THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR-DESIGNEE SANDY BERGER The Briefing Room
8:30 P.M. EST
MR. BERGER: Dennis is going out in a just a few minutes in Israel to talk more specifically about the agreement. I'm going to leave the questions about the details of the agreement to Dennis. Let me try to put the events of the last few days in some kind of time sequence perspective for you.
About an hour ago the President received a phone call from Chairman Arafat and from Prime Minister Netanyahu. They had just initialed the agreement in the presence of Dennis Ross and others from the Israeli and Palestinian delegation, as well as the American delegation. They were both quite upbeat in their conversation with the President. They both expressed very deep gratitude to the United States and to the President for the U.S. role and for the leadership that the President has exercised here, and to Secretary Christopher. And they particularly were very, very grateful to Dennis Ross for the extraordinary work that he has done on this.
Just to put this back in time sequence for you: As you'll recall, this negotiation grows out of the meeting that the President convened here in September 1996, soon after the incident involving the tunnel and the violence that erupted consequent and associated with that. The President, as you'll recall, invited the Prime Minister and Chairman Arafat here, and they agreed at that time to continuing ongoing negotiations with a U.S. presence and with a U.S. negotiating role.
Dennis Ross, our chief Middle East negotiator, made his first trip to the Middle East in mid-September and returned here just before Thanksgiving, after having been there for I think over a month. At that point, things were somewhat stalemated. The President directed that Dennis return to the United States for consultations, which took place with Secretary Christopher. And the President made the decision then, soon before Christmas, that Dennis should go back to the Middle East, which he did I think a few days before Christmas. And he has been there since. I hope he packed a larger bag than I guess he anticipated.
During this period there have been ongoing discussions between the President, Prime Minister Netanyahu, Chairman Arafat, King Hussein, President Mubarak. Secretary Christopher has been deeply engaged in these negotiations. The President referred to telephone conversations -- I know the Secretary started about 6:00 a.m. on Sunday morning and was on the phone, I think, all day on Sunday with leaders of the various parties.
I think quite an important development occurred over the weekend when King Hussein decided to travel to the area to meet with Chairman Arafat and Prime Minister Netanyahu, and as a result of those discussions I think helped break an impasse that existed over the issue of a timetable for further redeployments. This, I think as the President indicated, is a very important step forward. I think the parties believe that, and there's obviously a great deal of work to do, but it is now -- takes place in the context of having taken this very important step forward.
Q Sandy, how was the impasse broken as far as you know, and what role -- what specific role did the U.S. play in those closing hours?
MR. BERGER: Well, again, I want to leave the details of discussing the specifics of the negotiation to Dennis, who is there. But I think during this period, Ambassador Ross and his team have tried to be honest brokers between the parties, have tried to be creative with respect to both communication between the parties -- which I think has been aided by this process -- trying to convey the concerns of the others, as well as trying to be creative with respect to bridging differences between the two. King Hussein brought some ideas with him when he came to speak over the weekend, and I think that began a process in which we came to closure.
Q Sandy, is there anything the President did in the last week that helped this process?
MR. BERGER: The President has been on the phone repeatedly, first of all --
Q Can you be as specific as possible about the President's --
MR. BERGER: Yes. The President has spoken over this period with -- has communicated over this period with the Prime Minister, with Chairman Arafat, with President Mubarak, with King Hussein -- these are contacts that have been taking place over the weekend. He's had a number of conversations with Secretary Christopher, most recently yesterday -- a very long conversation about what was happening and where the logjams were and what role we might play. He's had conversations with Dennis Ross. I have briefed the President several times a day on --
Q Was there any specific time where there was a logjam and the President had to step in? This is what --
MR. BERGER: I think the President's role throughout this process has been indispensable, and I think both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Chairman Arafat tonight made that very clear, that this agreement could not have taken place without the United States in general and without President Clinton specifically.
Q What else can you tell us about the phone call --
Q Wait a minute. Can I just follow that very quickly? You didn't mention Netanyahu in the weekend phone calls. Was that an oversight?
MR. BERGER: I don't have a -- we will try to get a more detailed chronology. There have been phone calls, letters, and other communications directly and indirectly over this entire period from the President.
Q But I guess we were trying to narrow it down to these last few days, Sandy.
MR. BERGER: Yes. The President spoke to President Mubarak I know late on Sunday night and has had previous phone calls over the last -- previous contacts over the last several days with all of the parties.
Q What else can you tell us about the phone call that the President received? Both Arafat and Netanyahu were on the line simultaneously?
MR. BERGER: No, Chairman Arafat came on the line originally -- initially. Actually, I believe Ambassador Indyk initially came on the line. And then Chairman Arafat spoke with the President; and then Prime Minister Netanyahu spoke to the President. The President then spoke to Dennis Ross. And then after the phone call he called Secretary Christopher to congratulate the Secretary.
Q Did the President give Dennis Ross any new instructions as to what the next step is for him?
MR. BERGER: Come home and get -- get a good night's --as I recall what the President said is get a good night's sleep and I hope you're on the next plane back home to come see your family.
Q This is really the first step that the Netanyahu government itself has taken since coming into office -- concrete type of step like this. What does it say, do you think, about the Netanyahu government?
MR. BERGER: Well, I think the parties of both sides have made a very serious effort through a very difficult negotiation to try to bridge some differences. I think it's a very encouraging step and I think it suggests a commitment to honor the agreements and to try to continue to move forward towards -- with the peace process.
Q Was the President's contribution in the nature of a specific suggestion, or was it more a general exhortation?
MR. BERGER: Let's go back -- let's just put this back in context. In September of 1996 there was violence, widespread, in the Middle East. And in a situation that most people thought it was not terribly advisable, the President decided that it was better to bring the parties here and to get them talking. And the parties agreed after a great deal of strenuous effort on the part of the President to come to Washington, to stop the violence -- to work to stop the violence, and as a result of those negotiations, to enter into a negotiating process.
I'm not sure anybody thought in September that we would be -- it would take until January for this to be accomplished, but I think from the very beginning, it's been the President's prodding, the President's impetus that has driven this, and, obviously, Dennis on the ground, with Secretary Christopher very much involved.
Thank you very much.
END 8:40 P.M. EST