|TRYING FOR A DEAL|
September 2, 1999
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, trying to take the next step in the Middle East peace process, and to Terence Smith.
TERENCE SMITH: It was a familiar sight-- a gathering at the White House to sign another Mid East peace agreement. Last October, President Clinton brought together Israeli and Palestinian leaders for nine days of intense negotiations. With help from the late King Hussein of Jordan, they reached a deal. Israel agreed to turn over an additional 13 percent of the occupied West Bank of the Jordan to the Palestinians in exchange for security guarantees.
BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, Prime Minister, Israel: (October 23, 1998) This is an important moment to give a secure and peaceful future for our children and the children of our neighbors, the Palestinians. We have seized this moment.
YASSER ARAFAT, Palestinian Leader: (speaking through interpreter) We will not repeat. We will not go back to violence or confrontation. And we together will be the leaders in order that peace would prevail on our land and the land of our neighbors, and peace be with you all.
TERENCE SMITH: Despite the positive words, little has been done since to implement the so-called Wye Accords, named for the rural Maryland retreat where the discussions took place. Two months after the Wye Accord were signed, then-Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu froze the withdrawal process. He accused the Palestinians of failing to uphold their part of the bargain to crack down on terrorism. In May, Netanyahu was swept out of office by Israeli voters. He was replaced by Ehud Barak, a former army chief of staff, who promised to restart the peace process. Negotiations resumed in July, but progress has been fitful at best. A key sticking point in the final hours of talks has been how many political prisoners would be released from Israeli jails. The Palestinians want 400 released. Israel is willing to let 356 go. In addition, the Barak government has balked at releasing any Palestinians who have been convicted of killing Israelis in terrorist incidents. The most recent round of talks was carried out under the mediation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Key players gathered in Alexandria today, including Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat, all in hopes of signing an agreement during the Secretary's visit. The American diplomat put a diplomatic face on the ongoing talks.
MADELEINE ALBRIGHT, Secretary of State: The negotiations are still going on. We are hopeful that they will be concluded. And we think that, as I said in my statement, while the United States and Egypt can be helpful, it is up to the parties themselves to make the hard decisions. And we are there to help when we can, and we are hopeful that these negotiations will conclude.
TERENCE SMITH: As part of the agreement, both sides are expected to commit themselves to reach what's known as a final peace accord within a year after the start of another round of negotiations. Those talks would address the most difficult issues, including permanent Israeli-Palestinian borders, the rights of refugees and the final status of Jerusalem.
TERENCE SMITH: For more on where the peace process stands we go to
Lenny Ben-David, the deputy chief of mission at the Israeli embassy
in Washington; and to Hasan Rahman, chief representative to Washington
from the Palestine Liberation Organization. Gentlemen, welcome to you
LENNY BEN-DAVID, Israeli Embassy: As we speak now, the Secretary of State is meeting with Prime Minister Barak in Jerusalem it, could very well be that they will finish up the agreement. We're have close.
TERENCE SMITH: Even tonight?
LENNY BEN DAVID: Even tonight with the signing tomorrow perhaps, but as you said, these signings traditionally have an element of cliff-hanging right beforehand. It has happened ever since the White House ceremony. And so there is a sense that yes, we will conclude it but I'm happy to say there is no sense of panic, no sense of undue haste. It is a businessmen's-like or business-like situation and we will conclude this -- could be next week if necessary but it will be concluded I hope.
TERENCE SMITH: Is that your....
HASAN RAHMAN, Palestine Liberation Organization: I believe that we are close but not there yet, and I hope that very soon we will reach an agreement that will allow us to move to tackle the harder issues and that is the issue of Jerusalem, the settlements, the question of Palestinian refugees, the borders, all those issues that are left for the final status negotiations.
TERENCE SMITH: Mr. Ben-David, it's hard for people to understand how two parties can come so far and get so close and be separated from a final agreement by the issue of forty or fifty prisoners. Explain that to us.
LENNY BEN DAVID: Well, there is an important element especially for the Israeli public. On this issue of the prisoners, I have to differ with the nomenclature. They're not political prisoners. These are convicted terrorists, people who have killed innocent civilians, and in this case people who have committed the crimes after the Oslo Accords, after the peace process started. Some of them also are members of the radical rejectionist front, people who oppose the Palestinian Authority's authority.
TERENCE SMITH: These are the ones that is Israel is refusing to release?
LENNY BEN DAVID: Correct, we've gone through a list of every one of these prisoners; those who have not committed murder; those who are collaborators; those who have only injured will be released. We can't come up with the 400 that is being demanded. These are not political prisoners. These are terrorists.
TERENCE SMITH: Let me ask -
HASAN RAHMAN: Let me say this. Those are Palestinian soldiers who were fighting in the war of liberation that the Palestinian people want. Before we reach an agreement with Israel to go to peaceful means to achieve the settlement of the conflict, the Palestinians are in the conflict. So the question of terrorism is in the eyes of the beholder. If we want to look at the Israelis who have Palestinian blood on their hands, maybe half of the Israeli cabinet would be in prison at this point. So, we decided to put this behind us and move forward in order to achieve peace. We cannot understand how Mr. Barak can meet with President Yasser Arafat, who is the commander of these who are in the Israeli jail and yet they stay in jail. We cannot explain this to the families of those people and we do not see how keeping 2,000 Palestinians in Israeli jails will serve Israeli interest in the course of peace. So, that's why we feel that they should be released, in addition to the fact that in Wye, we agreed with the Israeli agreement that 750 Palestinians would be released from Israeli jails.
