The Powell Mission

The Powell Mission

April 15, 2002 11:02 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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An explosion, apparently set off by a suicide bomber, killed at least six people at a bus stop near Jerusalem’s outdoor market Friday in an attack that coincided with a peace mission by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, police said. Bombing Rocks Jerusalem After Powell Meets Sharon, (Wire Reports, April 12)

Dr. Warren Bass, director of the Special Projects/Terrorism Program and fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, was online Friday, April 12 at 2:30 p.m. EDT, to discuss the conflict in the Middle East, Powell’s visit and the U.S.’s role in diplomacy.

Bass’ articles on Middle Eastern affairs and U.S. foreign policy have appeared in publications including The Washington Post, The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, and The New Republic, and he edits the Council’s new “Terrorism: Questions & Answers” Web site.

A transcript follows.

Editor’s Note: moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.

Dr. Warren Bass: Good afternoon, everyone, and thanks for coming. Wish it was under less grim circumstances.

Washington, D.C.: The Palestinians seem to be fighting with the only weapon they have, the suicide bomber. Do you think the increased frequency of bombings will eventually wear down the Iraelis to the point where they’ll have to recognize a Palestinian state and finally tackle the tougher issues (Jeusalem, right of return, etc.)?

Dr. Warren Bass: This seems a good place to start, because the premise is not only wrong but wrong in an important way. Suicide bombings are not the only weapon the Palestinians have. It’s said that terrorism is the “weapon of the weak,” but even the weak have other choices.

The Palestinians could have chosen diplomacy—indeed, according to Yasir Arafat’s own statements and signatures, they chose precisely that during the 1990s Oslo peace process.

For that matter, the Palestinians—and I know this isn’t terribly realistic—could have chosen civil disobedience. Remember how the Israeli troops meekly let that cavalcade of European leftists troop right past Israeli barricades and into Arafat’s compound in Ramallah? The sheer embarrassment of having to deal with nonviolent protest could have been a very powerful lever for a democracy like Israel.

Suicide bombings may wear the Israelis down. But they wear the Palestinians down too—by coarsening their political culture and distorting their society.

And let’s be clear: the Oslo accords explicitly committed Israel to tackling the tougher issues you mention—Jerusalem and the Palestinian refugees. Ehud Barak was talking about what Israel could do on both scores at Camp David a few short years ago—and Arafat wasn’t ready to talk turkey.

So let’s be clear: the Palestinians had other paths to choose. That doesn’t mean Israel hasn’t missed opportunities, too. But let’s at least be clear that suicide terrorism is a choice, not an inevitability.

Rockville, Md.: Much is made of things the PA has or hasn’t done since Oslo, but the Israelis have also done plenty to undermine that agreement. The bulding of new settlements and the expansion of existing ones undermines confidence that Israel will actually recognize a free Palestine and serve as an obstacle to peace. What are your thoughts?

Dr. Warren Bass: And on the Israeli side of the ledger…

I think Israelis of good will never quite got how badly settlement-building freaked out the Palestinians. The solid Israeli center over the 1990s that backed a West Bank pullout never fully grasped that settlements summoned up the central demon of the Palestinian national narrative: dispossession, being driven off the land. Israeli doves thought that the doubling of the number of settlers over the 1990s wasn’t that big a deal; after all, the Labor Party was ready to create a Palestinian state, so the settlements would get taken care of later. But it soured a lot of Palestinians on Oslo.

Settlements—like refugees and Jerusalem—are “final status issues” under Oslo, which is to say migraine-inducing issues to be tackled well down the road once the sides trust each other better. So while settlement-building wasn’t against the letter of Oslo, it sure undercut Oslo’s spirit. I know plenty of people believe settlements make Israel safer, but on the evidence today, I just can’t make that case.

Flushing, N.Y.: Do you think Secretary of State Powell will be able to get some kind of a deal with after what happened today? Do you think the Uunited Nations should do more than what the U.S. is doing?

