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Special Edition: A Look at the Middle East Crisis

Aired March 30, 2002 - 19:00   ET


MARK SHIELDS, HOST: Welcome to a special edition of CAPITAL GANG. I'm Mark Shields with Al Hunt, Kate O'Beirne, CNN State Department correspondent Andrea Koppel, and in Atlanta, Georgia, Robert Novak.

After more bloody Palestinian suicide bombings, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon declared Yasser Arafat an enemy of the state and ordered heavy military action against him.


RA'ANAN GISSIN, ADVISER TO ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: Every time Arafat signed an agreement, the cease-fire agreement, he violated it at least 10 times. And therefore, it left us with no other choice, really, but to do that which he was supposed to do and go into the Palestinian Authority and conduct this extensive military operation, even in his headquarters.

SAEB ERAKAT, CHIEF PALESTINIAN NEGOTIATOR: We also don't condone the killing of Israeli civilians. But what should be condemned today is what -- the atrocities of Sharon.


SHIELDS: Israeli leaders pledged not to kill or to harm Arafat, who is besieged in his shattered headquarters today.


YASSER ARAFAT, PRESIDENT, PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY: I am appealing to the whole international world to stop this aggression against our people.


SHIELDS: Al Hunt, what are the prospects that Israel's military offensive will be effective?

AL HUNT, "WALL STREET JOURNAL": Short term, I think very good, Mark. The Israelis enjoy massive superiority. I instinctively side with the Israelis. They're a vibrant democracy. They are engaging people. And there's no moral equivalency here or something like the atrocity of that Passover terrorism with innocent little kids killed. But Sharon's central policy for 20 years, namely that brutal force will ultimately intimidate the Palestinians, demonstrably does work. And I think when those tanks and bulldozers went into Arafat's headquarters, I think it just spawned hundreds, if not thousands, of future suicide terrorists.

And Mark, what I think a situation is frighteningly perilous right now today. It's only going to get worse without active U.S. engagement. And I'm afraid of the need for U.S. forces, eventually.

SHIELDS: Andrea Koppel, the policy of the Sharon government right now, as far as Yasser Arafat, is to isolate, to emasculate, to actually to marginalize them completely. What does that leave? I mean, even if it is successful militarily, doesn't it strengthen the hand of Hamas as principle political opposition?

ANDREA KOPPEL, CNN STATE DEPT. CORRESPONDENT: Well, it certainly doesn't help Yasser Arafat as far as negotiating with Israel is concerned. But what it is doing is raising his profile with -- among his own people and within the Arab world.

Before this intifadah began, Yasser Arafat was not a terribly popular guy. Since then, his ratings have gone sky high. I mean, his ratings are about as high as George Bush's are here in the United States. And the reason, quite simply, is we're making the United States and Israel are making -- turning him into a hero. He, himself, just said yesterday that he's ready to die as a martyr for his people.

SHIELDS: Bob Novak in Atlanta, if Arafat has been made more popular, he's been made a lot less powerful though, hasn't he?

ROBERT NOVAK, "CHICAGO SUN-TIMES": Oh, of course. He's made less powerful, but this is not a real war. That's -- everybody's talking about it in military conquest terms. The -- what's left of the Palestinian police have no power to fight back against the Israeli army.

You remember, Mark, the hearts and minds cliche? The hearts and minds of the people in Vietnam? Well, what this is the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people are more and more with Arafat. And Al is exactly right. This has been the policy that Sharon has harbored for years in the political wilderness. He puts it into effect. And it's an absolute disaster.

Now what I'd like to know is do they really think, the Israeli government, that Yasser Arafat, with his electricity cut off and isolated in his shattered barracks, ordered a 16-year-old girl personally to commit suicide? Because that's the impression they give. Of course, it's nonsense. This movement goes well beyond Yasser Arafat.

SHIELDS: Kate O'Beirne?

KATE O'BEIRNE, "NATIONAL REVIEW": Oh, but that particularly 16- year-old girl, who blew herself up this week and two other -- two Israelis is affiliated with an organization with close ties, as part of Yasser Arafat's organization.

Yasser Arafat's sitting in the crumbled ruins of his headquarters is a lot safer physically than the typical Israeli, who's trying to get a cup of coffee in a cafe or going to a supermarket. And their posture has been, the Palestinians, we will not end the terror until Israel makes concessions. And of course, Israel says we cannot proceed with discussions until you end terrorism.

