THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BACKGROUND BRIEFING BY SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL Aboard Air Force One En route from Sharm el-Sheikh to Andrews Air Force Base
2:00 P.M. (L)
Q So where did you wind up, as opposed to where you wanted to get? Did you get what you wanted?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, I think we accomplished what we hoped to accomplish. We weren't sure whether we could. We've had a very ugly and tragic and bitter two weeks out here. Feelings are running very, very high. We came here with three objectives. One was to get an agreement between the two parties to a series of concrete steps that hopefully will lead to a de-escalation of the violence, ultimately halting the violence. And we were able to do that; I can talk more about that.
Second, both parties have wanted to have a fact-finding commission that would look at how this happened, what lessons can be learned and how to avoid it. They differed quite sharply on constitution and composition of that. We were able to resolve that. And, third, we wanted to create a path back to the negotiations. And they both agreed over the next two weeks we're going to consult with a view towards perhaps bringing them back together in some fashion.
Q After all of the -- a lot of people didn't want these two leaders to come here. There has been a lot of ugly words on both sides. Is there a realistic chance that this agreement is going to stick?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that both Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat have every intention of trying to implement this agreement. Now, there is obviously a dynamic out here that is not easy to reverse and is going to take some very strong measures. But both parties -- particularly, Chairman Arafat has agreed to a public statement renouncing the violence, which he's not made up until now; to concrete steps on the ground, with respect to controlling demonstrations; a whole series of other measures. And, in turn, the Israelis have agreed to end the closure -- that's both the internal closure between Gaza and the West Bank and also the external closure between Gaza and Egypt and the West Bank and Jordan; and to, over a period of the next several days, to redeploy forces back to their pre-crisis levels. This will be difficult and we should have no illusion that anybody can wave a magic wand.
But now there is a common commitment to a common set of steps. And, therefore, I hope that over the next several days we'll see the effects of this.
Q There are a lot of qualifiers in this summary. Hopefully, they'll be able to reduce the violence. Maybe they'll get back on a path to peace. Does the administration wish there was something more concrete, something more specific, something harder?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They've agreed to all the things that we wanted them to agree to. They've agreed to all the steps that we hoped that they would agree to.
Q So in no way did you fall short of your expectations?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. Not in terms of what they've agreed to do. Now, the question is, in the implementation of this, how quickly does it take hold, how completely does it take hold, does something happen that changes the dynamic? There are a lot of uncertainties here. But the security steps that they agreed to were, I would say, actually beyond what we thought we would be able to get. My saying hopefully is simply a recognition that emotions are high here, it's still a very volatile region, and implementation is not going to be easy. I think they intend to implement this.
Q Is there an understood time table? What I mean is, if something doesn't happen in 48 hours, can one side say, well, already they're backing away from this so we're going to back away from our side of it? Or is it understood that there is a rational process?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There are some timing elements in this -- we're not going to discuss the specifics of those.
Q What about the trade-offs?
Q Do you expect Arafat to make some further statement now about renouncing violence?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.
Q I mean, he did it indirectly through the President, but he hasn't done it directly.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would hope he would do it soon.
Q What were the trade-offs that each side made? I know, for example, the Israelis did not want the U.N. to be involved in the fact-finding commission, that was clearly a compromise on their behalf. What are your --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Actually, on the commission, the Israelis were quite pleased with the way that that language came out. What the Israelis did not want is an international commission, that is, a commission that was under the auspices of the U.N. or was seen as an international body. This is a commission appointed by the President, under the auspices of the President. In selecting members, he will consult with Barak, Arafat, Kofi Annan.
But the Israelis were very pleased with the way that came out. They felt very strongly that they did not want an international commission and Arafat agreed to that.
Q What happens if they don't meet these deadlines, everything kind of falls apart?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I don't want to speculate on what happens if things don't go well. Again, this remains a very tense and dangerous area. I believe we will see a ratcheting down of the violence over the next several days. But, you know, it only takes one person to shoot a gun or throw a rock.
