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Interview with Jean AbiNader and Mark Regev - 2002-05-29


MR. BORGIDA:
In our Pro and Con segment today, is Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat still relevant? With us to discuss this, Mark Regev, Spokesman for the Israeli Embassy here in Washington, and Jean AbiNader, of the Arab American Institute. Thank you both for joining us today. We have some time to discuss this, so we move right to it. Mr. Regev, is Mr. Arafat relevant in the current context?

MR. REGEV:
That's for the Palestinian people to decide. And what we hope -- and Israel has to be careful on this, because we can't pick and choose Palestinian leaders for them -- but we would hope there would be an international consensus that would call for openness and transparency and for more democracy in the Palestinian Authority and that more authentic Palestinian leaders could emerge. After all, Mr. Arafat formed Fatah in 1958, if I'm not mistaken. I wasn't born in 1958. I don't think there are many international leaders who have been on the stage that long. Maybe Fidel Castro is the only one. Surely there are other Palestinian leaders, people who are moderate, people who are not committed to terrorism the way Arafat is.

Surely we should allow the Palestinian people to express their voice freely, to empower them -- a free press. When you look at the Palestinian press, it's a joke. It's "Arafat is great and the Israelis are terrible," over and over again.

The Palestinian courts could become more independent. We would want to empower Palestinians and let them choose their leader.

MR. BORGIDA:
Mr. AbiNader, he is saying that Mr. Arafat is committed to terrorism; surely there must be other leaders. The message is pretty clear from Mr. Regev. Your view?

MR. ABINADER:
Well, I accept the reality that he is the current leader. And he was elected in free elections. So let's not ignore that. And it is up to the Palestinians to choose their leadership. But I think the real issue is the deeper one we should get into, and that is the institutional quality of what the Palestinian state is going to look like. And I think this is where we have to really be working with the Palestinians.

I think Arafat understands that his role now, much like Mandela in South Africa, is a transitional one. And that is to bring the Palestinians to the next stage. And you can't disregard -- as you said, he's been around for 40 years -- you can't disregard the symbol that he has become and is for the Palestinian people. So the point is, how do we turn that into an asset in the process as opposed to a liability?

I think Arafat -- and no leader in the Middle East, in Israel or the Arab countries -- wants to be remembered as the person who lost the chance to make peace. This is what dogged Assad, in his last days, was the fact that he couldn't make peace for Syria.

So the real question to me becomes, okay, how do we make him relevant to the point of having him make this transition work in a way that there is credibility involved? And it is not going to happen until the Palestinians have some hope that there is a reason to do all these steps.

In other words, why have an independent judiciary, why have economic development, why promote human rights if in the end the occupation is not going to end, if in the end they don't feel that they are going to have a viable state in terms of the land mass and how it's connected, and in terms of the blockades, of keeping cities and villages separated?

So it has to be a comprehensive look, not just one personality and saying let's change that personality, because it is not going to make a difference.

MR. BORGIDA:
Let's keep to the personality for one more moment, and then I'll let the two of you engage each other if you would like. I guess the sharper question I would like to pose to both of you: Is Mr. Arafat able to control the militant wings of the Palestinian leadership who, many are suggesting, have in fact claimed responsibility for many terrorist acts in Israel?

MR. REGEV:
I think the answer is clearly yes. And I can explain why. Does Chairman Arafat control the Palestinian security services, the people in uniform who he pays their salary? And the answer is clearly yes. Everyone says he can. I mean, ultimately, because he is a dictator, if he didn't control his own security services he wouldn't be in power. So the answer to that is clear.

Have these people been cooperating and collaborating in terrorism? They have been.

Does he control Fatah? Fatah is his own political party. Now, Fatah, they're not Democrats or Republicans. It's a very authoritarian political party, like the Baath Party in Syria or the Communist Party in Cuba. Does he control Fatah, al-Aqsa? Of course he does. These are people who are involved in terrorism in a very hands-on way.

With the other groups, Hamas and Islamic Jihad, I think we should use the Bush doctrine. Has he given a haven to these groups? Has he allowed these groups to function in areas under his control? And the answer is clearly yes.

But I would turn it upside-down, and I would say some people say, well, Arafat can't control. So if he can't control, who are we dealing with as Israelis? Why should we make concessions or deal with someone who can't deliver his end of the bargain? So we want to see emerge a real Palestinian leadership with the authority, with the legitimacy, and which represents the true interests of Palestinian people. Because, unfortunately – just one second -- our impression is that he represents Palestinians the same way Saddam Hussein represents Iraqis. And the Palestinians deserve a better, more authentic leadership.

MR. BORGIDA:
Mr. AbiNader?

MR. ABINADER:
Well, I would like to be able to make those same judgments about Ariel Sharon, but I don't. Because I think the reality is here that you can't take the personality out of the situation. Arafat is a survivor. He's fought for the rights of his people since 1962. The reality on the ground is that until there is a hope that is -- it comes from two things -- one, a clear statement that there will be a Palestinian state and a political settlement in people's lifetimes, not in Sharon's grandchildren's lifetime. And number two, that there will be significant economic and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians shortly to reestablish their infrastructure that was destroyed by the Israelis in the last two months.

And until those conditions are met, there is very little that can be said in terms of saying that the Palestinians are going to support anyone who is interested in talking with Israel. So if you're going to turn things on their head, what Israel should look at is, okay, what do we need to do as a country that will support moderation among the Palestinians? And Israel hasn't answered that sufficiently. Instead, they have used excessive military force in terms of promoting their security. They have invaded Palestinian towns.

We have now seen where Israelis soldiers have been given jail sentences for marauding and raiding and looting during the incursions. So there are a lot of steps that Israel itself can take to help that whole process. This is not a one-sided process here. The Palestinians aren't the only ones who have to take steps to make sure that as we move forward in a more responsible way to move people back to negotiations, that both sides make those steps and are committed to a two-state solution.

MR. BORGIDA:
Mr. Regev, quickly, excessive, the invasion?

MR. REGEV:
I don't believe so. I think when you have groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah, these are groups that share the bin Laden ideology. They don't want peace. They want to kill me. They want to kill every moderate Palestinian.

MR. ABINADER:
I think what you can see, though, is that what has happened is it has just escalated the violence. The suicide bombings haven't stopped.

MR. REGEV:
During that operation we had in March, 130 Israelis were killed in suicide bombings and three times that injured. In April, when our operation was ongoing, we had one suicide bombing, and that's one too many. But to say that our operation didn't save the lives of Israeli citizens who were being targeted by these --

MR. ABINADER:
It hasn't stopped the violence.

MR. REGEV:
When the operation was going on we did.

MR. ABINADER:
It hasn't stopped the violence. Of course, if I was standing in your doorway, I couldn't get out.

MR. BORGIDA:
Gentlemen, we're going to have to continue this another time. I'm delighted that you're engaging each other, but we'll do it another time. Thank you so much for joining us, Jean AbiNader, of the Arab American Institute in Washington, and Mark Regev, from the Israeli Embassy. Thanks so much.

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