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US-Israel Relations

Aired March 23, 2010 - 16:00:00   ET


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, HOST: Good evening, everyone. I'm Christiane Amanpour, and welcome to the program.

Tonight, we look at the fractious state of relations in the Middle East as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with President Barack Obama at the White House two weeks after Israel made what Secretary of State Clinton called an insulting announcement. During a visit by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden to Jerusalem, the Israeli government said that it would build 1,600 new apartments in largely Arab East Jerusalem. Disputes over East Jerusalem and settlements there and in the West Bank are sticking points in peace talks with the Palestinians, who are calling on Israelis to stop building on land that they want for their state.

Last night, in Washington, both Israel and the United States addressed the settlement question head on.


HILLARY CLINTON, SECRETARY OF STATE: New construction in East Jerusalem or the West Bank undermines that mutual trust and endangers the proximity talks that are the first step toward the full negotiations that both sides say they want and need.


BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago, and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today. Jerusalem is not a settlement, it's our capital.


AMANPOUR: For more on Prime Minister Netanyahu's visit to Washington, we are joined from Jerusalem by Dan Meridor, who's the deputy prime minister of Israel.

Mr. Meridor, thank you for joining us again on this program.

DAN MERIDOR, ISRAELI DEPUTY PRIME MINISTER: Good evening. Good to be with you again.

AMANPOUR: Thank you.

Let me ask you, did Prime Minister Netanyahu assure the United States, as some have suggested, that Israel will agree to suspend, put on hold, the Ramat Shlomo building at least until the construction freeze on the area, including the West Bank, ends in September?

MERIDOR: By the nature of the planning process, there won't be any building in that Jewish neighborhood called Ramat Shlomo at least within the coming two years.

AMANPOUR: Two years?

MERIDOR: So this is really not a problem now. At least for two years. There is not supposed to be any building according to the normal process of planning that this plan needs to go through.

AMANPOUR: So let me then put this to you. Prime Minister Netanyahu is very clear about his policy, and he has said that, "Our policy regarding Jerusalem is the same as it was over the past 42 years." He said, " We've made it clear to the Americans that for us, building there is just like building in Tel Aviv."

Now, that's what the prime minister said this weekend. However, according to the United States, they say that they have made it clear to both parties to avoid any unilateral actions that impede progress towards direction negotiations. And, of course, they include things like Jerusalem, which is a final status issue, and that it is so important to all faiths, and therefore it is not like Tel Aviv.

How do you square what the prime minister says, and clearly what your government believes, and what your closest allies believe?

MERIDOR: If I judge the American policy by the American behavior, for the last 43 years, when Jerusalem was built and about 200,000 Jews live in the part that used to be occupied by Jordan, until '67, I think that the U.S. policy is not very different. They understand that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Nobody that I know of in America or, for that matter, in the Palestinian Authority, think that when there is an agreement of peace, and there are lines, the Jewish neighborhoods in Jerusalem, those who are in East Jerusalem or West Jerusalem, will not be part of Israel.

So we are building in what definitely is going to be, even in (INAUDIBLE) settlement a part of Israel, which is why I don't think there's any obstacle to start negotiations. We need to start talking and I hope we'll start soon.

AMANPOUR: All right. Well, let me ask you that before I follow on, on the settlement issue.

What is the status of the proximity talks, and what do you think they will really achieve?

MERIDOR: I have to be very frank with you. I'm not very happy with this idea, because the proximity may lead us to estranged (ph) from one from the other. We will talk to not one another, but to the Americans, who will be in the middle.

I think the better we get to direct talks, the quicker we get there the better. I hope it will be soon. But the only way the Palestinians were ready to start negotiating were to these proximity talks, so this is what we do now. The important thing is not to open the negotiations, it's what the strategy is when we start negotiating that we don't collapse in a short time and we see progress on the ground.

AMANPOUR: Now, one of the obstacles to direct talks have obviously been the settlements, according to the Palestinians. And Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has said that the current conflict, the ongoing conflict basically threatens Israel's very future as a secure and democratic Jewish state.

Do you accept what she's saying?

MERIDOR: I do accept that the status quo is not an option for Israel in the long run. We don't want to be one state.

We might have wanted it. The numbers don't allow it, because if we want to maintain the Jewish character, it's maintained by a vast Jewish majority.

We cannot have a state that will not have equal rights to all the people there, Arabs or Jews alike, as we have it in Israel proper. So in the long run, it's definitely our interest that we come to an agreement that we should be a Palestinian state, alongside Israel, two states living in peace, one with the other.

This is the aim of the negotiations and this is the will. And there's a readiness to compromise on the details, on those conflicting national dreams. I think there's a chance of success.

