Location: Sheraton Washington Hotel
February 14, 1993
SHIMON PERES (Israeli foreign minister): I would like to welcome our new ambassador to the United States, Itamar Rabinovitch. He is the first ambassador that started with the Syrians and continues with the Jews, a most unusual experience. And I’m sure he’s capable to do the two of them. As a matter of fact, I remember that once I took the most distinguished Israeli author that got the Nobel Prize, Agnon, to visit Ben-Gurion on his 75th birthday. And on the way, Agnon was philosophizing and says, you know, I think the Jews are afraid of the gentilesapparently Ben-Gurion is not afraid. That was quite a banal remark. But then he continued and says, you know, maybe Ben-Gurion is even not afraid of the Jews. And that’s a great Jewish leader. I am sure that Itamar will handle both of them with great talent and tact.
I would also like to call your attention to Colette Avital. I think a woman that was appointed to the highest and most sensitive post we have in the foreign office, and you will see that this was the right decision as well. Then I would like to thank you for the wonderful job you are doing for the Jewish people, for the Jewish state. I know you do it with great conviction, great devotion from the depth of your heart and from feelings which are both historic and personal. Again to express my appreciation to your organization.
Since I started by a list of blessings, may I say that we are praying for the success of the new president of the United States, Bill Clinton. In many ways he’s not only your president, he’s the president of all free people all over the world. And his success will be ours as well.
But to say the truth, you have not just a new administration, but you have a new agenda. For the last 75 years in the heart of the American foreign policy stood the issue of confronting the Soviet Union, confronting its military might, competing with its ideological charm. And after 75 years, thank heaven, communism collapsed and democracy won. It is a change of an agenda.
But if the West lost an enemy, it has discovered a problem, and occasionally it is more complicated to deal with the problem than to contain an enemy. You know where the enemy is, you know how to contain him. You don’t know where the problems are and how to handle them. And to go there from facing enemies to facing dangers is quite a new agenda. If in the heart of the previous American administration there was the strategic consideration, in the heart of the new American administration it is the political issue, problems that cannot be solved with armies, yet they’re as dangerous as war itself. How to stop starvation that feeds fundamentalism, extremism, violence, civil war, how to stop the destruction of our environment, how to bring freedom to people who never tasted it.
You know, the Lord has blessed us with the two most important commodities free of charge, and that is fresh air and real freedom, and most of the people misuse both of them, the air and the freedom. And I believe that the administration is willing and ready to meet those new challenges seriously, immediately, all embracing.
May I say, by the same token, that not only you have a new administration; we in Israel too have a new government. Not only you have a new agenda; we too have a new policy. And maybe there is a meeting point between the novelty of the government and the newness of the agenda. For us, the heart of the agenda is not just to bring an end to the old conflicts between the Arabs and ourselves, but to build a new Middle East that will prevent conflicts, that will measure up with the new issues.
May I say briefly what is the agenda of the new Israeli government. First of all, we are decided on peace morally and politically. Morally, we the Jewish people have never dominated any other people in our history, and whoever has dominated us disappeared from history.
Early in our age, we discovered that it is so difficult to dominate Jewish life that we lost appetite for trying to dominate the lives of others. We do not want to dominate the Palestinians. And politically, we must be careful not to create a Yugoslavia-like situation in our own country. We are very near it. And if we shall not be careful and decisive and clear in our minds, we may endanger all the miracles that we achieved until now.
Furthermore, we understand that peace calls for a compromise and we are ready to pay our share and have not just a general compromise, but a territorial compromise as well. We are ready to let the Palestinians run their own life in their own environment, have a self-government, and we would like to see them not just neighbors, but happy neighbors and successful neighbors.
We would like to settle our disputes, our dangers, our problems with the Syrians. And if with the Palestinians we have a plan, but we don’t have a party, because the Palestinians are so divided and they live not on the rule of the majority, but on the rule of the gun, with the Syrians, we have a party, we don’t have a plan. We hope that the Syrians will come down to earth on their peace proposal and agree to the only possible triangle, which is to have a full-fledged peace, to have security arrangements that will answer the menaces facing them and us, and then to have a territorial compromise as well.
We hope to renew the negotiations rather soon, once, I believe, the problem of deportees is over a political problem. But while trying to make peace with our neighbors, we also have to devote enough thought and priorities to create a new Middle East so as to answer the problems of today, not just the problems of yesterday.
We hope that the year of 1993 will be the year of decisions. We don’t want to postpone the double effort to solve the problems of the past and to build answers for the problems of today.
