THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
BACKGROUND BRIEFING BY SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL
The Briefing Room
4:05 P.M. EDT
MR. MCCURRY: -- after bidding farewell to the Prime Minister and to Chairman Arafat, has retired to the residence to place a call to President Mubarak of Egypt so that they could brief their valued partner in the peace process on the results of these discussions.
Q That's happened already?
Q That happened or is happening?
MR. MCCURRY: That just happened a short while ago. We have a picture of that.
Q Besides the phone call, Mike, is the administration sending someone, an administration official, to brief the President of Egypt?
MR. MCCURRY: As you know, Foreign Minister Amre Moussa has spent time in Washington. He met this morning with National Security Advisor Tony Lake, and we have been in contact with him over the last several days.
Okay, are we ready? ON BACKGROUND -- THIS IS ON BACKGROUND.
Q Just to get it straight, did the leaders say that they did not want to appear --
MR. MCCURRY: For different reasons, and, frankly, the President gave a very candid answer to that -- because in public these parties -- I should let our briefer do this, but these parties have public positions that are well-defined, and there are differences in those positions. Restating those positions publicly just makes the definition of the differences clearer than the work that is going to occur very shortly to bridge those differences. And I think they wanted to be in a position where they minimize the complications that might attach to the diplomacy that they have to do. And it made a great deal of sense to --
Q Is that statement on background, or is that statement on the record?
MR. MCCURRY: God knows. I don't even know what -- just on the record. That was a little brief snippet on the on-the-record portion of the President's call. Do you have any more on the call to President Mubarak? That's all we would say about it in any event anyhow, being diplomatic.
So mark the tape: we will now go into a BACKGROUND session with a senior administration official.
Q Arafat is meeting with his own press corps today, and so is Netanyahu.
MR. MCCURRY: Yes, obviously. Chairman Arafat and Prime Minister Netanyahu are in a position where they can make their comments and answer questions, and we were fully aware that that would happen.
Q So why not have them speak in the East Room?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, for the reasons the President answered. He answered that question. Clearly, an engagement there would have required response and counter-response, and that makes the work of diplomacy more difficult.
Q One other thing. When the President and the Secretary say we have no plan, is that literal, that we have no ideas, we have no goals, we are not trying to tell them --
MR. MCCURRY: We always have ideas on how we bridge differences. That's a good question to ask our backgrounder, who is here. We will make him available for your questions. I don't want to keep him here very long, because he looks pretty tired.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No context, just questions and answers.
Q No plan, no ideas, no ideas of where they ought to be headed, what they ought to do?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On the contrary. But if we want to go in and help them, we're not going to do so by putting out what the ideas are.
Q Why not?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You go ahead and you surface and idea publicly, you discredit it before you ever give it a chance to work in a negotiation. Our purpose is to try to help them, not to try to undermine what could get done.
Q What can you do in Erez that wasn't done here at the White House, or here in Washington?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, for one thing, you will have the teams of people there who are experts in the issues that they're going to have to take on. They're going to have several committees that will be meeting. They'll be meeting not only to deal with Hebron, they'll be meeting to deal with closure, they'll be meeting to deal with security questions. They didn't have the numbers of people here who are really the key to being involved with those technical issues, number one.
Number two, up until now, this is a government in Israel that has only had, in fact, a couple of meetings in a formal way with their counterparts. They were scheduled to have a steering committee meeting, and then it was rescheduled, and all of the meetings, except for the set of meetings that took place prior to the summit that was set up with Netanyahu and Arafat, all of the meetings tended to be of a very limited nature, and you did not get the kind of intensive, consistent, penetrating discussions that are really required to make negotiations work.
Now, there is a decision that's been made to make them continuous, to pretty much follow the model of what was done in negotiating the interim agreement, which was where you went down and you housed people in a lot, and it was the development of an intensive, closeted negotiation that allowed them to work through a lot of difficult, practical questions.
