THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL The James S. Brady Briefing Room
5:45 P.M. EDT
MR. SIEWERT: As you know, the President has been intensively engaged in diplomacy throughout the day. Let me give you a quick run-through of his day, and then I'll introduce the Senior Administration Official who can run you through where we are and give you an up-to-date assessment of that diplomacy.
The President was in Chappaqua this morning when he received a call at about 7:18 a.m. from Sandy Berger, who told him about the incident in Yemen, and also brought him up to date on developments in the Mideast. At 7:30 a.m., he spoke to Secretary Cohen about the U.S.S. Cole, urged him to do everything he could to take care of the Sailors and to insure that we were taking every step necessary to find out what had happened and who was responsible.
He then spoke on the phone with Chairman Arafat, Prime Minister Blair, and Kofi Annan, returned to the White House where he went to the Situation Room and met with his national security team, Sandy Berger, Madeleine Albright, Secretary Cohen and some of the gentlemen off to my right.
He presented the statement, which you saw, and then returned to the Oval Office, where he spoke with President Mubarak, Prime Minister Barak, Chairman Arafat and several other leaders in the Mideast. He spoke to Mubarak several times, and just finished a call recently with both President Mubarak and Chairman Arafat.
Q A conference call, the two of them?
MR. SIEWERT: The two of them together. Having said that, I will turn it over to a Senior Administration Official, and I'll answer any questions you have that are off that topic after that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We have had a very long day of discussions on the phone. The last three days have been days that had been characterized by increasing calm; what increasingly looked like we were beginning to turn the corner. And today was obviously a bad day.
It started with what we understand was a case of a number of Israeli reservists who were called up to go to a settlement called Bet-el, who, according to reports we have heard, took a wrong turn, went into Ramallah, were detained by Palestinian security people. They were in a kind of protective custody arrangement, and then the place, the building they were in was overrun, and they were beaten and killed.
The Israelis retaliated by attacking a number of targets, both in Ramallah and in Gaza, and we have pretty much -- the President has pretty much spent the day on the phone, I would say trying to restore the lines of communication. It's one thing to have been moving in a direction of calm, and then to have what we've seen today take place. One of the consequences of it obviously was that the communication between the Israelis and the Palestinians broke down. But this was a day that was characterized not only by what the President was doing with Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat, but also what he was doing with President Mubarak and King Abdullah, and what they were doing, as well.
One interesting development, and we'll have to see how this -- how if at all this can affect the situation, is that President Mubarak made a number of calls to the leaders, both leaders, as did King Abdullah. And there was really a very genuine effort to try to find ways among President Mubarak, King Abdullah and President Clinton to rebuild the lines of communication, so you could find a way to restore some prospect of calm, and to bring the violence to an end.
Obviously, this has been a very difficult day, and we are still in the midst of working it. As I said, I think it is important that both President Mubarak and King Abdullah are actively also trying to help out. And there's a common objective. The fundamental objective is to find a way to bring the violence to an end, find a way to see if one can begin to create measures on the ground that will help sustain calm, and then, only then, begin to try to repair some of the damage that's been done. To think that you can go from where we are right back into peacemaking, simply isn't realistic. The wounds that exist on both sides are quite deep.
I have worked in this process for a long time, and I can tell you that right now, both sides feel a deep sense of grievance, and we're going to have to find a way first to stop the violence, and then to build some kind of bridge that moves us from a psychology of anger back to a psychology that can be geared more towards peacemaking.
Q It's been said that every breakthrough in the Middle East is preceded by a crisis, but not every crisis precedes a breakthrough. Where do you think we are when you look at that calculus?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I've never been a huge believer in trying to see crises as being the forerunners to breakthroughs. Because the problem with crises is they create all sorts of unintended consequences.
This is very difficult, not only because of the suffering one has seen, but it's difficult because of the damage that's been created psychologically on both sides. Right now, there is a deep sense of being wounded on each side. Right now, there's a deep sense of grievance on each side. Each side is focusing on their sense of grievance and they're not focusing on how the other side might be seeing things.
So it's pretty hard to see how you move from that kind of a situation immediately into a breakthrough. Some might argue that when both sides look into the abyss and they see what's there, they might come to their senses and say, okay, gee, we need an agreement.
But I think we have to look at this realistically. And it seems to me that at this juncture, first things first. First, stop the violence, second, begin to find ways to build some confidence-building measures between the two sides. And only then will you know whether or not you can go back to peacemaking in the way that we were.
Let me just add one additional point. What makes it, I think, particularly frustrating is that 12 days ago we had the negotiators here, and while we had three tough, difficult, exhausting days of negotiations, there is no question but that at the end of those negotiations all of us felt that the possibility of reaching an agreement was quite real.
Now, everyone's focus is not on that, it's on trying to stop the violence. So I think our perspective has to be, stop the violence, find a way to restore calm, find the measures that can be more sustaining in terms of ensuring the calm last, find ways to begin to restore some confidence and trust, and then you go back to peacemaking.
