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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release October 27, 1994


(Air Force One Enroute to Israel)

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: This is an on the record briefing on the President's meeting with President Assad today.

We met in the small session for about two hours -- that's the small, restricted but formal session. The President rode with President Assad to and from the airport; that's about 30 minutes each way. And then at the end of the restricted session, they had a one-on-one session, which was about 45 minutes long. As a result, they met together for about three hours and 45 minutes, if you include the car ride.

I'd characterize the discussions as being serious and businesslike. They both, I think, were conscious of the need to use their time efficiently, and they both got right down to business and began to deal specifically with the issues on the peace process.

From my having been involved in this very intensively over the last 20 months, but especially since 1994, I would describe the meeting as having made substantive progress on more than one issue. There was forward movement on, as I say, more than one of the key issues. The progress came on issues that I regard as being important, and being some of the most difficult issues for us.

Q -- inaudible --


Q -- inaudible --

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: More than one of the key issues. I'm sorry that I just can't take you more deeply into the negotiations than that. I think you know that there are four or five key issues. And what I can say is there was progress on more than one of the key issues.

Q Why is it so secret?

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: Well, the role we play as a facilitator here, I think, could not properly be played if we disclosed the confidences of parties.

Q -- inaudible --

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: Absolutely. Both parties have asked us to retain in confidence where they are in the negotiations. It's vital to them and certainly to our being able to conduct this role that we retain their trust and confidence and not reveal the discussions.

Q Mr. Secretary, -- Assad's statements in press conference on terror, did you really get anything?

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: I'll come back to that in a minute, Rita. Let me first point out to you several things in the statement made by President Assad that I think would be reassuring to the Israelis and indeed to the world as a whole if they follow the negotiations carefully and were able to see the changes that were made.

First, the reference in the statement to normal peaceful relations with Israel -- in the past, President Assad has referred only to peace with peoples in the region or peace generally, but now he was prepared to refer to normal peaceful relations with Israel.

Q Isn't that the same he said in Geneva?

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: I don't believe he used Israel in Geneva. That's a significant change, at least for those of us who follow it carefully.

And then he referred to the importance of a peace that enables the people, both Arabs and Israelis, to live in security, stability and prosperity -- once again identifying the Israelis as being within the region and those for whom he hoped a future of stability, prosperity and security.

And then in the statement, he also commented on moving from a state of war to a state of peace.


Q Before you go, we've got a little birthday thing. (The press sings "Happy Birthday" to Secretary Christopher.)

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: Oh. Thank you. Well, what a surprise. (Applause.)

Q Is the next step a meeting between the foreign ministers?

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: The next step, Helen, will be for us to report to Prime Minister Rabin on these meetings today; to report to him the progress that's been made on the key issues and to carry the dialogue forward. This is a long, difficult process. I think it got a strong push forward from the President today, in a way only Presidents can do. But that doesn't mean we haven't got a long road ahead. So I would just in my usual cautious way tell you that, as I say, we took important steps today, but there are long tough negotiations ahead between two of the, I think, premiere tough negotiators in the world. I've never seen anybody in their own way, in their quite different styles more effective in this negotiating process than the two of them.

Q Do you see, in addition, a resumption of practical talks between the two of them anytime soon?

Q The President -- and Assad?


Q You confused who you were representing -- you meant Rabin and Hussein when you said two tough negotiators, not Clinton and --

Q Rabin and Assad.

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: Rabin and Assad. We facilitate negotiations, we don't -- did I really leave the two on that? In any event, Rabin and Assad are two serious, experienced, tough, rough negotiators.

Q Do you envision that they might get back to negotiations?

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: They haven't had direct negotiations. They didn't even have them at the time of the disengagement, negotiations. I do not foresee that for some time. The parties seem to prefer negotiations through the United States. We quite regularly tell them that they might be able to make more progress if they do it face to face, but that's not their current preference. So I don't see that happening at a high level at any time in the near future.

Q -- was that --

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: No, I think I've drawn attention, yes. I might elaborate a little bit, although it's very hard to do, upon what the President said about that question.

It seems to me what happened is that President Assad got a question -- a two or three-part question was your question, I think, Rita. The first part annoyed him and he took off in answering the first part of the question and never got to the other parts of the question. He had told the President very flatly in private what his views were -- denounced the killing of innocent civilians; he said that he condemned it wherever it took place, whether it be Hebron or Tel Aviv or elsewhere. But he simply didn't get to that part of the question.

I talked to Foreign Minister Shara about it afterwards. He said that was exactly what had happened. He knew that President Assad agreed with what President Clinton had said. And he followed on, and indeed, now we have President Clinton's statement that President Assad said that to him afterwards.

Q When you were going on background on Syria, you said -- How do you -- progress -- and deal with that whole -- you have a long talk -- and you are

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: Well, it continues to be an issue between us and Syria and we will continue to press upon that. As you know, the issue is whether they are providing comfort to, or providing a place for terrorist organizations to exist. The allegation is not that the Syrian government itself engaged in terrorism, but they do give some comfort factor by providing a place for them to be. And we're going to continue to press that.

But when the conference watches this process, when they were on the terrorism list, that's never been regarded as something that should prevent our going forward in the peace process because they play such a critical role, and peace cannot be comprehensive without them. So I think we just need to work in both directions; that is, to press them to take the steps that would enable them to get off the terrorism list, but also not to let that interfere with our proceeding on the peace process.

As you know, the Israelis are anxious for us to pursue a peace process and encouraged me to come back to the region over and over again. And they've encouraged the United States to play the role that we're playing in the peace process, which indicates to me that they, too, recognize the significance of Syria and know that they are the missing link.

Q What's deal are you going to seek from Rabin? What's the highlight of the agenda with him?

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: Well, we're going to try to make progress with him on the key issues, as we have here. But I think we have something significant to talk to him about based upon the progress the president achieved today in the meeting with President Assad on the key issues.

Q -- significant progress on these four issues, or these four or five issues?

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: I said we've made significant progress on more than one.

Q -- inaudible --

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: I think you know what they are.

Q -- inaudible --

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: No, that's independent. We made progress on more than one of the key issues, which are the crux of the negotiations.

Q Do you consider it --

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: President Rabin has talked about what the key issues are. I think I will not enumerate them here, but they're pretty well apparent here.

Q A lot of this process, at this point, depends on individuals -- Rabin. Assad, to me, look more frail than last time the President met with him, visibly older. What's your sense of him?

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: David, I don't see much change in Assad from one time to the next. He's still able to go through a five-hour meeting without getting up, and being as animated and active at the end of the meeting as he is at the beginning. So as I said, I don't see very much change in him from time to time. And neither do the others, I think. Dennis, who is in the meetings with me constantly, and he and I talked about that and he seems very much the same.

Q -- inaudible --

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: I'd just like to look at that again, because it was significant that he talked about normal, peaceful relationships with Israel.

Q -- inaudible --

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: One of the issues is security, but I'm not going to be narrowed down into which one is what.

Q -- inaudible --

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: No, I think it's there. But Rabin has indicated what the key issues are; we all know what they are. I think it narrows it too much -- let's leave it at progress on more than one of the key issues.

Q -- inaudible --

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: I think that President Assad is serious about making peace himself. Like any national leader, he is primarily concerned about Syria and Syrian rights. I don't know that he would enter into the political process in any way in the United States. He sees the United States as playing a facilitiative role at the present time. But he is concerned about protecting Syrian rights, as any other national leader would be.

Q -- inaudible --

SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: I can't tell you the motivation that lies behind him. I just know -- want to just tell you objectively what he's done.

Barry, I'd like to get back to you on that.