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Crisis in the Middle East: Explosion Rocks Israeli Resort Town; Yasser Arafat Agrees to Meet with President Clinton in Washington

Aired January 1, 2001 - 4:00 p.m. ET

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

JOIE CHEN, CNN ANCHOR: We begin this hour with what may prove to be a critical development in the negotiations over Washington's latest peace proposal for the Middle East, and the violence that led up to it.

Just about four hours ago, in an Israeli resort town, three large blasts marked the start of the new year. The car-bomb explosion injured at least 20 people, one of them seriously, and compelled the Israeli prime minister, Ehud Barak, to call for an emergency meeting of his security cabinet. Yet, at this hour, there is a spark of hope that some sort of peace deal can be agreed upon. That hope stems from a phone call that was made from the White House to the region.

Joining us with details now: CNN's Eileen O'Connor at the White House -- Eileen.

EILEEN O'CONNOR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Joie, White House officials confirm that it was President Clinton who reached out to the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in a 45-minute phone call. The two did discuss those actions of violence, the violence that occurred today in the region. The United States has expressed concern: the president asking that both sides do everything they can in their powers to stop that violence.

But also, the main purpose of the phone call, aides are saying, was to ensure the Palestinian leader knew and understood and had a common understanding of the parameters that President Clinton put forward last week to Israeli and Palestinian negotiators who were here in Washington. Now, these parameters, these are ideas that President Clinton has, basically, to move the peace process forward. And he is hoping -- and U.S. negotiators are hoping -- that they will accept -- both sides will accept the parameters.

But they need to have a common understanding of the parameters first. So, in terms of when he spoke to Chairman Arafat -- who also had been meeting with Hosni Mubarak, the Egyptian leader -- everyone working together to try to move this process forward -- President Clinton trying to ensure that Mr. Arafat has the same understanding that the Israeli side has as to these parameters. They do, of course, concern the status of Jerusalem, the return of refugees, and the security of borders: the main sticking points in any peace deal in the region. So the two sides agree the importance of these issues, the importance of these parameters, the importance of this process depends on this common understanding. Therefore, they -- both sides, White House officials say -- decided it was in their interests to meet. And Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, we are being told by sources in the Middle East, is actually going to be getting on an airplane in about an hour from now in Gaza, 5:00 p.m. Eastern Time. And he will be coming to Washington -- White House officials only saying that they are working to have this meeting in Washington as soon as possible within the next few days.

But, according to Palestinian sources -- Middle East sources -- the Palestinian leader is, in fact, going to be en route this evening to Washington for those meetings. Now, White House officials are saying the meetings will take place here in Washington at the White House. And, again, White House officials caution, Joie, that they are neither encouraged or discouraged by this development. But they do believe that, as you say, there is at least a spark of hope, because at least the Palestinian leader is agreeing to listen again to these ideas and try to clarify these points -- Joie.

CHEN: All right, CNN's Eileen O'Connor for us at the White House.

We want to move quickly now to Mike Hanna, with the latest from the region. Mike is in Jerusalem now.

Mike, what can you tell us about these plans for Yasser Arafat to come to the states?

MIKE HANNA, CNN JERUSALEM BUREAU CHIEF: Well, it has been confirmed that Mr. Arafat will be leaving Gaza City within the next four hours; 3:00 in the morning, local time, he is now due to leave for Washington for talks with President Clinton on the latest U.S. proposals. Palestinian sources tell CNN that Mr. Arafat has not accepted the proposals as such for a basis of further negotiation.

However, he has agreed to discuss the matter with President Clinton. Mr. Arafat and the Palestinian leadership has been seeking clarification on the U.S. proposals that have been delivered within the past few days. They've been asking for points to be clarified on a number of issues in these proposals. One must remember that these proposals were, in fact, never formerly written down. CNN understands that the two teams of negotiators who met with President Clinton in Washington a short while ago actually had the proposals dictated to them by President Clinton, and wrote them down in notebooks.

And then they reported back to their respective leaders. So Mr. Arafat now -- although he has not, as yet, accepted the proposals -- is prepared to discuss the matter further, to seek further clarifications in a face-to-face meeting with President Clinton. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak has made his position clear: He says that Israel will accept the proposals as the basis for further negotiations if the Palestinian Authority does likewise -- so a little bit of movement here on the diplomatic front. But on the backdrop, too, there's movement: once again acts of violence within Israel. In the early evening, at the height of traffic rush hour in the coastal town of Netanya, a car bomb exploded. That is what police say it was. Twenty people were injured in the blast, a huge amount of damage caused to surrounding shops. The police say that 20 people were injured in the blast. Hospital authorities say 19 of them only received light injuries. However, the 20th person is reported to be in a critical condition. And police say they are examining the possibility that he was connected to the detonation of the explosive device.

So, on this day: the car bombing in an Israeli town at the height of rush hour -- at the same time: some apparent movement on the diplomatic front, but all sides cautioning against any undue option -- optimism -- pointing out that Mr. Arafat is yet to accept the U.S. proposals. What is being discussed now is clarification, perhaps of the terms of these proposals. But they will be meeting face-to-face -- U.S. President Bill Clinton and Yasser Arafat -- within the next 24 hours.

CHEN: Mike, you talked about the backdrop of violence of earlier on this day in Israel -- also over the weekend, the deaths then that added to some of the sense of urgency and concern about another flare- up of violence in the region. Can you brief us on that?

