Joint Press Conference by Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright following their Meeting
Jerusalem, December 8, 1999 – 11:00 A.M.
PRIME MINISTER BARAK: Good morning, all of you. I am glad to be able to host Secretary Albright for the first time in our place here. In fact, I am glad to host most of you for the first time here in our place. I am just reciprocating. Reciprocity was an important word previously in this region. I will reciprocate for the very cordial hospitality that we enjoyed when we visited Washington when the Secretary took us to her Georgetown home and we are glad to have you here.
We had literally a fruitful and tasty breakfast and a very, I believe, effective one. We covered, we discussed, exchanged views about the situation of the peace process on all its tracks and I believe that the Secretary also feels that somehow progress is made in every such meeting and, I hope, that we will find ourselves closer to a peace agreement as a result of the Secretary’s visit to the region. We, the Government of Israel, myself, Foreign Minister David Levy and our colleagues are determined to live up to our commitment to the Israeli people and to the Israeli electorate and to live up to the mandate we get from the people of Israel to strengthen Israel through a determined attempt to put an end to the conflict between us and our neighbors and we are keeping stable on this target and this objective. Thank you very much.
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Thank you and good morning and happy Chanukah. I am delighted to be able to have had breakfast with you and your wife and friends in your house. It is very generous and warm of you and it is a custom I must say that I like of our reciprocal breakfasts.
I am delighted to return to Israel and to have a chance to have had this meeting with Prime Minister Barak. His vision and commitment have given the region a second chance at a comprehensive peace. I come here at a time of great opportunity and challenge. Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat are committed to reaching a framework agreement on permanent status by February 13th, which is 68 days from now, and they want an agreement on permanent status in its entirety within the next nine months. Now these are bold objectives but they are achievable and both leaders are serious and recognize that the difficult issues are not going to get easier with the passage of time. They know that the sooner the tough decisions are made, the sooner Israelis and Palestinians can reap the benefits of peace. Success will depend on creating trust and that means ensuring the best possible environment for negotiation. Each side needs to avoid taking steps or imposing conditions that embarrass the other and make negotiations more difficult.
The United States stands ready to assist the Israelis and Palestinians as they work toward the goals they have set. President Clinton and I are prepared to support Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat in any way that we can. We are equally committed to the search for a comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace and to help Israel, Syria and Lebanon resume their negotiation. With respect to Syria, our objective is clear: to develop a basis to resume the direct negotiations that were suspended more than three years ago, and to make it possible to move quickly to a conclusion. As I said yesterday, I left Damascus more optimistic than when I arrived and, following my meeting today with the Prime Minister, I think it’s fair to say that we made good progress toward meeting our objective.
The Middle East peace process has the potential to transform the region, but we know from long experience that one of the foundations of peace making is a close and strong relationship between Israel and the United States. Our commitment to Israel’s security will always be unwavering, our two countries share a special relationship, and you can count on us to do our part to maintain it. Thank you.
QUESTION (in Hebrew): Mr. Prime Minister, did Secretary Albright give you any clarifications on the position of President Assad regarding the peace process, in particular, any positions that may make it easier for you to reach an agreement with them?
(In English) And for you, Mrs. Secretary, there was a claim from the Syrians about a letter from Clinton to President Assad that, in this letter, the Syrians claim that it is written that Rabin, Prime Minister Rabin, accepted the withdrawal until the fourth of June 1967. Are you willing to respond to this claim?
PRIME MINISTER BARAK (in Hebrew): The Foreign Minister and I met with the Secretary this morning for a very fruitful and good breakfast. We examined the progress in all of the tracks, including the Syrian track, and I assure you that once there is progress in the Syrian track I will announce that.
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: And let me just say in response, I don’t think it is appropriate to discuss mail between two presidents. And I think that the important point here is, as I said yesterday, that details of negotiations, like mushrooms, develop better away from the light.
PRIME MINISTER BARAK (in Hebrew): There’s also a Hebrew Talmudic saying which says that the blessing only exists for that that is not obvious to the eye.
QUESTION: Bases of security, guarantees and all, is this sufficient in your mind, to compensate Israel’s security as it gives up real land, real territory that serves as a barrier to attack the North ever since 1967. A bunch of wires and a bunch of civilian observers, is that going to make Israel more secure and give up the Golan Heights?
