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Analysis: US Policy in The Middle East

U.S. Middle East Policy

NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Just over a year ago, the president of the United States stood in the White House Rose Garden to declare his commitment to what he called `our road map towards peace in the Middle East.'

SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH

President GEORGE W. BUSH: There can be no peace for either side in the Middle East unless there is freedom for both. Reaching that destination will not be easy, but we can see the way forward. Now the parties must take that way, step by step, and America will be the active partner of every party that seeks true peace.

CONAN: As the president described it, the goal, the destination of the road map, is a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians. In the year since that speech, Washington's rhetoric is little changed, but negotiations have gotten nowhere and events continue to reshape the area. Israelis are building a barrier, a response they say to Palestinian suicide bombers; an attempt Palestinians say to seize Palestinian land and redraw the border. Israeli Prime Minister Sharon announced plans for a unilateral withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank. Palestinians cite the assassination of Hamas founder Sheikh Ahmed Yassin as just the latest effort to undermine and possibility of a viable Palestinian state.

Later in the program, we'll speak with some family members of victims of 9/11 to get their reactions to the hearings this week.

But first, US policy in the Middle East. Is the road map still alive? And if so, where's it pointing? Is a two-state solution still the goal, and what's the alternative? And how does Iraq play into the situation? We'll hear two views, and we welcome your calls. Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. Or you can e-mail us, totn@npr.org.

And joining us to talk about where the US has come down in response to recent events in the Middle East is Barbara Slavin, a senior diplomatic correspondent for USA Today and former correspondent for The Economist in the Middle East. She's with us from her office here in Washington. Nice of you to join us today.

Ms. BARBARA SLAVIN (USA Today): You're welcome.

CONAN: So as you heard just a few moments ago in that tape from a year ago, the president laid down the road map. Where did it go?

Ms. SLAVIN: Well, it's a good question. It's not leading in the areas that I guess some had hoped it would. What's happened basically, I think, is that the administration made a good start, put a lot of hopes in the first Palestinian prime minister, Mahmoud Abbas, who came to power last summer. As you recall, the president went to Aqaba, Jordan. He met with Mahmoud Abbas and Ariel Sharon. He said that Condi Rice and Colin Powell would be his point people on this issue and that they would remain committed. But Mahmoud Abbas did not stay in power very long, only a few months. He did not get very much support from either the United States or Israel, and he was constantly undermined by Yasser Arafat, the veteran Palestinian leader, and I think it's fair to say that once he passed from the scene, the administration here in Washington basically started to neglect the issue, and we had other fish to fry. We were very worried about Iraq, remain very worried about Iraq, and basically the situation stayed dormant until Sharon decided to come forward with his own unilateral proposal.

CONAN: And Sharon's proposal--that doesn't have anything to do with the road map, does it?

Ms. SLAVIN: Well, the Israelis will tell you that it is within the framework of the road map, and the Bush administration would like you to believe that as well, but it is not what the road map envisioned. The road map looked at three phases, beginning with confidence-building measures that would enable the two sides to negotiate, and then an interim solution, and then a full two-state solution. What Sharon is doing is sort of leaping to the second phase, which is supposedly the interim solution, but he's not negotiating with the Palestinians. He's negotiating with the Bush administration.

CONAN: Because he says Palestinians aren't presenting him with a partner he can negotiate with.

Ms. SLAVIN: Well, that's what he says, and certainly, there has been violence, but, of course, there's been violence on both sides, as we saw with the assassination of Sheikh Yassin.

CONAN: Getting back to US policy, when is the last time an American envoy went to the Middle East to talk about this?

Ms. SLAVIN: Well, we have had American envoys, not the senior level people, but the midlevel people going back and forth, trying to negotiate the details of Sharon's peace plan, as he would call it, his withdrawal plan from the Gaza Strip and perhaps from a portion of the West Bank. Next week, in fact, we have a trio of American officials from the National Security Council and the State Department going back for their third visit to Israel. This week, we've had senior Israelis here, and they're trying to work out the details of this plan before a visit by Ariel Sharon to the United States possibly in mid-April.

