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Middle East Trip: President Clinton Addresses The Palestinian National Council

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Trip to Middle East

Office of the Press Secretary
(Gaza City, Gaza)

For Immediate Release December 14, 1998


Shawwa Center
Gaza City, Gaza

5:30 P.M. (L)

THE PRESIDENT: Mr. Speaker, Mr. Zanoun, ChairmanArafat, Mrs. Arafat, members of the Palestinian National Council,the Palestinian Central Council, the Palestinian ExecutiveCommittee, Palestinian Council Heads of Ministries, leaders ofbusiness and religion; to all members of the Palestiniancommunity, and to my fellow Americans who come here from manywalks of life -- Arab American, Jewish American -- this is aremarkable day. Today the eyes of the world are on you.

I am profoundly honored to be the first AmericanPresident to address the Palestinian people in a city governed byPalestinians. (Applause.)

I have listened carefully to all that has been said. Ihave watched carefully the reactions of all of you to what hasbeen said. I know that the Palestinian people stand at acrossroads; behind you a history of dispossession and dispersal,before you the opportunity to shape a new Palestinian future onyour own land.

I know the way is often difficult and frustrating, butyou have come to this point through a commitment to peace andnegotiations. You reaffirmed that commitment today. I believeit is the only way to fulfill the aspirations of your people andI am profoundly grateful to have had the opportunity to work with

Chairman Arafat for the cause of peace, to come here as a friendof peace and a friend of your future, and to witness you raisingyour hands, standing up tall -- standing up not only against whatyou believe is wrong, but for what you believe is right in thefuture. (Applause.)

I was sitting here thinking that this moment would have been inconceivable a decade ago -- no Palestinian Authority, no elections in Gaza and the West Bank, no relations between the United States and Palestinians-- (applause) -- no Israeli troop redeployments from the West Bank and Gaza, no Palestinians in charge in Gaza, Ramallah, Bethlehem, Hebron, Tulkarem, Jenin, Nablus, Jericho and so many other places. There was no Gaza International Airport. (Applause.)

Today, I had the privilege of cutting the ribbon on theInternational Airport. (Applause.) Hillary and I, along withChairman and Mrs. Arafat, celebrated a place that will become amagnet for planes from throughout the Middle East and beyond,bringing you a future in which Palestinians can travel directlyto the far corners of the world; a future in which it is easierand cheaper to bring materials, technology and expertise in andout of Gaza; a future in which tourists and traders can flockhere, to this beautiful place on the Mediterranean; a future, inshort, in which the Palestinian people are connected to theworld.

I am told that just a few months ago, at a time ofprofound pessimism in the peace process, your largest exporter offruit and flowers was prepared to plow under a field of roses,convinced the airport would never open. But Israelis andPalestinians came to agreement at Wye River, the airport hasopened, and now I am told that company plans to export roses andcarnations to Europe and throughout the Gulf, a true flowering ofPalestinian promise. (Applause.)

I come here today to talk about that promise, to askyou to rededicate yourselves to it, to ask you to think for amoment about how we can get beyond the present state of thingswhere every step forward is like, as we say in America, pullingteeth. Where there is still, in spite of the agreement at Wye,achieved because we don't need much sleep -- and we worked sohard, and Mr. Netanyahu worked with us, and we made thisagreement. But I want to talk to you about how we can get beyondthis moment, where there is still so much mistrust andmisunderstanding and quite a few missteps.

You did a good thing today in raising your hands. Youknow why? It has nothing to do with the government in Israel.You will touch the people of Israel. (Applause.)

I want the people of Israel to know that for manyPalestinians, five years after Oslo, the benefits of this processremain remote; that for too many Palestinians lives are hard,jobs are scarce, prospects are uncertain and personal grief isgreat.

I know that tremendous pain remains as a result of losses suffered from violence, the separation of families, the restrictions on the movement of people and goods. I understand your concerns about settlement activity, land confiscation and home demolitions. I understand your concerns, and theirs, about unilateral statements that could prejudge the outcome of final status negotiations. I understand, in short, that there's still a good deal of misunderstanding five years after the beginning of this remarkable process.

