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


JANUARY 26, 1988

Middle East Peace Efforts

Q. In September 1982, you presented the "Reagan plan" for peace in the Middle East. The current situation is clearly explosive, but some elements in Israel favor peace negotiations. Are you considering any new initiatives? Would you support an international peace conference, and do you foresee such a conference taking place before the end of your administration?

The President. Recent events in the West Bank and in Gaza make it clear that the status quo is unacceptable. We must work together with those in the area to give the Palestinians a reason for hope, not despair. Conditions must be improved in the territories, and real movement toward a political settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict is essential. However, without a new sense of realism on the part of all the parties, this will be difficult. Flexibility must be demonstrated by practical suggestions, and not just by rhetorical posturing.

With my full encouragement and support, Secretary of State Shultz has been working actively to find a way to bridge the gaps on substance and process that have prevented the advent of negotiations. He made some headway during his October 1987 trip to the region but found that important differences remain on both the format and the agenda for bilateral negotiations.

We have not ruled out any means of reaching bilateral negotiations. For nearly 3 years, we have devoted much time and effort to seeing how an international conference could be structured that would result in such negotiations—the only kind that are likely to be productive and meaningful. A conference must facilitate such negotiations, not be a vehicle for avoiding them. We are committed to trying to find a basis that meets the needs of all the parties and gives us a reason to believe that the negotiations can be successful. Our aim, after all, is a comprehensive peace, not just a negotiating process.

The fact that 1988 is an election year in the United States will not reduce our commitment to continuing our efforts on behalf of Middle East peace. The enemies of peace will not rest in 1988; therefore, the proponents of peace must not, either.

Palestinian Human Rights

Q. The United States is a signatory to the 1949 Geneva convention, which includes an article against deportation of people from their homeland. How far are you willing to go to ensure the protection of human rights for Palestinians and to prevent their deportation? Is your concern for their rights equal to your well-established concern for the right to emigrate by other peoples?

The President. The human rights situation in the West Bank and Gaza remains extremely complex. The United States recognizes that Israel, as the occupying power, has legitimate security concerns and responsibilities as well as an obligation to protect the human rights of Palestinians. The United States has a regular dialog with the Government of Israel on human rights, as with other governments. We are, indeed, just as concerned with the human rights of Palestinians as of other peoples and have made it very clear that we oppose deportations and any denial of the due process of law.

FEBRUARY 24, 1988

Israeli-Occupied Territories

Q. Mr. President, through the years you've been very eloquent on the subject of human rights in the Soviet Union and Nicaragua. The question really is: Why have you never condemned the treatment of the Palestinians in the occupied areas—shooting unarmed protesters, beating people to death, children, trying to bury some alive? And I'd like to follow up.

The President. Helen, we have spoken to the Government there, and we've also spoken to the Palestinian leadership, because there is every evidence that these riots are not just spontaneous and homegrown. But we have spoken, and that's part of the reason why the Secretary of State is going back over there. We don't support that sort of thing, and we are trying to persuade all the participants to try to arrive at a solution representing justice for all.

Q. Well, if you want that and you say you believe in security for Israel and legitimate rights of the Palestinians, why don't you go on the public record now and say that there should be an exchange of removal of the occupation and of peace?

The President. Well, I don't think it's up to us to dictate the settlement in the Middle East.

Q. Well, we certainly are great supporters of Israel, so we certainly have some influence.

The President. Yes, and we have used that a number of times and are using it now. But we think that—and the thing that is taking the Secretary of State there—we think that the necessity is for all who are represented in that situation, on both sides, should come together, when you stop to think that legally a state of war still exists there in the Middle East, between the Arab nations and Israel, and that it's time for us to arrive at a true peace and recognize the rights of all.

Q. Mr. President, whom precisely are you criticizing when you say that the riots are not homegrown and not spontaneous?

The President. Well, we have had—it's a little difficult for me, because there's some things that I shouldn't be saying. But we have had intimations that there have been certain people suspected of being terrorists, outsiders coming in, not only with weapons but stirring up and encouraging the trouble in those areas. Now, that isn't something you can go out and say we absolutely know, but certainly the violence is both ways.

Q. But it would seem, sir, that that's still a generalization if you say some people from the outside. Can't you not be specific and say just who it is?

