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Newsmaker: Moshe Arens

February 13, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Joining us is Moshe Arens, a Likud member of the Knesset. In previous Israeli governments, he served as minister of defense, foreign affairs, and as Israel’s ambassador to Washington. He is also the author of “Broken Covenant: American Foreign Policy and the Crisis Between the U.S. and Israel.” Welcome.

MOSHE ARENS: Nice to be with you.

GWEN IFILL: You were in Washington today meeting with officials at the State Department, at the White House. Why were you here?

MOSHE ARENS: Well, it’s part of the getting acquainted between a new prime minister in Israel, Ariel Sharon, a new administration of President Bush here in Washington. We bring a message that the new prime minister-elect will be prime minister officially I suppose within a week or two. That places ultimate importance on the relationship between Israel and the United States on that very special relationship that he intends to continue to foster, that he is determined on moving towards peace in the Middle East and that he’s realistic about the problems that the Middle East presents at the present time.

GWEN IFILL: Since the election, in fact, just last Friday Colin Powell announced his intention to travel to the Middle East and to meet with leaders there — what message is it that you hope he brings to you?

MOSHE ARENS: I think that from the meetings we had here so far, we have not met with the secretary of state as yet. We will meet with him tomorrow.

GWEN IFILL: Tomorrow.

MOSHE ARENS: That on the part of the new administration in Washington there’s also a realistic view of problems in the Middle East, maybe more realistic than the view of the past administration.

GWEN IFILL: Are you talking about the past administration’s incredibly…the past president’s personal involvement in the Middle East peace process which kind blew up?

MOSHE ARENS: Yes, which was based on the belief, very worthy but maybe a little naive, that you could reach a permanent settlement within a matter of weeks with Yasser Arafat. It became very clear that you couldn’t do it and that Israeli public overwhelmingly rejected the kind of concessions that were offered in an attempt to do that.

GWEN IFILL: So when this president signals that it’s time for the United States to step back, let you work out whatever peace there is to be worked out and then if the United States can do something about it, can step in, can play a role, instead of the United States driving the process, you agree with that?

MOSHE ARENS: We agree with that absolutely.

GWEN IFILL: In a past life, one of your many past lives, you were unhappy with the previous Bush administration that you felt that it had played a role in the downfall of Likud in the past. How do you assess this new Bush administration?

MOSHE ARENS: Well, my impression was that from the meetings today and from what I know of the new administration that there’s every reason to believe that we’re going to have excellent relations.

GWEN IFILL: Your party now only controls a great minority of the seats in the Knesset and therefore you’re trying to form a coalition government. How is that going? How does that stand right now?

MOSHE ARENS: Mr. Sharon has tried to form a national unity government which would be a government that would be based on the two larger parties, they’re really not very large at the moment, but the two larger parties, Likud and Labor, forming the basis of the new coalition. For the moment it looks like it may succeed.

GWEN IFILL: How important is that?

MOSHE ARENS: That’s important for stability because without a national unity government, if it’s the Likud, and a collection of small parties, the government may not be very stable and then we may have early elections.

GWEN IFILL: You talk about stability but there have been five prime ministers in six years in Israel. How stable are things now politically?

MOSHE ARENS: We have a very unstable system of elections which is new in Israel. It’s called the Direct Election of the Prime Minister Law. It has drastically decreased the size of the two big parties, Likud and Labor, and increased the size of the smaller parties. That’s a recipe for instability.

GWEN IFILL: Do you have a deadline by which you have to have this new coalition unity government established?

MOSHE ARENS: Well, we have a deadline by which a time a coalition has to be established. That’s 45 days from the time of elections.

GWEN IFILL: The big question hovering over Ariel Sharon’s election and over the formation in some ways of this coalition government is whether the peace process — I guess, just put it to you directly, how does the rest of the world which sees Ariel Sharon as perhaps a hawk, how do they assess how genuine he is in trying to seek a peace?

