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Special Event

Israel Decides: Election Set for Tomorrow

Aired February 5, 2001 - 1:30 p.m. ET

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

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Christiane Amanpour, in Tel Aviv, with a special report on the Israeli elections.

Nearly 70 percent of Israelis still believe in the peace process, they say, but they're just not sure whether Prime Minister Ehud Barak is the one to deliver it. This is turning out to be a referendum on Barak himself, and trailing badly in the polls, Barak was out campaigning to the very last minute.

It is also turning out to be a referendum on Israel's sense of security. And with just hours to go before voting starts, Israeli army reports another Israeli soldier was killed in Gaza, and the Israelis say that they have closed all the West Bank territories and Gaza. They will be closed throughout election day.

His opponent, Likud leader Ariel Sharon, meanwhile, is way ahead in the polls, and he demonstrated his self-confidence by not hitting the campaign trail Monday and mostly spending his day in the office surrounded by close aides and the strategists, who are already looking to the day after.

So how did things get to this point? Just a few weeks ago, Ariel Sharon was considered unelectable -- this in contrast to Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who was elected 21 months ago by a landslide.

This report from CNN's Mike Hanna.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

MIKE HANNA, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): July, 1999, and Ehud Barak takes power: He supports what he calls a peace of the brave with Israel's Arab neighbors and pledges that within 15 months he will sign an agreement not only with the Palestinians but also with Lebanon and Syria, two countries technically still at war with Israel.

October, 2000, the 15-month period is over, Israel is locked in a bitter conflict with the Palestinians, talks with Syria have long crumbled, Hezbollah guerrillas are continuing operations in southern Lebanon -- peace never looked further away.

And now, Ehud Barak's position as prime minister in the balance, all polls indicating he will lose from the challenger from the opposition Likud Party, Ariel Sharon. (on camera): In little more than 18 months, the political roller coaster in which joyous hope has turned to desperate despair, in which the peace making of the brave has become a seemingly never ending process of bitter and sometimes hateful wrangling.

(voice-over): No sign in the early days of Barak's tenure of what was to come. In September, 1999, a Barak meets Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat at Sharm el-Sheikh, in Egypt, and they agree to open negotiations on a permanent peace accord to be completed within one year.

In December 1999, Israel resumes negotiations with Syria after a four- year freeze. But within weeks, the talks are suspended over disagreement about the extent of Israel's withdrawal from land captured in 1967 -- the sticking point, a strip of territory less than one mile wide and three miles long.

But in May, Barak orders unilateral withdrawal of Israeli forces from southern Lebanon, ending an occupation that had lasted more than two decades and that had claimed hundreds of Israeli lives. The prime ministers's public approval rating soars.

The negotiations with the Palestinians had been taking place on different tracks. In march, Israeli forces had withdrawn from another 6 percent of West Bank land. But in July, a domestic political crisis flared. Barak's decision to hold peace talks at Camp David without fully disclosing his agenda led to uproar in Israel's Knesset, or parliament. The government lost its majority as Barak's coalition was abandoned by a number of parties. Barak himself narrowly survived votes of no confidence before departing for the talks. Coming home with the deals, said observers, would be Barak's only political lifeline.

But after two weeks of intensive negotiation at Camp David, no deal. A particular point of disagreement: the status of Jerusalem, which each side insists should be its capital.

On his return to Israel, Barak sought to shore up his domestic political support, but the very factions he needed to regain a majority parliament were the same factions bitterly opposed to his peace process. Caught between the need to broker peace and garner domestic support, Barak achieved neither.

At the end of September, disagreement at the negotiating table transformed into confrontation in the streets, the apparent catalyst a visit by Ariel Sharon to a holy site Jews called the Temple Mount, in the Old City -- a site sacred to Muslims, too, who call it the Haram al-Sharif, or Noble Sanctity.

The following day, as the Muslim protests continued, Israeli forces killed several Arabs, the first deaths in what over succeeding months became known as the Al Aqsa intifada -- a throwing off the yoke, taking its name from a mosque in the Noble Sanctity. The conflict spread throughout the Palestinian territories, and particular flashpoints: Israeli positions guarding Jewish settlements scattered throughout Gaza and the West Bank. In October, Barak declares a time out in the peace negotiations, insisting he will not be coerced by violence. Talks aimed at creating a national emergency government with Ariel Sharon collapse when Mr. Sharon demands the right to veto any decisions regarding the peace process.

Attempts by the U.S. and the U.N. to revive that peace process fail, and what were negotiations about how to achieve a lasting peaceful settlement became a serious of sporadic discussions aimed only at curbing the ongoing violence.

