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White House Issues Another Terrorist Alert; Israel Retaliates Against the Palestinians

Aired December 3, 2001 - 19:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Tonight on WOLF BLITZER REPORTS, THE WAR ROOM: The White House issues another terrorist alert.


TOM RIDGE, HOMELAND SECURITY DIRECTOR: Over the last several days, our intelligence and law enforcement agencies have seen an increased volume and level of activity involving threats of terrorist attacks.


BLITZER: Following a series of deadly terror attacks, Israel retaliates, laying the blame on Yasser Arafat.


ARIEL SHARON, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: We will take the necessary measures as long as the terror exists.


A blunt reaction from the Bush administration.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Chairman Arafat must do everything in his power to find those who murdered innocent Israelis and bring them to justice.


BLITZER: Israel compares the strikes to the U.S. war on terrorism, but Palestinians have a different take.


HANAN ASHRAWI, PALESTINIAN LEGISLATOR: I think it's extremely dangerous. It's extremely provocative.


We'll go live to Jerusalem and to the White House. And I'll speak live with Edward Walker, former ambassador to Israel and Egypt; Richard Perle, former assistant defense secretary; and James Steinberg, deputy national security adviser in the Clinton White House, as we go into THE WAR ROOM.

Good evening. I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting tonight from Washington.

We're following three major stories right now. Following a weekend of terror, the Israeli military moves against Palestinian targets, first from the air and now on the ground. The U.S. military steps up its pressure against the last remaining Taliban stronghold in Kandahar.

But we begin with a new terror alert just issued over at the White House. And for that, we go CNN senior White House correspondent John King. He has details -- John.

JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the administration saying it has decided for the third time since September 11 to go public with an alert to law enforcement agencies across the country and to the American people to be on the lookout for the possibility of new terrorist attacks here in the United States. This, according to our sources, because of a significant uptick in the amount of information gathered by U.S. intelligence services in recent days.

Some sources saying this information can be traced back to Osama bin Laden's al Qaeda network. No specific targets, no specific dates of any potential attacks, but U.S. officials believe the risk is significantly higher in the remaining period of the Muslim holy period of Ramadan as well as with Christian and Jewish religious holidays approaching.

So the president's point man on domestic terrorism, Homeland Security Director Tom Ridge, coming into the White House briefing room just a little more than two hours ago saying, once again, the nation should be on its highest alert.


RIDGE: It is just the volume as well as, obviously, the credibility associated with some of the information we have received that led us to have this discussion around which there was no disagreement, that it was at the volume and at the level that we should remind America we are still at war. We are still at risk. Be vigilant. Be aware.


KING: Again, U.S. officials saying no specific information as to any specific dates or targets here in the United States. But they say U.S. intelligence analysts are convinced there has been a significant uptick in the threat of such an attack coming in the next couple of weeks, so the administration, a very delicate line again, Wolf, because of the coming holiday season, because of the slumping U.S. economy, does not want to scare the American people. But Governor Ridge and others sources behind the scenes saying this information was viewed as so credible, the administration thought it had no choice but to once again go public with this alert -- Wolf.

BLITZER: John King over the White House. Stand by, I want to bring you back for more later.

But over in the Middle East right now, Israel is retaliating for a deadly wave of weekend terror attacks. It has just undertaken an air and ground assault against Palestinian Authority targets in Gaza as well as the West Bank.

Let's go live to our Jerusalem bureau chief, Mike Hanna for details -- Mike.

MIKE HANNA, CNN JERUSALEM BUREAU CHIEF: Well, Wolf, it's shortly after 2:00 in the morning here, and the Israeli military operation is continuing. Within the last hour, we have received reports that Israeli forces have moved into the airports outside Gaza City and are tearing up the runway, according to one report. Also, Israeli tanks have moved into several Palestinian areas, in particular, into the West Bank city of Ramallah, where one report says that tanks have taken up position a couple of hundred yards away from Yasser Arafat's headquarters in that city.

