Q&A With Barton Gellman
Good afternoon and welcome to "Levey Live." I'm your host, Washington Post columnist Bob Levey. This live show appears each Tuesday from noon to 1 p.m. Eastern time. It is a live, moderated discussion offering washingtonpost.com users the chance to ask questions directly of the people who make the news and the people who report it.
Bob's guest was the Post's foreign policy reporter, Barton Gellman. Before covering foreign policy, Gellman reported on the Pentagon for the Post and worked in the Jerusalem bureau for three years.
Gelman discussed the Middle East peace process and Arab-Israeli tensions.
Here is the transcript of the chat:
Washington, D.C.: I just don't understand the logic behind exchanging land, something tangible, for the promise of preventing terrorism, something intangible. If terrorism continues against Israel, is Arafat going to return the land?
Barton Gellman: An intangible trade is in the nature of a negotiation between one party that has most or all of the cards and one party that has none. It's an interesting question why Israel is willing to engage in this sort of talk, but don't mistake one thing: large majorities of Israelis have supported the basic deal since '93, and still do. One reason that should not be overlooked is weariness at endless war, and hope that there is a chance for (grudging) peace. And no, Arafat won't return the land, but if it comes to real war Israel can certainly take it.
Bob Levey: Bill Clinton has said throughout Monicagate that he wants to do "the job the American people elected me to do." Clearly, the Wye agreements fit that definition. Has Clinton gotten the credit he deserves for brokering this latest piece of peace?
Barton Gellman: I don't think most Americans voted in the midterm elections on the basis of the Wye accord, but I do think it helped answer the questions of doubters whether Clinton can do anything but defend against impeachment. In that small sense the election results may count as getting credit for what he did.
Cleveland, Ohio: What has been the Clinton Administration's response to the fact that Yasser Arafat continually speaks of holy war and complete victory ("Israelis driven into the sea") to his Arabic audiences, yet talks of "peace" when in Europe or U.S. (or in front of a CNN camera)? Which Arafat does Clinton believe?
Barton Gellman: It's not technically true that Arafat speaks peace in English and war in Arabic. On two important occasions I can think of off hand -- 9/28/95 and 10/23/98 -- he used a live international broadcast to say, in Arabic, that there will never be a return to war and bloodshed with Israel, that negotiation is the way to resolve disputes. On the other hand he still uses the word jihad a lot, and he generally speaks on all sides of his mouth about many of the core issues. This is an endemic quality of politicians, writ larger in fundamentally weak ones, and writ larger still in Arafat's case. But the Clinton administration believes -- as do many but not all Israelis -- that Arafat is ready to make a realistic deal.
Mount Rainier, Md.: ...[T]he more I find out about how Israel has acquired the lands that Palestinians once lived on, the angrier I get. There seems to be little acknowledgement that people were dispossessed of homes they had lived in for generations, and there is a quantity of self-righteousness about the Israeli stance that sits very badly. Is this only the way it seems in America, or are there Israelis who feel this way, too?
Barton Gellman: There are Israelis who acknowledge the pain and dispossession of the other side. That has come with the so called revisionist school of historians led by Benny Morris, and with the development of enough national strength (economic and military) to allow reexamination of founding myths. (We have our own founding myths aplenty, so I'm not speaking particularly of Israel on that front.) The Defense Minister, Yitzhak Mordechai, said this week that painful though it is to give up parts of the biblical patrimony, Jews have to realize that since biblical times, other people came to live on the land and it has to be shared with them.
Bob Levey: The fate of Jerusalem was not decided at Wye. The parties agreed to settle it later. But Jerusalem is so emotionally charged for both sides that the whole agreement could become unstuck. Will it?
Barton Gellman: Jerusalem is often said to be the emotional core of the dispute, and it may be unresolvable. But there are intriguing studies of public opinion, among both peoples, suggesting the possibility of a deal. For example, 80 percent of Israelis are against division of any part of Jerusalem in principle. But 60 percent are in favor of "redrawing Jerusalem's boundaries to make it more Jewish." That suggests that part of the problem could be resolved by political marketing -- to break off Arab villages inside the city (Sur Baher, Abu Dis) and call them a new Palestinian city of Al Quds. The Old City's holy sites are never going to be relinquished politically by Israel, but Arafat's appointed mufti already controls the Islamic holy sites.
Rockville, Md.: Why does it appear that the press always attributes the worst intentions to Israeli Leaders and the best intentions to Palestinian leaders, as if they could read their minds?
Barton Gellman: Why does it appear that interested readers so often attribute flaws to "the press" rather than taking particular issue with particular reports? I don't think I can speak for the press as a whole, or agree with your thesis. But if you have a more specific question, fire away.
Bob Levey: I've felt for a long time that the best prospect for peace is talks between younger Palestinian and Israeli leaders--people who could avoid the reflexive views of their fathers and grandfathers. But we never seem to hear (or read about) any such younger public figures. Why not? And do you agree that younger leaders might make a difference?
