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Press Conference with Prime Minister Peres and President Clinton

(March 14, 1996)

The focus of attention was the struggle against terror and the future of the peace process. The American president offered his total support for Israel in its efforts to stem terror. He called on Yasser Arafat to do his utmost to fight terror in the areas under his control. The president announced that Israel would get 100 million dollars in additional aid as well as American assistance in anti-terror equipment and training. Other topics dealt with were Syria's failure to attend the Sharm el-Sheikh summit and the tension between the United States and some European nations on the policy to be pursued vis-a-vis Iran, the latter being the source of much of the Islamic terror worldwide. Text:

Prime Minister Peres: Mr. President, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Under the administration of President Clinton, this is the fourth important move that took place in the Middle East. First was the first agreement with the PLO; then the agreement with Jordan; then the second agreement with the PLO; now, the fourth agreement in the Middle East, to confront terrorism.

These are events that exceed any normal political achievement. The Palestinian conflict looked insoluble. The Jordanians were not quick at the beginning to make peace and then it became a great success. Then we encountered the danger to all these achievements by terrorism. In my eyes, President Clinton is the first world leader for whom peace in our time is the major goal. If we look back at history, most of the time was spent on wars, on cold wars, on confrontations. Here is a chance, for the first time, to escape all the bitter histories of blood and terror.

Then we have encountered again another uninvited and unprecedented problem: how to go ahead with peace when you have acts of terror. Yesterday, the foundation was laid down to do both: namely, to go ahead with peace and reject terror.

I tell you, Mr. President, in our eyes, you, your administration, the American Congress, have changed the whole destiny of the Middle East. The importance of the Middle East is not just because it has produced the Bible. The importance of the Middle East in our times is that it is the first testing ground to take many conflicts that were so difficult to solves, and try to solve them. If we shall succeed, I think it may serve as a model for other places.

For us, President Clinton is really a great leader; but, not less than that, a moving friend. He has a tear in his eyes when we go through a difficult period of time and we have a tear in our eyes when we are listening to his reaction and involvement.

Thank you very much Mr. President.

President Clinton: First, I would like to express my appreciation to the Prime Minister and his Cabinet for the meeting that we had this morning just before coming over here to discuss the situation with regard to terrorism and the recent bombings. We have decided that the United States and Israel will immediately begin negotiations to conclude a bilateral agreement on combating terrorism. I told the Prime Minister that the United States will commit more than $100,000,000 to this effort. I am taking this step because I am determined that we must have every tool at our disposal to fight against extremist violence.

Last night I sent to the Congress an urgent request for the first installment of this counter-terrorism effort. I expect Congress to act quickly on this important measure. The agreement will strengthen our attack on terror in three important areas:

- First, the United States will immediately begin to provide Israel with additional equipment and training.

- Second, our nations will join together to develop new anti-terror methods and technologies.

- Third, we will work to enhance communications and coordination between our nations as well as other governments who have joined with us in the war against terror.

In addition to what we propose to do under this agreement, the United States will also increase its intelligence sharing and coordination. At my direction, our Secretary of State Warren Christopher and the Director of Central Intelligence John Deutch will remain in Israel to speed the progress of this agreement. We must do everything we can to track down those responsible for the recent violence and we must work to prevent them from shedding more innocent blood.

The forces supporting peace and security are stronger than those that pursue destruction. We must prove that. Whatever effort it takes, whatever time it takes, we must say to them: You will be tracked down. You will be rooted out.

The message of the pact to the people of Israel should also be quite clear. Just as America walks with you every step of the way as you work toward peace we stand with you now in defending all that you are and all that has been accomplished. Without security, there is no peace; and ultimately, without peace there can be no permanent security. Therefore we are resolved to work with you until the day that Israel achieves peace with security. To give up the hope for peace now or to fail to stand up for security, after all that has been done, would be to give the terrorists their victory.

