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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release December 16, 1999
                           PRESS BRIEFING BY
                              JOE LOCKHART

                           The Briefing Room

12:08 P.M. EST

MR. LOCKHART: Good afternoon, and welcome to the White House briefing for Thursday. I have no opening statement and nothing to announce, so we'll go right to your questions.

Q So what's happening at Blair House?

MR. LOCKHART: I haven't gotten any readout so far. My understanding was Secretary Albright was there, was going to meet with the parties, and then after those meetings bring the parties together. And my understanding is they all arrived around 11:00 a.m. So the discussions are ongoing.

Q So still no substance, right?

MR. LOCKHART: Still no substance. Say that three times fast. Okay, I guess I won't.

Q So do you expect them to come over here at some point this afternoon?

MR. LOCKHART: I certainly think it's in the realm of possibility that after their meetings over there, they'll come over and see the President.

Q When you say no substance, you mean you have no substance to report, not that there's no substance taking place?

MR. LOCKHART: Correct. I expect that there is substance being discussed.

Q Do you know if they sat down alone together yet?

MR. LOCKHART: I have no detailed reports out of the discussions this morning.

Q Will there be a closing ceremony, a communique, in the afternoon after the meeting with the President?

MR. LOCKHART: When and if they come over here and have a discussion with the President, if they have something to announce, I expect we'll announce it in a public way.

Q Any atmospherics to share?

MR. LOCKHART: Not from this morning.

Q Do you know why the talks started over an hour late, and whether the Israelis were meeting with U.S. officials this morning, and the same with the Syrians?

MR. LOCKHART: My understanding is that they began --

Q They left their hotel at about 11:40 a.m.

MR. LOCKHART: Okay. Well, then they arrived 40 minutes late. That's news to me.

Q We're they meeting with U.S. officials this morning?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't have any information on what their activities were this morning.

Q Do you have any comments on Israel's proxy army in South Lebanon shelling a school, wounding 15 schoolchildren, and the risks attendant thereto, as in Hezbollah is apt to retaliate and shell --

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think all I'll say on that subject is that we've been in touch with all parties involved, and stressed the importance of exercising restraint.

Q Joe, in spite of the sort of news blackout, Israeli sources are saying that they're supposed to meet again next month and that the two sides have agreed that they would like to conclude the talks within a year.

MR. LOCKHART: All I'll say is that we made an agreement that the substance of this wouldn't be discussed. I'm not going to discuss it and you all will have to make your judgments on the basis of whether those who are saying understand the dynamic and are in the loop.

Q They are.

MR. LOCKHART: Thanks for your assessment there. I'll take it under advisement.

Q Would you like to know which minister?

MR. LOCKHART: No. I'm fully aware of who is saying what.

Q Is it true that the President suggested that they come back and meet here next Wednesday?

MR. LOCKHART: As I said this morning, what is being said in the room and potential further discussions go to the heart of the substance of these discussions, as we've indicated to you. We agreed beforehand not to discuss that in public. I, for one, will honor the agreement that I made.

Q Joe, will you just elaborate on what the thinking was in not talking about what was going on in the room.

MR. LOCKHART: Sure. I think one of the things that created the kind of atmosphere at Wye River that got us to the point where we reached an agreement was the discussions were done in the room and not in the paper. And we believe that's a good model, and that's why we're moving forward in the way we are.

Q Joe, a Hezbollah leader said in an interview that he didn't expect either the Lebanese or the Syrians to put pressure on Hezbollah to stop its attacks. How do you react to that?

MR. LOCKHART: He is welcome to his opinion.

Q The Lebanese have formed a delegation for a negotiation headed by the Interior Minister. Can you shed any light on the Lebanese access --

MR. LOCKHART: No, not at this point, no.

Q Has the President been directly involved in any way today by being on the phone with either delegation?

MR. LOCKHART: Not this morning. He got a report -- he had a meeting with his team last night before he went off to a holiday reception, which lasted about 30 or 40 minutes. He had a discussion this morning with Mr. Berger, his National Security Advisor, and I expect he's got some other items on his schedule that have taken up his attention this morning. But I expect when he comes back from the luncheon he will turn his attention back to this process.

Q When you said that the White House had been in touch with all parties involved on South Lebanon, and expressed the need for an exercise of restraint -- all parties, does that include the Hezbollah?

MR. LOCKHART: That includes -- I would go to the State Department for a further explanation of that as they're doing the discussions.

Q The EU-U.S. summit agenda?

MR. LOCKHART: Yes. Let me talk to you about that because I was woefully under-prepared this morning and now I am very prepared. I expect -- as you know, these are -- they meet twice a year with the EU to discuss the new transatlantic agenda. The last one we had was in Bonn at the back end of the G-8 meeting in Cologne. Expect to review progress in transatlantic cooperation including Southeast Europe, Kosovo, Bosnia, the Stability Pact that we talked about over in Europe, some discussion on Russia-Chechnya, counterterrorism, nonproliferation, trade, justice and law enforcement.

