THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIALS
The Briefing Room
4:40 P.M. EDT
MR. RUBIN: This is a BACKGROUND briefing. Two senior administration officials, Secretary Albright, Sandy Berger, and the Middle East peace team have spent a couple of hours with the President this afternoon in preparing for the meeting, and these two fine senior officials will be here to answer your questions.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'll just make a couple of comments to try to put it in a certain context. I know you're shocked by that.
Q I wouldn't do that. That gives your identity away. (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You broke the code, huh?
Obviously, for almost 18 months, we've been trying to find a way to get beyond the key interim issues and get into the permanent status negotiations. Originally, permanent status negotiations were supposed to take three years, so the effort to get us into the permanent status talks has been a major preoccupation.
Now, in trying to do that, we've focused on developing an initiative that was built around the Israelis carrying out further redeployment responsibilities, the Palestinians carrying out security responsibilities, and the interim issues that were left over, like Gaza industrial site, airport, safe passage, other economic issues would also have to be part of the mix.
We have made progress over time. I would say, in the last couple of weeks there's been a good deal more progress that has been made in each of these areas. The problem has been that if we continue to work at the pace that we are working we would not get these issues done by the time May 4th rolls around. So one of the reasons for making the decision that the President and the Secretary did to bring the parties here and to bring them with their teams here was to see if we could change the character of the interaction in such a way that we would, in fact, be able to bring this to a conclusion.
That's obviously the objective, to try to bring this to a conclusion, because the clock is ticking -- May 4th is not that far away. To deal with the hardest issues that were reserved in this process for permanent status, we need to get on with it. And so that's what we're going to try to do. And the focus will be to try to overcome the remaining differences that are there, recognizing that we're dealing with issues that, themselves, are fairly complex.
Further redeployment has been publicized only as one -- really with only one kind of perspective in mind, when, in fact, it has a number. Security is really the same way. There are multiple areas of security that one can talk about, and, in fact, they have. And lastly, on the interim committee issues, you also find they, themselves, are subdivided into many parts and are highly technical.
So trying to draw this all together is a complex undertaking. It's going to be a very difficult undertaking. And the purpose, as I said, is to realize that since the clock is ticking, it's time to try to bring us all together and see if we can bring it to a conclusion.
Why don't I stop there and turn it over to number two.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me just spend a minute or two talking about the President's involvement today. As you know, earlier this week the President spoke by phone both to the Prime Minister and to the Chairman. Today he had two additional phone calls relating to the Wye summit. He spoke first to King Hussein in Rochester. He spoke about his expectations for the summit. He asked for the King's advice. He also got a readout from the King, because today Prime Minister Netanyahu and his meeting were in Amman meeting with the Crown Prince. So this was a chance to get a little bit of a readout from those meetings and talk about the results there.
Secondly, he spoke to Prime Minister Blair. Chairman Arafat today arrived in London and Prime Minister Blair and he had a meeting, and the Prime Minister wanted to give the President a readout. Again, the President and the Prime Minister were able to exchange some of their views and expectations about what's coming up next.
After that, the President met with his peace process team for about an hour, to prepare himself for the beginning of the summit tomorrow here at 10:00 a.m.
Q In several briefings by the Israelis and Palestinians today, there's been a great deal of attention on the question of whether the May 4th date can, must, or should be finessed or moved in some way. Does the American team have a position on that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think our focus is more on the issue that you've got to get on to the permanent status issues. One can talk a lot -- I think the real issue here for us is recognizing that we have not had the parties dealing with the permanent status issues. It's time to get on to them. Clearly, they each have a respective view about how to look at what lies ahead, not only in terms of substance, but also in terms of the process and timing.
From our end, I think the focus is much more on realizing that if you don't get on to the permanent status issues, if you don't begin to formulate approaches and certain understandings, you are really dealing with a looming disaster, because they may well be prepared to take very different postures as you look in the months ahead.
So I think the key from our standpoint is, let's get the interim issues either completely behind us or largely behind us so that the focus can then be exclusively on dealing with the permanent status questions, and the two of them can begin to explore, do they have the basis to forge understandings on this, or not.
Q I think I understood you to say that the further redeployment issue is by itself settled --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I didn't say that.
Q Well, that's what I got out of what you were saying. Is it basically something that you can put aside now while you deal with these other issues?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. What I was saying is -- let me put it this way. We've been very careful throughout, and I'll stick to that practice, of not getting into the details of these negotiations. What I can say, however, is that, as all of you know, there certainly has been a part of the further redeployment issue that has been very widely publicized. That part that has been widely publicized is a part where, in fact, there has been a good deal of progress that was, in fact, made. There are other parts to further redeployment that still have to be resolved.
