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Roadmap to Peace in the Middle East

July 29, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS: Today at the Rose Garden, President Bush and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon agreed the Palestinian leadership must crack down on terrorists, but President Bush made it clear he had expectations for Sharon’s government, too.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: In our discussions I encouraged the prime minister to take further steps to improve the daily conditions faced by Palestinians. Israelis and Palestinians deserve the same chance to live normal lives, free from fear, free from hatred and violence, and free from harassment. I also urge the prime minister to carefully consider all the consequences of Israel’s actions as we move forward on the road to peace.

SPENCER MICHELS: For his part, Sharon refused to budge on a key issue: The ongoing construction of a security barrier that separates the West Bank from Israel; 75 miles are already built, and ultimately Israeli security officials seek to encircle most Palestinian lands in the West Bank. Sharon says the wall is meant to keep suicide bombers out of Israel.

ARIEL SHARON: A security fence will continue to be built with every effort to minimize the infringement on the daily life of the Palestinian population.

SPENCER MICHELS: But Palestinians say the fence has already encroached on their territory, saying the project amounts to a land grab. Many have protested its construction. On Monday, Palestinians clashed with Israeli soldiers. Palestinian Authority president Yasser Arafat called the fence a new Berlin Wall, and his information minister said Sharon’s insistence on building it will dampen the positive atmosphere. In Washington today, President Bush acknowledged that the barrier is a sensitive issue to Sharon.

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: My promise to him is we’ll continue to discuss in the dialogue how best to make sure that the fence sends the right signal. Not only is security important but the ability for the Palestinians to live a normal life is important as well.

SPENCER MICHELS: On Friday, the president took on a sharper tone when he hosted Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. He was the first Palestinian leader to visit Mr. Bush, who praised Abbas for his “vision and courage.”

PRESIDENT GEORGE BUSH: I think the wall is a problem, and I have discussed this with Ariel Sharon. It is very difficult to develop confidence between the Palestinians and the Israel — Israel, with a wall snaking through the West Bank.

SPENCER MICHELS: Abbas said the fence could undermine the peace process, as could the construction of new Jewish settlements on Palestinian territory.

MAHMOUD ABBAS: If the settlement activities in Palestinian land and construction of the so-called separation wall on confiscated Palestinian land continue, a free Palestine state living side by side in peace and security in Israel is a virtual impossibility.

SPENCER MICHELS: Despite the flare-up over the fence, Sharon today noted that Mideast violence has dropped sharply since Palestinian militants agreed to a truce a month ago today. President Bush praised Sharon’s government for deciding to remove roadblocks in Palestinian territories and for announcing the release in the coming days of the 500 Palestinian prisoners. Family members in hard line groups like Hamas had demanded their release, though they complained it would still leave 5,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails.

GWEN IFILL: For more now on Ariel Sharon’s visit and an update on peace efforts, we turn to two Middle East watchers. Hisham Melhem is the Washington correspondent for the Beirut newspaper As-Safir. He also has a weekly program on the Arab news channel al-Arabiya. David Makovsky is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Previously he was executive editor of the Jerusalem Post and diplomatic correspondent for Ha’aretz.

David Makovsky, we saw last week Mahmoud Abbas in the Rose Garden. Today we saw Ariel Sharon in the Rose Garden. So give us an assessment. Has progress been made?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think in the big picture, it has been in the last month. When we were here the day I think they announced a meeting with Sharon and Mahmoud Abbas and a month later the violence has sharply dropped, maybe not been eliminated altogether, but is for the first time in three years there’s a chance in the Middle East that we haven’t had. So that’s the good news — and that the cease-fire is taking hold.

