U.S. State Department Geographic Bureaus: Near East and North Africa Bureau

U.S. Department of State
96/01/25 Remarks: Robert Pelletreau on Update on Middle East
Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs

UPDATE ON THE MIDDLE EAST

Remarks by Assistant Secretary Robert H. Pelletreau

Women's National Democratic Club
Washington, D.C.
January 25, 1996

Thank you, Anna, for your introduction. It's a real pleasure to be with you this afternoon to talk about our policies in the Middle East, to answer your questions, and to ask for your support in spreading the Clinton Administration's message of American leadership in foreign affairs.

There are few areas in the world today where so many different and important American interests come together as in the Middle East. Let me list a few of the issues that keep us busy:

-- Securing Arab-Israeli peace
-- Preserving Israel's security and well-being
-- Ensuring the free flow of oil from the Gulf
-- Containing threats posed by Iran, Iraq, and Libya
-- Combating terrorism
-- Checking the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction
-- Ensuring access for U.S. business, and
-- Promoting more open political and economic systems and respect for human rights.

Because of the importance of all these interests, the only sensible American policy toward this vital region -- in fact the only possible one -- is active and sustained engagement. In these brief remarks, let me focus on our two biggest initiatives: the Arab-Israeli peace process and Gulf security. The other issues I mentioned will inevitably come up because they are part of the overall context we are dealing with.

Peace Process

Securing a just, lasting, secure and comprehensive peace is a cornerstone of this Administration's overall foreign policy. Peace in the Middle East was once just a vision for optimists. Now it's much more. The agreements we have achieved over the last two years and the ensuing expansion of political and economic contacts form the foundation of a comprehensive settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Peace is becoming a reality day by day.

The move toward peace began in earnest with the Camp David accords between Israel and Egypt. Following the 1979 achievement of a peace treaty between these two states, the next major step forward was the Madrid Peace Conference in 1991, which launched the current active phase of the peace process. The Clinton Administration, recognizing the unique combination of circumstances that favored peace negotiations between ancient adversaries, has devoted sustained energy and determination to the task and achieved dramatic results.

The Israeli-Palestinian Declaration of Principles, signed by Prime Minister Rabin and Chairman Arafat on the White House lawn a little more than two years ago, was a historic breakthrough that gave new impetus to the diplomatic process. For Israel, it began a process which could relieve it of the heavy moral and political burden of ruling a hostile foreign population and bring greater security and well-being to its people. And for the Palestinians, it has opened the way to self- government and the joy and responsibility of taking charge of their daily lives.

The U.S. has worked actively to support the parties as they take further risks for peace and the practical steps necessary for reconciliation. We are heartened by the agreements reached by Israel and the Palestinians, who have been engaged in almost-continuous negotiations since 1993, and we have remained in constant communication with both parties -- offering encouragement, helping overcome differences, and lending our support. There have been serious obstacles along the way, including deadly car bomb attacks in Israel by radical Palestinian forces trying to spread fear and discredit the peacemakers and repeated efforts by extremists on both sides to derail the process. Sometimes they have succeeded in halting negotiations for brief periods, but a way has always been found, often through the mechanism of a visit by Secretary Christopher, to resume.

The structure of the overall process has also helped in this regard. It consists of three separate but complementary levels of interaction -- bilateral between Israel and specific negotiating partners, multilateral involving groups of states meeting to discuss regional issues such as water and the environment, and international in which the international community is called together for a supportive event such as a donors' conference to support Palestinian economic development or an economic summit to promote regional integration and mobilize the business community to take advantage of new opportunities opened up by the peace process. This has meant that when difficulties developed on one level, we could use activities on the other levels to buffer and bridge the problem. This negotiating architecture, while complex, has proven to be very productive.

