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CNN'S AMANPOUR

Interview with Ehud Olmert; Chinese Dissident Escapes from Prison

Aired April 30, 2012 - 15:00:00   ET

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


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

The threat of an imminent Israeli strike on Iran has had the whole world on edge for months now. But in my brief tonight, there evidence that threat might be cooling for now. Previously on this program, we brought you the extraordinary public argument, the war of words that pits Israel's most powerful military and security officials against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Tonight, you'll hear from the most senior official yet to break ranks, former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. I'll bring you my interview with him in just a moment. But first, the other powerful officials who are openly questioning Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister, Ehud Barak.

On Friday, Yuval Diskin, the recently retired chief of Shin Bet, Israel's domestic security arm, said that he did not trust, quote, "the messianic feelings leading Israel towards war." Then there was Benny Gantz, the current head of Israeli Armed Forces.

He says that he does not believe that Iranian leader Ayatollah Khamenei will, quote, "want to go the extra mile to build a nuclear weapon now." And former Mossad chief Meir Dagan says this, "The Iranian government is a rational one."

And so tonight the battle is joined by the former prime minister, Ehud Olmert. I sat down with him right here in New York.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: Prime Minister, thank you for joining us.

EHUD OLMERT, FORMER PRIME MINISTER OF ISRAEL: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: I am absolutely fascinated by what looks like a major war within Israel in terms of a war rhetoric or war of ideas about the notion of Iran and how to deal with it.

On the one hand you have the prime minister and defense minister talking about a serious military option. On the other hand, practically the entire defense and security officials taking a different view.

OLMERT: Indeed.

AMANPOUR: What is happening?

OLMERT: You know, I don't think there is a war. There is a serious and genuine dispute. The last resort is a military action. And I prefer that it would be an American action supported by the international community if all the other efforts would fail.

AMANPOUR: If there's to be a military action against Iran, are you saying that Israel should not lead it, that it should be the United States?

OLMERT: Absolutely. Absolutely. It should be (inaudible) from the United States. The United States should be the one that decide on it, on the scope of it, on the extent of it, with cooperation. Israel is just that we could be part of the effort, but Israel shouldn't lead it. America should lead it.

AMANPOUR: When the former head of Shin Bet, Mr. Diskin, says that he is worried about the fate of his country being in the hands of a messianic leadership, referring to Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak, that is quite extraordinary language.

OLMERT: Yes, this is quite unusual now. I prefer to distinguish between the personal aspects of what he said and the substantial aspects of what he said. We don't think that the priorities are set in the right way.

First priority, as I said, is cooperation with America from a respectful and serious and careful attitude and not trying to teach the president of America or preach to the president of America or blame the president of America, but rather cooperate with him.

AMANPOUR: Do you think the prime minister of Israel is doing that?

OLMERT: The impression is that there is no friendship and that there is no cooperation. I made every possible effort. It wasn't hard, by the way, for me to become very friendly with President Bush. And we cooperated greatly in the way that most unbelievable discussions in four hours that we had with each other, and we trusted each other that nothing will never leak and never -- and nothing leaked.

I wish that that kind of cooperation and that kind of a dialogue will be between Netanyahu and President Obama, and I think that Obama is definitely not hostile to Israel and such a dialogue can be established and should be established.

AMANPOUR: As a former prime minister of Israel, do you believe that President Obama is a friend of Israel's?

OLMERT: I have no doubt about it.

AMANPOUR: There's a big debate going on within Israel right now, mostly by the security community. Meir Dagan, the former head of Mossad, in fact, your current head of the IDF, General Benny Ganz, and others, calling the Iranian leadership rational and questioning whether there should be a rush to military action against Iran, or whether Iran will rush to make a nuclear bomb.

Do you agree with the description of the leadership as rational?

OLMERT: I know one thing, that the Iranian leadership has not gone beyond a certain line for the time being of developing the nuclear program.

And that shows that they are at least thoughtful, which means that they are not rushing, but they are calculating the steps, being aware of the possible ramifications of what they do to Iran itself, which is what we want them to understand. And at the same time we have to create a capacity to defend ourselves in the event that they will not.

And at the same time we have to encourage the international community quietly, by the way, without talking so much, without talking so that everyone will hear you from end of the world to the other, to the international community, to take measures, sanctions, economic pressure and so on and so forth, but also not to rush for certain military actions, which are not essential at this point.