Q Let's say these talks, or implementation of agreements already reached go forward in the next week or whatever. Is there any agreement that Arafat and Netanyahu will meet again at any time certain? I mean, have you started this process of continuous engagement of the two leaders?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. The answer to that is, one of the things that really changed as a result of having come here is a very different kind of relationship. The Secretary mentioned -- and I can tell you because, actually, the three people who were here spent 12 hours trying to put together the call between the Chairman and the Prime Minister. There just wasn't the kind of communication that you have to have if you're going to begin to break through problems. Obviously, there wasn't a relationship, either. The summit that they had had was a very limited one in terms of time, rather formal, and very well-structured and choreographed in terms of what would take place and what wouldn't; not the kind of meeting that begins to establish a relationship.
Not only did they meet for three hours -- and, today, after lunch, they went into the side room and basically sat together for about 20 minutes. But one of the things that came up during the course of the discussions was that if problems arose in terms of the implementation discussions, they would get involved themselves.
In addition to saying that they would help, be available to steer and provide guidance, they are prepared when they decide that their intervention is necessary to do it not only from a distance, but to get together. And I think what we saw was actually a facility to talk together.
Now, what we had happen yesterday was a long, three-hour discussion that they both felt good about, and as oftentimes happens, you have that kind of a discussion, you cover a very wide range of issues at a general level, and then you start to try to translate the generalities into specifics and you find it's not such an easy thing to do and certainly it's not such an easy thing to do in the space of one night.
Q Does this administration continue to stand by all secret arrangements and undertakings on the part of the Bush administration given at the time of Madrid?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There weren't any secret under -- what are you talking about "secret undertakings"? Do you mean letters of assurance? We stand by all letters of assurance.
Q Can you give us a little bit of the flavor of the luncheon today in the Blue Room -- who was there and what the tenor of the discussion was? And what was discussed?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The way the lunch was run, the Secretary was there, the President, the Vice President. I was there, Mark Parris represented the United States. King Hussein and Prime Minister Kabariti from Jordan; on the Palestinian side, Chairman Arafat, Abu Masen and Sa'ab Erekat; and on the Israeli side, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Minister.
Basically, the way it was run, the Secretary started off by giving a summary of where we had been over the course of the last however many hours we actually were doing this, and after he gave the summary, the President asked if each of the leaders would like to say something, and they basically went around the room.
The thrust of the comments from the Prime Minister and the Chairman was very much oriented towards making clear that they had responsibilities in this process, they recognized that. Arafat in particular said there is no alternative to this process, there has to be an end to violence, this is something that serves both their interests and the pursuit of peace is something that really leaves them with a kind of common destiny. And he was committed to do all he could to try to make it work.
Netanyahu also said that he was committed to pushing the negotiations hard and trying to ensure that there was real progress as soon as possible on very tangible questions.
Q What kind of guarantees did the leaders offer that there would not be a return of the kind of violence that we saw last week, and how valid are those guarantees, given what happened on the West Bank today?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What we heard was not so much a guarantee as we heard a commitment to make best efforts to do all they could, and not every circumstance is controllable from a distance.
Q The drift of it was still to stop the violence?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Correct.
Q As we are talking, Israeli tanks and soldiers are deployed throughout the West Bank and even the periphery, which is under Palestinian Authority, and there is an increased closure, an increased economic hardship for the Palestinians. And I will keep repeating this theme, because it's important for the people to go about their life. Do you have a time frame? Do you have a scheduled time frame? I'm not talking about Hebron, I'm not talking about the tunnel, I'm talking about the daily living. It's my understanding, also, that there is a package of economic assistance to the Palestinians of $60 million. Could you confirm that, sir?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There has been about $60 million that has just been raised for the Palestinians as part of a fundraising effort to deal with their economic needs; it's actually $53 million -- not from the United States, from others who are contributing right now. We have our own assistance, which is part of the assistance that is part of an overall five-year plan.
In terms of the restrictions on movement, there is no question that you have to create a basis on which those restrictions can be eased. Obviously, there is a relationship between the restrictions and the security environment. What we want to see take place is the kind of secure environment that makes it possible to ease the restrictions so normal commercial life can return to the territories, because without the ability to pursue a normal economic level of commerce, without the ability to have Palestinian workers available to go into Israel, you're not going to change the character of development in the territories.
There's a very high level of unemployment, especially in Gaza. And the impact of high levels of unemployment, given the demographics of Gaza and of the West Bank, are bound to have an impact socially and politically in terms of the development of attitudes.
