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Powell-Arafat Meeting Concludes

Aired April 14, 2002 - 08:02   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: A three-hour meeting earlier today between the secretary of state and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, a meeting that occurred in Ramallah, on the West Bank, not far from Jerusalem, where I am right now.

In Ramallah is CNN's Michael Holmes. He's standing by.

Michael, we had seen that dramatic videotaped picture, those videophone pictures, from outside the compound.

We now have word from Secretary Powell that the meeting was, in his words, useful and constructive. Set the scene. What's happening at Ramallah right now?

MICHAEL HOLMES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we've just come back to our broadcast position. It's only about 10 minutes from the Palestinian Authority headquarters.

As we were filming there, as Colin Powell's entourage left and then the media convoy left, our videophone signal died and all of our cell phones bar one also died, and we were told to leave the area.

This we did, we came back here. But we did see the secretary of state depart the area, and I think we have video of that that we're feeding in very shortly.

It was about three hours of standing around, really. We could see movement of Israeli troops inside the compound. Moving around freely, across areas that they don't normally move across, because of security concerns when the standoff is back in place.

Of course, armed body guards of Yasser Arafat inside that building. Israeli troops outside that building.

After Colin Powell left, a tank moved straight back into the center of the car park area that we were filming with the videophone and planted itself right back where it was.

Also, the troops took up more defensive positions, behind cover, both in a building opposite Yasser Arafat's office and in a shed area just adjacent to it.

So things back to normal now. Yasser Arafat still in isolation. We understand that right now he is meeting with his senior advisers, including, we understand, Saeb Erakat, and debriefing what came out of that very lengthy meeting with Colin Powell, which, as you said, he described as constructive. Which, I suppose, in diplomatic speak, is not a bad thing -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And, Michael, Saeb Erakat told reporters briefly, after the 3-hour meeting between Powell and Arafat, that Arafat during that meeting indicated that he was absolutely pledged to curb violence, but he also said that the Palestinians first required an Israeli withdrawal from those territories on the West Bank that Israel recently reoccupied.

Erakat said, "When he Israelis complete the full withdrawal, we will carry out our obligations."

Michael, as you've been covering this story now for several weeks -- that seems to be a chicken and egg kind of dilemma, because the Israelis say they won't pullout until the Palestinians curb the violence. The Palestinians say they can't curb the violence until the Israelis pullout. Do you see any wiggle room to get out of that dilemma that we see right now?

HOLMES: That depends, Wolf, on the magical abilities of Colin Powell.

You're absolutely right. They have been very firm positions.

You remember the statement released yesterday, in Arabic, condemning suicide bombings, attacks on civilians, on both sides, coming from Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian leadership.

Well, we were told before that statement was released that Yasser Arafat very much did not want to put his name to that statement, until there was evidence of a complete withdrawal and an assurance that they could go back about their business of running the territories.

It's been a firm position of the Palestinians. It was only after intense pressure, not just from the United States but also Europeans and also, significantly, at least two Arab nations we know of. Egypt and Saudi Arabia, calling Yasser Arafat and imploring him to put his name on that statement, that he eventually did.

As you say, it's still very much the Palestinian position that they can do nothing until there is a withdrawal, and they are reluctant to do anything until there is a withdrawal.

The other thing that is significant that has been mentioned on CNN for some days now, is Yasser Arafat's in a difficult position, even were he wanting to go out and roundup suicide bombers, or would- be suicide bombers, he couldn't. He has nothing with which to work, in terms of a security apparatus.

The preventive security headquarters well over a week ago now came under intense assault. It is rendered useless. I've walked around the building. There's nothing left but a shell of buildings in that compound. Palestinian police stations have been likewise damaged and destroyed, and in fact Palestinian policemen themselves rounded up as part of the detentions.

So, Yasser Arafat and Palestinian leadership also say that to bring about the security that Israel wants him to bring about is going to require intensive rebuilding and financial assistance, considerable financial assistance, from countries like the United States.

