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Talk With Senator John Warner

Aired June 11, 2003 - 12:10   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: I want to bring in our John King over at the White House, our senior White House correspondent, who's monitoring all of this as well.
John, this comes just a week after the president had this triumphant meeting with the Israeli and Palestinian prime ministers at Aqaba. You were there in Jordan. It looks like that road map seems to be falling apart.

JOHN KING, CNN SR. WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, the president's optimism and the president's personal commitment to keep the process going no matter what being sorely tested by an escalating cycle of violence, including these quite gory pictures we are seeing today.

The president is in Chicago. He's on a domestic political trip, talking about health care issues, Medicare among them at this hour, but he is being briefed as information comes in, and we should not be surprised at all if reporters hear from the president on this issue a bit later today.

For now, the Deputy White House Press Secretary Scott Mcclellan says the president condemns the suicide bombing in Jerusalem in the strongest possible terms.

We also know that leading staff members here at the National Security Council are aggressively working the phones, reaching out to both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority to try to get a handle on the situation on the ground. There has been a suicide bombing, Wolf, but also an Israeli military action in the Palestinian territories.

The challenge for the president is to somehow get the parties to step back. The urgent focus on the ground now is on the violence. The president's challenge, and top aides are working the phones, is to get the parties to step back and return to that fragile momentum they had just a week ago, implementing the early steps of the so-called road map to peace.

Yesterday there was blunt criticism of the Israeli government at the White House. Today, we are beginning to detect more and more frustration with the approach of the new Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas. He has said that he wants to negotiate with Hamas and other militant groups, but he does not want to have a police crackdown on those groups.

Here at the White House today, one senior official saying negotiation is no substitute for dismantling and disrupting terrorist organizations.

Officials also saying the president's plan to so-called road map is a results-oriented approach. And when they were talking about Prime Minister Abbas and his commitment to stop terrorism, Wolf, they are saying today in the wake of this bombing, they need to see results.

BLITZER: You know, John, this is such a complicated, such a sensitive, such a literally an explosive issue. What you hear from a lot of Israelis is that Hamas, under all circumstances, they're going to try to blow up this entire peace process, because they don't support any kind of two-state solution. They don't want to see Israel even in a pre-'67 line, a complete Israeli withdrawal. So they're anything to deal with it. Is there significant pressure from the bush administration on Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas to go ahead and crack down physically, militarily on Hamas, Islamic Jihad, the Al Aqsa Martyr's Brigade, or the cease fire he's been negotiating? Do they think that has a shot at getting off the ground?

KING: They think here at the White House, Wolf, that a cease fire would be a step in the right direction, but only one of many steps. In the end, you have to convince these groups to lay down their arms or you have to forcibly take their arms from them. The White House had hoped to defer to Prime Minister Abbas, at least in the early days, to give him a chance. He is a man with little political room to maneuver. So while they do not like negotiating with Hamas and other groups here at the White House, they wanted to give Prime Minister Abbas a chance to prove himself. That's why there was such frustration yesterday at the helicopter gunship attack on a key Hamas official, because the president and others say it makes it all the more difficult for Mr. Abbas to tell Hamas to give him time, to stop the attack on Israelis, when Israel is trying to assassinate a key Palestinian leader.

Also just today, Egypt was intervening, its security chief is in the region trying to convince the militant groups to agree at least to a cease fire, if not more.

So while the White House says yesterday's Israeli action came at the worst possible moment, there is growing frustration here today. They say they need to see results. For this president to lean on Prime Minister Sharon to say, keep the military at bay, Prime Minister Sharon needs to be convinced and the president has to be able tell him persuasively that the Palestinians themselves are taking steps to prevent things like this horrible bus bombing.

BLITZER: All right, John King at the White House. He's going to continue to watch this situation for us. Thanks, John, very much.

Let's go to Capitol Hill, the chairman of the Senates Armed Services Committee, John Warner, is standing by. He's joining us live. Senator Warner, thanks so much. Let's talk about this latest bus bombing, the Israeli retaliation strike in Gaza. What, if anything, can the United States government do to stop this?

SEN. JOHN WARNER (R), VIRGINIA: Well, Wolf, I commend our president and others for the leadership they have taken. We're all remorseful in our hearts for the victims and their families.

But I'd like to repeat a short message that I have given on the floor of the Senate at least four times in the past year and in letters to the president. The ability of the Palestinian prime minister at this time to enforce a cease fire on his side is questionable.

I think, therefore, in order to allow the peace process to go forward, that we should have both the governments of Israel and Palestine invite NATO to come in temporarily and provide such security and visibility to the infrastructure of those who send these hopeless bombers into this thing, that we mean business. It's not just the United States, and Israel and the Palestine government; it is the world that is concerned about this loss of life.

The presence of NATO, I think, at the invitation of both governments, would bring about some measure of greater stability so that the process can go forward and the Palestinian prime minister can get a better grip on the internal security in his country.

BLITZER: Senator Warner, that's a proposal that you've made over these weeks and months, and you know the criticism, you know the concern. Do you really want U.S. soldiers and Marines to be sent into the West Bank and Gaza, where they clearly could be the target of suicide bombers themselves?

WARNER: It would not be a risk-free mission. But mind you, the NATO forces would be composed of a number of countries, possibly some of our Americans would be a part, a relatively small part, of the total equation. So it is not risk-free.

But in the meantime, we've got this horrible series of strikes and counterstrikes. The problem is somewhat undermining the work that was done here most recently by the world leaders. And more importantly, it is eroding the progress that we've made with the Iraqi situation in showing that part of the world that it was time to bring about peace and stability, not just in Iraq, but in other areas, like the Palestinian-Israeli problem.

