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Conflict in the Middle East

Aired May 21, 2001 - 18:00   ET


ANNOUNCER: Israelis and Palestinians, locked in a dangerous new spiral of violence. But today, a new element, a blueprint for reconciliation.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We think that this is a basis for going forward.


ANNOUNCER: A plan with superpower backing.


COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: The United States is prepared to work closely with the parties.


ANNOUNCER: In this special report, we look at the prospects for preventing a war. Is the United States poised to resume its role as Mideast mediator? And what are the chances for success?

Now, from Washington, here's CNN's Judy Woodruff.

JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome. Whether it wants to or not, the Bush administration is being forced by events to take a more active role in the Middle East. It has now become alarmingly clear that unless it's stopped, the violence between Israel and the Palestinians could spread, violence that Secretary of State Colin Powell is already labeling as unbearable.

Here now, the latest developments. A committee led by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell issued a long-awaited report, calling for an immediate end to the violence. Israeli forces entered a Palestinian area of Gaza, but later withdrew. And U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell announced that he is dispatching envoys to the Middle East in hopes or reviving peace talks.

The Mitchell Committee was established last year during U.S.- brokered cease-fire negotiations. A cease-fire never took hold, but the committee pressed on with its work. Now, its report may be the best hope for a push to resume talks. CNN senior United Nations correspondent Richard Roth takes a look at the report and the timing of its release.


RICHARD ROTH, CNN UNITED NATIONS CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): With their findings leaking around the world, members of the Mitchell Committee decided to formally unveil their ideas on ending violence in the Middle East. The ink in their report was barely dry before attacks in the Mideast reached new heights.

GEORGE MITCHELL, CHAIRMAN, MITCHELL COMMITTEE: It is clear, of course, that the escalation of recent days offers the most dramatic possible evidence of the necessity of the parties acting on our recommendations.

ROTH: Those recommendations to stop the conflict center on three major themes. First, end the violence immediately. Second, establish a cooling-off period and make confidence-building steps. Third, resume negotiations in the spirit of compromise.

MITCHELL: At some point, political leaders and the people they represent must come to the realization that the continuation of this grinding, dehumanizing, demoralizing conflict is far worse than genuine negotiations and meaningful compromise.

ROTH: The five-member international panel met with hundreds of people on both sides, but had no ability to compel witness accounts or documents. The fact-finding panel does not assess blame or say who started what in the fiery Mideast. The report does weigh on some of the more contentious issues between Israel and the Palestinians.

The panel says Israel should freeze settlement activity, including extension of existing housing. This point has already been rejected by Israel. The committee also urges Israel to respond in non-lethal ways against unarmed demonstrators.

The Palestinian leadership is asked to make clear that terrorism is reprehensible and unacceptable, curb terrorist activities by supporters and punish militants. The report also recommends Palestinians prevent gunmen from using Palestinian-populated areas to fire on Israeli-populated areas in military positions.

The Palestinians claim the visit by now prime minister of Israel, Ariel Sharon, to holy sites in Jerusalem last year triggered violence on their part, but the Mitchell panel stopped short of that.

MITCHELL: The Sharon visit did not cause the Al Aksa Intifada, but it was poorly timed and the provocative effect should have been foreseen.

ROTH: The report calls for an end to inflammatory language and rhetoric which has fueled tensions, but one panel member himself issued a blunt warning to Mideast leaders to get ahead of their people and take substantive risks.

WARREN RUDMAN, COMMITTEE MEMBER: If they do not, and they are not willing to take those risks to reach out to one another and follow the outline of these recommendations or similar recommendations, then I fear that we will see this deteriorate into a confrontation that could be far worse than anyone has imagined.

ROTH: The committee says it has no assurances anyone will act on the recommendations.

KOFI ANNAN, U.N. SECRETARY-GENERAL: I hope this opportunity will not be wasted, and that they will seize it as a momentous step back from the precipice and try and end the violence in the region. It's a real tragedy.

