THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
BACKGROUND BRIEFING BY SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ON CAMP DAVID SUMMIT The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
11:35 A.M. EDT
MR. CROWLEY: Just to repeat, this is a BACKGROUND BRIEFING, attributable to a senior administration official. As you will note, he has been integral to this process all along, and will kind of give his assessment of where they are and what we hope to accomplish at Camp David.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think, actually, the President did a pretty good job, so rather than offering a larger statement on context to begin with, I'll just take questions.
Q If this summit does not succeed, is that, in fact, the end of this peace process?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think we're obviously operating on the premise of trying to make things work, not trying to focus on how they won't work.
I think the important thing here is we have reached a juncture where the negotiators, I think, worked very hard for a long time, but they've hit a wall. We have tried lots of different processes involving myself, the Secretary; we've tried lots of different kinds of techniques. And one of the things that became very clear was it wasn't going to go further unless you brought the leaders together with the negotiators. So that's really the logic of this at this point. And our focus, as I said, is how we try to make it work, not how we worry about it if it doesn't work.
Q You said you hit a wall. I mean, at what point in this ages-old process did you finally decide you'd hit a wall?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You've got to put this in a certain perspective, which is the following. Permanent status negotiations were originally to have begun two years after -- in 1996, two years after the original agreement -- Gaza- Jericho. And, in fact, they didn't begin. And they really only began, I would say, going back to the beginning of this year, and they got, I think, quite serious during the course of the spring.
From the late spring, I would say, into the early part of this month, they were working in a very serious way. They were beginning, I think, to distill more clearly the differences between them, and also trying to build some bases of convergence. What became pretty clear about a month ago is that the negotiators couldn't really take it farther than they could, working the way they were.
And that's when they went off to some different places; we went with them; we brought them here; we had the Secretary also make trips there. So, over the course of the last -- I would say, the last four to six weeks, we have been wrestling with what was a process in which they had made some headway, but in which it was becoming increasingly difficult to get them to cross the next threshold to see if you could really forge a breakthrough on the permanent status issues.
And I think over the last couple of weeks, after the Secretary's trip, when she came back and reported to the President she laid out very clearly where things stood and that we had not been able to move things beyond, or working with them, beyond where the stage at which they were at. So that's the context in which the President was asked to make a decision, and the President also did talk to both leaders before he made the decision.
Q What is going to be the mechanics of how this is going to work? You soften them up, to begin with; you do prenegotiation when they arrive, and then the President is there the whole time? Separate buildings --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, some of the details of how we'll actually work, even in a structural way, we still have to work out ourselves, because the decision has only recently been made. But I think what will happen at least is the following. We will have the negotiators -- not all the negotiators, but a small group of negotiators arrive on the weekend before this convenes. It will convene on the morning of the 11th.
Q The formal summit will at that point?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, it will convene on the morning of the 11th. And so we will have a couple of days with the negotiators in advance. Once it convenes, I expect, as the President said, that he will be spending a lot of time up there. I don't believe it means he will be spending all of his time up there, but I do believe he will spend as much time up there as he feels is necessary. And I do think, once the leaders have arrived, the President will work, I think from the beginning, pretty intensely with them.
Now, there's a -- these kinds of negotiations obviously have an acquiring kind of rhythm and a logic of their own. I don't believe that all the time will be spent with the leaders. What's going to happen is you'll have discussions with the leaders and you'll have discussions with the key negotiators. Negotiators will be talking with each other. We will be working with both sides. We'll be in the negotiations that they have; then we'll sit separately with each of them.
I would also expect that they will meet at different levels with each other. So this is a process that will operate even within the setting of this kind of a -- even in the setting of a summit, you're going to have them working together at several different kinds of levels. But I think you'll have the President wanting to take advantage of his presence to work not only with the leaders, but from time to time with the negotiators themselves.
What this involves is, obviously, a very active involvement by the President. It helps to change the dynamic of what is going on, but it also means the President can work with the leaders and the negotiators, and go back and forth to some extent between them. And we will -- the President's team, starting with the Secretary and then with us -- we will be working, I think, at every level throughout this. And each day we'll have to reflect a kind of judgment of where we think we are and what is the best way to approach where we are.
