Interview with Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
CNN Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer

27 September 1998

Joining us now from New York, where he met with Secretary of State Madeleine Albright last night, Prime Minister Netanyahu. Mr. Netanyahu, welcome to Late Edition.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: Well, good afternoon, and I hope you deal well with the storm and I hope it bypasses you.

BLITZER: Well, of course, everyone hopes so as well. Thank you very much. Last night, you met with Secretary of State Albright. Tomorrow you’re meeting with President Clinton. How close is Israel right now, your government, to reaching this interim deal with the Palestinians?

PM NETANYAHU: Well, this interim deal has two parts. One part is what Israel gives and the other part is what the Palestinians give — are supposed to give. Israel and the United States have come to very close agreement, it’s almost complete, about the amount of land that we would hand over — it’s territory that is uninhabited by Palestinians but it’s very important for our security. And what we’ve worked out is a way to ensure that Israel can defend itself.

The other side of it is that we want to make sure that the land we hand over to the Palestinians does not become a base for continued terror attacks against Israel. And that requires that the Palestinians fulfill their part. So, if I had to summarize it I would say, Israel is close to fulfilling its obligations. The Palestinians have yet to assure us that they’ll fulfill their obligations under the Oslo treaty.

BLITZER: Well, what are the main sticking points, the final sticking points right now preventing a deal?

PM NETANYAHU: Well, the Palestinians undertook to do several things that they haven’t done. They have said that they would dismantle the infrastructure of terrorists, that they would arrest the leading terrorists, that they would collect illegal weapons, that they’d adjust the size of their police force to the agreed-upon levels under the Oslo accords. They also said they would cancel or revoke their charter that still is on the books, still calling for Israel’s destruction. So I’ve just given you five out of about nine items, none of which have been fulfilled. In addition, if you turn on Palestinian television, you’ll see their so-called educational TV programs in which 4 and 5-year-old girls proclaim that they will become suicide martyrs, suicide bombers who will drench the soil of Palestine with the blood of Israelis. That’s education for war, not for peace. And it’s also prohibited by the Oslo accords.

So, what we want to see is the totality of Palestinian obligations fulfilled, and we’re prepared to fulfill our part and hand over additional land — land on the Israel side in exchange for Palestinian compliance with their obligations to us.

BLITZER: Well, just to nail this down, you have agreed to the 13 percent additional withdrawal, 3 percent of which would be for this nature preserve.

PM NETANYAHU: There is an American proposal which I thought was interesting and positive that said that some of the land that we’d hand over would remain in the form of nature reserves. And under those kinds of areas, there’s no construction, no one builds, and Israel retains security control. And I thought that was a good proposal. And that’s why we’re very close to agreeing on this part.

BLITZER: All right. Saeb Erekat, who is the chief Palestinian negotiator, this morning told the Agence-France Press, "Simply, we cannot continue negotiations while Israel is pursuing the expansion of settlements, confiscating land and Judaizing Jerusalem," which seems to be tough words given the fact that you’re suggesting you’re very close to an agreement right now.

PM NETANYAHU: First of all, the issue of Jerusalem is out of any part of the agreement. We’re able to exercise our sovereignty there, it’s been our capital for 4,000 years, it’ll be our capital for another 4,000 years. And we’re keeping it open to all three great faiths — Christianity, Islam, and of course Judaism. And we’ll continue that policy. But the idea that we would not build in Jerusalem is absurd. We’re building there for Jews and Arabs. We’re the sovereigns there for all the citizens and all the residents of Jerusalem.

BLITZER: Does this interim agreement prevent Israel from establishing new settlements?

PM NETANYAHU: No, not at all. Rabin, in fact, who was my predecessor and who signed the Oslo accords, boasted that he could build new settlements under the agreement. In point of fact, he expanded the population of the settlements by 50 percent. We’re nowhere near there. We’re just building as part of natural growth. We’re not building new settlements, but we’re allowing the natural increase of the population in these communities.

Now, understand that at the same time, the Arab communities also expand. People get married. They have children. I wouldn’t dream of telling the Arab communities, in this same contested land — we contest it as much as they contest it, it’s part of our national and historic homeland — I would never dream of telling the Arabs, "You can’t get married; you can’t have children. You can’t build houses around the Palestinian towns and villages." Of course, I wouldn’t do that. And that is why we think that this whole matter of trying to freeze any construction, freeze life, is, in a way of saying that there can’t be peace.

We’re going to live there in that territory, the Arabs are going to live there and we’re going to have to find a way through peaceful negotiations to have our two peoples live in that very small land between the Jordan and the sea.

BLITZER: All right. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat tomorrow is addressing the United Nations. There’s been some suggestion he may use that occasion to call for the creation of an independent Palestinian state on May 4th, 1999, when the Oslo peace process suggests the final status of the territories are supposed to be resolved. If he does do that, if he calls for a Palestinian state as early as tomorrow, what will be your response?

PM NETANYAHU: There are two parts of it. One is, we have an agreement, the Oslo accords, that says that the outcome of our negotiations for final peace settlement must be negotiated. So, Arafat can no more declare unilaterally what that outcome would be than I could. We could each decide unilaterally what we each want, and we’d have an explosion. A unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state collapses the negotiation process, collapses the Oslo agreement and is a major violation of the Oslo agreements. I strongly urge Arafat and the Palestinians to do what they promised to do when they signed the Oslo accords – namely, to negotiate a final settlement with Israel in a serious way, in an earnest way.

My view is that such a final settlement has to strike a balance between the Palestinian’s desire for self-rule and our desire to protect our chief interests, the most important of which is security. If, for example, Arafat declares a state, he says, "In a state I can do anything I want. I can make a pact with Iraq, with Saddam Hussein. I can place Iranian troops in the hills above Tel Aviv. I can place anti-aircraft missiles that could down the civilian aircraft that lands in Tel Aviv airport."

All of these things, obviously, cannot happen. So we have to find a way to protect Israel’s vital security requirements, and that can only be done in a negotiated settlement. Otherwise we’ll cast the Middle East into a maelstrom. I don’t think that’s good for the Palestinians, it’s not good for Israel, it’s not good for peace.

BLITZER: All right. Mr. Prime Minister, one final question. We only have a few seconds left. The last time you met with President Clinton was the night in January when "The Washington Post" broke the story about Monica Lewinsky. This investigation of the president, all of these months, what kind of impact from your perspective, has it had on his ability to be an international leader?

PM NETANYAHU: I don’t think it’s had any impact at all in our case. And I believe that the president is absolutely determined to assist us in reaching a settlement which I eagerly look forward to achieving. I’ve spoken to him twice on the phone in recent days, and I’m going to speak to him again tomorrow face-to-face. I have no doubt about his commitment and his abilities. I do hope that others in our region, especially Saddam Hussein or perhaps Iran, who are busy developing ballistic missiles and non-conventional warheads, are not mistaking what I know to be the American resolve and the president’s commitments to stability and peace in our region. That would be a big mistake on their part, I’m sure.

BLITZER: OK, Prime Minister Netanyahu, thanks again for joining us from New York. We’ll see you here in Washington tomorrow.

PM NETANYAHU: Indeed, thank you.