SUNDAY, MARCH 23, 1997

MR. RANDALL: Joining us now from his office in Jerusalem, the prime minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. And joining me here in the studio is Robert Novak of the Chicago Sun-Times.

Mr. Prime Minister, welcome.


MR. RANDALL: We are told that in the wake of the bombing at the restaurant in Tel Aviv, your government is deciding on the issue of continuing political talks with the Palestinians. Is there a decision?

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: Yes, I think there is a general recognition that the only way that we can move the peace process forward as we want to is for the other side to say, "We may have disagreements with you, but we’re not going to give the green light to terrorist organizations," as the Palestinian Authority did this week.

There has to be a complete renunciation of terrorism and a fulfillment of the Palestinian promise to fight terrorism. They’re not fulfilling that promise. They’ve given them the green light. They’ve released prisoners who appeared on television, on every network in the world, saying, "We are going to kill. We have killed. We’ll kill again." And there has to be an arrest of these people and a battle against terrorism for peace to continue.

MR. RANDALL: So in the meantime, you are suspending political talks with the Palestinians.

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: Well, I’m not suspending talks, because our people are meeting with their people. But the first item of the agenda is the fulfillment of the Palestinian obligation to fight terrorism. They have to start complying with that or else we can’t move. And we have to have peace in order to or a peaceful environment in order to have peace. It’s impossible to do so when bombs are exploding in downtown Tel Aviv and killing women and children.

MR. RANDALL: All right, let me be clear on this. If there are talks going on now in the area of security, I’m talking about political discussions. Can you separate one from the other?

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: Well, I think the first item in the agenda is the battle against terror, which is a solemn Palestinian pledge. I think that is the item that we are going to discuss, and we want to see concrete results. We have so many grievances on the Palestinians. They haven’t complied with their promise to annul the Palestinian charter. It remains on the books, calling for our destruction. They haven’t confiscated illegal weapons. They haven’t stopped hostile propaganda. They are violating the agreement.

But I’m putting the first condition for peace on the table, and that is, I want them to start fighting terrorism as they promised. They’ve given the green light to terrorism. The traffic light hasn’t changed yet. I want to see a red light there and I want to see action against terrorism as they promised. Then we can discuss many, many other issues to give the peace to our two peoples and our children.

MR. NOVAK: Prime Minister, I think we can all stipulate that there is never any rationalization or excuse for terrorism. But having said that, since you had evidence, you say, that the construction of the the beginning of construction of the Har Homa housing project in East Jerusalem would bring on this kind of terrorism, why in the world did you go ahead with it?

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: Well, suppose you had a terrorist group telling you not to build in Washington DC or in Oklahoma City, for that matter, and you knew that if you built a certain neighborhood, these people would bomb you. Then you wouldn’t build? You would agree to start dismantling essentially the society of the United States under the terrorist threat? Of course not. What you do is you refuse to succumb to terrorism. And we in Israel, at least, understand that if we started accepting these terrorist dictates, there wouldn’t be an Israel. And in my opinion, there wouldn’t be many other societies as well. So this is something we cannot accept.

MR. NOVAK: Earlier today on ABC, you said that if you didn’t build this housing project in East Jerusalem, there would, quote, "be no future for the Jewish state," unquote. Your predecessor, General Rabin, a man of great courage, decided to suspend the construction of the housing project in East Jerusalem just to avoid this. Do you think he didn’t care about the future of the Jewish state?

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: One year ago Yitzhak Rabin was the prime minister. This was the most conciliatory government. Or maybe it was Shimon Peres by then. This was certainly the most conciliatory government in Israel’s history. It gave far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians. Exactly one year ago to the day, we had a spate of terrorism from the same people who are perpetrating this, but far, far greater. We had 60 people killed in terrorist attacks in the span of three days. That culminated a wave of terrorism for two and a half years that claimed the lives of 250 Israelis.

There was enormous terrorism under that government. Now, they didn’t build in Jerusalem. Terrorism they can always find a reason. That’s not the point. You cannot begin to go down the course of the questions you’re asking me "Well, maybe if we don’t do this and if we don’t do that, the terrorists will leave us alone."

We have to tell the terrorists and that’s what we expect from the Palestinian Authority "No go. We are going to act against you. We have grievances with the Israelis, but we’ll take them up peacefully." And that is what I propose, that they fight against terrorism and that we resume the peaceful pursuit of peace.

MR. NOVAK: Prime Minister, Nick Burns, the spokesman at the State Department, this week said that the United States government has no evidence that Mr. Arafat either condoned or approved these terrorist attacks. Do you have such evidence? And if you did, did you supply it to the State Department?

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: Bob, we have such evidence. We just had, in fact, a public appearance of our chief of intelligence and our chief staff

MR. NOVAK: Then why would the State Department say it had no evidence, sir?

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: There were meetings conducted by the Palestinian Authority leadership with the Hamas movement on the 10th of the month, and later on, two days, three days later, we have solid information that those organizations left those meetings understanding they have a green light. And soon enough, after a year when there was no green light, they proceeded to act on it and bombed these women and these babies in downtown Tel Aviv. So, yes, we have that information. We relayed it to the United States government. I don’t know what went through the pipeline, but I’m sure the United States government, as of today, has that information.

MR. RANDALL: Mr. Prime Minister, the United States again today voiced disapproval with your decision to go ahead with that housing project in East Jerusalem. Does that kind of U.S. disapproval mean anything to you in this political equation of whether to proceed or not?

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: Look, the United States is our greatest friend and our greatest ally, and we value that friendship. Among the best of friends, there could be serious disagreements. And as you know, Jerusalem for us, for the Jewish people everywhere, for me as a Jew, is the rock of our existence.

