President Clinton News Conferences & Interviews: Middle East/Israel
JANUARY 28, 1997
Middle East Peace Process
Q. Mr. President—Mr. President, both Israel and Syria seem willing and ready to come to the negotiating table, and they both want American diplomacy as an honest broker. Prime Minister Netanyahu will come to Washington next month. How will you act together to energize this track and reach comprehensive peace in the Middle East, which is clearly a top priority of your administration?
The President. Well, Prime Minister Netanyahu, Chairman Arafat, King Hussein, and President Mubarak are all coming here in the next couple of months. And I must say again how much I appreciate the agreement reached on Hebron and the other understandings reached between Prime Minister Netanyahu and Chairman Arafat and the fact that so far things seem to be being implemented in an appropriate way and going all right.
There will never be a comprehensive peace in the Middle East until we resolve this matter with Syria—between Syria and Israel. And that requires the willingness of the parties. What our experience has been, mine, the Secretary of State, Secretary Christopher, and now Secretary Albright, Mr. Ross, and our whole team—has been that when both parties want to make peace, no matter how far apart they seem, we've found a way to get there. If they're not sure it's time to make peace, no matter how close it seems to an outsider, we don't seem to be able to bridge the gap. So you can be sure that that will be a major focus of our discussion, whether we can find a way to work together.
MARCH 3, 1997
Q. Mr. President, the Jerusalem Embassy Act declares that the United States should recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. Is Jerusalem Israel's capital, and does Israel have the right to build within the municipal boundaries of Jerusalem?
The President. Well, you know, I've been asked that question a lot, and I'm going to give you the same answer I always give. I do not believe, now that the parties have reached the agreement they reached in 1993 and they have made this the final status issue, that the United States can serve any useful purpose by saying, or especially by doing, anything which seems to prejudge what should be a final status issue between the parties. I think that would be a big mistake.
MARCH 10, 1997
Q. Mr. President, in casting a veto on a new Israeli settlement in the U.N., the U.S. went against the conscience and the consensus of the world. The general assumption is that Israel is trying to force, with military backing, a preemptive solution to the status of Jerusalem rather than going through negotiations as promised. Is that your read on it?
President Clinton. Well, let me answer the two questions at once there. We made it very clear that the decision to build in the Har Homa neighborhood, in our view, would not build confidence, would not be conducive to negotiations, would be seen by the Palestinians and others as an attempt to, in effect, precondition some of the final status issues. And that's why we said that we thought it was a complication we would prefer strongly that it not have been made.
On the other hand, we felt that the resolution of the Security Council was also ill-advised for the general reason that we generally prefer that the Security Council resolutions not be injected into the peace negotiations, first, and second, because there was specific language in this resolution that we have previously vetoed because we also feel it attempts to shape the final status negotiations.
I think that we have seen—we have learned one thing, I have, in the last 4 years plus, and that is when the parties get together and negotiate in good faith and take risks for peace, good things happen. When they attempt to preclude the process of negotiations or preempt it or are insensitive to the needs and the feelings of people in the negotiating process, more destructive things happen and it becomes more difficult to make peace.
So I feel that we did the right thing from the point of view of the United States and the United Nations. But that should not be interpreted as an approval of the decision that was made by the Israeli Government.
Q. You don't think the U.N. has a role in peacemaking?
President Clinton. Oh, yes, I do think the U.N. has a role. But I think—again, I say, go back and read the language of the resolution. Look at the position we've taken in previous votes with the same kind of language. And remember that we believe it's our job to try to protect the final status issues for the final status negotiations.
You know, I had this same issue on completely the other side last year and the year before when there was a big move in Congress to move the Embassy to Jerusalem. And I opposed it because I thought it was a way by indirection of our taking a position on the final status, which I don't think we should do, I don't think any of us should do. We have got to force these parties to—and to help to work to create an environment in which they make the decisions together in an atmosphere of genuine negotiations. And that's the position that I hold.
