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Chief Palestinian Negotiator Discusses Military Strikes

Aired December 3, 2001 - 13:00   ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: Now for Palestinian reaction to what the Israeli prime minister said, let's go to the Chief Palestinian negotiator, Mr. Saeb Erakat. He joins us live on the telephone from Jericho, in the West Bank.

Mr. Erakat, what do you have to say to the prime minister's accusation against Mr. Arafat?

First, let me tell you that what I heard from the prime minister of Israel tonight is a declaration of war. He's saying war, war, war now, peace later. I think he is making the mistake of his life. I don't accept any of the accusations against President Arafat. In the last few hours, President Arafat declared a state of emergency and committed to pursue those who planned that attack in Jerusalem and Haifa, which we condemned.

At the same time, Sharon and the Israeli government began bombarding the same police forces and headquarters that are supposed to do the job. They are tying Arafat's hands. They would blindfold him and throw him to the sea and ask him to be a good swimmer.

I believe tonight we have heard a declaration of war. The life for peace -- is a very, very grave and dangerous development. I think not only Palestinians and Israelis will be pushed in the cycle of violence and counterviolence, but the whole region.

And I really think it's time for the American president to step up now and stop Sharon before it's too late. It seems to me that Sharon is saying he didn't get the red light from President Bush. Israelis are being killed, Palestinians are being killed, and Mr. Sharon did not even refer, when he was speaking about the comparisons between the United States and Israel, that it is not our there to occupy possible settlements in Afghanistan; Sharon forget that his is the last country on earth that possesses (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the fighting power.

He forgot that 3.2 million Palestinians have been subjected to Israeli occupation, which is responsible for all the unfortunate deaths of both sides.

All I can say is that we may be going down the drain tonight. That's Sharon's decision. But at the end of the day, this means that more Palestinians will be killed, more Israelis will be killed. There will be no military solution to our problem. I really hope that the international community of President Bush and the European Union will take the road of wisdom and courage and stop Sharon tonight, bring the parties back to negotiating table, because as long as the sun will shine, Palestinians and Israelis will need peace. There's no military solution for this, and tonight what we had Sharon saying was now it's time for war, peace may come later -- and the decision is made very clearly: He began this decision by bombarding Gaza and Bethlehem and Jenin.

Can Sharon tell me if he toppled the Palestinian Authority, can he describe to me the day after. I'm a father of four children. I breaks my heart to see Israeli kids dying, in Haifa in Jerusalem. But it breaks my hart that 800 Palestinians have been killed in the last 12 months, 50,000 have been wounded, and 3.2 million Palestinians have been subjugated to the worst forced occupation (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Can he tell me the day after?

What he is doing tonight is silencing the voices for moderation in the Palestinian society and Israeli society. What he is doing tonight is empowering extremists on both sides. Blood will lead to blood. Bullets will lead to bullets. Violence will lead to violence. And we have to remind the world that, as Palestinian people, we are asking the Israeli government to come back to the negotiating table, because, at the end of the day, when we pursue peace with Israel, we are not doing them a favor; we're doing ourselves a favor. When the Israelis pursue peace with us, they're doing themselves the real favor, because that's the only option available for Palestinians and Israelis. We have fought within accordance with a zero-sum gain for years.

It are never be in a zero sum game -- no winner and no one loser: either both will be winners or both will be losers. Tonight, Sharon has destined Palestinians and Israelis to take the path of losers. This is a tragedy. This is a very tragic development tonight, a very dangerous development. I really appeal to President Bush and to the prime ministers and leaders of Europe to step up their intervention in order to bring sanity and wisdom to bring Palestinians and Israelis back to negotiating table.

WOODRUFF: Mr. Arakat -- I'm talking with Saeb Erakat, who is the chief Palestinian negotiator -- after all, we know the Israelis are reacting to three suicide bomb attacks that left 26 people dead over just a two-day period. We heard Prime Minister Sharon say those who rise up to kill us are responsible for their own destruction. He's saying this was started by the Palestinians.