Q Is that what would specifically be the nature reserve?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would say that, in fact, the issue that has been mostly publicized is an issue that has been pretty much resolved -- not completely, but pretty much. There are other parts to further redeployment that still have been dealt with.
Q What do you make of the Prime Minister's comments that there was no chance for an agreement, and then later saying that he was positive about it?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think it would be best to ask him rather than to ask us.
Q What sort of mood does that put over the summit?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What we can do is we can focus on what the task at hand is. We know that the task at hand is, in fact, going to be a very difficult one because there is a lot to be resolved, there's a lot to draw together. But as I said, if we continue a process where we are pretty much dealing with each issue almost in a sequential way, or we're dealing with them trying to draw things together, but without having them together, it's very hard, in fact, to break through.
One of the reasons that, in fact, progress has been made over the last couple of weeks is they have begun to talk to each other. We went through a long hiatus where they were not dealing with each other, they were dealing separately with us. And the ability to make very much headway at all in an environment where they're not talking to each other is almost nonexistent.
The fact that they come together, the fact that they begin to talk to each other -- even if they're talking to each other with us -- is something that already has introduced a dynamic that gives us more of a chance to get there. But the reality is unless you really sort of pull all this together, the potential just to have a continuing process that goes on and on and on, where you incrementally make progress, you can incrementally make progress, but the clock will keep ticking and sooner or later you'll face what are these larger issues that they have to address and that they haven't addressed.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: If I could add one thing to that, it also has* for us not responding to every statement that comes out of the region, which I think you will see is the hallmark of what we're going to be doing in the next four or five days.
Q With that as read, two things. Is it true that --which is what I've read -- which is that in the last week or so, after Sharon came in, the Israelis have moved where this nature reserve is supposed to be, at least from their point of view, and from the Judean Desert to somewhere else closer to the settlements? And two, do you see Monday as the end of this effort? I mean, is there any possibility that Netanyahu would stay here past the opening of the Knesset, or return?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On the first part of your question, the easiest way to answer is I'm not aware of a change on their side. On the second part of your question, I'm certainly aware of the time frame that we have set to try to do this, and I guess what I would just say is a more general point -- our objective is to try to get this done. If we don't, I'm not going to speculate on what we would do.
Q There is obviously a cost involved in an Israeli redeployment and in Palestinians coming in, whether it be a nature reserve or whatever else. Can you give us any sense of what this is going to amount to, and where is the money going to come from?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that our focus here is going to be on getting the deal. And those kinds of questions are questions we would love to have to focus on, but first we have to get the deal.
Q Secondly, the Israeli Ambassador this morning was stating fairly clearly that the only issue that he can see at all is Palestinian acceptance of the MOU on security. I'm sure you'll disagree, there must be more than that. But what would you list as the principal things that have to be dealt with?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As I said, I'm not going to parse them, but I'll come back to what I started with. If you take three broad categories of issues on further redeployment, on security, on the interim issues, we don't have any of those concluded. There are parts of each of those where there has either been a lot of progress or where there are understandings -- or I should say, at least there are parts of several of those where there are understandings.
So you can't single out only one area, not only because it's not the reality, but also because part of the reason that you don't have more understandings is because each side tends to create connections between some of these issues, which is another reason to try to bring them together to see if you can find the best ways to forge those connections and produce an understanding.
Q What would constitute getting a deal? Is it resolution of everything in Oslo short of the final status stuff, or could some things be bumped up into -- some things that are not intended to be final status things be bumped into that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, from the very beginning when we laid out the concept for this initiative, the concept was that there were two basic pillars. One was on further redeployment and one was on security. Now, clearly, we would like to wrap up as many of the interim committee issues as possible. Some of the interim committee issues are, by definition, those that would be ongoing in character, because they involve day-to-day relations between the two sides. There are economic issues, there are civil affairs issues that are part of the interim committees. So some issues of that sort.
Other issues that are real technical, in fact, can still be addressed without diverting attention away from what has to be the main task. But the real purpose on our side is to wrap up the core issues left over from the interim agreement that have yet to be resolved and implemented. And whatever is left there, you have devises and a structure to deal with, and then the primary attention -- certainly, the main focus in terms of the leaders and their essential negotiators -- needs to be put on to the permanent status issue so that issues on which there was supposed to be discussions beginning back in May of 1996, we finally actually get launched discussions that really will go after them.
Q So if I understand that, you could move to final status without wrapping up all the things that are hanging now, short of that? All the things that --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I guess what I'm saying is the key issues that we've identified throughout, you're really going to have to be able, I think, bring to resolution. There are some questions of a really technical nature -- especially related to the work of the interim committees -- that I think you would like, obviously, to have as much behind you as you could, but you wouldn't necessarily have all of that.
