JANUARY 22, 1996

SEC. CHRISTOPHER: Good afternoon. We’ve just had a very good meeting with Foreign Minister Ben Yahia of Tunisia and Israeli Foreign Minister Barak. Today we take an important step to widen the circle of peace in the Middle East. I am pleased to announce that, for the first time, Israel and Tunisia will establish official facilities called interest groups in each other’s countries.

By the 15th of April of this year, each nation will post representatives of the other government so as to facilitate their political consultations and travel and trade between their two countries. This establishing of interest sections in each other’s countries is an important step to widen the circle of peace, and I’m very grateful to the two foreign ministers to have agreed to that in a meeting today in my presence.

This step today reflects how far the peace process has come and how dramatically it is changing the Middle East for the better. It’s another step toward the kind of comprehensive peace that both of these gentlemen have been working for for such a long time. In the joint meeting that we had today, the two ministers and I discussed ways to maximize the benefit of the Israeli-Tunisian agreement for the benefit of both countries and for the region as a whole. I took this as an opportunity to emphasize to both parties, both ministers that the United States will continue to stand by those who take risk for peace.

Earlier today in a separate meeting with Foreign Minister Ben Yahia, I expressed our appreciation for the tireless efforts of President Ben Ali of Tunisia in advancing the peace process. Now by establishing these new ties with Israel, Tunisia has once again demonstrated its commitment to the peace process. The foreign minister and I also discussed threats against Tunisia. I told him that the United States would take such threats very seriously, and that we are committed to a stable and secure Tunisia.

Finally, with the minister I reviewed our growing economic and commercial ties. We’re considering ways to spur American investment in Tunisia through the Overseas Private Investment Corporation OPIC as well as through the successful mission to Tunisia very recently by senior Commerce Department officials.

I had also the privilege today of welcoming Foreign Minister Barak on his first visit to the United States, first visit to Washington as Israel’s foreign minister, although he has previously been here, as you know, in his role as chief of staff of the Israeli defense force. This is an opportunity for me, once again, to emphasize the United States’ unshakable commitment to Israel.

Together with the foreign minister, I reviewed the positive developments along the peace track, including the very high turnout in the Palestinian elections. I believe that it’s fair to say that this election in the West Bank and in Gaza represents a mandate for peace.

As the talks between Syria and Israel reconvene day after tomorrow at the Wye Conference Center in Maryland, we’re all aware that the peace process is entering a critical new phase. We’ve got much work ahead of us. President Clinton and I continue to hope that an agreement can be reached this year, and we’re determined to do everything we can to carry it out.

Our goal is a Middle East peace that is both comprehensive and enduring, and today we take a step in that direction, giving the whole process greater momentum. Mr. Minister, I welcome comments by you.

FOREIGN MIN. BEN YAHIA: Thank you, Mr. Secretary, Minister Barak, ladies and gentlemen. I’m very pleased to be back to Washington to meet with you, Mr. Secretary, and with Mr. Barak. This meeting is a continuation of the contacts we have, both in this trilateral framework as well as on our bilateral level with the Israeli side. This is part of the efforts Tunisia has constantly made as a contribution to the realization of a just, lasting and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian cause and to the conflict in the Middle East.

Tunisia has stated in the past its readiness to promote its relation with Israel in harmony with the evolution of the peace process and its various tracks. Today’s meeting was an opportunity to review the positive developments witnessed by this process in terms of Israeli withdrawal from a number of occupied Palestinian towns and villages, and the setting up of Palestinian general election which have represented a historical step on the path of the Palestinian people to build the basis of its national sovereignty, and the encouraging pace the peace process is witnessing on the other tracks.

On the basis of these positive developments that indicate that the peace process is moving for good forward in a sure pace, and in keeping with the incremental approach Tunisia has adopted in developing its relation with Israel, Tunisia has decided to upgrade the representation between both countries to the level of interest sections. This within the framework of our agreement on the agenda of normalization of the bilateral relation between the two countries.

These sections will be open, as you mentioned it, Mr. Secretary, simultaneously in Tunis and Tel Aviv in April. As regards to Tunisia’s liaison office in Gaza, it will be operational very soon also. I am pleased to take this opportunity, Mr. Secretary, to pay tribute to the efforts made by the United States in sponsoring the peace process, and a special mention should be made to the role of Secretary Christopher and to the able team who worked with him. Thank you for your attention.

FOREIGN MIN. BARAK: Mr. Secretary, Mr. Ben Yahia, the opening of interest sections in Tunisia and Tel Aviv is an important step forward in the long journey to normalize and pacify the relations between Israel and its neighbors in the Middle East and around the Mediterranean. We went about this effort long years ago, and we are determined to follow on until we will have a full, normalized relationship with as many of our neighbors as we can reach. And we are thankful to you, Mr. Secretary, and to the American administration for supporting us in this effort in more than one way. I’m looking forward to the further development of our bilateral relationship with Tunisia for the benefit of the two countries and the two peoples. Thank you.

Q: Is Israel prepared to ask France and Germany, as well as the United States, to send peacekeepers to the Golan as part of the eventual peace settlement between Israel and Syria?

FOREIGN MIN. BARAK: I think that it is too early to predict whether or what kind of monitors we will need to oversee our security arrangements in the Golan Heights. It’s too early to predict how many of them we will need. It would not go further than a kind of monitoring the implementation of security arrangement at any case, and when the time will be right to look into it, we will do it, of course, together with the Syrians. We cannot play more than 50 percent of the role in this tango that needs two.

Of course, we in Israel and I believe that also in Syria believe that both sides have a strategic importance of reaching peace between them, but it cannot be accelerated between the nature or reasons of negotiation, and I am, as always, realistic and moderately optimistic.

Q: Mr. Foreign Minister Barak, is there going to have to be a commitment for peacekeepers before there can be a peace agreement?

FOREIGN MIN. BARAK: I don’t think that the whole problem or question of peacekeepers is central to the whole agreement. It is clear to us that there are a lot of aspects to such an agreement in order that it will be stable. It has to do with normalization, with comprehensiveness, with solution to the problems of water, terror, Lebanon, security arrangements, and the depth of withdrawal, and the timing and phasing of these processes. I don’t think that the whole thing can, under any circumstances, be kind of make or break upon the question of peacekeepers. Maybe there will be a need for some monitors to take care of technical aspects of the implementation no more than that as far as I understand.

Q: When will Tunisia have full diplomatic relations with Israel?

FOREIGN MINISTER BEN YAHIA: As I said in my introductory note that Tunisia believes in harmonization between normalization process and the peace process itself. Two days ago we had the election Palestinian election. You’ve seen the results. This is a historical event, and we hope that peace between Israel and Syria is around the corner. So this gradual approach of Tunisia will be constant, and we hope that comprehensive peace will be soon so you will see full relation between Israel and Tunisia.