TOPICS > Politics

Middle East Maelstrom

December 14, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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MARGARET WARNER: It has been a particularly violent two weeks in the Middle East; nearly 100 have been killed and hundreds more wounded in suicide bombings and other attacks against Israelis by Islamic militants and retaliatory Israeli strikes against Palestinian targets in the West Bank and Gaza.

Early yesterday, after a Wednesday night bus ambush that killed ten Israelis, Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s cabinet decided to break off contact with Palestinian Chairman Yasser Arafat, saying Arafat had “made himself irrelevant as far as Israel is concerned.”

The persistent violence cast doubt on the three-week-old mission of the new U.S. envoy to the region, Retired Marine General Anthony Zinni. He is there trying to revive the cease-fire plan proposed nearly a year ago by former U.S. Senator George Mitchell.

At the White House today, President Bush said it was time for Arafat to act.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: First let me talk about Chairman Arafat. Chairman Arafat has said that he intends to fight terror, bring those to justice who are killing, murderers in the Middle East, and now is his time to perform. The world expects chairman Arafat to lead and so do I. And I will continue to work with our friends and allies to make it… to talk to Mr. Arafat in very blunt terms. And that is, if you want to achieve the Mitchell process, if you want to get in the Mitchell process, if you want there to be peace, you must do everything in your power, you must use your security forces, to bring to justice those who murder to keep peace from happening.

MARGARET WARNER: For more, we turn to Daniel Ayalon, senior foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Sharon. He’s in Washington for meetings with administration officials, and Hasan Abdel Rahman, the chief PLO representative to Washington.

Welcome, gentlemen.

Mr. Ayalon, beginning with you, as we just recounted, when the cabinet cut off relations with Yasser Arafat yesterday, the cabinet said he had become irrelevant as far as Israel is concerned. What did Israel mean by that?

DANIEL AYALON: Well, I think it was high time for us to call a spade a spade. We have given Arafat all the chances to fight terror, to make good on his promises to prevent terror, to arrest terrorists, to dismantle the terrorist organizations and really to go back into a political dialogue.

But time after time, all our conciliatory moves, our gestures, our unilateral cease-fires, and all the measures were answered by terror and more terror and the most brutal terror. What we see is that Arafat is still keeping the strategy of terror. He is masterminding the terror. It’s a coalition of terror that we are facing.

And not only is he not preventing, but he’s encouraging terror by the incitement and by his security forces. As I said, not only do they not prevent, they participate in active terror. And we cannot longer suffer that. So hence we have the decision to make and that’s where we are.

MARGARET WARNER: That’s quite an indictment, Mr. Rahman. I mean, he’s saying not only that he expects Arafat to crack down on Hamas and these other groups, but that Arafat’s own forces are part of this and he’s part of this terror. 

HASAN ABDEL RAHMAN: Well, this is absolutely unfounded accusation. We understand why the Israelis point finger to Arafat, because Mr. Sharon is looking for a pretext for his plan to undo the Oslo process and build more settlements on the West Bank, and defeat the Palestinian people militarily.

Let’s look at the last nine months under Mr. Sharon’s rule. What has happened? Mr. Sharon, if he was really interested in security, I want Mr. Ayalon to explain to us and to the public, why Israel is systematically destroying every single police station and killing Palestinian officers who are supposed to be engaged in arresting those Hamas or those who violated the law?

How, today, you did not mention that, there were six Palestinian policemen killed in cold blood by Israel. Out of the 100 Palestinians who were killed, there were 43 Israelis.

There were 57 Palestinians killed, mostly children and women, by Israel.

MARGARET WARNER: All right. Let me ask Mr. Ayalon this question, because Mr. Ayalon, we hear this a lot. You… As Mr. Rahman said, and we actually are reporting this in our news summary about the Palestinian policemen killed, you’re going after these Palestinian police targets. Aren’t these the very folks you’re asking to help round up and crack down on Hamas and the terrorist groups?

DANIEL AYALON: Well, thank you, Margaret. Actually, I’m glad Mr. Abdul Rahman raised this question, because what we’re going after are terrorist targets.

And sometimes, unfortunately, these terrorist targets are no other places but hiding in police stations. As I said, we are up against a coalition of terror run by Mr. Arafat…

MARGARET WARNER: Let me interrupt you…

DANIEL AYALON: And in some places– I’m sorry.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay.

DANIEL AYALON: There was a case in point. We hit a police station, which harbored a mortar factory, an illegal mortar factory of production of mortars.

Now, I don’t think that in any other place in the world you would find policemen busy with illegal weapons, with hiding terrorists and with helping terrorists.

And here I think it is a very important fact to note for your viewers that 50 percent of our casualties are not caused by the Jihad and Hamas, but by the forces, the Palestinian forces that are directly under the control of Arafat.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Mr. Rahman, you earlier called that accusation unfounded, but he just gave an example where he said Palestinian police forces were part of the illegal operation.

HASAN ABDEL RAHMAN: That’s absolutely nonsense. That’s part of the fabrication of the Israeli army.

You know, there is a whole unit in the Israeli army that fabricates and invents lies about the Palestinians.

Do you expect Mr. Ayalon really to sit down here and say, yes, the police… the security forces of the Palestinian Authority are innocent? Of course. If Israel is systematically, every single city in the West Bank and Gaza where there is a police station, it has been destroyed.

The other day, by helicopter they killed ten Palestinian police — in Nablus, today in some field… This is an attack on the institutions of the Palestinian Authority.

