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Reporter's Notebook; Interview With Saeb Erakat

Aired April 13, 2002 - 09:39   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.


THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: All right, now we're going to go to our Reporter's Notebook. Miles is filing through the e-mails as we continue to get them and (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Tons of them.

PHILLIPS: Yes.

O'BRIEN: Boy, you know, thank you very much for your participation. At this point, don't bother sending any more, because it's a little late for that. But we do -- we've got many more e-mails than we can get on the air, lots of interesting viewpoints.

And once again, I -- we are being criticized on both sides for being biased toward the other, so I guess that means we're doing our job right.

PHILLIPS: That's right, it means we end.

O'BRIEN: Yes.

PHILLIPS: Our three guests, of course, are going to help us hammer it all out. Tony Karon, world editor for Time.com, he's joining us from New York. From London, Anton La Guardia, diplomatic editor for "The Daily Telegraph." He's also the author of a new book, "War Without End: Israelis, Palestinians, and the Struggle for a Promised Land."

And, of course, our distinguished Wolf Blitzer, live from Jerusalem.

Gentlemen, thank you.

O'BRIEN: All right, let's get right to the e-mail and this whole issue of how the U.S. deals with Israel post-9/11 is of interest to me. Here's the question. "Who are we to tell Israel not to defend itself aggressively when we just went in and overthrew the government of Afghanistan for essentially the same thing? Are we telling everyone else that it's only OK to retaliate for terrorist attacks only if a certain number of people are killed at one time?" That from Second Lieutenant Paul Keener (ph). Good question, Lieutenant Keener.

Wolf, why don't you take it? WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, the Palestinians will argue that there's a major difference between what happened in Afghanistan and what's happening here in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, the West Bank, the major difference being the United States was not occupying parts of Afghanistan, parts of territory that the Taliban or al Qaeda presumably were in control of, whereas the Palestinians argue the Israelis are engaged in a military occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip, one that they claim has been brutal over these past 30, 35 years since the 1967 war, and as a result, they'll argue that they have a legitimate right to go ahead and engage in violent actions against the Israelis.

Now, the question is, do those violent actions justify, for example, blowing up a hotel in Netanya, the Israeli coastal town north of Tel Aviv, on Passover, killing more than 20 Israelis, men, women, and children, or going into a marketplace and killing young kids or women or noncombatant civilians?

And so that's the issue right now, and that's why the secretary of state wants to hear a clear condemnation from the Palestinian leader condemning precisely those kinds of terrorist actions.

O'BRIEN: All right. Let's take a phone call, shall we?

PHILLIPS: You got it. Joe from Georgia is on the phone. Joe, go ahead, what's your question?

CALLER: Thank you very much. Wolf, you and Miles are doing a great job.

My question, Wolf, do you think the new statement from Arafat will convince Secretary of State Powell to go ahead and meet with him?

BLITZER: Based on the very preliminary translation we have received, not the complete statement but just portions of it, my gut tells me the secretary of state will go forward and meet with the Palestinian leader tomorrow in Ramallah, 24 hours after the originally scheduled meeting.

But, you know, the State Department and the Bush administration might come up with a different interpretation. I think the impetus, the pressure, is on Powell to go forward with that meeting. They wanted a statement, they've received a statement. It may not be 100 percent what they wanted, but it probably will be enough for them to say they've justified the decision to go forward with the meeting.

O'BRIEN: All right, let's get back to the e-mailbox, shall we? Let's send this over to Tony Karon, shall we? The -- here's how it goes. "The quintessential barrier to peace in the Mideast is that the hardline Likud members of Israel's government have no intention of ever relinquishing the West Bank as part of a land-for-peace settlement. The Palestinians understand this, and are reacting in a way -- the only way they can, lacking a military comparable to Israel's." That's from Steve in Palmerton. Thanks for that, Steve.

What do you think, Tony? TONY KARON, TIME.COM: Well, I think the correspondent is getting -- is hitting on an important question, which is really what is Ariel Sharon's long-term vision? I think Secretary Powell has made it an important part of his mission, given the intractable problems of the present, to actually focus the minds of all sides on the future.

And really, I think it's a fair question to ask what is Ariel Sharon's ultimate vision for the -- in terms of the fate of the West Bank and Gaza? And obviously many of the mediators who've engaged in this up to now, many in the Bush administration actually doubt whether Sharon plans to engage in the kind of land-for-peace swap that his predecessors had.

So I think this is something that Powell is beginning to put on the table now and saying, We need a cease-fire, we need to stop the violence, but ultimately that violence is all a symptom of the current pattern of occupation of the West Bank and Gaza, and until we solve that problem, we're going to have violence, so we have to address the question of what do we actually envisage as the future here?

