Briefing by
Foreign Minister of the State of Israel
Ariel Sharon

National Press Club, Washington D.C.
December 7, 1998

FOREIGN MINISTER SHARON: Thank you. Mr. Chairman, ambassador from Israel, Ambassador Shoval, Director General of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Mr. Eytan Bentur, Mrs. Ambassador, distinguished guests,

I’m glad to be here, and I would like just to say some words before I’ll open it for questions to ask, if you have some questions. Maybe you will not have any. The Israeli government decided to make a true effort to reach peace. And myself, I have to tell you that I joined my new function as minister of foreign affairs in order to do one thing: that is to try and make every effort to reach peace. And though we are having many problems, that is the line of the government. But there is one basic thing, and that is that we believe it should be every settlement, every arrangement must be based upon one thing, and that is mutual reciprocity.

Without that, nothing can be done. Israel, I don’t have to tell you, is a wonderful country, having tremendous hopes on one side — if I emphasize, I would start with the — I would say our hopes to reach peace with the Arab world; the immigration to the state of Israel that should be the main goal and target of Israel; the very high standard of Israeli technology, education, research and science or, say, in every field, Israel is leading from most — I would say interesting farming system that I can tell you we are farmers ourselves — to music. I would say we — and I don’t want offend any ambassadors — but I think that maybe our best ambassador around the world is the Israeli Philharmonic Orchestra.

I would say in every field you can see tremendous hopes, in the same Israel is facing also great dangers. One is of course the hatred that still exists there and the suspicions. The second thing is the arms race in the Middle East, a race that we cannot compete with; but we have to absorb immigration, we have to invest in education. But it’s something we have not seen before in the last 40 years. Then we have the danger of Arab or Palestinian terror. We brought most of the walls to the area. We have these, I would say, open wound I call it. These are the Palestinian refugees because Israel, since 1948, absorbed about 1 million Jews that had to leave their property behind in Arab countries and move to Israel. In the same time, the Arab countries never wanted to solve this problem for about — the problem about — may be close to the same number of Palestinians that left the Palestine then during the war of independence.

With all those difficulties, with all those dangers, we are sure that there is tremendous potential in Israel, and we are looking forward making every effort to try and reach peace. But again, I will emphasize, peace must be reached only once it will be based upon mutual reciprocity, otherwise, nothing might come out of it, not in the interim agreement and not in a permanent agreement. I thank you. And if you do have after that any questions, I am at your disposal.

MR. HICKMAN: Thank you, Mr. Minister, we do. Our first question is Barry Schweid.

Q Barry Schweid, Associated Press. I ask, having heard you this morning, only because we’re confronted — you’re here 10 minutes and already — when you were here 10 minutes there were already all sorts of odd reports appearing in the Israeli media. So forgive me for this question, if you will. Have you suggested to Ms. Albright or to the administration that the president call off his trip? And have you told anybody in the administration that Israel will not proceed with the withdrawal?

FM SHARON: The answer to your first question is no. And I think — I’m sure that — I know you for many years. I saw you in the State Department today. That’s exactly, as you also said, we welcome President Clinton, we welcome an American president to our area. And I emphasize that Israel, on the one hand welcoming the president and we would like to see him as much as possible visiting Israel and making all these commitment there, in the same time Israel will stand very firm on the implementation and accomplishment of all the obligations that the Palestinians took upon themselves. That was my answer. Again, he is mostly welcomed. But Israel will stand firm.

Q Mr. Minister, I am Jim Anderson with DPA, the German Press Agency. The Wye agreement in Article 5, bans unilateral actions by either side, pending a final-status agreement. How do you define "expansion of settlements" as being "not unilateral"? FM SHARON: How do I define a unilateral —

FM SHARON: Now, I am on two fronts now: One is trying to keep the coalition there at home together and getting all the news — and I got something about that — the ambassador will see it — and then getting all this bad information about, just a short while ago, an Israeli driver was attacked near Jenin in the place that was handed to the Palestinians just, I think, a few weeks ago. So now I’ll come to your question, sir. No. I’ll remember the question.

