PRESS CONFERENCE WITH ISRAELI DEPUTY FOREIGN MINISTER DR. YOSSI BEILIN UPON HIS RETURN FROM OMAN

JERUSALEM, APRIL 21, 1994

Spokesman: This is the first Israeli official delegation to go to a Gulf country, to Oman, Dr. Beilin will open with a statement and then will take questions, Dr. Beilin.

Dr Beilin: Thank you very much. We returned some hours ago and I felt that it would of some importance to share with you some of our impressions from this first meeting in a Gulf country. First of all, about the meeting of the working group itself; I presume that it was the best meeting of any working group in the last two and a half years.

The importance was that there was both a consensus about a list of projects, very tangible ones, which will take place in the near future and on financing those projects which was much more difficult. Usually, even if there is a consensus, which is sometimes difficult to achieve, there is not necessarily the money to finance them and then it becomes just an option and not necessarily a reality. And here I believe that the most important development was that money was allocated to the some of the projects – mainly by the United States and Canada – but not only by them.

Another point which was very important for us was that for the first time ever an Israeli proposal was agreed upon by all parties, by the consensus. The project itself is not a very huge one, it is an experimental project of saving water in some communities in the Middle East: in Jordan, in the West Bank, in Gaza, and in Israel. The idea is to prevent the leakage of water from the pipelines. Such leakage loses from twenty to sometimes sixty percent of the water. In an area where water is so expensive that is something that we can not comply with.

There was one difficulty only and that was with the Jordanian decision in the last moment to try to prevent a consensus and since it is all based on consensus, if one of the parties declares that it does not participate in that consensus, decisions can not be made. Towards the end of the meeting, which was delayed, the agreement was achieved and Jordan, which had a very important problem which had nothing to do with the multilateral level and that is the closure on the Aqaba Gulf, withdrew its demand so that all the decisions were taken unanimously.

We accepted the Palestinian suggestion to have water authority in the territories which was consistent with the Declaration of Principles and on the basis of the multilateral level. Disagreement was negotiated at the beginning of the meeting and it was perceived by the Palestinians (and rightly so) as an achievement for them.

Another achievement was for the Omani government which prepared research on desalination – desalination in Oman is one of the most important issues on the agenda – and we agreed to establish a research and technological center in Oman on desalination of water.

Israeli experts will, in a very short while, be invited to Muscat to be involved in the establishment of this center, which is of course important for the continuation of the relations which were achieved between the two sides.

Speaking about the bilateral level between Oman and Israel, I had the privilege to meet some of the most important political figures in Oman. The feeling is that their attitude towards Israel is very different from the attitude of our neighboring countries. On the one hand, Israel for them has a very negative label. It has been a taboo for forty six years. Nevertheless, there are no emotions against Israel. The animosity, as such doesn’t exist there. Once there is a change of policy, it will be according to the views of my interlocutors and it would be very easy to establish relations not only, formal diplomatic relationship, which will be an immediate result of peace between us and our neighbors, but also friendly relations which will be based on the economy, on culture and so forth.

There is a kind of feeling of dependency in Oman. There is a dependency on the foreigners. One of the most important functions or aims of the local administration is the Omanisation of Oman. Both on the managerial level and the blue collar level. The blue collar workers are from East Asia. On the managerial level you will find people from India and from the West. What they would like to do, is to educate their own young generation.

It is until now a success story; the story of Oman is actually the story of the last twenty four years of the administration of the Sultan Qabous. When he began his term, there were only three grammar schools in Oman whereas now there many of them. The number illiterate people is a very small one. There is a University. People are going abroad to study. But the first graduates are very young. We are speaking about a revolution which took place so few years ago, so the fruits are there, but the strong group in the society is in its late twenties. It is not very simple for them to change the society and they would like to do whatever they can in order to educate the young generation and to enable those people to work in all levels of the Omani economy. Here, such a cooperation with us seems to them very positive. Of course there is a dependency on desalination because of the scarcity of water and desalination is very expensive. In Oman, it is almost two dollars for each cubic meter, while in Israel the cost of desalination is one third of that – and even less than that.

