TOPICS > Politics

Prospects for Peace

May 26, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: The prospects for Israeli-Palestinian peace. The Israeli cabinet’s decision to offer conditional approval of a U.S.-backed peace plan broke new ground by endorsing Palestinian statehood. The measure passed by the simple majority it needed, but with just 12 of the 23 members in favor. Four lawmakers abstained. Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who had hesitated to endorse the so- called “road map to peace,” was forced to explain to angry members of his own Likud Party today why he changed his mind. It was not a “happy decision,” he said.

ARIEL SHARON, Prime Minister, Israel (Translated): I want to say to you very clearly, I will make every effort to reach a political solution because I think it is important to Israel to reach a political solution. I also think the idea to keep 3.5 million people under occupation is a bad thing for us and them.

GWEN IFILL: Sharon was referring to Israel’s 36-year occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The road map has already been endorsed by the Palestinian Authority. Aside from the creation of a Palestinian state by 2005, it also requires Palestinians to rein in militants and end terror attacks, and Israelis to withdraw from some Palestinian towns and freeze settlement expansion. But the two sides disagree on who should take the first step. Yesterday’s emotional debate showed deep divisions still remain about the peace plan.

UZI LANDAU, Likud Party Minister: I think that anyone here who wants really to have peace and wants to continue and combat terrorism cannot reward terrorism with this road map.

GWEN IFILL: In a separate vote, Israeli lawmakers rejected Palestinian demands that they be allowed to return to their homes in what is now Israel. For their part, members of the Palestinian cabinet, which met the day before the Israeli vote, are insisting the road map be adopted with no changes.

YASSER ABED RABBO, Palestinian Communications Manager: If the Israelis are going to introduce changes in the road map that will change the basis of the road map as a comprehensive plan for peace and as a plan which is based on parallelism and on balanced versions, if the Israelis are going to do that and the Americans accept it, well, this will mean that the road map is over, and this will create a very serious political crisis.

GWEN IFILL: Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also referred to as Abu Mazen, and Israeli prime minister Sharon, plan to meet again later this week in advance of a possible three-way summit with President Bush next month.

The prospects for that summit have raised new hopes about Israeli-Palestinian peace, but how realistic are they? For that, we turn to Stephen Cohen, president of the Institute for Middle East Peace and Development, a non-profit organization that brings together Arabs and Israelis to solve problems. And Shibley Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland; he’s also the author of “The Stakes: America and the Middle East.”

Professor Telhami, we saw at least an ideological stumbling block appear to be removed with the agreement of the Israeli cabinet to accept at least the direction of this road map. How big a stumbling block was that?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, this is important. It’s important for a number of reasons, one is without it we couldn’t move forward at all. Second, it draws the administration in in ways that the president certainly wasn’t willing to be involved otherwise in. And third, it changes the nature of the domestic debate in Israel, in the U.S., and in the Palestinian area. But the obstacles remain great.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Cohen, how important would you say that this is?

STEPHEN COHEN: I believe it’s really important historic moment. Because whatever happens from here on in, it is now clear that an Israeli government has made an official decision to accept a Palestinian state. And whether it’s this government or another Israeli government, that means that we now have a basis for moving forward between Israelis and Palestinians. And I believe that with Abu Mazen as leader now, or at least as the prime minister of the Palestinians, we have somebody who understands very well what he’s going to have to do in order to make this work, and we’re going to see whether President Bush has the same determination to push this through as he has on other matters.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Cohen, this is the first of three phases of this road map process. Which is the most difficult phase to overcome?

STEPHEN COHEN: I think each phase is very tough. The first phase involves the two parties giving up the basic way that they have pursued this conflict and fought it, not only for the last few years, but really ever since this conflict began. And therefore, it would be a major step if the Palestinians really did move away from armed conflict, and it would be a major step if Israelis really moved away from continuing to construct settlements and continuing to take Palestinian territory in order to build those settlements. Those would be very big steps. And it would remove an enormous obstacle for going beyond it to the really tough issues that we’ll get into in the further phases when we have to deal with issues like borders, with issues like Jerusalem, with issues like the future of the refugees.

GWEN IFILL: Professor Telhami, just in this phase we’re talking about this issue of the settlements and ending Palestinian violence. Which do you think is the tougher nut to crack?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, both of them are extremely tough to crack. I think Stephen is right about the willingness of Mr. Abbas to do what needs to be done, he clearly understands what has to be done. The real issue is whether the structural barriers to his implementation. Right now you have an environment in which there is no trust on both sides. The Palestinian public is not supportive of unilateral disarmament of the Palestinians unless they see something on the Israeli side. That’s shown by the surveys. He still doesn’t have great deal of popular support. He’s going to have to win the trust of the Palestinian people. He has to engage what might be in essence a civil war in Gaza, if you are going to try to disarm.

On the Israeli side, here is the problem. The problem is that you have an asymmetry of power. If the Palestinians do not comply with one step, the Israelis have the power to punish them by not withdrawing, through checkpoints, by imposing curfews. But when the Israelis don’t comply, the Palestinians don’t have the power to punish them. That means that every Israeli prime minister, every Israeli politician is more sensitive to his public opinion and to domestic political considerations than he is going to be to the Palestinian prime minister. That makes it harder to implement such steps on the issue of settlements, which are essential for moving forward.

