PRESS CONFERENCE BY THE PRESIDENT
Dean Acheson Auditorium
The State Department
2:36 P.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: Good afternoon. Before I take your questions I have a statement to make. We are at a pivotal moment in the Middle East peace process, one that can shape the face of the region for generations to come. As I have said on numerous occasions, history will not forgive a failure to seize this opportunity to achieve a comprehensive peace.
We've made good progress on the Palestinian track, and I'm determined to help Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat move forward in accordance with their very ambitious timetable.
We've also been working intensely, for months, for a resumption of negotiations between Israel and Syria. Today, I am pleased to announce that Prime Minister Barak and President Assad have agreed that the Israel-Syrian peace negotiations will be resumed from the point where they left off. The talks will be launched here in Washington next week with Prime Minister Barak and Foreign Minister Shara.
After an initial round for one or two days, they will return to the region, and intensive negotiations will resume at a site to be determined soon thereafter. These negotiations will be high level, comprehensive, and conducted with the aim of reaching an agreement as soon as possible.
Israelis and Syrians still need to make courageous decisions in order to reach a just and lasting peace. But today's step is a significant breakthrough, for it will allow them to deal with each other face to face, and that is the only way to get there.
I want to thank Prime Minister Barak and President Assad for their willingness to take this important step. And I want to thank Secretary Albright who has worked very hard on this, and, as you know, has been in the region and meeting with the leaders as we have come to this conclusion.
Before us is a task as clear as it is challenging. As I told Prime Minister Barak and President Assad in phone conversations with them earlier today, they now bear a heavy responsibility of bringing peace to the Israeli and Syrian people.
On the Palestinian track, Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat are committed to a rapid timetable: a framework agreement by mid-February, a permanent status agreement by mid-September. I'm convinced it is possible to achieve that goal, to put an end to generations of conflict, to realize the aspirations of both the Israeli and the Palestinian people. And I will do everything I can to help them in their historic endeavor.
It is my hope that with the resumption of Israeli-Syrian talks, negotiations between Israel and Lebanon also will soon begin.
There can be no illusion here. On all tracks, the road ahead will be arduous; the task of negotiating agreements will be difficult. Success is not inevitable. Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians, and Lebanese will have to confront fateful questions. They face hard choices. They will have to stand firmly against all those who seek to derail the peace -- and sadly, there are still too many of them.
But let there also be no misunderstanding: We have a truly historic opportunity now. With a comprehensive peace, Israel will live in a safe, secure, and recognized border for the first time in its history. The Palestinian people will be able to forge their own destiny, on their own land. Syrians and Lebanese will fulfill their aspirations, and enjoy the full fruits of peace. And throughout the region, people will be able to build more peaceful and, clearly, more prosperous lives.
As I have said, and I say one more time, I will spare neither time, nor effort, in pursuit of that goal. Today, the parties have given us clear indication that they, too, are willing to take that path. Peace has long been within our sight; today, it is within our grasp, and we must seize it.
Thank you very much.
Q Mr. President, on another matter involving a foreign government, as a father, do you sympathize with the demand of Elian Gonzalez for the return of his six-year-old son to Cuba, now that the boy's mother and stepfather were drowned in a boating accident on the way to Florida?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I think, of course, all fathers would be sympathetic. The question is, and I think the most important thing is, what would be best for the child. And there is a legal process for determining that.
I, personally, don't think that any of us should have any concern other than that, that the law be followed. I don't think that politics or threats should have anything to do with it, and if I have my way, it won't. We should let the people who are responsible for this, who have a legal responsibility, try to do the right thing by the child.
These decisions are often difficult, even in domestic situations, but I hope that is what would be done, and it should be done without regard to politics.
Q Mr. President, did both sides make a lot of concessions to get to this breakthrough point? And also, are you aware that Amnesty International says that Israel is continuing the demolition of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem and on the West Bank, and also, the expansion of the settlements? Are all these part of a package?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, Prime Minister Barak made a very important statement about settlements yesterday, which I think was quite welcome. And it's a good first step. As you know, we believe that nothing should be done which makes it more difficult to make peace or which prejudges the final outcome. But I do think that the statement yesterday is a step in the right direction.