Q Well, let me state it better: How do you reconcile expansion of settlements with the Wye agreement’s language on unilateral actions?

FM SHARON: The Israeli government made it very, very clear that as long as we have not reached yet — we have not reached — a permanent agreement, Israel will not build new settlements or communities in Samaria and Judea. We made this very clear. And that is the way that we are doing. We are not establishing any new settlements. In the same time, there was a very clear government resolution saying that strengthening, building, developing existing settlements — that is the line of the government, and that is exactly what we are doing. It was a very clear Cabinet decision. That’s what we have done, and that’s what we are doing.

Q Can I just follow that up? Was your statement several weeks ago —

FM SHARON: As a matter of fact, not in the Oslo agreement and not in Wye agreement it has been decided even one word about adding population to existing settlements. In the same time, because you ask what I will regard to be unilateral, I would say declaration of — unilaterally of a Palestinian state; that is something which is all-out against the agreement. And therefore, we of course advise and recommend all the time, myself having contact with the Palestinians, not to take any unilateral steps. That is a unilateral step. Q Could I just follow it up? Your recent statement about urging the settlers to take advantage of time to build and expand on the hilltops — does that still represent the Israeli government policies?

FM SHARON: Look, I admit that maybe it’s not exactly a diplomatic expression of a minister of foreign affairs. Maybe one should have found, I would say, a softer term; maybe — (inaudible) — several (layers ?) in the ministry, and now I got information that the government, I think, gained two weeks (under that ?), so maybe I’ll have time. It was not exactly diplomatic. But I want to give you an answer. I said that once I heard the — I would say the Palestinian Authority chairman calling to use guns, and I saw that in order to avoid the danger of using guns, the best thing might be just to hold in our hands those hills that control those Jewish communities.

All that — and that has been said very clearly — is within the master plan of those towns and settlements, not beyond that, without any expropriation of private land on state-owned land, and that is exactly what has been done. What is very interesting, sir, that in the place that it has not been done, again, it’s within the master plan, hills that are overlooking those communities in order not to increase frictions but to avoid frictions and bloodshed in the future. But on Saturday, it was a — I would say, a wild take on a town which is called Ariel, I may call it the capital of Somalia, a town, maybe now it’s 15,000 or 16,000 inhabitants, and they never took any hills, but the Palestinians took a hill. And on Saturday, hundreds of them moved into the town, cut the fences, and it was, I would say — it looked like a pogrom.

Q My name is Mohammed Sheil (ph) from the Voice of America. The Palestinians said that they don’t need an Israeli approval to create their own independent state. What’s your reaction to that, and what Israel is planning to do in case the Palestinians announce their own independent state in May?

FM SHARON: First we made very clear that they will not accept any unilateral decisions. Things should be discussed. And myself, being in charge of the permanent status negotiations, I hope that all that will be moving fast as possible and we’ll be able to find solutions to every point. The government announced very clearly, and announced that in advance and rightly so, what are the steps that we might be taking if that will happen. And the government said that one of the steps that might be taken is extending the Israeli law on areas which are in our hands in Samaria and Judea and Gaza.

In order to make it even clearer, I don’t regard myself already as a diplomat, so I will not use extending our law and so on. I will say Israel — in this case one of the possibilities, that Israel will annex immediately the old areas — therefore, if I could have advocated to our neighbors the Palestinians with whom we are going to make every effort to reach peace — and myself I am going to make every effort — I would have recommended, "Don’t take unilateral steps," because Israel will react immediately. And we made it very clear already, weeks or months ago.

