Transcript of Acting Minister of Foreign Affairs Shlomo Ben-Ami’s comments at a meeting with senior members of the media

New York, September 14, 2000

Minister Ben-Ami: Good morning, I’m happy to be with you today. My visit is of course within the framework of the UN General Assembly, but it also has a dimension related to the peace process. As you may know, after Camp David we had a series of contacts with the Palestinian negotiating team and we reached a stage where the American peace team decided that the best way to further peace efforts would be to meet with the parties separately in order explore with a package peace deal that could form a platform for a possible agreement. In this last shot, the Americans hope to get impressions from the parties to assess whether there is a possibility of finding common ground for striking a deal. My colleague Gilad Sher joined me yesterday, and we are meeting with the American peace team, and I understand that the Palestinians were invited for meetings with the American peace team. So I guess that we have ten days, maybe a fortnight, to have a final assessment of the state of negotiations.

Q: Is there any reason to believe that anything has changed that would allow further progress?

A: Not really, but maybe the fact that time is running out and that one gets the impression from the American team that it is indeed the last shot will inject a real sense of urgency. Maybe it will help the Palestinians to understand that time is a vital ingredient in the considerations – it’s not a luxury, it’s an ingredient in the assessment of the positions. So I think that maybe this gives some room for optimism, that we are coming very close to the wall, and we can either reach a deal or break our heads into the wall, but we expect that we will opt for the first option.

Q: What you seem to be saying is that if after 10 days there is no progress, no hope, what happens then?

A: We will cross the bridge when we reach it. I think that we have had too many apocalyptic prophecies in the Middle East, and I don’t want to add another one. I would prefer to concentrate our energies and whatever degree of resourcefulness we still have in order to try and produce the deal, rather than engage in apocalyptic scenarios.

Q: What is Israel’s position regarding giving a degree of sovereignty over Jerusalem to the IRC?

A: As far as I can remember our reaction was not favorable to such an idea, because we don’t see much of a difference between Palestinian sovereignty and Muslim sovereignty of an international Al-Quds committee. It seems to me that two of the prominent members of this committee are Iran and Iraq, so I don’t see a difference here. However, as I said many times, there are different parties that are trying to advance all kinds of formulas in regard to the Temple Mount. The Egyptians are trying to work out a formula, and I hear ideas with different angles. We will explore all possibilities.

I think it is possible to reconcile the functional and the symbolic interest of the two parties. It is possible if we open our minds. We respect Islam deeply, profoundly – both symbolically and functionally – and we are not going to decide what is sacred for them. We only expect them not to decide what is sacred for us. If we develop this attitude that we mutually respect each other’s symbols, I think that a solution can be found.

Q: You said that the Americans, as the honest brokers in this deal, are going to gather impressions. Isn’t there anything more concrete than impressions?

A: Well, the word ‘impressions’ was used in order not to commit the other side. The word impressions was first used by the Americans, when they tried to explain to us what exactly were the summaries that the president made at the end of each working session at Camp David. There were sessions on the different core issues such as territories, settlements, security, refugees, Jerusalem. At the end of each such meeting, the president and members of his team would sort of sum up what his impressions were from the positions that he heard. These impressions are a summary that was not subscribed to by either party, but they form the collective memory of Camp David, as it were. So these are the impressions, and what we need to do is to address ourselves, and see if his impressions can become a basis for positions that we could live with, or ask to modify them. So impressions is a word the Americans prefer to use, because these are not American positions, these are the impressions of the president after hearing the positions of the parties.

Q: You said time was running out. What would be the harm in having negotiations some time next year, perhaps after the elections in Israel and the U.S.?

A: When I say that time is running out what I mean is that it is running out for the peace process in its present form. It is a strategic choice, I believe, of both Israelis and Palestinians to reach a peace agreement. But when I say that two weeks is the time limit here, and that peace is the objective, this does not mean that between the present phase and the renewal of the next phase a crisis may not emerge that would derail the whole region, so the possibility is there. I don’t want to write tragic scenarios but there is a possibility that if there is no agreement, the rules of the game may be upset before we revive the process in a later stage.

Q: What is Israel’s views of Egypt’s role in the peace process?

A: Well, I think that Egypt is a key player in the region. It is a major Arab power. We have working relations with the Egyptians. They have a friendly influence on the Palestinians, and after Camp David they started, as I said before, in an attempt to bridge gaps between us and the Palestinians, not successfully yet, however, and we commend the Egyptians. I think that they should be encouraged to pursue their participation in this process.

Q: Will they support an agreement that Barak has made regarding Jerusalem?

A: Well, they say it all the time, that they are not going to impose on the Palestinians any deal, they are not going to twist Arafat’s arm, and therefore he’s free to assume the tough decisions that need to be assumed for the sake of peace. This was their position throughout, when people came to them and told them, "you shouldn’t tell him to do this or that," they always insisted they aren’t going to tell him anything, but just let him take his autonomous decisions. So I think it is a fair attitude.

