Likud Party Rejects Gaza Withdrawal Plan
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JIM LEHRER: Two views now. Dennis Ross was the Middle East point man in the first Bush administration and through the Clinton years. Theodore Kattouf is a former U.S. Ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and to Syria. I spoke to them earlier this evening.
Mr. Ross, first, what’s your reading as to why Sharon lost Sunday’s vote?
DENNIS ROSS: I think he badly underestimated what the mood within his own party was, number one. Number two, he didn’t really organize to carry out an active campaign to ensure that he would win, whereas within Likud, the party activists organized, all the settlers organized, they were very dynamic, they were going door to door, they were having kids from the settlements within Gaza making phone calls to Likud members. Even with all that, you only had about a 40 percent turnout. So it’s not as if all Likud spoke, but those who did go to the polls they, spoke very clearly.
JIM LEHRER: What would you add to that, Mr. Ambassador?
THEODORE KATTOUF: Well, I’d basically have to agree with what Ambassador Ross said. It’s surprising that Sharon didn’t seem to put more effort into getting out his supporters, particularly given the importance of what he was able to negotiate with the Bush administration while he was here in Washington. I think it’s fairly clear from some of the administration’s sources talking to the media today that they’re pretty disappointed as well, because the U.S. basically staked a lot of credibility on this, and angered some of our good friends. So it’s an embarrassment all around.
JIM LEHRER: It’s an embarrassment for the United States as much as it is for Sharon, is that what you’re saying?
THEODORE KATTOUF: Well, I think that we used up a lot of capital on this issue and others with our Arab friends and in some of the Muslim countries, and I’m sure at this point they’re wondering about our resolve to really see this process through to a negotiated settlement.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Mr. Ross, that the U.S. is a big loser here, too, as well as Sharon?
DENNIS ROSS: Well, I think the U.S. will only be a loser if in fact Sharon were to back off. I mean, I think the administration is in a position to say “we gave certain assurances in return for an understanding on what you would do, and the prime minister of Israel now has to decide how he will proceed.” I still think that even though he’s obviously weakened within Likud, when he has 70 percent support of the Israeli public, he has a lot of leverage in this situation. If he pursues the pathway that he said he would, which is not to be prime minister just to warm the seat, you know, he has to take a step that’s going to unfreeze the situation, then what the U.S. has done with him can still I think be okay.
Ted’s point that in the end others will be watching to see how we behave is right. But I think the key for us is to maintain a process that says, alright, we have an understanding, we leave it up to you to figure out how best you’re going to pursue it within Israel.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that, Mr. Ambassador? The thing for the United States to do — whether you think it’s the right thing or the wrong thing, we’ll get to that in a minute — it is now the policy to endorse what Sharon wants to do, and there’s no way to change it right now?
THEODORE KATTOUF: No, there’s no way to change it right now. The hope is that Sharon doesn’t start backsliding. There have been statements coming out of his office today suggesting that as part of his consultations with his own party and his cabinet, he might scale back a proposal to withdraw from all of Gaza. I think that would be very unfortunate. Sharon in Washington, of course, agreed to do something that I think is very, very important, and that is to get out of the West Bank, all the West Bank settlements, and four small settlements…or excuse me, all of Gaza and four small West Bank settlements. I think the U.S. needs to hold him to that. He does, as Dennis pointed out, he could rally much of the country behind him.
Frankly, most Israelis don’t want to see their sons and daughters having to expend, risk their lives for 7,500 settlers in Gaza where 1.3 million Palestinians live. Frankly, those settlements should have never been put there in the first place, and by all means they should be withdrawn.
JIM LEHRER: Dennis Ross, why did Sharon do this? He didn’t have to go to his own political party for this kind of vote. I mean, he, as you say, the polls showed he had the support of the majority of the people. Why did he pick this way to go?