AMANPOUR: So you agree then with what the defense minister, Ehud Barak has said, that if this continues in the way it is, that Israel will have to make a choice between either a Jewish state or a democratic state. He even used the word "apartheid" in one of his pronouncements.

MERIDOR: We will never be an apartheid state. It's against our Jewish values, against our democratic values. We can never live like that.

We want to have a solution. We so much wanted it, that some five years ago, even without an agreement, we withdrew altogether from the Gaza Strip, not having anything in return. Unfortunately, the result was that the Palestinians there, rather than trying to for the first time in history build their own sovereignty or state, they killed the PLO people, kicked them out, and started launching rocket attacks.

So we can't do it unilaterally. We need a partner.

I hope the PLO, Mr. Mahmoud Abbas and his colleagues, will be courageous enough to take a decision to end the conflict and build their state alongside Israel. Or, if they can't do that -- they haven't been able to do so with Mr. Olmert and Livni a year ago -- maybe we proceed step by step, what the Americans call bottom-up, building on a good relationship that exists now, not terror -- economic growth.

We can expand it and build the Palestinian state bottom-up, or top-down, but it's important that we get there. We can't continue what we have. It's no good for us, it's no good for them. The two sides lose by not solving the problem.

AMANPOUR: You know, there are many, many commentators certainly in Israel, certainly in the United States, and the Palestinians, themselves, your very partners, the Palestinian Authority, who are casting increasing doubt over the possibility of a two-state solution, and pointing to some of these unilateral activities as ongoing impediments towards any real trust and real ability to get to direct negotiations and the final status.

MERIDOR: Well, you know, there were negotiations, quite intensely, between Mr. Olmert, our previous prime minister, and Mr. Abbas for over a year. And they came to a point where an agreement was proposed for the farthest ever concession on Israel's side on all the issues concerned. And Mr. Abbas didn't say yes, didn't say no, just didn't answer at all.

Maybe it is because he does not control Gaza Strip, it is in the hands of Hamas, or for some other reason. But it will not let us despair.

We need to continue. I don't think the unilateral actions are positive neither when they're taken for the Palestinians, like building what they want to build or what we want to build. But the solution is not in banning building. The solution is finding a solution, finding a line.

And when you have the line, it will be clear, this is Israel, this is Palestine. And all the rest will follow from that.

AMANPOUR: Can I shift the focus right now to the ongoing tensions with Europe, with Britain, who's just expelled an Israeli diplomat, and with the investigations that are going on with France, Germany, Ireland and Australia? They say that there is virtually no doubt that this was the Israeli government, this was Mossad, and that they are very angry about the stolen identities.

How are you going to repair relations?

MERIDOR: Well, I don't want to -- they may know more than I know. I don't know what they base what they say on, but I think relations will not suffer heavily.

It's a complicated issue. It will result hopefully without damage to all sides. After all, relationships are not based on the goodwill of somebody. It's based on relationships based on interests.

And I think we have mutual interests in fighting terror, mutual interests in sharing intelligence, mutual interests in policy regarding the Middle East. And I think we can do it together as we did in the past. I hope all this will be behind us in the near future.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Meridor, deputy prime minister of Israel, thank you so much for joining us from Jerusalem.

MERIDOR: Thank you very much.

AMANPOUR: And next, on our Facebook page, we're discussing this question: If Israel continues to build in East Jerusalem, how will it affect the country's long-term relationship with the United States?

You can weigh in at

And next, the possibilities of peace. We'll hear from a leading Palestinian voice and also a pass adviser to Israel's negotiating team.



TZIPI LIVNI, ISRAELI OPPOSITION LEADER: Unfortunately, when innocent (ph) people are looking at the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, what they usually see is the picture of the Palestinian child, the Israeli tank, and this led (ph) to an unrealistic understanding and unjust understanding of the conflict like a completely reversed story of David and Goliath in which, unfortunately, the perception is that the Palestinians are the Davids of the region.


AMANPOUR: That was Tzipi Livni, former Israeli foreign minister, speaking about perceptions of Israel and the Palestinians. But are perceptions of David and Goliath accurate?

We're joined from our Jerusalem bureau by Sari Nusseibeh, who's president of Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. And we welcome from Washington Daniel Levy, who served as adviser to the Israeli government in previous talks.

Gentlemen, thank you both very much for joining us.

Let me turn first to you, Mr. Nusseibeh, in our Jerusalem bureau.

You heard what Tzipi Livni just said. There's this perception that she's complaining about, that the Palestinians feel that they're the Davids in the region. And you just heard what the Israeli deputy prime minister, Dan Meridor, told us.

Where do you think, right now, lies any route for the future out of this morass?