ERAKAT: As a matter of fact, President Arafat, by the strongest possible terms, condemned these attacks, and he offered his condolences, and he declared a state of emergency and committed to pursue those who are behind the attacks and to bring them to justice. Now the same forces that president Arafat is supposed to use to do this job is being bombarded by Israeli missiles, gunships, the Navy, F-15s and F-16s. President Arafat cannot pull one policeman from one village to another in the West Bank or Gaza, because all towns, villages, and refugee camps have been totally sealed and closure. What we are saying to the Israelis is that you may communicate with us through the language of the gun. You have been doing this for the last 50 years, you may continue your (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and policies, but this is political blindness and arrogance of power. This will not benefit the Israelis and Palestinians. The only option is to revive the peace process in order to end the Israeli occupation and to establish a Palestinian state next to the state of Israel, which we have already recognized.

WOODRUFF: Mr. Arakat, just one final question. The Israelis say when Mr. Arafat has people, the extremists, locked up, he does it with a wink. He puts them in jail, but they're out a short time later, that Mr. Arafat has not been serious about cracking down on those responsible for terror. How do you respond to that?

ERAKAT: I'm sick and tired of finger pointing and blame assignment. This is why we have been saying we need monitors. We need the Americans to provide -- and the Europeans -- to provide with monitors, mechanisms to verify the issue, because Sharon cannot stand as the man who will declare that we will be destroyed and at the same time our judge. Why does he refuse the idea of having international observers on the ground? What does he have to hide? But from day one, we said that this man Sharon has voted against the Egyptian- Israeli peace treaty, has voted against the Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty, has voted against all agreements signed.

I think Sharon is seizing the opportunity of what happened in Haifa and Tel Aviv, these explosions, in order to pursue his endgame, his exit strategy from the peace process, and that is to end the peace process and to end the Palestinian Authority.

But I ask the Israeli people tonight, at this hour of darkness, what is next? What is the day after? Will this produce the results we want to achieve by saving lives of Israelis and Palestinians alike. We've been in this field before. I know that this argument may sound like wishful thinking tonight, but I don't want to score points or finger point; my job, as instructed by president Arafat, is to save lives, and I think the only answer for us is for the effort of the American president and his decision to interfere immediately, with the Europeans, and secondly, to give President Arafat to chance to continue what he began to doing. But if Sharon insists on choosing the path of darkness and war, as he declared tonight, I know when the lights will go off tonight, but I will never know who will put them back on again.

WOODRUFF: Saeb Erakat is the chief Palestinian negotiator, joining us by phone from Jericho, in the West Bank.

Joining us now is CNN's correspondent Mike Hanna, who is in Jerusalem.

Mike, you've been listening both to the prime minister and to the chief Palestinian negotiator, Mr. Erakat. Are things as bleak as one would understand after listening to the two of them?

MIKE HANNA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Judy, let's take a look at Ariel Sharon's speech to the Israeli people. There were three elements in that speech. The first element was a message to the Israeli people that in their leader's point of view, Israel is in a state of emergency: It is facing a war, it is facing people who, says Ariel Sharon, wish to destroy the very state of Israel. He says that Israel is facing an absolutely exponential threat.

It's no coincidence either that Ariel Sharon's speech to the Israeli people was proceeded by a series of attacks against Palestinian targets, a message, said the Israeli government, to the Palestinian Authority that it must take action against militants, but also a message to the Israeli people that the Sharon government will stand firm, that it will do whatever is necessary to protect the Israeli people.

A second element of that Sharon speech, a comparison of the Israeli war against the Palestinians with that being conducted by the Bush administration against worldwide terror. Ariel Sharon placing himself very firmly within exactly those same parameters, saying that Israel, like the United States, is conducting a war against terror for terror -- read, the Palestinian militants who are attacking Israeli civilian targets. Read also, according to Mr. Sharon, the Palestinian Authority that he holds totally responsible for these ongoing acts of violence.

But then a third theme in the Sharon speech, and possibly the most significant in the days ahead, and that is call for unity in this coalition government. He says that within the next few hours, the entire Cabinet of the government will meet to decide what to do next in terms of what Sharon says, is this war against terror. Now the significance of this coalition government is divided on the issue of whether or not Yasser Arafat is a possible partner in peace negotiations. What Sharon is signaling here is that the Israeli government once and for all is going to take a position on this.

