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Dennis Ross was special envoy for the Middle East during the Clinton administration. In Washington, he spoke with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels on Oct. 3.

NATHAN GARDELS: The Madrid Conference that initiated the Middle East peace process arose out of the need to hold together the Gulf War coalition under George Bush senior a decade ago. Now, in order to help meld the anti-terror coalition with moderate Arab states, George Bush the younger has acknowledged that he supports a Palestinian state and will re-enagage the peace process.

How significant was President Bush's statement that he favors a Palestinian state?

DENNIS ROSS: The statement in favor of a Palestinian state per se will not have that much effect on whether the coalition holds together or not. The fact is that many of America's Arab friends will want to see something being done, not just that a few things are being said.

Also, in the end, a country like Saudi Arabia will be supportive of the United States, even if not so publicly, because they realize that the nature of the threat is more profound to them. There were Saudi nationals involved in the terrorist plot on New York and Washington, and they didn't know anything about it. If they could do this to the United States, what could they do there?

They know they have to be a part of the U.S.-led coalition because their survival is at stake. Would they be less defensive if the Israeli-Palestinian issue were on its way to being defused? Of course. But that is not the sine qua non of being part of the coalition. Their survival matters more.

GARDELS: But, certainly, in terms of larger Arab public opinion -- the so-called "Arab street'' -- Bush's statement in favor of a Palestinian state will surely help dispel the notion the United States is biased in favor of Israel?

ROSS: Again, people in the end will react to a change of reality, not just to words. If the reality on the ground doesn't change, then that perception of U.S. bias won't change.

Yes, there will be more of an effort than was made prior to Sept. 11. That is helpful, because it has been clear to me for a long time that you won't see an end to the deterioration into violence if the Israelis and Palestinians are left to their own devices.

What is clear is that Sept. 11 created a very different incentive structure for (Yasser) Arafat. He has not done what he should have done over the past year. On the contrary. While I am not one that believes he was behind the intifada, he certainly tried to take advantage of it.

Fundamentally, he has allowed the Palestinian Authority area to become a safe haven for those who would carry out terror or become human bombs against the Israelis. He understood on Sept. 11 that if he didn't do something he ran the risk of becoming isolated vis a vis the rest of the world like Osama bin Laden.

The more he believes we need him, rather than the reverse, the less he will be responsive. That is why I think it is important that he understand, from the American standpoint, for him to be a part of the anti-terror coalition there has to be behavior, not just words. The Palestinian Authority cannot be a safe haven; Arafat must crack down on Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.

Arafat has allowed people to fabricate bombs, to recruit bombers, to basically have a free rein. If he doesn't want to become isolated, Arafat must change that.

Every time there is a suicide attack, Arafat condemns it. It is not enough. He fails to act against these people.

It is within Arafat's power to end the terror. In 1996 he did stop the terror after four bombings in nine days. You actually had a year when, for the first time in Israel's history, there was not a single terrorist fatality. That was not an accident. That was because Arafat passed the word: If you do anything, I'll come down on you like a ton of bricks.

Yet, what was one of the first things he did after the intifada broke out? He released all the people he had arrested, including the worst terrorists in terms of bombmaking. What message did that send? It sent the message that it was okay. Well, it is not. If he wants to be part of the anti-terror coalition -- and if the United States is to intervene more actively in the peace process -- we need to see responsible behavior on his side.

And we must see more responsible behavior on the part of other parties in the Arab world. They need to change the climate of hate and justification of terror in which we must operate. The United States has the responsibility to promote peace; the Arab states have responsibility to create a climate where peace is legitimate but terror is not.

GARDELS: If President Bush wants to show he is not biased in favor of Israel, how far can he push the Sharon government?

ROSS: There is a real dilemma. The problem is that the Israeli public no longer believes Arafat is a partner for peace. They are not inclined to make any dramatic concession to him because he will only pocket those as the point of departure for his next set of demands.

We are not in a position now where a final peace can be negotiated. To begin with, when Arafat had the opportunity, he didn't take it. Second, the Sharon government won't come close to offering what (former Prime Minister Ehud) Barak did. Now, the objective is different: We are not in a position to solve the problem now, only to manage it and defuse the violence. All that can be done is to stabilize the situation and create a political process so there can be some sense of hope over time.

If this is the focus of the Bush administration effort, it has a greater potential to succeed because it is not asking either side to do what it can't do. Arafat has demonstrated he can't do a final deal. You also have an Israeli government that can't. All you can aim for it stabilization by having each side avoid steps that create problems for the other side.

You can begin the negotiating process again if you don't deal with the core issues like Jerusalem, borders and refugees, but you do deal with issues like statehood, security and mutual disengagement between the two sides. That can build a bridge to the fundamental issues. But this has to be viewed as a long process now, not something that is going to happen soon.

GARDELS: Finally, though the Saudis may stick with the anti-terror coalition in their own self-interest, for Bush to talk of a Palestinian state and restarting the peace process will help bring along other public opinion in places from Pakistan to Indonesia, won't it?

ROSS: Well, what is most important to the Pakistanis is Kashmir, though surely progress back to the peace table would help defuse the emotion and calm the climate.

One thing has to be clear, though: Being a member of the broad anti-terror coalition is not some kind of pass that allows you to condemn one set of terrorist acts but lets you continue to condone others.

In the case of Syria, Bashar Assad wrote a very good letter to President Bush supporting his campaign against terror from Al Queda after the Sept. 11 attacks. But on Sept. 30 they hosted all the rejectionist Palestinians. And the Israelis have just arrested some 20 Hamas and Islamic Jihad people who got their directions out of Damascus.

If your principal targets are civilians, that is terror, and no cause justifies it. On the contrary, you delegitimize the cause by using terror. A major part of what the United States and Europe must do is make it clear that any cause that uses terror is itself discredited.

(c) 2001, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate International, a division of Tribune Media Services.
For immediate release (Distributed 10/3/01)