AMANPOUR: You were prime minister during one of the many periods that presumably war games were being discussed within the Israeli political and military leadership.

What is your evaluation, what is your judgment of the pros and the cons of a surprise Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities?

OLMERT: I read the memoirs of President Bush, Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Condi Rice, and I read about a telephone call between President Bush and myself regarding an action which took place in Syria, which we never talked about, which he talked about.

And I ordered the Israeli army to do what was necessary to be done from my point of view, which was, according to his words -- and I'm only quoting his book -- to destroy an atomic reactor in Syria.

But the big difference, the dramatic difference between then and now, the reactor in Syria was about to be operated within days, and therefore there was no time to wait. You either do it or you have an atomic reactor that would produce a bomb.

In Iran, the situation is different. There is time. The international community is fully aware. Everyone knows. The President of the United States is fully committed to work against it. And therefore this is a big difference.

AMANPOUR: So you did give the order to strike this facility in Syria?

OLMERT: No. I said that I can't talk to you about it, but I can say that -- I read about it in the book of the memoirs of President Bush --

AMANPOUR: Who could have given that order?

OLMERT: I know President Bush, he is a very honest man. I don't think that he wrote lies. But that's what he wrote.

AMANPOUR: Since you were prime minister when the Syrian reactor was blown up by Israeli forces, many now are saying, primarily Prime Minister Netanyahu, and indeed, Defense Minister Barak, that going and doing a similar thing in Iran could be as risk-free as it was when you did the Syria reactor. In other words, we went in, we went out, no reaction, not a peep. We took care of it.

Do you believe that if the same action was taken on multiple Iranian sites that you would have no reaction from Iran?

OLMERT: I think the attempt to draw a comparison between Iran and Syria is false, misleading and dangerous. Number one, the day will come when the whole story will be told about what happened in Syria and what were the extraordinary unprecedented and unbelievable efforts that Israel made in order to allow the Syrians to absorb the event without reacting.

Now here we leave no option for the Iranians. We declare openly that the day will come that we will attack, there will not be any way to avoid the direct responsibility of the one that will attack, if Israel will the one that attacks.

So the circumstances are entirely different. Iran is not Syria.

The Iranian program is far from being completed. Whatever may happen in Iran, all the assessments made by all the intelligence agencies that I've heard -- and I've heard them all -- is that Iran will react and that may trigger a regional war in the Middle East which would impact the stability of the Middle East, the economic situation, which will have far- reaching consequences on many different countries, and which may cause a terrible damage to the status of Israel, the economic situation of Israel, to the political status of Israel and whatnot. And I'm not certain that this is the last resort.

If this is the last resort, to defend ourselves from an atomic bomb in the hands of Iran is one thing. But if it is not, then maybe the wrong timing can be a terrible, terrible mistake for the security and the well- being of the state of Israel.

AMANPOUR: You seem very worried.

OLMERT: I am worried. I am worried because I'm not the one who has to take the decision. Someone else has to take a decision. And you have to have full trust in the judgment of those who have to take the decisions and you could understand from what I said that maybe something in my trust is lacking.

AMANPOUR: That you don't have full trust?

OLMERT: Apparently.

AMANPOUR: Mr. Prime Minister, thank you for joining me.

OLMERT: Thank you very much.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

AMANPOUR: The former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, has been a frequent target of corruption allegations in Israel. He's yet to be convicted of a crime, and he denies the charges and he declined to address them with us.

But meanwhile, the threat of a military strike on Iran hinges on whether the current round of talks with Iran will produce results. The next round of diplomacy is scheduled to take place in Baghdad several weeks from now, and that's when we're likely to know whether a deal on Iran's nuclear program is possible.

And next on this program, if dissent in Israel is happening at the highest levels, in China dissent has been an underground movement -- until now. Chen Guangcheng's dramatic escape and what's going on behind the scenes to handle a diplomatic mine field between the U.S. and China, when we return.

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AMANPOUR: Welcome back, and now to China, where the dramatic nighttime escape of dissident Chen Guangcheng from house arrest -- he is a blind human rights activist known as the Barefoot Lawyer -- is a major public embarrassment for the Chinese government. In a dramatic video posted on YouTube after his escape, Chen directly accuses local authorities of brutality.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

CHEN GUANGCHENG, ACTIVIST (through translator): I finally escaped. All the stories online about the brutal treatment I received from the authorities I can personally testify, they are true. The reality is even harsher than the stories that have been circulating.

