THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY AND AMBASSADOR DENNIS ROSS
The Briefing Room
6:21 P.M. EDT
MR. MCCURRY: As you know, the President just concluded a short working visit with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu. The Prime Minister is here in the United States on a private visit, mostly to meet with the Conference of Presidents, but as Israeli Prime Ministers often do, they stop here to exchange views when in the United States. It's also a timely visit given the Prime Minister's recent meeting with Chairman Arafat and also developments in Iraq.
I've asked the administration's special Middle East coordinator, Ambassador Dennis Ross, to answer any questions that you might have. And we're delighted also to have with us the United States Ambassador to Israel, Mr. Martin Indyk.
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Well, I think Mike expressed pretty well what the setting and the context was for the meeting. They met for about an hour. They had a very good discussion. They had a chance to go over not only the peace process in general, but also other regional events like what's been going on in Iraq.
And I think it really was a good opportunity to hear from Prime Minister Netanyahu on his impressions after having met Chairman Arafat and on how best to proceed on the Palestinian track. But also there was an opportunity to spend some time talking about what might be done to resume the negotiations between the Israelis and the Syrians, something that the Prime Minister made very clear he would like to see done. And he is prepared to work with us, and us working also with the Syrians, to see if we can come up with a basis on which to do so, with a formula in which to do so.
And that pretty much was the thrust and the character of the meeting.
Q We all know the Israeli position, which is that they can't do it on a land-for-peace basis. I could phrase this various ways, but we both know what we're talking about. They won't give Syria a guarantee of the Golan as a pre-condition for talks. Does that, number one, slow down your search for a formula? Does it make it more difficult? Do you think it will go down?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: I think one of the key things is that we have heard from both sides that they would like to see the negotiations resume, number one. Number two, they have each approached it with particular kinds of ideas about how to move forward and how to create a basis for the negotiations. If I were to summarize it, I would say, on the one hand, the Syrians want to have some reassurance that the last several years of negotiations have not just been erased. And the Israelis also want to know that as they proceed that they have the opportunity to raise ideas that they think can be productive in terms of negotiations.
Within those parameters we're going to look for ways to find the right kind of formula that would make it possible for both sides to proceed.
Q Well, the negotiations covered more than just withdrawal, they covered security measures, the terms of peace, et cetera. But it would seem that Netanyahu does want to erase whatever implicit guarantee, promise of withdrawal was given by the previous government. Now, are you saying that the Syrians can still come to the table in light of that? Or are you saying you have a job to do trying to bridge between that and the Syrian position?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: I'm saying, clearly, if there was an agreement right now on what it would take to produce the right kind of formula to resume the negotiations, we would already have the negotiations resumed. So we're not there at this point. Having said that, we have heard from both sides very clearly, and it was repeated with some real fervor today by Prime Minister Netanyahu, that he would like to see the negotiations resumed. And our job is to find a way to make it possible, working with the two of them, to, in fact, resume the negotiations and move forward.
Q What does he want to negotiate?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: He wants to negotiate --
Q What's he willing to negotiate? He says that most everything is non-binding to him, everything from the past, per se.
AMBASSADOR ROSS: He wants to negotiate peace with his Syrian neighbor.
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Yes.
Q At any price?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Well, nobody negotiates peace at any price.
Q It doesn't sound like he wants to negotiate peace.
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Well, you know what, he's made it very clear that he does. He's made it very clear that he wants to resume the negotiations. And as I said, the Syrians have told us they would like to resume the negotiations. We'll have to see if we can come up with an approach that both can accept, that both can find as being mutually satisfactory and then build on that to work not just to hold the negotiations, but to try to make some real headway.
Q Do you get any indication of movement on Hebron at all?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: We had, I think, a good opportunity to discuss a lot of the outstanding issues that will be addressed by the Israelis and the Palestinians including the Hebron issue. And what we are going to do is, obviously, be supportive of the efforts that they make directly. They have begun today with a steering committee to meet. They have put together the agenda for how they are going to proceed. They have also come up with various subcommittees that they will use to pursue these issues, including the Hebron issue, but not only the Hebron issue. Also there is the question of what can be done to continue to ease the closure. There's also areas of security that they'll be working on.
And I think what's important is that we have seen with the meeting between the Prime Minister and Chairman Arafat, and also in the discussions that preceded it over the preceding two-week period, we've begun to see the develop of the kinds of channels of communication and development of a working relationship that makes it possible to overcome differences and find ways to overcome differences. We are already now seeing the formal mechanisms move forward, and it's a combination of the formal mechanisms and their own channels of communication that have clearly progressed over the last couple of weeks that I think gives us some hope that, in fact, they will find ways to move forward. And we will help them.
We obviously played a very active role in the period preceding that leading up to their summit, and we will continue to be very active and supportive of both as they try to overcome their differences.
