Fawaz Gerges,, Christian Johnson Chair in Middle East and International Relations, was online Tuesday, Feb. 8, at 2 p.m. ET to discuss the truce talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
Read the story:Sharon, Abbas Pledge to Halt Mideast Violence (Post, Feb. 8)
"The importance of today's summit is highly symbolic and significant and in the weeks ahead could change the dynamics of relations between Palestinians and Israelis," said Gerges in an interview with washingtonpost.com.
Gerges is the author of The Jihadists: Unholy War (Harcourt Brace)
A transcript follows.
Editor's Note: washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
What will happen with the anti-terrorist wall built by the Israelis? Will it stay as part of a final settlement?
Fawaz Gerges: At the onset, one point must be made clear about the summit meeting between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Egypt this week: it is a welcome, humble, first step on a complex, prolonged, and risky journey. Its importance is highly symbolic and psychological, not substantive. The two parties could not agree on a joint declaration of a cease-fire or signatures on a document. Instead, they announced a de facto cease-fire. It is worth stressing that major differences exist between the Palestinian and Israeli leadership on security and the political-diplomatic track as well. There is a long distance to travel to reach the safe harbor of peace.
I do not mean to belittle the significance of the Israeli-Arab gathering in Egypt. On the contrary, it has created a new momentum and, if concrete steps are taken in the weeks and months ahead, the dynamics of Palestinian-Israeli relations could dramatically change for the better. In the last four years, the drums of war drowned calls for politics and diplomacy. It is hoped that the two sides will move forward after these confidence-building measures to tackle the thorny issues of peace-making - the borders of a future Palestinian state, Israeli security, Jewish settlements, the status of east Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees.
Opinions of Sharon in the Arab world and among
Palestinians are well known. However, I have not read as
much about what Israelis think about Abbas. Obviously,
they are happy with an alternative to Arafat. What do
Israelis see as positive and negative aspects to the
background and character of Abbas?
Fawaz Gerges: Israelis of all colors loathed the late Palestinian President Yasserr Arafat. In the last four years of Arafat's life, Israel and the United States shunned him and refused to deal with him. They considered him the major impediment to peace-making. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon used that justification in order not to engage the Palestinians politically, and he also succeeded in convincing President Bush that his conflict with the Palestinians was an extension of the American global war on terror.
Now that Arafat is gone, the United States and Israel warmly welcomed the elections of the new Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who is seen as being committed to ending the state of war with Israel. Indeed, Abbas has been a consistent critic of the militarization of the Intifada and suicide bombings as well. He convincingly argued that the armed Intifada has done considerable damage to Palestinian society and institutions and has been disastrous to Palestinian national aspirations.
It is no wonder that President Bush, who had refused to meet with Arafat - said he was impressed by Abbas' commitment to fighting terror. "What you're watching is a process unfolding where people are becoming more trustworthy," the president said. Similarly, Israeli leaders praised Abbas' commitment to stability and security.
The critical question is, will the Likud-led government offer Abbas substantial rewards and strengthen his hands? Will the Bush administration remain actively engaged in the peace process and exert pressure on Sharon to make the necessary concessions?
Abbas is caught between a rock - American and Israeli demands to put an end to the armed Intifada- and a hard place - Hamas and Jihad's calls on him to remain steadfast and not to make further concessions. Abbas has to show Palestinian public opinion that he is making progress. He has to convince his people that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Palestinians are observing Abbas very closely to see if he could deliver the goods. If Israel and the United States are genuine about this new hopeful moment, they must work hard to support Abbas and give Palestinians a stake in the future.
Since the road map plan calls for Jewish residents to leave Gaza and the West Bank, wouldn't it also be fair for Arabs within Israel to leave? What's the difference?
Fawaz Gerges: Palestinians who live in Israel are full Israeli citizens with citizenship rights and responsibilities. Jewish settlers who live in occupied Palestinian territories do not want to be Palestinian citizens. They want to remain Israeli citizens, while living in Palestinian lands. I hope I have clarified the distinction?
If there is a lasting peace between Israel and the Arabs, will the Terrorist Containment wall remain in place or will it be torn down?
Fawaz Gerges: For now, Abbas has convinced Hamas and Jihad, radical Islamist organizations, to agree to a temporary cease-fire. But Hamas and Jihad' spokesmen in the Gaza Strip struck a cautionary note, saying they would evaluate the summit before committing themselves to halting their military campaign against Israeli occupation. "We agreed before with Mahmoud Abbas that if he succeeds to achieve our national goals, he should come back to the Palestinian factions to discuss the issue, and after that we will decide our stand," Mahmoud Zahar, a Hamas leader said.
Abbas knows well that he cannot go home empty-handed and negotiate with Hamas and Jihad for a permanent cease-fire. Public opinion polls show clearly that Palestinians do support Hamas and Jihad's armed campaign against Israeli military occupation. Abbas has to convince Palestinian public opinion that his vision and path will ultimately bring peace and independence, not Hamas or Jihad's.
