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Clinton Willing to Intervene in the Middle East; Where Does the Conflict Go from Here?

Aired October 9, 2000 - 2:30 p.m. ET


LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: And watching all of this closely from Washington is President Clinton, who is working the telephones and even suggesting he'd be willing to go to the Middle East if that would help.

Let's get the latest now from our White House correspondent, Major Garrett -- what is new, Major?

MAJOR GARRETT, CNN WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Lou, the president returned here to the White House a couple of hours ago. He had spent the night in Chappaqua, New York -- returned to the White House with daughter, Chelsea. On his way into the White House, the president declined to answer any of the questions shouted at him by reporters.

White House officials tell CNN the president plans to make several phone calls this afternoon to several leaders throughout the region. Among the calls he may make: to Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and quite possibly, to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Now, behind the scenes, there are a couple of things the administration is watching very closely, as developments unfold in the region. Number one, they are hopeful that the Israeli government does not declare a formal end to the peace process when it meets shortly. The administration would consider that a hopeful sign that at least the Israeli government will keep an open mind to maintaining the peace process despite all the violence.

Secondarily, administration officials tell CNN they are hopeful that when Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat meets with U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, after that meeting, he might make some declaration publicly calling for an end to violence spread by the Palestinians. If those two things happen, administration officials tell CNN, that would create a foundation to at least discuss whether or not there could in fact be a summit later on this week in Egypt, as the president suggested over the weekend.

Major Garrett, CNN, reporting live from the White House.

WATERS: And Major, how would the administration regard a presidential trip to the Middle East? How would that be helpful?

GARRETT: Well, Lou, of course, that presidential trip would only occur if both Palestinian leader Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Barak wanted it to occur and thought there was something productive that could come out of such a meeting. The administration basically figures that, if they were to send Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, that would not put these talks at the high enough level to bring the two sides together in this very, very intense atmosphere.

Again, as I said, they're hopeful for some sign from the Palestinians that they are encouraged or they will at least try to end the violence -- aside from the Israeli government, that they're willing to keep an open mind about continuing the peace process -- then perhaps a trip by the president. But that is not in any way determined yet. That is still just a proposal on the table.

The administration is waiting to hear back from all its various diplomatic contacts throughout the region. But if Barak and Arafat decided that was a productive thing, the president would go to try to both stabilize the situation on the ground, restore a little bit more calm, and also give a sense that there is some momentum worth restarting this peace process -- Lou.

WATERS: All right -- Major Garrett at the White House.

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Everyone wants to know what is going to happen next. And let's talk with someone who is an exert on Middle East studies at the National War College. He is Bard O'Neill. The War College is a school that prepares students for policy careers in the military or State Department. Professor O'Neill joins us from Washington.

Thank you for being with us.

BARD O'NEILL, NATIONAL WAR COLLEGE: You are welcome, Natalie.

ALLEN: During this past hour, we have heard live here on CNN the Israelis say that Yasser Arafat can stop this the violence. The Palestinians responded live here on CNN by saying the Israelis are massacring Palestinians. Where do you go from there?

O'NEILL: Well, it's a difficult situation, obviously. I think where you have to go is towards stabilizing and reducing the violence. And I think what is needed here more than anything are cool heads, not forcing any of these issues, not backing one side or the other into a corner.

They've got to reduce the violence -- try to get these people off the streets, and, as a result of that, try to recapture this lost momentum in the peace process, which has clearly regressed.

ALLEN: Many say Yasser Arafat could stop this if he wanted to from his side. Do you believe that? And Ehud Barak had issued a deadline for this to stop. And what should he do at this point? His cabinet is going to meet here in another hour?

O'NEILL: Well, whether or not Arafat can put an end to this completely is an open question. We have to go back to the first intifada in 1987, and remember that that was generated spontaneously. And the PLO entered the picture, trying to gain control of it. I mention that historical point, because it could very well be the case here that this has taken on a life of its own.

There are certainly parties within Hamas and the Islamic Jihad movement for Palestine that would like to see this go on, so that, even if Arafat were to issue orders to his many secret police forces to somehow rein this in, it might not be done. The Israelis have to cooperate with the Palestinians on this.

Hamas says that a joint operations arrangement has been put together very quietly. And they are critical of that. But if that has been done, that's a good sign. On the other side, I think Ehud Barak and the Israelis have to think very carefully about some of the threats they have made. Certainly, an attack against Arafat's headquarters, or heavy-handed use of force will once again undermine Israel's public image.

The Israelis have acknowledged they are losing the public information war here. This will go from bad to worse if they take heavy-handed measures. And too also close the borders to Palestinian workers to freeze the money that goes to the Palestine National Authority will make the social and economic conditions there that much worse.

And those are the kinds of things that play a major role in instigating this violence. So...

ALLEN: I wanted to ask my last question: Some have said that during this interim period, Palestinians did not see their lives improve enough. What do you say about that?

O'NEILL: Well, I think that is absolutely true. The unemployment rate in the Gaza Strip is very high. The conditions in the West Bank are bad. There are perceptions in the Palestinian community that the leaders in the Palestine National Authority are corrupt. They have misused the money that has come in from the outside, building villas on the Mediterranean.

I am not here to pass judgment on whether that is true or not. It's perceptions that count. And yes, particularly among the young people in the West Bank in Gaza, they feel they have been let down to some degree by the Palestine National Authority. And that is part of the reason why they are venting their rage, and that I make reference to these social and economic issues. They are critical to consider here.

Anything that Israel does to make those worse will backfire in the long run.

ALLEN: Bard O'Neill, thank you for talking with us about this.

O'NEILL: My pleasure.



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