May 29, 2003 | Broadcast

Wolf Blitzer Reports, CNN

Next week, a separate meeting with President Bus, the two prime ministers and the U.S. president. But are all the necessary ingredients in place for some sort of peace agreement?

I’m joined now by James Zogby. He is the president and founder of the American Arab Institute here in Washington, D.C. and Cliff May. He is the director of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, also here in Washington.

Gentlemen, thanks very much for joining us.

Jim, you’ve been following this for years and years and years. Are the ingredients in place now for a deal?

JAMES ZOGBY, FOUNDER, AMERICAN ARAB INSTITUTE: Well, the single most important ingredient is the president of the United States. I mean, if he exerts significant pressure, balanced pressure on both sides, I think you can see movement forward. Israeli prime ministers are loath to resist a president when a president has made his mind up. I think the Palestinians have simply no choice but to go along. They’ve agreed to this road map. The Israelis have some hesitation, but that hesitation can turn into resolve if the president makes it clear that he’ll take nothing but commitment.

BLITZER: So you want the president to squeeze Sharon?

ZOGBY: He needs to squeeze both parties equally and show that he’s determined. This is his vision — this is his time to be center stage. He’ll be the loser if he doesn’t make this happen. I think he’s committed to it right now, but we have to see what he does.


CLIFF MAY, DIRECTOR, FOUNDATION FOR THE DEFENSE OF DEMOCRACIES: The president can only do so much, and I think it’s commendable that he is committed. His vision from last year, June 24 speech changed American policy on the Middle East for the first time in decades, but there are big problems here. He’s meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, the new prime minister, but everyone knows, including Mahmoud Abbas that Yasser Arafat is still in control, is still in power. Abbas has said that. It is not clear that Abbas can, even if he wants to, stop the terrorism that every day afflicts the Israelis. There are dozens of attempts every week. Some of them succeed, some don’t. And then you have got this question of the right — so called right of return. Abbas still says that he doesn’t accept Israel as a Jewish state. He want millions of Palestinians to settle not just in the West Bank and Gaza, but in Israel proper.


BLITZER: Hold on one second, because on the first issue of Yasser Arafat and his role, this is very important.

We have an e-mail — you can respond to this e-mail from Teddy in New Jersey.

“As long as Arafat is alive, the conflict will never end. He will be running the show from behind the scenes. No matter who the figurehead is, Arafat will keep terror groups in operation and prevent meaningful negotiation.”

ZOGBY: Well, that is a bizarre concept, and I think that one ought to dismiss it right away. The fact is that Israelis, and to some degree, America, has tried to make Arafat a boogeyman for many, many years. The simple fact is that it was Arafat in ’88 who pushed Palestinians to recognize a two state solution. It was Arafat who authorized the agreement at Oslo. It was Arafat who got awful close at Taba until Barak pulled the plug because of his electoral chances.

BLITZER: That was at the end of the Clinton administration.

ZOGBY: Yes. Understand this. Arafat does not have the control on the ground that some would like to allege. I mean, there was a cartoon I remember during the Golda Meir days when she tripped and hurt her foot and she said, Blast, that Arafat put something on the floor.

You can make a boogeyman of him just so long — it does not serve the purpose of peace to do so.

BLITZER: All right. Go ahead.

MAY: But the fact of the matter is when most Americans, something like 70 percent understand this, that Arafat does not accept the state of Israel. Arafat turned down an offer of an independent state in 97 percent of the West Bank and Gaza with its capital in Jerusalem, and Yasser Arafat continues to support and encourage and sign checks to terrorists. That is why Bush has said he is not going to deal with any Palestinian leader, including Arafat, who is corrupted by terrorism. Arafat is corrupted by terrorism.

BLITZER: Go ahead and respond to that.

ZOGBY: That simply is, again, that is part of the myth making, and I think we need to dismiss it. The issues here at hand are how do we move forward, and we move forward by showing Palestinians on the ground that their daily lives can be improved. We move forward by implementing the road map which includes significant parts of the Mitchell Plan, which impose burdens on both sides. If we do that, we’ll make progress.

BLITZER: Let’s pick up with this e-mail from Norman in West Palm Beach.

“The prime minister, Ariel Sharon, is not negotiating in good faith. He just does not want Israel to be seen as the one who is not serious about peace. What is worse, all Israel wants is for the Palestinians to sign a peace accord, thereby legitimizing the land grabs which Israel has already made.”

MAY: I think that it is very clear that Sharon, who is 75 years old now, will not be prime minister again, realizes that there is a unique window right now, won’t come again in his lifetime, to actually leave behind, as his legacy, a durable peace.

But he can’t do that unless the terrorism stops. Organizations like Hamas — and I think organizations like Fatah and al Aqsa Martyr Brigades, which report to Arafat, have said very clearly they don’t accept the existence of Israel on one inch. They don’t accept it not just in the West Bank; they don’t accept Israel in Tel Aviv.

