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Tony Blair and Negotiators Interviewed on Prospects for Middle East Peace

Aired September 23, 2009 - 15:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight, President Obama makes his first foray into the Middle East peace swap, but is he already making a U- turn?

Good evening. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome again to our new program, where we take the big story and try to bring it more depth and understanding.

So at the U.N. today, President Obama called for peace talks to resume, but has his opening gambit already failed? After meeting with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, here in New York, he dropped the U.S. demand for an Israeli settlement freeze before starting talks. And when it comes to a peace deal, what do the Palestinians think?

We go now straight to an exclusive new poll that may offer some hope. Joining me now from the U.N., straight from a luncheon with President Obama and world leaders, is Terje Roed-Larsen, the president of the International Peace Institute that commissioned this poll, and also a U.N. special representative.

Thank you so much for joining us, Mr. Larsen.


AMANPOUR: I just want to go straight to some of the key findings in this poll. We've got some full screens of this to show, and it's about the popularity. President Mahmoud Abbas' popularity seems to be rising -- 55 percent of the Palestinians say they are satisfied -- whereas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh of Hamas, his popularity seems to be decreasing -- 32 percent, apparently, say they're satisfied with him, while 64 percent say they're dissatisfied.

Now, on the issue of a Palestinian state, according to your poll, 55 percent of Palestinians say that they want the two-state solution in the West Bank and Gaza separate from Israel, whereas only 11 percent are saying that there is a one-state solution to all of this.

So, Mr. Larsen, what is the good news here?

ROED-LARSEN: I think this brand-new IPI poll brings very good news to the Palestinians and to all those who are working for peace in the Middle East, because there is here now major shifts. The Palestinians, now a vast majority, wants their leaders to go back to the table. A vast majority wants to have a two-state solution. And even more, the Palestinians now, compared with 2000 during the Camp David negotiations, they're much more open-minded about making painful compromises in order to establish a Palestinian state.

So this is all good news for everybody, except Hamas, who's now -- where the pendulum has swung since they formed a government in 2006. Now Mahmoud Abbas, Abu Mazen, has a vast majority -- vast majority support compared with Haniyeh, and Fatah would win a landslide victory in parliamentary elections.

AMANPOUR: So that's the key there, in terms of who would win the parliamentary elections?

ROED-LARSEN: Yes, this is very good news for all those who are working for peace in the Middle East, but it's particularly good news for the Palestinian Authority and for Fatah.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Larsen, thank you so much, indeed, for joining us from the U.N. And we will back with you for more on this in the days and weeks to come.

But right now, we're joined here in the studio by Saeb Erakat, the chief negotiator for the Palestinians on the peace process, and live from Jerusalem, Dan Meridor, the Israeli deputy prime minister and minister of intelligence.

Thank you both very much for joining me on this.

Can I first ask you, Mr. Meridor, you heard that poll. You heard Mr. Larsen. Israel is always saying it does not have a partner for peace. Are you now convinced that there is, in fact, one?

DAN MERIDOR, ISRAELI DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: I very much hope so. Of course, Mr. Abu Mazen is not at all in control of Gaza. Gaza was taken away by Hamas (inaudible) so how to deal with Hamas and make Abu Mazen the sole representative is their concern and our concern. We want to have a negotiator. I hope it is Mr. Abu Mazen. If the polls are right, his popularity grows, it's good news.

AMANPOUR: What does that mean then, Mr. Erakat, that there is this rise in popularity for your president, Abu Mazen, Mahmoud Abbas, and a decrease for Ismail Haniyeh, and potentially Fatah, if they run a good campaign, the poll says could win? Does it make a difference whether they get Gaza or not? Or could they even win in Gaza?


Hi, Dan. How are you?

I think this is significant poll. I really think that President Abbas has been exerting every possible effort, number one, to get the one authority, one gun, the rule of law. He ended the chaos and lawlessness in the West Bank. He has a government of transparency, accountability. So people are responding to that, which shows clearly that Palestinians want nothing more in their lives than to achieve peace on the basis of a two- state solution.

AMANPOUR: OK. So if this is something that people can take hope in - - both Minister Meridor has said so and, indeed, yourself -- what happens now? How can one continue or start these negotiations, Mr. Erakat? It was a fundamental Palestinian demand and a precondition that there be a settlement freeze to restart negotiations. Certainly the United States said that that was their preference, as well. Now it seems not to have worked.

ERAKAT: I disagree. First of all, we don't have any conditions to restart negotiations.

AMANPOUR: So you will start, even without a settlement freeze?

