By Munir K. Nasser
A Washington political analyst with access to the Clinton Administration said the US is going to play a different role at the upcoming Camp David summit on Tuesday.
Shibley Telhami, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and Anwar Sadat Chair for Peace at the University of Maryland, told Albawaba.com in an interview that the Clinton Administration is “going to put all their cards on the table at this round as if they are going for broke.”
Telhami, who met with the National Security Advisor at the White House last week, said Barak is serious about allowing some Palestinian refugees to return to Israel proper. He believes the summit will discuss several possibilities on the refugees issue, including absorbing some of them in Israel and Palestine and settling some somewhere else, including the United States.
The following are excerpts from the interview:
Q- What impression did you get from your meeting last week with Sandy Berger, the National Security Advisor at the White House?
A- My impression is that they are going to look at the summit as if it is the real thing: as if this is going for broke; as if there will not be another round. They are going to put all their cards on the table at this round. Although they have no intention of twisting arms, and ultimately they can’t do it on core issues, they are going to put forward their own ideas to bridge the gaps. They will play a very different role from the role the US played thus far in the actual negotiations. Also, it is clear that they believe very strongly that Arafat and Barak are coming to this summit with the intent of clinching a deal. They got a very strong sense that there is no pre-cooked deal. They don’t know what it is going to be like. As a consequence, it is a gamble, and they know that, and they understand that there is a risk of failing.
Q- Barak said the chances of success at the summit are 50-50. Does that mean they might reach a partial agreement, instead of full-fledged agreement?
A- The real choice that is available to them is a full-fledged agreement, which obviously is their preference, and they have to behave as though that was their objective. But short of that, I think they generally would prefer to have at a minimum a major framework agreement on all the major issues, leaving a lot of details to be negotiated in the next couple of months, and perhaps come back for another summit in September to conclude all the other details. That is a lot more conceivable than failure. The possibility of failure is not very high in my judgment. The real choice is going to be between a full-fledged agreement and a major framework agreement.
Q- Do you think Barak is serious when he suggests that he is going to allow some Palestinian refugees to go back to Israel proper?
A-I do think he is serious. People have come to see that Palestinians need acknowledgement of Israel’s responsibility for the right of return. The Palestinians are demanding a moral acceptance of the right of return. In fact the Palestinians have a right of return that is acknowledged by the UN resolutions. No one can take that away from them. The real issue is how to settle that claim to the right of return. Here there are a lot of possibilities, including Israel absorbing some, the Palestinian state absorbing some, and the option of settling some somewhere else, and certainly including a large package of financial compensation.
Q- Does this mean that refugees have to accept this deal as individuals?
A- This doesn’t mean that this kind of deal obligates every single individual. You can imagine a refugee living in Lebanon saying ‘I have nothing to do with it.’ That refugee can employ the legal right of return and legal claims to property to peruse avenues on his or her own, including taking legal action in the future. But that also would put them out of the game for receiving the benefits of the package. So it is not that you force people to accept, it is that you agree to a collective package and people would make a choice of whether they can accept it or not.
Q- Where does the package come from? Is the US willing to fund such a package?
A- It has to be an international effort and Israel has to play a role in it. I think there will be not only a financial package, but also a package of offering citizenship to Palestinian refugees in various places, including Israel, the Palestinian state, some of the European countries and the United States. Some people estimate that the US can absorb easily without budget allocations 250,000 refugees over a seven-year period.
Q- Do you think Clinton will have the clout to do it before his term is over?
A-I think so. If he delivers a core of a Palestinian Israeli deal, which is a major step of ending the Arab Israeli conflict once and for all, a deal that has the blessing of the Israelis, the Arabs, the European community and the UN, he is going to have the more clout to go to Congress and say: ‘are you going to veto this?’ And I don’t know what stupid politician would want to be on the veto side of that deal
Q- Will Arafat succumb to pressure to give more concessions to Israel?
A- Both sides are going to come under pressure to have an agreement. I do not think personally that the US is in a position to impose an agreement on either one of them. Arafat actually is in a position to walk away without an agreement. I don’t think he has a great deal to lose at home. I don’t think that he is going to be a considerably weaker party and more susceptible to pressure than Barak. I do think that he has his red lines that are not just dictated by the public pressure at home. As a man, people misjudge him. He has his faults, he has his weaknesses, and he is a target of criticism, but at the same time he is a man who has dedicated his entire life for the Palestinian cause and he is not going toward the end of his career to be remembered as one who sold Jerusalem or the refugees. That is inconceivable to me.
Q- But what about the critics that say Arafat has already made too many compromises?
A- Sure he has to make compromises, because no agreement is going to come without compromises. Frankly, there is going to be critics with or without an agreement. If he succeeds in getting a state on the vast majority of the West Bank and Gaza, still he is going to hear criticism. Even if he gets all the West Bank, he is going to hear criticism. And yet the same critics, may be three years ago, were saying he was only going to get 40 percent or 50 percent or 60 percent, and that is going to be fragmented state.
People who criticize him have to keep a sense of perspective that ultimately what he is going to be able to get is a lot more than anyone give him credit for just a year ago, not to mention three years ago.
Q- Many analysts are saying that President Clinton is taking a big risk by bringing the two leaders together. Do you agree with this analysis?
Q-What choice does he have? When you examine the alternatives, the fact that he is having a summit is hardly a surprise. Everybody understood from day one that before you clinch an agreement you are going to have a high-powered summit. Right now he made the assessment that if he doesn’t hold now, and end up holding it closer to September 13, it is going to be harder than easier. The assessment at the White House is that if you don’t have a summit now, you are going to have a deterioration of the situation and ultimately a unilateral Palestinian declaration of independence, which could generate an uncertain situation that will harm all the parties involved. I think all of them are going to lose a lot by not having an agreement.
Q- What incentives does Clinton have to conclude an agreement?
A-Clinton has a lot of stake; he has already lost a chance at an Israeli-Syrian agreement. He spent on this issue practically his entire political life in the White House. Aside from that, he has a lot of stake for American interests. If this effort doesn’t work, no one knows where it is going to lead. There will be a lot of conclusions in the region after the end of the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon. People are concluding that military struggle is the answer, rather than negotiations. Clinton can’t afford to have that conclusion. He also has a presidential campaign for his party, and certainly he does not want to be vulnerable on this issue – Albawaba.com
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