SARI NUSSEIBEH, PRESIDENT, AL-QUDS UNIVERSITY: Well, I think if there is true goodwill and commitment to peace on the part of the two sides. The problem is, of course, is that you cannot really define the two sides so simply. On each side there is more than one side.

For instance, on the side of the Israelis, there are people that want peace, but there are a lot of people that do not want peace and that do not want peace, certainly, on the basis that would be acceptable from the Palestinian point of view. And I think one could say the same on the Palestinian side.

So, it's a bit divided up, and I believe that at the moment, it doesn't look very good. It doesn't look like the people who are in favor of the kind of solution that Mr. Olmert (sic) was talking about -- sorry, Mr. Meridor was talking about is in fact going to be possible at all in the near future.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Meridor told us that on the latest contentious issue between the United States and Israel, which is -- and the Palestinians -- which is the building at Ramat Shlomo, he has told us that these settlements, nothing will happen for the next two years. This appears to be a new emphasis from the Israeli government.

Can I turn to you, Daniel Levy?

At this time of these tensions, of the AIPAC meeting, of what appears to be trying to patch up the appearance of tension between the relations, where do you think the U.S. and Israel can go in any kind of peace talks right now?

DANIEL LEVY, SR. FELLOW & CO-DIRECTOR, MIDDLE EAST TASK FORCE AT THE NEW AMERICA FOUNDATION: Well, I think they're agreeing to disagree with and moving forward right now. You could almost say that Prime Minister Netanyahu is perhaps on probation.

What was interesting in that respect, and what Minister Meridor said -- and he is a genuine, moderate man of peace, I believe, and he has a tough job serving in this government, I'm sure -- he was probably right that these homes in East Jerusalem and the neighborhoods in East Jerusalem will always be part of Israel. What we've not heard and what the Americans want to hear from his prime minister, Mr. Netanyahu, is that Palestinian East Jerusalem, the Palestinian neighborhoods, will be part of the Palestinian state.

And I think until one hears that, there's a problem. It may be two years until we see anything on the ground, but it's that same bureaucratic process that has created a situation today where over 500,000 Israelis live beyond the green line. And that's clearly an obstacle. You can paper it over, but the U.S. and Israel right now are on something of a collision course on that issue.

AMANPOUR: All right. And obviously the main issue is what the majority of the body of politics seems to have accepted over the years, and that is a two-state solution.

Let me play for you what Saeb Erakat, the chief Palestinian negotiator, told me on this very subject a few months ago.


SAEB ERAKAT, CHIEF PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATOR: Is the two states possible anymore? Because the land that's supposed to have my state on, the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, is being eaten up by settlements and wars. And maybe it's time to (INAUDIBLE).

He made the choice. He had the choice between peace and settlements, and he chose settlements.


AMANPOUR: So, Mr. Nusseibeh, as a Palestinian, you just heard what Saeb Erakat said. You, yourself, have glumly forecast that the two-state solution is fading away. Is that what you really think, that there is less and less hope from that?

NUSSEIBEH: Well, look, I mean, from a theoretical point of view, of course everything is still possible. But from a practical point of view, if you're looking at what's practically happening, then of course what you're seeing is a situation in which, in fact, the two-state solution is no longer possible, from a practical point of view.

And when you're talking about settlements, I know that the focus today is on 1,600 new housing units in a particular area in Jerusalem, Ramat Shlomo, or whatever. But you forget the fact that Israel has been building across the green line in East Jerusalem for the past 42 years. And we already have more than 250,000 people living across the green line in Jerusalem, in East Jerusalem, and in the surrounding areas.

Now, I don't see how a two-state solution, based on East Jerusalem being the capital of a Palestinian state, is going to be possible under the circumstances.

AMANPOUR: All right.

NUSSEIBEH: And it seems to me whether we like it or not, we are going by default, not by choice, necessarily. I mean, we heard Mr. Meridor the idea of one state doesn't attract him. And I can understand that, but it seems that by default, we are going into an apartheid reality in which the only solution then will be to try and divide up the rights equally among individuals in one state.

AMANPOUR: Let me just quickly as you this. The Israeli government -- you heard Mr. Meridor say it again -- you know, they feel that they don't even have a Palestinian partner. Yes, Mahmoud Abbas, but he doesn't bring the entire Palestinian people with him. He doesn't bring Gaza with him, he doesn't bring the Hamas contingent with him.

NUSSEIBEH: The Palestinian elected Abu Mazen, Mahmoud Abbas, because of his peace program. And they were hoping that, through having elected him, he is going to bring about a two-state solution based on the '67 lines with East Jerusalem as its capital. And this was our last hope.