The Interim Agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, which was signed at the White House last September, was a major step forward. This agreement transformed the visionary commitment to peace in the Declaration of Principles into a set of practical steps that foster day- to-day cooperation between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. The 400-page agreement extending Palestinian self-rule throughout the West Bank demonstrated to the world that both sides were serious about moving forward and meeting each other's practical requirements through negotiation and compromise. Even the enormous tragedy of Prime Minister Rabin's assassination by an Israeli extremist had the unintended consequence of reinforcing support for peace. The international response to his untimely death has made clear how much the world supports the peacemakers and how little the enemies of peace gain from opposing them. The Israeli response, particularly among the nation's youth, reaffirmed the deep longing for a just and secure peace.

There is no turning back. Since signing the accord, Israel has redeployed its forces from six major West Bank cities and hundreds of villages. Palestinian institutions of self-government which did not exist two years ago have arisen throughout Gaza and the West Bank. Last Saturday, the Palestinians took another major step in building a democratic society when they went to the polls and elected Chairman Arafat and an 88-member council. All of this is taking place in an atmosphere of remarkable calm and close cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian authorities. The high level of enthusiasm surrounding last weekend's elections and the relative absence of violence clearly showed that the movement toward peace and democracy reflects the will of the Palestinian people. The high Palestinian turnout, despite calls for a boycott by opponents of the peace process, reflects a strong mandate for the peace process and the agreements reached with Israel.

One key element in ensuring a democratic future is to bring positive practical change to the lives of people who for decades have known little but conflict, mistrust, and poverty. The U.S. has taken the lead in marshaling international financial support for the Palestinians so that they can build for themselves the kind of economic and political structures that will undergird and ensure the peace.

The U.S. looks beyond the successes of Israeli-Palestinian relations to our long-term goal of a comprehensive peace that spans the entire Middle East. Promoting regional peace advances a range of American interests while underlining our unshakable commitment to Israel's security and well-being. The circle of peace around Israel is not completed, but we can see it beginning to take shape.

A sampling of key developments from the Middle East during the past week can give us a sense of regional trends:

-- In addition to the Palestinian elections, Jordan and Israel signed the a range of bilateral agreements called for in their 15-month old peace treaty, opening up new opportunities for trade and human interaction. A week earlier, King Hussein traveled to Tel Aviv to dedicate, in Prime Minister Rabin's name, the new wing of a hospital where two injured Jordanian soldiers are undergoing treatment.

-- Egypt hosted Israel's Energy Minister to discuss plans to build a natural gas pipeline from Egypt to Israel and to link the two countries' electricity grids.

-- Following a meeting with Secretary Christopher on Monday, the Foreign Ministers from Tunisia and Israel announced that they would open interest sections in each other's countries by April.

-- Morocco hosted the Israeli Foreign Minister, whose visit coincided with the first-ever Israeli cultural week in Casablanca. Casablanca was also the site of the first-ever Middle East/North Africa economic summit, beginning a process that will continue this year in Cairo to enlist the business community in building a solid economic foundation for peace.

-- And finally, Syria and Israel resumed their negotiations yesterday at the Wye Conference Center on the eastern shore in Maryland. Military experts joined the discussions this morning as they began to tackle some of the practical problems of making peace across the Golan Heights. President Asad and Prime Minister Peres agreed with Secretary Christopher's proposal that they should not let the month of Ramadan interrupt the pace of their negotiations now that they have found a format with which both sides feel comfortable.

The emerging peace is a complicated pattern, and the new relationships are unfolding at different rates. There is still much work to be done to consolidate recent gains and energize further steps, but the trend is clearly and steadily forward. We will be there to support and nurture this trend and to find and seize new opportunities for peace. It is a foreign policy priority and a genuine commitment of our government from President Clinton and Secretary Christopher on down.

Gulf Security

Now, while I can easily run on about the successes of our peace process diplomacy, it is important to call attention also to the vital interest we have in promoting stability and security in the Persian Gulf. This is not just a preference; it's a requirement. The security and prosperity of the American economy and indeed the entire world at this point in time depend on the free flow of oil at reasonable prices from the vast reserves of the Arabian Peninsula. That means we need to contain rogue states like Iran and Iraq, both of which trample on international norms of behavior and strive to dominate this enormously wealthy and strategic area.

