GWEN IFILL: Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei flatly rejected the Sharon plan, declaring that it would kill the peace process.
So is Sharon's plan a historic Israeli concession or slap in the face to Palestinians? Here to decipher some of the political and policy fine print, two familiar faces. David Makovsky, a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and the former executive editor of the Jerusalem Post. And Hisham Melhem, the Washington correspondent for the Beirut newspaper As-Safir. He also hosts a weekly program on the Arab news channel Al-Arabiya. David, was this a breakthrough or a collapse of the peace plan? Which?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think it is a historic day for two reasons: First of all because of who is involved and because of the circumstances. In terms of Sharon, I believe the taboo of breaking settlements of evacuating settlement from the architect of the settlement movement is the equivalent of Nixon going to China. This creates a pathway in and of itself is not the end of the road but is going to be built upon by others. So given who Sharon is, he is the only one I think who could start this process even if he can't complete it.
The second element is the circumstances. We have to remember that when all the other Israeli leaders, Barak, Rabin, labor leaders to -- ostensibly to Sharon's left only agreed to take down settlements when there was a final grand deal, never in the middle, but here you have -- we are not at the end game of a grand deal and Sharon is already tightening them down. Two, there is no sense of partnership. It's not a land for peace; it's land for nothing; land for terror. The partnership has just been shattered. So at this juncture that Sharon is willing to move forward, in my view, is pretty remarkable and it will facilitate whether there will be future withdrawals now that he set the precedent.
GWEN IFILL: You talk about partnerships. Today at the White House we saw the president and we saw Ariel Sharon. We didn't seen any Palestinians. What was the reaction on that end?
HISHAM MELHEM: Isn't it was interesting. The Palestinians most involved in this issue are invisible to the White House. What happened today is historic but it is an historic blunder. When I think of its implications in the region, it is breathtaking. Here we have the president of the United States formally committing the United States government in a way that is going to prejudge the final established negotiations on two main issues.
One, the right of return for the Palestinians to their real homes and the other thing is accepting Israel's claim that it should maintain control over large chunks of settlements that the president referred to them now as growing Jewish urban centers.
Now that the United States is squarely on the side of Israel on this issue, this is fundamental shift in a long traditional policy that you don't do anything to prejudge the final status issue and the president did it. The other thing is it is a precedent. Here you have the Americans, the Israelis deciding the future of part of the Palestinian patrimony, which is Gaza now, without the presence of a Palestinian interlocutor and finally talk about timing.
We know what Sharon is doing. Sharon does what Sharon wants. He has his own vision. Maybe George Bush is doing it because he is driven by the electoral calendar. But for the Arab world this is the worst timing possible. Where president of the United States did today is to negate everything he said last night in his press conference when he started to extend the hand to the people of the Middle East, when he talks about empowering people, when he talks about liberating people and when he talks about partnership with the brothers in the Middle East. If George Bush did not alienate the Arabs and Muslims because of the blunders of his policies in Iraq, today he made sure that the alienation is complete and there will be no trust on the level of officialdom or public officials in the Arab or Muslim world with George Bush.
GWEN IFILL: David, if even part of what Hisham says is true, was it worth the tradeoff?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Look, on the one hand, let's look at the big picture here. What we are seeing is kind of partition without partnerships. Israel getting out of Palestinians lives. How many years have Palestinians said we've heard a lot of words, we want to see deeds? Finally, Israeli is taking down the settlements of Gaza --
GWEN IFILL: Putting up other settlements in the West Bank.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Unless you have a map, none of this stuff makes sense. I happened to tabulate it over a month -- 638, the population of 638 Palestinian villages and sub villages and now 128 settlements on the Jewish side. What I found out was very interesting that the so-called settlement blocks which are near the old 1967 border, is basically what Clinton put forward then and what they talked about here today and with the fence. It is 95 percent of the West Bank, 90 percent of the West Bank is to the East where 99 percent of the West Bank Palestinians live and the settlers live the near the old border.
GWEN IFILL: You're out in the weeds now. People at home are saying yes, did it help or did it not help, this road map peace plan which the United States has staked its claim on.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I just think we are in an ironic position. Sharon is taking down settlements and we are saying it will hurt peace. The road map everyone is talking about doesn't say taking down settlements. And that's what Sharon is doing, and -- just to answer Hisham's point, because I think this is very important.
What the administration is engaging is what I call Mona Lisa diplomacy, which is any way you look at this photograph, she smiles at you. If you look at, Hisham, at the letter that Bush sent to Sharon, there are things there that Sharon wants to claim victory on so he can go to his Likud referendum. But if you look carefully, it said any that changes have to be mutually agreed upon. Even Bill Clinton talked about settlement blocks. I mean, Bush didn't break new ground. Clinton already talked about it.
GWEN IFILL: Obstacles to peace --
DAVID MAKOVSKY: No. No. Let me finish this one point, Hisham. The part about it mutually being agreed upon essentially means the scope of the swaps that's going to be on both sides of this border have to be agreed to by both sides. That's in the Bush letter and also the Bush doesn't say no right of return. There is a lot of wiggle room here. He didn't want to cross...
HISHAM MELHEM: We both read English. Today I heard the surreal exchange between three senior officials and an incredulous press corps at the White House. They're saying there is no change. What is the news then? The president saying no right of return to the original homes of these Palestinians. They have to go back like it is banished like the South Africa of old. Then the issue of settlement. At Taba and Camp David there was talk about minor adjustments of borders with the mutual understanding and swap of territory. There is no such thing. He is giving up Gaza. Nobody wants to inherit Gaza. Not even the Palestinian leadership wants to inherit Gaza because it is such a miserable place and difficult place. Sharon is not giving up a huge concession. He wants out of Gaza to control most of the West Bank. Sharon is still committed to his vision of controlling as much Palestinian territory as possible. He is now undermining the moderate forces not only in Palestine but in the Middle East. That's the problem that George Bush, the blunder that George Bush committed today. He is giving his blessing to this kind of Maximilus Israeli leader at a time when the United States needs the goodwill of the moderate settlements throughout the region...
GWEN IFILL: That's where I want to go. Let's talk about throughout the region. We just heard Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft talk about this -- that what happens today, does that affect today's -- the United States' ability to do what it needs to do in Iraq?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: It's clear what the U.S. has to do in Iraq, there's a full set of issues here that needs to be addressed. The main thing in my view is the TV signs of Israel leaving settlements and essentially withdrawing, I think, process of the fence and the like leave Israel to evacuate 90 percent of the West Bank at a time where the Palestinians have done nothing. When Arafat says a million martyrs being dispatched, in my view, this isn't land for peace. How can Arafat even …
GWEN IFILL: I have to give Hisham a chance to respond.
HISHAM MELHEM: Even for most Palestinians, we discussed this. There are Israeli ministers who are calling for transfer which is euphemism for kicking out the Palestinians in order to do ethnic cleansing. We know that. It is Sharon who is imposing the settlement, Sharon is making the initiatives, George Bush is giving him the blessing. We know Palestinians have a fake leadership. I would be the first to say it. Palestinians say it but George Bush at the same time and Sharon talk about fostering moderate Palestinian leadership. What they have done today runs to the contrary.
GWEN IFILL: We're going to have to leave that as the last word. Sorry, we're all out of time. Thank you both. We'll talk about it again.