|PEACE TALKS CONTINUE|
July 20, 2000
Wednesday night almost spelled the end for the peace negotiations between Israeli President Ehud Barak and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat. After a background report, Middle East watchers discuss the current state of the negotiations.
MARGARET WARNER: It was a dizzying day for Mideast peace talks that were at one point reported to be foundering, then pronounced dead, and then brought back to life. President Clinton had delayed his departure for an economic summit in Japan to try to salvage the negotiations, meeting separately with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and with PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat. Late in the day, at 5:40pm, White House Spokesman Joe Lockhart told reporters that the President was willing to stay on, as long as there was hope of a deal, but not indefinitely.
JOE LOCKHART, White House Press Secretary: We have worked very hard to find a path to an agreement. At this point in time, we have not reached that, but the priority for the President right now is to continue to work as hard as he can to make sure that every possible avenue toward an agreement is explored.
REPORTER: At what point does the president say, "it's over, it's done?"
JOE LOCKHART: I think when the president is satisfied that he's done everything he could, he's explored every possible avenue and he makes the judgment that further talk is not valuable or constructive.
MARGARET WARNER: Five hours later, the President had apparently made that judgment. The White House issued a brief written statement at 10:50pm, saying "The summit has come to a conclusion without reaching agreement." But the drama wasn't over. At 12:40 AM, as negotiators and reporters prepared to leave, the president appeared in the briefing room with a surprise announcement.
|A surprise announcement|
PRESIDENT CLINTON: After a round of intensive consultations this evening, the parties agreed to stay at Camp David while I travel to Okinawa for the G-8 summit. During the time I am gone, Secretary Albright will be working with the parties and we'll continue to try to close the gaps. Upon my return, I will assess the status of the talks. There should be no illusion about the difficult task ahead. But there should be no limit to the effort we're prepared to make.
These are, in fundamental ways, the hardest peace issues I have ever dealt with, but the short answer to why we're still here, after everybody thought we were through is that nobody wanted to give up. After all these years, as hard as these issues are, they don't want to give up. And I didn't think we should give up. And so we're still plugging away.
MARGARET WARNER: The President left for Japan, leaving it unclear exactly whose idea it was that the negotiators stay on.
JOE LOCKHART: There was no... The delegations didn't come together, they didn't march in a room and say, "here, we've got an idea. Let's try this." It's one of those things where we made our decision that, you know, it was time to get in the cars to go get on a plane, but having made that decision, there were a series of conversations going around that didn't magically stop.
People didn't say, "okay, they're leaving let's go, get in the car we're leaving, too." The conversations continued. And in the period in which we were preparing to leave, I think there... in the President's mind, was an opportunity to be seized.
MARGARET WARNER: Today, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said Albright has already begun a new round of meetings with the two delegations.
RICHARD BOUCHER, State Dept. Spokesman: She is looking to put together, as much as we can, the positions of the parties and see how we can move al the issues forward. So the determination is there, the effort is certainly has not slackened in any way. And I think the parties wouldn't be here, we wouldn't here if we didn't think there was some potential -- but, on the other hand, we're not laying claim to anything more than what the President said last night, that we've de some progress.
MARGARET WARNER: Boucher said it hasn't yet been determined when the President will return.
|The progress so far|
MARGARET WARNER: For more on what happened, and where the talks go from here, we turn to two journalists and a former journalist, who've all been following the negotiations closely. Barbara Slavin, who's been covering the talks for USA Today. Hisham Melhem, who's been covering them for the Lebanese newspaper, As-Safir. And David Makovsky, former executive editor of the Jerusalem Post and diplomatic correspondent for the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, who's now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Welcome, all.
MARGARET WARNER: Barbara, you've been up there for days at that little briefing room. What was it like yesterday? Were they really ready to shut this down? Did you think it was over?