But the not as good news, frankly, is that while each side is desisting from taking on the other side, it is not taking on its own rejectionists. This was always going to be the hard part of this road map. This is not an Israeli demand to dismantle the terrorist infrastructure and the like. This is what the road map says, confiscation of illegal weapons and also Sharon has to do the outpost issue. There are things both sides are doing. But this big issue of taking on rejectionists, again I quote Madeleine Albright. “No moral equivalence between a bomb and a bulldozer” because human life once lost is lost but if we don’t take on the rejectionists early in this process my fear is we’ll never get to peace. And that’s the part that’s missing. And President Bush was trying to prod both sides to congratulate them on the steps they’ve taken until now, but saying it’s not enough, we have to go forward.

GWEN IFILL: Hisham, David thinks it’s about taking on the rejectionists in both sides. Is that what you were reading between the tea leaves today at the Rose Garden?

HISHAM MELHEM: There are rejectionists on both sides. You also have to agree that the Israelis are continuing the violence this time and not the Palestinians. If you look at the last three weeks, you see that at least eight or almost ten Palestinians were killed at the hands of Israelis; some of them children.

Look, there are obligations on both sides. I think the Palestinians have stopped incitement. I think the Palestinians are collaborating with the Israelis on security issues. I think they are continuing their program of reform. And I think Mahmoud Abbas will continue to pressure on the Palestinian rejectionists, and I think ultimately he would like to disarm them without engaging in a civil war but he needs some reciprocal measures from the Israelis. That’s why he was hoping that the president will urge Sharon, demand from Sharon to stop the war, stop building the settlements. Settlements are increasing. In fact last year the number of settlers increased by 6 percent. Settlement activities did not stop — not only the illegal outposts but settlements in general as was demanded by the road map and the Mitchell report and Tenet are continuing so I think Mahmoud Abbas is delivering on his obligations. He should do more, and he will be doing more with Hamas and Islamic Jihad but he needs something in return.

GWEN IFLL: If Palestinians were hoping that today they would hear Ariel Sharon say I will tear down the wall or hear President Bush insist on it; that’s not what happened today. Last week the president said the wall was a problem; this week he didn’t.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: Even the term “wall” has become a very charged word. Sharon was highly offended and brought aerial photographs saying that 121 of the 128 kilometers is a fence and not a wall. Just to tell you the sensitivities around this issue. Look, they once said about Yankee stadium, I think, that this is the house that Ruth built referring to Babe Ruth. I would argue that this is the fence that Hamas built. How is it that all these years there’s never been a fence? When you have three years of suicide bombing and a lot of talk, oh, yeah, we’re going to get tough on terrorism and it never happens, people are saying, let me get it straight. On the one hand they’re not doing what they’re supposed to do. On the other hand Israeli cities are supposed to be open to attack.

So the fence in my view comes down to a simple sentence. If Abu Mazen, Mahmoud Abbas, the prime minister of the Palestinians, goes after the terrorist infrastructure as said in the road map this fence will be, as President Bush said in the set-up piece, irrelevant. On the other hand if he doesn’t, it will be inevitable. Basically this fence will rise or fall based on what the Palestinians do. And we’ve seen, by the way, with Lebanon, for example, when Israel pulled out of Lebanon, they were able to move the fence back to the international border when they pulled out. So this is not irreversible. It will rise and fall based on their actions. It didn’t happen until the suicide attacks.

GWEN IFILL: Today we heard Ariel Sharon talk about the fact that there has been a decrease in violence, as you mentioned, but that at any minute it could go awry. Is that what — what all this depends on — as David says, does it really depend right now on the ability of the Palestinians to keep the peace and for new attacks not to happen, in order for Israel to even think about taking the fence down?

HISHAM MELHEM: Mahmoud Abbas was instrumental in getting a cease-fire from the Palestinian groups. We’ve had cease-fire now for four weeks. Everybody acknowledges that. This wall or fence or a barrier, it’s a barrier for peace. It’s not going to be a barrier against acts of violence against the Israelis. No wall in history from the Chinese Wall to the Berlin Wall prevented people from conducting acts of violence when they are forced to or when they wanted to.

