Jerusalem, September 11, 2000
Acting Foreign Minister Ben-Ami: The peace process between Israel and the Palestinians got a new lease of life, in as far as the timetable is concerned, and we think that the two parties should do their utmost to exhaust the possibility within the time frame allowed to us, and I trust that this spirit will prevail and allow us to make the necessary progress. I am going to be at the General Assembly, so the context is not necessarily the peace process, but I am going to be meeting with people who may be directly or indirectly involved such as the General Secretary of the UN and the people from the American administration who are privy to these negotiations and obviously there are other members from our team who are and will be in contact with the Palestinians.
Q: When are the negotiations with the Palestinians going to be restarted?
FM Ben-Ami: In fact yesterday we started contacts with Palestinians here in Jerusalem. In fact, I should say that contacts were never stopped. That is, ever since we came back from Camp David, we had been in touch with the Palestinians directly, sometimes with the Americans separately, but contacts were there all the time.
Q: Can you tell us what you realistically expect to happen in the next five weeks that hasn’t happened in the last five months?
FM Ben-Ami: Realistically, I don’t see that there is much or an excessive room for hope, for precisely what you said. Obviously, much depends on the attitude. If the attitude is that we should go back to square one on issues that were touched upon already at Camp David – obviously, no agreements were reached and we speak about impressions that were gathered at Camp David on the different issues. If we move away from these impressions and go back to square one, there is not really much that can be done. But if we try to build on these impressions, some of which may be to our taste, some of which may be to the taste of the Palestinians, and this is the essence of any kind of agreement, then perhaps we can proceed. But if we go back to square one, I see real difficulties. If we go to square one, then the rules of the game are derailed.
Israel is not going into these negotiations to make concessions. We are going to these negotiations in order to see whether there is a middle ground to build an agreement. An agreement is always a middle ground. But again, I insist that the impressions that were gathered at Camp David should be seen as the basis upon which we need to build a possible agreement.
Q: The internal media of the Palestinian world call for the liberation of Palestine. The new Palestinian school books that have the map of all of Palestine, without any mention of peace and reconciliation with Israel. Is the anti-incitement committee continuing? – is it not continuing? Also, the right of return: What about the placards all over the Palestinian Authority calling for liberation?
FM Ben-Ami: We are trying to do our very best to conduct political negotiations. We deplore obviously any kind of incitement which may come from within Palestinian sources or Palestinian society. I wouldn’t like to elaborate too much, but maybe one way to understand this situation is essentially the different system that prevails in Israel, in comparison with the Palestinian Authority. I trust that if the Palestinians are going to build a viable future for their people, this will have to go hand in hand with an attempt to build a democratic civil society. I guess this is part of building a viable future for themselves, but I am not here to advise them, and nor am I here to give any particular opinion about the state of affairs now in the Palestinian territories.
We are in the middle of a very very difficult attempt to reach a political – I insist, a political – agreement on specific issues leading to the end of conflict. That is: territory, settlements, security, refugees and Jerusalem. These are the five items that the two parties are bound to solve together as part of an agreement leading to the finality of claims and the end of conflict. The nature of Palestinian society and the nature of their regime, fortunately or unfortunately, is not part of this deal. We of course hope that a peace agreement will lead to an improvement of standards with regard to issues you have just raised.
Q: Haim Ramon has argued for a number of months now that the best approach would have been to set the question of Jerusalem aside and concentrate on an overall agreement for all the other issues. But, in fact, it is the question of Jerusalem which is holding up progress on all the other issues.
FM Ben-Ami: The first time Jerusalem was raised as an issue for negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians was at Camp David 22 years ago by Prime Minister Begin. This was the first commitment to put Jerusalem on the table. The second commitment was taken when Oslo was signed in September 1993 – namely, that Jerusalem is one of the five issues that need to be negotiated. Then the Netanyahu government (in the Hebron Agreement) integrated the Oslo components. Through the Hebron Agreement, Prime Minister Netanyahu integrated the necessity and the commitment to negotiate Jerusalem among other issues.
At Camp David, when we came to negotiate the different issues, there was a moment when the idea was raised by President Clinton. He suggested three options of deferral: one – defer the old city; two – defer only temple mount; three – defer all the issue of Jerusalem. We supported the three possibilities. We said that’s fine with us. If we can also have Jerusalem, we will tackle all other issues and perhaps even establish a mechanism for future negotiations about Jerusalem. We supported the idea, the President supported it, Arafat rejected it out of hand. Nevertheless, this is an idea which should not be ruled out – once we indeed give our best shot of exhausting all other possibilities. But as I said before, we do not rule it out, provided, of course, that the agreement includes the finality of claims and the end of the conflict.
Q: We see a lot in the Israeli press about the Temple Mount. Does it mean that it will be easier to find an agreement for the Old City and East Jerusalem, and the Temple Mount is the only problem?