To speak of Israel is to speak of courage and character, to speak of strength in the face of decades of hardship and bloodshed. David Ben-Gurion once said, "I have seen what a people is capable of achieving in their hour of supreme trial. I have seen their spirit touched by nobility." For those of us in the rest of the world after the ordeal of these bombings, we have seen once again the nobility that is Israel. As a result of the meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh yesterday, I have seen, for the first time, a broad-based commitment to making sure the noble people of Israel anal the peace-loving peoples throughout this region may be able to live and work together against terrorism and for a peaceful future.

Question: Mr. President, you just announced the signing of an agreement between Israel and the United States about combating terrorism. I would like to ask you, will you consider positively the idea of signing a defense pact between Israel and the United States and will you discuss this idea with Mr. Peres when he will come to the United States towards the end of April?

President Clinton: First of all, the United States is committed to the security of Israel. We have long been committed to the security of Israel and it is not a new event with my administration. It has been a bipartisan American commitment for a long time and we are always looking for ways to improve the nature of our security relationship and the strength of Israel's security. We have in fact, in addition to the announcement that I made today, a small group of people working on the question of what we should do next and where we should go with this relationship. The Prime Minister and I discussed it a little bit today and I expect we will be discussing it during his United States visit.

Question: Mr. President, the opposition in Israel is quite skeptical, I may say even cynical, about your visit here. They say that you came mainly to rescue the Prime Minister before the coming elections. They say the conference in Sharm el-Sheikh will do nothing to prevent terrorism. What can you tell them?

President Clinton: I don't want to put words in their mouth, but I came here because you have over 60 people dead in the last few days as a result of terrorism, because the United States is your ally and friend and because we believe without an effort to reestablish security and a feeling of security it will be difficult for the progress of peace to go forward. In addition to the Israelis who were killed, there were Americans killed, there were Palestinians killed. So that's why I came here at this time. We put together the meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh along with President Mubarak because I felt that the time was ripe for other countries in the region and around the world to demonstrate to the nations here, especially Israel and to the Palestinians who have rejected terror, that they are not alone, that it's about time that other countries said this is wrong, we're going to stand against it, we're going to work against it.

I do not interfere in the internal politics of other nations and I believe that at least if the American experience is any indication, it would be more of a hindrance than a help. This is a democracy. I respect the results of democracy here and at home. I came here because of what happened to you and because of our relationship with you. America stands with Israel in times like this and because we have to act to go forward. Nobody can guarantee to the people of Israel or the people of the United States or the people of any open, free nation in the world absolute protection against any terrorist act. We have been victimized by terrorism, the Japanese have been victimized by terrorism, but we can do more: to identify the sources of support, to try to dry up money, to develop better technical and other means to prevent things from happening. So there is no guarantee here. There are no guarantees in life against this, but we can do a lot better and I've thought that the shock of the impact here was so great - not only in Israel but in the other areas - it was high time we showed up and did more about it. That's why I came.

Question: Mr. President, the type of terror attacks that have been going on in Israel have been going on for quite a while. Why hasn't something like what you've announced today been done quite a while ago?

President Clinton: First of all, we have been making a lot of extra efforts. At least I can speak since I've been President, we have constantly tried to upgrade our capacity to deal with the problems of terrorism and we have met with some considerable amount of success, both in dealing with terrorism within the United States and in cooperating with our friends around the world. But what I think has happened is that the impact of these incidents coming so close together and being so clearly directed at derailing the peace process and undermining those who want peace, primarily in Israel but also among the Palestinians and in the region, has had such a shocking impact on other Arab nations and others around the world that we were able to put together this meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh as a result of their changed sense of urgency. And if you listen to those 29 separate statements yesterday and if you compare that to anything that Arab leaders especially said before about Israel or about terrorism, there was a remarkable shift there. So I would say that we are just trying to do more now and I think we have the capacity to do more. I also think it's obvious that we have to do more to support and insist on greater effectiveness in the Palestinian Authority. I think that's the other thing that hit home to everyone as a result of these events.

