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Taking Aim in the Mideast

August 6, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: For debate over Israel’s policy of targeted killings, we get four perspectives. Mark Regev is the spokesman at the Israeli embassy in Washington. Simona Sharoni is a visiting faculty member at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington. She’s also director of its consortium on peace research, education, and development. She was raised in Israel, served in the Israeli military, and holds dual U.S. and Israeli citizenship.

Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. He’s a Palestinian, was born and raised in Israel, and is now a U.S. citizen. And Harvey Sicherman is president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. He served in the State Department in the Reagan and first Bush administrations. Welcome to you all.

MARGARET WARNER: Mark Regev, beginning with you, we heard a couple of spokesmen for the Israeli government call this self-defense or protective measures. Is there no other way Israel can protect itself other than this policy of what the Palestinians call assassination?

MARK REGEV: Well it’s a policy of surgical counter-terrorist strikes. The idea is we know who the people are, who their leaders are of the Palestinian terrorist groups who are coming to attack our civilians. And the idea is to seek them out and to harm their ability to hurt innocent Israeli civilians. And the truth is our evaluation is this policy is actually effective.

We have harmed their capability to launch strikes against us and, thank goodness, over the last few days and weeks we haven’t had a suicide bomb like we’ve had at that disco in Tel Aviv some 50 days ago. This policy– it’s difficult. It’s not easy. Every death is a tragedy. But we believe that by striking at the leaders of the terrorists, those giving the orders and commanding the operations, we are, in fact, saving the lives of innocent Israeli civilians.

MARGARET WARNER: Ms. Sharoni, how do you feel about this policy on your government’s part?

SIMONA SHARONI: First let aside the moral problems with this, politically it’s problematic because it will not deliver the security that Prime Minister Sharon promised to the Israeli people. It is very clear with yesterday’s attack and with the other attacks that Palestinians vowed to launch against Israel that this assassination will just produce the opposite. They will produce massive revenge on the parts of Palestinians and really boost the support for an armed struggle, whether the chances will come.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Telhami, your view of this and is Ms. Sharoni right that it will just further incite or radicalize Palestinians?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: There’s no question in my mind about the political consequences but also about the moral issue here. I think the moral issues — we can’t know with certainty that these are guilty people. They have not been; charges have not been filed against them. They have not put a court. They’re, you know, suspected terrorists and being assassinated. In some cases suspected political leaders of organizations carry out attacks. And we have to keep in mind here that, you know, there is no sovereign Palestinian state. These people are still under the sovereign umbrella of Israel’s occupying power. And Israel, in fact, can have the power still to arrest them even though that would be a violation; it would certainly be a lot less problematic and put them on trial.

But the consequence is really the main issue here. If you look at what is transpiring, if the idea is to prevent attacks– and I think suicide bombings are horrifying and must stop and certainly both the Palestinians and the Israelis should do everything to stop them– if the idea here is that these attacks are going to stop them, clearly it’s not going to work. We know that. When you look back at the Hamas operations in the past nine years or really since the Oslo accords, we have seen that they are motivated more by revenge than anything else. And every time that their credibility is undermined, they go out and do more. And they have the capacity to do more, despite what Israel does or the Palestinian Authority does.

And in the process, Arafat is looking very weak, unable to stop such attacks. He doesn’t have a mechanism to respond, certainly not a military mechanism to respond and again with popular opinion every single day. So it’s a counterproductive strategy and it’s self-defeating.

MARGARET WARNER: Harvey Sicherman, your judgment?

HARVEY SICHERMAN: Well, you have here a war going on, a war and in addition to that an attempt to restart a political process. And so the question of such activities, I don’t know of any war wherein some certain people — particularly those at the level of sergeant, officers or anything like that — are somehow put off limits particularly in dealing with a war that has suicide bombers and the like. You strike at your opponent, the objective of a war is to kill him before he kills you.

The question is how prudent this is, whether this will obstruct or facilitate the resumption of a political dialogue. There, I think Shibley was on to something in the sense that the real difficulty here for the United States is that we can do very well in mediating between two leaders who have convinced each other and us that they really want to strike a deal. The problem has been over the past ten months is whether you really can have such a partnership. There, we are looking to Yasser Arafat to some extent to convince us that he is a partner for a negotiation. I am sure that if he were putting forward 100% effort in respect to these bombings and whatnot that the Bush administration would be all over the Sharon government like a cheap suit. But that isn’t the case.

