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CNN Late Edition

Ehud Barak Discusses the Crisis in the Middle East

Aired October 15, 2000 - 12:00 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: It's noon in Washington, 9 a.m. in Los Angeles, 6 p.m. in Jerusalem, and 7 p.m. in Aden, Yemen. Wherever you're watching from around the world, thanks for joining us for this special two-hour LATE EDITION.

We'll get to our interview with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak in just a moment. But first, let's check in with CNN reporters covering the hour's top stories.

(NEWSBREAK)

BLITZER: Earlier today I spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak. He joined me from his office in Jerusalem immediately following a meeting with his cabinet. We spoke with the prime minister just before we received confirmation that an Israeli had been kidnapped.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Mr. Prime Minister, welcome back to LATE EDITION. It's good to have you on our program.

I want to begin with the news of the day, this report that Hezbollah forces in Lebanon supposedly have captured an Israeli army colonel. What can you tell us about this?

EHUD BARAK, PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL: As of now I don't know of any event along the border with Lebanon that could lead to such a result, but we -- you know, we cannot exclude the possibility that somewhere on (UNINTELLIGIBLE), one of tens of thousands of Israelis who are spreading around the world have been hijacked, and he happened to be a colonel in our reservist armed force.

BLITZER: So at this point you can't confirm -- you have no information that a specific Israeli -- another Israeli has been taken prisoner by the Lebanese Hezbollah?

BARAK: As of now, I don't have any information, but I do not exclude it. Normally, may I say, the Hezbollah leaders could not announce something like this publicly. There is totally no basis for it.

BLITZER: As you know, three Israeli soldiers were taken not long ago in Lebanon by the Hezbollah. They say that they're prepared, the Hezbollah, to return those soldiers to Israeli in exchange for more than a dozen Palestinian, Lebanese detainees being held by Israel. Is Israel ready to make a deal along those lines for the return of its men?

BARAK: I believe at the beginning of the 21st century, where all players are members of UN, we have to assert a norm, saying that before authorized international bodies get access to them, nothing should be exchanged or could be put as a condition. I expect that they will allow immediately the Red Cross or the UN or some official of an American or British or Russian embassy to get an access to them, and then they should be returned home.

The whole event is a kind of blunt violation of UN Security Council Resolution 45 along which we pulled out from Lebanon to the letter, and this attack is a violence that we keep the right to respond for.

BLITZER: But it doesn't sound like you're saying that under -- if that were to occur, if there were these kinds of meetings, it could set the stage for some sort of exchange.

BARAK: First of all, we expect it to be -- we expect it to be settled that someone will get access to them, and then we will have to think it, to contemplate what you read (ph).

BLITZER: Mr. Prime Minister, there is going to be the summit at Sharm el-Sheikh, the southernmost tip of Sinai on Monday. Realistically, what has happened over these past two and a half weeks, realistically what can be accomplished at Sharm el-Sheikh?

BARAK: I believe that an end to violence could be accomplished, and in a way should be accomplished. I believe that the mechanism for making kind of tighter control, maybe an American-Israeli-Palestinian mechanism, to make sure that the security understandings are working.

And of course, we expect it to accomplish a bringing back of the Hamas prisoners into prisons, putting an end to shooting at Israelis by Palestinian policemen and Tanzim people at night or even during demonstrations, and we would expect an end to the incitement on the Palestinian mass media and an appropriate treatment of holy sites.

All these elements, all the four elements that I've mentioned, are one by one a blunt violation of the agreement that the PA and its Chairman Arafat have signed, with American signature as a witness under a kind of underwriting.

BLITZER: The Palestinians, as you well know, say the immediate objective must be an international commission of inquiry to investigate the Israeli behavior, the Israeli military policy behavior, towards the Palestinians, that without that, there's really nothing that can go forward. Are you ready to accept such an international commission of inquiry?

BARAK: We agreed to a fact-finding study committee to be nominated by the Americans, having the authority of the Americans. The Palestinians and the Israelis would not even resist -- that there will be participation of experts that will be recommended by the UN or the EU to the president of the United States, but we are against an investigation committee that will devolve its authority from the U.N., since our experience is that in this case, with all due respect to the U.N. institution, it's more politics or biased politics than real fact-finding.

BLITZER: Do you believe, Mr. Prime Minister, that the Palestinian Authority, President Yasser Arafat, is still committed to the peace process?

BARAK: I cannot penetrate his soul. I judge him by his behavior. According to his behavior, he launched a wave of violence in the last few weeks when it was clear that there is on the table a possible framework agreement which reflects further flexibility of Israelis than ever in the past, and he chose not to go for it. That means that he deliberately decided to prefer confrontation.

The essence of it, that on one hand for us it's something that we have to face opened-eyed and stand firm to resist. But at the same time, Chairman Arafat takes upon himself a major responsibility for the possible deterioration of the whole region into a period of instability with unpredictable consequences, not just for the region.

And I believe that at this time there is no way to draw a moral equivalence between Israel, the only democracy here that protects the interests of the free world, and a group of leaders of the Palestinian people that became acceptable leaders by the intervention of, the support that they've got from the United States administration based on the assumption they will stop violence, they will stop corruption, they will stop incitement, they will begin to behave properly.

I should admit that in this kind of expectation, the Palestinian Authority failed, and in their failure, they are leading the whole area into quite a risky situation.

BLITZER: The fact of the matter is, though, that many Palestinians believe you are no longer committed to the peace process. What they've been saying is, since the failed Camp David summit this past summer, you've been looking for what they call an exit strategy to abandon the concessions that you put forward on the table during those negotiations at Camp David.

BARAK: No, the opposite is true. I already proved that I'm ready to leave no stone unturned on the way to see whether we have a partner; unfortunately, we didn't find one, as President Clinton himself said at the end of Camp David.

And the American people, especially this administration, invested a lot of time, energy, resources, and devotion, even emotion, in trying to put an end to it, and we are highly thankful for it. Unfortunately, the Palestinians were the side who resisted it and did not allow it to happen.

But let me tell you, we will never lose our hope for peace. We will ultimately have peace with the Palestinian people. They're our neighbors, they're going to here forever, we will, at the end, live side by side as neighbors in peace, with the same people who are now incited to demonstrate against us, with those teachers and students who are now in the riot.

But the leadership seems to be unripe, and leadership change its mind, leadership can open its eyes, leadership can be replaced by its own people. And even if with this leadership at this present time we cannot make peace, we will never lose the hope to make peace with our neighbors, the Palestinians, and we will ever -- whatever happens, we'll always leave certain door open for the possible change of approach or attitude on the other side.

BLITZER: Many Palestinians also say, Mr. Prime Minister, that if you bring Ariel Sharon and the Likud into your government and form a national emergency coalition, that in effect will totally end prospects for peace, that it would signal that the Israeli government, such a new Israel government, is no longer committed to the peace process.

BARAK: Look, it's once again propaganda. They're quite skillful in taking every situation and put it on its head. Look, for example, at the visit of Ariel Sharon to the Temple Mount. What it really showed is, how should we look at Arafat as custodian of holy sites. If this is the kind of free access and this is the kind of keeping holy sites that he can provide, it puts a major question mark on his demand to hold holy sites sacred for Christians and for Jews, or even for Muslims.

I don't think that Ariel Sharon is the reason; he's the excuse, and a very comfortable one. I don't think that it was the most brilliant idea of the year to have this visit, at this timing, on the Temple Mount. But the whole installation is the defender of Israel, defender of its capital, and it's open to visitors from every place.

But let me tell more seriously, I don't think that you, as a democratic society, and we're a democratic society, can get any dictates from those who are less democratic -- let me put it mildly -- about who is kind of eligible to be in government.

Ariel Sharon, representing a legitimate movement that believes in security and peace, they have differences of emphasis and approach from ourselves. Arafat himself sat down with Ariel Sharon for 10 days, together with President Clinton at Wye River -- how it's called? -- Plantation, and they sat together to write down an agreement.

