Siegman: ’Good News’ and ’Bad News’ From Mideast Talks

June 9, 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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Henry Siegman, the Council on Foreign Relations’ foremost expert on Palestinian-Israeli relations, says the chances for peace between the two parties remain "really formidable." But he notes that, as a result of the two recent summits in the Middle East attended by President Bush, there is good news and bad news. The most important positive development, he says, is Bush’s transformation into an activist for peace in the region. He says that Bush has "made it very clear that he has decided to abandon his earlier distancing from the peace process" and to commit himself personally "to move the parties away from deadlock and into a productive peace process."

Siegman, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on June 9, 2003.

You’ve been unenthusiastic in the past about President Bush’s commitment to the Mideast peace process. Have your views changed in light of Bush’s active role at two recent summit meetings—one with Arab leaders in Egypt and the other with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Jordan?

The answer is yes. I have changed my mind. One of the interesting and important developments that occurred during the two summits is that President Bush made it very clear that he has decided to abandon his earlier distancing from the peace process. For reasons we can speculate about, he decided that Middle East peace is now a priority foreign policy goal for him. Apparently, contrary to earlier political calculations, he has come to the conclusion that he can make a difference, that his personal involvement can move the parties away from deadlock and into a productive peace process. [And] he sees this as a political plus for him rather than a liability.

What are the political pluses?

There could be several. First, if the perception in the Mideast is that he has been true to his word, after widespread skepticism that he would pursue the road map [peace plan] vigorously, that will have important consequences for other issues and other goals Bush has in the Middle East. If his commitment to the road map and his personal involvement will move the process forward, this will help stabilize the situation in Iraq. It will also enable America’s friends in the Arab world and in the Middle East generally, who are under pressure because of their close relationship with the United States, to say to their populations, "You see, we were right; the United States is delivering on its promise."

Another reason for Bush’s attitude change: he may well have come to the conclusion that, if he can show the American public he is the president who has helped resolve this issue, this will help him in [the 2004 presidential] campaign rather than hurt him. If that indeed is his judgment, I believe it’s a correct judgment—despite some criticism that he may encounter [that] he’s being too tough on Israel.

Will he be supported by American Jews?

Yes, because American Jews overwhelmingly, as polls have shown, want him involved, want the road map to succeed, and want to see an end to the conflict and the emergence of a Palestinian state.

What about the other political benefits of Bush’s shift?

I think what we can say now, in light of what happened at the two summits and what has happened since, is roughly the following: There is good news and there’s bad news. The most important good news is the fact that the president has decided to become as deeply involved as he has. He is committed, and he has to produce. And I think that he and his people understand what producing results means. He’s going to have to do something that presidents in the past have not been prepared to do: use his political leverage and capital to get some results.

That means leverage on Israel in particular?

That means leaning on Israel in particular. Not that he won’t lean on the Palestinians, but that’s easy to do without risk. Leaning on Israel is not so easy, but Bush has already started doing that. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon decided to accept the road map and to bring it to the Cabinet for its approval only because of direct pressure from President Bush.

Secondly, it seems from what Sharon said at the summit, but more importantly what he has said since, there is a real change in his thinking. At the summit, he said two things of limited significance, one that he would take down what he called "unauthorized" [settlement] outposts, but that’s largely meaningless to Palestinians, because these are empty, Potemkin Village outposts, most of them without anybody there. He said that they’re going to take down 14 of them, out of nearly 100 such outposts. The other thing that he said was that he understood that the Palestinian state that ultimately will emerge is something he is prepared to go along with and that he recognized it will require territorial contiguity.

Continuity or contiguity?

Contiguity and continuity are both the same, they’re interchangeable. Continuity is an easier word for the president to pronounce, but it’s the same as contiguity. He struggled with the other word.

What do the two words mean?

The territories are contiguous, next to each other. Now, what Sharon means by continuity or contiguity is not at all clear yet. In the past, he’s always said that he favors a Palestinian state, there’s nothing new about that. But the kind of state that he has said in the past he supports is an absolute non-starter for Palestinians. [It is composed of] separate, small cantons that, in aggregate, would amount to about 40 percent of the West Bank. That cannot be the basis of a successful peace process. Sharon has not said anything to suggest that he now defines a Palestinian state in more generous terms than that.

