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MARGARET WARNER: Joining us now to assess the renewed attacks between Israelis and Palestinians are Mark Regev, spokesman for the embassy of Israel in Washington, and Edward Abington, a consultant to the Palestinian Authority. He’s a retired U.S. Foreign Service officer whose last overseas post was consul general in Jerusalem. The PLO’s Washington office declined to send any of its officials. Welcome to you both.
Marc Regev, why did the Sharon government order the killing of this Hamas leader now?
MARK REGEV: Well, we had that terrible attack in Jerusalem on Tuesday, and I think the thinking in Israel was that, “we have to respond.”
And I think of the options that the Israeli government had, in many ways, this was a very I think moderate and surgical strike. I mean it was a clean hit. I’m glad to say there was no collateral fatalities. We hit a terrorist — a known terrorist and one of the leaders of Hamas. We hit a senior assistant of his and a bodyguard. And as I say, there were no innocent people killed, and I think that’s a good thing.
MARGARET WARNER: A spokesman for the government we just saw him, in fact I think it was the foreign minister, said, “well, Israel has to protect its citizens.” Is the Israel government of the view that this kind of attack will enhance the security of Israeli citizens?
MARK REGEV: Yes. The idea is to hit the command and control of Hamas. Hamas is a very disciplined hierarchical terrorist organization. You know, when a terrorist cell is active in Hebron or in Jenin or in another place, they’re getting their orders from Gaza and the idea is to hit that command and control structure, hopefully weakening it.
MARGARET WARNER: Did Prime Minister Sharon in his conversations with President Bush yesterday, or in the statements that came out from the White House, did he feel he got a green light from the Bush administration for this kind of response?
MARK REGEV: It doesn’t work exactly like that. We don’t ask for a green light, we don’t get a green light. But I think in the conversation yesterday between the president and Prime Minister Sharon, the president first of all, obviously expressed his condolences on the deaths in Jerusalem. But he was also very strong saying, this sort of terrorism can never be justified, and that we have to have a strong answer to terrorism. There can be no compromise on terrorism, and I think both leaders agree very strongly on that point.
MARGARET WARNER: So Ed Abington, first of all, now the cease-fire that the two radical groups had agreed to is definitely off, is that right?
EDWARD ABINGTON: Well, that certainly has been what they have said publicly. I think we’re at a very crucial point because, if the cease-fire really is off, if Hamas retaliates for the assassination today– and I fully expect they will try to do so, I think the danger is that Israel and the Palestinians will find themselves back in this tit-for-tat retaliation. And of course under those circumstances, any political progress is impossible.
MARGARET WARNER: But let me just ask you about one other thing that happened today. The reports from the region– and I know you’ve been talking to folks back there– was that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority prime minister, said his efforts to control the militants were off, he called off those orders and so on. Is that the case?
EDWARD ABINGTON: That’s my understanding. People that I’ve talked to today in Ramallah have said that, after the assassination, Abbas and other people have basically pulled back from the decisions that they made last night.
MARGARET WARNER: And why?
EDWARD ABINGTON: I think part of it is that they feel that Palestinian public opinion is outraged by the assassination.
MARGARET WARNER: You had some big demonstrations today.
EDWARD ABINGTON: They feel that they do not have public support to do things. Maybe… we’ll see what happens over the next couple of days. I know that they will be pressed to take security measures, but I think that Prime Minister Abbas clearly feels that, under the current circumstances, he can’t do anything.
MARGARET WARNER: Were the reports correct that Abbas had ordered his security chief to go out and start taking action against these radicals?
EDWARD ABINGTON: Yes. There were decisions made yesterday at a cabinet meeting in Gaza. The cabinet, including Abbas, went to Ramallah to meet with Arafat. There was a very stormy meeting with Arafat and basically he did not lend support to Abbas. But Abbas this morning said he was going to move ahead. That was before the assassination.
MARGARET WARNER: Why didn’t Prime Minister Sharon give Abbas a little bigger window of time to see if he would take this action particularly because there were these reports that in fact he was ready to do so?
