THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary (Shepherdstown, West Virginia) ________________________________________________________________________ For Immediate Release January 3, 2000
PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART Butcher Athletic Center Shepherd College Shepherdstown, West Virginia
5:18 P.M. EST
MR. LOCKHART: Thanks all for waiting. Sorry I'm late. The meetings ran a little bit late. Let me give you a quick rundown of what I know, which is not a lot, and then I'll be glad to take your questions.
The meetings kicked off early this afternoon after the pool watched the three leaders go into the National Conservation Training Center. They were held in the Commons Building. The President met first for about an hour with Prime Minister Barak downstairs in the Commons Building. Again, after about an hour, he went upstairs, met with Foreign Minister al-Shara, again for about an hour.
I think as far as trying to give you some sense of the meetings, the President went into the meetings determined to take advantage of the historic opportunity that these talks present to us to reach peace between Israel and Syria, and believes that these talks here in Shepherdstown are an important next step, building on the process that began just before Christmas.
The President wanted to use and did use these bilateral meetings to help formulate plans for the week to work on how to work through the many items on the large agenda that face both sides on how to begin these discussions. Based on the meetings, the President said that he believes the talks are off to a good start. The President believes that both sides are here to work seriously and constructively.
I expect after another hour, hour and a half or so of down time that the parties will come back together tonight and meet in a trilateral. We'll find some way between Assistant Secretary Rubin and myself to give you a readout of that, either here or to the President's travel pool, or both. But we'll let you know sometime in the next couple of hours.
Q How much time -- and specifically in days -- is the President prepared to invest in this undertaking?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the President is prepared to invest as many days as appropriate, as many days as will be constructive. The parties are working through how they'll move forward now, so I can't give you a sense of how exactly he will interject himself in the process. But he stands ready. I think the schedule for this week is mostly clear. The schedule is light as we move forward into the next couple weeks. And where we'll need to make changes, wherever these talks go, the President will make them in order to play a constructive role here.
Q In light of your talks with the Syrian and Israeli delegation, do you think that some progress could be made during this session? And do you think that the problems existing could block such things during this time? Thank you.
MR. LOCKHART: Do I think the problems could block progress?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think there are certainly difficult issues on the agenda that face both parties. And as with any of these talks, if it was easy it would have been done a long time ago. I don't want to raise specific expectations on any particular meeting, particularly on the first day. But I think the process here is to work through the items, to find a way to narrow differences, and work ultimately toward an agreement. I think it's quite unrealistically optimistic to think that that could be done in this round. But it's important to start the work and start the hard work of narrowing differences in order to ultimately reach an agreement.
Q When Mr. Barak spoke with Mr. Clinton, was security one of the priorities, if not the main issue, on the agenda? And can you tell us anything specific about what Mr. Barak's concerns are?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think he has articulated his concerns -- both sides have articulated their concerns publicly. We certainly know what the concerns of both sides are. Certainly, security is an issue, the timing and nature of the peace orders, water -- these are all issues that are well-known.
I don't think, at this point, it's constructive to try to get into the substance of any of those, beyond saying that these issues are difficult, they need to be worked through, and we are aware of the concerns that both sides bring.
Q On the issue of security, has anybody floated the idea yet of using U.S. troops in either a peacekeeping or observer's role?
MR. LOCKHART: Not that I'm aware of.
Q Has the President spoken with President Assad in the last week or so? If so, can you tell us anything about their conversation?
MR. LOCKHART: I am not aware that he has spoken to him in the last week. I know he has spoken to him from time to time leading up to the talks that you all followed in Washington, at Blair House. But I just don't know, recently.
Q Would it be realistic to expect an announcement on a resumption of talks between Israel and Lebanon as one of the products of this round?
MR. LOCKHART: Again, I think that it wouldn't serve a constructive purpose to handicap or speculate on what might happen or what might not happen, other than saying that we expect all the issues that both parties have brought here to discuss to be discussed.
Q Joe, can you give us any indication what's happening in the Lebanese track? The Lebanese track? Are there any plans for them to join these talks, or the further talks in the future?
MR. LOCKHART: I think the last answer answers it the best way I can.
Q Can you give us any insights into the atmospherics today between the President and the two leaders? And also, I know that in Wye the informal parts of the talks were an important component of the overall process. Can you tell us to what extent you expect that to be present here?
MR. LOCKHART: I think there's certainly some history, particularly when you look at Wye, on the informal atmosphere playing a constructive role in the discussions. I think there will be ample time for that. I think today was -- this afternoon's talks were more formal, as a way of trying to kick off these discussions and do it in a productive way.
