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U.S. Department of State
96/09/29 Secretary Christopher Interview on Meet the Press
Office of the Spokesman
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
Office of the Spokesman
For Immediate Release September 29, 1996
SECRETARY OF STATE WARREN CHRISTOPHER
TIM RUSSERT - NBC-TV "MEET THE PRESS"
MR. RUSSERT: And with us now, the man who brokered this meeting, the
Secretary of State, Warren Christopher. Mr. Secretary, good morning.
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: Good morning, Tim.
MR. RUSSERT: Welcome. What did you do last night?
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: I was on the telephone much of the night, Tim,
as you probably guessed.
MR. RUSSERT: Tell us about it.
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: I talked several times with the President
yesterday, but I also talked both with Prime Minister Netanyahu and
Chairman Arafat. They agreed that they would accept the President's
invitation. I think it was the personal prestige of the President and
the prestige of the United States that caused them to be willing to come
Tim, let me just say a few words about that meeting, if I could. This
is a crisis situation. Last week I think showed the importance of the
peace process. The alternative is violence, and that's not satisfactory
to anyone at all. I think the parties have looked over that abyss of
violence, and they really want to turn back from it, and that's what
caused them to accept the President's invitation.
We must get a commitment from them to end the violence, we must resume
the peace process, and this is one of those times when the United States
has a responsibility. We can't turn away from it. The parties
themselves will have to make difficult decisions, but we in the United
States have had such a long stake. Our interests are deeply engaged
here. The President is the leader of the free world, and I think he
recognized that in extending this invitation.
MR. RUSSERT: Is the peace process in jeopardy?
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: The peace process no doubt is in jeopardy. I
think all the parties in the region have seen the violence of this last
week endangering it. At the same time, Tim, I want to say that the
peace process has proved quite durable in the past. You remember the
massacre at Hebron and the danger it was in then. You perhaps remember
the four suicide bombings in Israel. That threatened it very much, too.
This is probably the worst threat it's had, with the 55 or more
killings; hundreds, perhaps thousands of people injured. So it's urgent
the parties get back into direct contact with each other.
MR. RUSSERT: Yasser Arafat had said, Mr. Secretary, that he would not
meet with Mr. Netanyahu until that now famous archeological tunnel was
closed. Today we saw pictures from Israel, the tunnel has reopened.
Why is Mr. Arafat meeting, even though the tunnel is open?
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: There's obviously a strong difference between
the parties on that issue, but they'll have an opportunity to discuss
that here. I think Chairman Arafat told me last night that if the
President invited him, he couldn't fail to come because he has a
MR. RUSSERT: Should that tunnel have been opened in the first place?
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: Tim, you know, my business is not the blame
business. My business is trying to get in the fix-it business. I don't
think it serves any particular purpose for the United States in advance
of the meetings to indicate its view on any one of the issues. We'll be
trying to move the parties back into negotiations, back into direct
MR. RUSSERT: Do you think that Israel has sovereignty over Jerusalem?
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: Jerusalem is a final status matter. The parties
have committed Jerusalem to being one of the things they will discuss in
the final status, meaning it's one of the most difficult issues. That
will have to be resolved there. It's such a sensitive matter that no
one would casually make a comment on that subject. The parties will
resolve that between themselves.
MR. RUSSERT: A State Department official was quoted as saying as
follows: "This is just a bloody mess. The Israelis have not been
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: I don't know who that was, Tim, but Prime
Minister Netanyahu was anxious to come to the meeting. He's committed
himself to the peace process. He'd like to see a basis for resuming the
Our job is to work with both of the parties, and I think this is no time
for us to be pointing fingers at either of them. There may be some
emotional satisfaction on the part of some people for doing that, but
that's not our task, and that's not the role the President or I will
MR. RUSSERT: The United States was rather public in its support for
Shimon Peres, the Labor party candidate for Prime Minister in the
previous election. He lost. Mr. Netanyahu, the Likud party candidate
won. Is it more difficult for the United States to be an honest broker
now, since we had supported Mr. Netanyahu's opponent?
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: Our job is to work with the parties in power.
We've been working very well with Mr. Netanyahu. In terms of our
contacts with him, he's been available to me all through this period,
and he's accepted our invitation here.
I think both parties have seen this week that violence is not the course
they want to follow. They understand that alternative is not a good
alternative. They need to get back into negotiations, and that's what
we'll be trying to do here.
I would say this, Tim. We shouldn't expect miracles out of this rather
brief meeting here. Neither of the parties will want to leave the
region for a long time. I think the meeting will be a day or perhaps
two days long. They're estranged. They're pretty raw. So I think the
important thing is to get them back into direct contact, discussing
these issues, and I think we'll be able to play our historic role with
this Israeli Government.
