THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
BACKGROUND BRIEFING BY SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL
The Briefing Room
3:55 P.M. EDT
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: This has been a fairly intense morning for me, starting from when I came in at 6:00 a.m. this morning and found that my computers were all down.
I think you saw at the signing ceremony some sense of what I was watching inside closed rooms throughout the morning in terms of the ambience of this affair, as I think Prime Minister Rabin emphasized in his own public remarks.
This was a series of events, a series of meetings which reflected a good deal of maturity, a relatively high degree of comfort among the participants. The discussions which in some occasions involved us and the parties bilaterally, in some cases obviously involved all of the people represented on the stage at the signing ceremony, were very cordial. They were very substantive. There was a lot of give-and-take in all of these sessions. It was very worthwhile; in some cases, it was downright historic, speaking specifically, of the five-part meeting in the Oval Office of the leaders.
Why don't I just run through sort of the sequence of events, and you can either stop me at the end of each event to ask follow-on questions there, or I can take them generally at the end.
The first meeting was with Chairman Arafat. It went for about a half an hour and, on the President's side, was marked by an attempt to emphasize to the Chairman that the Chairman's presence in the Oval Office was a major step which reflected an evolution in our own relationship with him and with the Palestinians; that the agreement they have reached with Israel is a fundamentally important one which will change the ways that Israelis and Palestinians will live with one another. And it's very important that the Palestinians live up to those commitments that they have made -- important both in terms of the success of the agreements themselves and in terms of perceptions of the Palestinians and what they represent in the United States.
You're probably aware that Congress is considering an extension of the Middle East Peace Facilitation Act, which enables us to provide economic assistance to the Palestinians. Chairman Arafat will be doing a lot of lobbying, talking on the Hill over the next 24 hours. And the President emphasized the importance of his making unequivocal his determination to live up to the security obligations that the Palestinians have undertaken in all of their respects.
For his part, the Chairman made clear that that was very much his own agenda. As he said in his public remarks, he realizes that the violence that we have seen over the past year on occasion is directed as much against Palestinians and what they're trying to achieve as it is Israelis. He talked about, and described in some detail, the efforts that he has made to try to get better control of the security situation in Gaza and Jericho. He gave some examples of the kind of difference that it's made as a result of his efforts, pointing out that when he arrived in Gaza, it was difficult for women to walk down the streets in Western clothing; whereas, now, as a result of the Palestinian authority's efforts and the stands that they've taken, that sort of thing is much less common.
So it was a free-flowing discussion. I think the Chairman was delighted at finding himself where he was sitting, and it showed. I think you saw that in the photo ops.
The Chairman was delighted at finding himself where he was sitting, and it showed. I think you saw that in the photo ops. Let me pause there for a second and give you a chance to react to that part.
Q Did the President emphasize the same thing to the Israelis that they, too, had to live up to their commitments?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm going to come to the Israelis in a second.
Q What kind of elaboration did Arafat give the President on how he would try to guard against future terrorism or what he's done so far to guard against terrorism?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, he talked about -- described his efforts to, on the one hand, engage elements of the population in a process that would make them understand that they had something -- they had a stake in his and the Palestinians' overall success, and on the other, his willingness to take specific steps to get a better handle on the security situation. It was that kind of a conversation. He didn't tell the President how many people he arrested last week, but he did describe steps that he had taken.
Q Did he elaborate on this business, or is this the first time he has mentioned a joint capital in Jerusalem?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You mean his public remarks? I'm unaware of a previous reference, but I wouldn't want to be held to that.
Q You don't know what he meant by that? Or do you?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I wouldn't want to try to interpret his statement, no.
Q He was talking about a joint cornerstone.
Q Was this, in fact, the first time the Chairman was hosted in the Oval Office?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He had been in the Oval Office with Prime Minister Rabin prior to the September '93 ceremony, but he had never had a meeting with the President bilaterally in the Oval Office. So that was a precedent.
Q Considering the lobby on Capitol Hill, did the President promise or offer any kind of assistance in approaching Congress and helping the Chairman lobby on the Hill?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Not as such, but he made clear that there are a lot of people interested in this question on the Hill and that it was very much in the Chairman's interest to be aware of that and to deal with the issue in an effective way.
