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Sharon Says He Will Expedite Israeli Military Offensive

Aired April 06, 2002 - 17:02   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: Back to the breaking news from the Middle East. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has responded to President Bush's request, saying his government's military offensive in the West Bank will be expedited. And CNN's Jerrold Kessel is live from Jerusalem with more on that -- Jerrold.

JERROLD KESSEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Fredricka, I think the analysis will be now on what precisely Mr. Sharon means by saying he will expedite that Israeli offensive. Does it mean it will wind down and get it over with right away, or will he speed it up and get it over with when he needs to get it over with?

Well, certainly the prime minister was responding rather quickly to what President Bush had to say with no ambiguity at all that Israel must without delay end its incursion, this broad military sweep into Palestinian towns in the West Bank, which the Israelis say they launched in order to eradicate the sources of Palestinian terror.

But clearly, Mr. Sharon saying in that statement, put out by his office in his conversation with President Bush a short while ago, the statement saying that Israel was very conscious of the U.S. desire to see Israel end that military offensive quickly. And I think what we can read into this above all is the fact that whereas Israel has said that this was an operation that was mounted in self-defense, mounted in order to root out the sources of Palestinian terror -- clearly, there's a parallel objective, the parallel fundamental imperative in Israeli policy making, and that is the need to keep the United States -- to keep on the side of what the United States believes Israel ought to do, ought to be allowed to do.

And that's clearly what Prime Minister Sharon had in mind when he said to President Bush this evening that he will expedite this Israeli offensive.

But I dare say there's a little bit more to it, because in the statement, which went on to say about that conversation, that Mr. Sharon made two points about why it was perhaps taking so long. He said that Israel was making every effort to avoid civilian casualties in the Palestinian towns, and there's been a good deal of heavy fighting, both in the towns of Jenin and Nablus today and in the adjacent refugee camps, and that that was taking longer for that reason. And also, for the second reason that there were a good deal of weaponry and resistance in those towns, and that Israel had to fight against that. So it will be difficult, Mr. Sharon was implying, to wind this operation up when it's still in the middle, in fact, to withdraw while it's still in the middle -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right, Jerrold Kessel from Jerusalem this evening, thank you.

Well, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's decision or announcement came just hours after President Bush urged an Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories. It's interesting to find out what he, Mr. Bush, may be thinking now from Ariel Sharon's comments. That's where White House correspondent Kelly Wallace is. She's with the president, and she joins us now from Crawford, Texas -- Kelly.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Hello to you, Fredricka. Well, we know that Mr. Bush made that telephone call to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon just about 90 minutes after his news conference, in which, as you said, he made that public call, calling for Israeli withdrawal, quote, "without delay."

According to a senior administration official who briefed reporters about that telephone call, Mr. Bush apparently told the prime minister that Israel needed to withdraw so that the peace mission can succeed. As you see, the president there with the British prime minister. Mr. Bush also apparently saying that Israel needed to defuse the situation so that diplomacy can work.

This official is confirming, again, what Jerrold just reported as well, that the prime minister told Mr. Bush that Israel would wrap up its military offensive, quote, "as expeditiously as possible."

Now asked if Mr. Bush was satisfied from what he heard from Mr. Sharon during their 20-minute conversation, this official saying, quote, "the president expects action. The president will see." Asked if Mr. Bush laid out a timetable for Israeli withdrawal, this official saying, "no, it is up to Israel." But clearly, Fredricka, reading between the lines, this administration, the president coming out very publicly, much more explicit than his Thursday's first call on Thursday for Israeli withdrawal, saying Israeli withdrawal should take place, quote, "without delay." This administration wants to see action, and wants to see it now -- Fredricka.

WHITFIELD: All right. Kelly Wallace, traveling with the president, thank you very much.

Well, for two views on a possible end game for the Israeli- Palestinian crisis, we're joined in Washington by Hisham Melhem, Washington bureau chief of the Beirut-based newspaper "As-Safir," and Janine Zacharia, Washington correspondent for "The Jerusalem Post. Thanks very much for joining me.