Dr. Warren Bass: Today’s suicide bombing—which killed six innocents near a Jerusalem marketplace— sure doesn’t help. The bomber came from the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a militia associated with Arafat’s own Fatah faction and formally classified by the State Department as a terrorist group.

In effect, today’s bombing is the Brigades’ way of telling Arafat: either you’re with us or you’re against us.

Powell can still get somewhere. But he has to be ready to crack some skulls—diplomatically speaking. That means Arafat cannot be allowed to hold onto the preposterous charade that he simply can’t control some 20-year-olds in his own Fatah movement.

On the UN…Kofi Annan had a pretty heated statement today that’ll start a big UN debate over international peacekeepers for the West Bank. But the UN (as Stalin said of the pope) has no divisions; it’ll only move when the members move, and the most important member has its foreign minister in motion right now.

Bayside, N.Y.: Could this pose a threat to domestic security?

Dr. Warren Bass: Yes.

Hate to be so blunt about it…but after 9/11, all Americans know that suicide bombers can hit here, too. That doesn’t mean it will happen, but it could.

Also, if the Israeli-Palestinian crisis spirals even further out of control and gets directly in the way of the US-led war on al-Qaeda, that’s not great for US domestic security either. So Americans have a dog in this fight.

Elmira, W.Va.: Are, as Thomas Friedman of the New York Times advocates, U.S troops a necessecity in the Middle East, or will they just confuse the situation?

Dr. Warren Bass: First: Do I get in trouble for praising Tom Friedman on the Washington Post?

Second: the situation looks pretty confused already…

I think Friedman has a point. Look: nature abhors a vacuum, and so does politics. So somebody’s got to control the West Bank.

It can’t be Israel; that means restarting a nasty occupation that Israeli diplomacy has been trying to extricate the country from since at least 1993. And Israel just can’t rule indefinitely over 3 million furious Palestinians.

Increasingly, though, it looks like it can’t be Arafat’s Palestinian Authority, either. The PA had its chance, and it’s flatly failed to give Israelis the quiet they were entitled to in return for their Oslo withdrawals. Plus, the PA is inefficient, unaccountable, has let Hamas provide social services for its Gazan citizens, and has generally proven to be a rotten government under which to live.

So if it’s not Israel and it’s not the PA, that leaves…someone else. Or a lot more muddling through.

Chicago, Ill.: Why is Palestinian civil disobedience, in your words, “unrealistic?”

Dr. Warren Bass: I wish they’d tried it; but it’d be a real departure for Palestinian political culture. (It was a stretch for American political culture in the civil rights years, too.) But there’s no real advocates of civil disobedience among the Palestinians today. Alas.

Instead, there’s around 70 percent support for suicide bombings. That’s pretty unsettling.

Fresh Meadows, N.Y.: Can you please explain to me what is the “right for the Palestinian refugee to return” they argue about?

Dr. Warren Bass: It’s the central grievance of Palestinian nationalism. In 1948, when Israel was created, about 700-800,000 Arabs fled the fighting. Israelis say they left voluntarily; Palestinians say they were ethnically cleansed; and the emerging historical literature says the problem was produced by war, not design by either side.

The Palestinian armed struggle from the 1960s onwards has been dedicated to getting the refugees’ the “right of return”—that is, letting them go back to the homes in Jaffa, Haifa, and other cities within modern-day Israel that they fled during Israel’s War of Independence.

The objection of many Arabs, Palestinian and otherwise, to the Oslo accords is that they mostly helped the West Bankers and Gazans living under Israeli occupation, not the refugees still stuck in camps in Lebanon and Jordan. (Both groups number around 3 million.)

At Camp David, Israel was flirting with a right of return—but not to Israel, but to a newly created West Bank state of Palestine. Israelis across the political spectrum say that the 1960s-style “right of return” means the death of Israel as a Jewish state.

It’s an incredibly tough nut to crack—something to make brave diplomats weep. And it’s far beyond the grasp of some of the feeble leadership the Middle East’s been seeing recently.

