15 October 2000 Wolf Blitzer: Mr Prime Minister, welcome back to Late Edition. It’s good to have you on our program. I want to begin with the news of the day, with the report that Hizbullah forces in Lebanon have captured an Israeli Army colonel. What can you tell us about this?
PM Barak: As of now, I don’t know of any event along the border with Lebanon that could produce such a result, but as you know, we cannot rule out the possibility that somewhere on earth one of the tens of thousands of Israelis who happens to be a colonel in the IDF reserves has been kidnapped.
Blitzer: So at this point you have no information and can’t confirm that another Israeli has been taken prisoner by Hizbullah?
PM Barak: As of now I have no information, but I cannot rule it out. Normally, though, Hizbullah leaders would not announce something like this publicly if it was completely baseless.
Blitzer: As you know, three Israeli soldiers were taken not long ago on the Lebanese border by Hizbullah, who say that they’re prepared to return those soldiers to Israel in exchange for more than a dozen Palestinian Lebanese detainees being held by Israel. Is Israel willing to make a deal along those lines for the return of its men?
PM Barak: I believe that at the beginning of the 21st century, where all players are UN members, we must set a norm that before an authorized international body has access to such captives there can be no exchange and no conditions set. I expect Hizbullah to immediately allow the Red Cross, the UN, or an official from an American or British or Russian embassy to be given access to the men, and that they then be returned. The whole event is a blatant violation of UN Security Council Resolution 425, according to which we pulled out from Lebanon to the letter. And as this attack is a violation, we reserve the right to react.
Blitzer: But it doesn’t sound like you’re saying that even if such a meeting were to take place it could set the stage for some sort of exchange.
PM Barak: First of all, we expect it to be settled that someone has access to them. Then we would have to contemplate what we agree to.
Blitzer: Mr. Prime Minister, there is a summit planned at Sharm el-Sheikh in the Sinai for Monday. Realistically, with all that has happened over the past two and a half weeks, what can be accomplished at Sharm el-Sheikh?
PM Barak: I believe that an end to violence could and should be achieved. I believe that a mechanism for tighter control could be established, maybe an American- Israeli-Palestinian mechanism to ensure that the security understandings are working. And of course we expect that the Hamas prisoners released by the Palestinian Authority would be returned to the prisons, and that an end be put to Palestinian policemen and Tanzim shooting at Israelis. We would expect an end to the incitement on the Palestinian mass media, and appropriate handling of holy sites. All these elements are blatant violations of the agreement signed by the PA and Chairman Arafat, with the Americans underwriting that signing. Blitzer: The Palestinians, as you well know, say the immediate objective must be an international commission of inquiry to investigate Israeli military and police behavior towards the Palestinians, and that without that really nothing can go forward. Are you ready to accept such an international commission of inquiry? PM Barak: We have agreed to a fact-finding committee, to be nominated by the Americans, with the authority of the Americans, the Palestinians, and the Israelis. We did not object to the participation of experts recommended by the UN, the EU, or the President of the United States. But we are against an investigation committee under the authority from the UN, since it is our experience that, with all due respect to the UN itself, such committees are more political, or politically biased, than they are aimed at genuine fact-finding.
Blitzer: Do you believe, Mr. Prime Minister, that Palestinian Authority President Yasser Arafat is still committed to the peace process?
PM Barak: I cannot penetrate to Arafat’s soul. I can only judge him by his behavior. And his behavior is that he launched a wave of violence over the past few weeks when it was clear that there IS a possible framework agreement reflecting greater Israeli flexiblity than ever before. And he chose not to go for it. This means that he deliberately chose confrontation. This is something we have to face with our eyes open, and we must be firm in our resistance, but Arafat takes upon himself the responsibility for possibly tumbling the entire region into a period of instability with unpredictable consequences and not just for this region.
And I believe that right now, there is no possible way of drawing a moral comparison between Israel, the only democracy in the Middle East, and a group of Palestinian leaders that became leaders through the intervention or support of an American administration that assumed that they would stop the violence, stop the corruption, stop the incitement, and begin to behave themselves. I must admit that the Palestinian Authority has not lived up to these expectations. And by their failure, they lead the whole region into an extremely risky situation.
Blitzer: The fact of the matter is, though, that many Palestinians believe that YOU are no longer committed to the peace process. They are saying that since the failed Camp David summit last summer, you’ve been looking for an "exit strategy," a way to abandon the concessions that you put forward on the table during those negotiations at Camp David.
PM Barak: No, the opposite is true. I’ve already proven that I will leave no stone unturned to find out whether we have a partner for peace. Unfortunately, we don’t, as President Clinton himself said at the end of Camp David. And the American people, and especially this administration, invested a LOT of time, energy, resources, and devotion, even emotion, in trying to put an end to it, and we are most thankful for this. But unfortunately the Palestinians were the ones who objected, who did not let it happen.
But I will tell you one thing. We will never lose our hope for peace. We will ultimately have peace with the Palestinian people. They are our neighbors. They are going to be here forever. In the end, we WILL live side by side, as neighbors, in peace with those same people who are now incited to demonstrate against us, to riot. It is the leadership which seems to be unripe. But a leadership can change its mind. A leadership can open its eyes. A leadership can even be replaced by its own people. Even if with this leadership, at this present time, we cannot make peace, we will never give up hope of making peace with our neighbors the Palestinians, and we will always, whatever happens, leave the door open to a possible change of approach, of attitude, on their part.
