THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
BACKGROUND BRIEFING BY SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIALS ON ISRAELI-SYRIAN PEACE TALKS The Briefing Room
2:30 P.M. EST
MR. LEAVY: As you guys know, the President will be hosting talks between the Israelis and the Syrians tomorrow. We have a briefing to help answer your questions by two senior administration officials ON BACKGROUND. Two senior administration officials.
Senior Administration Official number one.
Q I recognize the general outline. A little light might be helpful.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay, in conclusion -- (laughter) --
Q Would you lower expectations on -- would you do a Q&A?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I just did, so that's why I said "in conclusion."
Let me make a few very brief comments, and then turn it over to your questions. Let me say something about how it will work tomorrow. Tomorrow, both Prime Minister Barak and Foreign Minister Shara and their delegations will come to the White House at 10:00 a.m. and there will be a trilateral with the President. Following the trilateral, the President will meet separately with each of them. First, he'll see Prime Minister Barak, and then he will see Foreign Minister Shara.
When those two sets of bilaterals are completed, they will go to Blair House, meaning Prime Minister Barak and Foreign Minister Shara will go. When the President is seeing Prime Minister Barak, Secretary Albright will be seeing Foreign Minister Shara, and then they'll flip. When he is seeing Foreign Minister Shara, the Secretary will be seeing Prime Minister Barak.
Q Is that all at Blair House?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What I've just said, that's all here at the White House. When that sequence is over with, meaning trilateral, bilateral, bilateral, then the Israelis and Syrians will go to Blair House. The Secretary will go with them when they go to Blair House. We will be available and present over at Blair House; precisely when we'll be sitting in the room with them, if there will be times when we're not, that's something that we'll discuss with them.
We will have a continuous role, we will be available and present, and that's pretty much the way day one will work. In terms of -- I know this will thrill you -- in terms of dealing with the press, many of you will recall the Wye rules with great affection. (Laughter.) Those are going to operate again. We will be --
Q With outside --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, this is a little different, at least in terms of the set-up. In terms of any comments, the comments will be -- statements will be done by us on behalf of the parties. And I would not exaggerate the amount of commentary that will be available. The reality is, we do have a two-day beginning. I think we have to keep that in perspective. The focus of these first two days is much more on determining how they will proceed, what's the best way to proceed. And, obviously, they'll deal with not only the how to do that, but when to resume.
I think the odds are very high that the resumption will take place here in the U.S. We haven't made any decisions on where that would be. Here again, that will be part of the discussions that they have and that we have with them.
Q When, perhaps?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Right now I couldn't tell you. I mean, I think, obviously, we're not looking at a lot of time going by. But we have to sort of sort out what works best for all three of us in terms of the timing.
Q -- first appear after the first meeting?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I can't tell you at this point. I can tell you that, obviously, we feel there's momentum and we are going to want to be building on the momentum. These first two days are going to be geared much more towards process than anything else, and that process will very much be focused on how best to proceed, what's the best way to proceed in terms of getting to where both sides want to go, which is to an agreement. But I think the first two days will be much more geared towards organization and the process than anything else.
Q That being the case then, we can then hope for results, concrete results and announcements, perhaps, at the end that there has been agreement on when and where to actually begin the talks?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I would certainly say that's -- the main focus of what they will be doing will be on that. I'm not going to prejudge exactly what will emerge at the end, but clearly the focus is going to be on when they will resume and how best to organize themselves for those discussions.
Q Given that there is a deadline for the framework agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians of mid-February, is it better and more realistic to assume that the Syrian-Israel track would pick up after in February, or in order to keep the momentum going and possibly even to spur the Israeli-Palestinian talks, is it better for the Syrian track to go ahead in January?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think our view has been that each track proceeds on its own merits. We are not going to artificially try to constrain one or the other. We're going to try to work both. They, each -- Prime Minister Barak has made it very clear that he wants to move on both tracks. We have made it clear that we think both tracks -- presume both tracks -- is something that can be done and needs to be done, and one track should not somehow be at the mercy or at the expense of another.
So I don't believe that we will try to structure this in a way that somehow holds it up artificially. There is momentum in the sense that you have a political-level meeting for the first time in Israeli-Syrian negotiations. They very clearly want to move ahead, and we certainly are going to play our role in terms of helping them do that.
Q Do you have any indication yet as to what level and what people will take the thing on when you finish this first two days?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I believe that after the first round, you will still see a political level involved. It isn't to say that there won't be technical people with them, but I think you will still see the political level involved.
