THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
BACKGROUND BRIEFING BY SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIALS
December 11, 1995
The Briefing Room
2:20 P.M. EST
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Earlier today somebody said, Curly, Larry and Moe.
MR. MCCURRY: That someone was the President of the United States.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That someone, yes.
Let me, if I may, run through sort of the day's activities and then we can any questions, substantive or procedural.
This is, of course, not the first time that the President and Shimon Peres have met. Shimon Peres was here as Prime Minister of Israel during the Reagan administration -- the first time he was Prime Minister. The President and he have seen one another often in Peres's capacity as Foreign Minister over the past several years. And, of course, they had a chance to speak at the funeral following Rabin's assassination.
This is the first time that they've had a chance to have an extended discussion and to look ahead to where they take issues of common interest, such as the peace process, such as a variety of issues in our bilateral relationship. So it was a good opportunity for them to take stock and to look ahead.
The session started with an extended one-on-one between the two with only notetakers present. The focus of the discussion was almost exclusively Syria. There had been plans for an expanded meeting which this essentially crowded out. But they adjourned and picked up that expanded meeting over lunch, where they were joined on our side by the Vice President, Secretary of State -- was Panetta there -- no -- members of our peace team; and Peres by Ambassador Rabinovich, Uri Savir, who has been one of their key negotiators and other members of their staff. That discussion was sort of a review of where Israel is in its relationship with its Arab neighbors, the countries and neighbors with whom it has signed peace agreements already.
During the lunch, the President took a call from President Assad, a call that had been set up in advance, although we weren't sure exactly when it would occur. They spoke for about 10 to 12 minutes. And as you heard the President say during his remarks, President Assad welcomed the President's assessment of what he had heard from Prime Minister Peres, agreed that Christopher should visit Damascus this week, and that he would join the President and Prime Minister Peres in recommitting himself to moving forward quickly to reach an agreement on the Syrian track.
So that enabled the President to bring together sort of all three parts of the equation prior to the remarks that you've just heard.
I think that's a good place to stop, so open to questions.
Q Any details of the science and technology agreement? Apparently, Israeli astronauts are going to be trained to be part of the crews that will go into space to do what, to observe what?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me give you a little bit of background and facts on that. This is a new initiative which builds on discussions that Prime Minister Peres has had with Vice President Gore and others in the area of water resources -- I think it's hydrogeology is the term of art. You may recall a few years ago then-Foreign Minister Peres was very interested in desertification as a problem.
What we've agreed to do is to organize efforts by U.S. and Israeli scientists working together to develop some experiments which can be used aboard our unmanned space crafts, aboard the space shuttle, and, ultimately, aboard the space station when it is launched and up and running. As part of that, we will be identifying and training Israeli astronauts to participate in the space station program. So this is something that will probably have a fairly long lead time, but the commitment has now been made.
Q Why is the President more optimistic now, more hopeful than he's been ever that the Israeli-Syrian negotiations are going to bear some fruit?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think you heard him express it in his own words. There is -- the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin has focused attention on both sides on the importance of what Rabin was doing and what is being done, and on the importance of moving ahead with it. And I think it's not much more complex than that.
Do you want to comment on that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. Let me just interject for transcript purposes that some of you may know that Ambassador Dennis Ross has just returned from the region. He was there from when to when?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He came back on Friday.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. And my colleague was also there. So, for transcript purposes, I'm just taking note of that fact.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me just add to what I think my colleague was saying. There is little doubt right now that the sense of what's at stake has been heightened in the aftermath of the assassination. And as a result, what we have certainly heard from the Syrian side is that they are determined to try to move ahead quickly.
Frankly, in some of the earlier discussions that we had had, there was no real sense of urgency that was being conveyed on their side. And we're hearing that stated somewhat differently. You heard Prime Minister Peres here talk about how he's determined to fulfill the legacy and act on the legacy of Prime Minister Rabin, but that he, too, is determined to move ahead as rapidly as possible. The essence of what we heard today I think is something that reinforces what we heard last week. Both sides are serious; both sides say they want to move as quickly as they can. The challenge that we face now is to see whether or not that level of general commitment is something that is translatable into specific decisions.