CONAN: In the meantime, there is a new Palestinian prime minister, Ahmed Qureia. Have either the Israelis or the Americans met with him?

Ms. SLAVIN: The Israelis have not--at least Sharon has not met with him. There have been meetings again between staff. There was supposed to be a meeting between Sharon and Prime Minister Qureia last week, but there was a suicide bombing, and the Israelis canceled the meetings.

CONAN: So at this point, is the road map alive anywhere but in the rhetoric of this was the most recent plan?

Ms. SLAVIN: It's hard to see it. It really is hard to see it. I think we all have to recognize we're in an election year in this country. It would have been difficult in any event, but the election politics make it more difficult. We still have Iraq, which is the major US preoccupation in the Middle East. So I think it's fair to say that Sharon's plan is really the only plan on the table right now. And the question is whether he can satisfy certain US concerns, whether withdrawal from Gaza will be feasible, who will police the place, how secure will it be? Those kinds of questions are coming up. But Israelis tell me that he is determined to go forward with this, and he's hoping to get US blessing.

CONAN: If Israeli forces do withdraw from Gaza, what would then be the status of the place they left? Would Gaza be a Palestinian state or part of one?

Ms. SLAVIN: Well, I don't know. You would have to ask the Palestinians whether they would declare a state in that small a portion of the area that they are claiming. You know, Sharon may see this as a long-term interim solution, not a final settlement, and the Palestinians may be willing to live with that ambiguity. Certainly Palestinians have said that they would like to see withdrawal from wherever Israel might withdraw. There are about 7,500 Jewish settlers in Gaza, but there are real concerns about who would take control. Would it be Hamas? Would it be the very weak Palestinian Authority?

CONAN: And how does Iraq play into all of this, both in the immediate sense--as you mentioned, obviously, it's been a considerable distraction in the past year--but also in the grander scheme of things, as President Bush has repeatedly laid out the idea that Iraq is going to be the key that turns the door to reform in the Middle East?

Ms. SLAVIN: Well, obviously, the administration is hoping that Iraq will be a success story, and basically what we've seen is that when there is a leadership that they do not like to deal with, the policy is regime change. That's been the policy with the Palestinian Authority. President Bush has never met with Yasser Arafat, regards him as someone who condones terrorism, and has only been willing to meet with a Palestinian leader who is not associated with terrorism. So the hope is that Iraq will be the model and that somehow, the Palestinians will be able to reform their administration and come up with leadership that the US will see fit to meet with.

CONAN: And finally, the most recent turn in events, the assassination of Sheikh Yassin. How does that affect US policy?

Ms. SLAVIN: Well, I think it's been a bit unsettling. What President Bush would like most of all in this election year is peace and quiet, and in the Arab-Israeli dispute, that's something that's rather hard to come by. The United States perhaps was not so upset by it, but a number of our European allies, certainly Arab countries, were very upset by it and saw it as something that was disruptive and that would only cause more violence, more revenge killings on the part of the Palestinians. So I think it's fair to say the Bush administration was not exactly pleased to see it, but we are in a situation where we are in a war against terrorism, and it's very difficult to criticize the Israelis for taking steps such as these.

CONAN: Barbara Slavin, thank you very much. We appreciate your time today.

Ms. SLAVIN: You're welcome.

CONAN: Barbara Slavin is a senior diplomatic correspondent with USA Today.

And we're going to hear now from two experts on the Middle East. A little bit later in the program, we'll be joined by Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University. But first David Makovsky, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the author of "Making Peace With the PLO: The Rabin Government's Road to the Oslo Accord." He's with us by phone from Jerusalem, and good to have you on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. DAVID MAKOVSKY (The Washington Institute for Near East Policy): Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: So what do recent events tell you about the viability at this point of the road map?