I do not believe that this or that person can change realities. We are determined to make peace. I'm the prime minister. I will never let anyone lead me in a direction that I don't want to go in. And the real problem is with Arafat and the Palestinian leadership.

(CROSSTALK)

BARAK: I would like to mention to you...

BLITZER: Go ahead.

BARAK: ... that two weeks ago Arafat invited all the leadership of Hamas to his cabinet meeting in Gaza, and prayed together with them. Days afterwards, he released the most, kind of, dangerous, Hamas terrorists, back to the streets, and we now are waiting to see the results.

And I tell you very frankly, we take all the means within our disposal to intercept those terrorist attacks, but if they will happen, I will hold not just the terrorists themselves, but the Palestinian Authority who released them as responsible for the event.

BLITZER: Mr. Prime Minister, the secretary of state of the United States, Madeleine Albright, has an article in today's Washington Post, and among other things, she writes this, she says: Palestinians feel victimized, powerless, and believe that their lives count for little. They have suffered immensely, with 100 of their own killed and thousands wounded, among them many children, and lives shattered by the use of deadly force.

What a lot of people are asking, including friends of Israel like Madeleine Albright is, why does the Israeli military, the police, after all these years of experience, have to use such deadly force in dealing with stone-throwing Palestinian demonstrators. Why is that necessary, and given the death toll that has mounted the past two and a half weeks?

BARAK: Well, you are professional. Look very carefully into the picture of these demonstrations. We are not in Gaza, we are not in Nablus. Ninety-eight percent of the population are under Palestinian control. We are in few, isolated places.

They are sending, the Palestinian soldiers, sending with innocent, incited citizens against those isolated positions. But they send them, deliberately, with policemen with weapons and Tanzim people with weapons. And from these very demonstrations, they begin to shoot with rifles, and they deliberately take (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

It's a crime. You know, I was shocked as every human being around the globe by the pictures of this young kid who was caught in crossfire. But (UNINTELLIGIBLE) how did he get there? It's not near his school, it's not near his home. It's near a remote, isolated Israeli position.

So if Arafat want to lubricate with the blood of the Palestinian people the bringing back of an international attention to his cause, it is legitimate sort of thing. But it's in a way it's a crime, and it's something that should be condemned. He deliberately allowed this demonstration, with weapons. You can see it in the picture. They carry weapons and shooting them.

The real difference in the modern world between a legitimate leader that wants to be a head of state, member of the United Nations, and a head of gang is the monopoly on the use and holding of weapons. Any regime, including an autocratic regime, in this region, make sure that they, and only they, only the administration is responsible for holding weapons, and they are not used against someone else result a clear-cut order. If Arafat wants to be a leader -- and I hope he will, I hope he will change -- he should put an end to it, he should put an end to the phenomena of policemen shooting, from within demonstrations, our soldiers. It leaves us with no way but to respond with the potentially minimal kind of a death toll on the other side.

Let me tell you for example, we launched for the first time last week, Thursday, attacks on five different installations of the Palestinians only after the lynch in our -- that had been executed on our soldiers in Ramallah. In all these five attacks together that were on your TV as well as on all other screens in the world, there was not a single Palestinian dead. We make deliberate, focused -- deliberately focused attack. We announced in advance what we are going to attack. We made it clear that when the attack itself come, we shot certain rounds in the vicinity in order to give an early warning. Everyone went out. We watched it by drones. And we hit the target only after it becomes clear that no one will be killed.

But we cannot even promise to do it in the -- all along the confrontation, if it continues. But this is the point here. We are making deliberate attempts to avoid -- to minimize casualties, where he somehow moaning it and at the same time allowing it or even, may I say, encouraging it. This is the difference.

BLITZER: Mr. Prime Minister, we only have a few seconds left. What happens in if the Sharm el-Sheikh summit fails?

BARAK: I hope it won't fail. But if it will fail, we will have to face the realities. And I can repeat it once again, with the same determination that we struggled to find a way to make agreement with them, with the same determination, we will fight for our right to live here as a free, sovereign, democratic, open and pluralistic society within, or inside, this tough neighborhood of the Middle East. And we will fight and we expect honest people and honest governments all around the world to stand by us.

BLITZER: Mr. Prime Minister, I know this is a difficult period for you, but I want to thank you once again for joining us on LATE EDITION. Thank you.

BARAK: Thank you, Wolf.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And coming up next, the Palestinian response. We'll be joined live by a key adviser to Chairman Yasser Arafat, chief Palestinian peace negotiator, Saeb Erekat.

LATE EDITION will continue right after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to this special two-hour LATE EDITION.

Joining us now from Gaza, the chief Palestinian peace negotiator, Saeb Erekat. Mr. Erekat, welcome back to LATE EDITION.

You just heard Prime Minister Barak suggest that he is no longer convinced that the Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat is truly still committed to peace with Israel. Can you assure us that the prime minister -- that the president -- the Palestinian president is committed to peace?

SAEB EREKAT, CHIEF PALESTINIAN PEACE NEGOTIATOR: Well, Wolf, I really was very scared to hear Mr. Barak saying what he had to say there. The man is wearing his general's hat. And it is really very scary tonight. It just reiterated my conviction that this man is seeking an exit strategy from the peace process.

Arafat was elected by the Palestinian people, he was not appointed by anyone, and he is accountable to Palestinian people. So he is the leader of Palestinian people. And he is seeking to be partner, not with this prime minister of Israel or that prime minister of Israel. He has said many times that he respects the democratic choice of Israelis, and he wants to make peace with all Israelis.

But now, as the twisting of facts I have heard from Mr. Barak -- take this child, for instance, Mohammed Aldura. Where was he killed? He was killed in the middle of Gaza. The question to Mr. Barak, what are your soldiers doing in middle of Gaza? What are your settlers doing in middle of Gaza? What are your soldiers doing at the entrances of West Bank towns, villages and refugee camps? Do you want to live in a democratic, plural society? You're an occupation.

Today now when I'm talking to you, Wolf, 3 million Palestinians are subjected to a total siege by Mr. Barak: tanks surrounding the entrances of our towns, villages and refugee camps; nobody can move from a village to another, from a town to another; everything is put on complete hold. And this has been going on for the last six days. Rations are declining.

But, I heard Mr. Barak saying tonight that he really wants us -- when we are killed by his soldiers, not even to complain, not even to talk about it. The beginning of this conflict and the crisis and the tragic events -- he knows very well what made it happen.

BLITZER: So let me ask you this question...

EREKAT: You remembered...

BLITZER: I was going to say, so, I hear you saying that you are no longer convinced that Prime Minister Barak is committed to peace with the Palestinians. And if that is the case, what can be achieved at the summit at Sharm el-Sheikh?

EREKAT: Well, we will never abandon the peace process. There is nothing wrong with the peace process. Wolf, for the past few months we have witnessed Mr. Barak's noncompliance with the agreement signed. We have witnessed the continuation of settlement activities. We have witnessed him drifting from the terms of reference provided for in the Madrid peace conference. He culminated this by permitting Sharon to go to Haram al-Sharif against our warning and appeals to him not to do so.

And now he unleashes his might. We signed agreements with him, Wolf, that forbid us to have any army, navy, machine -- choppers or guns, and yet he unleashes his might, fire missiles at us, shoot at us trying to intimidate us. Is that the message of peace he is trying to send?

Yes, Palestinians are your neighbors, and Palestinians are out there telling you no way on earth will be subjected to your occupation. We know that Israel possesses nuclear missiles, and we want our freedom and independence. And we are fighting with the stones, the most backward technology that humans possess, in order to send a message for our freedom and for independence.

Israel cannot continue saying that we were a democratic nation in the Middle East and at same time continue its occupation and subjugation of the Palestinian people. And this peace process -- what prevented Mr. Barak from implementing Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338?