We have, in fact, been engaged for a matter of months now in consultations with the Hill on extension of this legislation which is so important to our ability to back up the peace process.
Q The world community pledged $2.4 billion assistance for the Palestinians; they got, so far, only $600 million. How much is the U.S. itself is behind, and what is the administration planning to do?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay, we're getting away from what's happened today to sort of general policy. I'd refer that to the State Department, where they're discussing exactly that issue this afternoon.
Q They did not talk about this at all, the money issue?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We did talk about our willingness and commitment to support the Palestinian-Israeli peace process in concrete terms and in that context, specifically the meeting that we're holding at the State Department this afternoon.
Q One more question about Arafat.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me get that one back here, and then we'll come back to you, and then we'll go to the Israelis.
Q The timetable for withdrawal of the security forces -- has there been a --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Why don't we do that in connection with the Israelis, because it was after that meeting that this began to happen.
Q In the photo op before the meeting, Arafat was asked about the status of the West Bank in the future. He said he definitely expected it to become a state. Did he repeat that in his conversations with the President? Did that come up?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No.
Okay, the Israeli bilateral part of this essentially was in two major parts. There was a larger meeting involving seven on each side, which was devoted largely to a description by Prime Minister Rabin and Foreign Minister Peres of the process that had produced this agreement. Peres, of course, was in Taba, on the scene, in touch with Rabin throughout, and gave him a fairly dramatic description of last-minute snags and how they had been resolved.
And at one point, the Prime Minister said that he had told Peres, get this thing done; the last thing I need is to break the Holy Day when I have to bring this thing before the Knesset very soon. So it gave the President, I think, some sense of the atmosphere in which this deal was closed over the weekend. And I think he found it very interesting.
This was followed by a one-on-one between the two. I don't have a detailed readout of that. It was about a 15-minute session. I know that they discussed Syria. I'm not going to be able to get into any details in terms of that discussion. But, obviously, with this significant agreement behind them, both wanted to exchange impressions on where we go from here on the Syria track and how we deal with some of the procedural issues that have prevented progress over the past couple of months.
It was at that point, after the discussions with the Israelis, that -- well, I guess, actually, intervening was the meeting of the five. And why don't I go ahead and get that out of the way, and we'll come back to the hang-up.
President Mubarak, King Hussein, Chairman Arafat were brought into the Oval Office with their foreign ministers, or, in the case of Jordan, prime minister -- for a very important moment -- the first time that these five had been in the same room together ever. It made a great picture, and it produced an extensive and quite substantive discussion which will result in a statement which we will be releasing later this afternoon which will be entitled, "Statement of The Washington Declaration for Middle East Peace."
It focused on a number of areas: first of all, the Amman summit which will take place in late October and which will be devoted to regional economic development. In that context, the importance that the regional parties attached to the establishment of a Middle East development bank -- something which we have endorsed and strongly support -- and it was a fairly detailed discussion of how you do it, where the problems lie, the importance of getting this wrapped up before the Amman summit, et cetera.
Q We're attending that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We are attending. Secretary Christopher and Secretary Brown will be leading our delegation to the summit.
Finally, there was a lengthy discussion of Bosnia where the President describes in a good deal of detail the current state of play, and there was an extensive exchange of views on the significance of this issue in terms of Muslim relations with the Europeans, with ourselves, their place in the world. It was quite meaty and there was a lot of participation from all of the parties. It probably occupied more of the time of that discussion than the others, and it spilled over into what became a discussion of closing the last loose end on the agreement itself.
Let me talk a little bit about that. The issue that arose and was being discussed while the five leaders were meeting had to do with the timing of the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the area around Hebron. I'm not going to be much more specific than that in describing the problem. I think you should get that directly from the parties themselves. But while the five-way discussion was going on, Dennis Ross, who had been engaged in the discussion with the Israeli negotiators, came in and informed the group that a snag had been hit; that Prime Minister Rabin and Chairman Arafat needed to caucus briefly. And they and the President adjourned to the President's private dining room, where the problem was laid out. And the President emphasized to them at that point that it was very important, with the world waiting out there, to get this problem resolved, and that they had come so far in this that they really should be able to resolve this last detail.
