Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release October 20, 1999


OCTOBER 20, 1999

Thank you. Jack Bendheim, Cynthia Friedman Tom Smerling. I want to acknowledge the presence of the ambassadors from Israel and Yemen and other members of the diplomatic community. It’s an honor to be here today among so many people who have contributed so much to the cause of peace in the Middle East. And I’m deeply grateful to the Israeli Policy Forum for inviting me. This organization is making a real difference as the peace process goes forward.

At the outset, I’d like to try to put to rest one false debate - before I bring to life a real one. The false debate is about how to characterize the current role of the United States in the peace process. This issue has been with us for several months now, and I’ve considered it an artificial question from the beginning. But labeling seems to be the order of the day, and so labels there have been: Are we or should we be "facilitators," or rather "mediators," or perhaps "brokers," "partners," "catalysts," or "middlemen"? I view this discussion as academic because it is wholly divorced from reality.

We will be central to the peace process not only because the parties want it that way, but because it is a strategic imperative for the United States. For our role in the Middle East has never been a function of whim or of whimsy. It is dictated by our nation’s critical interest in promoting a comprehensive peace and by our assessment of how best to achieve it. In other words, our role has been derivative of U.S. strategic interests and of the regional strategic picture.

And so, let me turn to what I consider the real question, one we must never lose sight of: what are our interests in the region, what is the regional picture, and how do both shape U.S. policy toward the peace process as we move into a new century?

I will start from the proposition that a Middle East that is stable and at peace is critical to America’s national interests. It is essential to remember that what happens in the region has a direct bearing on American security and prosperity. Conflict in the Middle East presents too great a threat to be ignored: that was true in 1956 and 1967, again in 1973, once more in the 1980s in Lebanon and, most recently, in 1991 with the Gulf War. On each occasion, the lethal combination of political, religious, ethnic and state-to-state conflicts with a surplus of deadly weaponry – both conventional and unconventional – dictated a strong U.S. engagement. The fact is that with the possible exception of South Asia, the Middle East is the most dangerous region in the world when it comes to weapons of mass destruction and one of the regions most likely to see them used.

The Middle East also is home to Israel, one of our closest allies, and one with which we enjoy a special bond -- rooted in history; founded on common interests; sustained by shared values. To protect Israel’s security is to protect our own – which is why our commitment is iron-clad and everlasting. And the Middle East is the location of two thirds of the world’s oil resources, making it a region critical not only to our economic well-being, but to that of friends and allies around the globe.

That’s why every single U.S. President since Harry Truman has considered the Middle East to be vital to our national interests, and why every one since Dwight Eisenhower has invested considerable time, energy and resources in seeking to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

These abiding interests are brought into sharper focus when one looks at today’s regional landscape. For we are witnessing a region that is at a historic crossroads. Simply put, the Middle East with which we will be dealing ten or twenty years from now will bear only surface resemblance to the one with which we are familiar today.

The most salient feature of the current landscape is the new, albeit fleeting, opportunity for peace. Throughout the region are leaders with the power – and, I believe, with the will – to make peace. In Prime Minister Barak, we see someone with the determination, the conviction and – equally important – the electoral mandate to reach agreements and to implement them. In Chairman Arafat and President Assad are two leaders – one, the embodiment of Palestinian nationalism; the other, the personification of the Syrian state -- who can make tough decisions and then make them stick. And in President Mubarak and King Abdullah are two leaders capable of steering the others and creating a propitious environment for peace.

For this moment of history, however brief, even their respective time-tables are lining up. Each for his own reason, Prime Minister Barak, Chairman Arafat and President Assad have their eyes riveted on the next twelve months. Hence the ambitious, even daunting, goals : a Framework Agreement between Israel and the Palestinians within four months; a permanent status agreement within eleven; and, by next summer, an Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in the context of agreements with Syria and Lebanon.

These objectives reflect a welcome sense of seriousness, but there is more to it than that. They also reflect a sense of urgency, the recognition that absent rapid progress on peace, today’s opportunity will give way to tomorrow’s vast uncertainties. For the conclusion is unmistakable: the Middle East is in the midst of a transition unlike anything we have witnessed in living memory. From North Africa to the West Bank, the region is changing in ways small and large that will affect every single aspect of people’s lives.

Tomorrow’s Middle East will be a region in which nearly every country that is key to our interests will have undergone some form of political succession. Already, we have seen transitions in Jordan, Bahrain, Morocco, and Algeria. But more than a change in leadership is at issue; at stake is the passing of a generation. Consider this: King Abdullah of Jordan is 37; King Mohammed of Morocco 36; half of all Saudis are under the age of 15; sixty five percent of Iranians are under 25; and in Algeria, 70% of the population is under 30. This new generation has experienced neither colonialism, nor war with Israel, nor the heyday of Arab nationalism. Its outlook has yet to be formed; its political aspirations yet to be defined.