Couldn't he look at the larger picture that we have recognized Israel on almost 80 percent of historic Palestine, and accepted to establish a state -- a Palestinian state on 20 percent of historic Palestine?

If he believes that he can continue the equation of maintaining his occupation, maintaining his troops, maintaining his might and speaking through language of guns, tanks and choppers, what is he doing? He is really silencing the people like me, the moderates of the Palestinians. He is really strengthening the extremists on both sides.

EREKAT: And that is the very unfortunate end game he is seeking there. I believe the man speak of Mr. Sharon as his partner. So if he wants to make Sharon and the settlers and the extremists in Israel as his partner, I congratulate him. But he will not have a partner in us.

BLITZER: Well, if that is the case, what do you hope? What do you think can be achieved, let me get back to the question, at this summit at Sharm el-Sheikh?

EREKAT: Well, before Sharm el-Sheikh, we really appeal to the international community. People put it as conditions. It was not even conditions. We said to them, please, stop the siege and the tanks, the siege of the tanks of our villages and refugee camps, crossing borders, airport, whatever. Please stop Israeli hostilities against us, and send an international commission of inquirers. Why can't Mr. Barak accept it? What does he have to hide?

Then everyone on earth said to us, go to Sharm el-Sheikh. Now we going to Sharm el-Sheikh, and instead of going there to put agenda of how to revive the peace process, how to start the process of healing, how to start the process of a transition back to the peace process, we are going to go there to urge the international community to convince the Israelis to stop their hostilities against us and to have them refrain, again, from firing missiles through their tanks or through their choppers at us. And we want the international community to send us an international commission of inquirers.

I'm afraid that Mr. Barak is going with a totally different agenda. He is asking Palestinians to accept to be killed without even opening their mouths. He wants to stay as an occupier without us saying anything about it. And he wants to subject us to his rule, and, yet, he wants the support of the international community.

And he fingers -- he points his finger at us, and I'm telling him, Mr. Barak, it is not time to assign blame. It is not time to assign blame. I'm not doing peace with you as a favor to you. And you are not doing peace with me as a favor to you. You know that we are playing in a game that cannot be played in accordance with a zero- sum game. It is either two winners or two losers. And with you and Mr. Barak, you are really putting both of us as losers.

BLITZER: Saeb Erekat, stand by. We have to take a quick break.

When we return: Will this latest crisis prompt Yasser Arafat to unilaterally declare an independent Palestinian state?

We will talk about that and much more with the chief Palestinian peace negotiator, Saeb Erekat.

LATE EDITION continues after this.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to this special two-hour LATE EDITION. We're talking about the crisis in the Middle East with the chief Palestinian peace negotiator, Saeb Erekat, who joins us once again from Gaza.

Mr. Erekat, there are some who are saying that if this summit in Sharm el-Sheikh fails, the Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat will unilaterally declare a Palestinian state. Is that in the cards?

EREKAT: Well, first of all, it's not up to President Arafat to declare the Palestinian state. Palestinian state declaration and the decision concerning this is the business of the Central Council, which is a body -- legislative body within the PLO, and this body will convene November the 15th.

Actually, President Arafat, twice now, have spoken out loudly in front of the Central Council and managed to delay the declaration of the Palestinian state, and his full intention was to give this peace process every chance possible, to continue exerting maximum efforts in order to reach the declaration of the Palestinian state and the establishment of a Palestinian state through the peace process. And President Arafat had hoped that he can declare the Palestinian state with the whole world joining him.

But if Mr. Barak declares tonight that he no longer sees -- and the choice of the Palestinian people, the man that the Palestinian people elected to be president -- President Arafat as his partner, if he's going to go towards Sharon and form a national unity government with him, we know that Sharon, when he was a minister in Netanyahu's government, he never went to Haram al-Sharif, and we know that Mr. Sharon when he was a minister trying to negotiate with us, it's true that we sat with him in Wye River. We made an agreement with him in Wye River, but he never implemented the agreement, and then the Israeli people voted him out and got Barak in in order to make peace. That was Barak's mandate.

Now, we hope in Sharm el-Sheikh, the international community will succeed in stopping the hostilities against the Palestinian people. I hope we can see immediately the international commission of inquiry. I hope we can see the implementation of Resolution 1332, which was passed three, four days ago by the Security Council, about the protection of Palestinian people, and we want to see the lift of the siege imposed on all Palestinian territories.

BLITZER: Mr. Erekat, there was a very moving article about you in The Washington Post on Saturday. I assume you saw it. But one of the quotes from you in that article, I want to read it to you, because it does, I think, speak about your mood right now. You're quoted in "The Washington Post" as having said this: "You want to convince me that the last 25 years of my life that I devoted to peace were a waste of time. I don't know, maybe I should shut my mouth. You're talking to a very confused man."

Are you very confused right now?

EREKAT: I think all those in the peace camp, the Palestinian peace camp and the majority of the Palestinian people who are for peace, are very confused and have great doubts. Because once they see the choppers coming to hit their towns with missiles adjacent to their homes, once they see the message of their partner was being spoken to them through the canons and through the machine guns, and this language, it's really very confusing.

And once we see Mr. Barak praising Mr. Sharon and the likes of Mr. Sharon and the settlers, who on the last two weeks killed five Palestinians and burned them alive, we're very confused about the so- called -- or what we thought at one day was supposed to be our partner.

We hope that we can restore sanity. We hope that we can restore wisdom. We can -- we hope that this cloud of doubts over -- looming over our heads will pass away. But this would require Mr. Barak to do many, many, many things, and Mr. Barak must remember that at the end of the day, Palestinians are not seeking to accommodate with Israel. They're seeking their independence and their freedom from Israel. They're seeking to end the occupation of Israel. That's the essence of the peace process.

EREKAT: That is the frame of reference we agreed upon when we went to the Madrid peace conference.

So I really hope at this dark hour of both -- and I'm telling you, I'm saying the mirror image of many Israelis in the peace camp in Israel. I hope that the language of Mr. Barak of the last three weeks, the language of cannons, his choppers, his guns, will be silenced. And I hope that in Sharm el-Sheikh we can hear some language of sanity, wisdom, restoration. And I hope that the process of healing will begin.

But if Mr. Barak chooses to go in the direction of Sharon, I think he will kiss the peace process good-bye.

BLITZER: On that note, Saeb Erekat, I want to thank you for joining us from Gaza. It's always good to have you on LATE EDITION. And we, I'm sure, will have you back in the not-too-distant future. Thank you very much.

And just ahead, a U.S. Navy ship becomes a target of terror. We'll talk about the investigation into the attack on the USS Cole with U.S. Defense Secretary William Cohen and America's top admiral, Vern Clark.

LATE EDITION will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: You are looking at a live picture of the American flag at half staff in front of the U.S. Capitol, in honor of the 17 American sailors who were killed in an apparent bomb attack against the USS Cole on Thursday.

Welcome back to LATE EDITION.

Just before we went to air, I spoke with the U.S. Defense Secretary, William Cohen, and the chief of U.S. Naval Operations, Admiral Vern Clark, about the USS Cole, and more.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Secretary Cohen, Admiral Clark, welcome to LATE EDITION, good to have you on our program.

And let me begin with you, Secretary Cohen. Is the United States any closer today than it was on Thursday, to knowing who was responsible for the attack on the USS Cole?

WILLIAM COHEN, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: No. It is really -- we are in the very first few days of this investigation, or inquiry. About 72 hours have elapsed since the time of the explosion. And we are putting our people, on the ground, as fast as possible. We have FBI, Justice, professional investigators who are diving for information, trying to recover as much of the blast fragments, bomb residue, et cetera, in order to try and identify the people responsible for this bombing.

BLITZER: The claims of responsibility, there have been a few already, that have been coming in, are any of them being taken seriously?

