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Gwen Ifill talks with Hisham Melhem, Washington correspondent for the Beirut newspaper As-Safir, and David Makovsky, a senior fellow for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy about the Middle East agreement that would allow Yasser Arafat to leave his besieged compound.
For more on how the deal to release Arafat came together and why, we're joined by: Hisham Melhem, Washington correspondent for the Beirut newspaper, As-Safir; and David Makovsky, who was executive editor of The Jerusalem Post, and diplomatic correspondent for Ha'aretz, Israel's leading daily. He is now a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
So, David, is this a done deal, this deal to release Arafat?
My understanding is the basic outline is done. As the Secretary of State said in that clip there's a lot of modalities left to be done. I mean it seems like the CIA, MI-6 people are going to go out there and monitor these prisons. With all the technology available today in video cameras you don't necessarily have to be inside the prisons to know that these six people are being kept. But I think those modalities will be worked out, but the principle basically is done.
Hisham, Do they have to be released first before he walks free or does he walk free and then they are released? How does this work?
In a day or two we'll probably see the British team taking custody of the six Palestinian prisoners probably moved to a facility that was built by the British interestingly enough in 1940s in Jericho. Then within a week probably an American component will join them — again a number between six to eight unarmed observers or what they're calling them now verifiers. These will be in charge of the six Palestinians but there are many other logistical and political issues still pending.
I mean we don't know for instance whether these six will serve the sentences already rendered against them by the Palestinians or whether they will be retried again. The Americans are saying essentially that we want to make sure now that there will be no revolving doors that in a sense these people will be kept under the supervision of the British and the American observe is.
And, David, this was no mean feat to get Sharon and the Israeli parliament to agree to this. This was a pretty big reversal for Ariel Sharon.
It was. He's taking a lot of these from his conservative base and from his rival Benjamin Netanyahu. There are a lot of channels here. Obviously what was going on in Crawford Texas between the U.S. and the Saudis was a key driver. You had also kind of back channel Israeli-Palestinian discussions, Omri Sharon, the Prime Minister's son, who is in constant contact with Mohammed Rasheed who is Arafat's finance person was another channel.
Then you had Colin Powell making a call to Sharon followed up by a Presidential call. It got really high drama, a six-hour cabinet meeting in the middle — Condoleezza Rice calling Sharon's aides to find out what was going on. Things didn't look good. Condi Rice threw in an invitation to Sharon to come next week to Washington for the Prime Minister. But made the case really in passionate terms about U.S. interests with the Saudis and ultimately was the Prime Minister who swung his own Likud faction around who was dead against this thing and said we have got to do this for the sake of U.S.-Israel relations and he brought the cabinet behind him.
If Ariel Sharon felt he was under pressure to do this, Hisham, who was pressuring or who was talking to the Palestinians on the other side of this?
The Saudis played a principal role in convincing the Palestinians to accept this compromise. The evolution of this whole compromise which is now in the diplomatic parlance as the Lockerbie model to put the suspects under the control of a third party as happened with the Libyan controversy with the Americans and the British in the past few years. Colin Powell addressed that idea with the Palestinian leadership. Arafat was amenable to the idea.
Later on the idea was fleshed out further with Bill Burns, Secretary Powell's assistant for near eastern affairs. Then the Saudis discussed at length their eight-point proposals that the conference presented to President Bush at Crawford last week, which included a resolution of the Ramallah siege. Again, the Saudis told the Americans that Arafat will accept the deal if Sharon accepts the deal. Then the machinery of the United States began to work.
Then you had Condi Rice discussing it with Sharon, Colin Powell discussing it with Sharon. Then finally Saturday the President talked to Sharon and to sweeten the deal he offered them a visit to the White House probably next Tuesday. But in essence it took the United States a great deal of work. Colin Powell deserves part of the credit. The Saudis again who came with some proposals discussed it with the President also deserves some credit too.
There is some reporting out there that part of the sweetener also was that the United States would support Israel's resistance to the United Nations' investigation of whatever happened at Jenin.
There is no explicit quid pro quo. The Israelis would like… it didn't happen exactly that way, but there was a letter today the Foreign Minister Peres sent to Colin Powell listing six points of concern. And primarily I don't want to get into all the technical points but at the heart of it was this idea that if the U.N. is looking into the Jenin refugee camp, this is a U.N… it's headed by UNRA, which is the U.N. refugee agency.