Well, we just heard Kelly Wallace talk about the president's response, which was actions speak louder than words. Both of you have been covering this conflict for some time. And it seems as though there's always been the war of semantics. How, Janine, let me begin with you, how do you interpret the words of Sharon this time? Does this mean that his words will be followed by action of immediate withdrawal? Is that how you interpret it? JANINE ZACHARIA, "JERUSALEM POST": Well, it's important to point out that what the prime minister said that he was going to expedite the military operation, not that he is going to expedite the withdrawal. And I think that's a very important distinction, especially since what you're saying is absolutely right, it's a lot about semantics.

But they have to respond to what President Bush is saying, and they don't want it to make it seem like they're snubbing the Americans. But whereas President Bush is saying a withdrawal is necessary in order to facilitate the peace effort, what the Israelis are telling the Americans privately is exactly the opposite, that if we have to pull out now, earlier than we anticipated, there's a chance that suicide bombers will resume their missions, and that could undermine Secretary Powell's trip to the reason, as it did General Zinni's.

WHITFIELD: Now, Hisham, how are you interpreting the words of Sharon? Does it sound like more of the same?

HISHAM MELHEM, "AS-SAFIR" NEWSPAPER: This is typical Sharon, the one we've seen 20 years ago when he invaded Lebanon and he gave all sorts of promises that he did not keep. Look, it goes beyond parsing words. The president of the United States doesn't look good now in the Arab world or in the region. Here we have the president on Thursday asking Israel to withdraw, almost pleading with Israel to withdraw. And now more than 48 hours, he's asking them to withdraw without delay.

And what does he expect when his secretary of state reaches the region and then the Israelis will continue their operations, thereby undermining Powell's mission before Powell arrives in the region. As it is, people in the Arab and the Muslim world are up in arms because of what they see as the American blessing of the Israeli invasion. Sharon now is creating more suicide bombers by these attacks and reoccupation of the major cities in the West Bank. Where is he going move next? Gaza?

WHITFIELD: So Hisham, it sounds like to some degree, everyone is in agreement that there's still room for interpretation, based on Sharon's most recent statements. But now let's look forward. Tomorrow, Colin Powell will be heading to the region. If there is a meeting between Colin Powell and Yasser Arafat and perhaps even Ariel Sharon, what the three may at least have in common is it's military man to military man to military man. How do you see any advantage gained for peace, given the persona of these three individuals?

MELHEM: For the Palestinians, the secretary of state has to provide some sort of a package. That would include security arrangements on the ground, but also mechanism to link movement from the security arrangements into what we call the political horizon, the political process. But the trick is how to do it and how to do it quickly to give hope to the Palestinians that there will be a statehood at the end of a short process.

The problem is that no Palestinian in his right mind today is going to accept a cease-fire if a cease-fire means the return to the status quo, maintaining the occupation, and that's the biggest flaw in Oslo. For the last 12 years, we've had series, endless series of cease-fires, half-baked solutions, little agreements here, little agreements there. Unless you have that kind of a linkage, there will be no incentive for Arafat to crack down on those people beyond his control. You have to give him incentive, political incentive, and you'll have to help him later on, because whatever infrastructure that he has in terms of communication gear and buildings and apparatus has been demolished by Sharon. Sharon created desolation, and now he will call it peace.

WHITFIELD: Well, let me get Janine in here. Janine, do you see any advantage whatsoever for talks when you're dealing with three individuals who may possibly be meeting, whether it'd be separately or as a group, and all of them have a military background? They may be speaking the same talk, so to speak. Do you see any advantage?

ZACHARIA: I think that's an interesting point, they come from military background, but I think right now, at least from the Israeli perspective, nobody's talking about any kind of political negotiations. And that's the problem, that both sides are talking about different things.

I think there's a few important things to watch. Most significantly, what happens when Secretary of State Colin Powell speaks with Arab leaders before he arrives in Israel? He's looking for some strong words from them condemning suicide bombings, condemning the kind of terrorism that's been taking place against Israelis, what in fact has spurred this latest military operation, and also, beyond incentives as Hisham points out, I think what the Israelis are telling the Americans is, look, this time you've got to make it clear to Yasser Arafat this is his last chance, point out exactly what the consequences are of inaction on his part, possibly a severing of ties or whatever it may be.

WHITFIELD: All right. Thanks very much, Janine Zacharia, the Washington correspondent for "The Jerusalem Post," and Hisham Melhem, also in Washington, bureau chief of the Beirut-based newspaper "As- Safir." Thanks very much for joining us this evening.