Q In stopping the violence, specifically, can you tell us a little bit about what you've learned in the last day about Chairman Arafat's attitude toward making any kind of statement, in terms of renouncing violence or anything on the other side?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the only thing I can tell you is, I mean, I know that they did -- they clearly regretted what happened in Ramallah. Frankly, clear-cut statements on calling for an end to violence would be something that would be very helpful, and that hasn't happened yet.
Q Do you have a sense it might happen immediately? Any reason for hope that you're going to see that tomorrow?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think at this juncture, what we're trying first and foremost to do is focus more on the practical steps that can be taken, and then see how you build on that.
Q So what are the practical steps?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, we had a series of understandings that were worked out in Paris. Some of those related to how the security forces on each side would work together, including the creation of operation centers. Those did begin to work earlier in the week, and they did seem to be having an effect. Unfortunately, given the events of today, that's something that obviously has broken down.
So we're going to have to see if we can find a way to revitalize those understandings, see if we can find a way to get each side to focus on the steps that they might take, from a security standpoint. What are the steps that are required on each side, and then how can those be reinforced? And if one side has a particular problem in an area, what can the other do to try to address that?
That is clearly something, I think, we're going to have to help them with. What was happening over the course of this week is that they were working pretty well on their own, especially on the West Bank.
Q You said that the lines of communication had broken down, but that there were these phone calls today with the President, and I think Jake said there was a three-way phone call. What was the tenor of that call?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, that was --
Q And are they open again?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think the lines of communication between the Israelis and Palestinians still need a lot of repair work. What you had -- you had, as I said, an interesting development today, in that you had the President of the United States working along with the President of Egypt and the King of Jordan, all working together, all working at times in parallel; at some times, after talking to each other, going back to the leaders themselves, seeing what could be done to dampen down the situation and find ways for the parties themselves to at least say things to us, if they weren't prepared to be saying things to each other.
Q Is that the first three-way phone conversation there has been since the violence began a couple of weeks ago?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.
Q It was?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Three-way, it was President Clinton, President Mubarak and Chairman Arafat. President Clinton, not Barak. President Clinton, President Mubarak and Chairman Arafat.
Q Mubarak is now calling for a summit. He says he would host it now, after earlier saying he wouldn't. He says that President Clinton would be invited to this, along with Barak and Arafat. Do you think there is any chance of such a summit happening in the next several days, week?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, it certainly was one of the ideas that was raised, and it's, I think, an indication, again, of President Mubarak doing what he can to try to find a way out of the current embroglio.
Q Did he look into the abyss today, is that what happened? And was there any conversation with any of these leaders about -- expressing concern about other countries getting involved in this?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I don't -- there was not really -- that wasn't the case. But I think there's a recognition that when you see the kinds of events that we saw today, you were reminded that there's a cycle here; and unless you can break that cycle, it's very hard to avoid seeing that cycle produce a series of actions that get worse and worse.
So it's not just the idea that you repeat what's going on, it's that you see a deterioration. And it's hard to see what the end point of that is.
And I think there really is a kind of recognition on the part of those that the President was talking to today, that somehow, some way, you have to break that cycle.
Q And was it that, that perhaps led President Mubarak to suggest today what he had resisted three or four days ago?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not going to try to guess precisely what led to the raising of one idea or another. I would say there is no doubt that President Mubarak was very seized with what was going on and was quite seized with the dangers in the situation, as was King Abdullah.
Q Can I ask you two questions? First of all, were there four Israeli troops? There was one report that there were four of them, and two are still held?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'll tell you what we know -- and I don't want to overclaim here because, in fact, we've got different reports throughout the course of the day. Initially, we were told it was four or five, then we were told it was two, and the last we heard it was three. So I really can't be more precise than that.
Q All three are dead. All three now dead?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think we have heard that three are dead. I think that's the last we heard.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think these numbers are still -- ought to be asked to the Israelis, not to us.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. I can tell you that what we knew initially was, one was killed, one was in very bad condition, had been turned back by the Palestinians to the Israelis, was in the hospital, but was not expected to live. And a third, we heard about only recently.
Q Is there growing concern in the administration that Chairman Arafat may not be able to control the Palestinians and be able to put an end to that violence?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think there is growing concern that you have a situation that, if it continues this way, it could obviously spiral out of control. The fact is, there is a Palestinian Authority and the Authority does have a responsibility to do all that it can to limit the violence and to try to stop it.
The more difficult the situation becomes, you can't guarantee that every incident can be stopped. But, clearly, there has to be a systematic effort to improve the chances that it will be stopped.
Q What are the President's plans for the rest of the evening? Does he expect to have further phone calls with the leaders or --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would expect that there would probably be some additional calls, yes.