Q. The question is for President Bill Clinton. The American administration has always been voicing its concern over the settlement issue. I want to revisit this issue again, if you will allow me. And you first described it as illegal and then as an obstacle to peace and as building mistrust and now dubbed it as a mere difficulty to peace. And a couple of days ago you vetoed a moderate decision by the United Nations over that issue.
Well, you've explained the position of the U.S. administration, but it looks—it's a little bit puzzling for us in the Arab world to understand that position, because don't you think that such a position places the U.S. credibility as an honest peace broker in question? And secondly, doesn't such a position also make the United States interests in the Arab world in jeopardy?
President Clinton. Well, let me say, first of all, in all candor, I'm very concerned about that. I'm concerned about—and I was very aware of how the veto might make the United States look in the Arab world, because I have worked very hard, as I told Mr. Arafat when he was here, to be fair to the Palestinians and fair to all the parties in the Middle East peace process and to see that their legitimate interests are advanced. And I worked hard to avoid, frankly, having a Security Council resolution. We were prepared to support a rather strong statement, Presidential statement, as an alternative.
But I think it's important—and I would say to the people in the Arab world who are looking at this and wondering what we're up to here, I'd like to say, you have to remember a couple of things.
Number one, if you go back and read that resolution, we have had a consistent position, even though I have abstained in some resolutions, I haven't vetoed all the resolutions criticizing Israel, but even though I have abstained in some, we've had a consistent position that we can never achieve peace through U.N. Security Council resolutions, number one.
Number two, there is language in this particular resolution which is identical to language that we have felt constrained to veto in the past because we felt that it, too, prejudged the final status.
And number three, I would say, just the way you asked the question makes my point. For the Arab world, the building in Har Homa is a settlement and, therefore, a violation. For the Israelis, they are building in a neighborhood that is already a part of their territory. So they are—they strongly dispute that it is a settlement in the sense that they admit other settlements exist.
Now, that very point makes a point I tried to make, which is why I believe the decision should not have been made. This should be part of the final status negotiations. Everything surrounding Jerusalem is of immense emotional, political, and religious signifi cance to all the parties involved here. That's why they wisely put it as a final status issue. And the only thing I can say to you is that you may disagree with this decision, but if you look at what I've done for the last 4 years and what I intend to do, I am trying to get to a point where the parties themselves can honestly make a just, fair, and lasting peace. And I will not do anything that I think undermines the ability of the United States to stand for that.
Final Status Negotiations
Q. Both of you have spoken about Jerusalem and how it should be only discussed in the final status negotiations. But these negotiations are supposed to start in 4 days, in fact. Do you believe that this deadline will be met, and if not, how will this affect the peace process?
President Mubarak. You're asking me? Both of us. You start, Mr. President.
President Clinton. I went first last time. That's not fair. [Laughter] Let me say, the deadline may not be met, but the important thing is to find the basis on which the parties can resume negotiations. I have been very impressed by how gifted the Palestinian negotiating team has been and how gifted the Israeli team has been. For anyone to just even look at the maps on Hebron, it's a stunning achievement, really, that they could come to grips with all this, the complexity of it.
But whether they're prepared to go on right now or whether we're going to have to figure out some way to build the confidence back to jumpstart it, we'll see. But if they don't start in 4 days, they're going to have to start sooner or later, or there won't be peace. So I would just bear down and keep working hard to try to get them back together, if they don't meet in 4 days.
U.S. Veto of U.N. Resolution on Jerusalem
Q. A question for both Presidents, please. The whole Arab world was disappointed by the veto. Don't you think, first, that this policy pursued by the U.S. could encourage Israel to build more settlements inside Jerusalem which would make an obstacle—new obstacles to the peace process? And if you have discussed any new Syrian—any new ideas to push forward the Syrian track?
