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CNN Today

Crisis In The Middle East: U.S. Institute for Peace Officer Discusses Clinton Proposal

Aired January 2, 2001 - 1:41 p.m. ET

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

LOU WATERS, CNN ANCHOR: As you just heard David Ensor report, Yasser Arafat is in Washington. He's about to meet with the president, because he said he needs more information about the Clinton proposal for peace in the Middle East.

Now, Israel's prime minister says he doubts that Arafat is serious.

Are there signs of hope for the troubled region?

Jon Alterman is an expert on Middle East issues. He's a program officer with the U.S. Institute for Peace, specializing in cross- cultural negotiations.

What do you think, Mr. Alterman, about Arafat -- do you, too, doubt his seriousness?

JON ALTERMAN, U.S. INSTITUTE FOR PEACE: I don't doubt his seriousness. He has serious reservations about the plan. The Palestinian feeling is that the plan is very specific on issues of concern to the Israelis, very vague on issues of concern to the Palestinians.

My sense is that, while president Clinton can certainly get an agreement while he's still in office, it's going to be very, very, very difficult, and very unlikely, that he'll be able to get the agreement that lays the foundation for resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict in the future.

WATERS: Well, there is some talk today that even if Yasser Arafat says yes today, there is growing doubt whether the Israelis will say yes. Earlier on they said if the Palestinians accept this framework, we're on board, but since the initial specifics of the plan were revealed, including the sovereignty over the holy sites, declining support for that deal in Israel.

ALTERMAN: That's true both in the Israeli community and the Palestinian community. One of the things that we've seen is that support from for the kinds of concessions that this deal would require from each side is declining, in both the Israeli and the Palestinian community. The last poll on the Israeli side was about a three to two margin against these kinds of concessions. That's going to be very, very hard to overcome. It also makes Yasser Arafat wonder why he's to make concessions to Ehud Barak when, in fact, Ehud Barak may lose his election on February 6th for prime minister of Israel, and then Yasser Arafat would have to be working on fleshing out these agreements with somebody like Ariel Sharon, who said I don't really believe in these kinds of agreements with the Palestinians, it's not the way to go.

WATERS: What has to happen now as far as passing the flame to the Bush administration? What's -- what's the responsibility there, since this is such a critical time in all of this?

ALTERMAN: Well, it's still very, very unclear what the situation will be come January 20th, whether we'll be working on implementing an agreement, whether we'll be sort of at a dead end on the Oslo process. I think it's probably too early to say what's going to happen January 21st.

WATERS: Many Arabs, as you have said, are in favor of a peace deal with the Israelis, but only get be 100 percent of what they want -- that's not the Clinton deal, is it?

ALTERMAN: It's not the Clinton deal. There are significant concessions from both sides required. I think one of the things that's very important to keep in mind is that, in many cases, the hardest issues here are the symbolic issues. The Palestinians talked time and time again about a right of return -- that people who left their homes in 1948 and 1967 have a right to return to them.

Israelis interpret that as saying, oh, we're going to be overrun by Palestinians. My own sense is that a right of return, and exercising a right of return, are very separate issues. In the many cases, what the Palestinians want to say is we've gotten things -- symbolic things -- and that's just as important as getting results on the ground.

WATERS: Well, let's see how the day goes -- maybe we'll get a chance to talk again and there will be favorable conditions for peace in the Middle East.

Jon Alterman with the U.S. Institute for Peace, we appreciate very you stopping by today -- happy New Year.

ALTERMAN: Thank you very much.

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