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AMANPOUR: Chen's escape has driven a diplomatic wedge between China and the United States. Diplomats on all sides are keeping a thorough blackout on any information relating to Chen or his current whereabouts, although Chen's supporters say that he's now under U.S. diplomatic protection in Beijing.

The incident comes just days before the American secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, and Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner, arrive in Beijing for talks. According to counterterrorism chief John Brennan of the United States, the challenge for them will be to balance America's commitment to human rights with the U.S.-China relationship.

And we're joined by Nicholas Burns, who's now a professor of international politics at Harvard's Kennedy School, and once served as an undersecretary of state under President George W. Bush. And also Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College. He's a dual U.S.-Chinese citizen and he joins me right now.

To both of you, thank you very much for being here.

Let me ask you first, former Undersecretary Burns, what is the U.S. doing right now? What are the negotiations that have to happen right now, and do you think that Chen is inside the U.S. embassy?

NICHOLAS BURNS, FORMER UNDERSECRETARY OF STATE: Well, first of all, Christiane, I'm not in a position as you are either to know exactly where Chen Guangcheng is, but I would say that President Obama and Secretary Clinton are doing the right thing by, in effect, not talking about this, by having a private discussion with the Chinese, trying to work out behind the scenes, beyond the glare of the international press, some sort of arrangement that would allow the U.S. to continue to protect him and see his way to freedom.

I actually don't think that the U.S. has much room to maneuver here. Given our traditions, given the fact that the United States has always championed human rights, and that the largest point of difference that we have with China, we, in my judgment, we have to protect this man.

He is so courageous and as you rightly say, his escape from house arrest is so dramatic that we have to protect him, and there's no option of giving him back to Chinese authorities. So the only issue is will China agree to his release in a way that he will be secure and his family will be secure, or his release from China back to the United States? A lot will depend on what he wishes to have happen. But I think that's the only possible outcome here for the U.S.

AMANPOUR: So let me turn to you, Dr. Pei, then, as Nicholas Burns said, there is an imperative for the United States to protect his human rights.

What do you think the Chinese leaders are thinking right now? And if, as Chen says, he does not want to leave China, that he wants to stay in China, presumably to be treated as an activist, what can they do? Can they let him out and treat him as he wants to be treated without putting him back under house arrest?

MINXIN PEI, Chinese SCHOLAR: Well, I would say the Chinese leaders right now are trying together to think over as soon as possible so the best outcome for them is for Mr. Chen to leave China and to come to the U.S. as an exile. But of course, that's not what Mr. Chen wants to do. So a compromise might involve ending his illegal house arrest.

I want to emphasize that Mr. Chen has been under illegal house arrest. He was released from prison a year and a half ago and has been detained against Chinese law. So if he can go back to his village as a free man, but in exchange he might have to agree to some conditions that will limit his freedom of speech and movement. That might be a possible outcome.

AMANPOUR: So, Mr. Burns, is that possible, that the U.S. could agree that he would be, as Dr. Pei says, taken out of where he is right now, released back to his home, but under the conditions that he doesn't want to abide by, apparently? He wants to be an activist?

BURNS: Well, I think it's an extraordinarily difficult situation for the U.S., if this is going to be one of the options that's going to be looked at. And, of course, we don't know that. This is a difficult one for the United States to try to agree to, because on the one hand, you obviously want to respect the wishes, the personal wishes of Chen Guangcheng himself, if he makes an arrangement with the Chinese authorities that he freely enters into and is willing to respect, that's one thing.

If there's any sense that he's being coerced or threatened during these talks by the Chinese government, then of course the United States would have to be very careful not to be party to that. I think, Christiane, given our long traditions, we have -- there's always a balance in relations in any difficult relationship like the one we have with China.

We have a lot of business to do with them. Iran, North Korea, Syria, the global economy, but in this particular instance, we have got to honor this commitment to human rights. And that's going to lead to an extraordinarily difficult set of discussions between the two governments -- I think -- in the coming days.