ERAKAT: When we -- if I finish the sentence -- when we say Israel must stop settlement activity (inaudible) natural growth, that was never a Palestinian condition. This is an Israeli obligation. I have obligations. They have obligations of the roadmap.

And then we want to resume permanent status negotiations on Jerusalem, border, settlements, and refugees. But Mr. Dan -- Dan is sitting there. He knows that in his coalition they cannot say -- he cannot say now to you that he would resume negotiations and begin negotiating Jerusalem tomorrow or refugees. They -- they can't do it.


ERAKAT: So the problem here is not linguistics, not (inaudible) relations. We have settlements ongoing, and Israel is violating its terms of reference in the agreement obligations, and they refuse to resume negotiations on permanent status issues like Jerusalem and settlements.

AMANPOUR: All right. But I'll go to Mr. Meridor in a moment. But the idea is to get negotiations started. Under this situation right now, where there isn't a settlement freeze, and the U.S. has dropped that demand...

ERAKAT: No, we have not. We told them...

AMANPOUR: Are you saying they didn't?

ERAKAT: They did not. We -- we -- yesterday, President Obama used the term "restraint."

AMANPOUR: (inaudible)

ERAKAT: I immediately called the Americans and asked, what is this, a shift of policy, shift of position? They said, no, our position did not change. And you've heard President Obama saying today that settlements are illegal.

AMANPOUR: Right. But he also said that there should be constraints.

Mr. Meridor, let me ask you this. Is there a shift in position? Are you going to freeze the settlements? Apparently the Americans have told Mr. Erakat that there is no shift in position and settlements must be freezed -- frozen.

MERIDOR: The most important thing is to start negotiations. And let me tell Mr. Erakat, my friend, that we are ready to negotiate everything. We need to have a strategy of what to do first and second, but everything is on the table. All the issues can be laid on the table. We need to negotiate, because we need to move ahead.

I want to commend Mr. Erakat and Mr. Abu Mazen for negotiating with the previous government of Israel and (inaudible) alongside settlement activity, of course, they've never asked it to be stopped. And I think they did right.

I think the problem is not the settlement. It's the other around. If we have a settlement of this conflict, if we have the resolution, then the issue of settlements, like issue of security in Jerusalem on refugees, will all be resolved.


MERIDOR: And it is very important that we start it, because I think both of us have an interest in changing what we have now.

AMANPOUR: Can I ask you something? The former Israeli prime minister, Ehud Olmert, about a year ago this time told a key Israeli newspaper that the Israelis really must make what he called the awful and difficult decisions and to really have the courage to make those decisions that you have avoided for the last 40 years, which is that there will be no peace without a withdrawal from nearly all of the occupied territories and give the Palestinians a same percentage swap in -- in the other cases, and that Jerusalem must be shared with special arrangements for the holy sites. Do you believe that? Because certainly your prime minister did not talk about withdrawing to '67 in his interview yesterday.

MERIDOR: No, I don't think anybody talks like this. Even America understands that the previous lines will not be the final lines. They may be a starting point. They will not be the final lines.

But this is not the issue. Unfortunately, what our previous prime minister, Ehud Olmert, did was going a very long way, giving the Palestinians everything they said they wanted -- as you just mentioned -- and, unfortunately, we have to read the writing on the wall. Mr. Abu Mazen didn't say yes, even to all of this. So does he really think that Mr. Netanyahu will give more than Olmert? It's a big question.

AMANPOUR: Yes, Mr. Olmert...

MERIDOR: I think we need to negotiate the bona fide -- and there is an understanding in the Israeli public that we cannot have the whole lot, we need to share the land into two states. If this understanding is on the other side, that there will be a state for us and a state for them, and we need to negotiate the details of the borders and all the rest, then we are in a very good condition to begin it.

AMANPOUR: Right. Mr. Olmert, of course, said this on his way out, when he was not in a position to be able to implement it. And he said this had to happen in the future. But what I want to know, Mr. Erakat, is, are you going to start negotiations, as President Obama has called for, and as the Israelis say they're willing to?

ERAKAT: We want to start negotiations yesterday, but you heard Mr. Meridor now. He's saying that he will not begin negotiations (inaudible) the previous prime minister (inaudible) and we did not say no. It's true. We came a long way with Mr. Olmert. We exchanged maps with Mr. Olmert. And I think Mr. Olmert was the prime minister of Israel as much as Mr. Netanyahu is the prime minister of Israel.

