THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY JAKE SIEWERT The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
1:20 P.M. EDT
MR. SIEWERT: Well, for those of you who weren't here over the weekend, the President was deeply engaged since Friday evening in a diplomatic initiative to break the cycle of violence in the Mideast. He's spoken to numerous leaders in the region, and continues to do so today, in his efforts to find ways to stop the violence.
This morning he spoke with Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat to discuss steps that we can take to -- that they can take in the region to end the cycle of violence. And I expect there will be some follow-up to those calls by the President's foreign policy team today, and I think the President will also be in touch with Secretary General Annan to see how his meetings went and get an update from him and discuss the diplomacy that he's undertaken in the region to end the violence. And we'll keep you up to date on that as these discussions proceed.
Q Does the President see an utility in going to the Middle East?
MR. SIEWERT: That's a judgment that we'll be assessing and reassessing as the day goes on.
Q As the day goes on?
MR. SIEWERT: As the day goes on. We said yesterday that we had made a --
Q Sounds like you're very positive._
MR. SIEWERT: Ultimately, we'll make a decision about what we think is most effective and how the President's time can best be used. I think that there's no doubt that the press likes to focus on meetings and logistics, in some instances, that might be involved in a trip. But we are focused essentially on substance and what we can do, concrete steps that the parties can take to create the conditions on the ground that would make those kinds of talks constructive.
Q Jake, did the President discuss the idea of a summit there in the region with Barak and Arafat today?
MR. SIEWERT: We have a number of ideas that are under discussion about how we can move the process forward. Some of the discussions we said yesterday involve meetings in the region; some of them involve a trip by the President; some of them involve a trip by the Secretary of State. Ultimately we'll have to make a decision about what we think is most effective in furthering the cause of reducing violence, reducing tension in the region, and creating the right conditions on the ground.
Q What time are you going to announce the trip? (Laughter.)
MR. SIEWERT: I would not prejudge what we'll decide ultimately on this one way or the other. I'd be very careful. I know many of you expected some outcome, some resolution to this issue last night, and we cautioned you yesterday that we're going to make a judgment based on what we think will be most effective. Yesterday we made a judgment that we would continue talks. The President has continued discussions with the leaders, and we'll continue our discussions today.
Q Is the President also considering a trip out of the region, to Europe, instead?
MR. SIEWERT: There are a number of options that are under active consideration, but I'm not going to detail them for you here today.
Q What was your reaction to the Egyptians saying that they didn't think that they would host such a summit, if there were one?
MR. SIEWERT: That is one of the ideas that had been under discussion, but we have other options that we could employ. We remain committed to talking to both Chairman Arafat and Prime Minister Barak, to see what concrete steps they can take to move this process forward.
Q Do you plan any further contacts with Mubarak, and do you regard to Egyptian participation as an important part of any summit or meeting?
MR. SIEWERT: As you know, the President's talked to Mubarak several times over the weekend, and I expect that they'll continue to play a role. I'm not aware of any planned calls today.
Q Jake, you've been talking about concrete steps. What sort of steps? Let's focus on that.
MR. SIEWERT: I think you'll understand that we are not going to get into the nitty gritty of that from this podium, but there have been some steps taken, and today we've seen somewhat of a decline in the level of violence there, but not nearly enough, and we're continuing to urge all sides to do more, to urge all publicly and privately, the people that they can influence in the region to do more, to take more concrete steps to lower the level of violence.
Q Are the Israelis using arms and weapons that we gave them against -- in the internal situation here?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know exactly. I mean, I think that's probably a question that's best addressed to them, but I can check on it.
Q What is the U.S. position on the prisoner exchange, and is the U.S. pressuring Israel to swap Arab prisoners for the three soldiers?
MR. SIEWERT: No, certainly not.
Q Your position on it?
MR. SIEWERT: We think that situation ought to be resolved. The President talked to the Syrians about that this weekend. We think they ought to use their influence with the Hezbollah to return these soldiers.
Q Jake, you announced that the President talked to these leaders, but can you tell us what message he's giving to the leaders?
MR. SIEWERT: The message he --
Q A little more specific, other than he called?
MR. SIEWERT: Unfortunately, never been helpful to detail in a lot of -- at great length the substance of those calls from this podium. Our diplomacy, as we've said for some time in this area, is best conducted privately. We have urged all sides to do more -- to take concrete steps, to defuse the tension, to lower the level of violence and ultimately to find a way that we can begin to get back to the table and resolve differences at the negotiating table and not in the streets.
