Meeting of Foreign Minister Shimon Peres with members of the Foreign Press Association

Jerusalem, 6 March 2002

FM Peres: We are in an extremely grave situation. I don’t feel that this is time for party politics, or for any politics at all. There is too much blood, too many victims, too much desperation, and all of us have to try to look for a way out.

I think our main goal right now is to achieve as soon as possible a cease-fire, and really open the road for a political solution. I think that in order to achieve a cease-fire there is a need for quite an important coordination – international and local. I believe we can achieve a cease-fire only under the following conditions:

Firstly, both sides must cease fire as soon as possible. Until then I don’t have any comments, but Israel will take all the necessary measures for self-defense. Then, I think there must be a clear-cut position taken by the international community and by the local forces, to stop terror. Then, on the Israeli side, we have to add to the security effort a political one, in two ways.

One, a cease-fire cannot be achieved just by using fire. You cannot stop fire with fire. There must be a political, an economic and a psychological accompaniment to this effort. Then, again, I think we have to at least paint a political horizon – what will happen if a cease-fire will be achieved? Where are we going? What should be done?

I know that the tensions and the pains are high and deep. I think it is a ‘no win’ situation for any party concerned. I think that all responsible people should put aside passing considerations, and make a major effort to really arrive at a cease-fire as soon as possible, with a political horizon. Thank you.

Q & A

Q: Mr. Peres is it possible to see now the political horizon through the smoke?

A: I think we have before us two proposals. One is the Abu Ala-Peres proposal. At the present stage, the government of Israel has neither adopted nor rejected it. I think this is the best bet in town. Taking in consideration the past proposals, I believe this is an answer how to overcome those elements that made the other proposals futile.

The other proposal is the Saudi proposal, which I basically think is a positive approach, but I am afraid that there is an attempt by too many parties to add the old stuff in order to make it look like an impossible proposal. I would like to see the Saudi proposal in its innocent and first stage as a large approach, as an intervention of a wind. The minute everybody will put in his own restrictions and demands, it will lose its temperament.

Q: Mr. Peres, first, I would like to know if you feel your whole dream of a new Middle East, of a future of peace, is being shattered? The second question is, what are your comments about these declarations by Prime Minister Sharon that the Palestinians have to receive very hard blows in order to change their attitude? Do you think this will really be the outcome of the present situation, or the Israeli policy could lead to further escalation?

A: There are no shattered dreams, there are only shattered dreamers, and I am not a shattered dreamer. I think without a dream we become blind. We don’t know where to go and where to move. As long as there is the slightest chance to implement it, I shall work as hard as I can in order to make the dream realized.

Regarding the remarks by the Prime Minister, I think that he is really trying in his way to achieve a cease-fire. I explained that in my judgment, you cannot achieve a cease-fire just by fire. There must be some political elements that go together with the military effort.

Q: Mr. Peres why are you still staying in this government?

A: I am not staying in a government, I am trying to build a different situation. I have been in the governments for such a long time that I am totally disillusioned with being a member of a government. I don’t think that is such an important thing. But, over the last 12 months, I thought that what we have to create is a partner to talk with. This is because after Camp David and the rejection of the Chairman of the Palestinian Authority, the feeling was that Israel lost a partner for peace, and the peace camp in Israel, and the Labor Party paid a very heavy price.

I also thought that the Likud had lost a map. They cannot talk today about the wholeness of Israel, because this may make Israel into an bi-national state with an Arab majority, but they don’t have a new

map. I think that in the parliament we don’t have a majority unless we shall have a plan that will mobilize the majority. It is with this in mind that I tried to act within the government, through the government, because I thought I couldn’t achieve it elsewhere.

The partner, I thought, are the people around Arafat, though I must say clearly that I don’t think that they are the ones to succeed Arafat. What they are trying to do is to change the Palestinian policy, not the Palestinian leadership. This is a group that we can talk with. I was also glad that the Prime Minister talked with them.

When it came to a map, I thought that the only map that can mobilize a majority in Israel is a map of definitions, not only of lines – the definitions being 242 and 338.

Thirdly, I thought that a majority in the parliament could be achieved only with a ready plan. I worked very hard to reach an understanding with Abu Ala, with the Palestinian side, so we can present a plan that has at least a chance to be accepted by the two sides. That we did. It took a long time, but we have it. I think, also, the fact that this government has adopted 242 and 338 as a basis for the territorial line is of importance.