He then withdrew and returned to the meeting with President Mubarak and King Hussein and continued, actually, the discussion of Bosnia and some other matters. About eight minutes later, I would guess, the two came out and announced that they had reached an agreement, and the proceedings continued.
They moved into the Map Room -- to the Cabinet Room, where the maps had been laid out for the two leaders to initial. The President saw these for the first time. I don't know if you'll see pictures of them, but they're big portfolios, about this thick, these kinds of dimensions, with very detailed maps of how this is all going to work. And he had a chance to go through them, and remarked at the degree of detail, the amount of work that had obviously gone into these things.
I think it visually brought home to him how much work these guys have done. Hussein and Mubarak then watched, with the President, while the two leaders went through the process of initialing these maps, which had, on a previous occasion -- the Cairo Agreement of May 1994 -- also delayed the process for several hours while these kinds of issues were straightened out.
I think the bottom line was, the President provided the venue and the context which enabled these two guys to come to closure on this last detail. And what could have taken a long time was resolved in fairly short order.
Q This was on the timing of the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Hebron?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: From Hebron and the area around it.
Q That was the snag, and that's what they straightened out?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That was the snag. That's right. There was a question of how to describe that process in the text. There was not really a disagreement on the concept, as it turned out, but the wording was what they had to work their way through.
Q Who had the objection to the wording?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: My understanding was that the wording had been left a little unclear. Both sides acknowledged that when this deal was cut over the weekend and that they knew that they were going to have to deal with this and hadn't been able to quite work their way through it by the time we got to the point where people were beginning to tell them they needed to sign the maps.
Q Was the text corrected or amended right then and there?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There was a pen and ink change made to the text. Yes.
Q A what change?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: A pen and ink change made to the text.
Q The problem was the timing of the withdrawal itself or --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The timing of the withdrawal. That's right.
Q And the Chairman wanted the withdrawal to start earlier or --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You'll have to get the details from the two parties. I'm just not going to get into that.
Q Did this, in fact, delay the actual signing ceremony?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It probably delayed it 10 to 15 minutes, but --
Q The maps --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. It took longer to sign the maps, actually -- or probably as long to sign the maps as it did to resolve the agreement. So I don't want to -- I think it would be a mistake to inflate this into sort of something that threatened to break the deal at a certain point. As you saw from Chairman Arafat's answer to the question that he was asked as whether this was done, I think both parties essentially considered this done when they came here this morning. And this did come up. They have very meticulous, careful working for them, and they were able between them to work it through.
Q Five or 10 maps, 20 or 30?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Twenty-six.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Twenty-six each of three volumes.
Q And a volume for each side?
Q They signed all the maps?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They initialed each page.
Q Twenty-six maps times three, or 26 in total.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Twenty-six times three.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Right.
Q -- new problems, one about the when the actual withdrawal would take place, and the maps as well?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, the maps were not a problem. Let me emphasize that. There was no hangup involving the maps, the representation of the maps themselves. It was how it was described in the text. So in that sense, it was different from what happened in Cairo in '94 when the maps were presented and objections were raised at that stage.
Q The statement that you're talking about that you're going to release later, does that deal exclusively with Middle East economic development, or is that sort of a communique that's --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. It's a communique-like document. It's not a long document. It's about, if I recall correctly, five paragraphs, obviously taking note of what's happened here today, the context in which it occurs in terms of the broader Middle East peace process. But there are specific elements which focus on the -- for example, the Amman summit, the need for all the parties to cooperate, along with other interested parties in helping the Middle East become a safer, more prosperous place.
Q U.S. document?
Q The President presented the document as something that he thought reflected the importance of what was happening here today, and felt that it did a good job of doing that. It was read right there; they had a chance to comment on it. There were a few suggestions which were incorporated, but it was not a contentious discussion at all. I mean, everybody felt quite comfortable with it.
Q At what level was Syria represented today, and by whom in the end?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Syria -- I have been told that Syria was represented by a counselor of embassy. I did not see the person in the flesh, so you should probably verify that. So that's my best information. I can't -- I don't want to confirm that. The same with Lebanon, by the way.