Q On trade, what specific topics are you going to tackle?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, there are a number of issues that we have been discussing with them, including hush-kits, bananas, beef, general WTO questions about launching a new round, some of the things we talked about while we were in Seattle. So I don't anticipate breakthroughs on any particular subject, but these summits generally turn at some point to trade.

Q How long is the meeting for? Where is it? And does it conclude, as it sometimes has, with a news conference?

MR. LOCKHART: It does not, which is probably the most important piece of information you wanted out of that litany. (Laughter.) When does it start?

MR. LEAVY: I'm not sure what time it starts, but --

MR. LOCKHART: I think it's three or four hours total.

MR. LEAVY: Actually, this is shorter this year. It's like an hour and a half --

MR. LOCKHART: Okay. It was scheduled for Wednesday, but because of the peace talks we put it to Friday. I expect it to go a couple hours. And we will provide expert people to read out.

Q In the Oval?

MR. LOCKHART: I think it's in the Oval or in the Cabinet Room. It's over here.

Q Joe, what can you tell us about the bin Laden associates who were arrested in Pakistan, and your level of comfort that Musharraf, despite a change in government, is still looking out for American interests?

MR. LOCKHART: I can't tell you too much about the suspects that were arrested, but let me make a couple points on the level of comfort. We believe that the Pakistani government should move quickly towards restoring civilian rule, democratic civilian rule. While this is obviously a good development, that these suspects have been brought into custody, there's certainly more we think they can do. Given their influence and proximity to the Taliban, we have talked to them on several occasions about putting pressure on the Taliban, as far as their harboring of bin Laden and his associates.

Q Also on the Taliban, have you heard back after Michael Sheehan's meeting with Mujaheed in Queens? Other than the one-word statement carried in the AP, that venerable news organization, in which it was called propaganda? (Laughter.)

MR. LOCKHART: I haven't heard anything specific. I think that meeting was designed particularly to deliver what I view as a one-way message, and I think it was delivered.

Q -- suspects -- going to be tried over there, they are going to be back here in the U.S. to be tried?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't have any information on where they'll be tried.

Q Joe, why do you think there will be no breakthroughs on any of those trade disagreements? It's just sort of the general statement of positions?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I think there's a process for several of them working through the WTO, and I don't expect, in the context of a U.S.-EU summit that we'll resolve these problems. I mean, as you know, bananas is an issue that's been litigated within the WTO, now, for some time, as well as hush kits, beef. These are things that don't generally reach a conclusion in this context.

Q And also, do you expect the President to pressure the Europeans to finish up their deal with China? Because there are people on the Hill indicating that the China legislation, the permanent normal trade relations legislation, won't go forward until that's settled.

MR. LOCKHART: Well, it's quite possible that that subject will come up. But I don't think the President will be putting any pressure on the EU. I think they very much want to conclude this agreement in their own interests, as we did, now, a month or so ago. So I don't know that this will be a point where we're applying overt pressure.

Q Can you give us any update on this morning's meeting on Vieques? And can you tell us what should come next?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, this morning's meeting with -- John Podesta, the Chief of Staff here, met with his counterpart from the government of Puerto Rico -- is part of an overall effort to encourage dialogue in an effort to reach a resolution to this. I have nothing specific to report out of the meeting, except that that effort continues.

Q Joe, going back to Taliban, U.N. sanctions have been there on Afghanistan, and do you think they are still working, because Afghanistan is not giving up the --

MR. LOCKHART: Well, the U.N. sanctions, I think, were put in place, I think, five weeks ago, at the most. So I think anyone who looks at the course of history, and how sanctions work, will understand that these will take time, as a tool that applies pressure to a country or an organization. You can't look at it four weeks out and make a judgment on whether it's worked or not.

Q -- Taliban to give up bin Laden?

MR. LOCKHART: I think the meeting that I referenced earlier made clear what our view is.

Q Joe, has the White House received a copy of Virginia Governor Gilmore's report on domestic terrorism?

MR. LOCKHART: Actually, I looked into this. This is part of a long-term effort that the Secretary of Defense initiated. It's a three-year process. This is the first reporting that's been done. It's gone to the Secretary of Defense. But there's still an enormous amount of work to do to complete this work. So I think I'm going to hold off in commenting as they go through each of their steps, only to say that this is an important project initiated by the Secretary of Defense to look at the domestic threat of terrorism and the coordination that's done within our government, and it's important that they get on with their work.

