Stuart Loory, who holds the Lee Hills Chair in Free-Press Studies at the MU School of Journalism, is the moderator of the weekly radio program “Global Journalist.” It airs at 6:30 p.m. Thursdays on KBIA/91.3 FM or at www.globaljournalist.org.
Loory: The Bush administration tried to jump-start the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations with a summit meeting in Annapolis, Maryland, two months ago. President Bush last week ended a six-nation tour of the Middle East, with the start of real negotiations being the key point of his visit. He held joint press conferences with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He is committed to bringing about a peace agreement that could result in a two-state settlement before he leaves office. The president tried to convince both sides of the need to negotiate, using for the first time in seven years the term “two-state solution.” He also said Israel’s occupation of Arab territories must cease, but that the United States was not retreating from its strong support of Israel. The response to the visit was not good. Militant Arabs in the Gaza strip increased the number of rockets fired on Israel. The Israeli Defense Force responded with raids into Gaza that killed 18 Arabs. Someone bombed an American embassy vehicle north of Beirut in Lebanon, killing four people. It was the first targeted attack since 1990 on Americans in Lebanon, a country that has been without a government since its president resigned in November. Bush follows past presidents in trying to fashion a peaceful settlement before he leaves office. How realistic are hopes for a real negotiation between the two sides after Bush’s trip?
Hisham Abdallah, reporter, Agence France-Press, Ramallah, Palestine: We’re living a conflict that has been going on for decades. The core issue for Bush is … two states, Palestine and Israel. Bush made it clear he was on Israel’s side. We understand the important and strong relations between the Americans and Israel, but his visit was to be promoting a two-state solution. His visits to Saudi Arabia and to Ramallah were most important. Bush visited a Palestinian area, and he is speaking about a Palestinian state. The importance is how to carry that. Bush understands that the Arabs, Saudi Arabia and others have to directly approach the Israelis. He came to this point clearly when the Saudis rejected him.
Loory: What is the view from the Israeli side?
Jay Bushinsky, correspondent, CBS Radio, Savyon, Israel: Bush operated on the basis of traditional American optimism and was partly swayed by the work done in advance of his visit by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She believes the two-state solution is feasible and is impressed by the sincerity of Abbas and Olmert, who respectively favor this solution. Rice also brushed aside the fact that part of the projected Palestinian state is under the control of a movement, namely Hamas, which is opposed to the two-state solution and is in confrontation with Abbas. Before Bush’s arrival, Rice spoke about the likelihood that Hamas would somehow get out of the way. But as one Israeli analyst said, having Hamas in the mix is like having an elephant in the negotiating chamber. Hamas has been activating its missile crews in the aftermath of Bush’s visit, prompting the Israelis to respond with conventional military operations.
Loory: Does Bush think he’s made progress, or is it typical American optimism?
Joel Greenberg, correspondent, Chicago Tribune, Israel: There is a disconnect between Bush’s public remarks and the mood on the street in Jerusalem or Ramallah. There is deep skepticism that the problems dividing the Israelis and Palestinians can be resolved in the year. The question is whether Bush appreciates the extent of the issues. They have stymied previous attempts, and there’s a feeling that once he comes up against the hard reality, it will be difficult to do in less than a year.
Loory: During the visit, Bush didn’t say anything about the return of Golan to Syria. How did that go down in Damascus?
Samir Al-Taqi, director, Orient Center for International Studies, Damascus, Syria: That Syria and especially Golan Heights weren’t mentioned has thrown lots of skepticism about the Americans’ intentions. Bush isn’t famous for his success politically in this region, and there are lots of doubts about the U.S.’ inability to get the documents of Annapolis adopted by the United Nations. However, Syria is looking forward to the conference to be held in Moscow under the auspices of the U.N.
Loory: Has any American president been responsible for great success in the Middle East?
James Martin, freelance writer, Cambridge, England: To an extent, President Carter has a positive legacy in the region. Bush’s trip was seen across the Middle East as more of a public relations campaign than anything else and in Lebanon was basically ignored. The Lebanese were more concerned with their presidential crisis, and Bush had little to say about that.
Loory: Was the meeting in Saudi Arabia the key to this six-day trip?
Greenberg: The Americans would like the Saudis to throw their weight behind Israeli-Palestinian associations. The Saudis, like the rest of the Arab world, have adopted a position that before they come forward with contact with the Israelis, Israel and Palestine will have to work out their conflict. The Israelis will have to make the necessary territorial withdrawals to enable the establishment of a Palestinian state and resolve issues of Jerusalem and refugees. While the Americans would like to line up the Saudis behind this peace process, it doesn’t look like it’s going to happen before there’s substantial progress on the Israeli front.
Loory: What are the next steps in this peace process?
Bushinsky: Olmert and Abbas are committed to meet about every two weeks, probably through May when Bush will be back to join Israel in celebrating its 60th anniversary of independence. Israel and Palestine will want to impress him with progress. They’re dealing with the core issues of the problem, the status of Jerusalem, the plight of the Palestinian-Arab refugees and the future borders of the projected Palestinian state. The consensus in Israel, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip outside of Hamas is that peace is the preferable option, so there is hope.
Martin: Any long-term peace deal will have to take into account Hezbollah’s position. Israel will never feel secure as long as there is an armed and angry Hezbollah on its northern border. If Hezbollah is able to gain a greater say in the Lebanese government, that bodes poorly for any long-term peace settlement.
Abdallah: Historically, these proposals have avoided approaching the real ingredients of the conflict. Hamas only came to be after Israel captured the Arab land. So why not go directly to the problem and solve it? It’s unfortunate that the U.S. and the peace forces for more than 20 years have been trying the same tricks. They’re saying Palestine should negotiate and then it will become a Palestinian state. Simultaneously, they’re doing a checklist to see whether the Palestinians are worthy of a state. If they fit in security-wise, economically and according to the democratic and the human rights standard, they will give it to them.
Loory: One day, maybe I will finish a program on this subject and say finally peace is at hand, but this is still not the time.
Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Heather Perne and Catherine Wolf.