THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary (Aboard Air Force One en route from Muscat, Oman to Geneva, Switzerland) ________________________________________________________________________ For Immediate Release March 25, 2000
PRESS BRIEFING BY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR SAMUEL "SANDY" BERGER Aboard Air Force One En route Geneva, Switzerland
(Please note, portion of this transcript is on background)
9:10 P.M. (Geneva)
Q Is there anything in the works for us to go to Israel or is it just --
MR. BERGER: -- ask if we're going to Israel. We have no plans to go to Israel; at least, that's not the way this is going to work out. I think that the meeting with President Assad will begin some time mid-afternoon, given the hour we will arrive. I expect that meeting will last for several hours. As I have said to you before, I think the President will try to describe for Assad, based upon his extensive conversations over the past several months with both Barak and Assad, how he believes -- why he believes that negotiations can resume in a serious fashion. And I think that's what Assad wants to know and that's what Barak wants to know. The question is not whether they can get back in the same room; the question is whether they can get back in the same room with the same purpose -- which is to reach an agreement. And I think for that to happen there needs to be a higher level of confidence -- certainly not certainty, but confidence that their respective needs can be met in an ultimate agreement. And I think the most likely result -- or at least, the best -- the result I hope will happen here is that Assad will go back to Damascus and the President will talk to Barak and on the basis of those conversations over the next few weeks they will reach the conclusion that they can enter into a serious round of negotiation. But that's by no means certain.
Q So will you fall over dead if they come out tomorrow and announce that negotiations are going to resume?
MR. BERGER: I'll fall over dead because I'm so tired. (Laughter.) I don't think that is a likely outcome.
Q Why is Assad coming if he's not ready to resume the negotiations?
MR. BERGER: I think that both Barak and Assad would like -- believe it is in their interest to achieve a peace agreement that meets their needs. The question is whether or not there can be a peace agreement that meets both of their needs; that is not self-evident. I think we know more about their respective needs than they know about each other's respective needs. And I think that we can try to convey that, one to the other.
The President said just now to the Sultan of Oman that the gaps are not huge, but the path is very difficult. And I think that's true. I think the gaps are identifiable, but I think that they also reflect very strong interest of each country and strong currents of opinion of both countries.
Q One of the problems at Sheppardstown was neither side wanted to go first with -- Israel didn't want to say that they were prepared to cede the Golan Heights as a point of entry. Is there a way that the President can present some kind of a package that will move both sides closer tomorrow?
MR. BERGER: Well, I think there is a -- process and substance I think become inextricably intertwined. The question of who goes first was really a question about whether each could be satisfied that at the end of the day their basic needs would be met And I think what we've tried to do over the last two months is to understand what both parties acquire here for an honorable peace. I think we will know more after this meeting about whether those two views are reconcilable or not. They may not be reconcilable. I think that is a perfectly plausible result. And I think that if that's the case, that it's good that they know that now.
Q Barak has strongly hinted recently that he would be willing for what he says was Rabin's desire to go back to the June 4, 1967 borders, which seems to be a concession on his part. Given that, and given that it seems -- Syrians, the border issue is the most important. What more does Assad need to hear from the President on this issue, if anything? In other words, what more confidence does he need, to back to what you said earlier.
MR. BERGER: Each issue is a double-edged sword. What is a desirable border for Syria may or may not be a sensible border for Israel. If Israel decides that it's going to withdraw from some portion of the Golan, it will give up some modicum of security. How are those security needs going to be addressed? If Israel gives up some portion of the Golan, is it for a paper peace or is it for a real peace? Those are the questions that the Israelis are asking, Israeili people are asking. And I think that those are quite appropriate questions. Is this going to be the absence of war or the presence of peace. And I think there has to be a degree of confidence initially by Prime Minister Barak and ultimately by the people of Israel that a peace with Syria qualitatively changes the nature of the relationship.
Q Is there enough of a deal in place that if they can get past these ideas of -- if they can, I guess, narrow the depth, if you will, of the differences that divide them, will this happen very quickly?
MR. BERGER: I don't think there's anything in place. I think that, you know, in a situation like this nothing is agreed to until everything is agreed to. It sounds like a lawyer's footnote, but it's also an important element of the diplomacy here. They've not agreed to anything. I think that if you're looking at this from kind of outerspace, or kind of objective view, the differences here are not extraordinarily wide, but they're very deep. I think that -- and it is not clear to me that their two conceptions are reconcilable. I think that we will have a better sense of that -- if nothing else happens here other than that Assad and Barak and the President have a better sense that their interests are either reconcilable or irreconcilable, that will be, I think, usefu; they'll each make decisions based on that.
Q You can't have a peace agreement if they're irreconcilable? What do you mean by "irreconcilable"?
MR. BERGER: I mean that in the end of the day there has to be a win-win. They both have to compromise, but they both have to believe that they are stronger and better positioned as a result of reaching a peace agreement. Whether or not that is achievable or doable I think is still unclear.
