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Ronald Reagan Administration: News Conferences & Interviews on the Middle East/Israel


JUNE 16, 1981

Israeli Attack Against Iraq

Q. Mr. President, have you learned anything in the past 10 days that would support Israel's contention that its attack on the Iraqi nuclear plant was defensive? If it was defensive, was it proper? If it wasn't defensive, what action should the United States take beyond condemnation?

The President. Well, I did make a statement in which I condemned that and thought that there were other options that might have been considered—that we would have welcomed an opportunity, for example, to try and intervene with the French who were furnishing the nuclear fuel and so forth.

I can't answer the last part of your question there about future action, because this is still under review. Under the law I had to submit to the Congress the fact that this did appear to be a violation of the law regarding American weapons that were sold for defensive purposes. But I've not heard back yet from the Congress, and that review is not yet complete.

On the other hand, I do think that one has to recognize that Israel had reason for concern in view of the past history of Iraq, which has never signed a cease-fire or recognized Israel as a nation, has never joined in any peace effort for that—so, in other words, it does not even recognize the existence of Israel as a country.

But I think the biggest thing that comes out of what happened is the fact that this is further evidence that a real peace, a settlement for all of the Mideast problems, is long overdue, that the area is torn by tension and hostility. We have seen Afghanistan invaded with the Soviets, Iran invaded by Iraq, and that was in violation of a treaty. Lebanon's sovereignty has been violated routinely. Now this latest act. And I think that what it should be is a compelling move—and this I have stated to the representatives of several Arab countries—a compelling reason why we should once and for all settle this matter and have a stable peace.

Q. But in this case, can you say was it—do you think now that it was a defensive move? Are there any—anything which indicates that yet?

The President. No, I can't answer that, because, as I say, this review has not been completed. But what I would have to say is I think, in looking at the circumstances that I outlined earlier, that we can recognize that very possibly in conducting that mission, Israel might have sincerely believed it was a defensive move.

The Middle East

Q. Mr. President, can we return to the Mideast situation for a moment? Several of the Mideast leaders, most particularly Syria, say that because of the Israeli raid and the U.S. response to it that envoy Habib's peace mission is virtually eliminated, that it's permanently damaged. Do you agree with that, and if so, why not?

The President. I hope it isn't. I know that he's still there, and he has left Saudi Arabia now for Damascus. And I think that he's done a miraculous job so far when you stop to think that when we sent him there, they literally had the weapons cocked and ready for war. And it's been several weeks now, and no war has happened. It would be just further tragic evidence if this latest happening should turn this off. But till he comes home and says, "I give up," why, I'm going to believe that we can do it.

Nuclear Nonproliferation

Q. Mr. President, how appropriate do you believe is Israel's decision not to sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and not to submit to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency? And I have a followup.

The President. Well, I haven't given very much thought to that particular question there, the subject about them not signing that treaty or, on the other hand, how many countries do we know that have signed it that very possibly are going ahead with nuclear weapons? It's, again, something that doesn't lend itself to verification.

It is difficult for me to envision Israel as being a threat to its neighbors. It is a nation that from the very beginning has lived under the threat from neighbors that they did not recognize its right to exist as a nation.

I'll have to think about that question you asked.

OCTOBER 12, 1981

Q. Ford and Carter think that it's necessary for the U.S. to deal directly with the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization].

The President. Well, there would be a condition—always has been. There's never been any refusal, only until they will recognize Israel's right to exist as a nation, which they still have never done.

OCTOBER 16, 1981

The Palestinian Question

Q. Another Middle East question, sir. I see President Eisenhower's picture hanging in here. And I was in the Middle East last year for my newspaper and talked to a lot of people, including a lot of Palestinian Arabs, and they would often say that, "We remember Mr. Eisenhower with fondness. He seemed to understand the Arab cause."

We have the Palestinian problem in the news again with the comments by Presidents Carter and Ford. The autonomy talks are starting up again soon. Just interested in your general view of the Palestinian question. Do you think that these are people with a legitimate grievance? Is it something that goes back to the late forties and the founding of Israel? How do you see that problem?

The President. Well, I think wherever it may come from, you've got a million and a half people who are living there as homeless and refugees. I don't mean homeless in the sense of no shelter; that's being taken care of. But I think that problem—they have to be a part of the problem. And as those two gentlemen said, one of the keys is that you can't deal with someone or negotiate with someone as long as they maintain that position that they don't recognize Israel's right to exist as a nation.

Now, here again is one of the reasons we believe the Saudi Arabians can be a great help in changing that, changing that position, just as Egypt once changed their position. And, at the same time, I think that maybe they could be of help in broadening the representation of the Palestinians.

