MARGARET WARNER: Late today, France's foreign minister accused the U.S. of washing its hands of the Middle East conflict. Hubert Vedrine told a newspaper interviewer, "Their wait-and-see policy risks making them look like Pontius Pilate." Is it time for the U.S. to step in?
We get four views: Henry Siegman is director of the U.S.-Middle East Project at the Council on Foreign Relations; Jim Hoagland is a columnist for the "Washington Post"; Wayne Owens is a former Democratic Congressman, now the president of the Center for Middle East Peace and Economic Development; and Harvey Sicherman, a former State Department official in the Reagan and first Bush administrations, is president of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. Welcome, gentlemen.
Wayne Owens, beginning with you, there is a rising tide of criticism particularly from abroad about the U.S. not taking sort of an assertive enough role in the Middle East in trying to stop this violence. Do you think that criticism is justified?
WAYNE OWENS: Well, I do think the United States has a big opportunity right now, to move forward and a great obligation as well. We are, after all, the only real superpower in the world and the one which has preoccupied itself in the past and which has brought this situation to the position where it's at.
I think if the president were willing and interested in getting in, he should appoint a special emissary, a person of genuine competence and ability, a high standing, a man like George Mitchell who was sent - and succeeded -- to solve a similar, not a dissimilar problem in Northern Ireland, a person who could go into the Middle East with the confidence that has come over the years.
His committee, of course, has provided the standard and the pathway embraced by the entire world for the solution. If the United States would send him, would assert itself by sending him into the region as a special emissary, he could bring, I think, the parties together, have the best chance of bringing the parties together and moving them along the path that his committee set down.
MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Sicherman, what's your view on whether the United States is playing enough of a role or not and what do you think of Mr. Owens's idea to basically elevate the whole matter perhaps by sending some very top level envoy?
HARVEY SICHERMAN: First of all, I think that the United States has already stepped into it. That's not the issue. The question is now that we're in it -- and the administration had to be in it because of the situation that was left, how do you go about getting these parties to start working with each other again? The pact was laid out, it begins with the cease-fire, no conditions attached, and it proceeds on Mitchell and then we try to discover whether these parties can work with each other.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me interrupt you just for a minute. We have to explain to people what this Mitchell recommendation is.
HARVEY SICHERMAN: Oh, the Mitchell committee, or the Mitchell commission was appointed as a consequence of the Sharma Elsheik agreements back in October of the year 2000. There were three parts to that. One was the cease-fire, the second the Mitchell commission on the causes and origin of the violence, the third an urging of the Israelis and the Palestinians to renegotiate.
The Mitchell commission said that a cease-fire should come into place unconditional and then various confidence-building measures should be carried out by both sides in order to restore their trust in each other, so that they could then proceed with the final negotiation.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. And do you think that the administration so far, before you project ahead, but so far has been doing enough in that regard?
HARVEY SICHERMAN: I think so. I don't think too much of appointing special negotiators and the like of high level. The Secretary of State has been out there. The President is on the phone or making comments to the press, as need be. It's not really an issue here of a high level. The issue is that the parties don't have trust in each other that they really want to make a deal.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Henry Siegman, your view on this, on the U.S. role, and has it been appropriate so far?
HENRY SIEGMAN: No. It has not been appropriate. I believe the U.S. has not really engaged seriously and as deeply as only it can and as is necessary to break this impasse. Now, the nature of the impasse is that, in which both parties are locked and cannot break out of, without American assistance and intervention, is that on the one hand, Sharon, the prime minister in Israel, has made it clear that he is not prepared to discuss any political progress, any political change to resume political discussions, unless all the violence ends.
On the other hand, it is clear that Arafat, if he is to take the tough measures necessary to shut down the Hamas, terrorism, Islamic Jihad, if he's to be able to do that, he has to be able to show that there is a consequence to that that benefits the Palestinians. And this government, this Israeli government is not prepared to do. This is precisely the point where the U.S. must inject itself and insist that there must be some kind of political framework without which exhortations simply will not do.