But here’s the concern: unless there is a climate in which reformers can take charge, tomorrow’s Middle East could be a region of exploding demographics and imploding economies; of overpopulation and underperforming educational systems. In fact, in places like Egypt, Jordan or Morocco, reformers are taking courageous steps to modernize their societies. But, fearful of globalization and diverted by conflict, too many other nations are being held back and are resisting the necessary political and economic changes. The result has been low levels of foreign investment, low rates of regional trade, low growth rates and a wasteful diversion of resources to the military.

One illustrative example: the Middle East ranks dead last among the regions of the world in terms of Internet usage. Only about a million people are on line in the entire region of roughly 250 million people – and about half of those live in Israel. Contrast that with the 88 million internet users in the United States, 26 million in Asia and 5 million in South America. Those who remain disconnected from the global economy – literally and figuratively – are destined to fall further and further behind.

How the Middle East evolves matters. It matters, of course, most directly, to the people of the Arab world. It matters to the American people as well, because of the strategic, political and economic interests that are at stake. It also matters – profoundly -- to the people of Israel. For them, the difference between a Middle East focused on economic development and looking to the future and a region mired in poverty and in hatreds inherited from the past is the difference between peace and conflict . . . lasting security and perpetual threat . . . a normal life and the lives they have been forced to live.

Will tomorrow’s leaders bear the traits of a King Hussein – or those of a Saddam Hussein? Will tomorrow’s generations heed the calls for economic reform, democracy and human rights – or will they listen to the superficial appeal of religious fanaticism and political intolerance? Will tomorrow’s Middle East be a region in which Israel feels welcome – or threatened by neighbors who deny its very right to exist? Though there can be no sure answers, there is one thing of which I am absolutely confident: no variable will have a greater impact on these questions than the state of the peace process.

By advancing peace, we can boost a new generation of Arab leaders, more attune to economic and political reform, closer to our values and less vulnerable to anti-Western and anti-Israeli bashing . . . we can allow them to focus their energies on festering economic problems, reducing the risks of upheaval and depriving extremist forces of the fodder that keeps them going . An Israeli-Palestinian peace would dry up the emotional and ideological well-spring of the Arab-Israeli conflict, thereby de-legitimizing Arab hostility against Israel and the U.S. Agreements between Israel, Syria and Lebanon would provide calm and normalcy on all of Israel’s borders . . . resolve the situation in Southern Lebanon . . . deprive terrorists of key resources and places of refuge. In his meeting with President Clinton last week, King Abdullah put it well: by taking Jordan down the road of peace, he said, his father had made it possible for him to take Jordan down the path of modernization and reform.

Now consider for a moment the alternative. A Middle East that is an even more dangerous tinder box, a blend of real grievances, false solutions and opportunists willing to feed on both. A Middle East in which groups can continue to use the Arab-Israeli conflict as a rallying cry for the disenfranchised, recruiting the destitute by mingling acts of terror with acts of charity. A Middle East in which the perpetuation of conflict will make it that much harder to attend to other pressing needs.

And ask yourself this simple question: if a country like Iraq or Iran were to acquire a nuclear arsenal, would Israel be better off surrounded by a buffer of peace or trapped within a deadly circle of hatred?

And so, what about America’s role? I think we need to keep all of what I have just described clearly in mind – our abiding national interest in peace as well as the urgency of the region’s current circumstances. For as I said at the outset, our role must be dictated and shaped by both. This has always been the case – from the disengagement agreements the U.S. helped broker in 1973 and 1975 to the peace accords we mediated at Camp David or at Wye . . . from the conflicts we helped defuse in Lebanon in 1993 and 1996 to the forces we have contributed in the Sinai. Our role has had to adapt, and we have had to show flexibility. But throughout, our compass has remained one and the same: protecting our national interests by promoting Middle East peace.

Perhaps the most useful way to look at this is to compare the U.S. role in two recent agreements: the agreement signed at Wye in October 1998 and the agreement reached in Sharm el-Sheikh in September of this year.

Wye came about at a time of deep mistrust and shallow communication between the parties, a time of skepticism regarding the viability and the very premises of the journey begun at Oslo. With Israelis and Palestinians showing too much appetite for recrimination and too little stomach for compromise, we stepped in to prevent a collapse. If they wouldn’t actually talk to each other, then they would have to talk through us. The President brought the two parties together; closeted them at Wye; helped draft the agreement. For nine largely sleepless nights, the President walked patiently from one side to the other until, at long last, they found common ground.

With Ehud Barak’s election, the parties no longer need an interpreter – they began speaking to each other in a common language, even if it meant disagreeing in a common tongue. And so, we played a different role at Sharm el-Sheikh – different, but not lesser. I would divide it into three parts. The prologue began with Prime Minister Barak’s victory and the President’s sustained efforts to help Barak and Arafat understand each other better. In meetings that lasted over 12 hours with the new Prime Minister and countless telephone calls to both, he would send parallel messages: to Chairman Arafat, that the Prime Minister was seriously committed to peace, that he was a man of his word, and that the Palestinians ought to listen to his proposals with an open mind. To Prime Minister Barak, that he had to take account of what the past three years had done to sap the Palestinians’ confidence.