It has been five years since the United States and nearly three dozen other nations launched Operation Desert Storm, an extraordinary multinational operation which drove Saddam Hussein's occupation forces from Kuwait. It would not have been possible without the determined leadership of the United States. Our engagement was essential to turn back Iraq's mind-boggling act of international piracy and prevent a ruthless dictator from controlling a major share of the world's oil and exercise a blackmailing political influence over the entire region.

We have seen a certain amount of revisionist criticism in recent weeks that the coalition somehow lost the war or at least did not win it properly. Some argue in comfortable retrospect that the coalition forces should have continued on to Baghdad and removed the dictator from power.

Tempting as such a proposition sounds, in reality neither the coalition nor our Arab partners would have been able to support such an overreaching of our international mandate.

The balance sheet of Operation Desert Storm from the viewpoint of American interests was clearly a success. In a short battle with few American casualties, Western oil supplies were safeguarded, Iraq's quest for nuclear and other weapons of mass destruction was checked, Israeli and Saudi Arabian security were guaranteed against missile attacks and possibly even invasion, Saddam Hussein was branded an international pariah and his threat to the region sharply diminished, and the most vital period in the history of Arab-Israeli peace negotiations was launched.

It is regrettable, particularly to the people of Iraq, that the era of Saddam's repressive dictatorship continues. International resolve has reduced and contained, but not eliminated, the danger it poses. For this reason, it is essential that the various UN sanctions on Iraq remain fully in effect until Iraq fulfills all the obligations placed on it by the Security Council.

The other major threat in the region comes from Iran, which supports international terrorism, violently opposes the Middle East peace process, and is striving to acquire nuclear weapons and other sophisticated armaments. In the absence of UN resolutions, Iran poses a more subtle and complex challenge to our diplomacy. Even some of our key allies, lured by commercial opportunity, have been too tolerant of Iran's outlaw behavior. We have called on all the major industrial states to join the United States in denying Iran arms, nuclear technology, and preferential economic treatment. Their response has been only partially supportive despite our patient and ongoing discussions with them. We are, therefore, working with the Congress to devise more thorough-going and effective measures to encourage the international community to put additional pressure on Iran to bring its behavior up to international norms. We are convinced that only through steady pressure and the imposition of real economic costs will Iran's leaders be persuaded to give up their aggressive policies and become a less threatening neighbor in the region.

Conclusion

Ladies and Gentlemen, the United States now has the best opportunity in 40 years to advance our interests in the Middle East and build a world that reflects our ideals. We have a real chance to end the Arab-Israeli conflict through continuing the process of negotiation and agreement. We can keep Iraq and Iran at bay and preserve an uneasy stability in the Gulf that will ensure the world's oil supply. But only we can do this, leading other nations in support of collective prosperity and peace. If we become either unwilling or unable to assume this responsibility, we could see the region revert to a theater of disarray and war, unleashing shock waves that would affect our security and well-being. The choice is ours -- all of ours -- and I hope you will help this Administration carry its message to the American people.

The other part of the message is that leadership without resources is not possible. As Secretary Christopher emphasized last week, the President and he are fighting forces in Congress who would cut our foreign affairs budget so deeply that we would have to draw back from protecting our vital interests around the world. We would have to close important embassies, shut down peacekeeping, and self-destructively slash our international programs.

In committing ourselves to peacemaking and containing the forces of terror, proliferation and tyranny, this Administration is upholding the highest traditions of our nation and our people. That is why so many nations in the Middle East look to the United States as a source of principled and reliable leadership. We must continue to lead. We must work toward a brighter future for the Middle East and for ourselves -- a future marked by widening peace and cooperation, increased security, and greater prosperity.

Thank you very much.

(###)

Back to Near East and North Africa Bureau Documents

Return to the Electronic Research Collection Geographic Bureaus Home Page

Visit the Electronic Research Collection Home Page

Go to the U.S. State Department Home Page

To top of page