September/October 2000

Briefing by Acting Foreign Minister Ben-Ami to the Foreign Press

Jerusalem, October 10, 2000

Israel has given the Palestinian Authority a few days to see whether tranquility and peace will reign in the territories and the level of violence will be reduced, so that we can proceed to the real objective of this government, which is to revive the peace process.

Over the last days, we have had all kind of arguments about the real situation on the ground. I would like to mention some key points with regard to the way we see the performance of the Palestinian Authority - not only, by the way, in recent days, but throughout the last years.

We have an agreement with the Palestinian Authority, and this agreement binds the Palestinian Authority to abide by norms and regulations. We took it that we made an agreement with an orderly system that respects binding agreements.

I am not aware that the Palestinian Authority abides by articles in our joint agreements, such as, for example, the obligation to renounce violence and terror, and take all measures necessary to prevent acts of violence and terror against Israel. This is an agreement signed between us. Recently they have released Hamas militants, Hamas activists, from jail, and Israel is concerned today about the threat of possible acts of terrorism. The other day we saw on TV a cabinet meeting of the Palestinian Authority with the participation of Hamas activists. These people, according to the agreement we signed with the Palestinian Authority, should have been disciplined.

The same should be said about the Tanzim organization. The Tanzim organization is a Fatah grassroots group that, according to the agreement signed between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, should be disarmed and disciplined. It is neither disarmed nor disciplined. It is, in fact, one of the major groups perpetrating violent activities that require the response of the IDF.

Another obligation of the Palestinian Authority is to resolve all outstanding issues through bilateral negotiations. I am not aware that this is the case now. We have been, from the very first moment that this violence started, trying through different channels to convey to Chairman Arafat the message that he should bring an end to violence and we should proceed to what I described before as the main objective, that is, peace talks.

We met with the Palestinians, with Chairman Arafat, in Paris, and in Paris we drafted an agreement to bring an end to violence. One article of that agreement said that a commission of inquiry will be established, with the participation of Israel, the Palestinians, the Americans, international experts, and the findings of this commission will be submitted to the Secretary General of the UN. Chairman Arafat said: This is not international enough.

Then President Clinton called Chairman Arafat two or three days ago, and said to him: Listen, if it is not international enough, I suggest we incorporate the Norwegians to this commissions. The Norwegians are a major donor to the Palestinian Authority, the Norwegians are friends of the Palestinian cause, the Norwegians are the embodiment of the Oslo accords. So you will have it international. Then Chairman Arafat said: I will think it over.

This was not international enough. Chairman Arafat was looking and seems still to be looking for an alibi to evade the consequences of this peace process.

Another duty we signed with the Palestinian Authority is their duty to refrain from and act against all forms of incitement. Radio Palestine is a school of incitement, of daily incitement. We signed an agreement that binds the Palestinian Authority to fight incitement.

The duty to apprehend, prosecute and detain terrorists; the duty to confiscate and destroy illegal weapons - we signed an agreement on that.

The agreements between us and the Palestinian Authority do not touch only the issue of Israel's withdrawal from land. It touches also issues such as those I just mentioned: the duty to confiscate and destroy illegal weapons; the duty to continuously maintain joint security cooperation mechanisms with Israel to ensure public order and security; the duty to ensure that holy sites are respected and protected - the Tomb of Joseph is a very good example.

The same day that President Clinton called Arafat to suggest that Norway be incorporated into something that still was not international enough for Arafat, with a gesture of goodwill, Arafat said to Clinton: By the way, I will protect the Tomb of Joseph. The results are very well known - how the Palestinian Authority protected the Tomb of Joseph.

The Palestinians are bound to the duty to ensure that no armed forces other than the Palestinian police and the Israeli military forces are established or operate in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. I am not going to elaborate too much on the number of policemen that according to the agreement, signed by the Palestinian Authority, they should have. I think they have doubled the number, more or less.

But my main message is not the message of the breach of agreements. It is there, for everybody to check. My main message is this: This Israeli government has gone to the outer limits of the capacity of any Israeli government in order to reach a reasonable compromise with the Palestinians. We went to Camp David; after Camp David we met the Palestinians, here, there, all over the place. We tried to elaborate some package, together with the Americans, and we were waiting for the result of our common effort.