Sharon asked for seven days of no terrorist attacks. Since has abandoned that request as wholly unreasonable, seven days. They're barely able to get through 24 hours without a terrorist attack.

NOVAK: Do you really think that Arafat should control that, Kate? That sitting there, and with people who don't even like him, enemies in the whole Palestinian movement, that if he wanted to, he control that? Do you think that?

O'BEIRNE: Yes, yes. Bob, I do. President George Bush does. Colin Powell does.

NOVAK: Nonsense.

O'BEIRNE: As President Bush called on him today, to try to stop some of these terrorists before they go across the border from his territory. And if he can't, Bob, then why are we bothering with Yasser Arafat, who clearly can't be a partner for peace if he's unable to control this kind of violence?

SHIELDS: Andrea Koppel?

KOPPEL: What I would say to Bob is that I don't believe that Yasser Arafat, and I don't think the U.S. believes that Yasser Arafat ordered this attack or the attacks of the last several days. But what the U.S. believes, and the Israelis believe, he should be doing is speaking out against them. That the U.S. believes that with his security forces, he can go out and arrest these guys, put them in prison. He's the one who opened the gates, back 18 months ago and let these alleged terrorists out on the street.

NOVAK: Well, what I don't understand...

HUNT: I think the problem is that we, you know -- look, Arafat, I believe to be a coward. I think he demonstrated that two years ago, when he rejected probably the best deal he's ever going to get. But my problem is, it goes back to the point Andrea made earlier.

There was a meeting in the last week or two of almost all the Jewish members of Congress. They had someone from APAC and someone from the embassy, I believe, there. And they were telling these members, look, all Arafat and his crew are trying to do is they're trying to ratchet up world, you know, the focus there, so they can get more attention.

And Barney Frank, the congressman from Massachusetts said so why are the Israelis playing into their hand? And that's what they're doing? SHIELDS: Bob Novak?

NOVAK: It's beyond that. It's a matter of when you attack the Palestinian Authority police. You take away their weapons, take away their ability. And say now we want you to use that power to eliminate these organizations, these terrorist organizations, operating against the Israelis.

What -- the fact of the matter is the kind of policy that Sharon and his allies want is they want -- they didn't like the Oslo Treaty. They want to destroy the Palestinian Authority. They don't want a Palestinian state. And they don't believe in land for peace.

SHIELDS: And the gang of five will be back with what the U.S. is doing about this crisis.


SHIELDS: Welcome back. President Bush interrupted his Easter weekend at his Texas ranch to address the Middle East crisis.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I think that Chairman Arafat can do a lot more. I truly believe that. I believe he needs to stand up and condemn in Arabic these attacks.


SHIELDS: The president also singled out two Arab states to stop sponsoring terrorism.


BUSH: The Iranians must step up and stop sponsoring terrorism. The Syrians must participate. If people want peace in the region, there has got to be a united effort against terror.


SHIELDS: The president did not call for an Israeli military withdrawal. The U.S. government had advanced notice of the Israeli offensive and did not try to prevent it.


COLIN POWELL, SECRETARY OF STATE: We have spoken out clearly and do so again now for Chairman Arafat to act against those responsible for these acts and to make clear to the Palestinian people that terror and violence must halt now.

We deplore the killing and wounding of innocent Palestinians there while we understand the Israeli government need to respond to these acts of terror.

(END VIDEO CLIP) SHIELDS: Bob Novak in Atlanta, did President Bush have any choice, other than to come down as he did so strongly on the side of Israel?

NOVAK: He certainly did, Mark. Up just a few weeks ago, he was taking a relatively middle course on this war, saying -- criticizing that some of the militarism of General Sharon. But in the last couple of weeks, I think perhaps emotionally spurred by these dreadful suicide bombings, he is now adopted the entire Israeli line, even to the talking points of demanding that Sharon use Arabic when he makes his statement, which is the hard-liners in Israel saying for many years.

Now I would say the worst part of this statement, down at the ranch today, was his statement, his inclination that somehow involved in this terrorism or direct connection, are the governments of Syria and Iran. And then he was asked do we have any proof of that. He says no, well, we really don't. So I see there that the president, not a wholesale adoption, but a large adoption of the Israeli line.

