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Bill Clinton Administration: Statement Marking the Reopening of Israel-Syria Talks

(December 15, 1999)

In the White House ceremony marking the restarting of the Israel-Syria talks (halted in March 1996), the Syrian Foreign Minister refused to shake the hand of the Israeli Prime Minister. The opening remarks were general in nature apart from the recitation of Syrian grievances by al-Shara. The talks lasted two days and dealt with procedural matters and confidence-building measures. Barak and al-Shara never met alone. They were always accompanied either by President Clinton or the Secretary of State..

President Clinton: 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 Syrian, 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 Assad, 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.

Prime Minister Barak: We came here to put behind us the horrors of war and to step forward toward peace. We are fully aware of the opportunity, of the burden of responsibility, and of the seriousness, determination and devotion that will be needed in order to begin this march, together with our Syrian partners, to make a different Middle East where nations are living side by side in peaceful relationship and in mutual respect and good-neighborliness.

We are determined to do whatever we can to put an end and to bring about the dreams of children and mothers all around the region to see a better future of the Middle East at the entrance to the new millennium.

Foreign Minister Shara: Your announcement, Mr. President, was warmly welcomed, both in Syria and in the Arab world, and its positive echoes resonated in the world at large. That is because it promises, for the first time, the dawn of a real hope to achieve an honorable and just peace in the Middle East.

And as you have mentioned in your letter of October 12, 1999 to President Assad, the issues have crystallized and difficulties defined. That is why if these talks are to succeed as rapidly as we all desire, no one should ignore what has been achieved until now, or what still needs to be achieved.

It goes without saying that peace for Syria means the return of all its occupied land; why, for Israel, peace will mean the end of the psychological fear which the Israelis have been living in as a result of the existence of occupation, which is undoubtedly the source of all adversities and wars. Hence, ending occupation will be balanced for the first time by eliminating the barrier of fear and anxieties, and exchanging it with a true and mutual feeling of peace and security. Thus, the peace which the parties are going to reach will be established on justice and international legitimacy. And thus, peace will be the only triumphant, after 50 years of struggle.

Those who reject to return the occupied territories to their original owners in the framework of international legitimacy send a message to the Arabs that the conflict between Israel and Arabs is a conflict of existence in which bloodshed can never stop, and not a conflict about borders which can be ended as soon as parties get their rights, as President Assad has stressed at these meetings more than once before, and after Madrid peace conference.

We are approaching the moment of truth, as you have said, and there is no doubt that everyone realizes that a peace agreement between Syria and Israel, and between Lebanon and Israel, would indeed mean for our region the end of a history of wars and conflicts, and may well usher in a dialogue of civilization and an honorable competition in various domains - the political, cultural, scientific, and economic.

Peace will certainly pose new questions to all sides, especially for the Arab side, who will wonder after reviewing the past 50 years, whether the Arab-Israeli conflict was the one who solely defied the Arab unity, or the one which frustrated it.

During the last half-century, in particular, the vision of the Arabs and their sufferings were totally ignored, due to the lack of a media opportunity for them which conveys their points of view to international opinion. And the last example of this is what we have witnessing during the last four days of attempts to muster international sympathy with the few thousand of settlers in the Golan, ignoring totally more than half a million Syrian people who were uprooted from tens of villages on the Golan, where their forefathers lived for thousands of years and their villages were totally wiped out from existence.

The image formulated in the minds of Western people and which formulated in public opinion was that Syria was the aggressor, and Syria was the one who shelled settlements from the Golan prior to the 1967 war. These claims carry no grain of truth in them - as Moshe Dayan, himself, has explained in his memoirs, that it was the other side who insisted on provoking the Syrians until they clashed together and then claimed that the Syrians are the aggressors.

Mr. President, the peace talks between Israel and Syria have been ongoing for the last eight years, with off and on, of course. We hope that this is going to be the last resumption of negotiations which will be concluded with a peace agreement, a peace based on justice and comprehensivity; an honorable peace for both sides that preserves rights, dignity and sovereignty. Because only honorable and just peace will be embraced by future generations, and it is the only peace that shall open new horizons for totally new relations between peoples of the region.

President Assad has announced many years ago that peace is the strategic option of Syria. And we hope that peace has become the strategic option for others today, in order to have or to leave future generations a region that is not torn with wars, a region whose sky is not polluted by the smell of blood and destruction.

We all here agree that we are at a threshold of an historic opportunity, an opportunity for the Arabs and Israelis alike, and for the United States and the world at large. Therefore, we all have to be objective and show a high sense of responsibility in order to achieve a just and comprehensive peace, a peace that has been so long awaited by all the peoples of our region and the world at large.

Sources: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs