Henry Siegman, the Council’s top expert on Israeli and Palestinian issues, says that in the aftermath of the successful withdrawal of Israelis from Gaza, it is imperative for Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to offer President Mahmoud Abbas a return to full negotiations on all aspects of the so-called “road map” to peace if the Palestinian leader can put an end to violence against Israel.
“If Sharon will take the position that Israel will not move on the road map until all violence comes to an end, without adding that if the Palestinians succeed in ending the violence, then Israel is prepared to negotiate all the issues included in the road map— the pre-1967 border, the capital of a Palestinian state in Jerusalem, trading territories in order to accommodate the major Israeli settlement blocks in the West Bank, etc.—then it will be clear he is using the security issue to prevent a peace process, and the Gaza withdrawal was nothing more than a ploy to gain time for the deepening of Jewish settlements in the West Bank,” says Siegman, senior fellow and director of the U.S./Middle East Project at the Council on Foreign Relations. “If he makes it clear that Palestinian success in dealing with terror will create a genuine Palestinian state, then we’re on the way back to the road map.”
Siegman was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on August 22, 2005.
With the Israelis now having concluded the withdrawal of settlers from the Gaza strip, what’s your impression of the way the operation was handled?
I think it went far better than anyone could have anticipated. There were instances where the Israeli military seemed to be more tolerant than circumstances required. Some people may ask: If the IDF (Israeli Defense Forces) can show this kind of forbearance toward Israeli settlers even when they break the law—some of them in very outrageous ways—how can they justify their behavior in dealing with demonstrations by Arabs who are Israeli citizens, and also Palestinians on the other side of the border, who hold non-violent demonstrations to protest Israeli government’s policies? As we know, in previous instances where Israeli Arabs were involved, several were killed by the Israeli police. That’s not to take away any credit from the way [the IDF] handled the settlers, but it does raise some serious questions [about] whether it is necessary for them to be as brutal as they often are in dealing with Israeli Arabs or Palestinians.
How did you think the Palestinians acted during this withdrawal period?
They showed the kind of restraint responsible people hoped they would by not engaging in activities that would have made it impossible for [Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon to continue the withdrawal, or to provide fodder for criticism by Sharon’s opponents. So on balance, the Palestinians, particularly President Mahmoud Abbas, behaved very well. I also have to say Hamas, who most people believed would act irresponsibly and attack the Israelis, also behaved well. I think the reason they didn’t [attack] is not necessarily out of compassion for the settlers or consideration for Sharon, but because they understood the Palestinian public would have been very angry with them—and they would have lost a great deal of political support—had they attacked the IDF or the settlers during the withdrawal.
What are the next political steps for both the Israeli and Palestinian sides in coming weeks and months?
Sharonhas a number of issues he has to deal with, all of them complex, and they fall under two major headings. The first one is Gaza itself. If Sharon wants this withdrawal to be a bridge towards the resumption of the peace process—and to make sure Gaza is not turned into a hotbed of renewed terrorism—then he must do certain things that would enable Palestinians in Gaza to revive their economy, to create a political horizon for a return to the peace process, and more specifically, [to help them achieve] a Palestinian state, so they do not come to the conclusion that this was indeed what Sharon intended—Gaza first and Gaza last—as some critics were saying all along.
What are these things that Sharon has to do?
He has to open the borders and place them under international supervision. [This will] enable the Gazans to conduct trade and have free movement of people and goods, subject to international controls at the crossing points, both to the West Bank itself—so there is secure access for Gazans to the West Bank—and also to Egypt, Jordan and the rest of the world. There will not be any investment in Gaza if Gaza doesn’t have the opportunity to trade with the rest of the world and export its agricultural and manufactured goods. That’s absolutely key.
This also requires that the airport be reopened. Palestinians also need a seaport, but that’s for the future. It will take them at least three years to build a seaport, which only emphasizes the importance of opening these other points of entry and exit into Gaza. If that does not happen, Gaza will be turned into a large prison.
Has Israel at this point agreed to any of these issues?
There’s no final agreement on any of them. Sharon has said Israel is looking at these matters, but so far [he] has made no definitive commitments.
Is there a timetable for Israel on this? It’s going to be a while before Palestinians move into this area, right?
The need to open up Gaza to outside investment, to manufacturing, to a revived agriculture, all of that is immediate, and is not dependant on moving [Palestinians] into the area where settlements existed.
Is [former president of the World Bank] James Wolfensohn, a special U.S. envoy on economic questions, working on this problem too?
He is. He has an incredibly difficult job and is doing it as well as anyone can. What he’s doing there, from my point of view, is truly amazing.
What is he doing?
He has defined the issues and [determined] what Gaza needs to succeed. He has personally helped raise public money from governments and public institutions like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), and the European Union, and has [also] raised money from the private sector. For example, he put together $14 million dollars toward a much larger sum of money, most of which is public money, for the purchase of the greenhouses—
—the greenhouses and the dairy.
Right. They were bought from the settlers so they could be left in place and used by the Gaza Palestinians. And he personally contributed half a million dollars toward the purchase of those greenhouses. So he’s doing an outstanding job. But in the end, it is the government of Israel that has to agree to these arrangements.
And the second set of issues for Sharon?
