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Israeli Diplomats Discuss Siege of Arafat Compound

Aired September 21, 2002 - 08:03   ET


CATHERINE CALLAWAY, CNN ANCHOR: We begin with some new developments in the U.S. showdown with Iraq and the crisis in the Mideast, where the Israeli Army continues its onslaught against Yasser Arafat's headquarters compound in Ramallah.
Let's go right to CNN White House correspondent Suzanne Malveaux, who is joining us now live from Washington -- good morning, Suzanne.


There really is a lot of concern about this. It was just within minutes of the latest raid that there were a flurry of phone calls that were a flurry of phone calls that were made to the Israeli foreign ministry. State Department officials, White House officials, all these people on the line really trying to get the latest information, just what had happened inside of Israel.

But quietly, really, White House aides are concerned on a number of fronts. First of all, that they believe that Israel's action could perhaps undermine the Palestinian reforms that were well under way. But more worrisome is the problem they believe that this, again, focus on Yasser Arafat. It throws the spotlight on him. It makes him the issue. It puts him in the middle of this Middle East peace process and they really think that that is a danger.

They say on the one hand Israel has the right to defend herself. On the other hand, Palestinians, of course, are responsible for preventing those suicide/homicide bombings. But at the same time they are really urging restraint. They say they do not want to cause any more problems.

We are going to expect to see some high level talks within the next 24 to 48 hours, that message coming from the White House very clearly. And as you know, it was Tuesday that the quartet, the United States, Russia, the United Nations and the European Union all outlined a three phase process to get an Israeli-Palestinian state living side by side in three years. The administration really does not want to see this latest development undermine the progress that has been made.

Now, of course, the administration also focusing on Iraq, as well. The president now in Camp David for the weekend. But this really after a flurry of hard core diplomacy. The president on the phone with Russia's President Vladimir Putin for about 20 minutes yesterday, also meeting with the foreign and defense ministers of Russia yesterday, as well.

The main argument here is that the United Nations, the world community cannot let these weapons inspectors back into Iraq without some sort of strong United Nations resolution that would force Saddam Hussein to comply. Well, today Russian officials saying, again, sticking to their point. They do not believe that a U.N. resolution is necessary at this time. The Bush administration really has a lot of work to do in order to try to turn the tide for Russia, France, as well as China, those key permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

Now, the United Nations is saying that they hope the goal is to get those weapons inspectors back into Iraq as early as October 15. The administration is hoping they can get some sort of resolution, a draft on the table in the next couple of weeks to beat that deadline -- Catherine.

CALLAWAY: OK, thank you.

That's Suzanne Malveaux.

Of course, we know in the breaking news this morning that Iraq has said today it would not cooperate with any new United Nations Security Council resolution -- Miles.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: As we said, it's day two of the Israeli Army's siege of Yasser Arafat's headquarters in the West Bank. It's reprisal for the latest suicide bombings in Israel.

CNN's Mike Hanna joining us live from the scene in Ramallah -- Mike, what is the latest?

MIKE HANNA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Miles, it does appear that Israeli forces are settling into Yasser Arafat's compound, the (UNINTELLIGIBLE), for the long haul. Throughout the course of the morning we've seen them as the bulldozers have moved in, shoring up Israeli positions that they've taken over the past 24 hours. It's been observed, as well, Israeli forces moving into a few of the remaining buildings that are still standing, clearly setting up a base of operation in those buildings and clearly intending to stay within that area for a long period of time to come.

Yasser Arafat and a number of others are confined to a single building at this stage, right in the middle of the compound where his offices and the place that he's been living now since last December, the last link to another building in that area was destroyed overnight when a bridge linking the buildings was blown up by the Israeli forces.

Last night there were a number of attacks, at one stage machine gun and tank fire, on the compound. Israel insistent that it has no intention of harming Yasser Arafat in any way, but continuing to say that it must have, demand the handover of some 20 people who are with Yasser Arafat who Israel says are responsible for planning or, indeed, carrying out terror attacks against Israeli civilians.

Now, in the midst of this within the last few hours, a very strong statement in the name of the Palestinian leadership calling for an end to all attacks on all civilians, be they Israeli or Palestinian, stating, too, the leadership's view that such attacks against Israelis is counterproductive to the Palestinian state, arguing that it gives Ariel Sharon an excuse to carry out such operations as are happening at the moment in Yasser Arafat's compound -- Miles.

O'BRIEN: CNN's Mike Hanna in Ramallah, thank you very much.

We appreciate it.

