THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
BACKGROUND BRIEFING BY SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ON THE PRESIDENT'S MEETING WITH CHAIRMAN ARAFAT The James S. Brady Briefing Room
9:05 P.M. EDT
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I sense that half of you are afraid I won't make news, and half of you are afraid that I will. (Laughter.)
Q Be afraid, be very afraid. (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President and Chairman were together for close to three hours. The meeting started in kind of an expanded meeting, with nine representatives on each side -- that lasted close to half an hour. And then they whittled that down to the President, the Chairman and two note-takers and an interpreter, and that went on for close to an hour. And then it was just the President and the Chairman and our interpreter for the final hour, as they enjoyed a dinner of red snapper, salad --
Q No burger? No vegetables? (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: -- mixed vegetables and saffron potatoes, capped off with apple pie and ice cream. And I know you're going to ask the significance of hamburgers on the one side, snapper on the other side.
There was no apple pie? This just in --
Q Are you sure he didn't give him any matzoh? (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I think, as we were last week, with the visit by Prime Minister Barak, we are encouraged. We are beginning a different phase in this process -- obviously, one in which the United States will play a more intensified role. As you know, now building from this meeting, the meeting last week, the two sessions that occurred at Bolling Air Force Base, and with the prospect that negotiations will resume later this month in the region, we are prepared to play a more intensified role. At the request of both parties, we will be in the room during those --
Q This month?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Later this month. We will be in the room as they resume these negotiations. That will, as time goes on, put us in a better position to both assess where the parties are and we can, at the appropriate time, help make these negotiations most effective.
Q Are the negotiations going to be at the same level that they were at, at Bolling? Or is there going to be some upgrading in the delegations?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think as time goes on, you'll see a process where -- the short answer is, my understanding is, they will resume at roughly the same level at Bolling Air Force Base. But then I think we will establish a process that also brings the leaders into that in a more direct role. So as these negotiations progress, and as they reach key points where they need assistance from the leaders, in terms of overcoming obstacles as they evolve, that there will be a process in place that allows us to deal with those and continue to overcome them.
Q Who will be the U.S. representative in the talks?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not prepared to make any kind of travel announcements. But you can presume that Dennis Ross and others will be involved in this process.
Q Why are you encouraged? Why are we supposed to be encouraged?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think as we've reflected over the past few days and weeks, there is a very positive dynamic here. Both sides are seriously addressing the key issues. You know, we are --
Q What are they?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Pardon me? Well, the final status issues, from settlements, borders, refugees, Jerusalem. And these are all the key, most complex, most emotional issues. We're at that point. They're prepared to address them. We will, as time goes on, be in a position to help where we can. And we now think that there is a process in place and an earnestness on both sides to see what they can do and to move ahead and try to meet the very tight deadlines that they have set for themselves.
Q The State Department recently said -- Rubin said something to the effect of,it's not time for the U.S. to be playing a more direct role, because the gaps are too big. What's changed to intensify the U.S. role?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think what Jamie said is exactly right, that as this evolves -- we now have heard directly from the leaders. They have both brought ideas with them. As this process goes forward now, we will build on the process in place, the negotiations that have taken place at Bolling. And as time evolves, and as we see the parties, themselves, address these very difficult issues, we will come forth with our own ideas at the appropriate time as a mechanism to bridge these gaps.
Q Did Arafat ask the President to do anything specifically, personally; in other words, did he ask the President to travel to a region, to call Prime Minister Barak and deliver a certain message, or do anything on a personal basis?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think going back to Oslo, the President has clearly indicated that at the appropriate time, he is prepared to do whatever he can do to help, and when there is a sufficient basis for the President to get directly involved again, we will do so.
Q When did Arafat ask him?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I can't tell you -- I don't know whether there was any specific request tonight. I think that both parties have said that they welcome the opportunity for the United States to take a more direct role, to be in these negotiations. We have indicated that building on the trust that both parties have in the United States, that we will do so. The President himself has always pledged, and I think the leaders have always known, that he will always be in a position to do what he can when the time is right.
Q This is a change, because Israel has never wanted the U.S. to take that kind of a role, has it?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I mean, this -- we have always --
Q I mean, both sides have asked the U.S. to be directly involved in all the negotiations now?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Both sides have requested the United States to, at this point, take a more active role, a more direct role, and be a participant as these negotiations move ahead.
Q Why now?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think, obviously, they understand that they are facing a very imposing deadline that they have put in place, and that if they are going to move through these very difficult issues at the core of the final status process, they will look to us as they have in the past for help. And we are in a position to do that as this unfolds.
