GWEN IFILL: So did the latest series of attacks knock President Bush's road map off track? Here to discuss that are Hisham Melhem, Washington correspondent for the Beirut newspaper, As-Safir. He also has a weekly program on al-Arabiya, a cable news channel based in Dubai. And David Makovsky, who was executive editor of The Jerusalem Post, and diplomatic correspondent for Ha'aretz, Israel's leading daily. He's now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
So, David, I'll just pose the question to you. Is the road map now knocked off track by this violence?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: No, I mean this has been a tragic period but I think that actually there's a hope that there might be even amidst all this tragedy a potential Palestinian partner that you haven't had really for years.
What's really tragic is that one of the groups that claims responsibility today was a group that Abu Mazen, the new Palestinian prime minister, wanted to disband but Yasser Arafat blocked him. You know, you have two people now in that row boat, they're rowing their oars in the opposite directions, one guy is drilling a hole in the boat.
Unless there's one leadership -- and I think Abu Mazen is that leadership led by a decision of the Palestinian parliament -- unless you have one leadership we're not going anywhere so it's a tragic, it's a tragic situation.
GWEN IFILL: Hisham, what's your take on it?
HISHAM MELHEM: The road map even before these tragic bombings and killings was going almost nowhere because the Israelis have yet to accept it. The Palestinian Authority accepted in full. And the Israelis were making it very clear that they have reservations, they want to amend it, they were looking at it as a draft, and Ariel Sharon wanted to renegotiate it with President Bush. Obviously, Abu Mazen is a serious partner. He would like to move the process forward, but he's not going to achieve miracles without reciprocity from the Israelis, from the Israeli side.
The question was, is, and will continue to be whether Ariel Sharon is willing to make the kind of compromises that he talks about but he on the ground he creates the conditions against that, like building more settlements, maintaining the Draconian conditions on the Palestinians.
Mahmoud Abbas is a serious interlocutor but unless Sharon meets him halfway, Mahmoud Abbas told him, I have a security plan, I'm willing to implement it but unless you stop settlements, unless you ease on these conditions on the Palestinians unless you stop the assassination, as they call it, targeted killings, I cannot move on this security plan.
GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you about that, David. Sharon was never really enthusiastic about this road map plan. Were these bombings an excuse then for him to be able to say, ah, well I don't need to go to the united states, I have more pressing issues at home?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: My information talking to senior military officials today is that basically the U.S. and the Israelis have ironed out their differences over the road map. Sharon, whether it's two weeks, whenever that new visit is, I think you're going to see probably a much more favorable sort of response than people here are expecting, (a), and (b), the question is but for this road map to have a chance to get through its first green light, there has to be a change in the security situation. And I think the way to do this, frankly, is for the two sides to have a dialogue with each other and say, "here, Column A, this is what you the Palestinians have to do on security; Column B, this is what the Israelis have to do."
There has to be reciprocal steps. I agree with Hisham on this. I don't think the sides are as far off as appear on this. But without them actually sitting down with each other, if they take disjointed gestures, they're bound to be misinterpreted by the other side. But I do think that there's no way out but dialogue. But without an improvement in security, it's going to be very hard to take the reciprocal steps.
GWEN IFILL: That's the leadership on the Israeli side. You talk about [Mahmoud] Abbas, the leadership on the Palestinian side, does he have backing from his people to pursue this peace, this road map plan? And is it important that Yasser Arafat be pushed to the side, be isolated in order for this progress to continue?
HISHAM MELHEM: People are asking Abbas to achieve a tremendous amount of progress quickly. He's supposed to isolate Yasser Arafat. He's not going to do it explicitly. He's expected to contain Hamas. He's willing to do it, but short of engaging his own people into a civil war or dragging his own people into a civil war. To do this he has to see tangible progress on the Israeli side. And, so far the Israelis have not even bothered to accept the road map. In essence they are saying if we accept the road map, the whole governmental structure in Israel will collapse.
So, Mahmoud Abbas is facing doubts from his own people. He's going to be tested. He has a reform agenda that he would like to work on, but he has to work on this one in tandem with moving the peace process. Unless and until the president of the United States gets involved directly and firmly with both sides --particularly the Ariel Sharon and tell Sharon you have to move on the ground -- otherwise there will be no movement. To leave the parties aside, this will not achieve anything because the imbalance of power is so tremendous to the Israeli side.
GWEN IFILL: I want to get to the president's role in a moment. But let's go backward for a moment. Colin Powell was there. He had these meetings. Did it accomplish nothing?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I would say that Colin Powell's visit was really a disappointment because there was an opportunity for him to bring the sides together and to do that sort of dialogue on security. I was just saying before and reciprocal steps by Israel, it's inexplicable to me why he didn't take advantage of that opportunity. But I would say this.