COHEN: Well, we take all of them seriously. Any claim that comes in, we try to then evaluate and put it together with all of the other intelligence that we have, in order to see if we can't put a puzzle -- the pieces of the puzzle together that would lead in a certain direction. But I think, again, with all of these calls that come through, we have to look at them carefully and then try to screen out those that are real and those that are false.

BLITZER: The Khobar Towers bombing four years ago, the U.S. never determined responsibility for that. And that was an attack on U.S. Air Force barracks in Saudi Arabia. Is it your sense that it's possible you may never determine who is responsible for the attack on the Cole?

COHEN: Actually, there were five people convicted in Saudi Arabia and are now awaiting sentence for the bombing at Khobar Towers, so there has been accountability for those five. We will continue to search for others and hold others accountable for Khobar.

With respect to Cole, we will not be relenting in any way. We are determined to find those responsible for this heinous act. And we are going to track them down, and we will hold them fully accountable. We believe that the long arm of justice is going to prevail ultimately, and we will work as quickly and professionally and expeditiously as we can. But we will track them down. We owe that to the families.

And I want to just take this occasion once again to say to the families who have lost their loved ones. They were serving this country honorably. They were of the highest professional caliber. They were preserving freedom. And we are able to enjoy the benefits of freedom because of the sacrifice they will make and did make on our behalf.

BLITZER: Some have suggested that perhaps, Osama bin Laden -- that this attack has the fingerprints of his organization. Does it?

COHEN: It could. Again, premature to speculate. There are a number of groups that are operating throughout the Middle East. All of the area of the Middle East is considered to be a high risk, for the most part. And so there are a number of different groups. Osama bin Laden is one of them. And we will certainly try to examine all of the threads that go to this particular incident to see if they do not lead back to one source or another. And he'd be one that we would look at as well.

BLITZER: I want to wind up these questions with you, with a quote from Friday's Wall Street Journal. There was editorial there. You speak about holding those responsible who committed this terrorist act.

The Wall Street Journal says this: "If past behavior is any guide, President Clinton may be reckless enough to respond to the destroyer attack by ordering a few cruise missiles lobbed at somebody before knowing who's responsible."

COHEN: Well, it is one mark, I think, of our society that we don't respond in kind, like terrorists, who kill innocent civilians. It has been the mark of our civilization, our society, and indeed, this administration, that we are very careful. And to the extent that we can identify groups who are training and about to carry out terrorist acts against U.S. citizens and those of our allies, then we take action. But we do not act precipitously. We will be very judicious, we will be very thorough, in our investigation to make determination, and hold those specifically responsible, and not simply respond in any kind of a reckless way.

BLITZER: Admiral Clark, I want you to look at our screen, we have a -- an artist's rendition of what happened on that day when this little boat got close to the USS Cole.

I don't know if you can see that on our screen.

But we'll show that, Admiral Clark. Yes, here it is. Take a look right there. You can see it as it approaches. It gets very close, and then all of a sudden, obviously, as we all know, there is an explosion.

And what many Americans, especially American military families, are asking: How is it possible, in this day and age, that that kind of incident can occur?

ADM. VERN CLARK, CHIEF, U.S. NAVAL OPERATIONS: Well, Wolf, before I answer that question, I want to just say a word about the families, and in particular, extending condolences to those families that have lost their loved ones.

And I want to report to you, and the people of America, that we are so grateful for the manner in which the nation and, in fact, people around the world, have responded in support of our people. It truly is heartwarming. And we all know that they are suffering. In fact, our whole navy is suffering. We are a family. And, this is a sad time for us.

With regard to the question that you have raised here, and the issue of proximity to the ship, the point that I want to make is that throughout history, the militaries of free democracies have had to transit and travel through troubled waters, dangerous waters. We don't live in a risk-free world. In fact, it is a dangerous world. And frankly, Wolf, that is one of the reasons that our navy is out there. We are out there representing our nation, we are out there to influence events, to create stability, and there is risk involved. We can never take actions to eliminate all risk. Now we have described everything -- you know, I have described what I know about this particular situation.

BLITZER: But the decision to refuel in Yemen -- I must tell you, as a former Pentagon reporter, someone who covers these stories, and knows the Middle East quite well -- when I heard on Thursday that a U.S. ship was refueling in Yemen, I didn't know that that had become almost routine over the past year, year and a half, especially when I reread the State Department's report on terrorism.

And there is an excerpt that I want to read to you: "Lax and inefficient enforcement of security procedures, and the government's inability to exercise authority over remote areas of the country, continue to make Yemen a safe haven for terrorist groups."

So the question is this: Why would you risk sending a U.S. ship into a safe haven for terrorist groups?

CLARK: Well, point one, that we needed to fuel. OK, so we wouldn't go just anywhere, but we needed to fuel. We were -- the ship was underway from Norfolk and through the Mediterranean and through the Red Sea. The secretary has made the point and reinforced the issue that there is risk everywhere throughout the Middle East.

Now that having been said, we started under this contract relationship through U.S. central command, and General Tom Franks and his predecessor General Zenni, took measures to --as there was an attempt to reach out and establish better relationships with Yemen. The arrangements were made to begin fueling operations about 18, 19 months ago. Here is the key point: since then, 25 ships have conducted refueling operations in that port. The threat assessment had not changed one iota with regard to Aden. That is the bottom line.

BLITZER: We have to take another quick break.

For our international viewers, World News is next.

For our North American audience, stay tuned for our second hour of LATE EDITION, including more of our conversation with Defense Secretary Cohen and Admiral Vern Clark. We'll also hear from two members of the Senate who played key roles in U.S. military and international affairs.

Plus our LATE EDITION roundtable and Bruce Morton's "Last Word."

It's all ahead in the next hour of this special LATE EDITION.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: This is the second hour of LATE EDITION: Crisis in the Middle East.

We'll hear more from Defense Secretary William Cohen and the chief of naval operations, Admiral Vern Clark. Then we'll get the congressional perspective on the latest developments from two senators on the Armed Services Committee, Chairman John Warner and Ranking Democrat Carl Levin. They'll weigh in on the U.S. response and the potential impact on the U.S. presidential race.

We'll also preview this week's final debate match-up between Vice President Al Gore and Governor George W. Bush with our LATE EDITION roundtable, Steve Roberts, Susan Page, and Tucker Carlson.

And as the Middle East again erupts into bloodshed, Bruce Morton has the last word on political violence: Sometimes it works, sometimes it does not.

Welcome back to LATE EDITION. There's a massive investigation now underway into the attack against the USS Cole. Seventeen U.S. sailors were killed in that blast. The Navy warship was based in Norfolk, Virginia, where a memorial service is continuing at this hour.

(NEWSBREAK)

Now, more of my conversation with Defense Secretary William Cohen and Admiral Vern Clark. I asked the chief of naval operations whether he stands by the decision of the former head of the Central Command, General Anthony Zinni, to use the port of Aden for refueling.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CLARK: Well, I look at -- I look at Yemen like this. Look where it is, think about it's geography between the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, and think about -- here is a nation that had -- has had a history that you have described, and here is a nation that's trying to improve its image and become in better standing in the community of nations. It would be -- it would not be in our interest or anybody's interest to not try to help bring something like that about.

So General Zinni -- it's been documented in the press that he was reaching out and developing an engagement plan, you know, to talk about the details and the specifics of that you would really need to talk to General Tom Franks, who's the unified commander there. That's his theater of operations; it's not mine.

BLITZER: The Central Command.

CLARK: But his intent is clear.

BLITZER: Secretary Cohen, the obvious decision now, though, is that none of these ports that are at risk, potentially, are going to be used for refueling by U.S. ships.

COHEN: Until such time as we determine exactly what happened and how it happened, we will not be using Aden for sure.

But I want to point out that, as Admiral Clark has indicated, throughout the entire Middle East, throughout that entire area of responsibility, virtually all of the areas are high risk. We have been operating there for many, many years now understanding it's high risk.