ROTH: Is the Mideast mission impossible for a diplomat who brokered a peace agreement in Northern Ireland?

MITCHELL: I don't believe there is any such thing as a conflict that can't be ended. As horrible as it has been, I believe that the majority of people on both sides want to live in peace.


ROTH: Chairman Mitchell says that the timing of the steps is crucial, but that it's now all up to the parties. And, Judy, this was not a United Nations panel, it was a five-member international group -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Richard, anything specific in this Mitchell Committee report in the way of recommending to either side how to end the violence?

ROTH: Well, the report says the Palestinians and the Israelis do not have to, quote, "reinvent the wheel." The Mitchell panel says they were close, they worked together, both security sides on the Israeli front and the Palestinians, since 1991 under the Oslo Accord. The report stresses they should resume this kind of cooperation.

It praised outside U.S. involvement in this security arrangement. That's the path that the report would like to follow again, if the parties are willing.

WOODRUFF: All right. Richard Roth, reporting from the United Nations.

Both the Israelis and the Palestinians welcomed the Mitchell report, as well as comments by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. Israeli foreign minister Shimon Peres said that a top priority now must be ending the violence.


SHIMON PERES, ISRAELI FOREIGN MINISTER: We have to see the whole document as a whole. You cannot select just one item. And as the secretary has remarked rightly, there is no connection between the confidence-building measures and the cease-fire. Let's do first things first.

I think we shouldn't waste time. We shouldn't let anymore violence and shooting and killing. Cease-fire should enter into becoming a new reality as soon as possible. We shouldn't, again, fall asleep in the face of the great dangers that we are facing.


WOODRUFF: On the Palestinian side, chief negotiator Saeb Erakat called on the Israelis to accept the Mitchell report in its entirety.


SAEB ERAKAT, CHIEF PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATOR: The key to us as Palestinians here is the cessation and the freeze of settlement activities. And I hope that the Israelis will give a yes, period, unequivocal yes to the whole report.

What we need to do now is to have this working session, is to provide these kinds of implementations and to provide a timeline. The situation is very difficult. Israeli up until today, they shot and killed two Palestinians in Gaza. The town of Bethlehem was bombarded, and many residential areas were hit. The siege continues, the closure continues.

What we need to do now is to begin a very serious effort at seeking to put the problem mechanisms of implementation within a specified timeline of the Mitchell report.


WOODRUFF: Despite the calls for an end of the violence, clashes today killed two Palestinians and wounded five Israelis. Israel said the Palestinians were killed while planting explosives. Palestinian officials said they were farmers. Israeli police said the five Israelis were shot by Palestinians in a disputed part of Jerusalem.

In the West Bank, hundreds turned out today for a rally, protesting what they said was Israeli aggression against Palestinian children. Children in the crowd carried pictures of a four-month-old baby who was killed in Gaza during an Israeli strike two weeks ago.

While endorsing the Mitchell Committee report, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell indicated that the Bush administration will be stepping up its involvement in the search for peace. CNN national security correspondent David Ensor reports from the State Department.


DAVID ENSOR, CNN NATIONAL SECURITY CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): With the carnage from the bomb in Netanya and the deadly Israeli counterstrikes in mind, Secretary of State Colin Powell increased U.S. diplomatic efforts to end the violence and urgently appealed to both sides to honor the immediate, unconditional cease-fire called for in the Mitchell report.

POWELL: I hope both sides will now realize that this is unbearable and cannot continue without the whole region breaking out into an even more serious conflagration. ENSOR: Powell named William Burns, the U.S. ambassador to Jordan as his choice to be the assistant secretary for the region, to work with other diplomats and come up with recommendations on how the U.S. can best get Israelis and Palestinians to stop shooting and start talking again.

POWELL: We need a timeline and a sequence to implement the confidence-building measures and get on a path that takes us to negotiations.

ENSOR: Among the confidence-building measures called for in the Mitchell report and endorsed by Powell, a freeze on expansion of Israeli settlements.