Q -- this summit for some time, and yet the sense we were getting was the President didn't think it would be productive. Is it that you made some progress, that the Secretary made some progress in her talks, or was it simply a last hope for the process?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it's more a case that we came to the conclusion by the end of the last set of trips that were taken -- I was out there for about eight days, and then the Secretary came, and I think after those discussions our conclusion was we really had taken it as far as we could take it without involving the leaders with the negotiators, and that also meant with the President.
This is -- it is a process that has gone on for a long time, but the process of working on the permanent status, as I said, has really been a function of this year. But we really did come to the conclusion we had taken it about as far as we could take it.
And frankly, one of the things that began to worry us, we began to see that the logic of stalemate was beginning to reflect the way the negotiators were dealing with each other. They became -- on their own, they were beginning to produce more bitterness than results. And if you began to slide from stalemate into deterioration, you move inevitably towards what might end up being a kind of competition in unilateralism by each side, which at a minimum would make it far more difficult, and a maximum could really create a lot of turmoil.
Q To follow up on that point, based on your extensive dealings with both parties, do you think if this does not produce dramatic progress or a solution, does either side at this point have the appetite to continue working, or will everything be put aside for a time?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think again, there's a duality here. On the one hand, we've reached a point where we can see we can't take it further. On the other hand, based on all the discussions we've had, we also see a potential. If we didn't see a potential, then we wouldn't be making this effort.
Part of the logic of this is not to miss the opportunity that exists because we didn't take it to this next step. I think there continues to be a very strong desire on the part of the two to find a way to an agreement. But these are excruciatingly difficult decisions to make, and I don't know anybody who rushed to make excruciatingly difficult decisions.
Q Have you gotten some sort of commitment from the two leaders that this is the time, that they're ready to make and face some of those historic concessions that the President was talking about earlier?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What we have heard from both sides is they have known there needed to be a summit. And I wouldn't say that they -- they both came to a conclusion some time ago there needed to be a summit. I think on the Israeli side, there was a view that a summit made it easier -- not that it was going to be easy -- but easier to overcome the difficulties and it would be almost impossible to do so without it. So, from their standpoint, they saw the logic of the summit sooner rather than later.
On the Palestinian side, there was also recognition you couldn't get this done, you didn't have a chance to get an agreement to deal with these issues unless you brought it to a summit. But their attitude was they saw greater value in some greater preparation. But they also, both sides in the end, came to the conclusion that they would leave it to the judgment of the President as to when the time would be right.
Q But they've accepted this timing now?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.
Q -- by accepting the invitation?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, yes.
Q The President mentioned a need for regional support, and I was wondering, could you elaborate on that a little, and if there will be any specific roping in of countries or leaders of other countries in the region to this summit process.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Secretary has already begun speaking to a number of different leaders in the region, more to explain the logic of what we're doing and to call on them to provide support for the effort. What the President is getting at is, at the end of the day those in the region who are committed to peace also need to be prepared to be supportive of it, in word and in deed.
We don't anticipate that others would be coming to the summit. The summit is focused on the Israelis and the Palestinians. But clearly, we want both leaders, who have to make hard decisions, to be operating in a context where others in the region are supportive of making tough decisions, understanding that this is a moment to take such tough decisions. And from that standpoint, basically being behind the logic of your question, which is this is the time to do it.
Q Only a month or two ago, someone like you, if it wasn't you, indeed, said the two sides hadn't even begun to negotiate the key issues. Now your description today is that in the spring, thereabouts, things began to quicken. Can you say specifically whether the two sides -- you don't have to recite the key issues, we all know what they are -- are they actually in negotiations on those issues? And what happened to the third stage Israeli withdrawal? What is the U.S. position now, that it can be wrapped into the summit, or do they still have an obligation -- summit success and failure, whatever -- to pull back one more time at least?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me parse your questions. First, they have been since the spring, they have been in serious discussions on the permanent status issues. It is true that on one of the issues, the Israeli side preferred to delay -- meaning Jerusalem -- they preferred to delay negotiations on that. But they have had serious discussions on the permanent status issues since the spring. And as I said, they basically -- I think they reached a point, I would say at least four weeks ago, where it became difficult to move them beyond where they were.
