Benjamin Gilman represents the 20th District of New York in the House of Representatives and is chairman of the House International Relations Committee. Born in 1922, Representative Gilman earned degrees in business and law and served three terms in the New York State Assembly before his election to the House in 1972. Daniel Pipes and Peter W. Rodman interviewed Mr. Gilman in his Capitol office on September 24, 1996.
AID TO THE PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY
Middle East Quarterly: Let's start with the Palestinian aid issue, an issue where you've made your mark. Could you tell us what the Palestinian Authority has to do to get the $10 million you are withholding?
Benjamin Gilman: We would like some transparency in its financial situation, through disclosures of PLO assets. We would like to see it fulfill its responsibilities in ridding the area under the Authority's jurisdiction of terrorists and armaments. We'd like to see Yasir Arafat stop making speeches to the Arabs in one vein followed by speeches to the American and European public in another vein. When he talks to his own people, he gingerly talks about a jihad (sacred war) but when he talks to the rest of the world, he talks about seeking peace.
MEQ: In a word, you're seeking full compliance?
Gilman: Yes, full compliance, which has been missing.
MEQ: Has the PLO covenant been changed in accord with Yasir Arafat's promise of September 1993?
Gilman: No, regrettably, it has not. All that's been done is to refer the issue of making changes to a legal committee. Knowing these committees, I can predict it won't act quickly. We're waiting to see what it recommends.
MEQ: The recommendations are due six months after the committee was appointed; that was in April 1996, so there should soon be a report.
Gilman: We will look forward to it with some optimism but also with some reservations.
MEQ: What about the State Department report that says the PLO has been largely in compliance with its promises?
Gilman: I disagree with the State Department's analysis and consider it a whitewash.
MEQ: Has Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu expressed a view on whether it's a good idea to withhold the $10 million or release it?
Gilman: We've had some conversations with the Israeli government but I'm not at liberty to discuss those.
MEQ: What do you say to the argument that pressure from Congress is very useful as leverage as long as the support is pending but that at some point it could weaken Arafat vis-à-vis Hamas? Might denying him this money undermine him?
Gilman: It is good leverage; but it's such a small amount that it is more symbolic than anything else, signaling Mr. Arafat that much more remains to be done. The United States alone is committed to $500 million over a five-year period. A new tranche of that money will be delivered by October 1.
MEQ: Something like half of American foreign aid now goes to Egypt and Israel. Is that the right proportion?
Gilman: This evolved out of the Camp David accords to help keep Egypt and Israel economically and militarily secure; it has worked for over fifteen years. Support for a strong and secure Israel -- our most reliable strategic ally in the Middle East and a vital partner in pursuit of a just and lasting peace in that region -- has been a fundamental element of U.S. foreign policy. There must be no doubt about the U.S. commitment to Israel, and our assistance programs send that clear signal. The recent successes through the peace process prove the effectiveness of our consistent support for Israel.
Egypt and Israel still need assistance but the time is approaching when we will have an opportunity to find some reductions for both states. Prime Minister Netanyahu himself has indicated that Israel is becoming more economically independent and he foresees a time when he would recommend some reduction.
MEQ: Do you have a timetable in mind?
Gilman: I have no timetable but I think we're approaching that point, providing no obstacles stand in the way in their economy.
MEQ: How about a mechanism? What is the most constructive way to end the aid relationship?
Gilman: I expect that we will slowly phase out economic aid while maintaining military assistance. The threats against Israel's security are ongoing, so Israel must maintain a qualitative military edge.
MEQ: Isn't it odd to give so much aid to Israel when it now has a per capita income that nearly matches that of Great Britain?
Gilman: That's one of the factors that would lead to a reduction.
MEQ: Do you think the aid, once cut to Israel and Egypt, will be transferred to other countries, or is it more likely to be cut out?
