Milton Viorst, journalist
Eugene Bird, journalist
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MILTON VIORST: The problem with Netanyahu was that he had lost total credibility as an individual. People were just glad to get rid of him because they felt that he was a liar, that they felt he was a man who would resort to any trick whatever in order to stay in power.
KRISTIN MC HUGH: This week on Common Ground, Israel’s future under the leadership Ehud Barak.
VIORST: There was a great deal of talk about, “well, we should have a Jewish majority since this is a Jewish state, for any major departures from previous policy.” Well, Barak was determined not to make that mistake. And so he wanted to have a very large majority that would cut across previous ideology and that would really make any major decisions that he took something that, upon which he could rely for a nation consensus. And I think so far the indications are he’s been quite successful.
KEITH PORTER: Common Ground is a program on world affairs and the people who shape events. It’s produced by the Stanley Foundation. I’m Keith Porter.
MC HUGH: And I’m Kristin McHugh. Ehud Barak is ushering in a new era in Israeli politics. His solid victory over former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is renewing hope for a peaceful solution to the conflict that has consumed Israel and the Middle East region for decades. American journalists Milton Viorst and Eugene Bird agree, Barak’s new coalition government will have a profound affect on the future for peace. Milton Viorst is the author of In The Shadow of the Prophet: The Struggle for the Soul of Islam. Eugene Bird is Director of Council for the National Interests and a former American diplomat. Both were in Israel to witness Barak’s victory. First. Milton Viorst.
VIORST: Well, I was rather astounded because I’ve been to Israel during previous election campaigns and they have tended, at least since the 1977 campaign to spill over into some violence. Certainly a great deal of vociferous violence, but even some physical violence. People were really, really angry in previous elections and I think the politicians were in some considerable measure responsible for that, stirring this kind of deep-seated emotional feeling up. But this one was calm. This one was friendly. And in retrospect it looks as if there was almost a consensus, even for the people who voted for him, that it was time to get rid of Netanyahu. There was a feeling that, “thank god, this, this nightmarish period of our history was coming to an end.” And so that even the people who were carrying Netanyahu signs next to the people who were carrying Barak signs, seemed to be a kind of a camaraderie. I was stunned by this. And I still find it an important index in what’s happening in Israel, I think, in shaping a new consensus in the direction of peace.
MC HUGH: Gene Bird?
EUGENE BIRD: Well, what struck me was the difference between the way that Israel was holding her elections and the Palestinian elections three years ago, when I was out there. The Palestinian elections were a time of course of great joy for the Palestinian people, there first real national election. And it was relatively the same in terms of election techniques. That was the other part about this. The Israeli elections were of course modernized, Americanized, some people say, by the presence of some major campaign managers from both the Republican and the Democratic parties. And that made a difference I think in the way that the public perception of good and what was wrong in proceeding to the ballot box. I thought the other thing that struck me was the amount of Arab Israelis, of which there are about one in about five, that they took a greater part in the election this time than any time before.
MC HUGH: Benjamin Netanyahu ushered in an era of conservative-type politics in Israel. When Barak was elected, I mean certainly he has a far different stance on politics and views. Why the sudden shift?
VIORST: Well, think the problem was not so much that Netanyahu was conservative. I think that you were right in saying that there is a considerable overlap in the philosophy of the two men. Not totally, and we’re beginning to see differences now that we haven’t in the past, just in the last few weeks, as his government has begun to congeal. But, but I think the problem with Netanyahu was that he had lost total credibility as an individual. People were just glad to get rid of him because they felt that he was a liar, that they felt he was a man who would resort to any trick whatever in order to stay in power. That he had no real ideals that he was committed to, whatever he articulated. And that he simply just was an unreliable leader, who had become something of an embarrassment to Israel. And I think basically that was more involved, that was more at the core of his resounding defeat than any ideology.
MC HUGH: Gene Bird?
BIRD: Well, yes, I think that’s, I’d agree entirely with that. And the question that I’m being asked now, and I don’t know the answer to it, “What is the future of Bibi Netanyahu?” One of the political commentators that we talked to after the election out there said, “Well, don’t write him off yet.” But he has now departed from the Knesset, he’s not in the Likud Party; he is taking a breather. And a lot depends on what happens from here on in as to whether Netanyahu makes a comeback or not in the future. Let’s, let’s hope that that doesn’t happen.
MC HUGH: Barak has secured his coalition; was inducted formally as Prime Minister here very, very recently. Does the coalition surprise you at all?
