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                     Office of the Press Secretary
                         (Geneva, Switzerland)
For Immediate Release                                     March 26, 2000
                           PRESS BRIEFING BY
                              JOE LOCKHART
                         President Wilson Hotel
                          Geneva, Switzerland

10:15 P.M. (L)

MR. LOCKHART: Good evening, everyone. I'm going to start with a brief statement, and then I'll be glad to take your questions.

Since we hosted the talks at Shepherdstown, we have been engaged in an effort to try to clarify the needs and positions of the Israelis and Syrians. President Clinton felt that it was important to meet President Assad face to face in order to further that process.

Clearly, having met a number of times with Prime Minister Barak, the President felt it was appropriate to hear President Assad's views directly. Throughout this process the parties have differed on a number of issues. While we have a better understanding of the Syrian position, differences remain between the Syrian and Israeli positions. We will continue to try to help the parties overcome these differences.

Q Joe, does the President have a sense that these differences are reconcilable? Is the President leaving here with a sense that the time is right to bring the two parties together? And how and when will he brief Prime Minister Barak on this? Will he call him from Air Force One, for example?

MR. LOCKHART: Let me try to take those in reverse order. The President had a chance earlier today to talk to Prime Minister Barak before the discussions to check in with him and give him a sense of his hopes and expectations for today's meeting. I'd say about an hour after the meeting ended this evening, at about 8:30 p.m., the President had a chance again to talk to Prime Minister Barak to give him a sense of the discussions, where we stood, and to let him know that he would be heading back to Washington.

Do you want to give me the other two?

Q The other one was, does the President feel like the differences were reconcilable at this point, and does he feel like the time is right to bring the two principals together?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think the President understands that the differences that remain are significant. But I think he does believe that this was a very useful meeting with President Assad. It was a chance to talk face-to-face for the first time since these negotiations resumed, or began in Shepherdstown.

He had a chance to clarify the needs of Israel directly to President Assad, and then had the chance from President Assad directly to understand the needs of Syria. I think, as far as any resumption of talks, it's impossible to predict when those talks might resume. Again, there are significant differences and I don't believe that from the position of the United States we believe that it would be productive for those to resume now.

Q Did the President ask President Mubarak, who was in town on Tuesday -- will he ask him to help in this process getting the process back on track?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, actually, let me add one other point which I think is important. The President and the Secretary of State have asked Ambassador Ross to travel to israel tomorrow to brief Prime Minister Barak personally, face to face, on today's session.

I think, as far as Tuesday's meeting, obviously there is a complicated, but important comprehensive peace process that's going on. I'll remind you that there has been important work done on the Palestinian track within the last 10 days by the Palestinians; and Israelis are meeting in Washington as we speak -- not literally, but are in Washington today. So there is important work going on there.

And I think there are leaders within the region that play an important role. President Mubarak is clearly one of those who I expect that an important part of the discussion on Tuesday with Mubarak will be a discussion of how we move this process forward.

Q Is the President disappointed that it doesn't look like it would be productive to resume the talks now? And specifically, what are the issues where the differences remain so far apart that it's not productive to resume the talks?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I don't think the President is disappointed. I think he felt today's meeting was quite useful as a chance to sit and talk face to face with President Assad, which he has not had a chance. He's talked to him repeatedly on the telephone, but I don't think that can replace the kind of meeting he had today. I think he believes that it's productive, that we have clarified the views of both in clarifying the needs of Israel to President Assad and the needs of Syria from President Assad.

As far as the differences, I think we've been well-served throughout this process of not getting into a discussion of the substance of the negotiations, and I think we'll continue on that.

Q Joe, did the President get any sense that he might be willing to meet in person with Barak? I know that seemed to be a sticking point before he sent his surrogates to Shepherdstown and didn't meet face to face with the other head of state. Was there any willingness or sense that he might do that, if and when talks do resume?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I'm just not aware that that was part of the discussion, and hypothetically, I don't want to go down any road here that's based on a hypothetical. But to the specific of your question, I just don't think there was any real discussion of that.

Q Joe, can you talk about the atmospherics and mood of the sessions today, and exactly how much time did they spend together?

MR. LOCKHART: They spent about three hours total, in two sessions, the first one which lasted about two and a half hours, the second which lasted about a half an hour. There was probably about two hours of break in between. I can tell you when -- President Clinton and President Assad met, just outside the room. They exchanged warm personal greetings. When they went into the room it was very businesslike. There was obviously a lot of work to do, and the President took some time to lay out his thinking on this to try to help clarify in his mind what Israel's needs were. And I think President Assad did the same as far as what his views were and what the needs of Syria were and are.

So I think it was both -- both Presidents were quite engaged in this process and these are very difficult, tough issues. If they weren't, we wouldn't be gathered in this room tonight discussing the process. When you've got tough issues, the work is serious and very direct.

Q Joe, you said the President got the clarification he wanted, so he wasn't disappointed. But he wanted more than clarification, didn't he, he wanted some progress?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I think, as any of you who talked to me or some others coming into this meeting, we viewed this as a chance for the President to sit and talk directly with President Assad for the first time since Shepherdstown, and have the opportunity to clarify and articulate the needs of the parties as an important step in this process.

This process is difficult. It involves tough issues. So I don't think the President leaves here anything but glad that at the end of this trip he was able to have this face-to-face meeting with President Assad.