Q: Could you clarify your position regarding handing sovereignty over Jerusalem to moderate Arab countries?

A: As I said before, we don’t see much of a difference between one Muslim sovereignty and another Muslim sovereignty, the Muslim sovereignty of Arafat or the Muslim sovereignty of the Al-Quds committee. But you mentioned only one part of Arafat’s proposal. If I understand correctly his idea is to relegate sovereignty to the Al-Quds committee, and then let the Palestinians have jurisdiction and sovereignty, or sovereign jurisdiction – law is a very interesting profession, just about anything could be arranged – so they will have sovereignty, he will have jurisdictional sovereignty, and Israel would have nothing. This is the deal.

Q: Given how far Israel has moved already, ahead of the Israeli consensus, what is the genuine prospect of making a deal at this point that will be ratified by the Knesset, or do you believe that a deal could be made without being ratified?

A: We committed ourselves to presenting a deal – by the way, also a potential Syrian deal, not only a Palestinian deal – to a referendum.

Now, in order to have the referendum, we need the Knesset to approve the deal and decide that now it has to go to a referendum. The Knesset’s approval in the current state of affairs in the Knesset is not secured, but should not be ruled out. We trust that if we reach an agreement with a Palestinians that we can live with – and we will not reach an agreement that we can’t live with – we will mobilize the necessary political energies to convince the Knesset and to convince the people. If we don’t convince the Knesset, then we will go to early elections, and get the deal approved.

Q: What was the effect of Oslo on the Israeli public?

A: I think Oslo was a watershed in Israel’s relations with the Palestinians. This is the first time in the history of the conflict when we envisaged a strictly Palestinian solution. I remind you that the concept before that was a Jordanian solution. The London agreement of Shimon Peres with King Hussein, and even in Madrid there was no Palestinian delegation, there was a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. We always thought in terms of a solution of the Palestinian problem by diluting it into the general Arab question. Oslo was a watershed, it was the first time that Israelis came to terms with the necessity to solve the Palestinian problem on its own merits, and it was a philosophical shift in our attitude, that’s why I think there was no hidden agenda there. The agreement says that they get Gaza and the West Bank, and then we start negotiations on the core issues which we are negotiating now – Jerusalem, settlements, statehood and refugees. We bound ourselves in Oslo to a framework which is very tight and very clear.

Q: The discussion of the impasse seems to be focused on the holy sites. Are the problems of east Jerusalem more easily solvable?

A: Yes, I think some progress was made on the other Jerusalem issues, but agreements were not reached. We expect that as part of the gathering of impressions that the American team will be doing in the next couple of days, Jerusalem is a chapter in this platform they are trying to put together.

Q: Is there a possibility of another international umbrella?

A: I would rather not comment on that now. All kinds of ideas are being exchanged, and we will have to see in the coming days.

Q: What about reaching an agreement without Jerusalem?

A: The last day in Camp David the president raised this possibility. Once he saw that there was no way we could break the deadlock, he suggested deferral of the question of Jerusalem on three possible levels: first he suggested we should defer on all of Jerusalem, the second only on the old city, the third on the Temple Mount. All these options were accepted by us, we were ready to engage in such an avenue, but the Palestinians rejected them out of hand. We don’t discard it, and we don’t rule it out. If we are unable to produce a deal and we need a fallback position, this seems to be a reasonable fallback position.

Q: Will there be bilateral talks with the Palestinians in New York?

A: There’s no problem about it, we can meet, but the main tool that will be used is the bilateral talks with the Americans. But there’s still no reason to rule out bilateral contacts.

Q: What about the involvement of other Arab countries in reaching an agreement on the holy sites?

A: I think that the acceptance of Arab or Muslim states is important. Arafat did try to mobilize the Arab world, but it was not very clear, or in fact – it was rather clear – that he was not asking them to give him room to maneuver, he was rather asking the contrary, to tie up his hands in a way, which was a very strange attitude. I said to some interlocutor, "What would you say if we, Israel, would stage a world gathering of Jewish leaders to tie up our hands on the question of Jerusalem?" Do we need to prove to the world that Jerusalem is essential in our lives, and is part of Jewish history, and tradition and religion?

This is essentially a political conflict, not a religious conflict, this is a struggle about borders, about statehood, about security. I think it would be very, very wrong to elevate this process to messianic or religious heights, it would not be very helpful. I think we should be reasonable, and I said in the beginning that I believe the attitudes, the symbols, the desire to have functional autonomy in religious affairs is something that could be reconciled if we develop the attitude.

Q: What are the chances of a unilateral declaration of a Palestinian state?