Since we have reunited Jerusalem in 1967, we turned it into an open city for Arabs and Jews, for Moslems and Christians and all three faiths. That was never the case when the city was divided with a Berlin wall. So we’re not going to redivide the city. We’re not going to make two Jerusalems. We’re not going to put up the barbed wire. And it’ll remain an open city, accessible to all faiths. For the first time in thousands of years, that is the case now.

We have a disagreement, this is true, with others. But I don’t think this is the main point. The main point is we don’t have a disagreement on the fact that the way to resolve disputes between us and the Palestinians is to sit down and negotiate these issues.

What we now see is that there is a resort to giving the green light, giving the nod and the wink to these terrorist organizations. And that is the greatest threat to peace, not the various grievances we have with one another, but the fact that we must agree that there is no room for terrorism because it will destroy the peace process, which I want and which I think the people of this region, Palestinians and Israelis alike, deserve.

MR. RANDALL: Mr. Prime Minister, your country justifiably for so many years was concerned about international isolation. Now your critics are saying you are ushering in a new era of isolation for Israel because of the political decisions you are taking, and they cite as the latest case example the housing project at Har Homa. Is there any validity to that? I mean, are you just deciding to stand alone here if you have to?

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: First of all, I’m saddened by these critics, because when I was in opposition exactly one year ago and we had these tremendous suicide bombings, I gave the government the full support. I said to Mr. Peres, "Be strong. Stand against the terrorists. You’ll have our backing." And that is what I expect people of good conscience to do today. And I expect that not only here in Israel. I expect it around the world.

If you think this terrorism threatens only us, you’re wrong, because the people who perpetrate it and the people who back them up and the regimes that back them up are threatening many, many of our societies and I think our whole way of life. There just has to be a realignment of the international position. This automatic genuflection with the attacks on Israel, this automatic reflexive Israel-bashing, when we are getting thrown by terrorist bombs, I think is frankly sad. And I think history will judge it unkindly.

I know this is not something that you hear on the nightly news or you see even in the CNN [flashes], but you saw in those [flashes], this baby being carried off, wounded, bloodied, a baby girl, from the site of that cafe. That mother, the mother of that baby, is dead. She will grow up now not only with physical wounds but the wound of not seeing her mother ever. And another young woman, a beautiful young woman, died there with her pregnant child unborn.

And let me tell you something. There has to be now complete outrage, complete condemnation, and no ifs and buts and attempts to say, "Well, yeah, it’s you who brought it on because you built some housing projects for Jews and Arabs alike," as we’re doing now in Jerusalem. It’s preposterous. There just has to be a realignment of opinion for justice and for morality. And what has happened is unjust and immoral, and there’s no exculpation for it.

MR. NOVAK: Excuse me, sir. Gene Randall, in his question to you about the disagreements, you said, "Friends have disagreements." The United States has provided your government over the years with billions and billions of dollars. Don’t you think that you owe the United States a little more than a friendly disagreement when we are subsidizing the state of Israel to the extent we are?

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: First of all, I think that we have been America’s greatest ally in the Gulf War and in so many other things and so many things that I could say and things that I shouldn’t say, because we’ve helped our common interests and American security in ways that your government knows very well and I think the American people instinctively appreciate.

This is a very tough area, the Middle East, a very tough neighborhood, and there are some very unpalatable people here; Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qhadafi and a few others around us, Hamas and Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah. We have a common interest to fend off these people, and Israel is in the front line defending itself, but I think in so doing, defending our larger western interests and our western values.

MR. NOVAK: There’s no secret, sir, that the United States government is very interested in having you form a grand coalition with the Labor Party leader, Mr. Peres. Are you talking to Mr. Peres? Are you moving toward that kind of a coalition that would facilitate the peace process?

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: Well, of course, I’m talking to Mr. Peres. I’m the prime minister. He’s the head of the opposition. And on occasion I brief him on what is going on.

MR. NOVAK: I mean toward a coalition government, about a coalition government.

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: Well, we’re not into that. But let me say that I have not been asked by the United States government in any way. They’ve never sought to intervene in our local politics. What I have sought to do is to bring a majority of the people of Israel to back our peace efforts. And our peace efforts say that we cannot have the continuation of this terrorism. This is why I was elected. People rejected the previous government because they felt they had no peace. Buses were exploding every day in Israel’s cities. So I think that I have brought in Hebron the majority of the people to support the agreement, which I thought and think is a good one. I’d like to see that happen in the continuation of the peace process. But there has to be right now a consensus, I think a worldwide consensus, that the Palestinian Authority must stop violating the agreement, must start acting against terrorism, as they promised, as they must.

MR. RANDALL: Mr. Prime Minister, has the subject of a coalition come up in your discussions with Shimon Peres?

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: I’ve not discussed these matters, and I’m not looking at the question of seats. I’m looking at the question of policies. I’ve always said that we have certain policies in pursuing a final settlement with the Palestinians, and anyone who agrees with them is welcome to join. And I’ve never changed my view on that.

MR. RANDALL: Do you have any plans at this moment to try to be in touch with Yasser Arafat?

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: Well, he called me the other day, and I said to him that I think he must act, must act and give instructions to his people to change the green light to a red light.

MR. RANDALL: What was his response?

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: Well, he said he’ll act, but I can tell you, as of this moment, and some almost 48 hours have gone by, I haven’t seen any action. We still are living in an environment where we could be hit again and again. And the only way that we could change this before the real threat to peace occurs here is to have the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian police and security forces, do what they can do, and they have demonstrable capacity to do, is to stop the terrorism. That is why our cabinet agreed that this is a crucial step for the continuation of the process. And I hope the Palestinians understand it’s in their interest, too. They need peace as much as we do.

MR. RANDALL: Mr. Prime Minister, thanks for making time for us today.

PRIME MINISTER NETANYAHU: Thank you. Thank you very much.