Reagan: Top U.S. Priorities in the Mideast is Toward the State of Israel and to Assure Peace

– President Reagan said yesterday that America’s “number one… moral commitment” in the Middle East is “to see that the State of Israel has a right to continue living as a nation” and that he also feels “that morally, the United States should do everything it can in an even-handed manner, to bring peace to the Middle East.” But he emphasized that the process “starts with the acceptance of Israel as a nation” by those countries which refuse to recognize it.

Reagan, in the first of a series of informal news conferences with selected reporters in the Oval Office, also reiterated his belief that Israel’s military capabilities are “of benefit” to the U.S. in the region and his disagreement with the Carter Administration’s contention that Israeli settlements on the West Bank are “illegal.” However, he criticized Israel’s current settlement moves as “ill advised” and “unnecessarily provocative.”

Reagan, responding to questions by reporters from The New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Christian Science Monitor, Chicago Tribune and Time magazine, made his most comprehensive comments on the Middle East since his election last November.

With respect to the strategic security of the region, he maintained that the U.S. should establish a “ground presence” there “for the Soviets to know that if they made a reckless move, they would be risking a confrontation with the United States.”

MORAL COMMITMENT TO ISRAEL

Asked if his was an “even handed policy in the Mideast,” the President replied: “I believe that we have, No. I, a moral commitment for the present to see that the State of Israel has a right to continue living as a nation. I believe that, and think that we’re morally bound to do that. But beyond that, I think it’s also a two-way street.”

He added, “I think Israel, being a country sharing our same ideals, I think democratic approach to things, with a combat-ready and even a combat-experienced military, is a force in the Middle East that actually is of benefit to us. But I also feel that morally the United States should do everything it can in an even-handed manner to bring peace to the Middle East. Now this, based on our first commitment, means that we have to get over the hurdle of those nations in the Middle East that refuse to recognize the right of Israel to exist.

“Peace will come when that first step is taken. Now a few of them have– as Egypt did; and (President Anwar) Sadat who I think is one of the great statesmen for doing that.”

SAYS SETTLEMENTS ARE NOT ILLEGAL

Asked if he approved of the “accelerated settling of the West Bank” by Israel, Reagan said, “As to the West Bank, I believe the settlements there– I disagreed when the previous Administration referred to them as illegal, they’re not illegal. Not under the UN resolution that leaves the West Bank open to all people– Arab and Israel alike, Christian alike.

“I do think, perhaps now with this rush to do it and this moving in there the way they are is ill-advised because if we’re going to continue with the spirit of Camp David to try and arrive at a peace, maybe this, at this time, is unnecessarily provocative.”

QUESTIONS PLO’S CLAIM TO LEGITIMACY

The President questioned the Palestine Liberation Organization’s claim to legitimacy as representing the Palestinian people. Asked if he had “any sympathy toward them and their aspirations, “Reagan replied:

“I know that that’s got to be a part of any settlement. I think in arriving at that, here again, there is the outspoken utterance that Israel doesn’t have a right to exist; there is the terrorism practiced by the PLO. I never thought that the PLO had ever been elected by the Palestinians. Maybe it is recognized by them as their leadership, but I’ve never seen that that’s been definitely established. But, again, it starts with the acceptance of Israel as a nation.”

Reagan conceded that the U.S. does not now possess the force to stop the Soviets “if they set out to advance logistically; we know that we couldn’t do that. What is meant by a presence,” he said, “is that we’re there enough to know and for the Soviets to know that if they made a reckless move, they would be risking a confrontation with the United States…But I think there should be some kind of American presence. Well, we’re doing it right now with the navy in the Indian Ocean. But I think we need a ground presence also.” He did not specify where it would be located.

State Department spokesman William Dyess said in response to questions today that the President’s remarks are being transmitted to U.S. diplomatic missions abroad. “All points are being notified of the President’s statements on foreign policy,” he said. But he refused to discuss the statements in any way.

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