Prime Minister Ehud Barak on the
Renewal of Israel-Syria Negotiations
Jerusalem, December 13, 1999
Esteemed President of the State; esteemed Speaker; esteemed Knesset; Mrs. Nadia Cohen, widow of the hero of Israel, the late Eli Cohen; and members of the Cohen family:
Five months ago, when I presented the new Government to the Knesset, I stated that the Government’s highest aim would be to bring peace and security to Israel in a way that would also safeguard the State’s vital interests. I said that a comprehensive and stable peace can be attained only if it will rest on several pillars and cornerstones concurrently: Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and, of course, the Palestinians. I added that the two remaining tasks – concluding a permanent settlement with the Palestinians and attaining peace with Syria and Lebanon – are equally crucial and urgent; and that it would be the Government’s goal to act concurrently to bring peace closer on all fronts and to make progress toward peace wherever possible. I undertook at that occasion to wind up the protracted tragedy in Lebanon within a year and to place the Israel Defence Forces on the international border, by agreement.
The seriousness of the Government’s intentions and the Government’s proven credibility, as expressed inter alia in the Sharm e-Sheikh agreement and the beginning of talks between ourselves and the Palestinians toward a framework agreement on permanent status, are the factors that led to the breakthrough announced last week by Bill Clinton, the President of the United States. There is no doubt that the resumption of negotiations with Syria, at an unprecedentedly high political level, is an extremely important milestone in the difficult and painful historical process toward comprehensive peace between the State of Israel and its neighbors. I consider it an obligation of the highest order to express appreciation to President Clinton, whose personal involvement in and devotion to peacemaking in the international arena generally and the Middle East particularly constitute a statement of honor for his country, its national leadership, and his leadership. Special appreciation is also due, of course, to the Secretary of State, Ms. Madeleine Albright, for her efforts and determination, and to the entire devoted and talented team at the American Administration that deals with our region’s affairs.
The United States’s profound interest in the Middle East peacemaking process, and its political, moral, and material support for it, provided the motive and supportive force with which the process has been moved ahead for the twenty-six years since the interim arrangements following the Yom Kippur War were attained. This support is more crucial now than ever, and it will also be needed in the future to complete the peacemaking cycle, to guarantee it, and to make it stable and sustainable. Israel is grateful to the American people, to all parts of the Congress, and to the Administration for their staunch and continual support of the effort to attain peace in our war-tested region.
Esteemed Knesset, an Israel delegation will fly to Washington tomorrow, armed with abundant goodwill, a heavy sense of mission and responsibility, and no conceit whatsoever. We are facing very difficult negotiations, the results of which are by no means preordained. At the forefront of our concerns is Israel’s security. The agreement we aim to conclude with our Syrian neighbors is the sort that will also end the conflict with Lebanon and include effective and diverse mechanisms to maintain security at all times and to safeguard the state of peace between our countries.
Such an agreement does not reside in heaven. It is within our grasp, and today we have a propitious opportunity that must not be missed! Forfeiting this opportunity may even claim a price in blood. The condition is that the Syrian delegation to the talks, to which we extend sincere greetings, must be equipped with the same degree of resolve and goodwill that we have. Peace is a shared interest that can be of tremendous utility to both peoples. From Israel’s standpoint, true peace with the Syrians and the Palestinians, if attained, is the pinnacle of fulfillment of the Zionist vision. It is a revolution and a new era in Israel’s relations with the Arab world and the entire world. As one who has spent most of his life at the forefront of Israel’s security; as one who has fought and has sent soldiers into fire; and as one who carries the memory of his best friends in his heart, I am resolved to spare no effort to end the bloody conflict between ourselves and our neighbors, and I consider this my highest duty. I am well acquainted with the nature of the Middle East and the near and distant threats – terrorism, surface-to-surface missiles, and nonconventional weapons. I have no illusions and am determined to ensure that the agreement, if attained, will strengthen, not weaken, Israel’s overall security.
Mr. Speaker, Members of the Knesset, I do not promise peace without a price. I have never spread illusions; it is not my way! More than two years ago, at a rally marking the thirtieth anniversary of settlement on the Golan Heights, I said the following to the Golan inhabitants, who are truly close to my heart: "I tell you honestly what you know very well in your hearts: any Government in Israel that concludes a full peace treaty with Syria, as we all hope, will do so at a painful price including a painful withdrawal and a change in the existing border. However, I tell you that your presence and rootedness here will give every Israeli negotiator additional courage and redoubled vigor to stand firm on every letter and comma, in order to anchor and assure the most vital interests of the State of Israel." I said this to the inhabitants of the Golan back then because I believe a leader must tell the truth boldly. What is more, the Golan residents proved in the most recent elections that they appreciate this.