But the withdrawal issue still a very firm position with the Palestinians. They want to see Israeli troops out of their towns and cities -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Michael Holmes reporting live from Ramallah. Thanks for your report.

Andrea Koppel is our State Department correspondent. She was in Ramallah as well during the three hours of the Powell-Arafat meeting.

Andrea, you're back in Jerusalem now. Give us an update, where the secretary has gone, what's he up to? What's the plan for a follow-up meeting with the Israeli prime minister later today and with the Palestinians tomorrow?

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, Secretary Powell is back now, in Jerusalem, at the hotel. He is expected to be going to meet the Israeli president in a couple of hours, before he travels then to Tel Aviv later this evening to meet for the second time with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

During his meeting with Arafat, however, Secretary Powell came out following it and said that there would be a follow-on meeting tomorrow with his staff and with Chairman Arafat's staff. We don't yet know where. They are presumably working out the details of that right now.

Secretary Powell described the meeting as useful and constructive, and said they exchanged a number of ideas.

In fact, we know from having spoken with other United States officials that, as one person put it, there were no breakthroughs, but there were also no breakdowns. And that, this official said, is a good thing.

So, they will be meeting again tomorrow to follow-up on some of the things that they discussed. But we also know, from having heard Saeb Erakat, the Palestinian negotiator who came out and spoke with reporters after the meeting, that it sounds as if the Palestinians are putting down as their prerequisite for making any movement on their side, a full Israeli withdrawal.

Which, as you know, Wolf, Ariel Sharon did not commit to, at least in any sort of a timetable, when Secretary Powell met with him on Friday -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Andrea, so what you're saying is that the secretary, later today, will meet with Israel's President Moshe Katsav, here in Jerusalem, and then he'll go down to Tel Aviv to meet with Prime Minister Sharon later in the day. Is that the game plan?

KOPPEL: That's the game plan, and, again, this is what we were expecting when we first arrived here, that there would be meetings one day with the Israelis and the next with the Palestinians, and Friday's suicide bombing threw off that schedule.

But it is our understanding, again, from having spoken with other United States officials, that today's meetings went about as well as could be expected. While they didn't come away with something ready to announce.

They do feel that it was a good meeting and that perhaps they're looking forward to making some progress when they meet again tomorrow with the Palestinians, and of course Secretary Powell will be briefing the Israeli prime minister when he sees him later this evening.

And that's how this works. You know, you shuttle back and forth between the parties and hope that you're able to eventually get each side to make enough concessions that perhaps you get a cease fire in place and -- yes. I'm sorry, Wolf, I'm being told I have to move out of this place that I'm in right now.

Anyway, so that's the plan for now -- Wolf.

BLITZER: OK. Andrea Koppel, reporting live from Jerusalem.

She has returned with the secretary of state from Ramallah, where that meeting occurred, three hours of talks between Colin Powell and Yasser Arafat.

Joining us now live on the phone is Saeb Erakat. He's the chief Palestinian negotiator. He was in Ramallah as well, participating in that meeting.

Mr. Erakat, thanks so much for joining us. Give us the headline. What emerged from these three hours of talks?

SAEB ERAKAT, CHIEF PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATOR: Well, we had a useful and constructive meeting. There were many ideas presented by both sides to each other.

It was agreed that the Palestinian team will meet the American team tomorrow to follow-up all the points of discussion. I will be meeting with my colleagues with the American team tomorrow to follow- up all the ideas, and in preparation for the meeting between President Arafat and the secretary that may take place next Tuesday.

We had hoped that when the secretary comes to Ramallah we would have seen the end of the Israeli reoccupation and the end of the siege, but I believe that the Israelis must move ahead and take their part in carrying out an implementation of resolution 1402, that calls for the immediate withdrawal from all re-occupied areas.

BLITZER: Is there any consideration to a follow-up meeting directly between Secretary Powell and the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat?

ERAKAT: Yes, as I said, this meeting may take place next Tuesday, actually, the day after tomorrow.

But tomorrow there will be…

BLITZER: A meeting between...

ERAKAT: ... between the Palestinian and American team, meeting tomorrow, to discuss further the ideas and collaborate, and the approach that is needed to develop.