I visited, the day before yesterday, a desalination project which is very impressive, of course. You see there the efforts which are done, but still the results are not enough for them. If they are able to reduce the price of desalination, that for them would be a very big revolution and that is why it was so important for them to host the working group on water, and to establish the desalination center in Oman.

Another point is that of oil and natural resources. Its not only for Oman, but Oman is an example for a situation where the natural resources will not be able to provide them with their needs in the near future. Nobody knows exactly how long it will take for them, but the different views move from something like fifteen to twenty five years, in which the resources of oil will not exist any more. They have to prepare themselves for the morning after oil which is again something which has to do with educating the young generation, with finding some new roles and some new fields for their economy. That is, of course, for them, a very high priority and I believe that with the know-how which exists in Israel, they will be able to solve this problem. Of course, they do not depend only on Israel, but they do have the feeling that cooperation with Israel is something which is very tangible for them.

I agree that economically speaking, because of the potential which exists there in the Gulf states, there is a possibility that the economic ties of Israel will be much more intensive with the Gulf states than with our neighboring countries – because of the big economic gap between us and our neighboring countries, which does not exist when we speak about the Gulf states. The potential there is a very big one of exporting our goods and importing goods from them.

About the near future, the next meeting of the arms control working group will take place in Qatar. Later on, the working group on environment will meet in Bahrain. Speaking about the next round of the working group meeting on water, there is a fair chance that it will take place in Kuwait. So that Oman was the first to break the ice, but the other countries are following it and Oman feels very good about it. The people who I met were very proud of the fact that they supported the Camp David Accords years ago. They did not cut relations with Egypt while in the Arab League almost all the other states did, and that they paved the way for their neighbors in opening the relationships with Israel despite the pressures which were there.

One last point is about the interest in the Middle East conflict. All the people with whom I spoke, stressed one very clear point. They were very happy with the developments between us and the Palestinians. But they say that the solution in their eyes will be only when there is peace between us and the Syrians. Syria seems to them as the most important key in the Middle East peace process. They believe that peace with Syria can be achieved only with the help of the Americans. They do not see any kind of an Oslo channel, or something like that, between Israel and the Syrians because Syrian interest in the United States is almost as high as interest in Israel. Since it is important for the Syrians to better their relations with the United States, the Omanis say to us that they cannot foresee any chance for direct talks, or secret talks, or any kind of shuttle diplomacy which will not involve the United States itself.

QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS:

Q: Dr. Beilin, just on this last point, first of all do you find it frustrating in any way that a country that appears to have all this potential with the conditioning of the development of a relationship with Israel should want peace with Syria. To what extent do you think that’s realistic and could you give us your assessment of the events.

Dr Beilin: Well, they did not condition the economic relations on peace with Syria, but speaking about diplomatic and open relations, that was conditioned on comprehensive peace in the middle east. But the key to it in their eyes, and I believe that they are right, is Syria. Otherwise speaking about economic ties, or exchange of information, or whatever, actually they proved that was possible even without that. So you see a kind of incremental development with the Gulf states is possible and that is case with Oman which does not depend necessarily on comprehensive peace, but of course for them it will be much easier to have comprehensive peace which includes peace with Syria. They also do not have an opposition, a kind of overt opposition to relations with Israel and unlike some of the other Gulf states that do not have Palestinians. So for them it was easier to be the first because of those reasons.

Now referring to the second question about the tangibility of development with Syria – I believe that we are going to see whether or not it is a realistic option during the next visit of the Secretary of State. I believe that in this visit he is going to both Damascus and Jerusalem and some other capitals in the area. That will be a follow up for the meeting between President Assad and President Clinton. Since on our side I believe that very important clarifications were done, I hope that on the Syrians side, we will get also some clarifications which will open the way so we will break through which is very needed.

Q: What are the clarification that you tell us about that you need from the Syrians?

Dr Beilin: Well I think that Prime Minister was very clear in speaking about the extent of withdrawal and the extant of peace. Speaking about the settlements on the Golan Heights, it was not a secret that preparations were done for the meeting with the Secretary of State in order to convey to him our views about the modalities for an agreement with the Syrians. I think that all those things will contribute to the possibility of changing the very low pace on the negotiations with the Syrians to something which is much more intensive than that.

