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The President Abroad

June 3, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: Now, for more on the critical path ahead for Arab, as well as U.S. leaders, we turn to Dennis Ross, who spent more than ten years as the State Department’s chief Middle East negotiator in the first Bush and Clinton administrations. William Quandt, who served on the National Security Council staff during the Nixon and Carter administrations; he participated in the peace negotiations between Israel and Egypt; and Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat professor for Peace and development at the University of Maryland. He recently authored The Stakes, about how U.S. policy toward the Middle East is viewed in that region.

Dennis Ross, what is the significance you have been through a lot of these, what is the special significance of today’s meeting?

DENNIS ROSS: Well, I think there may be three elements that I would emphasize. The first one is significant just from the standpoint of the United States. We have am administration that has not been keen to be engaged in Arab-Israeli diplomacy, Israeli Palestinian peace diplomacy making it very clear that it is going to be engaged. So that’s number one.

Number two, one of objectives, undoubtedly, for the administration was reflected in having Abu Mazen there — the Palestinian prime minister. He was given a standing along with that of all the other Arab leaders who were there. He was not relegated to meeting only with Prime Minister Sharon. So the fact is, he has a certain standing now and I’m sure that was a very important objective for the administration and I’d say that’s another important outcome of today.

And the third one is getting Arab leaders not only to endorse the basic plan the president is working on but also to use language especially on terror that probably goes beyond what we’ve seen from them before, so I think all three of those are important.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Quandt, do you pick the same three things that struck you as important today?

WILLIAM QUANDT: Yes. I think presidential involvement is very important. I think the fact that Abu Mazen is new on the job and has an opportunity to present himself differently to the Israeli public and to the American public is important. The support of Arab leaders is important.

I would just add one thing to what Dennis said and that is that this is taking place in a particular moment in the aftermath in the war in Iraq when American influence I think is at a very high level, not because people like what we did in Iraq but because what we do in Iraq now is very important for the entire region.

The Arabs care about that, Israel will care about it, the Palestinians will care about it and all of our allies in Europe and elsewhere will, so we have an opportunity if things go well in Iraq, it can positively influence the direction of things between Israelis and Palestinians, and conversely if it goes very badly in Iraq, we could find that that complicated things for us in the Arab-Israeli arena.

GWEN IFILL: I do want to come back to the Iraq point but first I want to ask Shibley Telhami about what you heard today, whether – and what was different today about what Arab leaders, what Hosni Mubarak had to say, from what for instance, we heard from Arab leaders in 2000 at Camp David.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: You know, when you look at the role of Arab states in general, people have been sort of suspicion of what they wanted to do on the Arab-Israeli issue. I think over the last two and a half year it’s become very clear. They need a solution for the Arab-Israeli issue. It affects their own survival. Their public is very frustrated with the absence of movement. They see the violence. Their governments can’t stop it. It’s become a political issue for them, and they are all interested in moving forward.

They don’t want to jeopardize their relations with the U.S. and at the same time they know the public is angry about their relations with the U.S. and frankly one way for them to reduce the anger is to help bring about movement on the Arab-Israeli front especially now after Iraq because clearly the news from Iraq is not good every single day.

In fact there’s not likely to be good news from Iraq from the regional perspective from the American public opinion perspective in the coming days and weeks. In that sense everybody has an incentive to divert attention away from that and to put the focus on something that is more promising.

GWEN IFILL: Dennis Ross, let’s pick up on the point about Iraq that first Mr. Quantum and Professor Telhami brought up, which is, is everything different now post Iraq, especially because so many of these Arab leaders were not particularly comfortable with the U.S. intervention?

