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Mideast Summit

June 4, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: For more on the challenges ahead, we turn to: Aaron Miller, who recently retired from the State Department, where he advised the last six secretaries of state on this issue. He’s now president of Seeds of Peace, an organization that teaches teenagers about conflict resolution; Hisham Melhem, Washington correspondent for the Beirut newspaper As-Safir. He also has a weekly program on the news channel al-Arabiya, which is based in Dubai; and David Makovsky, former executive editor of The Jerusalem Post and diplomatic correspondent for the leading Israeli daily, Ha’aretz. He’s now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Aaron Miller, you have been down this road more than a few times before. Watching the events today in Aqaba, what did you see that seemed different or perhaps more hopeful?

AARON MILLER: I think it was an extraordinary day, Gwen. And the administration has got to be pleased at what it helped to orchestrate. You had a Palestinian prime minister that not only called for an end to the armed struggle and the intifada, but basically said it was in the best interests of the Palestinian people that it come to an end. You had an Israeli prime minister for the first time that talked about the emergence of a Palestinian state with contiguity being in the best interests of the state of Israel.

And the administration it seems to me made a clear demonstration to its critics that there was really no “closed for the season” sign hung on its approach to the Arab-Israeli peace process, so all in all a good day. The problem and the challenges are the ones that will come in the next few weeks and next few months: How to turn intentions and statements into real acts and real deeds that will fundamentally change the situation on the ground; that’s the hard part.

GWEN IFILL: I’m going to ask you to answer that question you posed in just a moment. But, first, David Makovsky, help us decipher the code, in particular Ariel Sharon’s code. We heard what he has said today and we’ve heard what he has said over the past several weeks using the term “occupation” to describe the settlements. What was he saying and what wasn’t he saying?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Well, it’s true you do need a code and I totally agree with Aaron, it was an extraordinary day. We’ve had a very bleak two and a half years in the Middle East and this was a ray of sunshine that we saw today because the leaders addressed each other and their own publics in conditioning the societal landscapes for the tough decisions ahead.

The code here is when he uses, as Aaron pointed out, the term “territorial contiguity.” What I think it’s clear to most people in Israel who are familiar with the parlance, what he’s saying is that when this provisional Palestinian state is formed, some of the settlements in those areas have to go. This cannot be a Palestinian archipelago, and that’s what people hear when they hear that term, “contiguity.”

He also, when he termed the outposts that he’s going to begin dismantling them, these were — could be a barren trailer on a hilltop, a trailer on a barren hilltop, I should say. They understand that there is a direction here, and of course the key is in performance — like the key is in performance in what Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Mazen, does. But this was important, this was good choreographing today.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned the outpost. What’s the distinction between illegal outposts, the term he used, and settlements, the term we have all come to just use as a catch phrase?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Okay. The idea of outposts are things that have not been authorized by the Israeli government; in other words they were illegal under Israeli law, and Sharon said it was illegal. In terms of the settlements, the way the Oslo peace process, the architecture of it was, in 1993 was that they back-loaded all the toughest nuts. So things like Jerusalem, the status of refugees, and the status of settlements, and the full disposition of the territories, that was left for the end of the process. They tried to deal with it in the end of the Clinton administration at Camp David, and it all exploded. But the issue of the full settlements, a lot of them will be deferred.

GWEN IFILL: And none of that was really addressed today?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: No, except he did use that term “territorial contiguity,” suggesting you’re going to have to dismantle at least some of the settlements earlier on before the end game because you want to get that provisional Palestinian state started.

GWEN IFILL: Hisham, also decipher for us the code in what Mahmoud Abbas had to say today. He said he was going to go out there and he was going to stop terrorism; he’s going to stop the efforts or the illegal, the terrorism visited by groups like Hamas. Can he do that and is this promise more than just a promise?

HISHAM MELHEM: Well, today you saw a Palestinian prime minister who was acting like a statesman; he said the right things; he’s been saying the right things; he’s been trying to do the right things all along, yet he is facing the challenge of his life.

And the irony is that for him to succeed, to deliver on his own requirements for peace, he needs to tell his own people that the Israeli side is delivering. And when Ariel Sharon talks about illegal outposts, quote unquote, within the Israeli law, he didn’t mention the word “settlement.” The outposts are awful and they should be removed immediately.

But the real impediment for peace — as far as the Palestinians are concerned and the international community is concerned — are the illegal settlements. So was he implying that the settlements, the old settlements which house thousands upon thousands of settlers are legal and the outposts are illegal? People are going to decipher this – he didn’t use the word “occupation.”

And contiguity, I’m sure George Bush had to extract that from him, and that’s somewhat positive. But these are baby steps, he has to show the Palestinians and help Abu Mazen to deliver by withdrawing from the major cities, by ending the siege, by releasing more than only a hundred prisoners. So the stature of Mahmoud Abbas will be enhanced — he can go and extract it from the Islamist organizations who are opposed to this peace, a commitment for a cease-fire…

GWEN IFILL: But is Abbas in a position to push him on that issue to actually extract, to use your word, more — further concessions on things like settlements?

HISHAM MELHEM: Mahmoud Abbas cannot afford to lose, he’s the weakest of all the people that met at Aqaba, and he has the most to lose. Therefore I think he put all his reputation, all his political future on the line here, and he would like to deliver, and he’s been very consistent. What he says privately he says publicly. But for him to overcome the tremendous cynicism, a skepticism that exists not only within the Palestinian community but within the wider Arab world, he has to tell his people my way is the right way and not Hamas’ right way, or Islamist Jihad is the right way, and for him to do that, he has to tell his own people, the siege is over, the draconian measures are over, the settlements are over.