Mr. Sharon never believed in Oslo. He was against Oslo. He voted against Oslo. Mr. Sharon wants to settle the West Bank.

If he were serious about making peace with the Palestinians, why would he build 28 Jewish settlements in the Palestinian Authority?

MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you, what is… right or wrong, the Israeli cabinet has declared this and broken off contact with Chairman Arafat. What’s the practical effect of that? How significantly does it undermine Chairman Arafat?

HASAN ABDEL RAHMAN: This is an assault on the peace process. Yasser Arafat is our leader. We elected him, and if he is irrelevant to Israel, he is relevant to us. We don’t tell the Israelis not to vote for Mr. Sharon. We know Mr. Sharon was involved in war crimes against the Palestinians in Lebanon and today the West Bank and Gaza, because what Israel is doing are war crimes in international law.

We don’t tell the Israelis, “don’t vote for Mr. Sharon.” They voted for him; that’s their problem. Mr. Arafat is our leader. We voted for him. He is relevant to us.

And if the Israelis did do not want to deal with Mr. Arafat, they will be losing their partner in peace. And if they are… They want to create leadership for the Palestinians; they are not going to succeed.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Mr. Ayalon, what is the alternative to Arafat? If he is not the person with whom you will deal, if you consider him irrelevant at this point… One, are you saying he is an illegitimate leader, and two, what is the alternative?

DANIEL AYALON: Well, Margaret, it is certainly not for us to meddle with internal Palestinian affairs, but we have, as I said, we had to call a spade a spade.

And Arafat, he was a terrorist, a renowned terrorist until 1993, when the whole Oslo process began. I think it was much due to our efforts, Israeli efforts, that clarified or made him, we hoped, into a statement.

But after attempts, many attempts to try and reason with him, to try to convince him to go about a peaceful way, as he signed the whole Oslo, I would say, deal was land for peace.

We gave land but we got terror instead, and the terror is raging. And we have seen throughout the last 15 months that no attempt was made by Arafat to stop terror. On the contrary, as I said, he is masterminding it.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, let me…

DANIEL AYALON: So we had no choice. We have nothing against the Palestinian people. We would like, of course, to come back into a political dialogue, and we hope that some leadership would emerge that we can reason with.

But right now we identify the problem is Arafat, and we can no longer let him kill us.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, but you said you’re looking for leadership to emerge. Are you talking about other leadership other than Chairman Arafat?

DANIEL AYALON: Well, again, it’s not up for us. We are not going to meddle with that, as I said, but we believe that the current leadership is doing disservice to everybody in the region, and I think it was up to us to make a decisive move in a very clear way after we have tried many, many times to give him chances.

And every time we were told by international community, “please, give him one more chance.” And every chance we gave him; we had to bury more children, more women and innocent people.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, let me ask you both in the time we have left about the U.S. role, Mr. Rahman, beginning with you.

Now, Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, said yesterday the U.S. is still going to continue to deal with Arafat. But as we just saw, the President once again rebuked your leader today.

I mean, where does that… one, what impact does that have? Where does that leave you? Where does that leave the peace process in terms of the U.S. Role here?

HASAN ABDEL RAHMAN: We take what the President of the United States says seriously, but we expect from the president also to be fair.

We did not hear him also telling what Mr. Sharon needs to be doing. Mr. Sharon needs to stop demolishing Palestinian homes. Today, for example, there were 59 Palestinian houses demolished by the Israeli army.

MARGARET WARNER: Are you saying, though– I’m sorry to interrupt– but are you saying that you think the United States is, what, biased in favor of Mr. Sharon?

HASAN ABDEL RAHMAN: Oh, I think even President Bush would tell you that. I… Every single American official I talk to says, “yes, we are for the defense of Israel and we favor Israel.” They do not deny that.

MARGARET WARNER: But to be fair to the president, he would say, “My emphasis here is to first crack down on terror. I want Arafat to do that and then we’ll go on.”

HASAN ABDEL RAHMAN: But what do we call killing Palestinian children? Isn’t that terror?

You know, we are after those on our side who are engaged in acts of violence against Israel. But who is after the Israeli soldiers who kill Palestinians, or the Israeli settlers?

I did not hear President Bush saying that to the Israelis, “Why are you doing the same thing to the Palestinians? Why are you destroying their homes? Why are you using F-16s and Apache helicopters to shell Palestinian quarters?” I did not here him say that.

And for the president to have, the President of the United States, to have a response from the Palestinians and the Arabs, he needs to be evenhanded. He needs to point to the crimes that are committed by the Israelis. Otherwise, what he says is not going to be responded to.

MARGARET WARNER: Mr. Ayalon, you’ve just come out of meetings at the White House. What message are you getting privately from the administration?

Are you getting the message that the U.S. administration is entirely behind everything your prime minister is doing, the things that Mr. Rahman talked about, the derecognition, or whatever we call it, of Mr. Arafat?

DANIEL AYALON: Well, I think the U.S. Administration understands quite well that the first obligation of any democratically elected government is for the well-being and security of the population.

And we have, of course, the right for self-defense, and we will keep preserving this right. As to the different nuances, I think we very much respect the American position and I think that their demands from the Palestinians to crack down are very good. I think that this.

I think that this also makes it clear for the other partners in the international community to make pressure on the Palestinians, and I hope that this pressure will bear fruit eventually.

MARGARET WARNER: Okay — and briefly, no demands on you, then, from the Bush administration?

DANIEL AYALON: Not that I know of.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, thank you. Mr. Ayalon and Mr. Rahman, thank you both very much.