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SLUG: 3-119 Fairbanks Mideast









HOST: Israeli tanks and troops have taken control of the West Bank city of Nablus. The move takes Israel's offensive into the West Bank's largest city. Israel has again been shaken by suicide attacks, and public opinion has hardened against the Palestinians. Richard Fairbanks is a former Ambassador-at-large for the Reagan Administration, and the former U-S negotiator for the Middle East Peace process. He tells NewsNow's Pat Bodnar that the Israeli government is responding with force.

AMBASSADOR FAIRBANKS: It appears that the Israelis are trying to take into their own hands the search for, mopping up, what they believe to be the key instruments of what they see as terror operations, either run by or authorized by Yasser Arafat and his Palestinian Authority. And to the extent that they feel that Arafat has not done what they have asked and demanded with regard to reining in terror, it looks like they're going to try to do it themselves.

MS. BODNAR: But why attack Mr. Arafat's security lieutenants if they indeed were the negotiators, with Israeli security forces, on issues of peace and rounding up Palestinian militants?

AMBASSADOR FAIRBANKS: You could certainly argue that this seems counterproductive. Who are they going to talk to if they round up the very people that they were looking to enforce a de-escalation of violence? On the other hand, if they feel that those particular people were themselves involved in authorizing, promoting or casting a blind eye at the continuing suicide bombers, they probably hold them responsible. So I assume the truth is some place in that murky area.

MS. BODNAR: If we are looking at your own experience as a chief U-S negotiator for Middle East peace and we are trying to understand a strategy that attacks and isolates Yasser Arafat, who is the elected head of the Palestinian Authority, where does that put the peace process, and who does that leave to talk to or negotiate with?

AMBASSADOR FAIRBANKS: The heads of the two sides, both in Israel with Prime Minister Sharon and with Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority, there is a total breakdown of trust on both sides -- not that Sharon and Arafat were ever close, but obviously if they are totally persona non grata, one with the other, it is very hard to see how, with the current leadership, there is going to be any path forward to a peace treaty or a peace process. And it is very difficult even to figure out how we are going to get a de-escalation of the current violence.

And I think we have a leadership on both sides which is strongly supported in their own country. Obviously the democratic process of Israel allows a change if Prime Minister Sharon is seen to lose the confidence of his people, in their regular democratic process. But with regard to Mr.~Arafat, the pressure that is being put on him by Israel is clearly strengthening his hand with regard to his symbol of leadership on his side. So it is a very difficult circumstance.

MS. BODNAR: Can you foresee that, because of this crisis, there may be more of an international push to get talks going again?

AMBASSADOR FAIRBANKS: I think the United States would welcome any useful assistance from the international community, whether that is the Europeans, the Russians, the United Nations, or others. Certainly the United States has not sought out its role as the chief arbiter, or negotiator, between the parties. It is something that has evolved over time as the United States has been the only third party able to perform that negotiating role over the past decades.

If there is some reason why that has changed, certainly all we want in our national interest is success, and not credit. So, I think that would be to the good. But I am suspect of whether there are international efforts which would be useful.

MS. BODNAR: What is your assessment right now of the Saudi plan that was put forward so recently, as it sits on the table alongside the efforts of Special Envoy Anthony Zinni?

AMBASSADOR FAIRBANKS: I think the Saudi position, as articulated by the Crown Prince, was important for who it came from and when. The substance of it has been reiterated on both sides over the years, ever since U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338 were inaugurated. The Saudi Government itself has taken a similar position in the past, and therefore the substance of land for peace, which is a simplistic way of talking about that position, is not new.

On the other hand, the fact that Saudi Arabia, as a leading Arab country, and the Crown Prince as a leading personality within the Arab League and the leadership of the Arab world, to talk about peace at a time when things are so grim I think has been very important.

MS. BODNAR: But the Israelis have already dismissed it as something that would require the return of Palestinian refugees, or at least that's one of the concerns that has been expressed. So, is it a non-starter from the point of view of the Israelis?

AMBASSADOR FAIRBANKS: I think not. Certainly there are three basic things that are the keys of the peace process. One is the demarcation of the control of the Palestinian state and what its borders are. The second is the treatment of Jerusalem and whether it is to provide the capital both for the Israelis and the Palestinians. And the third is the question of right to return. All of those have been negotiated over the years and dealt with in various drafts and evolutions of drafts between the Palestinians and the Israelis, and progress has been made.

Certainly there is no way, and I think all on the Arab side recognize that as well as the Israelis, that you are going to have an open-ended right of return for an unlimited number of people who claim that they were displaced, or their families were, from original Israel, before Israel was created.

On the other hand, there are other ways of dealing with the right of return which have been discussed and negotiated between the parties before, ranging from a limitation as to direct family or individuals who themselves were personally removed, to a large fund to be set up to fund those who do not actually return to those lands but get a financial settlement with which to reestablish their lives in other places, Palestine or elsewhere. So I think that that is not a non-starter; that is a subject for negotiation.

HOST: Richard Fairbanks is a former Ambassador-at-large for the Reagan Administration, and the former U-S negotiator for the Middle East Peace process. He spoke with NewsNow's Pat Bodnar from his office in Washington.


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