The President. Since the end of the Gulf war, we’ve worked extremely hard to take advantage of what we believe are new and exciting possibilities for peace in the Middle East. Secretary of State Baker has traveled to the region about a half a dozen times and will go again in a few days. As a result of these efforts we’re on the brink of an historic breakthrough. We’ve come a long, long way, and we’re close to being able to convene a peace conference that, in turn, would launch direct peace negotiations between Israel and the Arab States, something the state of Israel has sought since its inception.
A few days ago, I asked Congress to defer consideration for 120 days of Israel’s request for $10 billion in additional U.S. loan guarantees meant to help Israel absorb its many new emigrants. I did so in the interests of peace. I did so because we must avoid a contentious debate that would raise a host of controversial issues, issues so sensitive that a debate now could well destroy our ability to bring one or more of the parties to the peace table.
A good deal of confusion surrounds this request for deferral, confusion that I’d like to try to clear up. Let me begin by making clear what my request for delay is not about. It’s not about the strength of my or this country’s support for emigration to Israel. Both as Vice President and President I’ve tried my hardest to do everything possible to liberate Jews living in Ethiopia and the Soviet Union so that they could emigrate to Israel. Today, in no small part due to American efforts, hundreds of thousands of people are now living in Israel able at last to live free of fear, free to practice their faith.
Nor should our request for delay be viewed as an indication that there exists any question in my mind about the need for a strong and secure Israel. For more than 40 years the United States has been Israel’s closest friend in the world, and this remains the case and will as long as I am President of the United States.
This is a friendship backed up with real support. Just months ago, American men and women in uniform risked their lives to defend Israelis in the face of Iraqi Scud missiles. And indeed, Desert Storm, while winning a war against aggression, also achieved the defeat of Israel’s most dangerous adversary. And during the current fiscal year alone and despite our own economic problems, the United States provided Israel with more than $4 billion in economic and military aid, nearly $1,000 for every Israeli man, woman and child, as well as with $400 million in loan guarantees to facilitate emigrant absorption.
My request that Congress delay consideration of the Israeli request for $10 billion in new loan guarantees to support emigrant absorption is about peace. For the first time in history, the vision of Israelis sitting with their Arab neighbors to talk peace is a real prospect. Nothing should be done that might interfere with this prospect. And if necessary, I will use my veto power to prevent that from happening. Peace is what these new emigrants to Israel and, indeed, all Israelis long for. Their chance for a decent job, a decent life, depends on it.
It is our goal to support the welfare of the new emigrants and to have peace; not to choose one humanitarian goal at the expense of the other.
Let me end with just one final point: The Constitution charges the President with the conduct of the Nation’s foreign policy. And during Desert Shield and then Desert Storm, I came before the American people, as President, asking for the latitude to do what was right and necessary. A good many sincere Members of Congress of both parties disagreed at the time. And now again there’s an attempt by some in the Congress to prevent the President from taking steps central to the Nation’s security.
But too much is at stake for domestic politics to take precedence over peace. This I know is something the bulk of the American people understand. And I’m asking the Congress to postpone this question for 120 days. This postponement is not meant to prejudice in any way of what we would do come January. And I’m asking the American people to support me in this request.
Quite simply, a 120-day delay is not too much for a President to ask for with so much in the balance. We must give peace a chance. We must give peace every chance.
And now I’d by glad to take a few questions.
American Jobs and Foreign Aid
Q. Mr. President, what do you say to people who believe that if there is aid made available, that it best be spent on the millions of Americans who are without jobs and are disadvantaged?
The President. Well, that is a question that the American people seem to be raising more and more about foreign aid. But my view is, we must do what we can to facilitate this peace process. In the long run, that is not only in our national security interest, but I think it would prove to be in the financial interests of the United States as well.
So I don’t think that these two need to be mutually exclusive.
Q. Do you think you are going to do more and more for the Americans who are without jobs now and who are really poverty-stricken?
The President. I think we are beginning to see this economy move, and I think that, of course, is by far the best answer to jobs. Jobs created by the Federal Government don’t last. Jobs created by reinvigorated private sector do. And that is why I would hope that our growth package that we have there can be moved on.
Release of Hostages
Q. Mr. President, Israel yesterday released 51 Arab prisoners, and the Shiite Moslem kidnappers say that they support a comprehensive settlement of the hostage ordeal. What’s your reading of this situation, and is there anything that the United States can do to facilitate the process?
The President. Not directly. I was very pleased, though, at the release of those prisoners. We have been in touch with the Secretary-General, with Mr. Picco of his office also who is doing a very good job. And again, we’re back where we were a month ago, “How optimistic is the President? How optimistic is the Congress about the release of these prisoners?” And once again, I am going to resist quantifying my optimism. But I think this recent development is bound to be viewed properly as very, very favorable.
Q. Do you believe that the release of a hostage is imminent?
The President. I don’t want to put terms on it. I mean, I know that there was a feeling a month ago, I remember it very well, that a hostage release is imminent, and sure enough, thank heavens, a release did take place. But I just am going to resist, Terry [Terence Hunt, Associated Press], if you will permit me not to go into how optimists or moderately optimistic or whatever that I am.