BLITZER: Will Sharon dismantle those settlements that were built over the last couple years?

MAY: If it really means an end to this conflict, an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict once and for all, absolutely.

Look what — he has said that, and he has said that very clearly. He will dismantle settlements.

BLITZER: Is Sharon the guy that can make peace with the Palestinians?

ZOGBY: Well, look, if Sharon isn’t the guy who makes peace, then who is going to make peace? I mean, he, in fact, is the one who, over the years, who has built the settlements that are the obstacle to peace, and he is the one who encouraged settlers to go out and put these outposts up after the Wye Agreement.

So the point is is that if the president of the United States can, in fact, push Sharon in the right direction, then I think we’ve got a chance here to make something happen, and I am — I think all of us need to be hopeful. We need to be wary, but we need to be hopeful. If Israel can change its course, if the Palestinians can change their course, and if the United States shows determination, daily life can be improved and we could be on the road to a meaningful peace.

BLITZER: Let’s wrap this up with this e-mail from Ruth in Florida.

“How did the period of time during which President Bush refused to be involved at all affect the Middle East peace process,” implied criticism that the president is joining this peace process late in the game.

MAY: I think he had to give some time, first of all, for the Palestinians and the Israelis to decide do they want to negotiate an end to this or not? Bush can’t do it for them. They have to make that decision.

Secondly, I think that Bush understood that after the conflict in Iraq was over — and Saddam Hussein has been funding terrorism, he’s been encouraging terrorism, Saddam Hussein was much more popular in the West Bank than he ever was in Baghdad. Once Saddam Hussein was toppled, there was and is a unique opportunity for peace, and I agree with Jim Zogby in that.

BLITZER: Well, let — Jim, you get the last word. After the first Gulf War there was Oslo and Madrid. After this war in Iraq, the stage is set, potentially, for a deal?

ZOGBY: Very different, because the president had allies in the first Gulf War in the Arab world, and there was a consensus to move forward to move to Madrid. I think America is in a very precarious position right now. There are people in the region waiting and watching to see, are we going to be fair and balanced.

BLITZER: The day maybe before he meets with Sharon and Abbas, he’s meeting with the Saudis, the Egyptians, the Jordanians, the Bahrainis. He is trying to develop that support.


ZOGBY: We have some allied problems in the region. We have to address them, but let me tell you something right now. I think that if the president is resolved, shows the same determination on this that he has shown on other issues, he can make it happen. He let it go two and a half years, too many people died. I think America made a mistake by waiting. We should have taken Mitchell and driven it home and made it work, and we didn’t. He has a chance right now, but history will judge this president as a success or failure, I think, in the Middle East not based on Iraq, but based on whether he makes peace happen.

MAY: The Arab countries also have to come to the table. They have to stop funding terrorism, and they have to say, Yes, we’ll open an Israeli embassy in Riyadh. We’ll open an Israeli embassy anywhere in this region.

ZOGBY: They did, at the Beirut summit — a historic issue that has not been taken advantage of. Arabs are committed to peace. It is Israel right now.

MAY: They have to stop funding terrorism and encouraging terrorism against the Israelis. That cannot be brushed aside…


BLITZER: And very briefly, were you at all concerned that president had to make these two visits to Sharm el-Sheikh and then Aqaba because the Saudis refused to meet with Sharon at Sharm el- Sheikh?

ZOGBY: Look, the Arab states have made it clear. They will recognize Israel in the context of a comprehensive peace. That’s a historic breakthrough. Let’s not push things ahead of where they are. They will do it, and it’s historic that they’ve agreed to do so, and I think many Israelis understand that Saudi doesn’t have an issue to negotiate with Israel. Israel has to negotiate with the Palestinians first.


ZOGBY: When there’s a Palestinian state —

MAY: … Arab leaders would sit down and negotiate with Israelis, that would be historic. Until they do so…

ZOGBY: They have no outstanding issues with Israel. The only issue is…

MAY: They have everything to negotiate. The Arab-Israeli conflict is over 50 years old.

ZOGBY: … is the existence of — it’s a Palestinian state that’s the issue.

MAY: That’s not the only issue.

ZOGBY: When it is set up, the Arabs have made it clear they have no existential…


ZOGBY: They have no existential dispute with Israel.

MAY: Since 1948, Israel was created, five Arab nations invaded and strangle it in its grave. That is an issue that they could negotiate now and then move on…


ZOGBY: Your history — your history was a mythology, and we can actually talk about that…


MAY: Israel was invaded in 1948…

BLITZER: We’ll continue this whole discussion, I am sure, in the next several days. We’ll have both of you back. Good debate. Good discussion.

MAY: Thank you.

ZOGBY: Thank you.