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 globaljournalist.org.
Loory: The search for peace in the Middle East is back at center stage. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas will meet with President Bush at the White House to complain about the lack of progress in the peace talks between his government and that of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. He is also unhappy because Bush is going to Israel this month to take part in the 60th anniversary celebration of Israel’s independence. While they’re meeting, the Senate will hold secret hearings on how and why the Israeli air force bombed a Syrian nuclear reactor under construction with help from North Korea. The CIA is afraid the hearings may give away intelligence-gathering secrets, and the administration has complained that former President Jimmy Carter violated a government request not to meet with Hamas leaders in Syria. Both the Israeli government and the United States government are angry that Carter increasingly blames Israel for obstructing the move towards peace between it and the Palestinians. After meeting with Hamas, Carter said Hamas’ leadership was willing to recognize Israel’s right to exist and negotiate a peace if Israel would return to its pre-1967 borders. Hamas leaders said Carter had it wrong, that Hamas would never recognize Israel’s right to exist and would at best offer a 10-year truce. Meanwhile, there is increasing pressure to bring Hamas into the peace negotiations. Do any new developments offer hope? After Bush met with Jordan’s King Abdullah and was reportedly asked to skip the Israeli 60th anniversary celebration, did that have any impact on the president’s travel plans?
Joseph Curl, senior White House correspondent, The Washington Times, Washington, D.C.: The president has made some concessions. He will be in Israel to celebrate the 60th anniversary. There will be a couple of receptions, no big speeches to irk anyone, a short trip to Saudi Arabia and then a stop in Sharm el Sheikh where he will address the World Economic Forum and meet with Abbas again. The Abbas-Bush meeting will be a major deal. On top of that, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak is trying to get Olmert into it, to make it a five-way talk.
Leslie Susser, diplomatic correspondent, The Jerusalem Report, Jerusalem: The possibility of Israeli-Syrian talks starting is very much on the agenda. Until now, the Americans have been against this because they don’t trust Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime. It’s possible Assad is looking ahead, hoping enough momentum will be created by the time the next American president is in office for a deal with Israel to be in the cards.
Loory: To go forward meaningfully, is it necessary to bring Hamas into the negotiations?
Joseph Montville, former director of preventive diplomacy, The Carter Center, McLean, Va.: Hamas is a player, and a player that can sabotage a delicate negotiation cannot be left out. That was Carter’s motivation for visiting Damascus and for some Israeli intelligence officers and military members to insist Hamas be part of a deal.
Susser: There is fear that if Hamas is recognized, that will enable it, rather than Abbas, to plan to represent the Palestinian people. However, many Israelis are realizing that even if Israel strikes a deal with Abbas, it won’t be able to implement the deal unless Hamas is part of it.
Loory: What kind of referendum is being talked about in the Palestinian territories?
Susser: There are two possibilities. One is a referendum on a peace deal between Israel and the Fatah Palestinians. It would be put to all the Palestinians in the West Bank and in Gaza, and if there were a majority, it would go through. The other possibility is to hold an election about the peace deal and whoever wins will decide whether to go ahead with it.
Loory: Would the referendum be binding on Hamas?
Susser: Hamas told Carter it would accept the results of such a referendum. Many people fear if Hamas isn’t part of the process, it may sabotage the referendum. The problem is whether the cease-fire would apply only to Gaza or to Gaza and the West Bank.
Loory: How serious is Bush about achieving a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians before he leaves office?
Curl: Bush seems to be serious. He’s had a number of meetings, and he will be meeting with Abdullah and Abbas at the White House to talk about where things stand. Those meetings may point to a bigger summit.
Loory: Is Condoleezza Rice’s criticism of Carter an indication that Bush doesn’t like being upstaged by the former president?
Curl: That’s it exactly. Carter can say whatever he likes about whether he was directed not to talk to Hamas, but he knows Bush has strong feelings about Iran’s connections to Hamas and what they’re doing. Bush was unhappy about their election, and I’m sure he made it clear to Carter he didn’t want anyone else speaking with Hamas.
Montville: This isn’t the first time Carter has engaged in unofficial diplomacy. He was instrumental in heading off a potential U.S. bombing attack on North Korea during the Clinton administration. He’s not afraid of getting criticized for intervening. Israeli sources have said the White House had vetoed a chance to establish meaningful contact with Syria. Carter could have thought he was saving the Bush administration from this kind of internal dispute by getting some face-to-face information from Khaled Mashaal, the Hamas leader in Damascus.
Loory: How was Carter’s latest venture greeted in Israel?
Susser: Officially, they ignored Carter, going along with Bush’s line that Hamas should not be brought into the game. But many Israelis feel Carter was filling a vacuum the Bush administration has left even though he doesn’t have the clout to do it. Theoretically, Carter was saying go forward, the Israelis need to do more than they’re doing. Israelis in the peace camp say the administration has not been insistent enough on Israel moving forward in ways that would help Abbas have a better status in the West Bank and be seen as a leader who is achieving things.
Loory: Toward the end of an administration, every American president seems to seize on the Middle East as a place where there can be some historic impact. Is Bush acting out of a historical view, as Carter, or Bill Clinton or Bush’s father tried to do?
Curl: At this point, one begins to think about legacy and Bush’s legacy will be Iraq. If he could pull off even something short term in the Middle East like a 10-year cease-fire, that would begin to move them toward final-status talks. Bush has had his road map on the table for some time, as the first president to call for a Palestinian state living side-by-side in peace with Israel. But politically it is difficult to stay the course on that. That’s why it comes up again at the end of a presidency. He has nothing to lose. He’s a lame duck, and he is looking for a legacy.
Loory: Clearly a lot of hands would like to stir the pot. So far no one has produced a recipe that could be appealing to everybody, and that’s too bad.
Producers of Global Journalist are Missouri School of Journalism graduate students Jared Gassen, Eunjung Kim, Hui Wang and Catherine Wolf.