BLITZER: All right. So, just to be clear, tomorrow you and other Palestinian officials will meet with United States officials, I assume General Zinni would lead the United States delegation. And that in turn will set the stage for a second round of talks between Colin Powell and Yasser Arafat on Tuesday. Is that right, Mr. Erakat?

ERAKAT: That's correct, Wolf. Yes, that's correct. We will have a meeting of the Palestinian and American teams, and then the day after, there is an anticipated meeting between President Arafat and Secretary Powell again.

BLITZER: And they will meet once again in Ramallah on Tuesday. That's where the meeting presumably would take place, right?

ERAKAT: Yes. The meeting would take place in the president's seized compound in Ramallah. But I hope that by Tuesday the Israelis would have completed the call on them to immediately withdraw from the reoccupied areas.

BLITZER: Is that realistic, though? Do you really feel, based on anything that you heard from Colin Powell today, that Israel will withdraw from those areas in Ramallah by Tuesday?

ERAKAT: Well, I didn't hear anything specific. All I heard was that the secretary is exerting every possible effort with the Israeli side in order to achieve what the president said, and see a withdrawal. That's what he said, what resolution 1402 specified. What the Quartet Committee Communique specified in Madrid a few days ago.

I would not say that I hear anything specific, but I hope that this can be achieved immediately in order for us to go towards the next step of implementing the rest of the components of 1402, including the peace obligations on both sides, and then moving towards the political tract.

BLITZER: Saeb Erakat -- he is the chief Palestinian negotiator. He participated in those meetings in Ramallah today between Secretary Powell and Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat.

Mr. Erakat, we'll be getting back to you, I'm sure, hopefully later today, as our continuing coverage resumes.

But right now I want to bring in the number two official at the United States State Department, Richard Armitage. He's the deputy secretary of state. He's joining us live, from Washington.

Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for joining us. I assume you've been briefed on the talks that the secretary had with Yasser Arafat. What have you heard?

RICHARD ARMITAGE, U.S. DEPUTY Secretary OF STATE: I had the opportunity to speak to Secretary Powell several times as he left the Mukada (ph) compound and headed back to Jerusalem.

He also described the talks to me as useful and constructive, and indicated that our two sides, that is the staffs of Secretary Powell and of Chairman Arafat, will get together tomorrow, not to negotiate, but to find a way forward. That is, to realize the words that Chairman Arafat uttered in Arabic yesterday.

BLITZER: And you just heard Saeb Erakat tell us that he assumed that will in turn result in a second round of direct talks between Colin Powell and Yasser Arafat. Is that your understanding as well, Mr. Secretary?

ARMITAGE: My understanding is only that we will have the staffs meet tomorrow. And Secretary Powell, this evening, your time, will meet with probably President Katsav of Israel and laterally Prime Minister Sharon, and after that we'll see what happens.

BLITZER: So everything still is very much up in the air.

That meeting, tomorrow, between the staffs of the Palestinian and United States delegations, the United States delegation, I assume, correct me if I'm wrong, will be led by General Zinni, the special United States envoy.

ARMITAGE: Yes, I assume General Zinni will lead it, and probably assisted by either Mr. Burns or Mr. Satterfield, who are with the secretary.

BLITZER: What's the difference between negotiations -- you said there won't be negotiations tomorrow, but they will continue discussions to implement, to follow-up, on some of the issues that were dealt with today in Ramallah. Walk us through, precisely, what you hope will be achieved tomorrow by the staffs.

ARMITAGE: I certainly hope they'll be able to flesh-out the words that Chairman Arafat mentioned yesterday, about the reduction in violence. I think they'll be looking for ways for Chairman Arafat to actually use the bully pulpit of his leadership, as required and called upon by our president, to bring clearly home to his people that violence to accomplish political ends is not going to be effective. I think we have to find a way forward with that.

Equally, the secretary will be working with our friends in Israel to try to effect even further withdrawals, as the president has called for.

