Daoud Kuttab: We are very grateful that you agreed to give us
this interview for our issue on "the U.S.A. and the Conflict." Can
you tell us how you view the current peace process and American
input into it?
John Herbst: I think it was Martin Indyk who recently pointed out
that this is a difficult moment for the peace process. The United
States has a very strong interest in ensuring the success of the
peace process and this is part of a continuous policy. We are
deeply concerned over the present state of affairs. We launched a
new phase of diplomacy last August with Secretary of State
Albright's speech, designed to move this peace process forward. We
are still working on tackling the difficulties in this phase of the
We noticed that the United States tries to bend over backward to
present an even point of view to the Palestinian and Israeli
parties in the conflict. Is that something that is done consciously
or does the situation require that for diplomatic reasons? Is there
equality in how both are fulfilling, or not fulfilling, their
promises in the Oslo agreement?
The United States, as I said, is deeply interested in moving the
peace process forward. So for this we must work with both sides.
You have to find ways that are agreeable to both parties. I think
that understanding is the core of what we are trying to do.
But Mrs. Albright said clearly that the Palestinians and Israelis
need to do much more.
I think that for there to be progress, it is necessary for both
sides to address not only their own concerns, but also the concerns
of the other side. American diplomacy understands that, and is
trying to make it easier for the parties to carry it out.
Let's talk about U.S. policy. You have stated in a recent interview
that you don't feel that U.S. policy towards the
Israeli-Palestinian issue is in any way different than its policy
towards the Iraqi situation. Can you elaborate on that?
In our judgment, the two sets of circumstances are very different.
In the case of Iraq, it launched a war of aggression against its
neighbor. It was defeated in that war. As part of the resulting
understanding, Iraq agreed to certain conditions that were demanded
by the U.N. Security Council. It has flouted the requirements
established by the U.N. Security Council and it has, therefore,
been subject to sanctions. To me, that's a clear-cut case.
In the case of the Arab-Israeli conflict, you had wars which, in
part, were concluded on the basis of U.N. Security Council
resolutions. These established principles by which the parties
would negotiate peace. The parties are in the process of
negotiating peace. In Iraq, you had a very clear set of
requirements for the U.N. Security Council. In the other case, the
U.N. Security Council established principles by which the parties
would conduct negotiations. The situations are quite
You do not think that the failure of Israel to withdraw from the
West Bank, to allow refugees to return, to withdraw from Lebanon
were clear-cut cases?
I think that the U.N. Security Council resolutions on which current
peace¬making efforts are based include the principle of
territory for peace and those are the principles which form the
basis for negotiations.
On the settlement issue, the U.S. policy seems to have wavered. Can
you put us in the picture of U.S. policy today on
We have stated clearly that we don't think settlements have been
helpful in terms of promoting peace. The Secretary of State has
also stated that she believes there should be time-out on
unilateral actions by the parties. That means, among other things,
that there should be no settlement building.
So settlements, like Jabal Abu Ghneim/Har Homa and Ras al-Amud, are
something that you are very strongly against?
We believe that there should not be settlement building.
And those are considered settlements?
We believe that the sides should avoid actions which undermine
The term "honest broker" - can you tell us what it means from a
U.S. point of view?
The United States sees its role as trying to promote peace, to
further a process that betjan at Madrid and Oslo. The way to do
that is to help each side understand the other's concerns, point
out ways that might be possible to address those concerns so that
they can make progress. We are deeply concerned by the fact that
there has not been progress over the last year. As the Secretary of
State has said, 1997 was not a good year for peace in the Middle
Yasser Arafat repeatedly states in his press statements that all
the Palestinians want is an accurate implementation of what has
been agreed upon. Does he have reason to doubt that his concern is
I think we all want to see the implementation of Oslo. There are
questions of interpretation. We have heard similar statements by
the Israeli prime minister. The important thing is to build on the
Oslo process, to help the sides realize the fulfillment of the Oslo
process. It is not surprising, mind you, that there are different
interpretations. The key again is to find a way to bring the
parties together, so as to implement the Oslo Accords.
The Palestinians say that the Hebron agreement clearly lays down
three Israeli redeployments from all the West Bank and Gaza, except
settlements, military posts and Jerusalem. Apparently, the big
obstacle is the issue of redeployment. As far as I understand, this
issue is dealt with very clearly in the letter from then-secretary
of state Warren Christopher. So my question is: Does the United
States have a different interpretation on that issue?
Regarding the issue of three further redeployments, the United
by the Christopher letter.
Israel says that it is the only party that can decide the size of
redeployment. What is the U.S. position on that?
Actually, the parties clearly have a different understanding
regarding this point, and the United States is trying to find a way
On other items of the interim agreement, does the United States
have suggestions for making progress?
We have been meeting with the Israelis and the Palestinians for the
last five weeks at the residence of our ambassador in Tel Aviv.