On November the 28th, following a series of moves to oust him, Ehud Barak attempts to turn the tables by calling for general elections, and after days of vigorous political maneuvering and infighting, the prime minister calls a special news conference. Pale and apparently exhausted, Ehud Barak announces his resignation, cutting through the debate about when the election should take place by forcing an early vote for the post of prime minister alone.

The intention, he told the Israeli public: to get a mandate for peace. But opinion polls show the votes cast in the next 24 hours may not necessarily be for or against peace; they are more likely to be for or against Ehud Barak.

Mike Hanna, CNN, Jerusalem.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

AMANPOUR: Prime Minister Barak likes to say that the Middle East is a tough neighborhood, and there's no mercy shown to the weak. The trouble is the Israeli people are saying they feel weakened by the Palestinian intifada. Mr. Barak counters that he says he's been strained in his use of force because he's had to balance that for good of this country.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

EHUD BARAK, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: I believe that we've found the balance between paralysis on one hand and overuse of force -- it might bring, immediately, the whole world against Israel in a very damaging way that the ordinary -- ordinary citizen in the street is unaware of. We are acting very, very effectively against whoever tries to hit us, and we are using to use the leverages we had to the maximum reasonable way.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: Now, with Likud Party leader Ariel Sharon way ahead in the polls and claiming to know "how to deal with the Arabs," CNN's Jerrold Kessel looks at what might lie ahead.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JERROLD KESSEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Ariel Sharon during his controversial visit to Jerusalem's holy site last September -- an action which, in retrospect, can be seen to have set in motion events which ironically have brought Mr. Sharon to the threshold of his long cherished dream to become Israel's leader. But even with the premiership seemingly within his grasp, Mr. Sharon is being scrupulously to keep under wraps his vision of what he means to do if he wins.

The prime minister told CNN he's already created a legacy it'll be difficult to shift.

BARAK: I believe and hope that we will win. But even if worse comes to worse and Sharon wins, we shaped and we defined the issue, the problem at stake; we moved dramatically the positions within the Israeli people; and we are now more maturely deployed to face the realities and to reach the solution. I am confident that when solution will be achieved, the solution will look almost identical with what we have just put on the table now and were unable to finally complete.

KESSEL: If the polls are borne out, within the fractured Israeli Knesset, Mr. Sharon looks to have enough backing to form a narrow government with the religious and far-right parties, a government which his critics say would be very extreme. But he could opt for a broad national unity coalition, a pragmatic government including Mr. Barak's Labor Party. For some, the security he inspires is laced with concern about what he might do.

ALICE SHALVI, EDUCATOR: Even people who may vote for Sharon probably do so with a certain degree of worry as to what -- of concern -- as to what he may do. The fear that whatever happens, he'll respond, as to a certain extent we have done so far, with excessive military force. Unfortunately, very many Israelis now want a strongman. And they worried about that tendency, because it can easily lead to fascism or Peron-ism.

KESSEL: Some Sharon advocates say he may be a strong leader. But that's what Israel needs to make a lasting peace.

EHUD OLMERT, JERUSALEM MAYOR: Sharon of today is not necessarily the Sharon of 30 years ago. It is widely agreed by everyone that we have moved into a different phase now and that what we need is a political process different from the one that was proposed by Barak, but a political process. Sharon is ready for it.

KESSEL: The fears among Sharon opponents of what Sharon in power might mean Israeli society are often couched in apocalyptic terms.

YORAM KANIUK, ISRAELI AUTHOR: The day after the election, a lot of people will wake up, the sun will shine. They will wake up and see another Israel: right wing, religious, ultrareligious, militant religious, messianic religious. And they are now holding Sharon. He cannot do anything without them. And what kind of Israel it will be?

KESSEL: But it's not how Sharon might reshape Israel that seems to be at the forefront of voters' minds. Their primary concern seems to be security: to reverse the situation where Israel, they feel, had been ran ragged by the Palestinians on the battleground and at the negotiating table. RABBI BENI ELON, KNESSET MEMBER: How to give back the balance of fear and the security. Sharon has experience with giving back the feeling of safety and security to the citizens of Israel. And people really think that he has commitment for -- for those things: to return back the balance of fear.

KESSEL (on camera): It's that, if anything, which seems to be winning him this election, neutralizing the fears which many Israelis have had about having Ariel Sharon as their prime minister.

Jerrold Kessel, CNN, Jerusalem.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

AMANPOUR: And when we come back after a break, we will try to find out about Ariel Sharon's plan for the future. And we'll talk to Labor Party Shimon Peres who thinks he should have been the candidate, not Barak.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

AMANPOUR: Far ahead in the campaign trail and in the opinion polls, Ariel Sharon has nonetheless been fairly tight-lipped about exactly with his plan for the future would be.

