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Crossfire

What Will Ariel Sharon's Victory Mean for the Middle East Peace Process?

Aired February 6, 2001 - 7:30 p.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

BILL PRESS, CO-HOST: Tonight, Israel elects a new prime minister, but will Ariel Sharon's victory bring peace or more violence?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Robert Novak. In the CROSSFIRE: In Tel Aviv, Israel, Dore Gold, an Ariel Sharon supporter and former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations. And later, in Washington, Hasan Abdel Rahman, chief PLO representative to the United States.

TUCKER CARLSON, CO-HOST: Good evening, and welcome to CROSSFIRE. The results are in, Ariel Sharon is the new prime minister of Israel. Sharon crushed Ehud Barak today in an election that became a referendum on the peace process. Sharon is expected to be far less conciliatory than his predecessor in dealings with the Palestinians.

For more on what happened today and why, we go to CNN's chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour, live in Tel Aviv -- Christiane.

(CROSSTALK)

CARLSON: Can you -- were these votes -- I'm just wondering, were these votes cast for Sharon or were they mostly, do you think, cast against Ehud Barak?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you just said it was a referendum on the peace process, but most of the people we've talked to have said it's a referendum on Barak, and what they have done is whole hearted rejected and repudiated the prime minister at the polls.

We understand that with something like 82 percent of the votes counted, the gap between Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon is 24 percentage points. That is more than a landslide by anybody's standards, and we believe is the biggest victory margin in the history of Israel.

Basically as I said, the whole issue here had been the issue of security, people not feeling safe, not feeling secure, very upset about the violence and the Palestinian intifada and basically saying to Ehud Barak, one, you went too far in what you offered and b), you didn't offer and succeed in bringing peace and therefore this is the result. We are punishing you. So, people are saying it was more against Barak than for Sharon.

PRESS: Christiane, Bill Press here, for an election that had such huge impact and was so widely watched around the world, the turnout was surprisingly low, 62 percent, where Israel is usually way up in the high 80s. Why do you think it so low today? What are people saying? And what impact did that have, if any, on the result?

AMANPOUR: Well, two reasons for the low turnout. One, we understand that this was a pretty apathetic Israeli electorate. People here were really, you know, in a state of confusion and some despair, and many people actually quite depressed and not knowing how to face that future. Many people just so fed up and so upset with the situation they didn't even want to go to the polls.

Others deliberately boycotting to punish Ehud Barak, particularly the Arab Israeli constituents, who normally vote Labor. They stayed away in droves, and many of them also who did go to the polls putting in blank ballots. Now, people who we talked to say the low turnout -- excuse me, hurt Barak most because they were his supporters who stayed away.

CARLSON: Now, Christiane, here in the United States there were predictions that there would be new outbreaks of violence if Sharon won. Is that true? Have you seen crowds of angry Palestinians throwing rocks or firing weapons?

AMANPOUR: Well, look, the Palestinians declared what they call another day of rage during this election day, and there were clashes throughout the West Bank and Gaza. About 65 Palestinians were wounded, according to officials. None of those were life-threatening.

But beyond that, they Palestinians have said that no matter who won today, they would not stop their intifada. And they are quite insistent that Ariel Sharon, who says that he wants to bring security first, they say it's got to be peace first.

PRESS: Christiane Amanpour, thank you very much for joining CROSSFIRE this evening and staying up to the early hours over there in Tel Aviv.

And now, let's welcome to our show, Ambassador Dore Gold, also in Tel Aviv. Mr. Ambassador, welcome back to CROSSFIRE. Let me ask you, that the new Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is remembered as a tough general. He is remembered for Lebanon. He is remembered for Sabra and Shatilla. The networks in the United States today said that his name was synonymous with war in Israel. Isn't he the worst possible news now for the peace process in Israel?

DORE GOLD, FRM. ISRAELI U.N. AMBASSADOR: Well, you know, Ariel Sharon has a very great past as a military leader. You know, his battles in places like Abu Agella (ph) in Sinai are studied in the U.S. Army War College. But that isn't the Ariel Sharon that we are electing today, Ariel Sharon is also known as a man of great pragmatism, and pragmatism is what Israel really needs today, both in dealing with the security situation, but also in dealing with the peace process.