AMANPOUR: Well, that's really interesting, you say, because look, to be frank, human rights has kind of been put, if not to the back burner, at least to the side burner, for all the issues that you've just mentioned, of bilateral interest. So this really does shove that very American issue of human rights right back to the front of the agenda, doesn't it? I mean, America's hands are tied, frankly.

BURNS: In some ways, yes. And I think that, you know, I think the administration's done a very skillful job in handling this so far. And in just my judgment, in this instance, the human rights priority becomes paramount for the United States, because we have to do the right thing here, given the nature of who this man is.

He's very courageous. He's a human rights champion. And the American people can identify with him. And so I certainly don't want to prejudge what the administration will do and I understand how complicated this is, but I do think there's only one outcome here, and that's to protect him.

AMANPOUR: And Dr. Pei, everybody is looking at China to see what spark will cause some kind of -- I don't want to say a Chinese spring, but you know, you get my -- you get my drift. Is there going to be an uprising of some sort in China? Is this the kind of thing that the Chinese authorities are afraid of, somebody like Chen, doing what he's done and then being released back into society?

PEI: It's unlikely that, at this moment, releasing him to send back to his village will cause a spark that sets off a revolution type event in China. But in the next 5-10 years, other events similar to this probably on a much larger scale may cause a significant crisis in China. But at the moment, China is -- Chinese leaders do not have to worry about dramatic consequences from Mr. Chen's release.

AMANPOUR: Why not? Why don't they have to worry?

PEI: Well, this, Mr. Burns was saying, that very courageous, inspiring figure, but the dissident (ph) community in China is relatively small. Popular discontent is rising, but not to the point where a very large number of urban residents will be organized against the government. So I just don't see signs of very serious political crisis in the very near future. Longer term say, beyond a year, nobody knows.

AMANPOUR: And Nicholas Burns, do you -- you know, clearly, right now, everybody's being silent for a reason. Nobody wants to embarrass each other on either side. If the U.S., I guess, admits that they have him there, then it's a big embarrassment for the Chinese.

But how long can this go on without a resolution and the U.S. not admitting to where Mr. Chen is?

BURNS: Well, the coincidence here, of course, is the visit of Secretary Clinton and Secretary Geithner to China this week. And so obviously that will allow these two sides at a very senior level to work out whatever agreement they're going to come to.

But I just think that the administration is right to try to handle this privately now, because that does not put the Chinese into an embarrassing situation publicly. In the end, this will be a humiliation for China that human rights activist, a great man, someone that we all admire, was able to escape house arrest, make his way to Beijing.

That's going to put a big spotlight on the deficiency of the Chinese system, on their outright violations of human rights and I would think, in the end, this will be a defeat for China.

AMANPOUR: And lastly, to you, Dr. Pei, do you think that human rights should be front and center of U.S. policy towards China as many people do believe?

PEI: Absolutely. I think it should be a top priority. The trick is always to find the right balance between other interests and human rights and also find a way of handling that will make human rights improvement possible in China, without thoroughly destroying the relationship with China.

AMANPOUR: Dr. Minxin Pei, former Assistant Secretary Nicholas Burns, thank you so much for joining me today.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Thank you.

AMANPOUR: And up next, the escape of Chen Guangcheng has inspired many throughout China as we hear, and also the world, but for China's top cop, it could be the beginning of the end. His story when we return.

And also a reminder that tomorrow marks one year since the capture and killing of Osama bin Laden. We'll be devoting the program to that subject. And I want you to check out our website, amanpour.com, where we posted the entire documentary, "In the Footsteps of Bin Laden," in which I retrace his life through the people who knew him the best. Take a look.

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AMANPOUR: And now for our final thought. We've been talking a lot about the escape of the blind Chinese dissident, Chen Guangcheng, after 19 months of house arrest. Now imagine a world where the budget for police and other domestic security measures is over $100 billion a year, billions more, even, than China spends on its military.

That may explain why the one person you don't want to be right now is this man, Zhou Yongkang, China's domestic security chief. Not only did the blind dissident make a mockery of all the guards and security cameras that were supposed to keep him prisoner, but earlier this year, the corruption and murder scandal that brought down party chief Bo Xilai also happened on Zhou's watch.

In the wake of the latest security lapses, the next victim of China's law and order policy, what they like to call stability preservation, could be Zhou himself.

That's it for today's program. Thank you for joining. Goodbye from New York.

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