Q Any progress on any of the Israelis that have been captured within the last week? Any sense that is a stumbling block or is something that is on the minds of the Israelis, as this process moves forward?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It's certainly on the minds not only of the Israelis, but on our minds, as well. Hezbollah -- we have made it very clear to those who have influence on Hezbollah, including the Syrians, that they need to do everything in their power to see that these soldiers are returned. I think those issues were not involved in these discussions because those are not issues that are directly related to the Palestinians. But it is a dimension of the situation out here which I think remains volatile.
Q How far removed are we from, let's just say, the spirit of Camp David? I mean, how far are these two gentlemen who spent so much time together in July, so many conversations about peace, how far removed are we from that set of atmospherics?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, obviously there has been a lot of ugly scenes in the last two weeks. And I think that has affected perceptions on both sides, and it will take time for that to heal. But I do think that both these leaders would like to get back into some form of negotiation, because I think they recognize that we've just seen over the last two weeks the alternative to a negotiated solution.
Q What is the time table for the fact-finding commission, itself?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think the President will select it in the next several weeks.
Q Would the report become due before he leaves office?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That's not specified.
Q Is it assumed or understood?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, we actually didn't talk so much about when it would be due. Obviously, it's a complicated situation and we want them to do a thorough job. We will consult with Barak and Arafat on that over the next few days.
Q So we consider that commission instead a Palestinian compromise, where did the Israelis compromise in this?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think by agreeing to certain steps in the West Bank and in the territories that will return things back to the pre-crisis levels.
Q Any troop withdrawals?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, there has been substantial deployments of forces in the last two weeks, as well as closures in the territories -- as I said, both internal and external. And those will be reversed as this process unfolds.
Q Did the Palestinians commit to rearresting the militants and/or terrorists, which the Israelis have complained about so strenuously the last week or two?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.
Q They did. Is that a part of the understanding? Is that stipulated in the agreement? Or is that an understood?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President talked about, I believe, rearrest of prisoners.
Q Is that in the agreement, itself?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That's an understanding that was part of this.
Q Can you talk more about the joint security arrangements, the new joint security arrangements? And is Tenet going to be even more involved?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think -- fundamentally, there is cooperation between the parties, which actually, since Wye, one of the positive things to come out of Wye was a degree of cooperation at the level of security forces to security forces dealing with managing flash points, managing conflict that has atrophied a bit in the past few weeks. Atrophy is, I guess, the wrong word; it's eroded, I guess is a better word.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Collapsed? No, it actually hasn't collapsed. There is still some -- surprisingly, they're still engaged in it, although not as extensively. And they've committed to resume that and try to intensify that. Our role is a facilitator. Our role is to help get them together and make sure that they are working together.
Q Is there anything that you'll have to inform Congress about, any understandings, agreements? Anything that you have to --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No obligations or undertakings the United States has made in this, except to oversee generally the implementation of this. Obviously, if we don't see it being implemented, we'll say so.
Q Does this reestablish the foundation, basically reestablish the foundation of the Oslo --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Actually, I didn't answer -- somebody asked about the peace process and I didn't answer that very well, I answered half of it, but not the other half.
I would say that the third leg of this triangle, which was their willingness -- well, not willingness, their desire to come back together and discuss the resumption of a negotiating process suggests to me that they both want to see negotiations resumed. And we will talk with them over the next two weeks about the best way to do that.
Q Neither of them looked very happy today, and obviously if no one wanted to answer questions there's --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it has been a very difficult time. I think it's very difficult for Prime Minister Barak to see those two soldiers massacred by a mob. And I think that it has been difficult for Arafat to see so many funerals. So I don't think it's a -- I think it's a time for some gratification that they can hopefully get back on a path to -- on the right path. But I don't think that, in this context, triumphalism by either of them is the appropriate mood they want to strike.