There was an initial period of, I think, very hard work where both sides really were making an effort to not only to explain their own needs, but to try to take account of the other's. But they got to a point where they found it very difficult to overcome the gaps that remained on the issues.
That's number one. On number two, the third phase of further redeployment is something that is required by the Interim Agreement. It was reaffirmed in the Sharm Agreement. It is something that is a part of the process and that the Palestinians, as part of the agreement, are entitled to.
Our focus at this point is clearly on doing a permanent status, trying to address the issues of permanent status and trying to work with the parties to reach an agreement that deals with those permanent status issues.
Q All right, but just a quick follow. June 23 was the day, and with U.S. support, it was postponed. Now, is there an indefinite postponement now, pending the outcome of the summit? Or does it stand on its own?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The issue has not gone away. It is still a source of concern. But our particular focus is to try to see if we can work with the parties to reach an agreement that deals with the permanent status, the core issues of permanent status.
Q Is the decision of the Palestinian National Council a couple of days ago to set a September 13th deadline for declaring a state if no agreement had been reached -- did that influence the President's decision to call this summit in the sense of raising the stakes and sort of heightening the tension?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think the reality is September 13 has been out there for some time. It as part of the Sharm Agreement; it's been talked about for some time. Both sides have understood it was looming there. And the fact is when you look at where we are, when you look at the difficulties they were facing, when you look at the time remaining, I think the basic decision the President made was, if we didn't act now to change the dynamic in a way that gives us a chance to produce an agreement on the core issues, that you would have an inevitable slide into a deterioration that, as I said, would at best produce turmoil, and at worse would make the situation much more difficult in which to negotiate.
Q If I could follow up, the Council had been expected to delay any kind of final statehood declaration until later in the year, possibly December. They didn't; they said September 13, that's it. Did that become a factor in the President's thinking?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I wouldn't say that what they decided changed our expectation. I think our expectation has been pretty much driven by a recognition that September 13th was a very important date.
Q We in the press like to put odds on these sorts of things. Could you indulge us and tell us what your working assumption is, what you think the odds of success are coming out of the summit?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I've been doing this process for a long time and I never engaged in odds before; I don't think I'll start now.
Q You know, the President sounds terribly optimistic that something is going to come out of this. And unless I'm missing something, the justification for having the summit is that you can't move forward without the two sides meeting. Is there any other reason for optimism?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I said, look, this is going to be a tough go. That's the reality. But we also have to look at the alternative. The alternative is, if there is -- if we don't go to a summit, the process will stay where it is, meaning they will not move forward. A friend of mine who is in this process once described this as like riding a bicycle -- once you stop the bike, you fall off. You have to keep peddling and keep going forward.
We're at a point where basically they're going to stop the bicycle, and knowing that we have dates looming ahead of us, knowing that there's a potential in light of that for a real deterioration, this is -- we're looking at this from a standpoint of there is not an alternative to it because an alternative means there will be no agreement and you'll see that deterioration, on the one hand; and there is, based on everything we know from the two sides, there is a potential. Yes, it's hard to overcome the differences. But there is a potential to give us a chance to succeed as well.
Q Isn't a failed summit a bigger risk than not negotiating, successfully? Look, you've termed the tactics of summitry upside down, but no one is saying it today. I mean, summits were called when the two sides were relatively close, and the intervention of the President would close the gap and give them a cover for making hard decisions. Now you're calling a summit because you're at an impasse, the President says. The President's word was impasse.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: All right, fine. Barry, Barry --
Q Okay, what if this --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know about Camp David. You go back to the original Camp David, at the original Camp David they were also at a point where they were stuck. They did not call that summit because they thought they had everything lined up. They did not do that.
Q No, in fact, they had to go to the Middle East to keep it from getting unstuck again. Or putting -- no one will acknowledge that you're doing a high-wire act here, that this isn't the way summits generally are staged. They're staged with a greater likelihood of success. If you won't acknowledge that, at least tell us whether there isn't, indeed, a graver risk of hostility and violence if this summit fails, because having brought the President into it, if he doesn't succeed, you know you've played your final card? Doesn't that make the situation just desperate if that should happen?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, right now we can see what the trend line is if we do not have a summit. Is there a risk associated with this? Yes, there's a risk associated with this. But the President used the following words -- he said there's a risk of action and there's a risk of inaction. And this is a case where we judge the risk of action to be less than the risk of inaction.