Again, let me go back to the purpose of tomorrow. I want to be real clear about it. The purpose of tomorrow is not to try to reach an agreement between Israel and Syria. The purpose of tomorrow is to see what their, as a result of these discussions and then the process that follows on in Israel and in Damascus. The two leaders here will decide that. They can enter into a negotation that has a reasonable prospect of being decisive.
(THE REMAINING PORTION OF THIS BRIEFING IS ON BACKGROUND BY A SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL)
Q What did you think of Musharraf, when you got to meet him one-on-one?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Musharraf is a serious man. I think that this was a very high tone exchange between these two leaders. It was very candid, not a lot of pretense on either side. I think the President laid the predicate of saying, we're here as a friend and 50-year ally who's deeply concerned about what's happening. And he then outlined as -- I don't know whether the other guy was on the record or not -- but that other guy earlier described, outlined our concerns on democracy, on the nuclear program, on Sharif -- in, I thought, a quite strong and forceful way, but not in a patronizing way, not in a hectoring way, but I thought in a very strong and quite compelling way.
Musharraf listened very attentively. I think that he accepted a lot of the goals that the President set forth. He obviously has his own time table, he has his own construct for what's happening in Kashmir that's hard to shake. The President was basically making the argument to him, how do you want ot build Pakistan's future? Do you wnatit to be a future that is preoccupied with a nuclear weapons program and conflict over Kashmir? Or a future that is defined by fixing the really serious problems with the economy and governance of Pakistan.
I think Musharraf obviously has a strong and passionate view about the cause in Kashmir. But I think he also expressed a recognition that ultimately he had to address the real concerns of the people of Pakistan.
Q Did he deny supporting the Islamic militant groups in Kasmir? And what did he say about returning to a path of democracy.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On democracy, he said he would -- he did not expect to stay for long -- I think those were exactly his words -- but that he did not want to prescribe a time table, because if he prescribed an explicit time table he essentially said the people would basically wait him out. That was his argument.
The President then came back and said it's important for the people of Pakistan to have a clear sense, a clear road map -- if you want to do these hard things and make these hard descisions, people have to have a sense that ultimately they're going to get to make these decisions themselves.
He said that he did not expect to be in power for long.
Q Are you encouraged by that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I don't know. "For long" is subjective, not objective.
Q So Musharraf is going to run?
SENIOR ADMINISRATION OFFICIAL: He didn't answer that.
Q Did the President ask him to pressure the Taliban to give up bin Laden?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. He said that -- he acknowledged that bin Laden was a serious problem, and he said he would make significant efforts, but argued that he didn't have total control over the situatoin.
Q What about the trip he was going to make to meet Omar? Is he going to --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That's one of the disturbing things, the trip has been twice postponed.
Q Did he say when he's going to schedule it?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, he didn't say when. But he said he would make a serious effort.
Q Back on the Syria issue, is this the last opportunity for a Syria track in the Clinton presidency?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, every day is a new day. I don't know what that means. I mean, I do know what it means but I think that -- le tme put it this way. I think there is an opportunity over the next month or so to resume negotiations if both parties want to. I think that once Israel withdraws from Lebanon -- which I'm sure, I believe it's committed to do on a unilateral basis -- the dynamic is likely to change. And so I think trying to get this done before that is quite important. But I don't -- I never say never.
Q Do you think because the Israelis have already indicated a territorial compromise, they have to sell that to their people, isn't it really Syria's next step to convince, to show goodwill to move the process forward?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think any negotiation involves two parties. But I think it is important for the Syrian government to convey and demonstrate to the people of Israel that if, in fact, they give up some or all of the Golan Heights, that they will gain from that more than simply the piece of paper. That they will gain from that a qualitatively different relationship with Syria, which involves genuine dialogue exchange, at a people-to-people level as well a commercial level and otherwise.
I think that the people of Israel would like to see manifestations of Syria's genuine commitment to change the nature of the relationship with Israel as part of a peace agreement.
Q Is that what the President is going to be spending most of his time tomorrow, pressing Assad on trying to get --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think there are at least four issues, maybe five. One is what the -- if there is a withdrawal from the Golan, if Israel decides to do that, what is the nature of that, what are the borders? Second, how does Israel compensate for the security losses, for the security loss of not being completely on the Golan.
Third, what is the nature of peace with Syria and what is the sequencing of withdrawal and peace. And then, finally, what are the measures that Syria can take to give the people of Isreal a greater degree of confidence that this would be a real peace.
Q Are you thinking about staying in Geneva through Monday, if things go well?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Our plan is to meet with Assad tomorrow and go back. Now, the meeting doesn't start until 3:00 p.m., and I can't predict how it will unfold. I don't want you to go into apoploxy -- (laughter) -- if it jumps over into the next day. I don't think that's likely.
Q Based on the conversations tomorrow, will the United States come up with a new proposal to try to bridge the gap?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't think that -- no, I don't think that what we're talking about here is an American plan. I think what the President uniquely has is an understanding of each of their requirements. And I think given -- since he understands their requirements better than they understand each other's requirements, I think that can be valuable in trying to bridge the differences. But we're not going to put down an American plan.
END 9:33 P.M. (Geneva)