Q Let me ask you a hard ball question about politics on both sides, the Israelis and the Palestinians. What position do you think Arafat will find himself in when he goes back and his people who most wanted this fact-finding commission find out it has an indeterminate date, it's controlled by the President of the United States, it may not even report before he leaves office? Also, what position do you think Barak will be in when he comes back and the Likud Party finds out that after the mob killing of two Israeli police officers, or soldiers, they have to redeploy and pull back and do things that they might perceive to be concessions to the Palestinians? I mean, do these two men walk back home?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: These are mutual steps. And both sides benefit if, instead of seeing 10 people killed a day, we see that reversing and ending and coming back to normalcy. So I think both will say this is a mutual process, we've undertaken concrete steps and hopefully their people will see the consequences of that in a more normal life.
Q Can you talk a little bit about what it was like inside the room, if you would? It seemed like it started off really bad the first couple of hours and then got better.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: If you look at the last two days, sort of three circles of activity: Secretary Albright was chairing a meeting of the foreign ministers from each of the countries over most of yesterday, as they were drafting language. I think that was an important part of this. There was a fair amount of venting in that session -- not by Secretary Albright -- (laughter) -- and not against her, either, contrary to something Reuters said today -- wrong, no one called her --
Q It was a Palestinian stringer who reported it, so -- we had a -- well, according to the Palestinian source who gave it --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm just spinning you. In any case, it was important. They were confronting each other for the first time at the foreign minister level and grappling with the consequences and, as I say, venting a bit -- and drafting some language.
Q Trying to blow off some steam?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.
Q Did you see any warmth between the two leaders throughout the whole --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me finish. So that's sort of one circle. The second circle is what the President was doing, which was meeting with the leaders, particularly with Barak, Arafat, Mubarak, but also with Kofi Annan and King Abdullah. I guess I was trying to think how -- what the President was doing, creating space, creating enough space, opening up the room so that if they -- for an agreement, getting them, probing to see whether where they could give, how far they could go; and, in a sense, making the room wider and higher.
And then in a third and very important circle is work that George Tenet was doing with senior people from the security services, more quietly. And they were basically hammering out the elements of this security understanding, which they completed last night about 8:00 p.m. And that was then the kind of foundation -- although, then the President went into a period of activity from 8:00 p.m. last night until 4:00 a.m. this morning, in which he was both trying to get the leaders to agree to this -- there were some changes made; but also then this in the context of the other two pieces, the commission and the peace process. Although, that was actually the least controversial. They both really wanted to find a way to see whether negotiations can be restored, that was the least difficult. The other thing, the commission and the steps, how they would be expressed. And we met with -- until, as I say, about 4:00 a.m. Then the President, we came back this morning at 8:00 a.m. The President met first with Mubarak, then with Arafat. He met with Barak last night again, and then with Barak again, and then with the Secretary General, King Abdullah.
So we really didn't know we had this nailed down until, I would say -- what time was the press conference?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Haven't been to sleep in about two days. Noon? I was 90 percent sure we had this between 10:00 a.m. and 11:00 a.m.; 95 percent sure of it when the leaders came out of the room they were in together and the President was smiling; and 100 percent when the press conference started. (Laughter.)
Q It wasn't a press conference.
Q There were no questions.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Excuse me, I'm sorry.
Q The in-your-face announcement.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That was a -- they had agreed that, let the statements speak for themselves. Obviously, each would have to speak to its own constituency. And they'll all go back and speak to their own constituency. But I think it would not be constructive to do that.
Q Is there anything you want to tell us about the investigation into the Cole? Are you getting any hooks?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I've had an open line conversation with Louis Freeh last night. It was not very informative, except that -- and he's heading out there -- he said that the government of Yemen is now cooperating fully and genuinely. He's very pleased with their cooperation and he thought that the first few days had gone well.
END 2:25 P.M. (L)