Richard Murphy: Violence frustrating Mideast peace process
Ambassador Richard Murphy served as the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs from 1983 to 1989. At that time, he was active in the Israeli-Arab peace process. During nearly 40 years as a foreign service officer, he served as the U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Syria, and the Philippines. Ambassador Murphy is now a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
CNN: Welcome to CNN.com Newsroom, Ambassador Murphy. We are very pleased to have you with us today.
RICHARD MURPHY: I'm delighted to join you, and I'll try my best to answer your questions.
CNN: What do you make of Israel's response to U.S. requests to stop raids on the West Bank after the assassination of Israel's tourism minister?
MURPHY: First, it shows Israel's high sense of frustration at dealing with the Palestine Authority. Some months ago, it gave a list of suspects that it asked the Authority either to arrest itself, or to turn over to Israel. The violence continued. The Authority did not respond as Israel had wanted, and it resorted to a program of assassinations, or what it calls targeted killings. In August, Israel assassinated the head of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), and the assassination of tourism minister Zeevi was in response. This led to a deeper penetration by the Israeli military of West Bank towns.
This coincided with Washington's efforts to develop a coalition or a network of support in its campaign against Osama bin Laden. This coalition is not basically a military coalition, but does call on a wide number of states, including Arab and Islamic states, to share in intelligence and diplomacy. This coalition, Washington believes, is threatened by the ongoing violence between Israelis and Palestinians, because this is a highly emotional issue throughout the Arab world, and the continued fighting, and now this deeper penetration, is disturbing many Arab governments, which are mindful of their public opinion. So, Washington understandably wants to bring the violence to an end, and move quickly to a stage of confidence-building, and a return to the negotiating table between Israelis and Palestinians.
Israel's position that it would complete its mission has raised considerable anger in Washington, and created a tension between Israel and the United States which Israeli prime ministers in the past have been very careful to avoid. How this will play out is yet to be determined.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Was the Bush Administration's early policy of ignoring the problem wrong?
MURPHY: I think you have to understand, first, that the view of the White House, when Bush took over, was that the massive intervention in a diplomatic sense by President Clinton, had resulted in a failure. The violence continued. The problem appeared intractable. So it does appear, as often happens with a new administration, that there was not only a pause in diplomacy, but perhaps even a decision to step back and not repeat the intense involvement of the Clinton administration in the peace process.
That did not end all American activity, because President Bush asked George Mitchell to continue his work, which resulted in the publication of the Mitchell report in April of this year. He then sent CIA director George Tenet to try to work out a cease-fire between Israelis and Palestinians in June. He sent Secretary of State Powell in July, and was reportedly himself working steadily on the phone with a number of leaders in the region, urging them to do all possible to assist the parties to get back to the negotiating table. So, it's too strong to say the new administration had ignored the Middle East, but the perception certainly has been prevalent in the region that the new administration was not going to commit the prestige of the White House to another failed effort. In the wake of September 11, I think the White House has done what it can to erase that perception, that it was not interested and not engaged.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Do you think that Mr. Arafat could still be considered as a partner for the peace process?
MURPHY: Unquestionably, Arafat remains the only leader in the Palestinian community with whom Israel could engage in negotiations in the peace process.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: We haven't heard too much from Jordan lately. How does this nation feel about recent events?
MURPHY: King Abdullah of Jordan has been in Washington for discussions since September 11. He and his government are among the most interested in a resumption of negotiations. The Palestinian component of the Jordanian population is over 60 percent today, and feels itself directly concerned in the future of Palestinian relatives, and in the broader community of the West Bank and Gaza. King Abdullah has also taken a very strong public stand against terrorism, and is certainly doing all he can to forestall any incidents in his country.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: How is the action of Israel different from what the United States is doing in Afghanistan? Isn't it a double standard?
MURPHY: The situation in Afghanistan facing the United States is very different from that that Israel faces in the West Bank and Gaza. For several years, Israelis of all political persuasions have assumed that the Oslo Accords of 1993 set Israel and the Palestinians on a course that would end in the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Israel has faced a situation of continuous and often sharp violence in the West Bank, in Gaza, and within Israel itself for the past 13 months, when the Intifada started up. These acts of violence have not been carried out by an organization with a "global reach," but directed against Israelis and drawing from resources of the Palestinian community.
This is not to deny the possibility of some financing from outside the West Bank and Gaza. But the inspiration is local for violence against Israelis. It has expressed the frustration of the Palestinians at the prolonged negotiations, and the prolonged occupation with which they have been living since 1967. Those are two of the fundamental differences between the situation Israel faces, and the situation that the U.S. faces with Osama bin Laden and the Al-Qaeda network.
CHAT PARTICIPANT: Mr. Murphy, what is the hangup in the discussions? It's not like we don't realize that there has to be money as well as land for the displaced Palestinians?
MURPHY: The hangup in the discussions that is the most difficult issues which emerged in the Palestinian-Israeli talks last year, first at Camp David, then later concluding in January at Taba, was the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and the status of Jerusalem. The Palestinian position has been that Jerusalem should be the capitol for both an Israeli state and a Palestinian state. The Israeli position is that Jerusalem must remain the "indivisible, eternal capitol of Israel." On that issue, the negotiators actually made progress, but it was certainly not resolved in their talks, either at Camp David or at Taba.
More difficult is the Palestinian position that they must have the right of return for refugees from 1948. The constant Israeli position has been that to expect Israel to receive back a total of some 3.5 million refugees, those who had fled in 1948 and their descendents, would destroy the Jewish character of the state of Israel. The Palestinian position, in reply, has been that they have a right first expressed in UN General Assembly Resolution 194 in 1948, a right to be returned and compensated.
The negotiators worked very hard on this issue, and there is an answer which could eventually prove acceptable to both sides. One formulation was that the Palestinians would have the right to return to the new state of Palestine, and that Israel would agree to accept a number to be negotiated, to return within Israel proper. That is the basic framework for I believe an eventual agreement, because despite all of the violence of the past year, no responsible Palestinian has pulled back from the basic understanding of 1993, that there would be a two-state solution, a state of Israel and a state of Palestine. The Palestinian leadership has a very clear understanding that Israel will never accept 3.5 million refugees. Even if that number wanted to return, which is itself a doubtful proposition.
In sum, it's not just money, it's not just land. There has to be a package agreement which promises security both to the new Palestinian state and the state of Israel. There are good ideas out there, many of which were reflected in President Clinton's speech to the Israel policy forum last December. I believe the negotiators will one day find their way back to many of those positions. But this last year has been a political disaster, as well as a human disaster. The peace camp in Israel has been decimated, believing that there was no longer a serious negotiating partner on the Palestinian side. The Palestinians have less confidence and trust today in Israel's intentions.
CNN: Do you have any final comments for us today?
MURPHY: I think that the United States will pursue its vital national interest, a strategic interest, in helping to achieve a comprehensive peace agreement between Arabs and Israelis. We have long talked about our support for the security of Israel. We know that that security cannot be preserved by intervention from outside the region. It can only be maintained through the development of a comprehensive peace agreement between Israel and its neighbors. We will, I'm sure, continue to try to assist the parties directly concerned to get back to negotiations, and get back to that agreement which appeared to be close last year.
CNN: Thank you for joining us today, Ambassador Richard Murphy.
Ambassador Murphy joined CNN.com via telephone from New York. CNN provided a typist. This is an edited transcript of the interview, which took place on Thursday, October 25, 2001.
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