|PEACE IN JEOPARDY|
April 7, 1997
With peace in the Middle East becoming increasingly fragile the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with President Clinton to try and salvage what remains of the 1993 Oslo Agreement. Following a Margaret Warner backgrounder, Jim Lehrer talks to three journalists who cover the Middle East peace process.
JIM LEHRER: Now the perspectives of three reporters covering Prime Minister Netanyahu's meeting with President Clinton. David Makovsky is the Jerusalem-based diplomatic correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz; Mohammad Wahby is the Washington bureau chief and columnist for the Egyptian magazine, Al-Mussawar; and Dean Fischer is the diplomatic correspondent for Time Magazine. David Makovsky, what was accomplished today?
DAVID MAKOVSKY, Ha'aretz, Israel: Well, I think they talked about a two step essentially, whereby--and I think you heard the President before the meeting began, where he said, terrorism cannot be negotiable. That has to be dealt with first, and then once that's dealt with, then we go to the second step which everyone realizes, which is hopefully go for an end game, accelerate the peace process because we keep to the incrementalist timetable of 1999; due to the lack of trust, attention, the violence we saw on the taped piece, we might never get to '99. It could be a train wreck in slow motion. So how do we maybe speed it up and do the whole bowl of--ball of wax and have it resolved in 1997, because it is perceived that the current incrementalist approach is somewhat like diplomatic salami tactics, and we'll never get there, so let's just do it all, do it as a package. We've been at this thing now for close to four years, and let's just wrap up the whole thing.
JIM LEHRER: Now, that is what Netanyahu wants done at this point, right? He wants the process speeded up.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: We hear that the U.S. was willing to buy onto the idea so long they have a sense that it's going to succeed. No one wants to put an imprimatur on this idea unless there's a solid chance of success.
JIM LEHRER: Dean Fischer, what's your reading of the U.S. reaction to this--to the speed-up proposal?
DEAN FISCHER, Time Magazine: Initially I thought they were quite in favor of it, but my feeling now after the talks is that they're rather skeptical and perhaps the main reason for that is because they do not have the Palestinian Authority for approval to go ahead with it. And I think the Palestinians are concerned that there's no fall-back position; that this accelerated timetable does not work.
JIM LEHRER: You mean, if you put everything on the table and it doesn't work, then there's--there's no place to go after that?
DEAN FISCHER: That's correct, and I think they're very concerned about that, Jim.
JIM LEHRER: Yeah. Mr. Wahby, how do you read this?
MOHAMMAD WAHBY, Al-Mussawar, Egypt: Actually, I agree with Dean about this because we just came from a press conference held by Mr. Netanyahu, and he, himself, was very much hesitant to give us any idea whether this actual proposal is still on the table. He kept saying it's not a dictate; it can be negotiated. If the Palestinians want it, all right; if the Palestinians don't want it, okay. He's also aware of the fact that there are some commitments. I asked him, actually, in the press conference about this, and there are some commitments that will have to be fulfilled for the final status negotiations to be successful. So they are aware of this. I mean, you cannot really not sort of plunge head long into the most difficult problems of the final status like Jerusalem, like the refugees, like the borders, and yet aspire to resolve them in one goal is absolutely impossible.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Let's take the two things that--the immediate things that are on all tables, so far as the Middle East right now. One from the Israeli point of view is, is terrorism, as David just said. What is the--what is it that you're--what is it that the United States is expected to now do as a result of this meeting with Netanyahu to do something about that problem?
DEAN FISCHER: I think they're really having a difficult time grappling with this question of what can be done. As I said, I think that they're somewhat skeptical about this accelerated approach, and now they're looking to see what kind of confidence-building measures might be taken on both sides. For the Israelis it might mean giving permission to let the Palestinians proceed with an airport, a seaport, giving safe passage between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, and in addition to expecting the Palestinians to do everything possible to deter terrorism.