VIORST: No. No, no. He worked very hard to put that coalition together. I think we start with the premise that he is the protégé of Yitzhak Rabin, who was his commander in the Army for many years and his model. But the difference, where he’s departed from Rabin—and the choice wasn’t exactly available to Rabin—is that Rabin had to work with an extremely narrow majority of at most 61 out of 120 seats in the Knesset. And of those 61, 5 were Arab members of the Knesset. And there’s a little smell of racism here in politics and exclusionism, or call it what you want, but there was a great deal of talk about, “well, we should have a Jewish majority since this is a Jewish state, for any major departures from previous policy.” Well, Barak was determined not to make that mistake. And so he wanted to have a very large majority that would cut across previous ideology and that would really make any major decisions that he took something that, upon which he could rely for a nation consensus. And I think so far the indications are he’s been quite successful.
He has almost the whole Knesset, except for the extremes of the secularists on the left and the, and the hard-right settlers and the Likud Party on the right. I think it’s unfortunate and there still may be time to rectify it, that there still are no Arabs in the government. They have no official posts. And I think they were looking at least for at least one or two deputy ministerial posts, if not ministerial posts themselves. But Barak has suggested that they may still happen as he fills out the open seats in his government over the course of the next few weeks.
BIRD: I think he’s given ministers in his new government appointments which are not along the same lines as their background. He’s tried to insulate some of the ministers who are most outspoken and vocal on the peace, for example, to Justice and various other areas that have very little to do with the peace negotiations; Yossi Beilin being one of them. I think that may cause him some problems in the long run but he may have had more problems if he had named Yossi Beilin as Foreign Minister, for example. Everyone is remarking on the fact that again we have a Foreign Minister of Israel who doesn’t speak very good English. That probably isn’t terribly important. There are a lot of Foreign Ministers around the world that don’t speak English. But for Israel it’s particularly important to have communication with Washington. And David Levy may or may not have a warm personal relationship with Clinton. However….
VIORST: ….Or Madeline Albright.
BIRD: Or Madeline Albright. However, Barak himself is going to have a very close relationship with Clinton I think, from every indication. He’s been here many times. He has made speeches in Washington that have been received very well by the peace team. So there will be a honeymoon period for him, with Washington. And probably with the Palestinians and with the Syrians. He’s gotten off on the right foot in the last few days with both the Syrians and the Palestinians. We’ll see whether he can produce real policies. I’d like to say that he’s got a civilian government. He calls it a “government of peace, not of peaceniks,” But it’s a government essentially of generals.
VIORST: Well, I think we also ought to notice, somewhat to our surprise, that Shimon Peres is in the government. He doesn’t, I don’t know what his direct responsibilities are and when we talked to him when we were in Tel Aviv, I don’t think he knows himself what his responsibilities will be. But it’s got a nice title; it’s something like ‘Minister of International Coordination’ or something of that sort.
BIRD: Regional Economics, I think.
VIORST: Regional, Regional Coordination, I think.
BIRD: Regional Coordination.
VIORST: Which suggests that Barak is at least symbolically inviting him into the peace negotiations. I don’t know how much hard, hard contribution he will have to make, but he will be there, as will Yossi Beilin, and the others whom you mentioned, in the cabinet deliberations. And cabinets in Israel are a little more powerful than cabinets in the United States. Prime Ministers like to get overwhelming consensus for their policies in their cabinets. Cabinets rarely meet in the United States. They meet every Sunday in Israel. And the deliberations, either by design or by leak, usually become public information by Monday morning. And they do take –and they take votes—and people know. And that was one of the reasons Netanyahu fell. Because he lost the, he lost the support of his own cabinet. And I think that is unlikely to happen to Barak. And I think we will—he has a strong and very much peace-oriented cabinet now surrounding him.
MC HUGH: What does the new coalition mean for Israel’s future?
VIORST: Well, it certainly means an aggressive undertaking to make peace on the two tracks. That’s what, that’s what Barak promised us in his inauguration speech. There is also some suggestion that there will be a new effort to, to lift Israel out of the, out of the recession that it’s been in for the last couple of years, since Netanyahu. Although a little paradoxically he was very good in, in opening the markets in Israel to business, the kind of thing that’s been taking place in the United States and elsewhere, were for many years kind of reducing regulations and inviting in foreign capital. But foreign capital didn’t come in because the region had become so unstable that investors who were from abroad who were interested in the, mostly the high tech that Israel has to offer the world, stopped sending in their money. Because they just didn’t consider the region politically reliable. Well, that might change dramatically. And it’s interesting, if we take a look at the second level, after the peace negotiation people, we see that there are some very competent people in the area of economics. And I think that’s also been very much a part of his thinking.
BIRD: I’d agree with all of that. That the future is, for Israel is much, much brighter as a result of this election. Providing he goes ahead and completes the peace process. He points out that this has been a twenty-year process. And that his major preoccupation is going to be to complete the process. And we’re going to have to have a lot of participation by outside powers, notably the Europeans and the United States in this whole process, partly to support the economics of the process, which is going to require some people say another $100 billion. The United States alone has invested $100 billion in making peace in the last 20 years. And it is now the moment when probably some additional money is going to have to be appropriated over a period of ten years.