Q I'm trying to understand if this really is different. I mean, the United States has been involved throughout. Dennis Ross has been involved throughout. The Israeli government has always made it very clear that they didn't want a sense, in the Middle East and with their own constituency, that the U.S. was in any way dictating the final outcome of this at all.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And you're quite right. And we are not in a position to dictate. This is --
Q I'm trying to figure out, is this in any way different? SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. Well, no, this remains for
the parties to make the progress. It remains for the parties to make the tough decisions. And you're quite right: over time, our role has evolved, has adapted, based on where the parties themselves have been. But we are beginning, we're putting in place, as we said we would, kind of a new process for this phase of the peace process.
And at the request of both sides, when Dennis and others go into the region in the next couple of weeks, we will be at the table. That will give us a better chance to more directly assess where they are as they wrestle with the issues that they face. And as this goes forward, we will be in a better position to bring our own ideas forward to help make these negotiations as effective as possible.
Q Are they going to be at Eliat?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It's not for me tonight to say. The arrangements are being put in place, I'm just not going to get into them tonight.
Q Is the U.S. role now more of a mediator than a facilitator?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. You know, pick your adjective. This remains for the parties themselves to ultimately reach agreement. It's for them to tackle the hard issues and come to a resolution. We understand that -- and both sides need to understand -- that they are going to have to compromise. At the end of this, to reach agreement, neither side is going to get 100 percent of what they are asking for.
So we have always played a constructive role; we always have been at a position and have tried working with them to help bridge these gaps. That's the role that we're going to play. I think we're going to play a more intensified role in this coming phase.
Q Realistically, does the United States believe the parties can reach that May deadline for a framework accord?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the real deadline is in September that they've set for a final status agreement. We have acknowledged, as they have, that en route to a final status agreement it will be helpful to reach a framework agreement on these issues as soon as possible. And it is certainly a goal that they have set for themselves, to try to do that by the end of next month. We believe that is attainable, but clearly there's hard work ahead.
Q Mark said "mediator, facilitator." Let me try another adjective -- a "guarantor." You said Dennis Ross and others. Can we infer from that that there will be higher-level representatives of the U.S. government at the table, and a more direct link to the administration, to evaluate as these things are developing what the U.S. role will be in the final status agreement, and how it may play a role in helping to deal with certain security issues that are implied in that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, we've had a number of people that have played a direct role as part of the President's Middle East peace process team. I only was indicating that there's Dennis, there's Aaron, there's others. That it won't be just Dennis, I think it will be a combination of folks. But we'll do what we have to do to help them move forward towards an agreement in September.
Q Is this the first time they've agreed to resume negotiations later this month?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That's something they agreed to when the Bolling talks adjourned last weekend.
Q Normally these kind of bridging suggestions would be made at the very top level, because they really require political decisions. So what really is the outlook for that kind of top-level meeting? Or do you really expect that it's going to be happening at the Dennis Ross level?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I mean, one is not exclusive of the other. I think there have been very productive negotiations done at Bolling. I think the President is very encouraged by both the attitude and the ideas, and a willingness to tackle the tough issues that have been exhibited both by Chairman Arafat and by Prime Minister Barak.
You know, these are issues that they have to move forward on. And it's a very challenging time line that they've established for themselves. And as they move forward, they will ultimately -- in any kind of negotiation, you can make progress in certain areas. You'll reach roadblocks along the way. And we will have a process that, at the appropriate level -- be it at Dennis Ross or higher -- to help the negotiators help the leaders and maintain a dynamic and maintain a momentum that allows you to find those creative solutions that will ultimately be required if an agreement is to be reached.
Q Was the President advancing any specific ideas himself, tonight, at all? Was he getting into Jerusalem and borders and --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think during the course of this evening -- I think it was a very productive session with the Chairman. They covered both the full range of issues related to all of the tracks of the peace process. I think they clearly touched on the key final status issues that are at the heart of the Palestinian track. They also talked about other regional issues, as well.
But what the President usually does in his role is he helps one understand the needs of the other. You can find a way to clarify -- this is the heart of it, and you're going to have to find a way to overcome this obstacle, but one, a way that it can do so, and meet the core needs of each side.
So this wasn't really about the President putting on the table fresh ideas from the United States; there's time to do that. This was primarily about helping the two understand where each is, where the key obstacles are, where the gaps remain and help them now focus on where they need to devote their effort, roll up their sleeves and find creative ways around those gaps.
And at the appropriate time as this process moves forward, we will be in a position to put forward our ideas that we think can help bridge those gaps, when there's a basis to do so.
Q Mr. Arafat has said he would unilaterally declare a Palestinian state in September if a final accord was not reached. Did that come up?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Without saying specifically, I think that you can assume that all of the final status issues came up this evening. Statehood is one of them.