The President. No, because I get into areas there that would be violating security rules, and I don't think I should. Q. The PLO? Russians?

The President. What?

Q. PLO? Russians?

The President. No, no.

Middle East Peace Efforts

Q. Mr. President, as of now, is there any change in our policy of not talking with the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization], in light of the fact that there are reports out of Geneva that Mr. Arafat is now ready to accept U.N. Resolution 338 and 242?

The President. Well, I know that this is one other thing we're pursuing. If be really is, and if he is willing to acknowledge the right of Israel to exist as a nation—this has been one of the blocking points, that how do you sit down and try to get into a talk about peace when someone says they have no right to even exist? And I'm sure that the Secretary of State is apprised of that fact and will see what we can do there.

Q. And given—may I follow up?

The President. Yes?

Q. And given the 40-year hostility in the area which has been built up, how can you as the "Great Communicator" try to alleviate some of the antagonism between the Israelis and the Palestinians before you leave office?

The President. Well, we are trying to and will continue to try to. That's a goal that I would think would be one of the greatest achievements of this administration—if before I leave, we could bring about a peace in the Middle East.

MARCH 10, 1988

Israeli-Occupied Territories

Q. Mr. President, your administration has been putting a lot of pressure on Israel to come to a solution in the occupied territories. Are you disappointed at the lack of results so far?

The President. Well, no, because I believe that peace is inevitable. I don't think that anyone—we may have some differences there as to how to achieve it, but I don't think anyone believes that we can go on just with a constant state of warfare and unrest. And I believe that we have presented for discussion a pretty good solution that would remove some of the problems besetting the people in the occupied territories.

Q. Prime Minister Shamir has already expressed his opposition to Secretary Shultz's plan. He will be coming here next week.

The President. Yes.

Q. What kind of additional pressure do you intend to put on him?

The President. Well, I don't think it's so much pressure as it is just an attempt at persuasion. But also, I'd like to point out that his Cabinet is pretty evenly split on the solution. So, it isn't a case of outside pressure there. He has a great element in his own government that sees merit in the proposals that we've made.

Israeli Elections

Q. Would early Israeli elections be considered an American success in your view?

The President. Frankly, I haven't given much thought to that and to their election process there as to whether it would or not. I know that he has now broached that subject. And yet if they were held, maybe it is that he would believe that he might have more support for his position, because the other faction, then, in the election is the one that is already differing from the Prime Minister and supportive of what we've proposed.

Israeli Censorship

Q. Do you share the view that Israel should ban all television coverage from the troubled areas?

The President. Well, I'm a great believer in a free press and the right of the people to know, and so I would have to be opposed to it, thinking that they want to conduct operations in which they would rather not have public knowledge of them.

Middle East Peace Settlement

0. What would be the ultimate goal if Secretary Shultz was to succeed? Would it be to have an international conference on the Middle East with a seat for your friend, Mr. Gorbachev?

The President. Well, this is a problem, because you have a situation there where the Soviet Union has not recognized Israel as a nation. That's very difficult to have someone participating in a conference of that kind who doesn't even believe in the right of statehood of the other country. What we've also thought is not the kind of international conference that would seek to impose a settlement. I don't think that really is the province of the other countries, but to be helpful and see if we could not join in helping arrive at a solution that would once and for all end the hostilities. I think most of the world tends to forget that war between Israel and the Arab States still is a fact. It has never been settled. There has never been any peace agreement arrived at, and it would be a great achievement if once and for all that state of war came to an end.

APRIL 21, 1988

Middle East Peace Efforts

Q. Mr. President, you have for years tried to bring peace to the Middle East. Can we rely on your administration to continue to move Israel to settle the Palestinian question on a more evenhanded basis?

The President. We're going to keep on trying as hard as we can. We feel that the coming together in negotiations, sitting down at a table with the other countries-you know, most of us have forgotten that technically the state of war still exists between the Arab nations and Israel. But we're not going to cure it until we come together and find out how we can arrive at a fair settlement of the differences between those peoples.

