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8/30/2003

Debating the Middle East Crisis
by Jonathan Schanzer and Jean AbiNader - The Hill - April 3, 2002
http://www.meforum.org/article/163

The Hill: Hello, this is David Silverberg, managing editor of The Hill. My guests today are Jean AbiNader, managing director of the Arab American Institute (AAI), and Jonathan Schanzer, research associate of the Middle East Forum. My first question is to you Mr. AbiNader. Would you please tell us a bit about AAI? And then -- what would like to see Congress do in regard to the Middle East when it returns next week?

Jean AbiNader: The Arab American Institute, founded in 1989, focuses on the political empowerment of our community in the electoral process, and in providing policy and research services and programs that support the community's issue agenda. I would prefer to see Congress keep its distance if the preferred action is the typical uncritical support for Israel. Now is the time to be looking for strategies that promote disengagement and negotiations, not finger pointing and gratuitous political statements as we see in numerous house resolutions. We should be coming out in support of the UN resolution 1402 which the USG supported, send a clear message to both sides that a political settlement is the end game, not more violence, and work diligently to support those on both sides who support recognition and peace.

The Hill: Mr. Schanzer, thank you for being with us. Would you please tell us something about the Middle East forum? And then: What do you think Congress should do regarding the Middle East?

Jonathan Schanzer: The Middle East Forum is a Philadelphia-based think tank that works to define and promote American interests in the Middle East. The Forum believes in strong ties with Israel, Turkey, and other democracies as they emerge; works for human rights throughout the region; seeks a stable supply and a low price of oil; and promotes the peaceful settlement of regional and international disputes. In my opinion, Congress should do what it has been doing all along. That is to say, Congress should continue to support Israel's right to defend herself against Palestinian terrorism. Congress might make it clear that Israel's war on terror is essentially the same as America's. As such, continued support for Israel is key.

The Hill: Given American sentiment in light of Sept. 11, do you think an even-handed congressional response is really possible?

Jean AbiNader: If there is a serious intent to be helpful to the Israelis and the Palestinians, and, above all, to serve American interests in the Middle East, there is the possibility of an even-handed response. The key is looking for the future of the peoples in the region and not be trapped by the past or domestic advocates with short-term concerns.

The Hill: Is uncritical support of Israel really in the American interest?

Jonathan Schanzer: America should, of course, be critical of Israel's actions, when necessary. Criticism of Israel right now, as it fights to defend herself, is not logical or helpful in the global efforts to fight terror.

The Hill: Mr. AbiNader, you say that we need strategies that promote disengagement. Do you have anything specifically in mind?

Jean AbiNader: I believe that what is missing, what is driving the response of the Palestinians, is the lack of credible support for a political settlement based on existing UN resolutions and the Mitchell recommendations. Just as the Palestinian leadership have to speak out publicly against violence and terrorism, the Israeli leadership has to explicitly say that the settlements are on the table, as well as Jerusalem and the status of the refugees. These have to be seen as political issues, i.e. negotiable--this is not the message from the Sharon govt. So 1. A clear statement by all three parties agreeing to a political settlement that includes a Palestinian state, Israel's borders, and all the collateral issues. 2. A US led international peacekeeping force to forcefully reduce the levels of violence and serve as a serious indication of our commitment to reducing violence and insuring Israel's security. 3. A commitment to short and medium term assistance to the Palestinians for humanitarian and economic development 4. A public commitment and time frame for negotiations reflecting existing resolutions and a response to the ARab summit offer.

The Hill: Is the Oslo process dead?

Jean AbiNader: Yes, we have moved beyond that process since it has been so violated by both sides. We need a new basis for going forward, reflecting EU and Arab League initiatives and statements by the US and ISrael in support of a Palestinian state.

The Hill: Is the Oslo process dead?

Jonathan Schanzer: Oslo,in principle, was a terrific idea. Unforunately, the Palestinian side was never at a point where it could, in good faith, implement the agreements. One could argue, in fact, that the Palestinians have yet to accept Israel. This is seen in the vehemently ant-Israel venom of their media, their education system, their textbooks and their statements to other Arab polities. In this sense, Oslo has been dead for a while. More recently, when the Palestinian negotiators rejected the Camp David II proposals (summer 2000) and the Taba proposals (January 2001) without a counteroffer, the Oslo Accords were officially dead. Until the Palestinians can come back to the Israelis with a clear vision of peace and coexistance, Oslo will remain dead.

The Hill: What would be your preferred outcome to the current crisis?

Jean AbiNader: Israeli withdrawal to pre September 2000 positions. Working with a broad coalition of Palestinian leaders on a strategy for a political settlement that has meaningful time frame and implementation steps. Willingness of Israeli government to consult with US on political framework for immediate negotiations on a Palestinian state. Phyical separation of the combatants with strong pressure, military force, against those who attempt or carry out terrorism and acts of violence. REbuilding Palestine

The Hill: What would be your preferred outcome to the current crisis?

Jonathan Schanzer: The preferred outcome to the current crisis would be first, a ceasefire between the two sides. Second, the Palestinians must reign in their terrorist organizations, which have been allowed to operate freely since the Intifada broke out in September 2000. After that, the Palestinians and Israelis must sit down and rework their vision for a just settlement to this conflict. More specifically, the Palestinian people must begin to create a forward vision of their state - not instead of Israel, but next to it. Israel, for its part, must come to a consensus over what territories can be returned, consistent with their security needs.