Q -- since there is no pressure from the United States about Hebron withdrawal can be abiding by the agreements that was signed by the Peres government that the issue of Hebron is going to stay as explosive from the Israeli side and from the Palestinian side, because the Palestinians want Israel to get out of Hebron. How could you assist the answer or the -- concrete steps to come into closure or to come to a conclusion of the withdrawal of Israeli forces?
And also, the second point, today or two days ago, the 7th of September, Israel was supposed to be withdrawing from other parts of the West Bank in that process that was signed in Oslo. So what are the concrete steps that Mr. Netanyahu is bringing to fortify and strengthen the peace process and satisfy the Palestinians at least with the minimum requirement that they are proposing to him?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: There was a very clear and, again, unmistakable expression by the Prime Minister that he is going to work with the Palestinians to ensure that the Interim Agreement gets implemented. Clearly, there are all sorts of modalities that they're going to have to sort out to ensure that the needs on both sides, and especially the security needs on both sides, are addressed.
What was, I think, important and was made, as I said, crystal clear by him is the commitment to move forward with them. They have -- this is something that he communicated directly to Chairman Arafat, and the two sides have come up with an agenda for how they will proceed. And they have now developed, as I said, the subcommittees to work on each of the issues. And you really do see on this particular track a resumption and a renewal, and it's that process of discussions between them that is, in fact, going to be used to overcome the differences.
Q You mean that we're going to have a waiting period until things will start bubbling there in the peace process between the Palestinians and the Israelis?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: I mean that you have the kind of re-engagement on the issues that will make it possible for them to move forward. It isn't to say that there won't be difficulties. There's always been difficulties in this process. But there is an unmistakable commitment on both sides to find ways to overcome the differences.
Q Do you see a change in Netanyahu's attitude since the July meeting?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: I think that what we see is a Prime Minister who has now been in office somewhat longer. When he came here the first couple of weeks he just had become Prime Minister. He had to become settled, he had to basically create the whole structure within his government. And at that time he was reporting to us on where he was in that process, his broad kinds of objectives. And, not surprisingly at this stage, he is speaking on issues that he's had the chance to roll up his sleeves and get into. Moreover, specifically, he comes here in the immediate aftermath of having had his summit with Chairman Arafat, which was a historic event and something that crosses a psychological threshold.
Q So do you think that there's a change in his attitude? That was the question I asked -- did you see a change in his attitude since July?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: My sense is that I wouldn't describe it as a change in attitude, but I would describe it as a kind of logical progression from where he was before because he had just assumed the office. Now he's adopted -- as I said, he's been in office for a while and he's just had a very important meeting and he's made it very clear, in a more concretized way of how he wants to proceed. Early on, you know, he really did not yet have a chance to go through everything that he might be doing; and now he's obviously a lot farther advanced.
Q Knowing all the parties as you do, how much can be salvaged in the -- talks?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: Well, I think the key is resume the talks first and then see how best to move forward with them. I mean, we obviously want to resume the negotiations. We want to resume negotiations with some sense of how to proceed in them. And the challenge always for us is not only to ensure that you have negotiations, but to try to make them productive.
Our understanding from both sides is they're not interested in pursuing negotiations that won't be productive. So I can't -- I don't want to predict for you exactly how the negotiations would go once we have them resumed. First things first. We have to get the negotiations resumed.
Q Mr. Netanyahu said that they're waiting now for Syria's response. Does this mean that there is a formulation on the table, an American proposal; and do you agree with him that the ball is in Syria's court? If this is the case, are you waiting for an answer?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: What we're working on is a formulation that we hope can produce the resumption. We still have work to do and this, too, we'll take a step at a time.
Q To what extent did today's meeting hinge on Netanyahu meeting with Arafat?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: It did not.
Q Would you expect the President to pick up the phone in the next day and call Assad and convey some of Netanyahu's thoughts?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: No, I wouldn't expect that. Obviously, there will be an opportunity to convey what we have heard from the Prime Minister, but it's -- the normal practice is, in fact, to convey it at different levels. Clearly, there's always a point when it can be useful to raise the level, but right now I think what we want to do is we want to follow up at a different level and we'll try to work on the kinds of possibilities or formulas that can be used in terms of resuming talks.
Q Is there a possibility that the President will meet with Chairman Arafat at the United Nations?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: I'm not aware of any such plans.
Q Are you able to say how close you are to resuming the talks? Are we days, weeks, months away?
AMBASSADOR ROSS: I wouldn't predict it at this point. I said there is work to be done and, yes, we're going to make the effort to proceed with it. We were very active working behind the scenes to get to the summit between the Prime Minister and Chairman Arafat. We obviously wanted to do everything we could to put that back on track. And we had the same approach, the same kind of impulse to try to put the Israeli-Syrian negotiations back on track, as well.
I learned a long time ago if you start making predictions about when you'll do these things, those are the one set of predictions you can count on will be wrong.
Q When are you going to Damascus?
MR. MCCURRY: We will have David Johnson here in a short while to do a quick read out on the President's meeting with Prime Minister Burton.
END 6:36 P.M. EDT