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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release December 15, 1999
                             PRESS BRIEFING BY
                               JOE LOCKHART

                             Presidential Hall

4:15 P.M. EST

MR. LOCKHART: Hello, everybody. Welcome to Presidential Hall and to our first formal briefing on the discussions and peace talks that are going on. Let me tell you, for those of you who were at Wye, you will not be surprised by how little you get. For those of you who weren't, I apologize in advance. But let me go through some of the information. I don't have very much more than what I'll tell you from the outset, and I'll just try to find different ways to say the same thing I've already said.

First off, let me reiterate what I said at this morning's briefing, that today's meetings were indeed a breakthrough. These are the highest level meetings ever between Israel and Syria on any subject, much less peace between the two countries.

The trilateral meeting that started just a few minutes after the President, the Foreign Minister and the Prime Minister finished their statements in the Rose Garden lasted about 30 minutes. The President started that meeting by going over what in his view was the best way to proceed over the next two days. The two sides agreed with the President's proposal and are moving forward.

At the conclusion of that, the President went and began a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Barak. That meeting lasted just over an hour. During that time, Foreign Minister Shara was meeting with Secretary of State Albright. When those two meetings finished, the parties switched -- Secretary Albright going to a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Barak, and the President meeting with the Foreign Minister. That meeting also lasted just over an hour.

Here's what I can tell you about those meetings. Each side during those meetings expressed -- raised their positions and concerns, while acknowledging that the other side's concerns needed to be addressed. Both sides made clear their desire for peace. They expressed the importance that both sides attached to the Syria-Israel component as critical to an overall comprehensive peace. Each side laid out, again, their concerns and discussed how to move forward in intensive negotiations.

The trilat that's going on right now at Blair House was, as of a few minutes ago, still going on, expected to break about 4:30 p.m. -- the trilat being Secretary of State Albright being the third party. And again, we expect that to break at about 4:30 p.m.

To sum up, we believe that this is an historic start. We -- of course, no one expected this to be easy. The issues are complicated. It's not surprising that there are real differences at this point, but both parties displayed a serious intent and the President remains firm in his commitment to help them in this effort.

Q Joe, considering that the President made I think 31 phone calls -- totals of the two leaders, Albright has been there, there's been lots of traffic -- did the President or the Secretary, if you have a chance to get her attention today, did they hear anything new, any refinement, even -- let alone change -- any refinement in positions from either of the sides?

MR. LOCKHART: I think beyond describing discussions as serious, we'd prefer to keep the positions, the concerns expressed in the negotiating room, and not go into any detail, however broad, about the discussions.

Q I, actually, wasn't asking for any detail. It's just the approach, with all due respect, that the White House is taking on this is as if this is a breakthrough, this is a new situation. I mean, you've been at this for a while, and the President has worked very hard on this phone, particularly. So to lay out the issues and to remind each other they have needs -- I mean, are they bargaining with revised positions? Are they sticking to their positions? And most importantly, is the U.S. as the hands-on mediator, hearing anything different from what it's heard in the past?

MR. LOCKHART: I would not underestimate the importance of the fact that the two parties are here. Despite having worked on this for a long time, it is still quite significant that they are here in Washington as a demonstration of their commitment to reaching a peace.

I think the discussions, as I've tried to indicate here, are mostly focused on how to move forward, what is the process. The President laid out some ideas, of which I am not going to go into, about how to proceed over the next two days. And the two sides agree, and they're moving forward based on the understanding they reached this morning.

Q Are there any plans now for the parties to reconvene tonight after a break, and how do you expect things to unroll tomorrow in terms of meetings?

MR. LOCKHART: I have no information on tonight. When they break at 4:30 p.m., they should provide us with some information which I will try to provide once it gets to me to you all in a more informal setting. I don't expect to come back here tonight. But I have no information on a meeting scheduled for tonight.

Q Joe, the bilats this morning --

Q You said there is a trilateral meeting going on with Albright. Has there been a one-on-one meeting just between Shara and Barak, without anybody else in the room?

MR. LOCKHART: My understanding is the meeting -- once they left here, they had two bilaterals here at the White House, one with Secretary Albright, one with the President, each side. And then they went over to Blair House, and the delegations have been in a trilateral meeting with Secretary Albright.

Q So the Syrians and Israelis have at no time been alone together, then?

MR. LOCKHART: Not that I'm aware of.

Q Joe, the bilaterals took a little longer than was expected this morning, and the President delayed his 1:00 p.m. event until 2:00 p.m. Is there any connection between that and Shara's statement this morning, which apparently caught the Israeli delegation, at least, off-guard?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, without commenting on the second part of your question, there's no connection that I know of. I just know that if you go and look at the history of our bilats, they, more often than not, run a little bit longer than on time or a little bit shorter.

Q Was there any handshake today between the Syrian and the Israeli?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't know. I wasn't in the room, and that's just not the kind of information that I was looking for in preparing for this briefing.

Q Was the President surprised in any way by the length and details -- detailed speech of the Foreign Minister?

MR. LOCKHART: I think I addressed that earlier today in saying that the President invited both of them to make a statement; there were reiterations of longstanding views, but also some new statements on reconciliation. And I don't think the President has characterized one way or another his reaction to that.

Q Shara did refer to a letter from the President of October 12, and he quoted a few phrases from it. Are those quotes accurate, and can you tell us more about the letter?

MR. LOCKHART: I can't tell you more about the letter because we're not going to discuss either our diplomatic correspondence or the many phone conversations the President had with either President Assad or Prime Minister Barak. I have no reason to believe it was not accurate, I have no one who has reported that to me. But as I think I've stated on some occasions, the President has spent a good bit of time trying to get to this point, get the parties to this point, and today is a day both to mark the significance of these discussions and for the beginning of what we think will be a lot of work and a lot of intensive negotiations.