The question will become, was there any laxity in our force protection? Was there a breakdown in security?

COHEN: And that is what this inquiry is going to resolve.

BLITZER: Will that also look at the behavior of the captain of that ship?

COHEN: It will look at everything.

BLITZER: If there was any dereliction of duty? COHEN: It will look at everything. We want to make sure we satisfy ourselves, our families, the entire Navy, and the American people.

And as I've indicated before, that's a hole in the heart of all Americans when you see our young people being killed by this kind of a terrorist -- cowardly terrorist act. So we want the answers to those questions.

But the fact of the matter is that everyone in the region, our soldiers, our sailors, our marines, our airmen, all are operating in a very high-risk area, and it's because we have maintained stabilities throughout the region so that the international community could continue to function as it does, based on resources that come from that area.

BLITZER: But you can understand, Admiral Clark, family members of those who were killed in this attack asking you this question, saying: Admiral, is it worth the lives of American sailors, in this particular incident, to try to improve relations with Yemen?

CLARK: Well, I understand that they may ask that question. And this is about having a Navy that is in the four corners of the earth and representing the national command authority and having an influence on world events. That is why we have a navy.

Now it goes without saying that we deal with situations where there is a risk. But, Wolf, let me say this. Back in the mid-'80s, when I was captain of a destroyer, we had threat warnings out about potential suicide attacks. This is not something that just happened in the last couple of years. This -- we have trained to this for years.

And here's the point I want to make. This ship was well-trained. I want to defend the captain, this morning. He is fighting for the life of that ship with his crew.

And here is what -- I was the commander of the Atlantic fleet a few months back when that ship, part of the George Washington Battle Group, was working at getting ready to deploy. And I want you to know and I want the people of this country to know that she distinguished herself during workouts, during her preparations to deploy. This ship has an outstanding crew.

Now the situation with regard to your pictorial is about the way threat manifests itself. The captain clearly -- the ship thought that the boat that is involved was part of a support group that was going to help that tie-up in that port. And that is part of the risk, and that is -- all of those issues will be examined and assessed.

BLITZER: Secretary Cohen, Dick Cheney, a former secretary of defense now running for vice president on the Republican ticket, said this the other day. "Everybody serving on the Cole was a volunteer, voluntarily putting on the uniform to serve in the U.S. military, and that places a special obligation on us, on we civilians, to make certain they have the resources they need to do the job we ask them to do."

COHEN: That is absolutely true.

BLITZER: But the implication is that, perhaps, the civilian leadership is not doing the job that those sailors, those volunteers, needed -- that needed to be done.

COHEN: Well, I think it is important to follow Governor Bush's lead by not seeking in any way to take advantage during this period of time of great grief and grieving on the part of the families and our investigation being underway in any way to introduce issues of readiness.

I think that Admiral Clark has indicated this ship was ready. The people on board the ship, the young men and women on board the ship, were ready. They are ready today. So it is not a question of a lack of resources for the men and women who were serving on that ship. The question becomes one of, was this an unacceptable risk to go into the port for the refueling? Was there a breakdown in security?

I would point out that you have said that we are putting our people in harm's way. We have people in harm's way all over the world. That is why we look so carefully at force protection. It's been one of my very highest priorities. It is one of the reasons why they have to file a force protection plan when they go into a port such as Aden.

So this is something that is not treated with any -- cavalierly. This is something we take very seriously. We will find out whether or not there was breakdown. But I think what we have to do at this time is come together and support our men and women, support the policy of engagement.

COHEN: And the fact is that we are going to continue to be at risk as long as this country continues to rely upon Mideast supplies.

BLITZER: And what do you say to the basic criticism that both Dick Cheney and George W. Bush have leveled against the Clinton administration, that it has been lax over these past eight years in dealing with the issue of military preparedness?

COHEN: Well, as a matter of fact, what we have seen in the last several years has been the largest pay raise in a generation. What we have seen is a return to the retirement benefits of 50 percent. What we have seen is targeted pay benefits going to those who are at mid- career levels. What we have seen is a dedication to improving housing and health care. What we have seen, in fact, is a great amount of success in Bosnia, in Kosovo. We have now seen a democracy come to Croatia. We are now engaging North Korea. We have seen many successes as a result of our engagement policy.

So I want to credit the American men and women who are wearing that uniform for the outstanding job that they have done.

Can we do better? Can we do more in the way of getting more resources? We certainly can, and we certainly should. But I think that what we ought to do is take a great deal of pride in what we have been able to accomplish over the years, in terms of spreading stability throughout the European theater, certainly, and throughout much of the Asian community, as well -- the Asia Pacific region.

BLITZER: Secretary Cohen, Admiral Clark, I know these have been difficult days for both of you. Thanks for spending some time with us on LATE EDITION.

BLITZER: And there is much more still ahead on LATE EDITION. Up next, terrorism hits home. We'll speak with two prominent members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Republican John Warner and Democrat Carl Levin, about the USS Cole, the Middle East peace process, and the race for the White House.

LATE EDITION will be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to LATE EDITION.

We now hear from two senators who play key roles in U.S. military and international affairs. Virginia Republican Senator John Warner chairs the powerful armed services committee, and joining us from Detroit is Michigan Senator Carl Levin, the top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee.

Senators, always good to have both of you have here on LATE EDITION, and let me begin with you Senator Warner. First of all, that ribbon on your lapel...

SEN. JOHN WARNER (R), VIRGINIA: Yes.

BLITZER: ...very briefly, tell us what that is all about.

WARNER: Well, yesterday I went to Norfolk for a series of briefings with the Navy and then I met with the families, some 70 of them, and one very thoughtfully handed this to me, and I'm going to keep it right here as I finish my work from the Senate this week.

BLITZER: Well, let me ask you...

WARNER: It was magnificent.

You know, I served as secretary of the Navy during Vietnam, met with families many times, served in the Navy myself. And when an accident like this happens, Wolf, all those of us in uniform today and indeed, the veterans, when it hits one of us, it hits all of us.

And yesterday, I was so impressed with the -- those families with there and they knew that they were part of a greater military family, and from Bill Cohen to Admiral Clark, who just appeared here, right on down through the ranks. They are caring for them and they feel as if they're appreciated.

And the message is sent throughout the world that at this moment, men and women of our armed forces, indeed those of our allies, are standing duty facing comparable risk.

BLITZER: All right. Let me bring in Senator Levin on that note.

I'll ask you a question that I asked Defense Secretary Cohen and Admiral Clark: Was it worth, with hindsight, trying to improve relations with Yemen, risking the lives of American sailors?

SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), MICHIGAN: I accept their answers. That's a decision which was made by the commander, the regional commander and general -- I leave that up to General Zinni, General Franks.

Obviously if they knew that Americans sailors were going to be killed, they would not have gone into that port and that seems to me to be quite obvious.

But as to whether or not they thought that the risk was such that they shouldn't go in, you'd have to really leave it to them.

I don't think we in Washington ought to be second-guessing the decisions of commanders in the field. As a matter of fact, too often presidents have been criticized for second-guessing those commanders. And I think the fact that President Clinton and Secretary Cohen have left that decision up to the commanders, as Secretary Cohen indicated, is the right thing to do, and we'd have to just ask the commanders how they assessed the risk and whether or not the force protection should have been stronger.

WARNER: Can I follow up on that?

BLITZER: Yes, of course Senator Warner.

WARNER: Yesterday I talked at length with the George Bush headquarters, and George W. Bush wants to make it clear, in keeping with the tradition in this country, when you have an election overlay a crisis like this, only one voice can speak and that's of the president. And the president's commander in chief, secretary of defense, they're doing their best.

I went to the Department of Defense this morning early and spent better part of an hour with the chairman of the Joint Chiefs' top briefing squad. We went through this issue very, very carefully. The answers are being developed. At the moment, let's have in mind the families and so forth, but that will be developed and that entire case of how we reviewed, go or no go, into that port.

