NEWSMAKER: PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU
November 3, 1997
The latest round of peace talks between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority opened in Washington this week. Over the past months relations have become increasingly strained. Charles Krause, in his first report from the Middle East, discusses the opportunities and challenges facing negotiators with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Today's talks in Washington opened against a backdrop of growing pessimism and recrimination in the Middle East. Dr. Akhmad Tibi is one of Yasser Arafat's closest advisers. This weekend on the West Bank he expressed skepticism there would be progress in Washington, blaming Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
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An assassination attempt forces the peace process to take another turn.
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Albright admits failure to mediate peace in the Middle East.
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Jim Lehrer discusses former American secretaries of state in light of Madeleine Albright's trip to the Middle East.
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A Newsmaker with Madeleine Albright.
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Middle East Forum: Mohammed Halaj and Amos Perlmutter answer your questions.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of the Middle-East.
The United States and the Search for Peace in the Middle East
Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs
DR. AHMAD TIBI: I am not optimistic. I think that Benjamin Netanyahu is a hopeless case.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Today, Arafat himself was quoted saying the talks are a waste of time. Meanwhile, in Israel, Uzi Landa, the powerful chairman of the Knesset's Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee and other members of Netanyahu's Likud Party, are also saying the Oslo process has failed and should be abandoned. Netanyahu was elected last year on a platform of peace with security. His victory reflected the perception of Israel's voters that Arafat, despite his promises and the Oslo accords, had not done all he could to stop terrorism against Israel. But the Palestinians say that since taking office, Netanyahu has used the security issue as an excuse to poison the atmosphere. They point to a series of decisions from the opening of a tunnel in East Jerusalem to continuing construction of housing and settlements on the West Bank, to the recent
assassination attempt against an alleged Palestinian terrorist in Jordan as evidence that Netanyahu has deliberately tried to undermine this process. Today's talks began a week late because Netanyahu and his cabinet did not agree on what positions Israel should take on a number of sensitive issues. We interviewed the prime minister this afternoon in Jerusalem several hours before the talks began this morning in Washington.
"Is it in Israel's interest as this process continues?"
CHARLES KRAUSE: Prime Minister Netanyahu, thank you very much for joining us. There seems to be a growing sense among the Palestinians and even among some members of your own coalition that the Oslo process is dead. From your perspective, is it in Israel's interest as this process continues?
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, Israel: Well, we have a total commitment to fulfill the Israeli commitments under the Oslo accords, and we expect the Palestinians to do the same. I think if Oslo is seen as a one-way street where Israel gives and the Palestinians receive, that is not in the cards. But if both sides keep their commitment and the Palestinians especially keep their commitments to nullify their charter that still calls for Israel's disappearance and especially to fight terrorism, then I don't see any reason why we can't go ahead. And, in fact, I've been arguing that we should move forward much more rapidly to a final settlement to achieve an historic peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
CHARLES KRAUSE: You say that the Palestinians have not made good on their commitments, but they say that you've deliberately raised the bar so high that the process is never going to work.
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Where do you live?
CHARLES KRAUSE: Washington.
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Do you know Bethesda?
CHARLES KRAUSE: Of course.
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Suppose you have terrorists basing themselves in Bethesda under the authorities in Bethesda, openly making rallies calling for your destruction, organizing killer gangs to leave from Bethesda to Washington, to bomb your neighborhood, to blow up buses, to kill people in markets. I think the first thing you'd say if you wanted peace with Bethesda is, stop these terrorisms, stop these killings. That's exactly what we are saying. That is not a rough or a very high barrier. It's the middle standards of peace. That's all we're saying: fight the terrorists. You know, my predecessor, the late Yitzhak Rabin, put it very simply. He said, Oslo is a very simple deal. We give the Palestinians territory; they give us a promise to fight the terrorists from within that territory. Well, fight those terrorists. Then we can proceed to negotiate the remaining issues.
A possibility of progress.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Would you anticipate any significant progress will be made this week in Washington?