Now part two is where the real differences between Sharm el-Sheikh and Wye emerge. In a mere five weeks, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators sat together and drafted a new agreement. We may have offered ideas or suggestions, but this would be their agreement – an agreement more likely to be implemented precisely because both sides wrote every word and understood every nuance.

Finally, as we approached the end-game, President Clinton and Secretary Albright helped the parties cross the finish line, encouraging them to make the leap from agreement in principle to signature on paper.

What we have witnessed since then is powerful evidence that having the two parties work together directly while maintaining a robust American role is the most effective way to advance peace. And that evidence comes from the only source that counts – the Israeli and the Palestinian people. More has been done in terms of peacemaking during the past three months than in the preceding three years. Security cooperation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority is yielding real results, enhancing the safety of both. Israel has turned over another 7% of the West Bank to full Palestinian control. One hundred and ninety nine Palestinian security prisoners were released a few weeks ago; another one hundred and fifty one this past Friday. Issues long postponed or deferred – like the safe-passage between Gaza and the West Bank or construction of the Gaza seaport – finally are seeing concrete movement.. In other words, peace is doing what it ought to do: bearing fruit.

But now comes the moment of truth. On the Palestinian track, the parties at long last have agreed to address the core issues that have defined their conflict for the past fifty years . . . and that will define their peace for generations to come: Jerusalem, refugees, settlements, water, borders, sovereignty and security. On the Syrian track too, it is time for hard decisions: on the content of withdrawal . . .on the character of peace . . . and on the substance of security arrangements that are necessary to conclude a deal.

On both tracks, these truly are existential questions. Hard questions. All the good will of the world will not make them any easier. But all the time in the world will not make them any easier either. And with the clock ticking on so many fronts – leaders about to pass the baton,; new generations ready to take charge; an economic environment undergoing momentous change – it must be now or it may be never.

Regardless of how one characterizes our role, it should not obscure this basic fact: we, the United States, have vital strategic interests at stake and we are at a pivotal strategic moment. Our interests are served when agreements are signed – and implemented – by Israel, its Arab neighbors and the Palestinians. There is no greater priority for this Administration and there is no greater priority for this President than to bring about that just, lasting and comprehensive peace for which so many of you have given so much for so many days and years of your lives.

When all is said and done, it is not how we choose to characterize our role but how we choose to play it that counts. It must not be said that when the parties were prepared to do what we all along have pressed them to do, America opted for the sidelines. Peacemaking is not a spectator sport. Israel, the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon all have difficult decisions to make. The broader Arab world also must shoulder its responsibility by supporting those decisions and reaching out to Israel. And we must do our share.

And we should start by following through on our own commitments. That means full and immediate funding to implement the Wye accords. This week, the President vetoed the foreign operations bill that was sent to him by the Congress. He vetoed it, in part, because the bill would have provided neither the $800 million requested this year for Wye funding nor the $500 million requested for the coming year. The bill sent the worst possible signal to our friends in the Middle East, and the strongest possible encouragement to those in the region who would do us harm. As we have made clear, the President will not sign a foreign operations bill that does not contain this funding.

But the President also vetoed the bill because it would have recklessly reduced funding for many other programs. For the need to fund Wye is part of a far larger proposition: that protecting American interests requires global leadership. And that global leadership cannot be maintained on the cheap. We need the resources for Wye, just as we need the resources to fund our foreign policy as a whole. Preserving these other programs is central to our national interest. They would reduce the nuclear threat from Russia . . . provide debt relief for the poorest countries . . . meet our obligations to the United Nations and the multilateral development banks . . . in other words, defend our security by promoting peace and economic opportunity abroad.

But there is more: by failing to adequately fund our foreign policy we harm not only America’s interests, but also Israel’s interests and the interests of all those dedicated to peace in the Middle East. Think about it: roughly half of all our bilateral assistance to the world now goes for support to the Middle East peace process. If we add Wye and subtract the rest, the picture will become so unbalanced that current levels of Middle East assistance will, in my judgment, become unsustainable for the American people. To put it plainly: it is in the interest of friends of Israel to fight not only for Wye but also for our overall foreign policy funding, for the weaker our overall funding, the more vulnerable our assistance to Israel, to Egypt or to Jordan. I know there are many friends of peace in America, including those of you who are here today, who support the Administration as we persevere to do what is right.

Tomorrow, Israel will commemorate the fourth anniversary of a day that is etched in our memories like few others – the day Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated. Two weeks from now, a city that symbolizes peace will honor a man that stood for peace; Oslo will honor Yitzhak Rabin. Leaders from around the region and the world will be there to pay tribute to a great leader. I am happy to tell you today that President Clinton will be among them. So will Prime Minister Barak. So will Chairman Arafat. And they will honor the memory of Yitzhak Rabin in the best possible way: they will meet to rededicate themselves to the peace process, give it added momentum, and set their sights on the goal for which Rabin gave his life: a permanent peace between Israel and the Palestinian people.

The bullet that took Rabin’s life also had another target of course: the peace process. We lost a true hero. But the peace process lives on. And as we celebrate the anniversary of the death of one of Israel’s greatest leaders, let us resolve to do everything within our power to realize his vision in the coming year.