As to your question about Syria, I think it's very important at this point that we maximize the chances for success, which means it would not be useful for me to get into the details. But the negotiations are resuming on the basis of all previous negotiations between the United States and Syria -- I mean, between Syria and Israel, and with the United States.
I think it is clear that both parties have sufficient confidence that their needs can be met through negotiations, or they would not have reached this agreement today.
Q On Chechnya, you used sanctions to punish Yugoslavia and Indonesia for oppression; why aren't sanctions being considered against Russia?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, there are two categories of aid here in question -- or, at least -- let's talk about the aid. A sanctions regime has to be imposed by the United Nations, and Russia has a veto there. But I'm not sure that would be in our interest or in the interest of the ultimate resolution of the crisis.
Let me just say, with regard to the aid, because I've been asked about that -- I think it's important to point out to the American people that two-thirds of the aid that we spend in Russia is involved in denuclearization and safeguarding nuclear materials. And I think it is plain that we have an interest in continuing that.
The other third goes to fund democracy, the things that we Americans believe would lead to better decisions. It goes to an independent media; it goes to student exchanges; it goes to NGOs, helping people set up small businesses. I don't think our interests would be furthered by terminating that. And as of now, there is no pending IMF transfer because of the general opinion by the IMF that not all the economic conditions have been met. So that's a bridge we'll have to cross when we get there.
Q Mr. President, when Israel and Syria do sit down, they obviously are going to have to confront the issue of the Golan Heights almost immediately. How are they going to resolve that? What will the U.S. role be? Will you see the administration -- Secretary Albright, yourself possibly -- being a mediator? And finally, why isn't President Assad sitting down with Prime Minister Barak at this point?
THE PRESIDENT: I think they're sitting down because they want to make peace, and they have now concluded that they can do it on terms that will meet both their interests. You've asked good questions, but any answer I give would make it unlikely that they would be successfully resolved. Frankly, we all took a blood oath that we wouldn't talk beyond our points today, and I'm going to keep my word.
Finally, I think Roosevelt was an example to Americans of the importance of not giving up, and of the dignity inherent in every person. And when Franklin Roosevelt was first elected, Oliver Wendell Holmes was still in the Supreme Court, he was 92 years old. And President Roosevelt was taken to see Oliver Wendell Holmes, who was still reading Plato in his 90s and all that. Holmes was a pretty acerbic fellow when he said, after meeting Roosevelt, that he thought he might not have had a first-class mind, but he certainly had a first-class temperament.
And he did. He understood that reality is more than the facts before you; it's also how you feel about them, how you react to them, what your attitude is. That "only thing we have to fear was fear itself" was much more than just a slogan to him. He had lived it before he asked the American people to live it.
So for all those reasons, if I had to pick one person, I would pick him.
Q Mr. President, I'd like to ask you two questions on two very important South American countries that are vital to U.S. foreign policy -- Colombia and Venezuela.
First of all, on Colombia, sir. President Pastrana has been extraditing people and they're still waiting for the help that he is expecting from the United States. Will you fight, will you go to the mat for this, starting in the year 2000, for President Pastrana? That's the first question.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I'm very happy -- what I'm proudest of is that it turned out to be a very productive year. If you look at -- I'll just mention them again. I did before, but -- we wound up, after a year in which almost nothing was accomplished in the Congress, we wound up with a recommitment to the 100,000 teachers, to the 50,000 police. We passed the financial modernization bill. We passed an historic 60,000 -- housing vouchers to new people from welfare to work. We passed the bill to give disabled people the right to take health care into the workplace. We doubled after school funding. We passed this fund that I've been pushing hard for, for a long time, to help the states turn around or shut down failing schools. We had quite a lot of accomplishments.