TERENCE SMITH: Is there a solemnonic solution to this. Do you split the numbers?
LENNY BEN DAVID: I don't know. How do you allow one terrorist who has killed people out and not another one? And some of these people are opposed to Mr. Arafat's authority.
HASAN RAHMAN: The Palestinians are not representative of one faction of the Palestinians. We are the government of all the Palestinian people, whether they are Feta, whether they are a popular front or whether they are Hamas -- if they are willing to agree to pursue peaceful means to achieving the end of this conflict, they should be... this is really important.
LENNY BEN DAVID: As we move ahead in the peace process there is no place for terrorism.
HASAN RAHMAN: We put people who engage in acts of violence in prison --not you. We have been cracking on anybody who opposes the peace process and who uses violent means.
LENNY BEN DAVID: Two people were killed in Israel three days ago.
HASAN RAHMAN: I'm very, very sorry and whoever is responsible for that and we will bring them to justice if they are Palestinians but they could be Israelis also.
LENNY BEN DAVID: No, it was an Islamic terrorist. Let me add it gives the person impunity to commit a murder with the understanding in a year or two he will be a political prisoner.
TERENCE SMITH: Let me ask you both - let me ask you about another point I believe of difference in negotiations, which is about the final status talks: the timing, the framework, and so forth. Is this also an obstacle?
LENNY BEN DAVID: This is a government committed to getting to a peace treaty at the end, not just a process, and I think we can come easier -- to an easier agreement on the process whereby we will begin the next phases fairly soon of the withdrawal so that we'll come up with an additional 11 percent of the West Bank to turn back, to turn over to the Palestinians, at which point or in that process we want to begin the final status talks. The prime minister is talking about a one-year period that next, already by next year we can begin this. We don't want to get bogged down in the interim steps because if you do, then you are in trouble.
TERENCE SMITH: If this land is returned, this additional land, will the area under Palestinian control, full or partial, be more contiguous than it is now? It's rather --
HASAN RAHMAN: There would be more land under Palestinian control and we hope that Israel will implement also the - of the early the deployment of its troop which will result in having over 85 percent of the West Bank and Gaza --
TERENCE SMITH: More in the blue department on that matter, for example.
HASAN RAHMAN: Right, right, more of the, yeah -
TERENCE SMITH: Of the Palestinian control.
HASAN RAHMAN: Of the light yellow, but we hope that within one year, we would be able to come to implementing Resolution 242 and 338 which calls on Israel to withdraw from all the territories occupied in 1967 like they did... like they did in Egypt and with Jordan also.
TERENCE SMITH: Let me ask you...
LENNY BEN DAVID: We have a different interpretation of 242.
TERENCE SMITH: Before we go down that road, that rather familiar road, let me ask you about a report in the Financial Times of London today that suggested that Prime Minister Barak might, in fact, be willing to officially recognize an independent Palestinian state. As early as January if negotiations on other difficult issues like Jerusalem and the rights of refugees could be postponed -- is there any substance to that or to that line of thinking?
LENNY BEN DAVID: The issue of Jerusalem, the issue of refugees and the issue of the statehood are all issues that will be discussed in the final status negotiations. We hope that the final status negotiations can begin already five months down the line, but in terms of the particulars, nothing has been released at this time.
TERENCE SMITH: Would that be of any interest to the Palestinian side?
HASAN RAHMAN: First of all, the issue of the Palestinian state is not of Israeli concern. It is the unalienable right of the Palestinian people to exercise their right of self-determination and establish their independent state if they choose to do so. What we are negotiating with Israel is really the implementation of Resolution 242 and the question of the Palestinian -- if Israel implements resolution 242 and 338 you, I believe that many of those issues will be settled including the establishment of an independent state.
TERENCE SMITH: And, those, of course, are the U.N. resolutions that -
HASAN RAHMAN: That are the basis of the peace process.
TERENCE SMITH: Of the peace process. What is the appropriate role for the U.S. at this stage? There has been a great deal of discussion about that. Prime minister Barak has suggested less rather than more, but here we have Secretary Albright shuffling at the moment, in any event, between capitols.
LENNY BEN DAVID: Well, here we are, Hasan and myself talking. That has been something that we've tried to reach for decades -- direct negotiations. And the role of the Americans has been that of a facilitator, that of an observer, but never part, never part of the negotiating team itself, never part of the part and parcel of the negotiation. We welcome the American facilitation. If we're talking to ourselves, we hope we don't need American active involvement or taking sides in the negotiations.
TERENCE SMITH: Very briefly -
HASAN RAHMAN: The United States is responsible for the peace process. The United States pulled the party to Madrid in 1991. The United States was involved in the Wye River negotiations, we do not want the United States to negotiate on our behalf, but we want the United States to be there in order to play an active role that will allow the peace process to move forward.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Gentlemen, thank you both very much.
HASAN RAHMAN: Thank you.
LENNY BEN DAVID: Thank you.