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Rocky Road Map in the Middle East

June 10, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: And for more on what today’s strikes may mean for the road map, we get two views. Martin Indyk was U.S. Ambassador to Israel in the Clinton administration. He’s now director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington. And Edward Abington was consul general in Jerusalem during the Clinton administration. He’s now a consultant to the Palestinian Authority. Welcome to you both.

Martin Indyk, what does today’s strike on this Hamas leader do to the road map?

MARTIN INDYK: I think it puts it into deep trouble.

Of course it comes in the broader context of Hamas calling off the cease-fire talks with the Palestinian Authority which held out the hope while they were still alive that there would be a breathing space that would give Abu Mazen, the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority, the opportunity to build up his security capacity the better to deal with the terrorist organizations later on, which he’s required to do in the road map.

But since he doesn’t have the capacity to do that and since Hamas is defying him and attacking and the Israelis are responding to those attacks, we’ve got a repeat of the kind of cycle that we’ve seen before of terrorist attacks, Israeli responses that plunge any American initiative back into the dust bin of history.

And that’s where the road map is heading unless there’s a way of arresting this process.

MARGARET WARNER: Edward Abington, do you think this sends it potentially into the “dust bin of history”?

EDWARD ABINGTON: I think it’s a little premature to say that, Margaret. I talked to Palestinian negotiators today. And, in fact, they had been hopeful before today’s Israeli assassination attempt against Rantisi that today or tomorrow they would have resumed the dialogue with Hamas.

They still think that it’s possible to resume that dialogue with Hamas. Abu Mazen has said that he is committed to try to bring about an end to Hamas violence as well as violence by other Palestinians. But he’s going to need some breathing space. He’s going to need some support from the Israelis to do this. But I think more importantly is how committed President Bush is. It seems to me that by his statement today and what Ari Fleischer said, we’re dealing with a different situation in terms of the president’s commitment.

MARGARET WARNER: Martin Indyk, why would Sharon sign off on this attack at this moment? And is it a violation of any commitment he made to President Bush at the Aqaba summit?

MARTIN INDYK: Well, I’m not exactly sure of the commitment he made, but as I understand it, he said that he would hold back — except in the case of ticking time bombs, that is, where they had information about an attack and this was a way of preempting it. I gather that when Condoleezza Rice spoke with his chef de cabinet today, Mr. [Dov] Weissglass, they made that argument that this was indeed — Rantisi was indeed — a ticking time bomb.

But I think that it happens…this event occurs in the context of the settlement outposts being evacuated. Hamas attacks, which killed four Israeli soldiers two days ago, and the Hamas making clear that they’re going to continue these terrorist attacks and I think perhaps the most important point, a lack of ability on the Palestinian Authority’s side to actually do anything to stop these terrorist attacks.

The lack of capacity on the Palestinian side puts the prime minister of Israel in the situation where he has to sit back and watch while Israelis are killed or there are rocket attacks on Israeli villages or cities and then they’re left in a situation where the pressure on him to act when settlers are saying that the evacuating of the outpost is a reward to terror puts him in a political situation where I think he decided he needed to show that he was not going to sit idly by while the terrorists continued.

If Abu Mazen were acting in some visible way against the terrorists, even when he was negotiating with a cease-fire, that that was enough for Sharon to hold back and not respond to some five terrorist attacks that occurred just before the Aqaba summit, but in these circumstances I gather that he was not prepared to restrain himself.

MARGARET WARNER: Edward Abington, so where does this leave Abu Mazen politically and his ability to deliver some sort of a cease-fire? I mean, I know you said you spoke to some of his people today and they are willing and interested, but doesn’t this just weaken him further politically?

EDWARD ABINGTON: It does weaken him because I think he’s seen by Palestinians as not being able to deliver anything to the Palestinian people. The danger is that Sharon feels compelled to act because of terrorist attacks. The assassination attempt against Rantisi weakens Abu Mazen in terms of trying to bring about a cease-fire.

So we’re stuck back into the same old cycle of each side hammering the other and unwilling to break out of this situation.

Abu Mazen has said quite clearly that the only way to get out of this is through a cease-fire by the Palestinian factions while he rebuilds his capacity. As Martin correctly has pointed out, he does not have the capacity to enforce the will of the Palestinian Authority on these factions. It’s been destroyed by the Israelis.

But how do you get out of this cycle of retaliation? That’s the dilemma that we’re in.

MARGARET WARNER: Edward Abington this weekend these attacks on the Israeli soldiers was quite unusual that the three leading militant groups, which usually operate independently, claimed a joint responsibility, that is, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and the al Aqsa Martyr Brigade.

Is Abu Mazen facing a united sort of rejectionist front among these militant groups now?