Supreme Court Nomination
Q. Mr. President, to change the subject yet again, Judge Thomas has told the Senate Committee that he’s never expressed an opinion about Roe versus Wade; that he has no opinion in 18 years on one of the most controversial legal issues in the country. First of all, do you find that credible? And secondly, do you find that something that commends him further to be a Justice on the Supreme Court?
The President. I think it’s a question for the Senate to decide, and I think he’s handling himself very, very well. And if you look back to other people that have appeared before the Court, there seems to be some similarity in wanting to stay away from prejudging cases. So, he has my full support. I think he’s doing a beautiful job up there. And I, again, I don’t quantify everything, but I feel more confident than ever that he will be confirmed. And I think that’s because the American people see that he should be.
Q. Are you surprised that he said he has absolutely no opinion on the subject?
The President. No, I think he’s handling himself very, very well.
Israeli Loan Guarantees
Q. Back on the question of the Israeli loan guarantees, even many of your Republican supporters on the Hill say that Israel should have had this money a long time ago. And they don’t support the 120-day delay that you’re asking for. Is there any kind of compromise? Is there any kind of middle ground? You sound very tough today on wanting to hold to that 120.
The President. I just sound principled. I am convinced that this debate would be counterproductive to peace. And I owe it to the Member of Congress to say it as forcefully as I can. I’ve worn out of the telephone in there and one ear, and I’m going to move over to the other ear and keep on it. Because this is, peace is vital here, and we’ve worked too hard to have that request of mine denied. And I think the American people will support me. They know we support Israel. I’ve just detailed some of what we’ve done. So, there should be no question about that. I am giving the Congress — and I did it with the leaders today, having an opportunity here, thank you, to do it here — to give my best judgment. And I’m up against some powerful political forces, but I owe it to the American people to tell them how strongly I feel about the deferral.
Q. Are those power political forces ungrateful for what you’ve done so far on a peace process? And why doesn’t the peace argument sell with them?
The President. I think it will sell, but it’s taken a little time. And we’re up against a very strong and effective, sometimes, groups that go up to the Hill. I heard today there was something like a thousand lobbyists on the Hill working the other side of the question. We’ve got one lonely little guy down here doing it. [Laughter] However, I like this forum better too.
Q. Are they ungrateful for what you’re trying to do?
The President. I don’t know whether — I’m not talking about gratitude. I’m talking about world peace. And we’ve got to get it into a far broader perspective. And that’s exactly what I’m talking about, and I think people will understand that.
Q. Mr. President, you said that a contentious debate now could actually keep some parties away from the peace table. Yet, the Israelis claim that those Arabs who have indicated a willingness to participate in the peace process have not made the settlement issue a precondition. They say that’s your precondition. As one columnist said this week, “It’s your obsession.” Is that fair?
The President. I would simply say that I read some charges coming out of a source in Israel that we’d made a deal with the Arabs that we would fight this. That’s not true. That is factually incorrect. It’s simply not true. No, it is my judgment, and Jim’s, and everybody else that’s working this problem and has been for months, that this is the approach we ought to take because we don’t want a contentious debate on settlements or anything else over there at this junction. We want to get these parties to the table. And I don’t think it’s asking too much to have a 120-day delay. I think Congress should listen carefully to what I’m asking for, and I hope that they will go along with this.
Q. Mr. President, you talked about powerful political forces at work. It sounds like you’re feeling the heat from the Israeli lobby. Do you think that there’s unfair foreign intervention in the U.S. political process here?
The President. No, I don’t think — I think everybody ought to fight for what they believe in. That’s exactly what I’m beginning to do right here. We’ve laid back down, we’ve been lying in the weeds, saying let’s not get all these debate subjects going. The best thing for peace, to move the process forward, is just have this deferral.
But I’m going to fight for what I believe. And it may be popular politically, but probably it’s not. But that’s not the question here. That’s not — the question is whether it’s good 1992 politics. What’s important here is that we give this process a chance. I don’t care if I get one vote. I’m going to stand for what I believe here. And I believe the American people will be with me if we put it on this question of principle. And nobody has been a better friend to Israel than the United States, and no one will continue to be a better friend than the United States.
But here we are simply asking for a 120-day deferral, and that’s what motivates me. It doesn’t have anything to do with lobbies or politics or anything else.
Q. Mr. President, just how much damage is being caused by this showdown?
The President. I don’t think there’s any damage. Lawsy, we’ll be debating something else tomorrow. But I think this one’s very important, and that’s why I want to be sure that our position is out there. I’m not only half in jest about what’s happening up there on the Hill. Listen, there’s a tremendous effort going on. And we have had a low profile on this. And I wake up now and see that we better get our message out loud and clear.
Q. Does this strain itself threaten the peace process?
The President. No. It has nothing to do with the peace process in my view. If what would happen, the result is what would strain it, not the — —
Q. Isn’t there a loss of trust, sir? Do the Israelis trust you as much as they did?
The President. Well, you’ll have to ask the Israelis that. I can’t tell you about that. All I’m doing is expressing the foreign policy of the United States of America. And we’re going to say what we think is best. If they agree, fine. They’ve got to worry about their priorities. But I think many people there want to see this peace process go forward. The polling numbers in Israel are overwhelming in support of the peace process.