Question: I would like to ask the President and the Prime Minister about the closure that could jeopardize the whole peace process, according to the Palestinians' claim.

Prime Minister Peres: The closure is not aimed against the Palestinians in Gaza or the West Bank, but to answer security needs. We are trying very hard not to create any starvation or any suffering in the territories. This is clearly a security measure and nothing else.

President Clinton: To be fair, I think that's a legitimate concern, but that's clearly one of the objectives of the terrorists. And I think that's the point we were trying to make at Sharm el-Sheikh yesterday, that the Israelis and the people who died, their families, their friends, this country, your attitudes - that's primarily the target of the terrorists. But they are also trying to get to the Palestinians who would like to have a peaceful future. And so they know that if they can put Israel in a position of closing the territories as a security measure, they then have a chance to change the attitude of the Palestinians. So it's a deliberate attempt by them to make the Palestinians as miserable as possible.

In that sense, the Palestinians are the target of the terror as well. That was the point we were hammering on yesterday in Sharm el-Sheikh and why it's so important that Mr. Arafat and his administration do everything possible to cooperate with us in rooting this out, so that we can keep the free flow of transportation open and so that they can enjoy their jobs and have access to food and do all the things that they need to do. Countries are like individuals and families. If you have to choose anything over your continued existence, you will always choose your continued existence. Security will take preference. These people are not stupid. They are doing this to provoke the reaction that they got and we have to stand against them together.

Question: Mr. President, in an editorial this morning highly critical of Mr. Arafat, the Jerusalem Post makes the point that the bloodshed here would be the equivalent of killing 10,000 Americans over 31 months and they further say that American people would not "be pacified by the mindless platitudes that went on yesterday in Egypt." Your reaction.

President Clinton: I do believe, if you think about the American people losing 10,000 people over 30 months or several thousand in a matter of just three weeks and if you compound that by saying that every American felt that that had happened within about 50 miles of where he or she lived - that's another thing you can't overlook is the density, the geographical dimension of this, so that every Israeli feels that this happened next door - that our people would be off the wall. They would be angry, they would be furious, they would want action. They would want what the Israeli people want. But I think if you look at the extent to which the terrorist networks which are active in this area have mobility and have ties beyond Israel proper, beyond the Palestinian areas proper, it is wrong to say that the rather specific commitments that we got from those countries to work together to try to dry up their sources of support and move as one against them was an empty commitment. I showed up here today to say, we'll be the first. The United States will stand up first. Here's our $100,000,000, here's what we're going to do with it, here's how we're going to work together. These are not empty commitments.

It is not easy for democratic societies to defeat organized forces of destruction. The end of the Cold War means that there will, in all probability and we hope, be less conflict among nation states. There will be more conflict in the future by people who organize themselves for illegitimate means, through terrorism and who try to access dangerous weapons - traditional, biological and chemical weapons; who try to use the forces of organized crime and the money they can get from drug trafficking to build a network of destruction, if you will, that can cross the boundaries of nation states. I believe this is a problem, that the Prime Minister alluded to earlier. This is today Israel's problem, it's the Middle Eastern problem, but it will be the principal security problem of the future and I think we had better get after it and that's what we're trying to do.

Question: Mr. President, would a defense pact between Israel and the United States limit Israel's ability to strike at Hizballah in Lebanon, for example?

President Clinton: First of all, the decision has not been made, either in Israel or in the United States, to do beyond the agreement that we announced today and our clear, unambiguous, long-standing commitment to Israel's security, to maintaining its qualitative advantage in defense capacity. But the discussions that we have underway about what we can do from here on out obviously would have to encompass every conceivable contingency. That's why I urge you not to jump ahead. We're going to really have serious discussions about what we should do to strengthen Israel's security and our relationship, but let's not undermine the impact of what we are announcing today, which will do just that. It's very important.

