THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY SECRETARY OF STATE MADELEINE ALBRIGHT
The Briefing Room
2:10 P.M. EDT
MR. MCCURRY: Ladies and gentlemen, the President's bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu will end in a short while. They're meeting privately now. But I thought it was very appropriate to have the Secretary of State come and brief you not only on the sessions held here at the White House today, but also on the extraordinary meetings she's had over this weekend. She's had more meetings related to the Middle East peace process over the weekend than Mark McGwire had home runs. (Laughter.)
I think that's indicative of the role that she has played for a long time in which this process has, quite frankly, been short in making progress. It's been almost a year now since the American ideas were put forward by Secretary of State Albright and others. She has worked tirelessly during that period to try to keep these parties engaged and to keep them in a place where they would deal honestly and candidly with the differences in their positions. That has not been an easy task. I think it's a credit to the Secretary of State that we have reached the moment we have reached today, and it's a testament to her tirelessness in doing this work.
Q I'm curious as to what the moment is.
MR. MCCURRY: Well, she'll tell you more about it. But the long and short of it is it ain't been easy and Madeleine Albright has been the life support system for this process for many, many months. And I think the President and all of us here who understand the degree of difficulty owe her a statement of support and gratitude for the fine work she's done.
Q And Ross --
MR. MCCURRY: The Special Middle East Coordinator, Ambassador Ross, has been no slouch either.
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Thank you very much, Mike, and you're absolutely right -- is that Ambassador Ross has done an incredible job on this. He now has a bad eye to show for it. He's been great.
I'm just ready for your questions.
Q Can you tell us what the progress is, the narrowing of the gaps -- can you fill us in?
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Well, what has been going is that, as you know, our initiative is a comprehensive package with many different pieces to it and we keep pushing those along. And we have been systematically narrowing the gaps on those issues. I had, as Mike mentioned, a number of meetings last week. I had some shuttle diplomacy between hotels and met with Prime Minister Netanyahu twice, Chairman Arafat twice, and we recognized late yesterday that it was going to be possible to have a trilateral meeting last night, which we did very late. And they had not seen each other for a year prior to that meeting.
And at that stage we also decided that it made sense for them to come down and meet with the President in order to go over what we had been able to agree to, and then set out a schedule. And as a result of the meetings today, we will be on this kind of a path, which is that Dennis and I will go out October 5th-6th, somewhere for a couple of days. And then there will be work also going on in the region among the appropriate people from both sides in order to really working on the detailed work of the various parts of the initiative. And then the President has invited Chairman Arafat and Prime Minister Netanyahu back here for some intensive and sustained talks in order to try to drive this to a conclusion and to do what we can.
But ultimately, as the President has said and as I've said any number of times, it is up to the two parties to make the decisions. But we thought that, given the amount of progress that we've made, that it would be useful to have a meeting of some sustained and intensive type.
Q Did the parties accept the 13 percent in principle? Is that something that's now on the table that they accept?
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Well, what I'm saying is that there are a lot of different pieces to this. And I know that this is not a satisfying answer to you, but I'm not -- I know -- but I'm not going to comment on what they've agreed on on individual parts of this. I mean, there are a lot of --
Q Why not?
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Because I'm saying that this is part of a diplomatic effort where these pieces are inter-related and we are going to keep -- many of them operate in parallel, and we are trying to make progress across the board. And I think that it is not useful in diplomatic terms to give you the detailed answers to that question. But we are very close on a number of subjects and that is one of them.
Q What was it today that brought this to the level of a presidential meeting, which does not appear on the face of it to have been anything exceptional or new? Why did it rise to the level of the President's intervention, other than the fact that he may have wanted it?
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: I think that the reason that it did is that we had done a lot of work in the background and it was very important I think for both the leaders to understand the extent to which we are all -- and the President, particularly, wants to see a resolution to this. So as dynamic as Dennis and I are, I think it really is important to have the President's imprimatur on moving this process forward.
It was a great opportunity for -- as you know, during the General Assembly, both these men are in New York. We want to take advantage of that, and we want to take advantage of their coming to Washington and to have the President sit with them and explain the urgency of the issue. I think only the President of the United States can really give it that sense of urgency. And also, for him to say to them that no matter how much we all can do, that the decision is theirs -- I think those kinds of words coming from the President of the United States to two other leaders gives it a greater sense of importance, and then to invite them.
So we saw this as an important opportunity. We didn't make up our minds that it was something that was worth doing until late yesterday. And frankly, I thought it was a good idea because they were making some progress, and I think having the President there pushing, prodding, suggesting, and basically telling them to get on with the work.