They should look into how a U.N. camp is allowing all this weaponry, all these suicide bombers to exist there. 28 bombers came from the Jenin refugee camp. They're saying there should be a little symmetry. The problem has been the utter lack of trust between the U.N. and Israel that they could resolve it on their own, so even if there's no quid pro quo Israel is hopeful that the U.S. will intervene and iron out some of these issues and then they will… the monitoring, the investigation to continue.
Today, Hisham, Israel tank went into Hebron as a retaliation for an earlier attack, the same cycle we've seen. To what degree did that incursion, which once again came after the President asked Israel… Israeli forces to withdraw, to what degree does that put in jeopardy a deal like this?
Well, I heard from Arab sources as well as American sources a great deal of frustration today. They were talking about an Israeli pattern. Every time the President urges the Prime Minister publicly to withdraw from one area, the Prime Minister a few hours later enters another area. People were saying that if this continues, probably it will undermine any deal we reach on Yasser Arafat or on the church of nativity. People are hoping that the model can be repeated with the Church of Nativity again — put those people under the custody of the American or British observers. Someone… one of my sources today couldn't hide his frustration when he said, look, it took the President this kind of tension and probing for Sharon to convince him to accept a compromise on a minor issue.
What is it going to take to convince Sharon to stop settlement activities for instance if it requires that kind of intervention on the part of the President of the United States? So what the Prime Minister is doing… I mean there is this Israeli spin now that we compromise on Ramallah in order to take a harder line on Jenin and to chase Palestinians in various towns and cities. But I think the United Nations will be forced in the end to dispatch a force to Jenin with or without the approval of Sharon.
Is this a pattern we're talking about here?
I think the good news here — where Hisham and I agree here — I think that the good news of this model is if you could stop the revolving door because for ten years now one of the biggest most central problems of this peace process has been the idea that terrorists have been jailed today and then let out tomorrow morning.
If under British or American cooperation there could now be clear that someone who is in prison stays in prison this could actually be a very important confidence building matter for the future. I think there's a little ray of hope here that can be built on. Maybe these guys from the Church of the Nativity, same thing. I mean these were suicide bombers from Bethlehem. That's why they're stuck there.
But what about when the President says withdraw and then Israelis not only don't withdraw but go into a new city? Is that pattern? Is this Israeli spin like he's talking about?
No. There was an attack in a settlement outside of Hebron killing like a five-year-old girl and few others. The perpetrators ran into the Hebron area. And so you can't say okay we'll stop here in Ramallah in terrorism but we're going to start in Hebron. It's not a diversion tactic. It's just the idea of Israel trying to defend it citizens.
Last week he did the same thing with Tulkarem. After the President urged him to withdraw, he just went into Tulkarem.
We agree. You stop the bombing, you stop the incursions. It's a very simple equation.
Assume this deal comes together, this Arafat release deal. What does he find when he walks out of his headquarters in Ramallah for the first time in months? What's there for him? Political infrastructure, physical infrastructure?
A wasteland, a great deal of desolation that Ariel Sharon is calling it peace. Even the Americans admit now… and this is according to the reports that Bill Burns has been sending here because he stayed there after Colin Powell left, that Arafat's ability to control his security structure has diminished considerably.
It is going to be extremely difficult for Arafat to deliver on his own promises to the Saudis let alone to the Americans, to take charge of the security situation in the territories under his control, to control his own people let alone control Hamas and the Jihad. It will be a Herculean task even for Arafat if you say you'll his heart is in it and he's willing to do it. That's why I think the President is correct, there has to be a great deal of economic support to the Palestinians, humanitarian support for the Palestinians, but also the Palestinians are going to need help as Colin Powell understands very well to rebuild the security infrastructure to deliver on their own promises.
First of all in Gaza is untouched. We've had this going on since Oslo '93. It's not like, oh, all of a sudden there's destruction. Where was he for nine years? If you want to start, let's start in Gaza. There were no incursions there.
I agree with the principle of rehabilitation. There's apparently a lot of economic money out there to rebuild the economies of both sides. And I think that that's… that actually is a good idea. But we just got to keep the bombers out of these U.N. camps. I mean there is a Security Council resolutions on this. So I'm hopeful that it's a better day but it might be hope against experience given the leadership we've seen.
That will have to be the last word. David Makovsky, Hisham Melhem, thank you very much.
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