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Bill Clinton Administration:
News Conferences & Interviews on the Middle East/Israel

(1999)


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MAY 18, 1999

Israeli Election and Middle East Peace Process

Q. What would be the first step, Mr. President, towards a renewal, a revival of the peace process? Do you have anything in mind, I mean, have you set any dates?

President Clinton. No. Well, we have to, first of all, await the formation of a government in Israel. They probably have only known for a few hours what the distribution of the vote is by parties, in terms of what the composition of the Knesset will be. And so I think General Barak is entitled to a few days to put a government together.

Q. Why do you have so many hopes about this? I mean, why are you suddenly encouraged?

President Clinton. Well, I think that, clearly, the whole issue of the peace process was an issue; and I think because of his military service, the question of General Barak's devotion to the security of Israel is not in question. But he has evidenced an intention to continue the peace process. And if he's willing to do it, I think that we're certainly both willing to do it and we're hopeful that we'll have a chance to do so.

Q. Mr. President, what can the United States do to help further this peace process at this point?

President Clinton. Well, we have an accord at Wye to implement and we have a lot of work to do on the final status issues. I think the roadmap is out there. And we'll do what we've always done. I've been working at this for 6 years, and I'm looking forward to continuing. I'll do what I have done under all the previous leadership of Israel and what we have worked very closely with Jordan to do.

JULY 1, 1999

Q. Thank you. The question is for President Clinton. I would like to follow up on Helen's question on the settlements. President Clinton, in 1991, when you first were running for the Presidency, you made a pledge never to criticize Israel publicly. However, your administration expressed its dissatisfaction with Israel's settlements activities by describing them as an obstacle to peace.

However, 23 new settlements have been built since the signing of the Wye River accord. Would you be willing, your administration, would be willing to tell Israel to stop building the settlements, the new Israeli government, to stop building the settlements and undo the wrong that has been done? Thank you.

President Clinton. Well, I think our position on the settlements has been clear. We don't believe that unilateral actions by any parties, including other interested parties like the United States, which compromise the capacity of the parties to the Oslo accord to reach agreement on final status issues, should be taken. And that includes provocative settlement actions. We have made that clear and unambiguous.

But I do not believe—the Israeli people just had a huge election, a big election, and they voted in very large percentages in ways that almost every commentator has concluded sent the signal that they were ready to pursue the peace process to its conclusion. They now have a Prime Minister-elect who has just completed his government. He is coming to see me in the next few days. I think the less I say until I see him, and until we see if we can embrace a common posture toward making a peace, the better. But my views on the settlement question are well-known and have not changed.

SEPTEMBER 4, 1999

Middle East Peace Process

The President. The new agreement which will be signed today between the Israelis and the Palestinians represents a wonderful opportunity to move the peace process forward. It is a product of hard work and the growing understanding by Israelis and Palestinians alike that the fulfillment of one side's aspirations must come with, and not at the expense of, the fulfillment of the other side's dreams.

The two sides have both strong positions to be reconciled and shared interests to be pursued together. They know there's no sense in an endless tug-of-war over common ground.

The United States has been honored to support these efforts for peace, from the signing of the Oslo agreement on the White House lawn almost exactly 6 years ago, to the Wye River accords achieved with the help of the late King Hussein, to the peace between Israel and Jordan itself in 1994, down to the present agreement. Our success in these endeavors, of course, goes back to the Camp David accords under President Carter in 1978.

Today I want to pay tribute to Prime Minister Barak for fulfilling his promise to seek a just and lasting peace for the people of Israel and to Chairman Arafat for his courage in taking yet another step toward mutual respect and recognition. I am grateful for Egyptian President Mubarak's extraordinary efforts in this instance. He had a critical role in facilitating this agreement. And, of course, I want to say a special word of thanks to Secretary Albright and her team for going the extra mile to help the parties bridge their final gaps and reach consensus.

There is much hard work ahead for all of us. The United States pledged in the Wye River accords that we would help both sides minimize the risks of peace and we would help to lift the lives of the Palestinians. I ask Congress now to provide the funds we need to keep that promise.

Final status talks are now set to begin. We will do everything we can to be supportive all along the way and to achieve our larger goal—a just, lasting, and comprehensive peace in the entire region, including Syria and Lebanon. I hope today's progress is seen by leaders in the Middle East as a stepping stone toward that larger goal. Our commitment to reaching it will never waver.

SEPTEMBER 23, 1999

Middle East Peace Process

The President. Let me say, I am delighted to see Chairman Arafat again. We have a lot to discuss, obviously, about our bilateral relations, and especially about the permanent status talks. He and Prime Minister Barak have agreed on a very ambitious timetable, to have a framework agreement by February, final agreement by next September. The United States is prepared to do all we can to assist them in coming to an agreement.