BLITZER: You heard Saeb Erakat suggest that perhaps by Tuesday, he was hoping, the Israelis will withdraw from Ramallah from the area around Yasser Arafat's headquarters. Is that realistic?

ARMITAGE: Look, Mr. Blitzer, you're an expert on the Middle East. I would assume nothing.

The president has called for the Israelis to withdraw without delay. There have been substantial withdrawals. We expect more. I wouldn't put the timetable on it for fear that I might be found out to be misinformed.

BLITZER: Is there anyway the Israelis can withdraw -- here's the question, the Israelis can withdraw, while there is no guarantee the suicide bombings won't resume? In other words, Palestinians say they can't make any security assurances until the Israelis withdraw. The Israelis say they can't withdraw until they have hard commitments that there will be an end to the suicide bombings.

How do you, the United States, the honest broker in this effort, get around that dilemma?

ARMITAGE: That's why you have our top diplomat in the region, to try to find the way forward.

Every night that goes by without a suicide bombing means many more families in Israel will be able to live and realize their dreams.

Every moment that an Israeli tank pulls out of a West Bank town, you have Palestinians who can resume their lives.

This is what he is seeking. This is what he is working for. And I believe the necessary angle is to get enough confidence on both sides to be able to take mutual steps.

BLITZER: Is it fair to say, would it be fair to say, that the secretaries return to Washington is now open-ended, given what has happened, the meeting with Ariel Sharon on Friday, the meeting today, Sunday, with Yasser Arafat?

ARMITAGE: I think it is fair to say that the secretary will be consulting with the president, with the senior members of the president's administration, and determining the way forward. And just how long he may stay in the region and where he may go, elsewhere, is something that the president will decide.

BLITZER: From here, where else might he go? Because there's been a lot of concern, and maybe you can help us better understand that concern, about a second front, perhaps, opening up between the Israeli and Lebanese border with the Syrians, of course, very much involved as well.

How concerned are you about that potential nightmare scenario?

ARMITAGE: We're very concerned with that, and that's why Secretary Powell went to the northern command headquarters, saw the shelling of Shebaa Farms area, by Hezbollah. That's why the United States has exerted tremendous pressure on Iran and Syria to refrain Hezbollah from these actions. Whether the secretary goes there or not is still up in the air, but we've exerted enormous pressure on the Syrians and the Iranians.

BLITZER: There is some speculation, as you well know, Mr. Secretary, that from here the secretary might go to Damascus to meet with President Bahar al-Assad to directly underline that high level United States concern about potential trouble along the Israeli- Lebanese border.

ARMITAGE: Yes, I've seen that speculation, and there has been some discussion.

I think the first order of business is for Secretary Powell to meet with Prime Minister Sharon, to debrief Prime Minister Sharon on the content of the meeting today with Chairman Arafat, and to see if we can't find a way forward with the Israelis.

BLITZER: Is there a receptivity on the United States side to this Israeli proposal -- we heard Ra'anan Gissin, the adviser, the spokesman, to Ariel Sharon, say here on CNN LIVE earlier today, that the Israelis are now interested in another Madrid-like international conference to consider some steps to end this -- to move forward the peace process. Is the United States open to that?

ARMITAGE: We're open to all sorts of good ideas, Mr. Blitzer. We're open to Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia's vision for the future. We're open to any ideas our Israeli friends, or anyone else in the region, have, and we're open to ideas from Chairman Arafat, and those are among the things that Secretary Powell discussed with the chairman today.

BLITZER: Are you open to the idea of introducing United States military troops into the West Bank to separate, in effect, Israelis and Palestinians, to help monitor some sort of cease fire?

ARMITAGE: Well, we've certainly talked about the idea of monitors of some sort, as we move forward, through Tenet-Mitchell. We've also seen calls from the United Nations for the introduction of certain monitors.

Again, we're interested in any ideas anyone has. We'll look at them all. There have been no in-depth discussions about the use of United States forces for this problem.

BLITZER: But it sounds to me you're certainly not ruling that out, even if the discussions have not been all that intensive back in Washington, that's an idea that's potentially useful.

