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Powell Meeting with Arafat in Ramallah Compound

Aired April 17, 2002 - 05:02   ET


CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, everyone. I'm Carol Costello.

We're going to stay with Wolf Blitzer, who is in Jerusalem. As you know, Secretary of State Colin Powell is meeting with Yasser Arafat in his Ramallah compound. DAYBREAK will pop in when events warrant it nationally.

Now, back to Wolf Blitzer in Jerusalem.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The United States Secretary of State Colin Powell has now been in Ramallah for two hours. It appears the meeting with Yasser Arafat is wrapping up, a meeting that U.S. officials had hoped would result in a strong statement from the Palestinians renouncing terrorist tactics against Israel.

Hello, I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting live from Jerusalem. Welcome to our continuing special coverage of the crisis in the Middle East.

Our CNN reporter Nic Robertson, he's in Ramallah where this meeting has been taking place. He's standing by just outside the Palestinian Authority compound that's encircled by Israeli military personnel.

Nic, tell our viewers around the world what you're seeing from your vantage point.

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, just a few minutes ago we saw the three white SUV vehicles that came in two hours ago with new flashing lights and brought the secretary of state, Colin Powell, to the meeting with Yasser Arafat. We saw those vehicles depart. The Israeli Army helicopters that had accompanied overhead that procession of vehicles through Ramallah is now flying overhead again. We can hear them directly overhead. They appear to be moving away. What we, from our vantage point here, what we believe we've seen happen is that the secretary of state has now left Yasser Arafat's compound.

There are still some SUV vehicles remaining in that compound. Those vehicles, we believe, earlier brought in some additional advisers from the State Department, also a team of journalists who are traveling with the secretary of state.

But from what we can see, from our vantage point here, the meeting is, in fact, over. We're not able to get through at this time on the telephone to any of the Palestinian negotiators and we can see in the car park now are those, of Colin Powell's group moving out to those SUV vehicles, preparing to leave. These perhaps journalists and other advisers who have been traveling with the secretary of state.

Those Israeli Army helicopters an indicator of when Colin Powell arrived here. They escorted by air his convoy. They're in the air above us now, moving away, Wolf, in the direction of Jerusalem.

BLITZER: And from these live pictures that we're seeing, Nic, live video phone pictures that we have, we can definitely see some serious movement. The delegation accompanying the secretary of state, including some journalists, our own Andrea Koppel, other journalists traveling with the secretary during this 10 day mission, beginning to return to the vehicles and make that approximate 20 minute, half hour drive from Ramallah to Jerusalem.

Under normal circumstances, it's about 20 minutes. Obviously with military blockades, military border checks throughout this region, it could take longer. But these, this convoy that had brought the secretary of state to Ramallah and now back to Jerusalem is being escorted by the Israeli military and presumably it will zip right along without having to make any stops.

From your vantage point, Nic, also, do you get the sense that, if you see what's happening, that there's any tightened, heightened security procedures now as a result of the departure of the secretary of state?

BLITZER: Well, certainly on the vehicles behind me, the APC and the tank, the soldiers are, they were relaxed earlier. They're not as, they're not in that relaxed state now. There is no, as we can see, immediate threat to them and their duty of patrolling the compound of Yasser Arafat. So there is not an extremely heightened state of security here. But certainly the activity around this area has picked up and certainly these checkpoints that have been put in around the compound, there were not as many checkpoints at this time yesterday when we were in this area. Certainly, more checkpoints because of this meeting today.

Now, the helicopter, I can still hear one helicopter circling around overhead. But the security level in Ramallah has been very tight recently. There is a curfew in place. There is nobody out on the streets. It is eerily quiet away from this compound. There's no sound of traffic that you would expect in an urban environment. But at this stage the secretary of state's convoy does appear to be very much on its way back to Jerusalem, Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Nic Robertson on the scene in Ramallah.

I want to show our viewers some videotape of the convoy, convoy, the secretary of state's convoy leaving. And as we do show that picture, Andrea Koppel is standing by, as well. She's in the motorcade -- Andrea, tell us where you are right now.