The operation that began just before sundown on Monday when Israeli combat helicopters struck at the targets in Gaza City. The targets, say Israel, was helicopters belonging to Yasser Arafat. Palestinian sources said that more than 30 people were injured in that attack. Within a couple of hours, Israeli forces struck in the West Bank city of Jenin. There, according to Palestinian security sources, the Israelis deployed F-16 fighter jets targeting, among other things, a police station in the heart of Jenin.

All of this following a weekend of absolute violence, in which more than 20 Israelis were killed in a series of suicide bomb attacks both in Haifa and in Jerusalem itself, right in the heart of Jerusalem. Ariel Sharon cut short a visit to the United States to return to Israel in the wake of this crisis. And early on Monday evening, he had addressed the Israeli people live on nationwide television. He made clear his belief that Israel was now facing a terror war and said that Israel would do whatever was necessary to stop the violence that he said was being directed against it. And he made absolutely clear his opinion that Palestinian Authority leader Yasser Arafat must accept responsibility for the ongoing violence.


SHARON: Arafat bore the situation as a result of strategy of terror that he has adopted and the coalition of terror that he has built. The situation became worse now and we will be acting until we will bring end to terror.


HANNA: From the Palestinian Authority, absolute condemnation of the Israeli military operation. Palestinian leaders saying it is making it almost impossible for the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, to arrest militants responsible for attacks against Israeli targets. One Palestinian leader described the Israeli operation as tantamount to a declaration of war. And another Palestinian leader insisted that far from the Palestinians being responsible for the ongoing conflict, it was Israel that must take the blame.


ASHRAWI: Israel's military escalation has been, from the beginning, the cause of this ongoing violence and this cycle of events. I think it's extremely dangerous. I think it's extremely provocative.


HANNA: Well, the war of words continues. And so too does increasing violence on the ground. One must remember too that a U.S. envoy is in the region. Former Marine Corps General Anthony Zinni was sent here to get the sides to agree to a cease-fire and to ensure that such a cease-fire is implemented on the ground. Well, in recent days of absolute and bloody violence, a cease-fire could not be further away, Wolf.

BLITZER: Mike Hanna in Jerusalem, thank you very much.

Unlike so many other times over the past many years, the Bush administration has not called on Israel to exercise restraint, but indeed, it has urged Yasser Arafat to crack down on terrorist activity.

Let's go back once again to our senior White House correspondent, John King -- John.

KING: Wolf, we are told by senior White House officials that the message to the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, has been quite blunt. The administration saying that he must wage a sustained crackdown on terror groups or risk losing U.S. support. Now that message delivered in private, in public as well.

U.S. officials questioning whether Mr. Arafat is up to the job and they say this crackdown must be unlike those in the past, when Mr. Arafat has, because of international pressure, gone out and arrested some suspected terrorist leaders only to see a few days later those leaders back on the streets.

The White House press secretary, Ari Fleischer, making clear today that Israel, in view of the Bush administration, has a right to defend itself and that this president is watching Mr. Arafat closely.


FLEISCHER: The president thinks that this is the chance now for Yasser Arafat to demonstrate real leadership, that is lasting, that is enduring, that puts people responsible for this away, and does so in such a way they can not get out again and commit more terror.


KING: Now, some U.S. officials, again, questioning whether Mr. Arafat has the political standing to do that, to put Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad out of business and stay in power. But they say, in their view, he has no choice but to try. One senior official closely involved in the policymaking saying a short time ago, right now, Mr. Sharon has the momentum and the public opinion. This official also saying though that while the cards -- in this official's words -- are in Mr. Sharon's hands, the question over the next several days is will he overplay them -- Wolf.

BLITZER: John King at the White House, thank you very much.

Did the United States give Israel a green light to strike at Palestinian targets? Are there any parallels between the Israeli action and the U.S. anti-terror campaign in Afghanistan?

Joining me here in the CNN WAR ROOM: Richard Perle, a former assistant defense secretary, now chairman of the Pentagon's defense policy board; Jim Steinberg of the Brookings Institution, he was deputy national security adviser to President Clinton; and Edward Walker, he's president of the Middle East Institute here in Washington, former U.S. ambassador to both Israel and Egypt.

This note, you can e-mail your WAR ROOM questions to our Web site That's also where you'll find my daily column.