Q So would you consider this a success if you just keep the peace process going and keep the bicycle moving along?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think, obviously, when you create an event like this, your objective is to ensure that you get the kind of progress that gives you a chance to reach agreement that deals with the core issues. So we clearly want to change the dynamic in a way that allows us to move towards the agreement. Both sides have established, as I said, an agreement on a timeline, so our objective here is obviously to try to reach an agreement that deals with these core issues and moves us towards being able to address that timeline.
Q Is it fair to assume, or would you say that some progress was made in the talks between the spring start and their effective impasse of four to six weeks ago?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, there was.
Q Can you give us some idea how much?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I'm not going to do that, but the point is that what we saw, based on those talks, and also based on the talks we've had with each side -- understand, the way this process has worked is not only they have direct talks, but then each side talks with us -- based on everything that we have seen, we see a potential to reach an agreement. We obviously see differences, but if we didn't see some potential to overcome the differences, then the logic of trying this would be less compelling than it is.
Q Have those differences narrowed in any substantial way?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it's a case in some areas, yes; but I think the most important thing, in a negotiation one of the most important things is to distill and understand how the issues break down -- to understand where you can see convergence as relatively easy; to understand where you can see convergence as possible; and to understand which particular issues are going to be the hardest to be able to bridge or to overcome. And when you come to that conclusion, then you have a strategy for dealing with the first two sets, which is how you built convergence, and then also you can begin to focus on what are the way that you might overcome what are the hardest differences.
They clearly went through what I would call a distillation process between themselves that revealed much more to each other on the nature of each side's position on each issue, what was most important to them on each issue, and where there might be some room for give. They did a fair amount of that, themselves, in a way that obviously didn't overcome the differences, but could begin to paint a picture or direction for you of how you might move towards that.
So we see a potential, but it's a very difficult one. I mean, there is no two ways about it. Partly it's very difficult because the issues, themselves, are so fundamental.
Q Can you elaborate on that? Can you describe where you see convergence that's easiest?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, because -- the fact of the matter is all of these issues are hard. It isn't a case that any one of these issues is particularly easy. But the fact is they, themselves, as they deal with these, also create a kind of hierarchy of what they think they can do and what they can't do. Or at least we form that kind of a judgment. And I don't want to break that down.
Q To follow up on Barry's question, has there ever been a certain stage in your recollection where a summit has been convened under these circumstances?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The original Camp David in 1978. It was.
Q It was less complex.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It was, but the fact of the matter is Sadat had gone to Jerusalem, you had this enormous psychological breakthrough, and 10 months later they were stuck, completely stuck, after what had been an unbelievable psychological breakthrough. But they were stuck. They were completely stuck.
Q Is it the President's strategy to keep the leaders up there until he gets something?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think -- you heard the President talk about "several days." The fact is he will be going to Okinawa so you have a kind of window --
Q With them? (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No.
Q Do you see some of these issues as separable, or is there a subset group you could be working on and if you spend a week and you break through a couple -- or do you have to really get the whole enchilada at this meeting?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think the objective on both sides is to work on all the issues. But obviously you have to work on all the issues and also try to make progress where you can.
Q Is there an advantage to having a President who is at the end of his term do a negotiation like this, or is it just the opposite because he has lost some of his power and initiative because they know he won't be there to implement an agreement?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think the greatest single advantage is that you have a President who knows the issues, knows the leaders. You're dealing with a -- I won't say that personal relationships aren't an important part of any negotiation, but especially in the Middle East I think the political culture has emphasized the importance of the kind of personal connections. So you have a President who is very well-known to the two sides and you have a President who the two sides know understands the issues very well. So there's a kind of cache in credibility that is built up, and I think it's made easier because of the longevity in office and the long association with the issues. I think that's the most important point here.
Q But the down side -- can you address that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Having been around this process for a long time, as you know, I don't see the down side operating in this case because I see, in a sense, there is a kind of window that is also created with his presence which each side is quite acutely aware of, and I don't see them operating on a principle that somehow knowing he's not going to be here is limiting. On the contrary; knowing that he's not going to be here I think concentrates the mind in terms of recognizing here's the potential and you should act on the potential now.
