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Proposing Mideast Peace

March 5, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: To assess the impact and the prospects of this Saudi proposal, we turn to Itamar Rabinovich, who served as Israel’s ambassador to Washington and was chief Israeli negotiator with Syria in the 1990s; Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for peace and development at the University of Maryland — his weekly radio commentary is broadcast in the Middle East. And Dennis Ross, who spent more than ten years as the State Department’s chief Middle East negotiator in the first Bush and then Clinton Administrations. Welcome, gentlemen.

Dennis Ross, as has been discussed in many comments on this, the basic outlines of this proposal aren’t new. Why has it so captured the imagination of so many people in the region and in fact, here in Washington?

DENNIS ROSS: I think there are a couple of reasons that explain it. The first is you have a situation that is absolutely desperate. You have a situation where there is a vacuum, and the vacuum is being filled by violence. In such a circumstance, you need some new idea to give people hope, some new idea that shows there is an alternative to what we see, and there’s a gravitation because of that. It is, as you said, not new substantively, but it is new psychologically, and especially because of the circumstances.

MARGARET WARNER: Shibley Telhami?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: There’s no question that that is part of it– that is, there is a majority, I think both in Israel and the Palestinian areas, who want to find… desperately want a peace outcome. And here there is an option that is rallying them. In fact it’s already changed the discourse on the ground. It has created a peace discourse when all the discourse were about devastation, disaster, and war.

But the second reason is that it infuses new incentives into the peace process. I think what happens on the Palestinian-Israeli front… it is not likely that they’re going to break the cycle on their own. They don’t have trust. When someone gives an incentive or tries to give a minor incentive, it’s not going to be trusted by the other. The Saudi incentive is positive. To the Israelis it’s saying, “You don’t trust you’ll have normalization with the Arab world. The Arab world is accepting you. We’re saying you will.” To the Palestinians it says, “we are behind you.” It empowers them to negotiate.

The third reason is that it opens up new avenues in front of American diplomacy. The U.S. is running against a wall in its attempts to mediate. This one suddenly expands the possibilities, and for that reason it really captures the imagination.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Rabinovich, isn’t part of the impact, too, here, that it comes from the Saudis?

ITAMAR RABINOVICH: Yes, it’s significant. The Saudis are an important Arab state. It’s a prestigious regime and state. Their message is important. The use of the word “normalization” is important. And it’s good news to have the Saudis speak for peace and take an initiative. The questions, of course, have to do with fleshing it out and to turn the idea into an actual program of action, but that can come later.

MARGARET WARNER: And what do you… as a broad outline, how viable do you think it is?

ITAMAR RABINOVICH: It’s… it’s so broad that it’s almost meaningless. The significance is in the sentiment, in the ray of hope, not in the plan of action. It also addresses an issue of the ’90s and not of the new century, because at Camp David in September… in the summer of 2000, the issue was not withdrawal; the issue was finality. It was Yasser Arafat’s refusal to sign finality on the dotted line that toppled or obstructed that conference.

MARGARET WARNER: What do you mean, “finality”?

ITAMAR RABINOVICH: Finality is that in return for the 96 percent withdrawal that Ehud Barak was willing to offer, he was asked to sign end of claims and accept the settlement as final, the end of claims. The music that we’ve heard since the publication of Tom Friedman’s piece, particularly from Syria, indicates that the refusal to accept finality is still with us, and this issue will have to be addressed.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you hear that, Dennis Ross?

DENNIS ROSS: Well, I think that the Saudis are signaling that if there’s an end of conflict… they’re ready to accept end of conflict. I think what Itamar is saying is quite right. Yasser Arafat found it very hard to give up the struggle, give up the cause, give up the claims. The Syrians at this point, I think, are reacting more to what they felt was an initiative or idea that left them out. The fact that President Assad is now saying he supports it is because of being reassured that they could be a part of it.

MARGARET WARNER: Right, because he’s in Saudi Arabia today, and had meetings with Abdullah, I gather.