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We are in the motorcade, Wolf. We are just about to drive outside of the compound. Secretary Powell has already left. He came out and said he would be making comments later, as we had already said at the hotel.

But I should also tell you that Yasser Arafat did come downstairs on the first floor of his compound and spoke to reporters and said that it was an outrage what was going on, the continued Israeli occupation of Tulkarem and Jenin and the fact that they leave and then come back. And it sounds as if, Wolf, in a nutshell, Secretary Powell left empty-handed from here. We won't know, of course, until we've heard from the secretary.

What we were also told by Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erakat that following Secretary Powell's statements, they will, the Palestinian Authority will issue a statement of its own.

But while I personally could not see Yasser Arafat, you could hear it in his voice. He was absolutely, he sounded incredibly angry, incredibly defiant. And he actually, he just kept repeating over and over again about how the world had to do more to stop the occupation in the West Bank, Wolf.

BLITZER: And, Andrea, it's just after noon. It's just after 12:00 noon here in Jerusalem. And the schedule was that once the secretary returned to that hotel, within an hour or so he would be holding a formal news conference to announce what, if anything, he's managed to achieve on this 10 day mission to the Middle East.

What else did Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, say, if anything, when he briefly met with you and other reporters traveling with the secretary of state?

KOPPEL: What he said was that the, that it was an outrage that at the same time Secretary Powell was here in Israel and the territories trying to broker a peace deal and trying to get an Israeli withdrawal from the occupied territories that you had the deputy Secretary of Defense, Paul Wolfowitz, who was participating in that huge rally, pro-Israel rally in Washington, D.C.

And he said that it was Ariel Sharon who has scuttled Secretary Powell's mission. Obviously, the Palestinians placing all of the blame on the Israelis and the Israelis, for their part, will say that Yasser Arafat could get himself out of this situation if he handed over the, those individual suspects who've been, who are accused by Israel of killing their, one of their ministers and another suspect inside, Wolf, who is believed to have masterminded or at least done the financial side of the Corinay (ph) Iranian weapons shipment.

So -- and I mean the Israelis have also said they want a clear and unequivocal statement from Yasser Arafat and action against terrorism and trying to prevent the Palestinian people from becoming suicide bombers.

But I can tell you that Saeb Erakat, before the meeting, said that as a result of this occupation there are now 3.3 million people who feel that they have nothing to live for and nothing to look forward to. Again, it's difficult to say (AUDIO GAP) Secretary Powell walked off with, Wolf. But if body language says anything, Secretary Powell looked very grim. (AUDIO GAP) doorway for a few minutes (AUDIO GAP) anything (AUDIO GAP)...

BLITZER: Andrea, unfortunately I think we're getting a bad connection. We're losing you as you're in the motorcade driving back to Jerusalem with the secretary of state. He's already ahead of you in this motorcade. The meeting lasted about two hours between the secretary of state and the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, a meeting in Ramallah. And the delegation, of course, is now returning here to Jerusalem. They should be here soon.

We should be hearing directly from the secretary of state. He's going to be holding a news conference here in Jerusalem, making a statement. And as you heard from our Andrea Koppel, our State Department correspondent traveling with the secretary of state, that will be followed by a Palestinian statement. Obviously, the details we don't know precisely. We don't know yet what those statements will occur.

Jerrold Kessel, our Jerusalem correspondent, has been following all of this very closely, as well -- Jerrold, it certainly doesn't appear, based on the body language, the brief remarks that we, that Andrea Koppel just reported to us what Yasser Arafat said, what Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, said. It doesn't appear to be very upbeat at all, does it?

JERROLD KESSEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, we're still reading the tea leaves, of course, but they're not inconsiderable, those tea leaves now, of what Andrea was reporting. A couple of the developments of the fact that the two men, the two principals she was reporting, Mr. Powell and Yasser Arafat, meeting one on one. And then all these, the body language, the livid mood in which, with which the Palestinian Authority president expressed himself, the tone of his voice, the body language of Secretary of State Powell, the fact that no statement was read.