Q Bill Jones from Executive Intelligence Review. You said, sir, that you yourself joined the Netanyahu administration in order to achieve a peace and that the policy of the government is, in fact, to reach the peace. Nevertheless, it seems that there was a lot of kicking and screaming before the Netanyahu government accepted the idea of land for peace. I am not sure if they ever accepted, even today, the idea of the Oslo agreements. But, nevertheless, this has been superseded by the Wye agreements, which has been accepted by the government. And yet every step of the way, there have been attempts to throw up various roadblocks to the achievement of peace; in particular, with regard to the settlements, the buying up of Arab properties in east Jerusalem, et cetera, which I think have created a lot of skepticism, not only among the Palestinians but also in the United States, to the real desire on the part of your government, to achieve peace. I was wondering if you could comment on —

FM SHARON: Yes. And thank you for the question. First, I would like — I think facts are something which are very, very important, even when it comes to media. So I don’t know. I don’t have an idea how many Arabs are living, for instance, today in the capital of the Negev — we live in the Negev — the town or the city of Beersheba. Have you ever heard anybody saying a word about that? Hundreds, hundreds of apartments were bought by Arabs, and they are living there side by side with the Jews. Have you ever tried to find, sir, what is the number of Arabs that purchased apartments in upper Nazareth? Have you ever heard anything about that, any complaint or — and somebody saw that that is something that one cannot accept? Or how many houses and apartments were purchased by Arabs in one of the most beautiful and modern neighborhoods in Jerusalem called Pisgat Ze’ev? You know, I know that many; if you asked he how many, I even don’t know.

You know why? Because we live in a democratic country, and we are not bothered by that. And nobody is bothered. And maybe you would like to go and see how many shops, mostly grocery and others, in one of the main streets of Tel Aviv — Ibn Gvirol Street. How many of them are owned by Arabs? Have you ever heard something about that? So that — first of all, the facts should be known. I think that the government accepted the Oslo agreement, but the government thought that we must make every effort to reduce some of the dangers of the Oslo agreement. The Oslo agreement is a very, very complicated one. But the government decided and announced — and as a matter of fact, that — what happened? Myself, if you asked me, I thought that the agreement by itself is a very dangerous one, the Oslo agreement. But I remember that in 1993, when this Oslo agreement was brought to the Knesset, I got up there and I said what we have to do now is to try and find a way to reduce the dangers. And this government has been doing that. And myself, I decided to make every effort to reach a settlement with the Arabs which should bring — I hope so; with God’s help — to peace with the Palestinians, with the Syrians, with the Lebanon, and any other Arab country. That is the truth.

Q Mr. Minister, my name is Jeffrey Weingrad. I’m the editor of an independent political newsletter called "Yellow Dog Democrat." And my question is this: What is your understanding of the views of the Bush administration concerning Palestinian statehood? Meaning the American government prior to the Clinton administration.

FM SHARON: You know, we are living in a world that events, you know, are taking place so fast. You want me now to go back to try to analyze. Let’s deal with the future. Let’s deal with the future. And let’s try and see what we can do, how we can reach settlement which will lead to peace, which will enable the people in the region to live different life — very complicated thing. Please, don’t involve me trying to analyze now what happened in different administration other than this administration. I can tell you I think the United States is very, very — traditionally very friendly country to Israel, very friendly. And even that is reciprocal, though. We are a tiny, small country; we are also very friendly when it comes to the United States.

Q (Sam Husseini ?) from IPA Media. I’d like to ask you why there are certain Israeli policies. For example, 90 percent of the land of Israel cannot be bought or leased even by Arab citizens of Israel. And Israel has been in a systematic campaign, it seems, over the last few months to demolish Palestinian homes within the West Bank. Why is it illegal for Arab citizens who are citizens of Israel to purchase land in Israel proper, on 90 percent of the land, owned by the Israeli Jewish Lands Commission?