I think the President came out of his two meetings believing, as I said, that they were off to a good start, and that both sides are serious about being here and looking forward to working in that serious way and that constructive way through all the issues they have to work through.
Q You said that the President helped formulate plans for the rest of the week. Can you give us some sense of these from a mechanics point of view of what the plans are for the rest of the week?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I don't mean plans as in a meeting schedule; I think more in a broader sense of the issues that they need to work through. And they did some discussion of how they would do that. And I think -- at least it has not been reported to me that there is any decision or any structure to that now, so I think we'll just have to wait and see on that.
Q A follow-on to that. Can you tell us on what basis the decision will be made whether the President would either stay overnight here tonight or come back tomorrow, or --
MR. LOCKHART: I think the basis is on what we believe would be constructive and helpful to the discussions. I think I would view it as highly unlikely that he'll stay tonight. I expect him to go back after the meetings; they should start a few hours from now.
As far as when he comes back, that's a decision we'll make on a day-to-day basis, and I would caution you to read too much into the President returning here tomorrow or not returning here tomorrow. There's a lot of work that has to be done. Ultimately, the work has to be done between the parties and the President can play a constructive role, as we've seen in the past. And there's also a number of other people on the team here, led by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and the many fine people she has. So I think our presence will certainly be felt here throughout the week, and we'll make a decision on a day-by-day basis on whether the President should be here.
Q This is a follow-up to that question. The meeting tonight, is that a dinner meeting and is it going to be a small group, is it going to --
MR. LOCKHART: As I was leaving they were still discussing how that would all come together. So we'll try to get you some more, once the meeting -- either once the meeting starts or once it ends.
Q -- all three leaders?
MR. LOCKHART: I know the President was just taking some time down. He was, when he left, spoke briefly with the members of our team, was going to take an hour or so off and then get back together with the team before proceeding with the rest of the evening.
Q When will --
MR. LOCKHART: I don't know.
Q One dignitary not here is President Assad. Does the President feel any need -- first of all, you have an imbalance. You have the Prime Minister of Israel meeting with the Foreign Minister of Syria, who I'm sure reflects rather dutifully the views of the President. Does the President -- our President -- feel any need at this point to be in touch directly with the President of Syria? Could it be that they will meet if this round doesn't do it, is our President prepared to travel some distance to meet with the President, as he has in the past?
MR. LOCKHART: Let me say that we, I think as your question noted, believe that the Foreign Minister does have all the necessary negotiating authority to work here this week. I think the President, as he has in the past, will communicate with President Assad as he views it appropriate and constructive. As far as the President traveling, we've always said we want to play a constructive role here, but I think it's premature to discuss any future travel on the first day of the second round of these talks.
Q Despite this opening of peace talks last month in Washington, Hezbollah continues to mount attacks -- suicide bombing a couple of days ago, many people injured, a few dead. Is the United States disappointed with Syria's refusal or inability to control Hezbollah?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think as we've said many times, we believe it is in all sides' interests to maintain maximum calm with regards to South Lebanon. The Syrians have assured us that they are doing what they can to control the situation. We believe that they're making an effort on that front, but that's something that obviously must continue.
Q From the two rounds of talks the President held with Barak and the Foreign Minister al-Shara, is it clear now about the American participation? Are they going to be present in these talks at every meeting, or is it they are going to play it day by day and by ear?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, it is certainly clear that the President won't be present at all meetings. Whether other U.S. representatives will be, I think that's something we'll just have to watch as the week goes by.
Q Off topic here, Joe -- has the President had an opportunity to talk with President-designate Putin yet?
MR. LOCKHART: The President talked to Acting President Putin on Saturday, I believe. They had about a 10-minute conversation. It was Saturday -- I'm trying to remember this -- I think it was just after the radio address. The President congratulated him on his designation as Acting President, told him it was important to continue to work to strengthen the relationship, noted that there are areas of disagreement in the relationship, particularly Chechnya, but there are also many areas that we do agree on.
I think that the spirit was reflected and reciprocated by Acting President Putin, who made a strong commitment to moving forward on the democratic movement in Russia, noted that there were differences, but said that on the core issues that we work on that there is agreement.
Q If I could just ask a follow-up on that -- does the President see the next three months and how Putin handles himself in the run-up to the presidential elections as crucial to what the future nature of the U.S.-Russian relationship will be?
MR. LOCKHART: I mean, certainly this is an important time, as they move toward elections. But the Russian people will have to speak. And it's our view that we have articulated many times that we support the process of the ongoing democratization in Russia, the movement to market economy, to an open society. And obviously, as they go through a presidential election is a crucial time for the Russian people.