To try to discern the meaning of these tea leaves, we approach our Palestinian analyst here, political scientist Professor Dajani. What do you make of all these, the signs coming out of it? Not very good.

MUNTHER DAJANI, AL-QUDS UNIVERSITY: No, actually, they are not. It seems there were more demands requested of President Arafat and due to his situation, there is no way he could deliver such demands without requiring Mr. Sharon to do anything. Nobody is speaking about Mr. Sharon withdrawing, nobody is speaking about Mr. Sharon stopping the incursions and so on.

So it seems all the demands are towards President Arafat.

KESSEL: The fact that what we heard there from Andrea Koppel was that -- and from Saeb Erakat, it seemed, that there first be Mr. Powell speaking and then perhaps the Palestinian statement, that is also an ominous direction.

DAJANI: Yes, in our experience it means they didn't agree on a common statement, which is rather ominous. KESSEL: Where does this leave, if that is, in fact, the way things turn out, where does this leave Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority?

DAJANI: Actually, regardless of what Mr. Sharon thinks that he has finished the Palestinian Authority and it's in a shambles, I think the Palestinian Authority has to be in place because in its absence there will be a power vacuum on the West Bank and Gaza Strip. There will be no infrastructure for day to day taking care of business.

I think the cabinet ministers should stay in place. They have their mandate. They should be in a position to be ready to do what they have to do to get by rather than just give up and...

KESSEL: But irrespective of whether Yasser Arafat is now, as in Mr. Sharon's phrase, relevant or irrelevant, as he says, whether that is, in fact, the case, or his position has been strengthened by this attempted imposition of isolation on him, the focus will no doubt be on Yasser Arafat personally and Mr. Sharon will say we've washed our hands of him and perhaps the Americans want to give him one last chance.

Maybe he has had his last chance and maybe the Americans will be convinced -- is that possible -- that Mr. Sharon, from his perspective, and now from their perspective, is right, Yasser Arafat has failed to meet the test. Could that be a dangerous situation for the Palestinian leader?

DAJANI: No, I think the legitimacy of President Arafat comes from his long history of struggle. It's irrelevant of what Mr. Sharon says. I think the Palestinian people have rallied behind him. And so did most of the people in the Arab world. They showed their support by going down to the streets even at some risk of being against their governments.

KESSEL: Is it irrelevant, though, what the United States thinks of Yasser Arafat now? Is that not the key?

DAJANI: No. The USA will always be the key in Middle East politics. I think it is the key, but there are no signs that the USA have washed their hands from the PNA. I think the USA, if anything, was supporting of the P.A. and in a sense that they still recognize President Arafat to be the only legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.

They are talking to him, after all. They are negotiating with him, which means he's the only address in Palestine.

KESSEL: Thanks very much, Professor Dajani.

And I think daresay, Wolf, that will be the focus of things now if there is nothing really tangible out of this Powell mission in terms of stemming the bloodshed, in terms of getting some cease-fire in place.

The question again now will be doubled and redoubled of whether the United States is applying its resolve to trying to do, get those objectives in place and how important is it that it doesn't, that it isn't applying its resolve. The question of the U.S. approach to the problem now that maybe this Powell mission has not met with success could be the key interesting factor which we'll all be focusing on, even as events on the ground continue to dictate from their point of view -- back to you for now, Wolf.

BLITZER: And, Jerrold, before I let you go, one of the key factors that we'll all be watching very closely will be this. Once the secretary of state leaves Jerusalem, will he leave General Anthony Zinni, his special Middle East envoy, the president's special Middle East envoy, here in this part of the world to continue these discussions or will General Zinni be leaving as well, heading back to Washington?

If he stays here, presumably, that means there still is some hope that the negotiations will continue. If, on the other hand, he leaves, then presumably there is no hope, at least in the short-term.