GWEN IFILL: If there is going to be a three-way summit, obviously three personalities involved, three leaders, one is Mahmoud Abbas, who you’ve just been referring to at the Palestinian Authority; the other are Ariel Sharon, and the other President Bush. Mr. Cohen, let’s talk about Ariel Sharon. What is the challenge for him now, what is it that he is facing?

STEPHEN COHEN: The challenge for him now is to show that he is really going to get a major change in the security situation of Israel. He is going to be in a position where he’s going to be on the defensive within his own political system, within his own movement. They started to criticize him very harshly already today. And the truth is, that he is going to have to allow the United States to take major steps to help Abu Mazen have the strength to do what he can’t do even if he wants to do, which is to confront movements that have remained strong.

Israel has done a great deal to eliminate the power of the Palestinian Authority. Whatever limited power it had before, it has almost none of it left. But some of the other movements continue to work and to do their violence. How is he going to stop that? Well, partly it’s what Shibley said, that he’s going to have to build his own credible with the Palestinian street. He’s going to have to build it by what Israel does and by what he does to show that he’s really a different kind of leader, not corrupt, and that he really means a democratic system for the Palestinians, but that’s not enough.

GWEN IFILL: But can I return to you the subject of Ariel Sharon’s challenge, which is he has said up until last week that he wasn’t really crazy about this road map, he said this decision was not a happy decision for him. What changed his mine?

STEPHEN COHEN: I think that what changed his mind was that he saw the tremendous determination of the United States to make this happen, and I think he also saw that the Israeli economy was simply could not be turned around unless they made some major change in the political situation of Israel. The Israeli people gave him a great mandate. But in that time that he’s had since the mandate, he has learned what he learned also in the first year and a half of his prime ministership, that he cannot take control of the economy simply by economic measures alone. He’s going to have to do a lot, in political terms, with the United States and with the image of Israel and with the openness of Israel, in order to rebuild that economy.

GWEN IFILL: Okay, let me bring Mr. Telhami in.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Here’s the reality of it, and I think Steve alluded to it. But it’s the factor that’s absolutely crucial in all this and that’s the role of the U.S.. It is clear because there noise trust on the ground and pause there’s such an asymmetry of power, that makes it harder for an Israeli prime minister respond to strategic collisions and more to domestic politics. The role of the U.S. is indispensable. What’s significant is the president has decided to get involved. If the president of the United States is involved in a sustained way, it might become possible to bridge the gap between them, but without that it is impossible to imagine that you can move forward — even if it is true what Steve said, which is that Mr. Sharon clearly does not have the unilateral solution. It certainly has punished the Palestinians, the Palestinians have felt the pain a lot more than the Israelis. The Israelis have felt the pain and they don’t have a solution.

GWEN IFILL: But what changed that got the U.S. so much more involved, more hands on than President Bush was willing to be at the beginning of his administration?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, two things. One is that during the lead up to the Iraq War, the president has had to make a lot of promises on being engaged politically on the Arab-Israeli issue, and that is to Mr. Blair, to other Europeans, to Arab governments that need it desperately, including allies like the government of Jordan. And secondly, there’s learning. Every administration comes in thinking they don’t want to spend time on the Arab-Israeli issue because it’s a losing enterprise, they still think of it politically as the losing enterprise. But the reality is it is so connected to America’s strategic interests that every administration quickly learns they can’t ignore it.

GWEN IFILL: Mr. Cohen, because this has often seemed like a losing enterprise, the question could fairly be asked what is different this time about this new breakthrough in the Palestinian Israeli peace process that we haven’t had the same discussion before; what’s different now?

STEPHEN COHEN: I think there’s a few things that are different first of all, this process begins with already the endorsement of the Arab world. When Clinton did what he did, he did not have the active participation of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. And the president already has that. They have endorsed this, he has made sure that the road map includes reference to the Saudi proposal that was endorsed by the Arab summit. So you have first of all at least the beginning of some Arab participation, and I think that the president is going to try to work on that during his trip. He wanted to have the meeting take place in Sharm al-Sheikh in order to show the importance of Egypt in this process. He may not be able to get it yet because Sharon doesn’t like having it in Egypt and is insisting on having it in Jordan. But I believe there’s going to be a lot of need for Egypt and therefore there’s going to be building on that relationship. So that’s one thing.

The second thing that’s different is that the president has already faced up to some of the problems of domestic opposition. There was a tough battle about the road map in the United States over a few months. There were many elements of the American community that tried to trash the road map. And they failed. The president succeeded in getting the road map adopted, moved it out into the field, and has felt that he has the strength after what he did in Iraq, after other issues of concern in the United States about terrorism, to make this a priority. The American people know they want a peace process, and he feels that he’s already, I think, made some progress in making sure that this will not be stopped here at home.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask a question.

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: I mean, I agree with Steve on one very important thing, is that there is an opportunity in a way that wasn’t presented actually when Clinton was in office, and that is that not just that you have an endorsement of various parties in Europe and the Middle East of this plan, but also in a strategic decision for the first time on the part of most Arab states and Europeans that the Arab Israeli conflict is detrimental to their interests. They are allies of a solution in ways that they have not been in the past. Still, it takes me back to a point which is very critical. The road map itself has got a lot of problems in terms of implementation. It is dependent on good faith and every step in the future is dependent on what do you on the step before, it’s in a way more complicated than Oslo and Oslo hasn’t worked.

GWEN IFILL: All right. Shibley Telhami and Stephen Cohen, thank you very much.