Mideast Expert Sees ’New Chapter’ in Push for Israeli-Palestinian Peace

July 2, 2003

Interview
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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Judith Kipper, a prominent authority on Middle East affairs, says that President Bush’s apparent determination to push for peace between Israel and the Palestinians has strongly increased the prospects for success. She says Bush has “made a commitment, he intends to succeed, and he is going to use the full persuasive powers of the United States to succeed.”

“The United States government is not only mediating, but also orchestrating, reassuring, and threatening. It is involved in every step of the way,” Kipper says. She is the director of the Council on Foreign Relations Middle East Forum and co-director of the Middle East Studies Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Kipper was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on July 2, 2003.

What do you make of the public signs of goodwill between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the withdrawals of Israeli troops from Bethlehem and Gaza, and the ceasefire by Palestinian extremists? Are we now entering a new chapter in this drawn-out Palestinian-Israeli saga?

I think we could be in a new chapter, but everything depends on the commitment of President Bush. The parties are so traumatized and feel so victimized that they are unable to make any concessions to each other and even to work out security arrangements. They really can’t do anything with each other by themselves. This is a president who doesn’t see gray. He sees black and white. Once he’s made a commitment, he intends to succeed, and he is going to use the full persuasive powers of the United States to succeed.

All reports from the [early June] meetings in Aqaba [when Bush met with Palestinian Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon] indicate that Bush was equally demanding of both sides. In addition, Sharon is not ideological. He’s tactical, and if with the help of the president of the United States he can bring Israel to a real peace, he is perfectly capable of doing that. And Abu Mazen, with whom I spoke a few days ago, is a man who has no blood on his hands and is committed to peace. He is a very measured person without much of a constituency, but the more he can demonstrate to the Palestinian people that he will improve their daily lives, the more support he will have because the condition of the Palestinians is really desperate on the humanitarian level.

Is the United States mediating right now?

The United States is doing more than mediating. The U.S. government is not only mediating, but also orchestrating, reassuring, and threatening. It is involved in every step of the way. The national security adviser [Condoleezza Rice] and others have daily telephone calls with the principals. The two sides are being monitored very carefully by the U.S. team on the ground [led by Ambassador John S. Wolf]. There will be CIA officials working with the Palestinian and Israeli security forces. The two sides need help and they need encouragement, and they need to know that someone is watching them closely.

As long as the president remains steadfast and determined, the two sides don’t have a choice but to do what is expected of them in a timely manner. Neither side can afford to be blamed for not cooperating, and neither side wants to be accused of not wanting peace. And although there will undoubtedly be difficulties, if the president’s determination is as strong as it seems to be, progress is certainly possible, if not yet probable.

How do you explain President Bush’s involvement in the Palestinian-Israeli situation? About four to five months ago, most experts would have thought that the last thing Bush wanted was to get directly involved in this complex matter.

I think that’s true until he made war with Iraq. The president clearly had an agenda to get rid of Saddam Hussein and additionally, after 9/11, to go after terrorists in Afghanistan. But once the war in Iraq ended militarily, he knew there were huge expectations he needed to meet. These came from British Prime Minister Tony Blair, all the Europeans, and all the Arab leaders— most significantly, Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia. And even the Israelis were waiting to see if Bush would deliver on his commitment that, once the Iraq war was over, he would pay attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There are important differences this time compared to 1991, after the first Persian Gulf War. One is that the “road map” between the Palestinians and Israelis is not an American document. It is a push by the entire world— the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia— so the president embarks on this mission with the support of the entire international community.

That’s very important because neither party can run to the Europeans or to the Russians or to the United Nations and say, “The United States is badgering me.” They all are “badgering.” Secondly, and perhaps this is the single most important thing: Between the Gulf War and the Iraq war, there was a tremendous amount of work done in the negotiations.

In both cases, about 85 percent of future treaties have already been worked out. Everyone knows more or less what the final agreement is going to look like. In addition, the multilateral talks of that period produced a regional security consensus that is still valid and is much easier to implement with Iraq no longer a potential saboteur.

And the third development was the historic Arab League resolution in Beirut of March 2002, in which every single Arab state codified what they had been saying behind closed doors for many years— that once there was a solution for the Palestinians, they would guarantee the security of the Palestinian state and of Israel and have normal diplomatic, economic, and all other relations with the State of Israel.

Now, the real challenge is going to be for the United States to put all of what I have just described down on paper. The Clinton administration was tactical, and so it was not able to get to the strategic goal of peace. The documents will have to be produced by the United States based on what has been agreed by the parties. From those American-written documents, the Israelis and Palestinians will be able to nibble away at the differences and agree on changes of language to produce a document that can be accepted.