MARGARET WARNER: Jim Hoagland?
JIM HOAGLAND: Well, I think it was reasonable for the administration to start off for a period of time and try to let Prime Minister Sharon and Mr. Arafat work things out. I think the last two weeks have overtaken that approach, however, and I think it is time for a much higher level of involvement by the United States, and a sense of urgency to begin to be communicated on the part of the United States.
After all, American interests are now, I think, in substantial risk in the Middle East. It's up to the Bush administration to make that clear to all of the parties, in effect to draw some red lines, to say these are things that cannot be done without affecting American interests. I think the first thing that has to be done is a conceptual change by the administration, that is no longer to say that it's relying on the leaders, on the Israeli and Palestinian leaderships to stop fighting.
It should be clear by now that those leaderships have some interest in keeping the fighting going, for different reasons. Arafat is pursuing what the French called policy of the worst. Things cannot get better for him unless he can produce a dramatic collapse of some kind that forces an intervention that he thinks will help him out. Mr. Sharon would have to take some very difficult steps having to do with freezing settlements if the Mitchell commission were to actually be implemented.
So it's not enough any longer to say it's up to you guys to stop it. I think the Secretary of State is the right person at this critical time to intervene, to make clear that American interests will be protected. I understand it's a difficult assignment, but I think it's up to Mr. Powell now to step in and take it on.
MARGARET WARNER: Wayne Owens, do you think that the U.S. has leverage over the parties to do the kinds of things that Jim Hoagland just laid out?
WAYNE OWENS: Yes, of course, the United States has immense leverage. And this administration would have great leverage if it got in. There was, we have to remember, as the situation deteriorates daily and hourly over there, that last January after the events of Camp David and the beginning of Intifada 2 and the Clinton proposals of December 23rd and then the two and a half weeks at Taba, that there was almost a good result, and all sides said basically that they had come very close to resolving the three toughest issues.
And we have to remember that hope is needed desperately over there. And the United States is the only party who can provide it. There were premises on which they were close to solution last January, we have to remember that, we have to keep those ideas out there. The United States is the only party which can bring the sides together and imposing a little bit on each can, I think, bring us to what the end product of Mitchell Committee report was, the negotiations, the political negotiations desperately needed now to bring this out of this terrible turmoil.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. But Henry Siegman, you're also an advocate of the U.S. getting more involved, but get specific about what kinds of leverage. I mean, the State Department says it's talking to both sides, telling them the violence has to stop, talking to the Israelis. I mean, what is -- what in concrete terms leverage does the U.S. have, how do you exercise it?
HENRY SIEGMAN: Well, you exercise leverage by stating your positions clearly, boldly. I think what Jim Hoagland said is right to the point, that the U.S. has to draw some very clear red lines, and when it does so…
MARGARET WARNER: Give me an example.
HENRY SIEGMAN: Well, for starters, before I give you that example, let me just say that I disagree with Jim Hoagland in one respect only. And that is those red lines should have been drawn right at the beginning. There was absolutely no reason to wait, for the U.S. to wait to draw those red lines -- because the terms of the conflict were clear from the beginning.
Prime Minister Sharon made it very clear that he does not intend to return to serious political negotiations for another ten to twenty years, and that's the framework from within which he operates. And Arafat made it very clear that he's prepared to resort the worst kind of violence to achieve his ends.
So the time was right then, and we all pay a far greater price in terms of diplomatic assets in order to achieve even small changes. Now what can we do? I think the very first thing we ought to do is to reject the notion that, advanced by Prime Minister Sharon, that he expects Arafat not only to observe 100% efforts, but he must have 100% results. And we must make it clear this is unacceptable.
MARGARET WARNER: You're talking about stopping the violence, he's demanding a period of calm before he would do anything.
HENRY SIEGMAN: Exactly. We must make it clear this is not acceptable to the U.S., nor is it acceptable us to that we wait seven days, which is over and above the period called for by the Mitchell report, in which nothing happens, not a single shot fires. And we have been waiting for that kind of a seven-day period for months now, and it's not going to happen unless the U.S. expresses itself clearly and forcefully.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, Harvey Sicherman, what's wrong with that picture, when that plan laid out by your colleagues that the U.S. step forward and lay out some positions here?
