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Television Panel Discussion
Voice of America - Inter American Forum
The Roadmap and US Policy After Ariel Sharon

Transcript (Translated from Spanish):

Maria Luisa Rossel (Caracol de Colombia): What is the Israeli situation with Ariel Sharon in such grave medical conditions?

Grant Smith: It is injecting a great deal of uncertainty into the entire region.  In the US, many observers of the Kadima party, with its centrist orientation, thought it was going to win the elections, and then follow a route very similar to the Roadmap for Peace, including elements such as population removal from the West Bank, and negotiations with the Palestinians.

Now observers, faced with this grave situation, are starting to reanalyze the different political parties.  You can see on the Likud side Benjamin Netanyahu, who left the party earlier in disagreement with the evacuation from Gaza, who is identified as a person who will not negotiate, and has not gone through the maturation Sharon has to arrive at his present view of negotiations with the Palestinians. 

On the other hand we have the Labor Party, with Peretz, which is identified as a party of negotiation, but with less possibilities than this large centrist party called Kadima. 

It's an uncertain environment, with many doubts.   But we need to look at it from the perspective of two important US regional policies.  Number one, formation of a viable Palestinian state, and number two enabling "final status"  about Jerusalem and refugee right of return through bilateral negotiations.  A lot of the elements the US committed to in the Road Map have not gone very well in the past few years, and it is very preoccupying for those pushing these policies forward.

Pedro Rodriguez, Diario ABC of Spain:  How can you explain the transformation of Ariel Sharon, he was minister of defense during the invasion of Lebanon, during which there were horrible massacres.  He was considered by the government of Israel to be indirectly responsible and had to leave the ministry.  How has he reinvented himself to appear as a champion of peace?

Grant Smith:   I think to say he's a man of peace is going too far.  The transformation is that of a military man who has gained experience since his first battles.  He was in the first wars between Israel and the Arabs, and from the beginning experience of being in the low ground, in the bullets, wounded in battle, gave him the mentality to always seek the higher, more strategic, territory.    The climate now isn't so much about peace (for Sharon) but rather what is realistic in terms of a future for Israel.   What are the limits Israel can aspire to in the real world, in the current conditions?

The Arabs, as you've said, still consider him to be a war criminal, for the massacres of Sabra and Shatila.  And the government of Israel dismissed him for that.  But he is the only one really considered to have the power to form a political center within the parliamentary system of Israel.

Sonia Schott Radio Valera de Venezuela:    Following up on that last thought, that he is the person who embodies all of the hopes and dreams of Israel.  And we can't see anyone who can fill that void.   Is this the most disturbing element of everything that has happened?  That there isn't anyone in the wings with Sharon's political career now possibly ended? 

What happens in the future, if there is no person who can fill the space he has left?

Grant Smith: I think that the next person, unfortunately from the perspective of US policy goals, is Benjamin Netanyahu.  He is also a larger than life figure, particularly within the Neoconservative circle in the United States.  There is a group of Neocons who helped Netanyahu form his strategy in 1996, particularly his strategy of not negotiating, of simply establishing the borders, also tactics of replacing the government of Iraq, and Syria, and getting Syria out of Lebanese territory.  He is a powerful figure.  But he's not a centrist figure.

Pedro Rodriguez, Diario ABC of Spain:  This commotion is really raising my attention.  Because we are talking about an established democracy, with a parliamentary system, institutionalized, with institutionalized opinion, we're not talking about Chavez in Venezuela or Assad in Syria.  Yet we're talking in apocalyptic terms here.  How can it be that an institutionalize system depends so much in one person?  

Grant Smith:   There are weaknesses in parliamentary systems.   For example, the majority of Israelis would like a way to get married in a secular, rather than religious, process.  But minority parties in the Knesset have always been able to put the brakes on passing such laws. 

