The Middle East Conflict
With Kathleen Christison
Former CIA Analyst
Monday, April 8, 2001; 10 a.m. EDT
Last week, President Bush decided to dispatch Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to the Middle East region to push for a political settlement. Additionally, he called called on Israel "to withdraw its military forces from Palestinian cities and cease all settlement activity in the occupied territories." Read the full story, President Sends Powell to Mideast (Post, April 5, 2002). Kathleen Christison a former political analyst on the Middle East for the CIA and the author of "Perceptions of Palestine: Their Influence on Mideast Policy," was online Monday, April 8, at 10 a.m. EDT, to discuss the Middle East conflict.
Below is a transcript.
Formerly, Christison worked as a political analyst with the CIA, dealing first with Vietnam for several years and then with the Middle East for her last seven years with the Agency before resigning in 1979. Since leaving the CIA, she has been a free-lance writer, dealing primarily with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Her book, "Perceptions of Palestine: Their Influence on U.S. Middle East Policy," was published in 1999 by the University of California Press, and was reissued in paperback with an update in October 2001. A second book, "The Wound of Dispossession: Telling the Palestinian Story," was published in August 2001. She has published articles in Foreign Policy magazine, the Christian Science Monitor, two encyclopedias on the Middle East, and several Middle East journals, as well as book reviews in newspapers throughout the country, including the Washington Post.
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.
Kathleen Christison: Good morning. I'm pleased to have this opportunity to answer questions, and thanks to the Washington Post for providing this opportunity. I'm ready for the first question.
Alexandria, Va.: Will the Palestinians ever agree to a 100 percent pure land-for-peace agreement -- i.e., one that did NOT include settling ANY Palestinians inside of Israel's pre-1967 borders?
Did Arafat reject the Clinton peace plan because it required him to give up the dream of settling Palestinians inside of Israel's pre-1967 borders (the so-called "right of return")?
Kathleen Christison: I think the Palestinians view the right-of-return issue as an issue of principle rather than a concrete demand for the repatriation of large numbers of Palestinians inside what is now Israeli territory. That is, they want Israel to acknowledge that it had a role in displacing over 700,000 Palestinians in 1948, to allow some few Palestinian refugees (numbering only a few tens of thousands, not millions) to return to their original land in Israel, and compensation for their lost property & possessions in Israel along with a choice of a third country in which to resettle. These are the outlines of the deal worked out by Israel and the Palestinians at Taba, Egypt in January 2001 before Ariel Sharon stopped negotiations, and this seems a workable deal. It would not swamp Israel with millions of non-Jews and thus destroy the Jewish character of Israel, but it would give the Palestinians some dignity. So, I think it's very accurate to say that the Palestinians are ready to agree to a 100% pure land-for-peace agreement. The question is, is Israel ready to return to the 1967 lines?
Alexandria, Va.: Two recent polls showed that by margins of about 40 percent to about 13 percent Americans are more sympathetic towards Israel than towards the Palestinians. Has the Palestinian cause been losing popularity ever since the Gulf War? The poll numbers suggest it. Was Arafat's support for Saddam a blunder of historic proportions?
Kathleen Christison: The Palestinian cause did lose a lot of popularity after the Gulf war, but then, with the start of the peace process, the Palestinian image improved markedly, until the collapse of the Camp David summit in 2000 and the start of the intifada. In fact, Palestinian popularity has been extremely low compared to Israel from the beginning--i.e., since 1948, and even well before.
Alexandria, Va.: Why is the Palestinian cause so popular in Europe yet so unpopular here?
Jews are proportionally almost as numerous in France as in American, yet in France people burn synagogues and love the Palestinian cause, and here in America people are neither anti-Semitic nor anti-Israel.
Is this difference due to contrasting cultures? The presence of millions of impoverished North Africans in France but not in America? The aftermath of Sept. 11?
Kathleen Christison: This is a fascinating question. There was just recently an article in "The Nation" magazine (March 11 issue, I think) on the issue of differences between the US and Britain in coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian issue and the greater popularity of the Palestinian cause in Britain--written by a journalist who's worked in both countries. His conclusion was that, although the Jewish community is as large proportionately in Britain as it is here, it is much less politically active. Here, support for Israel has become a very important electoral issue for congressmen and other politicians, and this just isn't the case in Britain. As a result, Britain is much more open to the Palestinian perspective--not necessarily more sympathetic to it, just more ready to print and listen to stories about the Palestinian situation and Palestinian concerns. You may be correct that the greater numbers of Arab immigrants in Europe also have something to do with the unpopularity of Israel--also the greater number of neo-Nazis in Germany, who are openly anti-Semitic.