Question: Mr. President, Mr. Prime Minister, I have a question about Syria for both of you. First of all, Mr. President, you have on two occasions met with President Assad - you went to Damascus once, you met with him in Geneva once - even though the State Department continues to include Syria on the list of countries that support terrorism. Syria's decision not even to send a representative to Sharm el-Sheikh must have been a severe blow to you personally. How much of a setback is this in terms of Israeli-Syrian negotiations? And to you, Mr. Prime Minister, you mentioned that Iran was a capital of terror yesterday, but you didn't mention anything about Syria and its absence from this conference yesterday. Can you continue negotiations with Syria at this point, after President Assad decided not even to send a representative to Sharm el-Sheikh?

Prime Minister Peres: To the previous question and this one, let's take things seriously as they are. About the Palestinians - I am referring to the editorials in the Jerusalem Post - yes, we can mobilize the whole of the Palestinians against us. It is very easy. We can take measures and steps and return to the time of intifada, push back the PLO to become again a terrorist organization, or work, gradually, with all the pain, from a majority of the Palestinians who support today peace to a complete support of peace by the Palestinians. We shouldn't submit to minorities.

Now about Syria and Iran. There is a similarity, because there are headquarters of terrorist organizations in Damascus. But there is also a difference. Syria does not call today, like Iran does, for the destruction of Israel. Syria is negotiating with Israel to look for peace, which Iran rejects completely. So we didn't reach yet the necessary agreement, but we don't want to close all the doors. To be fair, I think what we have to do is to impress the Syrians with the need to depart from any support or shelter to terrorism, but not to kill the future. I agree that the peacemakers do have a much more complicated role. It's not black and white. It's like climbing a mountain. It is difficult, it takes time, you don't reach the peak in one jump. So what is necessary to reject, we shall reject in clear terms and we shall clearly make it known that we cannot support terrorist headquarters in Damascus or elsewhere. But, at the same time and by the same token, we shall continue the peace effort. Our purpose is not to submit to terror, but to overcome it - when it is necessary, by force; and otherwise by hope.

President Clinton: My answer to your question is, I was disappointed that no Syrian representative came and I think it was a mistake. But I was not surprised, because if you look at the pattern of all these developments since I have been President and indeed before, President Assad tends to deal with these matters with people one on one and to have Syria steer a different course. I think it was a missed opportunity for the Syrians and I think that if they had been there, but I do not believe that undermines the fundamental fact that the United States is committed to support Israel if Israel is involved in negotiations and is taking risks for peace and as long as there are fruitful negotiations going on. We know there will never be a comprehensive peace in the Middle East until there is a resolution of the differences between Israel and Syria. We also know if those differences were resolved, the capacity of the Syrians to live up to any agreement they might make and to create a more secure region is very considerable. So my position is that negotiations should absolutely continue, as long as Israel is prepared to be a part of them and we should support that.

Question: With your permission, I'd like to relate to a question I heard several times yesterday from different people. The question was, how can a conference like yesterday's persuade a person who's got a bomb strapped around his middle to turn it off or take it off or not set it off? I think they're asking if you have any short-term answers, or are your solutions only long-term?

Prime Minister Peres: We have collection of answers, not one - short-term and long-term. But again, it's a very simplistic of putting the question. For example, if we can dry out the sources of finance to this man that carries the bomb, would it help or not? My answer is yes. If we can stop the traffic of arms, will it help or not? It will, yes. People are confusing issues. We are fighting on three different fronts, in order to create one system and do it systematically.

One is domestic - to increase our forces and fortify our borders, to control the passages and when necessary to impose closure - it's not instead of the conference in Sharm el-Sheikh. As a matter of fact, what is so interesting is that in spite of the closure and in spite of this measure, the conference in Sharm el-Sheikh took place. So even the Arabs understand that these were necessary measures.

Then we have the Palestinian side. We don't ask them to defend us, but we ask them clearly to have just one armed authority in Gaza, to put order at home; that Gaza cannot become a center for terror.

