THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY AMBASSADOR DENNIS ROSS, SPECIAL MIDDLE EAST COORDINATOR The Briefing Room
1:16 P.M. EST
MR. MCCURRY: Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen. Shall we begin? Thank you.
It is a rare and special treat for those of you at the White House that do not cover the Middle East peace process on a regular basis to hear from someone who's devoted a goodly portion of his adult life to that process. I'm very delighted that Ambassador Dennis Ross, who is the administration's Special Middle East Coordinator, can be with us today to provide some of his timely context into the events of the coming two days -- the Middle East signing ceremony and, importantly, the bilateral meetings that the President will have with the four leaders who will be here on that occasion.
Mark Parris, who is the NSC Senior Director for the Near East and South Asia -- got it right -- is also here with us. He can answer any questions you have about logistical arrangements that we've got or just also some of the White House involvement in setting up the events here.
But Dennis, I think, can best give you an overall sense of how these events play out in line with all the other things we've doing on the Middle East peace process.
Those of you know Ambassador Ross, know it is very unusual for him to do an on-the-record, on-camera briefing, being the rather reserved gentleman that he is. So I'll make an unusual request of you: That you restrict your questioning to questions about the Middle East peace process, about his own excitement and enthusiasm about that process, about where things are going and that you refrain from any questions about --
Q About what?
MR. MCCURRY: -- the San Francisco 49ers, and in particular, no questions about field goals. (Laughter.) But beyond that, it's a pleasure to welcome Ambassador Ross.
Q -- missed a field goal --
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Yes, I did miss a field goal with no time left -- not that it bore heavily or weighed heavily on me.
Why don't -- consistent with what Mike said, why don't I provide a little context for what's going to happen in the next two days.
And I think maybe the place to start is by taking note of the gathering that you're going to have for the signing. It will, in fact, be a remarkable gathering that in and of itself demonstrates not only support for what has been done but also a kind of recognition of the significance of it. You'll have, among those who are here -- among signers, participants and witnesses -- you'll have Prime Minister Rabin, Foreign Minister Peres, President Mubarak, King Hussein, and other prominent officials from the region and from outside the region.
And as I said, not only does that reflect a level of support for what has been agreed, but it's also an acknowledgement to the significance of it. And let me say a word about the significance of the agreement itself.
Q Will Arafat be there?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Chairman Arafat will be there as well, yes.
Q And will the Syrians and Lebanese be in attendance?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: I have an idea. Why don't I finish and then you can ask questions. (Laughter.)
When it comes to the significance of the agreement, the -- maybe what's most significant is that, first of all, it is the beginning of the implementation. It will be the beginning of the implementation of the second phase of the Declaration of Principles. And it applies the Declaration of Principles to the West Bank, and as such, it lays the basis for creating a very different relationship between Israelis and Palestinians.
In essence, in this agreement, what was reconciled was the Palestinian assumption of responsibility for the main political and economic decisions that will affect their lives with Israeli security needs.
This was an immensely difficult and complicated negotiation because it involved four basic areas that had to be resolved. The first was redeployment -- the redeployment of the IDF from populated centers on the West Bank.
The second was security arrangements -- security arrangements for the Israelis, for the Palestinians, but also security arrangements that had to take into account what the Declaration of Principles called for, which is that Israel had responsibility for the security of settlers and settlements through the interim period.
The third was that of elections -- you will have elections for a Palestinian Council that will have -- will be the first representative body of the Palestinian authority and it will represent the Palestinians throughout the West Bank and Gaza.
And the last is transfer of authority. Here, there are over 40 spheres of authority that will be transferred from the Israelis to the Palestinians. This involves literally every aspect of life. When you add it up and you look at what will happen when the agreement itself is implemented, it means that the Palestinians are going to assume responsibility for their own affairs. It means that the Israelis are no longer going to be ruling Palestinians -- something that the Israelis did not want to do; something, obviously, the Palestinians did not want. And instead what you will have is, you will have the Palestinians assuming, for the first time, self-government in the West Bank.