On the foreign front, we had the China-WTO agreement; progress with the Middle East peace; the Northern Ireland peace agreement; Kosovo, which I am very, very proud of. I still believe our country did the right thing there. And we've got talks starting on Cyprus now. We've got a Caspian pipeline agreement, which I believe 30 years from now you'll all look back on that as one of the most important things that happened this year.
We had the Conventional Forces in Europe agreement with Russia, which will result in the removal of their forces from Georgia and Muldova. We had the debt relief for the poorest countries in the world, something I'm immensely proud of and deeply committed to. We made a big dent in our U.N. arrears issue. And we have worked with North Korea to end their missile program. So I'm very proud of what happened this year.
What I'm most disappointed in is what still got left on the table. I'm terribly disappointed that we still haven't passed a patients' bill of rights; that we still haven't raised the minimum wage; that we still haven't passed hate crimes legislation; that we still didn't pass that common sense gun legislation, which was crying out for action after what happened at Columbine -- and we had another school incident this week.
I am disappointed that we didn't pass the school construction bill. I'm hoping will pass the New Markets Initiative next year. If we don't do something now to bring economic opportunity to the areas of this country which have been left behind, we will never forgive ourselves. And I'm profoundly disappointed that we still haven't done anything to take the life of Social Security out beyond the baby boom generation, and extend the life of Medicare and add a prescription drug benefit.
So my only disappointments are what we didn't get done. But I'm gratified by what was accomplished.
Q -- for that, that you didn't put forward a plan on Social Security, to make it more substantive?
THE PRESIDENT: No, I gave them -- first of all, I asked them -- there's no point in putting forward -- look, I tried it the other way with health care. I put forward a plan. And everybody said, you put forward -- I remember Senator Dole saying, you put forward your plan, then I'll put forward my plan. We'll get together, we'll agree, and we'll pass a plan. And so, you know, I've had experience with that. That didn't work out too well.
So I had all these meetings on Social Security. You remember, I worked very hard on it, and I asked if we could get together and work out something. I still haven't given up on that, by the way. And I know the conventional wisdom is that these things are less likely to be done in election years, but in some ways they may be more likely.
And I did give them a plan which, if they had embraced it -- which would simply require them not only to save the Social Security surplus, but to take the interest savings from paying down the debt, with the Social Security surplus, and if you just put that back into Social Security, you could take Social Security out beyond the life of the baby boom generation. And I offered to do more with them.
But in order to pass something like that, we've got to have a bipartisan process. And I will do whatever it takes to get that done. But I worked as hard as I could this year to keep working in a very open and collegial spirit with not only the Democrats, without whom I wouldn't have passed any of those things I just mentioned -- and all of you know that; they hung in there at the end, we got those things done -- but also with the Republicans, with whom I began to have, I think, some real progress there along toward the end of the legislative session. And I hope we will continue it.
Q Mr. President, on Chechnya, it seems as though the Russians don't feel they will pay a heavy price, and perhaps they don't care. I'm wondering if between now and Saturday's deadline you plan to try to directly contact President Yeltsin to once again convey your feelings on this matter.
THE PRESIDENT: Well, I haven't decided what else I can do. I do think -- first of all, they may believe that because of their position in the United Nations, and because no one wants them to fail and have more problems than they've got, that they can do this. But most of life's greatest wounds for individuals and for countries are self-inflicted. They're not inflicted by other people.
And I will say again, the greatest problems that the Russians will have over Chechnya are, one is, I don't think the strategy will work. I have never said they weren't right to want to do something with the Chechen rebels. But I don't think the strategy will work and, therefore, it will be expensive, costly and politically damaging, internally, to them.
Secondly, it will affect the attitude of the international community over a period of time in ways that are somewhat predictable and in some ways unpredictable, and that is a very heavy price to pay, because it works better when everybody's pulling for Russia. It's a great country and they have all these resources and talented, educated people, and they need to -- and yet, they've got a declining life expectancy as well as all these economic problems. And I think it's a bad thing for this to be the number one issue both inside the country and in our relationships with them. So I do think it's going to be a very costly thing.
