THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary (Geneva, Switzerland)
BACKGROUND BRIEFING BY SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL
January 16, 1994
The Intercontinental Hotel Geneva, Switzerland
5:12 P.M. (L)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Due to popular demand, I will start out with a little bit of perspective. You didn't hear me say that. I will keep it very brief, because we want to have a chance to sort of go with your questions.
I think what is significant from the standpoint of people like us that have been involved in this process for a long time is that there are a number of elements in President Assad's statement that he has simply not said before. The commitment to the end of the conflict stated as explicitly as it was; the commitment to peace with Israel, stated explicitly; and the use of the phrase "normal peaceful relations" all represent the use of language and terminology that has not been used before. And, obviously, many of you who have been involved in reporting on this issue for a long time know that words take on a certain meaning, especially if they're used or they're not used. And so, from that standpoint, I think we have seen new ground broken, at least in terms of the terminology. And I find that, I think, to be important.
You want to add anything?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Just for the record, I'm told by the timekeepers that the meeting lasted for four hours and 30 minutes -- or four hours and 26 minutes -- followed by a 50-minute one-on-one, with just President Clinton, President Assad and their interpreters.
Q Fifteen or fifty?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Five, zero - 50 minutes. And the President was very pleased that his stamina outlasted the stamina both of his Secretary of State and his National Security Advisor. (Laughter.)
Q Did the President or the discussions talk specifically about what "normal peaceful relations" meant? Was there a discussion of trade, open borders, diplomatic relations? Any indication from Assad that he was willing in principle to sign a peace treaty? Anything specific?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not sure that he talked about seeds of peace, but I'll let my colleague answer the rest. (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, as the President said, he wasn't going to get into the details of the exchanges that we have had. And so we're not going to go beyond what he said in that regard, either.
Q You are saying that for the first time, Assad has used the phrase "normal meaningful relationship" --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Peaceful
Q Peaceful, right. Now, the President doesn't want to give us the details. We're asking you, did Assad give the President any of the specific details that you well know Israel insists on -- its definition of meaningful peace? Did he tell the President specifically what that kind of normal relationship meant in his mind?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He certainly conveyed to us that he -- to use language that he used out there -- understands the requirements of peace, understands the broad elements of peace, and I really don't want to take it farther than that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: But I would just emphasize in terms of what he said publicly, that he said that he was ready to respond to the requirements.
Q What about -- the President said that he raised some specific concerns relating to terrorism. Did he get a commitment from Assad that Assad would do something about those American concerns and a commitment in return that they would be dropped from the terrorism list? Was there anything -- was that specifically discussed?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, no, not that specifically, because, in fact, what I think you may have heard them say is that this is clearly an area of difference between us. And there is no meeting of the minds on that, but there was a recognition that the way to try to deal with something like this that is a difference in our relations and it is an impediment to the development of good relations is, in fact, to develop a mechanism that would allow us to follow up and see if we could overcome those differences.
Q President Assad was pretty inaudible here. I'd like to check something. Did he say, "I'm ready for normal relations," or did he only imply he would be ready once -- Syrian conditions for global peace are fulfilled?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I believe if you look at his statement -- and there should be copies of it -- he talked about his -- what you could call his vision of peace, which included "normal peaceful relations" were the words he used. There were two other elements that I would draw your attention to if you didn't hear clearly the statement, which was that he talked about ending the Arab-Israeli conflict and he talked about a comprehensive peace with Israel.
Q Are there any mechanisms set up like the one that you set up for the bilateral relations? Are there any mechanisms now that you expect to develop for dealing with the definition of "normal peaceful relations"? Is there anything different about the way that that process is going to be conducted?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You're going to have, beginning within a week's time, a more flexible format for the negotiations. You're going to have heads of delegations meeting in an environment that, by definition, is going to be less structured, less rigid than you had before. This is one of the things that was agreed in December.
And, obviously, in that kind of a context, they will be able to explore everything. They'll have more of an opportunity to probe ideas, to try out ideas and not be in a position where they have to present only what would amount to a kind of set peace presentation. So I think that that will allow them to get not only at the issue that you're raising, but obviously to the other issues as well.
