Scant Prospects for Israeli-Palestinian Progress, Says Council’s U.S./Middle East Project Director Henry Siegman

Scant Prospects for Israeli-Palestinian Progress, Says Council’s U.S./Middle East Project Director Henry Siegman

November 5, 2002 4:56 pm (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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Henry Siegman, a top Council on Foreign Relations expert on Israeli-Palestinian affairs, offers “a very gloomy prognosis” for peace talks after the collapse of Israel’s national unity government. He warns that Israeli politics are likely to lurch to the right after the Labor Party’s departure and blasts Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for short-circuiting Palestinian moves toward reform.

Siegman, who is a senior fellow and director of the U.S./Middle East Project at the Council, made these comments in an interview with Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for the Council’s website,, on November 4, 2002.

Other Interviews

Q. There is a lot of political talk right now about changes afoot in Israel and the West Bank. Can you walk us through what Israeli Prime Minister Sharon is up to?

A. Prime Minister Sharon lost a very convenient coalition partner, the Labor Party, which from the very beginning of the formation of Israel’s national unity cabinet ran interference for Sharon and gave his right-wing government a certain legitimacy. He has now lost that support. Having tried but failed to bring extreme right-wing parties into his government to maintain a parliamentary majority, Sharon decided to dissolve Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, and to call for new elections in late January.

Prior to making that decision, Sharon and his Likud rival for the premiership, Binyamin Netanyahu, engaged in a series of contretemps designed to strengthen their own position and weaken the other’s. In the end, Netanyahu joined Sharon’s caretaker government as foreign minister, replacing Labor’s Shimon Peres. It is hard to imagine that Netanyahu will not use his new position within the government to weaken Sharon.

Q. If Netanyahu wins the Likud nomination to stand for prime minister, would anyone from Labor stand a chance of defeating him?

A. The polls certainly do not suggest that Labor has a candidate to defeat him, so that’s an unlikely development. The likelihood is that no matter who runs for Likud, whether it is Sharon or Netanyahu, we will see another Likud-led government.

Q. Which candidate does the U.S.prefer?

A. The focus of this administration is on the possible war with Iraq. What it prefers at this point is a government of Israel that will not initiate policies that will cause the situation with the Palestinians to deteriorate further, into further outbreaks of violence, further outrages that will upset the Arab world, because that clearly will cause problems for the United States and lessen even further the chances it has for some cooperation from Arab countries in this Iraqi action. From America’s point of view, the recent developments in Israel could not have happened at a worse time.

They thought they had an agreement with Sharon: he would keep things reasonably quiet. They played around with an effort to project this administration as trying in a serious way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to satisfy Arab sentiment, and that’s why Assistant Secretary of State Bill Burns was in the region with this new “road map.” In fact, this road map was designed to achieve very little. Its conditions, as spelled out by Burns, assured that nothing much would happen for the next several months, if not several years.

Q. Be more specific. What was in the “road map”?

A. The road map essentially proposed a three-stage process, beginning with an end to Palestinian terrorism and an end to Israeli settlement activity, leading to a second stage of Palestinian elections and Palestinians dealing seriously with their own terrorist groups.

This represents an interesting change in the American position, because originally the president wanted the Palestinians to end terrorism in the first stage. This has now been moved to the second stage, in recognition of the practical reality that the Palestinians cannot achieve the goal of closing down terrorist organizations as long as they are fully under Israeli army occupation.

In the second phase, there would be a transitional Palestinian state whose borders are undefined. This in turn would lead to a third stage in which negotiations between the parties would determine permanent borders. The details on how this would come about are rather complicated and offer no assurance that any real progress will be made in the near future. That is fine from the administration’s point of view because the administration does not want to face a situation that requires a major new American initiative to move things from one stage to another. Such an initiative would either arouse domestic opposition from American supporters of Israel or it would upset the Arab world.

Q. Did Labor make a big mistake by fomenting the current cabinet crisis?

A. I think Labor made its biggest mistake—in terms of its own ability to function as a viable political party on the Israeli scene—when it joined this government. That’s when it made its mistake.