Stanford, Calif.: Good afternoon, doctor. What do you make of the suggestion, in the Israeli press and elsewhere, that Sharon intends to press for a Madrid-style conference as the political mechanism to work towards a negotiated settlement? Will the U.S. and EU, which had so much invested in the specific mechanism of Oslo, go for it? Will Arafat and the Palestians? (Will any of them have a choice?) And, is this serious, or is it just a diversion?

Dr. Warren Bass: Actually, the reports I’ve seen show that a “Madrid II” conference is Powell’s idea, not Sharon’s.

It’d be a nice goodie, rather than a real negotiating forum. That has to lie with the parties for it to go anywhere, even with US help.

It’d be good to have something to change the storyline—away from devastation and gore and back to diplomacy. But Powell’s got to get somewhere on the ground first before you can throw a party.

Maryland: I think it’s obvious that the Palestinians need their own nation on the West Bank. As long as there is no independent Palestine, the bloodshed will continue. Sharon’s campaign is not winning Israel any friends among the moderate Arabs, who might otherwise want to recognize Israel’s right to exist. Every time Israeli troops kill a unarmed Palestianian, it makes the monsters who bomb Passover seders look like heroes. And he’s dragging America’s reputation down with him.

Both sides need to compromise, obviously, but Israel will only give up something if forced by the U.S. Does Bush have the inclination or the will to make Israel give up its claim to the West Bank?

Dr. Warren Bass: I’m with the UN Security Council: the best bet for a way out of this misery is two states, Israel and a demilitarized Palestine, living side by side in security.

Now, as for how to get there…

One of the colossal shortfalls of Palestinian diplomacy in the past few years has been what it’s done to Israel’s left. The Labor Party of Rabin, Peres, and Barak was ready to give the Palestinians a state. But by refusing to get serious about terrorism, Arafat kept sawing off the legs of Israeli doves. I’m deeply, deeply skeptical that Sharon’s current policy will do much to make Israel safer over the long term. But if Arafat doesn’t like Prime Minister Sharon, he shouldn’t have wrecked Barak.

And while loss of Palestinian civilian life is just as bad as loss of Israeli civilian life, I don’t agree that Israel killing innocent Palestinians “makes the monsters who bomb Passover seders look like heroes.” They still look like monsters to me.

I don’t agree that Israel will give up the West Bank only if forced by the US. It might well have given it all up if it was soothed by the Palestinians. But again, I can’t see how Israel can run the West Bank.

New Haven, Conn.: Do you think Powell will be able to accomplish anything in the Middle East this weekend?

Dr. Warren Bass: He’s not going to have a relaxing weekend…

Powell has said he’s willing to spend several days there. That sounds prophetic…I wouldn’t expect instant results.

Potomac, Md.: Why is state-sponsored oppression against a class or race of powerless people not considered terror and if not, then what is it and how is it different? Do acts of systemic racism by a powerful state hold higher ground than individual acts of terrorism by powerless people?

Dr. Warren Bass: Defining terrorism is still something experts argue over; there’s a good discussion on the website I edit,

Not everything bad is terrorism. Here’s one overly simplified way to look at it: if a non-state group deliberately kills civilians to inspire fear for political purposes, that’s terrorism. If a state does the same thing, that’s a war crime.

Both, it should go without saying, are dreadful.

Bethesda, Md.: Although the suicide bombings definitely show that terrorism continues, doesn’t it also show that the current Israeli tactics are ineffective?

I’m torn on where the truth lies, and hope that our President as clearer information on what Arafat and Sharon are really up to.

Does Sharon really intend to live up to land for peace? Or is his real plan to take apart the PA and de-nationalize the Palestinians? He’s always been a BIG supporter of the settlements -- does he view this as his chance to “go all the way?”

And does Arafat really intend to live up to land for peace? Or is his real plan to eliminate the Israeli state? Does he view this as his chance to “go all the way?”

Where is the truth?

Dr. Warren Bass: All fine questions. And I doubt the president is that much clearer on them than we are.