That's a sense of why this agreement is significant. But the agreement also needs to be looked at not only in terms of its own merits, in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, the agreement also needs to be looked at in a larger context -- the larger context of the Middle East peacemaking process.
When you look at who will be here tomorrow, what you see is a gathering that couldn't have happened before. It certainly couldn't have happened prior to the Declaration of Principles. At the time of the Declaration of Principles, you didn't have a peace treaty between Israel and Jordan.
You have a level of representation and participation that shows that the landscape in the Middle East is changing. Now, that isn't to say that we don't have a long ways to go. And it isn't to say that there isn't a lot of work left before we can achieve a comprehensive peace settlement. Those are both givens -- we do have a lot of work to do; there is going to be a major effort that will still be required if we're going to achieve a comprehensive peace settlement. But the fact of the matter is, we have come a long ways. And the landscape that you see today is not the landscape that you saw before. And the kinds of things that are possible today are not the kinds of things that were possible before.
One of the challenges that we have taken on for ourselves is always to look at what's unthinkable today and how you begin to transform the unthinkable today into the routine of tomorrow. And this particular event goes a long ways in that direction. It also does something else. It shows that those who are here want to deepen the process of peace, expand the process of peace, and build on it in a way that makes it more enduring and stable and ultimately will lead to what I said, which is a comprehensive peace settlement.
The last point that I would, I guess, highlight is that there has been, from the beginning of this administration, a very strong commitment from the President and from the Secretary of State to Middle East peace. It's clearly been one of the priorities of this administration in foreign policy. It's clearly also something that they've been prepared to devote a lot of time to. And one of the things that they have sought is not only to promote Middle East peace in terms of what we do, but also to define as part of our role the mobilization of international support for this effort -- political support for it, psychological support for it, and economic support for it.
And this event in many ways is the embodiment of that. And I can tell you from the standpoint of my own involvement, the personal nature of the President's commitment and the Secretary's commitment have been not only very consistent and not only very important, but in a sense it's been less important that it's impressed me and more important that it's impressed the leaders. All the leaders in this part of the world have developed a degree of trust with the President and the Secretary.
Now, in most parts of diplomacy and in most parts of the world, that's going to be important. In the Middle East, it takes on a special significance. And the fact is, it has created an ability to do things that was probably not possible before. And in a sense, the willingness of the President and the Secretary to constantly be engaged has made the work of those like Mark and me a lot easier than it might have been, because we can draw on their involvement and the relationships that exist.
That kind of personal commitment is embodied in what you're going to see in the next few days, because the President will have a series of bilaterals. He will meet with Prime Minister Rabin; he will meet with Chairman Arafat; he will meet with President Mubarak; he will meet with King Hussein. He will meet with them individually, and then he'll meet with them collectively -- first in a working session, then in a working lunch. And the purpose is to work in this group to figure out how we can do more to deepen the peace; to give it the kind of character that will produce the cooperation that we seek; to think about how one can build on it; and to ensure that there's a kind of ongoing dialogue among the five of us to continue to promote the process.
In addition, the Secretary will inaugurate for the first time a U.S.-Israeli-Palestinian trilateral. Now, that trilateral committee will work to promote cooperation among the Israelis and Palestinians. In light of this agreement, we will work to explore and identify and develop cooperative projects, certainly in the economic area, certainly in the area of water production. But we will be an ongoing part of trying to continue to enhance the meaning and the significance of what they've agreed and look for ways to build on it.
So from the standpoint of the significance of the gathering, from the standpoint of the significance of the agreement itself, from the standpoint of how we try to use this to mobilize support from others as a way of building the confidence of the parties involved in this and giving it a new momentum to push forward, I think the events that you'll see over the next few days are going to be significant in terms of Middle East peacemaking.
Why don't I stop there, and Mark, why don't you join me in terms of questions we may get.
