CNN "LATE EDITION" WITH WOLF BLITZER INTERVIEW WITH BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER

May 17, 1998

MR. BLITZER: The United States is still trying to get Israel to accept a U.S. peace proposal. But Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as far as we can tell is still resisting that U.S. proposal. The prime minister now joins us live from New York. Mr. Prime Minister, thank you so much for joining us on Late Edition.

PRIME MIN. NETANYAHU: Well, good afternoon.

MR. BLITZER: Thank you. Just heard Sandy Berger, the president’s national security adviser, quote President Clinton as saying that delay is the enemy of peace. They are pressing you to accept this proposal for another 13 percent withdrawal from the West Bank. Are you prepared to accept the U.S. plan?

PRIME MIN. NETANYAHU: I’ll be prepared to accept anything that doesn’t compromise Israel’s security. I am willing to be flexible, and even make compromises — many compromises for peace — but I will not under any circumstances imperil Israel, because we know that a strong Israel, an Israel capable of defending itself, an Israel with defensible borders, is the only kind of Israel that will be at peace. I think that judgment — precisely how much territory we can redeploy from, is an Israeli judgment. But let me say that when I consider making that judgment I look at the finite amount of area that we have available to withdraw from without jeopardizing our security. And I want to see all the phases of withdrawal — that is, all the pluses of withdrawal given a finite amount of territory that is available for it.

MR. BLITZER: What about this compromise proposal we’ve heard about that you would say you would withdraw from nine percent, but four percent would be held in, quote, "escrow," assuming that there would be the Palestinian security assurances you have been looking for? Is that on the table, that proposal right now?

PRIME MIN. NETANYAHU: Well, I’m not going to get into specific numbers or percentages. I think what is important is to understand the principle. The principle is very simple. We are concerned — I am concerned as the prime minister of Israel — with what happens if we give away land around an enclave, an Israeli community with — there are 40,000 children in Judea and Samaria traveling on the streets of the West Bank every day. I can envision a bus with 40 children blown up because we made the wrong decision, or an airplane that has to land at Tel Aviv airport that could be fired down by shoulder-fired missiles because we made the wrong decision. Those decisions on Israel’s security must be made by Israel, and that’s the principle I adhere to.

MR. BLITZER: Well, as you know, Mr. Prime Minister, there is a disagreement in Israel right now. Let me play for you some videotape of what the man you beat in the last Israeli election, Shimon Peres, said on this issue within the past few days:

FORMER ISRAELI PRIME MIN. SHIMON PERES (from videotape): If the present government says that you cannot trust the Palestinians, you cannot trust Arafat, why give them nine percent? Give them nothing if you don’t trust them. If you trust them, let them be able to be your partner. Don’t you believe them?

MR. BLITZER: The point he is making of course is if you don’t trust Yasser Arafat, why bother even giving him nine percent additional territory on the West Bank?

PRIME MIN. NETANYAHU: Well, I respect Mr. Peres a great deal, and I suppose here you will see the differences in our views and the reason why the Israeli people sought to give me the mandate. We indeed trusted Mr. Arafat, but the peace had collapsed. I noticed that in your introduction to this program you said that the last year was the year that the peace was going down the tubes and so on. Wrong.

Two years ago, before I was elected, the peace collapsed, because Yasser Arafat did not keep his promise to fight terrorists from the lands that we had given over to him. Two hundred and fifty Israelis — that’s equivalent to 10,000 Americans — died as a result of terrorist incidents and savage suicide attacks emanating from Palestinian-controlled areas. I was elected not to stop the peace, but to fix it. And the people of Israel said to me, "We want you to change course. We want you to insist that the Palestinians demonstrably, verifiably, comply with the promises they gave us to fight terrorism." And that is precisely what I am doing now. In other words, the package that we are discussing right now includes Palestinian compliance, first and foremost that they fight terrorism day in and day out, systematically and effectively. And, secondly, that Israel, because there is always an inability to trust down the line, and we have to allow for breakdowns in the process — that Israel retain the minimal security ramparts that will ensure the survival of Israel, the defense of Israel, and may I say the defense of peace as well.

MR. BLITZER: Mr. Prime Minister, do you still have confidence in President Clinton and his administration as a fair, honest broker in the peace process?

PRIME MIN. NETANYAHU: Yes, I do. I think that President Clinton is a friend of Israel. I think every U.S. government, and this one is no exception, is a friend of Israel. The bond between our peoples is tremendous. Go down to the streets of New York. We have a parade for Israel — a salute to Israel — the 50th anniversary parade. And I see the warmth of the people — I don’t mean just people from New York — people from Des Moines, from North Dakota, from Nashville. They come to you and they say, "We are with you, Israel. We are very strongly behind you, and we are very strong behind you." I think that is a very solid foundation.

