THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY
The Briefing Room
9:05 A.M. EDT
MR. MCCURRY: Why don't I start -- there may be a couple things I can say more usefully on background, but I'll start on the record.
The President's announcement today is the result of intensive diplomacy that began on Wednesday as the violence erupted in Israel and the territories and in the Gaza. We have had -- the United States has had literally dozens of telephone contacts over the last several days with the Israelis, the Palestinians, the Egyptians and the Jordanians.
The principal negotiators, or principal participants for the U.S. have been, as you know, Secretary Christopher, who has talked at least three or four times with Prime Minister Netanyahu; Ambassador Dennis Ross, our Special Middle East Coordinator, who has been on the phone maybe 10 or 15 times with Chairman Arafat and with Abu Mazen -- he's kind of the number two person in the Palestinian Authority command.
And the President has followed all of these conversations very closely, suggesting at several times different approaches to Secretary Christopher. Our initial work, beginning Wednesday, was focused on getting the parties in direct contact so they could address the questions that have arisen in the last week, and also so they could reach some formula that would allow them to resume their direct negotiations on the central questions at play in the Middle East peace process and in the Israeli-Palestinian structure of agreements that are embodied in the Declaration of Principles.
While those conversations were very detailed, it was very clear as went through the day on Friday that they were not likely going to find a way that they could directly meet on their own in the region. Our preference always in this process is to have them make -- have them participate in discussions directly with each other because that invests them in more -- they have more of a stake then in reaching conclusions and then in implementing those conclusions. But in this case it was apparent that it was going to require our facilitation and the facilitation of others to bring them back into a position where they could address their differences. So on Friday we began to explore different ideas of how we might structure a meeting of the Prime Minister and the Chairman that could lead to some acceptable outcome.
There were different discussions about doing it in the region, different discussions about who should participate from the United States, whether Secretary Christopher should go, how we should structure our own diplomatic involvement. And during the evening on Friday and during the day yesterday, what developed was a consensus within our government that this is a moment of genuine crisis for the peace process itself, and the risk associated with a very high profile conference here in Washington was worth it, given the enormous progress that has been made in the peace process and the danger that would exist if we took a step backwards from the progress that we've made.
That being the case, the President agreed with the recommendation of the Secretary of State late last night that we extend invitations to the parties to come here. The President talked about three times with the Secretary of State last night in Boston, including once around midnight, and the invitations were extended to the Prime Minister and to the Chairman. And very early this morning invitations were also extended to King Hussein and President Mubarak.
As you heard from the President, President Mubarak has a schedule conflict. We are genuinely hopeful that he will be able to resolve that conflict so that he can participate. He is a highly valued voice within the Arab world for those who have sought peace and who are working to implement peace.
As to what we expect to happen, the details are still at this moment being worked out. Ambassador Dennis Ross has been on the phone with Chairman Arafat even this morning to talk about the structure of the conference that we anticipate. At this point, and this is subject to change, expect the leaders to make their way to Washington probably tomorrow evening or perhaps early Tuesday. We expect the President and others to participate in a series of bilateral discussions during the day on Tuesday, and then at some point get into a working session in which they can directly address differences. There will then be follow-up conversations, further conversations on Wednesday.
That is our current planning, and as they would say at the State Department, that is a notional plan at this point, subject to modification by the parties.
Q A what?
MR. MCCURRY: It is a notional plan. That's a word they use --
Q What is that?
MR. MCCURRY: It means that they haven't really quite buttoned it up yet.
Q That they will offer --
MR. MCCURRY: That's what they have under discussion already with the parties, Helen.
Q Bilats Tuesday and a wider --
MR. MCCURRY: And a wider session later in the day on Tuesday, and then additional conversations on Wednesday.
Q Both Tuesday and Wednesday, all involving the President?
MR. MCCURRY: Some will involve the President. It might be useful at some points for them to break out into working sessions with the Secretary or even, we would hope, there's a possibility at some point that we would get to a point where the parties themselves would be in direct dialogue.
Q Where will they take place -- State Department or Blair House?
MR. MCCURRY: We're still working on that now. We anticipate some combination of venues both at the State Department and here.