What makes the Abu Mazen moment, if I could call it that, so tantalizing is you finally have a potential -- I use the word potential -- partner who is saying things that Arafat has never said in his whole life and I don't think would ever say in 100 years. Basically, we have to choose national responsibility over national unity. We've always let the rejectionists on the Palestinian side set the path. What has been result? Disaster. We got kicked out of Jordan in 1970; we got kicked out of Lebanon in 1982. We could now get kicked out of Palestine. So we've got to for a change stop blaming other people, take things into our own hands.
He said at the parliament we have to have one authority that has the source of authority on things like guns. Terrorism is morally wrong. He said that it undermines our aspirations. Yasser Arafat could say in a taped piece here, oh, I condemn. He's never named Hamas and Jihad by name. He's never said it's morally wrong. He's never said it undermines Palestinian aspirations. That is what leadership is.
And I have some hope here without Abu Mazen, there's only one problem. He may have good intentions but his capabilities -- I agree with Hisham -- is suspect.
HISHAM MELHEM: Who destroyed those capabilities?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: One second…I mean, Arafat holds five of the seven security services, fourteen of the twenty-four members of his cabinet. He told them you cannot move on the suicide Brigade of Al Aqsa. So here we finally have a hopeful moment. It's hard to talk about hope at a time when bombs are going off, but the point is I think, and I hope Hisham agrees with me, that if we don't seize this moment it's going to be lost. And, right now it's being thwarted.
HISHAM MELHEM: But the Palestinians did do what they were supposed to do. They accepted the road map, they condemned violence. Abu Mazen said to Sharon face to face, I have a security plan. I'm willing to implement it. I need help. You have to meet me halfway. I mean, you're talking about creating a historic moment now. Look at the situation on the ground and the continuing activities of settlement…
GWEN IFILL: You're saying that Sharon should be the one stepping up.
HISHAM MELHEM: Absolutely. Sharon said if I accept the road plan my government will collapse. I need to rework it. I need to renegotiate. He will negotiate forever. To keep criticizing Arafat who is irrelevant who is a disaster to his own Palestinian people, we all know that. It's like fighting the battles of the past. We have to more forward.
GWEN IFILL: Back to President Bush's words in this. He had very strong road today. Talking about this is a bumpy road but we're sticking with it -- about this peace process. When you talk about the president having to play a very forceful role, what does that mean?
HISHAM MELHEM: First and foremost for the Palestinian people, it's to stoop the settlement activities, to end the Draconian measures --
GWEN IFILL: The president has to twist Sharon's arm.
HISHAM MELHEM: If the political will is in Washington the president of the United States at this historic moment can tell Sharon, look him in the eye, and say you owe me, we got rid of Yasser Arafat; we sidelined them, and we got rid of Saddam Hussein. These are the excuses you used to use in the past to block any kind of movement on the political horizon.
GWEN IFILL: David.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I disagree. We can talk about sequencing for another five years. We won't get anywhere. What has to happen is an understanding between Bush and Sharon on reciprocal steps because instead of talking about what's going to be in five years from now from the final status core issues are resolved let's talk about right here, right now, about here, the 10 steps on each side they could do on security and on the outpost issue or other questions like that, that would create a sense confidence in the eyes of the other public.
I think that is something, my understanding, is he's trying to do. Point two, which I thought was useful that he sent Steve Hadley, the deputy national security advisor to Saudi Arabia, to start telling them to stop funding these terrorist groups which are helping to blow up the chances of peace. Now, we'll see what the success is, you can look at Saudi Arabia....
GWEN IFILL: When these terrorist groups keep blowing up things, trying to derail this peace process and everyone acknowledges that that's what's happening, why can't there be an agreement that you just ignore it? Why doesn't Sharon go ahead and...
HISHAM MELHEM: That's the whole notion that you are going to have a total cessation of any kind of violence from the Palestinians against brutal Israeli occupation is wishful thinking. You can contain it. You can deal with it. You can attack it. You can try to diminish its influence on the political process. You're not going to stamp it out forever. Sharon is using this excuse to delay any kind of resumption of peace talks. And Sharon will continue to buy time because he knows the Americans will be busy with Iraq.
The Americans in a few months will be busy in the election cycle in the country. George Bush who has been the most pro Israel president since 1948 gave him more than the benefit of the doubt. This is acknowledged throughout the world except by the Israelis.
GWEN IFILL: Very brief response.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Hisham, the issue is will be there 100 percent effort? You're never going to eliminate every form of terrorism. The question is do you have a partner to work with you to diminish as much as possible? That I think requires the Europeans saying that Arafat is obstructing any chance of peace. I frankly until they deal with it, we're just going to have to... the rejections will just keep on going.
GWEN IFILL: David Makovsky and Hisham Melhem, thank you as always.