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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release December 23, 2000
                           PRESS BRIEFING BY
                               PJ CROWLEY
                       ON MEETINGS ON MIDDLE EAST

                 The James S. Brady Press Briefing Room

1:40 P.M. EST

MR. CROWLEY: Good afternoon and happy holidays to you. I think we have some members of the White House staff who have family, friends and guests here, some of whom are in the audience. So we'll make sure that we get your questions in as well.

Very briefly, the negotiators for the Israelis and the Palestinians came to the White House late this morning. They spent about 30 minutes with the President, and then the President, Samuel R. Berger, the National Security Advisor, the Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, John Podesta and Steve Ricchetti, the Chief of Staff and Deputy Chief of Staff, they departed after that, leaving our Middle East peace team -- Dennis Ross, Aaron Miller, Bruce Riedel, and Rob Malley -- to do some further discussion with both parties. And that lasted an additional 45 minutes.

So I think, to sum up the week, there were intensive discussions this week. Both sides put forth a serious effort. This was a constructive week, but we realize this is very, very difficult. They are taking back ideas from the President. Those ideas come both from the discussions that we've had with them during the course of the week, and also discussions they've had among themselves.

You'll recall in various formats during the course of the week we've had bilateral discussions, trilateral discussions; they've had meetings among themselves. We expect to hear back from them within the next few days. Obviously we're approaching -- we're in the holiday weekend, actually, and we'd expect to hear back from them sometime in the middle of next week once most of us are back from a brief holiday break.

We will make no decisions on what to do next until we hear back from the parties.

Q PJ, the reference to ideas -- I think Mr. Erekat called it a recap. Again, this question keeps coming up. Is this the President sort of correlating and putting together, maybe making minor changes in things the two sides have said, or is the U.S. stepping forward and offering ideas of its own?

MR. CROWLEY: Those are not mutually exclusive. There has been conjecture for some time about an American plan; this is not an American plan. The President made some suggestions to the parties based on what we've heard from them both in the time since Camp David and also this week, and as was indicated outside in the stakeout with Dr. Erekat and Foreign Minister Ben Ami, they plan to take these ideas back to consult with Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat. We expect their deliberations back in the region to last a few days. They may even have further discussions among themselves in the region in the coming days, and then we expect to hear back from them next week.

Q PJ, how would you characterize the President's mood after this? Would you say he was encouraged by this? You used the work, I think, constructive -- was he encouraged? Does he think there's a possibility of getting a deal before the 20th of January?

MR. CROWLEY: I think we understand that there is an historic opportunity here, and we also understand that, obviously, the United States' interest in the Middle East will not end on January 20th, but there is an opportunity here, taking advantage of the expertise that our Middle East team has gained over eight years. There is an opportunity to make progress. Whether progress happens or not is up to the parties. It is their peace process; it's their timetable.

I think we appreciated the effort that both sides put forth this week. They approached it in a serious manner, there were constructive discussions. But like everything else in the peace process, what matters here is getting to an agreement. We know this is a difficult process. They have some serious issues to review back in the region in the coming days, and then I think once we hear back from them I think we'll have a better sense of where we stand and how we go forward.

Q Are the parties supposed to get back to the President and to the U.S. peace team with their substantive reaction to the suggestions the President made, or with their recommendations for what format of continuing discussions would be most fruitful?

MR. CROWLEY: I think, first and foremost, we want to hear back on the ideas that have been discussed this week. Does this form a basis for moving forward? Based on that I think we'll have a better sense of what the next steps should be.

Q PJ, it sounded like, particularly from Mr. Erekat and somewhat also from Mr. Ben Ami, that the discussions of a summit are really a back-burner issue now. We're talking about the substantive questions about whether they could get us even to that point. But a summit doesn't sound like it's really on the horizon.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, as we've indicated throughout this week, I think it's premature to talk about a summit until we have a sense that there's real progress in terms of the substance of the final status issues that are at stake. And we've obviously had some discussions on both the substance and the process here today, and we await the feedback after consultations with the leaders back in the region.

