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Interview With Yasser Arafat

Aired May 12, 2002 - 22:14   ET


CATHERINE CALLAWAY, CNN ANCHOR: The peace process in the Middle East remains a complex diplomatic puzzle, and through it all Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat has been a central figure in the negotiations. Earlier today, CNN's Wolf Blitzer spoke with the embattled leader, and Wolf joins us now from Jerusalem.

Wolf, you'll have to tell us how this interview came about, first of all.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Well, Catherine, I've been here in the Middle East for almost a week, and as soon as I got here, I made the request for the interview through some of Yasser Arafat's top aides, repeatedly followed up with phone calls. Last night, Saturday night, I got a call late at night, after 11 o'clock at night, saying that the Palestinian leader had agreed to the interview and was prepared to do it right then and there. I was in Jerusalem; he's in Ramallah, and as you know, it's not easy nowadays to get from Jerusalem to Ramallah, even though they're not very far apart. You have to go through Israeli checkpoints.

It would have been too difficult, if not impossible, to do it last night. Even in the middle of the night, I was prepared to go, and Arafat, as many of our viewers know, is a night owl. He likes to work through the night into the early morning hours. But we did agree we would try tonight. We spoke during the course of the day. Finally, late tonight we drove out to Ramallah, went through the Israeli checkpoints, managed to get through -- once we got to the Mukata (ph), the besieged -- what once was the besieged headquarters of Yasser Arafat, we went in, we were immediately escorted into a small room where our crews had already set up the cameras, the lights. I walked in. A lot of his aides were there. And within a few minutes, Yasser Arafat appeared.

Let's play a chunk of that 50-minute interview. Here's an excerpt.


BLITZER: Mr. President, thank you so much for joining me. I don't know if you prefer to be called Mr. President or Mr. Chairman. What do you prefer?

YASSER ARAFAT, PALESTINIAN LEADER: Both, because I'm president in a part and I'm chairman in the other part. BLITZER: OK. I'll call you Mr. President, if that's OK.

ARAFAT: As you like.

BLITZER: Thank you. This seems to be a critical moment right now where the situation here could go either way -- deteriorate, or perhaps, the peace process could get back on track. President Bush has said he wants you to back up your words condemning terrorism with action. Are you prepared to do that, to stop the suicide bombers attacking Israeli civilians?

ARAFAT: First of all, you have to remember that I am doing all my best. And as an example, you'll remember in last December, the 16th of last December, when I gave my initiative to get back to the peace talks, negotiations...

BLITZER: That was the article you wrote in "The New York Times."

ARAFAT: Yes. And they were asking only for seven days. We succeeded to give him 24 days. What was the result? They had assassinated some leaders. And at the same time, as an example, after this suicide bomb, which had not been mentioned until now -- who is behind it?

BLITZER: I misunderstood what you said. These suicide what?

ARAFAT: The suicide bomb.

BLITZER: The suicide bombing in Rishon Letzion?

ARAFAT: Yes. Who had not been until now mentioned -- who's behind it? Because they didn't find any tracks for it.

BLITZER: Do you know...

ARAFAT: And in spite of that, because one of the leaders of Hamas had supported it, he didn't mention that, but he supported it. Until now, I had arrested the 24 of their leaders in Gaza Strip. And the investigation is continuing with them. And not only that...

BLITZER: Do you know who is responsible for the latest suicide bombing in Rishon Letzion?

ARAFAT: Not yet. No.

BLITZER: You don't know.

ARAFAT: Not yet.

BLITZER: But was Hamas, was it the Hamas organization?

ARAFAT: (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Until now, until now, no one had declared his responsibility about it, although some of them had -- I mean (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

BLITZER: But could you, could you -- you're the president of the Palestinian Authority. Could you do more? Can you do more, as the president of the United States and the prime minister of Israel are appealing to you to stop?

ARAFAT: I would like to ask you, why they are not dealing with (ph) the Israelis or (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to stop this military escalation against our people, against our children? You're seeing all the weapons, all kinds of weapons, F-15s, F-16s, helicopters, tanks, army fighters, rockets, even from their navy, even depleted uranium -- and you remember, American mission had searched and fixed this facts (ph), which you know that it is forbidden. And in isolation, all over, all our roads -- and beside it, the siege everywhere, what happened in the Nativity Church, who connected (ph) this?

