Passing on Peace

This is a partial transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume," Jan. 14, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

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BRIAN WILSON, GUEST HOST: As we reported earlier, Israel has severed co ntact with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, following a Palestinian attack at a Gaza Strip crossing that left six Israelis dead. Now, Secretary of S tate Colin Powell said that he hopes this is temporary, but is a major detour on the road to peace, even before Mahmoud Abbas is sworn into office.

Next time — it’s a good time to talk to our resident expert on the Mid East, we thought, and former Special Mid East Envoy. Ambassador Dennis Ross joins us now. Ambassador Ross is also the author of "The Missing Peace," which I am steadily working my way through and learning as I go.

It’s good to have you here.


WILSON: Let’s talk about the attack, first of all. It happened at something known as the Karni gate, or the Karni crossing. What is that?

ROSS: There are three basic crossings points from Israel into Gaza. One is Erez, where we went through. Another is Karni, which has basically been reserved for cargo. Erez was for people, some cargo, but principally people. And Karni was reserved primarily for commerce. So this is everything going into and out of Gaza goes through there. And this is actually something extraordinarily important for the economy in Gaza, which is already repressed.

So here is an attack by Palestinian militants who basically target Karni. And the only ones who can be hurt by it are Palestinians.

WILSON: Because it chokes off the lifeline?

ROSS: That’s right. The Israelis close it as a result. The Israelis don’t suffer from it, the Palestinians do.

WILSON: So what’s going on there? Why would they do that?

ROSS: They did it because this was a way to test Abu Mazen.

WILSON: Mahmoud Abbas.

ROSS: Mahmoud Abbas, he will be sworn in tomorrow and become the chairman of the Palestinian Authority. This is their way of testing to see, all right, what’s his response going to be. If he does nothing but talk about it, it is basically business as usual. If he’s going to impose limits, they think how much do they challenge them.

I believe that in the near term they will not challenge him much because he has the aura of public support because of the election. So it is very important that he respond and not only with words.

WILSON: Now, the Palestinian supporters of Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Mazen, are saying well, look. He’s not even president yet, how can you expect him to have control over all these various factions within Gaza?

ROSS: Look, it is a fair point in part because legally he’s not in a position to do anything. But practically and psychologically, they all have to recognize that he is being challenged by this. And he is going to have to respond to it. And if he doesn’t, already his power will begin to erode.

WILSON: Now, the Israeli reaction is to sever relationships between the Israelis and Mahmoud Abbas. What does that mean? How significant is that?

ROSS: They’ve declared — Prime Minister Sharon declared a suspension on all contacts not just with Abbas, but all contacts with the Palestinian Authority. Which means also the security elements as well.

Why do they think they do this? Well, I think, the first impulse was you have six dead Israelis. You have to do something. Now, they could have responded militarily. And if they responded militarily, they might well have killed a large number of Palestinians. Having Abu Mazen act against others, in the context where Palestinian have just been killed, would make it quite difficult for him. So in fact, the Israelis didn’t do that.

WILSON: You think that was a restrain response?

ROSS: Yes. I think it was a restrain response. But it was also taking into account something else. The exit polling from Birzeit of those who had voted in the election, made it very clear that one of their prime objectives was to improve the economy, have life get better, and that you had to resume talks with the Israelis. And they assumed that this is what Mahmoud Abbas would be able to do.

Now, what the Israelis are saying is don’t assume we’re going to have talks in an atmosphere where we go on getting people killed. So this was a way of putting pressure on him, but also taking account of the fact the Palestinian public themselves want to see the talks resumed.

WILSON: So it may — it may be a short-term decision to not have contacts, but it may have a real impact?

ROSS: I think it can have a real impact. It’s also — all of this is a reminder to us there is an opening. Arafat is gone. Abu Mazen believes in nonviolence. We have a national unit in Israel. But every opening in the Middle East is always short-lived if you don’t act on it. Nothing implements itself. And we see right now this opening is quite fragile.

WILSON: So how do you fix things in this region? What can Mahmoud Abbas do to give the Israelis the assurances they need to see?

ROSS: I think what he needs to do right now is not only what he will say about what has happened. But I think also he needs to right now to announce that this was unacceptable.

Now that he’s president, he’s sending forces into places, like Karni. He does have security organizations within Gaza that will respond to him. He sending them to Karni. He’s sending them to the Philadelphia Road, which is in Gaza, connects it to Sinai. This is where smuggling takes place. And he says very clearly by doing this, we’re going to stop any such attacks. Anybody who carries out attacks now, we are going to arrest.

WILSON: And we should never have guessed that there wouldn’t be a few bumps in the road here?

ROSS: There are going to be. That’s a given. This was never going to be a process that simply unfolds smoothly. But it’s also clear when something happens, there also has to be a response. And we’re going to have to be more of a bridge between the two sides.

WILSON: Dennis Ross, good to have you here. Thanks a lot for your expertise. We appreciate it.

ROSS: A pleasure.

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