JIM LEHRER: More now from two men who often analyze events in the Middle East for us: David Makovsky is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. Previously, he was executive editor of The Jerusalem Post and diplomatic correspondent for Ha'aretz. And Hisham Melhem is the Washington correspondent for the Beirut newspaper As-Safir. He also has a weekly program on the Arab news channel Al-Arabia. Hisham, how important was this meeting today?
HISHAM MELHEM: It's very important because of the context. This is a chance for both men publicly to address together their own constituencies but also the international community. In that sense the world was a stage for them.
They were trying to convey a sense that there's a new environment, there's a new language and maybe, maybe there's a new attitude. I think the context is that you have a hudna, a cease-fire on the part of the militant Palestinian groups and the beginning of the Israeli withdrawal from the areas of the occupied since the beginning of the intifada and then it comes in the context of heightened American involvement.
And recent polls show that the majority of Palestinians as well as the Israelis are in support of these recent developments. So this is a chance for a clean beginning probably.
JIM LEHRER: A new way, as Abbas said?
HISHAM MELHEM: Maybe a new way definitely for Abbas. Abbas is trying to invest in a new change on the part of the militant Palestinian groups. He's trying to appeal to the Israeli public opinion, to the international public opinion. He's trying to speak a new language.
When he says our way is only through peaceful negotiations and diplomacy and politics, he reminded me when he said that of what Sadat said to the Israelis at one time that the '73 war is the last war and we will pursue our political objectives through negotiations.
JIM LEHRER: Where do you put this on the importance list, David?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think it was important. I agree with Hisham, I think what was significant was that you did not have President Bush there. You did not have any of the Europeans or members of the quartet there, that there were just these two Israelis and Palestinians.
JIM LEHRER: Usually there was always somebody else there holding their hands..
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Almost like pushing them forward. Here they didn't need international prompting. And, I would just one thing to what Hisham said.
It's important that they talk to their own constituencies, which is very important, in their own language. But they were also using conciliatory language to the other side -- which has often been missing in the Israeli-Palestinian context. And here they were publicly being conciliatory to the other -- Abbas saying, you know, there's only a political solution, everyday that we don't have a conflict is a tragedy; and Sharon saying Israel wants to make painful compromises and frankly, you know, this cannot go on forever; Israel does not want to rule another people. That they said that the other people, which seemed so obvious to Americans, had been so missing in the Middle East.
JIM LEHRER: And each of them had their cabinets behind them. If people were wondering those cut-away shots those were the respective cabinets. That was a message too was it not?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Totally.
JIM LEHRER: The fact that it was in Jerusalem?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I mean, the thing here has always been in this kind of pyramid is that the people at the very, very top of the pyramid sometimes are privy to the inner workings. But once you get to the cabinets who are left out, they tend to be more critical because they've been outside. Here they're trying to bring them in the tent so to speak, broaden the base of dialogue, and hopefully that sort of ripple effect will ripple wider in both societies.
JIM LEHRER: Hisham, how did you interpret what Sharon meant when he said Israel was ready for painful compromises?
HISHAM MELHEM: Well he's been saying these things for a while now. And only Sharon knows what he means exactly by unquote unquote painful compromises.
For the Arab side, obviously what they expect is an Israeli withdrawal from the cities that were occupied since the beginning of the intifada and then serious work on settlement issues unless we move quickly on the political issues.
Now of course it's very important for the Palestinians to get out of their hellish conditions under which they have lived for the last three years: the closures and the siege and whatnot. But then you have to remind them constantly that there is a political horizon.
Jim, always when you have a political horizon, the political forces will have sway and then the militants on both sides, the extremists or the maximalists on both sides will be in the background but you have to provide them with the political horizon. And I think one reason you had this truce or hudna, or cease-fire, is because you have the road map with all its problems probably, and yet, unless you provide that kind of political horizon the troublemakers will continue to work on both sides.
I think Mahmoud Abbas today is really investing his whole future and in this approach. And I think paradoxically for him to succeed and to deliver to his own people, he has to rely on George Bush and on Ariel Sharon.
He has to become credible when the average Palestinian sees that there is withdrawal, that life is improving that settlements activities are being ceased or stopped, then they will believe him and they will say Mahmoud Abbas' way or the political way is delivering results to me.
JIM LEHRER: Do you agree with that?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Basically I do. I know, Jim a question you often ask is how is this different than all the others?
JIM LEHRER: I was going to get to that, but go ahead.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think what you're really doing is taking kind of the Oslo paradigm, so to speak, and flipping it upside-down because the old idea of the 1990s was once you get a peace treaty then all the problems will kind of melt away, so peace will bring security.
What's trying to be done here with the bush administration, with the road map with all its flaws, I agree with Hisham, but what it's trying to do is to invert it and to say, no, basically security has got to bring peace. Both sides have to take on the rejectionists earlier on in the process because we'll never get to the end game if people don't take on the rejectionists.
JIM LEHRER: Rejectionists meaning the militants on both sides.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I agree with Madeleine Albright who said there's no equivalency between a bomb and the bulldozer, so I don't think that the two are equivalent, but I think the concept is correct, that Abu Mazen, Abbas, has to take on the militants early, which is called for by the dismantlement of the infrastructure. It's not an Israeli demand; it's in the road map, confiscation of weapons et cetera. Israel has got to take down some outposts too.
So each side has got to do what I would call behavior modification if we're ever going to get to the existential issues of the end game which still seem way off. But I think that's the only hope, because I think the other model crashed.