EDWARD ABINGTON: He told me that the key to getting a cease-fire is Hamas. He is confident that he can deal with the other two groups if he can get Hamas on board. But no cease-fire is going to hold, no stand down by Hamas is going to hold if the Israelis keep assassinating Palestinians and if they keep carrying out acts like destroying houses and things like that. There’s got to be restraint on both sides. There has to be a resumption of security cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian security services. That’s the only way the two sides can get out of this dilemma.

MARGARET WARNER: Martin Indyk, what’s your analysis of what this does to Abu Mazen’s position and his ability to deliver this cease-fire?

MARTIN INDYK: I think that he’s in a very difficult corner now. Hamas — with the killing by the Israelis of this woman and her daughter — has used that as justification now for declaring that they are going to attack Israeli civilians again. And, presumably the Israelis will respond to that in a way that will make cease-fire talks with Hamas very difficult for Abu Mazen to pull off.

I think that again if we leave it to the Israelis and the Palestinians to try to break out of this cycle of Palestinian terrorist attacks and Israeli responses, they won’t be able to do it. They haven’t been able to do it in the past. And there’s no reason to believe they’re going to be able to do it now. The critical ingredient — and Ed has mentioned this — that’s different now is the involvement of President Bush.

And the American involvement has to break this dynamic. I’m afraid that there’s only one way that the president can do it. It’s not by expressing how deeply troubled he is, the kind of finger-wagging policy is not going to make the difference. What is necessary here is to build Abu Mazen’s capacity to deal with the terrorist threat. The president promised that at Aqaba. I believe that there’s a CIA team on the ground that’s supposed to be working on that, but they’re making precious little progress. The Egyptians and Jordanians are ready to help, but until he has that ability to act and until we come in and help him to build that capacity, I don’t see how we’re going to break this dynamic.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. But briefly, you’re saying build Abu Mazen’s capacity to act militarily against the militants?

MARTIN INDYK: If he has the capacity to act militarily, he may not have to use it because then Hamas will be in a different situation. I don’t think they want a confrontation. I don’t think they want a civil war. And if that capability is combined with the president turning to Sharon and saying let’s give the Palestinians a chance to deal with this, you hold back, in the meantime I’m asking you to restrain yourself, then in those circumstances, I think that the dynamic can be broken.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me just get Edward Abington back in on that point.

Do you think this could get to a situation in which the only way Abu Mazen could end the militant attacks is militarily, some kind of civil conflict with the militant groups?

EDWARD ABINGTON: He really wants to avoid that. He thinks that if he confronts Hamas now in Gaza that the Palestinian Authority will lose. He thinks that Fattah will side with Hamas that the street will support Hamas. That’s why he’s really trying to bring about a cease-fire. But Martin is absolutely right.

The only way to break out of this is with U.S. help. And the U.S. has to push forward quickly and visibly to help the Palestinians rebuild the security capacity that they currently lack. But at the same time they’ve got to give Abu Mazen, Prime Minister Abbas, the room to try to work out an intra-Palestinian agreement which leads to an end to violence. So these two things have to go in parallel.

MARGARET WARNER: So are you saying though that if in this interim, say attacks were to continue by militant groups on Israelis, what should President Bush be asking Sharon to do — not respond?

EDWARD ABINGTON: No. I think what he has to ask Prime Minister Sharon to do is, look, cooperate with the rebuilding of the Palestinian security services, resume detailed talks between Israeli and Palestinian security people, allow Jordanian and Egyptian trainers to come in and to work with the Palestinians. That is essential and if there is a visible process going on, it gives Sharon some room and it gives also Abbas some room.

And the Palestinians also have to start doing things on the ground: For example, moving into northern Gaza, preventing the firing of rockets and mortars from there. If these things can take place, then I think you can start to reverse the dynamic.

MARGARET WARNER: And, finally, briefly Martin Indyk, do you think today the president’s indirect rebuke of the Sharon government, do you think… what impact do you think that will have? I know you said finger-wagging isn’t enough. But is it likely to buy a little time and buy a little time in which the Israelis would not respond?

MARTIN INDYK: I think that Prime Minister Sharon takes President Bush very seriously. He doesn’t want a gap to open up between the United States and Israel but he has a problem.

I think that the rebuke and some quiet discussions could perhaps lead to getting the Israelis to stop the targeted assassinations for the time being because I think they really do stoke things up as we’ve seen in this case, Rantisi wasn’t even killed so he’s come out as a kind of living martyr and is swearing revenge. So the rebuke can have some impact, but unless there is an active engagement to, as I say, boost the Palestinian capacity, get Abu Mazen to act and get Sharon to restrain himself while Abu Mazen is acting, we’re not going to be able to break this dynamic.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you, Martin Indyk and Edward Abington, thank you both for joining us.