DENNIS ROSS: That’s correct.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: You know, it is important, though, to think about the finality, that the Saudis are essentially offering on behalf of the Arab world in case there’s an agreement. We can have an interpretation of what happened at Camp David. Certainly the Palestinians didn’t think what they had was enough for finality. Certainly there was not an offer at the time for a Palestinian sovereignty over al-Haram al-Sharif, which they thought….

DENNIS ROSS: There was.

MARGARET WARNER: As you said, let’s not totally revisit Camp David, but the other thing they were lacking, were they not, was any kind of cover from the major Arab states?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Absolutely. I think that’s where the hope is here. This is empowering because, as we’ve heard now from Mr. Al-Jubeir, actually, it’s very interesting if you look at the nuance. They said, “Yes, full withdrawal,” but if the Palestinians and Israelis agree on some alterations, they will accept it. That’s very important. In fact, the difference between this Saudi plan and the 1981 Fahd plan which the king offered: That Fahd plan was very deliberate– dismantling all the settlements, return of the Palestinian refugees, withdrawal. It was very specific on all these issues.

Now, this particular proposal is saying the principle of full withdrawal in accordance with the U.N. resolutions, and what we have heard from Mr. Al-Jubeir is it’s up to the Palestinians and the Israelis to negotiate, and the Syrians and the Israelis to negotiate.

MARGARET WARNER: Did you hear that, Mr. Rabinovich? Did you hear the same thing – that the Saudis are saying they are ready to also help to support the messy compromises that necessarily will have to be made?

ITAMAR RABONOVICH: It’s true, the adjustments will have to be made. This needs to be fleshed out. But what the Saudis will also have to do if they want to be the leaders of this initiative is to do what Anwar Sadat did– and we have an Anwar Sadat professor with us — who seized the bull by the horns, who came forward. We will need to hear the prince speaking in his own voice in Arabic to his people and to the Arab world, not to be satisfied with short and enigmatic statements, but to really go out and fight for one’s ideas. I appreciate what the Saudis have done so far, but in order to be the leaders of a new initiative, they’ll have to be… they’ll have to do more and then joined by others, primarily the United States.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: On this issue, by the way, just if I may follow up on it, it’s very important. I agree… I agree entirely that they need leadership right now. We’re not likely to have it. It’s rare in history. The Anwar Sadats and the Mandelas don’t come every day, but nonetheless, we need it. But we have to understand that there is also a risk. We’re raising expectations. Let’s say the Saudis take a big initiative. They take it to the Arab League, they offer an olive branch, and then the next morning we have a real escalation on the Palestinian-Israeli front, and the administration says, “we’re not going to move forward.” Then they’re stuck and we’re worse off then than we are now. That’s the real risk.

MARGARET WARNER: Dennis Ross, go back… then I want to get to how we end the cycle of violence. Before we get there, what about Israel’s reaction? How do you read Sharon’s coolness — or lack of comment, really — about it? On the other hand, Peres, his foreign minister, a little more open. But how do you read the politics of this in Israel and whether Israel could respond?

DENNIS ROSS: I think it’s partly… it’s complicated because the nature of this particular government, which is a national unity government. Part of this government that is Likud-based doesn’t like the principle of what is full withdrawal, or certainly near-full withdrawal. The other side of that government was prepared to contemplate it. In fact, most of the members on the labor side of this government voted for what Barak was prepared to accept from President Clinton– which did involve actually about 97 percent of the territory, all told.

So for them, from a principle standpoint, they’ve already gone on record saying, “this is something that, if it really ends the conflict, if we have assurance that we have a true partner for peace, then it’s something we can support.” I think in the case of Prime Minister Sharon, there’s an unease about signing up to the principle, but there’s also recognition that it’s very costly to look like you’re not prepared to respond to what could be a genuine initiative.

The most important thing about this initiative, from my standpoint, is not its detail, because there isn’t any there. The most important thing is that– and we heard it from Mr. Al-Jubeir—the most important thing is it’s designed to reenergize the peace camp in Israel, the peace camp in the United States. Peace is still a possibility. It’s not an illusion. A solution can be achieved. There is a price for it, but it is out there.