JIM LEHRER: Do you think both sides now realize the other model crashed, and that's why they're -- they had no choice but to do this?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Not only did they have no choice but if they want to build up credibility with their own publics, I think, the Palestinians are going to see let's see some changes on settlements, people taking down outposts to begin. And Israel is going to say, let's see you starting to deal with the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad too, because the people are so cynical. They've heard words and words on all sides.
If they see actions that people are starting to take on rejectionists, this is the real deal, I think this will give this peace process an integrity that and a credibility that was missing in the past.
JIM LEHRER: Hisham, yeah, the one thing that Sharon made very clear, I mean, he directed the remarks directly to Abbas, which is that the terrorism has to stop.
Now, is Abbas equipped to stop it? I mean, with the greatest good will and all of that in the world, can he in fact do it now?
HISHAM MELHEM: We have three months or a few months for Abbas's stature to be enhanced. For Abbas's stature to be enhanced he has to paradoxically again rely on Sharon's flexibility to give him leeway.
JIM LEHRER: How can Sharon help him stop his own terrorists?
HISHAM MELHEM: By not assassinating any Palestinians; this is by sticking to the agreement, by withdrawing, by ending the settlement activity especially the recent settlements that were built illegally even by Israeli law.
Therefore, then Mahmoud Abbas will become stronger politically and militarily. Then it will be difficult for the militants to challenge him. They will be isolated. You see, what happened the last 1,000 days of what we might call a low intensity war of attrition between the Palestinians and the Israelis is that the Israelis must realize, or at least the enlightened ones in Israel, must realize that they cannot subjugate the Palestinians forever without paying a dear price, and the enlightened Palestinians should realize that they cannot achieve even the minimum of their demands by suicide attacks and only their armed resistance, that there has to be a political horizon and a political way.
I think that is the stage we are at now. And add to that the American involvement which is extremely crucial.
JIM LEHRER: Can Sharon... is Sharon and those folks behind him, the cabinet, are they willing to help Abbas establish his credibility this way?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: I think everyone here wants Abbas to succeed. The question is what is everyone going to do about it and what is Abbas himself going to do? I think for Sharon, I mean, the trade-off is clear. It's crack down on terror versus improving the quality of life at least in the first phase of the road map was called for so getting out of Gaza, clearing out some of the check posts. So I would just talk to someone over there who is in negotiations with Mohammed Dahlan who said the....
JIM LEHRER: Tell us who that is..
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Mohammed Dahlan is the Palestinian security chief working with Abu Mazen. He said the mood in Gaza is fantastic. People feel they can breathe again. They want see a tangible change in their lives. I agree with Hisham on that. These are things he's going to do. There's talk the Bush administration may be giving a billion dollars in assistance to make sure that Hamas is not the kind of agent of social and economic change.
JIM LEHRER: You can do it through the Palestinian Authority as well?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: The Palestinian Authority can deliver services too and the Egyptians and the Jordanians say they're going to help train the security services. Abu Mazen, Abbas, has to do his part too.
Everyone together working will, you know, there's a chance. There's no guarantees. Remember, it's the Middle East.
But everyone wants this... I mean, the mainstream on all sides want this to work. Now we'll see substantively if they do. I fear if there's not a taking on of the terrorist groups this thing is all going to collapse.
HISHAM MELHEM: The problem with taking on the terrorists. Abbas can say I succeeded in getting a hudna, a truce, by peaceful means.
He cannot challenge them militarily. I think they will also be cut down to size. If he can disarm them peacefully or by coercion but not necessarily plunging his own society into a civil war -- which would be disastrous for everybody including the Israelis by the way because nobody can live with chaos throughout the occupied territories. If Mahmoud Abbas can deliver by peaceful means if you give him a few months, he is committed to it, his whole future is on the brink right now if he doesn't succeed in it he will not have a second chance.
JIM LEHRER: What does Sharon have to do? In other words if there is an act of terrorism against the Israelis, Sharon has to cool it? He can't --
HISHAM MELHEM: If it's isolated it has to be dealt with as an isolated incident. We see always violence on the settlers' part too, and the Israelis say, well, this is a limited violence the Israelis say. You can tell if it's organized and massive violation. You can deal with it at that time. The Palestinians will be responsible for security in their own territories.
JIM LEHRER: What kind of pressure does Sharon have on him?
DAVID MAKOVSKY: Sharon is going to be under enormous pressure because his citizens are going to say you want Israel to pay for Palestinian unity with rivers of blood on the Israeli side. This is going to be the question. Sharon will say I want Abu Mazen to succeed very badly.
The question is, is Israel going to act with restraint if they feel the Palestinian Authority is not acting? I think we'll be faced with early challenges, what I'd call the ticking bomb test which is when the Shinbet, the Israeli services, pick up there's a guy about to go to an urban area to blow himself up on the bus and they call Mohammed Dahlan, the Gaza security chief, and they say, hey, he's leaving the Jubai refugee camp right now, arrest him. And, if there's no effort, then Israel will step in. And I think any government has to protect its citizens, so this is the balancing act.
JIM LEHRER: That's the first phase.
DAVID MAKOVSKY: That's the first phase will be the ticking bomb. Then will they crack down because Hamas, they've declared nine cease-fires. Nothing as dramatic as now -- but if Hamas, frankly, if they use this time to rearm, then this process could get blown up if it's in three months and a day.
HISHAM MELHEM: Hamas realizes that there's an out swelling of Palestinian support for a peaceful resolution at this stage.
JIM LEHRER: We'll leave it there. Thank you both -- with hope, as everybody says.