JIM LEHRER: But that's the point. On terrorism what is it--Netanyahu became very emotional about that at the news conference today; that the Palestinian Authority must stop, and he seems to believe they can't stop it but at least they can keep it--they can stop encouraging it. Now, where does the U.S. fit into to try to get that done, do you know?
JIM FISHER: Well, I think the only thing they can do is use their moral suasion with Yasser Arafat and try to do that. But I think it's important to remember that he probably is incapable of stopping all terrorism. What the U.S. wants him to do--and I think Israel as well--is to do everything humanly possible to try to do it, in other words, to give maximum effort, if not have maximum success.
JIM LEHRER: Now, yes, go ahead.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Yeah. I'd just like to add, I think there are some very concrete things they'd like him to do. He's let go about 25 people recently who were either directly involved in blowing up things or as accomplices, and like those people re-arrested. He'd like the security cooperation between the security services of the Israelis and the Palestinians to start meeting again. Arafat's given the order no meetings--like a guy who's on a tightrope 50 feet above there--and all of a sudden he looks below and someone's rolling up the security net underneath him. These are very specific things, I agree. I don't think I can say 100 percent results, but at least 100 percent of effort. And the reason why I think there's more concern here is after the Hebron deal of January there was a whole list of things each side said it would do. Netanyahu released hard core Palestinian prisoners which Arafat asked him to do, but he had asked Arafat to do a whole bunch of things, including disarming the Islamic Hamas, and there's seven things--none of those things were done. These things exacerbate mistrust, and I think that's a problem, and I think all sides also if they would refrain from unilateral action would be a confidence building.
JIM LEHRER: What is the--what is the Palestinian position on the security question and the connection between the Palestinian Authority and these terrorist attacks?
MOHAMMAD WAHBY: Yes, actually, there is absolutely no objection. On the contrary, Arafat I think has done an excellent job trying to restrain all different ethnic elements within his camp and within the camp of the Hamas and the Jihad, no question about that. If you examine the whole situation in the context of the provocation--the amount of provocation that Mr. Netanyahu has been involved in from protestation, prevarication, humiliating the Palestinian leadership, taking unilateral action on every step and very, very critical--at very critical junctures--he has always been taking unilateral actions. He has been inflaming emotions among the Palestinians all the time--if we take this in context and then you have one incident of--of--or two incidents of suicide bombs, I think you will realize that he has done his best. I give you one instance.
JIM LEHRER: In other words, you reject--based on your reporting--you reject the idea that Arafat has winked at or in some ways approved these terrorist attacks on Israel.
MOHAMMAD WAHBY: Actually, from all my contacts, I have become convinced as well of this; that Mr. Netanyahu and the perception among the Arabs and also the perception among many, many commentators, foreign, European, and as well as American, that Mr. Netanyahu has been out from the beginning to saddle Mr. Arafat with the responsibility of collapsing the peace process, whereas, we think--at least in the Arab world--most of the people in the Arab world--think that Mr. Netanyahu has been out actually to--in order to defeat a process that he did not initially believe in.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think the problem here is that if you would have said to Mr. Netanyahu 12 months ago this is the crystal ball, this is your future, this is what you're going to do; in the next 12 months you're going to shake hands with Mr. Arafat; you're going to pull out of Hebron; you're going to agree to a schedule of three more pullbacks; you're going to release the hard core prisoners; you're going to sign on to this process that you don't like; you're going to do all the things--he'd say you're on drugs--but the fact is he's done every single one of them. And what we need to do is build confidence on both sides, and I think that I mentioned some very concrete ideas, not letting these 25 guys out of prison who are connected to terrorism and allowing the security people to meet. These are very specific things.
JIM LEHRER: Dean, looking at the Americans who are supposed to get these two sides together now and get this thing working, these are journalists, but they've expressed the views of their, of their respective sides, how does the American--how big is the gap, the real gap here?