Q I have two more. Do you see a direct tie-in between this and Yemen, or is it just a coincidence?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Assuming that Yemen turns out to be a terrorist act, which we have not yet drawn that conclusion, but assuming it does, I would lean more towards it being a coincidence.
Those who have been determined to carry out acts of terror against us worldwide don't seem to need much of an excuse to do so. And the fact is, if everything was fine in terms of the peace process right now, there is no guarantee you wouldn't see something like this, anyway.
Q Then on Arafat, to pursue this, you said a clear-cut statement ending the violence would be helpful, something to that -- so Arafat hasn't yet made a call to end the violence, a public call?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it would be very helpful to see clear-cut statements calling for an end to the violence.
Q Has Barak made such a clear-cut statement?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He has made a number of statements. I think what we really want is, we want both sides to commit themselves to doing all they can to create an end to the violence, change the atmosphere, work together to try to restore a level of confidence, demonstrate to each other that if they make commitments, they'll follow through on those commitments.
One of the things that has been damaged during this process has been the pattern of commitments made, commitments not fulfilled.
Q Barak said that basically at this point, it's time for the United States just to announce that Israel is willing to make peace and Arafat was not. How do you go forward from that statement that sounds like -- Barak was pretty vehement that he felt that the United States really owed him that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think the Prime Minister has also said that he would still like to be able to make peace. And one thing, you can't make peace in the middle of an atmosphere that's characterized by violence. First things first; you've got to stop the violence.
Q Did Barak seem open to the idea of a summit hosted by Mubarak?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I felt that Prime Minister Barak was focused principally on the issue of seeing a complete end to the violence and seeing calm restored. That was his main preoccupation. And that if that were done, then many of the things could become possible, but that objectives not related to that were less important.
But I mean, such a meeting could, in fact, be an instrument in terms of trying to sustain any calm that might be produced.
Q What was President Clinton's message to Barak on the subject of the Israeli retaliation? Did the President say he understood the need for Israel to take some response to what had taken place this morning?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think what the President focused on was obviously first, he heard a report from Barak, and he heard an explanation from Barak. I think the President put his focus primarily on how do we calm the situation, how do we break the cycle. If it's a case of action-reaction, you're never going to break the cycle. And that's not a cycle that can serve either side's interest; that's a cycle that will only perpetuate tragedy for both.
So I think the President focused much more on what can be done to break the cycle, and I think there, Prime Minister Barak was quite sympathetic in terms of wanting to find a way to restore calm and ensure that it would be sustained.
Q Does the White House think it was excessive force, though? Does the White House feel that actions by the Israelis were excessive?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not going to try to characterize things. I'm going to try to say that where our focus right now is getting calm restored and seeing if there is a way that we can sustain it. If we can get it restored to begin with, can we then sustain it and then build on it.
Q Forgive me if you've answered this before in recent days, but if you were so close as you say you were 12 days ago, how did it get to where it is today?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I didn't say it was so close, I said it was difficult but we thought it was possible.
I think one of the things we have to recognize is that you can be working towards peace on the one hand, but underneath that can be the residue of an awful lot of frustration. This is a process, after all, that has dragged on for seven years.
I think that, A, there are constituencies out there that the closer you get to peace, you have an interest in trying to ensure that you don't get there; B, there is frustration that is built up. And I think the problem is that it doesn't take a lot to begin to trigger this kind of an action-reaction cycle, and that's sort of what we've seen.
So breaking it is what is so critical, and that's where our effort has been; and, obviously, that's where the effort is going to have to stay.
Q Did the United States make it clear to Sharon that going to Temple Mount would be a very bad idea before he went?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We didn't have communication with Sharon prior to the time that he went. This was not something that we would have preferred to see take place.
Q But you knew about it in advance, didn't you, that he was going?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We learned about it only the night before in advance. But I wouldn't say that the normal rule of thumb, when you're dealing with another country, is for us to go deal with someone outside that government. We deal with the government.
Q Can you just describe -- I was just wondering if you could describe what this day has been like for the President and for you all immersed in this for seven and a half years. Would you say this is the toughest day you've had on this situation, or any way to characterize it?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It's not over yet. (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: As number one or two said -- (laughter) -- it's not over yet. But I also have to tell you, throughout this process there have been other days that were -- I can describe as excruciating. When Prime Minister Rabin was assassinated, I don't think there is anything that quite the equivalent of that.
But I can tell you at the time of the Ibrihimi Mosque, back in 1994 -- we have faced traumas in the past. This process has faced ups and downs in the past. And it was sustained not because anybody in the outside wanted it, it was sustained because, ultimately, both sides know they don't have an alternative. History and geography have destined them to live as neighbors, and there is no alternative to that. They can either live in perpetual struggle, or they can find a way to coexist.
Our challenge is to try to work with them to see if we can get them back on the path towards coexistence.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 6:07 P.M. EDT