Q How much of this is likely to turn on U.S. assistance -- U.S. aid, U.S. security guarantees, things that the President has always built in as part of previous negotiations and had some trouble sometimes delivering?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, in the history of this process there hasn't been an agreement that wasn't accompanied by U.S. assistance. So it's very hard to believe that if, in fact, there's an agreement on something that is as fundamental as the permanent status agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians, that the U.S. would not, in fact, have to play -- I mean, the U.S. would not have to be in a position where we would have to provide assistance. Clearly, if we go down that road we're going to have to consult with the Congress.
Q In Europe, Barak is saying he's hoping for an agreement that covers most, if not all, of the issues. Is the way you're going to get out of this hole you're in possibly a partial agreement, wrapping up the things that are achievable, calling it a success and moving on to the next administration? Is a partial agreement one possibility?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, let me put this one in context. You are dealing with two sides who, number one, want this, who are looking at, in the case of both sides, they realize we're nearly seven years into the process that we launched at Oslo. On each side, there's an expectation that trying to conclude this conflict is in both their interests.
From the standpoint of the Israelis, they want to know that if they're doing something and they're making certain kinds of tough choices, that the payoff for making that is that basically the claims are over. From the standpoint of the Palestinians, they're dealing with the reality that this is a process that hasn't fulfilled their aspirations and there's a lot of frustration.
So if you operate on the premise that you shoot for something less than the whole, I don't think that you're addressing the interests or needs of either side. So I think we will try to work with them to produce an agreement that deals with all of the issues. But as I said, the most important thing is that you really do have to make progress where you can. We have to operate in a context, and that context, quite frankly, is that for both sides, ironically, I think it is easier to try to resolve everything than it is to resolve only part of it. I'm not sure in the end it becomes something that works for either side.
And the real impetus for this, in no small part, comes from them, and I think they realize they have very tough decisions to make, but somehow making those decisions in the presence of the President is more thinkable than in a situation where he's not there.
Q Is the U.S. anticipating any sort of middle-of-the-way agreements on where the gaps are on all these issues?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: A, the parties will have to make the decisions; B, we're going to help them in any way that we can help them. If you're asking, do I expect that there will be American ideas that get presented somewhere along the line here, it's pretty hard to believe that in this kind of a setting that we won't be offering some ideas, as well.
But we won't make the decisions; only they can make the decisions. And our role is not to take the place of them as negotiators, but our role is to do all we can to help them overcome the obstacles to an agreement.
Q And yet the Secretary says now is the time to start calling the audibles. Is this where the audibles are called, at Camp David?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I don't want to use that as the metaphor --
Q It was her language.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, let's put it this way, there's a question of definition of audible and --
Q Is this a Hail Mary? (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. I would stick with what I said. The reality is it's hard to believe that in a setting like this, that we won't be called on to offer ideas. We'll have to.
Q Well, let me ask for further explanation. Is the audible the summit?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, the audible -- since Oslo of last year, when the President met the two leaders in Oslo at the Rabin memorial, which was in November, he made it clear that he was prepared at a certain point to convene them. And we've obviously come to the judgment that this is the time to do it.
Q Considering the recent reshuffling in the Barak cabinet -- and I'm referring to the basically loss of power of the dovish party and the increase of power of the hawkish party --is the Prime Minister somewhat reticent about coming here, or is he somewhat -- or is there a likelihood of a lack of support of his cabinet should anything proceed from this Camp David --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, he has been a believer that a summit was necessary, if, in fact, you were going to be able to overcome the differences. From his standpoint, his view was the negotiations were obviously very difficult, but the most likely circumstance in which the hard decisions would be made would be in the presence of the President.
So I don't think -- he doesn't come to this with a view that he can't deliver. His view is that he can deliver. His view is he won a strong mandate of the Israeli public, and they voted him in and he has an approach on peace which he feels he can present to the Israeli public if there's an agreement, and they will support him.
Chairman Arafat also has understood the logic of a summit, and his view was, let's go to a summit; his interest was in wanting to take time to prepare it. We have just come to the conclusion that this is the point to do it, and both leaders basically made a judgment that if the President decides the time is the time, they would agree with that.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 12:05 P.M. EDT