It is going to decide within the coming hours whether Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority is an enemy who are intense on destroying Israel, or whether there is a possibility that they can still be a partner in a peace process.

Now Mr. Sharon saying there clearly this will be discussed in the Democratic manner amidst government. Those within the government who are dissatisfied with that decision can, says Mr. Sharon, leave the government.

So we are looking at deeply significant moves in upcoming hours. A deeply significant decision to be taken by Sharon's government -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: All right, Mike Hanna. Reporting from Jerusalem, one has to say if the decision is to be made is whether Arafat is a potential partner or an enemy, it sounded as if it's the latter, at least from the perspective of prime minister.

Now we want to go quickly to the White House to our own John King, senior White House correspondent. John, we -- is the administration likely to support this all-out -- if not a declaration of war, certainly a declaration that Israel is going to stand its ground, and that the Palestinian have only begun to see the response of the state of Israel here.

JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Judy, the first official reaction from the Bush White house will come in just a few moments when the White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer has his daily briefing. Senior officials meeting to decide what to say in public and how they want to apply all the pressure on all parties privately through diplomatic means.

One senior official I spoke to quickly at the conclusion while the prime minister was taking the final question during the event said, that is not helpful, but not unexpected, perhaps a little bit stronger than we expected, but that the prime minister, this official said, had made clear to President Bush when they met yesterday, that he would go home, that he would have an emergency Cabinet meeting, that he would respond to those suicide bombings over the weekend.

And the prime minister himself and other Israeli officials increasingly in recent days drawing the very comparison to what the president calls the Bush doctrine, that if you harbor terrorists, you can be held accountable. You heard the prime minister say that there. So this senior official I spoke to just moments ago saying we are in a little bit of a box here, the prime minister using our own words to lay out his rationale for the strikes again the Palestinians.

Again, most of all the administration is saying the onus is now on Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian chairman, to prove that he will round up suspected terrorist and members of extremist groups within the Palestinian territories, and not just round them up, but hold them, something he has not in the past, according to the administration.

WOODRUFF John, what about the comment after? I don't know if you were able to hear my interview with Saeb Erakat, the Palestinian negotiators. Among other things, he said, that the prime minister by doing this is silencing the voice of the moderates, he is empowering the extremist on both sides, he -- violence leads to violence leads to violence. Where do we go after this?

KING: That is the catch 22 of this situation. The Palestinians say, if you want to end the violence, let's go back to the negotiating table. The Israelis say, to do that would be to reward the suicide bombers, would prove that if you blow up and kill Israeli citizens, that you will get peace negotiations out of this. The Israeli say they will not do that. The Palestinians say that is the only way to end the violence. This has been the frustration throughout the Bush administration. There has been some hope. The president's new special envoy retired General Tony Zinni is in the region. He has been there a little more than week now. He went there to get up to speed, to meet with both parties, to get up to speed not only on the issue, but on the personalities and the profound frustration.

He of course has been on the ground during the bombing, and now the Israeli retaliation. A great sense of frustration here at the White House. But Mr. Erakat noted that there was no red light from the administration. Generally, the administration in the past has urged Israel to show restraint in how it responds. It did not do so in this case, because of the deadly bombings, the scope of the deadly bombings, the president felt he could not say that to the prime minister.

WOODRUFF: All right, John King. And I know we are going to be coming back to you soon.

John, of course at the White House.

I want to go back over to Israel now to the Gaza Strip, to be specific.

CNN's Matthew Chance is there.

Matthew, you have an update now on the casualties there.


Palestinian officials at the hospital here are telling us that 15 people have been injured in those strikes by Israeli helicopter gunships against installations in the compound of Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority here on the Mediterranean Coast.

In the Gaza Strip, Palestinian hospital officials tell us that none of those injuries were serious, that no reports either of any deaths as a result of those attacks. Even though they appeared to be very ferocious. Eyewitnesses spoke of some nine missiles fired from Israeli helicopter gunships, striking at buildings around the presidential headquarters here in the Gaza Strip, destroying at least two helicopters and the helipad which they were standing. We also saw scenes of chaos as ambulances screamed through the streets of Gaza City, implying casualties of course. Those latest updates, 15 casualties, in fact, have been recorded to date.