DENNIS ROSS: You know, sometimes even very skilled political leaders can make misjudgments, and I think in this case he miscalculated. He thought that once he got the assurances from President Bush, he would be in a position where basically within Likud no one could say “this is not a good thing to do.” And if he proceeded to go to a referendum within the party, the Likud Party, that would mean those within his government — not only those who are members of the Likud Party, but those who are part of other parties that are farther to the right of Likud — would have to go along with the expressed will of the Likud Party or be portrayed for what they are, which are fringe elements, which would basically discredit them.
So it all looked good to him once we had assurances from the president. I think he underestimated, as I said before, the level of the opposition within the Likud Party. At one point, his son basically said that the people within the central committee of the Likud Party are really the Indians, as if you didn’t have to pay attention to them, and I think what we’ve found is that those Indians could organize. They did, they had the money and in a sense they outmaneuvered the prime minister.
JIM LEHRER: Ambassador Kattouf, let’s go back a step now to President Bush’s decision to endorse the Gaza part of West Bank plan, as proposed by Sharon. How much harm– you’ve mentioned it already, but how much harm has that done to the U.S. position within the Arab world, and how severe a problem is that?
THEODORE KATTOUF: Well, clearly there was a lot of dismay. As you know, Mr. Lehrer, King Abdullah of Jordan postponed his trip to Washington. President Mubarak of Egypt, who had just been in Washington prior to Sharon’s visit, lashed out and said, “there had never been more hatred in the Arab world of the U.S. than there is right now.” And I understand from some people that Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has written a very sharp letter to President Bush, basically indicating he felt very let down and disappointed by the fact that the United States told the Palestinians, look, recognize the realities of settlements on the ground, and that the right of return is unrealistic, and that the Palestinians will have to find their identity and homeland in whatever Palestinian state is eventually fashioned.
It’s not that this is new. Ambassador Ross was involved in negotiations at Camp David, and that was part of the deal, clearly, that certain settlement blocks close to Jerusalem and along Israel’s narrow ways would end up being annexed to Israel. But there were going to be land swaps, and for psychological and political reasons, it’s important that Palestinian leaders themselves make the decision that the right of return cannot be exercised as was envisioned 54 years ago or so. But rather that maybe there can be humanitarian reunions, family reunions, but otherwise they have to forego that right.
But it makes it very hard for Palestinian leaders, and for that matter for Israeli advocates of peace, to stake out positions that appear to be following the dictates of Sharon.
JIM LEHRER: And that still is there, right? This vote yesterday, if anything, reinforces the negative, or mitigates the negative?
THEODORE KATTOUF: I think Ambassador Ross may be right, we’ll have to wait and see how strongly the administration stands up for its own policies. A lot was given to Sharon in the expectation that he could carry Likud with him. I’m not sure why he decided to go to the Likud voters when he could just as easily have called a national referendum or tried to carry this in the cabinet in the Knesset. But he did, and now we’re stuck with it.
JIM LEHRER: So, Ambassador Ross, you say that the president must stick with this policy and hold Sharon to what he had said he would do. Now does that — how do you interpret what that — what the result of that will be within the Arab world who are upset about this endorsement to begin with?
DENNIS ROSS: I think there’s a question of process and there’s a question of substance. I believe that the assurances actually could have been managed even with the Arab world, had, in fact, there been a parallel process at the same time that we were talking to the Israelis. We were talking to Prime Minister Sharon and the people around him, working out what were going to be these assurances. The fact is, they’re largely statements of facts; they’re realities. If at the same time the Palestinians and the Egyptians and Jordanians had been part of the process, understanding what it is we’re talking about and they had a sense of inclusion in this, then it would have been easier especially for the Palestinians. But for the Palestinians–
JIM LEHRER: So in other words, what you’re saying it was the process that caused as much of a problem with the Arab world as it was the substance of what the president–
DENNIS ROSS: I believe so, yes. It is very interesting; a lot of the focus has been on here is the U.S. making observations. If you read the letter, basically the administration was making observations. It wasn’t realistic to assume the Israelis would go back to the 1949 armistice line. It’s not realistic to assume you can have a just, fair, agreed, realistic solution for refugees unless it’s found in the Palestinian state as opposed to Israel. These were observations that reflect reality, but the Palestinians were excluded from the process. In effect, they saw themselves having issues that were fundamental to who they are being decided without them, and it’s that exclusion that created, I think, a big problem for them.