Gilman: If we're able to reduce assistance to some Middle Eastern countries, the opportunity exists to use some of it in other areas of the world. However, we are still under severe budgetary constraints, so there may be some difficulty in keeping all the funds for foreign aid, but I think there will be some opportunities to do so.
MEQ: The conventional wisdom that Israel carries all the foreign aid is not correct?
Gilman: I think not, though Israel does have a pretty strong influence.
MEQ: Do you see the current situation as the end of the round of negotiations that began in 1991, or as a momentary pause before picking up steam?
Gilman: I think there are a lot of favorable developments on the horizon. A number of countries that had been reluctant in the past now have relations with Israel, while Prime Minister Netanyahu has reached out to Mr. Arafat and initiated a diplomatic opening to Syria. These indicate that the peace process is slowly moving forward.
MEQ: Do you think that the Palestinians as a whole -- not the Authority or the PLO -- are willing to live in peace with Israel? Have they experienced a change of heart?
Gilman: I think the average Palestinian would like peace. That's what the survey reports I've read indicate. In contrast, some of the leadership and some of the more radical groups would like to derail the peace process.
MEQ: The problem, then, resides in the leadership?
Gilman: In the leadership, the reactionary groups, and the very radical groups.
MEQ: What about the fact that there is something of a democracy in the West Bank and Gaza, that the leaders do seem to represent a popular viewpoint?
Gilman: Well, what exists there is a long way from democracy, though it is a beginning. First steps are being taken and we hope to see more in the direction of democracy.
MEQ: Looking back over the record of Israeli governments, both Labor and Likud, which do you think has worked better? The Labor approach of winking at Palestinian transgressions or the somewhat tougher approach of the Likud?
Gilman: I think the tougher approach of Likud will result in better security for Israel.
MEQ: What do you see as the proper American role? Is there a danger, as former secretary of state James Baker worries, that the U.S. may want peace more than the parties do?
Gilman: We have to be cautious not to impose any peace process on the parties. Our main role is to serve as a catalyst to assist the parties, to keep them talking, and to help them move forward. At the same time, we have to avoid having a more active role that would impose our thinking on the parties. True and long-lasting peace will only come about when the parties themselves are at the negotiating table, willing to work out a such a peace.
MEQ: Do you have any advice for the new administration in January 1997?
Gilman: You mean the Dole administration? (laughter) Whoever the president is, I think it important that we continue to take an active role.
MEQ: Is it necessary for the president and the secretary of state to be involved?
Gilman: Yes, it's important that the secretary of state be involved because he adds a great deal more weight.
MEQ: Even if that means that he might, like Secretary Warren Christopher, make more than twenty trips to Damascus -- not to speak of Israel?
Gilman: It's important that he explore every opportunity; he certainly should not be criticized for attempting to find solutions. I do think it's extremely important that we continue these efforts, though I found it very disappointing that [Syria's] President [Hafiz al-]Asad refused to meet with Christopher on one of those trips; that was a slap in the face to our secretary of state.
MEQ: Should the secretary of state spend so much time in the Middle East, even at the cost of hardly ever going to Mexico City, Peking, or Bonn?
Gilman: We can't neglect other areas but the Middle East is an important area. If we can bring about peace in the Middle East, we will have done a great deal toward improving our own security.
MEQ: Israel initially had a special place for Americans because of the Holocaust and the unique story of its resurrection. Then it served as an ally in the cold war. What is the key to the future of the U.S.-Israel alliance? Is there a common security need?
Gilman: There are many factors, with the bond of common security very important. Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East. It votes with us continually in the United Nations. We have on many occasions called on Israel and it has greatly supported our role in that region. There are, as you see, many links in the strong bond between the United States and Israel.
MEQ: Are we in for a more difficult period of U.S.-Israeli relations with the election of Binyamin Netanyahu? After all, the Likud Party has always had a different approach to the peace process than American administrations, whether Republican or Democrat.