Q: Is it clear from what the Prime Minister said that Israel is willing to withdraw entirely from the Golan Heights. You said that now he’s become more clear – what has he said?

Dr Beilin: Well if I combine things which were said in the last month, including those preparations of some plans, including, this formula of the Prime Minister which is not going beyond itself, but I think that it is a very clear one. I am not going beyond this formula, but if the Prime Minister of Israel says that the extant of the withdrawal from Golan Heights will be on par with the extent of peace, I believe that it is something very significant. If you add to it, the decision to have a referendum when it is needed as a result of a decision to withdraw, if you add to it what the Prime Minister said in the Press conference with President Clinton about the high price and the painful one which Israel is ready pay. If you add all those things which were said in the last month, I think that something significant happened on our side. It will be missing an opportunity if all those signals will not be received on the other side and if nothing will happen.

Q: Israel being a place where these things happen in public, have you heard and have there been any of these kinds of signals coming privately from the Syrians recently?

Dr. Beilin: No we did not get to the best of my knowledge, something more than what we got after the meeting between the two presidents, President Clinton and President Assad in which we said it very clearly had President Assad said what President Clinton said, it would have been much easier for us.

Q: Have you seen any signals or changes from Syria in any way?

Dr Beilin: Not at all. Regretfully, I can not say something like that. If I just review the attitude of the Syrians to the meeting of the working group on water, this week, I must admit it was not complimentary.

Q: Can you expand on that please?

Dr Beilin: There were some articles published in the Syrian Press, against the participation of Israel in the talks in Oman against the official welcoming of our delegation and so on and so forth. You can not, even if you try, in a magnified glass to say that there was a real education change of the public opinion through, the expressions of leaders, or through some published articles in the papers.

Q: Why weren’t foreign journalist allowed to accompany you on this meeting? Future Trips for journalists?

Dr. Beilin: Well you imagine that we wanted very much a coverage of this visit. For us it was very important to stress the fact that we were received in such a way in Oman. Because that was one of the fruits which is otherwise quite painful. Now, we wanted just to take with us, and there was plenty of place by the way on our plane, we wanted to take with us all those who wished to join us. But then the Omanis said, that first of all they were not ready to take all those correspondents who wanted to go with us and there were forty three corespondents, most of them foreign press. And they said, well if you want Israelis, they negotiated about the number of Israelis, and they agreed to nine Israelis in all, so we had to reject also some of the Israeli press.

And about the foreign press they said they should consider dealing with us directly or through their papers, but you should not be in charge of them, and if you want to bring them, they should have been part of the nine. Don’t think for one minute it wasn’t our interest, it was our interest to cover this meeting undoubtedly. It was easier perhaps to understand some of the inhibitions while we were there. Oman is the most closed Gulf state. They did not have huge international coverage. They don’t have many tourists. The number of tourists in Oman is 17,000 per year, although it is huge country and there is much to show there. The notion of such a big group of journalists for them was quite shocking and that’s why they said first of all: ‘If you insist, you can bring the Israeli Press but about the foreign press they should deal with it alone’. We knew that once they said so, it would be almost impossible to break this wall.

Q: How do you envision Israel’s ties with Gulf countries developing. I’m thinking specifically of the fact that two countries so far that have had public links. Both are sort of maverick states, who incidentally part of their maverick positions is developing ties with Iraq. Is Israel worried in getting involved in very complex plays between different Gulf states.

Dr Beilin: No, we will have relations, and enhanced relations with those countries which are ready to do that. You may be right in saying that Saudi Arabia may be the last and the most cautious one. But whoever is ready to have relations with us we will be very glad to have those relations. I believe, that speaking of natural resources like gas, speaking about medical treatment which is very important for them and technological training, that those areas will be the most important ones. But the first and foremost will be water. There is nothing more important for them than using more water, either by recycling brackish water or by desalination, or by whatever technologies which are there, preventing leakage – there are many ways either to conserve water or to enlarge the reservoir of water.

Q: You mention that Israelis would be going to Oman to take part in the desalination plant which was the result of the multilaterals. Did you also discuss any bilateral cooperation on this and on gas for example.

