President Clinton announced Friday that he will travel to the Middle East next week to witness the signing of a Jordan-Israel peace treaty and to visit Syria to encourage progress in Syria-Israel negotiations. Here are questions and answers from his news conference:
Q: Mr. President . . . what can you do to break this impasse between Syria and Israel?
Clinton: . . . I will visit Syria because it is my judgment that the visit will further the goal of an ultimate peace agreement between Israel and Syria. And until that is done, we will never have comprehensive peace in the Middle East.
There has been some progress in the negotiations, which are, as you know, candid and confidential between the two. I think there will be more progress. I want there to be more progress and I think this visit will further it.
Q: Mr. President . . . In view of the recent incidents, are there real security concerns? And in the interest of reconciliation, will you try to persuade Israel to release some of the thousands of political Palestinian prisoners that it still holds?
Clinton: . . . I have confidence in the security capacity of the governments that I will, in the countries I will visit and in, of course, the work of our own Secret Service.
And I think it is terribly important, especially since there have been violent reactions from the enemies of peace, that the United States stand with the friends of peace and the champions of peace at this time. It is even more important than it would have been a few days ago that I go there and that our country stick up for this.
. . . As to what specific things I will discuss with Prime Minister Rabin and others, I think it's better for me to have the discussions and discuss it later.
Q: Mr. President, how difficult a decision was this to go to Damascus, since your own State Department still lists Syria as a country that supports international terrorism?
Clinton: . . . With regard to meeting President Assad even though Syria is on the terrorist list, that remains an issue between our two countries. It is a serious issue. It has been constantly discussed between us, and it will continue to be. But I do not believe that we can permit it to keep us from pursuing a comprehensive peace as long as nothing in our peace agreements undermines our commitment to end terrorism.
Q: Mr. President . . . are you satisfied with Yasser Arafat's response so far and his willingness to really crack down on Hamas and other terrorist groups?
Clinton: . . . I do believe, and the Israelis believe, that he did his best to support them with good intelligence when Corporal Waxman was captured and held hostage.
And I believe that in the wake of the killing of Corporal Waxman, the determination of the PLO to distance itself from Hamas and to enforce the law within its territories has stiffened, and I think it will continue to stiffen.
Q: Do you think that he has cracked down sufficiently in the Gaza, especially regarding this latest incident?
Clinton: Well, I think that's moving it in the right direction. . . .