I am not sure if the parties in the parliament will adopt the plan, but I saw that public opinion does. There is support of over 60% of this plan. As long as there is a chance to have a partner, to have a plan, and a chance for a majority, I shall try the hardest I can in order to implement it.

Q: Mr. Peres, do you believe that there must be a cease-fire first, before you start talking? Are you absolutely against starting to talk under fire? And do you believe a cease-fire is possible so long as there is no political talk at all? Also, when you said the Abu Ala-Peres plan was accepted by Mr. Sharon, it isn’t what I understand.

A: I said clearly that it was neither accepted nor rejected. I think there is a fighting chance, and I want to use it. But even when you don’t talk under fire, you can say that you talk on how to stop fire. I don’t see a great difference.

Q: Does it mean that you would be willing to sit down with people and give the Palestinians a political horizon, or only club them like Mr. Sharon said?

A: I said, we have to paint the horizon and we did. The Peres-Abu Ala document has an horizon, a very clear one, including a map, a date, and a way.

Q: Mr. Peres, is the summing up of the balance of restricting Arafat to Ramallah a positive or negative thing? And do you still regard Arafat as a partner for peace, for an agreement?

A: To the first question, I am not sure that the confinement of Arafat produced the result that some people thought. But people don’t understand – Arafat is not confined to the West Bank. As it was the normal procedure, when he wants to leave Ramallah he has to ask for permission. He did this all the time. Yesterday there was no change in this situation. The idea to send back the tanks was not accepted in my judgment.

To the second question, it is for the Palestinians to decide who is their leader, not for us. I am against Israel pretending to say: we are going to decide who the Palestinian leader is. I think it is a big mistake. I think that once people elect a leader, we have to negotiate with him. The only ones that can replace Arafat are the Palestinian people. I don’t agree with all those voices who try to create the impression that we are the ones who are going to nominate the Palestinian leader. It is wrong.

Q: Has there been a decline of your confidence in Mr. Arafat, having negotiated with him for many years during the Oslo process, and seeing him today, on the background of what is happening?

A: Arafat committed some mistakes. He also did some right things. Today I believe that Arafat has his own dilemmas. I don’t accept the point that he is a free agent, that he can do everything he wants. He has two or three considerations that he cannot ignore.

The first, in my judgment, is not to lose the Palestinian legitimacy in the eyes of the Europeans and the Americans. That is what happened in Oslo. Since Oslo, he depends on the Western legitimacy, by his own choice.

The second is, I think that while we have to defend ourselves with all the necessary means, we also have to make it clear that at the end of the violence there is a port for a political solution. I don’t think it is separable. I think that all this should be done together, as one package.

Q: Mr. Peres, if you are intent on a cease-fire, did you try to prevent the targeted killing of the three Palestinians, which occurred about 24 hours ago in the West Bank? That is certainly not going to promote a cease-fire. And, if you are seeking a cease-fire, perhaps you can reach one with the Fatah organization, maybe with the Tanzim, but can you reach one with the Hamas and Islamic Jihad organizations? Or will you have a partial cease-fire, which won’t be a cease-fire?

A: Even a partial cease-fire is better than no cease-fire. Let’s face it. If we can have, as you suggested, a cease-fire with the Fatah, it is better than having the Fatah joining in with the Hamas and the Jihad. I saw that if the Fatah decides to introduce a cease-fire, they could do it. That happened in 1996, when Arafat decided to bring an end to terror. He then arrested over a thousand people, he collected their arms and there was a cease-fire.

Q: What about the targeted killings? You know the United States is against them and you have just had one a few hours ago.

A: I believe that the decision of the cabinet is to intercept ticking bombs.

Q: I would like to ask you again for your reason for staying in the government. Can you maybe mention one success you achieved in the government, not just the Peres-Abu Ala plan which is quite impressive but which is not reality and has nothing to do with the reality we are living in right now. What is your influence on Sharon, and how would you maybe commend the new peace camp, which is organizing on a level which we didn’t see in the last 15 or 16 months, and there are a lot of people calling for Labor to leave the government.

A: I would say that as long as I feel that there is a fighting chance to achieve a cease-fire and to accept something like a political option, whether Abu Ala or something close to the Saudi Arabian proposal, or a combination, I shall try to do it.