And Jim Steinberg, let me begin with you, have you ever remembered a time -- and you've been a student of this for many years, you worked the administration for eight years, when Israel engages in a retaliatory strike against Palestinians and is not urged by the U.S. government to exercise restraint?

JIM STEINBERG, BROOKINGS INSTITUTION: Wolf, there are some similarities, here to the situation in 1996. You'll remember there was a very vicious series of terrorist attacks against Israel then, and our administration's position was that unless Arafat takes some actions that are effective, then it's hard to counsel restraint against Israel. And that it's up to Arafat to show that there's a reason why the Israeli government should be restrained. In that case, Arab leaders got behind the effort and joined with the United States to put pressure on Arafat, and that needs to happen now.

BLITZER: Ed Walker, you're a former ambassador to Israel. This though is a very, very unusual situation right now, isn't it?

EDWARD WALKER, FMR U.S. AMBASSADOR TO ISRAEL: Yes. This is absolutely unusual. And this is the time when Arafat has to make a final choice, either he breaks totally with Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, or he's going to fall.

BLITZER: Is -- we do have a question from our e-mail viewer, Mick in Sacramento. Richard, I want you to see if you can handle this one: "How are the attacks by Israel on terrorism different from those by the United States on the Taliban?" RICHARD PERLE, CHAIRMAN, PENTAGON DEFENSE POLICY BOARD: I don't think they do differ, fundamentally. What Israel is doing is retaliating against acts of violence intended to kill Israeli civilians. We are doing exactly the same thing, the difference is the Israelis don't criticize us when we do it, and we he have a history of criticizing them. And I'm happy to say that it now looks as if we are going to shelve that criticism.

BLITZER: Although you know what the Palestinian response is. Palestinian response is that the Americans never occupied Afghanistan, the Israelis are occupying their land.

PERLE: Well, we can get into the history of why the Israelis are where they are. And they went into that territory after they were attacked in 1967. They went in there to protect themselves, and under international law they have a right to remain there until there's a settlement. Now there isn't going to be a settlement under Yasser Arafat. He should go. He can no longer bring peace to the region, if he ever could, he's either unable or unwilling to control his own territory. And either way it's time for Arafat to go.

BLITZER: Now is Yasser Arafat capable of controlling Hamas, Palestinian Islamic Jihad, others on the West Bank and Gaza...

WALKER; It's not just controlling, it's making a total and final break with them. He's capable of it, if he's going to have the support of the Arab world, if he has the support of United States, and if the Israelis want it to happen.

BLITZER: Well, he does have the support of United States -- if that were...

WALKER: If he does it.

BLITZER: When you say if the Israelis want it to happen, they certainly say they want it to happen.

WALKER: Well, then can he do it.

BLITZER: What would he have to do?

WALKER: Well, he would have to put a military block on these people and he would have to declare the termination of any relationship between Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic jihad and his administration. And no future for them in a Palestinian state.

BLITZER: It looks like President Bush is in effect giving Israel, at least the yellow light to go ahead. A question from Al in Reading, Pennsylvania, an e-mailer: "How far do you think Sharon will be able to progress on his war on terrorism, before President Bush puts pressure on him to stop?"

STEINBERG: I think the pressure needs to be on the Palestinians or on Chairman Arafat right now. It's very different to counsel restraint in that situation where Israel is under such severe attack. And I think that if we see real efforts by Arafat, and that's the open question, then we can have a discussion about ways of getting out of the situation. But right now, the excuse that Arafat doesn't have the capability isn't going to go far enough, because at least he needs to try. We need to find out what he's capable of doing, and right now, I think it's fair to say we're not seeing the kind of effort that everyone deserves in this situation.

PERLE: I have seen Yasser Arafat on a platform addressing a group of Palestinians, seated next to the grandmother of the suicide bomber, saying give me your children -- Yasser Arafat recruiting suicide bombers. Now I think it's time we faced an unpleasant reality, Yasser Arafat is not an instrument of peace. He is part of the problem and not part of the solution.

BLITZER: Have you ever seen -- you lived in Israel. You were the U.S. ambassador there, you dealt with the Palestinians on almost a day-to-day basis.

