|FACE TO FACE|
October 1, 1996
After separate talks with President Clinton, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat met one on one in a White House session lasting three hours. Elizabeth Farnsworth provides a backgrounder, then moderates a panel discussion with Middle East watchers.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: After the Oval Office meeting came an unscheduled White House lunch. Mid-way through that meal the President and King Hussein withdrew to give Netanyahu and Arafat and opportunity for a face-to-face one-on-one session. It lasted nearly three hours. For more, we go to three reporters covering the summit from three perspectives.
David Makovsky is the Jerusalem-based diplomatic correspondent for the "Jerusalem Post" and author of a book about the 1993's Israeli-Palestinian accords. Mohammed Wahby is the Washington bureau chief and columnist for the Egyptian magazine "Al-Mussawar," and Susan Page is White House correspondent for "USA Today." Thank you all for being with us. Susan Page, is a three-hour lunch meeting in this context a breakthrough?
SUSAN PAGE, USA Today: I think it is. The White House had arranged for this lunch, but they hadn't been at all sure that it would come off, that the two leaders would be willing to meet face-to-face, one-on-one, and the fact that that meeting took place means that the White House thinks they can already claim this summit has been a success, although the serious substantive issues that have made this such a divisive and bitter dispute remain, and I don't think we'll know until tomorrow how much progress they've made toward substantive progress on this, this bitter dispute.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Oka. Mr. Wahby, just briefly now to get your ideas on how it looks generally. A three-hour lunch, is that--
MOHAMMED WAHBY, Al-Mussawar, Egypt: I think it's good because, first of all, they were not on talking terms. That's No. 1. No. 2, Mr. Netanyahu used to deal with Mr. Arafat in a very condescending way, that is to say the least as a matter of fact. So this time they are meeting on neutral grounds and in a much more positive atmosphere, and, therefore, they have now started talking as equals, perhaps for the first time, and that's a very good beginning.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: David Makovsky, what do you think?
DAVID MAKOVSKY, Jerusalem Post: Oh, I think it's a good beginning. It should be recalled that Arafat and Netanyahu only met for the first time only a couple of weeks ago. During Netanyahu's campaign, he said he would never want to meet Mr. Arafat. So it's not like there's a long history here of meetings. It's a relatively new experiment, and also I think it's important to understand a little bit the mind set Netanyahu was coming to Washington with.
For the viewer, we should understand he feels a little bit like a young John Kennedy who's been tested by Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev. And it's not just Arafat who has a lot more experience in the international arena but, but this violence is unprecedented for the first time in three years that Palestinians are using guns. He feels they're testing me, and the Syrian troop movements, until a week or two ago, Israelis thought there would be a war in the Golan Heights, and there's been a barrage of really tough rhetoric coming out of Egypt. Netanyahu sees all three fronts lighting up at once. He says they're testing me, I'm Kennedy, and the Kruschevs of the Arab world are testing me. And he feels somewhat cornered.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Now I want to ask all three of you some specific questions about what happened. Do you know anything about what happened in the meeting between Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Clinton?
MR. MAKOVSKY: I think we have to be very cautious before we say anything definitively but more ideas that are under consideration. The term we're hearing is the notion of a soft deadline for completion of Hebron, redeployment talks. The Hebron--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So this could be something that Prime Minister Netanyahu would be willing to offer.
MR. MAKOVSKY: That is I think a way of being--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: A deadline but only soft--
MR. MAKOVSKY: I used the word--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: --for withdrawal from most of Hebron.
MR. MAKOVSKY: Right. The reason I called it soft is because Netanyahu always says I cannot negotiate with a gun to my head. If I say that talks will end in six weeks, then the other side could kind of play out the clock and not take into account security considerations.
He said look what happened last week with the violence, how if 400 people who are at, very much at odds with 85,000 Palestinians in Hebron, how are they going to make it if just last week Palestinians used guns, so that, that I think makes him feel--if my security considerations are being taken seriously, Netanyahu said, we can conclude this but it has to be seen as kind of a good faith effort, nothing hard and fast, but at least some sort of goal so the Palestinians will walk away feeling that they have achieved something.