And so, what I’m trying to say is, listen to the degree America’s judgment and leadership matters, listen to what we say, how strongly we feel about this. And I think the people there will respond. I think the American people will respond.
Mr. Fitzwater. The final question please.
Q. Have you made a commitment to the Israelis and to the Congress, if that delay is acceded to, that you will support the loan guarantee unequivocally and with no further conditions?
The President. What was that?
Q. Have you made a commitment to the Israelis and to their supporters in the Congress that if they agree to the delay, that you will then support the loan guarantee?
The President. Absolutely not. That would undermine everything. I proposed that the question be considered in 120 days without any objection on our part and that in principle a concept of absorption aid, the principle that we backed up by $400 million this year, will still be a valid principle. But to agree to something of that nature would be just the same — if I feel it’s detrimental to the peace process as presented now, that kind of agreement would be equally detrimental to the peace process.
I’m really going to have to run. I’m going to Philadelphia here in a minute, and then I’ve got something else I’ve got to do before I go there.
The President. Domestic agenda.
Q. Mr. President, you’ve said Israel wants this peace conference as much as you do. And yet it’s Israel that submitted this request to you. Have they put you in a difficult position? And does this say something about their less-than-genuine interest?
The President. Well, you can’t judge by statements from one or another in the Cabinet in Israel. You’ve got to look at the whole picture. And there have been some disquieting statements by one rather flamboyant minister that I’m sorry I didn’t get asked about because I’ve just been aching to answer the question. [Laughter] But we’re not judging. Not going to answer any more. But I’m just simply saying, we’re not judging it on a statement here or there. I take the Prime Minister at his word when he says that they feel it is in their interest to have a peace conference. And it’s not been an easy decision for him. But he’s taken that decision, and to his credit, he reaffirmed their interest in the peace process just less than 48 hours ago. So, those are the statements we ought to look at, and in that one, why, I was quite reassured.
But again, Charles [Charles Bierbauer, Cable News Network], we are the United States of America. We’ve got our policy. We should say clearly what our policy is. And I want this peace process to happen. I want the Israelis to do that which they wanted all along: have a chance to sit down one-on-one with historic adversaries. And I want the Arabs to have a chance to get this question settled once and for all. And I really believe the whole world wants that.
And it is my best judgment that a rancorous debate now is literally miniscule in importance compared to the objective of peace. And that is, we ought to set it back 120 days only. Who’s going to get hurt? What possibly could work against that reasonable request from an administration that has brought this thing from square one right up to a peak that nobody really believed we could achieve: getting these countries together. And the work that’s gone into it, I just don’t want to risk it by us taking some stand in the United States Congress against a request by the President in order to satisfy some other interest.
We’ve got to keep our sights on the broad picture of peace in the Middle East. And I would say that includes world peace. They’re so closely interlocked when you look at the complex relationships in the Middle East and how they spill over into Europe and to Asia, and to the Soviet Union still. So, we’re talking about a major chance now for one more tremendous step towards peace. We’ve seen the evolution in the Soviet Union. And we’ve seen the defeat of aggression over there in Iraq. We’ve seen democracy on the move in our hemisphere. And here is a last place that really needs this peace process to go forward.
Q. Mr. President, just a quick followup was if this goes through, which Arabs could you no longer count on?
The President. I’m not going to define that at all. It’s just our judgment that it would be very detrimental to the peace process. I can’t help you with individual — listen, I’ve got to go, honest.
Should we get one in the — too bad you’re not in the back of the room. Right back there.
Q. Mr. President, next week you have another somewhat controversial nominee going to hearing, the Robert Gates CIA nomination. Are you still confident that he will be confirmed? Is there any consideration being given to withdrawal?
The President. Absolutely no consideration to withdrawal because there’s no reason for withdrawal. I don’t see, I’m not sure how controversial this nomination will be. When the facts are out there, and the Committee are going to deal with it in my view, in extraordinarily good faith. I’ve had an opportunity to talk to the chairman, the ranking Member, other Members of Congress, and I think that a lot of these kind of feathery charges that are floating out there are nonsense. And I think the process will be fair enough that I wouldn’t concede that this nomination is in any trouble at all. And I believe Bob Gates is the best man to head the intelligence community. I have total confidence in his honor, his integrity, if you will, his word of honor. And I think he will be confirmed. So, I have no question in my mind about this being the proper choice.
Q. You don’t think the Clair George indictment hurt him?
The President. I don’t think so. I think people are fair. I mean, if Clair George came out and made some charge against Bob Gates, that might have some influence. But I don’t think that will happen. I have no reason to believe that at all.
Q. Followup on the — —
Q. Sir — —
The President. Hey listen, I’m not making an excuse. I really do have to get the heck out.
Q. Can you just follow up on Jerusalem, sir, just a quickie on Jerusalem?
The President. Thank you very much.
Q. Thank you.