Tomorrow, President Clinton begins two days of meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat in Oslo, in an effort to revive the dormant peace talks and establish a framework for an Israeli-Palestinian agreement.
In his last year in office, Clinton also would like to help bring about a Syrian-Israeli peace. He has a partner in Barak, who believes he was elected in June with a mandate to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. In an interview with Newsweek contributing editor and Washington Post columnist Lally Weymouth last week, Barak, 57, appeared determined and surprisingly confident that he can come to terms with both the Palestinians and the elusive Syrians.
What is your reaction to the defeat of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty? Does America appear to be drifting toward isolationism?
There is only one possible leader for the free world. The American role is to lead. I believe that a bipartisan approach serves the interests of the free world.
Are you worried about the $1.2 billion that was guaranteed to Israel under the Wye agreement [negotiated at Maryland's Wye River Plantation and signed at the White House on Oct. 23, 1998] but not appropriated?
It is very important. We are already spending the money based on the assumption that Congress [will appropriate the funds]. This was a commitment of an American administration.
Are you prepared to play a role in fighting to get the money?
I don't think it is appropriate for an Israeli prime minister to step into a dispute between the administration and Congress. . . .
You say talks will start [soon] with Syria. Why?
That's what I really believe. There is an urgent need and a golden opportunity to achieve peace between us and Syria, to put an end to the conflict in Lebanon, to secure water for Israel. . . to provide early warning and security arrangements, to open borders, to establish embassies and to provide a better future for children in Syria, Israel and Lebanon. It's time for action, not for Talmudic disputes about formulas regarding how we should enter the negotiating room. Our task is to accomplish "the peace of the brave."
What is your assessment of Syrian President [Hafez] Assad?
Assad is a strong, reliable, responsible and impressive leader. We have high respect for him and for Syria. We think the time has come to make a peace that will secure the interests, security and dignity of both sides.
There are reports Assad is not in good health. Is he still a viable peace partner?
I am fully confident that he is the only partner, the only man who can make decisions about peace in Syria. I believe he is strong and effective in spite of these rumors. . . . I don't believe there can be a comprehensive, enduring peace in the Middle East without a peace agreement between Israel and Syria.
There are rumors of secret talks with Syria. Any truth to this?
There were a lot of contacts in the last few months through a lot of intermediaries. But the moment of truth is coming. The leaders will have to make up our minds to step forward and do what history tells us we have to do.
Syria's foreign minister [Farouk Charaa] has said Israeli acceptance of the June 4, 1967, border is a pre-condition for negotiations.
You will not expect me to run the actual negotiations for a peace agreement with Syria through the pages of leading American publications. It should be done between us and Syria. And the Americans have a lot to contribute--to assure the stability, provide the strategic umbrella and a financial safety net.
What would peace with Syria look like?
Peace always looks better than war. And believe me, I have tried both.
Would you withdraw Israeli troops from Lebanon next July, as you have promised, if there is no deal with Syria?
I don't see a reason to speculate when I believe there will be negotiations with Syria in the next few weeks or months. Negotiations with Syria are the right way to solve this. Syria has had a say in Lebanon for a long time and will have a say in Lebanon in the future--even once an agreement is achieved. Syria is highly important to opening the door for an agreement with Lebanon.
What did you mean by saying there should be a fence to separate Israel and the areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority?
I was elected telling people I was going to physically separate us and the Palestinians in order to make cooperation, mutual respect, trust and the natural development of the Palestinian Authority happen. I quoted Robert Frost about how "good fences make good neighbors." I think [a fence] is needed for personal security and security of property. It is needed to give a fair chance to the Palestinian infrastructure and economy to stand on its own feet. . . .
[But] separation does not mean cutting off or noncooperation. Separation means that when you stand on your feet, you know whether you are in Israel or in the Palestinian entity.
You have been quoted as saying there would be no Palestinian workers in Israel after three years.
I fully realize they are highly dependent on our economy as a source of income. . . . But it's healthier in the long run for the Palestinian entity to establish its own infrastructure. We should allow the Palestinians to establish their own economy. Why should we control the exports and imports of the Palestinian entity? Once they create their own entity, why should they get permission from the governor of Israel's central bank to change the rate of exchange of their currency, or my permission to import a car from Japan? We are not their patrons. . . .
How is your relationship with Arafat?
A very good relationship, but he is not a Zionist. He is a Palestinian leader. He will do his best to negotiate for the Palestinian interests. We have to respect each other [and] deal with problems as something we try to solve together.
Do you talk to him often?
I talk to him, I pass messages to him, and we negotiate through our teams. Our relationship is good in the sense that it creates openness, frankness and mutual respect--I highly respect him as the leader of the Palestinian people.
Will you be able to get the "framework" agreement with the Palestinian Authority accomplished by your deadline of February 2000?
I have been in office for less than four months. After five years of talks about [a route that permits] safe passage [between Gaza and the West Bank], it operates. [The route opened last week.] After five years of talking about a port [in Gaza], the Palestinians have started building it. Nothing is perfect--but we have to act, not just talk.
Are the Palestinians acting to stamp out terrorism?
They are making more effort and we are [too]. We fully understand that major terrorist acts might derail the peace process. We have allowed Nayef Hawatmeh [secretary general of the Damascus-based Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine, an organization responsible for terrorist acts against Israelis] to come back if he accepts certain conditions, as a result of Arafat's request to give a chance to those who support the peace process.
You have said you will dismantle some settlements and freeze others.
I said all along we would put an end to private initiatives and that those [settlements] created during the election campaign would be reconsidered. We did exactly that. I'm not a typical leftist; I have great respect for the pioneering role of the settlers. . . . I'm emotionally attached to the places where the settlements are . . . but I am a realistic political leader.
Before the election, Israel's relationship with the United States had soured. How is your relationship with the U.S.?
I believe we [have] renewed the intimacy and mutual trust with the administration, the Congress and the American people. And we resumed open, trusting relations with [French] President Chirac, with [German] Chancellor Schroeder, with [British] Prime Minister Tony Blair. We see a renewed openness from the Magreb to the Gulf States. We find it easier to deal with Eastern European countries and the Russian federation.
We stopped the deadlock of the previous government, where our neighbors and rivals were becoming the darlings of the world and Israel was becoming isolated and defensive internationally.
This week you are going to Oslo to meet Clinton and Arafat. What do you expect from Oslo?
It is a very important occasion. . . . I believe this meeting can help us resume momentum.
Will you fulfill the legacy of [assassinated Israeli prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin?
I will do whatever can be done in order to secure a strong and self-confident Israel. The only way to secure and strengthen Israel is through peace agreements--"the peace of the brave" with all our neighbors.
Is "peace of the brave" Assad's phrase?
It was [Charles] de Gaulle's. Assad reinvented it. Even Arafat used it. Now, I'm using it. It's exactly what's needed.