And the Secretary will be going out at a time when we clearly feel from both sides a willingness to engage with greater energy, and at a time, as a result of that, we, too, are prepared to engage in a greater energy. We have always said, as long as we took both sides to be serious we would be serious. What we feel now is not only that there is a desire for peace, but there is a different kind of intensity that each side seems to be prepared to offer. And it that's the case, we'll offer it as well. But I think it's too soon to judge precisely what this is going to mean because we're going to have to get out there and see, as I said, how the general gets translated into the specific.
Q Is the fact that both sides are willing to progress based on the fact that Peres is more willing than Rabin to develop policy that would leave the Golan Heights entirely within the occupation of Syria without security development, and Assad senses this and is willing to do this before the elections in Israel where Peres may lose and no longer be in office?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I don't think that's it. I don't think there's anything to that. The reality is that what I think matters here, as I said, is the assassination has reminded everyone, but clearly those in Syria, of the stakes. The assassination, as the President said, has also made it very clear that people like Prime Minister Rabin were prepared to commit themselves to an effort even if it meant exposing themselves personally, and I think that has had an effect.
Q Well, was the question of early warning station brought up? Was the question of a regional meeting in the area brought up? And what did the President mean when he spoke about new idea -- any notions about what was new in Prime Minister Peres's message to him today?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, anybody who knows Shimon Peres knows that he's a very creative guy who thinks in big terms and in strategic terms. And I think what the President was referring to was having been exposed for a full hour-plus to the thinking that the Prime Minister has done not just in the period since the assassination, of which he's done a great deal, obviously, but reflecting a career at the forefront of the peace process and where it should lead.
I think it would not be appropriate for us at this point to get into a lot of details as to what was or wasn't discussed, but I can tell you that they took a very panoramic view of the problem and how to go about dealing with it.
Q I understand that Mr. Peres was asked or proposed to come with some new principle about the process. Maybe you can summarize some of them. What are the new principles that Peres brought with him to the President about the negotiations with Syria?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think one of the things that's been important is that on the Israeli side there's been an effort, especially with us, to sort of review where we have been, how the process has evolved and what lessons might be learned. And in the course of doing that, I think what we have seen from the Israelis is an effort now to see the totality of all the issues and how they might fit together in a way that has them focusing more on all of the issues, meaning not just the security arrangements, but all the issues -- the content of peace, the scope of withdrawal, the security arrangements, the time frame, the broader region at work and how it fits into this. All of these are sort of reflected in the thinking that is there now.
And there wasn't as such new principles that were offered, but there was a somewhat, at this time anyway, a broadened and enlarged approach to how to think about the process of peacemaking.
Q That is still procedure. I'm trying to understand if there was something on the essence of the negotiations.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I wouldn't get in -- I would steer you away from trying to get into the details of individual issues per se.
Q Two questions; first one logistical. Where was the Prime Minister when the President spoke with Assad?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That conversation took place while we were at a lunch with the Prime Minister, and the President went upstairs. I guess --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President had been at lunch; was informed five minutes into the lunch that the call was ready; went upstairs into the residence; took the call. He was physically in a different place.
Q My second question is more on substance. Based on your trip there and events that have transpired up until now and the news that Christopher is going, what are your expectations out of Damascus when he gets there?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think the first task now is to begin to see, as I said, how does one take what our general commitments to wanting to reach an agreement, general statements of seriousness, and how does one begin to translate that into postures that will reflect themselves on substance and procedure. There's obviously going to have to be an interaction between the substance and the procedure. We also have to find a better way to engage in very serious negotiations. We have to find a way to move from where we are to where we're going to need to be.
That sounds obvious, but the fact is, in this track, we have gone through a variety of different kinds of efforts, trying always to come up with some sort of mechanism that would really be a serious, practical way of solving problems. And up until now we really haven't had that. We've had discussions. We've had, at times, interesting discussions, whether it was between the ambassadors or whether it was between the chiefs of staff. But trying to come up with some sort of more intensive, practical way of tackling a -- identifying problems in the first instance; identifying points of convergence; identifying where you might have issues that you don't agree on, you don't disagree on, but you can begin to find some common language to deal with them on -- we have to be able to move beyond what amounts to what has been discussion channels and create very practical negotiating channels.
Q So we would move to a higher level as a result, do you think?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think, at this point we're not going to make a judgment on precisely what's the best mechanism for doing that. What is important is that we create such a mechanism. And that's one of the things we'll be looking at.
Q The previous mechanisms you're saying didn't work so you have to find something new now?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm saying that what we've had -- maybe you will end up creating a mechanism that is very much like what we've had, but it will be different in character in terms of its effectiveness, its meaning and its ability to tackle the issues.
