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Bush & The Middle East
James A. Phillips
Heritage Foundation Research Fellow

Friday, June 06, 2003; Noon ET

Was President Bush's recent visit to the Middle East productive? Is the administration's "road map" to peace a winning strategy? What do you make of Bush's pledge to "reveal the truth" of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq?

James A. Phillips, research fellow at The Heritage Foundation, was online to discuss Bush's visit to the Middle East, U.S. policy in the region and the meeting between new Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The 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.



James A. Phillips: This is Jim Phillips, Research Fellow for M.E. Affairs at the Heritage Foundation, opening up the discussion. Thanks for tuning in.

As a conservative, I am not optimistic about the chances for a genuine Arab-Israeli peace. To me, the twin summits in Egypt and Jordan earlier this week were "deja vu all over again". Although Israeli P.M. Sharon made some dramatic concessions, the Palestinian P.M. Abbas made promises that I am not sure he is willing or able to keep. for more see my recent piece: Road Map to Gridlock.

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washingtonpost.com: A Middle East Roadmap to Gridlock? (Heritage Foundation, June 5)

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Somewhere, USA: Sorry if this is an incredibly basic question, but I have not really seen this addressed. Why does the United States have to get involved in order for the peace process to work? Why must we play the intermediary? I constantly see editorials espousing the notion that if we don't the region will collapse - but no one seems to back up their claim. Are there not other countries willing to take up the role?

James A. Phillips: Unfortunately, there is no other country that is trusted by both sides to act as an intermediary. Israel correctly perceives the U.N. to be hopelessly biased against it. Therefore, the United States has played an indispensable role as a broker in every administration since the Carter Administration sponsored the 1978 Camp David summit.

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Washington, D.C.: The news today is that Hamas is breaking off cease-fire talks with the Palestinians because they feel betrayed by Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas. How much of a setback is this?

washingtonpost.com: Hamas Breaks Off Talks With Abbas (Post, June 6)

James A. Phillips: This is a major setback that goes to the heart of the problem. Palestinian terrorists continue to kill Israelis, undermining their willingness and ability to take risks for peace. Until the Palestinians have cleaned up their own house and halted terrorism, I do not think that a genuine peace is possible.

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Lyme, Ct.: Do you have an evaluation as to whether the current agreement regarding Israel and Palestine will hold? What dangers do you foresee, and what steps do you argue should be taken to overcome these dangers?

James A. Phillips: I do not expect P.M. Abbas to have the power to halt Palestinian terrorism, even assuming he is willing to pay the political price with his own people to do so. According to U.S. officials, Abbas commands the loyalty of only about 400 Palestinian security officials out of more than 30,000 and most of the rest are loyal to Yasser Arafat, who already is nipping at Abbas' heels, berating him for failing to get more Israeli concessions at the summit.

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Alexandria, Va.: Why didn't Bush actually travel INTO Iraq? Is the administration treading softly on any images that may look like occupation, or is it simply a safety issue?

Thank you.

James A. Phillips: I think President Bush wanted to make the Arab-Israeli peace negotiations the prime focus of this M.E. trip and did not want to deflect attention to Iraq. He visited U.S. troops in Qatar, which was a much safer destination from a security standpoint.

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Winthrop, Mass.: How serious is the damage for any peace efforts is the failure to find any hint of WMD in Iraq? To me, if the USA doesn't find WMD by the tons, the Bush administration will be utterly and permanently discredited at home and abroad. I can't imagine that an administration facing likely impeachment and imprisonment for the highest of possible treasons could be a valid third party for the peace talks. Is there anyway the Bush administration can become effective (other than through the direct use of force) in world affairs without finding WMD in military significant quantities?

James A. Phillips: Two suspected mobile biological warfare production units already have been found and I think much more WMD eventually will be found. The Iraqis that know the locations of these forbidden items are the ones most loyal to Saddam and least likely to come forward to offer information. We have not found Saddam Hussein yet either, but nobody doubts that he exists. I find it hard to believe that Saddam would sacrifice over $100 billion in oil revenues due to U.N. economic sanctions, if he did not have WMD he was seeking to retain. I do not think that he was that stupid.

