Bush and the Middle East

Bush and the Middle East

June 5, 2003 10:45 am (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

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During President Bush’s two-day summit in the Middle East, both the president and Arab leaders strongly condemmed acts of terrorism. The Arab leaders of Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia along with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas attended the meetings. President Bush will also facilitate a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Abbas to implement the "road map" for a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Henry Siegman, senior fellow and director at the Council on Foreign Relations U.S. and Middle East Project, will be online Wednesday, June 4 at 10 a.m. ET, to discuss President Bush’s trip to the Middle East and the "road map" for peace.

The transcript follows.

Fairfax, Va.: Could the pre-1967 boards be a reasonable solution or has the many years since then made this line an impossibility?

Henry Siegman: In principle, an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians must be based on the pre-1967 border. The grand bargain, or trade-off, that will make a deal possible is an exchange of the Palestinian renunciation of the right of return of the refugees to Israel proper in return for Israel’s removal of its settlements. Everything else falls into the category of detail. Such an arrangement would not preclude the exchange of territory, on both sides of the border, so as to make possible keeping a majority of the settlers in place in approximately 2% of Palestinian territory, in return for comprable Israeli territory that will be turned over to the Palestinians.

Columbia, Md.: Dear Sir,

Can you tell us more about Mr. Abbass, any good references about him (maybe a website or a book)


Henry Siegman: I am not aware of any books on Mahmoud Abbas. What we know about him is that he is genuinely determined to put an end to Palestinian terrorism, which he believes has damaged the Palestinian cause. However, he is likely to be as tough in negotiations with Israel on the core issues as anyone else in Palestinian leadership.

Washington, D.C. : It’s great that things seems to be progressing. What most people don’t seem to get, however, is that Israeli reluctance for a Palestinian state is based on ending the occupation of territory taken in 1967 (although a hardcore are against it), but fears of sovereign state alongside it bent on its destruction. This, of course, is why Israel took the land in the first place - not some expansionist zeal. And, to this day, the goals of terrorists are not an end to the occupation, but the destruction of Israel. So, the creation of a Palestinian state, while it may diffuse anger in the Arab world about treatement of the Palestinians is not going to temper the terrorists.

Imagine a hornets nest of terrorists with crude rockets and anything from biological agents to dirty bombs just blocks away from your house is - becuase the distances are that small - and people bent on lobbing them over at you.

Nothing that has happend over the last two years has convinced Israeli’s that the PA is either willing or capable of cracking down on these characters. In fact, they encouraged it with all the rhetoric celebrating suicide bombers and officially promoting Isreal’s non-existance in its educational system alongside their right to its territory.

Now, what is different now that will give anyone confidence that the PA is changed and is capable of building a peaceful society alongside Isreal?

Henry Siegman: The opposition of the Likud to a Palestinian state has never been solely on security grounds, but primarily on historical and nationalistic grounds. The notion that settlements contribute to Israel’s security has been totally discredited. To the contrary, they serve to undermine Israel’s security and its capacity to defend itself. It is not unusual for ten or twenty Israeli soldiers to be assigned to protect solitary outposts that have a half a dozen or fewer settlers. Nothing better serves Israel’s security than a neighboring Palestinian state that offers hope and prospects for a better future for three and a half million Palestinians who have lived since 1967 under occupation and in total disenfranchisement.

Lyme, Conn.: Israel was once ready to give the Palestinians 90% of the land that they wanted, and Arafat rejected the agreement. What factions of Palestinians are prone to accept the current agreement, which are going to oppose, and will the opposition weaken or strengthen in time, in your opinion?

Henry Siegman: The Palestinian Authority and Mahmoud Abbas have declared themselves entirely satisfied with a Palestinian state adjoining the pre-1967 borders of Israel. They have declared their formal acceptance of the legitimacy and permanence of Israel within those borders. They are prepared for minor territorial adjustments in order to deal with the problem of Israeli settlements, but not at the cost of the 20% of Palestine that would constitute their state. Pre-1967 Israel had 400% more territory than the Palestinians - that is to say, Israel had sovereignty over 80% of Palestine. Palestinians believe that the little that has left them should not be shrunk any further.

Washington, D.C.: What was the final UN resolution regarding Israel’s territorial rights. Did the UN specify that Israel should pull back to pre-1967 borders?

Henry Siegman: UN Resolutions 242 and 338 called for what most countries believe to be minor border adjustments.

Glenmont, Md.: Isn’t it true that, prior to 1968, there was no movement within the arab world to creat a palestinian state and the entire arab world was still commited to the destruction of Israel? Is there any real evidence that arab views have changed?

Henry Siegman: Nationalism among the Palestinians, like among most Arab countries and other colonial entities throughout the world, is a relatively recent phenomenon. The Palestinian national movement had its origins in the 1920s.