And then we get this outburst of violence, of which we have solid ground that much of it was orchestrated by the Palestinian Authority, with the aim of gaining ground in the international community. This cynical attempt to lubricate the improvement of an international image through the blood of Palestinians is very, very tragic indeed.

Nevertheless, for us, the Palestinian people is and continues to be a partner for peace. We believe that the Palestinians need and want peace. The policies of this government are a reflection of the fact that we also need and want peace. It's about time that Arafat ceases looking for alibis and concentrates on the business of peace-making. We are ready for it, if indeed violence is eliminated from the agenda of our common relations.

We don't want to be confronting the Palestinians. We don't have any interest for a tragedy to develop in this part of the world.

We want peace with the Palestinians, regional stability, and a reasonable deal for everybody. This is the essence of our policy. We are not deaf to ideas, proposals, and initiatives. But we ask Arafat to control his territory.

Some of the leaders who visited us in recent days told us: Maybe Arafat wants to control the territories, but he is incapable. The only answer one can give to this is, if he is incapable of controlling violence in his territory, what kind of a partner is he? We have a problem with Arafat if he willingly does not control violence, but also if unwillingly he doesn't control it. So he has a challenge here, to prove, indeed, to Israel and to the international community whether he is a leader with an orderly system, where instructions percolate through all the levels - otherwise, what kind of an agreement are we going to sign with him? Who will guarantee to us that tomorrow, after we have an agreement, and there is a Palestinian state, that agreements will be respected other than the way you saw the agreements so far have been respected?

Nevertheless, we persist, and we look for avenues, and we expect an end to violence, and we would like to put Arafat to the final test: Is he ready for an agreement with this government, or does he want to go on and on and on with violence? If violence is imposed on us, we will fight back. If peace is what Arafat wants, we will go for a peace deal.

But time is not limitless. After all, one cannot perpetuate the process. The objective is peace, not the process.

Thank you.

Q: You spoke about giving Arafat several more days to try and stop the violence. Could you be more specific? two days? three days? And is it possible for a summit in the near future?
A: When we decided that we should give a few days for Arafat to take his time and see whether he can control the situation, we were approached by all kind of leaders throughout the world - President Clinton, people who visited us and are among us today, Kofi Annan, Javier Solana, the Russian Foreign Minister - and leaders throughout Europe. So we thought that in this delicate moment, we should not create a situation whereby, by our insistence of a strict deadline, people will come and accuse us of local original deterioration of the state of affairs. So we would like to be as flexible in this as we possibly can. But we do say that the initiative to have some kind of regional summit needs to be accompanied by a substantial reduction of the level of violence here. I believe that we are talking here about several days, not too many.
Q: (inaudible)
A: I don't have a clear answer to the question of whether or not Arafat controls the situation. The only thing I can tell you for sure is that his instructions to end violence are clearly ambivalent. To the Tanzim, which is the major organization that creates much of the instability, I am not aware that he has ever given clearcut instructions to them.

With regard to settlers in the West Bank, I just came from a tour of the area, and I am really surprised by the level of restraint of the settlers throughout the territories. Any act of unilateral violence perpetrated by settlers is something that we denounce and we will discipline those who behave in such a way - just as we did yesterday within the State of Israel in Acre, in Nazareth, to Jewish Israelis on this side of the Green Line. So this is indeed most unfortunate. It is the reflection of a sense of insecurity and isolation. Nevertheless, as far as we are concerned, it is not a sufficient reason to take the law into their hands.

We take the notion of Arab solidarity as something that should be taken for granted. We do not dispute the fact that this is a whole Arab nation, and we are not going to discuss the question of solidarity. They are solidarious to each other - fine with us. However, we would like to localize, to limit the conflict with the Palestinians so that it does not become a regional conflict. We certainly hope that the state of conflict that we are going through now will end immediately, so the issue will be non-existent anymore. But we are in touch with the Egyptian government, with the Jordanian government, and Americans and others are in touch with other governments with which we do not have fluid contact, in order to convey the message that Israel is indeed interested in regional stability.