MR. BLITZER: And first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s statement that she supports a Palestinian state?

PRIME MIN. NETANYAHU: Well, we understood that that was a private statement, and obviously we have a different view. You see, what the Palestinians need right now is not an economic system or welfare system — they’ve got all that. They could improve it I think by decontrolling their economies and getting rid of the bureaucracy and their bizarre business practices, shall we say. But that is a separate matter for them to decide. What they really need a state for is not for a passport — they’ve got that; not for a flag — they’ve got that; not for a judiciary executive — they’ve got all that. What they need a state for is to build an army, and the army of the Palestinian state, a large army poised above Israel’s cities is no prescription for peace. We need a different kind of arrangement for peace — one in which the Palestinians have all the powers to run their lives, but none of the powers to ruin our life.

MR. BLITZER: All right. Mr. Prime Minister, India detonated a nuclear explosion this week; Pakistan is threatening to do the same thing. How, if at all, will this impact on Israel’s nuclear policy?

PRIME MIN. NETANYAHU: Well, I have grave concern, as everyone does, about the problem of proliferation, and the problem of nuclear intensification, if you will, where nuclear weapons already do exist. And I think if I can use a very jargon-related word, it is incumbent upon us as world leaders to do everything we can to be very, very careful with this deadly technology.

Now, if you are concerned, any many are, about the development on the Indian subcontinent, just imagine what would happen if Iran detonates a nuclear device. I think the whole map of the Middle East changes immediately, and peace treaties that we have signed, and I believe will sign with our Arab neighbors will be put in jeopardy, and indeed millions of fundamentalists would be emboldened for renewed terrorism under this canopy, this nuclear canopy of the fundamentalist Islamic state. I think that is the greatest danger and Iran must be prevented from acquiring atomic weapons.

MR. BLITZER: All right, Mr. Prime Minister, we have a caller from Boca Raton, Florida. Please go ahead with your question for Prime Minister Netanyahu.

CALLER: Hello, Mr. Prime Minister. Do you think that the Palestinian protests this week in the West Bank, marking what the Palestinians call the great catastrophe, marking the creation of the state of Israel, is reason to believe that we have really lost our direction in terms of priorities with regard to the peace process — i.e., that there are things that need to happen within the Palestinian community before we’d go and give land back to them?

PRIME MIN. NETANYAHU: The answer is yes. I think things have to change. They are not only in the physical fight against terrorism, but in the moral education that the Palestinian leadership has to impart to its population. You talk about these riots recently — the last two days — first of all, they resulted in a tragic loss of lives, and that every time somebody dies — it doesn’t make any difference if they’re Palestinians or Israelis — that is a cause for pain and grief. But you have to ask yourself what were these riots about. They were not about percentage — this or that percentage of Israeli withdrawal. They were officially organized violent demonstrations organized by the Palestinian Authority to commemorate the disaster as they call it of the founding of the State of Israel. In other words, they were opposed to the existence of Israel in any size. And that’s why the other aspect of Palestinian compliance that we insist on is that they live up to their promise to stop this kind of incitement or the provocative propaganda that results in bloodshed, and indeed to convene their governing body, the Palestinian National Council, and revoke the charter that says that Israel has to be eliminated. These are as important complements to peace as fighting terrorism.

MR. BLITZER: Mr. Prime Minister, we only have a few seconds left. Why did your government admit this week that Jonathan Jay Pollard was in fact an Israeli spy operating in the United States?

PRIME MIN. NETANYAHU: Because he was.

MR. BLITZER: And what do you hope to achieve by admitting that?

PRIME MIN. NETANYAHU: Let me make it clear here. Pollard did a bad thing. Spying on the United States, even if it was intended not to hurt the United States but assist Israel, is a bad thing. Our government does not do that. We’ve made it very clear that this will never happen again. Jonathan Pollard served a term, a very long term. He’s now been 12 years in jail in very difficult terms of confinement, and I think he’s served actually tougher sentences and tougher terms than for example some of the agents of the Soviet Union who were spying against the United States specifically. So there is no question that he did the wrong thing. There is no question that the officials in the Israeli government who directed him, whether authorized or not, did a bad thing. He served his time. And simply on the humanitarian basis and nothing else we would like to see him released and allowed to go to Israel.

MR. BLITZER: Okay, Mr. Prime Minister, it was kind of you to join us from New York. Thanks so much for being on Late Edition.

PRIME MIN. NETANYAHU: Thank you very much.