Q When he had them in in January, what came out of it was a U.S. prescription for procedure, a parallel system -- you do a little in this area, they do a little in that area. In a tactical way or in a substantive way, what, if anything, was accomplished today?
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Well, I'm telling you, what was accomplished was a plan of work --
Q Is there a new way to go at it?
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: What is, I think, important about this meeting is the increased sense of urgency. Basically, we all know that the interim process, the date for it is coming -- drawing to an end, and that it's very important to give it this extra push.
I think that it would have wasted a great opportunity not to have the President meet with them, because they obviously can be meeting bilaterally, and Prime Minister Netanyahu is doing that now and Chairman Arafat will tomorrow. But I think to have the opportunity to have the President look them both in the eye and say, this is important, you have to make the decisions, you do this kind of work with Dennis and Madeleine when they come back out and also among yourselves, and then we're really going to give it a very intensive and sustained effort.
So I think it was a really good use of time. It was about an hour and a half, but a good discussion. And I'm very pleased that the President was able to do this and I know that other two --
Q The President said that he expected it to be finished in October. What specifically did he mean? What are you hoping to wrap up in October -- the 13 percent?
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: As I said, it's a comprehensive package. It's our initiative that we put out that has a number of pieces to it that has to do with security, not making unilateral statements, the various formulas. There are a whole bunch of things that have been in our initiative and that is what we're trying to get. And it has --
Q Will that be the last of the interim agreements that need to be wrapped up before you can go to final status?
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Well, there are various pieces out there of the interim agreements that have to be done and we're hoping that we will be able to go to final status as soon as possible.
Q Does this mean that October 15 is another American deadline for the parties, that they have to come here with an agreement, or will they come here and go to another deadline? And did the Israelis accept to come on the 15th --
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: There were no deadlines. This was an invitation to come to an intensive and sustained set of meetings where the President asked the leaders to not only come themselves, but to bring their teams with them, so that we could really resolve a lot of issues.
I think one of the things that happens on this is that the various expert people work in one area, and then Chairman Arafat is in one place and Prime Minister Netanyahu is somewhere else. Either Dennis or I have shuttled between them. Somebody makes a decision and it has to be checked with the other. Clearly, there is a great advantage to having a critical mass of people together. And they have both accepted the parameters of a date in the middle of October. They are not coming with an agreement; they are coming having, I think, cut away a lot of the underbrush that we are working with and, hopefully, very close to something. And then they will be working together.
Q Does that underbrush include the Palestinian National Covenant, Madam Secretary? And has Mr. Netanyahu ever agreed with the claim that it's ever been repealed?
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: It's obviously one of the subjects that will be discussed.
Q But it hasn't been repealed, has it?
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Well, according to -- we have made our position clear, where we said that the letters that have been sent by Chairman Arafat we felt were suitable. As you know, this is a question that is still out there that Prime Minister Netanyahu would like to have clarified.
Q The meeting with the President wasn't decided until last night?
Q Was there a breakthrough in the last few days at any point? And secondly, the talks in October, are they open ended, the mid-October meeting?
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Well, first of all, I think -- the term breakthrough I think gets overused. And I have tried very hard to be straight with you about what is going on. I think it was an important meeting -- important because they were here together and they agreed on the importance of the urgency of it. I think that we have had certain times during this period where one would want to move and the other one would be on a slow walk, and vice versa.
I think this time what we really found is that they both sense the need of coming to a conclusion. They appreciated the fact that the President was going to take the requisite amount of time to meet with them, that the President committed himself to sustained work on it, and that they heard from him a number of times that we were willing to do what we could, but the decisions still continued to be theirs.
Open-ended, I think we'll spend as -- I can't spend that we're going to spend the rest of the year sitting in some place doing this, but we are going to spend what we believe is a good amount of time in order to get it done.
Q You said the meeting with the President wasn't decided until last night?
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Correct.
Q We were told last week that they were coming here.
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: They were coming here for bilateral meetings, for sure. And what was not finally decided as to whether there was value in having the trilateral meeting, and we didn't decide that until we saw how my trilateral had gone, and we didn't know that my trilateral was going to work until they walked in.
Q Madame Secretary, this morning we were told that the President would ask both Netanyahu and Arafat to make commitments. Beyond the commitment to get together again next month here, what agreements did they come to?
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: I have said now a number of times that I'm not going to go into the details of where each individual piece of this is. And it's very important that we look at this as a comprehensive package. And there are a variety of pieces that fit together, and when we have the whole package, we will reveal who is where on --
Q Did they make firm commitments to --
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: They committed themselves to a number of parts of moving the process forward, but I'm not going to go into more detail.