And I would like to take this opportunity to say that we should first meet our own obligations under the Wye agreement. And I hope the Congress will give me the funding both for Israel and for the Palestinian Authority, so that we can meet our obligations there. And we're working hard. We're into the final budget legs now, and I'm quite hopeful.

Permanent Status Talks

Q. Mr. President, what did Chairman Arafat ask you vis-a-vis the permanent status talks? Did he ask you for a more active role, more involvement, sir?

The President. We're just starting—we're getting off to a late start, so we're just starting our conversation. But you know, I've been active in this all along, for 6? years, now. I intend to continue to be active, to do whatever I can to help the parties come to an agreement. If they're willing—and they must be willing, or they would not have agreed to such an ambitious timetable—then I'll do what I can.

Israel-Syria Negotiations

Q. [Inaudible]—about the Palestinian-Israeli track? Prime Minister Barak said just yesterday, any time, any place, for the Syrians to resume negotiations. There has yet to be any positive response there. What's your sense of what the hangup is there, and what can you do to try to move that along?

The President. Well, we're working on it, and I actually am quite hopeful.

President's Involvement in the Peace Process

Q. Mr. President, is there a chance that you'll visit the area, to give it a push on both tracks?

The President. I would do anything that would be helpful to facilitate the agreement. Right now, I'm not sure that would be the most helpful thing. I would do anything I could to facilitate the agreement.

Palestinian State

Q. The question of the state of Palestine, Mr. President, are you willing to spend more capital and secure your legacy as the President of the United States who achieved the Palestinian state and the peaceful settlement of the Middle East?

The President. Well, I'm certainly willing to do anything I can to achieve a peaceful settlement in the Middle East. The question of the state, as you know—that was a very well-worded question. Congratulations. [Laughter] But the question of the state is one to be resolved in the permanent status talks that have just begun, so I think they will resolve it. I think, obviously, that the two sides will make an agreement on that, or there won't be an agreement.

Press Secretary Joe Lockhart. Thank you, pool.

Q. Mr. President, what can you tell us——

Q. Mr. President, in your U.N. speech——

Israel's Role in the Peace Process

Q. [Inaudible]—what can you tell us about the performance of the Israeli side so far in the last one month?

The President. I'm encouraged. I think you should all be encouraged by the work that they've done together.

OCTOBER 31, 1999

Upcoming Middle East Peace Talks in Oslo, Norway

Mr. Gumbel. As you look to Oslo, what are your realistic expectations of what you can accomplish?

The President. Well, I hope that by getting together with Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat in a setting designed to honor the memory and to evoke the memory of Yitzhak Rabin, we can give some new energy to this process. They've done really quite well with their cooperation on security, with opening the safe passage from the West Bank to Gaza, with agreeing to a very disciplined timetable. But now they're getting into these issues which are all hard. And my strong conviction is that we've known what these issues are for a long time now; they're not going to get any easier. So whatever I and whatever the United States can do to facilitate a timely resolution of these issues I think will be positive. So I think this will have a positive impact on getting the process going along here.

Mr. Gumbel. Is it easier for you to feel a degree of optimism because it's Barak involved right now instead of Netanyahu?

The President. Well that may be part of it. But I think the main thing is that Barak and Arafat have now made an agreement and they're implementing it. And they're also cooperating on security issues. And Barak has made publicly clear that he had a timetable for resolving this, and he's received the support of the Israeli people. So that whole set of circumstances make me optimistic.

On the other hand, I want to say again, we're now down to the hard decisions. When Oslo was negotiated, the Oslo agreement, way back at the very end of '92, they knew what they were doing in saying, "Okay, here is what we're going to do now; here's what we're going to do in the next 4 or 5 years; here is what we're going to do at the end." And they left the hard stuff to the end. It was the right decision, but we're now down to the end and we have to deal with the hard stuff.

Middle East Peace Process

Q. Mr. President, are you optimistic about Oslo?

The President. Well, yes I am, based on the work that Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat have done already. You know, they've now opened the safe passage between the West Bank and Gaza. They're working very closely together on security arrangements.

But when the Oslo accords were made at the end—the very, very end of 1992—the people who put them together and the leaders who ratified them were quite smart. They left certain issues to be decided at the end, the so-called final status issues. They left them to the end because they're the hardest.