And then, by the leadership of the President, we are trying, practically the whole world, to stop the traffic of arms, the supply of money, shelter to the murderers, the mobilization of the existing systems - police or intelligence - to cooperate and put an end to it. Because terror is becoming an international phenomenon.

So I don't understand all this criticism. I think those who criticize didn't think about the question.

President Clinton: If I might follow up, if you had to answer the question the way you ask it, the answer would be no, no one can do that. No one could have done that before this meeting and no one can do that six months from now. I wish I had it in my power to reach into the hearts of those young men who have bought some apocalyptic version of Islam and politics, that together causes them to strap their bodies to bombs and blow themselves to smithereens and kill innocent children. I wish I could do that. I don't pretend to be able to do that. But that's not the question. The question is, can we improve the capacity of Israel and of the Palestinian Authority to prevent these things from occurring. The answer to that question is yes.

The second question is: can we improve our capacity to break up the networks of money and materiel that make these things possible? The answer to that is yes. Can we create a risk-free world here in Israel? No. Can we reduce the risks and do much better? Yes. That is the way we should look at this and that is focus we should take. I couldn't do that in the United States. Is it less likely that someone could do what happened in Oklahoma City again, in the United States? I think it is because of steps we have taken. Is it absolutely certain that nothing like that will ever happen again? No. As long as you have free societies where people have some ability to move, some right of privacy, some ability to transfer funds and some ability to get access to materials, you cannot have a totally risk-free world. What we are trying is to reduce risks, to reduce the likelihood of this, to prevent more of these things from happening, to catch more of the wrongdoers. That's what we are trying do. We can absolutely do that and that should be the focus.

Question: Mr. President, I'd like to ask you two specific questions related to yesterday's conference. You met with all the European leaders privately. Do you feel you have an assurance from them? They last weekend asked the Iranians to condemn terrorism. They didn't get what they asked for. Do you sense from them they are now willing to go forward and get tougher in their relations with Iran? They haven't really followed your dual containment program with the Iranians. Do you see this as a turning point in their policy towards the Iranians in your discussions with them yesterday? Second, do you sense in your talks with the Saudis that they are now willing to turn off the spigot because they've allowed funds to go to Hamas? I would like to know, I think the Israeli public would like to know, do you have a sense of assurance on specifics? The principles were set out and you set up working groups. But could you just give us a sense, from these European and Gulf leaders, what they are willing to do specifically?

President Clinton: I'll have to give you two separate answers. To the first question, when I announced an even stronger policy against Iran last year, I think it's fair to say that most European leaders thought I was wrong and disagreed with me. I believe now they're having second thoughts. I have seen some indications. I think it's quite important that I not speak for them and go beyond what they are prepared to say in public. But based on my private conversations, I did believe that there was a change in attitude in the minds of some of the European leaders with whom I met. With regard to Saudi Arabia, that specific issue was not discussed, nor, as you would imagine, could the Foreign Minister discuss that. We didn't have a bilateral meeting yesterday. But the thing I will say about it is that that we know that the Middle Eastern leaders, the Arab state leaders, are quite careful about what they say and a lot of times the phrases and words they use carry a lot of historic meaning or baggage, depending on the perspective you have about what they say. He said some things yesterday that no Saudi leader had ever said before. I received no explicit message, because we didn't have a private conversation.

On the European front, I can tell you that I had the distinct impression that our view, which I think is the view broadly held in Israel, I know it is, is making some inroads among the Europeans. How many times has it had to be demonstrated to them what the facts are? We will do everything we can to demonstrate to them what the facts are and obviously we need their help if we are going to really keep turning up the heat on this issue. The Iranians are committed to supporting these terrorist activities and glorifying them, totally ignoring the progress of the last several years, totally ignoring the facts, totally ignoring what has happened. That is just a fact. Every country in the world that deals with them is going to have to wake up in the morning, look in the mirror and decide whether they're going to stay with the policy they have or change it, whether the policy is based on a principle or some other basis.

Source: Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs