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Remarks Prior to Discussions With Chairman Yasser Arafat of the Palestinian Authority and an Exchange With Reporters

May 01, 1996

The President. First, let me say I am very pleased to have Chairman Arafat in the Oval Office today. We need to take this opportunity to take stock about where we are with our common efforts in the Middle East. I had a good visit with Prime Minister Peres yesterday, and I look forward to this one.

I do want to make two specific points before we begin. First of all, I want to applaud the action that Chairman Arafat has taken in keeping the commitment he made at the Sharm al-Sheikh meeting to revise the Palestinian Covenant. I think that was applauded by all Americans.

And secondly, we now have to work hard on where we go from here. I want to talk to him about what we can do to improve the welfare of the Palestinian people and what we can do to continue to work together to improve security for all the people in the region. And I'm looking forward to that conversation.

Middle East Peace Process

Q. Mr. President, do you endorse a Palestinian State as we did so avidly the creation of the State of Israel?

The President. I endorse the continuation of the talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis to resolve that problem.

Q. Well, how does the U.S. feel?

The President. We are going to do everything we have done—we can do, just as we have since I took office, not to get in the way of these parties making a permanent peace that suits them. That's what we want to do.

Q. Chairman Arafat, can we ask you how you view the state of Israel-Palestinian relations in the aftermath of the Israeli military campaign in southern Lebanon?

Chairman Arafat. First of all, I have to thank His Excellency for giving me this opportunity. It is a great privilege from His Excellency. And no doubt, it is a very important opportunity to speak about how to push forward to strengthen more and more the peace process which we cannot forget His Excellency was from the beginning, which started here under his provision.

Q. How are relations now with Israel in the aftermath of that military action in southern Lebanon?

Chairman Arafat. What is important is that the efforts to stop all the military activities has succeeded, and the two sides have retained back to the agreement of 1993, which is very important, and this is also because of His Excellency's efforts and Mr. Christopher's shuttling visits.

Q. Could President Asad learn anything from your example, sir?

Chairman Arafat. I am sure that President Asad will follow up in his Syrian track the same line so that we can achieve a comprehensive, lasting peaceful solution in the whole area.

The President. Thank you.

Gasoline Tax

Q. Are you going for a gas tax repeal?

The Vice President. That's a good place to leave it, Helen [Helen Thomas, United Press International]. [Laughter]

Q. But what is the answer?

The Vice President. Thank you.

Q. You've got a new press secretary here. [Laughter]

The President. He's always been better at it. [Laughter]

[At this point, one group of reporters left the room, and another group entered.]

Middle East Peace Process

Q. Mr. President, when will——

Q. [Inaudible]—Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital?

The President. Let me begin by making a statement, if I might. I am delighted to have this opportunity to meet with Chairman Arafat. When we met at Sharm al-Sheikh, he said that there would be a revision in the Palestinian Covenant by the 1st of May. Under difficult circumstances, he kept that commitment. And now it's time for us to discuss the continuation of the peace process, what we can do to help improve the welfare of the Palestinian people, which I know is uppermost on his mind, and we are very concerned about that, and what we can do together to improve the security for all the people in the region. So we're going to discuss all these issues.

Q. Mr. President, when will we see that Israeli negotiations are going to continue to complete the circle of peace that you are talking about?

The President. I believe that they will continue shortly, and we're going to discuss that.

And as to your question, ma'am, my position from the day I got here is still the same position. I believe that those matters are going to have to be worked out by the parties in the region. I do not believe the United States can serve any useful purpose by getting in the middle of decisions which have to be resolved by the parties themselves.

Our purpose is to try to speed the peace process along and to help those like Chairman Arafat who take risks for peace. When people take risks for peace, we want to minimize those risks, and we want to do what we can to help improve life for ordinary people in the region.

And we intend to do that, and that's what we're going to discuss here.

Abu Abbas

Q. Mr. President, 99 Senators asked for you to—and for Chairman Arafat to authorize the extradition of Abu Abbas, the mastermind of the Achille Lauro hijacking. Will you ask the Justice Department to issue an extradition request?

And Chairman Arafat, would you honor such a request if it came from the United States?

Chairman Arafat. We should not forget that Abu Abbas came and attended the PNC and voted to change the Covenant of the PLO and to support the peace process.

Middle East Peace Process

Q. Mr. Arafat, Mr. Peres said this week that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel forever, and Mr. Savir said the right to return is not going to be given to the Palestinians. What are you going to talk about in the final talks of negotiations, only the settlement?

Chairman Arafat. No, according to what has been agreed upon and what had been signed in Washington and in Cairo and in Washington, that this has to be discussed with other matters—Jerusalem—settlements, borders, and relation with neighbors.

NOTE: The President spoke at 10:03 a.m. in the Oval Office at the White House. During the exchange, reporters referred to President Hafiz al-Asad of Syria and Uri Savir, Director General of the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

William J. Clinton, Remarks Prior to Discussions With Chairman Yasser Arafat of the Palestinian Authority and an Exchange With Reporters Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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