And so all that we can do in the present circumstances is to say to people, look, if you want a way out, here it is. You have the cease-fire; then you have the Mitchell recommendations that came out of the Sharm El-Sheikh agreement that also called for a cease-fire. There are confidence building measures, but you have to do it. And if you’re not willing to do it, we can’t force you to do it.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Sicherman, let me try to get this back to this policy we’re especially looking at. Ms. Sharoni, look more closely now at the moral arguments over this. What about the point Mr. Sicherman made that, in fact, this is not… This is a state of war. This is a situation of war and that in wartime, opposing forces do take out each other’s leaders?

SIMONA SHARONI: At the same time, we live in an international community and there are international laws that all countries are expected to abide by. Israel has occupied the West Bank and Gaza in violation of those laws. According to those laws, the Palestinian population is protected by the Fourth Geneva Convention that has been violated time and again; so those laws hold and they were particularly created to protect vulnerable populations in war situations. And this is precisely why people concerned with the moral and practical implications of those assassinations and what they may provoke are calling for international protection. So, war doesn’t justify it.

The 1967 War that triggered this cycle of violence was launched as a pre-emptive attack. And we know exactly what the doublespeak resulted in, in the continuing occupation and bloodshed on both sides. So those assassinations ought to stop right away for the Mitchell report to be implemented, and calling on both sides is not enough at this point. One has to appeal to the stronger party and given that those assassinations are carried out with American-made Apache helicopter and technically guided missiles, there is a moral responsibility on the part of the U.S. taxpayers to call for it.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me get Mr. Regev back in here. Mr. Regev, staying with the sort of moral argument here, what about Professor Telhami’s point that what you’ve got here is essentially the Israeli military acting as judge, jury and executioner; why not go in and arrest these people and put them on trial if you’re sure that they are terrorist leaders?

MARK REGEV: I think there have been occasions where we have actually gone in and we have arrested people. That’s very difficult from an operational point of view. But I’d like to take very strong issue with what was said before. This is not a war against the population, the Palestinian population. The Palestinian population suffer and that’s unfortunate, but these targeted strikes are designed specifically against — surgically against the leadership of the terrorist organizations.

I would remind you that the United States in the past has acted very similarly. When Americans were threatened with Libyan terrorism in the mid 1980’s President Ronald Reagan ordered an attack on the Libyan headquarters in Tripoli. You remember that attack. That attack also unfortunately innocent people were killed but that’s a justified attack against terrorism. In the late ’90s the Clinton administration acted in a similar way against bin Laden. A terrorist – not people — not a civilian population, but organized terrorist groups that are active in cells and command structures — they’ve declared war on us. They’re attacking our innocent people; they’re attacking Israeli civilians in shopping malls, in schools, in houses. Obviously Israel has a right to defend itself against these people.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Telhami, that is true, is it not, that Hamas has certainly declared war on Israel and feels itself in a state of war?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: Well, there’s no question that a lot of Palestinians are carrying out attacks against Israel, and those are… They must be punished by either authority or face the consequences of what they do. The problem with the current policy is that we don’t know who they are. We don’t know who is being attacked. We have no way of knowing for sure who is guilty. Moreover, I think– I don’t agree that there is a situation of war. Actually Hamas has been contradicting itself at various points at to what state of affairs it has vis-a-vis Israel. What we now have is a situation where there is a lot of violence but there are still agreements to be upheld and by and large many of them are being upheld. Even in war you have norms that govern the situation. Imagine-

You know, one can understand in Israel itself there’s a lot of frustration. When you face with a kind of civilian victims that you do face in a suicide bombing, you want to lash out. There is a lot of feeling that you have to have revenge. In the Palestinian areas, you know, there’s even more pain over the years in terms of the occupation, the daily humiliation, certainly asymmetry of casualties if you want to look at score. And there is a lot of momentum there also to lash out. You can’t allow that to justify. Nothing can justify the sort of arbitrary attacks that we witness and those must stop.

MARGARET WARNER: Harvey Sicherman, respond to that point that these attacks and this violence just gets in the way of any kind of final resolution.

HARVEY SICHERMAN: Well, if you want to see this thing, I insist that you do have to see it as a kind of a war and what happens on the ground or doesn’t happen on the ground can’t condition or affect the responses of the political leaders. Now, in a war of attrition, which is what this is, people get attrited. And in the course of that if one side feels it’s getting the worst of it, it may want to seek a political solution more rapidly than if it were doing fairly well in the war.