And so now it's come time to make the hard decisions. This will be difficult for both sides. But I believe that they're well aware of what the options are, and I don't believe they'll get much easier with the passage of time. So I think it's very important that the United States do whatever we can to create the conditions and provide the support necessary for these people to come together and do what they genuinely want to do. And so yes, I'm hopeful. I don't expect that we'll announce the resolution of all the final status issues at Oslo, but I do think that we'll be moving the process right along.

NOVEMBER 1, 1999

Middle East Peace Process

Q. What is your hope for the peace process?

The President. Well, first of all, I would like to thank the Prime Minister, the Government, and the people of Norway for hosting this meeting. I think it's coming at a good time. I believe that Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat want to continue the peace process. And we are now to the point where the really difficult decisions lie ahead. So coming back to Oslo, where the Oslo accords were born, coming here to honor the memory of Yitzhak Rabin, who gave his life for this peace process, it's a good thing to do.

And so we're hopeful that we'll make some progress. And we'll see, and probably the less we say about it in public, the more likely we are to get something done. But I'm hopeful.

NOVEMBER 8, 1999

Middle East Peace Process

Q. What do you feel are the chances that there will be any real progress in the talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis before you leave office?

The President. Oh, I think they're quite good. For one thing, there already has been real progress. Keep in mind, it was back in 1993 that we signed the Israel-PLO accord. We now have the Palestinians with their land in the West Bank and in Gaza. There's a high level of security cooperation between the two. And Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat reaffirmed their commitment to the peace process in Oslo when we went last week to honor the late Prime Minister Rabin. And they are now on, literally, about a 100-day timetable to finish a final framework agreement.

Now I don't want to kid you. The issues are very, very tough. But I think the chances of success are better than 50-50. And with a lot of prayers and a lot of pushing, maybe we'll make it. I feel hopeful.

NOVEMBER 11, 1999

Israeli Radar Sales to China

Q. Sir, can you take a question on Israel? Could you tell us, sir, how it is that Israel got the notion that it would be prudent to sell radar equipment to the Chinese, and what are you doing about it?

The President. Well, we have raised it with them because we raise—whenever any of our friends sell sophisticated equipment that might be American in origin that is inconsistent with the terms under which the transfer was made, then we raise that. That has not been acknowledged yet; the facts are in dispute. So I think before I can tell you what I'm going to do about it, we have to be absolutely sure what the facts are.

Our people had questions, and they had good reason to have questions. But sometimes when you hear these things, it's not always right. So the story is accurate that we've raised the matter, but it is inaccurate to say that we know it's an actual fact that such a transfer has occurred. As soon as we do know the facts, then we will decide what is appropriate, and I'll be glad to tell you that. I just—but I don't want to say anything that I'm not sure is true. And I do not believe that the Israeli Government has confirmed this yet, and I think the matter is still in some dispute.

DECEMBER 8, 1999

The President. Good afternoon. Before I take your questions I have a statement to make. We are at a pivotal moment in the Middle East peace process, one that can shape the face of the region for generations to come. As I have said on numerous occasions, history will not forgive a failure to seize this opportunity to achieve a comprehensive peace.

We've made good progress on the Palestinian track, and I'm determined to help Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat move forward in accordance with their very ambitious timetable.

We've also been working intensely, for months, for a resumption of negotiations between Israel and Syria. Today I am pleased to announce that Prime Minister Barak and President Asad have agreed that the Israel-Syrian peace negotiations will be resumed from the point where they left off. The talks will be launched here in Washington next week with Prime Minister Barak and Foreign Minister Shara.

After an initial round for 1 or 2 days, they will return to the region, and intensive negotiations will resume at a site to be determined soon thereafter. These negotiations will be high level, comprehensive, and conducted with the aim of reaching an agreement as soon as possible.

Israelis and Syrians still need to make courageous decisions in order to reach a just and lasting peace. But today's step is a significant breakthrough, for it will allow them to deal with each other face to face, and that is the only way to get there.

I want to thank Prime Minister Barak and President Asad for their willingness to take this important step. And I want to thank Secretary Albright who has worked very hard on this and, as you know, has been in the region and meeting with the leaders as we have come to this conclusion.

Before us is a task as clear as it is challenging. As I told Prime Minister Barak and President Asad in phone conversations with them earlier today, they now bear a heavy responsibility of bringing peace to the Israeli and Syrian people.

On the Palestinian track, Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat are committed to a rapid timetable: a framework agreement by mid-February, a permanent status agreement by mid-September. I'm convinced it is possible to achieve that goal, to put an end to generations of conflict, to realize the aspirations of both the Israeli and the Palestinian people. And I will do everything I can to help them in that historic endeavor.

It is my hope that with the resumption of Israeli-Syrian talks, negotiations between Israel and Lebanon also will soon begin.