The bottom line is that both sides are behaving in confusing ways. Start from the (historically grounded, I think) premise that the only solution to this mess is a two-state solution, and then look around. You’ve got Palestinian terrorists murdering Israeli civilians in Tel Aviv, Netanya, and Jerusalem, and you’ve got Israeli tanks in Jenin, Nablus, and Ramallah. That doesn’t look much like disentanglement to me.

I think these sides would be well-served by, as it were, a shotgun divorce. But depressingly large numbers of both Israelis and Palestinians keep fighting for room in the same failed marital bed.

Harrisburg, Pa.: Might it be possible that a coalition government with both Israeli and Palestinian input could someday govern the disputed land? I have asked this same question to many experts, and I have never received an answer. Is this idea unthinkable? If so, why?

Dr. Warren Bass: It’s not unthinkable; it’s called a “binational” state, and it’s had some prominent advocates over the years. In the 1940s, the brilliant Israeli philosopher Martin Buber pushed strongly for it; today, the Palestinian intellectual-activist Edward Said has backed it as an alternative to Oslo.

I just think it’s a dream, unfortunately. There are two very angry nationalisms between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, and no amount of wishful thinking is going to get them to rule together as if it’s Canada. So now you’ve got your answer—sorry it wasn’t more encouraging…

Chicago, Ill.: It seems obvious that the attacks on Israelis will continue no matter what Arafat does. What evidence is there that Arafat could control the bombers, especially now?

Dr. Warren Bass: It’s not obvious. I always get suspicious when authoritarians suddenly insist that they can’t crack down on their foes; they always seem to manage to do it when their own hides are on the line.

Arafat can’t turn terror off like a faucet. But he could start trending it in the right direction. Obviously, with the PA trashed by the Israeli incursion, he’s got a lot less to work with—and a huge tide of resentment and rage to manage from his street, his deputies, and his militias.

But I’d like to see him forced to try—and not just by Colin Powell. For all their distaste for Sharon, the Egyptians, Saudis, Jordanians, Moroccans, Kuwaitis, Qataris, Bahrainis, and so on all need to speak up and say that suicide terrorism is repulsive.

And the Europeans could do a lot of good by getting tough with Arafat as well as Sharon.

Arafat’s only going to act when he’s got no other choice— f then. Israel’s incursion—its stated ends to the contrary—hasn’t “isolated” Arafat. Just the reverse. But isolating him might not actually be the worst idea to try—really try.

Silver Spring, Md.: Is it true that nations like Saudi Arabia and Iraq pay the families of the suicide bombers? Could there be financial incentive for these terrorist activities as well as the political “statement” they are trying to make?

Dr. Warren Bass: Yes, Iraq pays off the families of Palestinian suicide bombers. As for the Saudis, there’ve been rumblings; we know lots of Saudi money goes to Hamas, and we know the Saudis held a telethon to raise millions to help the families of Palestinian “martyrs”— a term that the Saudi government swears just means innocents caught up in the fighting but that’s also widely used to mean suicide bombers.

At a minimum, since 15 of the 19 hijackers on 9/11 were Saudi, I can’t see the harm in having the Saudi government get its language clear— and get those money flows to Hamas chopped off.

Bethesda, Md.: What book(s) would you recommend that would shed the most light on current events in the Middle East?

Dr. Warren Bass: I can’t resist this as a last question…

A few good ones: From Beirut to Jerusalem by Tom Friedman; Waging Peace by Itamar Rabinovich; Making Peace with the PLO by David Makovsky; Righteous Victims by Benny Morris; The Dream Palace of the Arabs by Fouad Ajami; The United States and the State of Israel by David Schoenbaum; Palestinians by Baruch Kimmerling and Joel Migdal; How Did This Happen? (on 9/11, by the editors of my old magazine, Foreign Affairs); and the best single volume on terrorism, Inside Terrorism by Bruce Hoffman. That should have you all thoroughly depressed for months.

Dr. Warren Bass: Thanks again for all your questions, everyone.

Here’s hoping for a good weekend in the Middle East…and for good leadership.

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