FM Ben-Ami: Not really. My personal position, once we landed in Israel after Camp David, was that we should not create the illusion that by concentrating on Jerusalem, or more specifically, the Temple Mount, all other issues are solved. It will be easier to tackle all other issues if we stick to what I said before regarding the general impressions of Camp David. As far as my view of things is concerned, I believe that the best solution we can reach in Jerusalem is one where citizens in Jerusalem, the day after the agreement, will feel an improvement. In the worst of cases, they will feel no change. This is not the situation in the West Bank. In the West Bank, you will have a change of borders, you will have security arrangements, and you will have the accommodation of Israel’s demand concerning 80 percent of settlers. That is, life in Jerusalem should not change. But if it changes, it should change for the better, whereas in the West Bank, the reality of life needs to change if we are to have an agreement.
Therefore, we need to put much more emphasis, and that is my position from the very first day, on the other core issues, and not to concentrate too much on Jerusalem. But, as I said before, we are working on a wide front trying to solve all issues. If this cannot be done, then we will be ready to contemplate the gentleman’s idea – there is nothing very original about it. We were born with the idea of postponing Jerusalem – it is not a discovery from heaven. But anyway, we are ready to contemplate it.
Q: Are you not at a psychological disadvantage now, because you offered so much at Camp David?
FM Ben-Ami: I disagree that we offered – there were hardly any ideas on Jerusalem that we offered. All the ideas that were offered were offered by the President and the Americans. We referred to these ideas – we did not endorse ideas. The Prime Minister listened to all kinds of ideas that were raised by the President. These were not even presented as proposals. The President always made it a point in emphasizing that these were not proposals but ideas. Prime MInister Barak never said yes to ideas. He said, "Go to the other side, go to the other party, get their reaction and then we will address them."
This is what I personally said to the President on the last night. I conducted the most intensive talks on Jerusalem, and then the President ended the meeting with three major ideas. He asked my opinion. I said, "Why don’t you ask Arafat first, go to Arafat? Why do I have to address these ideas and then get the categorical no from Arafat? Go first to Arafat." Then he went to Arafat, and Arafat rejected the ideas out of hand. This means that we did not endorse any of the ideas presented by the President.
Q: It seems that Arafat was playing a gamble?
FM Ben-Ami: The problem at the end of the day is whether he is going to have a deal that solves for his people the problems of destitution, refugees, statehood. These are the questions he should put to himself, and we, of course, to ourselves. We want a deal, but not at all costs. We did explore ideas. We did not endorse any of the ideas presented. If anybody wants to go back to square one, we will go back to square one.
Q: Could you comment on the ideas proposed by Arafat regarding sovereignty on the Temple Mount, under the Jerusalem Committee, and could you also comment on the spirit behind it?
FM Ben-Ami: To tell you the truth, we don’t see much of a difference between his sovereignty and the sovereignty of the Al-Quds Committee, so this is not an idea we can live with. As to our attitude to our holy shrine, Israel cannot waive sovereignty on the place where the Temple lies. As Prime Minister Barak said rightly, when Jesus was a teenager and he walked through the alleys of Jerusalem, he saw no mosque. He saw only the Temple. And we, as the Jewish government, as the government of Israel, we are not going to waive our essentially symbolic rights. We do not pretend to dig into the mount on the place where the Temple lies.
Q: Do you see a change in attitude on the part of Arafat?
FM Ben-Ami: I do not know whether there is a change in attitude by Chairman Arafat. I trust that he wants an agreement. I trust that the meaning of their idea of postponing the declaration means that they want to exhaust [the negotiating process]. I want to make it clear that the fact that they postponed the unilateral declaration should not be seen as an ingredient in the negotiations. This is not an item Israel should pay for in terms of assets of negotiations. This is a free decision taken by the Palestinians after evaluating the constraints that exist. We of course think that it is commendable that they decided to postpone – it is good for the process. But this is not something Israel should pay for in terms of assets during the negotiations. This is something that should be taken for granted. This is not something we should pay for.
The dilemma here is that when you approach the moment of truth, you need to exercise faculties of leadership that are not equal to the faculties of a prophet or a preacher. The faculties of a leader involve taking a decision which is invariably and inevitably less than the optimal aspiration. Because if what you are asked to do is to take a decision which coincides with the dream, everybody can do it. Where is the real test of leadership? When it is less than the dream. If it is exactly the dream, then we are all world leaders. Everybody can take this decision. The real test of leadership is when it doesn’t meet the dream. And this is where we have our doubts. I think that Ehud Barak shows that he is capable of exploring avenues, that viewed by the perspective of his own society are very dangerous. Yet he is ready to face the challenge of history. And this is the problem that we don’t have an answer to – whether Arafat is ready or not. We will know in a matter of weeks.
Q: What is your position on the right of return?
FM Ben-Ami: Our position is that when you create a state, you bring your people to your state. This is the essence, the philosophy of creating a state. When we, the Jewish people, created our state, we brought refugees from all over the world – not to Jordan, not to Iraq – but to the State of Israel. This is what we expect the Palestinians to do with regard to the right of return. However, we said that for humanitarian reasons, and for the purpose of family reunification, we are ready to contemplate a given number of people that can come and join their families in the State of Israel.
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