THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY SECRETARY OF STATE CHRISTOPHER
The Briefing Room
3:47 P.M. EDT
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: Well, you've all just hear the President reporting on the results of the summit. I want to do something a little bit different, try to give you a broader perspective on the reasons why the President called for this summit and the significance of what occurred, as well as where we go from here.
The peace process has made tremendous progress in the last three years, but after last week's confrontation between the Israelis and the Palestinians, the peace process was plunged into what I feel was the most serious crisis since it began. The events so eroded the trust and confidence of the parties that the whole structure of the peace process was indeed threatened.
The United States has long been recognized as having a fundamental national interest in seeing that this Middle East peace process succeed. We've been indispensable to the achievements of that process up to this point. The President and I felt we simply couldn't sit by and see this process threatened, put to such a test, without doing everything we could to try to salvage it. The extraordinary circumstances required, in our judgment, an extraordinary effort. That's why the President called the summit, and why we've been here for the last about 30 hours.
We began with three objectives. The first was to bring the leaders into direct contact. Last week's confrontation and the very raw feelings that it engendered made the contact between the parties very difficult in itself. Nevertheless, without direct engagement it was clear that the issues could not be addressed, and hence, President Clinton succeeded in bringing Prime Minister Netanyahu and Chairman Arafat to Washington, together with King Hussein, in order to meet face to face.
Given the intensity of last week's violence and the estrangement between the parties, getting them together was itself a breakthrough.
Second, we needed to try to restore some measure of mutual trust and confidence between the parties. We all know that this could not and cannot happen overnight. But this week, in the last 30 hours, with tremendous encouragement from King Hussein, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Chairman Arafat began the process of rebuilding trust under the leadership of President Clinton.
Third, we needed to find a way to get the parties to intensify their negotiations on a range of issues relating to the Interim Agreement, to make possible the implementation that is so badly needed.
We have done that. The parties have committed to do precisely that, to go back to the negotiations on a continuous and intensive basis for the first time in this new Israeli government. Dennis Ross and his peace team will join the parties in the region to help achieve that process -- progress.
It's certainly true that no single summit can entirely change an atmosphere or resolve all the substantive issues that lay on the table. But we did make a significant and important beginning. We'll continue to be involved, as our administration has made the pursuit of peace in the Middle East a top priority. We'll continue to do everything we can to try to make the peace process succeed.
Q Mr. Secretary, can you confirm the authenticity of an Israeli television report quoting American sources as saying that we have a five-point plan, one for cessation of violence; establishing a hotline between Arafat and Netanyahu; release of all the Palestinian prisoners, some 3,500; immediate canceling of the internal closure inside the West Bank, which would permit the Arab population to move from one city to another; and also, immediate timetable -- setting a timetable for the redeployment around Hebron?
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: Helen, I should have interrupted you at the beginning of that. There is no American plan. We're trying to help the parties to work through these difficult problems. I think the President made a tremendous step forward today in getting the parties back, talking with each other, agreeing to intensify the negotiations and renewing their commitment to a nonviolent future.
I've been through a lot in the last week or so on this problem. I remember in New York trying very hard to get these two parties to talk on the telephone, and then to try to get them to meet together, and was unsuccessful in the second way; that is, try to get them to meet together bilaterally. And then we sought to arrange a summit in the Middle East, in Cairo, and we were unsuccessful in doing that.
Then, because we just couldn't let this matter drift, we couldn't let it go back into the abyss of violence, the President took the unusual step of inviting them here. So those are the things we've been trying to do. And I think it was really quite extraordinary that, after the estrangement and rawness of their feelings, that yesterday we watched Prime Minister Netanyahu and Chairman Arafat meet for, first, an hour, and then another hour, and reports came back that they were still meeting after three hours. Their talk was general, but nevertheless, they were back together discussing these issues.
Q Mr. Secretary, what does President Arafat tell his people? What did he come away from Washington with?
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: I think he tells his people that we're back into discussions with the Israelis, that he's been able to talk to the Prime Minister, he knows him in a different way than he did before, and that he's going to make as much progress as rapidly as he can. He also tells them that for the first time this new Israeli government has been willing to sit down at a rather remote site, a place where there will not be a lot of interruptions, and work continuously on addressing these issues.
Q But if the new Israeli government attaches a priority to this, why will the talks take place at a sub-ministerial level?
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: Well, these are implementation talks, you understand, and they're fairly technical. And it's proved very effective in the past to have talks like this just below the ministerial level. Perhaps more important than that, though, on your question is the number of times that I heard both of the leaders say that if these talks reach an impasse, if we couldn't make progress, for example, on Hebron, then the leaders themselves would reengage. And that's a very good sign.
There was a sign of that today. Over the lunch table, we were talking about when the talks would begin again. The first proposal was that they would begin on Tuesday. The leaders went out and sat by themselves -- that is, Prime Minister Netanyahu and Chairman Arafat -- and decided they wanted to get started sooner than that, or just as soon as they can get back there and get through the weekend. They're starting on Sunday. I think that's the kind of thing that reflects the relationship that has been engendered here.