PRIME MINISTER BARAK: Believe me, I spent all my life in uniform defending this country. I happened even to participate in the taking over of the Golan Heights originally in ’67 and I will not sign any agreement that will not, to the best of my judgement, strengthen Israel rather than weaken it. I am realistic enough to know that painful compromises will be needed in order to achieve peace in every single track but, I am confident, that living in the Middle East, Israel being what it is, the best way for Israel to strengthen itself is to find a way to make peace with our neighbors without violating any of our vital security interests. I don’t think that any details at this stage will help achieving such a peace and I am committed, first of all, to the result more than to the explanation. If we are able to make a peace, every hesitation along the way will be totally irrelevant. If we fail, any perfect argument will be irrelevant as well.
QUESTION (in Hebrew): Mr. Prime Minister, as usual you are not prepared to describe the status of the negotiation. Are you willing, however, to explain the scenario that we may expect during the upcoming days following the visit of Secretary of State Albright? Particularly with regard to Syria?
Madam Secretary, what is your reaction to the Prime Minister’s decision to halt the building in the settlements? Do you think it is a good step and will it help to resume the negotiations with the Palestinians about the permanent status?
PRIME MINISTER BARAK (in Hebrew): How can I know before the afternoon what will occur after the afternoon. Usually, to gain this information I listen to your radio station and learn what is going
on. I do seriously believe, however, that every day brings us closer to a solution and farther from a crisis, I hope. We are working on it.
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: The Prime Minister explained his decision to me about the suspension of certain activities and I think this is very important in terms of the Palestinian track. These are issues that are part of the permanent status discussions and it is very important for all of those to be addressed as rapidly as possible given the schedule that have been set up and I think that it is very important, as I have said a number of times, for both sides to understand the sensitivities of these particular issues.
QUESTION: Mr. Prime Minister and Madam Secretary, the same question to both of you. We have been up and down this Syrian hill a dozen times or more in recent years. I would just like to know how real do you personally believe it is this time? I mean, we hear words like optimistic but we have heard optimistic before. We have heard hopeful before. How real is it this time?
PRIME MINISTER BARAK: I cannot predict it. As of now, it’s too early. It takes two to tango. There is clearly a unique opportunity based on the experiences in the last decade from Madrid, through the negotiations that Assad had with Rabin, then with Peres, then indirectly with Netanyahu, I think that basically we know all that we can know about his positions, and he knows all that he can know about our positions, short of making the decision. Now I think that there are also other reasons, you know, the very passing of time, doesn’t make our latitude, opportunities or room for maneuver wider or longer.
It’s the turn of the millennium, and there is a government in Israel which is self-confident enough and feels that Israel is strong and can afford strengthening itself even more by making peace rather than living on our sword. It was, I believe, Otto Von Bismarck who once said that you can do many things with bayonets but you cannot sit on them. And I believe that that applies also to Israel.
We have here an eruption of energies, of talent, immigrants are coming, highly educated, youngsters, who are so devoted to the country and now creating start-ups at the rate of two to three per
day. We have so many other things to do other than to be deployed for another generation or two along the borders and bury our youngsters, and let the other bury theirs. So it’s time to make decisions. I feel, somehow, that the opportunity is clear also to President Assad. But I cannot prove it, and I don’t know whether anyone can predict it before it materializes.
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: I think that what the Prime Minister said really speaks for itself and, from my perspective, what is important is that there seems to be more of a understanding of the historic opportunities that exist and that we have, in fact, I think, as I said, a greater sense of optimism, because from my meetings, both here and in Damascus, I have a sense that there is a desire to seize the moment.
QUESTION (in Hebrew): Mr. Prime Minister, don’t you think that it may appear to be improper that you have decided to freeze the construction in the settlements at the time that it was requested by the Palestinians, and it might appear that you are surrendering to pressure?
(In English) Madam Secretary, what are going to be the next steps in the Syrian-Israeli negotiations? Is there going to be any personal involvement of President Clinton?