SHIELDS: Kate O'Beirne, the conventional wisdom has been -- the operating premise has been that the United States was the only country with the credibility and the political leverage to really negotiate a peace. But I mean, by calling upon and requesting earlier this week, the administration of Ariel Sharon to show some approach to Arafat and then being rebuffed, has the United States had its strength there and its influence diluted?

O'BEIRNE: Mark, that equivalency line that the administration was trying to walk became increasingly hard to maintain. Look at the terror attacks this week. The president's done something. It's not dictated by anybody else's line. It's dictated by the facts on the ground. What he said today was Arafat is responsible for this violence. And he thoroughly understands Israel's right to defend itself.

Now Arafat might be playing to the hearts and minds of the Palestinian people, but George Bush is right where the hearts and minds of the American people is. Recent polls show by five to one the American public blames Arafat for this violence, and sympathizes overwhelmingly with Israel, sees Arafat's 70 percent of them as the obstacle to peace here.

SHIELDS: Now I have to say I have seen polls that show a diminished support on the part of the American public for Israel. And in fact, a willingness to say that our fault on both sides, CNN/USA poll.


SHIELDS: But on that, I just wanted to ask you, Andrea Koppel, following up on Kate's point, that is Bob right or is he wrong, I mean, about the what the president could do? Because prior to this past week, the administration's policy has been almost a Pontius Pilate. They washed their hands of everything. And now they've plunged into it on apparently on one side? KOPPEL: Well, they've rhetorically plunged into it, but physically, they are still firmly planted on U.S. soil, with the exception of Anthony Zinni, who is in the region. I think the question is, and we're right to ask whether or not President Bush's statements today were fair and constructive.

But I think more importantly, another question we should be asking is do we want to get -- dig ourselves out of this, help the Israelis and Palestinians dig themselves out of this situation? And what Ariel Sharon is doing by keeping his troops in Ramallah, by terrorizing Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people, is to essentially shake up a hornet's nest.

There are three million Palestinian people who have nothing more to do than to strap bombs around their bodies, that they can make, in "The Times" today, it said for $150 and go out and martyr. They have no hope. They are desperate. They feel that their future is bleak. And if you don't give them hope, this is what we're going to look -- this is what we have to look forward to for months to come.

SHIELDS: Al, you heard the president's words today. Were you reassured?

HUNT: No, I think, Bob, I think that the president is emotionally spurred, not by the terrorist bombings over there, but I think frankly by the not unreasonable case that the Israelis make to him. Look, you guys got hit by terrorism. What was your reaction? Massive retaliation. You toppled a government. You set an incredible military force at work. You rounded up suspects. How can you ask us to do less?

I think the problem with this administration all along is the first year, their policy in the Middle East was quite simple. It was non-Clinton. Anything that Clinton did, we're not going to do. And they basically said let them handle it. Well, this is what happens when you let them handle it.

And I'll defer to Andrea. I'm not sure who's really involved in the setting of Middle East policy right now. I have great admiration for General Zinni, but he's not a policy maker. The right can't stand Richard Haas (ph), who's over at the State Department with Colin Powell. I don't think Condoleezza Rice has any great Middle East expert there. I'm not sure there is a policy.

NOVAK: I think it is very difficult to find the policy, but I do believe that I think all of us can agree and maybe -- I don't know about Kate, but the rest of us can agree that you're not going to solve this by a military crushing of the Palestinians. You're not going to eradicate three million people there.

And what we need is a negotiated settlement. And I don't think the language the president used today leads to a negotiated settlement or makes him an active party in negotiating the settlement.

O'BEIRNE: Bob, there's not going to be a negotiated settlement that's going to end terrorism in the Middle East between Palestinians and Israel. You have to go after those who sponsor the terrorism going on in the Middle East. State sponsored terrorism is at root here. And the president recognized that himself today.

NOVAK: Well, maybe you want a war with all of Islam. I mean, I've heard a lot of rhetoric since September 11 to indicate a lot of conservative Republicans want that. I don't want that.

O'BEIRNE: Or Bob, you surrender to international terrorism. Then you surrender to international terrorism, Bob.

NOVAK: Well, I don't think that the people in the Hamas and the people who are misguided in trying to get the...


NOVAK: back are international. I think they're local terrorists.

SHIELDS: Last word, Robert Novak. Next on CAPITAL GANG, the Arab Summit and the U.N.