Clearly what happened up until now, is that the outgoing government made concessions that no other Israeli government dreamt of. But rather than getting more stability or more peace because of its concessions, it actually got probably the worst security situation in the state of Israel since 1948.

And, therefore, whatever formula was being used by the outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Barak, it didn't work. And therefore we need a more practical approach to keep the diplomacy alive, and to bring stability to the people of Israel.

PRESS: In terms of that pragmatic approach, in his victory speech tonight, I heard Ariel Sharon declare that Jerusalem would remain a united city, united under Israeli rule. Doesn't that sort of throw a roadblock into the way of the peace process, and a very nonpragmatic approach to getting dialogue started?

GOLD: Not really, and I'll tell you why. I think one of the real lessons of this whole period of Camp David diplomacy, the Clinton plan, all the initiatives you have seen over the last three months, is one fundamental fact. And that is in these tough issues of permanent status, Jerusalem, borders, refugees, the diplomatic gaps between Israel and the Palestinians are frankly unbridgeable.

And therefore you have two choices if you want diplomacy to work. You can continue trying to negotiate these unbridgeable differences, sort of like pounding round pegs into square holes, or you can try something else, something more practical where you can address the real problems of both sides, address them in terms of interim solutions that allow us to coexist with one another, and allow us to not put each population, the Palestinian population and the Israeli population, in an impossible position.

And in a future date, when the parties are ready to tackle those hard issues, tackle them later on. But right now, reach an understanding on those areas where we can have understanding.

CARLSON: Now, Ambassador Gold, isn't there a certain irony here. I mean, it was in September that Ariel Sharon, now Prime Minister Sharon, made an intentionally provocative visit to the Temple Mount that helped spark the violence that I think has cost close to 400 lives. Now, how is the man who is partly responsible for setting off this violence going to end it?

GOLD: Well, you know, I think you have to be very careful about those assertions. You know, Ehud Barak, our outgoing prime minister, just released, made public, the report of the state of Israel under his government to the Mitchell Commission, which clearly states that the reasons why the violence erupted in late September, early October, was not Ariel Sharon's visit on the Temple Mount, which many members of Knesset have done in the past.

Rather, it was part of a planned, coordinated effort by the Palestinian Authority which was suffering a PR defeat after Camp David, and chose to initiate the violence so that it could put Israel in a much more difficult position. And that is something which Israel's intelligence authorities have documented, and is documented in an official Israeli government document put out by the outgoing Labor government.

CARLSON: But the bottom line, wouldn't you admit, Mr. Ambassador, is that Prime Minister Sharon is going to have a tough time dealing with the Palestinian Authority. Apparently, he won't even shake hands with Yasser Arafat. How are they are going to do business with one another and when they are going to meet first?

GOLD: Well, I imagine they'll have to find probably in the not- too-distant future, an occasion for direct communication. But I think the points remembered about Sharon, I was with Prime Minister-elect Sharon at the Wye Plantation, and there he was involved in pragmatic solutions for taking these difficult Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and making them go forward.

I have also seen him in his contacts with the Jordanians and other Arab states where in the case of Jordan, he solved very difficult water problems, and helped Israeli-Jordanian relations through different times of crises. In the Arab world, it's true he's known as somebody who won many of Israel's wars, but he's also known as somebody whose word can be respected. When he says he can deliver something, he does it. And if he can't, he tells you, and sometimes that clarity is very much appreciated by our neighbors.

PRESS: Mr. Ambassador, speaking of clarity, President Clinton worked in the Middle East trying to forge a peace until the very last hour of his presidency, some say pushing Ehud Barak too far. President Clinton is out of office now, you can speak freely, do you -- and you just mentioned the Clinton plan. Do you think President Clinton's last minute efforts toward peace in the Middle East helped the process, helped Israel or hurt Israel?

GOLD: Well, I think President Clinton had probably the best of intentions, but clearly, the Clinton plan illustrated the fundamental problem of peacemaking. And that is the gaps between Israel and Palestinians in these very difficult issues of permanent status, refugees, Jerusalem, borders, are simply unbridgeable, and, therefore, even someone with best of intentions, like President Clinton, could not bridge the gaps between Israel and the Palestinians.