FM SHARON: Okay, you know, you start with facts which are incorrect. Jews also do not buy land in Israel. In Israel, 92 percent of the land is state-owned land. And in Israel, you don’t buy land, you get a lease. And that is, I would say — it’s 49 plus 49 plus 49; now it’s 98 plus 98. So — and that is the way how we deal with that. As a matter of fact, there are many countries in the world which are jealous, in envy of us, because when you come in modern countries, when you have to build, when you have to plant, when you have to build roads and railroads — and I’m still speaking as a minister of infrastructure, so I’m in charge of these things, of land and water and electricity and so on — so many countries, I would say, are jealous of our system, that that is the system. How it started — look, I don’t have the Bible here. If I would have had the Bible here, I would have shown you how it started. And I’d say an old thing — and Arabs own land, and Arabs get land, and there is no restrictions when it comes to Arabs. And Arabs, I just mentioned, buy apartments and rent apartments in Jewish towns. And all that — when the problem starts, you know when, sir; when a Jew wants to buy an apartment in an Arab town. Oh, then the problem starts! Otherwise, no problem.

Q Martin Seiff of the Washington Times. Sir, at the Wye conference, you and Prime Minister Netanyahu both laid emphasis on what you claimed were remarks by the — a continual series of comments by Mr. Arafat and other Palestinian leaders which were not conducive to peace, which were raising tension and increasing conflict. When PA President Arafat was here last week, on two separate occasions, one of them at the State Department, he reemphasized his commitment, A, to declare a Palestinian state next May, and B, also to seek Jerusalem, which he defined as the holy city of Jerusalem — i.e., the old East Jerusalem — as the Palestinian capital. Now clearly so far, your government has not regarded this as sufficiently incendiary comments to again suspend the peace negotiations, though you threaten to do so. How do you assess those comments? And at one point would you regard such comments by Mr. Arafat and his colleagues as sufficient grounds to again suspend the process?

FM SHARON: Well, in order to understand this question, you blame us — I’m saying the government — that we did not react strong enough on those declarations. That’s what you meant? That we were too soft in our reaction?

So first, I think that the government made it very clear — and that we are regard those announcements as unilateral steps that Israel will not be able to accept. And we also emphasized that the fact that the Palestinian Authority — encouraging, instigating violence at the present time is totally against the spirit of the Wye agreement. Therefore, the government or the Cabinet, the inner Cabinet, met a few days ago after, I think, you had maybe the chance to see the brutality when they tried to kill a civilian and a soldier — I don’t know if you have seen this here on television; I believe you have seen that — and said very clearly that though we would like to continue and make every effort to reach peace, unless the Palestinians will comply with their obligations, Israel will not be able to implement the next phase of withdrawal.

Of course we could have waited, we could have waited, because there is a government resolution that before every phase of withdrawal the cabinet will meet, will check, will see if the commitments were fulfilled and take a decision. But with full respect to the American president, President Clinton, and the Secretary of State, Mrs. Albright, and their visit to the Middle East, we decided to come earlier. We didn’t have to do that at all; we could have waited until the 16th of December, one or two days before the next withdrawal, check it, and I’m sure that the cabinet would have decided not to implement because no one could have put pressure upon Israel to implement something which is a clear violation, because every paragraph of the Wye agreement had been violated by the Palestinian Authority by now. As I said, due to the fact that — with respect to President Clinton, which we have, we decided to give an early warning to the Palestinians to try and change their ways of behavior. But what happened is that it became worse and worse from day to day. That is the situation.

Q Hoda Tawfik, Al Ahram, Egypt. Mr. Minister, as you will be leading the final status talks, do you accept that Security Council Resolution 242 is applicable to East Jerusalem as it part of the land occupied in ’67?

FM SHARON: Jerusalem is the capital of the Jewish people for the last 3,002 years. And it’s the eternal capital of the state of Israel, started to be a capital 50 years ago and will be one unified, united capital of the state of Israel forever. Jews never left Jerusalem — never left. And I am not underestimating rights of everyone to come and pray and I would say live — and mostly welcomed. But when it comes to the question who Jerusalem is, there is no doubt whatsoever; not in the past, not now, not in the future. Therefore, that is our answer. And Jerusalem will never be divided. That is our — that’s how we see it; that’s how we believe.