Now comes a prime minister in Israel, and he tells everything is off the table, I'm going to begin negotiating with you from scratch. And now, when I asked Dan, my friend, do you accept to negotiate on Jerusalem? He said, yes, we will negotiate everything, but he's not said Jerusalem. He cannot say, "I will negotiate Jerusalem," because he will not...

AMANPOUR: OK. So where does that leave us, then?

ERAKAT: That's the -- that's the -- that's the problem. We are not against negotiations. We are not against our commitment to our obligations. They are refusing to carry out their obligations in terms of settlement freeze, and they refuse to resume negotiations on Jerusalem, borders, settlements, where we left off, because I cannot every time an Israeli government comes, then comes a prime minister that say, "I'm not responsible for the previous government."

AMANPOUR: And -- and -- and Mr. Obama, in fact, himself said you can't go back to square one.

ERAKAT: Exactly.

AMANPOUR: You have to continue.

ERAKAT: But that's what I want to hear -- that's what I want to hear from Dan.

AMANPOUR: OK. Well, I'll -- OK, Mr. Meridor, are you going to do that?

ERAKAT: Dan, do you accept to resume negotiations where we left off in December 2008? If you say yes, you will change history now, on borders, Jerusalem, settlements and so on? Because Mr. Olmert was the prime minister of Israel. We did not say no to him. We counterproposal to him. We were very close. Unfortunately, he was tainted with corruption. He had a war in Gaza.

But the question today -- you have a deal on the table. Let's begin the negotiations where we left off. Do you agree or not?

MERIDOR: That is a very interesting development. Whenever we come to a position where we offer almost everything, the Palestinians say no or don't say yes, and then, when they come again, they say, "Why did we say no? What a mistake we did. We want to restart it."

ERAKAT: Answer the question, Dan.

MERIDOR: I think it's wrong. We need to put everything on the table. And I -- I have been with Mr. Erakat and with President Clinton and Camp David in 2000. Even then, they said no, and Clinton said Arafat made a mistake saying no. And Abu Mazen didn't say yes to Olmert. He wants to start the things again.

I'd rather leave the past behind us and look to the future. It's the interest of Israel and this government, headed by Mr. Netanyahu, who's said openly we're going to two states. And if the other side, the Palestinians, understand this would be -- put an end to the conflict, and we're going to deal with a two-state situation, where everybody has his own state, I think we are off for a good start.

We need to stop talking about the past and start negotiating seriously how we change what we have now. It needs to be changed. We want it, if there is a will on the Palestinian side and the ability to control the Hamas, which they, of course, don't. Hamas says they won't listen to them and they don't have any authority to negotiate, but if they have settlements in which Hamas will be out and Fatah will reign and the PLO will reign, I think we have a negotiating partner.

AMANPOUR: All right. Well...

MERIDOR: It's not an easy question, and don't jump over it. This needs to be resolved.

AMANPOUR: We have one more minute.


AMANPOUR: And the fact of the matter is, it looks like the dynamic has changed within the Palestinian society, so...

ERAKAT: All I'm asking, Dan -- Dan, we've been friends. We've been together in negotiations and talk. I know your intentions. But when you say that you want to resume negotiations, can -- can we specify the issues that you will negotiate with me, instead of saying everything?

Can you say that Jerusalem will be negotiated, refugees will be negotiated, settlements will be negotiated? That's -- we need to define the agenda. You cannot say it. And that's the problem with this Israeli government. I'm not -- not blaming you. I'm talking about the prime minister who refused to resume negotiations on all these core issues.

AMANPOUR: And can you say, Mr. Erakat, that the Palestinians will go back to the negotiating table, as President Obama asked now, now?

ERAKAT: I'm -- I'm meeting with the Americans tomorrow. I'm going back to Washington next week. And that's exactly what we're discussing. We never conditioned anything. We want parties to carry out their obligations, and we want to know that, once we re-launch these negotiations, we're not going to begin from point zero. That's what I want to hear from the Israelis. So we're ready.

AMANPOUR: So you will start, even without a settlement freeze?

ERAKAT: We -- no, no, settlement...

AMANPOUR: A constrained settlements then?

ERAKAT: Settlement freeze is not a Palestinian condition.

AMANPOUR: OK. All right.

ERAKAT: It's an Israeli obligation. We want to see what the Americans will bring us from the Israelis, what the Israelis will -- will tell us. But above all, we need to see the terms (inaudible) these negotiations.

They will take me for a ride again. I want to begin from scratch (inaudible) I don't have time. He mentioned Hamas. If I have an agreement, Dan, if I have an agreement on the end game with you and the two-state solution, '67 borders, Hamas will disappear. If I don't have an agreement, I will disappear.