Esteemed Knesset, we are beginning the negotiations without preconditions. We have made no Israeli commitments to the Syrians and, by the same token, we have not erased the past – neither Madrid nor the substance of the contacts and talks with Rabin, Peres, or even Netanyahu. The opposition may relax! In any event, I will not present an agreement that fails to respond fully, to the best of my cognizance, to the security needs of the State of Israel, and that will not best serve its vital interests as I understand them. I will not present the Knesset, for its approval, with an agreement that, in my opinion, does not clearly and substantively improve Israel’s overall global situation. I will not present any agreement that does not assure the people of Israel a better future in its land. In other words, the only agreement I will present is one that, according to my conviction, is good for the State of Israel and the Israeli public, and one that the public will approve in the plebiscite by a sweeping majority.
I call on the Likud and all factions in this house to support the Government and the measures that it is taking to terminate a century-long conflict; to participate in an effort that will bring peace and strengthen Israel’s security; and to do so in a way that will transcend political calculus. The future of the State of Israel is more important than politics of the moment during the tenure of any particular Government. All of us are the public’s emissaries, not its masters! None of us is higher than the wishes of the people, including our raucous rivals in the opposition and our sincerely anguished friends on the Golan Heights. When the negotiations end – may they end successfully – we will present the entire agreement to the public for a plebiscite. Everything will be overt and clear. All citizens of Israel, irrespective of their differences, will see the agreement that we will bring, they will judge for themselves, and the people will decide! I am convinced that the people will respond to such an agreement, on the day it is presented to them, with a resounding "aye."
Members of the Knesset, from this podium I wish again to appeal directly to our citizens on the Golan Heights. I climbed to the Golan Heights as a fighter in the Six-Day War, from Nuheilat to the site of today’s Merom Hagolan. I shared your loss in the first casualty of settlement on the Golan, my friend and soldier, your comrade the late Micha Fichman, a founder of Merom Hagolan and a member of the General Staff Reconnaissance Unit. After hundreds of navigation marches, maneuvers, and preparations for operations, I am familiar with every gully and stone on the Golan Heights. Even today my heart is with you, and so it will remain even if you direct harsh words at us. This is a difficult time for you. I know you have built your homes on the Golan Heights, you have given birth to one new generation and then another, you have planted fields, trees, and vineyards. This is your home and you are as closely tied to it as all of us are to our homes. We have all formed a bond with the good soil, the wonderful landscape, and the relics of Jewish life and Jewish valor back then and in our times. It has been almost thirty-three years, more than half of Israel’s current age.
Now, and for as long as the negotiations last, you face an agonizing period of uncertainty. I cannot tell you that an agreement can be attained without a steep territorial price. The extent of the price will be determined in negotiations, commensurate with the depth of peace and the quality of the security arrangements. I can only assure you that no effort will be spared to attain the best possible agreement for the State of Israel, which, as stated, I will present to the entire people for its decision. On my part, I am willing to share the process with your representatives to the extent possible, to meet with residents of the Golan, and to maintain continual, sincere, and frank relations with you throughout the negotiation period and also after the peace treaty is signed – if and when we come to that. In everything that is worked out and decided, we are together, even if you cannot see this – you and I, the Knesset and the Government, and the entire people of Israel! If an agreement takes shape, it will be a historical moment. Its price will be the price that our generation will pay for our future and for posterity, for an end to the wars and bloodshed, for the ability to look our children in the eye – including those who live on the Golan Heights – and to tell them that we did it all to strengthen Israel’s security and prevent the next war. It is our generation’s challenge and mission is to bring comprehensive peace and security to Israel.
It is our supreme responsibility to history, as our children look on, to act today so that we shall not have to dig new rows of graves tomorrow in a conflict that could have been settled in a way that would also have strengthened Israel regionally and globally. We are heading into the negotiations in the name of a strong and confident State of Israel. We are heading into the negotiations in the name of the entire State of Israel. The decisive stage of the negotiations has not yet ended; actually, it is beginning.
Esteemed President, Mr. Speaker, esteemed Knesset: in profound awareness of the weight of the responsibility, I set out for the meeting in Washington, for a mission of peace, faithful to the ancient imperative of our heritage: "Seek peace and pursue it." For the future of the State of Israel and in profound faith in the Eternal One of Israel, I request the blessings of the people and of the Knesset. Thank you.