PORTER: Printed transcripts and audio cassettes of this program are available. Listen at the end of the broadcast for details. Common Ground is a service of the Stanley Foundation, a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that conducts a wide a range of programs designed provoke thought and encourage dialogue on world affairs.
Our conversation with journalists Milton Viorst and Eugene Bird continues.
MC HUGH: In his inauguration speech Barak said that peace has to be built on four pillars—Jordan, Egypt, Syria-Lebanon, and the Palestinians. Starting with Jordan, what is the future of the peace process with Jordan?
BIRD: Well, Jordan is disappointed that the peace process hasn’t been more warm. The Israelis often complain about the Egyptian peace not being warm. But the Jordanians are equally dissatisfied with fact that a lot of their trade with the West Bank with the Palestinians has dropped off as a result of what we call nontariff barriers, difficulties in, in getting the good to market. Same thing is true for Jordanian products going into Israel itself. The borders are very difficult. Jordan has had a lot of Israeli tourists; there have been relatively few Jordanian tourists in Israel. And that I think is too bad. It’s, it’s something that the Jordanians remark on. We’re facing the 2000 year celebrations in Israel and Nazareth and Bethlehem and of course Jordan has some holy places of its own which she would like to participate—have, have the tourists come and spend their money in Amman. Because there really isn’t a strong economy in Jordan at all. So, economically it’s been a disappointment. Water has not been provided the way that the Israelis declared they would. There are problems with people who want to go back and visit their, their homes inside of Israel, there former homes, who are refugees in Jordan. And it’s been difficult to get them over. So it hasn’t been a very warm peace from that standpoint. But the future probably with the new King and with the new general, is much, much brighter.
MC HUGH: You mentioned the new King. Certainly willing to move forward with the peace process as well?
VIORST: Oh, every indication is that he is as enthusiastic as his father was about the—maybe enthusiastic is not the word I should use—understanding. He recognized how important it is for the region. It doesn’t seem as if there’s been any fall-away from, in the transfer of power from father to son in Jordan. And on the other side of the equation he too has shown much greater interest than his father did. I thought his father was the finest leader in the Middle East and one of the great men of our time. But as we look back at it, the political problems of the region so, so overwhelmed him that he didn’t have a chance to look at many of the social and economic problems that were overcoming the region, including Jordan itself. And I think the new King has his eye on that in a very positive way.
MC HUGH: Egypt.
VIORST: Well, I think the Egyptians have always been—or at least since 1977—the biggest promoters of peace. And I think will continue to do so. There is no coincidence that his has been a cold peace because the Egyptians made clear at the very beginning that they would have warm and harmonious relations with Israel only on the condition that they complete the peace process. And as long as the peace process was, was undone, Jordan—excuse me—Egypt felt itself isolated from the rest of the Arab world. So Egypt has always taken a very aggressive attitude toward completing peace. And I think it will continue to do so. And I think it is likely that Egypt, that Israel will be rewarded if there is peace with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians, by better relations with the Egyptians.
MC HUGH: Gene Bird.
BIRD: That is exactly. Everyone forgets that the Camp David agreements and the follow-on agreements also, specifically called for negotiations to end the confrontation between Palestinians and Israelis. That was a basic part or the Camp David process, which was never carried out. And that was, that’s 20 years old. So Egypt is dependent on having peace with, between Syria and Israel, and Palestine and Israel. That, that is a, is a mark of how, how warm the peace can be between Egypt and Israel. There are limits.
MC HUGH: Syria-Lebanon.
BIRD: Well, Syria and Lebanon obviously the prerequisite for peace with Lebanon is withdrawal of the Israelis from the Golan Heights and a full peace between Syria and Israel. And the Foreign Minister of Syria repeated several times that ‘Why not have full peace with Israel? If there is not issue between us, then there can be full peaceful’—and he meant full diplomatic exchange and so on. And the Lebanese situation is very, very clear. It only requires a withdrawal of the Israelis from 10% of Lebanon, South Lebanon, plus a realistic program for compensating and taking care of Palestinian refugees—350,000 of whom are not going to acquire Lebanese citizenship. They are not going to be permanent residents of Lebanon unless they’re over a very long period of time, admitted to stay there. But they’ll have to be compensated at least. And the Lebanese are concerned about that.