SHIELDS: Welcome back. As violence escalated in Israel, the Arab Summit in Beirut unanimously approved the Saudi proposal for recognition of Israel's right to exist in return for its withdrawal to 1967 borders.


SAUD AL-FAISAL, PRINCE, SAUDI FOREIGN MINISTER (through translator): If they want security, it has to withdraw, give Palestinians legitimate rights. If Israel does that, the Arab states will put an end to war, we'll sign an agreement and we'll establish normal relations.


SHIELDS: United Nations Security Council early this morning adopted a resolution, calling for the withdrawal of Israeli military forces from the Palestinian territory by a vote of 14 to 0, with the United States voting in the majority, and only Syria abstaining. The U.N. Secretary General tried to steer a middle course.


KOFI ANNAN, U.N. SECRETARY GENERAL: Terrorism will not bring the Palestinian people closer to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state. Yet I have all consistently voiced criticism of Israel's use of disproportionate lethal force, especially in civilian populated areas in response to these attacks. Such use of force will bring neither peace nor security to Israel.


SHIELDS: Kate O'Beirne, is it beginning to look like Israel and the United States against the entire world?

O'BEIRNE: Mark, to reiterate, this is not strictly just about Palestine and Palestinians and Israel. It's about countries that arm, inspire, and fund terrorism. And just this week, the countries that did go to Beirut urge Palestinians to continue their war of resistance, which of course means brutal terrorist attacks on civilians. What is clear is that on a war on terror, the only ally we have for America in the Middle East is Israel in the war on terror.

SHIELDS: Bob Novak, that Beirut meeting, however, the entire Arab world came out in favor of recognition of Israel, a remarkable achievement, wasn't it?

NOVAK: It was an incredible story overlooked. Hardly anybody paid any attention to it. It was an amazing development. But that is obviously not what the hawks in either Israel or Washington want. They don't want that kind of an arrangement.

The other point that I don't quite understand maybe, Andrea, who knows the State Department so well can explain it to me, is how in the world the United States votes for the U.N. Security Council resolution for an Israeli withdrawal, and the president speaking to the world today mentions nothing about the Israelis getting out of Palestinian territory.

SHIELDS: Andrea, can you answer that for Bob and for us?

KOPPEL: I wish I could. It seems as if the U.S., I mean President Bush did portray things in a very black and white way today. The U.S. would like Israel to withdraw, but President Bush doesn't feel he can come out publicly and say that. And he's not going to say it, which is exactly what Al just said. This is a situation of homeland security. Israel, President Bush said, needs to defend herself. So while this clearly is not helping matters, and it in fact it's making much, much worse, the United States is going to stand by its ally in the region and privately hope that Israel withdraws.


HUNT: Mark, just quickly, I don't want to downplay the importance of the Saudi initiative at the Arab Summit. I was disappointed it was diluted somewhat, which makes it less effective than I think it would've been a couple of weeks ago. And as for U.N. resolutions in the Middle East, they are routinely ignored. I see no reason to think this will be any different.

SHIELDS: Well, I have to say when Iraq acknowledges the existence to the right to exist of both Kuwait and Israel in the same week, it says something. And I think it does deserve a little attention, maybe scrutiny, maybe suspicion, but a little attention.

Secondly, and I have to say this quite bluntly, I mean I know the president's at 85 percent approval. Bill Clinton was accused of being too much involved, too much into details. In fact, in the discussion, when he was involved with Barak and Arafat for the peace effort, they said he knew every single neighborhood in Jerusalem, its composition, its political dimension, its ethnic mix. And I had to say President Bush does not project that same level of confidence, mastery or knowledge. I think that was clear.

O'BEIRNE: Mark, but he's got the basics. We're engaged in a war on terror. And countries have a right to defend themselves. And he's not going to deny Israel the same argument (UNINTELLIGIBLE). And where did Bill Clinton's knowledge of Jerusalem neighborhoods get us? And (UNINTELLIGIBLE) closer?

KOPPEL: It got us closer...


SHIELDS: If Brent Scrowcroft tells me if we could be back to where we were on September 2000, there'd be a chance of moving forward today. And I have to say that, Kate, that there's no question that Bill Clinton's efforts got us almost back to the edge of peace. And I don't...

O'BEIRNE: But (UNINTELLIGIBLE) that the Palestinians didn't want peace.