Q To sort of follow up on that, can you point to anything that happened in any of the meetings today that will likely give any impetus at all, any momentum to the Syria-Israel track?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think that the fact that this has occurred is a strong demonstration of the interest on the part of the President of the United States, first of all, and the international community in general, in seeing this track move forward. And I think that that cannot but help in some way. Exactly how, exactly in what terms I wouldn't want to speculate on at this point. But I think that it will have a positive impact over the long-term.
Q How should it be interpreted that only -- that someone only at the level of an embassy counselor from Syria was here, that they didn't send anyone of higher rank?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think you should ask the Syrians that question. I think historically, they have tended to be represented at a somewhat lower level at these kinds of affairs. The fact of the matter is, I believe that they were represented here today. So, clearly, they did not mean to say that they want to isolate themselves entirely from this process. I think that's the important point here.
Shall I describe the last event, which was the lunch, and then we can come back and do more general stuff?
The lunch was fun. It was a big lunch. It involved the Europeans, Japanese, as well as all of the regional players. It was also focused primarily on the Amman summit, the question of a Middle East development bank, and questions like regional tourism and building, literally, bridges between two countries and how they would be financed. It was quite a concrete discussion. It was a discussion that showed a lot of involvement and knowledge on the part of the participants from all of the countries.
The discussion of the Middle East bank, which is an issue where there are differing perspectives among some of the participants at the table -- the E.U., for example, has a somewhat different view of how that should be structured and the sequence by which it should be followed. And we tended to, I think, be a little bit under fire, frankly, in terms of the strong statements of support that they were getting from the regional players and from ourselves since this is something that we have strongly supported.
But it was a good, collegial back-and-forth. And I think virtually everybody at the table spoke. Both the leaders -- the leaders themselves, their number twos, whether it be foreign ministers or prime ministers, as well as the nonregional parties. And it was -- I think everybody enjoyed themselves. It was very animated and quite collegial, a lot of laughter. It was quite candid at times in terms of sort of pointing out loopholes and the other side's position or different country's positions.
Anecdotes -- the President, for example, observed when they were discussing tourism in Egypt that he had last week given the Vice President a book on Julius Caesar's travels in Egypt which he had found very interesting.
So, quite a good exchange, the kind of exchange that you simply couldn't have imagined happening as recently as a year ago.
Q Were there women there?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There were no women there. This was an all-male crowd.
Q Where were the wives?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The wives, I believe, had tea in the morning. I do not believe that there was a luncheon event.
Q Where did all the discussion about the bank end up? Was there any agreement reached on --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think, yes, there was agreement reached that this is an issue that every effort should be made to try to solve before the Amman summit. And I think it's fair to say that the Europeans will go back and take a good, hard look at their position as a result of this. But they've got some strong views, and they believe that they're well-founded. And I assume that there will be further discussion about this.
Q But the goal is to try to announce creation of this entity at Amman?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That would be a good outcome, and I think everybody agreed on that.
Q Will there be diplomatic representation now for the West Bank in Washington?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I believe there will be no change in the status of their representation.
Q Can you tell us about what appeared to us to be a last-minute addition of the Japanese foreign minister to the program? And also, tell us what we can expect for tomorrow.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Tomorrow in terms of additional follow-on meetings? As you saw, the Japanese were there. I think -- I don't want to get into the mechanics of how that all came together. We were glad to have them there. We thought they made a useful contribution both there and in the lunch and generally, in terms of the donor effort; they've done a very good job.
Q And what about tomorrow?
Q The other part of the question -- tomorrow?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Tomorrow there will be bilaterals with King Hussein and President Mubarak, morning.
Q What time?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Do we have times?
MS. GLYNN: I think it's at 11:00 a.m. and 11:45 a.m.