President Clinton. Yes, the answer to your first question is, it would—it might be seen as encouraging the present Israeli Government to do that if we had stated that we were vetoing the resolution because we agreed with Israel's decision. But we've made it clear we do not agree with Israel's decision and we—that we have to go back to the negotiations. So for that reason, I do not believe so.
Second question is, yes, we did. We had a very long, good detailed discussion about what we might do together to get the Syrian negotiations back on track. And we've both agreed now to go out and do a few things to try to see if we can't make that happen. Whether we can, of course, is up to President Asad and Prime Minister Netanyahu. But we believe it's important, and we believe that there is at least a potential there that the parties could reach across the ground that divides them.
MARCH 13, 1997
Attack on Israeli Schoolchildren
The President. Today along the normally peaceful border between Israel and Jordan, we have seen an inexcusable and tragic act of violence against schoolchildren. I condemn this act in the strongest possible terms. I offer to Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Israeli people, and the families and friends of the innocent children who died or were wounded my profound condolences and those of the American people.
As I travel to North Carolina today to speak to people about our own schoolchildren, the senseless denial of a future for these young Israeli children will bear heavily on my mind. There is no justification or excuse for these acts. Now the leaders in the region must work hard to calm the situation, to do everything in their power to create an atmosphere in which violence is rejected rather than embraced.
I call on the leaders and the people of the region to reject violence, to redouble their efforts toward peace and reconciliation. I was encouraged by the statement which King Hussein issued not long ago—just a few moments ago—and I am very hopeful that the leaders and the people will respond in an appropriate manner.
Q. Mr. President, do you believe the Israelis have to halt the settlements in East Jerusalem at this point? Do you think that might help calm the situation there?
The President. Let me first say that there is no evidence at this moment that this terrible incident is related to the tensions in the area over the issues. For all we know, this may have been just a deranged person. And I think it is important, given King Hussein and Jordan's long record of reaching for peace and reconciliation, that no one jump to any undue conclusions.
We don't have the facts. None of us have any facts other than we know this incident occurred. But we have no reason to believe that this was politically motivated by any larger group or anything. We just don't know that.
But you know what I believe. I believe that this is a time when we need to be building confidence and working together and there needs to be a certain mutuality of action in the Middle East to get this peace process well underway. That is what I had hoped would happen after the Hebron agreement, and that is still what I believe has to happen if we're going to succeed.
So we'll be talking to all the parties, and I'm in more or less constant contact with them. And we'll continue to be hopeful. But for right now, I think we need to give the people of Israel the time to absorb this terrible shock.
MARCH 21, 1997
Terrorist Attack in Israel
Q. In light of today's attack on Tel Aviv, sir, you just said the Palestinian Authority is unalterably opposed to terror. Are you saying that there was no green light for terrorist attacks like Prime Minister——
President Clinton. No, no. What I said is—let me clarify what I said. What I intended I say, what I believe I said was that the Palestinian Authority has to make it clear to the friends and to the enemies of the peace process that it is unalterably opposed to terror and must take all possible steps to make that clear and to prevent any terror from occurring. This is a formulation that has frequently been used in the Middle East, but everyone knows that no one in the Middle East can guarantee 100 percent protection against terror. But all the people who participate in the peace process should guarantee 100 percent effort against terror.
Q. What about what Prime Minister Netanyahu?
President Clinton. Well, I can't—first of all, I can't comment decisively, one way or the other, on exactly what was or wasn't done because I don't think any of us know. What I think is very important is that no matter how strongly Mr. Arafat and the Palestinian people feel about the Har Homa decision, nothing—nothing—justifies a return to the slaughter of innocent civilians. It cannot be justified. And we have to have a clear and unambiguous position.
And in the past, when Mr. Arafat has taken that position, I believe it strengthened him. I also believe that acts of terror undermine him because he, in the end, is the popularly elected leader trying to lead the Palestinian people to a peaceful resolution of these differences.
So I have made that very clear just in the last couple of days, and we will continue to work to that end.