One of the problems is, have we really been able to tackle the issues. From time to time, the answer is yes, in a way that gradually allowed us to begin to reduce some of the gaps. But if, in fact, there's a seriousness and desire on each side to try to move much more rapidly, then you're going to have to have a different character to the kinds of mechanisms that exist.
Q To follow up on that, did the Prime Minister express the feeling that maybe the time had come for him to have a face-to-face meeting with President Assad?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think that as you heard President Clinton say, that meetings -- when you're talking about countries making peace, obviously, at some point in that process leaders have to meet.
Q Are we at this point? Are we still far from this point?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: At this point I couldn't make a judgment on exactly when something like that would happen.
Q -- principle and agreement between -- a mutual agreement before the Secretary goes, without going into details of what format the resumption of the negotiations will be, is there on principle an agreement to renew those negotiations as of now?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: At this point, no.
Q At this point?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: At this point, no. Let me add one thing to that. What has, I think, come through very clearly is that unlike in the past, we don't see either side imposing conditions. And that's an important change.
Q In this space, science and technology agreement that the United States will be signing with Israel, will the results of the experiments and the tests be shared with the region or the countries, Jordan, Egypt or others? And the second point, there has been talk all the time, reports in the papers that Syria is not really in a hurry, Syria is not really in a hurry. Even the seventh of this month, with the -- so what is the shift? What is the change? What made President Assad welcome this opportunity and be more positive about it -- and more advice about it? Any shift you see in their policy, in their approach?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me answer that briefly and then turn the first question over to my colleague. What we have clearly heard -- what the President heard today in his phone conversation, what I heard last week -- is that President Assad is putting a greater emphasis on wanting to do this quickly than has been the case before, and at least in terms of the conversations with us and, in fact, even if you look at their media, they're putting more of a premium on the issue of time than was ever the case before.
Ultimately, as I said, the way one needs to judge these things is obviously going to be how does it translate in terms of the negotiating process and the results.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The question of the space station experiments, the outcome from these experiments would presumably be available on the same basis with similar experiments involving other countries. For example, there have been Saudi experiments and the Saudi astronaut which have participated in shuttle flights; there have been Ukrainians, there have been Japanese, et cetera. So this would be in accordance with that general policy.
Q On the Pollard case, the President seemed to be saying that he would look kindly on a new request for executive clemency for Mr. Pollard. Is that an accurate view on the subject?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think you just read it the way he said it. There isn't currently a pending clemency request. He would review it on the same basis he would any other at such time as one is forthcoming.
Q Wouldn't he take the letter from the Prime Minister into some sort of special consideration? A normal clemency request doesn't actually have a letter of support from the Prime Minister of a friendly country.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, I would refer you to his comments on this.
Q What's the status of talks concerning upgrading the U.S.-Israel strategic relationship, and how important do you think that might be in terms of Israel reaching peace with Syria?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, as the President said, support for the U.S. -- for Israel's security is the bedrock of our relationship with that country and our approach to the region. It's something that over the span of several administrations has been given a lot of consideration. We've tried to be responsive to Israeli concerns that they maintain a qualitative edge in the region. And I think the record of this administration would stand comparison with any other favorably in that respect.
In terms of where you go from here, you're starting from a very high base. Certainly there is a willingness to look at ideas for how to improve our cooperation, what we can do to maintain the qualitative edge, what we can do to, as the President said, ensure that Israel is supported as it takes the risks for peace. Exactly what that might mean in the near-term or the long-term will have to be the subject of further discussions between the two.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me just add to that. As my colleague was saying, the really -- there are two dimensions to this. One is the bedrock of the U.S. commitment to Israeli security exists in and of itself. It's longstanding in nature. It has been strong. It is today and it will be in the future. The other dimension of this is in the context Israel pursuing peace that the President has made it an article of faith, an article of his policy that as Israel takes risks for peace, our job is to do all we can to minimize those risks. So I think you take the two dimensions of this together and they obviously create a certain kind of relationship, and they are going to continue to do that.
Q -- of the two sides want that kind of a strategic alliance, or not? I mean, do you want to upgrade it into a formal treaty, or not? Did Peres ask for it?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: First of all, on the issue of formally upgrading it to a treaty, I think the question you are posing is in fact something that is still a question that hasn't really be raised, it hasn't really been posed.