Blitzer: Many Palestinians also say, Mr. Prime Minister, that if you bring Ariel Sharon and the Likud into your government and form a national emergency coalition that that would, in effect, totally end prospects for peace, that the new Israeli government would be a signal that Israel is no longer committed to the peace process.
PM Barak: Once again, it’s pure propaganda. The Palestinians are skilled in taking every situation and turning it upside down. Look, for example, at Likud leader Ariel Sharon’s visit to the Temple Mount. What it really showed is how we should see Arafat as the custodian of holy sites is this the kind of free access, the kind of preservation of holy sites, that he can provide? This calls into question his demand to hold the sites sacred to Christians, Jews, and even Moslems.
I don’t think that Sharon’s visit was the reason for the violence. It was merely the excuse and a very convenient one. Now, I don’t think it was the most brilliant idea of the year for him to visit the Temple Mount at that time, but the site is open to visitors from everywhere. But let me tell you more seriously, I don’t think that you, as a democratic society, and we, as a democratic society, should accept dictates from those who are, to put it mildly, less than democratic regarding who is eligible to be in government. Sharon represents a legitimate movement that believes in security and peace although their approach is different than ours. Arafat himself sat down with Sharon, and President Clinton, for ten days at Wye Plantation to come up with an agreement.
I do not believe that any one person can change reality. We are determined to make peace. I am the prime minister. I will never let anyone lead me in a direction I don’t want to go. The real problem lies with Arafat and the Palestinian leadership. I would just like to point out that two weeks ago Arafat invited the entire Hamas leadership to his cabinet meeting in Gaza, and they all prayed together. A few days later, he released the most dangerous Hamas terrorists from PA prisons. And now Israel is waiting to see what happens as a result. And I tell you very frankly we will use all the means in our power to intercept the terrorist attacks we know are being planned. But if they do come about, I will hold responsible not just the terrorists themselves but the Palestinian Authority who released them from prison.
Blitzer :Mr. Prime Minister, the Secretary of State of the United States Madeleine Albright has an article in today’s Washington Post, and among other things, she writes: "Palestinians feel victimized, powerless, and believe that their lives count for little. They have suffered immensely with 100 of their own killed, and thousands wounded, among them many children, and lives shattered by the use of deadly force." What a lot of people are asking, including friends of Israel like Madeleine Albright, is why does the Israeli military and police, after all these years of experience, must use such deadly force in dealing with stone-throwing Palestinian demonstrators? Why is that necessary, given the death toll that has mounted in the past two and a half weeks?
PM Barak: Wolf, you are a professional. Look very carefully at these demonstrations. Israeli forces are not in Gaza. Israeli forces are not in Nablus. Ninety-eight percent of the Palestinian population is under Palestinian control. Israel holds a few isolated outposts. Yet the Palestinians are inciting innocent citizens, and SENDING them to those isolated positions. Deliberately, along with armed PA policemen and Tanzim. And they shoot at Israeli forces from within these mass demonstrations, with all the children. It’s a crime.
I was as shocked as anyone else around the globe by the pictures of twelve-year-old Mohammed Aldura, the Palestinian boy, killed in the crossfire. But ask how he got there. It’s not near his school, it’s not near his home. It’s near an isolated Israeli position. If Arafat wants to draw international attention back to his own goals using the blood of his own Palestinian people, it’s legitimate, so to speak, but it’s also a crime that should be condemned. He deliberately allowed this demonstration, with weapons, you can see them in the pictures, carrying weapons, shooting.
In the modern world, the real difference between a legitimate leader who wants to be a head of state, who wants to be a UN member and a gang leader is the monopoly on the use and holding of weapons. Any regime ensures that it and only it is responsible for weapons, and that arms are not used against another without a clear-cut order. And if Arafat wants to be a leader, and I hope he will, I hope he will change, he should put an end to just that. He should put an end to the policemen shooting from inside of demonstrations at our soldiers, hiding behind unarmed citizens, because when they do that Israeli forces cannot minimize casualties, try as they might.
Look at this example. For the first time last week, Thursday, we launched attacks on five different installations of Palestinian soldiers after the brutal lynching in Ramallah of our two reserve soldiers who had lost their way. In all these five attacks together, that were broadcast on CNN and across the world, there was not a single Palestinian death. Our attack was deliberately focused. We announced in advance what we were going to attack, we made it clear when the attack was expected, we fired rounds in the vicinity to give an early warning, we made sure everyone had left the scene, and we hit the target only after we were certain that no one would be killed. We cannot even propose to do this throughout the confrontations, if they continue. But the point is that we are making deliberate attempts to avoid, to minimize casualties, whereas Arafat mourns casualties yet at the same time allows, or even encourages them.
Blitzer: Mr. Prime Minister, we only have a few seconds left. What happens if the Sharm el-Sheikh summit fails?
PM Barak: I hope it won’t, but if it fails, we will have to face the realities. And I can repeat it once again, with the same determination, that we will struggle to find a way to make peace with the Palestinians, with the same determination that we will fight for our right to live here as a free, sovereign, democratic, open, pluralistic society in this tough neighborhood of the Middle East. We will fight, and we will expect the honest people, the honest governments of the world, to stand by us.
Blitzer: Mr. Prime Minister, I know this is a difficult period for you, but I want to thank you once again for joining us here on Late Edition. Thank you.
||Outbreak of Violence in Jerusalem and the Territories – Sept/Oct 2000|