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I hope so. It's certainly our purpose and our--the mandate that we have given our delegation. I think the crucial factor for us is that so far (a) terrorists are being released by the Palestinian Authority; there was an attempt by the United States to place a monitoring mechanism on the proverbial revolving door where Hamas terrorists are put in jail and released the next day. That hasn't been done. We want to see the infrastructure, the institutions that give money and organizational cover to the Hamas terrorists shut down. Some have been. Many of them reopen. We'd like to see a consistent, concerted, and continuous effort on the part of the Palestinian authority against the infrastructure of terror, but so far we haven't seen it. If it happens, we'll be able to move on all fronts with the peace process. If it doesn't, this is a theoretic talk. When the bombs burst, when people died, you have to pick off parts of bodies from treetops and from buildings, peace is not going to move ahead. What we expect of the Palestinian Authority is what you would expect, what anyone would expect from any peace partner: Fight the terrorists, so that we can move on towards peace.
CHARLES KRAUSE: In that case, is there going to be any progress now or in the next six months?
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Well, there can be, and I think that progress would be based on reciprocity and on the performance of the Palestinians on this crucial issue of fighting terrorism both now, both for the immediate coming months, and also as an indication for the durability and stability of a final settlement. My own view is that we should accelerate the negotiations to cut to the heart of the matter. You know, everybody says it's a very complicated negotiation. It is. Everybody says it deals with basic, existential issues for us: borders, settlements, water, air space, and above all Jerusalem. Absolutely right. But you're not going to get there faster by getting their slower because the slower the process, the more erosion takes place, and the confidence in the parties with each other. We fight over every little thing because every little thing is seen in the context of that final settlement that we're all eyeing. I say something else: Put it all on the table. Take all the pieces. Put them in place. And then try to cut the Gordian knot by having a comprehensive deal, if you will, a package deal, in which we can give something and get something. Arafat can give something and get something. And at the end of the day we can each present to our respect peoples: Hear this. We've brought you something that is bigger than the sum of these parts--peace. That's what I think we should do--get to the final settlement because that is the peace. Don't shirk away from it; get to it.
"I have made peace, and I have made good on commitments."
CHARLES KRAUSE: But at the same time, of course, Arafat and other Palestinians we've talked to say that why should they trust you, why should they go to the final negotiations, when you're not willing to make good on Israel's commitments under the current agreement?
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Well, I have made peace, and I have made good on commitments. In fact, if you look at what happened since I took office, I fulfilled all those commitments that the previous labor government refused to do. I redeployed in Hebron. I released women prisoners that had made commitments to release. I pretty much lifted until very recently the closure of the Israeli cities to Palestinian workers. I've done all these things. What did we get in return? No avocation of the Palestinian government--continuous incitement to violence from the controlled Palestinian media, the release of terrorist prisoners--no extradition of terrorists that are supposed to come under the agreement to Israel--and so on and so on. In fact, there is a paradox here that I call Netanyahu's paradox. It is that Israel, which keeps the Oslo Accords, is accused of violating them, and the Palestinian Authority, which violates the Oslo Accords, is credited with keeping them.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Why is that then? Why is that perception out there?
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I can give you the easy answer and the harder answer. The easy answer is settlements, and the argument is--but you're building in settlements; you're violating the agreement, or you're building a neighborhood in Jerusalem, you're violating the agreement. Of course, no one reads the agreement when they say that. Again, the late Yitzhak Rabin, who signed the Oslo Accords, stood proudly before the Knesset when he presented the Oslo Accords with the Palestinians. And he said he can build; there's no limitation, not in Jerusalem. No government would accept limitations in Jerusalem, and not in the settlements. The Labor government refused to accept any contractual limitations on building anywhere, just as the Palestinians build in the Palestinian towns and villages; both sides build, pending the outcome of the final settlement. So we have asked to stop things that are outside of the agreement in exchange for Palestinian compliance within the agreement. And I think that bugaboo, you know, that all inclusive catch of settlement, clouds people's minds. And, by the way, the settlements altogether account for maybe 1 percent of the whole area of the West Bank.
CHARLES KRAUSE: But even if the settlements issues is not in the--
A question of colonization?
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I think actually there's a deeper issue I told you about. I don't think it's the--oh, by the way, the fashionable thing is to compress a thousand years of Middle Eastern obstinance--radicalism and fundamentalism--into one new villain, if you will, behind the problem of the Middle East. Well, aside from this jocular view of the situation, I think there's a much deeper reason for what we've been describing, and that is that I think most of the countries in the West have a colonial or expansionist past. And the model is very simple.
