TOPICS > Politics

Enduring Conflict in the Middle East

November 8, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT


SPENCER MICHELS: While much of the world’s attention is elsewhere, violence in the MidEast continues. Nearly 900 people have been killed, 80% of them Palestinians, since heavy fighting broke out between Israelis and Palestinians 13 months ago. The White House is seeking to end the fighting, fearing that Arab and Muslim reaction could fracture the anti-terrorist coalition. Three weeks after the terrorist attacks, President Bush for the first time endorsed an independent state for the Palestinians.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: The idea of a Palestinian state has always been in the… A part of a vision, so long as the right of Israel to exist is respected.

SPENCER MICHELS: Three days after the President’s statement, Israel’s prime minister responded angrily.

ARIEL SHARON, Prime Minister, Israel: Do not repeat the dreadful mistake of 1938 when enlightened European democracies decided to sacrifice Czechoslovakia for a convenient, temporary solution. Do not try to appease the Arabs at our expense.

SPENCER MICHELS: The White House called those remarks unacceptable, and Sharon apologized. The U.S. bombing of Afghanistan provoked thousands of Palestinians to take to the streets. Palestinian police then took the rare act of firing on their own people, killing at least two. Ten days later, a hard-line Israeli cabinet minister was assassinated in Jerusalem, and a militant Palestinian group claimed responsibility. Going after the alleged killers, Israel sent troops into seven West Bank towns, which were under Palestinian authority self-rule. The State Department called for Israel’s immediate withdrawal. As of now, Israeli troops have pulled back from five of the towns.

YASSER ABED RABBO, Palestinian Information Minister: What kind of cease-fire is this? We cease and they assassinate. We cease and they occupy.

GIDEON MEIR, Spokesman, Israeli Foreign Ministry: It’s a major setback to all political and diplomatic efforts because Arafat is not making the slightest effort to arresting the terrorists.

SPENCER MICHELS: Since September 11, Osama bin Laden has used the Palestinian issue and American support for Israel to rally Muslims worldwide against the United States. On the al-Jazeera network, bin Laden said Palestinian children were being killed, in his words, “by unjust Jewish executioners with U.S. support.” But Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat denounced that as “dangerous talk.” Meanwhile, sporadic diplomat efforts have aimed at calming down the MidEast, including a brief meeting in Europe last week between Arafat and Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres. At the White House’s invitation, Peres recently visited Washington to discuss ways of getting a cease-fire and resuming peace talks. Yesterday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, during a quick trip to the White House, urged the President to restart the MidEast peace process. But today, National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice said President Bush would not meet Chairman Arafat when he goes to the United Nations this weekend. She said Arafat has not done enough to fight terrorism.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret Warner takes it from there.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on how the war on terrorism is affecting the prospects for ending the violence in the Middle East, we turn to: Nabil Sha’ath, Minister of Planning and International Cooperation for the Palestinian National Authority. He’s been an advisor to Yasser Arafat for 30 years. And he met with Secretary of State Powell this morning — and Ephraim Sneh, Israel’s Minister of Transportation; a former general, he’s a leading figure in the Labor Party, and was former Prime Minister Barak’s Deputy Minister of Defense. He met with National Security Advisor Rice yesterday. Welcome, gentlemen. Minister Sneh, beginning with you, how have the events of September 11th and the war on terrorism that has followed affected the conflict between you and the Palestinians, between the two sides in the Middle East?

EPHRAIM SNEH, Minister of Transportation, Israel: The war against terrorism, the United States is waging today, posed a clear question to all its allies, actually to all the nations in the world: Are you with us, or are you with the terrorists?

If you are against terrorists, what are you doing about it — especially those countries who harbor terrorist organizations in their territory — what does it mean? That it poses to the Palestinian Authority a very clear-cut question: Are you going to harbor the Hamas, the Islamic Jihad, those organizations, that the State Department defined on the list of terrorist organizations? What are you doing? Do you uproot these organizations or not?

The other effect is that the United States while it is fighting against al-Qaida, against the Tailban, all other areas of tension and balance should be switched off. It is destruction, and we understand how it is important for the United States that the Middle East, our region, would not serve as another source of tension and violence.

Where these two questions converge, we believe, is if the Palestinian Authority takes the necessary measures against those terrorist organizations — I mentioned Hamas, Islamic Jihad — if they seriously act against terrorism, our military activities are totally unnecessary.

We can switch off this violence. It would be better for us, it would be better for the Palestinians, and I must say in this way we may fulfill our obligation to our citizens to protect them because in the last 15 months, we lost 200 Israelis, men and women, most of them were civilians, and we fought any other issue, any other thing, our obligation is to protect… To protect our citizens from terrorism.

MARGARET WARNER: Minister Sha’ath, it sounds as if Minister Sneh is saying this creates an opportunity perhaps for two sides to maybe make accommodations they haven’t been able to. How do you see it? How do you see the impact of September 11th on your conflict?

NABIL SHA’ATH, Palestinian National Authority: September 11th was a horrible experience for all Palestinians, and I think President Arafat was one of the people who very, very early in the game took a position. He gave his blood for the victims in New York. And he committed all of us besides the United States against that terrorism. President Arafat explained that we have a just cause. We’re a people fighting for our freedom and independence, fighting an occupation that continues in our midst and yet we’ve never associated that with a war against the people of New York or the people of America in any way or shape, and that our resistance against that invasion and that continued occupation is just on its own… We would not want it hijacked by anybody. They never expect to be a pretext for anybody….

MARGARET WARNER: You mean for Osama bin Laden.

NABIL SHA’ATH: Absolutely. We refused being his pretext to killing the people of New York or anybody else.