Q Dennis, there's seems to be some conflicting signals coming from Damascus. The Syrian government is opposed to this agreement, at least publicly -- some of the statements. But the Syrian ambassador to the United States, Ambassador Mualem, seems to be suggesting that this is a good step forward and it now could help lead to progress on the Israeli-Syrian front. Is there any opening on the Israeli-Syrian front, and will those direct negotiations resume any time soon?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Well, we have been working quietly on the Israeli-Syrian track. And that's an effort that's going to continue. There are differences there on both substance and procedure that have to be overcome. At this point, we haven't seen any indication that suggests that Syria is not serious about wanting to pursue peace. On the contrary, what we're getting are clear indications that they do want to pursue it. And so long as we feel that there is potential to make progress there and overcome the differences, we're going to make the effort.
I can't predict how soon you're going to see progress there, but I can predict that the effort that we're going to make is going to be consistent. And we continue to believe that it may yet be productive.
Q Dennis, didn't you think you might be a little farther down that road than you are at this point? And what, in your view, has been the problem -- principal problem?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: We would have wanted to make progress as quickly on that track as we could have. I would like to see us -- I'm sure all of us would have liked to have seen us more advanced on this particular track.
The reality is, it's a difficult negotiation. It is a difficult negotiation, involving both security and non-security issues. We have made some headway in the non-security issues. We felt we made some headway on the security issues. But we've hit a point where the gaps that exist on both the substance and also how you get at the substance have slowed down the nature of that process.
At this point, our sense is that while the gaps are significant, they are gaps that, with the right kind of political will on both sides, can be bridged. And we will make the effort to try to overcome those gaps.
Q Didn't it seem to you, though, that Assad would be in danger of the guy left at the station while the train rolled down the track? And it seems he's been willing to run that risk, doesn't it?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Well, in the end, President Assad will always be the one who makes the judgment as to when certain decisions are appropriate, just as the same is true for Prime Minister Rabin. This is a negotiation that poses hard challenges to both sides. We know from the discussions that we've had from both sides that they're prepared to engage on those, but we don't yet know whether what they each feel they can do is sufficient to overcome the differences that exist.
Q Who's coming for Syria?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: The Syrians will be represented. We don't yet know exactly who they will send. That's up to them. They have agreed that they will --
Q Who did you invite? What Syrian representative did you invite?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: We sent an invitation to the Syrians and, as with many of the -- really, in the case of all the invitations, we left it up to the local governments to determine who they would send.
Q What's the status of the remaining issues between the Israelis and Palestinians that were not yet done as of yesterday, that have to be done by tomorrow?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: There are a few loose ends that exist, which isn't surprising, given the intensity with which the agreement was initialed -- the process that led to the initialing of the agreement. But the agreement was initialed. They are discussing the loose ends now, and there will be a signing tomorrow.
Q You spoke of deepening the process and a new momentum that's going to come out of this. In a tangible way, what are you talking about? Are we going to see anything real, or is it just a mood, or what?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Well, certainly in the discussions that we will have, we will focus on what can be done at a political level to promote cooperation; what can be done at an economic level among the parties. We'll also want to look at what can be done even in a security sense to deal with some of the challenges that the parties face as they seek to go forward.
You have an unusual collection of key actors in the Middle East who will be here. And it creates an opportunity to have discussions and exchanges among all of us. In some ways you have -- you take advantage of such an opportunity to compare assessments, to make some judgments on what you think might be the most useful way to either deepen the process or to build on the process or to work on next steps.
Q And will any Saudi representative be here?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: The Saudis will be represented, yes.
AMBASSADOR ROSS: At this point, given the -- given some of the -- the short period of time that we had to deal with the logistics, I prefer not at this point to get into who's going to come from them. But they will be represented, and tomorrow you'll get a full list.
Q What about the Lebanese?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: I would expect that the Lebanese will be here.