POWELL: Unless there is some progress in that one, then it is going to be very, very difficult to see how we get into the cooling- off period and a process that leads to negotiations.

ENSOR: Secretary Powell spoke with both Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and Chairman Yasser Arafat by telephone Monday, and said now is not the time for shuttle diplomacy. He does not currently expect to add Middle East stops to his upcoming Africa trip.

(on camera): Since taking office, the Bush administration has sought to the step back from the intense day-to-day involvement of the Clinton administration in the Middle East peace process. Now, the new administration is increasing its diplomatic involvement, at least by one notch: in order to try to keep the violence from spiraling out of control.

David Ensor, CNN, the State Department.


WOODRUFF: The Bush administration says the Mitchell Report could help reverse the accelerating cycle of Mideast violence. Lets get more from CNN White House correspondent Major Garrett -- Major.

MAJOR GARRETT, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Judy, you know, we call this the Mitchell Report, but here is the report itself -- and you notice the title, "The Sharm El-Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee." Why is that important?

Well, both sides -- the Israelis and the Palestinians agreed to have this report conducted, this investigation conducted in October when there was an emergency summit that President Clinton attended.

I flew back with President Clinton on Air Force One from the summit and Sandy Berger, the national security adviser at that time, made it clear to us that this report would not be available -- would not be completed during Bill Clinton's term of office.

And it was at that moment that a lot of us sensed that all the effort the Clinton administration was exerting to achieve a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians would lay over to the Bush administration. This report is the one part and one remaining part of what President Clinton tried to accomplish in the Middle East that this administration has taken hold of.

And the White House has made it clear that they want this report to be a lever, because the Israelis and the Palestinians requested it to get them to do what they must do to stop the violence and rebuild confidence in order to get to the peace negotiation process -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: All right, Major Garrett reporting from the White House. Thanks. You can got to do our Web site for in-depth information in the conflict in the Middle East and watch the interviews from officials from both sides, read profiles of all of the key players, or look at the time line of recent events and that's all at Our AOL keyword: CNN.

In a moment, we will hear from Dennis Ross, the former special middle east coordinator in the Clinton administration. We'll be right back.


WOODRUFF: Joining us now, Dennis Ross, the former Middle East coordinator in the Clinton administration. He is now a distinguished fellow and counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

Dennis Ross, has it been a mistake for the new Bush administration to be as disengaged as it has been in the Middle East?

DENNIS ROSS, FORMER U.S. MIDEAST COORDINATOR: I don't know if it's been a mistake. One thing is very clear: they have been involved, but they've been involved in the low level of visibility. They were trying through a process of working with people on the ground in the region, without much visibility to see if you could transform the situation, see if you can work with the two sides, and see if the two sides would take the lead, in terms of taking steps to, in effect, step back from the brink.

I think that what we have seen is, at this point, a low visibility American approach is not sufficient to prevent a slide into much worse violence.

WOODRUFF: So, was it short sighted then, on their part to say that this can be done without U.S. involvement?

ROSS: I think the fact is, you have a new administration, it has to find out for itself, it has to make it's own judgments. And probably, it had to test to see whether this process could work that way. I think that they have tried that, and it's pretty clear that more intensive involvement will be required.

WOODRUFF: What good will this Mitchell Committee report be?

ROSS: I think what it provides is a framework in which you can then deal with both sides. The value of it is, it's a framework that becomes the peg for each side. It can become an explanation for each side. But it is after all a report, and the only way you turn something into something meaningful is you have to give it an operational character. I think what we have to do is we have to talk to both sides and see if we can get a concrete set of understandings based on that framework, and then you have to create a timeline. Because it doesn't mean anything unless you link the actions to a timeline for when they will take place.

WOODRUFF: But why should something work now, when it hasn't worked before? I mean -- what is so different about having a report that states a number of things that, frankly, were fairly obvious, not that they didn't do a considerable amount of work. What has changed that will cause the two sides to say, all right, it's time to end the violence?