One last point on this: It is interesting that when the Bush administration in 2002 adopted a formal position that there should be an independent Palestinian state, that was also a substantive position. It was a new position. It went beyond what we had done in the Clinton administration. We had offered proposals that would have provided for a state, but we also said “these are ideas that we will withdraw if they’re not accepted.” So they weren’t made a formal part of the policy. We didn’t hear a lot of complaints at that point about us taking a step that prejudged the outcome, because it was seen as a realistic position.
I’m a very big believer that when you come to make peace in the Middle East, you have to reconcile to reality, not to mythologies. So it is important to do some of what the administration was doing, but it’s also important to do it in a way that gives the other side an explanation, that gives the Palestinians the ability to say “we’re part of this process, and whatever is important to us in terms of our aspirations, we can still negotiate at the table.” If you read the letters carefully, that’s not precluded, but when they weren’t a part of it, it made it harder for them to stand up and say that.
JIM LEHRER: Ambassador Kattouf, first with you, just the bottom line here. Both of you gentlemen have been involved for years in trying to make things work in the Middle East. Is there the end result, first of all, the endorsement by the United States, the Sharon plan before that, now the endorsement, and now the vote yesterday in the Likud, are we moving backward, are we moving forward? Is there no movement at all? How would you judge the state of play right now toward getting this thing resolved between the Israelis and Palestinians?
THEODORE KATTOUF: Well, I think if we put this in context, there’s potentially good news and there’s bad news. The good news is that if Sharon, the architect of the settlement movement, actually carries out his plans to remove all the settlers from the 20 or so settlements in Gaza and relocate them in Israel proper, that’s going to create a lot of havoc, a lot of ill will in Israel. But if he carries that out and at the same time he goes ahead and removes several small settlements on the West Bank, he’ll have set an important precedent for any Israeli prime minister or government that follows him, and there will be other governments.
So it’ll be as though Nixon went to China, again, only Sharon probably could do this. On the other hand, he has a history, and the history is that he doesn’t really want to give back most of the West Bank. He’s talked about maybe 42 percent being given back to the Palestinians. He has made no pledges as far as I can see that he will not expand existing settlements. President Bush got no settlement freeze promise out of [Ariel] Sharon. Sharon just crisscrossed the West Bank with bypassed roads, for settlers only. He has, you know, there are 220,000 settlers on the West Bank.
JIM LEHRER: So the bottom line is that, from your perspective at least, it’s too early to say this is either good news or bad news, we’re in the middle. Is that right?
THEODORE KATTOUF: Well, if he does it, it’s good news, but you have to understand who [Ariel] Sharon is and what he stands for.
JIM LEHRER: Well, let me ask Dennis Ross, where do you see the bottom line now?
DENNIS ROSS: The situation is completely frozen. And it’s frozen in the sense that the possibilities are not being developed, but the deterioration is seen every day. What Ariel Sharon represented with the declaration was a step that could unfreeze the situation if you could build on it. I agree with what Ted said. For the architect of the settler movement to be the one who is evacuating settlements is unprecedented, and in a sense what it means is that it opens the pathway. If he does it, it makes it possible for everybody in the future.
I think there is one interesting development that is likely to emerge from this. And that is, from a political standpoint within Israel, when a small part of the Likud Party can look to try to shape the future for Israel that most Israelis don’t agree with, I think it may promote a swinging of the pendulum again. The pendulum swung away from the peace camp in Israel at the end of 2000, because a forthcoming government was turned down and violence was the result. Now I believe you may well see a swing in the pendulum again. We’re going to see a realignment, whether it takes place in the next few weeks or takes place in the next year, I believe it’s coming.
JIM LEHRER: All right, gentlemen, thank you both very much.
THEODORE KATTOUF: Thank you, Mr. Lehrer.
DENNIS ROSS: Thank you.