Needham, Mass.: Was it ever considered to place Gaza and the West Bank under (respectively) Egyptian and Jordanian control rather than try to create an independent state out of these two non-contiguous areas? Is the main obstacle to this that Egypt and Jordan don’t want them, or that this would not satisfy the national aspirations of the Arab populations of these territories?

Henry Siegman: Neither Egypt nor Jordan have agreed to incorporate the West Bank and Gaza, respectively, into their own country. The reason is that they understand that Palestinians aspire to their own national self-determination on land they consider to be their patrimony, having lived in Palestine for centuries.

Chicago, Ill.: These past few days have seen a lot of promising developments on the diplomatic front. Leaders on all sides seem to be saying the right things. In light of that, how likely is it that Hamas or Hezbollah will launch terrorist attacks (suicide bombings or otherwise) against Israel in the near future, to try to derail this process? Thanks.

Henry Siegman: Hamas and Jihad have a history of sabotaging opportunities for peacemaking between Israel and the Palestinians through their acts of terrorism. Given that history, it is hard to say that this pattern will not recur. However, we face radically altered circumstances, in the Middle East as elsewhere in the world, as a consequence of 9-11 and the war in Iraq. The latter event has eliminated the largest security threat to Israel, and has brought US forces and influence into the region. Hamas and Jihad have both indicated that for the first time, they are prepared to declare a ceasefire and give the peace process a chance, a declaration that indicates that they too understand they face a different world. We’ll have to see whether they will in fact act on that understanding.

Harrisburg, Pa.: What assurances are there that Saudi Arabia will carry forth with their agreements? How much can they assure the world that they themselves will not pressured by or even otherthrown by internal groups that support terrorism? How strong an ally to the United States is Saudi Arabia?

Henry Siegman: While there are unprecedented tensions between the US and Saudi Arabia, the alliance between the US and Saudi Arabia continues and remains important to both parties. There is no more reason to doubt the sincerity of Crown Prince Abdullah’s declaration last year that Saudi Arabia would establish normal relations with Israel if it concluded a peace agreement with the Palestinians than there is to doubt the sincerity of Sharon’s declarations.

Washington D.C.: What impact do you think the competing narratives of Zionists and pro-Palestinians have on prospects for peace? I read both perspectives and have friends who espouse both and am troubled by such wildly different interpretations of the same events: the 1967 war (Israeli aggression v. Israeli self-defense), the breakdown of Oslo talks, etcetera. When each side contains so many who sincerely believe that the other wants to exterminate them, how can trust be built?

Henry Siegman: Trust between the parties cannot be built by gimmicks and partial measures. The undoing of Oslo was its incrementalism. The only way to overcome the enmity of both Israelis and Palestinians is for the parties to commit themselves upfront to the implementation of the end goal of the process, and not to leave that end goal vague and undefined. That is why it is of the utmost importance for Palestinians to spell out with great specificity what they intend to do to stop violence and terrorism against Israeli citizens, and then to proceed quickly to implementing those commitments. Israel must be equally clear about its commitment to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, and to define that state with sufficient clarity as to preclude the notion advanced by Prime Minister Sharon before the current process got started that such a Palestinian state would be granted no more than 40-50% of the West Bank and would have no territorial contiguity. That is a non-starter. While great progress has been made under President Bush’s leadership in specifying that a viable Palestinian state is the goal of the process, it is a commitment that still requires further clarification. Nothing less than such clarity about the end game will enable two parties with clashing narratives and deep suspicion of one another to pursue a successful peace process.

Virginia: Is this roadmap like the offer which Barak gave Arafat in 2000? The one known as the 99% of the land offer? However, it was actually 4 non-contigous parts which no leader would ever agree too. Is this roadmap the stuff of legend or is it simply another peace plan to add onto the bookshelf?

Henry Siegman: The roadmap need not be the same as previous initiatives that failed. As indicated above, it meets the test of specifying the establishment of a viable and sovereign Palestinian state as the goal of the peace process. It also requires both parties to implement certain significant measures in parallel, rather than sequentially, so as to avoid the previous experience of each side using the other’s non-compliance as an excuse for its own non-compliance. Most important of all, a president who has proved his deep friendship not only to the people of Israel but to its Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, has committed himself personally to oversee and press for the full and complete implementation of the roadmap. If this is what he will do, then the roadmap may achieve what previous initiatives were not able to.

Southwick, Mass.: What prospective sanctions are in place to deter either side from deviating from the road map?

Henry Siegman: There are no sanctions specified in the roadmap. However, in the post-September 11th and post-Saddam Hussein reality that now prevails, there is probably no greater inducement for both parties to remain true to their promises than the prospect of alienating President Bush and the United States.

