WOLF BLITZER: Mr. Minister, after you and your late colleague, the then-prime minister of Israel, Yitzhak Rabin, signed that Oslo Agreement on the South Lawn of the White House September of 1993,
you, Rabin and Yasser Arafat all won the Nobel Peace Prize. Do you still believe that, when all is said and done, that Yasser Arafat is a legitimate peace partner for Israel right now?
FM SHIMON PERES: He is legitimate in the sense that he was elected by the Palestinian people, and we cannot replace the Palestinian people. We cannot elect their leaders or fire them. But I think Arafat has to take some decisions to become a leader. The most important one, I would say, is to establish a single authority among the Palestinians over arms, those who carry arms and use them. Otherwise, he will be creating a chaotic situation.
BLITZER: So do you believe that the secretary of state of the United States, Colin Powell, did the right thing today when he went to Ramallah and sat down with Yasser Arafat for three hours?
FM PERES: I think that if he want to talk with the Palestinians, Arafat remains the address for talking with them. I don’t see anybody else that the secretary could have approached in order to have a meaningful dialogue.
BLITZER: Are you encouraged, Mr. Minister, that, following that three-hour meeting, the secretary announced there would be continued talks, lower-level talks between Israeli and Palestinian officials, that possibly a second round of talks with Yasser Arafat on Tuesday?
FM PERES: I think that, on the one hand, we have to settle some complicated issues, like, for example, when will our army redeploy to the previous positions before the present operations started. Initially, we said it will take four weeks. Two weeks already have passed. So it’s another matter maybe of 10 days or two weeks unless there will be some unexpected events. So, when the Palestinians are saying they want us to go out, we never intended to remain there. And it can be relatively in a short while.
On the other hand, we have to give birth to some new ideas. The old ideas, the previous ideas are aged and overused. I think one of the important ideas that came over the table is to have original conference, with all the parties concerned coming together, and try to lay out an agenda like it was done 10 years ago in Madrid.
BLITZER: Some Palestinians, Mr. Minister, say that’s simply a stalling tactic on the part of the Israeli government, that there’s no need for this kind of Madrid-like international conference at this point. The immediate need, these Palestinians say, is for Israel simply to withdraw from the territories.
FM PERES: Well, the Palestinians who say it must show that they control the situation. As long as there are more bombs and more terror and more violence — you cannot use only your lips to re-create a situation. You have to use your imagination and the control of the events.
I would say point blank: If you can stop terror, there is no sense to wait. But if you cannot stop terror, and unfortunately, that is the present situation, we have to look for bridges to cross the very big outrage that exists among the people on our side and on their side.
BLITZER: Mr. Minister, correct me if I’m wrong, but I sense some differences within your National Unity government. Some of your colleagues, Likud members in particular, say they’ve written off Yasser Arafat. They say he’s a terrorist and should not be even considered in negotiations. You’ve not written him off by any means, have you?
FM PERES: We have differences. It’s a coalition government. It’s not a secret. We have different parties, and clearly the party I represent does not agree with the Likud Party. We don’t make any secrets about it.
Now, when it comes to Arafat, I’m really trying to see or think who cand, in the eyes of the Palestinians, replace him. Maybe there are other candidates to succeed him, but I don’t think they will be better or more promising. We cannot force the Palestinians to change their leaders, but we have to press upon the Palestinians to change their policies, namely to stop terror and enter into a meaningful negotiation.
BLITZER: How concerned are you, Mr. Minister, about the tensions along the border between Israel and Lebanon? As you know, the secretary of state will be going to Beirut tomorrow, Monday, for meetings with Lebanese officials, to try to urge calm along Israel’s border with Lebanon and indeed with Syria as well.
FM PERES: I’m very much concerned, because the Hizbullah are spoilers, and the Lebanese don’t really have control over them. And let’s not forget that in Damascus itself there are 10 headquarters of different terroristic organizations. And yet Syria is a member of the Security Council. It’s absurd. The Syrians must decide if they belong to the security of the world or the insecurity of the world of terror. They cannot go on like it.
I think the visit of Secretary Powell to Syria is of great importance. He has to tell them the naked truth. The Syrians are interested in being respected and in appearing as a responsible country. If they want to be respected and responsible, they have to take measures to stop the deterioration in Lebanon.