They obviously will make their own judgments about how best to proceed. And that means not only when, but it also means precisely what the structure should be, who should be involved and the like. But every indication we have from them is that they would like to keep the political level involved because they very much want to focus on trying to move forward as quickly as they can.
Q Do you envision the next set of talks, the resumption of it at a secluded site like Wye? And also, number two, would this be the final set of talks, or would there be one in a series, do you envision?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On the first part of it, I certainly wouldn't exclude that as a possibility, but I don't want to prejudge it because, again, I think a lot of this depends upon -- they will get together, they will have these discussions -- in the end, it has to reflect what they consider to be most effective from their standpoint.
I mean, I can't predict how long this will take. Foreign Minister Shara talked about being optimistic in terms of several months. Trying to get into a prediction of exactly when these things will be concluded or what will be the decisive phase, I can't say. I can say, if you look at the history of this process, usually when people make predictions, it usually tends to take longer than they predict. And that even comes from people like me, who tend to be cautious.
I know that there is a sense of urgency on both sides. I know there's a commitment and a clear determination, as reflected by the level. I mean, the level tells you a great deal about the sense of determination and the sense of commitment. But there are differences. The whole idea was to get back to the table so they could resolve their differences. And I think when you're dealing with negotiations on what are issues that are very fateful in the eyes of both parties, one should assume that the negotiations would not necessarily just move in a linear direction. There will be difficulties, and you can't predict exactly the time.
Q Do you think the timing will be affected in any way -- both the timing of negotiations, and also the time of the withdrawal -- be affected by the human element involved in people being forced to give up their homes on the Golan Heights? In other words, you remember Rabin didn't think both could go down at the same time. Presumably Barak thinks both the Palestinian deal and the Syrian deal can go down at the same time. But still, people will be uprooted. Do you think this will necessitate some stretched-out process of negotiations and/or withdrawal?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not going to try to anticipate what it is that the Israelis feel are the most important issues to them in this process. Prime Minister Barak has talked about painful decisions that will have to be made. And he will be the best judge of what it is he is prepared to do, which factors affect his calculus of what makes for a good deal. I have no doubt that, knowing Prime Minister Barak as I do, that he will -- in his eyes, whatever agreement he reaches is going to be an agreement that makes Israel stronger, not weaker.
So what combination of factors go into producing what is an acceptable agreement -- which, by the way, includes the time factor. We have often said over the last several years that there were four elements that went into an agreement, and both sides understood these four elements had to be part of an agreement -- withdrawal, security, peace and timetable. So timetable is one of those elements.
Q No, but also, we're in the midst of talking about logistics, and you were addressing there will be one more round, several, or whatever. I'm mostly asking you if you think it will have to be some sort of a stretching out to acclimate the Israeli people to what they're about to lose.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, that's going to be -- what the Israelis decide in terms of timing relates to obviously what they feel -- what makes sense from their standpoint. Again, I'll repeat what I said. Knowing Prime Minister Barak as I know him, if he's going to -- if an agreement is reached, it's going to be an agreement that, in his eyes, given the fact that he's spent his whole career in the military, makes his will stronger, not weaker.
Q Just on coverage, how do you plan to break a story during the talks? Are you going to do a pool arrangement like we did at Wye?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: All I know is the kind of rules I described will apply --
MR. LEAVY: We'll probably have Joe come down here or 450 at the end of the day tomorrow.
Q What time?
MR. LEAVY: Joe will do his normal briefing, and then we'll do one special briefing on this.
Q And is there going to be a pool spray at the top of the trilat?
MR. LEAVY: No, there will be no pool sprays tomorrow. There will be some sort of public something tomorrow, and we're not there yet. But I don't see pool sprays --
Q How would you describe the U.S.'s and the President's role in these talks? Are we mediating these talks? Are we facilitating them? How would you describe it?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think facilitation is probably the best term. We are obviously going to be there, we're going to be available. No doubt, if there are problems, we'll look for ways to help overcome the problems.
Oftentimes, people look for an easy handle to describe the rule. And we can't always describe it in advance. The negotiations end up having their own dynamic. Our rule is to help in whatever way we can do help them reach an agreement. The President's made it very clear that he will do whatever it is that he can to help in that regard. The Secretary will as well. And I can tell you that all of us will be doing everything we can in that regard.
