Siegman Warns That Unless Bush Presses Sharon, Success for the ‘Road Map’ Remain Remote

May 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.

Henry Siegman, the Council on Foreign Relations’ foremost expert on Israeli-Palestinian relations, says that Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has staked out a position that “hardly augers well for progress on the implementation of the road map” designed to bring about separate Israeli and Palestinian states. Secretary of State Colin Powell is traveling in the area to discuss the “road map” with the parties.

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In an online forum on nytimes.com, which has been edited for publication here, Siegman says, “I believe Sharon will manage to avoid taking these first steps unless there is a determined effort on the part of President Bush to get him to do it.”

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The forum was conducted by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on May 8, 2003.

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Secretary of State Colin Powell is in the Middle East to discuss the road map. Recently, you have been fairly pessimistic about the prospects for progress. Has anything happened to make you more upbeat?

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Unfortunately, no. Just the other day, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon put Secretary of State Powell on notice that he would not discuss with him Israel’s obligations under the road map. Instead, Sharon said he would discuss his disagreements with the road map directly with President Bush when Sharon goes to Washington [in the near future]. This hardly augers well for progress on the implementation of the road map.

Ben, a reader who submitted a question from New York, asks: How can one deal with the Palestinians, who are out to use terror against Israelis and have regularly failed to rein in their terrorists?

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The issue is not dealing with terrorists, but with a new Palestinian prime minister, [Mahmoud Abbas, also known as] Abu Mazen, who has publicly condemned terror and violence and insisted that they are not only morally wrong, but do damage to the Palestinian cause. He has just come into office, and his seriousness in opposing terror will be tested on the ground.

John Woodward from Tasmania asks: How important is politics in the United States vis-à-vis the Middle East?

There is a well organized and influential pro-Israel lobby in the United States, but it goes well beyond the American-Jewish community. The evangelical fundamentalists are considered by the Republican Party to be its core supporters, and therefore it is extremely responsive to their views, which on the subject of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict come down entirely on the side of Israeli extremists far to the right of even Prime Minister Sharon.

Does that mean that Powell’s involvement may be less than all-out if the Bush administration is reluctant to take on the lobby?

I do not for a moment question Powell’s own commitment to the implementation of the road map. He will no doubt go all-out in his conversations with Sharon and Abu Mazen. But if there is a tacit understanding between Sharon and Bush’s people that Israel is not expected to do much in advance of a showdown between Abu Mazen and the terrorist groups— Hamas, Jihad, the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades— then Powell’s efforts will get nowhere.

Several readers are troubled by the Palestinian demand for “the right of return” to land in Israel from which Palestinians either fled or were forced to leave during Israel’s War of Independence in 1948 against invading Arab armies. This is due to be dealt with in the final phase of the road map. Several readers, including Dan Ruben, argue that it would be fairer if the Arab states in return agreed to compensate Jews who were forced to emigrate from Arab countries to Israel. Is there an equitable solution for the right of return issue?

There is no question in my mind that Palestinians will have to yield on the issue of the right of the return of Palestinian refugees. If the right were implemented, then at least in theory large numbers of returnees could change the character of the Jewish state into a Palestinian state. Nevertheless, it is an issue that needs to be discussed in the third and final phase of the road map, along with other [so-called] permanent status issues. The insistence of Sharon and Israel’s foreign minister [Silvan Shalom] that the Palestinians concede this issue even before implementation of the road map begins is an absolute deal-breaker.

The cause of Jewish refugees from Arab countries who emigrated to Israel is a legitimate one, and has in fact been raised with Palestinians in previous Camp David negotiations. There is no reason why arrangements for their compensation by an international refugee fund created within the context of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement cannot be made.

Sarah Allen asks: Why doesn’t the United States accept or at least consider the Syrian proposal to make the Middle East a weapons-of-mass-destruction (WMD) free zone? Isn’t Israel the only country in the region that now possesses WMDs? Doesn’t that make other countries in the area feel threatened?

Israel is the only country that has nuclear weapons, but Arab countries have biological or chemical weapons. It would be a good idea to turn the region into a WMD-free zone. Israel has agreed to consider such a proposal and to discuss it with its Arab neighbors as soon as formal peace treaties between Israel and its neighbors are concluded.

Michael Gray asks: Do you believe an active Western military presence in the Middle East is necessary to inhibit terrorism and expedite a Palestinian/Israeli settlement?

Such an international presence could be extremely helpful in dealing with the problem of terrorism. The difficulty is that Israel opposes such a presence, fearing that it will inhibit its own efforts to counter terrorism, and also because one would have to define the areas within the West Bank and Gaza in which such forces would operate. Since by implication, at least, these areas will be seen as the ones Israel agrees to turn over eventually to the Palestinians, it is difficult to imagine how Israelis and Palestinians would agree on the definition of the areas in which such forces would be stationed. Palestinians, who have called for such an international presence, would insist that they operate within the entire West Bank and Gaza, i.e., within the pre-1967 borders [that were enlarged as a result of the 1967 war], something that Israel would obviously object to.

A reader asks: What do you think of the road map in general? Isn’t it too specific, with too many steps? Wouldn’t it have been better to limit it to one phase at a time?

No. Neither side is likely to make painful compromises without knowing that they would lead to the achievement of its most important objectives. Palestinians will not undertake a fratricidal civil war to dismantle the terrorist groups if they do not have a prior assurance that such a risky and costly course of action would in fact lead to a viable and sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Similarly, the Israelis will not make concessions without an assurance that these will lead to greater Israeli security and an end to terror.

That is why the road map’s provision that a viable and sovereign Palestinian state in phase three is the goal of this process is key to the implementation of the initial steps the parties must take in the opening phase.

The Syrians are floating the idea of resuming the peace talks with Israel that ended without an agreement in 2001. Is Israel interested in reviving those talks, and can Israel deal with the Palestinians and Syrians at the same time?

Each of Israel’s previous four prime ministers— [Yitzhak] Rabin, [Shimon] Peres, [Benjamin] Netanyahu, and [Ehud] Barak— very much wanted a Syrian deal before they negotiated with the Palestinians, on the assumption that once Syria is out of the picture as a confrontation state with Israel, Palestinians will have been weakened and will make fewer demands. I am not sure how much weight this thinking carries with Sharon, because I doubt that he is prepared to offer Palestinians enough for the Syrian equation to make any difference.

Will Sharon be able to summon the will and political influence to go along with the first step— halting new settlement activity and dismantling “illegal” outposts? And, assuming the Palestinians carry out their obligation to stop terrorism, who should be the arbiter to say that the Palestinians have complied?

I believe Sharon will manage to avoid taking these first steps unless there is a determined effort on the part of President Bush to get him to do it. This is not to say that he could not remove some outposts that successive Israeli governments have promised to dismantle. But this would be of a token nature and would have no impact on the larger situation.

The arbiter to determine compliance must be a third party. The road map specifically provides for monitoring by the quartet [that drafted the plan]--the United Nations, Russia, the European Union, and the United States. The United States has indicated that when it comes to compliance with the road map’s security requirements, it will be in charge of that process.

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