Q What do you hear about the tunnel being opened?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we're aware of reports it has been reopened this morning and that there has been some additional disturbances associated with that. But as the President indicated, there are issues that now have arisen that the parties themselves are going to have to address in their dialogue. We have taken the view that at the very least the parties should not add new complications to their discussion that make more difficult the resolution of the differences that exist.
And what we're trying to do is have -- we are trying to encourage the parties to focus on those agreements they've reached, the positive benefits that have resulted for both Palestinian and Jew as a result of their agreements, and how we can deepen and nurture that peace process that has brought so much promise to the people of Israel and to the people of the territories.
Q Is the total reopening this morning a new complication?
MR. MCCURRY: No, it's the same issue. The issue of the tunnel is a new issue that has arisen.
Q Did you say -- I'm sorry I missed it -- whether the President had talked to both leaders personally?
MR. MCCURRY: No. I anticipate that sometime later today the President will have a conversation with both Chairman Arafat and with Prime Minister Netanyahu to thank them for their willingness to participate and for accepting the invitation, and also to encourage them to come to Washington in a frame of mind that allows progress to be made.
Q So, basically, Mike, the President has been talking with Christopher?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes. We, as we often do, we reserve the President's participation for those moments in which we truly
believe he can make a significant difference in the equation. And as you can see in this case, it was the prospect of a Washington meeting that proved useful in encouraging the parties to arrive at a formula that allow them now to meet and, we hope, to address some of their differences.
Q How much worse is it for the President in the middle of a presidential campaign to bring the parties here where there's no guarantee of success?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, there's -- the last thing we can do is to spend a lot of time calculating the political pluses and minuses at a point in which the peace process is at risk. Whatever political risk is associated with a meeting of this nature is clearly overwhelmed by the risk of a peace process that has always been fragile becoming even more fragile or even more impaired as a result of the violence in the region. That was a principal consideration of the President. He knows that there are other things that he could be doing in the midst of a campaign season, but this is his most important assignment, he believes, as the leader of a nation that has invested so much of its energy and its leadership to the Middle East peace process.
Q But to clarify something that you said earlier about your expectation that initially there will be bilateral meetings followed possibly by a wider meeting at the end, does that mean that neither side has committed meeting face to face, even though both are going to come to Washington -- even though it's conceivable they could come here for bilateral meetings, but not actually sit down together?
MR. MCCURRY: That's -- I don't believe that's the likely outcome. I think we have some confidence that the parties will come here prepared to deal with their differences. And it has always been our view that those differences are best addressed in direct dialogue. That's been the history of this process and that's certainly the most likely direction for these discussions.
Q But is there a guarantee that Arafat and Netanyahu will be sitting down together in a room at this point?
MR. MCCURRY: Beyond what I've said already on the modalities, I have nothing else to offer.
Q When you say bilateral, where does Hussein and Mubarak, if he comes, where do they -- do they sit in on this meeting, and who's -- you mean just head to head?
MR. MCCURRY: Helen, as I indicated earlier, many of these discussions are still underway about how we will structure this. Clearly, the President, given the value he associates with the understanding and analysis of both King Hussein and President Mubarak, will want to visit with each of them individually. But we also see both of them as key participants in the process itself and in the deliberations that can address this moment of peril in the Middle East peace process.
Q What are some of the other issues that have come up besides the tunnel?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the remaining issues in the structure of their dialogue are well-known. They are the final status issues, the ones that are identified in the Declaration of Principles. We believe it is very important for them to accelerate their consideration of those issues and to deal with them. Those issues have been known for some time. The only thing the United States government is suggesting is that we don't believe there should be additional complications added to the hard work that already lies ahead for them.
Q If I could follow up on that -- so there's just one new single issue, and that is the tunnel?
MR. MCCURRY: That's not necessarily so. Both parties in recent months have talked about other issues of concern to them, some of them deriving from the implementation of the Declaration; some of them from the back-and-forth that have already occurred between the parties on issues such as work permits, prisoner exchanges or prisoner releases, the issue of Hebron. All of these have been well-identified publicly and they are among the issues that need to be addressed directly by the parties.
Q There were reports yesterday that this was a two-pronged proposal that Arafat and Netanyahu would first meet in the region and then the water summit. Was that part of the U.S. proposal, and what happened to it?
MR. MCCURRY: That was the kind of hyperventilation the 24-hour news services engage in when they are speculating.