The Hill: With Israel dismantling the Palestinian Authority and killing -- it seems -- virtually anyone in any position of leadership, who's going to be left to negotiate on the Palestinian side? What can be the end state?

Jonathan Schanzer: Israel, to my knowledge, is not killing the upper crust of the Palestinian leadership. Rather, it is targeting militants responsible for attacks on Israeli civilians. There are several Palestinians who have been groomed for leadership. Yasser Arafat noted that his PLO companions, Mahmoud Abbas and Ahmed Qurei were suitable successors. These figures, however, have little clout in the PA. On the other hand, there are two figures that appear to be suitable to the U.S., Israel, and to the Palestinian people. These are the security chiefs in the West Bank and Gaza. Jibril Rajoub is the security chief in the West Bank and Muhammad Dahlan is the security chief in Gaza. The two have ties to the Israeli Shin Bet (FBI equivalent) as well as the American CIA. They also have a great deal of charisma and authority among the Palestinians in the disputed territories. Perhaps these two figures could fill the gap after the Arafat era.

The Hill: Why would Arafat never condemn terrorism? Has AAI condemned Palestinian use of terrorism?

Jean AbiNader: He has condemned the loss of civilian life on many occasions, and that's on the record. AAI condemns all forms and uses of terrorism. On the record. Would the loss of Israeli lives be more acceptable if the Palestinians were using US tanks, planes, and helicopter gunships, as are the Israelis? Is the Congress willing to arm the Palestinians so that a real "war" will occur rather than Sharon's self-declared war against Arafat? These are not irresponsible questions. We believe that all life is sacred and to somehow weigh Israeli lives as morally more important that Palestinians is bigotry and anti-semitism of the crudist sort. Not one more life should be sacrified to the personal hatred between Sharon and Arafat. Both are failed politicians with failed policies who ultimately are not serving their people.

The Hill: Do you see this crisis having any impact on the US elections in November?

Jean AbiNader: There will be no significant impact on the elections in November since foreign policy seldom plays a critical role locally. However, it will cause uncomfortable moments for some races when candidates try to finesse their lack of knowledge or balance in addressing the Middle East. We certainly want to remind candidates that it does matter what they think, what resolutions they sign on to, and their lack of interest in hearing more than one side to the issue.

The Hill: Do you see this crisis having any impact on the US elections in November?

Jonathan Schanzer: To my knowledge, the Arab-Israel conflict has always had a small role in US elections, insofar as candidates try to speak to Jewish and Muslim Americans, and appeal to their allegiances in the region. Short of all-out war, I don't believe this current crisis will have any long-term effects on American voters. The real focus here is on America's war on terror.

The Hill: Would it make a difference in the outcome of this situation if Yasir Arafat or Ariel Sharon or both were out of the picture tomorrow?

Jean AbiNader: Both sides have a leadership problem... Arafat has been strengthened by the Israeli actions but still lacks the vision to move beyond survival to statehood. Sharon is demonstrating that 20 years later, he is still the butcher of Beirut. Both are caught in a time warp and cannot see beyond their personal animosities to a vision for their people. Perhaps there are leaders in the wings on both sides who recognize the bankruptcy of their current positions. I don't see Bibi in this class, and I see the Palestinian side becoming more polarized and radicalized. We need to help recreate the majorities in both countries that existed 18 months ago who support peace, recognition, and security.

The Hill: Would it make a difference in the outcome of this situation if Yasir Arafat or Ariel Sharon or both were out of the picture tomorrow?

Jonathan Schanzer: I don't believe that the removal of either leader would change much in the bigger picture. As I see it, the Palestinians have yet to recognize Israel's right to exist with secure boundaries. Yasir Arafat, for his part, has allowed (and perhaps encouraged) terrorist groups to threaten Israel's security since this uprising began in September 2000. Interestingly, Ariel Sharon, despite his hawkish reputation, is the one Israeli politician who could legitimately sign a deal with the Palestinians. His legacy has branded him as a tough, pro-security, ex-military man who looks out for the best interest of Israel. An agreement signed by him would be quite an achievement that few Israelis would reject.

The Hill: Mr. AbiNader, we've come to the end of our allotted time. I want to thank you for being with us. Would you care to make a closing statement?

Jean AbiNader: It is intriguing to me that suicide bombings did not become a significant part of the landscape in this conflict before May of last year. We need to disconnect the Palestinian crisis, 35 years old, from the global war on terrorism, 6 months old, if we are to come up with solutions based on what we should have learned over the years. How did we go from majorities in support of peace less than two years ago to majorities that now support violence and repression? We need to honestly understand the implications for US foreign policy if we do not recognize that the policy paradigms we are using today are not serving our interests in the region.

The Hill: Mr. Schanzer, we've come to the end of our allotted time. I want to thank you for your participation. Would you care to make a closing statement?

Jonathan Schanzer: The current crisis in the Middle East is an unfortunate development for all parties. It can only be solved through a commitment from both sides to cease attacks, and find an agreed-upon framework for peace. It is my hope that this current crisis ends quickly, a ceasefire is implemented, the terrorism stops, a cooling-off period takes effect, and that both sides can eventually come back to the table. I'd like to thank The Hill for having me online today, and I'd like to thank Jean AbiNader, as well.


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