DENNIS ROSS: I think Iraq does create a different context that’s for sure. At one level what it does is it adds to the imagery of American weight. This president said he was going to do something and he did it. He changed an Arab regime. And that in itself creates a new reality. Secondly, I do think in the aftermath of Iraq given the mood of the Arab public, which was already sour because they were watching the intifada on a daily basis on their TV — they saw images that made them very angry of what Israelis were doing to Palestinians. The combination of that anger, the combination of the frustration with their own regimes, the reality of Iraq and all the anticipation in advance of the war and what they felt was going to be a terrible price that the Iraqi people would pay.

All these things came together to create, I think, a moment a moment for Arab leaders to realize we have to show we can do something. I don’t know if they want to solve the Israeli-Palestinian issue, but I know for sure they want to diffuse it. And I think they’re much more prepared to assume a set of responsibilities if we press hard and are very specific than they were a couple of years ago.

In the year 2000 they did not give a lot of support. Some of the criticism directed against us at the time of Camp David is that we didn’t ask them, we didn’t tell them what was going on and, therefore, they weren’t really in a position to know. The fact is later we did. And when the Clinton ideas were presented in December, they all embraced it, they all said these were historic; they all said they would push Yasser Arafat. And as soon as he raised questions, they said, well, he has questions and they backed off. Today I think their posture is different because they can also work as a collective, and they have a need.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Dennis Ross just brought up, Mr. Quandt, the Yasser Arafat question. Let’s parse some of what Hosni Mubarak had to say today when he said that he would support the Palestinians solely through the Palestinian Authority. Is that an end run around the president of Palestinian Authority?

WILLIAM QUANDT: I think the fact that President Mubarak invited Abu Mazen to join them at the meeting in Sharm El Sheikh was a way of demonstrating that he is prepared to deal with the Palestinian prime minister as the spokesman for the Palestinians. Everybody knows that Arafat is still there, that he has some popular support and has some legitimacy in the eyes of many Palestinians. I think the trick here is that if Abu Mazen can produce results and Arafat has not been able to in the last couple of years, that Abu Mazen can, settlements stop, settlements are dismantled, the occupation begins to end, then Abu Mazen’s stature rises and Arafat really becomes less and less relevant.

GWEN IFILL: Do you – I hate to interrupt -

WILLIAM QUANDT: On the contrary if he fails, if he is unable to get results through these negotiations, then of course the alternative is both Hamas and a harder line from within Fata itself can trump anything the moderates want to do on the Palestinian side.

GWEN IFILL: From what you know is Abu Mazen equipped to effect the kind of change you are talking about?

WILLIAM QUANDT: Well, he has a large amount of historical legitimacy; he was one of the founders of Fata. He has always been kind of an insider administrator, bureaucrat. He doesn’t have popular support. So he has to build up his reputation in the eyes of his own people. That’s extremely important for him. The fact that we and the Israelis think he might turn out to be a very decent leader for the Palestinians is really less important than whether the Palestinians themselves reach that conclusion. And that I think will depend on his getting results.

He is, I think, off to a good sort. He is a man of balance and moderation, even tempered. I think he presents the Palestinian position quite well. I don’t think his substantive position is all that far apart from Arafat’s but his style, of course, is very different.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Telhami, is it too much for the U.S. and for Israel to hope that because of the kind of support that the Arab leaders lent to the cause today that Arafat can indeed be isolated?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, frankly, Arafat may be even willing to be somewhat isolated. He has demonstrated that he is sort of supporting this process. He ultimately needs movement because he has no options. So he’s going to do it, but the reality of it is Abu Mazen is dependent not only on the support from within the Palestinian Authority itself and from Arafat but more especially from the public. And that’s ultimately the real issue. And I think that’s what Bill was pointing to.

The reality of it is if he is not going to be able to deliver on the things that he has promised, including confronting Hamas in Gaza and the West Bank. The public doesn’t support that if it’s done unilaterally. The public supports it only if it is done in reciprocal steps with Israel. So it’s going to be a function of what he can deliver to them in the short term, because if he can’t deliver and he doesn’t have the grassroots political base, clearly he is going to be in trouble very quickly, and Arafat’s stock may rise.