Q As you know, one of the problems has been who goes, first PLO or -- and he talks about comprehensive and that he doesn't want any separate peace. Now, it's been to his advantage in the past to try to talk -- separate peace. And he has not encouraged the separate peace of the PLO and the Israelis. Did he make any pledges that he would encourage or at least -- that he'd stop encouraging the 10 groups in Damascus who have been opposing that, that he would support it? He did not say a single word in support of the PLO. As a matter of fact, he seemed to still be rather tough on the fact that there shall be no separate deals.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think the one thing he said very clearly again to us is that even though they didn't favor the Israeli-PLO agreement, the way it was done in particular they had made it very clear that they would not oppose it, and they have stuck to that position of not opposing it.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me just add one thing there. I don't know whether you noticed that the GCC states met with Syria and Egypt and Damascus a few days ago, and they issued a joint communique which included a Syrian signature on that communique which endorsed the Israel-PLO agreement as a first step towards a comprehensive solution. That is a new position on the Syrian part.
Q Did he tell the President that he saw that as a first step, that the PLO thing was a first step?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I can't say that he did not say it that way. He has made it clear that he sees what has gone on between the Israelis and the Palestinians as something that represents what is to be done in the interim period.
Q In the past, the Syrian position has been that there should be -- still is, apparently -- that there should not be final peace agreements with any of the parties until Syria, too, is ready to do it? That's what Syria has meant historically by a comprehensive peace. President Clinton today said he understood there could not be a lasting peace without Syria. Does Syria still object to others signing final agreements until Syria, too, is ready? And what's the United States' position on that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me do the United States' position on it first, then I'll tell you what we heard. Our position has been, as you heard the President say, one, that we favor a comprehensive peace settlement, because we do see that as being something that is more likely to endure. At the same time, we think progress should be made where it can be made. And we would obviously like to see that progress codified in some way. And so, our position is, in the end you want a comprehensive peace settlement, but you want to produce progress wherever it can be produced and in whatever form in which it can be produced, and we see that contributing to moving towards that ultimate objective.
We did not hear from him today anything that was specific on what you said. In other words, he did not make the statement you said, but I can't tell you that that reflects one thing or another, he didn't describe things in that terminology.
Q I'd just like to follow up on Saul's question. Okay, so Syria is still saying that it is not going to oppose this. What about the Palestinian elements that are opposing it? Are the Syrians telling you they're going to rein those elements in? Are they making any more commitments on that score than they have in the past? And did you say to them, we think you need to do more to make sure that this agreement gets all the support it needs between Israel and the PLO?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We have had many discussions prior to today in which we've emphasized the importance of implementation of the Israel-Palestinian Declaration of Principles, and that the sooner it gets implemented the better it's going to be from our standpoint in terms of promoting the process as a whole, consistent with what I was saying before about making progress wherever you can, that that actually contributes to achieving a comprehensive peace settlement. So we've made that point many times before. We've said that those groups that oppose it are really not working towards, in our view, towards the objective of a comprehensive peace settlement.
We did not have a discussion, again, specifically that went beyond that today. We had -- while the meeting was, itself, four hours and 26 minutes -- is that what you said -- the fact is we covered an awful lot of ground. We spent a lot of time talking about the peace process. We spent a lot of time talking about some of the bilateral issues. We spent a lot of time talking about other parts of the region. And we didn't get into all of -- at least into some of these areas at least from that perspective.
So I can't say, in answer to your question, that on that particular issue we heard anything particularly differently, but we also didn't have an extended discussion precisely on that point.
Q on Pan Am 103, please? Terrorists and Pan Am 103. Do you want it in writing?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We got the question. It's a problem of -- getting the answer is a little more complicated. (Laughter.)
Q Repeat the question.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Pan AM 103 did come up and the President made very clear that this was a very serious issue for the United States and it was absolutely essential that Libya, Gadhafi give up those two people who were charged with doing it, and that that was an absolute requirement of the United States.