BLITZER: But let's get to all of that in a second.

ARAFAT: No, who connected (ph) this? You will have to remember that this escalation, military escalation and humiliation to all our people will reflect to accept or not to accept reaction.

BLITZER: But if you were an Israeli leader, and 400, 500 Israelis were killed in these suicide bombings, whether in Haifa or Netanya...

ARAFAT: Do you know that will happen, then...

BLITZER: What would you do, though?

ARAFAT: We had condemned it. But not to forget, not to forget that it has started openly and officially between Barak and Sharon in what they called the field (ph) of the foreign (ph) military plan. Not from our side. And you remember when he insisted to visit the Aqsa Mosque, was his -- was a big number of his...

BLITZER: You're talking about when Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, then in the opposition, visited...



ARAFAT: And I went, for your information, maybe it is has not been known, I went to his home, to Barak's home.

BLITZER: Who was then still prime minister.

ARAFAT: Yes, he was. And with me there was five of my colleagues, one of them (UNINTELLIGIBLE). And from his side also five persons. And one of the most important economical (sic) American leader.

BLITZER: Let's pick up on that point.

ARAFAT: And I begged him...

BLITZER: You begged who? ARAFAT: Barak -- not to permit -- for him to make this visit. Why he didn't make his visit, this visit, when he was the second man with Netanyahu; why he didn't make this visit when he became (UNINTELLIGIBLE), when he made the cross (ph) (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and Suez Canal and became a hero -- why he didn't...

BLITZER: But let me ask you this question. This is what -- many people in Washington asked this question. Yes, he went to the Noble Sanctuary, the Temple Mount as it's called in Jerusalem. But did that...

ARAFAT: Please, please, please, let me finish.


ARAFAT: To understand the facts (ph), not only (UNINTELLIGIBLE), I remind him that there is an order from the hero, Moshe Dayan, not to make any visits for this mosque. And you remember the fire which had been done in this mosque and...

BLITZER: By the Australian.

ARAFAT: Yes, and after that the Arab -- the conference start.

BLITZER: That was an Australian Christian who came, not an Israeli.

ARAFAT: Not Christian.

BLITZER: He was Christian.

ARAFAT: No, no, no. You haven't -- you haven't -- return back to the facts (ph). You are a leader. You are not a normal person. You must remember the facts and the reality (ph). And not to say he was a Christian. No, he wasn't.

BLITZER: What was he?

ARAFAT: He was a Jew. And not alone, not all (ph) alone. There were a gang.

Not to forget you are speaking with Yasser Arafat.

BLITZER: I understand. I understand. And I'll double-check that. Thank you for -- we'll double-check that.

ARAFAT: Yes. And remember what happened when he went -- Sharon went to the mosque where the soldiers opened the fire against the prayer, where some had been killed, some had been wounded. And after that, they pushed their army.

BLITZER: But let me ask you this. If Sharon made a mistake in going to the Noble Sanctuary, the Temple Mount, did that justify the start of the intifada, which has now continued for 19 months?

ARAFAT: After the massacre which had been done against prayer, no one was able -- I was working hard, very hard, to stop it.

BLITZER: Was the sticking point, was the major stumbling block, was the major stumbling block your demand that Palestinians could return to Israel, pre-'67 Israel?

ARAFAT: No, no.

BLITZER: Because the Israelis say...

ARAFAT: No, no, no. The fatal mistake that (UNINTELLIGIBLE) insist that sovereignty under the mosques, under the Haram Sharif is Israeli (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

BLITZER: Was that the only issue?

ARAFAT: I'm not finished. Please, give me the chance. The second, Saint Maria Church and all its area under their control. Not only that, the Armenian (ph) quarter under their control. Not only that, they were speaking about the control of the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) -- outside? Outer space.

BLITZER: The airspace.

ARAFAT: Airspace. Open it.

