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Will Israelis and Palestinians Ever Return to the Peace Table?

Aired April 18, 2001 - 19:30   ET



RICHARD BOUCHER, STATE DEPARTMENT SPOKESMAN: We have called upon all sides to exercise maximum restraint, to reduce tensions and to take steps to end the violence immediately.


ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: Tonight, fighting continues between the Palestinians and Israelis. Will both sides ever return to the peace table? And how active a role should the United States play?

ANNOUNCER: Live from Washington, CROSSFIRE. On the left, Bill Press. On the right, Robert Novak. In the CROSSFIRE: James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute; and in New York, Alon Pinkas, Israeli consul-general.

NOVAK: Good evening, and welcome to CROSSFIRE. More fighting today in Israel, with Israeli tanks shelling a Palestinian town, and forcing residents to evacuate; and Palestinians firing mortar shells into a Jewish settlement and a communal farm.

But Israelis stayed on their side of the border with Gaza after moving in to occupy a small area yesterday, but only briefly. After U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called the Israel action, quote, "excessive and disproportionate," end quote, the tanks withdrew.

Does that signal a change in the way the U.S. government, under its new president, will deal with its long-time ally? Just what is the Bush peacemaking strategy? And is war on the horizon in the Middle East?

Democratic consultant Bob Shrum is sitting in on the left. He was strategist for Ehud Barak's campaign for prime minister of Israel in 1999 and 2001.

Ambassador Pinkas, it's been many a year since I have heard the language about Israel from any U.S. official that we heard yesterday, and not on the record, but told a reporter, this is what one State Department official said yesterday, quote: "Israelis are overreacting, but reacting on provocations from Hezbollah and mortar attacks. But to some extent, Israelis control the level of escalation, and therefore they need to exercise great care" -- excuse me -- end quote.

Ambassador, isn't it a fact that the United States gave you a warning yesterday, and boy, did you move quick?

ALON PINKAS, ISRAELI CONSUL-GENERAL: No, I think, Bob, that you have the sequence wrong here. We have announced yesterday during and immediately at end of that incursion into Gaza that we planned to evacuate immediately once that mission is complete.

Now, without getting into the military tactics of it or into the chain of command, I think that we have notified through Defense Minister Benjamin Ben Eliezer and then again through the ambassador in Washington, Ambassador David Ivry, that we intended to pull out immediately once that mission is accomplished. Once it was accomplished, we did pull out and that happened to be at more or less the same time that Colin Powell issued that statement you just quoted from.

So, I don't think there was any question of Israel succumbing to American pressure or doing anything as a result of American insistent or an American demand. I do think, however, and this is nothing new to you or any of your viewers, that we have always been attentive and sensitive and responsive to what concerns America and to what the secretary of state says.

NOVAK: But that was very harsh language, Ambassador Pinkas. Do you think that the Israeli government, in sending in this -- in making this tactical operation, which I certainly don't understand and you, obviously, are not going to explain, do you think that the Israelis overplayed their hand or you are trying to get President Bush off the bench and trying to goad him into taking the same kind of interventionist role that President Clinton took?

PINKAS: Oh, I don't think that we're trying to get President Bush of the bench. I think he is a smart enough man surrounded by smart enough people to decide when it that America should get involved, in what format and to what extent or degree.

As for the military operation, you said I probably won't explain, but let me, with your permission, do explain. It was a defensive and preemptive military operation that was intended to do nothing but take care of one local problem. In a sense, it was microtactical. Unfortunately, you choose to call it occupation, conquer, reinvasion into the Gaza Strip. These are not accurate terms, even in military speak.

Now, as for the statement itself that you asked about, I think that you need to look at the statement as whole. The statement did not talk about a cycle of violence, a term that we usually reject and that we usually don't like or resent. The statement spoke about a sequence of events.

It spoke about clearly and unequivocally about Palestinian provocations to which Israel retaliated and then, going on -- it went on said that we, according to the American administration and according to the secretary of state, that we had done so excessively and disproportionately.

ROBERT SHRUM, GUEST HOST: Jim Zogby, welcome to Bob Novak's bash Israel show. Bob is really happy tonight, because the Bush administration has criticizing Israel, which is one of his favorite things after criticizing President Clinton, which really is his favorite thing, for being too involved in the Middle East peace process. We're long way from a peace agreement now, and I wonder what we expect Israel to do if the bombings, the mortar attacks, the terrorist attacks continue.

Look at this clip from former Israeli ambassador Dore Gold, who is now an adviser to Ariel Sharon.