Q Can you give an example?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the examples -- there are several kinds of examples. There is a civil affairs committee that deals with day-to-day questions of the relations between the two sides. They can reach understandings on that, which is still an outgrowth of the interim agreement. You won't necessarily resolve all those. There are economic questions; the same thing -- they may not resolve all of those right now. Resolving the seaport right now, given the fact that it will take some period of time to build it, that's not something you can resolve completely.
So there are issues of that sort which wouldn't deflect you or divert you away from being able to negotiate on permanent status that might still be out there, but they can, in a sense, they can --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There's a process.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There's a process that you'll have to deal with those while you basically put the focus on the permanent status.
Q -- could apply to this, too?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think the issue of the third phase is one of the issues that is going to have to be part of this before you conclude an agreement.
Q How soon after, if you reach an agreement next week or so, how soon do you think you can move to the -- and tracks? The United States has told both sides that you cannot do anything before the -- agreement on the Palestinian track. Do you foresee it happening as soon as you get an agreement, or is it a longer process?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think the answer to that is, as soon as we can we'd like to do it. It's always been our posture that we want to get those negotiations resumed. We've never made one dependent upon another. But there are difficult issues involved in getting the Syrian-Israeli track going again, getting the Lebanese-Israeli track going again. We're not going to set any artificial deadlines or time lines for ourselves. But our interest in getting those going again is as strong today as ever.
Q Do you expect CIA Director Tenet to be at Wye?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me answer it this way. Obviously, there is a security component involved in this and that is something that is being pursued by our security people and experts on our side with both sides.
Q Mr. Netanyahu said today that he was not going to be dictated to by the United States either in politics or personally. He said, furthermore, he was going to bring his wife, even though Washington didn't want her to come. Has there been an insistence on the part of the White House that this be a bachelor gathering at Wye?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I don't think we insisted on a bachelor gathering or anything. But we do see this as serious business. We're not going for the weekend to enjoy ourselves. We're going to try and get some of this very hard work done.
Q The bottom line for the Palestinians is still what 10 percent and what 13 percent. You remember Oslo II almost failed because the maps were presented after all the negotiations were completed. Do you expect to have maps by the end of this, if you have an agreement?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would expect that we'll have whatever it takes to be able to produce an agreement.
Q Last week, Secretary Albright spoke of significant and substantial progress on a number of issues, including the three issues you cited -- further redeployment, security and interim issues. There's been a report in the Israeli media that that security issue was resolved with Director Tenet. Has there been further progress -- since you stayed in the region after Secretary Albright left, has there been further progress since then -- I would hate to use the phrase, narrowing the gap -- but has there been further progress since then in any deal on the airport, for example?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I always take my lead from others. There has been a broadening of understandings. (Laughter.)
Q If there is an agreement, let's say by Monday morning, is there any mechanism, any arbitrage, commission, oversight for compliance? And if there isn't, does it fall to the United States as the intermediary to be the mechanism for compliance in the future?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Clearly, we are not interested in coming to an agreement if the agreement itself is something that's not going to be implemented. We don't need to expend all this effort and energy -- which we have over a very long period of time -- and now obviously bring the parties here, as well, if what we're going to have is something that can't be carried out. The objective, obviously, is not only to produce an agreement, but to produce an agreement that is, in fact, carried out. So I think we will play an ongoing role in the implementation process, and that comes, frankly, at the request of both sides.
Q Is there a formal mechanism for that role?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Assuming we get to a point where we have an agreement, obviously, we'll be in a position where we can talk about the kinds of things that will be done to carry it out. But I think it's -- suffice it to say that we will have an ongoing role in terms of the implementation of the agreement.
Q The issue of signing came up yesterday. Can you have a deal without an actual signing? Would you, nevertheless, call that a success?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think the important thing is, if we reach an agreement on everything, obviously, we will have some way to express that agreement and it won't be -- there won't be ambiguity about it. If there is an agreement, it will clearly be expressed as an agreement.
Q Have you agreed on a new draft on the security elements with the Palestinians that you're now ready to show to the Israelis?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We don't really get into the style of our diplomacy with either side.
Q -- style question.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It's a style question of how we work and the ways in which we do it and how we bring things to a conclusion. I think the best answer to your question is we have worked with both sides. What we produce reflects not only what are to be the kind of responsibilities that each are to carry out -- because you need to take a step back. We launched an initiative in no small part because it became clear that working on their own at that time they weren't able, in fact, to overcome their differences, and each side had a fundamental question about whether the other would fulfill its responsibilities. So we tried to focus an initiative on the respective responsibilities on each side.
We have worked with both sides, and in the end what it is we hope will be agreed to will reflect our best judgment, reflecting what both sides, in fact, are capable of doing, and also consistent with what are the responsibilities they are to carry out.
Q It was a style question. (Laughter.)
