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Israel Condemns Attack; Interview with Ehud Olmert, Jerusalem Mayor

Aired March 21, 2002 - 11:00   ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: You're looking at pictures of a devastating scene in downtown Jerusalem where, late in the afternoon there, a suicide bomber set off a massive explosion there on King George Street near Jaffa, near the Old City of Jerusalem.

Palestinian sources say to CNN that the bomber was a member of the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade. It is a military wing of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement. We heard from Raanan Gissin, who is an adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon say that he is holding Yasser Arafat responsible for this attack. They're waiting for further details on exactly what happened, and how much control he may even have over his own people before they determine whether any peace talks go forward.

This bombing, this suicide bombing, happened just hours before U.S. Middle East envoy Anthony Zinni was due to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

We also have calls in to Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority. They could not speak to us yet to respond to what happened, because they are all in meetings right now with Yasser Arafat, but as soon as we hear from any of the Palestinian Authority, we will bring them to you, and let you know what their thoughts are.

In the meantime, CNN's chief international correspondent, Christiane Amanpour, has been working the scene where the suicide bomber attacked. Christiane, you described a devastating scene earlier. What's happening right now?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, it's about an hour and a half since this suicide bomber detonated himself outside a bank of shops here on King George Street, in downtown, the heart of downtown West Jerusalem, and incredibly, in just one hour and a half, the scene has almost been cleaned up, which shows you just how regular an awful occurrence this has been, certainly over the last few weeks in this particular neighborhood.

There have been attacks in this area, within about 200 yards of this area, in the past few weeks. We talked to a police spokesman just a few moments ago who told us that at the moment, the official count is that two people are pronounced dead. One was pronounced dead when he arrived -- or when the person arrived at the hospital, and one was dead at the scene. We saw that person. We saw that body being lifted onto a stretcher, examined, covered, and put into an ambulance to be taken away.

This is -- has been a scene of unbelievable carnage, as you can imagine. There are all sorts of medical personnel and security personnel here who have been cleaning up, essentially, and attending to the wounded and rushing them off. We asked a police spokesman, had there been any warning, and he said no, in this instance, there had been no warning.

Sometimes, there have been warnings prior to these suicide attacks, but, he said, since the fact that this has been a regular occurrence over the last few weeks, police have stationed not from this area. He said that there were police stationed about 50 yards from where this suicide bomber exploded himself, and injured all those people, and therefore, very quickly the police responded to rush away the wounded, and to try to deal with the situation here, and to move out people from this area. They placed -- as you can imagine, police lines around the immediate area of the explosion, and people are being kept somewhat away.

But this is not just a commercial area. It is also partly residential. So, there are people in the apartments -- above the street level who live here and who have been going out on their balconies, and looking and seeing what is going on.

The explosion happened outside a series of shops. One was a bakery, another a (AUDIO GAP) shop, another was what appeared to be some kind of clothing store, which appears to have taken (UNINTELLIGIBLE) damage (UNINTELLIGIBLE) store. The blast traveled, if you like, across the street, and there's some shattered glass in the shops just across the street.

And in what is also a familiar sight here, perhaps one that people aren't so used to, are the religious (UNINTELLIGIBLE) religious workers whose job it is to go and scrape up the remains of those who were killed to provide a proper Jewish Orthodox burial, and that's what they have been doing as well.

So, this is a very awful scene, and it comes at a time when the two sides have been meeting in the wake of the visit here by Vice President Dick Cheney, and also the presence here of the U.S. special envoy, former General Anthony Zinni who appeared trying to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Tenet agreement with the principles of a cease-fire, and not only that, to push the sides to some kind of kind of political agreement as well.

This comes at a very, very delicate moment, in the fact that military -- militants from the military wing allied to Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement have claimed responsibility. It is going to put added burden on Yasser Arafat, and it is going to come into play how the Israelis judge now, and how Anthony Zinni judges now, whether he is meeting his commitment to reign in this violence.

LIN: Christiane, why would -- why would Yasser Arafat's own group try to undermine peace talks where Yasser Arafat was just on the verge of perhaps meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney, who was ready to return to the region as soon as this weekend? AMANPOUR: This is an exceptionally good question, and it is -- people here have been racking their brains over for the last 18 months when it is so close to a possible peace agreement, or (UNINTELLIGIBLE) agreement, do these kinds of things happen.