SHIELDS: Well, the Pontius Pilate approach has not worked.


NOVAK: This isn't about Bill Clinton, Mark. It really isn't. Can't we leave that alone?

SHIELDS: No, I mean, the criticism he's got...

NOVAK: Oh, leave it alone. He's history.

SHIELDS: Hey, Bob, I mean the fact of the matter is you saw a guy today who didn't understand much of what he was talking about. That's why we end up with a different policy at the U.N., than we have when the president speaks.

The second half-hour of this special edition of CAPITAL GANG, we'll look at the political power struggle inside Israel and the possibility of a U.S. attack on Iraq, after the latest news following these messages.


SHIELDS: Welcome back to the second half of a special edition of CAPITAL GANG. I'm Mark Shields with Al Hunt, Kate O'Beirne, CNN's State Department correspondent Andrea Koppel, and in Atlanta, Robert Novak.

In his remarks today, President Bush did not include Iraq, along with Iran and Syria as states sponsoring terrorism. Yet U.S. and Israeli officials see the removal of Saddam Hussein as a prerequisite for peace in the Middle East.

Joining us now from Jerusalem is Ben Wedeman, chief of CNN's Cairo bureau.

Ben, is there any Arab sentiment that getting rid of Saddam Hussein would stabilize the Middle East?

BEN WEDEMAN, CHIEF, CNN CAIRO BUREAU: No, actually, quite to the contrary. Many people fear that any sort of a U.S. military action against Iraq at this point would destabilize an area that really at the moment is in a state of extreme instability. The worry is, really, the main concern in the Middle East at the moment among ordinary Arabs, as well as Arab leaders, is the situation here in Israel and West Bank and Gaza.

We see a situation that threatens, really, to destabilize many of the Arab regimes that are trying to hold the line, trying to balance themselves between the demands from the street on the one side for stiffer action against Israel and the need to maintain relations with the United States and try to move the peace process forward or revive it, actually, since it's more or less dead at this point.

The whole subject of Iraq is really something most of the leaders in this part of the world just don't want to get into.

SHIELDS: Bob Novak?

NOVAK: Ben, as a reporter who has reported widely in the Arab world, do you yourself see any rationale in the idea that if an attack on Baghdad would get rid of this regime, that this would end -- the suicide bombings would end? The terror would end the murders in Israel?

WEDEMAN: I don't really see a direct connection between the two. The suicide bombings, the violence in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza are really directly related to the situation on the ground. Iraq, obviously, has an interest in the situation. There have been claims, and some of them quiet credible, that the Iraqi leadership actually pays the victims -- the families of Palestinians who have died in the fighting. But that really has more to do with Saddam Hussein trying to show his Arab credentials, than actually him fueling the conflict here.

The conflict here is very much self contained in the sense that the Palestinians are not being urged forward by any outside leader or power to do what they do. We may not agree with the methods that they utilize, but certainly, they are doing it because they believe in the justice of their cause. But that of course is not justified, the means they're using. So you can't really make a direct connection between the situation in Iraq and the situation here.

WEDEMAN: Kate O'Beirne?

O'BEIRNE: Mark, it seems to me, back to your original question, Arab sentiment can be a pretty darn difficult thing to assess. It's not surprising to me that Arab countries do not publicly rally to the cause of death to Saddam, given that he's sitting there armed to the teeth, including with weapons of mass destruction, which is not the same as saying they wouldn't welcome it if he were no longer ruling in Baghdad.

HUNT: Just -- I want Ben a quick question. Ben, what is the take in the Arab world on the Cheney trip? What was the -- what did it accomplish?

WEDEMAN: Well, it appears that it didn't really accomplish anything from the Arabs I've spoken with. But basically, Mr. Cheney came to the region, trying to rally Arab support for some sort of move against Iraq. And by and large, there isn't much interest in it.

Now that's not to rule out the possibility that privately, many Arab leaders would like to see Saddam Hussein disappear off the face of the earth. But the process of making him disappear is a threat to their very shaky stability. It's worth -- we have to mention that none of the Arab leaders have been elected democratically. Many of them are widely resented and disliked by the people they rule.

And with that situation in mind, there's really not a lot they can do, given their unsure, their unstable positions to really join in the American effort to get rid of Saddam Hussein, and at the same time, maintain stability within their countries.

SHIELDS: Andrea, Andrea Koppel?