Q Much was made of the atmosphere after the last round in the region, with body language between the parties. How does that change with Ariel Sharon now in the picture, that he is opposed to the 13 percent FRD, that he won't shake Arafat's hand? And also there has been whispers of a possible presidential trip to the region. Is that something that's in the works if there is a deal?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not aware of the last point. I'm just not aware of anything of that sort.
As for the former, the fact of the matter is what we will focus on is how can they best come to a set of understandings and how can they best do it in a way that builds a level of trust between the two sides. At the end of the day, as I said, reaching an agreement is an important objective, but if it's not going to implemented, that's not fulfilling the purpose that we seek. And clearly, while it's hard enough to reach an agreement, one of the key things to being able to do that is to try to build on the new spirit that the Secretary was talking about.
There was a new spirit out there. Spirit on its own doesn't necessarily translate into agreements or understandings, but it is an important part of having each side recognize that the other is prepared to take account of their needs, limitations, and their interests. The more that can take place, the more it's reflected in terms of how the two sides approach each other, the better the chances are that we will not only reach an agreement, but the agreement will in fact be a successful one.
Q -- Nixon-China analogy -- have some validity to it --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't want to comment on a particular personality. I mean, he has been appointed the Foreign Minister of Israel, and I'm sure that he'll act on the basis of his responsibilities. And it's very clear that he understands that there is an opportunity to move forward, and I think he wants to be a part of it.
Q -- declaration of principle on the final status while you are working on the interim agreement now --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Our focus is to get into the permanent status talks, so, first things first. It would be great to be able to make headway on that, because, as I said, the clock is ticking. But we have been working for 18 months not only to overcome stalemate, but to try to get behind or beyond the interim issues or at least the implementation of all the parts of the interim agreement. That's where our focus is.
Q Your somewhat unspecific statement that the United States will have a continuing role in the implementation process -- is this a physical presence? Is this a mechanical role, a diplomatic role? Is it a combination of that? Is it a role on the ground? And in the third -- now you're insisting on a third pullback -- when they get hung up on that, will the U.S. be ready again to tell Israel how much land to relinquish, as you did on the second stage? Could you come up with a number again? I don't mean you, specifically, I mean the U.S. -- although it was probably you specifically. (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Are you done? (Laughter.)
Q Yes. What role and --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I got the question. I got all of them. (Laughter.)
Q It's on background, so you can loosen up. (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: A, an ongoing role in terms of carrying it out relates much more to the political and mechanical sides of this. B, what I said, obviously, the question of the third phase is an issue that has to be addressed. C, our focus, given the time remaining, is going to be on how we get a permanent status deal, how we move forward on permanent status issues.
You know, these were the issues that were reserved for the end of the process because they were the most difficult. Nobody envisioned that it would take this long to get to them. So I think there has to be a sense of urgency that is brought to bear when it comes to dealing with permanent status, which is one of the reasons we'd like to get to it.
Q You guys still don't know -- I understand.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me try a different way at that question.
Q It's not clear -- on the second one.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Another way of saying we don't want to see the third phase issue harm the ability to move to the permanent status talks.
Q That's different. Is that what you --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.
Q To what extent is King Hussein's health, or the necessity of possible action by the United States against Iraq -- did that help to make the clock tick louder, number one. And, number two, to what do you attribute the new spirit between the parties, you know, that suddenly happened?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think my colleague laid out very clearly that our sense of urgency is borne around the time line here. May is approaching, we've spent a lot of time, we've got very few months left. Obviously, all the other factors in the Middle East underscore our sense of getting on with this thing.
As regards the King, he was chipper, he was in good spirits when the President spoke to him. The President wished him a quick recovery.
Q Can you give us some idea of what your plans are for the actual physical details of the summit? Do you plan to negotiate around the clock? Would you do that on the Sabbath? Is everyone going to eat meals together? How would this resemble Dayton? How would this resemble Camp David, et cetera? And do you definitely plan to end on Monday now, rather than on Sunday?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think Joe Lockhart spoke a little bit earlier today about the President's involvement, and I won't go back over the logistics of that.
We're maintaining maximum flexibility. And when we talked to the President before we came out here, he wanted to maintain maximum flexibility. He wants to be involved throughout the weekend. How much time he's actually going to spend up there will be a function of what we and he in the decision-making process feel is the most useful benefit we can get from having him right on presence.
I expect he'll be a lot of time there. I expect there will be lots of bilats, trilats; there will be walks in the woods; there will be small dinners, late dinners. I expect we'll be up late, since the President likes to stay up late, anyway.
Q They do, too.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And so do they. It's going to be very, very flexible and we will maintain maximum ability to take advantage of this opportunity of getting away, in a position where we have an absence of outsiders peering into what we do.
Q Thank you.
END 5:05 P.M. EDT