THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
BACKGROUND BRIEFING BY SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ON PRESIDENT'S MEETING WITH PRIME MINISTER BARAK The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
10:43 P.M. EDT
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Three suggestions: keep it brief, talk fast, and give us news. I can choose two of those three, right? (Laughter.) Okay, I'll take A and B.
I will start with the assumption that you have far more questions than I have answers.
Q Has Barak left?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He has gone. All right. The meeting started at roughly 6:30 p.m. It concluded at about 10:20 p.m. So a little shy of four hours. They spent the entire time in the Oval. After about 90 minutes, they ordered dinner. Dinner consisted of hamburgers and mixed vegetables.
Q Any cheese on the hamburgers? (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hamburgers and mixed vegetables. They were in the company of notetakers on either side during the course of the meeting, but primarily this was a one-on-one on both sides.
Obviously, this is the first opportunity that the Prime Minister and President have had to meet face to face since Shepherdstown. They last talked on the phone when the President was in Geneva, when he was meeting with President Assad.
We think this was a good, productive, serious discussion about all facets of the Middle East peace process. The President feels, coming out of this -- he feels very encouraged that there is an intensification, renewed energy in the Palestinian track. He looks forward on building on this momentum as we await Chairman Arafat's arrival next week. So these two meetings with the President, combined with the negotiations that are ongoing at Bolling Air Force Base, together will give us a good sense of where we are, and from that, we'll put in place some procedures and a game plan for how we can help the parties move ahead to narrow the differences, overcome the gaps and successfully reach an agreement.
Q The Prime Minister said that he was going to present a variety of ideas. I think he was referring to the Palestinian track. Did he, and were there things you hadn't heard before?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it's fair to say that any time the leaders meet, they come with ideas. They touched on, again, all facets -- the Palestinian track; they talked about Lebanon; they talked about Syria; they talked about bilateral issues; and we are in the midst of dealing with the real heart and soul of the hardest issues involved in the peace process, these elements of the final status issues that separate the parties.
So it is incumbent upon both sides to come up with new ideas, fresh formulations. I think it's safe to say that the President and the Prime Minister had a substantive discussion, and I will not go into the details about what they discussed.
Q Did he present any new ideas that you hadn't heard of?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He came with some ideas on how to move forward, and we will review those and be in a position to discuss where we are with Chairman Arafat next week.
Q What percentage of time would you say they spent on --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The bulk of time was on the Palestinian --
Q -- Syria?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The majority of the four hours on the Palestinian track. They did talk about Syria. They did talk about Lebanon. They did talk about bilateral issues.
Q What about the sale of planes to China?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Pardon?
Q China? Planes to China?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On Falcon, it was discussed. The President once again shared our concerns about that sale with the Prime Minister. He indicated that he understood our concerns, and that we would be discussing that further.
Q Does the President emerge from this meeting more confident than he was at the beginning of it that the May 13th deadline for the framework can be realized?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The September --
Q No, the May 13th for -- and September for the ultimate deal.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think he's encouraged that there is a renewed sense of energy in the Palestinian track. We understand that there are still gaps that have to be overcome. The hard issues are still in front of us. I think he's encouraged by the energy that he senses from the Prime Minister, but obviously, this is a very challenging timetable that the parties have set for themselves.
Q Back on China -- so they did not resolve anything on that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They just pledged to discuss it further.
Q What about Syria? Did they decide that it's just not worth pushing right now?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, as we've discussed with you, we have received a response from President Assad. We are evaluating that. We will be discussing -- we will be communicating with the Syrians on their response. That's very much alive. Obviously, we still have, as an overarching goal, reaching a comprehensive settlement in the Middle East.
Q Is it now the time for the United States to put forward suggestions that can bridge the gaps in the Palestinian talks?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We need to think in terms of both this meeting, the meeting with Chairman Arafat next week, the negotiators at Bolling will be continuing until about the middle of April, and then based on those combination of meetings, I think we'll have a better sense of where we are and how we think we can best proceed.
Q You say they'll still be meeting next week?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No.
Q Can I just finish? Is Barak willing to have the United States -- I mean, obviously he can't speak for Arafat, but for the Israeli side, are they willing and maybe even eager to have a stronger U.S. participation in --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think we have always played a constructive role in this, and we are willing to play our traditional role. But obviously, it is up to the parties, themselves, to overcome these and reach agreement on these hard issues, and there's no substitute for that. But we obviously can be very helpful in terms of building a process that can help the parties, themselves, make progress.
Q Could you clarify the talks in Bolling?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The talks in Bolling? The second round I think is slated to go about 10 days.
Q It was supposed to wind up Thursday -- so it's been extended? Maybe not?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Maybe not.