You know, the PLO is a self-announced voice for the Palestinians; no one elected them. And I think that it would be—that if this other takes place, if they acknowledge Israel's right to exist, that it ought to be broadened and there ought to be people-perhaps you could find leadership among some of the mayors of those communities on the West Bank and so forth. But that has to be a part of it.

DECEMBER 17, 1981

Israeli Annexation of the Golan Heights

Q. Mr. President, there are repressions in other areas in the world. In recent days the newspapers have been filled with reports of oppressions by the Israelis in the occupied zones against the people there, even killing children, shooting and killing children, and annexing the Golan Heights.

My question is, very simply, how can the American taxpayer in good conscience continue to support aid to Israel with arms and money under those circumstances?

The President. Well, Helen [Helen Thomas, United Press International], we have no observation—or information, I should say, on any violence or anything that's been happening there.

Q. It's been in the newspapers.

The President. We have registered our disagreement and the fact that we do deplore this unilateral action by Israel, which has increased the difficulty of seeking peace in the Middle East under the terms of the U.N. Resolutions 242 and 338. And we continue to address them with the idea, hopefully, that this action can be ameliorated.

Q. Mr. President, following up Helen Thomas' question concerning the Israeli action on the Golan Heights. Mr. President, did you get any indications whatsoever from the Israelis that they were about to annex the Golan Heights before, indeed, they very quickly took that action and, secondly, Mr. President, I was wondering what effect you felt this unilateral annexation will have on the Camp David peace process and your hopes for peace in that part of the world?

The President. Well, I partially answered that with regard to the difficulties now with 242 and 338. We were caught by surprise. This was done without any notification to us. But apparently, other than a few hours interruption, the peace process is going forward. Egypt and Israel are continuing to work on the subject of autonomy. And we still continue to be optimistic about the Middle East, although we recognize that difficulties can arise.

Syria and the Golan Heights

Q. Mr. President, on the Golan Heights, do you believe that the Golan Heights should be returned to Syria, given Syria's record of bombarding the Israeli farms for so many years?

The President. Well, now you are getting into the area of what is trying to be settled in the talks under 242 and 338 and the peacemaking talks regarding all of the territory that might be held. And therefore, it's not proper for me to comment on this. This is the very matter that's being negotiated.

Q. To follow that up, sir, your own opinion-did you ever object to the Arab legion's occupation of the West Bank or the shelling of the Israeli farms?

The President. Well, you're going back a long way, and it's hard for me to remember what my position was. I know where I was during the Six Days War; I was in the Hollywood Bowl at a mass meeting in support of Israel. And at that time, there were only two political figures or officeholders there that I recall—former Senator George Murphy, then a Senator, and myself as Governor of California.

DECEMBER 23, 1981

The Middle East

Q. Back to the world scene. One of the earlier things you mentioned here, pursuing a peace process in the Middle East, is the latest incident with Israel over the Golan Heights and our reaction to that part of an overall reassessment of our Middle East policy in which we intend to take a stronger line with Israel?

The President. No, it's just friends sometimes have some arguments, and I guess this is one of them. We had no—

Q. Do you object to the language of those arguments of the past few days?

The President. Well, I think maybe more of that will be temperate now. There was a little harsh tone to that. But, no, we're still committed as we've always been to our relationship with Israel, to the assurance, the obligation that I think this country feels that Israel shall exist as a nation and, we hope, in peace with its neighbors.

And maybe part of the, oh, the momentary distractions that have occurred are because we believe that in striving for peace we have to make the Arab states there understand and realize that we want a just and a fair peace, and we're not just intervening as the ally of one country, even though we are allied and have been in this moral obligation to Israel which we'll continue to be. But we want them to know that we want fairness for them, also, and here's where I think we've made great progress.

Formulation of U.S. Policy and Programs

Q. One of the problems, I suppose, that I gather from Prime Minister Begin, is—and several of us have come across this on other occasions—and that is there seems to be differences of opinion between you and your staff on some basic issues—and I'll use Israel as an example. I think that in Prime Minister Begin there's a suspicion that there may be a difference of opinion as to the commitment to Israel between, say, you and your feelings and those of, say, your, many have used the expression, "more pragmatic," let us say, advisers.

The President. No. Let me say I can assure you that is not so, and I can address myself to that appearance in just a second. But remember that some of the things—for example, the Iraqi incident: We were bound by law. The law in delivering American weapons says for defensive purposes only, and they cannot be used in any other way. And without warning here was, apparently, an attack on a neighboring country using the weapons that we had provided. And the law was very specific. There had to be an investigation of this.

Now, Israel's defense was that it had information that led it to believe that this was a defensive move, a preemptive strike in their own defense.

Sources: Public Papers of the President