Siegman: After Arafat, Key Question Is Whether U.S. and Israel Will Resume Peace Talks with Palestinians

Siegman: After Arafat, Key Question Is Whether U.S. and Israel Will Resume Peace Talks with Palestinians

November 10, 2004 5:59 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, the Council on Foreign Relations’ top expert on Israeli/Palestinian affairs, says there is little question but that Mahmoud Abbas, also known as Abu Mazen, will replace Yasir Arafat as the new leader of the Palestinians. He says that the elevation of Mazen, who Siegman says opposes terrorism, presents an opportunity for resuming Middle East peace talks if Israel and the United States, both of which refused to negotiate with Arafat, drop their opposition to negotiations aimed at a permanent Palestinian-Israeli peace.

“If Abu Mazen replaces Arafat, the critical question will be whether [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon will continue to act unilaterally, insisting that he does not yet have a Palestinian partner for peace so that he can continue to deepen Israel’s hold on the West Bank, or enter into serious negotiations with a new Palestinian leadership,” Siegman says. “The answer to this question will depend on how seriously the United States will become engaged and insist that the new Palestinian leadership be helped by Israel and be given the credibility it needs to fight terror and to pursue a nonviolent approach to Palestinian goals.”

Siegman, a Council senior fellow and director of the U.S./Middle East Project, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for, on November 9, 2004.

Post-Arafat, what’s likely to happen in the short run in Palestinian politics?

It is encouraging that in this period of transition, when everyone thought there would be instability and even violence and jockeying for power, there has been relative stability. The various factions have so far acted responsibly and have sought to maintain Palestinian unity.

Also, there seems to have emerged a consensus about who will head the new interim leadership. It will be led by Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas]. The young guard seems to have accepted the need during this time of transition to turn to respected leaders who have been identified with the PLO [Palestinian Liberation Organization] over the years. Abu Mazen is seen as the likely replacement for Arafat for several of the positions that he held: first and foremost, as head of the PLO, as the PLO to this day remains the highest source of authority for Palestinian governance. He is the most likely successor to Arafat in that position as head of the PLO, because he is currently the No. 2 in the PLO— he’s the head of the Executive Committee. He is also likely to be the replacement for Arafat as head of Fatah—the most important political party within the PLO and the Palestinian Authority [PA].

It is also likely that Abu Ala [Ahmed Qurei], who is now prime minister, will retain that position. The elected president designates the prime minister, who has to be confirmed by the Palestinian Legislative Council.

There will be an election for a new president?

Yes, there will have to be an election if the person who replaces Arafat is to have any legitimacy. The PA’s basic law requires elections.

Abu Mazen cannot become president without a general election?

No, he cannot. However, the head of Fatah is elected by the Fatah organization. There would be a vote within Fatah, but not a popular vote. The same thing is true of the position of head of the PLO, who would have to be elected by the PLO Central Committee. The president of the Palestinian Authority, on the other hand, must run in a general election.

You’ve met Abu Mazen?

Yes, I have a long relationship with him.

What kind of person is he?

He has a very unlikely personality for a politician. He is a very private person. He is shy and uncomfortable dealing with the public. In the past, when he had difficult confrontations with Arafat, he never turned to the public for support. Often, in these difficult situations, he would just disappear from public view, leaving the country for extended periods of time.

In the summer of 2003, under great pressure, Arafat appointed Abu Mazen prime minister. The idea was that this would accelerate peace talks. What happened? Why did that fail?

The international community had put great pressure on Arafat to relinquish certain powers he had concentrated in his own hands, some of which he exercised illegally. They pressured him to appoint a prime minister, which the PA’s basic law at the time did not provide for. Arafat resisted this pressure for the longest time, but finally yielded.

Several days before Arafat was scheduled to announce the appointment of Abu Mazen, word leaked out he intended to appoint someone other than Abu Mazen— a prominent businessman named Munib Masri, who had no political experience and therefore would be more easily manipulated by Arafat than Abu Mazen would be.