And think about this. Look at the bigger picture in the region. Peace is good for us and you. It's your interest and your interest. And let's do it. It's a two-state solution. Let's begin the negotiations and resume it, where we left it off in December 2008.

AMANPOUR: OK. And we will obviously continue this conversation, because nothing has been settled, and we don't really have answers. I tried. We will continue to try.

Thank you.

ERAKAT: Thank you, Christiane.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Meridor, thank you for joining us from Jerusalem. Saeb Erakat, thank you for joining us here.

MERIDOR: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: And we will have much more on this story. On our Web site,, we will publish all those poll results that you just heard about, and there are surprising Palestinian attitudes. So join us on the Web site for that.

And when we come back, we speak to the former British prime minister, Tony Blair. He'll join me next. He's now the international envoy to the Middle East, and we'll ask him about what we just discussed. He's there with the Israeli president, Shimon Peres.



BILL CLINTON, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: At the end of this summit, I am fully aware of the deep disappointment that will be felt on both sides, but it was essential for Israelis and Palestinians finally to begin to deal with the toughest decisions in the peace process. Only they can make those decisions.


AMANPOUR: So that was 2000 in the failed Camp David accords. And nine years later, the peace process is still deadlocked, as you just heard in our last block. Can anyone end the stalemate?

Joining me now here is the former British prime minister, Tony Blair. He is also the Middle East peace envoy for the quartet, the U.S., Russia, the U.N., and the European Union.

Welcome. Welcome, indeed, Mr. Blair.


AMANPOUR: Did you hear any of the discussion between Saeb Erakat and Dan Meridor?

BLAIR: I heard just the bit at the end there.

AMANPOUR: It's a bit of a he said/she said. And the issue is to start negotiations. We just saw that nine years ago this whole issue ended in stalemate, and now President Obama at the U.N. today is calling for a resumption, but they've dropped their demand or their preference that a full Israeli settlement freeze should be the best condition to do that. Do you think there's any chance of getting these two sides together now?

BLAIR: Yes, I think there is, and I think that's what will happen, actually, over the next few weeks.

AMANPOUR: What leads you to believe that?

BLAIR: Because I think that -- that, in the end, the issue really is this: What is the context within which this negotiation is being launched? The worry for the Palestinians is that, if you don't lay down some -- some conditions, right, let's have a settlement freeze or this or that...

AMANPOUR: Which has been an international condition since time immemorial.

BLAIR: Absolutely. That's -- that's absolutely correct. So what they say is, if you don't lay down these conditions, the negotiation won't be credible. What the Israelis say is, look, we'll negotiate without precondition. We're not prepared until we start negotiating to yield this or yield that.

Now, personally, I think what -- what will happen and should happen is that we try and put together the best possible context of the launch of the negotiation. It may not be everything that everyone wants, but get the thing underway, because the issues, as you rightly say, I mean, they've been canvassed many times.

Actually, the Annapolis process went into them in a fair amount of detail. And -- and the two sides reached not agreement exactly, but they - - they narrowed the differences.

AMANPOUR: Can I just play a little bit of what Prime Minister Netanyahu said to Wolf Blitzer on CNN yesterday about his version and his vision of peace?


BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: I think that prosperity is good for peace. I don't think it's a substitute for a political peace, but I think it really enables it, because young Palestinians see there -- there is a future there. I mean, they -- they -- they have jobs. There are investments. There are buildings sprouting out in Palestinian cities like Ramallah and Jenin and not missiles, as in Gaza, but, you know, high rises, apartment blocks, office buildings. This is what I'd like to see.


AMANPOUR: So he's thrilled about the economy. I mean, the economy is kind of a no-brainer. Obviously, everybody wants to see people having a better life. But it does look as though that that is what they're more interested in right now, the economy rather than the hard political decisions.

BLAIR: No, you've got to be interested in both. I mean, look, my theory of this is absolutely clear and simple, which is that you've got to negotiate from the top down, build from the bottom up.

The economy matters. I mean, prosperity matters. And it's true: The Palestinian economy on the West Bank, now that we've eased some of the restrictions, got some of the -- and this is obviously what I'm working on -- got some of the -- the projects going and so on, Israeli Arabs coming in to the West Bank...

AMANPOUR: I mean, the figures are amazing. It does look like a renewal there economically.

BLAIR: There's a lot happening. But nobody's under any illusion at all: Without a political settlement, it won't last. So we need both.