Labor was split. Many voices within the party bitterly opposed joining Sharon’s government. The former foreign minister, Shlomo Ben-Ami, resigned and left the country. In effect, the Labor Party, which ran on a platform opposing all of Sharon’s ideas, joined the government and became a partner in the implementation of Sharon’s ideas and a very effective apologist for those policies in the international community. Sharon could not have had a better combination for the implementation of ideas that the Labor Party historically had rejected. So now the Labor Party goes into a political campaign condemning policies which the party helped implement for a year and a half. It’s not a very credible position.

Q. What about the new Israeli defense minister?

A. Serious questions were raised about the appointment of former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Chief of Staff Shaul Mofaz as defense minister in Israel’s parliament, even by members of the Likud. Mofaz has not gone through a transition into civilian life, and he has not held any political office. That is not seen as healthy for a political democracy that wants the military under civilian control. Nevertheless, Mofaz was confirmed in the end.

Another problem with Mofaz is that he holds very hard right-wing views. He has advocated for the longest time the expulsion of Yasir Arafat—and the expulsion as well of the entire senior leadership of the Palestinian Authority. Mofaz has been an advocate of the notions that the only way to resolve Israel’s security situation is through military means, and that opening up a so-called political horizon to help Palestinians into a political process is something to be rejected. So the hard right within Sharon’s transitional government is powerfully reinforced.

Q. Basically, you don’t think the new government of Israel and the next election will be helpful for a rapprochement with the Palestinians?

A. No, not at all. Nevertheless, I believe it is a good thing that the Labor Party is out of this government because this government operated without a serious political opposition. That is very unhealthy for any democratic system. Beyond this, the Israeli public was not offered an alternative to the policies of the Sharon government. The Labor Party had no incentive to do so while they were in the government. So I think this will usher in a new phase which will at least open a debate between two different views of how Israel’s problems need to be dealt with. And that can only be a good thing in my view.

Q. What’s happened with the Palestinians?

A. The whole world has discovered the issue of Palestinian reform. I say this with a certain sense of irony because when the Oslo agreement was first signed, both the United States and [then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak] Rabin counted on Arafat’s authoritarianism—his near dictatorial role—to provide Israel with security. That was the tradeoff in the Oslo deal: “You give us security, we will allow you to develop something that may eventually turn into a Palestinian state.” There was little interest on the part of the United States or the government of Israel in transparent democratic government in the Palestinian Authority (PA). In fact, Israel and the U.S. turned a blind eye to the establishment by Arafat of military courts that summarily executed some people. It’s a part of recent history but erased from our memories.

Of all people, it is Sharon, the great champion of democracy, who raised the issue of reform. He raised it because, in my view, he saw it as very effective way avoiding a political process. His argument was, “I cannot sit down with people who are not democratic leaders and not fully answerable to their people”—even though popular sentiment in Palestine is probably much more hard-line than the line put forward by Arafat himself. So reform has become a big issue.

In fact, it is a legitimate issue and should have been so since the beginning. There were some in the international community—and here at the Council on Foreign Relations, which established an independent task force on Palestinian nation-building—who from the beginning advocated vigorous changes in the PA to make it accountable and more democratic. They received no support at all, neither from Israel nor from the Clinton administration. Some told us quite explicitly that the issue of reform is a distraction from the issue of security and should be avoided.

Many Palestinians agitated for reform long before it became a popular international concern. As a consequence of this, not too long ago, the Palestinian legislature—which up until now essentially played dead but which in theory is the institution that can balance the executive—all of a sudden came to life and decided to challenge a cabinet appointed by Arafat, and did so with sufficient vigor and credibility that the cabinet resigned en masse even before they came up for a vote.

Q. They were Arafat’s cronies?

A. This was supposed to be a reform cabinet, in response to international pressure, but the Palestinian legislature said to Arafat that it is not. It is the same wine in a different bottle.

Q. What has happened since?

Arafat had to put together a new cabinet, which he has now done. But it isn’t really a new cabinet. It is the same recycled cabinet with some changes around the margins, but Arafat remains completely in control. It is not a reformed cabinet. He does have some new technical people, and that is all to the good.

The reason Arafat was able to get away with this a second time was that Sharon, just prior to the appointment of this new cabinet, decided to attack him in his headquarters once again, nearly killing Arafat in the process. That turned public sentiment in the Palestinian community around.