I think Prime Minister Sharon cannot ignore that. I think one of the reasons that he went to the Egyptians to open a private channel, which I suspect was not prime minister to crown prince, but probably some official, some discreet official meetings that could allow the Israelis to find out what exactly is this about, what are you trying to do with it, how might we engage on it.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Mr. Rabinovich, so how do we get from the here and now, which is this rising violence, to this end vision, this end point?

ITAMAR RABINOVICH: We need… we probably in practice cannot go directly from the present violence to the quest for final status solution. And the way to get from the present situation to the prospect of a final solution is through an interim solution. If it were up to me, I would focus efforts on the efforts to arrive at the interim settlement for now that would end the violence and enable the parties to overcome the trauma of a year and a half in which both sides lost trust in each other. They’re just not ready right now to move to the concessions and to the trust that will be required for final status.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Telhami, what the President of the United States is saying, but also what Prime Minister Sharon is saying, is nothing can happen until violence stops, and they’re saying on the Palestinian side. First of all, do you think they’re right about that, and what will that take?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: First of all, I’ve done a study recently with three other colleagues of 20 years of daily action and reaction in the Middle East. And you know what we found? Over a 20-year period, the parties go on reacting to, in kind, tit for tat, throughout the 20 years. That becomes the norm, even though they’re worse off the next day than they are today. They go on doing it. And worse, they don’t learn from that they should cooperate. When cooperation occurs, it happens because of some other external factors– either some bold leadership or international intervention, diplomatic intervention.

MARGARET WARNER: Give me a scenario here.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: I think what we need to do… this is an opportunity that opened up with the Saudi plan. I agree with Itamar. We’re not going to have a final settlement tomorrow. But we need to exploit it to open up the process. That process would have to be done in coordination with the Arab states who want to push forward, with the U.S. government, with the Israelis, in order to begin a process that gives a vision of hope, and then you implement, in the context of that, an end to violence and disengagement. You get back to the negotiations, but you need to have both.

MARGARET WARNER: How do you get from today to down there?

DENNIS ROSS: I think you have to look at the Saudi idea as an idea that is interesting, that might be an opportunity, but right now the limitation is divorced from the context, and the context is unbelievable violence that gets worse every day. So I think what you have to do is you have to focus on how do you create a sequence of steps that links the first step, which stops the violence, to what is, in fact, a political process that offers a vision for the future that’s going to probably have to be achieved in stages?

My view has been that it’s important for the Israelis at this point to take a step back and give the Palestinians a particular amount of time. I don’t think that can come as an offer from the Israelis to the Palestinians because I don’t think it will produce a response. I think it has to come from us.

MARGARET WARNER: The United States?

DENNIS ROSS: I think the U.S. has to think in terms of two critical elements: One is what can we do day to day and create accountability, and the other is sufficient drama. You don’t change a situation like this without sufficient drama that forces everybody to take a step back, to pause, to realize that they have to think differently. Absent the drama, more limited steps won’t work; with the drama, limited steps might work.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Give us a scenario for the drama.

DENNIS ROSS: I think you probably need an American initiative that in fact doesn’t just focus on how you stop the violence, but offers a sequence of steps to get you from where we are into a political negotiation that may well suggest that from the standpoint of an agenda, the Palestinians can use the Abdullah idea as a point of departure; something to be negotiated, not something to be implemented. And the Israelis, from their standpoint, can focus on what they have been prepared to do all along – 242 as a point of departure.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Rabinovich, very briefly, do you think the Israelis will be ready to “take a step back” in return for the Palestinians also stopping their attacks, or trying to?

ITAMAR RABINOVICH: You know, just a week ago, a cease-fire was agreed upon with the Israeli consent, and it failed, obviously. So I think that willing to take a step back, the Israeli public is ready for that. This would not be the obstacle.

MARGARET WARNER: I’m afraid we have to leave it there. Thank you all three very much.