AMANPOUR: You know, the Israelis are always saying that they don't have a partner for peace, and yet Terje Roed-Larsen's -- Middle East envoy and president of the IPI -- has got an exclusive new poll, basically a new poll which says that attitudes are changing, Palestinian attitudes are shifting, much more ready to be flexible, much more ready to compromise. Fatah is -- is -- is going up, his popularity. Is that -- is that not something that the Israelis should seize upon right now?

BLAIR: Yes. I mean, I think that's why I actually do believe that we will launch the negotiations in the next few weeks. And then people have got a choice to make.

I mean, there's no doubt, if you want to resolve these issues -- territory, the land swaps that'll take place, refugees, the security issues, even Jerusalem, which is very, very sensitive and very, very difficult -- if you want to settle these issues, you can.

But essential to doing that -- and this, I think, is the critical point -- Israel will not negotiate a Palestinian state unless they're sure that state will be securely and properly governed. That's the importance of the work that is happening with Prime Minister Fayyad now. And the Palestinians won't make the compromises necessary to agree a state unless they think they'll actually be able to run it, that the Israelis will get out, leave them to run their own territory.

AMANPOUR: I want to show you some more of this poll regarding the United States, attitudes by the Palestinians to the United States. Basically, the poll is saying that the U.S. has 80 percent unfavorable rating from the Palestinians, only 16 percent favorable. Barack Obama himself personally, 69 percent unfavorable, 27 percent favorable. And more importantly, can President Obama make progress on peace between Palestine and Israel? Fifty-six percent say unlikely, forty-one percent say likely.

Now, since the United States is the main interlocutor, so-called honest broker, power broker, where does that leave everybody, if them and also the Israelis don't have that much faith in President Obama, either?

BLAIR: Look, I think it's not very surprising to get those type of poll results because of the history of all this. The basic point is this: If you ask people whether they want the two-state solution, Israelis and Palestinians, they'll say yes. If you ask them whether they think they're going to get it, then based on their recent history, they say no.

But it's our job, in a sense, to bridge that credibility gap. And I think it is bridgeable.

AMANPOUR: So how do we bridge it? Because you've laid that -- laid out the positions. We've had the two gentlemen from the Israeli side, the Palestinian side. There was a -- no matter the spin that's going on right now -- and there is a lot of spin -- President Obama really did want to see a settlement freeze. He sent his envoy, George Mitchell, who worked with you on Northern Ireland, over and over again, and they didn't get it.

They shook a hand. It didn't seem to be more than a photo-op, and he's dropped the demand for a settlement freeze. So how is he credible either for the Israelis or for the Palestinians?

BLAIR: Because I think, if you look at what this now needs -- and in any of these situations, you never achieve exactly what you want -- I think what we need to do is basically to launch the negotiation with as -- as good a context that launches it with some credibility, that deals with issues like settlements, but also the obligations, obviously, of the Palestinians, some of the other issues around access and movement and -- and so on.

So you launch the negotiation with a time limit, with the credibility that that context of agreement should give it, and then you carry on the work of building from the bottom up. And that means both trying to encourage the West Bank economy, but also -- and critically -- relieve the situation in Gaza and start to get Palestinian politics to come around to a more unified position.

But, you know, in the end, it's not impossible to do this if people want to do it.

AMANPOUR: Isn't that always the case?

BLAIR: It is, but you -- sorry.

AMANPOUR: We have to continue this conversation online, but I've got 15 seconds to get out of this. I wanted to ask you: Do you think in a week, a month these negotiations will restart between both sides?

BLAIR: I think in the coming weeks they will, yes.

AMANPOUR: All right. Well, that's optimistic.

And as I said, we will continue this discussion. It doesn't end right here. We will be online in our collaboration with Datagraph. It breaks down the issues into visual maps and lets you join the argument. That is Debategraph. Go to our Facebook page at for details.

Thank you so much. A more personal story on Iran next, a story that is highlighting at the United Nations today and is resonating around the world.


AMANPOUR: And now what we like to call our "Post-Script," or our "P.S." World leaders, as you know, are at the United Nations this week for the U.N. General Assembly, and they're being asked to open a dialogue with Iran about many things, but especially about the detention of one of our colleagues.

Maziar Bahari is a reporter for Newsweek and a documentary filmmaker. He was arrested in Tehran three months ago, just after the disputed presidential election there. He hasn't been formally charged. He hasn't been able to see a lawyer. His editors say that his imprisonment is totally unjustified, and we all believe that he should be released immediately.

That's it for now. Thank you for watching. We'll be back tomorrow with an exclusive interview with President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. It's his first interview with a Western news network for the last five years, so please join us then.

For all of us here, goodbye for now.