We'll be watching that very, very closely. As you take a look, Jerrold, at this current predicament that the Israelis, the Palestinians, the U.S. and others who have been closely watching this find themselves in, it doesn't look, it doesn't look, at least right now, barring some unforeseen development, as if it's very, very upbeat.

KESSEL: You know, the question here, perhaps, that needs to be asked is, yes, it certainly doesn't look upbeat if you look at it in terms of a resolution of the conflict. But perhaps predicament is the wrong word for the two principals and the way the two parties are approaching each other. Maybe they don't think it's as much a predicament as outsiders see it or as it seems to be in a logical term, because maybe what Ariel Sharon is pushing for is something more conclusive.

We heard Saeb Erakat saying well, what he wants is the end of the Palestinian Authority to try to bring a conclusion to this, the whole Oslo, peace process in terms of really changing the contours of the relationship between the Israelis and Palestinians in the West Bank. Maybe he doesn't see it as a predicament and maybe from the Palestinian point of view, the fact is, we heard from Professor Dajani just a short while ago, Yasser Arafat's situation has improved enormously in terms of his standing in the Arab world, his standing with the Palestinian people, his international standing, despite Mr. Sharon's attempt to force him into this seemingly intractable predicament of this isolation there. He's never been stronger, it seems, on one level. And at the other level, Mr. Sharon will say well, he's on the verge of being absolutely irrelevant.

Those are the two forces that are working against each other. The big difference is they're never, not working at all in concert. Quite the opposite. They're now literally at loggerheads in every sense of the word -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Jerrold Kessel, stand by. We'll be getting back to you. Our Andrea Koppel reporting. She's in the motorcade now with the secretary of state driving back from Ramallah to Jerusalem, where we're standing by. We're waiting for a news conference, a statement from the secretary of state announcing what, if anything, he's managed to achieve during these 10 days here in this part of the world.

Our Andrea Koppel did report earlier that Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, blamed Ariel Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, for an impasse, saying Sharon had torpedoed Powell's efforts in this part of the world. We also heard from our Andrea Koppel that the Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, did make a brief appearance before reporters inside that compound in Ramallah, saying that he, that Sharon had sabotaged the efforts, also, but insisting, calling on the U.S. and other members of the international community to work to end his isolation.

All of this is happening on the Israeli-Palestinian front. But potentially there are other problems, as well, especially along Israel's northern borders with Lebanon and Syria.

Our Beirut bureau chief, Brent Sadler, is along that border in southern Lebanon. He joins us now live by phone.

Does it seem to be any different now, Brent, than it was earlier, before the secretary of state went to Damascus and Beirut earlier in the week to try to calm the tense situation along the border between Israel, Lebanon and Syria as a result of some of those Hezbollah mortar attacks into some disputed territory held by the Israelis?

BRENT SADLER, NBC CORRESPONDENT: Yes, indeed, Wolf. Certainly while Secretary Powell was in Beirut and then in Damascus, there was already a de-escalation of activities along the border. I've just been having a briefing at the headquarters of the United Nations interim force in Lebanon. They've been here, incidentally, since 1978. And I've just had an assessment of the border situation as of this hour.

And the description is overall calming of the situation, a fifth day of calm. No major movements on either side of the border and the press office here has been telling me that overnight the chief of Israel's military intelligence gave an assessment that Hezbollah has seen the need for restraint and Hezbollah has reduced its state of alert and readiness along the border and that now is officially being verified by U.N. officials here in South Lebanon.

I've certainly been able to take a look along the border here. I haven't seen any incursions of Lebanese air space so far this day by Israeli war planes. That's been a constant source of antagonation (ph) as far as the Lebanese are concerned and as far as Hezbollah is concerned. They say we've had a fifth straight day of calm here.

That was beginning to unfold, it seems, as Secretary Powell met with the Lebanese authorities here Monday before he moved on to Damascus. Secretary Powell, of course, asking all parties, specifically the Lebanese and the Syrians, who have influence over Hezbollah, to urge restraint along the border. So today the blue line, a line that was drawn by the United Nations almost two years ago when Israel withdrew its troops from the occupied south Lebanon, that blue line seems to be maintaining its integrity today.