Q When Assad had a chance to really state what he meant by normal peaceful relations, he dodged it. Why did he do that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, it's a question of definition whether he dodged your question. I thought he actually came at it the back way. But the words that I write down that I thought were interesting was that he ended up by saying, yes, I will respond to the requirements. And so I think that he has broken new ground today in the way that he talked about his vision of peace, an honorable peace in which he referred to his role directly as making peace with Israel. I believe that is the first time he has done that. And he talked about a vision of normal peaceful relations with Israel.
So to expect him to go beyond that at his point I think is perhaps unrealistic. He, in the past, has been extremely reluctant to do any of those things, spell any of those things out. The fact that he did so today I think is an important first step. Obviously, this process is going to continue and the negotiations will continue, and hopefully his vision of peace will become fuller and clearer to you all as we go along.
Q The big question is, which comes first? Does Assad get specific, or the Syrians get specific about the kind of peace? Do the Israelis get specific about how much withdrawal?
You say it was unrealistic for Assad to be any more specific. What would you as the U.S. as the honest broker expect now? Do you expect Israel to be specific in the negotiations about withdrawal? What is the next step that you think should be taken in breaking that deadlock?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think you ought to look at it from a couple of different levels. One, the question that Wolf asked of my colleague was, did he try to dodge it, and my colleague's response is, he talked about meeting the requirements of peace.
He also, you may recall, didn't just talk about peace with Israel for the first time, he also referred to it as a strategic choice, that Syria had made a strategic choice for peace with Israel. And I think he obviously is involved in a negotiation just as the Israelis on their side are involved in the negotiation. They will be making judgments, the two of them, when they resume those talks about how they want to try to get it -- cracking the nut of these complex of issues of withdrawal, of peace and of security. And they'll be in a different negotiating format which allows them more flexibility, we believe, to try out ideas. So that's the next step.
Q Yes, but you're satisfied -- the U.S. apparently thinks that that is as much as you could expect at this point from Assad to make what you consider to be a major new statement, that it would be unrealistic to expect specificity. I'm asking you if you think it is now realistic for Israel to be specific about the kind of withdrawal it should engage in?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that -- obviously when you're involved, each side is going to have to determine how best to approach the negotiations. They'll make their judgment about what the other side is saying, both in terms of its content and in terms of its level of specificity. And I would suspect that in that light, judgments will be made that reflect what they think is equivalent to a parallel.
Q What is the practical significance then for the process of these statements that you think is so significant?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think the practical significance --
Q Repeat the question.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The question? The question was, what's the practical significance of these statements that we think are so significant? All I was doing was repeating the question. I didn't even give an answer. Do you want to give the answer? (Laughter.)
Q How about you guys take a break?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: How about us guys take a break? That's possible. We have to move on. The practical significance is that clearly, many in Israel for a long time have wanted to hear President Assad and the Syrians say certain things about peace with Israel. They've heard abstract statements about peace, but they've rarely, if ever, heard --
Q But that's --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, strategic choice for peace with Israel? Is that not qualitatively different than something that they've heard before? Well, and the use of normal peaceful --
Q No, we're beating up Barry, not you guys. (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The use of normal peaceful relations? What you're doing is you're -- there is an Israeli public that has looked at Syria and wanted to know what kinds of intentions Syria had vis a vis Israel with regard to peace. Not having heard certain statements before, like, for example, strategic choice for peace with Israel, normal peaceful relations. I would assume that those are the kinds of statements in conjunction with the language on ending the Arab-Israeli conflict. I would assume that those kinds of statements take things to a new level, at least in terms of what the Israelis have heard from the Syrians and they'll make their own judgments about what to make of it.
Q Did your discussions with the Israelis before this --
Q choreography now expect a statement by Israel that is something new?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let's do the follow-up, and I heard your question.
Q Did your discussions with the Israelis before the meeting today lead you to believe that they would find this significant in terms of public opinion and their strategy and attitude towards further negotiations?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would just refer you to the front page of the International Herald Tribune yesterday, an article by Clyde Haberman in which I think the headline is what the Israelis are waiting to hear is the word "normal."