Q There are only a certain number -- there are a finite number of options. You just dealt with some -- how about is it possible you're sending someone out there? Is it possible you're going to have the negotiators come back? You keep deferring -- the U.S. keeps deferring to the parties -- or are you looking to them to basically get together and make some more headway in the immediate future?

MR. CROWLEY: As both Dr. Erekat and Foreign Minister Ben Ami indicated, that there are gaps that remain and it is up to them to see if there's a basis for closing those gaps. This is their process. They're driving it, not us. And we put forward some ideas today based on the substance of what we heard from them during the course of the week. They'll now review the ideas that the President put forward, and we expect to hear back from them a few days from now.

As to what we do next, we have no prejudgments. How far we go, how fast we go, depends on the parties. We want to hear back from them, and then all the options that you reviewed, Barry, would be among those that we would consider doing. But, again, we have to hear back based on the discussions this week before we make a judgment.

Q How does the President feel at this point about all -- I mean, this has been his number one foreign policy goal, the clock is ticking. Does he feel anxious, frustrated, determined? I mean, can you give us a few adjectives --

MR. CROWLEY: I think the President is determined to reach an agreement if the parties can see their way forward. He has said many, many times, before Camp David, since Camp David, that he is prepared to do whatever he can. And for the rest of the Middle East team, they feel the same way; they're prepared to do whatever they can to help these parties move either closer to an agreement or to an agreement in the time that we have remaining in office. And now serious discussions this week, some ideas that they are carrying back, and we will see based on the feedback we get from them both how far we've advanced and what we do next.

Q Can you tell us what the areas are of these ideas that the President's been presenting to them? Where are the serious gaps?

MR. CROWLEY: Other than saying that the discussions this week, including the discussion with the President this morning, touched on all of the final status issues, I'm not going to go into details.

Q Is the goal still an overall settlement? Because one notion, particularly when you run out of time, is do something in the interim at least. And what happened to the notion that you have to stop the fighting first? I haven't heard a word about the conflict all week.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, the violence still remains in the region -- obviously, yesterday another indication of that, with somebody who blew himself up and injured some people in a restaurant in the process. Oh, no, I mean, apart from getting back to negotiations, and we're pleased to see the sides negotiating again, it's obviously what we had in mind in one element of the Sharm el-Sheikh agreement.

By the same token, the violence has no part in this process. No question about it, it still remains, it is still a concern. But obviously the parties, perhaps in part looking at the clock, have decided to come here to Washington this week. There were constructive talks, but this remains a difficult process. It's a tough road that they face. And now we'll see, based on their feedback, where we go from here.

Q How about the notion of the part of the -- excuse me -- but how about the notion something stopgap, considering you're running out of time?

MR. CROWLEY: I think based on the feedback or the discussions we've had this week, they remain committed to try to pursue a comprehensive agreement.

Q Have you been filling in Mr. Bush and Mr. Powell on these negotiations?

MR. CROWLEY: I can't say in the last hour and a half since these meetings wrapped up that we've had the opportunity, but we are keeping the incoming team fully apprised.

Q Do the parties take back pieces of paper or language that -- I understand it's their negotiations, but you're here helping. Have you helped so far as to put some ideas on paper?

MR. CROWLEY: There was no paper that was presented today. They both had notetakers in the room, along with their negotiators, and I think the reason why the others stayed behind is to make sure that they had a good sense of the ideas the President advanced.

Q PJ, has the President been in touch with King Abdullah or others in the region in the last few days? We know Arafat had a meeting there. Is he trying to make sure that there's concerted support --

MR. CROWLEY: The President talked to President Mubarak earlier this week, after he met with the negotiators. I wouldn't rule out other calls to the region, but right now there's nothing scheduled.

THE PRESS: Thank you. Happy holidays.

MR. CROWLEY: Happy holidays to all.

END 1:50 P.M. EST