Let me say one word to you very seriously. I am afraid that what I am going to say will be received as a nice vision. It is not the case. I didn’t come to deliver a vision. I am coming in order really to answer problems which are real and problems which are immediate and problems that cannot be postponed. Unfortunately, most of the people prefer to remember rather than to think. The time has come to leave the knownness of yesterday and face the air of an entirely different space and environment.
What are the problems of today? If we shall tackle the two most important subjects, security and economy. Security is no longer an attempt to answer the dangers created by military planes and tanks, but to answer the new challenge of missiles and nonconventional warheads. Missiles are crossing borders. Their distance is always larger than the size of any country. And nonconventional warheads do not have a military weapon that can stop them or prevent them.
The only answer to missiles and nonconventional warheads all over the world, and for that reason in the Middle East as well, is of a regional nature, namely, to build a security for all people, and of a political understanding not to use and not to build them. That’s what happened between the Soviet Union and the United States of America. That’s what should happen in the Middle East, to build a regional security based on a political understanding that will be added to the conventional force without replacing it.
The same goes for economy. Let me give just one or two figures. In the year 2010, which means 17 years from today, there will be in the Middle East 500 million Arabs, double as many as today. Seventy percent of them will be below the age of 18. And then the piece of Arab land is declining all the time. The fertility of the people goes up, and the fertility of the land goes down. And the gap creates poverty and poverty creates protest and protest creates fundamentalism, hatred, and belligerence.
The Arabs possess quite a nice piece of the surface of the globe, one-twelfth of it. They are in possession of 13 million square kilometers, but 89 percent of them is already desert or semi-desert. And in the seven years to come they are going to lose another quarter of their arable land and to increase more and more poverty. There is no way to fight the desert but by distributing the existing water, by saving water in irrigation and urban life, and by producing water. Water is totally apolitical; it doesn’t respect political maps, rivers don’t follow frontiers, rains don’t go through the customs, and the water in the belly of the land is moving from one side to another side. And even if we shall agree on territory and we shall not agree on water, we may discover that we don’t have a real agreement.
So if we want really to provide food for a population that is going to double itself, if we really want to have a new Middle East, we have to declare a war against the desert, we have to organize an effort to produce water. This again can be done only (unintelligible) regionally. So whether it is missiles or whether it is water, we cannot deal with it just on national terms; we have to change the agenda and build a new Middle East.
Furthermore, the idea that children will be born and money will be paid is totally nonsense. Every region in the world needs today an economy that produces money and not an economy that collects foreign aid. The Middle East, too, must build an economy of its own to close the hostilities, to open the borders, to bring in tourists that can become an instant industry, to employ the available technology. And if you ask me what is the agenda of Israel for the years to come, first of all to be the leader in the struggle against the desert, to be the Weizman Institute in introducing new methods of irrigation, of engineering, of cultivating the land.
You know, we the Jewish people, we have built a military deterrent, we must also build a political attraction. We did it all our life, and that is the new challengeto build a new region that will answer the problems of the day in security, in irrigation, and in economy.
President Bill Clinton has suggested to create a USA- Israeli commission for cooperation in high tech, to use the skills of the new immigrants we have in Israel, to cooperate scientifically and industrially. May I say that I would suggest to put on top of this commission, on this presidential commission, the joint effort to build a new Middle East for all its neighbors. In a very small way but in a very telling way there is already a joint venture between Israel and the United States to provide help to the former Russian republics, the former Russian republics that have a Muslim majority, and we are working together in Kazakhstan, in Kirgizstan, because we understand that Islam like Christianity can take a turn back to the ages of hostility or forward to an age where we shall keep the differences without hostility and without danger.
I believe that the new American agenda and the new Israel agenda can meet easily and constructively and Israel not just being, as it used to be called, a strategic asset but a political partner, and that is what we are coming to suggest to Washington of today, to the new administration in this city.
We ourselves, we also like to change the image and the perception of Jewish life. Many changes occurred that permit us to do so. Today the diplomatic globe of Israel equals the geographic globe of the world. Until rather recently we were rejected and hated by almost half of the world. Today we have good relations with China, with Russia, with India, and we would like to have practically with every other nation in the world. I know that one must keep a sense of proportion. We have heard the Chinese foreign minister in Israel in an after-dinner speech who says, you know, I must admit that as a Chinese, proportionally speaking, Israel is not a very great country. I told him you cannot escape your greatness and we cannot escape our smallness, but we can escape our differences. And those countries, great as they are, are looking to Israel for her experience in two domains, basically in agriculture and health, to hail the land and to hail the life of the people. And that is a great mission and a great undertaking.