Q Mr. President, with China building a second short-range missile base, allowing them to take Taiwan with little or not warning, are you concerned about America's ability to defend that island, especially with a Chinese company taking over the Panama Canal's ports at the end of this month?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, let's talk about the Panama Canal and then I'll come back to Taiwan. And to be fair, I think I may have misstated this earlier. It's important for the American people to understand that the Canal, itself, will be operated and controlled entirely by the government of Panama, through the Panama Canal Authority. That is the locks, ingress and egress, access, openness -- the Canal is completely and totally within the control of the Panamanians.
Now, the Hong Kong company which got the concession to operate the ports will be responsible for loading and unloading ships. They also do this in three or four ports in Great Britain. It's one of the biggest companies in the world that does this. The managing director is British. Most of the employees will be Panamanian. So I feel comfortable that our commercial and security interests can be protected under this arrangement. That's the first question.
Now, the second question is, China is modernizing its military in a lot of ways. But our policy on China is crystal clear. We believe there is one China. We think it has to be resolved through cross-strait dialogue, and we oppose and would view with grave concern any kind of violent action. And that hasn't changed.
There has been a lot of buildup of tension on both sides that I think is unnecessary and counterproductive. If you look at the amount of Taiwanese investment in China, for example -- that goes back to my Irish example -- if you look at the Taiwanese investment in China, it's obvious that eventually they're going to get this worked out because they're too inter-connected by ties of family and, increasingly, by ties of the economy, and the politics of neither place should lead either side into doing something brash. And I hope that this will not happen. But our policy is clear and you know what I've done in the past. And I think that's all I should say about it right now.
Q There is some confusion in people's minds about the First Lady's plans for the coming year. She has referred to the new house in New York as, "my house," and indicated she plans to make that her primary residence. I'm wondering if you could tell us how much time you think the two of you will be apart in the coming year and how you feel about this arrangement?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, I am happy for her, for the decision that she made. She was encouraged to run by many people and she decided she wanted to do it. And if she's going to do it, she's got to spend a long time in New York. So she'll be there a lot. She'll be here when she can. I'll go up there when I can and we'll be together as much as we can. We always make it a habit to talk at least once, if not more, every day. It's not the best arrangement in the world, but it's something that we can live with for a year. I love the house. We picked it out and we like it, and I'm looking forward to living there when I leave here.
But I've got a job to do and she now has a campaign to run, and so we'll have to be apart more than I wish we were. But it's not a big problem. She'll be here quite a lot and I'll go up there when I can and we'll manage it and I think it will come out just fine. I'm very happy for her.
Q Mr. President, just a couple of minutes ago you said that most of life's greatest wounds are self-inflicted. If I can paraphrase a recent request by Ken Starr, sir, I wonder if now you can tell us how much of the pain you went through last year was self-inflicted and how much due to excesses by other people, political and Mr. Starr's excesses himself, sir?
THE PRESIDENT: The mistake I made was self-inflicted and the misconduct of others was not.
Q Mr. President, in the case of -- on the subject of corporate golden and platinum parachutes, particularly in the case of mergers and change of controlled packages, tens of millions, and more in most cases, are awarded to corporate officers. Directors just rubber-stamp most of these sales to the detriment of other stockholders.
THE PRESIDENT: What's the question?
Q I'd like to know what can and will the administration do to put a ceiling on this acrimonious alimony?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, first of all, unless it's an abuse of the stockholders -- and if it is, then we have federal agencies which have jurisdiction over it -- there's nothing we can do. We have made some changes in the tax laws, we did back in '93, that I thought were appropriate. But I don't think beyond that there's anything else we can do.
April, and then John. Go ahead. No, April -- I'll call on all of you, but April first.
THE PRESIDENT: April first. (Laughter.) That's the way I feel up here sometimes. (Laughter.)
Q It should be that way, though. (Laughter.)
Mr. President, America is ending the century with resurfacing scars of racism. And where does the issue of race, in terms of your agenda for 2000, stand? And are you still prepared to release your book on race by the end of your term? And what do you think about the comments that there's internal infighting over this book in the White House?