What we also know is that Israeli tanks have been moved into key places in the Gaza Strip, sealing off the strategic Netzarim Junction, which effectively cuts the Gaza Strip into really imposing a sense of closure on this Palestinian-controlled area. Many people here obviously very concerned that the helicopter gunships may return tonight, especially after that speech, that fiery speech by Ariel Sharon, concerned those helicopter gunship may return, but also extremely angry that such an attack would take place at a time when many Palestinians feel that Yasser Arafat has been doing Israel's bidding by arresting figures of Islamic jihad and Hamas, Palestinian militants, placing them in jail So heightened sense among many Palestinian that this is particularly unjustified -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Matthew Chance, reporting for us from Gaza. Thank you, Matthew, for the update.

Joining me now, or still with me, I should say, in the studio in Washington, former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger. You sat with me, you and heard the prime minister, very, very strong language. Is this as dark a period as one might believe hearing this, or is this rhetoric?

LAWRENCE EAGLEBURGER, FMR. U.S. SECY. OF STATE: I think it's tough. I think it's more than that.

There's a couple of points that I really think need to be highlighted. At the beginning of his speech, remember, he said, what is the objective of the terrorist? He said, I will tell you what it is. It is to drive us out of here. Now, we haven't heard that language from Israelis for a long time. If the objective is to drive us out of here, then why would you negotiate? You see what I mean. There's been -- at least the prime minister is saying, they don't want an Israeli state, they want us out, point one.

Secondly, he links it now to the war on terrorism that we have. He's talked about there will be a war against terror, it will not an easy war, and it won't be a short war. He's kind of piggybacking off our own war.

And one of the things I thought was very interesting...

WOODRUFF: Let me interrupt you for a second, because Saeb Erakat, and I think who you heard me talking him right after that, said there's an importance difference, because the United States is not trying to move into Afghanistan and occupy land, the United States was attacked, and it is retaliating. He made a distinction.

EAGLEBURGER: I think it's a correct distinction. Now that's -- I'm not saying I object to what the Israelis are doing, but I do believe it is a correct distinction, and from our foreign policy point of view, we need to keep separate this Israeli issue from our war against terrorism, although at the same time, we, at the same point or another, are going to have to strike against the very terrorist that the Israelis are talking about.

However, there are two different issues in a sense. When we did the Gulf War, we worked hard to keep the Israelis out of the war, because of what we knew would do to coalition forces that were with us. Now it's even more a tenuous thing now about what countries will cooperate with us on the war on terrorism, and this link to Israel is -- can be a problem.

But what I found interesting, and this has to be reference to us. Do you remember when he said, recently, there has been more understanding of our position. That was clearly a reference to Washington.

The other thing I felt was interesting, he wouldn't answer the question, are we going eliminate, or should we eliminate Arafat? What he did say was that, that question, along with a whole host of other questions, will be decided by the government when they meet in several weeks.

So all and all, I must tell you, it's -- well, and the final point Mr. Erakat made was President Bush has got to stop Sharon. What does that say?

WOODRUFF: Is that even a realistic question?

EAGLEBURGER: It's realistic.

WOODRUFF: If the president of the United States were to tell the prime minister of Israel, I am telling you now if you want a relationship with the United States, you won't do that, and I've seen in the past when in the government, not put quite that way.

But the Israelis have to listen to the United States in the end. It will be interesting to see how we react to this. I will say to you now that what it is in fact what happened or not, I can see the handwriting from every newsman and every protohistorian, it's going to be, when Sharon came to Washington, the president gave him the green light to do what he is now going to do in response to the Palestinians, just like we gave the green light. Al Hague was supposed to have given the green light to the British.

WOODRUFF: You're say that's going to be the interpretation.

EAGLEBURGER: Sure. Sure it is. And I must say, when he says recently, there's been more understanding of our position, it clearly to me at least got a more sympathetic hearing.

WOODRUFF: Former U.S. Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger, thanks very much. Appreciate you coming in to talk with us. Thank you very, very much.




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