GWEN IFILL: Now for an update on how the Powell mission is being viewed by the Israelis and Palestinians themselves, we are joined by: Hisham Melhem, Washington correspondent for the Beirut newspaper, As-Safir. And David Makovsky, who was executive editor of The Jerusalem Post, and diplomatic correspondent for Ha'Aretz, Israel's leading daily. He is now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
So Hisham, the latest development we hear today, this proposal for a ministerial-level conference, regional conference, how is that being perceived by diplomats on either side? Feasible?
HISHAM MELHEM: According to sources in Saudi Arabia and Palestine and Lebanon that I spoke with this afternoon, the proposal is being met with a great deal of skepticism. It's seen as a gimmick. It's seen as a maneuver by Sharon to avoid discussing, the pressing immediate issues, i.e., implementing Resolution 1402 that calls on Israel to withdraw completely -- to avoid dealing with Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian leadership by jumping over that leadership and saying let's have a regional or international conference whereby we have the Egyptians, the Moroccans and the Jordanians and what he calls the peace camp and exclude what he calls the war camp as he said today in his interviews. And that is seen really as an attempt to avoid dealing with the pressing issue of the siege.
GWEN IFILL: And not having Arafat there as a non-starter?
HISHAM MELHEM: Absolutely. I cannot imagine not only any senior Palestinian participating in any conference at the so-called ministerial level if the Palestinian leadership as a whole sees this as an attempt to exclude Arafat, I cannot even imagine the Saudis, let alone the Syrians or the Lebanese sending any representatives. And why would you meet with the Egyptians and the Jordanians if you have peace treaties with those two countries? So this is a nonstarter and I was a bit surprised that the Secretary of State -- actually one senior advisor to the Saudi government was surprised also -- why the Secretary of State is speaking up on this idea.
GWEN IFILL: And embraced it. David Makovsky, how did it seem from the Israeli side, as a good-faith effort?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think let's give the Secretary of State a chance here and let's not, you know, pour cold water over everything. I think that things have been so bleak in the last few weeks, few months, that I think we've got to look a little bit here at what I would call a two-step approach by Secretary of State Powell. And the first step is kind of a diplomatic minuet, beginning with the statement over the weekend by Arafat on terrorism -- although he's made many and has not kept to them, I may add-- and getting Sharon's statement today to CNN and others about pulling out of Jenin and Nablus within a week's time.
And I think that that sport of synchronization of statements I think, from my understanding of talking to people and from hearing even statements by George Mitchell, by another effort by Secretary Powell to now take it to the next phase of this first step to get Arafat to talk about implementing the Tenet plan for some security, getting Sharon to be more explicit. And then to take it, Gwen, to the next phase which would be a conference.
I'd like to remind you and Hisham that the Madrid Conference in 1991 was also at the foreign ministerial level. It was Faruk Ashawar who was there; it was not Hafez al-Assad. And it could put pressure on Powell if this conference is going to happen in the next six weeks to shuttle and to find out what would be the basis of this conference.
GWEN IFILL: But given what has not happened so far during this week with Colin Powell in the region, is this playing for time on the part, as some critics say, on the part of both Colin Powell and Ariel Sharon perhaps?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Well perhaps, but not to be premature; the Secretary is still over there. It's clear whatever they've got it's a very close hold, as they say. And if they're working out this minuet to stop the hemorrhaging by not waiting, you know, Arafat, you go first, Sharon you go second but synchronize them together to get out of this, I think we should withhold judgment for the next 48-72 hours and see if he gets that and then to see if he can build on that by announcing this conference and see what will be the basis of this conference. So let's be very cautious here before we've already declared the Powell mission a failure. I think that's very premature.
GWEN IFILL: Hisham, Todd Purdum just said one of the things at work here is that the Powell... the White House is perhaps looking for an exit strategy for the Secretary of State to allow him to come home from the region. What do you make of that?
HISHAM MELHEM: It makes a lot of sense. Definitely the Secretary of State doesn't want to look as if he has embarked on another third mission and he failed, although I would argue that the seeds of failure have been planted before he arrived to the region. The problem is now we are dealing with vintage Sharon. He created facts on the ground and now he's forcing all the players including the American mediators to play and to deal with the immediate facts that he created on the ground when he reinvaded, with the reinvasion of the Palestinian territories.
The problem is we really don't need another peace plan. We really don't need another big conference. There are many mechanisms out there from the Tenet to Mitchell and then we all know what are the contours of the final peace: Two states living side by side along the lines of the '67 borders. So we are wasting time. People are dying -- Palestinians. If the situation remains like that, I would bet you that there would be attacks on Israelis, whether Israelis soldiers or Israeli civilians.