ROSS: I think that there's a couple factors that I would point out. One is, it may give each of them an excuse to respond to something. They will not respond to each other. That's one thing that's very clear. Neither side is prepared to look like they're conceding to the other. So they will have to respond to something else. That's No. 1.

And No. 2, I think you also have to look at the psychology of Chairman Arafat. One thing we know about him, he never initiates. He only responds. He will not respond to the Israelis, he does need something on the outside to respond to. This could well provide that. He has to take some tough steps to bring the violence under control on his side.

He will need an explanation to be able to do that. The explanation can't be an Israeli explanation, the explanation has to be an international one or a U.S. one. So, he can go to his own people and say, we have to do the following, because there is something to be gained and something to be lost. The Americans are asking us to do this. But he needs a visible American engagement to be in a position where he has that explanation.

WOODRUFF: Now what about on the Israelis side? As you know, the Mitchell Report is calling a halt to all Israeli settlements, including growing existing settlements. The Israelis have already said that they're not going to accept this. Does that -- could that then give the Palestinians a reason to say, well, we are not going to do what you are asking us to do either?

ROSS: I think when you have a framework -- by definition, every element within it is still going to have to be discussed and negotiated, and you will have to reach some kind of understanding. If this were something that were negotiated between the parties, you could say, basically, well, it's all in the integrated whole -- you have to have it exactly as it is. You cannot change it.

This is something that we're presenting to both sides or can be presenting to both sides -- both sides have accepted it, at least, as a starting point. I think that you go in and you'll have to work on every issue. Will there have to be a constraint in the settlement activity? Absolutely.

But I think what I heard Secretary Powell saying today is, there's a sequence. The sequence starts with stopping the violence. Then you have confidence-building measures which deals with the grievances of each side.

One of the problems that we are facing right now is that, both sides feel aggrieved, and because of that, they are preoccupied only with their own sense of grievance. If you don't begin to remove the sense of grievance, you're not going any place.

The confidence-building measures as a logical second step to the stopping of the violence can be begin to restore some semblance of trust, which is that probably the major casualty over the last eight months.

WOODRUFF: So, you are saying, Dennis Ross, there is real hope because of this report?

ROSS: I am saying -- I spent a career looking for the slim light that you could see in any situation. I remain optimistic in the long term because the Israelis and the Palestinians have no place to go. History and geography have destined to be neighbors -- they don't have a choice. Either they will live in perpetual struggle and pain, they will find the way to peaceful coexistence.

The Mitchell Report, if it is used in the right way, if there is an operational plan or mechanism to turn it into something they can create new reality on the ground, can become useful for both sides. But it's going to be -- this is just the beginning. This will be a very tough slug.

WOODRUFF: And what time frame are we talking about here?

ROSS: Well, I think it's going to take some time before you can get back to seriously talking about the permit status issues. I think we are looking at least a six-month period just to reestablish some semblance of trust.

WOODRUFF: And you think that this can happen without more active American involvement?

ROSS: No, I think that it will require a much more intensive American involvement, I think it will require an American involvement that has a visibility to it. That doesn't mean the president, and you don't need to involve the president when you are trying to diffuse a conflict.

It will involve the secretary of state, and it certainly will involve someone below the secretary of state. I think Bill Burns, who will be the new assistant secretary for the for the Near East Affairs Bureau is a thorough professional. He knows his issues very well. He is someone who can handle this, and obviously I think you are going to have to have somebody on a day-to-day basis who can manage it.

WOODRUFF: And last but not least, Warren Rudman, who is a member -- a former senator, a member of this Mitchell Committee quoting -- quoted just a few minutes ago as saying: "If this doesn't work," he says, "I fear we see a deterioration into a conflagration far worse than what anybody can imagine."

ROSS: I don't know if I accept that. This is -- there's a deterioration that is being sent in motion. What I worry about is not the wider conflagration, because I don't see what's going on between the Israelis and Palestinians necessarily triggering a wider conflict. What I see it producing is a tremendous souring that begins to raise questions about whether peace is an option.