I can't resist telling you a little joke. It's kind of cynical—very cynical in a matter of fact—about the Middle East. It has to do with a scorpion that came to a creek anti wanted to cross and said to the frog there, "Would you carry me across because scorpions can't swim." And the frog said, "Why, you'd sting me, and I'd die." And the scorpion said, "That would be silly, because if I stung you and you died, I'd drown." Well, that made sense to the frog, so he said, get on, started ferrying him across. And in midstream the scorpion stung him. And the frog in his dying said to the scorpion, as they were both dying, said, "Why did you do that? Now we're both going to die!" And the scorpion said, "This is the Middle East." [Laughter]

Q. Does that mean, Mr. President, that the United States is going to move closer to address the Palestinians directly?

The President. Yes, there are some among them that we have refused on principle to address, such as Arafat, because Arafat has refused to recognize the right of Israel to exist as a nation. And I don't think that there's any negotiation between someone who just says, you're not even a nation, I won't talk to you. Israel is a nation, recognized as such by almost all of the civilized world. And so, this is what we're seeking-are Palestinian leaders who are agreeable to coming together and with the other Arab States.

We have worked very hard also to make the other Arab States aware that—even in addition to our agreement and the security, we agree, of Israel—that we want to and can be fair and friends with them. And so we have established a relationship that I think is growing very much about—that we have the trust of a great many of the Arab States. And a number of those are willing to join in this kind of negotiation that we want to achieve.

MAY 19, 1988

Middle East Peace Efforts

Q. Among the many discussions you will have in Moscow, probably you will talk with Mr. Gorbachev about the Middle East. What is your opinion for the future of the occupied territories? And do you know there is a projected program of a possibility of sending some European troops under the United Nations flag? What is your opinion about that in the Arab-occupied territories?

The President. Well, I don't know about the sending of troops or anything of that kind. I'd like to be a little more optimistic and say that I believe there is a desire in the Middle East to settle once and for all what is still technically a state of war between the Arab nations and Israel. We have made a proposal, and this proposal could involve putting together an international conference of nations. But we've made it plain: not an international conference to dictate a settlement but to be helpful if we can, to give advice and to make proposals that might help them arrive at a fair and just peace. And if the Soviet Union is to be a member of that conference, I think there they have a step they have to take, and that is to resume diplomatic relations with the State of Israel.

Q. With the State of Israel. But who will represent the Palestinians—the PLO?

The President. There, I think, is an issue. And actually I think that a lot of that has to do with the feeling that some of the Arab States—because I know that there is a great difference in many of the nations about who could be a proper representative for the Palestinian people and a great feeling that that could hardly be Arafat's element, since here again you have a group that refuses to recognize the right of Israel to exist as a nation.

OCTOBER 28, 1988

U.S. Middle East Policy

Q. Mr. President, I have a two-part question here which unfortunately is going to have to be the last question of the afternoon, due to time constraints: Do you agree with the recent statements by Secretary Carlucci that the American Jewish community should stop objections to major arms sales to friendly Arab countries? And do you believe that—with your departure from the White House—will the next administration continue your positive support of the state of Israel?

The President. Yes, if the regime that I want to go in the White House— [laughter] —makes it, yes, I know that this relationship—I don't think any country has ever had a stronger ally than Israel has in the United States of America. And it's going to remain that way, I believe.

But we try to reassure, because remember that technically there is still a state of war in the Middle East. That war has not been ended. And we're trying to bring to the Middle East—to help bring—a plan for peace among the people who must live there, together, in all those several nations.

And so, we put in the contract of weapons that we sell to any of those countries-we put in the contract that those weapons can only be used for self-defense. They can never use them to become aggressors and start a war. And I can understand Israel's worrying about what happens if these countries that have been so hostile and where there is this state of war are armed better and so forth.

On the other hand, if we are to be able to persuade those countries to come in and join in a conference to bring peace to that troubled part of the world, I think they have to see us as being willing to be fair and friends of theirs, just as they now see us as what I said before: the best friend of Israel. So, we've been very careful. We're not going overboard. We're not going to create any armed monsters and aggressor nations there. But I do think that our judgment should be respected on when we have decided that we can make a sale of that kind that we should be allowed to do so because, once again, our pledge to Israel is that if anyone ever violated that contract-to use them there—Israel would have an ally: the United States.

