JIM LEHRER: The Israeli- Palestinian story. Three top officials from the Palestinian Authority have been in Washington meeting with Secretary of State Powell and others in the Bush administration. They're the highest level meetings between the two parties since President Bush called for the removal of Yasser Arafat. Last week, Israeli Foreign Minister Peres was in Washington for similar meetings. He also appeared on the NewsHour.
Now Ray Suarez talks with Palestinian Economics Minister Maher al-Masri.
RAY SUAREZ: Minister al-Masri, welcome to the program.
MAHER AL-MASRI: Thank you.
RAY SUAREZ: This is one of your best opportunities to talk with top American officials. What was the message that your delegation brought to Washington this week?
MAHER AL-MASRI: Well, we brought with us the message concerning the existing situation on the ground, hardships that the Palestinian people are facing. The private sector problems and deprivation that is an outcome of the severe siege and curfews imposed on our villages, towns and camps.
And we also told them that even though this is the situation, we want to do something in terms of introducing reforms into our institutions, but we also said that reform, if not reflected into the lives of our people, there is nothing that will come out of it. And this means that the siege must be lifted on our towns, and that our people can live decently and more freely and that we can trade with our own community and with the rest of the world.
This is the situation as it stands today and we put it straight on the table. We have been a community and an economy that got a 6 to 7 percent rate of growth in 1999. And now we're scoring a negative rate of growth and increasingly so as the days go by. We have a 65 percent poverty rate compared to 20 percent in 1999.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, as you say, you put it straight out on the table to American office holders, how would you describe their response?
MAHER AL-MASRI: Well, they said that they understand the situation, and that they will do what they can in order to alleviate these hardships, but that there are certain things that need also to be done at the same time, which are related to security. And in that area, we also have with us our minister of interior who has got his own plan for building up our security agencies.
But, again, within the same context, he needs to be able to move around. He needs to rebuild the police stations. He has to reequip the police force. And he has to be able to move troops, all the officers from one place to another, in order to start up city by city and rebuild our own capacity and security, and then introduce security as something which is done on the ground and that will, first of all, be a security to our people and at the same time will be a security that will prevent any incursions into the Israeli territories.
RAY SUAREZ: When you talk about gaining control and security, if we go to the West Bank and Gaza today, would we find Palestinian officials in charge of any security forces in any meaningful way that would allow your government to assure the Israelis, or assure the United States, that, in fact, they are in control of what happens in the areas that they're in charge?
MAHER AL-MASRI: Well, let's take them one at a time. Take the West Bank now. There is no way that we can be there control of practically anything because the Israeli army and tanks are roaming our streets and they impose daily and continuous curfews on our towns, villages and cities. Now in that respect there is no way we can do anything because no one single security officer can go around in the streets wearing his uniform because either he will be arrested by the Israeli army or be shot. So in that respect, we can do nothing unless the Israeli army vacates our towns and cities and later on and gradually, really, start lifting up the siege on the towns and cities.
If you look at Gaza, Gaza is somewhat different but not very much different. Gaza, again, is being bombarded, shelled almost by the day and it has cut off -- the southern part of Gaza Strip is cut off from the northern part. And the northern part is witnessing daily incursions on its territory. And again, it's very difficult to really reset your security apparatus in a way that will enable it to control the Gaza Strip as one would wish it to be.
RAY SUAREZ: Well let me tell you what Foreign Minister Peres said when he was on our program a week ago, in response to this same topic. He said, "we told the Palestinians in our meetings, I myself was sitting with them and we told them every places you will show a capacity to guarantee security, we shall be out."
Then later he said "they've asked for Ramallah as well and I told them look, if you will guarantee the security in Ramallah, not just by promises, but in fact, we shall be out." Do you have the capacity to make the assurances that the Israelis are looking for?