I received a call from European Union and United Nations representatives asking me to fly in to see Arafat to convince him not to do it. I was told by senior State Department officials that if Arafat did not appoint Abu Mazen, the U.S. would not proceed with the “road map” and the peace process, and would leave Arafat to Sharon’s tender mercies. I met with Arafat at the Mukata [his Ramallah compound] and conveyed this message to him, and also urged Masri to withdraw his name from consideration for the post, which he did.

So Mazen was appointed. He lasted for four months. What happened?

Secretary of State Colin Powell published an article in Foreign Affairs in which he wrote that Arafat was to blame for Abu Mazen’s failure, which led to his resignation within four months. That was a very partial and, to my mind, dishonest rendering of what happened. Everyone knew that Arafat would try to undermine any new prime minister who would seek to assume some of his powers. It was understood that Abu Mazen could stand up to Arafat only if Israel were to give him credibility with the Palestinian public by improving their miserable lives by easing the closings in the territories, gradually withdrawing the IDF [Israel Defense Forces], releasing Palestinian prisoners, and other such measures. Despite his promises to do these things, Sharon failed to deliver. And despite Bush’s promise to press Sharon to keep these promises, he also failed to deliver. Sharon gave Abu Mazen nothing.

Ironically, the prisoners Sharon refused to release to help Abu Mazen, the man who publicly denounced Palestinian violence and terrorism, were released by him some months later to the Hezbollah terrorists. And the territorial withdrawals he refused to make to help strengthen Abu Mazen he subsequently announced he would make by withdrawing unilaterally from Gaza, but in a manner that strengthened Hamas.

So Sharon may now get a second chance to get things right. If Abu Mazen replaces Arafat, the critical question will be whether Sharon will continue to act unilaterally, insisting that he does not yet have a Palestinian partner for peace so that he can continue to deepen Israel’s hold on the West Bank, or enter into serious negotiations with a new Palestinian leadership.

The answer to this question will depend on how seriously the United States will become engaged and insist that the new Palestinian leadership be helped by Israel and be given the credibility it needs to fight terror and to pursue a nonviolent approach to Palestinian goals.

How can the United States get involved?

The United States cannot and should not get involved in the choice of the Palestinian leader. American and Israeli support for a particular candidate publicly can only undermine him.

Let’s assume it’s done. What should the United States do? Should it send a ranking envoy over there?

During the [U.S. presidential] campaign, the question of how a new administration would deal with the Middle East peace process came down to who would be appointed as special envoy. But the real issue is not the envoy but U.S. policy. Palestinians must know that the United States will support a process that requires the permanent status issues [between Israelis and Palestinians] be resolved in bilateral negotiations, and that pre-emptive measures will not be tolerated.

The United States must make it clear that continued unilateralism on Israel’s part will make a peace process impossible and will undermine a moderate new Palestinian leadership. This new leadership must act to end violence and terrorism, but it will have no chance at succeeding at this if Israel does not end all further settlement activity immediately and take the necessary steps on the ground. Conditions for a resumption of negotiations must conform to the road map and not be arbitrarily set by Sharon. What this means concretely, among other things, is that all final status issues, including borders and the status of Jerusalem, cannot be taken off the table by Israel.

U.S. policy must make it clear to Palestinians that there is indeed a non-violent alternative to terrorism for the achievement of their legitimate goals. As long as Arafat was in power, the question was whether there was a Palestinian partner for peace. If he is replaced by a Palestinian leadership that opposes violence, the question will become: is there an Israeli partner for peace, and what is the United States doing to make sure there is?

Let’s talk a bit about Arafat. You’ve known him for how many years?

I’ve known him for about 12 years now.

Lately, he’s obviously been in some disrepute— he’s been blamed by former President Bill Clinton and former Mideast envoy Dennis Ross for the failure of the peace process. Others, like former Clinton aide Robert Malley, take the opposite view. Where do you stand?

Robert Malley, who was present at [the July 2000 peace talks at] Camp David, does not absolve Arafat, but he also assigns blame to [then-Israeli Prime Minister] Ehud Barak and to the United States. There are reasons why Arafat refused to deal with Barak’s proposals, which is not to say that he was justified in doing so. He bears a very large measure of responsibility for the failure of Camp David. He did not have to accept Barak’s proposal without change, but he should have said, “These proposals represent a major advance, we’ve come a long way, but we’re not there yet, and we have to negotiate about the remaining gaps.” By failing to do so, he missed a historic opportunity and did great damage to the Palestinian cause.