DECEMBER 8, 1988

Yasser Arafat

Q. Mr. President, let me bring you back to the Middle East. You've got very little time left, and Mr. Arafat of the PLO [Palestine Liberation Organization] seems to be inching towards the kinds of conditions you and Mr. Shultz have said he should. Is this perhaps not time to go the inch in his direction and start some kind of talks with Mr. Arafat rather than, as Mr. Shultz did, close the door on him?

The President. No, we've been watching very closely. And for example, we thought in the last few days that there was a statement that came out of that meeting in Sweden that appeared to be clean-cut and not with the things around the edge that then defused what seemed to be a pledge. But we had to wait until his press conference and what he said. And I have to say that again he has left openings for himself, where he can deny that he meant this or meant that that sounded so clean-cut. It's up to him. We are willing to meet with him and talk with him, and I'm sure the Israelis would be, when once and for all it is clear-cut that he is ready to recognize Israel's right to be a nation, that he is ready to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinian people for a homeland for them, and so forth.

Now, the thing about George Shultz's decision-I'd like to call to your attention-there is a law passed by the Congress with regard to the conditions for granting a waiver to someone to come in and meet with the United Nations or participate in what they're doing. And there's no way under that law that Mr. Arafat qualifies as yet. And the day that he does, and it is clear cut, then we can grant that visa. But as I say, he is barred by the terms of that law, and the only way that the—and the Secretary of State has full power under that law. It's his decision to make. And he can only grant a waiver if an individual meets certain requirements, and Arafat doesn't.

Q. Well, to follow up, and to be just as clear-cut: Did he not in his statement say that he accepts the U.N. articles and that he recognizes Israel? What is the fine line that he hasn't crossed?

The President. What we're still analyzing is—then, as he went on, other things in which—it's a case, and this has happened before, certainly with the same individual-you could quote to him, "Oh, you said this," —but he's still in a position where he can say, "Well, yes, but wait a minute, I also said this." And then you find that the second "this" kind of reduces or nullifies the first "this."

DECEMBER 15, 1988

Q. Mr. President, what is it that makes you think that we can trust a terrorist organization like the PLO now to abide by the resolutions of the U.N. and to really renounce terrorism?

The President. Well, because the words have been spoken and the words were the words that we have been stating were necessary. But, of course, you then also—the words must be matched by performance, and if they're not, why, we're back where we started.

Q. What do we do if they don't?

Q. What do you hope to come out of this dialog—the start of the dialog?

The President. Well, it's all just another step in what we've been trying for 8 years to bring about: peace in the Middle East.

Q. Israel is very upset about this, to say the least. Are you saying anything to them?

Do they have a reason to be somewhat upset?

The President. Well, I don't think so, in the sense that we have made it very plain that we have not retreated 1 inch from our position of guaranteeing the safety of Israel.

Q. Shouldn't we also ask Israel to abide by the resolutions?

The President. Well, I think that since Israel was part of the resolutions, I think Israel is already in the position of not wanting terrorism and so forth.

Q. Well, that isn't the point. Will she accept 242 and 338, as you're asking the Palestinians?

The President. Yes, I think so.

Q. Mr. President, assuming that the PLO lives up to its word on the resolutions and on renouncing terrorism, is it possible, really, to begin negotiations if Israel remains steadfastly opposed to dealing with the PLO?

The President. No, of course, because the ultimate solution does not depend on outsiders or us. Peace must be brought about by the involved nations meeting with each other and settling their differences.

Q. If the PLO doesn't live up to its word, what do we do?

The President. Well, we certainly break off communications.

Q. Have the talks started?

The President. Pardon?

Q. Have the talks already started?

The President. No, but we've named our channel, and they have expressed their intention to immediately contact him.

Q. Do we have a timetable for this?

The President. No.

Q. Mr. President, why will the U.S. talk with the Palestinians but not recognize the Palestinian state?

The President. Well, because there is no such thing as of now. There isn't a Palestinian state. If you recognize someone it would be—as that, it would be us declaring who is in charge there.

Q. Could we ask the Prime Minister how he feels about this decision?

Prime Minister De Mita. I share this view expressed by the President. The importance of this decision is the fact of having found someone who represents the Palestinians. This helps to work towards the solution of a delicate problem because to make peace you have to know who to make peace with and who is your counterpart. And now talks will help us understand whether conditions are there for negotiation. The decision of the American Government is very important because it has solved this problem of finding the counterpart.

Sources: Public Papers of the President