And in the past, he has also said that he understands the need for territorial contiguity, but that he could only agree to what he called "transportational contiguity." He said this means that the territory would not be continuous, but the cantons would be connected either by tunnels or bridges. So far, he has said nothing to indicate that he has departed from that definition of contiguity. So, for Palestinians, there’s still a lot of skepticism.

What I consider to be interesting and encouraging is that, in the face of the most recent terrorism, in which five soldiers were killed on Sunday in Erez, Sharon did not behave as he has in the past. In the past, he jumped on acts of terror as a reason to stop any kind of potential peace process from emerging. He hasn’t retaliated in ways that would kill the peace process and he has also made it clear that he intends to continue with commitments that he undertook at the summit, although he wants to see evidence that the government of [new Palestinian Prime Minister] Mahmoud Abbas is dealing seriously with the terrorists.

And what is the "bad news" you mentioned?

The bad news, we were reminded just over the past weekend, is that on the Palestinian side, Abbas does not yet have the capacity to deal with the rejectionists in his own camp. It will take some time for him to develop the capacity to do so. The question is whether [the Israelis] will be patient enough and can find ways of compensating, of strengthening Abbas in the interim, of improving conditions on the ground so that the Palestinian people will stay with Abbas, as he increases his ability to deal with the terrorists.

But, as his remarks at the Aqaba summit indicated, Sharon is not prepared to say much more than his willingness to remove the hilltop outposts. Even in respect to the outposts, he is talking about 14 outposts. There are 100 outposts that, under the terms of the road map, must be removed.

Under the road map, he also has to do a number of other things, particularly to end settlement activity, including settlement enlargement, which in the past Sharon has called "natural growth." He has made no reference to that at all and given no indication that he will deal with that issue. This issue is as important to the Palestinians, who see their land being swallowed up day by day, as terrorism is to the Israelis.

Is Abbas as weak as he seems?

Yes, he is very weak. On the one hand, Mahmoud Abbas has been very courageous, even before he became prime minister, in denouncing violence and saying it’s not only bad [in a practical sense] because it doesn’t work, it’s also morally wrong, and demeans the Palestinian national enterprise. That’s the kind of person with whom the United States, and presumably the Israeli leadership, wants to deal. He has not backed away from this position. He still is committed to this, but he insists that he can get Hamas and Islamic Jihad and Fatah’s al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades to stop the violence by negotiating a ceasefire. He has also said that he will not confront them by force, because that would trigger a civil war, and the one thing he will not do is assume responsibility for a Palestinian civil war.

Does he have any force that he could use against them?

Not at the moment, and that’s the problem. In the West Bank, he most certainly doesn’t have it, because the security forces there have been completely destroyed by Israel. That’s one of the reasons he has said he does not want Israel to withdraw yet from any West Bank areas and to turn over security responsibilities to his government.

He does have a better situation in Gaza. But it is very doubtful [the forces he commands there are] sufficient to win a violent confrontation with Hamas and Jihad. Now, apparently—and I find this encouraging; you look for encouragement with a microscope in this situation—Sharon has used language that he’s never used before, which suggests that he understands Abu Mazen’s dilemma, and is prepared to give him some time to develop the capacity to deal with Hamas and Jihad’s violence.

[Sharon is apparently also willing] for the time being at least—I don’t know how small this window is—not to jump on Abbas’ inability to stop terror as the pretext for putting an end to the political process. For people looking for good news, that’s the good news. And in fact, as of this morning, the Israeli government has said that it intends to proceed with the dismantling of [several settlement] outposts.

What’s your prediction for the next several months?

The obstacles to the success of this process are really formidable. What you have to hope for is that the parties will say to each other, "Let’s forget about the later stages of the process where conflicting positions on permanent status issues [such as Jerusalem and the borders of a Palestinian state] will bring the road map to grief. Let’s focus on the early steps." I suspect this is what they’re doing, because in the end, when it comes in a few years to permanent status talks, it is clear that this Israeli government cannot do what it will have to do to reach agreement. It will not be able to make the necessary territorial concessions without which no Palestinian government can agree to a peace agreement.

Whatever compromises Sharon intends to make, it will not be enough for a permanent status agreement. So the question is, will the parties act as if, in the end, they can find a solution, and therefore make as much progress as possible and leave it to another Israeli government to deal with the permanent status issues, hoping that the process itself will achieve enough momentum to carry it through to the end? Or will that knowledge prevent both parties from making the early compromises that need to be made in order to get there? That’s the uncertainty about the future of the road map.

More on:

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