But Arafat’s failure did not occur in a vacuum. When Barak ran for office, he promised to revive and conclude the peace process with the Palestinians, and that this would be his first order of business. But from the moment Barak took office, he put the peace process with the Palestinians on ice, and instead focused on negotiations with the Syrians. Not only that, but he permitted the expansion of settlements at a rate that exceeded settlement expansion under [former Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu. He also abrogated unilaterally the agreement reached between Israel and the Palestinians by Netanyahu and Sharon, who was foreign minister at the time, at the Wye River Conference of October 1998 that required Israel to redeploy the IDF from occupied territories that were to be transferred to the PA’s administrative control.

As a consequence, Arafat’s popularity among Palestinians had dropped to its lowest point ever. It is at this point that Barak, whose government was beginning to fall apart, decided to ask President Clinton to bring Arafat to Camp David for peace talks in 2000. Arafat, and the Palestinians generally, had completely lost trust in Barak, whom they considered to be even more hostile to their aspirations and less trustworthy than Netanyahu. Arafat tried to persuade Clinton that this was not the right time for a negotiation process that would entail Palestinian compromises and asked that the Camp David talks be postponed. But because Ehud Barak needed successful peace talks to survive as prime minister and President Clinton wanted a peace agreement to be his legacy before leaving office, Arafat was literally dragged to Camp David.

You have said that Arafat has made two big mistakes.

He made more than two mistakes. But these two had particularly damaging consequences. One is the Camp David failure that we discussed. The other one is rarely noted by analysts and commentators. After 9/11, when President Bush announced a global war against al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden and asked for allies in this war, one of the first to respond was Arafat. Most importantly, Arafat challenged bin Laden’s claim that he attacked the U.S. in support of the Palestinian cause. Arafat rejected that claim and noted that al Qaeda had never done anything to help the Palestinians.

Because of the political difficulty Arab leaders had in responding to the president’s call—primarily because their support would have been portrayed by bin Laden as a betrayal of Palestinians—President Bush welcomed Arafat’s offer of support. It was an embrace that held out the possibility of an important shift in U.S. policy toward Arafat and the Palestinians. No one understood this better than Sharon, who uncharacteristically blasted President Bush and accused him of engineering another Munich. It was criticism that chilled the relationship Sharon had enjoyed with President Bush.

Instead of taking advantage of this situation to obtain greater support from Washington, Arafat destroyed this historic opportunity by sanctioning the secret smuggling of arms on the cargo ship Karine A, which was discovered and captured by Israel [in January 2002]. He added insult to injury by lying about his role in arranging for this transport, and lost the friendship and support of President Bush.

What are the chances for serious negotiations now?

There is now the opportunity to begin with a more modest approach to a resumption of the peace process by dealing with the withdrawal from Gaza promised by Sharon. The withdrawal that Sharon intended to implement unilaterally can now be coordinated with a new Palestinian leadership. If successful, this can serve as a bridge to negotiations over the West Bank as well.

How far apart is Sharon’s desire to keep most of the West Bank settlements from the position contained in the final offer the Clinton administration brought to the Palestinians? In other words, Israel is going to keep a certain amount of settlements, right?

Sharon’s current insistence on using the Gaza withdrawal to hold on to much of the West Bank is totally inconsistent with the Clinton proposals. Sharon would have to make a major change in policy to enter negotiations that require essentially a return to the pre-1967 lines, except for an exchange of territories on both sides of the old border, to accommodate the large settlement blocks near that border that could accommodate 70 percent to 80 percent of the settlers. In principle, Palestinians agreed to such an arrangement at Camp David, but they insisted on a fair exchange of territory to compensate the land they would be yielding to Israel.

The other big issue is, of course, the refugees, and here Palestinians will have to make a major concession by agreeing to the return of refugees to the new state of Palestine instead of to Israel. I believe that is a concession they are prepared to make within the context of a fair agreement that also deals with Jerusalem and territory.

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