The building of this wall is as dangerous and as threaten to go the future of a Palestinian state as the activities of settlements because it’s built on expropriated Palestinian territory, and this wall is going to create cantons. It’s creating already tremendous economic hardship, social dislocation for the Palestinian people and it’s likely to become the existing border when Ariel Sharon declares a border. That’s why it is so dangerous.

I did not expect the president to be as dramatic and as sensational as Ronald Reagan when he asked Mr. Gorbachev to tear that wall, in reference to the Berlin Wall, but to the Palestinians this is ten times worse than the Berlin Wall. It’s a negation of their yearning to become independent.

GWEN IFILL: This is not the only issue that people are not seeing eye to eye on. There’s question of the fence, the wall, whoever is talking. There’s also the question of prisoners released and who should be released and whether these people are still going to be terrorists when they are released. There’s also the question of settlements and outposts depending on the language you use. How — You say there’s been some progress because of the lack of violence in the last month. But it seems like these issues are stuck. Is the United States stuck kind of in a treadmill on this issue?

DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think it is. I think you’ve touched on something very interesting. I mean, there has to be a common standard for performance. I think that the visit of both of these leaders to the White House was an opportunity for the administration to say, “okay, guys, I expect by, whatever, September 1, this is going to happen. On the Palestinian side — in terms of the dismantlement of the infrastructure and I expect these many outposts will be done on the Israeli side.” It seems to me unless there are things we don’t know about from what happened today that somehow an opportunity was missed. Now that the cup is kind of half full to get it three-quarters full and to prod both sides.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask Hisham that. Do you think there’s an opportunity that is missed or something we don’t know about that’s going on?

HISHAM MELHEM: Look, the president is going to be forced to become personally involved even with detailed obligations on both sides. This is unfortunate but this is going to be the case, whether he likes it or not. I would expect the secretary of state to return to the region and the deputy to go to the region. Unless he does that, there will be no implementation. I think the Palestinians did their share. They could do more and they will be doing more.

You have to keep in mind until this moment, most of the West Bank is still under Israeli direct control, military and otherwise. Mahmoud Abbas is beginning the process of rebuilding the shattered security infrastructure that was destroyed in the last two or three years. He’s been watched by Hamas. He’s been watched by skeptical Arafat. He’s dealing with a very tough Israeli prime minister. And the president of the United States needs to read the riot act to Ariel Sharon because he has an investment in Mahmoud Abbas. Either you deal with Mahmoud Abbas or you deal with Hamas and the jihad. What do you do with the young Turks that are there.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you briefly, does this have to happen in the Rose Garden? Can it happen in the region or does the United States always have to be there standing in the middle.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think the U.S. role is key, but let’s be clear. With the cease-fire if there’s not dismantlement basically you leave the initiative up to the rejectionists because they are rearming and starting the mortar factories and everything all over again. And my concern is if that if Abbas doesn’t take them on now there will be a bigger problem down the road. One other problem that I think needs to be taken on is that he has to be more visible. Right now Arafat and his cronies are not even allowing this Palestinian prime minister on Palestinian television.

GWEN IFILL: We see them here but they don’t see –

DAVID MAKOVSKY: They don’t see him here but they don’t see him there and maybe I’ll go on Arab Satellite TV, but there’s a real problem here. I mean, Ceausescu was —

GWEN IFILl: Let Hisham respond.

HISHAM MELHEM: Ceausescu is a stretch, David, come on. He’s visible. He’s trying very hard but he has to deal with all these challenges. He’s rebuilding his security forces. His stature should be increased. He should show his own people that his peaceful way is bringing results and changing their daily lives. Let Ariel Sharon cooperate with that and unless George Bush realizes that, he will fail.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: I agree that the things they’ve done, I mean in terms of they’ve allowed permits and more Palestinian workers in and they’ve taken down check posts and done all these things but the big issue is….

HISHAM MELHEM: 160 check points. They dismantled a few of them. Come on. More than 100 illegal outposts.

DAVID MAKOVSKY: We won’t agree on this.

GWEN IFILL: No, you’re not. I’m going to have to step in and call a truce. Thank you both for coming in.