A different approach is needed, and that different approach is precisely what Ariel Sharon will be looking for. And let me just add one other point, a central theme in these elections, it goes beyond issue of Palestinians and even issues of Israeli security, has been the desire of Israelis for national unity.

And if there is one theme that Ariel Sharon repeated over and over again in this election campaign, is that he intends to establish a national unity government. One of the reasons he got such a strong support from the Israeli public was that Israeli public wants now the different parties in Israel to pull together, and to go into a negotiation with Palestinians on the basis of national consensus, and not the kinds of political debates that we have had over the last year and a half. PRESS: We know that President Bush called Prime Minister Sharon this evening for the congratulatory telephone call. But looking beyond that, what expectations does the new administration in Israel have about cooperation from the Bush administration? They think things will be better than they were under Clinton or worse?

GOLD: Well, I know that the prime minister-elect spoke of the United States as Israel's primary strategic partner. Both of us actually face a much more dangerous Middle East today than the Middle East that existed 10 years ago. You know, next -- this month will be commemorating 10 years since the end of the Persian Gulf War, and, of course, at that time, a whole new reality emerged in Middle East.

Iraq was defeated and under U.N. monitoring and sanctions. Iran hadn't yet recovered from its eight year war with Iraq, and the Soviet Union as it was crumbling and the Russian Federation that replaced it was willing to acquiesce to American leadership in the Middle East. Those conditions allowed the peace process to begin at Madrid, also in 1991.

But now, 10 years later, the Middle East is much more dangerous. Iraq is no longer under U.N. monitoring. UNSCOM has been out of there for more than two years, not in Iraq. You don't have -- you have also sanctions eroding in Iraq. With respect to Iran, Iran is testing intermediate range missiles, throwing its strategic weight around in the Middle East, and the Russians nor longer working with the U.S. and the U.N. Security Council.

They are breaking the consensus on Iraq and transferring dangerous missile technology to Iran that not only threatens Israel, but also threatens the United States. And therefore Israel and the United States, beside trying to address the problems of the Palestinians, have to look at how we make the Middle East a much more strategically stable area than it is today.

PRESS: Mr. Ambassador, we thank you very much for joining us on CROSSFIRE. Good to have you back.

GOLD: My pleasure.

PRESS: And, of course, for the peace process to work in the Middle East or even to get started again, a lot of it will depend on the response of the Palestinian Authority to the new prime minister of Israel. What will Yasser Arafat's response be?

When we come back, we will ask his chief representative in the United States, Mr. Hasan Abdel Rahman. We'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

PRESS: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. In his acceptance speech tonight, Israel's new prime minister, Ariel Sharon, vowed to keep Jerusalem a united city under Israeli rule and at the same time, called on the Palestinian leadership to renounce all violence and resume a dialogue for peace. Can he achieve those goals? Is Yasser Arafat ready to sit down and talk? We turn now to the chief representative of the PLO in the United States, Mr. Hasan Abdel Rahman -- Tucker.

CARLSON: Mr. Rahman, it seems to me that many Arab Israelis disenfranchised themselves in this election by not voting. How can you complain about the results of an election if you don't participate in it?

HASAN ABDEL RAHMAN, CHIEF PLO REPRESENTATIVE TO THE U.S.: No, because they had complaints against Mr. Barak. Mr. Barak did what was not acceptable to the Palestinian-Israeli community. He killed 13 of them and they watched him while he was talking about peace, yet he was conducting a war against the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza. So that was a protest.

CARLSON: But in this election, there were two candidates. You're going to get one of them. Presumably Israeli Arabs would prefer Barak to Sharon. Why not vote for Barak?

RAHMAN: Well, I mean, I don't speak for the Arab Israeli community, but I'm trying to explain why they behaved in that way. They behaved in protest against Mr. Barak and Mr. Sharon was not a choice for them and that's why they did not participate. They were sending a message to the Israeli political community.

PRESS: Mr. Rahman, a couple weeks in "The New York Times." there was a profile of Ariel Sharon and the headline was "Gift of Yasser Arafat." Isn't is a fact that by rejecting the peace deal that President Clinton had proposed, which as I understand represented -- contained 95 percent of what the Palestinian Authority had asked for, that you in effect destroyed Ehud Barak and created Ariel Sharon?