Mr. MAKOVSKY: Well, I think, you know, Barbara gave, you know, a pretty good description. The focus is now on Gaza. The key thing here is whether Ariel Sharon, who is one of the historic architects of the settlement movement, will be the first Israeli leader to take down settlements. The Palestinians have been long complaining that the existence of settlements makes a two-state solution very difficult. If Sharon shatters the taboo and takes down the 7,600 settlers of Gaza, that precedent, I think, will be very important for continuing this process. And I think Barbara is right. I think Sharon is very serious about taking these settlements down. It's going to--I don't know if this will lead to--it won't be a civil war in Israel, you know, in terms of fighting, but it will be a gut-wrenching experience for this country.

Where I'm visiting now, as I visit the West Bank, they're happy to see settlements come down, and they say wherever Israel withdraws, as Barbara said, you know, they will welcome it to happen. But I think the question about the future of the West Bank remains to me very much in doubt at this point, and right now, the focus is on Gaza and just the symbolic look at the West Bank.

CONAN: Yes. But as Barbara mentioned, that would be not the product of negotiation, but a unilateral decree by one side, and to whom would Gaza be turned over to?

Mr. MAKOVSKY: Well, I mean, it cannot be unilateral virtually by definition. I mean, what will end up happening is if there is a US-Israel agreement on the parameters, this is the fourth round of the Habley talks--Habley being Condoleezza Rice's deputy, who's running the American delegation. There'll probably be a fifth round next week. There'll be another round next week. There'll end up having to be US-Palestinian Authority coordination on this, and I think that this is critical. And the Israelis will have to end up dealing with the Palestinians, too, to discuss not just the handover itself, but the day after, certainly Israel has an interest that there's not a vacuum in the West Bank or that Hamas does not take over the West Bank and Gaza. And therefore, I think the term unilateral sounds a little more harsher than will be in practice. This will take months of coordination for this to work.

CONAN: And unilateral, as you say, the United States is deeply involved in the...

Mr. MAKOVSKY: Right, right, right.

CONAN: ...from your description, in this, what would be a transfer of power.

Mr. MAKOVSKY: Exactly. I mean, it's already not unilateral. It's already, you know, US-Israel. And already, though, you're going to have to bring in, you know, the Europeans and others to see about building institutions in Gaza and the like. But the most important thing is that there are talks, US-Palestinian talks. I think that's critical, and I think there will be Israeli-Palestinian talks, too, as well, in the coming month.

CONAN: Is Israel, do you believe, still committed to a two-state solution?

Mr. MAKOVSKY: Look, I think if you look at the polling data, a majority of Israelis want a two-state solution. I think at the core, though, they believe Yasser Arafat is not committed to a two-state solution. And so long as he is in charge on the Palestinian side, they associate, I think, a two-state solution with greater vulnerability and greater peril. And therefore, the focus has been more on Gaza. I think in terms of people, once you get beyond Arafat and around him, a lot of other Palestinians, you know, want that two-state solution, and that's the sort of two-state solution the Israelis want, too. But I think they feel so long as Arafat's around, it's just not going to happen. You know, he doesn't want to deal--the security cooperation. He's been--you know, he didn't agree to Camp David or CABA(ph) or any of these approaches.

There's been all these plans out there. If you think of the last three years, there was the Mitchell plan, the Tenet plan, the Zinni plan, the road map plan. All four of these plans were all based on this idea of reciprocity that--and then they all got mired in recriminations on who didn't keep the plan. So I think in a certain way, what Israel is trying to do, what Sharon is trying to do is to say, `Forget all this reciprocity stuff, but just get going. Let's just start taking down settlements and let's just start pulling out.' And I think most of the world will applaud it. I think Sharon, whatever you may think of him, is the only one right now in Israel who has the stature as the historic architect of the settlement movement to begin this gut-wrenching process, and by shattering the taboo and creating a precedent, there are clearly going to be more withdrawals from the West Bank. But it could be it'll happen in the post-Arafat era. Right now, they feel they have no partner.