So I think that this particular tactic– I mean, it’s not rocket science here; we’ve seen this before– if you want to get at terrorists and you have a list of people, many of whom were jailed by the Palestinian Authority before this war broke out or was started back in September, you have this list. These are not choir boys. They have records. And you say, as was said in the Tenet plan, you either lock them up or they’ll be dealt with in another way. To put these type of activity on the run, you have to get at the people who are directing it and you force them into a defensive position. So it seems to me that there is an argument to be made that this is a prudent action on the part of the Israelis. As to whether it will actually produce Arafat crying uncle or Sharon modifying his own position, that, we don’t know.

But I would submit that the road is there, the path has been laid out by the United States through the Tenet paper, through the Mitchell plan, and that’s the road that people have to take and that requires 100 percent effort on both sides. And thus far, from the American point of view, we haven’t seen the 100 percent effort on the Palestinian side and we are trying very hard to keep the Israelis from escalating even though it’s militarily prudent, may be militarily prudent from their point of view, because I think in the judgment of the State Department this is an unnecessary escalation. But again, unless you begin those two parties really reach the conclusion that they want to deal with each other, there are tremendous limits as to what the United States can do.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Telhami, respond to the challenge that the Israeli government or explain Arafat’s response rather to the challenge the Israeli government issued today when they released these seven names and said why don’t you arrest these terrorists and the Palestinian Authority refused? Why did the Palestinian Authority refuse and where does that lead us?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: First of all I cannot explain Arafat’s behavior. I am an American citizen who is thinking about it, I think as an expert I have a sense of what the Palestinian response is like as I do what the Israeli response is like. In this particular case, I think that the Palestinian response has been that their hand is weakened in the face of these attacks if they’re seen to be to arrest people that Israel is calling to arrest, then they’re responding to the very attacks that they see as unacceptable.

Also, I’ve read at least their official position, which is that they had given the Israelis a list of settlers they wanted arrested and that they will not go on to arrest some of their — the people on the Israeli list until the settlers arrest theirs. Frankly I think all of that is maneuvering. I don’t think that’s where the issue is.

I think the issue is, Harvey is right, we do have a plan and that’s the Mitchell plan and the Tenet plan. My question is, how do we get the parties to move forward? The problems with those plans– if there is a problem with them; I think they’re good plans– but they’re predicated on the assumption that both parties want to move forward, that both parties are trying to find a way to move forward, and therefore the very implementation of the plan is dependent on that assumption. If one or the other party doesn’t want to move forward or even if one doesn’t trust that the other side wants to move forward, you can’t move forward. So something else needs to be infused into this picture to be able to implement and move on to the next stage.

MARGARET WARNER: Meaning a U.S. role?

SHIBLEY TELHAMI: I think the day is approaching when the U.S. is going to have to state very clearly some American position. Clearly what’s at stake is not just the good of the Israelis and the Palestinians but also major American interests. And here I think the U.S. can never impose a solution on the parties. What the U.S. Can state is what it finds acceptable, what it finds unacceptable from the point of view of the American interest. It can take public positions that are consistent with previous American positions. That it can do. I think the moral pressure that would come from that on the parties would help move the process forward.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Mark Regev, a final word from you. Is it time for the Americans to take a more assertive role here and is there anything the Americans can do?

MARK REGEV: Well, I think Secretary Powell, the administration, has set out their position. Their position is that the Mitchell plan is the way to move forward, the Tenet document. When Israel complains to the Palestinians that they haven’t rearrested terrorists, that they haven’t given clear orders to their own forces to stop shooting at Israeli targets, to stop the war of terror, these are not things the Palestinians committed to, to us; these are things the Palestinians committed to to the Americans, they committed to CIA Director Tenet and they committed it to Secretary Powell in his last visit.

I think Arafat and the Palestinian leadership has to understand that if they give a commitment, they’re expected to keep it. No one is asking the Palestinian leadership to do something they haven’t said they’re going to do and that is to stop terrorism. I would also remind you that from our perspective the entire peace process is based on a letter that Rabin — former Prime Minister Rabin — received from Chairman Arafat in ’93 at the beginning of the Oslo process. In that letter Arafat renounced the strategy of violence and terrorism. On that the peace process was supposed to be based. Unfortunately Chairman Arafat has far from renounced terrorism. He uses terrorism and violence when it’s convenient for him. This is not the way to move forward.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. We have to leave it there. Thank you all four very much.