THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY MIKE MCCURRY The Briefing Room
2:47 P.M. EDT
MR. MCCURRY: Did I miss something? One of those days where something's -- thank you for bearing with us today. Why don't I start and tell you all that I'm humanly going to tell you about the Middle East, which is precious little, so we can just dispense with that. He told you that he wasn't telling you anything already.
Just a little bit more on the meeting beyond just -- so you get the sequencing right. The President and the Prime Minister met for about 90 minutes in the Oval Office with their little small group. Prime Minister Netanyahu had with him Dore Gold, one of his chief advisers. The President had Ambassador Albright and Mark Parris there from the National Security Council staff.
They then met an additional 25 minutes, roughly, solely one on one, so about two hours total of meetings today. The President, I think, characterized the meetings themselves just now; I won't add to that other than to say it's obviously a very important juncture now in the peace process itself, and this was a profoundly serious meeting. Profoundly serious enough that we are going to say very little about it for the reasons that the President described.
There is additional work now that needs to be done. I expect Ambassador Albright and Ambassador Ross will see the Prime Minister later today. We do expect and hope to receive a senior delegation from the Palestinian Authority later in the week. There will be discussions with them and then, as the President said, we'll do what we can to see if we can now get the parties talking again to each other.
Q Will the Palestinian delegation meet with the President?
MR. MCCURRY: It's not at all clear at the moment. They just plan to see Ambassador Ross. That's the tentative plan.
Q The words that the President used today -- frank, candid, specific, long -- all sounds like there was very little progress in this meeting. Is that a fair characterization?
MR. MCCURRY: You can characterize what we've said. We've told you it was a serious meeting; they did a lot of very hard work today. There will be more work ahead.
Q Mike, is it a serious meeting because the situation is so dire? Or is it a serious meeting because, in addition to being dire, there's also something in play that's hoping to solve the situation?
MR. MCCURRY: There is a great deal in play, and I think the President gave the Prime Minister some serious things to think about.
Q The President's relationship with the Prime Minister has had its ups and downs, as you know, over these many months. How would you characterize the relationship between the two men right now?
MR. MCCURRY: It's very close, Wolf, and you can tell that in the way in which they do business. The two of them now have gotten to know each other quite well; they speak very familiarly to each other, almost in a brotherly way. They, of course, are contemporaries in a sense of age, and I think that they do business very directly.
Q Did Mr. Netanyahu make it more difficult for the President, box him in in any way by making his statements about East Jerusalem and his absolute refusal to budge?
MR. MCCURRY: No.
Q Mike, you said before, the President gave the Prime Minister some serious things to think about, and we all sort of went "whoa." Is that meant to be ominous, or can you elaborate on what you meant by it?
MR. MCCURRY: No, just as I had indicated before, the President had some ideas he's bringing to the process at this point, and the President conveyed those ideas. Obviously, the Prime Minister, as he said publicly, has some ideas, too, and the importance now is for both -- all sides to work together to see if we can't find some ways in which we create greater confidence in the process that will ultimately restore a sense of security to the people of Israel and the territories and their own personal safety, and then also restore a sense of confidence in the integrity of the negotiating process itself, which is fundamentally important in the view of the United States.
Q Earlier, during the first photo op, the President was asked about whether he supported Camp David -- a Camp David-like process, and he said it was important to get substance more than form. Was that one of the things that they talked about, what the substance would be of any kinds of talks?
MR. MCCURRY: They talked a great deal about the substance and reviewed all aspects of the substantive dialogue that the Israelis have underway at this point with the Palestinian authority, as well as other aspects of the peace process, and they talked also about what the diplomats like to call the "modalities," how you move the process forward. I know that, since we're not talking substantively, you're more interested and fascinated by process questions. I just would suggest to you, they're not at a point where you could even usefully speculate on next steps other than those we've already told you about.
Q Mike, this is a substance question. What was said about not prejudicing final status? What did the President say and what did the Prime Minister respond? And what can you tell us about settlements and new construction?