And when he says continuous talks until there's white smoke, uh, to use the papal phrase, it's with some light at the end of the tunnel.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: By that you're referring, he had said that he would also come offering the possibility of continuous talks, the two delegations, until they resolved several--
MR. MAKOVSKY: Right.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: --different issues. One other thing, did they discuss--the press had reported today that he had wanted a fire wall against renewed threat of, of violence.
MR. MAKOVSKY: The second, that was the second issue. We were told there were two baskets, the first one being Hebron and the second basket being a reaffirmation that violence will not be used as a lever to achieve political results, that a red line had been crossed, and if Israel's going to face these next three years before all the tough issues are supposed to be resolved, uh, if these next three years are going to be marked with violence, there's no way Israel will be able to negotiate.
If anything, as we saw what happened to Shimon Peres, when there was violence in March, the public went to the right and left the peace process. So this--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So Prime Minister Netanyahu is willing to give something in return for this sort of fire wall?
MR. MAKOVSKY: I think that's the quid--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is that it?
MR. MAKOVSKY: --the quid pro quo. Violence is off the table. There's only going to be resolving problems by peaceful means. He feels Arafat certainly incited the people, he wouldn't go on Palestinian TV, and radio for two full days telling people not to go the streets, he told them go to the streets on the state-run radio, and he feels that now there has to be a new, new approach.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Mr. Wahby, do you have anything to add to that before we get into--
MR. WAHBY: A lot to add.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay.
MR. WAHBY: I have completely different angle for what has happened. I am surprised actually that David went in these great details about Mr. Netanyahu being besieged. Who is being besieged?
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But just about the meetings first. Do you have anything to add about what happened in the meetings? And also I'd like to get into your view of what Mr. Arafat's strategy was here and anything you might know about what happened in his meetings.
MR. WAHBY: Yes. I think Mr. Arafat's main point of departure was Mr. Netanyahu who had made an agreement with Israel--had not made an agreement with one man coming in his own personal capacity--we have made an agreement with two prime ministers of Israel, and, therefore, you should abide by these agreements, and at the same time, I was a partner with Mr. Rabin, I was a partner with Mr. Peres.
You have not been dealing with me as a partner, you have been dealing with me as a pariah all the time. The, you're talking about violence. The violence you are talking about has been incited by you, by, by the fact that you have actually violated every agreement. You have withdrawn. You have indulged in so many provocative acts, so, I mean--and therefore--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: So his strategy is to deal with the whole peace process.
MR. WAHBY: The violence has been incited by you, not by us. I mean, the question of guns that David has referred to, the Palestinians have been exposed to guns for so many years. I mean, they are also human beings. I mean, you should not only protest about guns being used against the Israelis. The Palestinians also have been suffering from guns for so many years.
So I mean it was good, and I'm just saying these things because it's good that each one of them would air his grievances. Each of them will try and reach out to the other. And I think the lunch and the gesture that the President, President Clinton has made was very, very good, leaving them together to air their grievances to each other and listen to each other.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How great a problem is it that President Mubarak did not come?
MR. WAHBY: It is not a problem, and as a matter of fact, I must emphasize one thing here. President Mubarak's stand is not an Egyptian stand. President Mubarak's stand is also equally an Arab stand. It's an Arab stand which shows protest, anger, frustration with what Mr. Netanyahu has been doing since he came to office. It has--yet, it has serious devastation. They almost devastated the process. They almost--even his own--his own status as a statesman--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But you don't think it's a problem to the reaching of some kind of an agreement, or at least lessening tensions in this week?
MR. WAHBY: I'll tell you, President Mubarak is also there in the presence of Mr. Moser on the--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The foreign minister.
MR. WAHBY: --on the outer fringe of the conference in order to make himself available for consultation, and to give also the experience that Egypt had with the Israelis. Egypt has a very important fount of experience of negotiating with Israel.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. Susan Page, do you--what was the administration's strategy here, and do you think they've met it so far?
MS. PAGE: Well, the administration before the talks took place tried to make it clear to Mr. Netanyahu that they expected some kind of concrete gesture from him that would get the peace progress--peace talks back on track, whether it's the withdrawal or redeployment of Israel troops in Hebron, or perhaps setting a date for final status talks on Jerusalem.
