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Bill Clinton Administration:
Interview on the Middle East

(January 11, 2001)


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Middle East Peace Process

Q. The Middle East, there were some talks in the Gaza today between Israelis and Palestinians. But Sharon has already said the Oslo deal is dead, basically. What are your thoughts about the next 8 days? Is there any hope for anything to happen or will you----

The President. I think there is. It depends on what the agreement is and then how the Israeli electorate responds to it. General Sharon has, I think, never liked the Oslo agreement and has been very honest about it. But he did come to Wye River; he participated fully. Then Prime Minister Netanyahu had been very critical of Oslo. But they negotiated that agreement at Wye River, and previously to that, I think he was in when they finalized the Hebron agreement.

So you have to hope that this process keeps going. The reason we went--let me just back up and say, the reason we went to Camp David in the first place is that it was obvious to everybody that just as the Hebron and then especially the Wye River agreement was absolutely essential to keep the peace process alive, because the previous understandings had come to the end of their rope and they had to stay on the process, it was obvious to me that we had come to the end of our capacity to stay in the peace process with just the Wye River agreement. It worked very well for a couple of years, but there had to be some continued movement.

Because what happens is, when you reach a stall, then the people that really don't want this to happen, particularly rejectionist elements within the Palestinian community, they can have incidents; then they provoke reactions; then the borders get closed; then the incomes of the Palestinians drop again, and you get in a downward spiral. So I was trying to head off just what we've been through these last 3 months.

So I think that they will have to reach some sort of accommodation, unless they really want the thing to spin out of control. And I really don't believe either side wants that, so we'll just have to see. But you know, whatever happens will be the responsibility of the next administration and the winner of the Israeli election, whoever that may be.

Q. Do you think it's important for you to set out a list of, maybe, points that have been agreed to so far, so that they don't start from scratch again, that you don't lose what you've already gotten?

The President. Well, I think it was quite significant, actually, even though it came 6 days later than I wanted it to, that the Palestinians have now agreed in principle with the parameters. So at least that Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority have agreed--this Israeli government, excuse me--and the Palestinian Authority have agreed to the parameters. Both sides have some concerns and some questions which are, frankly, quite well known to either side. So I think we have narrowed the debate and moved it forward.

Now obviously, unless there is an agreement, the United States Government is not bound by the position I took. Any incoming Israeli government would not be bound. For example, when I felt that I had to continue a number of President Bush's policies--I didn't particularly disagree with them, either, by the way, in Somalia and one or two other places--but I didn't really believe it was an option to reverse them, because our Government was committed. And I think it's very important that we--except in the most extreme circumstances--maintain some continuity in foreign policy and in our commitments to other countries.

But President-elect Bush is in no way, shape, or form bound by the positions I've taken on this Middle East agreement, unless there is some agreement.

Q. Do you think that'll happen?

The President. I just don't know. You know, it's a very difficult- to-predict situation. All the odds say no, but there are reasons why they are both working to get this done. In all my 8 years of service as President, I've never seen a situation quite like this, where the circumstances, including my short time in office, seemed unfavorable, but the determination of the main players seems strong, in fact, maybe even intensified. So we'll just have to see what happens.

I'm trying to keep myself free of expectation one way or the other, and to do whatever I can to try to help end the violence--and we had a good day today--and just create the conditions in which, if they're willing, they can do as much as they can do. And we'll just have to see what happens. I don't think we can predict it.

Q. Do you think the incoming Bush people will be as interested in pursuing this as you have been?

The President. Well, I think they will be very interested in stability and peace in the Middle East. Their orientation has been a little more toward, you know, the Gulf, the oil-producing states, honoring our historic commitments to Israel to maintain their qualitative military capacity.

But to be fair, the previous Bush administration took a pretty strong line on expanded settlements after the Madrid talks started in the hope that they could help to create the conditions in which the Palestinians and the Israelis could move toward peace.