Now, had it been Hamas or Islamic Jihad, which have been historically opposed to the peace agreement, the answer would be clear, that they oppose any cease-fire or peace settlement and that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to try to disrupt it. So it is difficult to understand, and so, without making (UNINTELLIGIBLE) why the al Aqsa Brigade militants did this, and I can tell that you had a conversations with some of them, people from Gaza, of the Al Aqsa Brigades, on Monday, who said that if Arafat calls for a cease-fire, then they would abide by it. Of course, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) this is what is being hammered out between the Israeli and Palestinian security officials, and I believe, although I have to double check this, already one member of the Fatah movement has made a statement that this is perhaps in response to the fact that they perceive the Israelis not -- not (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in the cease-fire talks.

But this has caused (ph) a great deal of shock and anguish, as you can imagine, on the streets of Jerusalem, and so, ironically, this happened exactly through a banner which reads "End the occupation, we want to live in peace." The offices of one of Israel's left wing political parties is right above the shop outside which the suicide bomber exploded himself and injured those people.

LIN: All right, thank you very much, Christiane Amanpour, for working the scene there where the suicide bomber detonated a massive explosion, killing at least two people and injuring as many, now, according to CNN's count, as many as 50 people. Christiane Amanpour reporting from the scene there.

In fact, this is very interesting. I've just been handed this piece of wire here saying that the Bush administration, according to CNN's State Department Correspondent Andrea Koppel, the Bush administration, it has decided it will designate this group, the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, as a foreign terrorist organization. This organization who -- just a moment -- Ehud Olmert -- all right, we have Ehud Olmert, he is the mayor of Jerusalem, on the telephone with us. I am going to ask White House Correspondent John King to stand by for just a moment.

Mr. Mayor, can you hear me?

EHUD OLMERT, MAYOR, JERUSALEM: Yes, I certainly do. I just want to get your reaction to today's suicide bombing attack in central Jerusalem.

OLMERT: Well, this is another terrible event in the heart of Jerusalem. Which, unfortunately, is done by the organization which pretends to want to have cease-fire, but which acts entirely in opposition to this declared desire, and is continuing the bloody attack against innocent Israeli civilians in every part of the country, and particularly in the city of Jerusalem. This is very painful, and very hard to all of us. LIN: Mr. Mayor, how is your city responding right now to the attack?

OLMERT: Well, obviously, many people are very, very upset, and are very pained. Maybe the most accurate word is pain, pain. There is a lot of pain. It's very, very difficult. It's hard even to explain to you what it means to go through this every week, time and again, and to come to the center of my city and have to collect parts of bodies of my citizens from the ground, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) what it does to the people, and how pained we all are because of this.

LIN: Mr. Mayor, I am just wondering, we don't know what is going to happen next with the peace process, but I am wondering what your opinion is. Do you think Prime Minister Ariel Sharon should allow Yasser Arafat to leave the West Bank, if there is a meeting to take place with Vice President Dick Cheney or U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni, to move the peace process forward?

OLMERT: I will be utterly surprised if Vice President Dick Cheney will want to meet with this terrorist. I know that America is now in the middle of a very comprehensive campaign against terror, and Arafat, that's more than any other person in the world, is the symbol of bloody terror. Not only that he didn't lift a finger to stop terror in the last few days when Vice President Dick Cheney arrived here, and General Anthony Zinni arrived to try and work out some kind of cease-fire, but on the contrary, he continued his efforts, and his encouragement to the different organizations under his control to carry on more and more bloody attacks on Israeli civilians.

I doubt that the vice president will want to meet with him, and -- if you want consolation that I have, from the presence of General Anthony Zinni, is that he is a very decent observer. Believe me, he sees everything, and he knows precisely what Arafat is doing, and I'm happy that he can report it directly to the president so that President Bush will know that the man who pretends to be a partner for peace is no more than a bloody terrorist.

LIN: Mayor of Jerusalem, Ehud Olmert, thank you very much for joining us by telephone. We have heard now from the mayor of Jerusalem, we've heard from a spokesman for Ariel Sharon. We want to let you know we have calls in to the Palestinian Authority. Our Palestinian sources are telling us that the Palestinians are meeting with Yasser Arafat and are unavailable to speak to CNN right now, but as soon as we get their side of the story, their opinion of what happened in central Jerusalem, we will bring them to you as soon as possible.

In the meantime, CNN's chief White House correspondent, John King, standing by there. John, I don't know if you were able to hear the mayor of Jerusalem, but, obviously, a lot of high emotions, resentment, and confusion there in the city, just as, perhaps, the vice president, whom you were traveling with, might have met with Yasser Arafat as soon as this weekend.

JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: And all of that, Carol, playing in now to the very delicate decision facing the administration. Should it go ahead with this meeting between Vice President Cheney and Yasser Arafat, planned -- tentatively planned in Egypt as early as Monday. The vice president planned -- prepared to leave on Sunday for that meeting, and the United States put a lot of pressure on the Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, to open the door to that meeting by lifting -- potentially lifting the travel restrictions on Yasser Arafat.