In a future White House ceremony, there may be the Israeli-Palestinian treaty signed, the Syrian-Israeli treaty possibly signed, and also a schedule for normalization by the Arab states, signed by all the Arab states.

Is there a consensus on the genuinely contentious issues such as the status of Jerusalem, the final borders, and the Palestinian right of return?

I think it is now accepted in Israel— which is important because it had been rejecting it— that there will be two capitals without barriers, in a shared Jerusalem. The Palestinian part of Jerusalem will be the Palestinian capital, and the Jewish part will be the Israeli capital.

The right of return and the final borders have yet to be worked out. But at the meeting in Taba, Egypt, in the last days of the Clinton administration, the final borders were almost worked out. [The upshot was] an agreement by which [the homes of the] vast majority of the settlers, about 70 percent, who live right on top of the green line separating Israel and the Palestinian lands, would be annexed and included in Israel. When we talk about dismantling settlements, we’re not talking about very many settlements, probably 25 or 30 settlements, many of them very tiny. A few are more populated that will be left out of the annexed area.

And the Palestinians will be compensated by getting good land someplace else, so the majority of the settlers can be included inside of Israel. The right of return for Palestinians whose families were displaced after the 1948 Israeli war of independence is the most sensitive issue for the Palestinians. That will be the last thing to be negotiated. In the Arab League resolution and in all the documents and agreements in the past, there’s been constructive ambiguity, whereas the Palestinian leadership and the Arabs have used language that indicates they understand this issue has to be dealt with in a way that does not threaten Israel. That means there might be a few thousand family unifications, but the right of return will be to the new Palestinian state, not to Israel proper.

Does it look as if the second intifada is over?

I wouldn’t say that. The Palestinians are clearly being tested. They are incredibly weak. Their security forces have been decimated. They don’t have computers, vehicles, buildings, well-trained people, etc. And there is a kind of consensus that as long as their life is so miserable, they still see suicide bombings as resistance to the occupation.

So there has to be a very carefully orchestrated campaign [to go] from the ceasefire to the next step— actually getting rid of, arresting, or doing whatever has to be done to make it impossible for the terror cells of Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades to be operational.

Is that possible?

It will be extremely difficult, but is it possible the more Palestinian daily life improves, the more the Palestinians believe the president really means it this time and they won’t be let down. What’s going to stop Palestinian suicide bombings eventually is Palestinian public opinion. When Palestinians no longer accept it, then it will stop. Obviously there will be an occasional act here or there, but it will stop.

Is there likely to be a major United States aid project to the Palestinians?

Yes, there should be. The way to help Abu Mazen is to help him to improve the humanitarian situation of the Palestinians. The Europeans paid for the building of the Palestinian Authority and what it needed then. The Israelis have now destroyed it. So somebody has to give the Palestinians help rebuilding the infrastructure. They also need schools, clinics, etc. This is as much a part of maintaining the peace as the negotiations.

Were you surprised that Abu Mazen got the three-month ceasefire from Hamas and the others?

No. What Hamas has always wanted is to have a seat at the table, and be included as one of the main Palestinian parties. Hamas’ resistance was as much against the Palestinian leadership as it was against the Israelis. So, if it has been brought into the tent so to speak, Hamas may find a way to dismantle.

Were you surprised at Sharon agreeing to all this?

I think Sharon is very practical. He has seen what has happened to the Israeli economy. He has seen and perhaps understood that Israel is losing the moral high ground. For him as a leader, if he could have a legacy of having been the man that brought Israel to peace, that’s a much better legacy than being known as the man who was responsible for Sabra and Shatila. [In 1982, when Sharon was defense minister, Israel allowed Christian Phalangist troops in Lebanon to enter the Palestinian camps of Sabra and Shatila and massacre hundreds of men, women, and children. Sharon was forced to resign his post in the aftermath].

Sharon is not stupid. He understands what his image looks like. He is a committed patriot. He is not prejudiced. He doesn’t see any difference between Palestinians and any other peoples. He’s not a religious man. He is a man who uses power, and if he can use other [types of force] than military power to get to peace, he is perfectly capable of doing it.

Sharon has learned three things as prime minister. First, patience. Second, he learned how to co-opt his political enemies in Israel; you could see that recently when he pushed the road map through his extremely right-wing cabinet. And third, he learned how to manage the American relationship better than any prime minister whom we’ve seen in recent years. This is a man still able to learn, and if he sees an opportunity before him, he will not reject it. And I think he has understood he can’t do battle with Bush.

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