MOSHE ARENS: Well, I think they should look upon him as a realist and not a hawk. He wants peace. There isn’t an Israeli around that doesn’t want peace. The question is what is attainable? By the looks of it a permanent settlement, one that would end the conflict once and for all is something that is not attainable, not at the present time. It’s something that was tried by Mr. Barak with the help of President Clinton. So we need to go for interim arrangements.

GWEN IFILL: What do you mean by interim arrangements?

MOSHE ARENS: Well, arrangements that will prevent the use of violence, that will gradually bring us closer together, hopefully in time bridge the gap to the point where you can reach a permanent settlement. Right now the gap is too big.

GWEN IFILL: And part of the gap is the conditions that you want to place on the Palestinians that there can be no additional violence. Is that a correct way of….

MOSHE ARENS: No, I wouldn’t say that. That’s a condition for negotiations. We do not believe that you should negotiate while violence goes on because that is an incentive for further violence. The violent party, in this case, the Palestinians, think they can improve their negotiating position by the use of violence. And that’s going to lead us nowhere.

GWEN IFILL: So what is the road map that would take you to a peace?

MOSHE ARENS: Well, first things first. Stop the violence. And I understand that the administration in Washington has been sending that message to Arafat. He has to stop the violence so that we can then move on to negotiations.

GWEN IFILL: Today, as we reported earlier on the broadcast, there was violence but it was Israel taking out one of Arafat’s top advisers in the Gaza Strip. At what point does the stopping of the violence include perhaps trying to arrest people like that instead of assassinating or whatever it was?

MOSHE ARENS: Well, look, you know, a government’s foremost duty in times like this is to protect the security of its citizens. And when our citizens are being killed on the road, people firing on cars on the highway, the government has to take the necessary measures to put a stop to that. By just saying we’re going to arrest them, well, you have to find them first before you can arrest them. It’s not that simple.

GWEN IFILL: So when we talk about this road map, we talk about an end to violence before we reach the point where we can even negotiate toward an interim agreement? That’s the order?

MOSHE ARENS: That is correct. I think that that has been experienced throughout the world, that you cannot negotiate successfully while violence goes on, that you have to put a stop to the violence. The violence is being initiated by the Palestinians. Mr. Arafat so far has not made any serious effort to put an end to that violence. If he were to make a serious effort, I think that that would bring an end to the violence. At least we want to see proof of him making a serious effort.

GWEN IFILL: How bad a mistake was it, in your opinion– obviously you’re a supporter of Ariel Sharon….

MOSHE ARENS: I am, I am.

GWEN IFILL: But how bad a mistake was it originally to try to pursue peace through the kinds of concessions that Ehud Barak was willing to make?

MOSHE ARENS: Well, first of all the people of Israel by overwhelming vote said it was a very bad mistake.

GWEN IFILL: They did.

MOSHE ARENS: I think generally when you operate on the basis of illusions when you’re not realistic about the problems that you face, when you don’t want to recognize that there is a gap that at the moment cannot be bridged, then you’re chasing the rainbow. And the end result, although the intentions are the best, the end result is bad. We’ve got a very bad result. We’ve got a lot of violence.

GWEN IFILL: If you and Barak are so far apart in the approach to where you should go to end this violence, how does a coalition government work if he agrees to join it?

MOSHE ARENS: Well, I don’t know if he personally would agree to join it. He announced immediately after his defeat that he was resigning. Maybe he’ll change his mind. Mr. Sharon has offered him a position in the new government. I think that Mr. Barak has also not been unimpressed by the results of the election. I think he realizes that the vast majority of Israelis did not support his policies. So maybe he’s changing his mind.

GWEN IFILL: There is a square one quality to this. At what point does it look like the entire peace process will be back at square one? Where is that? And how do you move past that to the next step?

MOSHE ARENS: No, it’s not back at square one by any means. Considerable progress has been made. There is a Palestinian Authority. They have their institutions. They have control over significant parts of territory that they claim. So we’ve moved ahead. But we want to be sure now that we don’t move back, that we move forward.

GWEN IFILL: Moshe Arens, thank you so much for joining us.

MOSHE ARENS: Thank you for inviting me.