HANNA: Yes, indeed. Over the weekend, there were two very high- profile killings on either side. An extremist, right-wing Jewish- settler leader, Binyamin Kahane, was killed by Palestinian gunmen who -- who attacked his car, in which he was traveling with his wife -- who was also killed -- and five of their six children. Also on the same day, within a matter of hours, a senior organizer for the -- Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement was killed. The Palestinians insist that Thabet Thabet was killed by an Israeli undercover squad. Israel Defense Force is still refusing to comment on the whole incident.

But these two very high-profile killings of very high-profile people really caused the tension -- which has been ever-present here for a long period of time -- to reach virtually boiling point -- huge pressure on Prime Minister Ehud Barak from, particularly, right-wing sectors of the Israeli public to suspend all negotiations with the Palestinian Authority -- huge pressure on Mr. Arafat from sectors of the Palestinian public to sever all negotiations with the Israeli authorities -- so a very difficult period indeed.

Tension remains high -- both leaders facing a lot of opposition from within their constituencies to any suggestion that they continue attempting to negotiate a peace deal.

CHEN: Mike, we're going to ask you to stand by for a minute here.

Confirming here the sense of urgency and critical moment that this may be for the region and for the negotiations about it, we want to return to Eileen O'Connor at the White House to fill us in a little bit further about what you understand about how this came to be that Yasser Arafat is making this last-minute, quite-unplanned-previously visit to the states to Washington, apparently to talk with Mr. Clinton himself.

O'CONNOR: Well, there was obviously concern, Joie, about the fact that there has been this ongoing violence. President Clinton reached out to Yasser Arafat because he had been hearing through his negotiators that the Palestinian leader wanted some clarification on these points. And the president felt it was very important to make sure that there was a common understanding on the Israeli side, on the Palestinian side of these parameters.

And he believes that these parameters are good ideas for going forward, as you heard Mike say. The Israeli side has said they will accept them if the Palestinian side accepts them. So this is a very critical point. Also, this backdrop of violence clearly concerning to the White House: White House officials telling me today they, you know, were obviously concerned about it. And they say: You know, this just shows we are aware there are opponents to the peace process. And this just shows that.

It also shows how high the stakes are in this process, how important it is for the sides to try to move forward. And White House officials have been saying over the last few weeks, you know, these are the waning days of the Clinton administration. But this is an administration that has worked for eight years very hard -- in addition to Republican administrations in the past -- but they've been working very hard on this peace process.

And they do believe perhaps that perhaps they can move it forward with that experience also behind them. And, as well, Bobbie -- Joie -- they also have been saying that, you know, while they're happy that the chairman is coming here, they believe that it's good that they are talking about it, they do stress he hasn't agreed to these proposals, that they are neither encouraged nor discouraged -- Joie.

CHEN: Eileen, was there any indication from the White House what sort of conversation Mr. Clinton and Mr. Arafat had: the sense of emotion to it? Was it a difficult conversation? Anything in terms of perspective that we can help to understand about the conversation and this moment for both of these men?

O'CONNOR: No, it was 45 minutes. And it was really getting down to business. You know, the president also talked about the violence today, and the fact that both sides have to do something to stop it and to ensure that this violence is stopped. You know, the White House officials believe that only if they can stop the violence can the peace process move forward.

So, obviously, that was very important, very business-like. And, you know, the negotiations have been going on not just within this phone call, Joie. They've also been going on throughout the week. Ever since those meetings in Washington, U.S. negotiators have been on the phone with the Israeli negotiators, the Palestinian negotiators: Madeleine Albright, the secretary of state, Sandy Berger, the national security council adviser -- also the Middle East team: Dennis Ross, Aaron Miller, Rob Malley, Bruce Reidel.

All of these very experienced hands in these negotiations have been dealing with this for years. And they have all been involved even over this last few days, the holiday week -- Joie.

CHEN: Eileen O'Connor at the White House.

We want to go back now to Mike Hanna in Jerusalem.

Mike, can you talk about the needs for Mr. Arafat -- what he is needing and expecting to hear, what he needs out of a meeting with Mr. Clinton at this point?

HANNA: Well, Mr. Arafat has made clear that he wants clarification on a number of issues in the Clinton proposals. These issues range from the right of return to refugees, to the question of the status of Jerusalem. These are the two prime issues that we understand Mr. Arafat is seeking clarification on: particularly the question of right of return of refugees, which Israeli, for its part, has said it's nonnegotiable: Palestinian refugees cannot come back in unlimited numbers to Israel -- proper that they would be allowed to come back to the Palestinian Authority, which would be, in effect, an independent Palestinian state.

But these are the issues that Mr. Arafat is seeking clarity on: the question of the status of Jerusalem, the sovereignty. They want to look at maps. They want to look at proposed borders. There is a whole lot of details that the proposals do not address. The proposals are essentially a heads-up of discussion, argument, rather than firm, concrete detail. And that is what Mr. Arafat is reportedly looking for.

But we mentioned again this telephone conversation. We understand from Palestinian sources that it was a very intense telephone conversation indeed. And, initially, Mr. Arafat said that he cannot come, at this point, to Washington. He has got an Arab League meeting of foreign ministers on Thursday. He would prefer to come to Washington on Friday. President Clinton, according to the sources, said: We need to discuss this as soon as possible. We need to speak face-to-face -- hence, the very sudden decision for Mr. Arafat to be leaving to go to Washington for the talks with President Clinton -- so everything being done at what comes to a breakneck pace, Joie.

CHEN: CNN's Mike Hanna for us in Jerusalem, as well as Eileen O'Connor at the White House. Thanks to you both.

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