Lolo, Mont.: The Palestinian cause seems always to have relied on armed struggle against Israel like the suicide bombers now. Question: Why have the Palestinians never considered the use of "non-violent" tactics like strikes, etc. to advance their cause?
Kathleen Christison: I think people who are weak politically and militarily always resort to armed struggle when they are trying to throw off foreign occupiers--viz., the American Revolution. Please remember that all armed struggle is not terrorism. The American revolution was not terrorism, and the Palestinian guerrilla warfare to throw off the Israeli occupation is not terrorism. Suicide bombings clearly are terrorism, and they are reprehensible, but they are not conducted by the Palestinian authorities and usually not even with the approval of the Palestinian authorities. If we're going to condemn terrorism because it is the killing of innocent civilians, we also have to condemn the killings of Palestinian civilians by Israeli soldiers. There is voluminous evidence, much of it in the Israeli press and much of it the testimony of Israeli soldiers themselves, that Israeli snipers deliberately shoot to kill Palestinian children who are either totally unarmed or are only throwing stones. The Palestinians did use non-violent tactics during the first intifada/uprising in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and it won them an immense amount of sympathy & understanding internationally, but Israelis still killed them. The Palestinian-to-Israeli death ratio in that intifada was about 25-to-1.
Springfield, Va.: Kathleen,
The situation in the Middle East is much worse than I ever remember it being in the past (at least the seven day war was over quickly). Is this a valid perception? I think most Americans have become deadened to the Mideast situation after years of daily news, and fail to see that the situation has escalated far beyond what has occurred in the past and fail to adequately see the connection with the Sept. 11 terrorism. What do you think are the chances of another terrorist act against Washington or New York in the next month given conditions in the Mideast?
Kathleen Christison: I agree with you that the situation is much worse now than at almost any time in the past--and in large part because there is such misunderstanding in both Israel and the US about what the Palestinian goals are. There's a widespread misapprehension that because the Palestinians started the intifada at a critical moment in the peace process, this must mean that they want to destroy Israel. This is absurd, I think, and indicates an American--and also a generally an Israeli--misunderstanding of what the peace process and Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank & Gaza have meant to Palestinians. Throughout the seven years of the peace process, there was very little real movement toward real peace from the Palestinians' perspective--the number of Israeli settlers & settlements nearly doubled, the number of roads accessible only to Israelis increased vastly, the amount of land confiscated from Palestinians to built new settlements and new roads increased, the number of olive groves bulldozed--the staple of Palestinian agriculture--increased, the number of roadblocks impeding Palestinian movement increased, etc. While all this was going on, Israeli and Americans--and including US policymakers--lost sight of what Palestinians were enduring. This is why the intifada broke out, because Palestinians saw the US blindness and utterly lost hope that anything would ever get them out from under Israeli control. As to the likelihood of further large-scale terrorism against the US, another September 11, I fear that this is a real danger, maybe not next month but sometime in the future, because the entire Arab & Muslim world is acutely aware of the oppressive Palestinian situation, whereas we in the US seem to be oblivious to it.
Chapel Hill, N.C.: What is the response of the Arab world and the Palestinians to the documents and arms reportedly found by the IDF in Arafat's compound directly implicating Arafat as a sponsor of terrorism? Have you heard anything more about this? Seems to be a "smoking gun." Yet you hear very little of this in the press.
Kathleen Christison: Perhaps the reason you hear little about this in the press is that there's nothing to it. I don't know that this is the case, but I think it's entirely possible that Israel has manufactured this so-called evidence. Last week when they released the first of the "documents" that purport to show Arafat's involvement in terrorism, the document supposedly from the al-Aqsa Brigades listed several people as potential suicide bombers who were actually Palestinians whom Israel had assassinated months before the alleged date of the document. This obviously raises a lot of suspicion about the veracity of the documents. Also, the explosives & chemicals that the documents were requesting money for could be used for attacks on Israeli tanks and weren't necessarily usable exclusively for human bombs. I think the fact that the Bush administration, which is eager to point the finger at Arafat, has not said anything about these documents also indicates there's some suspicion there about them.
Orono, Maine: I'm a bit surprised by the pundits who say that the U.S. doesn't have "sufficient leverage" to force Israel to stop its current offensive. Don't we give Israel several billions of dollars per year in aid? If so... why doesn't that constitute leverage?