About the Israeli peace camp, just to declare that I am for peace would make me a poet. Just to declare that I am for a camp of peace would make me an organizer. Since I am a political person, what I am trying to do is to see if we can achieve a majority for peace. In a democratic country it is not enough to declare that you are for peace. What you have to do is to hammer up a majority for peace. I am convinced that in order to have such a majority, we need some elements of support from the right wing as well. I understand it is very difficult and very hard, but there is no easy way, and as long as there is no negative verdict on the political horizon, I shall try my very best.

I can ask myself: where is it better to try, in the parliament or in the cabinet? Today, I think, it is in the cabinet. Tomorrow I may change my mind, because my purpose is neither parliament nor cabinet. My purpose is a political horizon, which in my judgment will help us arrive at a cease-fire and then go on to political negotiations.

Q: First of all, if Yasser Arafat requests permission from Israel to leave Ramallah to participate in the Beirut Arab summit, would you accept that without conditions? And the second question, if the Arab summit endorses the Saudi initiative in one way or another, is there any way we can move forward on that track as long as the violence is continuing?

A: The condition that we have put before Arafat were two: One, that he will arrest the assassins of Mr. Ze’evy, our former Tourist Minister. He got hold of three or four of them, and there are rumors that maybe even more. The second is that he will put in jail the person who he has declared was in charge of the illegal arm ship. If he will do it, I think we are obliged according to our promise to let him move. It doesn’t give me any pleasure to see Arafat contained in Ramallah. I don’t think it serves a real purpose, as some of us said clearly yesterday in the cabinet.

Concerning your second question, we have to see what the Saudi proposal is. As a general approach it is a positive thing. But there is now a pilgrimage to Mecca, a political pilgrimage, with everybody trying to inject some of their own old positions into the general expression of goodwill by Saudi Arabia. So it depends how it will emerge in the summit meeting.

I believe that when you open negotiations, the more general you are, the more positively you express yourself, the better it is. You have to leave the details for the negotiations, and you have to distinguish between an opening position and a fallback position.

I am afraid that there are some Arab countries and some politicians who are trying to load the Saudi proposal with their own taboos and demands that usually stopped the peace from moving ahead, and that we have to prevent. I think it is right for the Saudis to stand up and say in clear terms: The time has come to bring peace to the Middle East, to change the relations – not only between us and the Palestinians, but the relations between us and the whole of the Middle East, because it will affect the Middle East, it will enable the Middle East to move ahead from poverty and backwardness, from hatred and blood and tears into a modern society. Because today it is clear in my mind that it is not poverty that creates terrorism, it is terrorism that creates poverty and prevents any movement ahead. Then the Saudis also say that they understand, and rightly so, that for Israel security is very important, and they say, "Let’s try and have a permanent settlement." All this is fair. But if all the difficult questions and taboos and old prejudices will be hanged on the Saudi proposal, it may kill it.

Q: We follow as closely as we can your difficulties in getting the Abu Ala-Peres plan accepted by this government. I am sure you follow just as closely your colleague Abu Ala’s effort to maybe get it through with his side. I would like to share with you a very frustrating experience I had last week when I asked the Information Minister of the PA, Mr. Yasser Abed Rabbo, how he sees this Peres-Abu Ala plan. He broke down laughing and said, "Which version are you talking about? The version they present in the US, in Europe, to Sharon?" Do you see this as a problem, that there is no trust to this plan on the Palestinian side either?

A: Let me clarify the situation. I spoke with Abu Ala, not as a private citizen and as a member of the party, but as a member of the cabinet. My talks were well known and approved by the Prime Minister as well. Based on some of our own conversations, the Prime Minister thinks he can improve it. I don’t mind. Anything that can be improved by agreement will be acceptable to me. I doubt if there is an optimum better than this one, but the talks are going on. I am not impatient. As long as there is no negative decision on this initiative on these talks, I shall fight, and I don’t mind.

Abed Rabbo can say a thousand things. He is a friend of mine, I know

him, he is the Minister of Information. I want to clarify. In the paper that was agreed between Abu Ala and myself, the formula is 242 and 338. It is true that Abu Ala is not satisfied with the formula. He would like to have a clear word about the 1967 borders. He didn’t make a secret about it, I don’t make a secret about it. He thought that maybe he can get a side letter from the United States and Europe.