HARVEY SICHERMAN: Well, what's wrong with it is, first of all, a good deal of it has already been tried. Positions have been laid out. They're contained in Mitchell. As far as putting red lines, we've indicated time and again to the Israelis about the sanctity of the Area A. We've said time and again to Arafat we want...
MARGARET WARNER: Area A being the areas that already have been negotiated given back to the Palestinians.
HARVEY SICHERMAN: Given back to the Palestinians. We've said time and again to Arafat that we want 100% effort, recognizing that the situation there may not end up with 100% result. I think the Israelis understand that as well. But to this point we haven't gotten 100% effort out of Arafat.
Now what I hear is that we should somehow or another either restate these positions or take them a little further to give some further reward to Arafat in order to get him back into a negotiation. It's very hard for me to see why a President of the United States would want to get into a full scale quarrel with the Israeli government on behalf of Yasser Arafat, whose performance thus far certainly hasn't merited that.
And I don't see that it pays or it demonstrates anything regardless of the taunting of the French, for the United States to demonstrate that it can't produce a result, or for the President to risk his prestige without knowing that at least a minimum can be achieved. There has to be a preparatory period here where the parties say to us, you know, we really want to make this deal again -- even starting with a cease-fire.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me let Jim Hoagland defend his idea here -- futile or not?
JIM HOAGLAND: But I don't think we can expect either Sharon or Arafat to suddenly come forward and say, oh, by the way, why don't we sit down and talk again. We're going to have to change the circumstances. It's a big order; it's a tall order, but I think there are some things we can do right now. Let me put out a sketch just as a talking point here.
One thing to do, first of all, I think we should go to the Israelis and I think we should say to Mr. Sharon, we should go there first because we have most leverage there, and secondly because the Israelis have the effective power in this situation. And to say to Sharon that he should make an explicit clear statement that he will freeze settlements as part of the implementation of the Mitchell Commission report and explain why he's going to do that, so that it is quite clear to everybody that he's putting out a real prospect that he will implement, if the fighting stops.
We should then go secondly to Arafat, we should not expect Arafat to suddenly establish control or to suddenly change his strategy. But he is going to be put in a position, I think, if we go to him and say that if he - having heard Sharon's statement, if he does not now come forward and really begin to take the steps that we've asked for before, we will withdraw our recognition of him as the principal political leader on the Palestinian side.
We will urge the Europeans not to provide aid to Arafat, to Arafat's organization, we will do a series of things. What's been lacking so far in the American statements is a therefore. If you don't do what we said, therefore we will be forced to do the following -- both to the Israelis and to the Palestinians.
Thirdly, I would even before we do that go to the friendly Arab regimes in the region who are really the front line on this in terms of American interest now, the oil producers, the Jordanians and the others, and say to them that we have a very dangerous situation here, that affects their interests and American interests and begin to work on a very specific concrete program of ending the kind of destructive Arab nationalist policies that Arafat has followed, that Saddam Hussein has followed and will be tempted to exploit during this crisis. And we seek their agreement.
We're going to be telling them that we're not doing something for the Palestinians in order to please them or for their interests, that we're trying in this situation to protect our interests and they have to cooperate.
MARGARET WARNER: Final word from you, Jim Hoagland, because we only have a few seconds. You said at the beginning that you thought it was a very risky situation for the U.S. if it doesn't do something. Briefly, what are those risks?
JIM HOAGLAND: Well, I think you have to begin to think the unthinkable here. Suppose the king of Jordan, young untested monarch, is overthrown by forces friendly to Saddam Hussein and invite in the Iraqis into Jordan. We have to begin talking now to the Jordanians, to the other Arab states and to the Israelis about what do we do in that situation. What happens in Saudi Arabia? These are countries that have friendships with us, they also have their interests, and we have very deep interests in their course of events.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Jim Hoagland and gentlemen all, thank you very much.