There can be no illusion here. On all tracks, the road ahead will be arduous; the task of negotiating agreements will be difficult. Success is not inevitable. Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese will have to confront fateful questions. They face hard choices. They will have to stand firmly against all those who seek to derail the peace, and sadly, there are still too many of them.

But let there also be no misunderstanding. We have a truly historic opportunity now. With a comprehensive peace, Israel will live in a safe, secure, and recognized border for the first time in its history. The Palestinian people will be able to forge their own destiny on their own land. Syrians and Lebanese will fulfill their aspirations and enjoy the full fruits of peace. And throughout the region, people will be able to build more peaceful and, clearly, more prosperous lives.

As I have said, and I say one more time, I will spare neither time nor effort in pursuit of that goal. Today the parties have given us clear indication that they, too, are willing to take that path. Peace has long been within our sight. Today it is within our grasp, and we must seize it.

Middle East Peace Process

Q. Mr. President, did both sides make a lot of concessions to get to this breakthrough point? And also, are you aware that Amnesty International says that Israel is continuing the demolition of Palestinian homes in east Jerusalem and on the West Bank, and also, the expansion of the settlements? Are all these part of a package?

The President. Well, Prime Minister Barak made a very important statement about settlements yesterday, which I think was quite welcome. And it's a good first step. As you know, we believe that nothing should be done which makes it more difficult to make peace or which prejudges the final outcome. But I do think that the statement yesterday is a step in the right direction.

As to your question about Syria, I think it's very important at this point that we maximize the chances for success, which means it would not be useful for me to get into the details. But the negotiations are resuming on the basis of all previous negotiations between the United States and Syria—I mean, between Syria and Israel, and with the United States.

I think it is clear that both parties have sufficient confidence that their needs can be met through negotiations, or they would not have reached this agreement today.

Q. Mr. President, when Israel and Syria do sit down, they obviously are going to have to confront the issue of the Golan Heights almost immediately. How are they going to resolve that? What will the U.S. role be? Will you see the administration—Secretary Albright, yourself possibly—being a mediator? And finally, why isn't President Asad sitting down with Prime Minister Barak at this point?

The President. I think they're sitting down because they want to make peace, and they have now concluded that they can do it on terms and that will meet both their interests. You've asked good questions, but any answer I give would make it unlikely that they would be successfully resolved. Frankly, we all took a blood oath that we wouldn't talk beyond our points today, and I'm going to keep my word.

Q. Sir, maybe you misunderstood. I was asking why President Asad is not personally involved in the talks at this point.

The President. Oh, he is very personally involved. I think that—I believe that he felt it was better—and maybe you should ask the Syrians this—but let me just say, he is very personally involved in this. I think he thinks it better, for whatever reason, he's made the decision that Foreign Minister Shara, who, thankfully, has recovered from his recent stroke and is perfectly able to come here, to do so. And I'm quite comfortable that this is as close to a person-to-person talk that they could have without doing it.

DECEMBER 11, 1999

Middle East Peace Process

Q. You mentioned earlier the importance of future Presidents becoming even more mediators and conciliators on the world scene. This coming week, of course, Syria and Israel are going to be at the White House. And I know you told us at the news conference you've taken a blood oath to avoid discussing details of those long-stalled talks, the renewal of them, but how do you plan—just in general, since you don't want to go into details—how do you plan to get this process moving and keep it moving when you get these gentlemen sitting down again?

The President. Well, I want to get them together, let them talk, and get them to try to agree on an agenda and a timetable. They know what the issues are, and they know what the options are for resolving the issues. And my experience has been that competent people—and you're dealing with two highly competent people here; I mean, these people are good in what they do in representing the interests of their countries—and that when—they don't go into these negotiations without some idea about where they want to finish and some idea about where they'll have to give, and whether the other person will give, and how it will all play out.

So on the other hand, it is difficult, but not as complex, in my view, as the Palestinian negotiations with Israel. So I would like to see them get together, talk together, get to know each other a little better, and agree on an agenda and a timetable, and then take a couple of days off and go back and meet with their respective teams to decide where they're going to start and where they're going to stop, and come back here and just look to burn through it, just keep going until we get the thing done.

Q. Why is the time right now?

The President. I think because both leaders, for different reasons, finally have this sense of urgency, and I think they should have a sense of urgency. And I think they know that the enemies of the peace process are gearing up; they want to try to derail it, and not just for the Palestinians. I think that they know that there is a sense of hope and possibility now, and I think they believe that Prime Minister Barak is committed to trying to resolve all this, just like he said he was.


Sources: Public Papers of the President

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