PHILLIPS: All right, another phone call. Sandy from New Mexico. Go ahead, Sandy.

CALLER: I'm wondering if Secretary of State Powell is going to be going into Jenin to find out what really happened there. There seem to be two points of view about what occurred there. So I'd like to know if anyone thinks he's going to be going in there, and what if he does find out that there were massacres? What will be the U.S. response?

PHILLIPS: It's a good question. So far reporters haven't been even allowed inside of the refugee camp.

Anton, you want to take that one?

ANTON LA GUARDIA, "THE DAILY TELEGRAPH": Well, absolutely. It's extremely difficult to tell what's going on there. One can only see it from the outside of the city, or some people have been able to slip into Jenin town on a goat path. But it's very difficult to know what's happening in there. Clearly there's a lot of fighting been going on, clearly the Palestinians have been...

O'BRIEN: All right. Anton...

LA GUARDIA: ... fighting, otherwise...

O'BRIEN: Anton...

LA GUARDIA: ... they wouldn't have been able to kill...

O'BRIEN: Anton, my apologies, but news comes first here at CNN. We got a bit of news.

Saeb Erakat, chief Palestinian negotiator, on the line once again. Mr. Erakat, what do you have for us? SAEB ERAKAT, CHIEF PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATOR: We have a statement from President Arafat and the Palestinian Authority reiterating our condemnation to all terrorist action that's targeting civilians, whether Israelis or Palestinians. And the statement condemns targeting of Israeli civilians yesterday in West Jerusalem and condemns also the massacres committed against Palestinians in Jenin refugee camp, also in Nablus and Bethlehem and other places.

The statement calls upon the international community and Secretary Powell to exert every possible effort in order to break this vicious cycle through a meaningful peace process that will end the Israeli occupation. The statement reiterates that there will not be a military solution to this problem.

And the Israeli government actions will only breed more violence, more bullets and more blood and more hate, and this must stop. And the statement calls for a resumption of meaningful negotiations that would lead to ending the Israeli occupation and establishing a Palestinian state (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Israel.

O'BRIEN: All right, well, first of all, do you anticipate that that statement is going to lead to a meeting with the U.S. secretary of state?

ERAKAT: Well, I don't think there was a linkage, to begin with. Yesterday I was called by the Americans, and they notified me that they want to postpone the meeting for our schedule this morning for 24 hours. And the meeting will take place, they said, Sunday morning, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) take place Sunday morning.

I really think it was a wrong decision to postpone the meeting. Time is of the essence. And I think here we're dealing with human lives, Palestinians and Israelis.

O'BRIEN: (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

ERAKAT: We don't shoot ourselves in the foot...

O'BRIEN: Mr. Erakat...

ERAKAT: ... by postponing this meeting.

O'BRIEN: Mr. Erakat, you'll forgive me if -- many of us presume there was linkage between a statement such as this and the meeting, given the statements, fairly clear cut, made by the Bush administration. You reject the fact that this statement is not a prerequisite in some form for a meeting between Mr. Arafat and Mr. Powell?

ERAKAT: Well, all I'm saying is that if you go back to the record, Palestinian Authority and President Arafat have always condemned attacks on Israeli civilians, have always condemned the taking of life of innocent civilians, whether Palestinians and Israelis.

Now the Americans, when they called me yesterday and told me that the meeting is postponed for 24 hours, they did not put a linkage. Now they -- if they made a linkage, which I don't know about, that's another story.

O'BRIEN: So, so are you -- Mr. Erakat...

ERAKAT: But the statement (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

O'BRIEN: ... are you anticipating...

ERAKAT: ... we want -- excuse me, excuse me, excuse me. We wanted the statement to come out last night, actually.

O'BRIEN: Well, I'm...

ERAKAT: I had no way on earth to contact President Arafat, where my colleagues were confined to Ramallah, who are confined to this siege in their headquarters. This morning at 11:00 we were allowed to get to Ramallah. And one hour afterward, we came out with the statement.

O'BRIEN: All right, well, let me ask you this. Are you in close proximity to Chairman Arafat?

ERAKAT: Yes, I'm -- I just left the compound of President Arafat, I'm about less than one mile from the compound.

O'BRIEN: Why were, why wouldn't he -- why isn't he on the phone right now issuing this statement himself?

ERAKAT: Because I could not speak to you in the first time because there are no phone lines. There is an Israeli car that's jamming all lines. Now, I could speak to you now because I'm outside the compound. But I read the statement to you. It is -- it begins that President Arafat and the Palestinian Authority express their condemnation for the terror acts.