So if you really want to create the potential for peace and normalization and reconciliation, there has got to be much greater openness in terms of the economic circumstances in the territories. That's something that we hope to see. It's something we know from the Prime Minister that he wants to see. So the question is how best to move in that direction. One of the issues they will be discussing starting on Sunday is closure.
Q Could you tell us what is the status now of final status talks? What is the status of issues concerning Jerusalem? And what happened between the two leaders on the tunnel? Did they make any progress at all, or was it a total standoff?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On that issue, I'll just say they obviously did discuss it and they didn't resolve it. With regard to the permanent status discussions, those were mandated according to the Interim Agreement to begin on May 4, 1996. They actually began on May 5 because May 4 was a Saturday. They held one session, and the perimeter status talks have not been resumed since that time.
It is one of the issues that I think needs to be resolved. Clearly, the permanent status questions are the toughest issues involving those questions where each party has really the least political space available. But this is an area where you're going to need all the time available to be able to get there. So I think it's important to see permanent status talks resume.
Now, obviously, at a time when you're just beginning to resume talks and you're going to be intensely pursuing the question of Hebron redeployment, the question of closure, the question of special security measures, including the airport in Gaza, there is a limit as to how much you're going to be able to take on. You have a government that is still relatively new, and to be able to negotiate across the full spectrum of issues is not necessarily the easiest thing in the world to do unless you've developed a very deeply-based structure of expertise across the board. So how many things they can actually take on at this stage I don't know, but at least those three areas they will be concentrating on now.
Q If as you say the atmosphere has been changed, transformed to some extent by this summit, and there weren't any agreements on any of the specific points, then what was it that they either said to each other that changed the atmosphere or that happened? Or was it simply the kind of hothouse atmosphere of a Washington summit with the President and the King looking on, and the expectations engendered? What transpired that changed things, if anything?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think two things happened, both related in a sense to the significance of being able to get to know each other in a way that they had not before. First, the initial meeting that they had in the presence of the President was a remarkably good meeting where they said things to each other that they clearly had never had a chance to say before.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Like, for example, each of them used the same words. Each said to the other, you are my partner and my friend. Now, for an Israeli Prime Minister coming from Likud to say that to Yasser Arafat represents a rather significant leap in terms of at least past attitudes. The same words were echoed by Arafat. Each made the point that there was no alternative to peace. Anyone who thought that there was an alternative was dreaming. And the price of not pursuing peace would be high for both.
Both acknowledged that there were difficult issues and both acknowledged that since they were partners, they had to find ways to address each other's needs. At certain points in their conversations, they each, in a sense, appealed to history as well, and recognized their role in history in terms of trying to reach peace.
Now, I think -- I have no doubt that the environment of sitting in the Oval Office in front of the President probably gave each an incentive to approach each other in a certain way. But I think that helped to break the ice and probably made it easier to pursue the kind of discussion they did.
Now, the significance of three hours is not just that they get to know each other, but it gave each of them a chance to sort of explain why they felt about certain issues the way they did. We knew they'd have to have some period where they would also be able to have some release, to be able to describe areas where they had their own grievances. And then only in an aftermath of having been able to sort of have that kind of opportunity do you then begin to look to find ways to solve problems. I think they convinced each other that there was a genuine desire to try to work together.
Now, the fact of the matter is, the proof is in the pudding. You can't measure it on the basis of one set of conversations. You can't measure it based on what they simply say or what the words are. We'll have to see results, we'll have to see deeds. And words are not a substitute for deeds.
Q Why don't you just take the idea from Netanyahu that, all right, I didn't like the Oslo Accords, I was against them, I've accepted them, I'll negotiate the implementation of that, but after that I'm really not interested? That's what it sounds like.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, first, they've got enough that they have to resolve between them in terms of the implementation, the remaining issues of the implementation of the Interim Agreement. And I feel that, in fact, once you cross the threshold of having worked out agreements you will begin to change the landscape between them. It will begin to further change their attitudes not only about each other, but about what their relationship -- I don't mean individually, I mean people -- is going to be.
