Speech by Acting Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami at the Council for Foreign Relations

New York, 18 September 2000

When the founding fathers of the State of Israel accepted the UN partition plan, they acted out of a state of utter desperation. They thought not in terms of territorial solution, but in terms of building an ideal society.

But the Palestinian case is somewhat different. They act out of a position of international support, particularly from the Arab world. And for that reason, I don’t know if the founding fathers of the Palestinian people have a dream about a modern society beyond the territorial aspects. So there is no clear analogy, which explains why the Palestinians have not taken the decision to go for a deal that falls short of their dreams. For deals that fully coincide with the dreams, we do not need real leaders. Real leaders are needed for hard decisions that fall short of the dream. Leadership, and this is the kind of leadership that I humbly think Ehud Barak is exercising now is not about getting the applause of all your constituents. A real leader will be judged by future generations.

There is no total consensus for peace. Peace is inherently a divisive enterprise that divides our two societies. So if Arafat believes that he will continue bargaining until everybody in the Palestinian camp is happy, we are not going to have an agreement. And the same is true for Prime Minister Barak.

Yet the Prime Minister went to the outer capacity of his limits – both as an Israeli and as a Jew to contemplate the compromises in order to produce a deal with the other side. We were ready to listen to all kinds of ideas about Jerusalem at Camp David. Most of these ideas were initiated by President Clinton. We never rejected out of hand any idea that was advanced at Camp David. We did not endorse them either, but we did not reject them out of hand.

On the last night of Camp David, the President raised three options: first, the deferral of Jerusalem – defer the whole of Jerusalem; defer only the Temple Mount; defer only the Old City. The Palestinian negotiator at the time, as a sort of natural reaction, said, "If you want to postpone Jerusalem let us also postpone refugees." I remember a member of the American team asking the Palestinians if they thought they were really doing a favor by postponing refugees. So, they rejected the idea of deferral. And then the President Proposed two more options.

I will not elaborate in detail on these options, but these were not easy options for us.

I said, "Mr. President, allow me not to address your proposals. Go first ask Arafat because he has already rejected one of your proposals." We, on the other hand, have been constructive in our approach. As we predicted, Arafat rejected without even offering any counter-proposal.

The package of territory, settlements and refugees is more important than each of these components by themselves in creating a new political reality that will uplift our common destiny and the future of the Middle East.

The issue of the refugees: I do not underestimate the tragedy of the Palestinian refugees. Nevertheless, it is our position that it is the Palestinian state, once established, is itself vindication for the right of return. It is a preposterous notion that after 50 years of struggle, a nation should establish a state only to gather its exiles in the neighboring state. When we established the State of Israel, did we ask to gather our exiles anywhere but in our own state? We continue to express our willingness to participate in any international effort to solve the financial aspects of the refugee problem. Out of humanitarian consideration, Israel is also willing to absorb a limited number of refugees within the scheme of family reunification.

We have deep respect for Yasser Arafat. He has now reached the moment of truth.

But what bothers me is that the Palestinians do not appreciate that Barak has gone as far as he could, and are trying to get more concessions from him. This is a dangerous misconception that can only lead to the breakdown of the talks and worse. We have reached a balanced framework that is neither easy for us or for the Palestinians. I do not believe there is a possibility for major changes in the framework. It is not a time for further negotiations, it is time for the decisions of leaders.

I hope that after this week of negotiations here in New York, the U.S. President will reassess the situation and indicate whether there is a platform for reaching a agreement, or for additional fine-tuning, or that the peace talks have reached a dead-end. The American president and his administration has proven its dedication resourcefulness and commitment to this difficult cause.

In Agadir, Arab leaders convened after Camp David to find a kind of middle ground for solving the issue of the Temple Mount. It would be as if world Jewry convened to tie the hands of the Israeli government on the issue of Jerusalem. This should not be elevated into a religious conflict, it is a political one. Let us not stir religious feelings, but seek to calm this down with a reasonable, mutually acceptable solution. Jerusalem is of course central and sacred to us, but we are ready to make reasonable compromises.

The Palestinians have always fought for what they have rejected in the past. Let us not dwell on the past. No one has a monopoly on suffering. In this dispute, we have all committed tragic acts of violence that we should not be proud of.

It’s time for us to join hands and ask the world for their support in building our future, and in gathering all our energies in the service of peace.

We should come to our peoples by no later than the middle of October, telling them that this is what we have been able to obtain. It does completely fulfill all our dreams, but if we do not accept it, it will be only through bloodshed and tragedy that we will get a little more, but at what cost?

We have turned the sea that separates us from the Palestinians into a river. But I do not know whether the Palestinians are ready to cross even that narrow river.