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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release May 18, 1999
                          BACKGROUND BRIEFING

The Briefing Room

2:44 P.M. EDT

MR. HAMMER: All right. Now, what you really have been waiting for. A senior administration official will be giving you a readout on King Abdullah's meeting with the President this morning, and talk about some other issues and answer your questions. This is on background, senior administration official.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President and the King met this morning. Let me give you a few particulars, first, about the timing of the meeting.

First, they had the pool spray, which you've all already seen the results of that. Then they spent about 40 minutes together in a one-on-one, and then another 20 minutes in a larger meeting, also attended by Secretaries Albright, Rubin, Sandy Berger and several other aides; and on the Jordanian side by the Prime Minister, Foreign Minister, Chief of the Royal Court and a few other aides.

This is the second time the President has met the King. He met the King, obviously, for the first time at the funeral for King Hussein in February.

Today's meeting was a very warm, very positive meeting. They discussed a wide range of bilateral, regional and international issues. In particular, the President reaffirmed the United States' strong support for Jordan, its determination to do all we can to assist Jordan in economic and military assistance.

The President praised the King's commitment to reforming and building a stronger Jordanian economy in order to strengthen its ability to play a positive force in the region, and he reiterated his strong support for debt relief for Jordan from other major bilateral creditors.

They also discussed other issues -- obviously, the Israeli election results and the strong mandate that Prime Minister-elect Barak got yesterday. They expressed confidence that the Middle East peace process will now be reinvigorated and strengthened, and hopefully brought to a successful conclusion.

They also discussed the situation in Iraq, and reaffirmed their agreement that Iraq needs to comply with all United Nations Security Council resolutions. And they pledged to do their utmost together to get humanitarian assistance to the Iraqi people consistent with those resolutions.

The President also thanked the king for Jordan's very strong public support for the NATO operations in Kosovo, and for our efforts to reverse the situation there, and for Jordan's humanitarian assistance to the Kosovar Albanian refugees.

The President will meet again with the King tonight in a small dinner with their wives, where they will continue the conversation and discuss the outlook for the situation in the Middle East.

Q What did they say would be the next steps in the Middle East peace process? How are they going to revive it?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the first step is for Prime Minister Barak to form his government. Under the Israeli system, he has 45 days to put together a coalition government. The Israeli track record on these things is it can sometimes take that long.

The Knesset members will be sworn in, I think, on the 7th of June, which will be the first opportunity to form a government. So the first step will obviously be for the Prime Minister to put his government together. And I think it's a bit premature to be outlining steps after that.

But it has been our longstanding view that the Wye River agreement, which the President played such a critical role in negotiating, should be implemented, and we would like to see that get on to implementation.

Q Do you think it will be 45 days before Barak comes to the U.S. and meets with you, there's usually here within 48 hours after election? (Laughter.)

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't want to speculate. You know. Israeli -- putting together coalition governments in Israel is not always easy. There's more than a dozen parties represented in the Knesset. I'm confident that Barak will put a government together, but I don't want to speculate on how long it might take him to do that.

Q But might he visit in the interim?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I really don't think it's likely until he's formed his government.

Q Does he have a meeting scheduled the Gore at all? The Vice President?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm sorry, I don't understand the question. Oh, I'm sorry, the King. No, he does not.

Q The review of the Jonathan Pollard clemency, is that yet anywhere close to ending or is that still on?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That is still a process underway and no decision has been made by the President.

Q Did the King talk about the possibility of reviving the Syrian track?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, as you know, it is our strong view that all the tracks need to be moving forward. The King did indicate very much that he would like to see the other tracks moving forward as well, and we agree with that.

Q All the dates have been scrambled, you say that, you know, you've got a formula here under Wye, but all these dates have been, you know, some things have passed. How do you set a new schedule?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The first phase of Wye was implemented. So we can now go back to the agreement and pick up with the next phases. Once each side has fulfilled its obligations, then you could move to the next stage of Israeli withdrawal from territory, and then go into phase three.

Q Did King Abdullah express any view, personal view about Mr. Barak, as both soldiers -- did he know him personally? Did he have any view -- Mr. Clinton -- whether he'd be good for the peace process?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Barak visited Jordan within the last several weeks, just before his election. They had an opportunity to talk, the King and Barak. I think the King made clear he's looking forward to being able to work with the Prime Minister. And I understand that they spoke on the phone again this morning, as well.

Q Did the President talk about the First Lady's trip to Jordan, coming up?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. As you know, the President asked the First Lady to go to the Middle East earlier this year. And she originally had planned to go to Israel, Jordan, Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia. But because of King Hussein's death and then the election situation in Israel, she only completed the Egypt, Morocco and Tunisia part, I think in March.

She would now like to go to Israel and Jordan, and I expect she will be going in the pretty new future, although no final dates have been set for that.