A: We thought – and not only we, the Europeans as well – if such a UDI is produced, this opens a new phase in the negotiations, and that Israel will have to respond some way or the other. This can lead to the collapse of the process. The decision of Arafat not to declare responded, in my view, to the fact that the international community projected to him the view that his step will not be supported, and this will lead him nowhere because he will have effective control over 20 percent of the land in the West Bank, and Israel will have to act in response, so he assessed the situation and decided not to declare. I don’t think that Israel should pay for this in terms of assets in the negotiations. This is not a move in the negotiations, it is an autonomous move of Arafat after having assessed the situation. But this is not something you can come with and say, "I did not declare, now give me Jerusalem, this or that."

Q: Where does the refugee issue stand?

A: When we were in Stockholm, we spoke of a mechanism whereby an international committee will be formed and put together an international fund that will address the following scenarios: Palestinians who will like to stay in their host countries and will be compensated, Palestinians who will go to the Palestinian state once it is created, and Palestinians who will go to a third country. The fourth option is where we differ: the return to Israel. we say that we do not rule out the possibility for a limited number of Palestinians to come to Israel in the framework of family reunification schemes, and for humanitarian reasons.

We explained to the Palestinians that our sense, our logic, is that when a people create a state, the people bring their exiles to their state, they don’t bring them to another state. When we created the Jewish state, and we did so out of a sense of total desperation after the Holocaust, it never occurred to us that we should bring Jews from North Africa, Jews from the Middle East, Jews who were left behind in the ashes of the European catastrophe, to bring them to Jordan or to Iraq – we brought them to Israel. that is the sense of creating a state. I simply can’t understand what is the point of creating a Palestinian state, and then asking return to another state. We are hoping that this will be understood, Israel cannot claim responsibility for the problem of refugees, cannot assume responsibility. It can participate, and it wants to participate in the international commission, in the international fund, and is ready, as I said, to absorb in the framework of a family reunification a limited number of refugees.

Q: Please elaborate on the American involvement in the negotiations?

A: What they will be trying to do is to discuss with each of the parties what they believe the other party can accept. It is on the basis of what they gathered in Camp David, and the contacts they had with the parties ever since Camp David, they believe they are in a position to know what are our exact views, and they will be conveying these views to each of us, so that we can address the views presented. We can say ‘now we heard what you said what the Palestinians can live with, this is our attitude to this set of Palestinian positions’, and in that way the Americans will make their own opinion of whether they have here something which is bridgeable.

Q: Is Arafat’s character and psychological readiness a barrier to the peace process?

A: I think this is a major factor – the personality of Arafat and his readiness to contemplate a deal that falls short of the mythology, short of the dream, is not yet clear. I have a very simple answer to the question of whether or not he wants a deal – my answer is yes, if the deal is made on his conditions. But then the question remains open how far down the scale is he ready to go on all issues in order to produce the agreement. The same answer I could have given you with regards to Hafez el-Assad – yes, he wanted a peace with Israel, based on Israel going back to the lake of Galilee, no normalization – in that case he wants a deal.

But this is an easy answer. The question is how down the scale is he ready to go in order to produce a reasonable deal, and to tell you the truth – nobody has an answer to that. This is why I think the Americans are here in order to turn to the parties and say this is what both sides can live with, is this bridgeable or no, and to be practical about it. This is the only way for us to give an answer. Maybe Arafat is the kind of revolutionary leader who also has the dimension of a preacher, a prophet. Maybe he has a problem moving from one stage to another, but we will have to answer that very soon.

Q: What about the role of the UN Security Council?

A: I wouldn’t like to address this question right now, there are all kinds of ideas that are being raised. You see, the idea of the security council was raised by the president at Camp David and rejected by the Palestinians. The idea of the Security Council conferring on the Palestinians custodianship was raised by the president, and it was rejected. So Palestinian rejectionism reached even the Security Council, which normally they saw as very friendly – the UN was always very friendly. At the time we did not reject it.

Q: Have the sides regressed from the Beilin-Abu Mazen document?

A: I once asked Arafat, two or three years ago, about the document. He said "words, words". We don’t get the impression the Abu Mazen stands behind it now. Positions evolve – their positions, and our positions. We are now working on the basis of what we talked about at Camp David, and I hope some of the ingredients can be drawn from that document, but the document itself is not viewed by the Palestinians as a basis.

The Minister concluded by saying that "We have told the Palestinians and the U.S. that we have security concerns which center on strategic scenarios, including along the Eastern front. We do not see the Palestinians as potential enemies in the future, but as partners. We believe peace with the Palestinians can be warm. But for the Palestinians, peace with Israel means peace for generations, while for Israel, peace with the Palestinians is just one piece of a complicated puzzle. We still have Iran’s development of the Shihab 3 missile, threats from Iraq and the lack of a peace treaty with Syria. We cannot envision a celestial peace in the Middle East."