But Abu Mazen has been in office now for several years since he was elected, and every day reality is going in the opposite direction. So, yes, we support Abbas, but the Palestinian people see that the Palestinian people really have no partner for peace. We've been seeking peace on the basis of two states, but I believe that we haven't found a partner on the Israeli side consistent, powerful enough to bring about the solution.

AMANPOUR: All right.

Let me ask you, Daniel Levy, it's just incredible that there have been so many years of direct peace negotiations, and now they can't even get to that point and there's going to be proximity talks using the United States as mediators and go-betweens.

What can the United States do right now, particularly given the current state of tension?

LEVY: Well, I think you could use the fact that the United States is driving the process by being in direct talks, America with Israel, America with the Palestinians. There's urgency. We've heard it from the deputy prime minister and from what Professor Nusseibeh said.

I think you need a plan on the table. You need something concrete for the Israelis and the Palestinians to say yes or no to.

The question of the Palestinian partner is secondary. If Israel's ready for peace, it could stop settlements, it could say to the international community you guarantee security, you run this. I think we need now a concrete American plan not to deal with one settlement, but to deal with the entirety and to get a border.

AMANPOUR: When you say a concrete plan, there are the plans. Everything's sort of settled except the outstanding big issues, the final status issues -- refugees, Jerusalem, security, those big things.

And also, the Israeli ambassador to the United States has said, "We do not want an American plan. It's like forcing people to fall in love." That's what he was quoted as saying.

Is there any way other than having an American plan?

LEVY: I don't see it. No one is asking Israelis and Palestinians to fall in love.

One is saying if you're serious about two states, let's go ahead and do it. Israel unfortunately is addicted to the settlements. The settlers and their sympathizers are everywhere in the Israeli system. That's why even the prime minister was possibly surprised by what happened 10 days ago.

A plan which has clear terms of reference, specifically on the borders, including borders in Jerusalem, then there'll be no question of a where's a settlement because you'll have a border. You'll know where's Israel, where's Palestine? If you want to states, you have to do that. If not, it's going in the direction Professor Nusseibeh described.

AMANPOUR: Professor Nusseibeh, do you think that even at this date, there is a possibility for America to break the logjam, that maybe these proximity talks can achieve what direct talks or no talks have not achieved?

NUSSEIBEH: I quite agree. I mean, if the Americans were to do more than simply point out the facts, which is what Secretary Clinton did the other day, if the Americans were actually to push for a particular solution as they see it, as they find possible, as they find probably acceptable on the two sides, on both parts, then I think that will probably be the only way forward.

We need American intervention at this moment in time in order to break the deadlock we're in. Otherwise, I think I quite agree with what's been said. I think we're certainly going into a default option of a one-state scenario, an (INAUDIBLE) reality.

AMANPOUR: And last word, Daniel Levy.

What do you think the signal of this meeting tonight is between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu? That the tension is lifted?

LEVY: The signal is Prime Minister Netanyahu is in town and President Obama wants to focus on one thing and one thing only -- health care, dramatic victory. He doesn't want a distraction.

And I think the message to the Israeli prime minister is, if you thought you could run the clock out on me and I'm a weak president, look what I've just achieved. That's very helpful, that's very important.

Israelis care about the relationship with America. If they think that it's wobbly, then they question what their own prime minister has done. This has been an important two weeks, and I think if there is determination from the Obama administration now that it's been strengthened by the health care victory, then there's hope.


And do you share that hope, Mr. Nusseibeh? What do you think the Palestinians get? What signal from this meeting at the White House tonight?

NUSSEIBEH: I just hope that this hope is substantiated. I very much hope that, in fact, indeed, this will what will happen. But looking back on 42 years of history of occupation, I'm really very skeptical, even today.

AMANPOUR: Professor Nusseibeh, Daniel Levy, thank you both so much for joining us at this critical juncture.

LEVY: Thank you, Christiane.

NUSSEIBEH: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: And next, our "PostScript," how politics today are imposing themselves on a treasure of the past.


AMANPOUR: Now our "PostScript." And we want to highlight one of the hazards of coexistence in this region, even between those who have already made peace.

The Egyptian government has completed reconstruction on the Maimonides synagogue in Cairo. It's named for a 12th century Jewish philosopher who used to live there.

The government spent nearly $2 million to rebuilt the site, but earlier this month officials cancelled the inaugural festivities, allowing only a quiet opening and no press. Egyptian officials tell CNN that they scaled back the celebrations because of the tensions now in Jerusalem.

And that's it for now. Thank you for watching.

Please join us tomorrow for our exclusive interview with the U.S. ambassador-at-large for war crimes who has just announced a new U.S. policy on the International Criminal Court.

Until then, check out our podcast on

For all of us here, goodbye from New York.