PRIME MINISTER BARAK: It is my pleasure to welcome the Secretary of Defense, Bill Cohen, on his brief visit to Israel. The Secretary and I had fruitful discussions, exchanged ideas on matters of mutual interest and met with the leadership of the Israeli Defense Establishment. We reviewed ways to enhance and strengthen our staunch and resolute defense cooperation with the United States.
During our discussions, we raised various topics concerning strategic threats, particularly weapons of mass destruction and the threat of terror to the free world as a whole.
We discussed the modernization of the IDF concept that is fully supported by the American Defense Establishment and by the Secretary.
I drew Secretary Cohen's attention to the great importance that we attach to promises regarding the Wye Agreement and the need to use the aid for vital needs in the implementation of the Agreement.
This time Secretary Cohen's visit was very short and we invite him to return soon on an extended official visit. Thank you.
SECRETARY COHEN: Mr. Prime Minister, thank you very much. We are at the end of a very long and productive ten-day trip to the region. In my discussions today, just as I have throughout my trip in consultation with other regional leaders, we discussed the key issues that we all collectively face -- the first and foremost being how to advance a comprehensive peace to the Middle East that's going to bring stability and greater prosperity to all the people in the region. There is a very strong hope in the region that progress can be made on all tracks of the peace process. I know that President Clinton looks forward to being with you and Chairman Arafat next week in Oslo as you gather to remember the great contributions to peace of Yitzhak Rabin.
We in the United States, certainly recognize the renewed spirit of partnership that has returned to the peace process. The signing of the Sharm el-Sheikh Agreement last month and the concrete steps that have ensued, clearly demonstrate that there is a great opportunity to move forward. I pledged to the Prime Minister and to the people of Israel that the United States is going to remain absolute in its commitment to Israel's defense and security. President Clinton has pledged to provide 1.2 billion dollars to Israel for Wye Agreement-related costs. We are working with the Congress right now to achieve that, because we are absolutely convinced that a strong, secure Israel is a pillar of U.S. policy in the region. It will allow Israel to take the necessary steps for peace. A just and comprehensive and enduring peace between Israel and its neighbors is critical to long-term security in the region.
I assured the Prime Minister as I have throughout my trip, of the long-term commitment of the United States to the region. We intend to remain engaged. We will maintain a force presence in the region commensurate with the collective threats that we face. We will continue to work to deter would-be aggressors and to respond quickly and decisively if a crisis develops. Our force posture in the region is sound; I do not plan any major changes to our force levels. Our force presence is reinforced by the expanded multilateral cooperation by the regional militaries with whom we exercise. As a matter of fact, we have an ongoing exercise, "Bright Star," that continues as we speak.
There is a new dynamic at work in the region, a renewed sense of purpose and a real opportunity to forge an enduring peace. I want to assure you, Mr. Prime Minister, that the United States will be there every step along this journey. We congratulate you for the bold and courageous steps that you are taking.
QUESTION: I would like to ask you Mr. Barak what approach you are taking in the final status talks. Do you prefer to have one-on-one negotiations with your counterpart, Yasser Arafat, or do you prefer that the negotiating team do the bulk of the work?
PRIME MINISTER BARAK: I can only promise you that I will take a positive approach. We will do our best. I am focused only on the result. The ultimate result should be a framework agreement for permanent status that will provide us with a major leap forward, and the chances of achieving the permanent status agreement a few months later. It doesn't matter for me. I will take whatever way that will serve this goal of achieving the objective of having a framework agreement. I think that maybe all the ways that you have mentioned will have to be used in order to do it.
QUESTION: Mr. Prime Minister, how critical is the Wye aid to the success of the permanent status negotiations?
PRIME MINISTER BARAK: We practically are already spending this money. We assume that it's going to happen. We are implementing the agreement. Right now, we are moving our units from certain areas. We already transferred part of the territory. We are going to transfer another chunk of territory two weeks from now. It's clear, I believe, to all of you that, for example, military units should be moved, and pushed to some other place. We are working on it very intensively. So it's essential, and I believe that this whole project of the Wye Agreement, as well as the whole peace process project in the Middle East should become a bipartisan issue in the United States. I hope it will be supported on both sides of the aisle, independent of any other disputes that naturally are dealt with in a democracy like the United States.