They deal with the political process, particularly returning to the road map and the peace process. And that means, at the very least, he must finally put an end to the expansion of settlements; he must finally keep his word about dismantling the illegal outposts; and he must also halt plans for construction in East Jerusalem, whose express purpose is to prevent the establishment of a capital in any part of East Jerusalem for a future Palestinian state. These are the things he must do now. They’re all demanded and required by the road map. These are things he must do if Palestinians are not to conclude that withdrawal from Gaza was not intended to renew the peace process, but rather to deepen Israel’s occupation of the West Bank. And if they do come to that conclusion, then we can say goodbye to Abu Mazen [Mohammed Abbas’ nom de guerre], to the peace process, and to the possibility of Gaza itself succeeding in terms of its economy and governance.
The Palestinians have scheduled their parliamentary elections for the end of January. Will there likely be an Israeli election in the same time period?
There’s likely to be one. We don’t know that yet.
Is Sharon’s popularity now high or low?
His popularity remains higher than that of any other politician in Israel, despite the unhappiness of the extreme right wing and the settlers. However, his popularity among members of the Likud party is not high. There’s a great deal of disenchantment and even anger with him, and former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is now seeking to take advantage of that anger to run against him and to replace him as the Likud candidate for prime minister in the next election.
The polls have shown Netanyahu enjoys greater support than Sharon within the Likud. Those same polls have also shown that if Sharon were to decide to leave the Likud—if he were to come to the conclusion that he cannot defeat Netanyahu, and instead establish a new centrist party drawing on some of the more moderate members of the Likud and more importantly, moderate Israelis generally, and get Shimon Peres and his Labor Party and the Shinui [a secular Israeli party] to join with him—such a party would emerge in the next election as dominant and would form the next government.
And this centrist party, I assume, would be more willing to go to road map negotiations?
Yes, exactly. And what also would make it possible for such a centrist party to do that—to return to the road map, which means doing some difficult things—is the fact that as a consequence of the experiences Israelis have had this past week, there is a fairly widespread disenchantment with the settlers. Israelis no longer see them as the best and the brightest but as a danger to the country and its democracy. Israelis may now feel more confident about taking the risk of doing some difficult things required by the road map that they would not have considered doing before, when they feared the power and influence of the settlers. The settlers emerge from this confrontation considerably weakened, a shadow of what they were before.
That’s interesting because in the United States, so much TV footage has been of the settlers, showing them in a very sympathetic light. But the same TV images in Israel did not win them much support?
No, it did not. I think the Israelis generally empathized with their anguish, but there’s been a demystification of the settlers. And I think this will have serious political consequences. I think from the point of view of the peace process, that is one of the most positive outcomes of this encounter between the largely secular and centrist Jewish public in Israel and the settlers.
What about the Palestinians? What do they have to do?
What Palestinians need to do most importantly is to clean up their own government. Their government under the leadership of Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei is comprised of many people who are held in contempt by the Palestinian public. They are seen as self-dealing, as corrupt, and as simply politically inept. For a long time now, the Palestinian public has been furious that they have been allowed to stay in office.
Abu Mazen’s greatest challenge is to replace these people and to open up the Fatah component of the Palestinian Authority—which is by far its most important political component—to new elections, which have been resisted by the old guard. He must allow new young people, referred to as the young guard, to run for office and to replace these people. That’s one of the most important things he has to do. Equally important, he has to take some tough measures on the security front. He must finally create a security system that is in fact under the control of the central government. So far, he has not done so.
Is that because he’s not able to?
He is far too weak. He has two problems: first, he is too weak politically. If he were to try to take on Hamas, he would trigger a Palestinian civil war that the Palestinian public would not support. He must first show that his opposition to violence and terror produces tangible benefits for the Palestinian population, which the intifada and those advocating violence could not produce. And [second] he must also show that [his way] produces a credible political path to Palestinian statehood. There is an interdependence here between what he is able to do and what Sharon is willing to do. And Sharon has to allow the strengthening of the Palestinian security forces that were destroyed during the intifada by the IDF. So Israel has to permit Abu Mazen to rebuild that security structure. So far, Israel has opposed even allowing the Palestinian Authority’s security forces to obtain the new vehicles and arms they need to confront Hamas. Sharon cannot say to Abu Mazen, “You may not have the arms and you may not have the necessary equipment to confront the terrorists, but you must dismantle them.”
So there is a very real interdependence between the two. Neither Abbas nor Sharon can succeed without each of them doing what the other needs to succeed.
Should the United States get more involved than it is now?
The United States has become more involved than it had been in the past, but so far mostly on the rhetorical level. [Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice has taken a more personal role and State Department officials have been there as well, on a fairly regular basis. But the question of whether the Bush administration is prepared to put some real political muscle behind the rhetoric remains unanswered. And the pressure must begin with Sharon, because Sharon still insists he is nowhere near returning to the road map.
What is the single most important thing in getting the parties back to the peace process?
There are, of course, many factors that are important if the Gaza withdrawal is to lead to a sustainable peace process. But if I have to identify the most important one, I would say it is how Prime Minister Sharon will deal with the security issue. If Sharon will take the position that Israel will not move on the road map until all violence comes to an end, without adding that if the Palestinians succeed in ending the violence, then Israel is prepared to negotiate all the issues included in the road map— the pre-1967 border, the capital of a Palestinian state in Jerusalem, trading territories in order to accommodate the major Israeli settlement blocks in the West Bank, etc.—then it will be clear he is using the security issue to prevent a peace process, and the Gaza withdrawal was nothing more than a ploy to gain time for the deepening of Jewish settlements in the West Bank. If he makes it clear that Palestinian success in dealing with terror will create a genuine Palestinian state, then we’re on the way back to the road map. If all he says is, “First I want an end to terror and then we’ll see,” then a return to violence is inevitable.