Barton Gellman: It sort of depends on your model of conflict. One idea is based mainly on misunderstanding and ignorance of "the other." That's truer in a lot of other places than among Israelis and Palestinians, who know each other all too well. A more realistic model is territorial-political: you have two 'nations' (one a state and one a wannabe) with directly conflicting claims to an identical stretch of land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. To work it out requires adults with power. But young people can perhaps start the motivating process and there are good programs, such as Seeds of Peace, that bring teens together. I've talked to some of them, and the exposure does seem to change their views at least subtly.
New York: If you were Israel's leaders, and you worried about Israel being around in 50 years, would you allow the creation of a Palestinian state?
Barton Gellman: This is the fundamental strategic question facing Israel. The Rabin-Peres view was that there is a race under way in the Middle East between forces of modernization and westernization and pragmatism on the one hand and religious extremism and radicalism on the other. Call it Sadat v. Khomeini. Rabin made the hard-headed calculation that Israel had a brief window of opportunity to cement relationships with the pragmatists before the extremists risked displacing them. In that sense he did not believe time was necessarily on Israel's side. He was prepared to tolerate a truncated Palestinian state as the price of building this new strategic axis. Netanyahu (especially in his book) argued the opposite view, that time is on Israel's side and it need not make peace agreements except on its own ideal terms. But as a pragmatic politician, Netanyahu has shifted toward the center of gravity of Israeli public opinion, which is that territorial compromise must be tried. He does not say so explicitly but it is clear he will accept statehood eventually. The only question is the price.
Bob Levey: Arafat said just nine days ago that Palestinians retain the option of a new intifada if Israel blocks Islamic religious sites in Jerusalem. Those are hardly peaceful words. But was Arafat trying to start serious trouble, or was he just throwing a rhetorical bone to the hard-liners on his side?
Barton Gellman: Arafat does need to keep impatient nationalists on board, by signalling that he is bargaining from strength and not surrender. There is also a message to Israel, which Israel has always understood: the agreement to settle the dispute peacefully is not absolute or unconditional. No Israeli expects that Palestinians would swallow an Israeli "final" offer of autonomy within current borders and no state, for example. In general, states do not count on pledges of "no more war" from their neighbors. Israel's army never counted on it from Egypt, for example. The question is whether Palestinians are willing to accept a compromise in good faith.
Washington, D.C.: Do you think that the PLO is operating in good faith in regard to terrorism? This seems to be the major sticking point right now for the Israelis, even though I have not seen any accounts that claim the PLO is still protecting terrorists.
Barton Gellman: There are several levels to an answer. First, since Oslo, there is a dramatic drop, nearly to zero, in the terrorist activities conducted by Fatah and other PLO groups that Arafat controls. Second, there has been a corresponding growth in terror by factions that rejected Arafat's deal -- the leftist PFLP and DFLP on a small scale, and Hamas and Islamic Jihad on a larger scale. The number of terror attacks is way down, but the advent of suicide bombs in '94 made the average attack much more lethal. Arafat has ebbed and flowed in his efforts to crack down on these internal opponents. Right now it looks like he's doing so with vigor.
Half an hour remaining with our guest, Washington Post staff writer Barton Gellman
Do you think it is in Israel's strategic interests to deal with Arafat when his power base is uncertain and his continuing abilities at administration questionable?
Barton Gellman: That was exactly WHY Israel decided to deal with him in 1993 for two reasons. One, strike a bargain with an adversary when your relative strength is highest, and two, don't let Arafat get pushed aside by a more dangerous movement, Hamas. Now, however, I don't think his power base is uncertain. He is not unconstrained -- few politicians are -- but there is no practical challenge to his leadership.
Bob Levey: If I were a Jewish settler in the West Bank, and I knew Palestinians were going to have much greater control over the territory around me, I'd be plenty fearful. Will Israel do more to protect these settlers? Are they in fact at greater risk?
Barton Gellman: Many of the settlers are understandably fearful. Israel plans to increase security around them, and the political question is what secures them more -- barbed wire and guns or a liveable agreement with the majority of their neighbors. One sensible answer might be that both are helpful. There is a broader issue here, though. Palestinians have had to live for a long time with the fact that Israelis had power over them in their everyday lives. Israelis are now coming to understand that if they want a peace deal they will have to transfer some power to the Palestinians and therefore be subject to that power on occasion, such as when they cross a Palestinian checkpoint. That is not comfortable, and it will never be equal because Israel will be the predominant power indefinitely. But there is starting to be a psychological change. When I was based in Israel Rehevam Zeevi, from Moldedet, said he would open fire on any Palestinian policeman who stopped his car. But when he drove to Jericho and the Palestinian police asked for his ID, he allowed the incident to pass.
Columbia, Mo.: Why should the average american be concerned about peace in the middle east?
