went right on al Jazeera, the satellite television station in the Middle East, and gave his speech there, and so they recorded that and they’re going to play that tomorrow morning when the conference reconvenes and so that that will enter it on to the official record.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Well, Neil MacFarquhar, thanks so much for joining us.