SHRUM: You do, you do.


DORE GOLD, SHARON ADVISER: Our primary effort right now has to be to defend the people of Israel. If people living in France, England, Germany, or for that matter, in Egypt found that their cities were coming under mortar attack, they wouldn't sit quietly and talk about innovative diplomatic initiatives.


SHRUM: You can't really believe, Jim, that if this was happening in the United States, if we were under terrorist attack, that the Bush administration would conduct negotiations as usual? Why shouldn't the Palestinians agree, as the Israelis have asked, to stop the violence and return to the peace process.

ZOGBY: Bob, listen. First of all, you have to get real, and the analogy with the United States doesn't work unless, that is, the United States were actually occupying half of Canada and treating its people brutally. The fact is that Palestinians are living under occupation, and after eight years of peace: settlement size doubled; Palestinian poverty increased; Palestinian unemployment tripled. Palestinians lost land through new seizures of lands to build roads, Jewish-only roads that cut the Palestinians territories up into almost 60 pieces, and Jerusalem, at the end of the day, was surrounded by a Great Wall of China of settlements that weren't even included in this peace deal that lock off Palestinians from their capital city.

They can't go to the city. It would be like taking Washington, D.C. and surrounding it, and not letting anyone in from the outside. The fact is Palestinians lived under those for eight years hoping that peace would come. Clinton tried.

We're in period now where no one is trying, but I hope that this signals on the part of the administration that they will begin to try, and I would have to disagree with Ambassador Pinkas because here is the point.

What Powell said yesterday was very clear. There is, in fact, a cycle that is at stake here, and that the Israeli response in this cycle is disproportionate and excessive, and he urged the Israelis, actually insisted that they honor the agreements that have been signed, which is all the Palestinians have been asking for lo these many years.

And if the Israelis were serious about wanting to end the violence, they would not have treated the Jordanian foreign minister so rudely, and they would have accepted -- exactly what Powell is offering is was the Jordanian minister was offering, and that is that Israelis and Palestinians pull back each other from the confrontation, and sit down and negotiate for peace. What you're asking...

SHRUM: But the Israelis, Jim, have said...

ZOGBY: They have not.

SHRUM: ... that if the violence stops, the negotiations will resume.

Now, let me ask a question because you talked a long time: How did this latest round of violence start? It started after Camp David. It started with the second Intifada. Israeli soldiers were lynched; terrorist attacks were launched in Israel; the peace process lost credibility in Israel. And now, we have...


ZOGBY: And hundreds of Palestinians have been killed, and Palestinian towns are surrounded under a complete siege that closes them off totally, and they have been shelled by air, land and sea by the heaviest artillery that you can possibly use.

SHRUM: So why not stop -- wait a minute. Why not stop it by agreeing to stop the violence and returning to peace negotiations? What's to be gained -- what are the Palestinians gaining by this?

ZOGBY: The Palestinians have offered that, but the fact is that there are elements right now outside of the Palestinian Authority's control, as there are settlers outside of the Israeli government control, and they're precipitating much of this violence. What Sharon is doing is playing into the hands of those who do not want peace on either side, and I think he's very glad to do it because this is typical Sharon policy.


NOVAK: Ambassador Pinkas, the tone of the Israeli officials has changed so much from what it was under Prime Minister Barak, who was Bob Shrum's candidate. I guess he's not his candidate anymore, but he was his in the last two elections...

SHRUM: Bob, he'd be my candidate any time. I think he took extraordinary risks for peace. He's a very brave man.

NOVAK: You didn't have to respond to that.

SHRUM: But I wanted to.

NOVAK: But I just want to read something of the new tone of Israel, as exemplified by Raanan Gissen -- did I pronounce that correctly, Gissen -- who is a spokesman for the government.

He said, quote: "There are new rules to the game. The Palestinians have got to understand that there is a government in town. Israel and Israelis are not going to be their punching bag," unquote.

That is the tough guy, knock the chip off my shoulder. Is your government now not much concerned with what the rest of world thinks of you?

PINKAS: It is concerned, otherwise we wouldn't be having this conversation. We are absolutely concerned. But let's try to set the record straight: Because of all the misery that the Palestinians are experiencing that James Zogby so eloquently described, we embarked on a peace process that culminated at Camp David. The Palestinians flatly rejected every and each proposal that Bill Clinton made at Camp David.

ZOGBY: Oh, that's not true.

PINKAS: Oh, yes, it is true.

ZOGBY: That is not true.

