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 peace process.

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 different.

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 settlements?

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 peace.

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 East.

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 legitimate?
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 States stands
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 forward.

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 agreement.

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 program?

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 reform.
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 human rights.

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 broken?

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 been?
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 transparent procedures?

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 Congress.

The U.S. also is very much interested in Israeli-Palestinian people-to-people contact. What would you like to see in this vein?

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 [1997], 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.