What I see it doing is taking on a life of its own, where it becomes very hard to break the cycle of despair and the cycle of violence. That for me is serious enough that I think you need enough of a dramatic intervention to begin to try to change the focus away from the dialogue of violence, back to a dialogue of potential trust and reconciliation.

WOODRUFF: All right. Dennis Ross, probably knows more about the Middle East peace process than any man alive.

ROSS: Certainly spent the time.

WOODRUFF: OK. Dennis Ross, thank you very much. Good to have you with us. I appreciate it.

A day of violence and death in the Middle East, a day of stepped- up efforts by the United States to stop the fighting. In a moment, closing thoughts from CNN's Jerusalem bureau chief Mike Hanna.


WOODRUFF: A quick update now on the Middle East situation. In the West Bank town of Gaza, Israeli soldiers shot and killed two Palestinians today. Israel says they were killed while planting explosives. And in a disputed part of Jerusalem, five Israelis were wounded by gunfire from a Palestinian village.

The latest casualties came as a commission -- committee, rather -- headed by former Senator George Mitchell blamed both sides for a level of violence described by Secretary of State Colin Powell as "unbearable." From Jerusalem this evening, CNN's Mike Hanna.


MIKE HANNA, CNN JERUSALEM BUREAU CHIEF (voice-over): Much has transpired in the weeks since the Mitchell Committee completed its investigation on the ground, nothing of any positive note.

The violence has escalated, culminating in the deployment of F-16 fighters against Palestinian targets, Israel says in response to a series of Palestinian attacks on civilians. This, in turn, followed by the most serious condemnation yet by the Arab League, whose foreign ministers recommended that all members suspend diplomatic contacts with Israel. It was not a binding resolution, but highlighted the extent to which the Israeli/Palestinian conflict threatens the stability of the entire region.

And on the day the report's made public, no sign of any easing in the violence. Under attack in Gaza, a building Israel says was being used for the manufacture of mortar bombs. Palestinians maintain the building housed a car mechanics workshop. Israel says the attack aimed at preventing terrorism, Palestinians insist the attack part of an aggressive Israeli occupation.

Among the recommendations of the Mitchell Committee: that the Palestinian Authority make a concrete effort to prevent terrorist operations and to punish perpetrators, and that Israel freeze all settlement activity, including the natural growth of existing settlements.

MAHDI ABDUL HADI, PALESTINIAN ACADEMIC SOCIETY: It's very clear. Item one on the agenda there should be a freeze of construction of settlements in the occupied territories, as a first start of building confidence between the two people.

GERALD STEINBERG, BAR-ILAN UNIVERSITY: That linkage between settlements and the end of Palestinian violence and terrorism is artificial. Once that linkage is broken, if it is broken, then I think that we will be able to move on and implement a lot of the recommendations of the Mitchell Commission report.

HANNA: Another stumbling block: the recommendation that the Palestinian Authority takes concrete measures to end terror attacks. Palestinian leaders say they have no control over those carrying out the attacks; Israel says they do.

This raises a fundamental issue about the very nature of the violence. The Israeli contention that the violence is a strategic option exercised by Yasser Arafat in the wake of the Camp David talks. The Palestinian position that action against Israelis must be seen as a spontaneous response to an armed Israeli occupation. Differing characterizations of the violence that appear unbridgeable.

(on camera): A massive diplomatic effort is now under way to end the violence in the wake of the Mitchell report: U.S. diplomats in particular to play a heightened role as go-betweens. But what is made clear by the drafters of the report and those urging action on it is this: it's only the Palestinians and Israelis themselves who can ultimately make a cease-fire work.

Mike Hanna, CNN, Jerusalem.


WOODRUFF: And for more reactions to the Mitchell Committee report, tune in tonight to the "WOLF BLITZER REPORTS." Wolf's special guest: former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. That's at 8:00 p.m. Eastern.

I'm Judy Woodruff in Washington. Thanks for joining us. Coming up next: "LOU DOBBS MONEYLINE."



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