MARGARET WARNER: But do you agree with Minister Sneh that the war on terrorism that the President has declared also does put pressure on the Palestinians to distance, Arafat in particular, to distance himself and disconnect himself in the… and the Palestinian Authority from groups like Hamas and like Islamic Jihad.

NABIL SHA’ATH: It’s not a question of distancing. It’s a question of resolving a problem in which people may use their own tactics.

MARGARET WARNER: I should have said reining in. I agree with you. It’s not about distancing. What the Israelis are asking and what Condi Rice said today they want chairman Arafat to do more to rein in these groups.

NABIL SHA’ATH: I think Condi Rice also made the point that was muted in her speech about the fact that the Israeli siege has to stop, the Israeli occupation of areas, a, that have been given back to the Palestinians in a treaty signed by the Israelis in the Oslo agreement, has to end the assassinations by Israel called targeted killings of Palestinians has to end. There are responsibilities of the occupying power in this case Israel and in the agreements including the Mitchell report, the two sides had to do things. The two sides have to commit themselves to end that conflict. It cannot be done by just one side waiting until the other does it as a pre-condition for him doing his duty.

MARGARET WARNER: Minister Sneh you said that one of the two impacts you thought it had is that the United States doesn’t want other points of conflict in the world right now, but particularly ones that would upset members of the Arab coalition. Does Israel feel under pressure from Washington to somehow restrain its response?

EPHRAIM SNEH: We all feel pressure. As I told you, we have an understanding to the needs of the United States. The success of the United States, the success of all the democracies in the world, no one more… No one more than the Israelis want an American success in this war. But we have at our top obligation as a sovereign government is to protect our people from terrorism — on the way, which I drive to my office, several people were killed. In the way where my wife drives to work, several people were killed, one of them only ten days ago. This is a reality that we can’t allow to continue. And the closure of Palestinian cities, all the measures that we take, they are aimed in one thing: To hand down those who are the perpetrators, those who mastermind these terrible attacks on our restaurants, on our bus stations, on our discothèques where teenagers and civilians are killed.

MARGARET WARNER: But for instance when you… When Israel went into these areas, as we just showed on the tape, after the assassination of your fellow cabinet member, immediately not only the President but the Secretary of State said they wanted Israel to pull out of those areas. Did you find that inappropriate on Washington’s part to say?

EPHRAIM SNEH: We don’t find it inappropriate. As I tell you, we have an understanding to the needs of America. What we actually did — at the moment that we have agreement with the local Palestinian Authority that they take over and they act seriously and effectively against terrorists in that town, we immediately withdrew. We did it in Hebron. We did it in Bethlehem. We did it yesterday or the day before yesterday in Ramallah. We have nothing to do there but to protect our children and to prevent terrorist attacks. At the moment if this goal is achieved, we have nothing to do there and we pull back. As Mr. Sha’ath said, a, those areas that were given to the Palestinian Authority but there is one condition: That terrorism will not be harbored there. This is something which we cannot allow to happen and the President, President Bush, says time and again that harboring terrorism is unforgivable.

MARGARET WARNER: Minister Sha’ath, let me just go back and I did sort of ask you this before, but from what Condi Rice said today and from what other members of the administration have said, they are looking for Yasser Arafat to do more to end these attacks. My question is, do you think the dynamic of September 11th and post September 11th have – does Chairman Arafat have put more of a responsibility, for instance, or has nothing changed as far as you see?

NABIL SHA’ATH: The world has changed. What do you mean nothing changed? Everything has changed.

MARGARET WARNER: But I mean the dynamic in your conflict.

NABIL SHA’ATH: I don’t think there is a better solution that reflects that change than to see the United States come clearly in our area and help both of us achieve peace. There will be nothing better in order to face this culture, this clash of civilizations, this great difficulty that we are facing, this feeling of injustice in the Islamic world than to achieve a peace that will allow our people freedom and independence side by side with a secure Israel and a secure Palestine. But the question is, this cannot be done by pointing fingers at the Palestinians, as Mr. Sneh has said. I feel very sorry for every Israeli child or man or woman who has been killed. There have been at least 900 Palestinians killed, more than half of them are children. The question is fighting for each country’s security. We’re not a province of Israel rebelling against central government; we are a people who have a right to self-determination and right to a state. Both of us need security as well.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now, you’re both here seeing people in the administration. What is it you think the United States could do to get this off the dime –


MARGARET WARNER: — end this violence stalemate?

NABIL SHA’ATH: The United States is the guarantor and the cosignatory of every agreement we sign. The United States is the major sponsor. The United States is a friend of the two parties. Without the United States there is no alternative but the spiral of violence continuing and the mistrust continues. The United States needs to be with us on the ground, helping us get over and each party to do his duty in order to move towards negotiations again. The United States cannot run away from that responsibility because it will help the security of the Palestinians, of the Israelis and the Americans as well.

MARGARET WARNER: He’s talking about much deeper American involvement. Does Israel want that?

EPHRAIM SNEH: The United States is busy, very busy now with one target. To win the campaign in Afghanistan and the global war against terrorism– and we wish them success and all of us have to help America to reach those goals. And in our region, the job is ours. And if the Palestinian Authority helps terrorism, no American help is needed. I’m sure if Mr. Arafat and his colleagues when they want to do so, they know how to treat terrorists without America’s help. And American help was given already by Director Tenet, a recommendation about how to reach a cease-fire, and a clear road map – the recommendation of Senator Mitchell’s Commission who gave a farther road map how to proceed to an Israeli- Palestinian agreement. These are very important contributions. We all respect it. We all are committed to these conclusions, but to fight terrorism, do it yourself. That is my very strong recommendation to the Palestinians: Do it yourself. Let America fight its war. It’s for the benefit of all the democracies.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Ministers both, we have to leave it there. Thank you.