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Bill Clinton Administration: Press Conference With Israeli PM Barak & Syrian Foreign Minister al-Shara

(December 15, 1999)

Middle East Peace Process

The President. Good morning. It is an honor to welcome Prime Minister Barak, Foreign Minister Shara, and the members of the Israeli and Syrian delegations here to the White House.

When the history of this century is written, some of its most illustrious chapters will be the stories of men and women who put old rivalries and conflicts behind them and looked ahead to peace and reconciliation for their children. What we are witnessing today is not yet peace, and getting there will require bold thinking and hard choices. But today is a big step along that path.

Prime Minister Barak and Foreign Minister Shara are about to begin the highest level meeting ever between their two countries. They are prepared to get down to business. For the first time in history, there is a chance of a comprehensive peace between Israel and Syria and, indeed, all its neighbors.

That Prime Minister Barak and Foreign Minister Shara chose to come here to Washington reminds us of one other fact, of course, which is the United States own responsibility in this endeavor. Secretary Albright and I and our entire team will do everything we possibly can to help the parties succeed, for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East is vital not only to the region; it is also vital to the world and to the security of the American people, for we have learned from experience that tensions in the region can escalate, and the escalations can lead into diplomatic, financial, and ultimately, military involvement, far more costly than even the costliest peace.

We should be clear, of course, the success of the enterprise we embark upon today is not guaranteed. The road to peace is no easier, and in many ways it is harder, than the road to war. There will be challenges along the way, but we have never had such an extraordinary opportunity to reach a comprehensive settlement.

Prime Minister Barak, an exceptional hero in war, is now a determined soldier for peace. He knows a negotiated peace, one that serves the interests of all sides, is the only way to bring genuine security to the people of Israel, to see that they are bound by a circle of peace.

President Asad, too, has known the cost of war. From my discussion with him in recent months, I am convinced he knows what a true peace could do to lift the lives of his people and give them a better future. And Foreign Minister Shara is an able representative of the President and the people of Syria.

Let me also say a brief word about the continuing progress of the Palestinian track. Chairman Arafat also has embarked on a courageous quest for peace, and the Israelis and the Palestinians continue to work on that.

We see now leaders with an unquestioned determination to defend and advance the interest of their own people but also determined to marshal the courage and creativity, the vision and resolve, to secure a bright future based on peace rather than a dark future under the storm clouds of continuing, endless conflict.

At the close of this millennium and in this season of religious celebration for Jews, for Muslims, for Christians, Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, Lebanese, all have it within their power to end decades of bitter conflict. Together, they can choose to write a new chapter in the history of our time. Again, let me say that today's meeting is a big step in the right direction, and I am profoundly grateful for the leaders of both nations for being here.

We have just talked and agreed that it would be appropriate for each leader to say a few brief words on behalf of the delegation. We will take no questions, in keeping with our commitment to do serious business and not cause more problems than we can solve out here with you and all your helpful questions.

But I will begin with Prime Minister Barak.

[At this point, Prime Minister Barak and Foreign Minister al-Shara made remarks.]

The President. Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen. We're going to work.

Sources: Public Papers of the President