So I agree that it is not perfect, but even if there are differences, they are all clear. I told Abu Ala privately that without 242 and 338 I don’t see how I can get a majority in Israel, and 242 and 338 is in the guidelines of the present government. I don’t need any permission to repeat it. It is a mandate.

If you want to discover difficulties, I can give you some more. I know it is a difficult situation. I know that we are in disagreement. I am trying to see an opening, a way out, even if it contains elements of ambiguity. I don’t deny it either. I think it is better to fall in love and to make peace in twilight, and with a little bit of ambiguity. This is because if you shall open everything, you shall see that there is certain disagreement. That is what we are trying to do. I am working as hard as I can.

Q: People in this government are assuring the Israeli public every day that Mr. Arafat himself is the one giving the orders to the terror bombings in Tel-Aviv and the shooting on the roads and all we have been seeing in the last few days. Even some of your spokesmen try to explain to us that Arafat is the one giving the orders. Now, if that is true, how can he also be your partner?

A: What we demand from Arafat is that he will take a clear-cut position. I am not trying to introduce accusations. What we demand from Arafat is a clear-cut position, declaring openly in the Arabic language to stop incitement and stop terror. This is our demand, and I think it is a legitimate one. I don’t want to get involved in exchanges of blames and accusations. I don’t see what purpose it serves.

Q: Last night the cabinet gave the army authorization to step up the military campaign. What from the point of view of the government of Israel, of which you are the Foreign Minister, are the current political limits on what the army can do? I would also like your personal views about what they should be?

A: I think that, number one, we have to understand as a government that we cannot create a cease-fire only by using the army. There must be, as I have said already, some other efforts, including: economic, psychological, political – all these. I wouldn’t charge the army as the sole agent to stop fire. I am simply not convinced that this can be achieved.

When the army acts, there are the following limits: The army acts only in self-defense. The army does not act in order to escalate the situation. Secondly, the army must be extremely careful not to kill civilians, and not to hit civilian life. The army must act to achieve a given a military definition – not more than that.

I would be very careful about the refugee camps. I would be very careful about using the air force, and I am not the only one. I must say that the last few days were terrible. Even if a Palestinian is fanatic, to kill people who are praying, to enter a home to kill a woman and her 11 year old retarded girl, my God! To come into a restaurant and to shoot at a group of ladies who are celebrating a private party – what is this? It is not even terror. Nobody can accept it.

I know that there were some very painful accidents on our side, too, which I regret deeply, but I am convinced they were not done intentionally. So the army has its limits, and has its targets. As a Foreign Minister I say that the army cannot be the sole mechanism to stop fire. I am for talking, for meeting, for discussing the political target or horizon.

Q: I know the Americans and, I think, many in the rest of the world are very concerned with the danger of an escalation into a regional confrontation, a regional conflict. What is the message from the political leadership to the military about avoiding that?

A: At least in my own view is to have a regional understanding. There are some people in Israel, whose view terrify me, who say: Let’s have a war immediately and then make peace. What war? We have had a war. You need to win another time? You need to occupy another time? What for? And what will happen after the next war and after the next victory? If they are going to change or suggest changing the Israeli positions, do it now and prevent a war. You don’t need war to make peace. You need peace to prevent a war. I don’t accept this idea. I wouldn’t support it, very clearly.

I have to fight. I know that I don’t have an easy time. I know that I am being attacked from the right and the left, but when I consider the alternatives, what are they? So, while it is very difficult, and believe me for me personally it is very difficult, I think it is my duty, not my pleasure, to do it.

Q: What is you political limit to remain in this right, central, left government?

A: I am not fighting for being a member of the government. I am fighting to have a process of peace. If the call for peace will tell me that I have to leave the government, then I shall leave. I am not there because I like the government. I dislike the government. I am there because I believe that right now the fighting chance is in the government. The minute I shall think it is over, I won’t have a reason to be a member of the government. I came to the government not to be a minister, not for a position. All this I have already had plenty in my life. I came to serve peace. If I shall think that my being in the government doesn’t serve peace, then I shall leave the government.

Q: The political horizon that you are offering is very well known. In your opinion how large is the support among the Israeli constituency today?