Q Well, hyperventilation from -- we were told by U.N. officials. We didn't make it up. I mean --
MR. MCCURRY: That was not -- they were different, as you were told yesterday and failed to report -- there were a variety of diplomatic approaches being suggested, being discussed, being considered by the parties. And the course of action is the one we've identified for you.
Q Mike, I missed the top so I probably missed this, but I'm confused. So it's not clear that Arafat and Netanyahu will actually meet together here?
MR. MCCURRY: They will be here; we expect them to participate in discussions together, discussions separately. There will be a variety of formats for their deliberations here. We're just are working through the question of how best to structure those discussions.
Q Well, who will be the key from the U.S. side, Christopher or --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, we'll have a variety of participants. Certainly the Secretary of State will be key. The President obviously will also participate in these discussions at the point which his involvement makes a difference. Ambassador Ross will be fully engaged; he's been, I think, doing the bulk of our negotiating. Ambassador Martin Indyk in Tel Aviv, and Counsel General Ed Abbington in Jerusalem, who is our Counsel General in Jerusalem and has been a very valued interlocutor with the Palestinians and literally has been in Chairman Arafat's office for most of the last two days, three days -- are all key to this. I'm not sure how many of them will be participating as part of the U.S. delegation, but I would credit all of them with being very key parts of the diplomatic effort that occurred over the last three to four days.
Q Mike, so far you've indicated at least that Christopher does the Israeli side and Ross does the Palestinian side?
MR. MCCURRY: Not necessarily. Ambassador Ross has been on the phone with Dore Gold and others in the Israeli government. Secretary Christopher principally has talked to Prime Minister Netanyahu, but Secretary Christopher has also talked to Chairman Arafat several times.
Dennis, who has, I think, personal working relationship with Chairman Arafat, has been on the phone frequently with him, as well as others in the Israeli government.
Q Did they actually agree this morning, or was it last night?
MR. MCCURRY: They -- the notion of a Washington meeting began to come together late last evening, and we developed the invitations and put them out last evening, then added to them early this morning invitations to King Hussein and President Mubarak.
Q So they accepted this morning?
MR. MCCURRY: They accepted probably in the late hours last night or early hours of this morning, yes.
Q Were there any conditions on either side?
MR. MCCURRY: No, we've not sought any conditions. We've sought only a willingness on the part of the parties to address the fundamental differences that exist and come prepared to do what they can to restore calm and to end the violence.
Q You said the meeting is more to deal with the immediate situation or also to make specific progress --
MR. MCCURRY: I'd say exactly the goals the President identified: to do everything necessary to end the violence now; to restore calm so that there is a confidence in both the people of Israel and the Palestinians that their agreements will hold; and third, to return to the issue of negotiating the differences that exist -- to further the process that has brought so much promise to both peoples in the last three years.
Q How hard did Christopher press the Israelis since Wednesday on the tunnel issue, to do something to try to ease the tunnel issue?
MR. MCCURRY: I think that issue was identified by the Secretary, but we've always recognized that it would be up to the parties themselves to deal directly on that question as they reach some satisfactory formula.
Q But there were reports Christopher asked, you need to close the tunnel, you need to do something with the tunnel. Then Netanyahu rebuffed the U.S. Were those reports wrong?
MR. MCCURRY: I would suggest that the answer I just gave you is the answer I'm going to stick with.
Q Well, what is the notional plan? What does that mean?
MR. MCCURRY: It just means that they're working out the details of the meetings, Helen.
Q That they what?
MR. MCCURRY: That they're working out the details of the meeting even as we speak. And there will probably be during the course of today and tomorrow some more work on exactly what the agenda -- exactly what the schedule will be. You know, we've got a pretty good idea of the agenda itself, but they have to work on the schedule and the timing and sequencing of some of the meetings. And that will develop during today and tomorrow. We can keep you posted tomorrow.
Q Do you expect more details at the end of the day on the --
MR. MCCURRY: No, the only thing I expect further today if, in fact, the President does connect with Chairman Arafat and Prime Minister Netanyahu later, we'll have -- we'll be able to -- we will not provide many details on those conversations. Suffice to say the President will do exactly what I said: thank them for accepting the invitation, encourage them to arrive in Washington in a frame of mind that would make progress on the issues that need to be addressed. Beyond that, I don't anticipate any other readouts. So we may just have the duty officer confirm that we made connection.