For more perspective on the Middle East crisis, we're joined by the Israeli consul general here in the U.S., Alon Pinkas, and the chief Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erakat, who is on the line with us from Jericho.

Mr. Pinkas, let's begin with you.

It seems to me that every time Israel does this, it only bolsters Yasser Arafat's position. It sort of plays into his hand. To the extent that he faces any sort of opposition within the Palestinian community that is undermined by efforts by the IDF to literally raze his compound.

How does Israel respond to that?

ALON PINKAS, ISRAELI CONSUL GENERAL: Well, Miles, you make a valid point and perhaps it's true. But that's only a side effect. It's a byproduct. It's tantamount to saying that by bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki, you've bolstered Hirohito. You have to do what you have to do. He really isn't the focus of this operation. The fact that the compound is being...

O'BRIEN: He isn't the focus?

PINKAS: No, he's not the focus. You're turning him into the focus...


PINKAS: And perhaps for good reasons from a media point of view.

O'BRIEN: Right.

PINKAS: But on a substantive level, the reason we are encircling that compound is because there are 20 people inside there surrounding him, finding refuge in his office, people who have been, directly or indirectly, involved in terror activity or failing to prevent terror activity against Israeli innocent civilians. That's the first thing and that's the last thing about this operation.

O'BRIEN: Mr. Erakat, what about those 20 people in there? Why not turn them over?

Mr. Erakat, are you there?

Saeb Erakat?

All right, apparently we've lost the line. Is that correct?


O'BRIEN: Mr. Erakat, can you hear us?

ERAKAT: Yes, I can hear you.

O'BRIEN: I'm not sure if you were able to hear Mr. Pinkas, but essentially what he said is the IDF action in Ramallah is not about Yasser Arafat, it's about getting some 20 people inside the compound, alleged terrorists, and having them turned over? What's the matter with that?

ERAKAT: Well, I think Alon knows very well, and we spoke yesterday, and just about an hour ago I spoke to Mr. Shimon Peres, the Israeli foreign minister. I requested to go to the compound to see if the Israelis have handed us any lists and their chief contact, they haven't handed us anything. I think they're using this as a pretext...

O'BRIEN: I'm sorry, did you say a list? You're looking for a list?

ERAKAT: No, they said that they have a list they wanted to hand people. They did not inform us. They did not notify us. They did not contact us. They're denying me the right to go to the compound to begin a negotiated settlement because I wanted to go in order to begin a process of de-escalation, crisis management, damage control, call it anything you want.

But it seems to me that the Israeli Army is pushing things out of control at this moment.

O'BRIEN: Mr. Erakat, so what you're saying is the only reason that those terrorists -- alleged terrorists inside the compound have not been delivered to the Israelis is there's no list?

ERAKAT: Sir, I don't know who the terrorists are at this stage because, you know, I cannot accept this under any circumstances. I cannot accept to negotiate with the Israelis over the media. They know that Mr. Tafiqaf Tarawi (ph), the man they mentioned on Damrah (ph), have been in Arafat's compound last April and was seized. They never mentioned their names. They are residents with their families in Ramallah, which is under Israeli occupation for the last three months and no attempts were made to arrest them. And I believe that the Israelis are using this as a pretext.

Yesterday at Atalah (ph), a 25 years old Palestinian was killed. A pregnant woman was shot and killed in Gaza. An 11-year-old was killed in Rafah and a 10-year-old was killed in Albirah (ph) and a Palestinian was killed...

O'BRIEN: Mr. Erakat, Mr. Erakat...

ERAKAT: ... is a terrorist till proven guilty. O'BRIEN: We could spend the whole morning talking about all the tombstones that have been created over the past months in the Middle East. Let's not get into that.

Mr. Pinkas, what about this whole idea that Mr. Erakat lays out there, that this is simply a pretext for action which, as we've sort of started this all out, is truly aimed at Yasser Arafat?

PINKAS: Truly, I, first, I disagree with Saeb, and I think he knows this is not about Arafat. Number two, if you analyze this objectively, why would we go after Arafat? Why would we go after Arafat today when we could have gone after Arafat six months ago, two months ago, six weeks ago, yesterday? We're not after Arafat. He is not the focus point.

We have said that we urge the Palestinians to reform, to democratize...

O'BRIEN: But isn't it true...

PINKAS: As did President Bush...

O'BRIEN: Isn't it true, Mr. Pinkas...

PINKAS: He is not the issue.

O'BRIEN: Mr. Pinkas, isn't it true that Israel hold Yasser Arafat personally responsible every time some person blows themself up...