Barton Gellman: I'm a little leery of "shoulds" here, but there are stakes worth considering. Many Americans feel a sense of connection to Israel, or to Jerusalem, or to the holy places. All Americans are dependent for their energy on the Arabian peninsula. The political and economic behavior of the oil producing gulf states has some relationship to their perception of the United States as an honest broker in a conflict they care about. That in turn affects the risk that a hostile regional power (Saddam's Iraq, Khameini's Iran) will dominate the gulf's resources in a way that threatens American interests.
Bob Levey: Israel has tons of friends on Capitol Hill. Yet Patrick Buchanan has denounced that phenomenon during an American Presidential campaign, and Arabs complain that they don't receive as much American aid as Israelis. Does Congress tilt unduly toward Israel?
Barton Gellman: I don't do editorials so I can't address "unduly." But there's no serious doubt that Congress tilts toward Israel. In the era of a GOP Congress, it has also tilted in Israeli domestic politics toward Netanyahu's Likud.
Washington, D.C.: Arafat appears to be cracking down on militant factions more so than the past. Recently, one mid-level Hamas member alluded to armed action against the PNA if crackdowns continued. What changing role do these opposition groups play now and what role would they play in a Palestinian state?
Barton Gellman: Hamas periodically threatens to act against Arafat, but generally forebears. I doubt it will happen on a significant scale. Unlike Islamic Jihad (which is essentially nothing but a terrorist group) Hamas is also a mass political and social movement, which values Palestinian public opinion. Palestinians basically approve of what Arafat is doing and do not want civil war, having tasted it in Lebanon and Jordan.
Arlington, Va.: Do citizens of all religions in Israel enjoy the same civil rights? If not, does it conflict with the US foreign policy?
Barton Gellman: Israel is both a democracy and a Jewish state. It's routine for politicians there to say there is no conflict, but that can't always be true. Members of all religions generally have the same formal civil rights. In practice there are many differences. No Arab or Muslim has ever sat on Israel's supreme court, for example, and I believe there has been only one Arab Israeli ambassador. Civil service employment is equally skewed. And while Christian practice is free in Israel, evangelizing is forbidden.
Bob Levey: In today's Post, you report that Israel has asked the Clinton Administration for $1.2 billion to move troops and installations from the West Bank. That's serious change. Will the Clinton people go for it?
Barton Gellman: The early vibes are that Clinton will try to get most of that for Israel. It appears that was part of the behind the scenes negotiating at Wye.
New York, N.Y.: Do you feel it is inappropriate for Secretary Albright to be actively pressuring Israel to turn over land that her generals -- who are presumably more aware of the importance of such territory in future military conflicts than is Albright -- recommend against?
Barton Gellman: Netanyahu certainly didn't, and neither do Israel's defenders in the U.S. The administration speaks with many conflicting voices on the subject of pressure. It reminds me of my days covering the courthouse, when lawyers liked to "argue in the alternative." The US government's view on pressure is that there was never an ultimatum, that the ultimatum was not withdrawn, and if it was withdrawn it was for good reason. In practice there clearly was pressure. What the Israeli generals thought is more subtle than you put it, in my view. I have spoken to many of them as correspondent there. For each increment of land they say there are practical costs of withdrawing which must be balanced against the broader political and strategic gains.
Mount Rainier, Md.: How much control can Mr. Arafat have over terrorist group Hamas, since they regard him as the enemy, too?
Barton Gellman: He can't change their aims or political views. He can't kill or arrest all their "military" cells. He can severely limit their activity, because his own secret police - especially Mohammed Dahlan and Amin al Hindi in Gaza and Jibril Rajoub in the West Bank -- are competent and ruthless. He can also slowly coopt Hamas leaders, as he did by giving a cabinet post to Emad Falouji.
Bob Levey: Would the Wye agreements be affected if shooting starts in (or over) Iraq?
Barton Gellman: It would probably be set back, but only slightly. Bombing of Iraq would undermine warmth for Washington among the Arab states most needed to support peace with Israel, if only because Saddam has won the propaganda war with the broader Arab public. But the Israeli-Palestinian deal will not change much, because neither side can think of a better path.
Charlottesville, Va.: What political changes do you expect in the Middle East in the next few years? Especially with aging and perhaps vulnerable leaders in the Arab world -- King Hussein, Assad, King Fahd, Saddam. Any prospects for democracy?
Barton Gellman: I have lost nearly every bet with myself about the future of the Middle East. That is one of the reasons why I think what I do for a living matters: journalism is about empirical truth, looking and measuring, and what you find often surprises you. You are clearly right to say there are a lot of important Middle East leaders in their twilight years -- I'd add Qadafi as well. Jordan looks likely to make a decent transition, but all bets are off for the others as far as I can tell.
That's it for today. Thanks to our guest, Barton Gellman. Be sure to join us next week when our guest will be Warren Brown, the Washington Post staff writer who covers the automobile industry. And be sure to join us next Friday, Nov. 27, for the debut of "Levey Live: Speaking Freely." It will appear from 1 to 2 p.m. Eastern time.