Joining us now here in Tel Aviv, Eyal Arad,

Mr. Arad, in the peace process, Sharon has declared Oslo dead. So what is exactly his recipe for the future?

EYAL ARAD, SHARON STRATEGIC CONSULTANT: Well, first of all, he did not declare Oslo dead. What he said is that Palestinians started to fire and started to complain of terror against us. Then, they actually emptied the Oslo accords out of any real content because, you know, you have disagreement so that you negotiate

(CROSSTALK)

AMANPOUR: So what is the option? What is the alternative to Oslo?

ARAD: I believe that he thinks that we should put the peace process in a different phase and try to move to a multiphased plan of peace, by which we move ahead with the Palestinians, but cautiously, step by step, and try to find arrangements by which they can run their own lives in the West Bank and in Gaza, while we can enjoy the safety and the fruits of peace.

AMANPOUR: You know that we have spoken a lot about the concessions that are potentially on offer by Prime Minister Barak. The Palestinians haven't yet accepted these. How will they accept less under a Sharon plan?

ARAD: Actually, I think that Barak -- Mr. Barak has offered the Palestinians -- according to press reports -- much more than most Israelis would agree to. And I think he proved the point that maybe peace cannot be achieved through concessions, through putting Israel in the position of weakness and humiliation, but rather through a different position.

Maybe we can achieve a peace through strength that might be a different approach, but have better results in making peace.

AMANPOUR: It sounds like the emphasis is on security. Let me -- you just used the word "humiliated." You know very well that Mr. Sharon's reputation in the Arab world is: People look at him with a certain sense of dread for all the military operations he's conducted in the past. So your people have been saying that the Sharon of today is not the Sharon of 30 years ago. I mean, what exactly does that mean?

ARAD: Well, I'm not sure that that's what we say. We say...

AMANPOUR: The mayor of Jerusalem said that yesterday.

(CROSSTALK)

ARAD: General Sharon is a man who fought in all of Israel's battles, since the Independence War throughout the trials that we have gone through as a nation. And he says about himself that he's a man who has gone through the horrors of war. He understands the meaning of peace much better than many politicians who have not seen what he has saw. And so I think he has negotiated peace in the past.

He was with Begin, with Prime Minister Begin at the Camp David accords and helped him carry them out. He negotiated with the Jordanians after a peace agreement was signed. He was foreign minister of Israel. He negotiated with the Palestinians at Wye Plantation only two years ago. And they came to a deal. So I believe that our approach is actually can bring peace. It's important that we all understand that the difference between the camps in Israel is not the question of whether we want peace. It's a question of how to get there best.

Now, Barak promised us peace and security. He brought war. Let's try a different approach.

AMANPOUR: Well, we'll certainly all be watching and so will the rest of the world.

In the meantime, earlier today, I spoke with the Labor Party elder statesman Shimon Peres and asked him how he thought, if Sharon won, how he would govern. Mr. Sharon has said that he wants to have a unity government. I began by asking Mr. Peres whether Labor would join such a government.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SHIMON PERES, FMR. ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: Not on the platform of the Likud Party. If the Likud Party will go for a peace program, why not? The problem is not the government. The problem -- the problem is the plan. AMANPOUR: So do you think he is more interested in being prime minister and leading a government or in sticking to the very clear plans that he says he has?

PERES: I wouldn't put him in such a poor light. Deep in his heart, he knows that he has to compromise, no matter what he says. You know, like in America, so here, there are two plans: one for a candidate before the election and then, when he becomes a leader, after the election. But what Sharon is suggesting today is a peace without the Arabs. I cannot see how you can achieve it.

AMANPOUR: Do you anticipate Prime Minister Barak remaining as leader of the Labor Party if he loses this election?

PERES: If he will lose very poorly, he will have to draw his own conclusions.

AMANPOUR: He will have to?

PERES: Draw the conclusions.

AMANPOUR: You are saying he will have to resign?

PERES: Well, before the elections, I use a different language than you do.

AMANPOUR: Do you think that you should have been given a chance to stand in this election?

PERES: Yes.

AMANPOUR: You do?

PERES: Not because of me. I think leaders must listen to the people. After all, polls is the voice of the people. Now, if you have a marginal voice, they may say it's a mistake. You know, you should wait. But this was a clear-cut voice: day in day out over the last three months.

AMANPOUR: So let's assume the polls are correct and that tomorrow there will be a new prime minister and a new party, Ariel Sharon. What next?