Q To the -- of what comes next, you made it sound like the lunch session and the working sessions are sort of brainstorming sessions. Is there any particular new proposals that you are going to put forward or that anyone is bringing to the table on any of the tracks? And is there a unique opportunity to perhaps do that, having this many leaders concentrated in one room?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: I think in the first instance, when you deal with the other tracks, obviously, initiatives and ideas and proposals are best reserved for those particular bilateral negotiations. In the case of the Israeli-Syria negotiation, that's something -- the forum for that discussion is best left, I think, to a different setting.
In terms of -- between the Israelis and Palestinians, clearly there's a lot that can be discussed. One of the annexes to this agreement is an annex on cooperation, and cooperation here is something that is very important, obviously, as it affects Jordan and as it affects Egypt as well. So having the Egyptians, Jordanians there with the Israelis and the Palestinians and ourselves gives us a chance to look at different kinds of possibilities in the area of cooperation that is laid out.
In the economic area, it's the most obvious one because that's an area where you can -- especially for the Palestinians -- you can have the greatest single effect. We have known from the very beginning that underpinning political progress with real economic development and investment and cooperation was essential. And one of the things that needs to be discussed with these other parties is also how one works on commercial relations, trade relations, because there's a complicated interrelationship there -- not only between Israelis and Palestinians, but Israeli and Jordan, Israel and Egypt, Palestinians and Egypt, and Palestinians and Jordan. So there will be an opportunity, especially in that area. But I wouldn't necessarily limit it only to that.
Q Are you going to be proposing anything in particular along those lines, or on the diplomatic lines -- anything new that hasn't been put on the table before?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: I think what we'll be doing in the first instance is sort of highlighting some of the areas where cooperation, especially in economic areas, would be of greatest benefit, and then see how you might go from what is a theory in fact the practicality of changing the reality on the ground.
Q What range of pricetag would an economic support program carry? And given that Congress is in a mood to cut funding and the Middle East Development Bank hasn't quite met initial expectations, where's the money going to come from?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Well, at this point, one of the things that we need to do in terms of the donor effort is not so much pledge new money. That's not what's required. The amount of assistance that's been pledged by the international community to respond to Palestinian needs in truth is sufficient. The problem has not been the pledging, the problem has been the delivery. And the problem has also been not just in terms of delivery, it's been in terms of targeting. We need to come up with an approach that streamlines the process of pledging and delivery. And we need to come up with an approach that targets much better what are the economic needs.
Now, we restructured our own aid program to focus less on a large number of small projects and more on a smaller number of larger infrastructure projects. We will have a donor's committee meeting here. We will have a meeting at the ministerial level of the ad hoc liaison committee tomorrow afternoon. That's really the core group of the donors. And what we will try to do with them is work through and begin to develop a consensus on how we can both streamline the flow of the assistance, how we can target it better, and how we can ensure that there's more of a cumulative effect to the projects that are being pursued. So there's much more of a kind of complementarity than has existed up to now.
Q Ambassador, from what we read and hear in Israel, from Israel I should say, it seems that the public there, the public confidence in the peace process itself has been eroded to a certain extent by the bus bombings and the other terrorism that have happened over there recently. Do you think what's going to happen here tomorrow in this ceremony realistically will accelerate that, will cause those forces over there to trigger more of these bombings, or do you think it will lessen those attacks?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: You know, I think you have to look at this from two difference kinds of perspectives. Perspective number one is that there are obviously enemies of the peace process who are not out to try to kill individuals but are out to try to kill peace itself. They don't carry out bus bombings because they want the process to go forward; they carry it out because they're trying to stop it. The more desperate they become, the more they're going to continue to engage in these kinds of efforts.
What one hopes for is that the Israeli security capabilities and the Palestinian security capabilities can choke off these kinds of acts that, as I said, have no purpose except to try to destroy peace. One can't predict these kinds of things. What one can see is that if you have a new relationship between Israelis and Palestinians, that you can create new possibilities and new hope.
One of the things that terrorists tend to try to prey on is a sense of frustration and hopelessness. What we seek to do in this process and what those who have the courage to make the decisions to reach agreements seek to do is to build a new hope for the future, not stay trapped in the fears of the past.