MAHER AL-MASRI: Well, let me say the following: I was in that meeting when Mr. Peres said that. What actually we asked for Ramallah as a starting point in the West Bank and there was no direct answer from the Israeli side, which was headed by Mr. Peres and with the presence of Mr. Danny Levin. Yes, we can really move city by city or more than one city at the same time, but we have got to be enabled by the Israelis to be able to do that job. We've got to have no Israeli army inside our towns, inside our houses. What we need then assistance from the United States, which has been talking to us about this and they are forthcoming trying to rebuild our security apparatus in both the West Bank and in Gaza.
Now there was a meeting three days ago between our minister of interior and the defense minister of Israel, Mr. Ben-Elizer, and there was talk about moving out from Gaza only. Our minister of interior asked to have another city in the West Bank where the army, the Israeli army would move out. And it was, we suggested Ramallah. They said no, we want Bethlehem. Ultimately we said all right for Bethlehem.
Two days ago there was a meeting between the security officials of Israel and our security officials in the Palestinian territories and Israeli officials security officials said that meeting two days ago, that they are only looking now only at Gaza and they are not considering any withdrawal from Bethlehem or any enabling power for us in Bethlehem to do it. Actually today the Israeli army again invaded the city of Bethlehem and other towns in the West Bank.
RAY SUAREZ: Well, as the negotiations go on both with the Israelis and in talks with the United States, last night Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said of your government, "rooting them out is the only way to reach peace." And he referred to your government as a terror gang. Can you any longer do business with the Israelis even as you're trying to keep channels open with the United States?
MAHER AL-MASRI: Well, we think yes we can, and we should really exclude such remarks from the dictionary of the leaders in the region. Mr. Sharon's statements are not really conducive to any serious effort to bring the parties to the negotiating table. And we believe that this cycle of violence is not going to get Israel anywhere, neither is it going to get us anywhere. Although Israel does have the power to fight us -- it has the planes, it has the tanks -- name it, they have one of the strongest armies in the area, but that will not resolve the problem here.
There is no way that generations of Israelis and Palestinians will be locked in a deadly struggle for the next 50 or 100 years. This is not our intention. Our intention is to really pave the ground for the next generations to live in peace together. That's a destiny. They can't evacuate us. They cannot evict us. We don't want to evict the Israelis. We just need to get together ultimately and have, as President Bush said in his speech and in his plan, that he is for a Palestinian state within the next three years. If this is the international will, led by the United States, and if it is our right to have our own state, we are going to have it. But we would like to have it when we have negotiations, not under the rule of the gun or the fire or the tank.
RAY SUAREZ: But when President Bush set out that three-year timetable, didn't he also say that another condition for reaching statehood would be the removal of President Arafat?
MAHER AL-MASRI: Well, actually he didn't say that as such. He said that he would like to have elections. He would like to see a democratic state. He would like to have a state built and based on institutions, on freedom, on transparency. And that is actually within our reform plan, which we have already started, and we have actually presented a rundown of what this plan is and what was already done.
And we do have almost a biweekly meeting with the representatives of the quartet, which includes, of course, the United States, Europe, United Nations and other countries who are interested in peace in the region, and we have done quite a remarkable progress in implementing the plan, the reform plan that was set almost five weeks ago by us. And we intend to carry that forward.
But we always say with the siege on our towns and cities, getting our parliament to meet is becoming an impossibility because Israel would not give permits to our parliamentarians to move and to meet physically in one place. And our people, our private sector-- our economy is a market economy and our private sector has been struggling to survive. Tens of thousands of our enterprises had to close down because of the siege. And we had to lay off tens of thousands of workers. Above that, Israel has been withholding hundreds of millions of dollars belonging to our Palestinian Authority.
Two-thirds of that money belongs to the Palestinian private sector. Now with that deprivation and poverty and malnutrition, things are not really looking well or good, and we need to get Israel to understand, and we believe the U.S. administration has a great leverage in that area -- to influence Israel to start releasing the money which they started doing in small amounts about 10 days ago, they released about $15 million out of approximately $700 million dollars. Fine. Let's have a schedule. Let's rebuild confidence, let's open up gradually because this siege and this curfew on our towns and cities is definitely an over exaggeration of the need for security for Israel.
RAY SUAREZ: Minister al-Masri thanks a lot for being with us.
MAHER AL-MASRI: Thank you.