Q On a related issue. Over the weekend the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah, said that Saudi Arabia would not stand idly by if Israel got into a fight with Lebanon and Syria. Have you received any assurances through talks with the Saudis they're not considering using oil as a weapon, or do you know what --
MR. SIEWERT: I'll check on that. I don't know if that topic has come up specifically in our discussions.
Q Do you have any idea what the Crown Price is referring to when he says --
MR. SIEWERT: You would have to ask him.
Q Jake, you said this morning that the extension of the ultimatum given by Mr. Barak was a step in the right direction. Do you feel that, equally, Chairman Arafat has made positive steps in the last couple of days?
MR. SIEWERT: I think he has taken some steps, but he could do more to lower the level of violence. And I think the President has communicated that to him. I didn't say it was a step in the right direction, although I said it seemed to be helpful in defusing the tension and give us a chance to end the violence there.
Q Jake, is it troublesome at all to have the First Lady speak out against the United States for not vetoing the U.N. resolution that appeared to blame Israel for the violence?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, we worked hard on that resolution; the U.N. Ambassador worked very hard on trying to fix some of the problems. But ultimately we were not able to support it. We've said for some time now that the First Lady would have differences of opinion with the President, with the White House from time to time, and that's to be expected. She's running her own campaign and has her own ideas. But we were very clear that we didn't support that resolution, but we felt that it was best to abstain given the circumstances.
Q Did she try to persuade anyone here at the White House to go a step farther and veto it?
MR. SIEWERT: Not that I'm aware of.
Q Did the President and Mrs. Clinton discuss the issue before the abstention was cast?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know. I don't know.
Q Jake, the President has said he is open to having some sort of a summit if it would be helpful. The Prime Minister of Israel came around last night and said that he would attend such a summit if it were called. Is the question now whether there will be a summit up to the Palestinians, and the Palestinians alone?
MR. SIEWERT: No, I think ultimately we will make a judgment if the parties on the ground are taking the steps to make such a meeting helpful. Ultimately, we're focused on substance, on diplomacy. The President spent a lot of time on the phone this weekend and this morning, not just discussing where and when and whether to have a summit, but whether we can break the cycle of violence. And ultimately we're going to be focused on the steps that may involve a trip, it may not involve a trip; but ultimately, we're going to make a judgment about what we think the President can do to best move the process forward.
Q Jake, in terms of breaking the cycle of violence that you referred to, some people think that if the Palestinians get this commission that they want to look into the causes of the present unrest and make suggestions for the future -- of course, they prefer to see it under U.N. auspices -- does the President think that's a good idea in lowering the temperature there?
MR. SIEWERT: We think it would be helpful to get some facts. That's something we've been discussing with the parties in trying to find a way, a mechanism to gather facts about the situation. I noticed the Prime Minister Barak indicated an openness to something that was under the auspices of the United States, but might involve some international cooperation, so that's something that we're continuing to discuss and something that's substantive that has been at the heart of our diplomacy.
Q And the United States would, in fact, be willing to take part in this sort of fact-finding?
MR. SIEWERT: We'll do something if we believe that ultimately it's helpful in trying to move the process forward.
Q Egypt's Foreign Minister suggested the next summit to deal with the problem would likely be an Arab summit a couple of weeks from now. Do you sense that the situation could wait for the Arab gathering two weeks from now, and would you have concerns about the Arab position hardening if it waited that long?
MR. SIEWERT: I think we're focused on what we can do in the shorter term. I think there's no doubt that there's too much violence in the streets today, yesterday, over the weekend, and we want to do everything we can to defuse the tension there, and to take steps now that will lower the level of violence. We have been engaged, as I said, just this morning, in trying to do that, and we don't think it can wait.
Q Joe, is this U.S.-led meeting with --
MR. SIEWERT: Accept the compliment, thank you. (Laughter.)
Q The U.S. led meeting with Arafat and Barak to look into the causes of the violence. Is that still alive? It was discussed last week.
MR. SIEWERT: I don't know if that's a meeting. We're looking at some sort of mechanism to gather facts. That's something that came up in Paris. Ultimately, they didn't resolve their differences about how that might be constituted, but that's something that we're --
Q Facts of what? Who started it?
MR. SIEWERT: The facts of what happened on the ground, and what might be done to prevent --
Q We don't know what happened on the ground?
MR. SIEWERT: I think we know some, but both parties seem to agree at this point, in principle anyway, that it would be useful to have some sort of mechanism for finding facts. We're not focused right now on gathering those facts, we're focused on the diplomacy that might break the violence.
Q Jake, on United Nations Oil for Food, people reported today that Iraqi exports in the first week of October dropped to 1.7 million a day, from 2.6 on average in September. Are you concerned about this? That pretty much offsets the SPR release.