Q. Did Israel attack Arafat’s headquarters after a bus explosion?

A. There was a terrorist strike committed by Hamas, but Sharon blamed Arafat and was in the process of destroying what little remained of his headquarters in Ramallah. There was a great deal of international criticism of that, and within the Palestinian community, there was great anger. Arafat traded on this very effectively and said to his people, “If you reject this new cabinet I am proposing, it will be an act of treason because you will be seen as playing America’s game and Sharon’s game.” And as a result of that, he won the legislature’s support for the new cabinet.

Q. Who will succeed Arafat?

A. It’s hard to say. I suspect that if elections were held tomorrow, the people who would have credibility with the Palestinian public are people who represent a younger generation—not the outside PLO followers of Arafat who came following Oslo into the West Bank and Gaza, but native Palestinians who led the first intifada in the late 1980s and early 1990s, particularly Marwan Barghouti. He is a very popular and articulate and charismatic Palestinian leader, a man in his 40s, a leader of the first intifada and a power behind the second intifada. He is now in Israeli jail, which only enhances his popularity. And he is about to stand trial. There is to be a major show trial of Barghouti. At some point, if he is treated as a political personality and released, the polls indicate he will be the leading candidate to replace Arafat.

Q. How did he end up in an Israeli jail?

A. As a consequence of the massive Israeli incursions into Palestinian territory. They were looking for him. Barghouti is charged with organizing violent resistance, terrorism, and suicide bombings by a group called the al-Aqsa Brigades. He is charged with leading the al-Aqsa Brigades, although he has denied it.

It may not be Barghouti, but it will be people of his generation who will soon come to power. They are not going to be any easier to deal with. They will make very tough demands on territory and removal of settlements, but they will be more open on issues such as the return of refugees. So in the end, they may be a more pragmatic group for Israel to deal with.

Q. So in the short term, what’s your prognosis on the peace process?

A. There is no warrant for optimism in the peace process, or even for the beginnings of a political process that may lead to peace. This Israeli government, and the government likely to follow it, is dedicated to the proposition that you cannot reward terror—and that to promise a political dialogue with the Palestinians that leads to viable statehood is to reward terror.

In my view, that is a false slogan, because Israel is not being asked to conduct negotiations and make concessions while the terror continues. It is being asked only to confirm that once terrorism ends, negotiations for a viable Palestinian state will begin. Nevertheless, it is a slogan that is vastly popular in Israel.

Q. Why hasn’t there been much terror in the last month?

A. Two factors: the physical presence of the IDF in the territories, and the fact that the territories are today one vast detention camp where more than 1 million people are imprisoned in their homes. Curfews do not let people leave their homes, except for an hour or two during the day to get the most basic needs for survival, to go shopping for bread, milk. That makes it difficult for terrorists to operate. It also breeds anger, fury, and rage on the part of a lot of people. They now have lines of potential suicide bombers just waiting for the opportunity “to serve the Palestinian cause.”

The other part is a new debate within the Palestinian leadership. For the first time, there are leading Palestinians who are arguing against terrorism and suicide bombers, who say this does not help us practically or morally. And are arguing for an end to terror…

Q. What is United States policy?

A. The Bush administration is not about to take any new initiatives. They do not see this as the right time to try pressure either of the parties to do that which they do not want to do.

Q. So what is the prognosis?

A. A very gloomy prognosis. It is hard to imagine things getting worse than they are, and there certainly is no reason to believe that they will get better. The likelihood is that they will get worse. And there is some serious fear that with a narrow right-wing government and a war with Iraq, the situation might be taken advantage of by extremists to do some scary things. In a right-wing Israeli government, there may be at least three political parties that advocate the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from the territories.

If a new Israeli government were to say that it will not permit the emergence of a Palestinian state—which, while not the position of Sharon’s current government, is the official position of the Likud Party—Israel would face a demographic problem that will not yield to politics or ideology. Within ten years or so, there may well be an absolute Arab majority between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River. Absent a Palestinian state, the state of Israel will govern a majority population that is entirely disenfranchised and will cease to be a democratic state a la the former apartheid South Africa, or it will cease to be a Jewish state.

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