O'BRIEN: Could we...

ERAKAT: But it's obvious, and I hope that you people in your country will...

O'BRIEN: I guess...

ERAKAT: ... (UNINTELLIGIBLE) sensitivities to the fact...

O'BRIEN: The (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

ERAKAT: ... of the Palestinians who have been murdered and massacred, and maybe President Bush must come out one day and condemn the killing of Israeli children as well as Palestinian children, because they are children.

O'BRIEN: Mr. Erakat...

ERAKAT: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) President Bush.

O'BRIEN: Mr. Erakat, would you allow a camera in there to have Mr. Arafat say this right on camera? We'll put the tape on CNN.

ERAKAT: I think he will be more than happy if you can allow a camera to come in.

O'BRIEN: All right, we'll try to make those arrangements.

I guess the reason I'm asking these questions is, we just talked to the mayor of Jerusalem a little while ago, and his statement was, why does it take 24 hours and why does it have to be such a closely parsed statement, when in fact...

ERAKAT: I can't believe, I can't these people. These people are confining us to our homes, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) our communications lines, we cannot even speak on the phone with President Arafat. I cannot speak with my colleagues in the Palestinian Authority on the phone. They -- and then they come out and just keep lying and lying and lying and lying to you, the Netanyahus, the Sharons, Olmerts.

And unfortunately, we cannot even come to you to appear on your camera on CNN, because I have been confined to my hometown, Jericho, for the last 16 days. I cannot come to any of your (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to be on camera. Arafat cannot even call us on the phone. We cannot communicate with him.

And it took me, that's the truth, 18 hours to make the arrangements through the Americans and through the Israelis to be able to come to the president with my -- with three of my colleagues and to share this and to come out with this communique.

Had we been able to come to President Arafat last night, we would have issued the statement yesterday. Yes, we condemn the killing of innocent Israeli civilians. We don't condone the killing of Israeli civilians. That's been our long-standing position, and that is the position of President Arafat.

O'BRIEN: Mr. Erakat...

ERAKAT: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the Israelis want to (UNINTELLIGIBLE)...

O'BRIEN: Mr. Erakat, you got to admit there'd be some people who are skeptical in our audience right now if you told them that Mr. Arafat could not make a statement if he wanted to.

ERAKAT: (UNINTELLIGIBLE), people, you know, can finger point about. It's easy and cost-free to slap Palestinians. The fact remains that there are 3.3 million Palestinians today deprived of their lives, deprived of their schools, of their hospitals, a total destruction of life. We have 800 people missing from the Jenin refugee camp.

And it seems to me that (UNINTELLIGIBLE). If this is the case, I don't know what the international (UNINTELLIGIBLE) relations coming to. And I know it's cost free, to slug us, to blame us, to finger- point at us. But (UNINTELLIGIBLE). We are dealing with a military occupation, the last military occupation on earth. And (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the Israelis. What we're telling Mr. Sharon, you cannot solve the problem, you're not going to save lives through tanks, through more hits, through more blood, through more subjugation of the Palestinians.

You're taking the hope out of the Palestinians' minds. Let us resume negotiations. Let us have meaningful negotiations. Let us end the Israeli occupation and establish a Palestinian state next to the state of Israel.

O'BRIEN: All right. Mr....

ERAKAT: Now I'm no match, excuse me, I'm no match to the Israelis in the Congress, in the Senate, in the lobby, but at the end of the day, I'm going to be Israel's neighbor for centuries to come, and it's better -- they better off to come and make a deal and normalize with me and live in peace next to me.

O'BRIEN: All right.

ERAKAT: That's in their interest. That's in my interest.

O'BRIEN: Mr. Erakat, will there be a meeting tomorrow between the U.S. secretary of state and Chairman Arafat?

ERAKAT: I tell you what happened. Yesterday the Americans called me and told me that they want to inform me that the meeting that was scheduled today will be postponed for 24 hours, and they look forward to meet at -- on Sunday morning, tomorrow. I expect the meeting to take place, but so far I haven't received any confirmation on that.

O'BRIEN: Saeb Erakat...

ERAKAT: But I think it was wrong for the secretary to postpone the meeting. I think time is of the essence. I don't think we should shoot ourself in the foot. I think every minute would mean the difference between a Palestinian life or an Israeli life there.

O'BRIEN: Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, please stay on the line. I think somebody's going to come on and see if we can arrange some kind of way of getting a camera in to get Mr. Arafat to make that secretary of state, as you just promised.