I returned directly, if you'll remember, from the meeting to call upon for Jerusalem committee of the summit conference headed by King Mohammed of Morocco.

And for the first time, if you remember, a delegation from all the Christian churches were there for the first time. And in front of all them, Christians and Muslims, I offered for them what they had to offered to me. They refused it.

BLITZER: Are you prepared, Mr. President, to live in a new Palestine alongside a Jewish state called Israel?

ARAFAT: You forgot that this has been declared in '88 (UNINTELLIGIBLE), in Algiers, accepting two states beside each other.

BLITZER: So, are you saying...

ARAFAT: When I was a small boy, I used to play side by side -- I was living with my uncle in Jerusalem, my uncle Aria (ph). And I used to go, as a small boy, to play with the Jews in the Jewish quarter, and they used to come to play with me in my area.

You forgot this, I didn't forget. I was a small boy, but it's still in my mind. Historically we were living together. We never called -- do you know that even now we don't call them Jews? Do you know what we called them? Our cousins. Still, it is a popular pronounce. We never say Jews. We say, "He is one of our cousins." Because, historically, we are cousins.

BLITZER: One of the...

ARAFAT: You forget that historically...

BLITZER: I know that, I know that, I know that, and I haven't forgotten it. But let's get back to the point of the Jewish state of Israel. The Israelis are...

ARAFAT: We had agreed upon in '88 (UNINTELLIGIBLE), and you'll remember, after that directly, I called upon for the meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations, but I was obliged to call it to meet in Geneva.

And after that, the American government recognized us and opened the talks between the Palestinians and the Americans officially in Tunisia.

BLITZER: I remember that very carefully (ph). But the point -- let me...

ARAFAT: Because we had arrived to this conclusion. And after that, we accept (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

We are searching for a solution for our children and for their children.

BLITZER: Two states...

ARAFAT: Two states.

BLITZER: One Jewish...

ARAFAT: One Israeli state, because you have Jews and they have Christians and Muslims.

BLITZER: You see, when you refuse to say a Jewish state, the Israelis think...

ARAFAT: No, I'm not...

BLITZER: ... that you're not going to accept a Jewish state.

ARAFAT: I am not -- I am not refusing. They don't call it a Jewish state.

BLITZER: They don't call...

ARAFAT: No, they had accepted the -- Ben-Gurion, yes?

BLITZER: The first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion.

ARAFAT: And he said that what Israel -- and they want to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) with the same. If they want to call it Jewish state, as they like. If they will change its name, it is their right. If I will call it Palestinian state, it is our right. If our (UNINTELLIGIBLE), we'll call it Arab Democratic Palestinian or whatever, I have the right.

In Washington, President Washington said the United States of America and had been accepted. No one had the right to ask him.

BLITZER: Let's move on and talk about -- I don't know if you saw this, but this is the famous book the Israelis put out.

ARAFAT: I challenge them, if there is any fact in this -- I don't want to say -- big lies in this book. Big lies. Nothing of it is right.

BLITZER: One of the things they say in there...

ARAFAT: Yes, I have my financial. I am proud of it, in what all I have signed...

BLITZER: To the Tanzim.

ARAFAT: ... for it's the Tanzim, for they labels...

BLITZER: Al-Aqsa Brigade.

ARAFAT: It is a part of the agreement.

BLITZER: But if the Al-Aqsa Brigade engages in terrorism...

ARAFAT: No. The Al-Aqsa Brigade is engaged in terrorism?

BLITZER: I'm asking you. The Israelis say they are.

ARAFAT: Give me one -- one -- example, one example.

BLITZER: What about Netanya?

ARAFAT: Netanya?

BLITZER: The Passover suicide?


BLITZER: Who was responsible for Netanya?

ARAFAT: I don't know who is responsible for Netanya. Who is responsible? But we had condemned it. We are against all this, and we have a resolution concerning this. All the Palestinian cabinet and the (UNINTELLIGIBLE), we have condemned it. And me personally, I have condemned it.

And not only that, you have forgotten that although they prevented me to attend the conference in Beirut, our delegation. I gave them the instructions, and I gave a very important speech, which has been declared officially on many televisions supporting the peace.

BLITZER: The April 12, bombing in the marketplace in Jerusalem...

ARAFAT: But what you are saying about (UNINTELLIGIBLE) for those who have lost their work in Israel. BLITZER: What about the girl in the marketplace in Jerusalem on April 12? She supposedly came from the Al-Aqsa Tanzim, which is part of Fatah.

ARAFAT: No, no.

BLITZER: Is that true? I don't know. I'm asking you.

ARAFAT: I don't know. I don't know. But, you know, we had some (UNINTELLIGIBLE). And not only that, I gave instructions to search who had sent it.

BLITZER: Did you find out?


BLITZER: President Bush, this week, said he hopes there can be reforms in the Palestinian Authority -- democracy -- there can be a unified security structure that will allow you to do a better job and become more accountable.

ARAFAT: We have -- and we are proud of our democracy. And not forgot, President Carter was supervising my election and the election of our (UNINTELLIGIBLE) council, and we had many high leaders and observers from all over the world, they had supervising this, and we are proud of it.

BLITZER: It's been six years since the last elections.

ARAFAT: And it was supposed to be an independent, according to Oslo agreement, it was in five years, it was supposed to be -- have our independent Palestinian state. And we hope what have delayed us -- the occupation, the siege. Phantoms (ph), all our cities and towns became phantoms (ph). You can't live it -- if you have time, we can go together to see by yourself this tragedy which we are living -- phantoms (ph). Phantoms (ph).

BLITZER: All right. I'll be happy to go with you. Let me ask you this question: The notion of unifying all of the security services, one unified command, is that a good idea or a bad idea?

ARAFAT: First of all, now we are following what had been done in West Bank, according to Jordanian laws. In Gaza Strip, according to Egyptian laws. When we will have our Palestinian laws and our independent Palestine, we can have our own strategy, our own plan.

BLITZER: A constitution?

ARAFAT: Definitely. And a constitution is ready now, and had been accepted in our (UNINTELLIGIBLE) council. But we can't declare it.

Now I have to send my best regards to his excellency President Bush, and I hope from my heart that what had been started with President Bush the father will be continued by President Bush the son.

BLITZER: What do you think of the son?

ARAFAT: He's an active -- very active, in this very short time, he became very active. Not only in the States, all over the world.

BLITZER: So far he refuses to meet with you.

ARAFAT: No, there's something there. But I am in permanent contact with (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

BLITZER: Is he a fair man? Do you have confidence in President Bush?

ARAFAT: No doubts. Not to forget what he has done in Afghanistan, he fulfilled it. And what he had mentioned before that in the General Assembly, I was there, in the General Assembly when he said, "independent Palestinian state."

BLITZER: He was the first president to do so. First U.S. president.

ARAFAT: I know. For this, I am sending to him through you, again, as I have sent it before, my thanks from my heart.

BLITZER: What he really...

ARAFAT: ... to him and to whole the American people, who are supporting us in different ways.

BLITZER: I remember -- I remember, when I was a younger reporter and you were a younger man, I was in the U.N. General Assembly in -- I think it was 1974, when you came and you spoke of an olive branch.


BLITZER: Are you closer today to an independent Palestinian state that will live alongside in peace with Israel than you were then?

ARAFAT: Yes. And not to forget, when I left Beirut and you remember...

BLITZER: I was in Beirut then.

ARAFAT: Yes. When they asked me, "Where are you going, Arafat?" I said then, "to Palestine." And now, we are in Palestine. And we hope that we will have this independent Palestinian state, side by side with Israeli Jewish state.

BLITZER: That's a significant statement you just made.

ARAFAT: No, for me -- not to forget, they are our cousins.

BLITZER: It took me an hour to get you to say that.

ARAFAT: No. Not to forget, we are calling them our cousins, and in Palestine, we have Jews. And you are very -- we have very good relations with them -- me personally.

BLITZER: So you can speak to the Israeli public now...

ARAFAT: And not to forget...

BLITZER: ... and the American public and say, "I accept a Jewish state called Israel?"

ARAFAT: Yes. Israel -- it's (UNINTELLIGIBLE) state -- it is a Jewish state, although they had accepted recently with this -- this also came from our side, many, many others, Christians and Muslims, and there are some Palestinians still there.

And we have Jews also. And we were -- and I had discussed it in details how to me something between us and the Israelis and the Jordanians and the Lebanese -- Benelux -- like Benelux...

BLITZER: Like an economic cooperation council -- like Benelux.

ARAFAT: Benelux.

BLITZER: Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg.

ARAFAT: Yes. Yes.

BLITZER: He did say, President Bush, the son, this week that your statement that you delivered on Palestinian television in Arabic, he said it was an incredibly positive sign.

ARAFAT: No doubt. And this is our -- and not to forget, this is our -- not only mine, but the Palestinian people, the Palestinian leadership, very important, are supporting this. And not only that, the majority of the Israeli people have are supporting that. And you are following what has happened, demonstrations for the peace.

BLITZER: In Tel Aviv.

ARAFAT: In Tel Aviv.

BLITZER: Are you prepared now to promise the United States, the people of Israel, the people of Palestine, everybody, that you, Yasser Arafat, the president of the Palestinian Authority, will do everything you possibly can to prevent terrorism?

ARAFAT: No doubt. This is my policy from the beginning. Although, there are some -- I don't want to say their names -- some international powers are supporting this.


ARAFAT: I am not speaking names. I will not mention any names. Have supported them.


ARAFAT: I am not saying names. I'm saying that -- and their leaders, their main leaders are not here. Their main leaders are outside. And in spite of that, I am following.

And this is what has been decided in our leadership, in our cabinet, in our executive (ph) committee, and has been accepted by all the Palestinians and has been accepted by the majority of the Israeli people. And I am very happy that this big majority of the Israeli people are with the peace.

BLITZER: They would be ready to make peace if they're convinced you were sincere. Remember when Sadat...

ARAFAT: They know that I am...

BLITZER: Remember when Sadat came to Jerusalem in 1977?

ARAFAT: Yes. But not to forget...

BLITZER: They were convinced, because Sadat was sincere.

ARAFAT: Not to forget, I went -- I used to go to the house of my partner...


ARAFAT: Rabin. I used to go to the house of Prime Minister Barak, I used to go to (UNINTELLIGIBLE) there. You know that.

BLITZER: Shimon Peres.

ARAFAT: Shimon Peres. And not to forget, there is a permanent contact between us and the Israelis still now -- still now for the peace. The last meeting took place in Paris between our speaker and the speaker of the Knesset, Abraham Bobut (ph). And they prevented him to continue his mission.

And also the meeting took place in South Africa under the supervision of President Mbeki, and they -- we are continuing this slide (ph), because this our main strategy for peace in the land of peace, in the terra santa, in the Holy Land.

BLITZER: Thank you very much, Mr. President.

ARAFAT: Thank you.


BLITZER: When we come back, we'll get reaction from an Israeli government official, Israeli counsel general in New York, Alon Pinkas, will join us live as we continue our special coverage of the crisis in the Middle East. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Welcome back to our special coverage of the crisis in the Middle East. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Jerusalem. Joining us now from New York is Israel's consul general in New York, Ambassador Alon Pinkas. Mr. Ambassador, thanks for joining us. You just heard Yasser Arafat declare very, very openly he is prepared to live in peace with a Jewish state called Israel. Is that convincing to you?

ALON PINKAS, AMBASSADOR, ISRAELI CONSUL GENERAL: No, it's not. First of all, it took them an hour to utter those words with these -- all these tricks and verbal exercises, that makes it very difficult to understand what is it about a Jewish state that he doesn't understand? What is it about recognizing Israel as a Jewish state that he finds so difficult to acknowledge?

I'm not impressed because he has a track record. Look, I listened to carefully to a very interesting interview. I can't tell you, Wolf, that this was a Gettysburg address. What I heard was someone who doesn't know anything, hasn't heard anything, hasn't seen anything, doesn't know who is responsible for terrorism, but he does know one thing. And that is that we're using depleted uranium against Palestinian children. So forgive me for being somewhat dismissive of this seriousness.

