Arafat's Death and Mideast Peace

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This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," Nov. 9, 2004, that has been edited for clarity.

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GEORGE W. BUSH, UNITED STATES PRESIDENT: I think it is very important for our friends, the Israelis, to have a peaceful Palestinian state living on their borders. It is very important for the Palestinian people to have a peaceful, hopeful future.


JOHN GIBSON, HOST: The future of peace in the Middle East a rocky road during the reign of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (search). President Bush has been quite clear he wants to spread peace and democracy in the region as part of a greater plan to protect our own long-term security.

I'm joined now by former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (search), who has worked to broker peace in the region. Senator, today's big question: so how will Arafat's death affect these Middle East peace plans?

GEORGE MITCHELL (D), FORMER SENATE MAJORITY LEADER: It creates an opportunity combined with President Bush's re-election, for a new initiative, a new push, to implement the road map that the President announced some time ago.

It will be difficult for the Palestinians. Arafat is the only leader they have known. For 40 years, he has been the embodiment of their national aspirations, but they recognize that a peaceful, effective transition of power to credible new leadership is an opportunity for them.

GIBSON: Arafat rejected peace, rejected a Palestinian state under Bill Clinton (search), when Ehud Barak (search) came and made a deal, made an offer; walked away from it.

George Bush said, "How am I going to do better than that?" and hasn't done a whole lot. Was Arafat the stumbling block? Once he is gone, Bush is actually inclined to do something?

MITCHELL: I don't think he was the only stumbling block, but clearly a major one. And the President has said he is inclined to do it. You just showed a clip of him. He is being pressed hard by Prime Minister Tony Blair (search), for whom it's a major issue.

And I think the opportunity is right. It's in America's interest. We have a strong relationship with Israel, and we want stability in the region because it is still the major source of oil for the Western economies. A disruption of oil from the Middle East would have a devastating effect on our economy and of our trading partners.

GIBSON: Sure. There was a lot of talk at the time that Arafat turned this down with Clinton was that he wouldn't survive getting off the plane flying home. How would any other Palestinian leader, without Arafat's stature, be able to say, "I will accept peace with the Israelis?"

MITCHELL: It will be very...

GIBSON: Or with George Bush?

MITCHELL: It will be very difficult, which is why a credible transition is necessary.

And then, ironically, those able to empower a Palestinian leader are not the Palestinian people but the Israelis and the United States. Because of the complete control that the Israelis have in the circumstance, only they can enable a Palestinian leader to say, "Look what I've gotten for you: fewer road blocks, more work permits, people able to move around to lead a normal life."

That's the way to empower a Palestinian leader.

GIBSON: Was Bush just sitting in the White House waiting for Arafat to die?

MITCHELL: I can't speak for the president.

GIBSON: Come on senator, was this guy such an impediment that President Bush was not going to lift a finger, essentially, as long as he was alive and could block whatever efforts were made?

MITCHELL: The president made it clear that he would not deal with Arafat. He did not see him or speak to him and would not permit American diplomats to speak with him. Whether that is the equivalent of waiting for him to die, I think is a different question.

But, the reality is not now the past, it is the opportunity for the future. What this holds right now is an opportunity that ought to be seized by the president, by the Palestinians, by the Israelis.

GIBSON: Last week the story on, the English language Web site of Al Jazeera , was not that Arafat was sick or that Arafat's health might be bad but that the Palestinians were trying to find the $6 billion Arafat fortune. Where would Arafat get $6 billion if he didn't steal it, and how could he hide it so that his wife doesn't know where it is and his Palestinian associates don't know where it is?

MITCHELL: Well, the first thing we must do is not accept, as fact, everything that appears on the Internet. What comes across my desk is as much fiction as fact. I have no idea what there is in the way of an Arafat fortune or how it was accumulated. I don't have the slightest idea.

I met him many times, spent a lot of time with him. He lived in very humble circumstances. Whether he had it secreted away for his wife, family or others, I just don't know, but I don't think that's the issue now.

The issue is the opportunity for progress in the future.

GIBSON: Senator George Mitchell, ever the diplomat. Senator Mitchell, as always, thank you.

MITCHELL: Thank you, John.

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