APRIL 7, 1997
Middle East Peace Process
Q. Mr. President, how dangerous is the standoff between Israel and the Palestinians?
The President. Well, I think it's very important to get this peace process back on track. The Prime Minister is coming here at a very good time. As you know, he saw King Hussein the other day; I did, too. And I want to have this chance to spend an hour with him to discuss what we can do to get it going again.
Q. Mr. President, will you be amenable to hosting a peace conference at Camp David, as the Prime Minister has suggested?
The President. Well, I think it's important not to jump the gun on that. The first thing we have to do is get the process going again. There is a preexisting process. There are a whole lot of agreements. And the Prime Minister has got some ideas about what we can do to get the substance working.
Obviously, I've been heavily involved in this from the day I became President. I continue to be heavily involved, and I wouldn't rule out any reasonable opportunity for me to make a positive contribution. But we have to have the conditions and the understandings necessary to go forward. That's the most important thing, is to get the thing going again.
Q. Mr. President, are the Palestinians entitled to a concession in order to make a statement against terrorism, the kind of zero-tolerance statement you want? Does Israel have to trade something for that, or is that just an obligation under the Oslo agreement?
The President. I think under the Oslo agreement and under any sense of human rights and human decency, we ought to have zero tolerance for terrorism.
Q. Mr. President, you've said that your role is to support Israel as it takes risks for peace. Has the time come to exert more influence or pressure, as some would say, to get certain concessions from Israel?
The President. I think the important thing is to create the environment in which the steps can be taken which will make peace possible. And one precondition of that, obviously, is the absence of terrorism; the other is the presence of a certain confidence on the part of both sides that peace is possible. And I think that I will do whatever I think is most appropriate to achieve that. But you all need to let us go to work here and try to get something done.
APRIL 8, 1997
Middle East Peace Process
Q. Mr. President, in his election campaign, Prime Minister Netanyahu was very critical of the Oslo accords. At one point, I believe he described them as a knife in the back of Israel. And since then, he has taken a number of preemptive actions that have created a series of crises in the peace process. How does that square with your statement that one of the requirements is a genuine commitment to build confidence in the peace process?
The President. I have so far not disclosed anything that has passed between us, but I will say that both—because he said it publicly—the Prime Minister has said repeatedly publicly, and said again to me when he was here, that even though he did not agree with everything about Oslo, he felt that the Israeli Government was bound by it, and he thought that he ought to honor it. And that's been his public statement, and I believe it remains his position.
Q. Mr. President, you seem to have struck out in getting the Mideast peace talks back on track at this moment. Does the U.S. lack any diplomatic leverage with Israel despite 50 years of assistance and support? And where do you go from here?
The President. Well, first of all, I wouldn't assume that, based on the comments that have been made so far. Where I go from here is that we're waiting for the Palestinian delegation to come in. We're going to review the ground that we went over with Prime Minister Netanyahu, and we're going to do our best to get this thing going again.
There are clearly two preconditions, one is zero tolerance for terror; the other is a genuine commitment to build confidence and to make progress and to do the things required by the Oslo agreement. And the parties are going to have to decide whether they're willing to let the peace process go forward.
We are prepared to do whatever we can, but I would not conclude from the fact that I'm giving very noncommittal answers that I think there's no chance that we'll get it going again. I think that there is a fairly decent chance that we can, but I think it's important now not to say things which will undermine whatever prospect we have of success later.
In the end, it still depends on what it always has depended on, and that is the parties taking responsibilities to take the risks for peace.
APRIL 18, 1997
Israeli Politics and the Peace Process
Q. Mr. President, the Prime Minister of Israel is having domestic troubles now, and occasionally, these sorts of issues can leak into the large international arena, particularly in regard to this peace process. Are you concerned about that sort of spillage, and have you had any conversations with him about it since the news was announced or during his visit here?