But at the moment, I assure you and all others that it is being examined and no stone is being left unturned, and eventually, I believe as Senator Levin and I will have a hearing in our committee and spread it before the public.

BLITZER: But on that point, Senator Levin, the State Department's own report last year on terrorism had a very blunt description of Yemen, the lax security, a haven for terrorists. What does that say about the U.S. decision, at whatever level it was made, to go ahead and try to use this port of Aden for refueling, given the environment that exists in Yemen? LEVIN: The environment in the Middle East in many ports is dangerous and the decision as to which port to go into is properly left up to the regional commander, the military commander, the uniformed commander.

I have great confidence in General Zinni.

LEVIN: I have great confidence in General Franks. And that -- it seems to me that the regional commanders are the right ones to make that decision.

I don't think this is the time to be second-guessing our uniformed military. I think this is the time to be grieving for the loved ones, to be -- and taking care of the wounded and the families. And this kind of second-guessing, it seems to me, is really premature. And hopefully we will hear that the decision was not an erroneous one. But for the time being, let's embrace each other.

WARNER: But Carl, I tell you, this morning it is clear that orders are being given to take extra precautions with our fleet units in that region...

LEVIN: And properly so.

WARNER: ... as you might expect.

LEVIN: And properly so.

BLITZER: Were you told, Senator Warner, were you given some insight into who may have been responsible for this attack?

WARNER: Again, far too early. There are just fragments of information. Regrettably in this type of incident, people jump up and try and take credit. Can you believe that? I think...

LEVIN: But we do believe, however, that the government of Yemen now is cooperating fully.

WARNER: That is correct.

LEVIN: When checking with the JCS this morning and with the White House folks, they have assured me that there is cooperation from the president of Yemen. And it seems to me that is important news. There's nothing we've asked for that we've not received so far.

WARNER: That is correct. And as you know, tomorrow I will be meeting with Senator Levin with the ambassador to the United States from Yemen. Congress is -- those of us who are responsible for the military are very actively working with the administration on this issue.

BLITZER: Senator Levin, let's switch gears briefly and talk about the summit that's going to take place in Sharm el-Sheikh, the Israeli-Palestinian summit, with the participation of President Clinton. Is it your sense that Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak are still both committed to this peace process? Or have they both had a change of heart and decided, for different reasons, obviously, that there's nowhere to go?

LEVIN: I think Prime Minister Barak has been very clear, repeatedly said that he is going to continue to seek peace while he defends his country and defends against violent demonstrations, that he is committed to continue to seek peace. And what he has done, what Barak has done, what Arafat has not done, is that Barak has spoken out against violence -- explicitly, expressly -- against violence by Jews against Arabs or Arab property -- he has said that explicitly -- or by Arabs against Jews or Jewish property.

But that is what has been missing from Arafat. We have had not one single word about not committing acts of violence against the Jewish people or against Jewish property. He has been totally silent, and it speaks volumes. And that is what -- one of the reasons there are so many concerns in Israel about what Arafat's intentions are is because he has just been absolutely silent about violence, acts of violence in the street.

BLITZER: Senator Warner, you've covered -- you've watched the Middle East for many, many years. Who is responsible for this almost overnight deterioration of the situation between the Israelis and the Palestinians?

WARNER: Wolf, at this time, I think it's to the benefit of all to let this summit that will take place here tomorrow, get into action. And hopefully they can stop this violence for a sufficient period, and maybe build the bridge to the resumption of the peace talks.

Now, in the context of doing that, perhaps you can at some point go back and assess how this got started. The Senate, under the leadership of Senator Lott, I think probably Carl was on it, we signed a very powerful letter, which will be made public sometime today, expressing our grave concern about this. And specifically, as Carl Levin said, our concern that Yasser Arafat has not stood up as a world leader, as did Barak, to take the heat of trying to bridge the difficult questions that have persisted for so many years between Israel and Palestine.

BLITZER: I know that both you and Senator Levin did sign that letter. We have to take a quick break, Senators.

Just ahead, we will ask both Senators Warner and Levin about the presidential race, including how they think their candidates would handle an international crisis.

We'll also be taking your phone calls.

LATE EDITION will continue right after this.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP) GOVERNOR GEORGE W. BUSH (R-TX), PRESIDENTIAL CANDIDATE: I want to make sure we rebuild our military to keep the peace. I worry about morale in today's military. Warning signs are clear.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AL GORE, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: We have to keep our military strong. We have the strongest military, and I'll do whatever is necessary when I'm president to make sure it stays that way.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Welcome back to LATE EDITION.

We are talking with Virginia Republican Senator John Warner, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and the top Democrat of the Armed Services Committee, Michigan Senator Carl Levin. We want to talk a little bit about what's happening in the presidential race.

Let's take a caller though first, from Huntington, New York. Please go ahead with your question.

QUESTION: Yes, I'm calling from my hospital bed. I'm watching CNN, and I wanted to know from Senator Warner: Isn't it reckless, regardless of who is running for president, to make statements regarding military preparedness? And doesn't it not set a climate for terrorist attacks?

WARNER: That is a very good question. You may recall, in the last presidential election between Bob Dole and President Clinton, national security wasn't even on the debate.

It is important that that be debated now, because I and others are gravely concerned that we must further strengthen our military. Our military today are over-deployed in too many places around the world. It is under-resourced, both in terms of dollars and the ability now to retain key young officers, young enlisted, and in recruiting.

So we are facing a dire need to strengthen our military in the years to come. Fortunately, under the leadership, and I say this quite candidly, of a Republican-controlled Senate and House, we have increased every year over and above what President Clinton has asked for the military. We have increased several billion. And we just finished, last week, on the floor of the Senate, another bill, which took us $5 to $6 billion over the president's amount.

BLITZER: Senator Levin, on that note, you hear some whispering from Republican supporters of George W. Bush, that there may, in fact, be some sort of connection to what happened to the USS Cole and what they would regard as the lack of military preparedness, the readiness factor, that George W. Bush and Dick Cheney have been hammering away against the Clinton administration, that if the U.S. had greater readiness, greater preparedness, perhaps the Cole would not have needed to go ahead and use those refueling capabilities in Aden.

LEVIN: I think it is that kind of whispering by people in the Republican Party that the public deeply resents. There is no connection between resources and what happened on the Cole. Whether resources are adequate around the world for U.S. forces or not can be debated. But this has got nothing to do with the dastardly terrorist act against the Cole. We just heard the chief of naval operations say that.

What troubles me about what Governor Bush has been doing is when he makes these statements, such as we have two full Army divisions that are not ready for duty. He said that at the Republican Convention. That was something he consciously said. That is absolutely false.

And he, I think, subsequently, at least people around him, have had to acknowledge that he was flat-out wrong. They talk about people on food stamps. The number of people on food stamps has been reduced by three-quarters since President Clinton came to office.

And one other thing, we have had the largest sustained increase now in defense requested by President Clinton, added to by Congress somewhat, but requested by President Clinton, the largest sustained increase in defense since President Reagan, the biggest pay increase proposed by President Clinton, added slightly to by the Congress, but proposed by President Clinton, since President Reagan.

So I think these kind of statements about morale being low -- my gosh, I'm reading what Admiral Johnson, who is the previous CNO, says.

BLITZER: Senator, Senator, now hold on a second.

WARNER: I've got to have two seconds in here.

Now look here, Carl, let's make it clear there is no authenticated, factual -- that there's any rumors. And you and I know and all others, there is no linkage between the tragedy of the Cole and the condition of our armed forces today.

LEVIN: I couldn't agree with you more, I couldn't agree with you more, but Wolf just referred to those rumors.

WARNER: Wait a minute. Wolf, let -- I think in fairness, I talked at length with the Bush operation yesterday in preparation for this. No mention made of that. I think that we ought to put that one down fast.