Q A few weeks ago the President had offered a proposed time frame, a new time frame for the negotiations -- you know, six months, certainly by the end of the year --


Q -- and, hopefully, negotiations would be completed by the next six months. But is it your hope that today you may be able to complete that process even faster than that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We would like to move on this process as quickly as possible. And I can tell you that the President has a very high sense of urgency about it. He is invigorated by the prospects of getting back to work on this. He called Chairman Arafat within the last couple of hours, just to check with him on how the Palestinians see the situation ahead. I think it's safe to say that he is ready to roll up his sleeves and get to work and make this happen as fast as possible.

That said, as you all know, this process has got a lot of difficult issues to resolve, and I don't want to put expectations out there at a level which is really unrealistic at this point.

Q Was there any news in the talk with Arafat. That happened just a couple of hours ago, you said?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That's right. The President just wanted to touch base and reassure Chairman Arafat that our determination to move this process is as strong as it is, and to say he looks forward to trying to move on with the implementation of the Wye River agreement.

Q Does he -- are they at the point of trying to look at schedules now, and get the sides --


Q Did he thank -- did the President thank Arafat for putting off what was seen as a possible declaration of a Palestinian state?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the President, as you know, had communicated earlier with Arafat. He sent him a letter at the beginning of May. I think -- you know, we feel that the Palestinians did the right thing in giving the negotiations process a chance to come to conclusion.

Q On Iraq, did they talk about lifting the cap on oil sales, and investing in Iraq's infrastructure?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They did not get into any details about -- to that level of detail about the situation in Iraq. I think that they did agree that we should do all we can to get humanitarian assistance to the Iraqi people.

And as you know, we have been the sponsor of the Oil-for-Food program, under which Iraq is able to export its oil and purchase food and medicine for the Iraqi people. That program has made a substantial difference in improving the lives of Iraqis, and we very much want to see that program strengthened and made more efficient. If there are additional needs, beyond what the current program mandates, we've said before we would be ready to look at additional ways to get more money into that program.

Q Any talk about Iran, or about the government of Iran?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Only in a general conversation about the situation in the region.

Q Is there an assessment of how much the Iraqi embargo has cost the Jordanian economy? In the ballpark.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Right. I don't have a number. I'm sure if you ask the Jordanians, they could give you a number pretty quickly. But it's been substantial. Jordan, like some of Iraq's other neighbors such as Turkey, has paid a substantial price for enforcing the sanctions on Iraq. I think all of us would like to see a situation under which Iraq can be a more normal country, but as you know, it is our view that the only way we're going to get there is through a change of leadership in Baghdad.

Q How long was that conversation with Mr. Arafat?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Just five minutes, ten minutes. Relatively short.

Q Did the King give any indication of things that he could do to move the peace process on either the Palestinian or Syrian tracks?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The King talked about his own conversations. As you know, he has traveled extensively throughout the region in the last couple of months since he became King, and has met with President Assad, President Mubarak, Chairman Arafat and others. And he passed on his impressions of those leaders. And I think the general conclusion of his comments was, all of them look forward to moving forward on this process as expeditiously as possible.

Q But can you -- would you say that there are chances that progress can be made on those three tracks at the same time? Or first track -- I mean, Israel-Palestine has to be --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't think we're in the business of prioritizing the tracks, but there is a process underway on the Israeli-Palestinian track, and an agreement in effect between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and ourselves, the Wye River agreement. And it has been our posture that that agreement ought to be implemented.

I don't think we should look upon this as a zero-sum game, in which one track moves at the expense of others. But we very much would like to see the Palestinian track move forward expeditiously.

Q Did the King say anything in particular about President Assad?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He did discuss with the President his impressions of President Assad, and reaffirmed a long-standing view that the Syrians would like to find a way to get this process moving forward again.

Q Did the King bring any specific request on -- any updated request on aid, first of all? And, second of all, can you give a general assessment of Arafat's attitude toward the -- reaction to the Israeli elections? Was he --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think I'll let the Palestinians make their own statements. But I think what you've seen out there so far is that they're eager to get this process moving forward again.

Regarding aid, no, the King did not make any new requests for assistance. But he did reaffirm Jordan's very strong interest in finding ways to ease its debt burden. Jordan has a very heavy debt burden, which will amount to roughly $1 billion a year in debt servicing next year -- which, for a small country with a small economy, is quite a lot. And the King has asked the President and the President has agreed that he will do his utmost to try to persuade our G-7 partners to forgive Jordanian debt or find ways to reschedule it or, in general, find ways to reduce this burden on the Kingdom as it attempts to reform its economy.

Q When Wye seemed to be lagging, King Hussein was sent for and seemed to have helped. Do you see King Abduallah as playing any kind of the same sort of role, or will he have to be in power for another 30 years before he reaches that point? (Laughter.)

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it is the universal sense on the American side that the King has already grown in office, even in just these short several months. And as a leader he has already shown an impressive ability to stand up in a tough neighborhood and make himself a player.

Obviously, the kind of experience that King Hussein had as I think the world's longest reigning head of state anywhere is unique. But we're confident that King Abdullah is ready to be a proactive and effective partner in the peace process.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 3:00 P.M. EDT