DEAN FISCHER: I think the big gap is in the lack of trust and confidence between the two sides, and that is--
JIM LEHRER: Is that between Netanyahu and Arafat personally, or does it go beyond that?
DEAN FISCHER: I believe it is that, plus I also think it goes beyond. But if these are the leaders who are expected to do something to resolve this process--and I think they've reached a point where they can't do it by themselves without help--and that's where I think the U.S. is having its problems. They don't know precisely what to do to get this process back on track. They obviously want the settlements frozen, and I don't believe that Mr. Netanyahu is prepared to accept that. They--
JIM LEHRER: And that's in addition to the Jerusalem housing project?
DEAN FISCHER: I was talking specifically about the so-called Har Homa project. There were some additional settlements that were announced this past week. And these things really undermine confidence I think from a standpoint not only of the Palestinians but of the Clinton administration.
JIM LEHRER: The--is there anything negotiable about the housing project that--
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I get the sense that they are going to let this thing go through, but the price is going to have to be--the U.S. I think is going to go at some point, urge for some freeze. There wasn't approval of new settlements; it was expanding of existing ones, but whatever, the point is, unilateral actions on any side doesn't help. Look, under the last time, Bill Clinton had it easy; four years of being an MC of peace ceremonies because Yitzhak Rabin did all the heavy lifting. We're in a new period now. Netanyahu and Arafat clearly don't have the trust between each other. That makes the American role far more important than it was during the last four years, and, therefore, a U.S. initiative is crucial. You do want the sounding period, which we're going through now, the meeting with Netanyahu today, with the Palestinians at the end of the week, to sound out where the common ground is, but I think without an active American role, we are looking at a train wreck in slow motion.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree?
MOHAMMAD WAHBY: We agree actually because also the United States actually has been neglecting the Middle East for the last 20 years. There has not been one single visit by a foreign minister, by a Secretary of State, to the whole area. There has been inaction. Mr. Christopher used--Secretary Christopher used to go very often, and then suddenly there was a complete stop, complete stop, no one--you have demoted even--your--your participation in the peace process. And it's not only our opinion in the Arab world, I think also among the Israelis, that you have done that.
JIM LEHRER: When Mr. Netanyahu said today at the news conference that the United States has some ideas of its own, did you read--you all were there--did you have the reading that Israel was ready to hear some ideas from, from the United States?
MOHAMMAD WAHBY: My, actually I also heard the same thing, and I think that for the first time I get the impression that Mr. Netanyahu might be willing now to hear more from Mr. Clinton than before. I mean, he did not sound as dogmatic today in the press conference as you used to hear him. He always said it's not a dictate, you know, the United States has its own ideas, we have our own ideas. I think it is--the gap, big as it is, is still bridgeable.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think what's fascinating is that Netanyahu, for all the problems, is a generational change from his predecessor, Shamir, of the Likud Party. He was ideologically opposed to any American initiative, any American role. Netanyahu knows we're in this peace process, and we have to go forward, and, therefore, the U.S. role is critical, so instead of distancing himself from the United States, he's actually welcoming a U.S. role. I think the key missing part of this puzzle, for it to all work, in my view, is to broaden the base of the coalition in Israel to have a broad-based unity government, because the fault line of Israeli politics no longer goes between the two big parties, but it goes inside the Likud between those who say, do you welcome Oslo, or do you reject it? 75 percent of Israelis want it to succeed.
JIM LEHRER: Whether they're Likud or Labor.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Likud or Labor.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Is the U.S. going to jump in and do this?
DEAN FISCHER: I certainly hope so, Jim, but I fear that the U.S. does not have very specific proposals in mind about how to implement what we have been talking about. I think it's a very difficult problem.
JIM LEHRER: Still listening at this point.
DEAN FISCHER: Still listening and trying to shape a strategy that they think will at least allow this process to resume and to begin. I think we're in for a long period.
JIM LEHRER: All right. Thank you all three.