Let's return to our Reporter's Notebook.

PHILLIPS: Yes, bring back Tony Karon, our world editor for Time.com, also Anton La Guardia from London, diplomatic editor for "The Daily Telegraph," and our CNN's Wolf Blitzer, he's there in Jerusalem.

O'BRIEN: All right. Shall we go back to the e-mail?

PHILLIPS: Let's get right back to it.

O'BRIEN: Yes. Hang on one second, I kind of got distracted there. All right. This one comes from Bill Fort in Bronx, New York. "I hope that we have the common sense to have Colin Powell meet with Arafat and show the international community that we can be unbiased and look at this crisis in a fair manner without worrying about the political consequences."

Wolf Blitzer, what Mr. Fort is alluding to here, the fact that the U.S. would be perceived as being unbiased. I have the sense that that is no longer the case, that the U.S. is perceived as a staunch ally of Israel, which is true, and is not necessarily in the middle of this. It's a little late for that, in other words.

BLITZER: Well, this is the same dilemma that the United States has had for several administrations going back to the '70s when the Jimmy Carter administration, even before that, when the Ford administration and the Nixon administration, when Henry Kissinger was secretary of state.

On the one hand, the United States is Israel's best friend, closest ally, most reliable partner. At the same time, the United States is the only outside power that seems to have any ability to score some kinds of agreements between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

Palestinians recognize that if they're going to get the Israelis to budge, only the United States has the credibility here in Israel to try to get an Israeli government, whether a Labor-led or a Likud-led or a jointly led government, which is currently the case, to make those kinds of concessions.

So the U.S. wears two hats. Secretary Powell is here in Jerusalem as the strongest friend of Israel. At the same time, the outside intermediary trying to bridge an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

PHILLIPS: All right. This question from David Goldrich. "Perhaps one way to get events in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict off dead center is to have both Sharon and Arafat resign, rather, their leadership positions, since their mutual antipathy is an ostensible reason neither will make the overtures which could lead to an end of the current impasse."

Anton, you want to take that one?

LA GUARDIA: Well, there's no doubt that each leader is utterly loathed by the people on the other camp. Yasser Arafat has lost a lot of trust of Israelis, and to most Israelis, he's no longer seen as a negotiating partner. Likewise, Ariel Sharon is still remembered for his role in Lebanon in 1982, when he was defense minister, and Israel's Lebanese allies massacred Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila.

The events of the past 18 months have not helped -- have -- their -- the events of the past -- I'm sorry, I was interrupted there. The events of the past 18 months have not helped.

However, I would say (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- I would say this, which is that at the same time, those two leaders, if they were disposed to reach a deal, maybe the best (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- the best people who can strike a deal in that Yasser Arafat is the historic leader of the Palestinians, and Ariel Sharon is got credibility on the right wing.

PHILLIPS: All right. Phone call from Alfred in New York. Go ahead, Alfred.

CALLER: Yes, my question is, why aren't we sending military directly into Palestine to secure the two states?

PHILLIPS: Tony?

KARON: Well, I don't think that things have reached the point that the United States would consider sending its military in to enforce a solution on Israel and the Palestinians, for the simple reason that that's something that the Israelis would not accept, and the United States is not about to go head to head with Israel.

But I think what one can detect from the state of Secretary Powell's mission and the general drift of the diplomatic climate at the moment is there is more and more of an inclination now internationally to look at more imposing some sort of solution, not necessary militarily, but really for the international community to set out the markers for the Israelis and Palestinians along the lines that were reached in the Taba negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians that are reflected in the Saudi peace plan, even President Bush's speech, which said that Israel would have to end its occupation and withdraw to internationally recognized and secure borders in line with resolutions 242 and 338, as he put it.

One gets the sense that there's a growing international consensus, and probably half of Israel, at least, would accept broadly still the idea of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza, if there was an exchange for a credible peace.

PHILLIPS: Well, Wolf, there's been talk about U.S. troops setting foot there to monitor, correct, to monitor the situation in Israel.

BLITZER: There was a proposal about a year ago that the Bush administration accepted for some U.S. monitors as part of some sort of an agreement, strictly monitors, not U.S. military forces going in even as observers, and all of these words have different connotations.

Remember, this administration, this Bush administration, a lot of the people in this administration have a long memory. They remember when U.S. troops went into Lebanon in '82 and '83, and it resulted in that disaster, more than 200 Marines, 241 Marines were killed in that suicide bombing at the barracks outside of Beirut in 1983.

And they went in with good intentions to separate the Israeli forces and the Lebanese forces, the Palestinian forces there, after Yasser Arafat and his PLO troops were expelled in '82.