We want to change our relationship with practically everybodywith the Vatican. I visited the Vatican. I invited the pope to come and pay a visit to Israel. He was very moved. We are now negotiating to construct an official relationship between Christianity and Judaism, something that was postponed for the last 2,000 years, and the time has come to recover it.
We’d like also to have the same relations even with Islam. Our enemy is neither a people nor a religion; our enemy is a hostile state of mind.
We are trying to improve our relations with the United Nations. We have had our bitter experience, you know. Until the very last year, every year, the United Nations adopted a resolution that Israel must pay compensation for the bombing of the nuclear reactor in Iraq. The United Nations has continued to destroy it and they want us to pay competition (sic) because the world fails to do so.
But we feel that today we can develop a different United Nations, different relations with the United Nations, both because the United Nations has new undertakingsthe organization that has to deal with civil warsand because many of its members have changed their attitude toward Israel. We are now negotiating to bring an end to the story of the deportees, and I was thinking for myself: look at the United Nations, the president of the Security Council is the ambassador of Morocco, the general director of the United Nations is the former foreign minister of Egypt, a newly added member is the ambassador of Lebanon. And there I’m going from one to another that they have to help us to bring an end to the story of the deporteesand, may I say, they did. And also to help us in finding the traces of our lost soldiers, our navigator, in Iraq, our three missing soldiers, our two boys who lost their lives who fought in battle in Syria, and, again, they promised. It is a changing world. And I know that the ambassador of Morocco did it upon the request of his king, King Hassan II of Morocco, and I know that the president of Egypt, Mubarak, is constantly playing a positive role in keeping the peace momentum alive and strong. It is a changed world, it is a changed agenda.
By trying to build, continuing the same line, a new Middle East, we have a conglomerate of 30 different nations, plus 13 Arab countries, plus Israel, all of us trying to plan together the transportation, the trade, the communication, the vocational training, the development of agriculture, the production of water. So to see this very old region full of oil a center of the three great religions, full of memories, full of bitterness, into something new, something different. We feel at home in this attempt.
We want to be not just a people in need. All of us, you and us, would like to become a contributing nation, not just a dependent nation. If Judaism is not an optimistic art while negotiating with the greatest troubles and suffering in life, what else? If Jewish people don’t feel not just for themselves but for the rest of the world, what is Judaism for? Unique in its trust, universal in its concern.
This brings me also to the Jewish agenda that you and us have to work together; an agenda that has basically three components: one, Jewish life all over the world and, particularly, in the United States, must become the promoter of peace, must become the supporter of building a new Middle East, must become the messenger of the replacement of communism and that is the democratic way.
The competition was not just between communism and democracy, but also between communism and zionism. There were many Jewish people, the thought that communism will solve the Jewish problem. It did not; it created anti-semitism and separation. For us, the collapse of communism is also the historic verdict that zionism has won the day. And it comes naturally, ideologically and historically, in our bonds to be the leader and the supporter of a better world, of a new Middle East.
The second issue on the agenda is how in a free and tolerant world to remain Jewish, to keep our tradition. You know, we Jewish people can hardly agree on many issues, but there is one issue that I’m sure we shall never agree forever and that is who is a Jew. That’s a question that we are incapable to answer. But I know there are two answers to this question. One says that a Jew is a person that his parents were Jewish, that is, the mother was Jewish; and the other is a Jew is a person that his children are Jewish. Keep your children Jewish. Let’s keep our children Jewish. Let each of them and all of them visit Jerusalem. Let each and all of them learn to speak the language of our prophets. They will understand much more by doing so. It is not a second language; it is a first commitment to understand it.
And then the third item on that agenda is to continue to absorb the immigrants who came to Israel, half a million of them. We are the only nation that has absorbed simultaneously black Jews, blond Jews, white Jews, because Judaism is a philosophy not a color; it is a philosophy against discrimination by color. And it’s not simple to absorb such a varied group of tribes and people coming from behind the Iron Curtain that has cut them off from the mainstream of Jewish life and coming from the tops of wild mountains and keeping their identification alone for thousands of years. We have to absorb them and we have to bring in more Jews. Not only to defend our country but to maintain our tradition. We need more Hebrew-speaking people so we can continue a great philosophy and a real uniqueness in humankind. This again is a joint responsibility of you and us.
May I say that you contributed a great deal, but the story is not over. There are still a million 600 thousand Jewish people at least in Russia and in the former Russian republics. There are still thousands of Jewish people in Ethiopia and in Syria, in many other countries of danger that I wouldn’t mention their names, and all of us and each of us carry a double responsibility for all of the Jewish people and for every Jewish life. It is not a wholesale business; it is an individual responsibility.