Q Doesn't this mean that the bottom line is that the positions are no closer together than they were when they left off in January 10th in Shepherdstown? That all this work -- informal discussions and talks, have really yielded nothing in the way of bridging some of -- bridging any of the gaps that were there and that caused the meetings to break off in the first place?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I'm not sure that I agree with everything in the question, but I'm not going to get into the substantive differences in order to try to refute it. Let me say that in this meeting tonight, the focus was on clarifying a position, and the significant differences remain and were not narrowed.

Q Joe, I'm confused about some of the semantics here. You're you saying that it's not appropriate to have talks unless the differences are bridged -- I thought the purposes of the talks would be to sort out the differences.

MR. LOCKHART: Well, we make a judgement in our role in this as a party that is dedicated to bringing the parties together towards a peace agreement, and in our judgment, it is not worthwhile to have meetings just to have meetings' sake. And we will make a judgment when we think it would be useful and productive to resume negotiations.

Q -- proposal put on the table to try and bridge the gap between --

MR. LOCKHART: No, there was no American proposal.

Q Did the two Presidents discuss the possibility of a meeting between Barak and Assad, which could be the only way to bridge those gaps?

MR. LOCKHART: Yes, I think that that was asked earlier, and I'm not aware that they had a discussion on that subject.

Q Did the President feel the President Assad was yet again missing an opportunity to --

MR. LOCKHART: No, I don't think the President believes that.

Q President Assad is often described as being in delicate health. Is that your perception, too?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not qualified to make a medical judgment. I think the President believed he was quite engaged throughout the meeting, that he articulated his position clearly and forcefully throughout the first two-and-a-half-hour session and then in the last 30 minutes.

Q Other than Ross, what are the next steps?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, we're going to continue to work with the parties. I think -- the President spoke face to face with President Assad today; the President spoke twice today with Prime Minister Barak. And all sides agree on the importance of continuing to stay at this and to continue the work, to continue to try to bridge differences in order to get to a -- in order to get to a peace deal.

Q Joe, based on President Assad's health, and also Israel's decision to unilaterally withdraw from Lebanon in July, does the administration believe that time may be running out to get a deal between Israel and Syria?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't think so. I think, as we have said all along in this process, it's a difficult process and it's impossible to predict from moment to moment, from day to day, from month to month, how it will move. I'll just -- let me remind you that it was only two and a half weeks ago that similar questions were being asked about the Israeli-Palestinian track, and I think some important work was done there when Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat and Dennis Ross had meetings, had discussions, and have moved forward in the process. I think it will require a lot of hard work, and the President committed to both sides to remain engaged and working hard in this process and I think he received in return a commitment from both leaders to do the same.

Q Was there anything the President saw in this meeting that leads him to believe there's an increasing time of resuming talks anytime soon?

MR. LOCKHART: I think the President, as I've already said, found it useful to have a face-to-face meeting, and really hear from President Assad, personally, how he viewed Syria's needs in this process and how he viewed what the President's judgment was Israel's needs in this process.

But I don't think the President or anyone on the team or anyone is able to, at this point, predict how the process will move forward or how it will conclude.

Q The Syrian presidential spokesman has just said that Israel is still blocking a resumption of the talks. Is that a fair assessment, Joe?

MR. LOCKHART: I would -- I am not going to get into the substance of the discussions, but I would not agree with any statement that tries to place responsibility on one side or the other for moving forward. I think that there are significant differences and there's a lot of hard work that needs to be done.

Q Joe, there was a working paper produced in Shepherdstown -- did the President bring that along? Was that the subject of discussions in any form?

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

Q -- control of Israel for Lebanon discussed?

MR. LOCKHART: There were a lot of substantive issues discussed and I'm not prepared to go into what they were, only to say that I think the two Presidents had a wide-ranging discussion where all of the issues were on the table.

Q You said that the hard work is going to continue. Can you say what the next step in that hard work might be?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I think, obviously, the next step will be Ambassador Ross's trip to Israel. And I think beyond that, I can't predict tonight what steps will be taken, beyond saying that the President committed to both sides to remain engaged and both sides indicated that they wanted to stick with this.

Q Basically, what you are trying to do here is save the face of the President who came here to Geneva and President Assad insulted him. Don't you think so?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I don't.

Q Joe, other than the fact that the two leaders met, was there any specific progress in any areas?

MR. LOCKHART: No, I think as I've said, we find it quite useful that they had a chance to sit down and talk face to face. There was further clarification of both the needs of Syria in this process and in the President being able to clarify what he views the needs of Israel. As far as -- I mean, I can't report, however, any narrowing of the differences.

Q Could you say a word about the Russian elections? It looked like Putin might be in a run-off.

MR. LOCKHART: I try not to make comments on things that "look like." And since by the time -- well, almost by the time you finish typing, what I say will be out of date, I think I will withhold comment on that.

Q Joe, yesterday, Sandy Berger reported the President as saying the differences between Syria and Israel were not that huge, that it was mostly the procedural path to an agreement. Does he still think that's the case?

MR. LOCKHART: I think what the President has said in the past is, there are a number of differences but, we should not get bogged down in the volume of those. But the differences are significant and important. And, obviously, more work needs to be done in order to bridge them.

Thank you.

Q Joe, did the President make any special purchases on his outing today -- in particular, the Swiss press is saying that he purchased some Cuban cigars.

MR. LOCKHART: Well, as I chased behind the President in my normal vantage point of being five minutes late and huffing and puffing, he walked down to a park and walked back. So unless there was someone in the park selling these said items, I think it would have been impossible that he made the purchase.

Q Did you buy any for him?

MR. LOCKHART: Did I buy any for him? No, I'm way too cheap. (Laughter.)

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 10:30 P.M. (L)