THE PRESIDENT: There really isn't much. I have a draft, now, and I'm working on it. And I do plan to release it. And it will stay at the center of my concerns not only now, but after I leave the White House.
I think that after the Cold War, and with the sort of end of the ideological battles you've seen, I think that the biggest problem the world faces today is the conflict people have over their racial and ethnic and their related religious differences. And I plan to be heavily involved in it at home and around the world for the rest of my life.
Q When do you think the book will come out, though?
THE PRESIDENT: I don't know. I've got a day job, you know, and I'm not going to -- I've got a library full of books on race, and almost all of them are quite good. But I don't want to put it out unless I think it could make a difference, even if it just says what other people have said, somehow it can make a difference. And I'm trying to make sure how it ought to be done. I don't want to just put it out because I said I would put it out; I want to make sure when I do it, it at least achieves the objectives I'm trying to achieve.
Q Mr. President, the number of Americans who are not covered by health insurance has increased since you took office by about seven million. Do you agree with Vice President Gore that Senator Bradley's plan for covering most of those people is irresponsible and unaffordable, even though we're enjoying the healthiest economy in decades?
THE PRESIDENT: First of all, I'm not going to get in the middle of the Gore-Bradley campaign -- I know you want me to, but I'm not going to do that for you -- (laughter) -- because I want you to write about Syria and Israel tomorrow.
Let me say, first of all, Hillary and I said when the health care plan went down that the number of people uninsured would go up. And you would all draw the same conclusion. You would have drawn the same conclusion back then if you spent as many years and as much time studying it as we have.
So what happened is exactly what we've predicted would happen. Ironically, all those people who attacked me and said I was trying to socialize medicine, which was a ridiculous charge, trying to have the government take over health care, which is a ridiculous charge, they got their way in that debate, and the consequence is now we now have a higher percentage of Americans whose health care is funded by the government than we did in 1993. But we also have a higher percentage of people without insurance.
Now, I'm not going to get in the middle of that, but I'll tell you what questions you ought to ask. First of all, anybody who makes any proposal, you have to make certain choices. If you want to cover people who don't have coverage, and you accept the premise that they all can't afford it, you have to decide, are you going to make them buy insurance; are you going to make their employers to pay in? If not, are you going to have the government do it, or are you going to have a big tax subsidy?
The second thing I want to say is, I'm grateful that my country is doing so well that these kinds of issues can be debated in this way, and be seriously debated, but I'm not going to get into handicapping the campaign. I can tell you what questions I think you should ask, how you should analyze it. But there is no perfect solution here. And I'm glad that the two candidates in the Democratic Party are debating it.
Yes, go ahead. I promised these people.
Q Mr. President, in the decade that's just closing, the American people have seen around $1.5 billion of their tax dollars lost in space -- most recently, either up in smoke in the Martian atmosphere or trashed on Mars, itself. Does NASA need better quality control or better management? And, sir, how do you answer Americans who say that that money could be much better spent on more urgent needs here on this planet?
THE PRESIDENT: Well, let me try and answer all those questions. First of all, I think Dan Goldin has done a great job at NASA. He's adopted a lot of economy measures and gone for small and more discreet missions, including more unmanned missions, that I think make a lot of sense.
Secondly, we all use the slogan, "well, this isn't rocket science." Well, this is rocket science. We're trying to take a spaceship the size of a boulder and throw it 450 miles into a very uncongenial atmosphere and hit a target, and it isn't easy. I regret that both of those things didn't succeed as much as we all -- the first Mars mission we got quite a lot out of -- because I think it's important. I think it's important not only for the American tradition of exploration, but it's important if we want to know what's -- we have to keep doing this if we ever hope to know what's beyond our galaxy. We now know there are billions of them out there, and we know there are all these big, black holes in the universe. We know all these things, and I think it's important that we find out.
Thank you very much.
END 3:40 P.M. EST
President and First Lady | Vice President and Mrs. Gore