CONAN: Right now, we're talking with David Makovsky of The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. A little bit later in the program, Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University. And when we come back from a break, we'll take some of your calls, (800) 989-8255; e-mail, totn@npr.org.

It's NPR News.

SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

We're talking about the Middle East and the road map to the peace a year after it was announced. Our guest right now is David Makovsky, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. If you'd like to join us, it's (800) 989-8255, or e-mail us, totn@npr.org.

And let's get a call in from Gene, who's with us from Durham, North Carolina.

GENE (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Gene, you're on the air.

GENE: Yes, sir. I'm glad to go just after the guest that you have interviewed because he was saying things that are a little bit problematic. First of all, I want to say that obviously, the road map couldn't go anywhere and was doomed to begin with. The road map was calling for the disarmament of what's called the terrorist groups in Palestine. The problem is that those terrorist groups are just the army of Palestine to fight against the terrorist army of Israel, a terrorist army which is supplied by the United States on the top of it. So if you remember well when Ahmed Qureia was the prime minister of Palestine, he was faulted for not succeeding in disarming those groups, and that was one of the start of the dooms of the road map. And because this is a wrong basis for negotiations. Obviously, the Palestines need to protect themselves against the abuse of Israel. There have been abuse for 50 years now by Israel. So that couldn't work.

Secondly, I don't believe that the Bush administration has any real interest in bringing peace in the Middle East. They are interested in catering to the Zionists notably in Florida, because it's a key state to win the election. But...

CONAN: OK. Gene, we just wanted to give time for David Makovsky to reply to some of the things you had to say.

Mr. MAKOVSKY: Yeah. Look, I mean, I don't see what army goes and, you know, blows up peoples in, you know, discotheques and pizza shops. I mean, Sheikh Yassin of Hamas and the whole Hamas movement, they are not using violence for a political objective, unless you define political objective as the destruction of Israel, which Sheikh Yassin, to his credit, did say. He said, `Look, you know, I want the destruction of Israel. I believe violence is the means to achieve this struggle,' and he did not believe in a two-state solution at all, and frankly, you know, his consistency was such that the net effect was that, you know, it was terror for terror's sake, and therefore, for me, I think many analysts who look at this, they see someone like, you know, the Hamas movement as no different than the bin Laden movement. It's about pure destruction.

It's not even about using violence to achieve a political objective of a two-state solution, which you can argue about in and of itself, how moral that is, but certainly in the case of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad, who have conducted many of these attacks, you know, they're very open about how they see it. They don't want a border on any line. They don't want a border--you know, even--that Israel was the size of Tel Aviv...

CONAN: Yet...

Mr. MAKOVSKY: ...and they are intellectually honest about that.

CONAN: Some would say, though, that the assassination of Sheikh Yassin has only strengthened Hamas, which is clearly...

Mr. MAKOVSKY: No, I think--look, I'm not here to support, you know, the political utility of such a move or the wisdom of such a move. But, you know, I think the Israelis would argue that if the United States is justified in going after bin Laden and Ayman Zawahiri, for them, you know, they see Sheikh Yassin, who wants not a two-state solution, has never advocated coexistence one day of his life, they see that no different than the hunt for bin Laden. Now whether it is--you know, the political utility of this and the wisdom of this, whether it weakens Hamas in the long run I think is subject to a very, you know, fair question, and it's one clear.

The one thing I would just give--or try to give a little psychological insight to listeners around the country is that when the Israelis pulled out unilaterally out of Lebanon in the year 2000, they thought their move would be greeted as a move towards peace, and instead, when Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah of this area in Lebanon, said, `Look, it was our bombs, we blew them up, they ran away, and we think this will inspire the Palestinian uprising,' which emerged four months later. In the Israeli mind, there was a link between, you know, the pulling away out of Lebanon unilaterally and what happened in the West Bank four months later. Whether it's true or not, I don't know, but all I can say is it's that mind-set, it's that psyche that, in my mind, is what is leading the Israelis to do what they did with Sheikh Yassin. Oh, they will see Israel pulling out unilaterally as weakness, that Israel's giving in to terrorism, that terrorism pays. Well, this is the way to weaken Hamas over time. Now whether they're right or whether it'll prove to be counterproductive, I think only time will tell. We...