Q When President Barak was here in July, he suggested that the U.S.'s most useful role might be to step back and not be involved day to day, hour by hour in Israel's discussions with its neighbors and adversaries. It looks as if we're planning to play a much more active role than that envisions.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think you have to put in perspective what we said. At the time, he was coming in at a point in which there were no meetings, there could be no discussions, nothing could be worked out, the parties themselves never solved the problem, everything was done by us. We were negotiating for the sides. Now, that was in the Israeli-Palestinian context, because there were no direct negotiations between the Israelis and the Syrians.
What he was saying is that kind of a role for the U.S. means that the parties themselves don't negotiate. All along, our objective was to be in a position where the parties would be negotiating, and we would help. I define our role in the current context as being one in which we're there to help. Obviously, helping takes on lots of different forms, including, when you have problems, helping to find ways to overcome the problems.
Q Do you have, or do the parties, have to renegotiate, or is there already an understanding in two areas of security I'd like to ask about. One would be the thinning of Syrian armor units, the regiments south of Damascus. Is there already an understanding in principle on that, or does that have to be negotiated? And the other question dealing with security is, is there an understanding over who sits atop Jabal ash Shaykh? Is it Israeli, or is it American with Israelis? Can you give us some idea on what's been agreed to there?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, A, I'm not going to go into the details. B, I think it's important to understand that they still have issues that they're going to have to negotiate. Clearly, in the security area, they still have issues they're going to have to negotiate. Just to --
Q Are those issues that have to be negotiated?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I'm not going to comment specifically. But I'm just saying that in the security area, they do clearly have issues to be negotiated.
Q Do they have issues that don't have to be negotiated, that have been negotiated already?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would say that --
Q Through the U.S.?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The way I would characterize it is, there is no doubt that over the last few months each side reached a level of some confidence about the direction of negotiations. But they understood, to come in and reach agreements, you had to come face to face. And that's really where we are. They're going to have to come in, and they're going to have to negotiate and come to an agreement, and there's still a lot of work to be done in that regard.
Q Can you give us some idea of how pre-cooked this process is?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I wouldn't exaggerate "pre-cooked." What you have is, you have the two sides agreeing to resume the negotiations where they left off. And obviously, they have had lots of talks between each other and with us. And those talks, including what's happened over the last couple months, have been such that they have a level of confidence about what could happen once they come back to the table. If they didn't believe their needs could be met, they probably would not be at the table. They obviously believe their needs can be met, but there's still a difference between can being met and actually being met, and in the negotiations they're going to have to see if they can come to an agreement.
Q Do you anticipate a three-way press conference, a shaking of hands, something that --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't anticipate a three-way press conference.
Q Do they have -- are they in agreement as to where they "left off"? And does the U.S. know where they "left off"? You have -- does the U.S. have an opinion of that, without asking you what it is?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I know. But we have been very careful to say that we're not going to get into the details, and what we're looking at right now is, a, understanding they have a level of confidence about coming to the table about their needs, and believing that their needs can be met, and b, they understand that they've got to get down to business, face to face, and that's what this is about.
Q That wasn't even close to my question.
Q That wasn't even close.
Q It wasn't even close. You could come closer than that. I mean, you can tell us -- Tuesday and it would be closer.
Q Give it another go. (Laughter.)
Q Look, I'm wondering if you're spinning back to the original position, okay? Because last week -- and I happened to be on the trip and I followed all the spin -- last week, one of the incredible breakthroughs that you guys were jumping in the air and clicking your heels over was that the two sides had agreed to enter the talks with their own notion of where they left off. And now, you're saying flatly, they're going back where they left off. I'm trying to figure out if something's happened in the last week to put them together on this, that they've come together on this, or you're just speaking sort of in shorthand, and what was said last week still applies.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I'm not going to get into the issue further.
Q But people did last week.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I didn't, and I'm not going to go further. What I will say is --
Q -- ambiguity exists?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I simply say, look, the reality is they have had lots of talks between themselves and with us. And it was on that basis that they have resumed, and to resume where they left off. Going beyond that is just something I'm not going to do.
Q Are you concerned about the vote in the Knesset yesterday on the talks, and that they may undermine the political mandate or the resolve of Barak?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think Prime Minister Barak has a very strong resolve, and I think Prime Minister Barak believes that if he can reach an agreement, the agreement will be good for Israel, and he'll be able to present just how it is good for Israel and how it serves Israel's interests.
Q When do you expect negotiations between Lebanon and Israel to begin?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't know yet. That's one of the things that -- we have had some initial discussions with the Lebanese --
Q Is it on the agenda for these two days?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, we will certainly talk -- we obviously need to talk to the Lebanese further; we need to talk to the Israelis. And we'll get a better sense of when those talks might resume.