KOPPEL: Ben, I was just going to ask you, the Arab world has been outraged by this latest incursion into Ramallah. President Bush, today, spoke with several Arab leaders. Secretary Powell's been on the phone with them, but they are not hearing what they want to hear from the United States. What do you think the fallout will be?

WEDEMAN: Well, it's still early to say. And I have a feeling that the fallout of the last month is going to be long in coming, but it's going to be significant and serious. I mean, basically, what we've seen within the last two or three weeks is the humiliation of a man Yasser Arafat, who is considered the head of an Arab state. Most Arab states have Palestinian embassies within them. They recognize Palestine as a state.

And for Arabs, ordinary Arabs, Arab leaders to see one of their own basically under what amounts to house arrest in Ramallah has created intense anger, intense bitterness. I was in the old city of Jerusalem today, going around to try to gauge Palestinian opinion. And I was shocked at the sort of the things I heard. People saying that as far as they're concerned after this, any Israeli, man, woman or child is a legitimate target in the land that is the -- Palestinians call Palestine. Not the West Bank, not Gaza. I'm talking about Israel '48 and '67.

So there's so much bitterness that this is going to not go down well. And it's going to be something that they're going to be negative echoes to this for quite some time to come.

SHIELDS: Ben Wedeman, thank you. But Ben Wedeman and the gang will be back with power politics within Israel.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK) SHIELDS: Welcome back. Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who was defeated by Ariel Sharon after his own unsuccessful efforts to negotiate peace with the Palestinians, endorsed the Israeli military operation.


EHUD BARAK, FMR. PRIME MINISTER, ISRAEL: I believe that Arafat and his behavior and the behavior of Hamas left the Israeli government with no choice but to respond in a much tougher way.


SHIELDS: Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is advocating even tougher treatment of Chairman Arafat.


BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, FMR. PRIME MINISTER, ISRAEL: I'd put him on the Careena (ph), that ship that he got from the Iranians, ship of weapons and lethal bombs. I would put him on that ship, put him on the high seas.

The thing that can be accomplished is to eliminate the quintessential terrorist regime of our time.


SHIELDS: Andrea Koppel, is there no place left for the political peace movement in Israel politics today?

KOPPEL: I think that the climate is certainly not conducive to that. How can you talk peace? And certainly, there are still Israeli foreign minister Perez who is, but how can you talk peace when Israelis are dying in supermarkets, in cafes, walking down the street? This is not the time or the place for that kind of movement right now.

SHIELDS: So the only political opposition, in domestic terms, that is faced is Ariel Sharon, is that posed by Benjamin Netanyahu within his own party on his political right?

KOPPEL: Netanyahu is incredibly powerful -- incredibly popular and incredibly powerful right now. He's the one many believe who's pushing Sharon even further to the right.

SHIELDS: Bob Novak down in Atlanta?

NOVAK: Well, whoever thought that somebody would get to Sharon's right? You know, that is really -- that's a feat that Netanyahu has done. And he wants to destroy the Palestinian Authority completely. And I understand he's making personal arrangements with his personal finances, getting ready to take over the premiership very soon, making just the routine arrangements.

He thinks it's in the bag. And he may be right. I think it's an absolute tragedy for Israel. You know, Rabin, the late General Rabin, prime minister who was assassinated by right-wing extremists, once said that Israel will never be at peace when there are people living in a colonial status. And that is the truth.

SHIELDS: Ben Wedeman, do you think -- is there a story there that Sharon is being dogged and shadowed by Netanyahu?

WEDEMAN: Well, he is. But on the other hand, it's worth noting that Mr. Sharon was elected a year ago with a 66 percent of the vote, which is unprecedented in Israeli political history. And that that certainly has given him almost a mandate to do whatever he wants.

Now one of the problems, until recently, was that many Israelis felt that he wasn't striking back hard enough against the Palestinians. But we've seen the actions of the last two or three weeks that he certainly has been vigorous in his approach, which represents something of a comeback for him. His poll numbers were falling rather dramatically before this latest two or three weeks. And now he seems to be coming back.

So this may be his response to the challenge posed by Benjamin Netanyahu.

SHIELDS: Kate O'Beirne?

O'BEIRNE: Mark, I think the government in Israel is a little more divided than the responses we've seen in the last couple of days would indicate. This was a particularly bloody week in Israel, particularly tough time for the appeasement crowd on Israel. But they're very much there.