To conclude my remarks, the world is now preparing itself to enter the 21st century. For us we prepare ourselves to enter the 41st century. The difference of the two thousand years is not just a difference in age, but in suffering, in victims, in exiles, in holocaust. And yet we enter the 41st anniversary, the 41st century, with great optimism and readiness to remain believers, to become optimists, to be engaged, to serve things which are greater than us. We can see the beginning of the 41st century with three different calls: to take out the desert from the land, to take out the salt from the water, to take out the hostility from the people. Thank you.
Q: Mr. Foreign Minister, this society is going to debate whether we should send a letter to President Clinton on behalf of Jonathan Pollard. What would you recommend to this body?
FOREIGN MINISTER PERES: Well, if I should tell you what to write, it would be my letter; not yours. Make your own decisions. It doesn’t mean that we shall not write letters, but each of us will do it on his own.
Q: Mr. Foreign Minister, I chair the Israel task force in Toledo, Ohio. One of the challenges is obviously going to be dealing with Islamic fundamentalism. What thought does or what plans does Israel have to deal with that difficult problem?
FOREIGN MINISTER PERES: Fundamentalism, in my judgment, is not a religion but a protest. And in every country, it has a different meaning. If you recall the first sentence in Anna Karenina by Tolestoy, it says that all happy families are happily alike. But every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, which means fundamentalism in Algeria is different from fundamentalism in Gaza or in Egypt or in Sudan. It is basically a protest. You know, many people say Algeria tried democracy and that fundamentalists were in the majority. But what people were not told, that unemployment in Algeria reached the height of 50 percent and voting for the fundamentalists was a way of protesting.
Now, I don’t know any other way to fight fundamentalism but by turning to its roots, which is poverty, frustration, waste, corruption. And I want to tell you, I believe that we have to really try to democratize the Middle East. People are skeptical, but if somebody would ask us 10 years ago if communism would collapse, people again would be skeptical. And I believe one of the reasons why communism has collapsed will bring to the collapse of other corrupted systems, and that is a more informed world. Each of us has today a Trojan horse in his home, the television, that tells a real story about poverty, about corruption, and none of us can run away from it.
The same is happening today in the Arab world, even in Syria, even in Iraq. They are beginning to become addicts of CNN, and you cannot run away from it. And I believe that a double attempt to produce a better economy and to provide a clearer information will finally contain fundamentalism and offer to Islam a turn to tolerance and liberalism. Thank you.
Q: I just want to know now that the Clinton administration has taken hold in Washington, will there be any changes that you see in U.S.-Israeli relations?
Q: Mr. Foreign Minister, the outgoing ambassador has voiced the view that the time is coming to phase out economic aid from the United States to Israel. I wanted to know how you feel about that, and if you endorse the principle, what would you think about the timing?
FOREIGN MINISTER PERES: On the first question, I think, as I have said, that with the Clinton administration we shall have to develop a political agenda and not just to continue the strategic cooperation. And the political agenda is basically leaving the peace momentum with full wind and build the Middle East to answer the needs of a modern age.
Basically we feel comfortable with the Clinton administrationand permit me to say one thing. We, too, have much appreciation for the outgoing administration. I think that President Bush contributed a great deal to Israel, and in spite of the fact that he lost the elections, I feel respect for many of the deeds he did for us, from Operation Moses and Solomon that he was in charge of as the vice president up to the financial support and the military support. So while praising one, I would like to deny the other, but we feel extremely comfortable with the Clinton administration. We sense an air of friendship and we know a list of friends, and we are looking for a very close and promising cooperation.
On the foreign aid, there is somebody cutting the foreign aid all the time, and that is inflation. Don’t forget that even in the United States, you have an inflation in between 2 to 4 percent, and since 1985, the real value of the foreign aid went down by 30 percent already.
Now, the foreign aid is always composed of two parts, the economic one and the military one. The economic aid is siply being used to pay debts that were created in time of war. We don’t take a penny back home. We simply repay an old debt. The military aid is sipmly to maintain a balance of a small democratic country. And let me say one thing which is important. I hear in many places why Israel should get so much, that we are on top of the list of foreign aid. That is not a true story. The United States is spending much more money by keeping its army in Europe to defend a relatively tranquil Europe and an absolute rich Europe. You keep an army in Asia to defend Japan. You can say about Japan everything, but is not an economic orphan that cannot afford to pay its own defenses. We have never asked for American soldiers, American army, American defense. And with the money, we buy American armswe are grateful for itto maintain our military balance of existence.
In addition to the inflation, there is another instrument that will bring an end to foreign aid, and that is peace. Give me peace and I shall give up foreign aid.