So, as the administration mulls its options, we need to watch as well to see if Prime Minister Sharon decides now, in the wake of this latest violence, to pull back on that decision. There was a condition for the meeting, though: Yasser Arafat first had to begin to implement a truce, had to begin to implement elements of the Tenet Plan.

One key element of that plan is intelligence sharing. If he has any information at all about the prospect of an attack on Israelis, he is supposed to share it with the Israeli security forces as soon as possible. So, there will be an assessment made on the ground as to Yasser Arafat's commitment to peace. In the words of one senior administration official, "We knew, after the discussions between the vice president in the region, Mr. Arafat would be quickly tested. This is his test."

Another senior official saying that the violence is not helpful to the decision as to whether the Cheney-Arafat meeting should go forward, but it is too soon to make that decision. Mr. Cheney was asked about all this himself this morning in the Oval Office. He briefed President Bush on his trip. He was asked if he still planned to go forward with the meeting with Mr. Arafat.

Mr. Cheney says a number of factors still in play, and that in the end, he has to make this decision in the next 24 to 48 hours. He will rely on the advice of the president's special envoy in the region, retired Marine General Anthony Zinni, and the question for General Zinni is, Is Yasser Arafat doing all he can to end the violence?


DICK CHENEY, VICE PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: He will make his judgment based on whether or not Arafat is, in fact, implementing Tenet. Not just promising to implement, but implementing Tenet. If he's doing that, if he is living up to those requirements, and General Zinni signs off on it, then I'm prepared to go back almost immediately for a meeting.


KING: And this violence again raises the question that the administration simply says it cannot answer, that only Mr. Arafat can answer. Some question whether he has the political will to crack down, and to stop Palestinian groups from inciting violence, and carrying out violence like today's suicide bombing. Others question whether Mr. Arafat himself could survive such a crackdown. That is an ongoing question, in the word of one senior administration official.

They have made the decision here to put the burden on Mr. Arafat, by the Bush administration, to reengage in this process. They say now it is up to Mr. Arafat to condemn the bombing today, to crack down on those responsible, to increase security cooperation with Israel, and then and only then, will he get that long-sought meeting with Vice President Dick Cheney -- Carol.

LIN: John, here's the catch-22. I mean, the organization, the Al Aqsa Brigade, which is claiming responsibility, is an arm of Yasser Arafat's Fatah movement, so if his own organization perpetrated this attack, it could mean only one of two things. Either it was sanctioned by Yasser Arafat, or Yasser Arafat doesn't have control over his own people. Don't both points make it a moot point whether he is, in fact, now the man to deal with?

KING: Well, that's exactly the question. It is a catch-22, and what the United States would say is that Mr. Arafat goes back and forth. When he needs international support, he does crack down, and he does round up and arrest people, but very often, in the view of the United States, people are arrested, detained for a few hours, or maybe a few days, and then allowed back out. They say Mr. Arafat, he faced this choice at the end of the Camp David negotiations in the Clinton administration. In the view of the United States, he made the wrong choice. He walked away from what many considered to be the best deal he would ever get for peace.

The Bush administration has now reengaged in a way it was very reluctant to do. The president's envoy on the ground, the vice president was in the region. They have changed the standard now, and opened the door to a meeting with Yasser Arafat. In the administration's view, this shifts the burden. Just a few days ago, the burden was on the Israelis because of international condemnation of rolling the troops into the Palestinian territories. The Israelis pulled back under U.S. pressure.

The question now, in the view of the United States, is will Mr. Arafat stand up and make a commitment to peace? And, Carol, they simply cannot answer the question here at the White House. They say they do not know if Mr. Arafat is fully committed, and they do not know if he has the political strength left to crack down on extremists within his own party, and you are right: within his own organization.

LIN: Well, the Bush administration, according to our State Department Correspondent Andrea Koppel, is declaring that the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade is officially now a foreign terrorist organization, which would enable, obviously, the war on terror to clamp down on any money, any funding that may be heading its way. It seems that the only option, given this declaration against Arafat's group, is that Arafat would need to come out and condemn his own organization in order to keep the peace process on track.