MR. MCCURRY: I'm not going to get into that detail of substance on their dialogue. The President obviously made clear that wouldn't be helpful and you won't be surprised to hear that I'm not going to go beyond where the President was. I'd say that certainly, from our point of view, we need to see commitments from both sides that make clear the underlying commitment to the integrity of the process and to creating a greater sense of security. That was conveyed.
Q Aren't they at a stage where process is substance?
MR. MCCURRY: That's a good question. (Laughter.)
Q And you would answer that how? (Laughter.)
MR. MCCURRY: I'd say what I already said, that how you gain a better sense of confidence between the parties so that they can continue to address the issues and the differences between them in a direct way is very much a part of what the dialogue -- is part of what the dialogue that we have underway now is all about, fundamentally.
Q This work that you said is going to be continuing today, can you give us an idea of what that means?
MR. MCCURRY: Just more discussion of the nuance of the presentations made and then ultimately an opportunity to review some of these ideas with officials representing the Palestinian Authority and to determine what level of commitment they have to steps that will move the process forward.
Q Mike, it doesn't sound like -- from this profoundly serious meeting, it doesn't sound like there was much common ground. Is that fair to say?
MR. MCCURRY: I think there is a great deal of common ground. When we discuss these matters, particularly as it relates to security issues with the government of Israel, there is a fundamental amount of common ground because of the closeness of our relationship to the government of Israel.
Q Security, you keep mentioning security. Do you mean security for the Israelis? How about the other side? Does the President think the Oslo Agreements are still in effect?
MR. MCCURRY: Obviously, he believes the Oslo process has yielded great benefit. The question now is how to build on the benefit that it has yielded in the past and move forward to resolve issues that are still in disagreement.
Q The President was asked in the photo op this morning about Har Homa again and he didn't take the opportunity to repeat his earlier criticisms of the decision to build there. Has his thinking changed at all?
MR. MCCURRY: No, our views on that question are well known, certainly well known to the Prime Minister. The important point of this dialogue is how do you move beyond any of these disagreements and move into a track that creates more confidence.
As you recall, our criticism of that action by the government of Israel was that it tended to undermine confidence between the parties, and this was a meeting that was very much about exploring the ways in which the parties could build confidence with each other.
Q Mike, the President this morning at the photo op seemed to be saying two different things with regard to ending Palestinian terrorism. In one breath he was saying that you cannot have a bargain about ending terrorism, it's got to be a precondition before the process gets restarted. In that sense he seemed to be agreeing with Netanyahu. But then he immediately added, it cannot be seen to be a bargain. Does the President view ending terrorism as a substantive, unconditional item? Or does he view it as a public relations, perceptual item?
MR. MCCURRY: He just believes that to be a fundamentally necessary part of people living together in peace in that region.
Q Mike, you said that Mr. Netanyahu now has some serious things to think about. Aside from the PLO delegation meeting, does that mean that it's now up to Netanyahu to come back to the President and say, based upon what you've said, we agree to X and we disagree to Y.
MR. MCCURRY: We think there will be follow-up discussions, I suspect numerous discussions, between all the parties as we go forward in coming days.
Q Do you have a timetable and do you have a sense of when the Israelis will come back to you with their thinking on the things you sent them away with.
MR. MCCURRY: There will be, I would suggest, ongoing contact with the parties over the course of coming days.
Q Would you expect an answer on some of these things before the Palestinians arrive?
MR. MCCURRY: There will be ongoing contact. I'm not going to say -- you know, I wouldn't suggest that there is a series of outstanding questions there. I think they had a good question today; they'll look at ways in which they can build on this conversation, factor in the views of other parties, reflect on that and see where we are.
Q When you say that a great deal is in play, are you -- I don't mean this fliply -- are you stating the obvious, because it's war and peace, et cetera, or --
MR. MCCURRY: I hope I am.
Q -- are you talking about developments of the moment?
MR. MCCURRY: No. I hope I'm stating only the obvious and not lending any new substantive information to what --
Q Mike, did you get anywhere on confidence-building today, because there was an idea that the Israelis should make some moves that will build confidence and the other side should as well.
