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Interview of Martin Indyk, Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel

Aired April 12, 2002 - 07:17   ET


PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: More now on Secretary of State Colin Powell's search for peace in the Middle East. While expectations for Powell's peace mission are low, the stakes are very high indeed. And this morning, the Secretary of State met face to face with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in Jerusalem, and afterward, Powell said Sharon gave him no timetable on when Israeli forces will withdraw from Palestinian areas.

Powell plans to meet with Yasser Arafat tomorrow in Ramallah. That leads us to our big question of this hour: Is Secretary Powell on mission impossible? And joining us now from Washington to talk about the secretary of state's mission, Martin Indyk, the former U.S. ambassador to Israel -- welcome back.


ZAHN: Good morning. So do you think based on what you have heard about this very contentious four-and-a-half hour meeting between Colin Powell and Ariel Sharon that the secretary of state struck out?

INDYK: It's in a way too early to say, because there are two parties to this conversation, Ariel Sharon on the one side and Yasser Arafat on the other. And until the secretary of state talks to Yasser Arafat, he doesn't have the positions of the two sides, and then he has to start to look at how he can bridge them. That's where the mission impossible comes in.

But at this point, I think that he surely could not have expected that Sharon was going to cave before Powell could tell him that Arafat was going to declare a cease-fire at a minimum and act against the terrorists in place of the Israeli operation.

I think that perhaps the most interesting thing, at least that we heard in the press conference, was the prime minister saying that the operation will continue, but that it will finish soon. And the secretary of state not really voicing a strong objection to that, and I suspect that he knows that he really can't succeed in that effort unless he can bring to Sharon some willingness on the other side to call it off.

ZAHN: But he did make it clear, and he said this out loud, that he felt the long-term consequences of the Israeli actions were damaging. Could he have put any more teeth into that this morning? INDYK: I think it's very difficult when the White House yesterday was making clear that the president regarded the prime minister as a man of peace on the one side, and on the other side, he doesn't have a credible Palestinian partner to this effort that he can tell Sharon, listen, if you will just stop, everything will be all right. He can't assure that.

And he's got to be very careful here, Paula, because he presses Sharon to stop the operation and withdraw, and then there's a range of suicide bombings, the Israelis will turn around and say, if only you had let us finish the operation this wouldn't have happened.

ZAHN: Well, you already are beginning to see a lot of dissent among President Bush's base. There was a very -- according to "The New York Times" a very critical memorandum circulated in Washington yesterday by two conservative commentators, William Crystal (ph) and Robert Kagan (ph), and they said that Secretary Powell -- and I'm going to use their quote right here -- "had virtually obliterated the distinction between the terrorists and those fighting terrorists." Are they right?

INDYK: Well, I think that in these circumstances, where the president has been so clear about there being no good terrorists and bad terrorists, and where it's necessary to fight the terrorists and not negotiate with them, that he finds it hard to explain why he would then press Israel to stop its actions designed to fit within those very principles.

And of course, Benjamin Netanyahu, the former prime minister of Israel, has been up on the Hill talking to Republicans in a Republican accent, making exactly this point and I think stirring up a kind of backlash there. And of course, Democrats feel equally strongly that this is a time to be supporting Israel, not criticizing it.

So this complicates Powell's mission, because he is trying to please the Arabs by showing them that he is pressing Israel to stop this. They are under a lot of pressure. And he finds himself caught in a vortex here.

ZAHN: And I know, Martin, you were saying that going into this meeting, Secretary Powell probably could not have expected Israel to immediately start withdrawing until Mr. Powell sits down with Arafat and he gets an assurance a cease-fire will be declared. But doesn't this perhaps leave the American public with a perception that the government is very vulnerable, our government, the United States government (UNINTELLIGIBLE) even looks impotent (ph)?

INDYK: Yes, and that is the danger in this situation. When you intervene in this way and you start making public demands of both sides, and in the Middle East, they are not used to just standing at attention and saluting. And you see, it's not just the Israelis who are saying we've got a job to do, but you're not getting any response at all from Yasser Arafat, and except from Jordan, a fairly weak response from the Arabs as well to the demands that the president has put on them. I think that in a way, it would have been better to avoid the demands publicly, and to try to work the diplomacy first and then save those kinds of public demands for when you had a situation where the administration actually had a way forward, some bridging proposals, some way of moving out of this crisis. Going in there with the demands, neither side responding to them, does make the United States look as if it doesn't have influence.

And I'll just make one quick point here. The reason that all the Arab states, the Palestinians are coming knocking on Washington's door is because we do have influence on Israel, because of our special relationship with Israel. And we do not want to give them the impression that we cannot use that influence effectively.

And the great danger in this situation is we may get some benefit, some PR points from criticizing Israel, but if we allow our gut (ph) to show between the United States and Israel, and in this situation allow others to try to drive a wedge in, Israel will dig its heels in, as we start to see with Prime Minister Sharon, and we'll have demonstrated that we can't actually influence them.

So we are much better off acting more quietly to try to get them to close down this operation as quickly as possible, but on the other side, delivering something from the Arabs and the Palestinians that will enable the Israelis to feel that something more positive will come out from their side as well.

ZAHN: Final question for you this morning, Martin. According to "The New York Times," Israel has given the United States documents that Israeli officials say establish that Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, had ties to terrorism. These documents are both in Arabic and in English. How does this complicate Secretary Powell's mission, when he sits down with Yasser Arafat tomorrow?

INDYK: Well, I don't think this will come as any surprise to Secretary Powell. We have our own information about Yasser Arafat's dalliance with the people who are involved in the terrorist activities, and of the direct involvement of some of the people that are closest to him. This is something that's gone on for some time, and therefore, the secretary has already put that into the computer.

The Israelis, of course, will lay out the latest information that they have managed to collect in their raid on Arafat's headquarters, but basically Powell knows that Arafat has been involved in these activities. The question is, what is he to do to on the Palestinian side? How is he going to get some responsible authority there to act against the terrorists?

That's the conundrum that the United States and Israel have faced for the last 18 months. There hasn't been a responsible partner in Yasser Arafat. And that is what, I think, makes this mission so impossible. In the end, it doesn't really matter. Arafat has declared cease-fires 11 times. We'll get him to declare a cease-fire this time, and nobody really believes he is going to do anything about it. There is also a question of whether he has the capability at this point after the Israeli operations to do anything about it, even if he had the will to do it, which is doubtful.

So I think inevitably, we are going to come to a situation, where the Israelis will pull out, because they don't want to stay there. They will withdraw to buffer zones, and then we'll have to see whether we can get some kind of international conference going that will provide some responsible partner to a negotiation. What I mean by this is Arab state involvement, some kind of custodianship or trusteeship of the Palestinian side to enable them to develop a responsible, credible, accountable authority that can then be a partner in the peace process.

ZAHN: Martin Indyk, as always, good to have you on the air with us. We appreciate your perspective and look forward to your insights as this process continues to drag on -- thank you again for joining us.

INDYK: My pleasure, Paula -- thank you.





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