Henry Siegman, director of the Council on Foreign Relations’ U.S./Middle East Project and a long-time expert on Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, explains the sweep of the newly released “road map” for peace— and says the chances for success are “very, very remote.” Outlining problems within the Palestinian, Israeli, and United States camps, Siegman says he sees little reason for optimism.
“When you look at these three players, based on experience and history, you have to be crazy to think it’s all going to work out in the end,” he concludes.
Siegman, a senior fellow at the Council, was interviewed by Bernard Gwertzman, consulting editor for cfr.org, on April 30, 2003.
When we talked about six weeks ago, you were fairly gloomy about the prospects of this so-called Middle East road map ever getting anywhere. What’s happened in the interim?
One could argue that some very good things happened, and they make it easier for the process envisioned by the road map to proceed. Specifically, President Bush reiterated his very strong personal commitment to the road map and his intention to see it through. Secondly, the election of a prime minister, the appointment by [Yasir] Arafat and the approval by the Palestinian Legislative Council, of Mahmoud Abbas [also known as Abu Mazen] as the new prime minister, and subsequently the approval of his cabinet. And thirdly, a major new development, and perhaps from Israel’s security point of view, the most important new development of all— that on the face of it should make it easier for both parties to deal with the road map— is the change of regime in Iraq. A major security threat has been removed.
Is the fall of the Saddam regime as significant as when Egypt signed the peace treaty with Israel in 1979, taking Egypt out of future wars?
Yes, very much so.
So Israel doesn’t have to worry about any external Arab threat?
Today, no. It is not conceivable in the present circumstances that any Arab state would contemplate an assault on Israel. The only state that still has an outstanding quarrel with Israel is Syria. And the Syrians have now come under tremendous U.S. pressure. The issue with Syria is not “don’t attack Israel.” Rather the issue with Syria is “close down the terrorist organizations that have offices in Damascus, and return to a peace process.” And, incidentally, Syria announced two days ago that it is prepared to return to a peace process, to a negotiation, with Israel without conditions.
What is the road map’s importance?
What is important is that it tries to overcome a problem that bedeviled the peace process, right from the beginning, particularly since the Mitchell report [published by a committee led by U.S. Senator George Mitchell in 2001]. That was authored by a special commission set up by various countries to try to get the peace process back on track after the failure of Camp David talks [conducted by President Clinton in 2000]. And the Mitchell report, and the [Director of Central Intelligence George] Tenet plan that followed it, ran up against the problem of compliance. Each side said, “We’ll do what you ask us to do, but the other side has to comply first.” And consequently nothing happened.
The road map tries to deal with that by [establishing] three phases. In each of these phases, each side has to agree to fulfill certain obligations, but the obligations are not dependent on what the other side does. Both sides have to implement what they have to implement at the same time, in parallel, and this is why they came up with the idea of three phases, because at some point you have to stop and say, “Are they implementing?” And the next phase won’t kick in unless some third party, which is the quartet [the partnership backing the plan, made up of the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the United Nations], says, “Okay, both sides have now fulfilled their obligations.” In terms of process, it is a new concept.
What happens in phase one?
In the first phase, each party has to deal with some of the issues most important to it. Palestinians have to consolidate the many security forces that operated under Arafat. They have to take arms away from people, and from elements of the security forces, that they are not legally permitted to possess. Also, they need to close down terrorist groups, like Hamas, Islamic Jihad, and their own Al-Aqsa Brigades.
And Israel is expected in the first phase to deal with Palestinian concerns, which is to say primarily to stop settlement activity, dismantle what is called— it’s kind of a strange concept— the “illegal” outposts, which aren’t exactly settlements yet, but they tend to become the progenitors of full-fledged settlements.
They’re illegal in one sense, in a peculiar sense, that by the guidelines of [Israeli Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon’s own government, they’re not supposed to be settled. Palestinians, of course, say all of the settlements are illegal. In any event, [the Israelis are] supposed to shut down all of them. Equally important, they’re supposed to do away with the various restrictions they’ve imposed on Palestinian cities and towns, on the roads and the checkpoints. There’s virtually no traffic permitted between Palestinian cities. All of this has to be eased, so that business can start again.
Phase two has a very important and new concept. It provides for the establishment of what is called a provisional or transitional Palestinian state, in what amounts to about 40% of the West Bank. These are areas which, under the Oslo Accords originally, Israel was to have withdrawn its troops from and turned over to the Palestinian Authority, so that it would have both administrative and security responsibility. It didn’t happen under the Oslo Accords. But this is what is supposed to happen under the second phase.
Does this "provisional or transitional state" include all the major towns in the West Bank?
Yes. It also includes large agricultural areas— farmlands, orchards, and such.
Can Israeli settlements remain in these areas?
The existing settlements would stay during phase two. Phase three addresses the question of what to do with the settlements. That negotiation is part of what they call permanent status issues, along with the issue of where the borders will be drawn. If you resolve the borders, that has some implications for settlements. Settlements will not remain on the Palestinian side of the border.