Q Will they have to be eased toward face-to-face talks? Is there any reason, except maybe you planned it that way? But you guys are the mediators. Why trilateral into mid-afternoon? I thought the notion was, in fact, we had a couple of briefers yesterday -- of course, they can't be held accountable 24 hours later for what they said -- but they did say, we're the facilitators. And the State Department spokesman said this right on the record -- we're here to help, but they're supposed to negotiate face to face. Why aren't they negotiating face to face yet?

MR. LOCKHART: They're certainly in a room talking to each other now. The Secretary of State is lending her great qualities that she brings to the table to help in that process. We're going to move forward as we deem appropriate, as the parties deem appropriate. And we'll have to see what happens the rest of the day and tomorrow.

Q Can you elaborate on what the President meant when he said the talks were hard-going and there was a lot of work to do?

MR. LOCKHART: There's a lot of work to do --

Q But the hard-going part.

MR. LOCKHART: No, listen, I think the President was looking for a formula that said something that didn't say anything, and I think he pretty much got it right. (Laughter.)

Q Will Secretary Albright be present in all the meetings, and is this at the request of the Syrians?

MR. LOCKHART: No, not necessarily. I think we're -- I can't predict how the meetings will unfold over the next 24 hours between now and tomorrow afternoon. I can only report to you that we had a series of meetings today, there's a meeting going on now which I expect to be breaking any time, and I'll try not to predict, but I'll try to report faithfully.

Q Joe, has either party expressed any kind of hope or expectation that there will be direct face-to-face meetings without any third parties?

MR. LOCKHART: I think we're in the first day. This has been going for five hours, and the goal here is to find a process to move forward in negotiations to find a peace. I wouldn't read too much into anything at this point.

Q Did they discuss the way that they were going to proceed after these first two days -- here or wherever, and what time?

MR. LOCKHART: I know that the President laid out how he thinks we should move forward and where we should get to by the end of the two days, but I'm just not going to get into the specifics of what that might be.

Q Did you expect Mr. Shara to come with a prepared statement this morning to the White House?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I expected that the President would say something. But in their discussions they all thought it was appropriate for them each to say something.

Q Joe, how did the President react to Mr. Shara's statement? Was the President surprised by the tone of it?

MR. LOCKHART: I think I've answered that one several times by saying that there were long-held and previously-stated views that were articulated again. There was also something new, which as I said at today's briefing, normally strikes me as more newsworthy -- a spirit of reconciliation and potential. And beyond that, he has not given me any further specific reaction.

Q Can you describe, if you can, in the trilateral meetings, the demeanor of Barak and Shara when they were in there together? I mean, is it warm?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm going to stay away from trying to provide color or commentary beyond that these are serious discussions.

Q Are they actually talking to each other, or is it all done through Albright or the President in these --

MR. LOCKHART: I assume that the conversation is multilateral, and the people are talking to each other, including everyone.

Q Joe, can you tell us if the Foreign Minister brought in a message from President Assad, given that he's not here? And also, can you tell us when that afternoon meeting at Blair House got underway?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't know exactly what time. Did we get a time? I'll try to find out what time it started. I think it had started just after 2:00 p.m. I think the bilateral with the Secretary of State happened -- they had lunch at the State Department, I believe, or they went someplace -- Prime Minister Barak, his delegation and the Secretary of State. So I think it started sometime around 2:00 p.m. But I can try to --

Q Was Shara at lunch, too?

MR. LOCKHART: No, he was meeting with the President at that point.

Q What about the use of any message from President Assad to --

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not aware of one, and if he did bring one, it would be part of the discussions, and I wouldn't talk about it.

Q Did Shara, in his lengthy statement, in any way break a previously agreed set of limits on what the statements were going to be?

MR. LOCKHART: No, but from that point, when the statements were completed, they went into the Oval to start these discussions, and the agreement is there would be no discussion except the limited amount of information that I'm trying to peddle here.

Q When Hillary Clinton was in the Middle East, she shared the platform with a speaker who accused Israel of use of chemical weapons on Arab children. Today, the President shared a platform with Mr. Shara who accused Israel of provoking the war with Syria by attacking it. Does Mr. Clinton have no response to these accusations?

MR. LOCKHART: I think the President has focused singularly on getting the parties in a position where they can get to a peaceful resolution of longstanding differences. That's what his goal is, and that's what he will concentrate on.

Q Joe, is there any reason to revise the notion that there will be at least one more round, probably in the United States? I mean, has what has happened so far caused any recalculation about the schedule ahead?

MR. LOCKHART: Without respect to whatever may have been said or may not have been said, whatever has been written or speculated on, I'm not aware of any recalculation.

Q Joe, in at least their discussion of procedural issues, was there any mention at all that -- of a statement on positions, even in their discussions of procedural issues, how to proceed?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't know in detail, only that discussions have been described to me as serious.

Q The reported arrests of terrorists in Amman of threatening to attack American interests or citizens -- is it connected in any way with the American effort to bring the Syrians and the Israelis together while their headquarters of the Hamas is there in Damascus? Can you elaborate about the arrests of those terrorists and the warning to the Americans?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to elaborate anymore beyond what I said earlier today, that the Jordanian operation, as articulated by the Prime Minister as he spoke to the Parliament today, arrested a number of suspects who we believe are associated with the bin Laden organization, and I'm just not going to speculate on any connection or lack thereof to the process.

We have discussed over the last few days in some detail the travel advisory, and I don't have anything further to add at this point.

Q Do you expect a declaration of principles of any document to be signed tomorrow at the end of these talks?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not in the position to expect anything. We'll see how tomorrow goes, and if there is something to report, I'll report it.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 4:30 P.M. EST