Q On the Palestinian statement, Madam Secretary, has the U.S. changed its position on statehood? And how harmful will Yasser Arafat's statements and Bebe Netanyahu's response this week about --
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Well, first of all, our position is well known, it's a final status issue and it's up to them to decide. There have been a number of statements made, and I think everybody -- both of the leaders know the difficulty of making statements, unilateral statements of any kind, which I think create difficulties for the environment.
Chairman Arafat has made a number of statements. Prime Minister Netanyahu made some in New York. Chairman Arafat is speaking this afternoon. And we'll have to see.
Q Madam Secretary, you used the term "package with various parts to it." Do all parts of this package deal with the issue of further redeployment, or are there also parts of this that deal with the modalities of what happens after you get the further redeployment agreement? You're only going to have six months after October -- or let's say from mid-October until the deadline time.
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: They deal with a whole host of issues.
Q Madame Secretary, are you concerned, or is the United States concerned about Chairman Arafat's health?
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: I've spent a lot of time with him and he functions, I think, very well. He is somebody who participates in very long meetings, is very focused. So the answer is, no.
Q Has Milosevic gotten the message now? Did he foresee an air strike from NATO and backed off?
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Well, I think again we have to see. What's happened here, Sam, is that there are actions going on in two areas as a result again of meetings that we had last week in New York. First of all, there was a Security Council resolution which made very clear that the kind of action that he was taking was not acceptable. And, second, the Contact Group members met and dispatched their ambassadors to go and explain as firmly as possible to Milosevic where we all were. That's in the diplomatic track.
Militarily, NATO forces are -- as you know, the decision was made to be able to gather forces and they are now in a position where they're prepared to act. So I think the question is whether Milosevic is listening with both ears. And we will continue to deliver that message.
Q One little quick one, Madam Secretary. You, unlike your predecessors all the way back to Kissinger, have not spent a lot of time shuttling. In fact, when you were out there you said you weren't going to go back to tread water, implying that you are holding -- of course, working from here -- but holding your presence back for some critical moment. It sounds like you're about to do the thing that all your predecessors so earnestly tried to do, and move the process a little bit. Isn't this treading water a little bit?
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: No, no. I've kind of run out of water analogies. But I have not been there, and actually shuttling between the U.N. Plaza and the Park Lane Hotel, that is easier to do. But I am going there for a limited period of time in order to help prepare for this meeting here in the United States with the President.
So this is a very discrete period of time to do a discrete job. And Dennis will be going with me, and he might stay a day or two beyond me, but I am not prepared to go shuttling back and forth. I think that, in contrast to other periods of American history, there are an awful lot of other issues that need tending.
Q You say you will not discuss the issues one by one, but isn't security one of the main issues -- the issue of security, is that still one of the major issues --
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: It is -- the further redeployment and security, those are two of the very important parts of the package.
Q What is the venue of the meetings in mid October? Will they be at the White House? Might Camp David be a better venue for these sustained and intensive --
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: We have not yet decided on the venue.
Q Will you go to Cairo or any other place in the Middle East when you are there? Or are you going to Israel?
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Currently, I am only planning to go to Israel.
Q Secretary, when the talks were going on, was it the feeling on all sides that you were working against the May 4, 1999 deadline? Or is that date itself a matter of negotiation?
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: I think there is a sense that we are working against a general deadline, that this process needs to be speeded up, that we want to maintain the momentum that we have developed. And I think one of the main things that we wanted to do here, and one of the reasons for recommending, as I did, that the President meet with the two of them, was to give it this sense of urgency. So that is our main point here, is that we've been at this and it's important to keep the momentum that we were able to develop in the last few weeks going.
Q Madam Secretary, as pointed out in the last question, that May 1999 headline looms. Given the pace of the talks so far, is there any chance to meet the May 1999 deadline, realistically? And also did you discuss at all Chairman Arafat's speech before the General Assembly and his declaring -- or potential or possible declaration or referral to a unilateral Palestinian State in your talks today or yesterday?
SECRETARY ALBRIGHT: Well, first of all, I think that we all know that a lot of work needs to be done and that it needs to be done urgently. And we all know as a statement of fact what the dates in the Oslo process are.
But what we're trying to do is to work this -- I think that there is not -- what I have found is just because something has been slow to a certain period, that you don't always have the same speed, and that as you come towards the end of something, then maybe the momentum picks up.
As I said earlier, I have had discussions with both sides about not making unilateral statements that in one form or another exacerbate the situation and have urged them to avoid making such statements.
END 2:20 P.M. EDT