It is crucial that Israel acts now to release Palestinian prisoners (who number around 8000) withdraw its troops from Palestinian cities and towns, and to begin to dismantle settlements. Engaging the Palestinians politically is the safest way to marginalize Hamas and Jihad and ensure Israeli security.
What is the feeling in the Middle East about the new U.S. Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice?
Fawaz Gerges: In one word, optimism. Arab critics of the Bush administration expressed guarded optimism that Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, who has the president' ear, brings a fresh attitude to Palestinian-Israeli peace-making. They were impressed by her dynamism, style, and decisiveness, particularly her statement to Israeli Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, about the need to make "hard decisions" if he wanted to achieve peace with the Palestinians.
Although Secretary Rice promised to play an active role in the peace process, she tried to lower expectations and stressed the primary role of regional actors themselves. At this point, the Bush administration appears to be mainly concerned with confidence-building measures and security, not plunging fully into high, shuttle diplomacy. It is trying to find its way in what it considers a minefield and does not want to take risks.
Arab/Muslim critics argue that without active engagement by the President and his senior aides, no major progress could be achieved. If history serves as a guide, they say, active American engagement is vital to a breakthrough in the peace process.
Condoleezza Rice announced that a special coordinator would be appointed to oversee and monitor new security agreements between Israel and the Palestinians. How is that announcement being greeted?
Fawaz Gerges: It is feared that the announcement by Rice of a special American coordinator, General William Ward, to monitor security agreements between Israel and the Palestinians and assist in reforming Palestinian security services, does not bode well for the political track. The announcement is being seen as an indication that the Bush administration is more concerned about security, narrowly defined, not tackling the thorny, political questions. Only time will tell!
What do you see as the next step in the peace process? Jerusalem, the settlements and the other sticky issues have to be brought up in order to continue the process? When do you see as the "appropriate" time that these discussions will take place between the two sides? Do you think a mediator is necessary?
Fawaz Gerges: Indeed, President Abbas faces major hurdles at home. His hands are tied and his options are limited. He must show progress on the peace process and also must improve the quality of Palestinian life. If he does not, he won't last for too long. Hamas and Jihad would likely inherit the spoils. What many people do not know is the narrowness of Abbas' social power base. His election was razor-thin. Only 46 percent of eligible voters actually voted in the recent presidential elections, of which Abbas won 60 percent. This is in contrast to the 78 percent turn-out that the late Arafat elicited in 1996 when he was elected head of the Palestinian Authority (PA).
Abbas must expand his social power base and create alliances with other groups who can foster dialogue and action on structural reforms within the PA. The most existential challenge facing Abbas is the need to "put the Palestinian house in order, which he must do if he is to rebuild its shattered institutions. Moreover, he must reform his own party by not only bringing in new faces, but also by integrating the rising social forces within Fatah itself into the decision-making process at large.
Why this detour? Abbas cannot last for too long unless he delivers on the home front (Rooting out corruption) and the peace process. The United States and the international community must impress on Ariel Sharon the need to tackle the big questions relating to a viable Palestinian state. This fact implies delineating the borders of this state, its capital in east Jerusalem, Jewish settlements, and the right of Palestinian refugees. The U.S. President himself, not just a mediator, must become actively engaged in the process in order to advance peace prospects.
Will a possible mideast peace affect the war in Iraq in any way?
Fawaz Gerges: The conventional wisdom within the Bush administration was that the road to a Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement goes through Baghdad, the Iraqi capital. That logic has proved to be false. Let us hope that the administration spends some of its earned political capital on promoting real peace between Palestinians and Israelis.
Achieving a breakthrough on the Palestinian-Israeli track will likely reduce tensions in Iraq and the region as well as hammer a deadly nail in the coffin of extremism and bin Ladenism which used and abused the Palestinian predicament to recruit followers into their cause.
North Bethesda, Md.:
Congratulations to the Palestinian people for finally electing a leader that appears to be able to bring his people peace, prosperity and their own state by working with, instead of against the Israelis -- who have wanted peace with its neighbors for 56 years. QUESTION: Are you optimistic that this terrific start can continue? The whole world wants this to succeed.
Fawaz Gerges: It is crucial not to lose sight of the big picture. The two parties have not even begun to tackle the political track. The journey is long and the risks are considerable. But a new momentum is in the air. This momentum must be nourished and supported. The United States has a big responsibility to promote peace between the two semitic people. They have suffered enough. The bloodshed must be ended.
But the task is complex and challenging.
Fawaz Gerges: Will today go down in history as a watershed in Israeli-Palestinian relations? Or will it be seen as a wasted opportunity like many others before it? Let us hope that Palestinians and Israelis seize the initiative and break the cycle of death, pain, and suffering.
Thanks for your good questions!