They don't want to see U.S. troops endangered in a volatile, extremely explosive situation, which currently exists here. So I think the administration will be most reluctant to dispatch forces, certainly the Pentagon will be reluctant.

O'BRIEN: We have a late addition to our Reporter's Notebook to tell you about. Michael Holmes joining us now from Ramallah. Michael, good to see you. We just -- I don't know if you heard Saeb Erakat with me just a few moments ago, I don't know what proximity is to you. But let me just pose a question to you based on the conversation I had with him.

I asked him why Arafat wasn't making this statement himself, and he said it's just because he doesn't have a phone, he doesn't have communication. Are we take that at face value?

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Communications certainly are difficult. We're able to get calls in to people in the compound periodically, sporadically, I think you could say, Miles, it's not an easy thing, communications are difficult, they're patchy.

The landline network is down altogether around the Palestinian Authority headquarters, so it's a cell phone affair. And I can tell you, our cell phones, we're a mile, mile and a half from the compound, our cell phones work fine here. When we've been to the compound, they work, they work very badly, in short.

So it's not an easy thing. So if Saeb Erakat says it's difficult to get a call in there, our own personal experience would lead us to not necessarily doubt that, Miles.

O'BRIEN: But do -- I mean, would you have an arched eyebrow if he said that the only reason he hasn't made a statement is for technical reasons?

HOLMES: Well, Saeb Erakat -- I didn't hear him on your air, I heard him on CNN International here in Ramallah a short time ago. I tell you, we've got the statement now ourselves, and we've been madly transcribing them -- transcribing it from Arabic, and I do have a few paragraphs of it. I don't know how much you've heard, Miles, you tell me.

But the statement certainly is from the Palestinian president and leadership, and therefore, in written form if not spoken form, it's certainly a statement that comes from Yasser Arafat, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Well, Michael, you -- whatever you've had translated and transcribed, share with us, please.

HOLMES: OK, as I say, I haven't been able to watch you guys in the U.S., so...

O'BRIEN: That's all right, that's all right.

HOLMES: ... I didn't know how much you knew. I can read to you -- I can read to you the beginning part of it, and it's fairly specific, I have to say, it says that, "The Palestinian president and leadership express their condemnation of all kinds of terrorist activities that target civilians, whether Israeli or Palestinian, and whether it is state terrorism, group terror, or that of individuals." It goes on. "This comes from the principle of rejecting violence and terror against civilians, and we have repeated that position since 1988," it goes on. It also significantly mentions the Jerusalem incident yesterday. I'll read that part to you, Miles. "We deeply condemn the violent operations that target Israeli civilians, especially the last operation in Jerusalem. We also" -- and this is also significant, Palestinians have been pushing this for a long time -- "We also condemn strongly the massacre and murders that the Israeli occupation forces committed and are still committing against Palestinians in Nablus, the Jenin refugee camp, and at the Church of the Nativity."

And just one final thing, it calls on the international community, the U.N. Security Council, and Secretary of State Powell to go and see the massacres and murders. This is the wording of the statement, "inflicted on Palestinians due to the occupation and the insistence of the Israeli government by the force of its tanks and planes to oppress the Palestinian people."

That's the first sort of half of it. We're still literally going through it line by line. But it's a fairly specific statement condemning not just terror activities against Israeli civilians but also specifically condemning the Jerusalem bombing. And, as I say, it is a statement issued in the name of not just the Palestinian Authority leadership but the Palestinian president, something that the U.S., we're told, had firm demands on, that Yasser Arafat actually put his name to this sort of statement, or a meeting would be in jeopardy.

Now, I can tell you, we worked the phones all night last night. There was a sense among Palestinian leaders here, senior Palestinian sources, that a statement of condemnation would be forthcoming, but it would not -- or it would be, in their words, "highly unlikely" that it would come from Yasser Arafat. So obviously someone's been doing some diplomatic work there with Yasser Arafat, and the statement has now come out with the Palestinian president's name on it, Miles.

O'BRIEN: All right, CNN's Michael Holmes in Ramallah, thank you very much for giving us a lot more granularity to that statement, we do appreciate it, and as it -- the translation and the transcription continues, we'll of course share those details with you.

Thanks to the rest of our participants in our Reporter's Notebook. It was a little bit truncated, we apologize for that. Tony Karon, Anton La Guardia, and Wolf Blitzer, we appreciate your insights as well. We couldn't get nearly enough e-mails on, we apologize for that. Unfortunately we had some news to tell you about, and when that happens, we have to shift gears.

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