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CNN Today

Barak Discusses Future of Middle East in Light of Upcoming Israeli Elections

Aired February 2, 2001 - 1:30 p.m. ET

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

NATALIE ALLEN, CNN ANCHOR: Violence continues to mar the last days of the Israeli election campaign. Israeli troops battled with Palestinian gunmen in the West Bank and the fighting is the last thing Prime Minister Ehud Barak needs in his already troubled bid for reelection.

CNN's Christiane Amanpour now from Jerusalem.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Barely two years ago, Ehud Barak was elected prime minister of Israel by a landslide on a promise to bring peace. Today, he's fighting for his political life. His Likud Party opponent has a hefty lead.

Thank you for joining us, Mr. Prime Minister.

EHUD BARAK, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: Just a few months ago, Ariel Sharon, according to the polls and according to conventional wisdom was unelectable. How do you explain your dramatic reversal of fortune today?

BARAK: We are a nation that faces a tough choice. We have to disengage ourselves from the Palestinians; it's not an easy job to do. I set my course on this policy in order to do whatever we can to put an end to this conflict. Unfortunately, the same day that I was elected, the Knesset was elected, where I have no majority for the peace process. And the Knesset somehow imposed this election, and we are now in the election.

The question is not about Sharon per se, it's about my own policy, the need to tell the people the truth.

AMANPOUR: So you are saying you are calling for the tough choices and the painful necessities of peace and your opponent is what?

BARAK: My opponent is somehow hiding behind simplistic kind of slogans that have no chance to become practical when it comes to implementation. And as a result of it it becomes somewhat more obstructionist, especially when people are seeing the nature of the choices that I put in front of them. AMANPOUR: What Israelis today are saying, is where do we go from here? We've tried everything; we've tried to be tough, we've tried concessions, and look what we have now.

BARAK: Somehow -- it's a great disappointment for Israeli voters from both sides of the political map. For the right wing, a real agreement, if it is to be reached with real partners is much short of the dreams about (UNINTELLIGIBLE). And for the left wing it's a painful experience to realize that the partner is not the wishful thinking partner; that it is not a marriage out of love, it's more like a painful divorce.

AMANPOUR: Many people are saying that they're not just voting against you and your peace efforts, but against Arafat and the Palestinians; and they're saying that Arafat has toppled Barak.

BARAK: Arafat is the Palestinian leader. I did not shape him, I did not choose him, but he is the one to negotiate with or to struggle with, according to what he will ultimately decide. But I believe that it's better for both sides to find a way.

It -- I'm not surprised that we are facing these trouble and the violence when we are coming toward the end. The nation has the tendency to be born in the blood, not in (UNINTELLIGIBLE). And we have faced much tougher experiences for the life of Israel. I've spent all my life in uniform and I experienced it from, kind of, very short distances.

We are now at a crucial stage of the peace. It's natural that it's tough. It's natural that it comes with violence; we might not like it, but it's quite natural if you look back into history of other conflicts. And we have to be able to stand firm and out of sense of self-confidence and the strength to make decisions to lead it to an end; preferably through an agreement; if not, without an agreement.

AMANPOUR: Your friends and allies, people who believe in you say that you're a brave and brilliant man who really wanted to do this and who wanted to make his mark on history, but you just had no clue how to do it. They say that you have been a poor politician.

BARAK: Maybe I made a few or maybe many tactical mistakes, but I did not make a mistake in the very essence of what I have chosen to do; namely to do -- to leave no stone unturned in order to put an end to this conflict; at the same time, to be open-eyed enough that it takes two to tango. And I'm saying it from day one: It takes two to tango. I do not promise you a peace, I promise you a best effort to which, if it's possible, and I have many reasons why to do it now, and not to delay it. If we delay it, we might find ourself under a much more hostile Middle East.

AMANPOUR: But if you lose, can you imagine a situation where you could be involved in a unity government?

BARAK: I'm not focusing, now, this day of any other possibility but to win and I can tell you that I will not join an extremist government that will lead Israel into total international isolation, into decline of the economy and into deterioration -- into more violence rather than less violence.

AMANPOUR: You've always said that this election is basically a referendum on your peace effort, on the peace process. There is no real peace process that the Israeli people can see right now; so what is your argument for asking the Israeli public to reelect you?

BARAK: I'm telling the Israelis, your real choice is not between the beautiful slogans of Sharon, beautiful promises, but between the reality of separation -- two entities, we are here, they are there -- good fences make good neighbors. Or, alternatively, Sharon's idea, which is sticking to eternity, to every isolated settlement and providing you a future of living on your (UNINTELLIGIBLE) forever.

AMANPOUR: You keep calling Ariel Sharon an extremist. His campaign has portrayed him as an older, wiser man of peace.

BARAK: He is a man with many credits in the military history of Israel; a unique field commander. But at the same time, as a political leader he is almost (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the dominant figure in every blunder that we have got into in the last generation. He was pertinently involved in our deep, sinking into the Lebanon tragedy; he was the leading person in spreading these political settlements, as Rabin used to call them, over everybody here in the (UNINTELLIGIBLE). And he's even the individual that was at the center of igniting the religious kind of twists to the present Intifada through his visit to the mount temple.

AMANPOUR: You say that, and you point out his experience in Lebanon; and you brought the troops out of Lebanon after 18 years, and yet the Israeli public doesn't seem to be giving you credit for that. So something is not getting through.

BARAK: I know that this is the right thing to do for our nation, for the future of the children, and I'm ready to take the risk.

AMANPOUR: Is the risk worth, perhaps, the sinking of your political career?

BARAK: Yes, my political career is very -- it's kind of something very dramatic. I came to power faster than ever in the history of this country and I stood until now for the shortest time as a prime minister. But let me tell you, I don't take myself so seriously as to pretend that I'm more important than the future of this country.

AMANPOUR: And on that note, thank you very much for joining us, prime minister.

BARAK: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: I'm Christiane Amanpour in Tel Aviv.

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