Dr Beilin: No, we did not talk about gas, but we did talk about training and about other issues, but until now there no decision was taken about specific measures.

Q: A question about Syria again. Once the withdrawal from Jericho is complete are the Israelis going to shelve the Palestinian side of things, and start talks with Syria.

Dr Beilin: No way, no way. We will not shelve this part because it is unshelvable. How can you put an end to that. It is something which is breathing and which has to continue. We will immediately go for ‘early empowerment’ after the agreement on Gaza and Jericho. We will continue the talks in Washington about elections. We can not put an end to it. And we should not. The whole notion was to talk to all parties together. That was the Madrid formula and we are going to continue with this notion. Its not very easy, but I do not believe that we can just deal with one channel at a time. It is unrealistic.

Q: Settlements in the Golan Heights. Are you planning to dismantle all the settlements? Do you think some of the Gulf states like Iran will try to prevent the development of relations.

Dr Beilin: About the settlements in the Golan Heights, nobody talked about the extent and numbers and whatever, but it was the Prime Minister again who referred to the option of evacuating settlements. The future will be the result of negotiations between Syria and Israel. I mentioned several times that I do not see why Israelis would not be permitted to live under Syrian sovereignty in those areas in the Golan Heights which we may withdraw from. So there are many options. But I think the main message is that Israel is ready to do business and that opportunities are not limitless or endless.

Speaking about the Gulf states and Iran I do not think so. I’m sure that Iran is not very happy but it does not mean that it will try to prevent such a development. Those who are trying to prevent this development are the Syrians and the Lebanese who do not participate, as you know, in the multilateral track and they are not happy that others do and that there is such a development. I believe that what happened in Oman is a breakthrough on the multilateral level. It is something new and those who do not take part in it are not benefitting from it because they have the same problems as the others – shortage of water is a Middle East problem despite the fact that there are those who suffer more from it and those who suffer less. But all of us are suffering from the same problem. Solving it is a major breakthrough for the Middle East if it is possible. So those who do not participate punish only themselves. But Iran is not part of this game,to the best of my knowledge.

Q: Is the Israeli public being prepared for some of the events which might take place.

Dr Beilin: Well, I presume so. When a leader speaks about political developments, he addresses both his own public opinion and the international one.

Q: How do you assess domestic politics right now in terms of allowing Israel to do business on several fronts as you said, regarding the bombings and Mr. Ramon’s recent forays and so on. How strong is the government to deal with all this.

Dr Beilin: Well, I’m saying that all those things are making life easier, but it is far from preventing us from going on. The question of whether the healthcare system will change or not will not change the support of Ramon and his people for the peace process. Speaking about some problems in the Labour Party doesn’t mean that there is any problem with the coalition. There is a coalition for peace in the Knesset. I do not see any major change here. I believe that we have both the power and the mandate to move on and the decision to have a referendum before any major decision on the Golan Heights strengthens our ability to go on and to strike a deal.

Q: What authority will the Palestinian national water authority have?

Dr Beilin: This authority will become the address for the multilateral channel for all those project about which we decided in the past. They will deal with research and with other issues in cooperation with the Israeli authorities.

Q: What kind of peace do you think is possible with Syria?

Dr Beilin: Its difficult for me to tell what kind of agreement we will have with them. I believe that the problem resembles much more the Israeli-Egyptian problem than the Israeli-Palestinian problem. And maybe that will be conducive to the kind of the solution. It doesn’t mean that the solution should be the same one, but the broad guidelines may perhaps be the same.

Q: Why did you give yourself such a narrow time schedule? Why is the Declaration of Principles so broad?

Dr Beilin: Speaking about the Oslo agreement – it is not the perfect agreement. That is for sure. It is the best we could have had. I do not believe that it was possible in those circumstances of secret channels, of very few people involved of a kind of a precedent of talking to the other side, to people whom we had never met before to have something better and I will always agree that it was not perhaps the best agreement we could have reached, but it is the only one we reached. I don’t think there could have been a better or more significant breakthrough.