MR. SIEWERT: I have not seen those reports, so I'd need to check. As you know, we believe that ultimately, under the Food for Oil program that Iraq has a vested interest in ensuring that its production remains stable and strong. If they were to take any action, we have more than ample ability within the strategic petroleum reserve to offset that.
Q Is the U.S. being hampered by the fact that we still don't have a functioning diplomat to Israel?
MR. SIEWERT: The Ambassador is in the region today and remains a part of the team -- somewhat limited in his ability to conduct that.
Q Is he still under investigation?
MR. SIEWERT: There is an ongoing look at what security measures he may or may not have violated. I'll leave that to State to describe. But he is working and remains involved.
Q How is he part of the team? I thought one of the rules was he couldn't meet with other diplomats or something.
MR. CROWLEY: He can meet with individuals, but he can't work on classified information.
Q Jake, did anybody at the White House speak with Kofi Annan today?
MR. SIEWERT: I don't believe so, but I expect the President will talk to him later today.
Q North Korea -- two things. One, can you describe for us a little bit about the letter of ideas that President Kim sent along? And second of all, can you tell us whether we should be expecting in the next day or so some further declarations from the President on progress of North Korea towards getting off the terrorism list?
MR. SIEWERT: Was there a briefing on that? Did I miss it? I must have missed it. As you know, the President received a letter today from Kim Chong-il outlining a number of ways in which might further the exchange of ideas about how to lower tension on the Korean Peninsula. I haven't seen that letter. I don't think we'll release it. It's private diplomatic correspondence, but it's something we're examining. We're taking a look at some of the proposals that were made in there, and seeing whether we can build on the progress that's already been made in the region, in the wake of the historic summit there in June. We'll let you know. I don't know that the President will have anything more to say about that, but I expect at some point, after the meetings today and tomorrow, that the Secretary of State will have some more detailed guidance about where we go from here.
Q Jake, will the President take questions at his 4:35 p.m. signing today?
MR. SIEWERT: I would not expect so, no.
Q Will he address the Mideast at all in his remarks?
MR. SIEWERT: Not at the moment, I don't expect anything. No.
Q On the agriculture spending bill, the President was critical last week of the Cuba provisions and drug reimportation provisions. Is he going to veto that bill if those provisions are in it?
MR. SIEWERT: We're still looking at those two provisions. In particular, we're looking at how we can best -- maybe fix some of the problems that were put in there, that weaken the impact of the drug reimportation bill. We're also reviewing the Cuba language, and we'll let you know when we have a final decision of what we're going to do about that bill.
Q You mentioned this morning that the negotiators were on the Hill, talking about at least one bill. Can you say which bill that is?
MR. SIEWERT: I believe they were talking about the Commerce/ State/Justice bill today. And I expect during the course of the week, we'll have a chance to sit down with the subcommittee chairman to talk about Labor/HHS as well, and some of the education initiatives in there.
Q Jake, what would the White House tell people who would like to see improved U.S.-Cuba relations, who may wonder why we're trying to improve relations with North Korea, but not with the Castro regime?
MR. SIEWERT: Well, we're trying to do everything we can to foster people to people contact with the people of Cuba, but not in any way that strengthens a regime there that's been harshly repressive and totalitarian. In fact, the usefulness of the people to people contact is one of the reasons why we have some concerns about this provision that's been inserted in the agricultural bill that would codify and limit the President's discretion to offer -- to judge how best we move forward in fostering a closer relationship between the people of Cuba and the people of the United States.
Q Here, you have a high level North Korean official at the Oval Office, and some Cuban diplomats can't even get a visa to come to Washington?
MR. CROWLEY: North Korea represents a major security threat to the United States and our allies, Cuba does not.
Q I'm sorry, I didn't hear that.
MR. SIEWERT: In addition, I think P.J.'s just pointing out that North Korea represents a threat to our allies in the region to the United States, and Cuba does not. At the same time, North Korea has indicated a willingness to change its regime, to open up. Castro has not indicated a willingness to change his regime, to lower the level of tension. Whereas the North Koreans have made an overture to the United States, trying to lower tension here, trying to make some real commitment on an offer that they have on missile talks. That's something that we've been trying to get a better sense of, get a better understanding of that opening in order to decide how we best proceed. And we haven't received anything similar from the Cuban government.
Q Jake, going back to the Mideast, does the President feel that America's strategic interests are threatened by the unrest there, including the free flow of oil from that region?
MR. SIEWERT: I'll have to check and ask him, specifically. Obviously, it's a very critical situation; it's dangerous and we're going to do everything we can. That's why he spent the better part of his weekend working to defuse the tension there and to try to get the parties back to the negotiating table.
Q Thank you.
END 1:40 P.M. EDT