BARBARA SLAVIN, USA Today: Well, it's hard to tell the difference sometimes between the theatrics and the reality. I think there was a bit of both. Around midday, the Israeli reporters were all scurrying around. They had -- been leaked a letter at Barak gave to Clinton blaming Arafat for the impasse in the talks. They were told to return to their hotel, prepare for a security check for their luggage, await a departure statement from Barak. And it seemed quite dramatic.
And of course in the end, Barak didn't leave. Clinton himself pulled the ultimate theatrical device, or perhaps it was real- the State Department says it real -- when he packed his bags and had his motorcade ready to take him to the airport.
MARGARET WARNER: So why did the gambit work? First all, do you think, David, it was a gambit on the President's part and if so, why did it work?
DAVID MAKOVSKY, Washington Institute for Near East Policy: I think it's the first sign that the President has internalized Middle Eastern politics. He's acting like a Middle Easterner. And I think all credit to him because I think that was right approach, because, as I understand it, the issue on the table-- they had resolved virtually everything else-- the issue was Jerusalem.
The U.S. put forward a compromise - what we call bridging proposal on Jerusalem. Israel liked certain parts, didn't like other parts. And it was Mr. Arafat who felt that he couldn't accept this. He stuck to his opening position, sovereignty over all East Jerusalem. President Clinton called Arab leaders saying Mr. Arafat needs some political cover for a compromise. And if you're not willing to compromise, I'm going to Japan. And at the last minute, as I understand from about six sources, that it was Mr. Arafat who said, "Don't go. We're willing to talk."
MARGARET WARNER: So in other words, this proposal... He wasn't necessarily asking them to agree right that second but to at least accept it as the basis for talking?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Right. That's my understanding.
MARGARET WARNER: What's your understanding, Hisham?
HISHAM MELHEM, As-Safir: If both leaders were engaged in brinkmanship and they reached the edge, I'm sure they looked and they've seen the abyss and they flinched because neither one would like to be blamed for the failure of this historic event. Neither one would like to alienate a man, President Clinton, that they respect, they like to work with and they've worked with for some time, especially Arafat.
And neither one... I mean both of them knew that returning to the region without an agreement means inevitable violence, and that they will be blamed for it and that the President of the United States will be extremely unhappy with both of them and it will be practically impossible for the President of the United States to revive the peace talks in the next weeks, especially the date of September 13 is looming over it. So -
MARGARET WARNER: The date that Arafat has said he would unilaterally declare a Palestinian state.
HISHAM MELHEM: Exactly. Exactly. These two hardened men are not reckless and they are not adventurous and while Barak is focused on his political survival, Arafat is focused his legacy, his historic legacy -- and that's why they were extremely careful.
|The consequences of a walkout|
MARGARET WARNER: Is it fair to say, Barbara that the American side also felt that the consequences of a walkout here were much worse than they have been? I mean we've seen other talks founder, people walk out and they return later.
BARBARA SLAVIN: We're getting close to the end for all of these folks. I mean, Barak may fall. He has no coalition to speak of. Clinton is getting toward the end. We have the 13th of September looming. And yeah, I think the feeling was that they should at least continue a little bit longer, give it another try. But there's no still no assurance that they're actually going to reach an agreement. And from what I understand, the positions have not narrowed very much on Jerusalem.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Tell us a little more about your understanding of Barak's thinking here. Was he persuaded that, well, okay, at least Arafat will use this proposal is a basis for talks?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Well, I think what's interesting here is Barak has I think come a long distance. When you talk about sharing Jerusalem, Deputy Defense Minister Afriam Snar says we're willing to share Jerusalem, we just don't want to re-divide it. And I think that's the way to look at it. I think Barak has come a long distance.
As far as I see, Arafat is still at the opening position, and I would disagree with Hisham that Barak is looking for his political situation, Arafat is playing for history. I hope Hisham is right about Mr. Arafat and I pray he's right. But it's Barak, as I see it, who's really rolling the dice because he doesn't have a coalition anymore. The arithmetic is he's got 42 out of 120. And for him, frankly, this is the worst scenario that he's facing.