The President. He didn't say anything to me during his visit here which is inconsistent with what he's said in public since then. He made the same general statements to me. We have had no conversations since then. As you know, Dennis Ross has been there and helped to broker this meeting between the Palestinians and the Israelis on security. It's obviously an internal matter for Israel to deal with. They're a great and vibrant democracy, and they'll deal with that in their way. But I think that the important thing is that we get the security cooperation up and going, and then we just keep plugging ahead here. We cannot allow anything—anything—to derail the peace process, and I don't believe we will.
AUGUST 6, 1997
Middle East Peace Process
Q. Thank you, Mr. President. Mr. President, the United States has avoided nurturing peace for a long time in the Middle East tinderbox. I'm sure that it's a way to go, you feel, but yet, editorially the Washington Post says your choices are—and if you'll permit me to read it—it says, "Up to now, President Clinton has avoided confronting the implications of Mr. Netanyahu's reluctance to bargain territory for a Palestinian settlement. Now he must decide whether to minimize short-run frictions with the Israeli Government or reach for a long-term peace." What do you say to that?
The President. Well, first of all, let me say that the Secretary of State gave a very important speech to the Press Club at noon today. I read the speech last night. I went over it with great care, and I am in full accord with what she said.
Secondly, in this year alone, the United States helped to broker the Hebron agreement. We have hosted all the leaders from the Middle East here. Dennis Ross has been to the Middle East twice. We have worked very hard on this. Indeed, there is no foreign policy problem to which I have given more of my personal time since I became President in 1993.
But we have to do what we believe will be most effective. The question is not whether the United States or this administration on any given day or week is popular or not in any foreign capital. The question is, are we doing what is most likely to work? And sometimes reasonable people can disagree about that.
Now, I have asked Dennis Ross to go back to the region to primarily discuss security. As Secretary Albright made clear, until the parties trust each other and until the Israelis believe that the Palestinian Authority is making 100 percent effort, which is different from 100 percent results, but making 100 percent effort on security, it is impossible for peace to proceed. If we can resolve that, then the Secretary of State will soon go to the Middle East with the ideas that we have developed for going forward.
Let me make this one final point on this—you may want to ask some followup questions, but I want to make what I hope is a clear distinction.
On the substance of the peace process, the parties still have to make the final decision. But on the process itself—how to get the process going again with some integrity designed to restore confidence in both parties—I think the United States can and should offer its best ideas, and that is exactly what we intend to do, and that's what the Secretary of State's speech was designed to set the stage for today.
Q. Well, the point of friction has been the settlements. And do you think you've been evenhanded in that respect?
The President. Well, I think we've made it clear to the Israelis that we don't think anything should be done which undermines the trust of the parties and violates either the spirit or the letter of the Oslo accord and which predetermines the outcome of final settlement issues under Oslo. I think we've made that clear. And I think that the Secretary of State's speech today was quite clear on that.
But let me say there is no parallel between bombs and bulldozers. You cannot draw a parallel. We cannot have an environment in which people believe the way to get what they want is to kill innocent people in a marketplace. Furthermore, I believe the people who are responsible for those terrorist bombs are the enemies of the Palestinian Authority as well, and I think they ought to see that. It is imperative that Mr. Arafat understand that those people are not his friends either. Those people do not want the peace. Their closest allies, in terms of political objectives, may be their most extreme enemies in Israel, who do not believe that peace is possible. The people that murdered all those people, those innocent civilians, are not trying to get a peace that they think is more favorable to the Palestinian or the Arab cause; they are trying to murder the peace process. And as soon as we all understand that and go back to work on it, then I think we have a chance to make progress.
But I also believe that the Government of Israel clearly has a responsibility to try to—to carry its end of the load, too. This has got to be a two-way street: security first; then let's see both sides do what it takes to restore the confidence.
Q. Mr. President, going back to the first question on the Middle East—when this administration calls on the Palestinian Authority to take sustained action to prevent terrorism, what specific steps are you looking for? And secondly, do you, personally, believe that Yasser Arafat and the Palestinian Authority have fulfilled the obligation to prevent terrorism?