WALKER; The Palestinians have gone both ways. They've also been engaged in negotiations, where they've reached agreements with the Israelis. The problem's been that they haven't kept their agreements, but then neither side has been rigorous in this. I don't know that it's time for Arafat to go if he actually does the job. But if he doesn't, then you're right. Richard's right, it's time for him to go.

BLITZER: There's certainly no other Palestinian leader that emerges, at least in my mind, as a successor to Arafat. Don Rumsfeld, the secretary of defense was on "Meet the Press," yesterday, you of course dealt with Arafat during your eight years in the Clinton administration.

I want you to listen to what Secretary Rumsfeld said about the Palestinian leader, as you will remember, was on the White House south lawn in 1993 shaking hands with Yitzhak Rabin the late Israeli Prime Minister, listen to this.


RUMSFELD: He is not a particularly strong leader. And I don't know that he has good control over the Palestinian situation. He has not ever delivered anything for the Palestinian people throughout history.


BLITZER: Have you heard tough language like that about Arafat from many other U.S. senior cabinet member?

STEINBERG: I think the answer is that Arafat has been able to deliver things for the Palestinian people, when he's worked for peace and when he's controlled the violence. That's why there was an agreement with Prime Minister Rabin. That's why there was an agreement with Prime Minister Netanyahu.

The fact is we have seen Arafat in the past, when he's really put his shoulder into it, have effective security cooperation with the Israelis. The question is why not now? Particularly at a dangerous time like this, the impact of this is a disaster for his own people, so he has an opportunity to deliver for them, he has done it in the past, he's got to do it now.

BLITZER: Richard, you agree with that assessment, that in the past he has delivered when he's wanted to?

PERLE: Well, he has done what he thought was in the best interests of his own position. The Palestinian Authority is hopelessly corrupt, everyone knows that. It can not deliver peace, because it is fundamentally not ready to accept the existence of a Jewish state. And look how close we got when the Barak administration offered virtually everything, and Arafat walked away from it and embarked upon the bloodshed and the violence we are seeing now.

BLITZER: And you were there at that...

WALKER: Yes, we can go into the details of that. But the actual fact is that Arafat has to accept the concept of a two state solution. And that means that he can not continue to hope, or think about having people joining with him who don't believe in it -- who want to destroy Israel.

PERLE: I think...

BLITZER: Hold on, one second. Hold that thought.

We are going to take a quick break. We have a lot more to talk about coming up here in the CNN WAR ROOM. Will Israel's missiles blow up the U.S.-led anti-terror coalition? Stay with us.


BLITZER: Welcome back.

Israel has retaliated for a series of deadly terror attacks against Israeli civilians over the weekend with strikes against Palestinian Authority targets. The United States has seemingly turned a blind eye. What will all of this do to the U.S.-led, anti-terror coalition.

Let's go back to our WAR ROOM panel. Jim Steinberg, the administration is trying to keep this coalition, including Arab states and Muslims, together. What does this potentially do to that coalition?

STEINBERG: I think it's an opportunity for the moderate Arab states to show that they really are against terrorism and that they take a strong stand here, that there can be progress in the situation only if others in the region also make clear that whatever the political differences between Israel and the Palestinians, that there simply is no place for this, and that they expect Arafat to take active measures. I think that ought to be the priority right now. And what is what would be necessary in the long run for this coalition to be meaningful. BLITZER: Ed, you were a former ambassador in Egypt. The Egyptians could play a significant role. The Saudis could -- a lot of the moderate Arab states. Do you think they will?

WALKER: Well, they have got to be willing to call a terrorist a terrorist. And that's got to be the very first criteria. So far, I haven't seen Arafat really doing that. The Arab world has to come to grips with this question of killing innocents. And when they do, if they do, then they can help Arafat.

BLITZER: Is there any hope here that they will, Richard Perle?

PERLE: Well, I hope they will. And I must say Colin Powell has shaped this coalition brilliantly. It has been a consummate performance. He has asked them to do so little that when they stop doing it, we will hardly notice it. So it really doesn't matter if the coalition stays together.