But it was clear that Netanyahu needs to do something concrete if this is going to work. And they say they made that clear to him before he came, so we'll assume that he's prepared to do something. Now, the United States does, I think, think that they have to finesse the issue of the tunnel, the thing that provoked this round of violence, and that perhaps the tunnel's going to stay open. Maybe that's something Mr. Netanyahu feels he just can't back off on. But something else needs to happen to finesse it. It was interesting in the tape that you showed Mr. Netanyahu basically refusing to engage on the question of this commission, that King Hussein has proposed, that would examine these architectural sites and archaeological sites and what can be done about them.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This was--
MS. PAGE: So maybe this is one possible way to kind of back away from the precipice. It is true that the White House thinks it is possible that all the progress has been made in the past three years since these accords were signed with such ceremony and such high hopes on the South lawn of the White House were at risk of being swept away. There is some sense tonight that that brink has been avoided, and everyone has moved back a step.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How much leverage is the President willing to exert here? There's this sense that he doesn't want to have to exert leverage. Press Sec. McCurry said that several times. We're just letting this happen; we're providing the opportunity for it to happen.
MS. PAGE: Well, there are always limits to the influence the United States really has, although it has a lot of influence in the region, and it's a delicate time for the President. It's just five weeks out from a presidential election. Yesterday we saw the Republican presidential candidate, Bob Dole, try to put President Clinton on the spot by saying he shouldn't ask Israel to make concessions, although that's of course what really has to happen if there's going to be progress made. But I think the, the White House feels that they've got some leverage to exert. We're going to see how much and how well that worked tomorrow when the leaders meet again.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: David Makovsky, speaking of politics, what are the political considerations for Prime Minister Netanyahu at this point? What is he dealing with at home that he has to--does he have to make an agreement, or should he not make an agreement, given his politics--his political situation?
MR. MAKOVSKY: He's in a very rough position. In the cabinet meeting, a seven-hour meeting that went on Thursday night, uh, until then he had like fifteen to two in support of him. He found out all of a sudden he was in the minority of like sixteen to one, saying that he's not being tough enough in this crisis, and that Yasser Arafat has manufactured this tunnel issue. It's basically two and a half football fields away from any Moslem holy site.
He knows it's a fake issue, and he's trying to transform a political issue into a religious issue. And once you do that, you're playing with fire because that gets into the whole absolutes. So how can we go through this three-year period, or until the Jerusalem issue was supposed to be resolved--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This is the argument you're saying, the cabinet--
MR. MAKOVSKY: Right. Of the cabinet--
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: --minister--
MR. MAKOVSKY: And he is just going to inflame people, send them to the streets. Israel can't negotiate under such a condition. I think it's worth recalling that the Oslo Accord was based not on--everyone talks about land for peace, of land for security. If Israelis are feeling that they're all of a sudden, their--violence is being used to win in negotiations, then I think basically the security side is out the window, and then the political will for making the territorial concessions is going to be--is going to dissolve too, and, therefore, Netanyahu feels if he gives too much, uh, he's going to have very hard problems at home.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. We have very little time left, but what are the considerations, political considerations for Mr. Arafat?
MR. WAHBY: Mr. Arafat's whole career as a leader of his people over the last so many decades is, is really at stake. I mean, he's under pressure from his own people all the time that he has given so much to Mr. Netanyahu, that he has yielded so much, and that he is getting nothing. And the way also has been treated to undermine him terribly with his own people, so as a matter of fact, at one stage people thought that if an intifada takes place again, it will only--it will not only be against the Israelis, it will be also against Arafat.
It was a miracle that, that this sort of new uprising did not lash out at Arafat at the same time as the Israelis. So he has a lot more at stake than Mr. Netanyahu. May I add something also? We should not underestimate the tunnel. The tunnel is very close to the most--one of the most holiest shrines of Islam, and it was really an insult not only directed to the Arabs but to the entire one--more than one billion Muslims in the world.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Okay. That's all the time we have. Thank you all very much for being with us.