Ambassador Ned Walker, myself, Danny Naveh and Saeb Erekat. We have
been trying very hard to reach agreements on some of these issues.
It is clear that we have made progress on the airport and on the
Gaza industrial estate. We also had useful discussions on safe
passage and civil affairs committee issues. Here, too, there are
some difficult differences that have to be bridged.
If the Israelis and Palestinians cannot directly resolve the
conflict, the Oslo agreement had the idea of arbitration as a way
out of the deadlock, as in Taba, Egypt. If the sides cannot resolve
the problems between them, will the United States be willing to
accept the need for arbitration? Or if one side or both sides ask
for arbitration, what will the U.S. position be?
One of the first rules of diplomacy is not to answer hypothetical
questions. I don't think we need to address this because we are in
the process where I believe we have the possibility of reaching an
The U.S. government is investing a lot of money in the peace
process and especially in the Palestinian territories. Can you give
us your strategy or the U.S. strategy as to its development
There is, I think, a close and growing relationship between the
Palestinians and the United States. The assistance we provide is an
important part of that, but not the only part. What we are trying
to do with our aid to the Palestinian people is to promote economic
prosperity. We are very concerned about the fact that per-capita
GNP for the Palestinians has dropped substantially since Oslo. Our
aid sets out to stop that, to reverse it. Our aid is designed to
help on different issues, difficult problems, like that of the
water supply. We know that your per-capita use is low by world
standards. Our aid is also designed to promote economic reform,
which is essential for a prosperous economy and political
America has an interest in an emerging democracy in the Palestinian
Authority. So the aim of our aid program is, you might say, in a
phrase: prosperity, market reform, democratization which includes
And how do you evaluate how it is working?
I think that our aid has been very useful. The Palestinian
Authority is off to a reasonable start in terms of promoting
economic and political reform. There are problems, of course, but I
believe that there has been some progress. Needless to say, we are
keen to see further progress and to encourage the flowering of
democracy and a market economy in the Palestinian area.
Can you give us some numbers as to the aid package and how it is
I believe we are giving approximately $100 million a year.
There has been criticism of the Palestinian Authority's (PA)
fiscal policy. What is the U.S. evaluation of how the PA has
I do not think there is an official United States government view
as to how the PA is spending its money. Around the world, we
encourage governments, especially governments which are new and
forming, or authorities, like the Palestinian Authority, to
establish transparent accounting procedures, so that people can see
how money is being allocated and spent. We believe this is part of
good government around the world.
And how do you think the Palestinians are doing on this issue of
It's not for me to provide a report card, and particularly not in
public, but we can see reason for many countries around the world,
and for the Palestinian Authority, to increase transparency.
Can you see an attempt to improve procedures?
We have had conversations and we think that there is an
understanding on the Palestinian side of our views and a
recognition that some of what we are saying makes sense.
Some Israeli officials have been suggesting that maybe Israel can
be less dependent on its aid from the United States. Is this
something you can comment on?
Well, my understanding is that the Israeli government has spoken
about reducing the economic assistance it receives from the United
States, and I know that Secretary Albright welcomed that.
There is a feeling among the Palestinians that the U.S. Congress is
very much supportive of Israel and biased. Have you seen a change
or better understanding in the U.S. Congress toward the Middle East
conflict or the Palestinian aspect of it?
I believe that one interesting development over the past several
years has been a large jump in contact between American congressmen
and senior Palestinians. This is all to the good. It increases
understanding and it gives the Palestinians an opportunity to
express their view, to make their case directly to people in our
The U.S. also is very much interested in Israeli-Palestinian
people-to-people contact. What would you like to see in this
People-to-people contact is an important part of the peace process.
It's a truism that peoples make peace and people-to-people contact
helps remove some of the stereotypes which stand in the way of
peace. So we would like to see as broad and as deep a contact as
possible between the Palestinians and the Israelis.
You are the Consul General in Jerusalem. Has there been a change in
the role of the Consulate vis-à-vis the conflict? We see the
Embassy taking a much larger role.
I'm not sure what you mean. I worked in the Embassy in Tel Aviv
from 1990 to 1993. I spent 1993 and 1994 working on the Middle
East, especially the multilateral peace process in Washington. I
spent the following three years -1995, 1996, 1997 - working in the
former Soviet Union. When I left the Middle East, it was the summer
of 1994. At that point, the Consulate was given the then-new
responsibility of dealing with the Palestinian Authority, which had
just been created. That was a new role and an important policy role
for the Consulate.
When I came back to this job last summer , I found that I had
the same responsibilities that my predecessor had, which had been
established three years earlier. What all this means is that the
role of the Consulate has, if anything, been enhanced as a result
of the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. The role of the
Embassy continues to be conducting our relationship here with the
Government of Israel.
The interview took place in the last week of March 1998.