According to Mitchell and according to the road map, the settlements are only illegal outposts, so let’s be very clear on that, and occupation, he did not use the word occupation today, he just talked about contiguity, which is maybe a baby step; it’s in the right direction, but it’s not enough for Mahmoud Abbas to justify to his own people that this is the right way now.

GWEN IFILL: Aaron Miller sounds like there was a lot more unanswered issues raised today aside from the baby steps Hisham is talking about than were even were addressed. What’s your sense of what the president of the United States had at stake here today?

AARON MILLER: I think the president had an enormous amount at stake, and this was a risk. Twelve years ago in the wake of the first Persian Gulf War, then-President Bush launched a major effort, which ultimately produced a peace conference in Madrid, which was a major achievement. His participation was episodic during that period and he participated in that peace conference, which was quite remarkable.

This President Bush has not waited until the end of the road, but has basically launched a foray into the difficult shoals of Arab-Israeli and Middle Eastern politics at the beginning. So there’s quite a lot on the table. There’s also the reality that this is in American national interests, it’s in the national interests of our friends, both Arab and Israeli in the region. And it was a risk worth taking.

The critical focus now, I suspect, is how to change the realities on the ground. This has got to produce real results, and it’s got to go beyond intentions and statements. And I think the way to do that, frankly, is to focus on two realities. Number one, there’s got to be an Israeli-Palestinian decision making channel, not a discussion channel, a decision making channel at the highest levels, represented by security, economic and political teams on both sides, to try to turn these intentions into real deeds. For Prime Minister Abu Mazen, I think it’s clear he’s got to find a way, either to convince Hamas through negotiations and cooptation, or through pressure and intimidation, that terrorist attacks against Israelis inside the green line and outside the green line are simply unacceptable. He’s got to re-impose his authority on the forces and sources of violence within Palestinian society.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask David Makovsky to weigh in on that thought, which is what has to happen next. We saw Aaron Miller begin to lay out what the next baby steps, if you will, have to be. Do you agree with that?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: I do, because it comes down to two ideas essentially: Leadership, leaders telling their own people tough things, which we saw today, and conditioning that landscape, and partnership. These parties have to sit together, and predictably tell each other what each is going to do.

Because – well — Hisham’s point that Sharon has to deliver for Abu Mazen, also if there’s no change in the security situation, that’s going to impact on Sharon’s effort — both sides here have to deliver for each other, without the sense of partnership, if they’re disjointed gestures, it’s going to be misinterpreted, it’s not going to work. So both leadership — what you say to your own public and partnership in working together and minimizing the efforts of rejectionists to try to torpedo this process.

GWEN IFILL: Hisham.

HISHAM MELHEM: I agree. But definitely Mahmoud Abbas has a major challenge in convincing the Palestinian opposition to accept the cease-fire at this stage. He’s not in a position now to use coercion. I agree in the end it will have to be a combination of conviction — convincing them that this way is the best way, and to put pressure on them because he has to deliver on his promise that it will be only one authority. And all the security services will be under his own authority.

But in order for him do that, the siege has to end, the occupation of the cities has to end. The old settlement activities have to stop, and incitement has to stop not only from the Palestinian side – or from one sheikh and a mosque; it has to stop from Israeli ministers who are in the Israeli Cabinet who are calling for the transfer of the Palestinians, which is a euphemism for ethnic cleansing.

So incitement goes on both sides. One has to be very – I mean, the American administration has to be fair and has to use reciprocity with both sides. You cannot judge one party according to one yardstick and the other party according to a different yardstick. So there’s a great deal of skepticism still now is facing a tremendous challenge from within, but he said the right things, he’s trying to do the right things, and there’s no contradiction what he says publicly and what he says privately.

GWEN IFILL: Aaron Miller, also we heard the president say today that he is going to make the national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, his personal representative, he said he’s going to appoint John Wolf kind of a journeyman in the State Department to be the on the ground go-between between the U.S. government and this process. What do we know about John Wolf, what is there significant in how the president’s outline the future United States involvement?

AARON MILLER: Well, I think the key is that he outlined and made very clear as a sine quinon [ph], for this process to move forward, that the United States will in fact be involved. Both David and Hisham point to the obvious problem, which is the chicken and egg problem: How do you deal with the implementation of the road map if, in fact, one side needs to be empowered and moved first before the other will reciprocate?

And here is where the third party can in fact play a critical role. There’s never been a document in the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict that was either self implementing or, in fact, presented to the parties and they were simply going to implement it without modification. This is where the United States through its sustained diplomacy, through its creativity, and through its determination, both on the ground with John Wolf, who is a very capable and able diplomat, and through the secretary of state and the national security adviser, with the episodic involvement of the president, can make a real difference.

This has got to be a twenty-four/seven proposition and it’s got to reflect, I suspect, our real staying power. We demonstrated our fire power in Iraq. The time has now come for us to demonstrate our staying power with respect to Arab Israeli peace.

GWEN IFILL: Aaron Miller, you can’t tell, but everyone around the table here is nodding a long with you.

Aaron Miller, David Makovsky, Hisham Melhem, thank you very much for joining us.