But in this briefing I've just had here, quite clearly the potential for this again exploding to a flare-up remains all the time because the major elements are still there. Hezbollah effectively is in control along the border. The Lebanese Army has not been deployed over the past two years in any great strength, although the U.N. does say there has been in recent days, a stepped up presence of some Lebanese security forces, specifically trying to stop renegade Palestinian groups plowing towards Israeli settlements in the northern border area.

So the elements for a dangerous situation remain in place and of course the U.N., which monitors the border situation, will be keeping a very close watch, as we all will, on whether or not this state of calm now will persist -- back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: And Brent, would it be fair to say that the intervention, the direct intervention by the U.S. secretary of state in Beirut and Damascus, as well as talking to Israeli officials here in Jerusalem about that tense situation along Israel's northern borders with Lebanon and Syria, that Powell's work played a role, a significant role in easing the tensions now, bringing this calm for a fifth straight day after there had been almost a daily series of mortar attacks in and out of that area, Hezbollah attacks, for several days earlier?

SADLER: I think it's reasonable to suggest it would certainly have had an implication in terms of the calm. But more importantly, perhaps, say officials here and diplomats, is that Iran, which has a very great deal of influence, as we know, support Hezbollah, Iran came out with a statement from the foreign minister here who visited before Secretary Powell, saying that there should be restraint because Hezbollah should not be provoked into a wider conflict with the Israelis at the same time as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is going on.

There is concern or perhaps reference here made that the central attention should be placed on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and that the northern border of Israel with Lebanon should not overshadow what was going on between Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian Authority, and the Israeli leadership.

It's also worth noting today that Lebanon's prime minister, Wolf, Rafiq al-Hariri, is expected to meet with President Bush in Washington. Mr. Hariri has already met Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. He'll be meeting Condoleezza Rice, the national security adviser, tomorrow. And Mr. Hariri certainly raising concerns from Lebanon that the whole issue of a peace initiative that was propelled from an Arab summit here just over two weeks ago in the Lebanese capital is being stifled as a result of what's happening with Israel's continuing incursions, says Prime Minister Hariri, in those Palestinian territories. So he'll be certainly trying to promote that Arab peace initiative, which he said must take place. Cease-fires alone, Mr. Hariri says, between the Palestinians and the Israelis, are not sufficient. There must be a political, a serious political process going on at the same time, which the U.S. needs to take a lead role in.

As far as the Syrians are concerned, there were no statements after Secretary Powell left Damascus on Monday. But I understand from diplomatic sources here in Lebanon that there have been requests at the highest level, certainly from the French to the Syrian leadership and other nations urging the Syrians at this stage to calm down, to reign in Hezbollah attacks. That was coinciding with what the Iranians were saying and then you had Secretary Powell here.

So I think all those three elements had a play on what's happening on this description of the border now, an overall claiming of the situation -- back to you, Wolf.

BLITZER: OK, Brent Sadler on the scene in south Lebanon. Thanks so much for joining us.

Andrea Koppel, our State Department correspondent, is traveling with the secretary of state and she's in the motorcade -- Andrea, tell us what you're seeing and hearing right now.

Unfortunately, we've lost Andrea Koppel. The signal from her cell phone just faded out. We're going to try to reestablish contact with Andrea. She should be approaching Jerusalem fairly soon. The drive from Ramallah obviously not taking long if you have an Israeli military escort along the way.

Nic Robertson is still in Ramallah. He's monitoring the situation, trying to find out what's going on up there.

What are you seeing, Nic, right now?

ROBERTSON: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) the checkpoints that has been established around Yasser Arafat's compound that once it had been put in (UNINTELLIGIBLE) are now being reformed. The tanks moved back a little earlier. You can probably hear the APCs pulling out of its position now.