They understand that the United States is committed not to an individual
in their government but to the people of Israel and to the concept of
MR. RUSSERT: Do you think that Benjamin Netanyahu really wants to go
forward with the peace process?
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: Yes, I'm convinced that he sees in the peace
process what is best for Israel in the long run, and I'm convinced the
people of Israel feel that way about it as well. He'll go about it in
perhaps a different way than before, but in the long term I think he
must understand that Israel is better off when it has relations with its
There's been lots of progress out there, despite all the tragedy we're
seeing this week: the peace agreement with Jordan, the normalized
relations with a number of countries in the region, and indeed the
beginning of working out the problems on the West Bank. We're now
seeing how awful it is, how horrible it is, if we return to violence.
MR. RUSSERT: This is an election year here in the United States.
Undeniable. Only five weeks to go before the November election. It was
the President who made this announcement this morning, not you.
Obviously, he's politically sensitive.
Is it possible in the middle of a Presidential election for President
Clinton to do anything which would alienate Jewish-American voters?
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: Tim, the President has to go on being President.
He has a responsibility in that regard. The times I've talked to him in
the last two or three days -- and it has been several times a day -- his
one thought was his responsibility to keep the peace process from
faltering. That will be the talisman that he stands by: "What can I do
to insure the peace process gets back on track and continues?"
MR. RUSSERT: But the world has been outspoken in condemning Israel for
opening up this tunnel. Only the United States was opposing this in the
United Nations. Doesn't this give the perception of domestic political
considerations over serious foreign policy?
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: Tim, this is no change for us. We've been very
careful all the time to be an honest broker here, to be able to deal
with both of the parties; and in doing that I think it doesn't help any
to point fingers or try to assess blame. We try to move forward from
here, to look forward, not backward, and I think we would not be
effective if we started to make an assessment of who was wrong.
Both parties have got a lot of grievances against each other, and what
we need to do is to get them beyond those grievances.
MR. RUSSERT: The Israelis have committed to removing their troops from
Hebron -- the town there. Will the Israelis honor that commitment, and
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: I think when they get back into negotiations,
Hebron will be really on the top of the list. They were making at least
the beginnings of progress there when this violence erupted, and, yes, I
think they're committed to doing that.
Prime Minister Netanyahu has indicated that he understands his
commitment to the internationally binding agreement that was reached
with the Palestinians.
MR. RUSSERT: There's also discussion today -- a key adviser to Prime
Minister Netanyahu suggesting that if the violence continues, the
Israelis may disarm the 30,000 Palestinian police who have semiautomatic
weapons, which were in effect given to them or tolerated by the Israelis
during this whole peace process. Would that be prudent?
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: Tim, let's hear from the Prime Minister on
subjects like that. That's a very serious suggestion. What I would do
is to point people to the very good working relationship between the
Palestinian police and the Israeli Defense Forces. They were working
very closely together before this episode came along.
Moreover, there are always happy things, there are always positive
things that happen in these tragedies. In the last couple of days, the
Palestinian police and others have gone to the rescue of Israeli
soldiers. They have pushed back their crowds. They've shown that they
want to end this violence, too.
MR. RUSSERT: But at the moment, it would not be prudent to disarm the
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: At the moment that's not part of the program.
As a matter of fact, they have to get back to the place where the
Palestinian police have a responsibility for patrolling in their areas.
I think that one of the things that Prime Minister Netanyahu is
insisting on with Chairman Arafat is that they take care of their own
areas; and in order to do that, obviously, the police have to have the
MR. RUSSERT: The President said the meeting would take place in
Washington early this week. Do you have anything more definitive, Mr.
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: No. I think it ought to take place as early as
possible. We obviously have some travel problems. I would say early
this week is the right estimate, and I would say it will be probably not
longer than two days; maybe one to two days.
MR. RUSSERT: Tuesday/Wednesday a pretty good target?
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: Possibly, possibly.
MR. RUSSERT: Let me turn to, before you go, just a couple quick areas.
In Russia, we have a very ill President Boris Yeltsin. His head of
national security, General Alex Lebed, said yesterday that Russia was
rudderless, and he was very concerned about who was in control, even
suggesting who was in control of the nuclear arsenal. Are you worried
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: We've got a lot of confidence in President
Yeltsin and Prime Minister Chernomyrdin. They're beginning to develop
constitutional processes there to deal with disability. I think the
government there seems to be firmly in the control of President Yeltsin,
who obviously is somewhat ill but nevertheless managing until he does
have this surgery.
We've had a lot of contact with Prime Minister Chernomyrdin, who's I
think an authoritative figure there. I've met several times in the last
several days with Foreign Minister Primakov. Their government is
functioning, and the people I mentioned are really the ones who are in
MR. RUSSERT: But the head of national security, General Lebed -- that's
not ominous that he's making these kinds of comments, suggesting that
the country may be heading for disarray?