Netanyahu has long said you can't have a war government, meaning either himself as a prime minister or somebody like Sharon, with an Oslo parliament, which is essentially what the Knesset is. In fact, reports tell us that even in the most recent cabinet meeting, leading up to the current attack on Arafat's headquarters, Sharon favored toppling Arafat, if not killing -- getting rid of him entirely. And he couldn't, because Perez said no, that he would work to topple the government so he winds up with a sort of incoherent, isolate Arafat. So there's very much a division there.


HUNT: I think that Sharon hears footsteps every day, be these footsteps. And we know that Netanyahu will never let principle impeded his ambition. And I think Barak, a man who had great courage like the late General Rabin, but didn't have the skill and the political sensitivity of Rabin, really left the Labor Party leadership in Israel bereft of any strong alternative.

So I think it's basically a contest between the right and the far right.

SHIELDS: Andrea Koppel, just quickly, is there -- language is so important. Kate uses the term "appeasement," the appeasement group. Now that's the peace group. That was Menachim Begin with Sadat?

O'BEIRNE: No restraint, no restraint, no restraint.

SHIELDS: I mean, but I mean, is there in fact a dormant movement in Israel that would support leadership that said we're going to achieve peace even with force?

KOPPEL: I got to believe there is, but I think that I would have to defer to my colleague, Ben Wedeman who's actually on the ground there. You don't see those rallies anymore, do you, Ben, the peace- nick rallies?

WEDEMAN: Well, Andrea, you do see them. There was, in fact, one this evening in front of the prime minister's office. But it was a very poorly attended rally. And traditionally, of course, it was the Labor Party that was on the left, which was considered doveish, but who do we have now?

We've got Benjamin Ben Alizar (ph), who's the defense minister, who's also the head of the Labor parties. And he does have his differences, his policy differences with Prime Minister Sharon, but nonetheless, he stays in the cabinet.

And then you have Simon Perez, a former prime minister, who also has his differences, some of them fairly public with the prime minister, but he's also staying in the cabinet. Therefore, you really don't have much other than a far left that has only a couple hundred really active members, who do attend many of these demonstrations, these rallies. But they really aren't speaking for -- to a very large proportion of the Israeli population, certainly at this point.

SHIELDS: Ben Wedeman, thank you so much for being with us. The gang will be back with some closing comments.


SHIELDS: And now for some closing thoughts from THE CAPITAL GANG. Bob Novak?

NOVAK: Mark, ever since the Suez disaster of 1956, the United States has been a symbol of stability of Middle East, trying to balance these desperate factions on either side. I am very depressed that we fell off that center today and the president became an overt activist for one side.

SHIELDS: Andrea Koppel?

KOPPEL: I think the president said it himself today that this is about homeland security for Israel, just as it was here in the United States following 9/11. The question is, how are they going to dig themselves out of this? How is the U.S. going to inject itself into the process, to try to bring about a peaceful settlement? And I think that that's an open question.

SHIELDS: Kate O'Beirne?

O'BEIRNE: Mark, this weekend I think the administration's in a far more defensible position. And it seems they could not take the answer no from Arafat. They're now enforcing the Bush doctrine. If you harbor terrorists, you'll share their fate. And the president's also reminding us that you have to go after to the state sponsors of terrorism, those who inspire, fund and arm the intifadah.


HUNT: Mark, I think there are many sad elements here. And one of them is how this dispirited the American Jews are. Some even questioning the long term survival of Israel here. I think that's not a serious concern, but I think it really is tragic to see American Jews so torn apart, as are the rest of us, but American Jews feel it very, very personally.

SHIELDS: I don't think there's any question. And there was a marvelous quote of the Golda Meir, that the prime minister of Israel issued after the 1967 War. He said, "I hope and pray that someday we'll be able to forgive the Arabs for killing our children, but I'll never be able to forgive the Arabs for making us kill their children."

And I think that's where Israel is right now. I think Israel is a tormented country and a tormented people, a people that have always, historically, been the underdog, had the support of so many because of that. And all of a sudden, they find themselves in a position where that support and that moral leverage has been a ruin.

And this is Mark Shields saying good night for THE CAPITAL GANG. If you missed any part of this program, tune in for the replay at 11:00 p.m. Eastern and again at 4:00 a.m. Eastern.




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