Jerusalem (CNS) - Even if Israel should achieve peace with its immediate neighbors, Iraq and Iran will continue to pose threats to regional security, Prime Minister Ehud Barak said late Monday, while President Clinton re-committed the United States to help Israel face future risks.
Describing the Middle East as a "very tough neighborhood," Barak told a joint press conference at the White House the region boasted more weapons systems than NATO.
There was "no second opportunity for those who cannot defend themselves," he said. "And many threats might loom over the horizon without very long early warning."
"The prospect of proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and missile technology to places like Iran or Iraq create a major threat to the stability of the whole Middle East, to the free flow of oil from this region that helps to sustain the economies of both Europe and Japan - and, of course, to Israel."
Although seeking to achieve peace with its neighbors - specifically the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon - Israel did "not aspire to eliminate any future risk from the globe by making peace with our neighbors."
Even so, said Barak, Israel was determined to improve future prospects for itself and its neighbors.
A statement released after the two leaders' talks said Clinton had "reiterated the U.S. commitment to help Israel minimize the risks and costs it incurs as it pursues peace."
The president said the U.S. would help Israel maintain its qualitative edge and strengthen its own ability to defend itself against any threats. U.S. military aid would be increased by one-third over the next decade, while economic aid would gradually be phased out.
There would also be enhanced bilateral collaboration to develop technology to counter ballistic missile threats, and security agencies from the two countries would cooperate in efforts to prepare for and respond to terrorism involving weapons of mass destruction.
During their press conference both Clinton and Barak shied away from attempts to set timetables for achieving progress in Israeli-Arab diplomacy.
Clinton said it was not the role of the U.S. to make such stipulations, while Barak said his desire to have a sense of the chances for peace within 15 months should not be interpreted as a strict deadline.
Rather, he wanted to signal that Israel was not expecting a "magic solution that will drop upon us from heaven in three weeks," but neither did he intend to drag matters out for another three years.
Barak and Clinton welcomed reports that the Syrian government has ordered Damascus-based Palestinian groups opposed to the Oslo Process to stop attacking Israel. Syria has not officially confirmed the reports, which some in the "rejectionist" organizations have disputed.
Barak's chief of staff, Danny Yatom, told Israel Radio Tuesday peace talks with Syria could resume within weeks.