RAHMAN: Don't you think it is ironic when the Israeli society makes a wrong choice that the Palestinians are to be blamed for it? I mean, are we to be blamed also for the choices that are made by the Israeli society? That's not our fault, and we will not be responsible for the election of Mr. Sharon. It Israel that is responsible for electing its own leaders.

However, Mr. Barak, while he was offering Palestinians, as was suggested, more than any other Israeli leader, his offers came very short of what is required to make a fair settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Remember that the Palestinian people accept Israel over 78 percent of historic Palestine, of the homeland of the Palestinians, and asked only to be given the right to establish their own state over 22 percent.

Now, of this 22 percent, Mr. Barak wants 5 percent to safeguard Jewish settlements. Had we accepted the 95 percent, this 5 percent that will be left inside the West Bank would have divided the West Bank into three battle stands and made it unviable.

We did not reject that. We said to Mr. Barak, let's continue negotiations. The problem is that Mr. Barak continued his war against the Palestinian people, where 400 Palestinians were killed so far, and 20,000 wounded. No other people have suffered what the Palestinians have suffered in the last five years except -- five months, except the people of Kosovo, when they were bombarded by Milosevic.

PRESS: Let me please ask you to listen, moving forward, to something that Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said tonight. He gave two acceptance speeches. One was in Hebrew, and then just more recently now, one in English. I have just a little clip from his English speech which is a challenge which I'd like you to respond to.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

ARIEL SHARON, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER-ELECT: And tonight, I call on our Palestinian neighbors to do the same. Thank you again, by working together we can accomplish good things for our children and God's children. Thank you.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

PRESS: So, it's a -- an invitation to work together with him. Is that invitation accepted?

RAHMAN: Well listen, we are willing to pursue the negotiations with Mr. Sharon if he accepts the terms of reference for the peace process. Namely, implementation of United Nations Resolutions 242, 338 and accept to deal with the issue of Palestinian refugees, and solve it in accordance with United Nations principles.

If Mr. Barak accepts those principles, we have no problem. Israel makes choices to elect its own leaders, and we have no choice but to deal with those leaders. Judging from Mr. Sharon's past, which is a very bloody past, and his statements during the campaign, we have a serious concern about his intentions and his capacity to reach an agreement with us.

CARLSON: Very quickly, here, let me just point out that the Gallup Organization took a poll today, showed that only 16 percent of Americans sympathize with the Palestinian people, who you've pointed out, have suffered more than virtually anybody in the world. Why is that? Your message is apparently not getting across in the United States. Why?

RAHMAN: Because of the influence of the American Jewish community in this country. It is because of the way it is presented to the American Jewish community by the news media. I mean, I'll tell you, the experience I have had so far with many media in this country. Sometimes, the way they carry the message is in favor of Israel and it is biased. In many cases, there are accounts by many journalists to be fair, but they are outnumber and we are outnumbered also in this country.

CARLSON: Well, we were glad to have you on, in any case. Thank you.

RAHMAN: It's my pleasure to be here.

CARLSON: Thank you. And Bill Press and I will be back to solve crisis in the Middle East during our closing comments. We'll be back on CROSSFIRE. (COMMERCIAL BREAK)

CARLSON: What you have here, Bill, is an example of the perfect driving out the good. The Palestinians are miffed with Barak, so the don't even vote. And who do they get? Sharon. Serves them right.

PRESS: The one thing I have to say about the Israeli elections is when it's over, at least they know who won. I mean, I think we have to give them credit for that.

But beyond that, I'm very, very worried about this latest turn of events. I mean, I think both sides had on the table the best deal they were ever going to get. Both of them walked away from it, and the best thing that both of them could do now is go back to that plan, pick up the peace process, and get it together. If not, I fear the worst.

CARLSON: Well, Sharon may be the one man who can do it on the Nixon to China model. If anybody can, he can.

PRESS: If that's the model, I salute him. But I just tell you again I'm worried that he's not going to reach out. From the left, I'm Bill Press. Good night for CROSSFIRE. Tucker and I will be back in "THE SPIN ROOM" with the new chair of the DNC, Terry McAuliffe at 10:30.

CARLSON: From the right, I'm Tucker Carlson. Join us again tomorrow night for another edition of CROSSFIRE.

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