Kathleen Christison: I agree with you entirely. We have massive leverage, but we've almost always been afraid to use it. President Bush the first did use it to some extent, and as a result he was able to get Israel to the negotiating table at the Madrid conference and eventually to force a new election in Israel in 1992 that resulted in the election of a more moderate Yitzhak Rabin.
Annandale, Va.: Is there any reason to believe that the Palestinians would be willing to live with a partitioned "Greater Palestine," including a Jewish state along more or less roughly 1948/1967 lines? My understanding of the history of this region is that the Palestinians never have accepted this, even though Egypt, Syria and Jordan have (at least implied through bilateral treaties with Israel).
Kathleen Christison: In 1988, the Palestinians (i.e., the PLO, the legislative arm of the PLO, and Yasir Arafat himself) formally recognized Israel's existence and its right to exist inside its 1967 borders, as long as the Palestinians could have a state in the remaining 22% of Palestinian that is the West Bank and Gaza. Arafat and the PLO reiterated this recognition of Israel and acceptance of the two-state formula in 1993 when he signed the Oslo agreement. He also reiterates his desire for a Palestinian state to live peaceably alongside Israel very frequently, in virtually every public speech and statement he gives--in both Arabic and English.
Toronto, Ontario, Canada:
What do you expect Israel to do in order to stop suicide bombing and other attacks on Israeli civilians both in and outside the green line?
At Camp David Barak offered Arafat a reasonable deal which subsequently led to the current conflict. Please take into account that 40 percent or more of the Palestinian public support Hamas which does not accept the legitimate existence of an independent state. Also, current polls suggest that the vast majority in the West Bank and Gaza do not acknowledge the Jewish people's historical and religious connection to this area of conflict.
Further the recruitment of suicide bombers as you know requires extensive logistics, training and collection of intelligence data indicating that these activities are government sponsored.
Are peace talks fruitless in lieu of these salient facts?
Kathleen Christison: I think Israel's best route to stopping the suicide bombings is to end its occupation of the West Bank and Gaza and most of East Jerusalem and allow the Palestinians to establish a truly independent, viable, contiguous state in these areas. The deal offered by Ehud Barak to Arafat at Camp David in July 2000 was not a "reasonable" deal, as is commonly believed. In fact, although it was more generous than anything Israel had ever offered before, it would have left the Palestinians with a state broken up into four non-contiguous segments, including Gaza, each segment totally surrounded with territory either annexed to Israel or under long-term lease to Israel. In the West Bank, the territory would have been trisected by Israeli roads and settlement corridors cutting all the way through the West Bank. Israel would never have agreed to live in an indefensible state like this, and the Palestinians couldn't agree either. The Palestinians did, however--also contrary to the common belief--continue to negotiate over this deal, and the two sides came much closer to agreement before negotiations finally ended when Sharon & Bush came into office. The intifada was an expression of extreme popular frustration with the lack of progress toward peace; it was not instigated by Arafat, and it was most certainly not launched with the intention of gaining on the ground what could not be gained at the negotiating table. Support for Hamas has indeed grown as the intifada has continued as Palestinians aspirations for dignified statehood and independence and a viable economic existence have increasingly been frustrated. If this desperate situation were turned around, the desperation that feeds Hamas would be ended and Hamas would lose support. As to polls, it's unlikely that you're going to find many Palestinians. living as they do under oppressive Israeli control, who willingly acknowledge the Jewish people's historical and religious connection to this area. Maybe when Jews begin to acknowledge the Palestinians' own religious (both Christian and Muslim) and historical connection to the same land, there'll be some hope for reconciliation. I disagree that the recruitment of suicide bombers requires a lot of logistics and training--it's done largely by young kids who are desperate and can acquire a few bucks' worth of explosives. A little less desperation would keep them from doing this. Peace talks are not fruitless in light of these facts--these facts make peace talks imperative. If only Ariel Sharon were willing to consider the possibility of compromise!
College Park, Md.: Let's say Israel acknowledges its role in creating the refugees. Will the Arab states themselves ever acknowledge their role? (i.e. starting the war and keeping the refugees in squalid conditions for political purposes)
Kathleen Christison: The Arab states have a lot of culpability in all this, it's true. But most of the countries that fought Israel in 1948 have already signed peace treaties with it. Egypt 20+ years ago and Jordan in 1994. Syria has come close to signing a treaty and hasn't launched any aggressive action against Israel since 1973. And of course, al 22 members of the Arab League just a few weeks ago promised to establish normal relations with Israel if it pulls back to the 1967 borders and gives the Palestinians a state. As to their role in keeping the refugees in squalid conditions for political purposes, this is partly true--also even more true that Palestinians have never wanted to be resettled in other Arab countries because they feared that this way their issue would be entirely forgotten. In the end, whatever failings the Arabs are guilty of in terms of supporting the Palestinians, etc., do not negate the Palestinian right to an independent state or justify Israel's retention of the West Bank and Gaza.