So I think that there may be differences in approach and priorities that the President and the Vice President and Secretary Powell will have to work through. But my guess is that their general direction will be the same, because in the end, what happens is--let's assume--and I'm not saying this, because I don't believe this--but listen, even if you had an administration that didn't really care about the Palestinian problem on its own merits, and said, "Well, our real interests are in the geopolitics of the oil-producing states and the problems created by the lack of an agreement with Syria."

And by the way, I'm fairly optimistic that there will be an agreement between Israel and Syria sometime in the not-too-distant future, and I don't think there would be much difference in the policy positions taken by Likud or a Labor government on Syria, or by my administration or the incoming administration. We worked this hard, I mean, for years. And I think if the late President Asad hadn't kind of felt he was not in the best of health and was not--that they wanted to freeze things in place, and if he can secure his son's accession, we might well have been able to do a peace agreement when I met with him in Switzerland shortly before his death. So I expect that I don't think there will be much difference there.

So even if it's not a priority for you because it looks like a morass that can't be solved in a small place with people that don't have a state, don't have nuclear arms, don't have an air force, don't have an army, inevitably what we always get back to is that the absence of an agreement with the Palestinians and the absence of a stable situation between Israel and the Palestinians infects the other countries and their capacity to relate to us over the long run.

And particularly as these other countries have more and more young people who are more and more drawn to the sympathetic--drawn with a sympathetic ear to the claims of the Palestinians, and they have more demonstrations in these other countries and more unrest in these other countries, I think that our concern for stability in our relations with the Saudis, with the Kuwaitis, with not letting Saddam Hussein develop weapons of mass destruction again, the whole range of concerns that any American administration would have to have leads you back down to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and trying to get to the end of the road there. I mean, I just think you do.

I think that that's why I made the speech I did to the Israeli Policy Forum the other night. I waited until the very end, and until, essentially, I had put these parameters out before saying that, because I don't believe an American President should try to impose or create a peace between these two parties. The questions go too much to the heart of their respective sense of national identities, their cultural identity, their whole set of religious convictions.

So all I said in these parameters and all I meant to say in the Israel Policy Forum speech is, "Look, I've been listening to these people for 8 years, and I've studied these issues as closely, I believe, as any American President ever has, down to the maps, the settlement locations, the maps of the city of Jerusalem, the whole thing. My best judgment is if there ever is going to be a comprehensive agreement, it will have to look something like this." And you know, that's not the only option. In other words, they could do what they did at Wye River. They could say, "Okay, here's the next chapter, and this is what we're going to do."

But the real problem with the sort of sequencing of interim steps is that, at least so far, because of all the other very complex forces going on there, these steps have not brought sufficient stability to the relationship and to the climate within the Palestinian areas or within Israel that there can be a long-term sort of set of nonpolitical measures that lead to progress--which is exactly the reverse of the Irish situation.

And you may have heard me say this before, but the difference is, in Ireland--I may have said this in the Israel Policy Forum speech, I can't remember--but my physical analogy is, some unsolved problems are like scabs on a wound. If you leave them alone, they'll heal. Some are like an abscessed tooth. If you leave it alone, it will get lots worse.

In Ireland, because the underlying economic circumstances are dramatically improved and because there has been a dramatic increase in interpersonal contact which is positive, and because while there is a small terrorist group that is still trying to upset the Irish thing, it's much more contained, the absence of final resolution of the thorny political issues is unlikely to crater the situation.

In the Middle East, the per capita income of most Palestinians is the same or lower than it was when we signed the agreement on the White House Lawn, because there are so many different groups that can paralyze the process with acts of terror or violence that close the borders, that stop everything, that wreck the economy, and that kind of burn the bridges of trust that get built up when things are going okay for a year or so. I think it's more like an abscessed tooth. So that's why I decided to make the speech I gave at the Israel Policy Forum.

But they don't have to do that. They could reach another accommodation. They could say, "Okay, we can't do this whole thing, but we can't just rest on Oslo plus Wye River, so we have to do this," whatever this is. And they could do that.

But I think any Israeli leader would have to see that, and I think in the end, any American Government will come back to a concern for it, if for no other reason than a desire to have stability in the region.


Sources: Public Papers of the President

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