It takes time to change things and still more time forchange to benefit everyone. It takes determination and courageto make peace and sometimes even more to persevere for peace.But slowly, but surely, the peace agreements are turning intoconcrete progress -- the transfer of territories, the Gazaindustrial estate and the airport. These changes will make adifference in many Palestinian lives.

I thank you -- I thank you, Mr. Chairman, for yourleadership for peace and your perseverance, for enduring all thecriticism from all sides, for being willing to change course andfor being strong enough to stay with what is right. You havedone a remarkable thing for your people. (Applause.)

America is determined to do what we can to bringtangible benefits of peace. I am proud that the roads wetraveled on to get here were paved, in part, with our assistance,as were hundreds of miles of roads that knit together towns andvillages throughout the West Bank and Gaza.

Two weeks ago, in Washington, we joined with othernations to pledge hundreds of millions of dollars toward yourdevelopment, including health care and clean water, education foryour children, rule of law projects that nurture democracy.Today I am pleased to announce we will also fund the training ofPalestinian health care providers, and airport administrators,increase our support to Palestinian refugees. And next year Iwill ask the Congress for another several hundred million dollarsto support the development of the Palestinian people.(Applause.)

But make no mistake about it, all this was madepossible because of what you did -- because five years ago youmade a choice for peace, and becausethrough all the tough times since, when in your own mind you hada hundred good reasons to walk away, you didn't. (Applause.)Because you still harbor the wisdom that led to the Oslo Accords,that led to the signing in Washington in September of '93 -- youstill can raise your hand and stand and lift your voice forpeace.

Mr. Chairman, you said some profound words today in embracing the idea that Israelis and Palestinians can live in peace as neighbors. Again I say you have led the way, and we would not be here without you.

I say to all of you, I can come here and work, I canbring you to America and we can work, but in the end, this is upto you. You and the Israelis. For you have to live with theconsequences of what you do. I can help because I believe it ismy job to do so; I believe it is my duty to do so; becauseAmerica has Palestinian Americans, Jewish Americans, other ArabAmericans who desperately want us to be helpful. But in the end,you have to decide what the understanding will be, and you haveto decide whether we can get beyond the present moment wherethere is still, for all the progress we have made, so muchmistrust. And the people who are listening to us today inIsrael, they have to make the same decisions.

Peace must mean many things -- legitimate rights forPalestinians -- (applause) -- legitimate rights for Palestinians,real security for Israel. But it must begin with something evenmore basic -- mutual recognition, seeing people who aredifferent, with whom there have been profound differences, aspeople.

I've had two profoundly emotional experiences in thelast less than 24 hours. I was with Chairman Arafat and fourlittle children came to see me whose fathers are in Israeliprisons. Last night, I met some little children whose fathershad been killed in conflict with Palestinians, at the dinner thatPrime Minister Netanyahu had for me. Those children broughttears to my eyes. We have to find a way for both sets ofchildren to get their lives back and to go forward. (Applause.)

Palestinians must recognize the right of Israel and itspeople to live safe and secure lives today, tomorrow and forever.Israel must recognize the right of Palestinians to aspire to livefree today, tomorrow and forever. (Applause.)

And I ask you to remember these experiences I had withthese two groups of children. If I had met them in reverse orderI would not have known which ones were Israeli and whichPalestinian. If they had all been lined up in a row and I hadseen their tears, I could not tell whose father was dead andwhose father was in prison, or what the story of their liveswere, making up the grief that they bore. We must acknowledgethat neither side has a monopoly on pain or virtue. (Applause.)

At the end of America's Civil War, in my home state, a man was elected governor who had fought with President Lincoln's forces, even though most of the people in my home state fought with the secessionist forces. And he made his inaugural speech after four years of unbelievable bloodshed in America, in which he had been on the winning side, but in the minority in our home. And everyone wondered what kind of leader he would be. His first sentence was, "We have all done wrong." I say that because I think the beginning of mutual respect after so much pain is to recognize not only the positive characteristics of people on both sides, but the fact that there has been a lot -- a lot -- of hurt and harm.