Q Did Israel and Syria have any direct talks recently? Did Israel and Syria have any direct talks recently?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm sorry, say it again?
Q Did Israel and Syria have any direct talks recently?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, not that I'm aware of.
Q Do we know anything about the refusal of --
Q Did you discuss or include Turkish-Syrian problem regarding the water?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm sorry, I didn't.
Q Yes, the problem between Turkey and Syria regarding the water -- did you include that subject to put the two sides together to let them --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It's not -- water clearly will be an issue as part of these negotiations. But obviously the focal point will at least initially be the Israelis and the Syrians.
Just one other comment on the issue of water. Across the board when you deal with water issues, there are bilateral dimensions to water issues and there are regional dimensions to water issues. And at some point, one probably has to deal with both, not just the bilateral.
Q Why is this happening now?
Q I have a clarification, to use the vernacular, and then a question. So what we're going to see tomorrow, when the talks move over to Blair House, is direct face-to-face talks between Barak and Shara, number one? Number two, would the United States, should a peace agreement arise from this process, would the United States help financing the cost of it, which is estimated, as you know, $10 billion, $20 billion? And would the United States be willing to put U.S. peacekeeping troops on the Golan Heights? Other than that, I have no -- (laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The answer to your first question is, yes. And the answer to your second question will be provided by my colleague. (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think Joe already spoke to you about what you know, which is the fact that U.S. commitment to Israel is longstanding and multidimensional. But in regards to these talks, neither of the parties has asked us for troops, observers, or put forward any request for financial or military assistance. So it is premature at this point to talk about what that would be. Obviously, if they do put forward such requests, we will consider it, and we will consult closely with the Congress on the merits of such requests.
Q I have a follow-up -- can I ask a straight follow-up? Because I had the same, more limited question than Lee. Every U.S.-guided peace accord or land-for-peace deal has involved aid assistance, large amounts, to both sides. What may be different this time is one of the parties, Syria, is on a State Department list as a country that sponsors terrorism. That carries certain legal obligations. So irrespective of whether they asked or they didn't ask, or what you might do or what you might not do, my question simply is, is there any barrier that you know of, any -- I can't think of the legal phrase -- anything that stands in the way of lubricating this deal with assistance to Syria? Or are they ineligible, as it stands now, for them to get aid? Now, you should be able to answer that. There's nothing hypothetical about that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: First of all, each one of these agreements is unique and different, and has been over time. And if you look at them, you'll see the U.S. role in them has been catered to the particulars of each one of these agreements. Syria is on the terrorism list, and that does put legal restraints on what levels of aid, what kind of interactions we would have. And one of the considerations, obviously, we would have to make in response to any request is where Syria is on the terrorism track.
Q Wait a minute. Will the administration then try to -- and this you could say is hypothetical -- will the administration then try to clear a way to provide Mr. Assad with buckets of dough by getting them off the terrorism list?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Obviously, we would like to see Syria take those steps regarding terrorism, which would get it out of being on the list. It's as simple as that.
Q Wait a minute, no, no. The last report said that they no longer directly support them. They seem to be halfway off the list. Do you see this process continuing in the positive direction it seems to be going, so they might be off the list?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: If you look at the reports over the last several years, you'll see that this fundamental point has been the same, which is, Syria's not been directly implicated in active terrorism, but we continue to have concerns about the presence of several terrorist organizations in Syria, and Syria's relations with organizations like Hezbollah.
Q Do you have information about Shara refusing to shake Barak's hand in public? And is this the reason that there wouldn't be any photo in the beginning of the meeting here?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The only thing I would say about that is I think that the idea of a photo op is not governed by considerations of that sort, number one. Number two, we're focused on getting these negotiations at a level that they've never been held before underway, and we're not so much focused on symbolism.
MR. LEAVY: Terry, then we've got to go.
Q One more on the American commitment here. While you say it's premature to say anything, is there anything that you would say the American people need to prepare themselves? What should they expect about the kind of commitment they're going to be expected to make? Money? Peacekeeping troops? Is it all on the table?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not going to speculate on that. When we see requests, concrete and specific requests, we'll consider them on their merits.
Q Can I ask a question about funding for the Syrians? I mean, there is a way around that -- you get the Europeans to fund the Syrian aid package. Is that not a possibility? And then the United States sort of wiggles out of the Syrian terrorist list problem. Is that being considered?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'll say it one more time. I'm not going to state that if we don't have a request.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 2:55 P.M. EST