Fairfax, Va.: re: "It is not unusual for ten or twenty Israeli soldiers to be assigned to protect solitary outposts that have a half a dozen or fewer settlers."

I’m sorry I’m so ignorant about this and I am glad you are doing this online discussion. --who came first, the settlers or the soldiers and don’t the soldiers serve to protect the rest of Israel as well as those settlers by being situated where they are?

Henry Siegman: I referred to soldiers who are assigned specifically to protect settlers, and who are therefore withdrawn from the units in which they served in key areas in order to provide protection for literally dozens of settler outposts and settlements that were newly exposed to attack. The IDF, Israel’s military, has long been unhappy with its need to provide soldiers for this purpose precisely because it diminishes its ability to provide the necessary security for Israel.

Upper Marlboro, Md.: Mr. Siegman -- One thing that has perplexed me for a while...Why cannot the Palestians and Jews live as one nation, with all citizens being equal, and have equal opportunities to share in the government of the state? Much as we have many different ethnic groups living in the U.S.? Are the individual groups opposed to this on religious grounds? Idealogical grounds? To me, that seems like a simple solution. As long as everyone had the same opportunities and same level of citizenship. Thank you.

Henry Siegman: The State of Israel was established by the United Nations in 1947 explicitly for the purpose of providing a haven for Jews throughout the world who had suffered a long history of displacement and persecution, culminating in the Holocaust. That is why the Jewish character of the state, and its special responsibility towards endangered Jewish communities throughout the world, remains a defining characteristic of the state.

Knoxville, Tenn.: What will be the Bush administration’s response, if any, to Congress’s resolution stating that the road map demands too much of Israel? Will this affect the peace process in any way?

Henry Siegman: It is highly unlikely that the Congress will be anything other than supportive of the President if he remains personally involved in the peace process and if he is seen as being even-handed and fair to both sides.

Washington D.C.: Would Golan Heights be included in the new Palestinian state?

Henry Siegman: No. The Golan was part of Syria, not Palestine.

New York, NY: Given from 1948 till 1967 the West Bank was occupied by Jordan and Gaza by Egypt and Israel did not "occupy" these areas yet from 1948 to 1967 there were wars in 1948, 1956 and 1967 all prompted by Arab aggression against Israel and the PLO itself was started in the early 1960’s before the 1967 war, and the Palestinian Charter till the 1990’s openly called for Israel’s destruction and Hamas and Islamic Jihad and several Arab states seek that, and the current terror war of over 2 and half years started after Israel offered at Camp David over 95% of all the disputed land, why should Israel trust the Palestinians now? And doesn’t the land contribute to security when Israeli forces create buffers to terrorist penetration?

Henry Siegman: Israel’s occupation of the West Bank has not provided security for Israel. To the contrary, it has created rage and despair, which in turn is a breeding ground for the most extreme forms of violence and terrorism. During the past two years, the government of Prime Minister Sharon has applied the most extreme and repressive measures to fight Palestinian terrorism, and they have not succeeded.

Bethesda, Md: Most of the world believes that it would be an almost impossible task for the Bush administration to get Israel to dismantle the settlements built on illegally occupied Palestinian land and to end the horrific occupation. That this is just a publicity "charade" put out by the Bush administration to apease the Arab street and to help Tony Blair. Unless there is an end to the occupation, there will be resistance and terrorism. It would be naive to believe that this is time the US can guarantee that Sharon will comply with dismantling the settlements. What’s your take on Sharon’s true intentions?

Henry Siegman: There is no possibility for a peace agreement unless Israel agrees to dismantle all settlements that prevent the emergence of a Palestinian state on contiguous territory. Having said that, at Camp David Yasser Arafat agreed to allow Israel to retain sufficient territory east of the pre-1967 border to accomodate a majority of settlers now living in the West Bank, asking in return for comprable territory west of that border. There is no reason why such an arrangement cannot be made again. However, I agree that it is unlikely that an agreement based on such an arrangement will be made by a government headed by Prime Minister Sharon, for he is unlikely to remove settlements that block Palestinian territorial continuity. We have to wait for a successor Israeli government to close the deal.

Knoxville, Tenn.: Are you, personally, perfectly satisfied with the terms of the road map? If not, what changes would you make to it?

Henry Siegman: The roadmap as about as good a plan as one can expect in the current political climate. At the end of the day, it is not the plan that will produce the agreement, but an understanding by the two protagonists that they will lose far more by continuing the current situation than from the compromises necessary for an agreement. Had they reached that understanding before this, previous initiatives would have worked just as well.

Henry Siegman: I regret that I cannot address all of the questions sent in. I hope that events on the ground will provide answers for some of them, and look forward to communicating with you again before too long.

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