SECRETARY COHEN: If I could add to that, Prime Minister Barak and I did discuss this issue. The funding of the Wye Agreement should not be viewed as some sort of a humanitarian gesture. A comprehensive peace agreement in the Middle East is fundamental to America's security interests as well. And that's the message that we have to convey to the Congress, certainly, and to our country -- that this is in our security interest, and that's the reason we are so committed to helping Israel achieve a stable and enduring peace in the region with its regional neighbors.
PRIME MINISTER BARAK: I believe that a comprehensive peace in the Middle East serves not just the interests of Israel, but of the whole free world: It will provide stronger, moderate more self-confident regimes all around the region; it will keep the free flow of oil from the Middle East, mainly to Europe and Japan, more stable in the foreseeable future; and it will help the creation of a worldwide front against international terror, which I believe is going to be the major threat to the advanced civilizations in the world in the next decade or two.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, regarding the funding for Wye. It seems that the President is having a lot of problems with Congress providing this aid; How worried are you for the international status of the United States as an international mediator and, should Israel and others be worried about this? Mr. Prime Minister (in Hebrew) given your problems with the upcoming budget, are you confident that you will be able to deliver on your electoral promises?
SECRETARY COHEN: With respect to the Wye Agreement and the funding, President Clinton is fully committed to securing the funding to help implement this Agreement. There is no alternative. We are fully behind this. We will work with the Congress. I am satisfied that we will be able to meet our obligations.
PRIME MINISTER BARAK (In Hebrew): Regarding the budget: every year there are birth pangs; this year too, there will be birth pangs. At the conclusion of the birth pangs, there will be a budget. The budget is based on the order of priorities to which this government is committed. On top of this order of priorities are: education; infrastructure; and the resumption of growth, in order to make possible a basic and true management of true gaps and real distress, not by idle talk, but by real actions. Each attempt to stop the first vote or the approval of the budget in the Knesset, hurts the most vulnerable people in the country because it creates the appearance of a government which finds it hard to carry out its budget and move it forward. This way, it increases expectations of instability and of the rise of inflation in the market. The rise of inflation lowers the chances of cutting down the interest rate and without a cut in the interest rate, the potential for economic growth will not occur. Eventually, those who are hurt are the most vulnerable. Therefore, I call upon all the forces in the country that care for the most vulnerable to allow, first of all, the passing of the budget in the first reading and, immediately afterwards, to enter debates - there are two months left for debates on the clauses of the budget. This government's policy will not change: we shall listen to every need, we shall respond to every distress -- according to the needs, not according to the clamor -- while keeping in sight the order of priorities I mentioned and without giving in to any sort of pressure, neither from within the coalition nor from outside it, nor from any other side.
QUESTION: Did you discuss Israel's future security funding requirements for a final status agreement and a peace treaty with Syria?
SECRETARY COHEN: We did have a fairly extensive discussion in terms of the nature of the threat to Israel -- in terms of requirement for strategic and early warning - the kind of in-depth capabilities that Israel must have and we of course, will work with Israel, whatever arrangement ultimately is arrived at. If there is a settlement and an agreement, then we will all work very closely with Israel to help make sure that its security is assured.
PRIME MINISTER BARAK: We are living in a tough neighborhood, somewhat different from North America or Western Europe. In every agreement we have to take care of our security. I believe that in order to bridge the gaps between us and the Syrians, there is a need for leadership, for readiness to show flexibility, to protect the vital interests of each side, but to move forward. In order to accomplish it, there will be a need for both a political umbrella and some strategic safety net. It could be provided only by the free world led by the United States. There is a role here for the free world to glue it together in order to serve the long-term interests of the free world as I described a few minutes ago. I believe that when the time comes it will be clear - not just to the American Administration which shares our vision about the importance of the peace process -- but also to the whole American political body, to the American people and to free world governments and publics in Europe and other parts of the world. I believe that the kind of political support and financial support will be found.
QUESTION: Did you have any discussions regarding Israel's relations with India?
SECRETARY COHEN: That's an easy answer for me to give: The answer is we had no discussions pertaining to India.