Q You said that both Barak and Arafat brought some new ideas. Was there anything that you heard that advances the process, puts them closer together on any specific issues?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't want to get into -- we've always said that negotiations are best done not in the public eye, so let me defer on who brought what new fresh idea. I think, clearly, they're focused on the right issues. They understand the challenge that confronts them, and there is a very clear attitude on both sides, a willingness to tackle these issues. And we're very encouraged by that.
Q Before Barak came to the United States, Chairman Arafat said some things that the U.S. government thought were not helpful to the peace process; that Barak was not trustworthy; that, in some respects, he was worse than Netanyahu and that he was in the hands of the extremists, or at least aligned.
Did the President bring up his displeasure with Chairman Arafat's statements to that effect?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not going to talk about what the -- I think the tone of the meeting today was very good, very constructive. We have never had a problem expressing to either side when we feel that public comments are not helpful.
Q Should we still characterize these talks as slow-moving, sluggish, stymied? Or is there a hint of some momentum?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You understand that this is a process as we move forward. We've had two sessions at Bolling and we have real negotiations in progress. The President has brought the two leaders here to help us better understand where they are, so that we can best assess how we can be constructive and effective in working with both of them as this goes forward.
So I think we're encouraged that there is real traction here, and now a clear understanding of where they are, a clear understanding of where they need to go, and a clear willingness to tackle the hard issues. And now there's a process in place with negotiations resuming in the region later this month, and to roll up their sleeves and move forward.
Q Do you expect Barak and Arafat to attend these meetings?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think we expect that these negotiations that resume in the region will resume at the level that they existed at Bolling. I do expect that there will be a process where the leaders will be consulted and their views will be made known to their negotiators, and to our participants as necessary, as the negotiators confront areas of disagreement or gaps where they need leaders to intercede to help see if we can move forward.
Q To what degree is the violence in Lebanon proving to be an impediment to an agreement here?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, to the extent that our ultimate goal remains a comprehensive Middle East peace, obviously we are clearly encouraged, as the international community is, that Israel is prepared to withdraw from Lebanon, in accordance with U.N. Security Council resolutions. It's now up to the U.N., working with the international community, to establish a process so that this can be done peacefully.
But this is something that we the United States, and the international community, have long hoped for, that all foreign forces would leave Lebanon. And clearly this is something that we support.
Q But is it in any way proving to be an impediment to reaching an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There are separate tracks. So obviously the leaders are mindful of the fact that there can be interaction, in terms of the overall dynamic, within the peace process. But I don't know that what is transpiring in Lebanon is going to have a direct influence on the Palestinian track.
Q Is Arafat leaving town?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't know. That's a good question.
Q There have been some new suggestions from Syria in the last week, since we saw you last here. Are you sending messages to them asking them to clarify, or are you just waiting for them to send more to you?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As you know, out of the President's discussion in Geneva, we invited President Assad to come up with some ideas on how he felt the Syrian track could move forward. We have received a response through our embassy in Damascus. We are still in the process of responding to the Syrians. We have not done so yet.
Q Secondly, are you suggesting that the Syrians should also be leaving Lebanon with their forces at the same time the Israelis do?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Under the U.N. Security Council resolutions, they call for a removal of all foreign forces from Lebanon.
Q What time do you -- when do you want the Syrians to leave?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The U.N. Security Council resolutions state what they do. I don't know that I have any expectation at this point as to what the Syrians will do.
Q Is the end game in this going to be similar to why in which the United States is not only a broker, a mediator, but also providing promises, specific dollar promises, or peace-keepers or whatever. Is that going to be sort of the same pattern that we saw?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, again, let's see how this process moves forward. But we've made clear that at the appropriate time, with a sufficient basis, we would be willing to reconvene a summit, if that's what is called for, based on where the parties are between now and September.
Q Is there a date for the next round of Bolling talks?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The next round of Bolling talks -- it will be some time later this month. I don't know a specific date.
Q Here? Or are we talking about somewhere --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It will be in the region.
Q It will be in the region. But you don't have a date?
Q -- what we call Bolling talks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think they will resume sometime before the end of this month.
Q Nothing specific, though, tonight was said about a new summit in terms of, like a goal or a month or a time or a place?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We're not there yet. We are encouraged by the willingness of the parties to roll up their sleeves now, tackle the tough issues. But there are clearly differences that remain. There are difficult decisions that the parties, themselves, will have to make as this goes forward.
But we've made clear all along, with a sufficient basis, with sufficient progress, at the appropriate time we are prepared to do whatever it takes to help them reach an agreement by September.
END 9:28 P.M. EDT