The important point is that we have critical objectives, protecting this country. The Israelis are trying to protect themselves. And if the coalition is the only way we can achieve protection, then we are going to have to lose the coalition. But I don't think we will.

WALKER: I am not sure that you can say they have done practically nothing, Richard, besides of which, if we are going to go pursue the war on terrorism, we are going to have to uproot the entire -- not only the twigs and the branches, but we are going to have to get at the roots. And the roots are all over the world. Now, we are going to need a hell of a lot of help from a lot of countries to do that. So it's not so trivial to keep these people working with us.

PERLE: But a lot of countries have an interest very similar to our own in working with us. And they will continue to work with us even if we feel it is necessary to do some things with which they disagree. They are not going to switch sides and become opponents.

WALKER: Well, I don't think that you are, necessarily, going to get opponents in the Arab countries either. The question is what their interests are. They are just as much opposed to terrorism as we are. They have been attacked most of the time.

PERLE: Well, they are opposed to terrorism on their territory.

BLITZER: Let me bring back Jim Steinberg. The Bush administration has now done what the Clinton administration did for eight years: send over a special envoy. This time, the retired Marine Corps general, Anthony Zinni, a former commander of the central command, which deals with that part of the world. He seems to have a mission impossible right now.

STEINBERG: I don't think it's a mission impossible. And I think it means that they can particularly effective in putting the right kind of pressure on Arafat, because the administration has now shown that it's willing to engage, that it wants to see this process move forward. But there is a price that Arafat has to be prepared to pay to see that go forward. So, I think there is a very constructive role that General Zinni can play. And I think it's a good idea that he's there because Arafat can see there is a positive choice he can make if he gets serious about cracking down on the terrorists.

BLITZER: But if he locks up Hamas, Islamic Jihad, put all those guys in prison and holds them in prison, he will have a price to pay himself, won't he?

WALKER: Sure he will. He is going to have to provide some hope for his people. And that means doing some things about corruption. It means giving some vision of what the Palestine that he thinking about is going to be. Is it going to be a Democratic state? Is it going to be a corrupt state, autocratic, what? He hasn't shown that.

BLITZER: And one final question for you, Richard. During the Gulf War, the then Bush administration restrained the Israelis, kept them on the sidelines, even after they were attacked by Iraqi Scud missiles. If that were to happen again, if Iraqi were brought in, if the U.S. attacked Iraq, they lashed out at Israel, should this administration restrain the Israelis once again?

PERLE: I think it will be a very different situation this time. In that case, because we had such a massive deployment -- half a million men, 1,600 aircraft -- we needed the cooperation of all the states in the region. That isn't going to be the case when we go after the Iraq next time and the Israelis, if they are attacked, will have a much freer hand to defend themselves.

BLITZER: Richard Perle, Ed Walker, Jim Steinberg, thanks for joining me here in the CNN WAR ROOM.

When we come back, we have got a developing story coming out of Germany, near Bonn. There has apparently been a breakthrough in the post-Taliban regime discussions. We will go to Bonn when we come back.


BLITZER: There is late word from Germany where Afghan factional leaders have been meeting to try to form a post-Taliban government.

Let's go live to CNN's Jim Bittermann. He joins us now from Germany on the phone -- Jim.

JIM BITTERMANN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, apparently there is agreement tonight on the overall structure of that government after about 48 hours of work on text here. The delegations have agreed on the structure of a government that would take the place of the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

Basically, it provides for a 29-member ruling council, a chairman, five vice chairmen and 23 ordinary members. They would, in a sense, be the government of Afghanistan for six months, at which time, a popular assembly, the Loya Jirga, would take hold and it provides for, as we understand it -- and we haven't seen the final text of this document -- it provides for elections within two years time. So, in fact, they have gotten at least the structure going.

Now the one thing that remains to be revolved here is who gets what jobs in this new government. Only late tonight did the Northern Alliance provide a list of names of their delegates for the various jobs. And starting at noon tomorrow, the delegates here will work on that arrangement, who's going to be in what positions in this new government -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jim Bittermann, we'll stay on top of this story. Thank you very much.

I'm Wolf Blitzer in Washington. "CROSSFIRE" begins right now.




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