Q During the signing ceremony, Prime Minister Rabin said that he and Chairman Arafat had gotten used to each other. Is there anything that sticks out in your mind from the lunch or the meeting that -- an anecdote that would illustrate that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, you know, the Prime Minister chooses his words carefully, and I would say, in this case, they were probably just about on the money. I watched them together both in the President's private dining room and after the lunch, where they were discussing something as they waited for the motorcades to come. And they feel like they are comfortable being around one another, like they've gotten used to one another. And they talked quite frankly. And they are able to communicate in a way which gets business done. If that is getting used to one another, I think it's a pretty good description.
Q -- in the discussion about the regional bank? Because the problem in the regional bank why what happened in Casablanca, there was some resistance in going ahead and forming the bank before Israel and Syria solved their problems. So they're really related to each other.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, there was no discussion at all linking this issue to Syria. The general assumption is that some kind of financial institution is going to be created. That's not really the issue. The question is exactly how it should be structured and capitalized.
Q The Chairman made some strong comments on terrorism and violence. Was the President satisfied that that clarified his positions on this after his comments and the famous cassettes concerning Jihad and that kind of --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Look, you all heard what the Chairman said. We thought they were very good statements. I think what he is going to find on Capitol Hill and what he's going to find generally is that words are important, actions are important, and it will be very important that there be follow-through to comply with all of the obligations that he's undertaken. That's what's going to make this succeed, and it's our awareness that he has a full awareness of that.
Q The West Bank is not a state and it is an entity. So what is it really in relation to us?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We think that it's something that the parties are engaged in a discussion of.
Q Does it have an international status at all? This is not a facetious question.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No -- I'm not trying to be cute either. This is something that the two of them have agreed that they are going to define. And they are in the process of doing that. That's part of what this was about today.
Q Did President Clinton and Prime Minister Rabin talk about any ideas to move forward the Syrian track?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, I have no doubt that they talked about the subject generally. I wasn't in the room at the time and I am not really in a position to comment in any specific way on that.
Q Mike, when is the congressional --
MR. MCCURRY: -- schedule tomorrow. I think that we're doing --
Q Sound, sound.
MR. MCCURRY: The President does -- I believe the schedule tomorrow is 9:30 a.m. he's presenting the Medal of Freedom in the ceremony that we had told you about earlier. At 11:00 a.m. he does King Hussein first, and then -- I believe King Hussein at 11:00 a.m. and President Mubarak at 11:45 a.m. And the current plan is for the congressional meeting on Bosnia at 12:45 p.m. That's subject to change, to be confirmed later on. But we'll tell you more about that tomorrow.
Q Mike, the transcript today on Arafat's meeting with the President dropped a word. He was asked if he thought this agreement --
MR. MCCURRY: I've heard about this and I know the issue. We have had several people listen to that tape, and our tape we don't have it. If you've got that on that we don't dispute someone who has been able to record that, but we -- the issue was raised; we have looked at it several times and listened to it several times, and we don't -- don't detect that.
I would say on that that if Chairman Arafat made that point, the fact of the matter remains that that is a question that both parties have agreed are final status issues that they will begin pursuant to their agreements in May of next year. So that -- in a sense, that's -- it's an issue for the future. But we have listened --
Q -- that's on the tape.
MR. MCCURRY: We have listened to it, and we don't have it on our steno's tape.
Q We definitely have it on our tape. It's definitely on the tape.
Q It's definitely, definitely.
MR. MCCURRY: Definitely, definitely -- okay. We don't dispute that, but we made a good-faith effort -- we made a good-faith effort to get that on.
We also don't have the exchange -- some of you have asked me about the exchange between Foreign Minister Peres when he noted that there were two -- the two sofa --
Q Oh, pushing the edge of the envelope.
MR. MCCURRY: No, the sofa had two empty spaces on it so you could accommodate some more. And the President did say, yes, there are room for two more, is the best of my recollection.
Q Well, then he said, oh, Shimon, you're always pushing the edge of the envelope after that, he said -- I mean, I definitely heard him.
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, I didn't -- I didn't hear that, but that's --
Q That's when we were being pushed out.
MR. MCCURRY: We had a lot of --
Q -- as usual.
MR. MCCURRY: -- commotion in the room.
Q Helen, I'm sorry you couldn't be there. It was a fascinating meeting. We would have loved to have had you there for the whole thing. Okay, thanks everyone.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 4:26 P.M. EDT