Clearly, the Lebanese, too, must play a role in their own integrity and their own independence. Today they’re becoming more and more submitted to the whims of the Hizbullah, which is a terrorist group that takes orders from Iran. So I think to talk with the Lebanese is important at this point.
Now the Lebanese government is asking for help. And may I say also, in favor of the Lebanese government, they have developed the southern part of Lebanon quite impressively. If troubles will begin there, the first victims will be those farmers and businessmen that are developing the southern part of Lebanon, and for us, the northern part of Israel. Here, really, is a crazy group of people with a religious clock, trying to put an end to any effort to make peace.
BLITZER: That sounds to me, Mr. Minister, and correct me if I’m wrong, like you’re threatening to retaliate against positions in southern Lebanon, including presumably Syrian positions, if these mortar attacks against Israeli troops within the so-called Shaba Farms area, if they continue.
FM PERES: No, I am not threatening. On the contrary, I think Israel has shown a great deal of restraint. But if they will continue firing against us, what do you expect us to do? Hizbullah wants to provoke Israel.
BLITZER: Will you hold Syria directly responsible?
FM PERES: We shall hold Syria directly responsible for trying seriously to prevent this outburst of fire.
BLITZER: What about the situation in Bethlehem? Toady is Sunday. The situation in Bethlehem remains as it’s been, a standoff, a serious standoff; some 200 Palestinian gunmen inside the Church of the Nativity.
We’ve now heard from a spokesman for your government saying Israel has come up with a proposal to let them to let them leave, those 200 gunmen, to get safe passage and leave this area forever, in effect, although it is doubtful that Palestinians necessarily will support that. Do you have any other way of trying to ease that situation?
FM PERES: No. They’re armed people. They are people who should be blamed for many acts of terror and violence. We have reported to the Vatican. We told them that we want to respect the holiness of the church. We don’t want our forces in any way to penetrate the church, the position of this church as it is being accepted by (inaudible). And for that reason, we told the Vatican that we are ready to let the people who are in the church to go abroad and bring an end to the story.
For us it’s quite a difficult situation, because among the people who are there, there are real murderers. There are people that are to be blamed for many acts of terror and violence. But because we want to bring a peaceful end to this story — and by the way, the Vatican says that the Palestinians were the ones who violated the holiness of the church — we are proposing what we did propose.
BLITZER: Your government is also being severely criticized by the Palestinians and elsewhere around the world for what’s happened over these past few days in the Palestinian refugee camp in Jenin, on the West Bank, accusations of an Israeli massacre against Palestinians. Are you now prepared to allow independent observers from the Red Cross, from the U.N., journalists to go into that camp and see first-hand what may have occurred?
FM PERES: It is our intention, once the fire will be stopped. But I want to tell you about Jenin, there are rumors and there are facts. What we are now dealing and facing is more rumors than facts.
I would like to mention two points. One, most of the buildings that we have destroyed were trapped by mines, and they became, you know, a living bomb. And also, many of the people, even the ones who surrendered, were human mines. They carried explosives on their body.
I must say, it was a bitter struggle, a bitter fight in Jenin. We have lost 23 soldiers. It’s not an easy proposition for any of us. And I know the army was given orders not to hit any civilians, and to the best of my knowledge, the army took it very seriously. The men who went there were reserve soldiers, people with experience.
BLITZER: If you have, Mr. Minister, nothing to hide, why not simply let those independent outside observers into Jenin?
FM PERES: There is still an exchange of fire in Jenin now, and they could be caught by a cross-fire. But I think the army is thinking of opening up Jenin for the visitors, and eventually it will be open. I don’t know if it will take a day or less than that or more than that, but within a very short period of time, Jenin will be opened.
BLITZER: As you know, there’s been a proposal now floated out there of having some sort of international presence, international force, perhaps including U.S. troops, separate Israelis and Palestinians on the West Bank. Is this an idea that your government is ready to accept?
FM PERES: No. We think that before you have observers, you have to decide what are they going to observe. Namely, you have to have an agreement. If you don’t have an agreement, what will observers going to do? What can they do? So the first step before we talk about observers is really to decide where are the lines, who is in charge, and then discuss the possibility of observers.
We have agreed, by the way, to have American observers, already a few months ago, in Gaza in order to supervise a very complicated point in the southern part of Gaza in Rafah. It didn’t materialize for different reasons.
But I believe that what is really needed is an agreement before any observations.