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Interview with James Rubin, Richard Murphy

Aired April 14, 2002 - 09:10   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Our coverage continues. I want to bring in now two former State Department officials with vast experience in covering the Middle East. Jamie Rubin, an Assistant Secretary of State during the Clinton Administration, a close aide to the then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, joins us from London.

And Richard Murphy, a former Assistant Secretary of State for Near-Eastern Affairs; he joins us from Washington. Ambassador Murphy also served as the U.S. Ambassador in Syria and Saudi Arabia. He is also now a senior fellow at The Consul on Foreign Relations.

Gentlemen, thanks once again for joining us. The last time we spoke, we got a little inclination, a little bit of information about what emerged from this meeting between Arafat and Powell. But we've since then received some more information from Saeb Erakat, the Chief Palestinian negotiator, as well as from the Deputy Secretary of State, Richard Armitage.

Ambassador Murphy, what's your current sense based on the more information that we have right now, on what emerged from this meeting?

RICHARD MURPHY, FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE: Well, at a minimum, Wolf, it's an agreement to keep talking, that there will be staff-level meetings tomorrow. Whether they will -- I doubt, very much, that Secretary Powell committed himself to a further meeting the day after. He had every right to say, let's see what the staff exchanges can develop. And he will stand by. And I think that's what Secretary Armitage was, in effect, saying.

BLITZER: Is that your sense, as well, Jamie Rubin?

JAMES RUBIN, FORMER ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF STATE: Yeah. I think that's right, but I do think there are a couple of things that have come out in the last 45 minutes that are interesting. Number one: clearly, the Palestinians see this as a process of engaging the Secretary of State in a very serious way, and a continuous way, day after day, in what used to be called shuttle diplomacy.

I also thought it was interesting that Deputy Secretary Armitage seemed to say that the idea of an international conference is one that is being discussed between the Secretary of State and the Palestinians after the Israelis raised the idea.

And, finally, I think what's important here is that Powell is making clear to the Palestinians that if you continue to offer me things to work with, I'm going to stick around, and try to see this through to some step forward in terms of a mutual Israeli withdrawal and a Palestinian commitment to the kind of statements and steps and actions that would yield a cease-fire. What the administration seems to be putting aside, however, is this idea that the U.N. Secretary General had put forward, and that many commentators have argued for, which is military forces in the West Bank to separate the Israelis and the Palestinians.

I think what the Israelis would accept, and what the administration is pushing for, is diplomats and, perhaps, intelligence officials, to be a kind of observation force that could verify whether the two parties are committing to and doing what they're committed to. But not a U.N., or NATO, or a U.S. deployment of troops. The Deputy Secretary went all the way to saying "no" except refusing to say I won't rule it out, which is just caution.

BLITZER: On that point, Ambassador Murphy; is that something you think the administration -- the Bush administration -- and members of Congress should be open to introducing U.S. troops to this part of the world?

MURPHY: Well, I think they should be open to it, but really only as part of an international force. We've been part, for decades, of various U.N. observer forces on the Golan Heights, in the Sinai Desert -- but, it's not been an exclusively American force -- and I think an international force, which would probably have to come out of some sort of international conference. Some sort of decision in that atmosphere is something the administration would and should consider.

BLITZER: Jamie Rubin, how concerned are you that the Secretary of State is now getting so personally, so intimately, involved in these Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, if you will. It's much more difficult for the Israelis and the Palestinians to say no to the Secretary of State than it is to say no to General Zeni or some lesser official who might be dispatched by the Bush administration. Is the Secretary now falling into that kind of situation -- that the Bush administration initially sought to avoid, where he personally would have to get involved in all these nuanced talks?

RUBIN: Well, clearly, the Secretary is falling into that very situation that they had feared. But it's not something they should fear. Let's face it: preventing the Middle East from collapsing into calamitous violence is a primary responsibility of the Chief Diplomat of the United States.

And, I think what's happened here is that the administration and many of its supporters and many in Congress have come -- have accepted the idea that every time the Secretary of State goes to the Middle East, he has to succeed. And achieve some great breakthrough. That's not the way the Middle East works. The way the Middle East worked for Secretary Baker, in the first Bush administration; for Secretary Christopher, for Secretary Albright, is that you have to do the painstaking work, and you have to do it time and time and time again. That's part of the job of Secretary's of State, to get in there, to try to move things forward, and I don't think that the administration or its critics should regard Secretary Powell's inability to have a breakthrough on this trip as a failure.

If he opens the door to a process that will enable the United States to put pressure on both sides, and get us out of the abyss that we're heading for, that will be appropriate for the role of Secretary of State. If the standard always is that the Secretary of State has to go make a breakthrough every time he steps foot in Jerusalem or in the West Bank, it's a prescription for the kind of disaster that we're now in. Where 18 months have gone by, the administration for some legitimate reason didn't want to dive in -- but the result has been the two parties get more locked into their positions, the revenge builds, the hate builds, and all of the problems get harder and harder to solve.

So, it has to be clear that the standard is not a breakthrough. The standard is one small step forward. And that's a lot in the Middle East, given how difficult and extremely difficult it is.

BLITZER: OK. I want to thank both of our guests, Jamie Rubin and Richard Murphy, two former Assistant Secretary's of State. Thanks so much for your thoughts.




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