New York, N.Y.: Is it true Israel says UN resolution 242 that says Israel should leave "from territories" as opposed to "from all territories" and the note that there should be "secure" borders means Israel can retain a small part for security concerns in the volatile region it is in?
Kathleen Christison: It is true that Resolution 242 calls for withdrawal "from territories" rather than "from the territories," implying all of them. (The French-language version of the resolution, incidentally, does have the definite article.) The resolution also calls for secure borders for Israel. The US has generally always, since the resolution was passed in 1967, interpreted it to mean that Israel should withdraw to the 1967 lines, with "minor border adjustments" to straighten out and rationalize borders--for instance, in the area near Tel Aviv where Israel has a very narrow "waist." By the time negotiations finally broke off in January 2001, when Sharon and Bush came into office, the Palestinians had apparently agreed to allow the Israelis to retain and annex to it several settlement blocs in the West Bank, which would effectively have carried out this "rationalization" of the border lines.
Alexandria, Va.: The former Israeli official Yossi Beilin says that when negotiations ended at Taba in 2001 he, Beilin, was offering to allow 40,000 Palestinians to enter Israel and the Palestinian side was demanding 500,000 enter.
Beilin says that the sides were close to an agreement but did not reach one.
If Israeli now refuses to allow even 40,000 Palestinians to settle inside of Israel's pre-1967 borders will the Palestinians stop making this demand?
Kathleen Christison: A good question. Unfortunately, I think both sides' demands have probably increased as the fighting has gone on and become more intense and ugly. I don't think the Palestinians will ever drop their demand altogether for the return of some refugees, and as time goes on they may increase the demand. Those who fear for Israel's existence, however, should always be aware that Israel would always have the veto power over the return of even one Palestinian refugee, so the issue is not a threat to Israel.
Reston, Va.: "I disagree that the recruitment of suicide bombers requires a lot of logistics and training--it's done largely by young kids who are desperate and can acquire a few bucks' worth of explosives." This is a very important point. The administration's equating desperate Palestinians -- not all of whom are particularly religious -- with the al-Qaida zealots is a serious error if we are trying to show understanding of the Arab side of the dispute.
Kathleen Christison: You're exactly right here. Unfortunately, the administration is NOT trying to show understanding of the Palestinian side of the dispute. Its war on terrorism has given Ariel Sharon license to label anything he wants as Palestinian "terrorism" and to take any actions he wants against Palestinians.
Minot, N.D.: Kathleen Christison: How many Americans have been part of the resettlement process in Palestine former territories; and do they retain duo citizenship?
Kathleen Christison: I don't know the numbers, but there is a high proportion of Americans among the Israeli settlers in the West Bank and Gaza. Also don't know if they retain their American citizenship, but probably large numbers do.
College Park, Md.: Ultimately, at some point, Arafat will die. I have heard that his possible successors within the PLO (the main body that is essentially instrumental in deciding this question) would be more hard-line and unwavering than Arafat. If this is the case, why is Israel so adamant about removing him knowing full well that this simply will continue to worsen the social conflagration between the two groups? Unless Israel actually wants this (?). Tangentially, what would occur if the next series of leaders would adopt a more "dovish," non-violent method of highlighting Israeli aggression in the West Bank; how would this de-legitimize Israel's reason for being there (both settling orthodox Jewish communities and militarily)?
Kathleen Christison: I'm just going to answer this quickly. There are several possible successors to Arafat but no real succession system, and right now he is so popular because he's under siege by the Israelis that no one in Palestine would think of replacing him. I don't think anyone new would be more "moderate"--a word I hate--or more willing to accommodate Israel. Many possible successors, in fact, would be much less compromising. I think Sharon may indeed want the kind of chaos that would result if Arafat were killed or died; Sharon is a provocateur par excellence, and has engaged in just this kind of provocation for decades--e.g., by provoking the intifada, by assassinating Palestinian leaders during periods of quiet or when a US mediator in about to arrive, etc.
Kathleen Christison: Thanks to everyone for some great questions. I hope I've answered a broad sampling to address your diversity of views. Thanks for your interest.
That wraps up today's show. Thanks to everyone who joined the discussion.
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