Q No, it was supposed to go about 10 days.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, about 10 days.
Q So they'll still be at it next week?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think through about the 16th is what I was told.
Q Did Barak ask for any kinds of security pledges from Clinton vis-a-vis Lebanon, should he pull out in July?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think this was for the Prime Minister to -- he came here to renew his pledge to withdraw from Lebanon in accordance with Resolution 425, and he provided us some understanding of how he's prepared to do that.
Q So he didn't ask for anything, like, in terms of U.S. participation or help?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't think that the United States has been asked to play a direct role in that withdrawal.
Q Just a quick question. Did the President indicate how a one-hour meeting turned into a four-hour meeting?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think they had a comprehensive review of --
Q Did he say anything about why the meeting lasted four times longer than it was supposed to?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: When the door of the Oval Office opened, the President had a big smile on his face, and standing next to the Prime Minister, he says, "we've solved everything." I think that it's safe to say, this being the first time that they've been able to get together since Shepherdstown, it's a good opportunity for the two of them to sit down and substantively go through where we are in each of the elements of the peace process.
These are very complex issues. That takes time to go through, to review where they are, get a sense of where the Prime Minister feels progress can be made. And now based on this understanding of -- in some cases, there's just no substitute for the leaders getting together, a chance to assess some of the technical issues that have come out at the talks at Bolling; get a real good sense of where the Prime Minister is. That will give us a good opportunity, moving into the Chairman's meeting next week, and then from that we can best assess where we are and where we need to go.
Q Did the Prime Minister indicate at any point where he could not go?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Having not been there, I really -- I'm sure there were -- as always, it's -- our role is to help each party understand better where the other is, what needs are, what concerns are. So it's safe to say that the Prime Minister shared the full scope of what their equities are.
Q Will an effort be made soon, maybe tomorrow to communicate with Chairman Arafat some of the things that went on tonight so he can better understand the range of dialogue, or will you save that for next week's meeting?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think we'll build from this, moving into the meeting next week. But I wouldn't rule out any kind of contact with the Palestinian side.
Q How did the Prime Minister react about -- from Syria?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'll leave it to the Prime Minister to convey his reaction to -- I mean, while they did have a chance to more substantively review, you will recall the President did talk to the Prime Minister from Geneva. So he already had a sense of how the Assad meeting had gone before he arrived tonight.
Q You say notetakers. Where was Berger and Albright? Were they not there --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sandy has been here at the White House. The Secretary has had -- Sandy and the Secretary had their own meeting with the Prime Minister for about an hour and a half at Blair House earlier this afternoon. But this is primarily for the leaders to meet, and then from this, there will come a better sense of where the leaders feel progress can be made, and then that gets conveyed to the respective teams that can over time roll up their sleeves and see where progress can be made.
Q Did the Prime Minister present any new ideas on the Syrian track?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not in a position to say -- primarily, this was about the President conveying both his view of the Assad meeting and what we have heard from the Syrians since then. I know there was a discussion of the Syrian track, but I can't characterize it.
Q On the Falcon, you said there are going to be some more talks. Can you say when and under what forum, who will be involved, and was there a commitment made which would be implied here to suspend the sale until those discussions go forward?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, let me just repeat what I just said, that the Prime Minister indicated that he understood our concerns, and that it would be something that we would talk about further.
Q Could Barak be back here as early -- in as little as about a week? He's going to be in the United States next weekend.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: At this point, I think the next stop is to see the Chairman next week, and then we'll evaluate where we go from there.
Q Did the Pollard case come up?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There were bilateral issues. Beyond Falcon, I don't have a readout of any specifics.
Q In both the Assad meeting and, it seems like, next week with Arafat, the President seems to be playing the role of speaking for Barak, stating the Israeli position. Is that at Barak's request?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I think this is playing the role that we've played in this phase of the peace process, where it is primarily for the parties themselves to reach agreement. But we can certainly, as the honest broker, be able to convey to each side here's what the concerns are, here's what the needs are -- because obviously, for, ultimately, us to reach success, each side will have to compromise. And that's where the President, with his longstanding commitment to the Middle East peace process, has that kind of credibility that can be helpful in helping each side understand the other.
Q You're on the record, aren't you?
Q Have you got anything left?
Q Are you on the record? Is this briefing on the record?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: This is a backgrounder as a senior administration official.
Q What's the next step on the Syrian track?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Obviously, we will continue evaluate --
Q I mean, a week ago --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: When we feel we have somebody to communicate back to the Syrian side, we will do so.
Q We don't have any at the moment?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We're still evaluating the response President Assad has provided to us through our embassy in Damascus.
Q We have no hamburgers, so we thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay. Thank you very much.
END 10:57 P.M. EDT