Q So isn’t two-for-two applicable, yes or no?

FM SHARON: You know, I like these questions, you know, because it reminds of being here, spending some time in American federal court — you know, suing the Time magazine that in the past for what I called then a blood libel. But so, you know, it reminds me of something nice. It has nothing to do with Jerusalem. That is our answer. Thank you.

Q I am from Turkish News Agency Anatolia. My question is on a different subject. How do you view the current relations between Turkey and Israel? And what does that mean for the area?

FM SHARON: Israel is trying to establish relations with every country. We regard Turkey as a very important country in the area. And I am glad that we have relations with Turkey, as we have relations with other countries. And we will make every effort, I would say, to establish relations with every country. We would like to sign peace with all the countries. I would like maybe one day that all the countries in the region will be able to work together on projects, which are important for all of us. There are tremendous possibilities that we have join together. I regard Turkey as a very, very important, cornerstone in every future development and relations in the area.

Q (Name off mike) — with Yomiuri Shimbun. A little while ago you just said that if the Palestinians were to declare a Palestinian state unilaterally, that Israel would annex immediately all areas. Would that involve sending troops back to places from which they were already withdrawn?

FM SHARON: No, I don’t think we have any intention not to go back to Gaza — we made it very clear — not to Shechem and not to Jenin and not to Ramallah. I speak about areas that are not under a full control of the Palestinians. That is how I see it. The government decision did not talk in details about that, but I believe that we don’t have any intention to going back into these areas and —

Q What about Hebron?

FM SHARON: We live in Hebron. Hebron, it’s — again, you know, I don’t know if you know your Bible well, and I’m not going to check it, you know, because you know Israel, it’s a unique country. You can walk in Israel and you don’t need guidebook, you hold the Bible in your hand. And, you know, you don’t have anywhere that for thousands of years old names were kept; it’s only in once place that I know, I would say, for thousands of years, and that is the land of Israel. But if you’ll open the Bible, you’ll find that Jews — first of all King David, whom everyone knows, was crowned as king of the Jews then in Hebron, and ruled Hebron for seven and a half years, and ruled, I would say then, Israel, for seven and a half a years from Hebron there. In Hebron there is a monument and that is the Cave of Patriarchs — (Me’arat Hamakhpela) — where our forefathers and foremothers are buried there; Abraham and Sarah, Jacob and Leah — (inaudible) — all buried there in once place. It’s a monument which is 3,800 years old.

You know, I’m always — I’m envious you know, when I come to Washington, to this most beautiful city, and I see the monuments — George Washington, Lincoln, Jefferson — when I see that, and I see the way that — how people stand there and look with admiration, with respect, toward these monuments. So — and these are 200 years old, 100 years old. You know, they’re — you know your history! We speak here about a monument which is almost 4,000 years old. No one got such a monument. So can you think for one minute that we will not be living in Hebron? Jews were living in Hebron for thousands of years. Go to the old cemetery. You stand there, you touch stones which are 700 years old. But there is, I would say, a cemetery there which is 1,000 years old. Go to what we call Hatzar Hayehudim, the Jewish court, the Synagogue of Avraham Avinu, which is 457 years old now.

So can you assume for one minute that Jews that were living in Hebron for thousands of years, nonstop life, will not be living in Hebron? So Jews are living in Hebron, and they will be living in Hebron. Why not? Arabs live everywhere. Jews live everywhere. MR. HICKMAN: Next question?

Q Mark Matthews with the Baltimore Sun. Mr. Minister, having cooperated with the Palestinian Authority in the opening of the Palestinian airport in Gaza, can you tell us what your government’s objections are to President Clinton using that airport? And would you discourage other foreign leaders from using it as well?

