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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Congressman Wexler, Arab-American Institute President Debate Iraq

Aired November 1, 2002 - 12:32   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: An extra both from the U.S. problems with Iraq and vice versa are Israel's problems with the Palestinians, of course, and vice versa on that front, as well. It's been a hard week for the government of Israel, which faces potential collapse if it can't replace the Labor Party members who quit the coalition this week. Still, the prime minister, Ariel Sharon, says policy lines and goals won't change. War on terror, renewing political negotiations, and reaching an agreement, according to Ariel Sharon's words.
Joining me now to debate the prospects for progress are the Democratic Congressman from Florida, Robert Wexler, and James Zogby. He's founder and president of the Arab-American Institute here in Washington.

Dr. Zogby has just written a book entitled "What Arabs Think: Values, Beliefs, and Concerns." We just saw a reference to that in Andrea Koppel's piece. Thanks to both of you for joining us.

Congressman, what does it mean, the collapse of this Israeli government, a new coalition, without the more moderate Labor Party being part of it? What does it mean for the United States?

REP. ROBERT WEXLER (D-FL), INTERNATIONAL RELATIONS COMMITTEE: Well, Israel's a democracy. It's a vibrant democracy. Its people will go to the polls and Prime Minister Sharon has said, over and over again, that his goals, his objectives, will not change. So I don't think it needs to mean all that much to the United States, if the United States remembers that we cannot ever ask Israel, in the context of our planned operation in Iraq if it comes off, to not be able to respond if attacked.

BLITZER: Do you agree with that assessment, because there are some who fear, including here in Washington, that without some Labor Party voices like Shimon Peres, the foreign minister, or Benjamin Ben- Eliezer, the defense minister, that those who replace them will be more hard-line?

JAMES ZOGBY, AMERICAN-ARAB INSTITUTE: Well, no doubt that, as personalities, they will be more hard-line. But I think this is a largely manufactured crisis for domestic electoral purposes in Israel, one. And two, I can't imagine this government, the government that Sharon would form, despite the personalities being more extreme, pursuing policies more extreme, because the outer limits on what they can do are largely determined by what the traffic will bear in the United States and in the international community. He's gone about as far as you can go, and I don't think that the U.S. government would tolerate any further, even though the people may be more radical.

WEXLER: Well, Wolf, the big story really, bigger than the Israeli shake-up the past week, is what Yasser Arafat did with his inner group of people. We were all hoping for some kind of reform element within the Palestinian Authority. Yasser Arafat this past week basically shoved out those who support reform and brought in the old cadre of people who are tied to a network of terror. And that, to me and others, says that so long as Yasser Arafat is there will be a consistent support for terror within the Palestinian Authority.

BLITZER: he new Palestinian Authority government that was put together doesn't include some of those so-called reformists, reformers that the Bush administration was hoping to see.

ZOGBY: Well, Arafat consolidated his position and, under siege, that's what leaders usually do. Bringing Hanil Al Hasin (ph) in, it may be a good thing in that it will allow the Fatah group to exercise more control over those extremist elements that have been creating problems in the country.

Look, the guy's under siege, and he's under siege precisely because he's confronting a government that is out of control in Israel. The guy who Sharon is bringing in as his defense minister is the person who was the architect of this whole policy of assassinations and has been responsible for the killings of literally hundreds of innocent Palestinians.

And I think you have to understand that don't look at the victim in this equation, look at what the Israeli government is doing and who these people are.

BLITZER: But you can't forget the suicide bombings and the terrorism...

ZOGBY: Not at all. Not at all. But the difference is that Arafat has not engineered the suicide bombing. He may not have done what the United States thinks he should have done to control it, but Ariel Sharon has been in charge of the government that has demolished homes and allowed settlers to run rampage over Palestinian agriculture and has exercised this policy...

BLITZER: I want to get to Iraq in a second. Go ahead...

... ZOGBY: ... of assassinations that has killed dozens and dozens of people.

BLITZER: Let's let Congressman Wexler respond.

WEXLER: Yasser Arafat's complicity with terror, at this point, is not debatable. What we saw in the last two weeks was Prime Minister Sharon ordering the dismantling of certain settlements. The Israelis withdrew from certain cities. What happened? A horrific bus attack, the perpetrators went right through the checkpoints where the Israelis just gave up.

The minute Sharon moves back a little, Arafat and his group... ZOGBY: That's just not...

WEXLER: ... just goes...

ZOGBY: ... that's just not true, Congressman. The suicide bombings are absolutely condemnable, there's no question about it. But Israel didn't withdraw from anything. I mean, basically, they got out of the towns and surrounded them with literal moats...

BLITZER: We don't have a lot of time...

ZOGBY: ... and checkpoints...

BLITZER: I just want to get to the whole issue of Iraq. You supported the resolution that authorizes the president to use force, if necessary, against Iraq. A lot of your Democratic colleagues didn't. You think the time is ripe to move now, if the inspections don't work?

WEXLER: No. I still have a lot of confidence in the U.N. process. I was one of those Democrats who believes that the military force is the absolute last resort and the president needs to do everything he can to get a U.N. Security Council resolution. And it seems that he still may yet do that. We need to be as flexible at possible with the U.N. So I don't think the military use is a foregone conclusion.

You would have opposed it, had you been a member of Congress?

ZOGBY: Absolutely. And my sense is is that, as an American, I'm concerned about what this does to America in the Middle East. And if you talk to our diplomats, our ambassadors serving in the region, you talk to our military who are serving in the region, they will tell you that our relationship is so precarious right now, we cannot ingest this kind of turbulence that the war would create.

BLITZER: But is that because of a potential war with Iraq or because the Israel-Palestinian issue?

ZOGBY: Well, both. The fact is that the region can't ingest a war with Iraq because the logic hasn't been clear to them why. One and two, the Israeli-Palestinian situation has poisoned the well. We need to take care of business and heal the wounds and to close the divide between America and the Arab world. That's what my book is about. What are the problems America is facing right now in the Middle East--

BLITZER: All right. You got the last word.

ZOGBY: We don't need a war right now. It's going to make it worse for us.

WEXLER: Well, what America cannot tolerate is an undeterred Saddam Hussein. For 10 years, he's thumbed his nose at the U.N. We're forcing the U.N. to act. The inspectors, hopefully, will go in. And we will find out, for sure, what he's got and we're going to disarm it.

ZOGBY: And I agree, we should have the inspectors do their job, and we should do everything we can to back them up.

WEXLER: And if the president and the Congress didn't act the way they do, the U.N. would still be debating and doing nothing. We're getting them to act.

BLITZER: All right. I assume that's why you supported that resolution?

WEXLER: Yes.

BLITZER: Bob Wexler, Jim Zogby.

ZOGBY: Thank you.

BLITZER: Thanks. Shake hands. Good work.

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