PERES: The new prime minister, whoever it will be, will have to face, no doubt about it, he'll have to face the realities of our time. He cannot run away from it. He cannot run away from it, that there are 3 million Palestinians here, there is a world public opinion. And every prime minister, no matter what his plans and views were, he will have to face the reality in real terms.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: Peres admits that Israel may have handled the peace efforts with the Palestinians poorly, being too concerned with the mechanics of security and territory and not concerned enough with the Palestinians' feeling, their quality of life and aspirations. We go to Gaza after a break.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

AMANPOUR: This is all about what the Israelis are feeling. They're feeling, they say, bewildered and betrayed. They say, what do the Palestinians want? We've had a prime minister who's offered many, many concessions for peace, almost all of what the Palestinians said they wanted, and all we got in return, they say, is more like war. That's the view from here.

Ben Wedeman in Gaza, that's certainly not the view from there.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Christiane, Gaza is now completely sealed off on the eve of Israel's elections, a precautionary measure, Israel says, but also one in response to renewed bloodshed here today. And it is that bloodshed that preoccupies the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

WEDEMAN (voice-over): Another funeral in Gaza. Thousands turn out to bury Ismail Telbani (ph) in the Mehgazi (ph) Refugee Camp. Israeli troops had shot Telbani, a 50-year-old taxi driver, the evening before at Netzarim Junction. Telbani was not a member of any of Gaza's radical groups, but in death those groups enlisted him as their martyr.

The next day, the residents of Jabalya Refugee Camp joined the funeral of Ahmed Mohecim (ph), also shot dead by Israeli soldiers. The Israeli army says Mohecim was trying to sneak into Israel. Palestinian security sources say he was shot in cold blood while out for a stroll. The grim routine of death and rage grips the streets of Gaza. Tuesday's election in Israel seems a world away.

(on camera): Almost daily funerals in the West Bank and Gaza for those killed in the intifada have left the Palestinians angry, bitter and largely indifferent to the outcome of the Israeli elections.

(voice-over): The West Bank village of Singid (ph), surrounded by Israeli settlements, has seen its share of trouble, has seen Israeli leaders come and go.

"They're all the same," says 26-year-old Fatinisa (ph). "Sharon is a butcher, and so is Barak. This peace just isn't working."

"What do I think of them?" asks her mother Miriam (ph). "I don't like any of them. We want someone who is good with us, someone who will leave us alone."

The Palestinian Authority is worried about the prospect of a Sharon victory.

MARWAN KANAFANI, PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY: We don't think that Mr. Sharon is coming to plant roses around, you know, all the roads between here and Jerusalem. He's going to come with more aggression, with more, you know, atrocities against our people.

WEDEMAN: But after four months of the bloodiest clashes between Palestinians and Israelis in decades, few Palestinians see Barak as a peacemaker.

HANAN ASHRAWI, PALESTINIAN LEGISLATIVE COUNCIL: The Palestinian leadership is reacting to an exaggerated fear of Sharon. Sharon may be brutal, but so is Barak. Sharon will offer in terms of the peace process less than Barak, so he will fail to deliver. What Barak could not deliver, certainly Sharon will not deliver. And I think that this exaggerated fear of Sharon or this exaggerated confidence in Barak both are entirely unrealistic.

WEDEMAN: Hamas, Israel's most implacable foe, warns that the Palestinian leadership's preference for Barak will backfire.

ISMAIL ABU SHANAB, HAMAS: It's a big mistake. When the Palestinian Authority tries to bid on a loser, it will lose. So all the time, they bid on the losers and they lost.

WEDEMAN: At the martyr's cemetery in Gaza, Ahmed Mohecim's body is lowered into the ground to the sound of gunfire. The anger here is not against the current or future prime minister of Israel, but Israel itself.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

WEDEMAN: Despite their reservations, Palestinian officials say they will work, they have no choice but to work, with whoever becomes the next prime minister of Israel -- Christiane.

AMANPOUR: Ben, thank you very much from Gaza.

Now, here in Israel, we've been talking a lot about what the Israelis are feeling, thinking and fearing, so we thought we should let you hear it from them.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Barak, sure. He's the only choice, I think -- the only reasonable choice, the only logical choice, although I don't think it's going to matter because all the polls show that Sharon is going to take it. But who knows? Maybe another miracle in the Holy Land.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I've chosen Sharon. He's supposed to make a peace.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I'm not sure what I'm going to do yet. Between here and there I don't know, I don't know. If I go for Sharon, I'm not so sure what will happen the other one.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: The situation is very difficult. We can't live like this. We want a life that we can enjoy them, not just live in fear.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: Israelis say they've never experienced a duller election campaign. But it's what happens after the election that could be dramatic. It'll affect Israelis, Palestinians, the Arab world, and it'll be watched by the rest of the world. Stay with CNN for extensive coverage of the Israeli election special report and continuous live coverage after the polls close on Tuesday.

I'm Christiane Amanpour. Good night from Tel Aviv.

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