ARMITAGE: Well, I don't think, Mr. Blitzer, you ought to put words in my mouth. We're not ruling anything in and we're not ruling anything out. We're looking for ideas to move forward, and if they are ideas that everyone can agree upon as a useful way to move forward, then of course we would.

BLITZER: Mr. Secretary, I've known you now for many years, going back to when you were at the Pentagon. You know that there is still some concern at the Pentagon about introducing United States military personnel in what would be an extremely volatile situation here in the Middle East, and there is a lot of recollection of what happened in 1983 with those 241 marines at the barracks outside Beirut, when a suicide truck bomber killed them.

How concerned should Pentagon personnel be about a repeat of that kind of tragedy?

ARMITAGE: Anytime any of our sons and daughters are put in harms way, we all ought to be mighty concerned. I think it's a mighty leap of faith to bring forward a discussion about American armed peacekeepers in the territories or in Israel at this point.

BLITZER: What do you think of this latest Israeli proposal to end the standoff at the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, to give those 200 Palestinian gunmen two options basically: either surrender to Israeli troops and face a military trial here in Israel, or safe passage conducted by the Red Cross, the International Committee of the Red Cross, to leave this area once and forever, never be allowed to return to this part of the world. What do you think of that Israeli proposal?

ARMITAGE: Well, Mr. Blitzer, what it shows me is that Israel realizes that there is a general problem in Bethlehem and that the whole world community is looking at it, and they're searching for a way to resolve it without further bloodshed and without further damage.

And in that regard, I find it positive.

BLITZER: And what about the situation in Jenin, the refugee camp, the Palestinian refugee camp. A lot of wild rumors, a lot of accusations. The Palestinians accusing the Israelis of having engaged in a massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in Jenin over these past few days during fierce fighting that was waged there.

What does the United States government specifically know about what happened in Jenin?

ARMITAGE: Mr. Blitzer, Jenin is on the verge of assuming mythical proportions. That's why Secretary Powell met with the international aid community yesterday in Israel. It's why he issued a very strong call for Israel to allow the international humanitarian organizations to enter Jenin, so we can find out just what did or didn't happen and hopefully put to rest these rumors.

So I think it is very incumbent upon Israel to open up Jenin as soon as possible.

The United States information on Jenin is relatively limited as well. We've not had access.

BLITZER: But you do have ways of finding out, and as we've been speaking, Mr. Secretary, we've been showing our viewers some pictures, some still photos, of that meeting between Chairman Arafat and the secretary of state in Ramallah, a three hour meeting. The Israeli cabinet also announced today that with the exception of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, the situation in Jenin at that refugee camp, and the political headquarters of Yasser Arafat in Ramallah, they will be easing restrictions, opening up the rest of the West Bank. I take it you believe that's a positive development.

ARMITAGE: Well, I spoke to Ambassador Dan Kurtzer, our ambassador in Israel, a few moments before coming down here, Mr. Blitzer.

We've not yet been able to confirm that that was a cabinet discussion. I've seen the news tickers reporting that, and if that's the case, it's a very positive development, and further proof, I think, that the Israelis are heading the call of President Bush.

BLITZER: Before I let you go, Mr. Secretary, one final question. You have no regrets whatsoever, despite the criticism you've been receiving, the Bush administration has been receiving, for having this meeting with Yasser Arafat. You think it was a good idea.

ARMITAGE: I've seen people who have accused the administration of miscalculation. We have a president who is a man of peace. A president at a time of war for our nation. He is exerting every effort he can to try to bring peace to the region, and if that's a miscalculation or a mistake, then you can put my name down in that column.

I think that we'll continue to exert every effort for peace, and that's in keeping with our national character.

BLITZER: All right. Richard Armitage -- he's the number two man at the State Department, the deputy secretary of state, joining us for a candid conversation on what has happened here as the secretary of state continues his search for a cease fire, presumably, following that a resumption of peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians.

Mr. Secretary, thanks so much for joining us.

ARMITAGE: Mr. Blitzer, a pleasure.

BLITZER: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary.




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