PINKAS: Of course.

O'BRIEN: ... causing harm to innocent civilians?

PINKAS: We hold him responsible politically and sometimes militarily because he is the titular head of the Palestinian Authority, Miles. Unfortunately, this, what's remained of the Palestinian Authority is a Palestinian because authority they are certainly not.

O'BRIEN: All right...

PINKAS: Yes, we hold him responsible. And you look, if you look at the Palestinian Authority's jurisdiction, it is divided into two, as you very well know, into the Gaza Strip and the West Bank. The Hamas is, operates primarily from the Gaza Strip. Yasser Arafat's security forces interest Gaza Strip have remained intact, yet he's not doing anything to clamp down on either the Hamas or the Islamic Jihad.

O'BRIEN: Mr. Erakat...

PINKAS: They are funded by Iran, they are supported by Syria and Arafat condones this.

O'BRIEN: Mr. Erakat this is... PINKAS: Then who is responsible?

O'BRIEN: Mr. Erakat, this is a very valid point that comes up time and again, why doesn't Yasser Arafat do something to control these suicide bombers, something more overt?

ERAKAT: You know, just an hour ago Yasser Arafat, from the siege, issued a statement calling on all Palestinians to fully cease all violent attacks against Israeli civilians. Mr. Pinkas just mentioned now that there is Palestinian and no authority...

O'BRIEN: But those statements, I mean we're...

ERAKAT: Can I finish one sentence, please?

O'BRIEN: No, but talk is cheap. No, but Mr. Erakat, talk is cheap. Talk is cheap.

ERAKAT: OK, can I finish one sentence?

O'BRIEN: Another statement? I mean why not something more concrete?

ERAKAT: OK. I don't know what the I.Q. of the world is anymore, because, you know, Mr. Pinkas mentioned that there is Palestinian and no authority. These people have done nothing in the past 11 months but to destroy our capabilities, to destroy our command centers, to destroy our vehicles, to destroy our presence, to destroy our security forces...

PINKAS: Come on, Saeb.

ERAKAT: They give in -- you know it. You know it, Alon. You know it. You know that we are being destroyed. We're being made irrelevant.

PINKAS: Saeb...

ERAKAT: And you know that Sharon today is going ahead with his end game, destroy the peace process...

PINKAS: Saeb, you started...

ERAKAT: ... destroy the Palestinian Authority...

PINKAS: You started suicide bombings in 1994.

ERAKAT: Can I finish? Can I -- come on. We condemned suicide bombings. We condemned suicide bombings and you know that...

PINKAS: Condemning is cheap. Miles told you that.

ERAKAT: ... there are those Palestinians who are trying to sabotage the peace process. But you should know that the only way out of this is a peace process. Now, Sharon is going with his end game, and please let me finish the sentence. Destroy the peace process, number one. Destroy the Palestinian Authority, number two. Isolate, kill or deport Arafat, number three. Resume occupation and then tell CNN through the Pinkases of the world oh, we want peace and we want to make the concessions for peace but we have partners.

We are your partners, Alon. We're the ones who have recognized the state of Israel. We're urging you to come back to the negotiating table but instead of this you're talking to us through the language of the missile, the guns, the tanks and the reoccupation and you're destroying us and then finger pointing at us? Come on.

O'BRIEN: All right, Mr. Erakat, I'm going to have to, we have to give Mr. Pinkas a little response and then we're going to have to leave it at that, unfortunately.

Mr. Pinkas...

PINKAS: Yes, Miles?

O'BRIEN: ... a lot on the plate there, but I'll give you a final word here.

PINKAS: Thank you very much.

Saeb Erakat is definitely a partner. Saeb Erakat has been a partner for the last 10 years. The problem, the tragic problem for both sides is that around Arafat there aren't enough Saeb Erakats. In fact, there, 99 percent of the people around Arafat are not even similar to Saeb Erakat in terms of how they think politically.

Now, suicide bombings began as early as 1994-95. This is not something that began this year. The Palestinians have embezzled the trust, have abused the good faith of five Israeli prime ministers, two American presidents. How long is this charade going to go on?

O'BRIEN: All right, we're going to have to leave it at that, unfortunately.

I apologize gentlemen. I hope we did it in a balanced way. It's hard when you're trying to discuss something of this nature in such a compressed form.

Alon Pinkas in New York, the Israeli consul general, and Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, from Jericho.

Thanks, both of you, for being with us on CNN SATURDAY MORNING.


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