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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release December 20, 2000
                           PHILIP J. CROWLEY

                    The James S. Brady Briefing Room

3:35 P.M. EST

MR. CROWLEY: I'll tell you what. We'll make a deal. The faster you let me go through this briefing, the sooner we can get back to your basement Christmas Party, which is, I understand underway and in full swing. Very briefly, as always, this being a Middle East peace briefing, there will be far more questions than there are answers.

The President met with the negotiating teams for the Israelis and Palestinians for about 45 minutes in the Cabinet Room here at the White House. Also with him was our Middle East peace team with the usual suspects.

The President outlined for the negotiators how he thought they should proceed during this week. You will recall that last week, the President had the opportunity to talk to both Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat by phone. We also had a meeting during the middle of the week with Dennis Ross and Chairman Arafat. They also resumed direct discussions in the region last week and, based on those discussions, we invited the negotiators here to Washington for further talks. They arrived yesterday. They've been going since yesterday afternoon in various combinations bilaterally.

This was an opportunity for the President to lay out what's at stake, the importance of continuing to work as hard as they can to reach an agreement and, predicting some of your questions, what happens next really depends on the progress that the negotiators make, during the course of this week. We expect them to be here through Saturday. As was mentioned outside, the Secretary of State plans to meet with them tomorrow. The progress that's made this week is really up to them. As always, we're prepared to help to do whatever we can to support the peace process, move them closer to an agreement, but what we do from this point on will really depend on the progress that they make during the course of this week.

Q P.J., would you describe this meeting as an opportunity for the participants, including President Clinton, to sort of summarize where we are at this point in negotiations, and it was not sort of an active negotiating meeting?

MR. CROWLEY: No. This was for the President to kind of both lay out how he felt they should proceed during the week. He heard from them as to what they think their key interests and issues are and how they view the coming week. And now they're back this afternoon, and will be in meetings through this evening.

Q Sir, did you get the sense that they see basically the fact that there are these Israeli elections and perhaps potentially a more conservative Prime Minister coming into power as a new opportunity for peace?

MR. CROWLEY: I'm not sure that any electoral politics entered into this meeting. This is for them to tell us, and they are telling us that they want to both take advantage of this current administration, what we've learned over eight years in terms of the peace process. We're prepared to help them but, as always, this is their timetable, it's their peace process; it's not our timetable. So how they proceed is up to them.

Now, they have come here -- and you heard outside, having Dr. Erekat say that there are still differences, but they come here with a determination to do everything they can to see if they can move closer to an agreement, and that's why they're here.

Q I'm sorry, I'm also not talking about the U.S. administration change, I'm talking about Israeli --

MR. CROWLEY: No, I understand that. I don't see that as a factor -- they're here, they're negotiating and we're here to support them. So as to how they view the effect of their upcoming election on this process, I think, is for the Israelis to describe.

Q I'll talk about the U.S. election change. Is the President's forthcoming departure an accelerating factor in these talks? Is it adding some urgency to the talks?

MR. CROWLEY: I think Foreign Minister Ben Ami spoke to that outside. He thinks there is still the opportunity to make tangible progress while we have this team in place and we're prepared to work to help them until January 20th.

Q P.J., if I could just follow up? You said that there has been eight years of work done. Is there a sense that, at least logistically and in terms of getting up to speed in other priorities, that if this drags past January 20th, there will be some catching up to do and an inevitable delay of some kind?

MR. CROWLEY: I think that depends on the incoming team. Certainly, the President, Secretary Albright, Sandy Berger, Dennis Ross have acquired a great understanding of the issues and the complexities and the nuances through eight years and we're going to continue to help them. But ultimately, they are the ones that have to reach the compromises, make the hard decisions and we hope reach an agreement sooner or later. We hope it's sooner.

Q P.J, did the President-elect yesterday give any indication there would be life after January 20th for the peace process if need be?

MR. CROWLEY: I think the Secretary of State-designate spoke to that over the weekend and clearly indicated he would be involved in the peace process. The peace process is an enduring interest of the United States. Both Democratic and Republican administrations have supported it in the past. We have been deeply involved in it for eight years and have perhaps brought the parties closer to an agreement than ever before.

What happens between now and January 20th really is up to the parties.

Q How are you planning to help the parties? Will the American side will be putting some proposals on the table or just let them negotiate among themselves? And also, P.J., please, aren't you concerned about the high expectations associated with these high-profile meetings if these meetings fail again?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, let me talk about expectations first. Dr. Erekat outside, I heard, indicated that he did not think it appropriate to raise expectations. I think we feel very realistic. This is still a difficult process. We've gone through 11 weeks of violence in the region that has clearly left scars on both sides. And yet, I think we are encouraged by the fact that both sides have resumed negotiations and seem to want to take advantage of the time that we have left to see if they can move closer to an agreement. We're certainly going to help them. But we're very realistic. This remains a very complex and very difficult process. That's why we've been at it for so long.

Q How about the American role in the negotiations?

MR. CROWLEY: We will play the role that we've always played, and helping the two sides both identify and then work through the issues that remain.

Q Is the President going to visit the region before he leaves the White House, and also, is he willing to be involved in the peace process after he leaves?