The fulfillment of one side's aspirations must not comeat the expense of the other. We must believe that everyone canwin in the new Middle East. (Applause.) It does not hurtIsraelis to hear Palestinians peacefully and pridefully assertingtheir identity, as we saw today. That is not a bad thing.(Applause.) And it does not hurt Palestinians to acknowledge theprofound desire of Israelis to live without fear. It is in thisspirit that I ask you to consider where we go from here.

I thank you for your rejection -- fully, finally andforever -- of the passages in the Palestinian Charter calling forthe destruction of Israel. For they were the ideologicalunderpinnings of a struggle renounced at Oslo. By revoking themonce and for all, you have sent, I say again, a powerful messagenot to the government, but to the people of Israel. You willtouch people on the street there. You will reach their heartsthere. (Applause.)

I know how profoundly important this is to Israelis. Ihave been there four times as President. I have spent a lot oftime with people other than the political leaders -- Israelischool children who heard about you only as someone who thoughtthey should be driven into the sea. They did not know what theirparents or grandparents did that you thought was so bad. Theywere just children, too. Is it surprising that all this has ledto the hardening of hearts on both sides; that they refuse toacknowledge your existence as a people and that led to a terriblereaction by you?

By turning this page on the past you are taking thelead in writing a new story for the future. And you have issueda challenge to the government and the leaders of Israel to walkdown that path with you. I thank you for doing that. Thechildren of all the Middle East thank you.

But declaring a change of heart still won't be enough.Let's be realistic here. First of all, there are realdifferences. And secondly, a lot of water has flowed under thebridge, as we used to say at home. An American poet has written,"To long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart."

Palestinians and Israelis and their pasts both share a history ofoppression and dispossession; both have felt their hearts turn tostone for living too long in fear and seeing loved ones die tooyoung. You are two great people of strong talent and soaringambition, sharing such a small piece of sacred land.

The time has come to sanctify your holy ground withgenuine forgiveness and reconciliation. Every influentialPalestinian, from teacher to journalist, from politician tocommunity leader, must make this a mission to banish from theminds of children glorifying suicide bombers; to end the practiceof speaking peace in one place and preaching hatred in another;to teach school children the value of peace and the waste of war;to break the cycle of violence. Our great American prophet,Martin Luther King, once said, "The old law of an eye for an eyeleaves everybody blind."

I believe you have gained more in five years of peacethan in 45 years of war. I believe that what we are doing today,working together for security, will lead to further gains andchanges in the heart. I believe that our work against terrorism,as you stand strong, will be rewarded -- for that must become afact of the past. It must never be a part of your future.

Let me say this as clearly as I can: no matter howsharp a grievance or how deep a hurt, there is no justificationfor killing innocents.

Mr. Chairman, you said at the White House that noIsrael mother should have to worry if her son or daughter is latecoming home. Your words touched many people. You said much thesame thing today. We must invest those words with the weight ofreality in the minds of every person in Israel and everyPalestinian.

I feel this all the more strongly because the act of afew can falsify the image of the many. How many times have weseen it? How many times has it happened to us? We both know itis profoundly wrong to equate Palestinians in particular andIslam in general with terrorism, or to see a fundamental conflictbetween Islam and the West. For the vast majority of the morethan one billion Muslims in the world, tolerance is an article offaith and terrorism a travesty of faith.

I know that in my own country, where Islam is one of the fastest growing religions, we share the same devotion to family and hard work and community. When it comes to relations between the United States and Palestinians, we have come far to overcome our misperceptions of each other. Americans have come to appreciate the strength of your identity and the dept of your aspirations. And we have learned to listen to your grievances as well. (Applause.)

I hope you have begun to see America as your friend.(Applause.) I have tried to speak plainly to you about the needto reach out to the people of Israel, to understand the pain oftheir children, to understand the history of their fear andmistrust, their yearning, gnawing desire for security, becausethat is the only way friends can speak and the only way we canmove forward.