We're watching an evolution take place right now in terms of how they see each other, in terms of how you move from suspicion to developing trust, in terms of how you begin to create a basis to ensure that reconciliation replaces confrontation in terms of your future. And what they need to be able to do now is not just talk together, but they really have to sort of cut through the crucible of being able to work out agreements that are hard for both of them.
What doesn't yet exist that existed with the last Israeli government was a genuine relationship of trust that emerged not overnight, because you don't develop those relationships overnight, but emerged because they were able to work out tough things together that were hard for each of them. This government is going to have to be able to do the same thing with the Palestinians. And until they do you won't cross the threshold you need to.
Now, once you do, that makes it a lot easier. I don't mean to suggest "easy," but "easier" to take on what are, after all, the most difficult issues that they are going to have to confront. It's not an accident that these issues were reserved for final status.
Q You keep talking about attitudes. You mentioned attitudes a number of times --
Q When you say that Netanyahu referred to Arafat as my partner and my friend --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm going home and going to sleep. Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'll try to help you out if you've got any other --
Q The quote that he just gave us, saying that Netanyahu referred to Arafat as his partner and his friend would seem to fly in the face of virtually everything that we've seen written about Mr. Netanyahu. Everything that I've seen suggests that Netanyahu despises Arafat. This is a man who has a brother who died at Entebbe.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it underscores the significance of the statement, clearly.
Q This is a direct quote? This is not a paraphrase?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I was not present for the conversation. Will you kind of just double-check that with him before he leaves?
Q How was it arranged yesterday, the one-on-one meeting? That's the first one.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm sorry, say again?
Q How was it arranged, the one-on-one meeting yesterday? That's the first question. The second question, how long Dennis plans to stay there, in the region?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, he's prepared to stay in the region, beginning Sunday, however long it takes as they go into what are continuous format talks. The question of the one-on-one yesterday -- I mean, he will pack a great deal of -- he'll pack all of his clothes so he can stay as long as he needs to.
There's a second part of this question that I need to address. The idea of having them meet for lunch and then having the King and the President withdraw was something that grew out of discussions Monday evening between the President and the King and the others in our delegation. We began to broach that idea with the principal participants in the President's first two meetings yesterday morning to see if there would be a willingness for them to, at some point, engage. And, clearly, on the part of the Prime Minister there was a great deal of interest, and also on the part of the Chairman.
Q Was it discussed before it happened?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It was discussed as they were preparing to go over for lunch.
And he said, yes, that was a direct quote.
Q What kind of role are we going to see the Egyptians play in the --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the Egyptians are highly valued as our partners in the peace process. President Mubarak, like King Hussein, has enormous insights that he brings to the process and their thinking, their analysis, their ability to understand especially the needs of the Palestinian people are highly valued by this President and become a fundamental part of the way that we approach our task as a facilitator of the process.
Q When the Prime Minister and the Chairman met after lunch today it was alone? Was it just the two of them or did they have their spokesmen?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, they were just alone together. There was a lot -- as the lunch broke, as the participants -- frankly, as the President went to meet with some of us, with his staff just to get caught up on other things in the world, there was an opportunity then for the Chairman and the Prime Minister to talk informally together. Some of their other staffs were hovering in the wings, but the two of them sat and they engaged directly with each other.
In fact, even as they were in the Red Room waiting to go into the Blue Room there was a conversation between them back and forth showing, I think, that they've become more familiar in their work with each other.
Q This "you are my partner, you are my friend" comment, when precisely -- do you know when that was said?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't know precisely when. My recollection was I heard that first yesterday, so I believe it was yesterday.
Q Was it at lunch today in the Blue Room that it was decided to start these intensive, continuous talks?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the notion of beginning direct talks on implementation of the interim agreement and identifying Hebron as a high priority issue grew out of discussions that our diplomats had with the delegations that was part of the conversation that went on all night long. The discussion was about how quickly that could be started. There was some back and forth on that point.
Tuesday was originally identified as the starting point for those discussions and then the leaders, themselves, in their discussions said they wanted to advance that to as soon as possible, if not immediately. Originally they said, immediately, but, of course, we're going into religious observances Friday and Saturday. Sunday was the first available moment.