The idea of having a consensus with the parliamentary system is key.  If you are the center of gravity, and one day to the next you simply disappear, you leave a black hole.  I think the most probable outcome is that there'll be another center of gravity, probably, we don't  know much about the future of Sharon and his health, but its very probable, that after a bit of time, attention will refocus on..

Pedro Rodriguez, Diario ABC of Spain:   But there's not that much time.  You understand that in March they have elections!

Grant Smith:   Just as there's been talk about postponing the Palestinian elections if they can't overcome issues related to campaigning in Jerusalem, there has already been talk about postponing the Israeli elections if there is uncertainty and lingering questions about the health of Sharon.   They could postpone the elections.

Sonia Schott Radio Valera de Venezuela:   According to what you said, Sharon practically had reelctions in the bag, everything was revolving around him.   The party didn't have a solid enough structure, to push another leader. 

Grant Smith: The idea of pulling in Shimon Perez and other elements to have a solid new group....

Julio Duran Peri�dico Impacto, Washington: Speaking realistically, Sharon is history, his health could improve, but at this moment he's gone back into surgery again.  If we suppose that Sharon is history, and the possibility that hard-liners are likely second in line, there is this problem not only with the Palestinians, but also with Iran.  Practically entering into a catastrophe.

Grant Smith: It's possible.   The violence that's been rising with the rockets they've been firing from Gaza is not helping the situation.   There is the theme of Iranian conflict, which is under a lot of pressure, from Israel and the US in the United Nations, it is possible.

But I believe that the biggest question, that rises above all of this, for Americans, is this:

We already know, from quantitative studies, that the military occupation is a terrorism generator.  Robert Pape, a professor from Chicago, published a book called "Dying to Win" that analyzed more than 300 cases of terrorism and arrived at the conclusion that not confronting the question of military occupation of a people who consider the land to be theirs, is a problem.   Because occupation will continue generating terrorism. 

I think there could be elements from Iran, elements entering into the mix, but the real question for the United States is:   "Who is going to help us continue this Middle East peace process of Israeli retreat from occupied territory?"

Maria Luisa Rossel (Caracol de Colombia): Based on what you've said, let's talk a little bit about what is going to happen to the Israelis.  There is a high percentage of the population that supported the centrist position of Sharon.  What is going to happen to these people, who were enamored of a smaller, more secure country, if Sharon isn't there to lead them toward it, as a political figure?  What can they hope for?

Grant Smith: Well, there's also the possibility that, there are surveys that definitively reveal that there is a feeling of exhaustion with the idea that Israel had to defend the 8,000 settlers in Gaza, and has to defend the 240,000 settlers in the West Bank.  There are many in the Labor Party, and groups aligned with their sentiments, that this really is damaging the future of Israel.  They could move into the Labor Party camp.  Just from that exhaustion.   Because it is almost guaranteed, that the other side is a return to the past.

Julio Duran Peri�dico Impacto, Washington: There is another factor, in which the Israelis depend on the political support of the US, and the Arabs aren't exactly happy about it. 

Grant Smith: No.  This represents the breach between the formal policy positions of the US, and what is happening in reality.  In reality we are giving US $3 billion in military assistance per year, we've just finished giving another $660 million in aid, to defend the state, there are a large quantity of...

Sonia Schott Radio Valera de Venezuela:    And what is the future of this aid?

Grant Smith: The future of aid?   Speaking frankly, given the large number of people in the US, with political power, Christian and otherwise, with a strong vision of Israel as part of their religious belief, this special interest group is not leaving, or putting the brakes on their demands that the US defend Israel.  It is almost a permanent fixture of the American political system. 

But there is also another group of people, who grow ever more preoccupied about the Middle East and identify this conflict as an indirect terrorism generator.  Page 147 of the 9/11 Commission Report is clear about this, terrorists attacked the United States on 9/11, motivated by these injustices.  Nobody can condone such attacks, but now that a reasonable amount of time has passed, we need to begin facing the negative motivational power of this crisis.

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