Q What are the Syrians waiting to hear from Israel? Without reading The Herald Tribune. (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We were asked about the practical impact. There is going to be a negotiation at heads of delegation level in a matter of days or the beginning of next week, and this creates the environment in which they will be able to sit down and begin their negotiations again.
Bear in mind, though, there has not been a SyrianIsraeli negotiation since last August -- September. And the practical impact of this is to kick those negotiations off in a much more positive environment.
Q What I'm asking is, is there now in this choreography a statement with magic words that will come out of Israel?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That's something -- There is an art -- that I have to adhere to, so I'm going to try to do it and then my colleague will correct it because I, undoubtedly will not get it right.
There are some administration officials who will be going down from here to brief Prime Minister Rabin. And obviously that is part of the preparation, as my colleague was saying, for how you create an environment to give the negotiations that will begin in a more flexible format more of a push.
Q When do they start -- these streamlined talks?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We haven't made a final determination, but it will probably be either the end of this week or the beginning of next.
Q What kind of message do you think what happened here today will send to the Palestinians? Those talks have been stalled, the Israeli-PLO talks, over the border issues and the
size of Jericho. Do you think this will send an important message to them?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I would hope that it would send them a message of general encouragement that, in fact, the process along with the resumption of negotiations on this track and some of the other tracks that there is an environment that is likely to make it more likely to make progress; and that's the sort of thing that perhaps should be encouraging to them.
Q What's the mood music of this meeting? What was the chemistry between Assad and Clinton?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it was -- I think they had a positive meeting. The discussions, I think, were characterized by -- I think they themselves said it -- a good atmosphere and there was real openness. I think there was an interest, as the President said, in creating an element of trust and confidence that will make it possible to move things forward. That doesn't mean the disagreements necessarily disappear, obviously, but it means that you're creating a context in which you're trying to deal with those agreements in a way that we think will be productive from the standpoint of peace.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me just add one thing. I think it is accurate to characterize the President as fully engaged with President Assad, and that there was also a common sense of the historic moment that both of them had about his being a year, as both of them said, in which breakthroughs in the peace process can be achieved.
Q If Syria now shares the U.S. goals in the peace process of a truly comprehensive peace and normal relations, what were their goals before?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, one has not -- to begin with, one has never heard them talk about normal peaceful relations as a goal before. So, I mean, they obviously are explaining in greater detail what some of their goals for the process are. Comprehensive peace is something that has been their goal for a long time -- that's the way they described it. But they have not used this kind of a terminology to talk abut heir vision of peace, and their vision is which would provide for, as President Assad said, normal, peaceful relations, a genuine peace -- language where he also talked about, in a sense, they fought with honor; now they need to make peace with honor and negotiate with honor.
Q How do the new bilateral talks work? And as good negotiators, did you supply the Syrians with a kind of a timetable to solve those bilateral questions?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, we have just -- the two foreign ministers will work out the shape of this mechanism and also the timing of when it will get underway.
I would say -- unless we're told otherwise -- since a couple of these officials do have to move on quickly, how about we take two more questions and that's it.
Q You were talking before about the magic word in the international Herald Tribune, but the word there isn't "normal peaceful relations," it's normalization. And that is the word that Assad balked at using. Would you care to address that issue?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think the question highlights that in the Middle East there is a tendency to dissect every word that is used. And in doing that, when a word appears that you haven't seen before that gets to the heart of something like normalization, I think that's important. That's what we're noting. The words "normal peaceful relations" convey something that haven't been conveyed before.
Q But you wouldn't argue that it's the same, would you?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I mean, obviously, I think our view of normal peaceful relations would be the same as normalization. We would not draw a distinction between those two terms.
Q Did Assad respond on Pan Am 103? Did he say anything --
Q We've had, over the last two years, with every start of the new round of peace talks, almost every time we've had peace talks we've had more and more violence in south Lebanon. And that's hardly conducive for peace talks and for pushing them forward. Has south Lebanon come up in this summit and what have they decided to do to rein in all the various parties there?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: South Lebanon, per se, did not come up. Lebanon as a whole did come up. The issue of Taif did come up. But south Lebanon did not.
I think that was two questions.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END5:41 P.M. (L)