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White House Prepares for Secretary of State's Mideast Visit

Aired April 11, 2002 - 14:04   ET


BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: To Washington now and John King, our senior White House correspondent right now. And, John, clearly the White House is laying its cards on the table in many respects right now. What is the talk right now, about how high the stakes are for Colin Powell getting something while he's on the ground here?

JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Well, Bill, the goals of this trip have been recalibrated by the day, if you will. When Secretary Powell left Washington the hope was, by the time he arrived in Jerusalem, the Israelis would have completely withdrawn from the Palestinian territories. Mr. Arafat would have given a clear speech in Arabic to his people denouncing violence as a tool in the struggle between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Neither of those things have happened.

The administration says in private the secretary's conversations, as Andrea was just noting, with the Arab leaders, have been quite encouraging. In public he has been chastised a bit, the secretary, for not going to Jerusalem sooner, for the administration not doing more to get Mr. Sharon to pull out the troops.

So the goal of the administration now, they say, is simply to try to keep the dialogue going. At the beginning of this trip, the goal was to have a cease-fire in place. But the Israelis say they won't talk to Mr. Arafat.

So what the administration hopes for is that Secretary Powell can encourage the Israelis to withdraw from more of the occupied territories. And, in his meeting with Mr. Arafat, can convince Mr. Arafat to be more outspoken, in terms of cracking down, arresting some people, giving a public speech denouncing violence.

They're hoping now, since they don't see any hope for a short- term breakthrough, of trying to at least lay the foundation for more long-term dialogue between the parties. But at the moment, the Israelis and the Palestinians won't talk to each other. Very difficult to get anything done in that environment -- Bill.

HEMMER: John, we have talked also, for two weeks now running, that there is a public irritation with Yasser Arafat on behalf of the White House. But is the patience growing thinner too with Ariel Sharon at this point as well?

KING: Certainly the White House understands Prime Minister Sharon's perspective in continuing the offensive. What President Bush had said to the prime minister directly, what we are told Secretary Powell has said more recently, General Zinni on the ground in Jerusalem and other U.S. officials, is they understand the short-term calculation Prime Minister Sharon is making.

But in the view of this White House, if there is to be any long- term hope for a cease-fire and security cooperation -- nobody talking about a peace process right now, we should be clear about that. No one believes there is any atmosphere that would allow an actual peace process right now. But if you are to get to much less violence -- no one even thinks you can get to absolutely no violence -- the Israelis must pull back.

They say they understand when Prime Minister Sharon says the terror continues. He has to deal with it today. The administration says, think down the road a few months, Mr. Prime Minister, you must pull your troops back and you must do so now, or else the administration will lose credibility with the Arab nations. It will not be able to tell Mr. Arafat if you do your part, the Israelis prepare to do those.

So, this is a very complicated deck, if you will, that Secretary Powell and the White House are playing.

HEMMER: John, Let's cut this down through the ABCs, in very basic form, here. What is Colin Powell prepared to tell, first, Yasser Arafat, take that one. And then what is he prepared to tell Ariel Sharon?

KING: He's prepared to tell Yasser Arafat that, yes, the Bush administration is now engaged at the highest level it has been. That he is prepared to stay beyond Saturday if there are hopes of negotiating some progress, whether that be a cease-fire, whether that be an agreement for the Israelis to at least lift some of the punishing economic sanctions, if you will, that are in place right now against the Palestinians.

The secretary says, I will stay, but I must make clear to you, Mr. Arafat, the president is not happy with your leadership. He doesn't believe you are showing any leadership. You must show that leadership if you want me to then go and tell Prime Minister Sharon he must not only get the troops out, but he must be willing to do more to lift travel restrictions, not only on Mr. Arafat, but into and out of the Palestinian territories, so there can be some economic hope, if you will, for the Palestinian people.

The secretary will, we are told, look Prime Minister Sharon in the eye and say, the United States wants to help you. We are your closest friend in the entire world. You must heed the call of our president, and you must get the troops out.

HEMMER: Also in this region, John, as you're well aware, there's talk that the White House simply got into this game a bit too late. They allowed the situation to unfold, essentially, to the situation where we are right now. Is there talk among senior White House officials that indeed they jumped into the water a bit too late right now? And because of that, they have been set back significantly?

KING: They dispute that, Bill. And of course there's criticism from the people who were in the prior administration. Some career people in the government, who say this administration was perhaps a bit naive at the outset, in pulling back.

But this president certainly has changed his standards for involvement in the Middle East. They would say they've reacted to the times, reacted to the situation they have been confronted with. At the very beginning, remember, this president's constant line was he would engage, the administration would engage, more fully.

He would make the case -- and we should be clear -- this president would make the case his administration has been engaged at what he believes to be the very appropriate levels, from the very beginning. But President Bush's standard was, once the two parties, the Israelis and the Palestinians, show a willingness to cooperate and a willingness to move toward peace and negotiations, then he would increase the level of administration and involvement.

He has completely changed and abandoned that standard, in the sense that he sent first General Zinni now Secretary Powell into the region, when the violence was at its highest levels in years. So the president has certainly rewritten the standards for his involvement.

Some would say the administration is looking more down the road. It realizes it would need Arab support, or at least not Arab criticism, if there is a confrontation with Iraq. Some say this is not just about the Israelis and the Palestinians, it's about a much more longer, in the administration's strategic view, of the war on terrorism.

But the president would deny or reject the criticism that he has gotten involved too late, as you put it. But it certainly is fair to say that the administration has dramatically changed the standards for which it will get involved at such a high level.

HEMMER: John, I want to get to Ramallah in a moment. One final question to you. It is said to me by senior Israeli sources here on the ground that Ariel Sharon will not allow Colin Powell to leave this area without some measure of success. If that is the case, then how do they define that measure of success? And what would make -- what would make the White House happy or content, or able to label this mission as a success?

KING: Well, the White House would like to see the Israeli troops pulled out, if not from all, then certainly from a hugely significant portion of the Palestinian territories. If there cannot be formal cease-fire agreement -- and right now, again, Prime Minister Sharon says he won't deal with Mr. Arafat. Hard to strike a formal cease- fire between two parties who won't talk to each other. The administration would at least like to see, when Secretary Powell leaves, a significantly reduced level of violence, so that you have a de facto cease-fire, if you will.

One thing they made clear though, at this White House is, that they believe there will always be some violence because there are parties on both sides who do not want peace, in their view. And one calculation the administration increasingly is making is it realizes, when it comes to Mr. Arafat and Mr. Sharon, there's a history here.

And in the words of one senior official intimately involved in the deliberations, who I spoke to yesterday, he said, look, these two guys hate each other. It is a very difficult calculation for us. We're doing the best we can. These two guys hate each other.

HEMMER: John, thanks. John King in Washington, our senior White House correspondent. We will be back in touch throughout the next two hours with you, John. Thank you.





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