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AMERICAN MORNING WITH PAULA ZAHN

Interview with George Mitchell, Former U.S. Senator

Aired April 19, 2002 - 07:19   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.
PAULA ZAHN, CNN ANCHOR: On to the Middle East now, where President Bush says Colin Powell made some progress in his peace mission, despite being unable to break the diplomatic stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians. The president now says he is satisfied with Ariel Sharon's timetable for withdrawing from the West Bank, and this morning, Israeli troops have pulled out of Jenin, scene of some of the fiercest Middle East fighting.

A U.N. envoy who toured the devastated refugee camp there says Israel's invasion caused -- quote -- "colossal suffering."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

TERJE ROED-LARSEN, U.S. SPECIAL MIDEAST COORDINATOR: I think I can speak for all of the U.N. delegation that we are shocked. This is horrifying beyond belief. Just seeing this area looks like there had been an earthquake here, and the stench of death (UNINTELLIGIBLE) many places where we are standing.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

ZAHN: And CNN is reporting this morning that the Bush administration is debating now whether to scrap two pillars of his Middle East policy, the Tenet security plan and the Mitchell political plan. And we now turn to the author of the latter for his reaction, former U.S. Senator George Mitchell -- good to see you again -- welcome.

GEORGE MITCHELL, FORMER U.S. SENATOR: Good morning, Paula.

ZAHN: So if this debate leads to the Mitchell plan being scrapped, what would be the consequences of that?

MITCHELL: Well, it doesn't make any difference what it's called, the Tenet plan, the Mitchell plan, the Paula Zahn plan or anything else, the important thing is to get the objectives of those plans implemented, which is of course, a cease-fire and a resumption of negotiation.

My understanding is that what the administration is debating is whether to come up with a comprehensive plan on the final status issues, Jerusalem, the right of return of refugees and other things, which are not addressed in the Tenet or Mitchell plans. Our plans are mechanisms to get to that point. ZAHN: All right. So when Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was a guest on the air yesterday who was highly critical of the administration, said that the Tenet and Mitchell plans are just procedural and tactical plans.

MITCHELL: That's right.

ZAHN: He was right.

MITCHELL: He was right. Our plan is a mechanism to bring down the violence, to try to restore some degree of the confidence that's been totally shattered now as a result of the events of the last several months, and to get into meaningful negotiations. We did not address the final status issues, because we are specifically directed not to address them.

ZAHN: So as the administration engages in this debate, where does the Saudi Arabian vision fit in?

MITCHELL: I think it is part of the same effort to try to devise a mechanism for the parties to get back into negotiations. I think that's the significance of the Saudi plan, and the real meaning is that the Arab nations have stated that they are prepared to accept Israel's existence, live in peace with Israel with normal relations, if there can be a resolution of this conflict. That's a significant statement, but it is not in and of itself a plan for getting there. It's a statement of objective.

I think what's needed is a determination by the parties to once and for all break the vicious cycle of violence and get into meaningful negotiations.

ZAHN: You no doubt have been exposed to the chorus of criticism surrounding the administration's strategy coming from the left, coming from the right, and the view is that the administration hasn't been consistent. What was your reaction to the president saying yesterday that Ariel Sharon is a man of peace, and that he has, in fact, praised him for following through on his promises to withdraw?

Now, if I remember correctly, the demand to immediately withdraw was made some 11 days ago, and the Israelis aren't completely out today.

MITCHELL: That's right. Well, it reflects the difficulty and the complexity of the situation, and I think it's putting the best face on a difficult situation. That's every leader is constrained by domestic political concerns and other restraints, and so I think it's -- the president is saying, now we've got to move on. Here is the situation as it exists today.

ZAHN: Dick Morris was also a guest on here yesterday, and he praised Colin Powell for setting the stage for peace. And he essentially said throughout this all that the president has remained completely principled when it comes to the issue of Iraq. And then Dick Morris essentially said, you know, the Israeli-Palestinian problem is the Israelis problem, and the Iraqi problem is ours. Is he right?

MITCHELL: Well, of course, he is right, but I think the Israeli- Palestinian problem is more than just a problem of the Israelis and the Palestinians. I think it does have a direct impact on us and indeed all of the world, because a conflagration region wide could have a dramatic impact on our economy and other economies, if there is an eruption of the flow of oil. And we have a longstanding commitment to the sovereignty of Israel, so I think it's more than just them.

And I think Iraq is more than just us. Saddam Hussein poses a threat to many more people than he does to Americans. Indeed, those in the region are directly threatened by his efforts to obtain weapons of mass destruction. So I didn't hear what Dick said, but I think both issues have a broader impact than just on the immediate participants.

ZAHN: And in closing this morning, at a time when Ariel Sharon has not only referred to Yasser Arafat as irrelevant and the enemy, but as a terrorist, does it make sense for the U.S. government to be sending money to the PLO?

MITCHELL: Well, the...

ZAHN: The president lifted the ban yesterday on the funding.

MITCHELL: Yes.

ZAHN: Well, not yesterday, two days ago - excuse me.

MITCHELL: Yes. Well, of course, the United States sends very large sums of money to many of the participants in the region. The largest is Israel, a very large amount to Egypt, a rather small amount to the Palestinian Authority. I think what the administration is trying to do is trying to keep the avenues of communication open to all sides, so that they can see if they can bring about the reduction of violence and a resumption of negotiation.

It's a very difficult issue, but I think it's one in which the administration is trying very hard with a range of options. Obviously they are trying to think of anything they can come up with to move this process forward, and they have to keep that line of communication open.

ZAHN: And thank you, Senator, for being so graceful when you referred to the Palestinian Authority, because I said PLO, and I meant the Palestinian Authority.

MITCHELL: Yes. Thank you very much, Paula.

ZAHN: All right, Senator, good to see you again -- good luck.

MITCHELL: Bye-bye.

ZAHN: We'll have you back from time to time to keep us apprised of where you think this is all going.

MITCHELL: Thank you.

ZAHN: Have a good weekend.

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