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: I don't regard those as authoritative comments
regarding the Russian system.
MR. RUSSERT: Before you go, two weeks ago House Speaker Newt Gingrich
was on this program. I asked him about the situation in Bosnia. I want
to show you a tape of what he had to say.
MR. GINGRICH: "So it's all a matter of semantics. The American people
should expect the young men and women in uniform will be in Bosnia, I
believe, after the election, I think, and after December 20. I think
that's a fact. I think the Administration would be much more honest and
candid if it just said that, and then planned according to the. . ."
MR. RUSSERT: Is Speaker Gingrich right?
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: Speaker Gingrich may or may not be right. That
decision has not been made. NATO will examine whether or not it's
necessary to have some force in Bosnia after IFOR leaves. IFOR will
MR. RUSSERT: The International Force.
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: The International Force will leave on schedule,
as the President said it would. It's really too early to decide that
question. The elections went much better than many expected. A lot of
the naysayers were saying, "Don't hold the elections." The elections
were conducted in calm.
Now the next job for us is to put together the national government --
the unifying government -- on top of Bosnia. How well that goes will
have a lot to do with the kind of international presence that might be
necessary in the future.
So it may be that Speaker Gingrich has some eye into the future that
tells him how this is going to come out. Frankly, that decision has not
been made. It will be made after NATO has an opportunity to examine the
situation and make a recommendation.
MR. RUSSERT: But should the American people know before the election
whether or not President Clinton is going to pull all American troops,
ground troops, out of Bosnia by December 20, as promised, or whether or
not they're going to have to remain?
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: Tim, I think, as I said, IFOR troops -- the
commitment of troops the American people heard the President make --
they will be gone by about December 20. Whether some time after the
election the President makes a decision with respect to an international
presence, that decision will have to be made after some time when NATO
makes its recommendation, which I would expect would be sometime this
MR. RUSSERT: But the Speaker is saying that's semantics; that the
American troops are American troops, and if they're there, no matter
under what particular operation name, the fact is the President said
they'd be out by the 20th. If they're going to stay, we should be told
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: Tim, the President can't react to something
where he doesn't have a recommendation from NATO, when he hasn't made
the decision. Perhaps Speaker Gingrich would like to have him decide
that earlier than really is necessary. It would be premature to make
that decision at the present time. The President will be very open with
the American people when he has that decision before him, but he
shouldn't reach out for the decision and make it prematurely before he
knows what the situation is on the ground in Bosnia at the time the
decision must be made.
MR. RUSSERT: When will the President get a recommendation from NATO?
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: I really don't know when that will come. NATO
is beginning its study of that issue. As I say, the next task in Bosnia
is to put together the unified national government. We've taken things
step by step in Bosnia, and it's worked pretty well that way. The
elections came off well. There will be municipal elections that will be
held probably on about the 20th of November.
We hope that the three Presidents will be meeting in early October. So
there are a series of steps that will help NATO determine the nature of
the international presence -- what it will be, what kind of force and
equipment will be needed -- and that will come along as we move through
But there's no reason to reach out and make a decision that might be an
unwise decision if it was made now before all the facts are available.
MR. RUSSERT: But the American people should know this morning, then,
there is a possibility that American troops could remain on the ground
after December 20 in Bosnia?
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: There's a possibility, if that recommendation
comes to the President. He'll obviously consider that as he would any
recommendation. There are all kinds of possibilities. But what I've
said to you is that the IFOR will be out in a year, as the President
said, and obviously we'll consider any recommendation that comes along
MR. RUSSERT: One quick question on the Bosnian elections. The turnout
was 104 percent, which is better than old-time Chicago.
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: Tim, I think that's an inaccurate statement on
your part. Actually, the voting population was larger than earlier
anticipated. The turnout out was about 77 percent, which is a very good
But this matter has been operated very well. The elections were managed
very well by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.
They were a success, despite all the people who predicted gloom and doom
for them. We do have people chosen now for the high government offices,
chosen by the electorate. It was a good turnout by Bosnian standards or
even by our standards.
MR. RUSSERT: Before we go, one last final thought on the Middle East.
I have the Israeli Ambassador coming on and one of Mr. Yasser Arafat's
key advisers. What do you hope they say this morning?
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: I hope they will say that it's time to calm the
situation, to end the violence, to get back to the peace process. I
hope everyone will commit themselves to that goal, because that's what
we need. This is an emergency situation. Unless we do something now,
we're likely to return to the violent period before the peace process
MR. RUSSERT: Secretary of State Warren Christopher, we thank you for
coming in here with very little sleep, and good luck in your efforts.
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: Thank you very much, Tim.
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