MR. CROWLEY: I don't -- I'll leave it to the President to describe what he plans to do after January 20th. Obviously, he has supported the peace process over eight years. I think he wants to remain involved in some way in some of the important issues of peace and globalization that he has worked on and supported for eight years. But I have no specific role that he intends to play after January 20th. Right now, there is no scheduled travel for the President outside the United States.

Q P.J., it was suggested at the stakeout that the threshold is now higher for a trilateral three-way meeting between principals than perhaps it was before the Wye meetings -- that there would have to be some reasonable assurance that there would be an agreement. Is that now the White House's position that they don't -- you don't want to go forward with a meeting at a President-Prime Minister level unless it's fairly sure that an agreement can be reached?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think -- all talk about what we do next is premature. We have to basically evaluate what progress is made this week. Based on that, I think we'll be in a position to gauge what our next steps are. But, obviously, what happens next -- including the prospect of having leaders come together in some form -- depends on the progress that's made.

Q Foreign Minister Ben Ami has talked with somewhat an optimistic tone today. As you just said, Dr. Erekat was more realistic. Are we to expect a summit between now and January 20th?

MR. CROWLEY: I think you can expect that the negotiators will be here throughout this week. I think we have every expectation they will work hard to try to make progress while they're here. And then we just have to take this step by step.

Q What about another meeting this week with the President, for more serious negotiating --

MR. CROWLEY: I don't have anything to report in terms of having the President get directly involved again. Nothing like that is scheduled.

Q If it was up to the parties to make progress and you could be playing a very limited role, why bring them now, to Washington?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think the fact that they have resumed direct discussions we thought was very useful. And then, based on those discussions, we thought it important to bring them back together and bring them here. So I think this is a step in the process. Obviously, we hope that we can make progress this week, but they just arrived yesterday, so I think we have to kind of evaluate this as we go through the coming three or four days.

Q P.J., you said that the President laid out how he thought they should proceed. How does he think they should proceed?

MR. CROWLEY: I think I'll leave it to the President and the negotiators to keep that among themselves.

Q Former officials and former Republican administrations have been critical, like George Shultz, have been critical of this administration, saying that part of the reason that the peace process perhaps has fallen down at times is because the administration is trying to push this too fast, before the parties are ready. What do you say to that kind of criticism?

MR. CROWLEY: I think the fact that we've been at this for eight years -- we've been consistently focused on this for eight years. We understand the importance. It is in the interest of the United States to see peace and stability in the Middle East. It is in the interest of the United States to see a comprehensive peace agreement, not only on the Israeli-Palestinian track, but ultimately on the other tracks as well. This is an enduring interest that both Republican and Democratic administrations have shared, going back decades.

I think -- this is not our peace process. This peace process belongs to the parties in the region. This track belongs to the Israelis and the Palestinians. It is up to them to ultimately reach an agreement. We have always been, and remain willing, to help them along that road. It is a very difficult road.

We have not pushed them, but we have been prepared to help them as we've thought our help has become necessary. Our role has adapted through these eight years, depending on what we perceive the needs of the parties to do. But today, we are in the same place we were eight years ago, in the sense that what happens here in terms of their ability to meet -- to find a way to reach an agreement is ultimately for them to do. We are in a position to help.

Q Since this is our foreign policy briefing of the day, there was a published report this morning saying that the Bush folks, the Bush foreign policy team, believes that it would be grandstanding for President Clinton to visit North Korea before January 20th. Has that view been conveyed to Mr. Berger or other members of the President's staff, and would that preclude a trip by President Clinton?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, let's step back. I think I'll let the new, incoming administration characterize how they view this situation. I mean, we are interested in an agreement that restrains North Korea's missile program. That, too, is clearly in the interest of the United States. It's an issue of enormous importance. But there are genuine questions that need to be resolved with North Korea and we are mindful of the calendar, but we're going to continue to work through this in a prudent manner. We've -- the President reached no decision on whether we will travel to North Korea. That depends on whether we think an agreement is achievable in the time that we have remaining. If we can make progress, we will. If not, this will be continued, I'm sure, by the next administration.

Q Has the President or Sandy consulted with the next administration yet on this subject?

MR. CROWLEY: We are keeping them fully informed, but this will be the President's decision to make.

Q Ben Ami also said today that they discussed the concepts of both issues, Jerusalem and the refugees -- and territories. But I want to -- regarding those two issues, Jerusalem and the refugees, the concepts, do you think -- was their meeting regarding those two issues useful, and do you think there could be an agreement reached if they did not discuss the details of those two issues?

MR. CROWLEY: I'll defer on tried and true ground rules of not doing the negotiating here at the podium. Suffice it to say that during the course of this week, we expect them to touch on all the key issues in the Middle East peace process. How they proceed, how far they get, what form a perspective agreement would be is up to them. I heard Dr. Erekat say that they remain interested in a comprehensive agreement. What kind of progress is made and how far they go is ultimately up to the parties. But I'm sure they will touch on all the key issues during the course of the week. I'm not in a position to characterize where they are here.

Q If a summit is convened, is that a sign that a deal is reached? If Arafat and Barak --

MR. CROWLEY: I think all talk about a summit or leaders meetings at this point is premature. We need to see what progress is made this week, and then we'll make a judgment as to what the next steps are.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

MR. CROWLEY: Thank you.

END 3:50 P.M. EST