Q One of the problems last week when the violence was sort of escalated out of control was these guys couldn't communicate with each other. Was there anything done to set up the sort of mechanism, a hard mechanism for them to be in touch?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, but there are -- we have some higher degree of confidence now that we'll be able to bring these parties directly into contact as a result of the discussions that have occurred here for the last two days. There are some ideas that could be pursued to that end. But I think both of these leaders have now demonstrated a willingness to participate directly, including in face-to-face negotiations when there are moments of crisis.
And one thing that I should underscore that our previous briefer did, we know there will be additional moments of crisis in this process. This is not an easy process. And there will be other points at which the President will engage, the Secretary of State will engage, others will have to make these kinds of efforts to keep the process moving forward -- because making peace is hard. It's always harder to do that than to, you know resort back to conflict, to the expression of dissatisfaction and frustration through violent means.
Q Has the President signed off on how much he's going to deduct from the next $2 billion tranche?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On the loan guarantees? Yes. That decision was made, as it customarily is, at the end of the fiscal year, so it was made earlier this week. The amount deducted was $60 million.
Q How much?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sixty million, six-zero, deducted from the, I guess the FY '97 allocation. This was a smaller amount this year. This was based on our discussions and identifying the apportioned costs of the loan amounts that are reflected in Section 236.b, I think, of the bill -- whatever the exact provision is. And that was done consistent with the way we've handled the process in previous years. That was the offset -- there were some expenditures made by the government of Israel which then we are allowed under the law to offset. So that was the net amount.
Q How would you characterize, in terms of helpfulness, the Republican comments on the summit over the last couple of days, including Speaker Gingrich's remarks?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Look, they clearly want to make some politics out of that. I'll go ahead and let them do that and then we'll see what the American people think.
Q Would you agree on the assessment expressed yesterday to the question that the essential and most urgent news in this scenario is the redeployment from Hebron, which has been delayed six months -- agreed upon three years ago, and will restore some momentum to the Middle East peace process and trust to the people of the Palestine nation so that there will be tranquility in the streets of Gaza and the West Bank?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I can't project all of those things arriving from that one identification of that issue. But it was significant as the President made his statement on behalf of the leaders today that he noted the particular emphasis they would place on the redeployment at Hebron. That is a willingness upon the parties to address what is clearly an outstanding issue and has now been identified as a priority outstanding issue.
Q When they were doing their departure handshake and the President was looking on as well, all three men looked really, really happy and exceptionally warm. Can you tell us anything about what was happening at that time, what they were saying to each other?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think they -- you know, they retired to the Red Room. They chatted a little bit briefly. These have been very intense discussions for the last two days. There was a very keen focus. You could see how intently each of the leaders were listening to the particular wording the President used at the press conference to address particular questions. You could tell there was a great deal of concentration and intensity in how closely they were doing that.
Frankly, when they walked down the hall and into the Red Room, they began to socialize a little bit. I think a little bit of the pressure of doing these very intense diplomatic discussions was then off and they began relating to each other a little more freely just as individual human beings. There was a lot of give and take between the Chairman and the Prime Minister, between the King. They all know there are serious stakes here. They all know that there is a great deal of work that needs to be done and remains to be done. But they also, I think, consistent with what we said about the personal relationships here, they were able to enjoy a brief moment of a more personal nature, and I think that just happened to be the conversation they were having as the President escorted them out in the South Portico.
Q About these nonstop talks, are both sides committed to stay at the table until there is an agreement on Hebron?
MR. MCCURRY: That clearly was the commitment they made today as stated by the President. They are willing to -- now, obviously, as there often is in these talks, they will occur at a pacing that reflects the human endurance of the negotiators, but they have got the ability, we believe, to really work through some of these issues.
Q Why don't they just get out? They said they were going to. What's the problem?
MR. MCCURRY: Who get out of where?
Q The Israelis get out of Hebron. Why is it so difficult?
MR. MCCURRY: It's a difficult issue because both sides put a great deal of premium on the arrangements for peace that go with the security to those who are in a position they believe because of the risk of taking moves for peace. And that's a complicated formula for both sides to make.
Is there anything else?
THE PRESS: Thanks.
END 4:37 P.M. EDT