If they had a colonial past, colonial in the sense of overseas--an altruism of being colonizing in Africa or in Asia or in the United States' case "colonizing" in Vietnam--then Israel too must be a colonizing power that took away this land from the Palestinians, and now we're in this strange land that we have expropriated from its rightful native inhabitants. This is the model. This is supposed to be Algeria for us. We're France. This is not Algeria. This is the heart of the Jewish homeland that is in our back door. It's not an ocean away.
CHARLES KRAUSE: But are you saying then that because if it is the Jewish homeland, you are not prepared ever to reach some sort of agreement that would give or allow the Palestinians to have a fate on the West Bank?
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Well, No. 1, I'm saying that in this very small space between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River, between the river and the sea, which is all of 50 miles wide, including the West Bank, including Israel, we have two peoples living. And the solution that I have is that we must find a way that will satisfy the Palestinians' need to govern themselves, administer their own lives, with minimal interference from us, but for us to protect our lives. It's very hard to reconcile that with sovereign powers. And most Israelis would agree with that.
CHARLES KRAUSE: You make a very good case, but there is also--former Secretary of State Baker was on our program--Dr. Brzezinski was on our program--and there is a growing perception, though, that it is Israel; that your government is not going to make the kinds of concessions, get involved in the kind of serious negotiations that would lead to something that the Palestinians could live with.
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: On the contrary, I think that it is only our government, it is only a government center right that can achieve a peace that will hold in Israel. What we will do in the final settlement would hold because we can bring inner unity to our decisions. And the only question is: Do we want to? And the answer is: We want to, and we can. This is why I'm saying to the Palestinians, let's stop wasting time on all these interim issues that are consuming our energies, causing friction among us, causing us not to move forward to a final settlement that can give a comprehensive and lasting peace to our children and to your children. We're wasting a lot of time.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Is it your understanding that the administration--the U.S. administration--is backing your view, or backing the Palestinians' view?
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: You can ask them, but I think that any objective examination, in fact, would--I think would bring two conclusions--one, the Palestinians must fight terrorism, something we haven't done, and must dismantle the terror infrastructure in their midst, just as we don't have terror attacks from Egypt or from Jordan or from--we won't have them from Lebanon and Syria, if we make peace with them, it's obvious. The idea that we can have terror attacks against us from Palestinian-controlled territories and continuing the peace process, we won't achieve the peace, and we won't sustain the peace, unless that is dismantled. I think the United States fully agrees with that.
CHARLES KRAUSE: There are reports of tension between the administration and your government, specifically you. How would you characterize your relationship with the administration at this point?
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I think that Israel and the United States have the abiding interest to achieve peace here, to fight terrorism, to achieve regional stability, and I think we see eye to eye on all those things. We can and we do have occasional disagreements, as have most Israeli governments in the last 80 years, on specific issues. I certainly don't tend to personalize these things. I think they're a product of different viewpoints.
King Hussein's reaction.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Finally, Jordan, King Hussein gave an interview to the Washington Post this weekend where he criticized you. He said you had betrayed him and that you were the obstacle to peace in the Middle East.
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Well, I know it's very fashionable for him to say. And I suppose I should repeat it ad infinitum from the various quarters; people will begin to believe it. I respect King Hussein. I like him, but I can't agree with this particular statement. I think that--I think that he also made a distinction between the people of Israel and the leadership of Israel.
CHARLES KRAUSE: He certainly did.
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Well, in the Middle East at least, in the Middle East I can say Israel is the only country that one can definitely say that the people choose their leader. So I can say that the majority of the Jewish people and that the people of Israel chose me. That's what I can say about Israel. As far as the recent problem we had with Jordan, we had only one expectation. And I said that before; that neighboring states at peace with Israel will fully fulfill their obligation to prevent the organization or launching or incitement of terrorist attacks against us for their territory. That is a just and reasonable expectation and one that we hope will be continuously fulfilled.
CHARLES KRAUSE: Thank you, Mr. Prime Minister.
PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: Thank you.