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Public Papers - 1991 - September

Exchange With Reporters Prior to a Meeting With Secretary of State Baker


Q. Good morning, Mr. President. Good morning, Mr. Secretary.

The President. Good morning, Helen [Helen Thomas, United Press International]; enjoyed seeing you here today, and I noticed how President Carter saluted you yesterday. I thought that was very nice.

Q. I didn't think so. [Laughter]

The President. Let me just make a couple of comments, and then I'll take a couple of questions. But we're having a discussion here with the Secretary of State and the others that you see here.

And I have asked the Secretary to undertake a very important mission, yet another one. This one will take him to the Soviet Union, including stops in the Baltics, among others. And then, a very important part of this, is his trip back to the Middle East. It is very, very important, matters having come this far, that we do everything we can to give peace a chance.

And with that in mind, I am going to ask every single Member of Congress to defer, just for 120 days, consideration of this absorption aid package. We're interested in absorption aid; we take pride in the fact we've taken the leadership role in refugees coming, people coming to the Soviet Union [Israel]. But it is in the best interest of the peace process and of peace itself that consideration of this absorption aid question for Israel be deferred for simply 120 days.

I think the American people will strongly support me in this, and I am going to make this position as clear as I can to every single Member of the Congress and to the American people because we worked very diligently and many countries have, and Israel has as well as some of these Arab States, to come together at a peace conference. And this debate will take place later on. It should take place, but this is not the time for a debate that can be misunderstood, a debate that can divide.

So, my pitch that the Secretary has already made in two very friendly conversations with Prime Minister Shamir is: Let's defer it. The debate's going to be lively, the debate will be upcoming, but let's wait 120 days so we will take no chance of unraveling a peace process that offers us the best hope for peace in decades, literally decades. And I feel very, very strongly about it.

I support those Senators and others in the Congress that have already taken a position on deferment. I think of Senator Leahy, for example, who has a very important role in all of this, and his constructive leadership, I think, will be remembered by all, on all sides of this question, that want peace. And there's others.

The Secretary's talked to a lot of the leadership, and I'll be following up now with many calls because we want to give peace a chance.

Aid to Israel

Q. What does Shamir say about this?

The President. Well, the Secretary's had two good talks. At this juncture I gather he wants to go forward. But as President of the United States I'm taking the strong recommendation, and strongly approve of it incidentally, but from the Secretary of State that this be deferred. And I think farsighted Members of Congress understand exactly why it should be deferred. We don't need an acrimonious debate just as we're about to get this peace conference convened.

Q. Mr. Bush, would you want the deferment if Israel had changed its housing, its settlement policy? If they were no longer putting up housing in the settlements, would you feel freer to go ahead with the -- --

The President. Our settlement policy is well-known. I don't want to have any debate on this question now. Everybody knows the United States policy about settlements, and that policy is not going to change. And I must do a better job convincing the people here and in Israel that we are correct on this, with our underlying desire for peace. But it isn't a question of that. My point here is: Defer discussion on all these matters now, and let's go to this conference that's just about put together. And I'm convinced that the debate we're talking about would be counterproductive to peace.

We've worked very, very hard. Everyone knows of our special and friendly relationship with Israel, and I feel strongly about that in my heart, but I know it is in the interest of world peace that this be deferred.

Q. How are you going -- with Soviet participation as you plan the conference? Are you going to just go it alone?

The President. Well, the Secretary will be in Moscow, that will be discussed. But the Soviets have played a very constructive role in all of this, and I see no reason that any of these changes that have taken place inside the Soviet Union will change that. I think they want to see it go forward.

Q. Mr. President, on the loan guarantees, are you convinced that the Israelis will be willing to go along with the peace conference if this is put on hold?

The President. Well, I'm convinced that they've already indicated a willingness to go forward without conditions of that nature, and I see no reason that they'd change that right now. It would be counterproductive. Look, we all know the passions on both sides, and this is no time to inflame the passions on both sides. Israel's stated its position, but there was never any linkage on their part, and we're trying to avoid linkage on our part.

Q. You seem certain there will be a conference.

The President. I'm very hopeful there will. But part of the Secretary's mission is to do everything we can to ensure there will be a conference. Look, this is one the whole world wants to see happen. This isn't just American foreign policy; everybody wants this to take place. And I would again salute Secretary Baker and Larry Eagleburger and everybody that's worked on this, here at the White House also.

But we've come a long, long way. I remember when the whole prospects for this conference were being written off a few months ago, and now people are saying we've got a chance. And let's not blow it by having an acrimonious debate that's going to be read, not just in the States but around the world, as one way or another. We don't need it. We don't need that ingredient clouding the waters just at a time the waters are beginning to clear.

Q. And you think Congress will respect your request for the delay?

The President. I'm going to fight for it because I think this is what the American people want. And I'm going to do absolutely everything I can to back those Members of the United States Congress who are forward-looking in their desire to see peace.

Q. Are there assurances that Congress will go ahead already?

The President. We're going to work hard on them, and we'll see. But I think they should. I think that's what -- again, I keep saying it -- is in the best interest of peace. And I think all of them want to give peace a chance, yes.

Secretary Baker. Give peace a chance; 120 days, that's all the President's asking for, 120 days.

Q. Is it still realistic to shoot for an October conference, do you think?

The President. We'll see. You know, the U.S. position is we'd like to have had it long before now. But Jim will go over there to the Middle East, he'll be discussing that. We'll have more to say about that later on.

Thank you all very much.

Q. Do you have a date in mind for the -- are you shooting for any -- --

The President. I'll let the Secretary take those questions later. Probably after he's been there would be a better time to answer that.

Thank you all. News, news, news, we've got a lot of news.

Note: The exchange began at 11:16 a.m. in the Oval Office at the White House. The following persons were referred to in the exchange: Secretary of State James A. Baker III; former President Jimmy Carter, who had met with President Bush the previous evening; Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir of Israel; Senator Patrick Leahy; and Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger.

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