Even in the case of Lebanon, where three Israeli soldiers were abducted recently, we do not have any interest to open a front in the north. We expect the issue to be solved peacefully and according to the norms of international law. I said personally yesterday to Kofi Annan that we pulled out from Lebanon, abiding by Security Council Resolution 425, and we did it accompanied by the hand of Secretary General Kofi Annan. We withdrew to the last millimeter. What would be the image of the UN in Israeli public opinion if, after having pulled out, those who always criticize us for not fulfilling Security Council resolutions or UN resolutions - what argument do they have now? Maybe Israel, after all, may have some reason to be suspicious of some of the resolutions with regard to us. So we do expect these soldiers to be released with no conditions attached. They were illegally abducted and they should be released.

Q: (inaudible - about the government coalition)
A: We certainly have to broaden the basis of our coalition. If this is going to be a national unity government, I don't know to tell you. National unity government in Israel is a euphemism for a coalition between Labor and Likud. A broad coalition is a euphemism for an alliance between either Likud or Labor with the others. So a broad coalition is possible. One does not necessarily need to have a national unity government in order to have a broad and solid coalition.
Q: (inaudible - about the role of Secretary General Annan)
A: I'll be seeing Secretary General Kofi Annan with the Prime Minister in a couple of hours, and we will be all a bit wiser after we meet him. When I saw him, I saw before me a man of extraordinary moral stature and commitments, and I believe that he will stay in the area to try and give his unique input, both the case of the soldiers in Lebanon and to the Palestinian issue. I trust that this friend of peace will do his utmost, and I am very curious to hear what he has to say when I meet him in a couple of hours.
Q: Is he now the main diplomatic fare in the endeavor to bring the two sides together?
A: I don't know to tell you if he is the main one, but he came here the first and he is very busy, and he is going to stay here - he will go to Beirut, to Damascus, and probably shuttle between us and the Palestinians. But there are others who are not here and work in different means: President Clinton is very, very active. I know that President Chirac called some of the leaders in the area. So many leaders are involved in this question.

This is a very typical sort of situation that Arafat likes to create every now and then - that is, a crisis, and then suddenly the issue becomes the center of world attention - unnecessarily, by the way. Because we could have gone on negotiating. There was no need to open such a focus of world interest. But this is very typical of Arafat. Seemingly he likes to move from phase to phase with a highly intensive sense of drama.

Q: (inaudible)
A: Frankly this is one of the less central arguments that I would like to advance here. I don't have any problem if the Palestinians have weapons, so long as the weapons are used for the purpose they were given - to fight terrorism. They were not given to fight us. So the number of rifles of sub-machine guns or whatever they may have is not the central concern of Israel. The concern is not who gave them weapons and how many weapons they were given, but why do they shoot. That is the question.
Q: (inaudible)
I am not an interpreter of Arafat's intentions. The only thing I can tell you is that this is a departure from the agreement -

simply turning his back to the agreement. But you can have your guess just as anybody else. Does he want to encourage terrorism? - a possibility. Does he want to create a unity within the Palestinian family at the expense of his relations with Israel? - it is also a possibility. In both cases it is something which we cannot accept.

Q: (inaudible)
A: I really don't know if the bad blood developed. I think that we drew some lessons with regard to their capacity to abide by agreements, to the question of whether or not we have in front of us an orderly system. These are very, very severe question marks that were opened in these days.

But as I told you before, we have a strategic objective, and that is reaching peace with the Palestinians. We will do our utmost to overcome dire experiences and memories and to advance to a reasonable peace agreement with the Palestinians.

Q: (inaudible)
A: The most severe damage that was caused by the recent events is to the solidity of the commitment and the belief of the Israeli left-of-center in the peace process. This is one of the major crises of conscience and confidence of the left in this country. Many of us who were brought up believing that peace with the Palestinians is possible, that peace requires bold compromises, that we should pay a heavy price, that Arafat is a partner - I am telling you, the mood of the Israeli today is not dissimilar to the mood of the Israeli right after the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin. It is a deep crisis in the conscience of the Israeli left, and I hope that Arafat understands that part of it. These are the real consequences. This is the real damage.
Q: (inaudible)
A: If peace is the Palestinian choice, we will go to peace. If they impose on us violence, we will respond with violence. We don't have any alternative. But this is not the course we prefer. For the time being, we should be cautious and calculate our measures in a way that will serve the purpose that we have before us: that is, to make clear to the Palestinians that violence serves no purpose. They will not change Israel's positions, and they will only bring suffering to their people. Peace is the objective. If violence is the choice, we will respond with
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