MR. MCCURRY: The President refrained from getting at that level of detail on the dialogue; so will I.
Q Is there still the idea of a summit, with three parties, four parties -- is it still possible, or is it still out of the cards? And are the Palestinians invited by the White House, or just coming to give their side of the story?
MR. MCCURRY: That's considerably well beyond where the dialogue is at that point, always was, and the speculation, as it frequently is in that region, far outpaces what the facts of the dialogue are.
Q Mike, how do you assess the Prime Minister's commitment to get the peace process back on track?
MR. MCCURRY: The President engages him as someone he knows to be fundamentally committed to peace in the region.
Q I'm sorry -- believes him to be committed.
MR. MCCURRY: I said, the President engages him as someone who he knows is fundamentally committed to peace in the region.
Q Mike, does this mean the Palestinians are invited, or they are coming to present their side of the story?
MR. MCCURRY: We already indicated we certainly hope and expect to receive a senior-ranking Palestinian Authority delegation sometime later on in the week.
Q Senator Lott on the Hill today was critical of the President on the budget, saying that he, Lott, had taken risks to try to reach a balanced budget deal, and that Clinton had not reciprocated, and that now the Republicans would have to go ahead without it. Do you have any response?
MR. MCCURRY: It may be neglecting the fact the President did take some risk by defying some within our own party in putting together a balanced budget proposal that he sent to the Hill that required supporters of our party and parts of the Democratic Caucus on the Hill to pay a price they wouldn't otherwise pay. We had to make some decisions that reflected sacrifices on the President's part as we put together a balanced budget proposal and achieved a credible balanced budget proposal that gets the job done, and we await now only from Senator Lott and others any sense that they have better ideas or alternatives on how it might be done.
The President looks forward to discussions later this week, going on into next week, between the White House and chief budget authors on the Hill, then probably ultimately conversations the President would have with the leadership himself.
Q Is the President disappointed by how the pace of the budget talks are going?
MR. MCCURRY: Not at all. In fact, to the contrary.
Q Mike, there's a piece in The Washington Times today indicating that Hillary Clinton was formally notified of the seriousness of the charges against Mr. Hubbell. Does that in any way change your sense of the idea that aides weren't --
MR. MCCURRY: No, I don't -- as a matter of fact, I don't even know whether she was formally notified. I think the article just references the same thing that was in the public domain at the time by early March. The question of whether or not there was some conflict of interest --
Q No -- she got a formal briefing.
MR. MCCURRY: -- proceeding was well-known. I don't know whether she did or not. I'd have to check with Mr. Kendall or maybe you'd want to check with Mr. Kendall.
But it doesn't change our view that the full nature of the allegations pending against Mr. Hubbell were not clear; indeed, the truthfulness of those allegations pending against him were not really known until Mr. Hubbell himself pled guilty to two charges at the end of that year. And we're talking about conversations that occurred, of course, in the spring of the year.
Q I wonder if I could ask about the visit of the Canadian Prime Minister. What does the President expect from the visit? Is he going to have anything to promise him in terms of the U.N. mission in Haiti?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, one thing, of course, the President will say with respect to Haiti is to compliment the government of Canada on its willingness to participate beyond the extension of the current U.N. mission in Haiti -- expiration mandated in July. That is a significant commitment by the government of Canada and the people of Canada, and the United States respects it and appreciates it.
They will also -- the President is very much looking forward to the state visit by Prime Minister Chretien. This will be an opportunity for the two of them to explore a full range of issues that exist between two close neighbors that cooperate so closely on matters affecting the future of Europe; the future of the transatlantic alliance; our relationships here in our hemisphere, particularly with respect to trade; a whole host of border, immigration, environmental issues that really have reflected the great work that we have done with the government of Canada.
And the President, as he's gotten to know Prime Minister Chretien, has really come to enjoy his opportunities to meet with him and to converse with him. And they'll look forward to a full day of meetings tomorrow. They'll explain all of the different aspects of the relationship.