And the right of return question?
The permanent status of Jerusalem and the right of [Palestinian refugees to] return [to their home areas] are all issues that would be determined in the permanent status negotiations [in phase three]. But what is new about the second phase is that the Palestinian state would assume most characteristics of statehood in the 40 percent without, however, compromising the ultimate outcome of where the borders are supposed to be.
So Palestine would be recognized internationally as a state?
It could even during that phase assume United Nations membership.
What is your view of the road map?
The likelihood of the road map leading to phase two, or even ultimately to a permanent status agreement in [phase three, is very, very remote. By nature, I’m not pessimistic, but in this case it’s very hard to find the elements upon which you can base a more optimistic scenario. There are three parties here. You have the Palestinians, you have the Israeli government, and you have the U.S. government. There’s the larger international community as well, but it’s the U.S. government that plays an absolutely key role here. And when you look at each of these, it’s very hard to see how they’re going to play their part in making this happen.
Let’s begin with the Palestinians. Their problem is that they have a new prime minister, who was resisted by Arafat, because he doesn’t want to share his power and doesn’t want to give up any power or authority. [Moreover, Arafat] felt that Abu Mazen was a man who was below him, and he doesn’t want a man like that to be in charge and telling him what to do. But even more important, there is a very significant difference of strategic thinking within the Palestinian community about how to deal with the Israeli problem. There are some Palestinians who say that, despite the fact that they have suffered terribly, and that their institutions, economy, autonomy, and social life have been grievously damaged, the only way they’ll ever succeed [is to] keep up the violence. They insist that those who think [they can make] progress by giving up violent resistance to the occupation are deluded. There’s no way that a Sharon-led government is going to agree to a Palestinian state otherwise, they say.
And these are Palestinians who are not necessarily terrorists?
Where does Abu Mazen stand?
He represents a completely different approach. He says that the violence has done [Palestinians] damage, set them back, and they’ll never achieve a state and peace with violence. Arafat is seen by a lot of Palestinians as not persuaded by Abu Mazen’s approach, even though he’s made some statements under pressure that he opposes terror and so on. Well, I don’t think he ever organized or initiated the terror, but he’s been unwilling to act against it.
What do Abu Mazen’s opponents want the Israelis to do?
They want the Israelis to commit themselves to a state within the 1967 borders before they give up the violence. They see violence as a means of getting there.
They want the Israelis to yield under pressure?
They think if they keep up the pressure on Israel, the Israelis will finally say, "Okay, let’s sit down and talk, and we’ll talk about the ’67 borders." The problem is, how does this new guy, how does Abu Mazen deal with this kind of opposition within the Palestinian community? How does he deal with the obstruction that he is very likely to meet from Arafat, who will try to undermine him and try to show that he continues to be the indispensable leader? It’s very difficult to imagine a scenario where Abu Mazen prevails in a showdown.
And the view from the Israeli side?
Even if you’re an optimist [and believe that] Abu Mazen’s [approach] can prevail, everyone will agree that it cannot prevail unless Israel’s government cooperates and makes it easier for him. If the Israeli government acts in a way that undermines Abu Mazen, then there’s no way it is going to work. You must therefore recognize that the Israeli government, led by Sharon and the right-wing parties, is not going to make life easier for Abu Mazen. In fact, Sharon has already said that before Israel will implement the road map, there are certain things the Palestinians must do first, which undermines the principle of simultaneous and parallel actions.
But isn’t that the key to the road map?
Yes, that is what the road map is all about. [Additionally], the Sharon government makes demands that no Palestinian leader could ever agree to. Sharon wants the Palestinians to say up front, before the process begins, that they renounce the refugees’ right of return.
Even though that’s in phase three?
The Sharon government said they want it up front, otherwise there’s no point in proceeding. The Palestinians are [arguing] that [they] may have to concede no right of return for Palestinians living outside the West Bank and Gaza at the end, but they’re not going to [deal with] the last phase first.
[And if they were to deal with the final phase now, they would insist that the Israelis] say that the ’67 borders [define] the Palestinian state [Israel is] talking about. That is also a phase three issue. Of course, Sharon will never say that. The Israeli government has up until now used Palestinian violence as a pretext to delay a political process as far into the future as possible, so it can continue settlements and create on the ground what will shape the ultimate resolution.
Will the Israelis stop doing that and instead move to implement the road map? I can’t see them doing it unless the two sides move simultaneously. Abu Mazen’s future ability to deal with this is linked to how the Israeli government acts on these issues. The Israelis are not likely to act in ways that make life easier on Abu Mazen unless the United States puts great pressure on Sharon and [President George W.] Bush says to him, "You’ve got to do it, because if you don’t do it, you’re going to hurt relations with the United States."
And the big question then, is Bush about to do that? Is he prepared to be seen by the Jewish community and by some of the neo-cons and the Christian fundamentalists as putting pressure on Israel, on an Israeli government to do something it really doesn’t want to do? So when you look at these three players, based on experience, and history, you have to be crazy to think it’s all going to work out in the end.