Q Mr. Secretary, could you tell us how soon you would expect more concrete results? Do you think we're talking weeks or months?
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: Oh, I think we're talking weeks. I think we're talking about a determination on the part of the parties to address some of these difficult issues and get them behind them. We're just coming out of the Jewish holidays in the early part of October, and I think the parties will be in a position to work on this with a great deal of concentrated attention. And I would say, without carrying this too far, that the discussions over the last couple of days, the last 36 hours, have given them a foundation for making progress that they didn't have when they came here.
Q Mr. Secretary, the House Speaker Newt Gingrich has just said, after watching the news conference on television, that he thinks that there has been a lack of thought, a lack of structure, a lack of systematic leadership and a lack of planning. And as a result, he is very critical of the decision to bring President Clinton in at this high level without an orchestrated or choreographed result. Wouldn't you normally have done this instead of the President when there is no guaranteed outcome?
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: The President did take an extraordinary step, there is no doubt about it. But these are extraordinary circumstances. The alternative was to watch the matter cycle down into further violence, with more killings, more woundings. And in those circumstances the President did something extraordinary, and that is to bring the parties here together.
There were proposals -- this was a proposal made in the region that we have discussions before there be a summit meeting. Those discussions could have gone on for weeks. And in that period I think there is no assurance at all that there would not have been a resumption of violence. So, yes, the President took an extraordinary step, but he achieved what he intended to achieve; that is, to bring the parties together, to get them to recommit to nonviolence, and to get the intensified talks restarted.
Q Mr. Secretary, did anything happen during these two days that gives you a confidence that the cycle of violence you're seeking to avoid is now over?
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: I have some confidence that we're in a better situation now than we were four days ago. Not all the problems have been resolved by any means, but when we looked at this matter last Wednesday and Thursday, the parties weren't talking to each other, they were estranged and raw. It took us 12 hours to even arrange a telephone call between them. We couldn't get them to meet bilaterally. And this is quite a different mood that they leave here in -- after the lunch today, if you could have seen them sitting down outside the luncheon room, talking about how soon they could get back into negotiations. So there is some real improvement there, but there are very tough problems ahead.
Q If there were no five points by the United States administration that Helen mentioned, would you like very much to see -- because three points out of these five points that she mentioned are the things, the goals that the President has summoned this conference for. Would you like to see the end of these things and the hostilities -- besides hostilities, the release of the prisoners, and then the closure? And this goes back to my question to the President about the economic conditions that the Palestinians are living under. They are really living under -- below poverty level, Mr Secretary.
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: We'd like to see all the problems resolved, and we would certainly like to see an improvement in the economic conditions. That's why we've worked so hard to try to engage other countries around the world in supporting the Palestinians in providing investment in that area. Yes, that's a key factor. And we hope that the circumstances will enable the closure to be -- to limit it. That was one of the important parts of the discussion here, yes.
Q Mr. Secretary, are you concerned that the tool of the summit, which has been used sparingly in the past, frequently with a pre-arranged result, with the American President's prestige on the line, may have been damaged here by its use for these far more limited goals?
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: No, that was certainly a matter that was carefully considered, but we thought the situation was sufficiently urgent, sufficiently grave, that the risk of violence and chaos was sufficiently great, that it justified the President's intervention. Given the time that the leaders could spend here in Washington, given the time that was devoted to this matter, I think the results have been very good, very promising.
Neither one of the leaders wanted to leave the region for a long period of time. This is not -- this didn't lend itself to a Camp David situation where they would meet for two weeks. Clearly, the leaders wanted to get back to the region because of the tensions there.
But I think that summits should be used sparingly. But, you know, this is something in which we have had a good bit of experience here in Washington. And I think the fact that the President has called these Middle Eastern summits has propelled the matter forward. Now, with the stake that we have in the summit, I think he was entirely justified in bringing back these leaders who have been here before to try to reenergize this process and, frankly, to salvage it, to rescue it.
Q Mr. Secretary, Mr. Netanyahu arrived in Washington basically proposing the deal that seemed to have been agreed upon today. There seems to be no guarantee of a positive conclusion or a deadline to the implementation talks on Hebron. The President begged for days of patience. You've talked about a matter of weeks. If these talks do not end with the implementation of Hebron, will that throw American-Israeli relations into a severe crisis?
SECRETARY CHRISTOPHER: American relations with -- America's relations with Israel are really very deep-seated, they're very fundamental. They're not based upon any single episode. I think our support for the Israeli people, our support for their sovereignty and their security is an enduring concept for the United States. So we want to keep on working with the Israeli government on these problems and many others. I hope we can make good progress. I hope good progress will be made in those discussions.
The United States will do its part. But, after all, it is up to the parties; it rests with them to make the fundamental decisions that have to be made. We're going to be standing there beside them, as the President said, helping the countries that were willing to take the risks for peace. But when you come down to it, the parties themselves will have to make the hard decisions.
Thanks very much.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 4:02 P.M. EDT