Q Back to the Syrian-Israeli talks. If possible, if you can give us any indication to the willing of the Syrians to make some humanitarian steps, especially concerning the issue of information about Ron Arad and the missing in action in Sidon?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I'm not going to get into the substance of the discussions, only to say that we expect that all issues will be on the table and both sides will address the concerns of the other party.
Q You haven't heard any theory on willingness to give more than they gave before? Because it was one of the Israeli requests in the last round in Washington.
MR. LOCKHART: I'm not suggesting it's not a good question, I'm just not going to give you a good answer.
Q -- for the day?
MR. LOCKHART: No, I don't think so. I think the President wanted to concentrate on getting these talks off to a good start and didn't see a real utility in having a back-and-forth on it. I think there's important work that needs to get done here.
I think those of you who suffered through Wye will at least remember, if not understand, our belief, and I think the parties' belief here, that what gets done here can be done more constructively without the daily back-and-forth discussing the substance and doing commentary on every hour and every issue. We have some history that suggests to us that it's the right way to go, and that's how we're going to go this week.
Q Joe, it seems the Y2K situation went pretty well, pretty smoothly over the weekend. However, it does appear that at the FAA and also at the Pentagon there was either a lack of candor on certain issues, or that there was a slowness in getting out some information about breakdowns. Have you talked to any of those folks about --
MR. LOCKHART: I have not. I never even saw anything on the FAA. I saw the story in Saturday's paper on -- or Sunday's paper -- on the Pentagon. I can just tell you that there were a lot of people working very hard to get a lot of important information out. I think the Y2K success story to date is very much a testament to the government working in partnership with local governments, communities, corporations. I don't think there were -- there were very few pockets of people in this country who were not aware and prepared for the Y2K.
And I also know from the position that I take every day of standing here trying to give you real-time information that sometimes the information doesn't come as quickly as we might like. So I have no reason to believe there was any intent to mislead. And I certainly have volumes of evidence about -- that indicates that those who were involved in Y2K did a very good job of communicating on a timely basis real-time information to the American public.
Q Do you have any time frame for these -- I mean, the length of these talks, how long we can expect, noting that on the 7th or 8th there will be the end of Ramadan?
MR. LOCKHART: Correct. I think that the parties are committed to working through this week and, as we move to the weekend, taking stock of where they are and formulating where they'll go next. I don't have any way of predicting what decision they'll make as far as how they proceed -- whether there is a break or not a break, or whether they go straight through -- only to say that I expect that we'll be back here for three or four days running and then we'll get a sense of how the next phase may play out.
Q -- Wye Agreement back in 1998, organized and orchestrated by President Clinton, the Israeli government fell down and new elections took place in Israel, as the direct result of this agreement. Do you take into consideration that if an Israeli referendum will reject an agreement now if it will be reached, because Israelis do not believe that it will bring peace, then how do you react? What's your scenario?
MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think that we're on the first day of the second round of talks and you're asking me to formulate a strategy for failure. And we're concentrating on a strategy of success.
Q Joe, can you say something about the personal role of the President -- not simply the power of the presidency -- in pushing this thing forward? Obviously, with regard to Prime Minister Barak, there is a certain personal confidence in the President's commitment to Mideast peace. But it's unclear, say, the reaction of Foreign Minister al-Shara or President Assad. Is there this personal rapport, which you feel creates confidence in pushing this thing forward from their point of view?
MR. LOCKHART: Yes, I think we're at a unique time in this process, where both sides -- and in fact, if you look on the comprehensive view of the Middle East peace process, the Palestinians included -- have confidence in the President, have a high level of trust in the President, built over, now, seven years of working on this process.
I know that Prime Minister Barak has talked about this. The President has now met with him many times, talked with him countless times. The President has spoken to President Assad countless times in anticipation of the meetings that were kicked off today. So I think one area that drives this process is the level of trust that exists between the parties and the President.
Q One party that's essential to this process is not here today, which is the Congress. Has there been any discussion within the administration of how you're going to handle that issue? Are they an important player in this process? And where do they come into it, if someone has to go to them and say, we need you to take part by --
MR. LOCKHART: I think they're an important element in the process. I think if you look at the history of peace agreements, you find that there is often an economic role that the United States can play. I think there already have been some discussions with members of Congress about this. We're not at a point where you can do true consultations because we haven't formulated -- and the parties, I don't believe, have firmly formulated -- their ideas and the things that they would be looking for. But I think Congress will play an important role here, and we have committed to the leaders of Congress to fully consult with them on this, and to keep them informed as the process goes.
END 5:40 P.M. EST