BLITZER: Senator Warner, when you, as the chairman of the Senate Arms Services Committee, with your track record, make a proposal like this, to introduce NATO forces, including U.S. forces, into this situation between the Israelis and Palestinians, it's a serious proposal, do you get any sense the Bush administration, the president, the vice president, the secretary of defense, are responsive, are listening to you, are at all ready to go forward with this idea?

WARNER: I'm not implying in any way what the reaction will be of the administration. I just make these points. This will be the fifth time when I address this subject on the floor, the subject today. And I know they have considered it. I know people in NATO have considered it. It would be presumptuous of me to say what their conclusions will be. The point is that this situation is beyond the control of the forces in Israel and the forces in the Palestinian government to stop these bombers and the strikes and counterstrikes. So if the two governments, by invitation, no one is imposing this on them, by invitation, jointly invite them in, we could see some lessening of the combat situation.

BLITZER: In the past, Senator Warner, the Palestinians have said they'd welcome U.S. and other troops to come in and separate them from the Israeli military. The Israelis have always said that's a nonstarter. Have you had any discussions with representatives of the Israeli government on this idea?

WARNER: Of course I've had discussions, and they repeatedly point to how such intervention by foreign military in years past has failed. But I have never seen a more complicated, more insoluble situation presented to the whole world than this one here. I mean, you have the world leaders gather, make certain commitments some momentum started, and then internal group, beyond the control, presumably of the prime minister in many respects, begin to instigate on their own these strikes.

So I just think it's a proposal worth consideration. If it doesn't work, then someone show us a better one.

BLITZER: And, finally, one last question before I let you go, Senator Warner. A lot of Americans are probably saying, the Israelis and Palestinians have been fighting each other for so long, why should the U.S. Get involved? what's the U.S. interest in trying to end this with a direct military role as you're proposing?

WARNER: It would not be a direct. We would simply be a part, a relatively small part, of a NATO force. But, Wolf, this country stands for the principal of freedom, and to allow the people wherever we can in this world to live more peacefully and to explore the possibility of degrees of democracy within their governments.

We're anxious, and our president was courageous, and said the Palestinian people should have their state. We saw Sharon take a step the other day when we took down one of the military towers, which is a strong symbol in the areas of the settlement. So movements were afoot until third parties beyond the control really of either government, are beginning to instigate actions like we've just witnessed here in the past few days, the most egregious just in the past few hours, to destabilize the good works of well-intentioned people the world over.

BLITZER: Senator John Warner, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee. Thanks, Senator Warner, very much for joining us. We'll continue this conversation. But right now, I want to go to Gaza.

Our Kelly Wallace is on the scene now. Kelly, the Israelis didn't waste any time. They moved very quickly to respond. Update our viewers. Tell us what's going on in Gaza right now.

KELLY WALLACE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, two things. One, I'm not actually on the scene just yet. We're still at a checkpoint just outside the Gaza Strip. But we are expected to head into Gaza momentarily. One important development. Just on the phone a moment ago with an Israeli military source, who said the position of the Israeli government is that this operation in Gaza has nothing to do with the suicide bombing in Jerusalem. This source saying the timing is coincidental. But the goal of the operation, according to these military sources, was to target a senior leader of the Palestinian militant group Hamas, who the Israelis say is responsible for the firing of homemade rockets in and against Israelis.

Now, we do know from Palestinian forces that at least seven people were killed, including two members of Hamas, two members of a military wing of the organization, and that at least 30 people were injured. You had two Israeli Apache helicopters in the air firing at least four rockets on a car below in a very crowded neighborhood in Gaza City.

This after, of course, the two Israeli aerial attacks on Tuesday, which left five people dead and Abdel Aziz Rantissi, the Hamas leader, who was a target of one of those operations and managed to get away with slight injuries.

In an interview with some reporters, saying the suicide bus bombing in Jerusalem is directly in response to the Israeli operations on Tuesday, saying -- quote -- "This is the answer to what Sharon," Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, "did yesterday." He went on to say, "Sharon knows what happened yesterday will not give the Israelis the security he has promised to bring them."

Now, Israeli military sources, Wolf, say, they believe suicide bus bombing was likely planned many days ago, that it takes time to plan these operations. So they don't believe it was in direct response to the Tuesday operations by the Israelis, and this source also said, Wolf, that since the Aqaba summit of a week ago, the Israelis said they have stopped 10 possible suicide bombers.

But the source saying, unfortunately, they were not able to stop the bus bomber today -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Kelly, what you reported earlier, very significant, at least potentially,. when this military source, this Israeli military source said the timing of this Israeli strike in Gaza is coincidental to the bus bombing in Jerusalem. That suggests the Israelis were going to go forward with it, despite President Bush's criticism of the Israeli military action only yesterday, a reaction, continued strong reaction, from the Israeli government. That suggests that Sharon, the Israeli prime minister, is clearly not necessarily going to heed what President Bush said when these kinds of airstrikes, the president said, don't help Israeli security.

WALLACE: Significant indeed, Wolf. And sources are saying that they believe that Hamas is making it clear it is not going to stop terror attacks against Israelis, and so sources say they are going to continue hitting Hamas as long as they feel it is necessary.

It was unbelievably rare criticism, really, coming from the Bush administration on Tuesday. I can tell you, Wolf, there was some internal debate within the Sharon administration about the wisdom of the Tuesday attacks. But if you heard the word from Prime Minister Sharon later on Tuesday, he said that Israel will continue to act against, quote, "enemies of peace." He used the same words that the Bush administration used over the weekend to describe Hamas and describe the attack which left four Israeli soldiers dead. And I asked the source today if that was intentional,to use those same words. The source said yes, it was. Clearly, the Sharon administration is trying to say that it is using what it needs to do in its own war against terrorism -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Kelly Wallace, heading toward Gaza, about to go into Gaza for us.


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