Q Is there any understanding at all in the agreement that the Palestinian side will do anything to try to curb this?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Oh, absolutely. There's a very long security annex that deals not only in terms of what the Israelis will do but also on coordination between the two sides. And there are very extensive mechanisms that have been set up to enhance the level of coordination.
Q Last time Andrey Kozyrev came here from the Russian side. He played a major role in the 1993 signing. Who is Russia sending?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Andrey Kozyrev.
Q He'll be here tomorrow?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Yes.
Q What role, if any, will the U.S. have in any security arrangements to make ensure this agreement?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: We won't have a role in the security arrangements for this agreement. This has been something that has been worked out very extensively by the two sides. As I said, you will have extensive coordination. They have all sorts of mechanisms for that. It's broken down almost district by district. And I can tell you that, you know, while there was a tendency to focus on a variety of other issues at the very end of this process, those were not the hardest in reaching an agreement. They were hard only because they came at the end of the process when you had to close.
The negotiations that really stretched from May through June focused entirely on the whole question of how you dealt with security and how you reconciled the respective needs of both sides. So this is something that is an important piece of it. There's a separate security annex to the agreement. It was clearly a driving force for the Israelis in their whole approach, not only to the security annex, but in reality to the agreement as a whole.
Q Can you tell us the loose ends that have to be cleared up before tomorrow? There were some reports the Palestinians are saying there needs to be something in there about when the Israeli pullout actually begins.
AMBASSADOR ROSS: I don't want to get into the details. There aren't that many to begin with. There are a few loose ends. And they -- and they are talking about them now. Based on their discussions and what I've heard, they're working through them.
Q Dennis, the reason this signing ceremony is at the White House, could you tell us the -- was this an Israeli initiative, a Palestinian initiative, or a Clinton initiative to get the signing ceremony here? Why is it being held here?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Trying to go back and look at who originally raised it first, even for someone like me who usually remembers every detail, is a hard thing to actually recall with great precision. Starting back in, I would say in May, I think the -- there was an expression of interest from the Palestinians. We, ourselves, even though we hadn't yet discussed it with them, felt that it made sense. And it made sense for reasons that I alluded to previously.
When we do something like this, it makes it -- it makes it much easier to mobilize international support for an agreement like this, but not only international support but also regional support. And the more you're able to demonstrate both, the more you sort of give those who've agreed to this, a shot in the arm psychologically, but also you take advantage of what is another milestone that has been achieved and you use it to try to effect the donor effort.
And what I said before is, with a political breakthrough you can get at the dynamics of the donor assistance effort. We had obviously been working hard in a continuous way on the donor effort, but the fact is, being able to mobilize support and produce changes, and create a kind of new dynamic in it, is far easier to do in a context where you've had a political breakthrough.
Having an event here, which allows you to mobilize the kind of international presence -- regional presence -- is something that is helpful to the parties and it clearly is helpful to the donor effort. And we also saw it, as I said, as being another way to demonstrate that the landscape in the Middle East has changed.
Q But doesn't it -- don't you lose some symbolic importance from having it here rather than in the region itself, as was the case between Israel and Jordan?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Well, the --
Q Doesn't it look like it's an externally -- gives the appearance of an externally imposed --
AMBASSADOR ROSS: You've also got to look at the process. We had the Washington Declaration between Prime Minister Rabin and Kind Hussein here in the -- last summer. And that was where there was a declaration to end the state of war and they met publicly for the first time. Their peace treaty was out there. Bear in mind this is the second step in what is a three-phase process.
So, clearly, where we are now, we thought it was useful but it wasn't only us. The Palestinians thought it was useful and then the Israelis thought it was useful, as well. In the end, we wouldn't have done this unless there was desire on the part of them to come here. There clearly was a desire on their part to come here. And, as I said, initially, I think the Palestinians were the ones who raised it, but we were thinking about it. If they had wanted to do it elsewhere, that would have been fine with us, too. But we saw how you could actually give this whole process and mobilize the international community at the same time a real push.