GWEN IFILL: Well, and let’s talk about what public opinion might be on this, Dennis Ross. Is there trust that the United States is operating in an honorable way, that is to say that they are not really biased in favor of Israel and Ariel Sharon ultimately especially now that there is an occupation going on in Iraq that so many people in the Arab street did not support?

DENNIS ROSS: I doubt seriously that there is trust in the United States. But I’m also not sure that that is the key variable. The fact of matter is the U.S. is always being accused of being biased towards Israel and yet it’s precisely our relationship with Israel and our capacity to influence Israel that makes us the indispensable actor in the eyes of most Arabs and certainly most Palestinians.

I think the key here for Abu Mazen is obviously partly driven by us, but ultimately I think, as both Shibley and Bill said, what matters is does he deliver, does he produce results, can he show that his way works and Arafat’s didn’t? Arafat in the last two years offered nothing but tired slogans. His standing among Palestinians is probably lower than it has ever been. He remains an icon because he put them on the world stage and he gave them recognition and standing. But he’s an icon of the past.

Right now, if Abu Mazen can demonstrate that he can relieve what is an awful desperation that Palestinians feel, if he can show that life will get better, if he can show that he can affect Israeli behavior, if he can show that he affects the American behavior, which also affects the Israeli behavior, then you’re going to see him build his authority and obviously it will require him to take steps. And they won’t be easy steps. The fact of the matter is if there’s a context created for his steps, he will be successful but it’s going to take some time; everybody is going to have to help; the Israelis have to help. The Arabs have to help. We have to help.

GWEN IFILL: Let’s talk about some of that help, Mr. Quandt. Are Arab leaders, as far as you can tell, prepared to turn on that spigot of financial help that Abu Mazen may need for instance, to restore irrigation pipes, to be able to, for instance, stop reliance or at least the nod and wink to Hamas? Are other Arab countries going take part in that?

WILLIAM QUANDT: I think that if things really begin to change on the ground that is if the Israelis are pulling back, the settlement process is stopping, settlements are being dismantled, that would give a lot more confidence than exists in the present situation. Arab states, Europeans, the United States, itself, would be more encouraged to begin to put support back into the Palestinian Authority if we can see that it’s beginning to get back on its feet and is able to play the kind of role that we had hoped it could years ago.

The problem in the last two years, of course, is that the Palestinian Authority has been pretty much shattered specifically in the West Bank. And I don’t think anybody is going to be pouring a lot of money into the Palestinian Authority unless they see that it’s part of a process that’s beginning to get the diplomacy back on track where the Palestinians can begin to act like a state in the making. They can begin to create a police force that is really doing its proper job.

In those cases I don’t think money is going to be the problem. The question is whether we can see a context emerge where the Palestinians begin to govern themselves as had originally been envisaged when the Palestinian and national authority was set up.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Telhami tomorrow the president sits down with Ariel Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas in Akaba, Jordan. And what should we be watching for to come out of that meeting? What does the U.S., what are the next steps the U.S. has to take and what are the next steps that either of these parties have to take?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, there’s no question by some measure it’s going to seem like a success no matter what because a statement has already been prepared and each one is likely to make some positive statements like recognition of Palestinian state in principle by the Israelis, recognition of Israel by the Palestinians. There’s likely also to be announcements of additional steps that are concrete. Today the Israelis released prisoners. The Palestinians are likely to announce additional steps. All of that will add up to success.

But the reality is there is very little trust remaining between the two sides. I think the real question is whether the president persuades them that he means business — whether this is not seen to be only episode one that will being forgotten. Each side is going to be taking a lot of risk in taking the sort of things they have to do to move toward. And what terrifies them most is they’ll do it and then they’ll be left hanging. That’s the real issue for the president. People don’t have faith that the president will be invested. He has to convince them that he will.

GWEN IFILL: Shibley Telhami, Dennis Ross, and William Quandt, thank you very much.