The compound itself will remain sealed off. In fact, within 15 minutes of the secretary of state departing Yasser Arafat's compound, the tank that has been parked inside that compound that was removed 15 minutes before the secretary of state arrived pulled back into the compound, went back in place. So that tank now back inside Yasser Arafat's compound.

The larger perimeter security now being withdrawn from the area.

Now, we heard from, Andrea Koppel reported that Yasser Arafat came out of that meeting. He said he continued to be outraged, the fact that Israel has not pulled out, the Israeli forces have not yet pulled out of the West Bank. Now, the Palestinian Authority, through all of these negotiations, through all of these discussions with Secretary of State Colin Powell, they've been trying to maintain the position, in U.S. eyes at least, that they are not the defaulters on any situation. So, of course, that's what we're hearing from Yasser Arafat, putting forward the Palestinian position that they are not at fault -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Nic Robertson via video phone from Ramallah. We'll be back to you.

Andrea Koppel, our State Department correspondent, is now back on the line. She joins us live -- Andrea, first of all, tell us where you are right now.

KOPPEL: I have just left Ramallah. We're in our convoy headed for Jerusalem. I should say that Secretary Powell's convoy is a good bit ahead of us.

You can really see it, Wolf, in Secretary Powell's body language, that the meeting had gone very badly. He came outside, he (AUDIO GAP) those of us (AUDIO GAP) about three feet away from (AUDIO GAP)...

BLITZER: Andrea, I wanted to interrupt you, because unfortunately your phone line is fading in and out and I want to apologize to our viewers. We're going to try to reestablish a better connection with Andrea Koppel. Once we do that, we'll get the latest. She was beginning to tell us that the body language expressed by the secretary of state as he briefly emerged before reporters without saying a word was not very upbeat, not very positive. And the brief appearance from Yasser Arafat before reporters obviously not very positive, as well, blaming the Israelis for sabotaging the peace process, saying the Israelis are not withdrawing from any of the areas seriously from the West Bank.

Andrea, if you, if that connection is back now, let's get your latest report.

First of all, can you hear us? And let...


BLITZER: Andrea, go ahead.

KOPPEL: Yes, Wolf. I should just let our viewers know this is a very mountainous highway that I'm driving through and so if I lose the connection, that's why.

At any rate, I was saying that Secretary Powell stood on the steps for what must have been, it was two or three minutes, without saying anything, and just stood there. And he had Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, standing right next to him in the doorway. Neither man said anything. Mr. Erakat said he would speak after Secretary Powell left. And then he got, Secretary Powell got in his armored car and drove off.

In the meantime, Wolf, inside just behind Secretary Powell, Yasser Arafat had come downstairs. He had walked downstairs with Secretary Powell and our camera and some other journalists were inside the hallway there. And Chairman Arafat said, "Is it acceptable that I can't go out of the door?" Because this was all taking place behind that very crude barricade that had been constructed there.

And he, according to my colleagues who actually saw his face, he was trembling with fury. He kept repeating over and over again what an outrage it was that the Israeli occupation continued, in particular, over Jenin and Tulkarem and Bethlehem.

He couldn't remember the name for the Church of the Nativity and asked somebody what was that church, that holy place, he kept saying, that the Israelis have under siege?

So, and when we spoke with Saeb Erakat then after Mr. Arafat had finished and asked him how it went, he said that it was, that it had, in a word, that it hadn't gone well and that Ariel Sharon was to blame for having torpedoed Secretary Powell's mission. That was, those were his words, for having torpedoed it, that all the while that Secretary Powell was here trying to broker some kind of cease-fire, at least an easing in the tensions here, that you had Ariel Sharon, in Palestinian eyes, moving into just as many towns, if not more, than they were withdrawing from, Wolf.

So we still have as yet to hear directly from Secretary Powell. But if just looking at his face and the way that he was standing in front of us literally for two or three minutes silent, I think that that really did speak volumes as to just what happened behind closed doors during his two hour meeting with Chairman Arafat.




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