Q Do you expect they might find any common ground on the one issue that seems to split the countries -- Helms-Burton?
MR. MCCURRY: Probably not in the sense that they will resolve those differences that exist. But what they will do tomorrow is join together and agree that there is common ground in the positions of the two governments when it comes to advancing democracy and human rights in Cuba. That's something the government of Canada is no less committed to than the government of the United States. And while we have some political differences with respect to Helms-Burton, they don't undermine or in any way erode the fundamental commitments both governments have to advancing democracy and respect for human rights in Cuba.
Q I'd like to go back to the Middle East for just a moment. In New Delhi today, Arafat charged that Netanyahu issued, in his words, a declaration of war against the Palestinians and the peace process. You just got through saying that the President believes that Netanyahu is fundamentally committed to peace in the region. Doesn't that show a huge gap between the current position of the administration and that of Mr. Arafat?
MR. MCCURRY: No, there are different nuances in the way the parties address the issues that inform the dialogue that they have with each other. And there have been some sharp exchanges publicly recently, and that's one of the reasons why, among other things, the process is at a very fragile point. But we're paring those differences of view and encouraging direct dialogue between the parties as the work that we're about now. And I think on that subject, I've said about all I have to say.
Q Well, just let me try one follow up. In your prospective meeting with -- or meetings, plural -- with the Palestinians, is it going to be one task of the administration to persuade the Palestinians that Netanyahu is not waging war but is ready to wage peace with them? Is that going to be --
MR. MCCURRY: I think our effort will be aimed, as it always is, as a facilitator in this process to get the parties to work together in the common interests of peace, and there are lots of different ways to do that.
Q But, Mike, what the King is suggesting, if I'm not mistaken, is that the U.S. needs to play a greater role than that just as a facilitator, but rather needs to be some entity that brings these two sides closer together, not just an exchange of views.
MR. MCCURRY: The King is always very well informed about the process and about what it needs. He and the President, himself, had a good meeting and his views were very helpful in shaping the thinking that went into the President's presentation to the Prime Minister.
Q But just so I understand this correctly, the U.S. sees itself right now as a facilitator, nothing more?
MR. MCCURRY: We have the role that we have always had in the process, and it's always been one that's been very useful to the parties, we hope.
Q You said that the President gave the Prime Minister some ideas to chew on. Did the opposite happen, I mean, did the Prime Minister ask the United States to do certain things?
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the Prime Minister obviously had some ideas himself and has been saying so publicly. And they had a good opportunity to exchange views on those ideas.
Q But did he come out of the meeting -- you mentioned the fragility of the process at the moment. Did the President come out of the meeting feeling that the process was more fragile than he'd previously thought, less fragile, reminded of the essential fragility --
MR. MCCURRY: Well, the President had a very sophisticated understanding of where the process is, going into the meeting, and a very clear idea of what he wanted to do to try to work through the issues and move the process forward. And he's done that now and we'll see how we make out in the days ahead.
Q So he felt that he had moved the process forward?
MR. MCCURRY: We felt like we had a good meeting today, raised a number of issues and we'll see where it goes.
Q Mike, if you're not willing to say that it moved the process forward -- you're not using words like "optimism" or "progress," is that deliberate?
MR. MCCURRY: Yes.
Q I mean, are you trying to tell us that there's not --
MR. MCCURRY: It's leaving a lot to your imagination. Okay. See you tomorrow. One last one in the back.
Q Senators Kennedy and Hatch plan to introduce a sizable cigarette tax increase tomorrow, to go primarily for health insurance for children, discourage youth smoking. Does the White House plan --
MR. MCCURRY: Right. We fundamentally respect Senator Hatch and Senator Kennedy's commitment to the health of children in this country. We share that commitment. We've got ideas, budget proposals related to much of the same material that will be addressed by the specific proposal that the Senators make. There may be different ways of reaching those health outcomes that we all share. But we think this is a serious proposal that the two Senators have come forward with and we, of course, would be willing to discuss that in the context of all the overall issues that are part of the budget negotiations that are soon to commence.
END 3:08 P.M. EDT