MARK REGEV: I think we are giving him time. I think if I look at what our response has been so far, it’s been very mild. Some commentators have even said if you consider the range of options that Israel has, it’s been mild in the extreme. We haven’t given up on the road map. We haven’t given up on the option that the new Palestinian prime minister would be a partner in the process of peace. We want this to work. And I think we sent messages that terrorism is unacceptable, that Hamas has to be dealt with. And I think Israel now is waiting to see what Abbas does. I mean the ball is in his court.
MARGARET WARNER: You saw these… they weren’t just anti-Israel demonstrations today; they were anti-Abbas demonstrations among Palestinians once this strike had happened. How do you think Abbas is going to have the room here to do what Israel and the United States have been calling on him to do?
MARK REGEV: What is required is leadership. I mean Abbas is there not by accident. There were Palestinian reformers who wanted a change in policy, who said terrorism was getting them nowhere, who wanted him there. Many people in the international community here in the United States and Israel, we wanted to see a Palestinian partner — their process of peace, and we still do. We want this new leadership to succeed.
MARGARET WARNER: But I mean do you concede that today’s strike might have, at least in the short term, undermined his ability to act?
MARK REGEV: I don’t think so. We hit Hamas. Hamas is his enemy, too. Hamas is the enemy of everyone who wants this process to fail. These sort of demonstrations in the street, I mean everyone has followed these sort of regimes around the third world and especially, unfortunately, in the Arab world, I mean sometimes the extremists control the streets, but people sitting at home, do they really support Hamas? Do they really think it’s in their interests for terrorism to succeed? The recent polls have all said that most Palestinians want Abbas to succeed.
MARGARET WARNER: Why did Abbas wait as long as he did to give this order that you said he finally did? At least 36 hours had elapsed between the bus bombing and this morning’s strike and Israel had been very, very clear and they had leaked it all over the place that they were giving him a small wind to take some decisive action.
EDWARD ABINGTON: Well, the problem is that Abbas is relatively weak. You have a divided Palestinian leadership. Arafat continues to hold a lot of power. He continues to be a major decision-maker, whether the U.S. thinks he’s marginalized or not. He continues to control significant parts of the Palestinian security services. So the security is fragmented. Abu Mazen, or Prime Minister Abbas, has been pushing forward. They’ve been retraining people and trying to move forward. But I think… you know, I disagree with Marc on this. Abbas looks at public opinion, and he is afraid that, if he moves precipitously, that he will not have public opinion behind him. He has been attacked by Hamas and other groups for his policies thus far. At some point, I agree with Marc, he has to move. If he doesn’t take credible movements on security, then he faces the prospect of becoming irrelevant. That would be a disaster for U.S. policy, it would be bad for the Palestinians, and I maintain it would be bad for Israel, as well.
MARGARET WARNER: Explain a little more about Yasser Arafat’s role. I was struck today by the — I mean the U.S. administration which has not mentioned his name in months and just was so happy to get him offstage, today Secretary Powell as we just heard, called on him to work with Abbas and talked about surrendering control of security forces. What exactly is it that Arafat controls? And what’s his role — are you saying he has a role in fomenting the violence or simply in making it harder for Abbas to respond?
EDWARD ABINGTON: I don’t think that he foments the violence, but Arafat is a master tactician. I mean from day to day, he is seeing what’s happening and how he can use what’s happening to his advantage. I think he holds out the prospect that somehow he will become relevant again, that the U.S. may deal with him again. He withholds support from Prime Minister Abbas, and thereby weakens him. He controls significant portions of the Palestinian security services. And one thing that President Bush and Powell have pushed for is a unification of the Palestinian security services, it’s called for in the road map. We’ve tried to get the Egyptians to put pressure on Arafat to do this. But thus far, he’s resisted because I believe that Arafat thinks that, if he gives up control of the security services, then he becomes marginalized. And it’s his last card, and he’s not willing to play it.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you see Arafat’s hand in this?