I took the same liberty yesterday in Israel. I talkedthere about the need to see one's own mistakes, not just those ofothers; to recognize the steps others have taken for peace, notjust one's own; to break out of the politics of absolutes; totreat one's neighbors with respect and dignity. I talked aboutthe profound courage of both peoples and their leaders which mustcontinue in order for a secure, just and lasting peace to occur;the courage of Israelis to continue turning over territory forpeace and security; the courage of Palestinians to take actionagainst all those who resort to and support violence andterrorism; the courage of Israelis to guarantee safe passagebetween the West Bank and Gaza and allow for greater trade anddevelopment; the courage of Palestinians to confiscate illegalweapons of war and terror; the courage of Israelis to curtailclosures and curfews that remain a daily hardship; the courage ofPalestinians to resolve all differences at the negotiating table;the courage of both peoples to abandon the rhetoric of hate thatstill poisons public discourse and limits the vision of yourchildren; and the courage to move ahead to final statusnegotiations together, without either side taking unilateralsteps or making unilateral statements that could prejudice theoutcome -- whether governing refugee settlements, borders,Jerusalem, or any other issue encompassed by the Oslo Accord.

Now, it will take good faith, mutual respect andcompromise to forge a final agreement. I think there will bemore breakdowns, frankly; but I think there will be morebreakthroughs, as well. There will be more challenges to peacefrom its enemies. And so I ask you today never to lose sight ofhow far you have come. With Chairman Arafat's leadership alreadyyou have accomplished what many said was impossible. Theseemingly intractable problems of the past can clearly findpractical solutions in the future. But it requires a consistentcommitment and a genuine willingness to change heart.

As we approach this new century, think of this -- think of all the conflicts in the 20th century that many people thought were permanent that have been healed or are healing. Two great world wars between the French and the Germans; they're best friends. The Americans and the Russians, the whole Cold War; now we have a constructive partnership. The Irish Catholics and Protestants; the Chinese and the Japanese; the black and white South Africans; the Serbs, the Croats and the Muslims in Bosnia -- all have turned from conflict to cooperation.

Yes, there is still some distrust; yes, there's stillsome difficulty -- but they are walking down the right roadtogether. And when they see each other's children, increasinglythey only see children, together. When they see the childrencrying they realize the pain is real, whatever the child's story.In each case there was a vision of greater peace and prosperityand security.

In biblical times, Jews and Arabs lived side by side.They contributed to the flowering of Alexandria. During theGolden Age of Spain, Jews, Muslims and Christians came togetherin an era of remarkable tolerance and learning -- a third of thepopulation laid down its tools on Friday, a third on Saturday, athird on Sunday. They were scholars and scientists, poets,musicians, merchants and statesmen, setting an example ofpeaceful coexistence that we can make a model for the future.There is no guarantee of success or failure today, but thechallenge of this generation of Palestinians is to wage anhistoric and heroic struggle for peace.

Again I say this is an historic day. I thank you forcoming. I thank you for raising your hands. I thank you forstanding up. I thank you for your voices. I thank you forclapping time every time I said what you were really doing wasreaching deep into the heart of the people of Israel. ChairmanArafat said he and Mrs. Arafat are taking Hillary and Chelsea andme, we're going to Bethlehem tomorrow. (Applause.) For aChristian family to light the Christmas tree in Bethlehem is agreat honor.

It is an interesting thing to contemplate that in this small place, the home of Islam, Judaism and Christianity -- the embodiment of my faith was born a Jew and is still recognized by Muslims as a prophet. He said a lot of very interesting things. But in the end he was known as the Prince of Peace. And we celebrate at Christmastime the birth of the Prince of Peace. One reason He is known as the Prince of Peace is he knew something about what it takes to make peace. And one of the wisest things He ever said was, "We will be judged by the same standard by which we judge; but mercy triumphs over judgment."

In this Christmas season, in this Hanukkah season, onthe edge of Ramadan, this is a time for mercy and vision andlooking at all of our children together. You have reaffirmed thefact that you now intend to share this piece of land without war,with your neighbors, forever. They have heard you. They haveheard you. (Applause.)

Now, you and they must now determine what kind of peaceyou will have. Will it be grudging and mean-spirited andconfining, or will it be generous and open? Will you begin tojudge each other in the way you would like to be judged? Willyou begin to see each other's children in the way you see yourown? Will they feel your pain and will you understand theirs?

Surely, to goodness, after five years of this peaceprocess, and decades of suffering, and after you have come heretoday and done what you have done, we can say, enough of thisgnashing of teeth, let us join hands and proudly go forwardtogether.

Thank you very much. (Applause.)

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