KING: And the very same thing happened after that shipment. The Karine-A was the name of the ship that was coming from Iran into the territories. Israeli intelligence first, and then U.S. intelligence confirmed that that shipment, in the view of those intelligence sources, was headed for the Palestinian organizations, was sponsored by people very close to Mr. Arafat, and that if Mr. Arafat was not aware of it personally, then people very close to him were. The administration said then that Yasser Arafat must crackdown on people who are among his closest aides and advisers. Some arrests were made that satisfied, not completely, but began to satisfy the United States and the Israelis. That's one of the reasons Prime Minister Sharon says he will allow Mr. Arafat to leave is because some arrests have been made, some conditions have been met. This is a recurring question as to whether Yasser Arafat will cleanup people around him that the United States and Israel say sponsor terrorism.

Another distinction here is by designated that group a terrorist group, the United States, in essence, gives a green light to Israel as well. Remember, Prime Minister Sharon, all along, has tried to compare what's going on in the Palestinian territories to what the United States is doing in Afghanistan. The administration, by and large, rejects the comparison, but by designating this one group a terrorist organization, it would be then very hard, down the road a day or two from now, to criticize Israel if there is a strong military response.

LIN: All right. Thank you very much. John King reporting live from the White House.

And I want to clarify something that I said here, that the Bush administration is considering a number of options which would include declaring the Al Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, Yasser Arafat's group, officially a foreign terrorist organization.

Right now, let's go to CNN's Mike Hanna at the Jerusalem bureau. Mike, we are still waiting to hear from the Palestinian Authority, specifically, Yasser Arafat. We understand that they are in a meeting right now. Do you know anything about the discussions going on?

MIKE HANNA, CNN JERUSALEM BUREAU CHIEF: Yes, Carol. We have just received word within the last couple of minutes from a senior Palestinian Authority official, Nabul Abu Ridana (ph), who has said that very soon the Palestinian Authority is issuing a formal statement condemning this terror attack in Jerusalem, and says Mr. Abu Ridana (ph), also pledging to find out those who were responsible, in terms of helping to plan and carry out this suicide attack. This statement just received within the last few minutes from the Palestinian Authority.

Earlier, the Israeli government condemned this attack, said the Palestinian Authority must be held accountable for this terror attack, as Israel has said in the past, that Palestinian Authority has to accept responsibility for other attacks that have taken place.

Another significant development within the last few minutes, Carol, is that both Israelis and Palestinians have now confirmed that a security meeting, a very top-level security meeting, due to take place within a few hours, has been postponed.

Now here the operative word from the Israeli side is that the meeting is postponed. The whole process, says the Israeli government spokesman, aimed at implementing a cease-fire is being reviewed. And the first indication of the major pressures that have been on this negotiations process emerging now with the news that this security meeting has been postponed.

The other development is that the special U.S. envoy Anthony Zinni is due to meet Israeli prime minister within the next hour or so. This meeting had been scheduled before the attack in Jerusalem, but certainly there is going to be intense discussion between Ariel Sharon and the between the U.S. special envoy Anthony Zinni.

One must remember as we heard John King refer to, Anthony Zinni is the U.S.'s point person in this region. What he says in terms of each of these incidents is going to be definitive as far as what the U.S. position is on the ongoing peace process, and certainly will be very influential in terms of what the Israeli position is in the ongoing peace process.

So developments under way here, a security meeting, the latest in a series of the meeting aimed at getting cease-fire has been postponed in the wake of the bomb attack in which two Israelis died. Also dead in attack is the man who carried out the attack, a suicide -- identified by Palestinian sources as a member of the Al Aqsa Brigade.

Now this is well a very significant development, Carol, in that the Al Aqsa Brigades is an offshoot of the Fatah movement. Fatah movement is a political organization of Yasser Arafat, a direct causal link there, of controlling between Arafat and the those responsible, or claiming responsibility, for the terror attack in Jerusalem. So a lot of developments, most dramatically and tragically another attack in Jerusalem, another two Israelis killed, more than 40 wounded -- Carol.

LIN: All right, Mike, I'm going to ask you to quickly be the diplomatic translator. When you say that the Palestinians are formally condemning the attack, does that hold much water then, given that is was one of their own related organizations that perpetrated it?

HANNA: Well, once again, one takes face value what is said. The Palestinian Authority has condemned such attacks in the past. On December the 16th last year, Yasser Arafat made a very strong statement, calling for end to all attacks against Israeli targets, calling for all Palestinian organizations to cease such attacks. These attacks have continued.

So the Palestinian Authority calling for an end to such attacks and condemning these attacks. Israel is going to contend, well, if that is the case, then why do these attacks condition? There are ways in which it can be seen. To what extent the Palestinian Authority is trying to fight terror, as it has pledged to do, and that is Anthony Zinni role at this particular point. He will be reporting to the Bush administration as to whether or not Yasser Arafat and his authority are, in fact, fighting terror.

LIN: All right, thank you very much, Mike Hanna, reporting live from our Jerusalem bureau there.


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