Q Can you tell us where we are now on the United Nations Security Council resolution in Iraq? Are you expecting one by the --

MR. LOCKHART: I know that the British requested a delay, which we expect to be brief, to try to generate support for the resolution. Our representatives, British representatives are working hard at that. But I can't tell you when we expect a vote, except that we expect it to be soon.

Q Do you have any comment on legislation that -- be considered to close the entire naval base if we can't do live firing there?

MR. LOCKHART: I think the administration has worked very hard over the last several months to work constructively through dialogue between the Pentagon, the administration, the government and the people of Puerto Rico, to find a solution to this. I don't believe that this kind of legislation at this point falls under the category of constructive.

Q Why not? Couldn't it help --

MR. LOCKHART: I think we've been working in good faith -- the Pentagon has, the people and the government of Puerto Rico -- to find a resolution, and we're going to continue to do that. And we don't particularly believe at this point that the threat of this kind of steps is constructive to the process.

Q Are there any plans for the President to meet with the Governor of Puerto Rico anytime soon?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't have any information on that.

Q Joe, India is one of the few countries in the world issuing a special standard on prisoners which will be unveiled by the Prime Minister of India, and to mark the 2000 years of -- but in this country, again, despite President Clinton call, the Southern Baptists are still issuing a warning against Hindus first, then Jews, and now this week they did against Muslims during the special holidays. So we're trying to repair and to bring peace in the 21st century, when they are trying to take us into this 20th century again --

MR. LOCKHART: Question? Comment? I think the President has made very clear his view from any quarter, no matter what quarter it comes from, his views on religious tolerance, and how one of the greatest challenges going into the next century is dealing with intolerance, dealing with ethnic and religious hatred, and coming to grips with the long-held resentments between religions. So I think he's been very clear in his opposition to whatever organization, including the Southern Baptist, that perpetuate ancient religious hatred.

Q Joe, on the peace talks, is the administration pushing the Israelis to get this done before President Clinton leaves office?

MR. LOCKHART: I think the President believes were at an historic moment right now -- the fact that we've got, for the first time in 50 years, this high level meeting; we have the Syrian Foreign Minister and the Israeli Prime Minister here, demonstrating their commitment to getting a peace agreement done. That's what the President's focus is.

If there is pressure, there is pressure to take advantage of this opportunity now, and not squander it, and with nothing to do with the President's own time or tenure in office.

Q Do you buy the premise of that question? Do the Israelis need to be pushed?

MR. LOCKHART: I think the fact that the Israelis are here and that the Syrians are here demonstrates the seriousness of their purpose and speaks more eloquently than anything that anyone else can say.

Q Joe, do you plan to come out at all afterwards?

MR. LOCKHART: We're working through how we read out the day, depending on what happens. There will be something; I just can't tell you at this point what it will be or who it will be.

Q Joe, what's the dynamic of the current political circumstances in the world that have led people in this administration to say that this is an opportunity that may not come again? Why might it not come again?

MR. LOCKHART: Because I think people who have watched the history of that part of that region in the world understand how fleeting these opportunities can be, how difficult the issues are. And when you have a moment where both sides have demonstrated a commitment to working together to find an agreement for peace, where there is the prospect of a comprehensive peace in the region, that's something that should be seized and not squandered based on the idea that we might reach the same dynamic sometime in the future.

Q Joe, on Grozny, the Russians are denying reports that rebels killed several Russian military. Do you have any way to independently confirm if that's true?

MR. LOCKHART: We have no independent verification at this time on that. We've seen the reports. To the extent the reports are accurate, I think it does underscore the point the President has been making, that the path that the Russians are taking cannot ultimately lead to the goal that they've stated, and that the indiscriminate use of force has done more to enhance this cycle of violence, embolden the Chechen terrorists, and undermine the ultimate policy goal that they've articulated. We believe that there is no pure military solution here, that they have to engage in a dialogue. The OSCE Chairman in office is now in the region; we encourage the Russians to take these efforts seriously, and try to find a political solution.

Q Is the President concerned that since the Russians got their noses so bloodied yesterday that they may launch an offensive to flatten the place? And has the President expressed any concerns in the last 24 hours along that proposed line to President Yeltsin?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, the President has not talked to President Yeltsin in the last 24 hours. But we continue to make the case that we think trying to pursue a military solution is counterproductive.

Q What was the word on the release of the interview today? The interview that the President had? Are you putting out a transcript, or how are you handling it?

Q Was there any news?

MR. LOCKHART: No news to my ear, beyond -- if you're looking at a day-by-day basis. And I think the transcript will probably be held until it's broadcast.