VIORST: I think what Gene is saying is a reminder that the core of the problem between Israel and the Arab world now has come down to the point at which it began, which is the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians. And even on this question of ‘What do we do with the 350,000 Palestinian refugees who are still living—most of them—in squalid camps in Lebanon, that’s still a Palestinian question. That’s not just a Lebanese-Israeli question. And it’s not going to be easily resolved. And although what you’ve heard from both of us until now has been rather optimistic on the prospects for peace, I think that there are still enormous, enormous differences between Israel and the Palestinians. A huge distance on Israeli positions on such questions. Not just the refugees, although that’s important. But Jerusalem; the Arabs really feel they cannot walk away from a peace without some sovereignty over Arab Jerusalem, and particularly over the holy shrines of the Islamic religion in Jerusalem. And also the question of boundaries. And, and, and the settlements, that are there. So we still have a lot of—and the question of territory. I mean, there is a great deal of thinking in Israel—and I, we don’t know exactly if this is the way Barak thinks—but we have not seen anything to the contrary—that there are many Israelis who envisage the Palestinian state as being a series of enclaves surrounded by the Israeli Army. Well, Palestinians aren’t dumb. They’re not going to stand for that. And so we still have a lot of ground to cover, in my judgment, on Palestinian-Israeli negotiations.
MC HUGH: Now, after the election Netanyahu went ahead and conducted air strikes against Lebanon. How is that going to affect this whole process?
BIRD: Well, I think that’s a temporary affect. It’s a bad one. It wasn’t—you know, they didn’t attack Syria, they attacked Lebanon. That’s the easy country to beat up on. They don’t have much in the way of military response that they can make. And what they have, we’ve given them. So anything that’s done against the Lebanese Army is really done against the United States, and the Israelis usually hit civilian targets up there. Much more than military. I don’t think that the new government was happy at all. In fact, Shimon Peres told us he was very angered at the interim government actions, both on settlements in East Jerusalem, which they promoted, and on taking measures in South Lebanon that led to provocations and eventually to an air strike that was the worst in several years. That’s all over I should think, at this point.
MC HUGH: Do you think that that was Netanyahu trying to derail the peace process?
VIORST: Well, listen, it’s hard to impugn the motivation of somebody when we don’t know what the motivation is. But really, deep down I suppose I would say the answer is yes, I think—if not derail the peace process, because as Gene said, that’s, this is just a temporary measure and I think most Arabs recognize that this is something that, ‘listen, we’ve got over this in the past, we’ll get over this one too, if we get on to the, keep our eye on the ball.’ But the fact is I think that Netanyahu was trying to make it a little bit more difficult.
MC HUGH: Should the West remain optimistic about the peace process?
VIORST: I think the West has to roll up its sleeves and work. I don’t think it should be optimistic or pessimistic. I think that there are prospects for peace that did not exist when Benjamin Netanyahu was Prime Minister. But because of the differences to which Gene and I have both alluded, it’s going to require some very tough mediation. And the truth of the matter is, that only the United States can supply that mediation. And up until now we have been—well, I would say a little bit wishy-washy about it. And I would like to see us take a, a much stronger position on the side of what Gene referred to as “justice,” and I think that probably sums it up as well as any single word can. And I hope President Clinton understands that and doesn’t keep resorting to that tired old formula, ‘Well, we’ve got to let the parties settle that between themselves,’ which means they probably won’t get settled at all. Yeah, I think this administration has got to really take a sense of conscientious determination to play a role here. And if it doesn’t it will just drag on till the next administration. And I think Clinton doesn’t want that. He’d like to be a peace-maker too.
MC HUGH: Gene Bird.
BIRD: I think it has to broaden to some extent, the peace team has to be broadened to include a lot of the other ethnic groups, because I think there’s a little ethnic blindness in some of the peace team efforts in the last four or five years. I think that the United States has to hold the parties to their agreements as far timing as concerned. The time deadlines are very, very important because if you let the time deadlines slip then there are going to be more settlements. I think we have to be fair about not giving so much money to one side, because that side is using it to acquire more settlements and take more Arab land. And that of course undermines the whole process. There’s a lot that we can do in cooperation with the Europeans and maybe even with the Russians. Russians after all have a real part in all of this as a result of all the Russian emigration into Israel, which has changed the balance a great deal. All of these things are very necessary.
But I’d like to cite the Prime Minister, ex-Prime Minister of Lebanon. We were talking with him in Beirut and Hariri, Prime Minister Hariri, said, “Well, what’s needed is for Madeleine Albright to come out here and spend some time. She’s got to spend two months. And everyone forgets that the Camp David agreements would never have worked if Carter hadn’t done a series of shuttles between Cairo and Tel Aviv after the Camp David agreement had been made. Many people think that Albright is probably not the right person; we probably can’t get the President to do this in his fading days, but 70 hours of negotiations on the ground in the Middle East by Clinton isn’t going to do it. But several, several trips, shuttle trips by the President might be just what is needed at this point.
MC HUGH: That is Eugene Bird, Director of Council for the National Interests and correspondent for The Washington Report on Middle East Affairs. We also heard form journalist and author Milton Viorst; his most recent book, In The Shadow of the Prophet: The Struggle for the Soul of Islam, was published in 1998. For Common Ground, I’m Kristin McHugh.
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