BLITZER: He makes the point that it's hard for him to be -- and the Palestinian Authority, to crack down on these suicide terrorists because the Israeli military has done such a thorough job in undermining his authority and going after his various security services. He says what do you expect? What can he do? He's doing the best that he possibly can.

PINKAS: Well, this is an excuse. This is not an explanation. He had seven years to do what we've been asking him to do. What he has pledged and committed to do, according to the agreements that he himself signed. What secretaries of state, from Warren Christopher through Madeleine Albright, to Colin Powell, had asked him and implored him to do.

Even for the sake of conversation, Wolf, let's assume that he's right to an extent about the last month or so. He still has 30,000 armed policemen that could do the job. And if they can't do it in the West Bank, then let's put it to a test in Gaza. Most of the Hamas and Islamic Jihad (UNINTELLIGIBLE) operate from Gaza. Gaza has not been attacked from Israel. Gaza is not "under occupation." Let's see him put his security organs into full mode in Gaza. And let's see him perform as President Bush said.

BLITZER: Well, he did point out that in the past two days, under his authority, they've arrested 26 Hamas members in Gaza in the aftermath of the Rishon Letzion suicide bombing last Tuesday, just south of Tel Aviv. Isn't that a start?

PINKAS: No, I'll tell you why it's not a start. First of all, we know who these 24 people are. And they're old guppies. Not one is a shark. Second, in response to your question, he said he doesn't know who committed that terror attack. So how could he have arrested people?

Today, we admitted that we're not absolutely certain, as we seem to have been, and we concede this in the first few days following the attack, that in fact the perpetrator came from Gaza. So how did Arafat know which people exactly to arrest?

Look, if he arrested 24 people, that's a start. I'll give you that. We know who they are. They are rank and file hoodlums who walk the streets of Jenin or through Karum (ph). We want to see him dismantle the infrastructure that the Hamas and the Islamic Jihad built, that is funded by the Iranians, that is indirectly supported by the -- or at least has been indirectly supported by the Saudis.

Once he has done that...

BLITZER: You heard him say it. You heard him say at the end of the interview that there are some of these terrorist groups beyond his control. He didn't want to mention names that are supported by various international groups. I asked him about Iran and Iraq. He didn't want to get into specifics. But you have to admit, he has a limited capability. What he can do if there are these outside groups supporting terror tactics against Israel.

PINKAS: Well, it's limited compared to what he had two months ago. It's not limited for a dictator, who controls his -- the entire security apparatus, which is at his disposal, essentially. As for Iran, he knows exactly who's funding who and who's funneling funds from where to where, from Tehran to the Gaza Strip.

As for other kind of external influences and assistance, he, I think, is capable of doing what needs to be done. And you know what? If he can't control everything, let's see him control what he can control. I haven't seen him do that in the last year.

BLITZER: Are you ready to give him another chance now? Because he did utter the words that your government and previous Israeli governments have wanted to hear for so long, that he's ready to live in peace alongside a Jewish state of Israel?

PINKAS: Well, practically, Wolf, he is being given another chance because he's free to roam the area. And he could do whatever it is that he wants to do. So all he needs to do is to stand up and speak out, and reiterate the points that he made last week, that won him the praise of the president. And say that, you know, he will not -- I, Arafat, will not tolerate any more violence. I will not condone it. I will not accept any attack from the territories within Angor (ph) under my jurisdiction and within my control, and have his security forces, the limited ones that he has granted, do what they need to do.

But there's a bigger picture out here. He is a terrorist who is running a terror operation. He's been giving 595 different last chances. What you saw last night, your time, in the Likud convention is not representative of the mainstream Israeli public, but a gut reaction to who this person is. And we just frankly don't believe him, nor do the Egyptians, nor does the king of Jordan, nor does anyone else in the free world.

BLITZER: All right. Mr. Ambassador, unfortunately, we have to leave it right there, but it was kind of you to join us tonight and react to this interview with Yasser Arafat. TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT



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