I'll just say it very briefly, which is a breakdown means he could revive his coalition. A breakthrough means he could go to new elections and present a whole deal to his people. But this American proposal, which seems to defer the issue of sovereignty of Jerusalem gives him neither clarity on either issue.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. But that's what I don't understand then. Why didn't he just say, "look, this is enough, I'm going home" if a breakdown means that he can survive and go back and put together a coalition?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Because in my view, he's the ultimate statesman. He really wants this - because he believes that in the big picture for Israelis and Palestinians alike, it might be that your that you're not going to get everything.
And he's going to get massacred when he gets back. People say run this by me again, you're giving up 94.5 percent of the West Bank, you're - the refugees - and go through a whole long list -- and you're not getting closure on Jerusalem. So we really don't have the end of the conflict. And so basically he's going to get massacred at home, but so far he hasn't accepted the proposal in totality, and I don't want to suggest that everything's hunky dory on the Israeli side. But he's going forward.
BARBARA SLAVIN: Margaret, can I mention one thing? You know, he came in last year saying he was going to achieve at least one peace agreement, and of course the talks with Syria fell apart earlier this year, so he's really got a lot riding on this.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. But let's go back just briefly... Let's go back to these particular talks before we go on more into Jerusalem. There are three issues on the table. Are those -- I know nothing's ever decided until everything's decided. But have those been decided, the refugees, the borders... the settlements?
BARBARA SLAVIN: They've made a lot of progress on those issues. We had a briefing before the talks even began with Yosi Alfer who's a special advisor to Barak, a senior defense analyst, and he basically outlined positions which have basically held up pretty much throughout the summit.
On refugees, something like 100,000 might be allowed to come back to Israel proper -- half a million to the future Palestinian state -- compensation from the United States and the world community for the others who stay behind in the countries that they're in -- on security issues and borders, a swap of some territory that is in Israel proper for a settlement block in the West Bank -- leasing the Jordan Valley. So these things have been well rehearsed.
HISHAM MELHEM: But they're essentially Israeli proposals and the Palestinians don't give you exactly the same spin. It's still vague and they haven't agreed on a number of ideas that the Israelis are peddling necessarily. Look, Barak cannot ignore the Palestinians, neither can the Palestinians ignore the Israelis now.
These two are engaged in a lethal, if you will, embrace. They are in the same bedroom. They are in the same bedroom. They cannot even ignore each other -- unlike the Syrians and the Israelis. They live with each other and you postpone it one day, but you know the next day that there will probably be a conflict. That's why Barak does not have that option. I think from the Palestinian perspective, when they talk about the deal, they talk about Israeli acceptance in principle of Resolution 242, which means withdrawal from the West Bank.
Now, they are willing to engage in border rectification, they are willing to engage in principle, although they don't say this publicly, in land swapping. But on Jerusalem, I heard this repeatedly, the position is very simple. There has been Palestinian sovereignty over East Jerusalem because they'll tell you Jerusalem is not a collection of stones and places of worship, a religious shrine. It's inhabited by real and not imagined communities.
One of them is the Palestinian, a quarter of a million strong, just as the Israelis have a place there. Palestinians talk about the principle of sharing. If the Israelis accept the principle of sharing, then the city will remain open, the Palestinians will have control, real control and not nominal. They are not interested in collecting garbage and taking care of the sewers. They want real control over real people over real community in an open city in which everybody will be respected equally.
|A more tightly-focused process?|
MARGARET WARNER: I don't think we're going to be able to actually negotiate the outlines of a deal here, but let me ask the question: Does this near-death experience that they all had last night, is Richard Boucher right when he says, "it will now focus the minds even more and make a deal more possible?" Or do they just kick the can down the road?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I'd say this: The Mideast diplomacy has taught us one lesson. Not ever every crisis leads to a breakthrough, but every breakthrough is preceded by a crisis. And in that sense, that's the good news, that we've had a big crisis.