PRIME MINISTER BARAK (in Hebrew): First of all, I do not deal with appearances, rather I deal with the real issues, the essential ones. The government position has always been, since its establishment, to permit only the natural growth of the settlements. Recently, 1,800 units have been constructed or are under construction in the primary settlements. Since it takes approximately two years between the time tenders are submitted to construct new housing units and the negotiations now will continue for approximately 70 days, and since the submission of bids and tenders now is harmful and will not strengthen our position in the negotiation process, there is no reason not to suspend the submission of new tenders for housing construction from December to March. Current construction, of course, shall continue and, I want to stress that this combination is logical and will in fact strengthen our position, both in the Land of Israel and in the negotiation process. Those who believe that we should continue to request a submission of bids at the moment are misguided on both of these points.
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: In terms of next steps, I don’t think it is yet appropriate to discuss them but, what is significant and important, I think, as I have said earlier, is that our objective has been to develop a basis to resume the direct negotiations and to make it possible to move forward to a quick conclusion and I think it is fair to say that we have made progress on that road. In terms of the President’s involvement, let me say I spoke with the President yesterday and he was pleased to hear my report. He has taken thus far a very personal hand in whatever has been achieved this far. I think that his role during Wye was absolutely key. He was also, I think, extremely important in reaching the agreements, what we did in Sharm-el-Sheik, and he is someone who believes that his hands-on activity as all tracks proceed is very important. I think it is fair to say, at least Prime Minister Barak has made this clear to me, is that the parties, all the parties have the utmost confidence in President Clinton’s fairness, his understanding in detail of all the issues and his commitment to peace.
QUESTION: Two questions. One, specifically, when can the Syrian-Israeli negotiations resume, within days or within weeks or within months? When do you expect them to resume? And two, Mr. Prime Minister, you have indicated some flexibility personally in your vision of a Middle East peace and when that can be achieved. The timetables could slip a little bit, a few months. Do you think that it is possible that the timetable for the framework agreement due in 68 days, as the Secretary indicated, could slip a little bit from February 13th?
PRIME MINISTER BARAK: First of all, about the deadlines, I have always said that if certain deadlines will be achieved before time, I will not ask for a citation, and if it takes another month or six weeks, I will not jump from a tower. It is a kind of framework that gives a sense of direction, urgency and need to act not just to talk. I am a man of action, I spent all my life, not in politics, but in places where something that you want to do, you have to do something about it in order to do it, to accomplish it. So, I take the peace process with the same kind of approach and, I believe, that the framework is very helpful.
Let me tell you that President Ciampi of Italy was here and, I was criticized by some of your colleagues here for making these deadlines, and he was surprised. He told the journalists here that in the EU he believes that they would never achieve what had been achieved unless they would set quite tight deadlines for any further step.
Now, about when the negotiations–
QUESTION: You don’t think the deadlines will slip?
PRIME MINISTER BARAK: I don’t see a reason why they will slip but I will not jump from the roof here if it slips for a few weeks. It doesn’t matter. But, at the same time, in regard to the resumption of negotiations with the Syrians, since the election I say that I believe that it shouldn’t take more than a few weeks. So, I am consistent. I still think the same, for what it’s worth.
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Well, I think we need to take this a step at a time. I have basically said that I have felt that there has been good progress on what I set out to do on this trip but, we have a long way to go and, I think, that the point here is that I have had good meetings that have left me more optimistic than I came and I just say again, mushrooms–
QUESTION (in Hebrew): Mr. Prime Minister, following your discussion with Madam Albright, I wanted to know whether you had a better understanding of whether the Palestinians will accept the five percent for the second withdrawal?
(In English) And, Ms. Secretary, do you think the Palestinians are going to be a part, as they say, in saying or deciding which parts of land they will have in the second FRD?
PRIME MINISTER BARAK (in Hebrew): I believe that this question is not connected to the visit of Madam Albright. The transfer of five percent is connected, of course, with the Sharm agreement and derives more closely from Wye. The transfer will occur following consultation with the Knesset and examination of maps. This transfer will occur after this process.
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: I think that the Prime Minister has described the process. We have said that it’s really the parties that now have to deal with the issues that were outlined at Wye and delineated further at Sharm, and that is our position.
PRIME MINISTER BARAK: Thank you very much.