Gilman: I don't see troubles ahead. There's been a strong show of support for Netanyahu and for his way of thinking; you saw the response he got when he addressed a joint session of Congress back in July. No matter who is president in 1997, I expect he will recognize that Netanyahu is the democratically elected leader of the Israeli people, and that we cannot argue with his approach for a more secure Israel. Israel is surrounded by antagonists and by a number of terrorist regimes; we have to respect that approach.
MEQ: Has Asad made a strategic decision for peace with Israel?
Gilman: No. His role is very uncertain. Analysts find it difficult to understand his thinking and his direction. Mr. Netanyahu proposed a Lebanon First option that Asad quickly turned down -- in my opinion, an erroneous decision by Mr. Asad. It could have worked out quite well. Israel showed a willingness to withdraw its forces from southern Lebanon provided that Asad would withdraw Hizbullah from the same area. I can't think of a more practical proposal. Asad's unwillingness to go along with that plan to me shows his unwillingness to reach a peaceful settlement either in Lebanon or on the Golan Heights. Apparently, he's still unwilling to join the peace process that's going on throughout that region.
MEQ: What, then, does Asad seek?
Gilman: Good question. He's trying to find his best negotiating stance and so is exploring all avenues. The Golan is apparently one of his big negotiating considerations. So far, the Netanyahu government is unwilling to move on that issue, except that it has made statements about not wanting all of the Golan. That may be some indication that there is some opportunity for negotiation.
MEQ: Some say Asad did not accept Labor's offer of the Golan Heights for a peace treaty because he did not understand the offer. Others say he moved too slowly. Yet others argue that he did not want this deal. What's your view?
Gilman: I regret to say that I cannot understand his thinking; he had the opportunity to take advantage of that offer.
MEQ: A year ago, news came that Lt. Cmdr. Michael Schwartz was given an "other than honorable discharge" from the navy for spying on behalf of the Saudi Arabian government. WP 14 Oct 95 In contrast, Jonathan Pollard, who spied for Israel, is eleven years into a life sentence. From the outside, it appears that there's an enormous difference in treatment of these two spies. Does this contrast bother you? Might the International Relations Committee hold hearings on this matter?
Gilman: As you may be aware, I visited Pollard in his North Carolina jail earlier this year and had an extensive interview with him. I went there specifically find out about his thinking and to discuss his approach to the future. We certainly don't question the conviction but there is a great disparity between the sentencing of Pollard and others who have been similarly charged; that disparity warrants further review.
MEQ: By the committee?
Gilman: I don't know that it's the province of our committee, since it's a judicial question, but I think that it needs review by the appropriate committee -- and by the administration.
MEQ: Were you surprised that the Clinton administration again in August rejected Pollard's appeal for his release?
Gilman: No, I was not. Prior to an election that is the expected approach by the administration.
MEQ: In retrospect, did President Bush do the right thing in 1991 when he called off the fighting before having eliminated Saddam Husayn, particularly in light of the continuing problems with him?
Gilman: Yes, I think so. President Bush was quite clear at that time that he did not want American soldiers to become an occupying force. Occupying forces have difficulty withdrawing; then tend to become the enemy. Remember what happened in Somalia, for example. The longer we stayed, the more animosity we created. Yes, we are again and again confronted with the problem of dealing with Saddam Husayn but going in and occupying Iraq would not have solved the issue.
MEQ: What prospects do you see for implementation of the D'Amato bill that penalizes foreign companies that invest in Iran?
Gilman: You're talking about the Gilman-D'Amato bill?1
MEQ: Oh yes, sorry.
Gilman: I think it's an important measure that we must implement and convince our European allies to accept. The rogue regimes in Iran and Libya need to feel that our policy has some teeth in it. If we're truly interested in doing something about terrorism, we have to deny them the economic benefits they derive from international trade.