As for the peace process, I don't think the spillover of the WMD issue will be much of a factor.

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Somewhere, USA: The opposition to Israel is not a unified movement. While agreements can be made with some principal opponents, there are still factions out there bent on terrorism and the destruction of Israel. What, if anything, can be done to minimize the opposition of such extremists?

James A. Phillips: Most extremists have closed minds and will not drop terrorism against Israel regardless of what Israel does. They do not want peace, but the destruction of Israel. The trick is to convince those Palestinians that would support them that they and their children would be better off with a negotiated peace than with an endless jihad. They must be persuaded that "half a loaf is better than none."

This will take a long time - probably more than a generation. Education is important. The Palestinian Authority must stop spoonfeeding hate propaganda to kids in schools. And the Palestinians must see concrete political and economic improvement in their daily lives.

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Washington, D.C.: Hamas feels betrayed by the new PM's concessions. Settling Israeli's feel betrayed by their PM's pledge to move them. Isn't the sign of good negotiation that both sides are unsatisfied? In other words, aren't these developments necessary steps towards resolution?

James A. Phillips: As Sharon and Abbas tentatively grope for diplomatic progress, hard-liners on both sides will become increasingly uncomfortable. The settlers remember that Sharon was the Minister of Defense in the Begin government that expelled settlers from the Sinai settlement of Yamit after the peace agreement with Egypt, and they know he will make good on any promises that he makes to evacuate settlements in the West Bank or Gaza.

Hamas and other Islamic radicals distrust P.M. Abbas because he wants to build a secular Palestinian state, not a Islamic state. Ultimately, it is possible that there may be no peaceful solution unless Palestinian moderates fight and win a civil war with Islamic radicals who reject any possible peace with Israel.

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Vienna, Va.: Why does the so-called "Palestinian" state HAVE to be on the West Bank? Why not give them a state elsewhere in the Middle East? We just fought a war to clear Saddam's regime out of Iraq -- why not give the northern third of the country to the Kurds, the southern part to Kuwait as reparation for Saddam's savage invasion of 1990, and perhaps give a small area in the western part to Arafat, Abbas, and the Palestinians and let them call it their own? This would give them a state once and for all (which at least on paper is their stated goal), get them off of Israel's back, and hopefully shut them up and bring a stop to this senseless terror. Perhaps the U.N could help with relocating those West Bank Palestinians who want to move to the new state.

James A. Phillips: I do not think Palestinians would accept being shunted off to Iraq or elsewhere. This would not solve the problem, but would only be a recipe for perpetuating terrorism. For a genuine peace to have a chance, a critical mass of Palestinians must conclude that they are better off with a peace treaty than without it, and they must take steps to halt terrorists who do not agree with that proposition.

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Harrisburg, Pa.: You put the blame on the Palestinians and say they need to "clean up their act." But postponing a settlement certainly benefits the right-wing elements if Israeli society. Israel insists the Palestinians police their own radical elements, but then appropriates 75 Land Rovers from the Palestinian forces as "spoils of war" for the use of the IDF. Shouldn't Bush insist those vehicles be given back?

James A. Phillips: The premise of the Oslo peace process was that Palestinians would do a better job than Israelis in fighting terrorism if they believed they had a stake in peace that gave them an interest in doing so. The Israelis then permitted the return of tens of thousands of PLO guerillas and even gave them rifles and other weapons to equip their police force.

But the Palestinian police never lived up to their side of the bargain. They cracked down and "arrested the usual suspects" when Arafat deemed that it was politically useful to do so, but those arrested were soon set free, when Arafat deemed that to be politically useful. Palestinian police also were caught red-handed launching terrorist attacks against Israelis, particularly after the outbreak of the intifadah in September 2000.

I have not heard about the land rovers you mention, but I think that they should be given back to the Palestinian police after the police start fighting terrorists, as the Palestinians promised in 1993.

Looks like that is all the time we have. Thank you for the opportunity to address these questions.

For more on the Heritage Foundation and our online publications on the Middle East see this link:

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washingtonpost.com: Heritage Foundation Middle East Research

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