We can focus the mind on this idea of Jerusalem, which is to expand its boundaries, take three settlement suburbs of about 65,000 people, make it part of the city, give Palestinians control over their lives, maybe in some of the neighborhoods will actually be sovereign attached to the new state of Palestine.
There is something here to discuss. I don't know if it's going to... if they're going to agree, and I'm really skeptical. I'm not yet saying totally pessimistic whether it'll fly if he can win an election based on it. If it's going to be Hisham's thing, actually the Hisham thing is the easiest one, because that I don't see (a) the deal and Barak is not prime minister of Israel. You've crowned Mr. Netanyahu back, so congratulations
HISHAM MELHEM: If Arafat loses, Jerusalem loses his soul and probably -- possibly his life. I mean, he's not going to alienate his own people. He's going to alienate probably a million Arabs and probably a billion Muslims.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me get Barbara back in here.
BARBARA SLAVIN: I'm not sure this -- crisis, violence. We're always told that the Middle East peace process goes on and on and on. And I was talking to Rashid Khalidi, University of Chicago, you know, he says, "look, they'll be back in a month if this falls apart." Well, they'll go back, they'll do a few more days, maybe they'll reach a deal, maybe they won't. But the process will continue, it has to continue.
MARGARET WARNER: Do the Americans, though, think that this near-death experience and then continuing has changed the political calculation for either Barak at home or Arafat?
BARBARA SLAVIN: I don't think so.
MARGARET WARNER: In terms of how much they can give?
BARBARA SLAVIN: I think that was really a spin. The calculations remain the same.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Now, the... basically the U.S. is trying to say sovereignty is the core for each one. It's going to be unsatisfying. But it is preferable to a total breakdown, which could have unforeseen results. I'm not as optimistic as Barbara is that they could just take an intermission for a few weeks, come back and complete the deal. If they leave, in my view, the domestic pressures on both sides, will be insurmountable. You get one shot at this, and this is the time. And so this should be like the Vatican. Until the white smoke comes out, they should stay at Camp David.
MARGARET WARNER: Hisham, do you think they can afford to leave and then hope that it revives?
HISHAM MELHEM: They probably have that in the back of their minds, but it's going to be extremely difficult, and both of them will pay a heavy price.
MARGARET WARNER: You mean if they leave?
HISHAM MELHEM: Yes, exactly. But when they leave, you will have leaks. You will give the opportunity to the radicals on both sides to undermine the whole process. Don't forget at all what happened after Shepardstown. It's that leak that undermined the resumption of the talks. The Americans have been burned, and that's why they were really terrified of the possibility of allowing them to go back to engage in recrimination, create an atmosphere for violence and conflagration, and then not forget the leaks which would undermine every possibility for Clinton, at least, during his tenure to achieve anything in the region.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now, President Clinton is going to come back. Is there anything he can back with or do when he gets back that he couldn't do before?
BARBARA SLAVIN: I just wanted to add one thing to David, though. I understand the Israeli Knesset goes out on recess, I believe at the end of this month, which could give Barak a breathing space if there is a recess. On Clinton, he's going to... it's his swan song at this summit. He's going to talk about the process.
He's going to elicit support support. He is going to come back and say, "the world is behind you, the world wants you to settle this conflict once and for all, not just me." And I think they're hopeful that this will perhaps reenergize the talks.
HISHAM MELHEM: And the world is willing to finance -
BARBARA SLAVIN: And willing to finance -
HISHAM MELHEM: -- in the end to deal with the problems of settlement, of refugees, of helping the Palestinian, the new entity and of course to pay for the Israelis to withdraw. This is the pattern after all.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I would just say also, besides talking to the G-8 leaders, he should also talk to the Arab leaders because if Arafat does go ahead, as he started yesterday and it might take a few more phone calls to shape this consensus behind such a compromise proposal -- but Arafat is going to need political coverage.
MARGARET WARNER: From the other Arab leaders. All right, thank you all three very much.