Along these lines, you might be interested to know that I recently filed a complaint with the FAA about United Airlines's flying over Iran. United pays something like $3,000 a day in tribute to the Iranian military budget to be able to fly over Iran. When you include all the foreign airlines that are doing this, it comes to tens of millions of dollars a year. This is not the kind of support we want to give to that rogue regime.
MEQ: The administration signed the bill but then put implementation of it on hold for six months. Do you see it's being put into effect any time soon?
Gilman: We have been putting some pressure on the administration to move that timetable forward.
MEQ: So, you're optimistic that the bill will be applied?
Gilman: It has to go forward if we truly want to do something about terrorism.
MEQ: Do you see the bill's sanctions on investors in Iran and Libya as leading to a possible crisis in relations with Europeans?
Gilman: They don't like the bill; indeed, the Europeans never like any economic sanctions. They like to do business with all countries, no matter what the characteristics of those countries. It's time they take a hard look at the fomenting of terrorism by both Iran and Libya and do something about it, otherwise the Europeans themselves will once again become victims of those same terrorist states.
MEQ: On another matter of legislation: the Aviation Security and Antiterrorism Act that the administration introduced into Congress in August was passed by the House but is bottled-up in the Senate. Is it important in the fight against terrorism?
Gilman: It was blocked by controversy over putting taggants into the explosive powder and over multipoint wiretaps, but I hope that we can move it forward next year. You have to put some teeth into the law when you're dealing with terrorism. So far, we've been very timid about doing some of these things and it's time we confronted terrorists more actively.
MEQ: Should we press the Saudi Arabian government to open up and democratize?
Gilman: We should encourage Saudi Arabia, though we can't impose our ways on them. Saudi Arabia should recognize that unless it does democratize, it may confront some very serious internal problems up the road.
MEQ: What about the fact that this would increase the chances of anti-American elements' taking over in that country?
Gilman: We always have to take such contingencies into account but, on the whole, it serves the Saudi national interest to open up.
MEQ: You're willing to take the risk of diehard anti-Americans' coming to power in Riyadh?
Gilman: We should be willing to take that risk.
MEQ: You are implicitly criticizing all the American administrations that have shied away from taking such risks today, preferring to leave well-enough alone and let tomorrow take care of itself.
Gilman: We can't impose our thinking on Saudis but we should try to convince them that it's to their own benefit to encourage democratization.
MEQ: Is fundamentalist Islam the new ideological threat facing the United States?
Gilman: We have to give serious attention to it. There are many radical elements in Islam but not all Muslims are Islamist or radical. As for the radical elements, we should take them into account when making policy.
MEQ: Not all of them are radical? You mean there are moderate Islamists?
MEQ: Can you give an example?
Gilman: Not off the top of my head, but there are many regimes that are moderate Islamic regimes.
MEQ: What can we do on the policy level -- not the level of policing but policy -- to discourage terrorism against Americans?
Gilman: Terrorism can't be fought single-handedly by our own nation; it has to be done with international cooperation. That means our allies in Europe and around the world have to join together with us. The United Nations should be more severe in its resolutions.
MEQ: To conclude, any anecdotes you can tell us from your travels in the Middle East?
Perhaps memorable meetings with Middle Eastern leaders?
Gilman: I sorely regret that the many critical problems here at home prevent us in Congress from traveling abroad. I hope the coming year permits us to take congressional delegations to international hotspots. The press criticizes congressional travel but I find, in regard to foreign affairs particularly, it's extremely important for us to get out there. We spend millions of dollars around the world, and here we do oversight at home on those programs, and yet we're reluctant to get out there and take a good hard look and pick up the rug and see what's going on. There's an old Chinese adage that one picture is worth a thousand words; and another that you can't smell the flowers when traveling by horseback.
MEQ: Some of our allies see the lack of congressional delegations as a sign of isolationism.
Gilman: Far from it. It's a sign of having tremendous domestic problems and trying to attend to them; and also concern about press criticism.
1 Formally known as the Iran and Libya Sanctions Act and signed into law on Aug. 5, 1996.