CONAN: David Makovsky, thank you very much.

Mr. MAKOVSKY: Thank you. Well, thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: OK. Appreciate it. David Makovsky, a senior fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, the author of "Making Peace With the PLO: The Rabin Government's Road to the Oslo Accord." He was with us by phone from Jerusalem.

And Rashid Khalidi joins us now, the Edward Said professor of Arab studies and literature at Columbia University, with us from his office in New York, and it's nice of you to be with us again.

Professor RASHID KHALIDI (Columbia University): A pleasure.

CONAN: And getting back to--we'll move along down the road in a minute, but getting back to the subject of American policy and the road map announced with such fanfare a year ago, what do you think recent events have to say about the viability of the road map?

Prof. KHALIDI: I don't think the road map was viable, given the approach that the Bush administration had been taking towards it, which was to expect that the Palestinians do things that were probably undoable and to demand virtually nothing of the Israeli side, in the sense that the Bush administration seemed to feel that violence was entirely Palestinian violence, and the entire onus for ceasing the violence was on the Palestinians. It didn't see the occupation or the casualties on the Palestinian side as even an issue. It didn't exist for them. And given that and given the distraction of the Bush administration from Palestinian-Israeli affairs, I think that the road map really had pretty much run out even before this assassination.

CONAN: So given what you've just said, how would Palestinians view the US role in the Middle East right now?

Prof. KHALIDI: I don't think there are many people in the Middle East--anywhere in the Middle East who have a terribly favorable of the United States, Palestinians or others. The polls would tend to back me up, from Turkey to Iran, from Egypt to Morocco, from Saudi Arabia to Palestine. There are very few people who have anything but a very dim view of the United States. There are some Iraqis I think who may be an exception to that. There may be other people in the Gulf who are an exception to that, and it has largely to do with what is perceived as a biased position on Palestine, but also an overbearing attitude to issues like reform and democracy, what is perceived as a hypocritical position vis-a-vis governments that the United States supports that are repressive and a critique of other governments that the United States chooses to criticize for their oppression--things like that. But Palestine has been a central issue in leading people in the Middle East to feel negatively toward the United States for many years.

CONAN: What about where they see the process going? As we've heard, opinion polls suggest most Palestinians would still opt for a two-state solution.

Prof. KHALIDI: Yes, as far as we know, every poll that I've seen for the last nine or 10 years has indicated that majorities of Palestinians are in favor of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. The way you get to that is not entirely clear. And I think that the degree of despair among Palestinians, which goes up and down, is probably very high right now, and the number of Palestinians who believe that it's going to be possible to achieve that is probably pretty small. But the last polls that I've seen still indicated a majority supported that as a solution.

CONAN: And there is a divide, though, between those who support that and Hamas--we just saw the founder and guiding light of Hamas, Sheikh Yassin, assassinated last week, which is the latest turn. I guess people are still waiting for the other shoe to drop.

Prof. KHALIDI: Yes. No, you're absolutely right. Hamas and other groups have never subscribed to a two-state solution. Something that David Makovsky didn't touch on, but which I think is worth at least mentioning is that there appear to be something of a change among certain leaders of Hamas in recent months, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and Ismael Abu Shanab notably among them, while not changing the overall orientation of their line, which was uncompromising insofar as their unwillingness to accept the existence of Israel in the long term, were both talking about an accommodation over decades or, in the case of one statement, a hundred years with Israel, were Israel to be willing to withdraw from the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and in one statement, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin said, `And, you know, it'll be up to later generations to decide what comes next.'