FM SHARON: Look, I think that one of the problems now, one of the dangers now is that the Palestinian Authority gets the feeling that they are totally backed by this great democracy. What that might create? This feeling creates a situation of more violence. Therefore, I think that at the present time, though we welcome President Clinton to visit — he got the warmest welcome to come and to visit the Palestinians, to visit with us. But we think that all of us have to be careful not to create false expectations, which only add friction and tension. That is the other only thing. Otherwise, in accordance with the agreement, everyone can come and land. And I hope that one day, as Arabs are using Ben Gurion Airport, we will be using this airport. It all depends upon the security and the development of the situation. And that’s what all of us are expecting. And we hope that really one day will come, and we’ll be able to go everywhere, to discuss with everyone, and really to achieve our dreams of having overall and lasting peace in the Middle East. I think we — there are some more questions?

Q My name is Jodi, and I am from Knight-Ridder Newspapers. You have been talking about the increased violence in recent days. The Palestinians have been protesting because of the prisoner release, and they want more political prisoners released rather than common criminals. What can we expect to see in the next round of prisoner release? And also, what do you plan to do to control — or is there anything you can do to control the violence, as President Clinton’s visit approaches? FM SHARON: You know, when you said, ma’am, that — you referred to that as "political prisoners" —

FM SHARON: Yes, so; you know, one thing that — you speak about, let’s say, leaders of parties, which are in the opposition or something like that, that were arrested, like any countries, the other countries. It’s entirely different thing here. Thanks God, you know, that we don’t have that problem. But take it as it is. We are doing exactly what has been decided in Wye Plantations. And we are not going to release — and the fact that the Palestinian Authority encourage, instigate murder and killing and violence — and you can look at that. You can hear what they are saying. You know, that maybe we have to return — and kidnapped soldiers and civilians. And you know, it’s only to look at the press there and to hear what they are saying. And as long — I think that the prime minister made it very clear we are not going to release murderers with blood on their hands — and rightly so.

Q Matt Dorf with JTA, the Jewish wire service. You said that the Wye accords, of course, are based on reciprocity. And in part, the cabinet has suspended any future troops redeployments because Chairman Arafat said last week that he hopes to declare a Palestinian state next May. Do the Palestinians then have the same right to suspend the Wye accords because of your comment saying that Jerusalem is the "eternal capital" of Israel — and the city’s status is to be negotiated in the final-status talks? And also if I could ask, last week you led four governors on a helicopter tour of the West Bank. One of them was Governor George Bush. Could you tell us what your impressions of were (sic) him; and if he were to become president, whether you believe he would lead the same policies that his father did?

FM SHARON: Look, I never interfered in anybody’s else internal political issues. We always hope that the other countries will not interfere in ours. We believe that every country got its right. I mean, I heard myself what Governor Bush announced when he came back, that he enjoyed the trip; it was very, very interesting. I think it was very interesting. And I think that he could have seen some of the major problems that Israel is facing. But of course, we are not going to say anything. We don’t do nothing to fear — and that’s not our field of — we are not involved in things like that. I’ll be glad — everyone that will be coming, and will like to see and will like to understand more the problems that we have. We’ll make every effort to show, in order that the people will understand, that Israel is a tiny, tiny, small country, a country that wants to live in peace, to reach peace with the Palestinians, with all our neighbors. And that is our goal, and that’s what we are making a true effort to reach. If you would like one day to come, Mr. Chairman, if you’ll — maybe you’ll bring all this group, you know — I will be volunteering to be their guide. It will be an interesting day, I can tell you. And I’m sure we’ll enjoy it. I would like to thank you again, and I would like to tell you that we hope that with all the difficulties that we have, they will come and we’ll reach peace with the Palestinians and with all our neighbor countries, for the benefit of all of us. Thank you so much.

MR. HICKMAN: Thank you, Mr. Minister.