The President. Let me answer them in order. Number one, we expect them to resume meaningful, real, consistent security cooperation with the Israeli authorities in the way that they do when they work best. Number two, we expect them to act on the information that they have. You can't hold them to the information that they don't. But they have proven in the past quite effective at rounding up people and arresting them for good cause. And number three, we expect that if there are people there who are really serious threats to the peace and to innocent civilians, that they should be kept behind bars if it is legal to do so. So that's basically it.
Now, in answer to your second question, I would have to say that I could not say that there has been constant, 100 percent effort. That does not mean that we know—by the way, that does not mean that we know for sure, we in the United States know, that these bombs would not have exploded and killed these people if 100 percent effort had been made. I can't say that; I'm not close enough to the situation. But I know that it's been discouraging for the Palestinian Authority. I know they get frustrated. I know that sometimes Mr. Arafat feels like he's caught in the middle between his own population and their discontents and frustration and his frustrations in dealing with the Israeli Government. But none of that can be an excuse for not maintaining security.
If you go back and read Oslo, they promised 100 percent effort on security, number one. Number two, never mind Oslo; you can't have a civilized society if you permit terrorism. And number three, in the end the terrorists are the enemy of moderate, constitutional government among the Palestinians. Those people who murdered those people in the market did not want a better peace deal. They want continued impasse. They want to destroy Israel. And that is not going to happen. There must be a peace process.
DECEMBER 16, 1997
Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of Israel
Q. Mr. President, a few weeks ago the Prime Minister of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, was in the United States, and you and he were in Los Angeles at exactly the same time; in fact, your planes were both on the tarmac at LAX as you were getting ready to leave. But you refused to meet with him. He later said in
an interview that you, in effect, were not only snubbing him, but you were humiliating or embarrassing the State of Israel, the people of Israel. I wonder if you'd care to respond to that, and why didn't you meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu? This is the first time in my memory that an Israeli Prime Minister was in the United States and did not get a meeting with the President of the United States.
The President. Well, first of all, let's put the record straight here. Mr. Netanyahu has been in office only a year and a half, and we have had five meetings. I don't believe I have ever met with any other world leader five times within an 18-month period. So there can be no serious suggestion that the United States is not interested in the peace process or respectful of the people and Government of Israel. We have had five meetings.
Secondly, I expect that we will have a meeting early next year, a sixth meeting, to discuss where we are and where we're going. Secretary Albright was slated to meet with and did meet with Mr. Netanyahu to talk about what the next steps were. I think it is important when the President meets on the peace process that it be a real meeting and that there be some understanding of where we are and where we're going and what we're doing together. And I have always taken that position.
So there was no—you never heard, I don't believe, me say anything about some sort of calculated decision to snub the people of Israel or the Government of Israel. I simply wouldn't do that.
Middle East Peace Process
Q. Mr. President, you said earlier, getting back to the Middle East peace process, you said that if you met with the Prime Minister it should be with an understanding of the direction that the peace process is going—forgive me if those aren't your exact words, but did you mean to suggest that there is no understanding of the direction that the peace process is taking.
The President. No, I didn't mean that at all. But what I mean is I think the next time we meet we are likely to have a productive meeting because we'll have a lot to talk about because a lot of work has been done. Secretary Albright has been out there to the region; she's been meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu in Europe. The Netanyahu Cabinet has taken a decision on redeployment, which they're attempting to flesh out and define at this moment. And, as you know, there's a lot of controversy within the Government in Israel about what next steps ought to be taken in the peace process.
The only point I made is I think the next time we meet we'll have quite a meaty agenda; we'll have something to talk about and something to do. I'm not suggesting that there is some standard that the Government or the Prime Minister has to meet in order to have a meeting, but I think that it will be a useful meeting and it's an appropriate thing to do.
Source: Public Papers of the President