Q Joe, the Secretary's going to see Mr. Ivanov, probably, in Berlin tomorrow. Will she carry any message on Chechnya? What you've said, of course, has been the U.S. policy, again and again and again. But it doesn't seem to be making headway, although they did call off the deadline for the civilians. Will the President send some message? Will he talk to Yeltsin at some point soon?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I'm not going to speculate on when and if he will talk to Yeltsin. But I think the Secretary will bring a strong message that we have been articulating both publicly and privately about our views on the subject.

Q Joe, we've seen many reports today in the press that the speech of Foreign Minister Shara displeased, to say the least, the American administration. Is there any truth to these reports?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think from the moment that they walked into the Oval Office, they entered serious discussions about how to move forward in the peace process. And I've, as you're now all painfully aware, committed to not talk about what they've talked about in the room, so --

Q Did the speech displease -- what the press reports are saying that the speech of Foreign Minister Shara displeased --

MR. LOCKHART: Let me try this a different way, which is, you all have asked a number of questions on that subject, on issues that have to do with whether they shook hands or didn't shake hands. That's not what our focus here is. Our focus is, we brought them here because they demonstrated that they were serious about peace. They've done that. We want to figure out how we get from this point to discussions that will result in a peace deal. That's what we're focused on. We may not be talking about it in any detail, but that's what we're focused on. And these other issues are things that you all can talk about, but it's not something that we're going to spend a lot of time on.

Q These reports are false? It did not displease the President?

MR. LOCKHART: I think my answer answered that question.

Q Do you have any timeline when you might say something later on today --

MR. LOCKHART: When they're finished talking.

Q -- if they go to midnight --

MR. LOCKHART: When they're finished talking. I think, as I said this morning, I think the basic schedule today will look a little bit like yesterday because of the time of year it is, there's a natural break around 4:30 p.m. or so, and we'll just have to see where we are.

Q Some demonstrations are going on outside, people from the Golan Heights, and they don't --

MR. LOCKHART: Oh, in the back? I don't have a window. (Laughter.)

Q They don't want to leave Golan Heights and they say this is too much pain for the people who have been there for many, many years. So what do you ask Syria, in order to bring the permanent peace in the Middle East?

MR. LOCKHART: Again, I'm not going to get into the discussions going on, only to say that if these were easy issues to resolve, they would have been resolved a long time ago. And if these were issues that didn't generate passion on all sides, they would have been resolved a long time ago.

But what's important here is that the two sides, in an unprecedented way, have demonstrated a commitment to resolving these issues, and that's what they're doing. That's what they're working at now.

Q Joe, yesterday the President said that the military involvements by the United States in the region and by other countries is costlier than the costliest peace. Does that indicate that --

MR. LOCKHART: Costliest -- the cost of it being involved -- he has said this in many different contexts, but I think his view is the costliest peacekeeping force is a lot less expensive than the cheapest war.

Q Could you explain -- is this, in a sense, to prepare for the possible U.S. involvement in the costs of establishing peace in this region?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I think the President was just reflecting on his view, whether it be involved in the current commitments we have in the Middle East or whether in the Balkans or other places in the world that oftentimes, an investment in peace in the long run is something that saves a lot of taxpayer dollars.

Q If I could just ask another question. The Israeli Knesset appears to be wavering on the peace process as far as -- Barak's coalition appears to be a little bit soft. Do you have any comment on that?

MR. LOCKHART: That is a matter of Israeli internal politics. I checked the vote, and I think that they voted to support the process and I think that's what the Prime Minister was looking for.

Q Could I just come back?

Q Please.

Q One more. (Laughter.)

Q Would you answer John Roberts question? (Laughter.)

MR. LOCKHART: He did call AP an esteemed organization.

Q Venerable, actually.

MR. LOCKHART: Venerable. What does venerable mean?

Q Old.


Q Old and respected.

MR. LOCKHART: One out of two.

Q Ooooh.

MR. LOCKHART: Respected. You're not old, Terry. You're not old. (Laughter.)

Q He is, too, old. (Laughter.)

Q Can John ask his question?

Q Thank you. Then we can get out of here.

MR. LOCKHART: Were you going to say thank you -- Terry? (Laughter.)

Q This is just a little further than the question asked before. I'm wondering if you can just give us a little bit more of an analysis of the current dynamic. When we talked about this window of opportunity. Is it that Barak has a limited amount of time before his coalition starts to fracture -- now is a good time for a peace deal -- is there the question of secession in Syria?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't know that it would be useful for me to speculate on the motives -- no, or to analyze the motives of the two sides. What's important is they're here. They're here, doing the hard work of peace, they're having discussions that we hope will put them on a path towards reaching peace, and I just don't see any value in my analyzing their motives beyond acknowledging that they're here and that this is an historic moment.

Q Terry?

Q John, do you have anything else?

Q No, nothing. (Laughter.)

MR. LOCKHART: Thank you.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 12:33 P.M. EST