Q What is the status of the donor effort? How many countries, how much money totally has been pledged, and how slow or how behind are some of these countries in their pledge --
AMBASSADOR ROSS: One of the problems here is that you had initially pledges that totalled about $2.4 billion spread over five years. Now, some countries made pledges for one year; some countries made pledges for five years; some countries adopted a posture that they would sort of gradually meet out their pledges over the five-year period. We made a five year pledge. The European union, representing the -- all the countries of the union -- made a five-year pledge. Many other countries have gone one year at a time.
And part of the reason for the slow evolution, at least initially, was that the Palestinians didn't have their house in order. If you look back, the Declaration of Principles was September 13th, 1993, and the fact is the -- a charter for PECDAR, which became the Palestinian agent for dealing with the development of process and the assistance process was not even confirmed until the middle of May of 1994, until after the Gaza-Jericho Agreement, which was the first step in implementation, had been concluded. It took them time to begin to set up the kind of mechanisms that responded to our effort, the World Bank's effort, to create transparent and accountable mechanisms to handle assistance. And then it took time to sort of settle, in fact, on agreement on the right kinds of priorities and the right kinds of projects that should be pursued. So you got a slow start from that standpoint. And I think there was a certain rhythm that donors got into as a result.
Now, in the last several months, there's been a change. If one goes to Gaza now you'll see that there's a lot of new investment from the outside, there are a lot of new projects. And you're beginning to see the emergence of the effect of the donor effort.
We can't be satisfied with that because now you have --we've crossed another threshold. You're going to have Palestinian self-government in the West Bank and, having crossed that threshold, just as this agreement must be implemented very well and effectively from day one, so, too, the donors must also find a way to accelerate the process while at the same time making their assistance effective. It doesn't do a lot of good to put more assistance in there and finance more projects unless the projects really reflect the kind of coherent approach to development.
Q Dennis, what is the -- (inaudible) -- of this agreement, if any, for those who either very much desire or very much fear eventual creation of a Palestinian state?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Well, that's an issue -- the whole issue of sovereignty is one of those issues that has been reserved for the permanent status discussions that start in May of next year. This agreement has clearly been designed to create a basis for self-government for Palestinians in the West Bank. But it does not get into the territorial questions, and it does not get into the sovereignty questions. That's reserved for the permanent status.
Q Does it make such creation easier or more -- (inaudible) -- the process?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Well, obviously it's creating a Palestinian authority, but it's not getting into the territorial dimensions.
Q What is the date for the Palestinian elections?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: That's an issue that's tied up with the redeployment. There are actually two options out there. This is one that they will finalize. They don't need to finalize it in advance of the agreement. The two choices have been related to the redeployment. The Palestinians all along wanted to be certain that Hebron would not be treated unlike other cities on the West Bank. And the redeployment is very much driven by the time it will take to build bypass roads. And so the redeployment in Hebron will take about six months.
If the Palestinians want to have elections only after all the redeployment is concluded, then the elections will take place in the spring. If they want to have elections earlier and make special arrangements for Hebron, then they would take place earlier.
Q Is that one of the loose ends --
AMBASSADOR ROSS: No, it's not. That's not a problem --
Q What will Hussein and Mubarak and Kozyrev and the others do tomorrow during the ceremony? Will they speak; will they sign anything?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: We will have -- you will see that we will have not only the people who have negotiated the agreement signing and the leaders signing, but there will be a large number of witnesses who will also sign.
Q Including Kozyrev and --
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Yes, yes.
Q -- Gonzalez, I heard was going to be here and sign. Is that right?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: You will see a large number of witnesses who will sign.
Q What is it they sign? How many documents?
Q When do we get all this information?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: There will be a -- I leave this to the lawyers, because this part, I'm less informed on. But my understanding is, at the end, you will have the signature blocks for the two parties and then you will have the signing for the United States President.
Q A single document?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Yes.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 1:50 P.M. EDT