Therefore, we should not be caught with the immediacy of the conditions that were created by the invasion and try to really get Ariel Sharon to commit himself to a political process after a withdrawal. The Palestinians did commit themselves into Tenet and Mitchell and a two-state solution. I think Arafat when he finds out that there is a withdrawal, he will be under tremendous pressure not only from the United States but also from the Arab states to deliver on what is required of him although he needs a great deal of support and I'm sure with each passing day Arafat, although his symbolic stature has increased tremendously, his control over the situation on the ground in the Palestinian territories is diminishing with each passing day, especially now with the arrest of Marwan Barghouti.
GWEN IFILL: Which brings me right to my next question, David Makovsky, the arrest today of Marwan Barghouti, how significant is that?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: For Israel it's probably the most significant arrest that's happened in these last 18 months. I mean the hope was originally that a guy like Barghouti will be future leader of the Palestinians but when he talks about leading homicidal bombings inside Israel proper and a bar mitzvah celebration and a lot of other areas. This is not Hamas or Jihad, people wonder. He should have been part of the solution. And right now leading this he's been part of the problem.
GWEN IFILL: Can he be part of the solution behind bars?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Well, maybe ultimately when things cool off it could look differently. But right now it's hard to see how he's a part of the solution when we now have documents showing how he's paying off suicide bombers. They have the belts... at Arafat's compound and part of the glorification of homicide bombing. All we're missing is Barghouti putting the belt around his own waist at this point.
GWEN IFILL: Hisham, do Palestinians walk away from any prospects for negotiations because of this arrest? Do they use this as a reason?
HISHAM MELHEM: No. Definitely the arrest will be seen as a blow to the Palestinians. Barghouti has a tremendous following. He is a charismatic figure. He's been talked about as one of the successors to Arafat. He represents that new radicalized, younger Palestinian generation that is willing to live with Israel but not under humiliation. He was very explicit. He said the attacks will continue on the Israelis until they withdraw to the '67 borders. And he was very consistent. He's been consistent in that regard.
Barghouti grew up under occupation. And he became influential in the 1990s when that process of radicalization was taken over. He tolerates Arafat as a leader. He doesn't tolerate anybody around Arafat. This is part of a culture of defiance -- defiance against occupation, as well as defiance against the old Palestinian leadership. And they blame Arafat and some of the senior leadership for accepting the limitations that are inherent in Oslo.
GWEN IFILL: David Makovsky.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: As I understand, Gwen, part of the Barghouti's popularity has been that he's been leading the charge against corruption among people around Arafat. You know, again Israel – gives 97 percent of the West Bank and the answer is give us 100 percent or we'll blow your brains out. That makes people in Israel think that there's no land-for-peace equation. They want to know it's land-for-peace and not land-for-war.
GWEN IFILL: Colin Powell began his day today in Syria and Lebanon and Beirut and Damascus attempting to calm things down along those borders. How much of a risk does that continuing fight or potential for a fight there bring to the entire possibility, the most optimistic possibility of peace?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I agree that I thought it was great that the Secretary of State went to Damascus; he went to Beirut. I think it's very important. I think the Secretary of State understands very well that if this spins out of control into a regional conflagration, everybody's in trouble. And I think he tried to calm it down. I wouldn't be surprised if he raised the idea of a peace conference in these countries and he came back with this creative formula of a foreign ministerial level.
I just want to say one word about the Lebanon and the issue of the blue line. That was the U.N.-demarcated line, and it's very important, Gwen, that the U.S. and the U.N. stand behind its own line that it demarcated. There's no disputed areas that the Hezbollah can use to fire rockets on.
GWEN IFILL: Okay. We're running out of time and I want to get Hisham's response to the prospect of a wider conflict along the other borders.
HISHAM MELHEM: I mean there is a concern of course that one party would miscalculate and the situation would degenerate into a hot war involving Syria and Lebanon. The Lebanese government is not interested in that. The Syrian government cannot afford to enter into war with Israel, but the Lebanese never recognized that the Israelis withdrew completely from their territory. That's why Hezbollah has been concentrating its efforts on Israeli soldiers in that sliver of territory...
There was no fighting on the Israeli settlements. A number of Palestinians were arrested that were engaged in these activities. This issue is moot and should be contained obviously. There is room for miscalculation. I think the Secretary was correct in going to Damascus and to Beirut. In fact, you're not going to have a comprehensive peace unless you get the Syrians and the Lebanese on board.
GWEN IFILL: Hisham Melhem, David Makovsky, thank you both very much for joining