BLITZER: All right. You obviously have right now.

WARNER: Second thing, on those two Army divisions, Carl, you and I know the chief of staff of the Army, prior to the convention, did declare those divisions not ready, but they had become ready at the time Bush made the statement.

(CROSSTALK)

LEVIN: No, that is not correct, that is not correct, John. They were declared ready long before the convention, and...

WARNER: I said that. But, Carl, it was a matter of timing. See, we've got to push this one aside.

BLITZER: All right, senators, let's move on and take another caller.

From Gulf Port, Mississippi, please go ahead with your question.

CALLER: Yes. In reference to USS Cole, I was on a Navy boat for 20 years, a bosun mate. We never used civilian boats to handle our lines. We put our own boats in the water. Why didn't the Cole?

BLITZER: Well, let me ask the former secretary of the Navy, John Warner.

WARNER: Hey, boats (ph), I'm glad to chat with you. I'm an old radio man, third class.

Look here, today, throughout the ports of the world, you go in and you have to rely on the local port authority, and indeed the government itself, which controls the port authority, to provide those individuals to tether your ship.

Now this was a new type of refueling pier that had just been built. The buoys were out from the pier, and there was a pilot on board, mind you, boats (ph), who brought that ship in. And it seems to me, the pilot's function was to look at those little lighters coming around to help out and decide which were real and which weren't real. And one of the pilots indicated that that ship is going to handle this line. It did handle a line, tied up, and then made the U- turn and came in.

It appears that that operation was very skillfully planned over a period of time and that precautions were taken, which were the routine of that port, and the Navy in previous calls into that facility.

Hey, you and I know, it's always easy on Monday morning to go back and figure out what happened in Sunday's football game, but in this instance, let's give the Navy the benefit of the doubt until this investigation comes in, because you and I know and feel at heart about those families today.

BLITZER: On that note, Senator Warner, Senator Levin, unfortunately we are all out of time. I want to thank both of you though for joining us once again on LATE EDITION.

LEVIN: Good to be with you, Wolf.

BLITZER: Thank you, Senators.

WARNER: Thank you, Carl.

BLITZER: Thank you.

Just ahead, what impact is the Middle East crisis having on the presidential race? And who won last week's second face-off between George W. Bush and Al Gore? We'll go round the table with Roberts, Page, and Carlson when LATE EDITION continues.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(AUDIO GAP)

BLITZER: We're going to show a little excerpt of that later in the program.

STEVE ROBERTS, CNN COMMENTATOR: I mean -- I mean, he -- Gore -- but it leaves the sense of Gore really doesn't know who he is. I mean, he's floundering back and forth, looking for a tone, looking for an identity. This sounds like before the conventions to me. A sense of, you know, Bush is not as smart as Al Gore, he's not as experienced as Al Gore, but he's steadier than Al Gore. He's moving along. And Gore is going like this, and I think the voters are sensing that. I think that's at least part of the explanation for it.

BLITZER: What also seems to have helped Bush -- Tucker, correct me if I'm wrong -- is that on most of these international issues, the hot issues like Yugoslavia, the Middle East this week, Bush and Gore were basically eye to eye. There was not much daylight between the two of them.

TUCKER CARLSON, CNN COMMENTATOR: That's right. There was a consensus. And Republicans generally do better -- and I think even Bush is doing better, than Democrats, again, as a general matter, on foreign policy and defense issues.

Bush has really returned to where he was months ago, I mean, in April, four or five points up. He's been there for a long time. And I think the Bush campaign believes he's just refining his equilibrium again.

But he was dominant in that debate. Gore was just awful. And I think if Gore loses, that will be seen as a turning point. I mean, they -- staff told Gore not to be overbearing, showed him the "Saturday Night Live" tape from the week before. I mean, it just spooked him. I mean, that's like showing the quarterback a tape of himself dropping the ball. You know, "By the way, Mr. Vice President, you've got a bad personality. They're mocking you on TV. Take a look at this."

I mean, it just destroyed him.

BLITZER: You know, what about this, the current crisis in the Middle East, the attack on the USS Cole. How does that affect this campaign, if it does at all, Susan?

SUSAN PAGE, CNN COMMENTATOR: I think it's going to have some effect. And I think we ought to be sort of humble about knowing at the moment exactly what the effect is going to be. I do think it's got the potential to be troubling for Vice President Gore. He's in a position now -- he's down in all the tracking polls by a small margin. He needs to change the -- he needs to get some momentum to change the dynamic of the race. It's harder to do that at a time when all the attention is on conditions abroad, not on the issues at home.

One other thing that it does, it puts President Clinton back at center stage. He leaves this afternoon to go to this big Middle East summit tomorrow. One of the things that's been helpful for Gore in the last couple months is that President Clinton has been somewhat removed from center stage. This puts him back there.

ROBERTS: There's no doubt that the news, the Middle East dominating the front pages, dominating the broadcast -- today was a good example on our show. Normally, three weeks before the election would be full of politics, but we weren't today.

And I think in some extent that does hurt Gore, because Gore was hoping to come out of the debate -- they had a very clear strategy. Hit the Texas record in the debate, go full court in terms of ads, in terms of surrogates, in terms of speeches all over the country, trying to raise visibility. And that got pushed to the side.

On the other hand, while it's true that Bush and Gore don't really differ substantively on foreign policy very much, the big difference is experience. And I think that this could weigh to Gore's advantage. If people see right in the middle of the election a sense of international danger, a sense of international unrest, there's at least a possibility they might reach for the more experienced person.

BLITZER: Except for one thing. Look at this number in our new CNN-"Time" magazine poll. "Who would better handle world affairs?" George W. Bush, 45 percent; Al Gore, 45 percent.

CARLSON: That's right. And it's not surprising. I think when people hear that question, the question they hear, really, is who's a better leader? Who is, as Steve said, steadier?

I mean, I don't think they're necessarily answering the question, you know, who knows the capitals of more countries, or who is on a first name basis with more world leaders. It's striking to me how little Bush has been hurt by his inexperience in foreign policy.

PAGE: You know there's something else, something Bush said in response to the very first question in that debate we saw last week, which was a president isn't the only person in an administration. You saw Colin Powell sitting beside Laura Bush in the front row; Dick Cheney, as his running mate.

You sort of can see, with this crisis, the very visible advisers to George Bush are the people who ran the Persian Gulf War for his father. And I think that is also helpful to George W. Bush. Makes it harder for Al Gore to make the case there's not enough experience on the other side to trust in a crisis.

BLITZER: On the other hand, Steve, during a time of crisis, the American people normally, naturally tend to rally around the president, in this case Bill Clinton. But it's the Clinton administration and the vice president is still part of that administration. ROBERTS: Yes, that's all true. And as Susan pointed out, Bill Clinton back on center stage. There's always been this ongoing psycho drama with Al Gore is -- you know, does he get out from under the shadow of Bill Clinton.

But I do think that there is at least a possibility that -- and this has been a problem for Bush all along, a potential vulnerability. When people actually get in the voting booth and they reach for that lever, is there a shadow of a doubt that maybe George Bush isn't experienced enough, not knowledgeable enough, not smart enough?

ROBERTS: And I do think it's at least possible that the atmospherics of a world in crisis, as opposed to a world of calm, for a few people, anyway, would cause them to say, I'm a little safer, a little more assured if I go with the guy who's been there before.

BLITZER: Tucker, one thing clearly does help George W. Bush in this situation. There's an international crisis, he's got General Colin Powell on one side, the former Defense Secretary Dick Cheney on another side.

Al Gore, who does he have as his chief international policy advisers?

CARLSON: Well, you know it always comes back to Clinton. I mean, you know, I do think that Clinton -- now of course, they're, as you put it, in the same administration, but Al Gore is his own man. Clinton cannot be relied upon in this or any other circumstance to push any of the credit toward Al Gore.