It is true that it is quite wide, because you are speaking about guidelines. The whole notion was to deal with the same kind of paper that we tried to agree upon in Washington for almost two years. That paper was a very broad one too. Speaking about a Declaration of Principle is exactly that. You are speaking only of a declaration of principles. When you speak about principles, there is always the option that it will be interpreted in different ways. But we did not try to prepare a very detailed agreement because we wanted the experts to be part of the preparation of such an agreement and that is why we were satisfied just with a Declaration of Principles. I do not believe that another option was feasible at all.

Speaking about the very short time. The main issue was not to expose ourselves to a militant opposition or perhaps a violent opposition on both sides. I admit that we expected mainly a Palestinian opposition of that kind. We did not anticipate anything like the massacre in Hebron. What we wanted was that the negotiators would not be exposed for a long while to this of criticism and attempts to stop the negotiations, and to condense the negotiations in a very short while. The idea was that maybe half a year would be enough to conclude the negotiations. Then the question was how should we divide between the two functions, the negotiations themselves and the implementation of those negotiations. It was just a decision which was taken by us on the last moment to divide two and four, two months for negotiations and four months for the implementation because we thought then that it would take a much a longer while to implement such a negotiations. In the end, it appears that we needed much more time to negotiate and much less time to implement. But eventually, I think that it is quite amazing that we are sticking to the original time table. Because if, as we hope, we are going to have in very few weeks now, the end of the negotiations, and a very short implementation, then if instead of six months, it will take seven months, it almost a miracle. And it proves that if you decide and if you stick to your decisions and if you are assertive enough to say OK, we will do whatever we can in order to implement our resolutions you can succeed. Although we are dealing with so many details that it seems almost impossible to finish all those issues. I can tell that we are going to finish them and to conclude the negotiations. And it won’t take months.

Q: Aside from desalination, were any other trade agreements negotiated and can you elaborate?

Dr Beilin: Without getting into details, what I can say is that I had a chance to meet not only the Omanis but also representatives of other Gulf states during our stay in Oman and that the options for trade with those countries are very big ones. We are very close to them despite the feeling that we are far. It may take about three and half hours between Israel and the eastern part of the Arab Peninsula. We can provide them with products for agriculture, with input for industry, and we can import from them natural resources and some products of industry and so on and so forth. I had the option to visit an industrial park in Oman, which was very impressive and to see the products of their industry and how complimentary the two economies may be. Something which does not exist with our neighbors because our neighbors economies are not complimentary to Israel and that is the main difference.

Q: Is it true that plans to build a bypass road around Jericho has been shelved, so that people who live in Jordan valley settlements will have to go through Jericho and be stoned? Also, the MIA’s – their last moment that they can only expect to get word of their loved ones if this is put on the agenda with the PLO.

Dr Beilin: About the first question, there is no change in our policy and to the best of my knowledge there is no decision about relinquishing the bypass road. The other way around. We are sticking to our original view about having the ability to bypass Jericho.

About the second issue, the only thing I can say is that we do whatever possible to get information and to be in contact with the MIA’s. I can not say that we are satisfied by the results of course, but we are working on it day in day out and I do not think that all what we did about it was published. It is one of the major issues on our agenda in all the meetings that we have with the leadership of the world, with all those who have some kind of contacts with Syria, with Iran and with the people of the PLO themselves. That is why although it is a very difficult issue and a very touchy one, I can say that there is no option which was not searched by us thoroughly until this very moment.

I believe what should be done is to separate between the issues to do whatever we can in order to solve the problem of the MIA’s or to get information about the information and to go on for peace. I can tell you one thing, if there are some hopes for getting more information, and if we got something in the last month it is only because of the peace process because we opened new channels to new governments and we could directly or indirectly get some more information as a result of those open channels.

Q: Could you tell us the details of this joint project from the multilaterals how much money was put up by whom, when will it start, what is it exactly, the water-leakage project.

Dr Beilin: Well, I am sorry but I did not bring with me all the details but we are not speaking here of hundreds of millions, but we are speaking of some millions which will deal both with research on desalination, with building some projects, with saving water by preventing leakage of water from pipelines, and so on and so forth. What is important for me, is much less the amount of money but the fact that money would was allocated to those projects by United States and Canada.

Q: Was there a date set for when it would begin?

Dr Beilin: No, but we are speaking about some of the projects already began and the others will begin very soon.

Thank you very much.