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Interview with Jonathan Schanzer, Washington Institute for Near East Peace - 2003-05-19


Following five terrorist suicide bombings Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon postponed a trip to Washington placing delays on the Middle East “Road Map” to peace. Joining VOA’s David Borgida to discuss the situation is Middle East Analyst Jonathan Schanzer of the Washington Institute for Near East Peace.

MR. BORGIDA
Now joining us, Middle East Analyst Jonathan Schanzer of the Washington Institute for Near East Peace. Mr. Schanzer, thanks for joining us. We appreciate your time.

The language of President Bush, "pathetic," that's the word he used to describe events of the last 24 hours and beyond, pretty strong language, you'd think, at this point in time. What can the United States do, if anything, Mr. Schanzer, to insert itself again and end this cycle that has just repeated itself and repeated itself?

MR. SCHANZER
Well, unfortunately, actually there is not much that the United States can do at this point. One of the things I actually advocated was staying out of it, not actually meeting with Abu Mazen. In other words, the people on the ground in the Palestinian Authority aren't exactly thrilled with the United States, were angry at the United States for invading Iraq, et cetera. It may have been a good idea to just sort of leave the United States out of this and in fact leave Israel out of this. Let Abu Mazen actually begin to sort of get some power on the ground; in other words, find some supporters.

MR. BORGIDA
You're referring to the new Palestinian Prime Minister, also known as Mahmoud Abbas, right?

MR. SCHANZER
Yes.

MR. BORGIDA
And in some sense this is sort of a test case for his power and his ability to make change. What do you think about that?

MR. SCHANZER
Well, this is a test, as you say, but I think so far he is failing. And not because of anything that he has done but because there are elements on the ground right now, headed up, spearheaded, number one, by Yasser Arafat himself, who would like nothing more than to see the Prime Minister fail, and then, on top of that, you have Hamas and Islamic Jihad that are also posing this challenge.

MR. BORGIDA
I have to jump in. Why would you say that Arafat would like nothing more than to see the new Prime Minister fail? I have to follow up on that.

MR. SCHANZER
Okay. Well, up until now, the Palestinian Authority has been the Yasser Arafat Show. Yasser Arafat has been the sole leader of the Palestinian Authority and every decision went through him. Since the United States has put pressure on the Palestinians, we've seen sort of a new process, a little more transparency. Bringing in this new Prime Minister, it has downgraded Arafat, and Arafat knows it. He wants to sort of stay in the center, and he is being pushed out to the periphery right now.

If you notice actually, his al-Aqsa Brigades claimed responsibility for the fifth suicide attack. Now, we're not sure if they were responsible; it's actually thought that it was the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. But they actually wanted to claim responsibility for that attack, which I think indicates that there are still elements within Arafat's cadres that want to make sure that Mahmoud Abbas doesn't get the kind of power that he is striving for.

MR. BORGIDA
Let's talk a little bit about the Israeli side. Can Ariel Sharon do anything more, perhaps move back some settlements or something that the Palestinian side has wanted for some time, and perhaps lower the level of tension?

MR. SCHANZER
Well, of course, dismantling a couple of settlements would certainly help the Palestinians feel as if there was something more coming out of the Israeli side, but I don't think it will really mean much when it comes to these rejectionist groups. Groups like Hamas and Islamic Jihad and al-Aqsa Martyrs, they're going to carry out attacks whether Ariel Sharon gives up the entire West Bank and Gaza. What they want is all of what they see as historic Palestine, and that's what they're going to continue fighting for. It's in their charters. It's what they constantly talk about in their sermons.

MR. BORGIDA
You and I briefly talked before the program about this issue and how almost scripted it seems to be in the Middle East, when there is one moment, a step forward toward peace, and then multiple steps backward in the form of violence. Talk about that for a moment.

MR. SCHANZER
Well, there are certain things that rejectionist groups know that they're going to get a response out of the Israelis. If you carry out a suicide attack, the Israelis are going to probably impose closures on the West Bank and Gaza. If there is a diplomatic meeting scheduled, they will probably cancel it. So, if this roadmap, or the steps that are taken right now to try to shore up this roadmap, if it was on track, it would be certainly derailed by a suicide bombing, let alone five. So, you've had five now in 48 hours. This is the surest way with the Israelis, who are extremely sensitive about security, it's the one thing that they harp on the most. So, as soon as you threaten that security, this is the exact kind of reaction that you're going to get.

MR. BORGIDA
Well, then let me ask you directly, Mr. Schanzer, is the roadmap and whatever accomplishments and achievements that Secretary Powell was able to win in recent days, is the roadmap and the roadmap for peace dead?

MR. SCHANZER
It's not dead, but it's going to be extremely challenging to put it on track. And I think the main reason is - and we touched on this before - is that Abu Mazen doesn't have the kind of control that he needs in order to make sure that this thing stays on track. What he is seeing right now are challenges, coming from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and other groups. And this is not just about torpedoing the peace process, this is about torpedoing his rise to power right now, about shoring up his power. You don't see people right now demonstrating out on the streets for Abu Mazen. You see it for Arafat. You see it for Hamas. You see it for other rejectionist groups. And this is the kind of challenge and he doesn't have that kind of thing going for him right now. So, I think that's problem number one.

And these groups, incidentally, I think they are really trying to, I would say, probably take over, if they can, the Palestinian Authority. What you see actually over the last several months is Hamas working, trying to undermine the Palestinian Authority consistently. And there have been several meetings in Cairo where the Egyptians have tried to mediate between them. There has been fighting on the streets between the two factions and this is an extension of it, I would say. It's very political.

MR. BORGIDA
And of course, each time there is a violent incident, just stepping aside from the Palestinian politics for a moment briefly, you do see the Israeli Government tighten up in terms of the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. And it is this cycle that you think we will not see end in the months and years ahead, or is there any hope?

MR. SCHANZER
I think there is a little bit of hope, and that is if we, the United States, is able to step in and help provide a little bit of security. Also, if they wanted to bring in the Israelis to begin to round up some of these suspects. We've seen it actually after a string of bombings in 1996, not unlike what we've seen over the last 48 hours. This worked. The United States helped out the Shabak, the FBI equivalent of the Israelis. When they came in to essentially round up Hamas and Islamic Jihad terrorists, we saw a period of calm. And this is what actually enabled the Oslo process to go forward until 2000.

MR. BORGIDA
We will keep a close watch on things. Middle East Analyst Jonathan Schanzer of the Washington Institute for Near East Peace, thanks so much for being our guest.

MR. SCHANZER
Thank you.

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