PINKAS: You weren't there. Believe me, it's true. It is true. Not only that, Mr. Zogby, but -- let me finish, please. Not only that, Mr. Zogby, but the Palestinian negotiators, those that were authorized by Mr. Arafat and then deauthorized by Mr. Arafat to negotiate, not only flatly rejected every proposal and every parameter as former President Clinton described, but then went on not to come up with counterproposals.

Now, let's remind the viewers of something that you conveniently neglected to remind them of, and that is that after Camp David, there were three rounds of negotiations: One at Pentagon City, another one at Bolling Air Force Base, and the last one in January, a month before our elections in Taba. And in all three negotiating rounds, the Palestinians have not moved one inch from their flat rejection of every and each proposal made at Camp David.

NOVAK: Why is it, ambassador, then, that you use such tough language? I mean, usually, people in the international community who talk that tough have some kind of fears of weakness on their part. Why is the rhetoric so strident?

PINKAS: I don't think the rhetoric is that tough. I think that we have had enough with the Palestinians attitude toward this peace process.

ZOGBY: And so you're going to beat them into submission.

PINKAS: No, we're not beating them into submission, Mr. Zogby.

ZOGBY: But the fact is is that is what's happening right now, and it is not the way to peace. If you want to kill the peace process... PINKAS: No, no, no. Please. please.

ZOGBY: ... and destroy the chances of moving back to the negotiating table, then what you have to do...

PINKAS: Mr. Zogby, these cliches about moving back into the peace process are just -- are not relevant anymore and you know that as well as I.

ZOGBY: So, what is relevant?

SHRUM: Stop the violence, so you can go...

PINKAS: Exactly.

SHRUM: Stop the violence.

ZOGBY: End the siege of Palestinian cities and stop...

PINKAS: First of all...

ZOGBY: ... confiscation land and building new settlements. It's a two-way street.

PINKAS: Mr. Zogby, please get your facts straight. We are not confiscating land, and we're not encircling cities and we're no longer imposing closures on Palestinian cities. Ninety-eight percent of the Palestinian people, in fact, live under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority.


NOVAK: Gentlemen, we're going to have to take a break now. Both of our guests will be jumping into the chat room this evening, so make sure to join them by logging on to We're going to take a break, and when we come back, we'll take a look at the new prime minister of Israel, General Sharon. Is it a new Sharon or the same old war hawk?


SHRUM: Welcome back to CROSSFIRE. I'm Bob Shrum sitting in on the left. Tonight, there's an unwelcome CROSSFIRE in the Middle East, with Israel and the Palestinians caught up in escalating violence. Who's at fault: Prime Minister Ariel Sharon for retaliating against Palestinian attacks or Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians for rejecting the agreement brokered by Bill Clinton and offered by Ehud Barak?

With us are Ambassador Alon Pinkas, consul-general from Israel; and James Zogby, president of the Arab American Institute.

Jim Zogby, couldn't all of this have been different? Bill Clinton said we were this close to a peace agreement. Ehud Barak risked his career and lost his prime ministership to give it an offer of a settlement as generous as any Israeli government ever could: 95 percent of the West Bank, the Christian and Arab quarters in Jerusalem going to the Palestinians, a compromise on the Temple Mount and compensation for the refugees.

Abba Eban once famously remarked that the people on the other side of table never seem to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Isn't the violence we're seeing now, if we get beyond the specifics, a direct result of the fact that Yasser Arafat wouldn't take his opportunity? Instead of picking up the pen and signing that agreement, he pulled the trigger and started all this violence.

ZOGBY: I don't think you've got it right. Let me tell you that the offer from Barak certainly was one of the better offers that Israel has made, but it simply wasn't the right offer and it wasn't enough. I think President Clinton did better in the last 20 days with his, but frankly, an ultimatum with 20 days left with a candidate who everyone knew, from the polling we did and I'm sure the polling you were doing, was going to lose the next election, it didn't make sense for Arafat to sign away significant rights to a candidate who wasn't going to win.

The fact is, is that the negotiations that were taking place ignored fundamental Palestinian issues, the right to return being one of them. Now, that doesn't mean that every Palestinian gets to go back, but it means that their right has to be recognized.

Look, Jewish people understand that historical rights are very important for people who have been victims and wounded. Palestinians wanted those recognized.

I think it would have been different if Bill Clinton had started earlier with his proposal, if he had gone public and helped both societies understand...

SHRUM: Jim, he worked hard at this for the entire time he was president.

ZOGBY: He worked very hard, and I think he got bad advice from some folks.