I mean, when he takes center stage, he not only takes it, he sort of elbows everyone off the stage. So I think the most likely scenario is that this crisis freezes the race where it is now and that neither candidate benefits, and hence, George W. Bush bounces.

BLITZER: And I am sure you noticed, Susan, being the great reporter that you are, I'm sure you noticed that Al Gore, for the first time in months, rushed back to the White House this week, I believe twice, to attend meetings with Bill Clinton.

PAGE: First time since June he had stepped foot back there. Very interesting. I mean, I think that was an effort, number one, to be involved in the deliberations, of course, but also to show his greater experience.

I'd like to go back something that Steve said, that maybe in the end voters will go with experience at a time of foreign crisis. I mean, a lot of Republicans hope this is like 1980. That's the last time we had a race that was as close as this race is now just three weeks out.

And then voters felt that Ronald Reagan, the challenger, crossed the bar to be safe enough to vote for. And I think Republicans are hoping you see that same kind of dynamic this year.

BLITZER: All right, we have to take a quick break. When we come back, as Steve mentioned, Wednesday's debate was parodied last night on "Saturday Night Live." We'll show you one of the highlights. You're not going to want to miss this one.

Stay with us.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Welcome back to our LATE EDITION roundtable.

We're talking -- everybody's talking about that very funny parody last night, on "Saturday Night Live." We've got a little excerpt. It won't do complete justice. It was very funny. But let's listen to this.

(VIDEOTAPE OF "SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE" PARODY OF PRESIDENTIAL DEBATE)

BLITZER: Tucker what does that say to you?

CARLSON: It says to me that someone on Al Gore's staff reads too many newspaper editorials. Newspaper editorial writers -- I was one once -- they love politeness in politics. They love it above all else.

"The New York Times" editorial after the first debate spent the entire first paragraph describing the lack of politeness. And the Gore people believed this. They got roped into it, into believing that politeness, and sort of, you know, kindness and friendly mannerisms were the most important thing, and they are not. You have to attack your opponent, even if it means just drawing clear distinctions.

BLITZER: Do you think they are going to restructure that, take another look at their game plan, going into this coming debate Tuesday night in Saint Louis?

PAGE: Yes, and remember this is a different format: the town hall format, citizens standing up and answering you questions. We're likely not to have questions about Nigeria. We are going to have questions about the things that affect people in their daily lives, health care and education. That may work to Gore's advantage. We're also going to see a situation in which it's harder for candidates to avoid or evade the questions. I think it's much tougher to avoid a question posed by a citizen than it is by a journalist.

ROBERTS: We have had two Al Gores already in these debates. We had the guy, you know, sighing and throwing himself around. Then we got the guy, they said later in the sketch, they said he sounded overmedicated. I mean, the guy was practically barely breathing. So maybe the third time he'll get it right.

But this is a big part of Al Gore's problem. I do think that the town hall meeting format could work to Gore's advantage. One of the reasons why he is slipping in the polls is that Bush has really neutralized some of his advantage on these traditional Democratic issues, that, as Susan says, people care about: Medicare, Social Security.

Notice at the end of this debate, George Bush mentioned two issues: Social Security, Medicare, traditional Democratic issues. He's following in the old Clinton game plan: Try to steal your opponent's best issues. If people ask about those things, Gore at least has a possibility of reconnecting and reasserting a certain Democratic advantage. But he is losing that advantage, one of the reasons why he's losing in the polls.

BLITZER: All right Tucker, what does Bush, and what does Gore have to do in this next debate?

CARLSON: Well, I mean I think Bush has to do what he has been doing. I mean, he has improved with each debate. Gore, I think, will be better in this one. I mean, I have to say it is going to be difficult, though, for Gore, because he is at his most, kind of, hard to watch when he is responding to ordinary citizens, as he often does. There is this kind of faux empathy that he throws off, that is off- putting, you know.

BLITZER: Although during the primaries, when he faced similar challenge from Bill Bradley, he came through in those town meetings.

PAGE: I think he has often been good in town hall meetings, actually. He's very knowledgeable. That shows. But you know, I think -- but of course, Gore needs this to be a debate that he clearly wins. If we have a draw, then Bush wins, because the dynamic is in Bush's advantage. Bush needs to avoid making some mistake, but Gore really needs to capitalize on some error that Bush has made. And that is hard to do, and not be seen as kind of mean and overbearing, as he was in the first debate.

BLITZER: All right. Susan Page, Tucker Carlson, Steve Roberts, we have to leave it there. We'll all be watching that debate very closely. I will be at a town meeting in Michigan that night with undecided voters. We'll hear from them as well.

And when we return, Bruce Morton's "Last Word."

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRUCE MORTON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): The Israelis do need Israel, can't leave it. It is their home too.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: The troubled Middle East. Is the gulf between Israelis and Palestinians too wide to overcome?

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Time now for Bruce Morton's last word, the cycle of violence that consumes the Middle East.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) MORTON (voice-over): In some ways, all terrorism is alike, bombs, bullets, bodies. The aim of terrorism, Franz Fennin (ph) wrote, is to terrify. And events in Israel remind us of that daily.

Irish author Roddy Doyle's latest novel, "A Star Called Henry," follows its hero, Henry Smart (ph), through the Irish troubles of the last century. It tells how the IRA made the British, police, black and tans, whoever it was that year, do their work for them. The IRA, using terrorism, plants a bomb, kills a policeman. And the British response, dead Irishmen, dead children sometimes, in the streets, creates recruits for the IRA, outrages Irish people and brings more of them into the fight for independence. We program them, Henry thinks.

Palestinians could think the same thing these days. Each Arab dead of an Israeli bullet brings more Arabs to the cause, but there is a difference. The British ruled Ireland, but didn't need it, and when the cost of keeping it grew high enough, they left. And the Irish got their country back, except for the Protestant counties in the north.

That won't work for the Arabs. The Israelis do need Israel, can't leave it. It is their home too. Years ago, people could argue for a secular Palestine, not Muslim or Jewish, but open to all, but not now. Israel is a Jewish state, has been for more than half a century.

It has Arab citizens. They vote. But it is a Jewish state, religion intertwined with government. The Arabs want a state, too, and it too would presumably be religious. That is possible only if Israel gives up land in exchange for simply a promise of peace. Many Israelis oppose that, including Ariel Sharon, though it is unfair to blame him for the killing which followed his visit to an historic place.

And many Palestinians oppose it, because they don't want just Gaza or the West Bank; they want the whole patch, gained by a war which drives the Jews into the sea. And the whole patch, to make things worse, isn't very big, never mind dividing it into two countries.

What does Arafat want? How much control has he, as opposed to the leaders of Hamas or Hezbollah or other groups? Hard to know from here.

But this is a situation with no easy answers, and there are real limits on what even a country as powerful as the United States can do about it.

I'm Bruce Morton.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: Thanks, Bruce.

When we return, we'll reveal what's on the cover of this week's major news magazines.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BLITZER: Now a look at what's on the cover of this week's major news magazines. Time magazine has a special report: "Terror in the Middle East; Barak's dilemma and Arafat's gamble," on the cover.

A similar image is on the cover of "U.S. News & World Report": "On the brink; war tensions in the Middle East after deadly rioting and an attack on a U.S. ship."

And on the cover of "Newsweek": "Target America; hunting the Yemen killers and a fire storm in the Middle East."

That's your LATE EDITION for Sunday, October 15. Be sure to join us next Sunday and every Sunday at noon Eastern for the last word in Sunday talk.

And stay with CNN for continuing coverage of events in the Middle East, including tomorrow's summit in Egypt.

I'll also be back tomorrow night on "THE WORLD TODAY," 8 p.m. Eastern.

For now, thanks very much for watching. Enjoy the rest of your weekend.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington.

TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT www.fdch.com

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