Now what that really meant only God knows, because both men coincidentally have been assassinated by Israel. And what we have left are people like Khaled Meshaal in Damascus and Abdel Aziz Rantisi, who have never expressed any such accommodationist views at any time in the past and, in fact, have been against even the limited cease-fires that Hamas has subscribed to. It was Sheikh Ahmed Yassin and others who imposed those limited cease-fires, which Meshaal and Rantisi and other even more hard-line members of what is, in fact, a very radical group themselves had never accepted, so I think it's a point worth mentioning, not that Hamas has ever yet changed as far as we know from opposition in principle to a two-state solution, but that some leaders were apparently willing to envision some form of limited accommodation over a limited period of time.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line, and this is Doug, who's with us from Springfield, Virginia.

DOUG (Caller): Good afternoon. How are you guys doing?

CONAN: OK.

DOUG: My question for your--you'll forgive me, it's my first time. I'm a little nervous, so I might stutter here a little bit.

CONAN: Oh, that's all right.

DOUG: Now you'll have to forgive me, you may have to explain some history to me here, but if I remember correctly, when Israel first was given the land in 1948 by the United Nations, it did not include the Golan Heights or the West Bank. It was not until they were attacked, I believe, in the 1967 or the Seven Day War(ph) where they lost that land.

And if I might pose a little analogy and get your comment on it, it seems like a new kid that comes in on the block and seven bullies who don't want him on their turf come down to fight him. Not only does he beat all seven of them, but he takes their shirts. And they all come back later crying that he stole their shirts when in fact I would say in that case that to the victor belong the spoils.

And the last thing I'd like to say and get your comment on is another person mentioned earlier about the mission statement of the Palestinian organization and Hamas to drive the Jews into the sea. And it almost seems like the land issue, though maybe not for all, for most is really just a straw man; the issue is racial hatred against the Jews and Judaism. You can listen to that for many of the callers who call into this very program. Though they won't come out and say it, you hear it in the rhetoric that they say.

I believe once the land issue is given to the Palestinians or they succeed in that, the next issue that'll come to the forefront eventually is just more and more of Israel until eventually their mission statement is filled, to drive them into the sea. If I could have that comment, please, I'd appreciate it.

CONAN: OK, Doug. Thanks very much for the call.

Rashid Khalidi, there's a lot there, beginning with a very great deal of history under a very short bridge.

Prof. KHALIDI: Well, Doug, you are right, you do have a shaky grip of history. The drive them into the sea rhetoric is not any longer the rhetoric of the PLO or the PA and hasn't been for, depending on how you count it, several decades or at least 1988 when the PLO at its national council meeting adopted a declaration of independence in which they accepted a two-state solution and accepted the existence of Israel. And even before that, they were moving towards that. So the drive them into the sea rhetoric which in fact is, you know, vintage 1960s Shukairy stuff--He was one of the first heads of the Palestine Liberation Organization 40 years ago--has not in fact been the policy of the group that's dominated Palestinian politics for the last at least generation or so.

As far as the rest of your history is concerned, well, you know, to the victor belongs the spoils is a traditional approach before international law and before the modern world system that the United States and other victor countries established in World War II. You want to go back to the law of the jungle, fine. A lot of people in the current administration seem to be, you know, lusting for the law of the jungle. That may well be the way we're going. But most people tend to believe that, you know, the structure of international law and the structure created by the United Nations is something that benefits everybody and that we are better off with it. And on that basis, they would agree with the kind of position that was put forward in UN Security Council Resolution 242 after the Six-Day War of 1967.

CONAN: Just very quickly, would you also expect that there would be little reformulation of the road map plan and rhetoric before the election?

Prof. KHALIDI: I think that the road map is not going to be the subject of very much attention from anybody for the next few months, if ever again. But, yes, I don't think that there's going to be much attention paid to it before the election. I doubt it.

CONAN: Rashid Khalidi, thanks very much.

Prof. KHALIDI: A pleasure.

CONAN: Rashid Khalidi is a professor of Arab studies and literature, director of the Middle East Institute at Columbia University in New York City. He was with us from his office there.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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