SHRUM: Let me go down the list: 95 percent of the West Bank, a compromise...

ZOGBY: That's not true.

SHRUM: It is true.

ZOGBY: It did not include the huge area around Jerusalem and when the Palestinians asked...

SHRUM: Yes, the Israelis were going to keep a number of the settlements around Jerusalem and compensate with land elsewhere...

ZOGBY: Which then it goes down from 95 percent to 90.

SHRUM: ... compromise on Jerusalem, compensation for the refugees. Let me ask you a question: Do you really believe that any Israeli government, any sane Israeli government, would say that a hundreds of thousands or millions of Palestinians could come back after 50 years and just simply move into Israel? This would be as if the Poles -- the Germans who left Danzig after World War II when it became part of Poland suddenly said, we're moving back. There would be no peace in Europe.

You can't seriously believe that there's going to be a right of return for hundreds of thousands or millions of refugees.

ZOGBY: Guess what? Israel has implemented a right of return, and Bobby Friedman who grew up in Brooklyn can go any time he wants but -- Umh Ahmed (ph), a friend of mine, the grandmother of a friend of mine, who lives in a refugee camp, who still has the key to her house, living outside of Israel, can't go back and ever even see her house.

The fact is, nobody said that she had to go back, but her right to go back had to be recognized...


SHRUM: I don't think you accept the idea of a Jewish homeland.


ZOGBY: I do. I do. I recognize that, but Palestinians are human beings with equal rights and that has to be recognized as well.

SHRUM: They had a deal for peace and they refused!


ZOGBY: They were given an ultimatum. They have to have their rights recognized as equal people.

NOVAK: Ambassador, Yosef Beilin, isn't it only Zogby (UNINTELLIGIBLE) or Palestinians who are making the criticism of your government at the present time? It's a former member of the Barak government, justice minister had a remarkable essay on the opposite editorial page of "The New York Times" today. I just want to read you a couple things from it. He wrote this about Ariel Sharon, the new prime minister.

"Reverting to the type, he took refuge in a narrow national pride, indicating there was actually no chance for peace, that limited nonbelligerency is the great new hope, and displaying almost no room for compromise for either the Palestinians or Syria."

Deny that if you can, Ambassador, and tell me where in the world Prime Minister Sharon is indicating any desire -- the slightest desire to compromise with the Palestinians.

PINKAS: Well, I will answer that gladly. But if I may, one remark about what Mr. Zogby said. Another excuse in an endless series of excuses. Mr. Zogby mentioned that Arafat wasn't willing to sign on... NOVAK: Ambassador, wait. We have one minute left. I would like you to answer the question.

PINKAS: I understand, Bob. The fact is that Camp David took place in July and elections were not scheduled until December. So, either Mr. Zogby forgot his history or Mr. Arafat had polls that even Bob Shrum didn't have.


NOVAK: You don't like to answer that question?

PINKAS: I would love to answer that question; I didn't know that we had one minute left. Yosef Beilin is a member of the Labour Party; Yosef Beilin stayed out of the National Unity Government. Yosef Beilin in fact is not even a member of Knesset, which is why Yosef Beilin is free to criticize the unity government, in which half of his party -- in which half of his party participates or is a party to.

Yosef Beilin is entitled to these views. Yosef Beilin has attacked Mr. Sharon repeatedly -- nothing new in this -- this does not mean that Yosef Beilin is not entitled to do so or he doesn't represent people.

I fail to see the point of your question, Mr. Novak.

NOVAK: You didn't -- Ambassador, you didn't answer where they are going to -- where you are willing to compromise...

PINKAS: Yes, we are.

NOVAK: You deny you are willing to compromise, but we are out of time. And so, I want to thank Ambassador Pinkas and I want to thank Jim Zogby and that non diplomat Bob Shrum and I will be back to explore the possibilities for peace or disaster in the Middle East.


NOVAK: Bob, I have to take strong exception when you call me anti-Israel. I'm pro-Israeli, as (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Ehud Barak is, because you must negotiate. I think the greatest danger to Israel right now is that supertough guy -- super belligerency of Prime Minister Sharon.

SHRUM: I welcome your conversion; I think Israel will defend itself and it should. I think the Palestinians will come to their senses and I think we will ultimately come to an agreement.


SHRUM: From the left, I'm Bob Shrum; good night for CROSSFIRE.

NOVAK: From the right, I'm Robert Novak; join us next time for another edition of CROSSFIRE.



4:30pm ET, 4/16

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