There is obviously a relationship that we have with the Israelis is one that has been described as a strategic partnership and that in itself has enormous meaning. Whether that's something that would be made more formal would depend upon the interests of both sides in wanting to see that done. At this point, I think that's not the kind of thing that is really being seriously explored. It isn't to say at some point it couldn't be.
Q Just to clarify a point in the Pollard letter -- did Prime Minister give the President a letter written by late Prime Minister Rabin or did he quote from that letter? We've been told by the Israelis that he'll be presenting that. Could you clarify what it was he was given --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It was a letter from Prime Minister Peres as Prime Minister.
Q Did it quote -- we've been told about a letter that Prime Minister Rabin had written. Did he quote from that? Did it include that letter?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't know if there was a direct quote, but it was a letter --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There wasn't.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There was not a direct quote.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There was a reference.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: A reference.
Q Did that also give the letter by Rabin? Is that right?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No.
Q Could you read us the letter? (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No.
Q Could you give us a sense of what the rapport was like between the President and the Prime Minister being that this was there first real meeting aside from the condolence visit, particularly comparing how the President approached this meeting compared to how he approached the first meeting with Rabin about two and a half years ago when he came as Prime Minister?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think you have to remember the backdrop here which, the last time the two men had seen one another was at Rabin's funeral. And I think that was very much on both of their minds as they prepared for this, a sense of the historic moment of where we are in the peace process in the wake of that dramatic event. And I think it's fair to say that there was a sense of sobriety that distinguished it, perhaps, from previous discussions that the two men have had.
But that did not impede a very good and rich give and take or discussion of where you go from here. And these two are able to speak very freely with one another. They've had a lot of experience doing it, and this was very much in that same vein. So it was a good discussion.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: One I thing I would add, anybody who watched their joint appearance out there after the meeting -- what you saw was, I felt, a kind of unbelievable poignancy. I mean, having -- this meeting takes place in the aftermath of what can only be described as an unbelievably traumatic event, and it has had an effect on both of them. And that's not surprising. What it does is convey, I think, if anything, a stronger sense of their own bonds and their own need to work closely together. What it has done is also create this kind of redoubled sense of commitment and a sense of mission on the part of both. I think that's one of the reasons you saw the kind of poignancy that was embodied in their two statements.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Just to reinforce that point, because both of them had very special relationships with Prime Minister Rabin -- that is, the President and Rabin and Peres and Rabin. And I think both of them feel very much the loss of the person who was for both of them a partner. And that's when the President spoke of his pledge to Shimon Peres to be his partner. I think what you saw there was a very personal commitment on the part of the two of them to try to find a way to fill the void that's been created by the tragic loss of their common partner.
So I think what you saw forged today in their meeting was a new partnership for peace in the Middle East, a common commitment by Peres and the President to fulfill the legacy of Yitzhak Rabin.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me just add one fill-up in terms of color. I don't know that it's been announced, but it is the case that Leah Rabin spent last night in the residence as the guest of President Clinton, along with her two children. And they had a wonderful time together reminiscing. And Mrs. Clinton gave Mrs. Rabin a tour of the White House decorations. And I guess the President did the same thing for the Prime Minister as he was departing today.
Q I want to go back to Syria and the shift that is apparent in this upcoming --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Is it a really important question?
Q -- has taken to Syria and this will be the -- Are you bringing us something new about -- is Syria putting a timetable into this whole thing? Was President Assad telling the President Clinton that we would like to move quickly? Because someone said that emphasis on doing it quickly than before. What is the urgency? Has the success of the Palestinian agreement with Israel, has the success of the agreement the peace treaty with Jordan, and other implications have motivated the Syrians to move forward than before, or what?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not going to try to define motivations. All I can do is sort of convey what it is we're hearing. And what we're hearing is a clear-cut desire to move quickly, and what we're hearing are positive kinds of statements to that effect. As I said before, what it important now is for us to see whether the general statements of commitments on both sides can be translated from a general level to something that's specific.
Q Any person of note, like tell Mr. Peres, by Assad to Peres through the President, anything which might indicate a recognition of the fact that Peres is indeed in the room or next door?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't know.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that President Assad was aware that Prime Minister Peres was, in fact, in the White House when this was taking place.
Q Was aware, or wasn't?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Was aware. Was aware.
Q Any personal message, like, tell Mr. Prime Minister I'm sorry about --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Not in those terms, no.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you.
END 2:47 P.M. EST