MARK REGEV: Definitely. I mean we’ve had information for a while, and I think that Washington has the same information exactly, that as much as we’d like to see Abu Mazen have more power, that Arafat– and he’s not different from any other autocrats in the third world– maintains large control over the security apparatus and parts of, you know, the money chain and so forth, and that Abu Mazen — while he’s got more power, there’s this power struggle and there’s this sort of unholy alliance between Arafat, who represents that old guard, and some of these Islamic terrorists groups, and I think what Secretary Powell was saying today, he was saying, “Mr. Arafat, you’re interfering here, you’re causing problems. It’s time that you stopped being a problem.” And that’s an important message not only to the Palestinians, but to the Arab world because Abu Mazen, Prime Minister Abbas, has problems. And if he’s given cover by America’s allies in the Arab world, those who say that they want the peace process to succeed, those who say that they’re in America’s allies in the war against terrorism, if they stand up and say, “we will give you political cover for you to take on Hamas and Islamic Jihad,” that would be terribly important.
MARGARET WARNER: Any prospect of that?
EDWARD ABINGTON: I just… I flatly disagree. If Prime Minister Abbas does not have popular support from the Palestinian people and Israel has a large say in making that happen, then Prime Minister Abbas will not succeed, regardless of what the Egyptians, Jordanians or Saudis say. He needs popular support from the Palestinian people.
MARGARET WARNER: So are you saying that Mahmoud Abbas made the, that this latest 36, 48 hours has really seriously undercut or perhaps ended the prospect that he can actually be an effective leader, first of all, and a successful partner in trying to find a peace here?
EDWARD ABINGTON: I think his role is seriously in jeopardy. Palestinian cabinet ministers are talking about resigning. They’re saying, if we don’t have the responsibility, if we can’t implement our decisions, then we might as well quit and let Arafat run the show, let the Israelis and the Americans try to work it out. But I think that we’re facing a very serious political crisis with Mr. Abbas and with his cabinet.
MARGARET WARNER: Surely that is not a prospect that Israel wants to see.
MARK REGEV: No.
MARGARET WARNER: Is Israel ready to do anything to make that not happen?
MARK REGEV: I mean we want the Palestinian reformists to succeed. We want Prime Minister Abbas to succeed. What are we willing to do on the ground? I mean we’ve seen over the last few weeks, we gave acquiescence to this hudna which we were very skeptical about –
MARGARET WARNER: The cease-fire.
MARK REGEV: — we took down outposts. Maybe the Palestinians might say they’re not enough, but they can’t deny that 12 came down. We reopened roads, we took down roadblocks, and we were doing everything. We want Palestinians to understand that they get more out of reconciliation and nonviolence than they ever would out of terrorism.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. But in the here and now, in the shambles we see over there now, the White House today called on the Palestinian Authority and the Israelis to start talking again– talks have been broken off. Is that in the cards?
MARK REGEV: I think what we’re waiting for in Israel, is we’ve heard a lot of nice words from the Palestinians, but we want to see steps against Hamas and Islamic Jihad. These people hit us and hit us hard in Israel on Tuesday. And if Abu Mazen and his colleagues want to be considered partners in a process of peace, they have to have a no-tolerance policy for these sort of killers. That’s the most important thing now.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you think we’re going to see any kind of step, even if it’s just one step, from Abu Mazen?
MARK REGEV: I think if we can get through the next couple of days without a serious eruption of violence, a Hamas retaliation, further Israeli moves, maybe we can weather this. But frankly, I feel it’s a very dangerous period.
MARGARET WARNER: And briefly to both of you, is there anything President Bush can do further than exhorting both sides to keep their heads cool?
EDWARD ABINGTON: Yeah. I mean from my point of view, neither the Israelis nor the Palestinians are doing what they need to do under the road map. The U.S. needs to hold both sides accountable and monitor their actions. We’re not doing that now.
MARK REGEV: I think American leadership, that no one’s against a Palestinian state, but there’ll be no Palestinian state as long as these sort of terrorist acts are tolerated.
MARGARET WARNER: And you mean the U.S. has to keep making that clear?
MARK REGEV: Correct.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Marc Regev and Edward Abington, thank you both.
EDWARD ABINGTON: Thank you.
MARK REGEV: Thank you.