Q Mike, you said at the top that you would speak on the record first and then --
MR. MCCURRY: I ended up saying everything on the record that I had planned to say on background. (Laughter.)
Q Anything else? What's on the President's schedule for today?
MR. MCCURRY: Zip.
Q Is he going to church?
MR. MCCURRY: No. He got back very late last night. As I just indicated, this afternoon sometime he'll probably be making some calls. I imagine he'll go rest a little more at the White House. He had planned to have both today and tomorrow off.
Q Can we get a still of the phone calls?
MR. MCCURRY: I don't think so. You've got the President in the Rose Garden. That will suffice for today.
Q What does he think about the nine-point spread now -- that he's lost so much ground?
MR. MCCURRY: Oh, that, there are different --
Q Hyperventilation at work.
MR. MCCURRY: Everybody -- different people have different polls. I mean, one poll's up and the other poll's down. I don't think it really matters all that much.
Q What are your polls?
MR. MCCURRY: Our polls are about the same that they've been since the spring.
Q You mean a 20-point spread?
MR. MCCURRY: We've never had a 20-point spread in any of our polls.
Q You said that the first time it occurred to anybody to think about a Washington meeting was really late last night?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I did not say that, Claire. I said that there were a variety of diplomatic approaches that began to develop during the day on Thursday. We worked all Wednesday night, all during the day on Thursday. During the day on Friday, it became apparent to us that our principal objective -- you missed this at the beginning -- that the principal objective was to try to get a direct face-to-face meeting between the Chairman and the Prime Minister. That was going to be difficult to achieve given what we heard and what we -- as we listened and as we discussed with them their concerns, it was clear that was going to be hard to achieve. And on Friday, we began to develop the concept of a meeting that would involve other participants either in the region or here in Washington.
Q Do they think Washington is easier for them than Cairo idea that was talked about?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, I really need to leave to the parties to speak. I mean, there are a variety of ideas of where they might meet, either in the region, perhaps in Cairo, here in Washington or different ideas, different avenues that were explored. This is one that seemed to make sense given where the parties were.
Q Mike, I walked in late. You didn't explain why Mubarak has not committed yet?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I just said -- other than that we understand there is a schedule conflict. He is examining the schedule conflict to see if he can participate. And I said how much we prize and value his participation. Within the Arab world he is clearly a voice that has both supported the peace process, understood it, and provided valuable counsel to the United States and to others. But we are certain that in one fashion or another, we'll be in a position to have the views of the Egyptian government as we participate in these meetings.
Q Is he feeling snubbed because he issued the invitation first and now it's --
MR. MCCURRY: I don't usually brief on the feelings of other foreign leaders.
Q Do you have any sense that he would want to boycott it?
MR. MCCURRY: No, I have a feeling that he has been a very heavily engaged participant in these discussions in recent days, and understands the importance of this moment. But I'll leave it to the Egyptian government to talk about his own schedule.
Q Did he indicate when they would respond?
MR. MCCURRY: We just had conversation with him this morning, and I'll expect we'll get back with him later in the day or we'll have some kind of contact with him during the day today or tomorrow.
Q When you talked to King Hussein and Mubarak -- did Christopher talk to them directly or did --
MR. MCCURRY: Secretary Christopher extended the invitations to both President Mubarak and King Hussein.
Q Do you have the timing on that, Mike?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm told in the very early hours this morning. I don't have a precise time. Dawn.
Q That's early.
Q Is the President going to be boning up on the debates?
MR. MCCURRY: Not in the immediate future, obviously.
Q Is that a problem at all, that these days were set aside for that and now it's going to be taken up with the Middle East?
MR. MCCURRY: The President has to order his priorities as he sees fit, and this is his priority right now.
Q Is the first priority some sleep?
THE PRESIDENT: The first priority is to snooze a little bit, yes. No, he will -- that's right -- the first priority is to protect -- let's put it this way, the first priority of his staff is to protect the day off today and tomorrow that he was promised. We've already broached that somewhat.
Q Is that why you're yawning? (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: That's why I'm drinking coffee and getting ready to go home.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 9:27 A.M. EDT