A: According to the polls it is 60%. The first poll showed that, to the straight question: Do you support the Peres-Abu Ala plan? 49% were for, 43% were against. The last poll was 60% for. Maybe I don’t have the necessary support among the political parties. I am not surprised, because my own question to the political parties is: what do you suggest? There are some parties, at least one party that suggests "war now". That is not my cup of tea. The others, I don’t know what they suggest, and I am ready to consider alternatives.

Q: In the main core of the political horizon that you draw here there is the territorial compromise of course, which is also inside the Peres-Abu Ala plan. This territorial compromise was also the core of the Oslo agreement that you have been such a big part of. What makes you think that today, as it was not accepted at that time, this would be accepted today, after the situation has become so much more bitter and the terror is so much wider?

A: I can’t guarantee anything. I have nothing in my pocket to guarantee, but what I can say is that resolutions 242 and 338 are an official position of the present government. That gives me at least a basis of legitimacy to act for what I am acting. And then, some on the right side, I wouldn’t like to mention names, say they are for a Palestinian state. So we have already two elements.

I know it is very difficult and calls for a great deal of patience to fill in the gap. But if I compare the present situation with three years ago – we have a government that is for 242 and 338. We have a government in which many of its important members, including the Prime Minister, says that they don’t exclude a Palestinian state. So I don’t think that we have everything, but neither can one say that we have nothing. When I look at the composition of the parliament I think it is worthwhile to make a special effort and have some elements of the right, instead of being right without a majority.

Q: And what about the Palestinian side?

A: I explained exactly what in my judgment is the Palestinian position. They are ready to sign for 242 and 338. It is true that they are seeking a side letter to say that 242 and 338 means the return to the ’67 borders, plus modifications, plus a swap on land. That’s their position. So I know that at the opening position, we are not in full agreement. I know also that among the Palestinians, as elsewhere, there are different views. Abed Rabbo might have a different view.

But I was talking with people from the Palestinian Authority that told me they are authorized to discuss the things with me, and that is what I did. I think that what I brought is a plan which may be even the most acceptable one, yet it is not yet accepted by the right wing of Israeli politics as well.

Q: Mr. Peres, what do you think about the internal public discussion in Israel about the legitimacy of acting in the territories? Does this strengthen the democracy in Israel or does it weaken Israel in front of the Palestinians?

A: We cannot put limits on public discussion. It is an open society. I think the problem is not the discussion. One of the things that I argue about with the Prime Minister is about the time element. I image the Prime Minister would like to have more time. But don’t have time. Because there is also the strategic consideration.

In strategic consideration you must take three elements into account. One is territory, which is stable – you have the same land all the time. The other two elements are dynamic: One is the ballistic consideration, and the third is the demographic consideration. While land doesn’t move, ballistic ranges do move, and demography is being changed. So I am telling the people who argue with me, what do you want to wait for? Until we shall become a bi-national state, with a non-Jewish majority? We have to make a decision right away for the sake of Israel.

Contrary to what they say – why should we give back to the Palestinians; are you an appeaser: I am not an appeaser. I see our

map, I see our calendar, I have to tell the truth to our people and I say that we don’t have time, we have to make a choice, a real one, an honest one. We cannot keep our majority without a partition of the land, and we cannot have peace without an agreement with the other side. I don’t take any solution that is unilateral. I think peace is mutual, bilateral or multilateral, and that is what I am saying.

Q: Mr. Peres, you have talked to us about your commitment to peace. You’ve even talked about what the Saudi Arabians are doing for peace. Can you describe for us what the American government is doing for peace at this time, and if you think those efforts are deficient? Can you be specific about what more the US could do?

A: If I recall correctly, the American policy at the present time is made of the following elements: To fight terror uncompromisingly, and to tell Arafat: make up your mind – in which camp are you? Not only by declaring, but also by doing. On that the United States is clear and determined, and also in my judgment helpful.

Then the United States tells the Palestinians, "We have defined a vision for you." The vision was expressed in the speech of the Secretary of State Colin Powell at the United Nations, which includes a Palestinian state and all the other elements.

Then there is an American consideration: should they get involved in the negotiation of peace right away or not? I think there are some Americans who may think that the previous intervention of the United States did not bear the fruits they hoped for. If I read correctly the American policy, if we shall see a real chance, then they shall intervene; as long as we don’t see it, they will maintain their reservation. That is how I understand the American policy.