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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release January 3, 2001
                           PRESS BRIEFING BY
                              JAKE SIEWERT

                    The James S. Brady Briefing Room

12:00 P.M. EST

MR. SIEWERT: As you know, the President met last night with Chairman Arafat -- for those of you who were lucky to stick around until 11:30 p.m., we briefed on it. He again talked this morning with Chairman Arafat and Prime Minister Barak. Chairman Arafat told the President that he had accepted the President's parameters; at the same time, he expressed some reservations. What that means is that both sides have now accepted the President's ideas with some reservations. That represents a step forward.

We understand that to move forward, to build on that work, we have more work to do. And we will, in particular, not reach an agreement, let alone engage in serious negotiations, without a change in the climate and a reduction in the violence.

In the coming days we'll discuss the reservations that both sides have expressed, their interpretations of the President's ideas with each side separately. We'll work to see whether we can reconcile these interpretations in a way that allows us to move forward. So that's where we are. There's still a lot of work to do and the President and his team are committed to doing everything they can in the days ahead to try to do everything they can to move the process forward.

Q Do Chairman Arafat's reservations go to the heart of some of the President's proposals, for example, abandoning the right of return for Palestinian refugees?

MR. SIEWERT: Well, it may be edifying, but not particularly helpful for us to discuss the substance here. Over the last -- throughout this process we've been very careful about discussing the substance and negotiating from this podium, and I'm not going to start today. He expressed some reservations, as the Israelis did, and what we need to do now is work with each side to see whether we can reconcile those interpretations in a way that would lay the groundwork for serious negotiations with the parties.

Q When did you get an acceptance from Arafat -- this morning or last night?

MR. SIEWERT: I think this is obviously a work in progress. He expressed some support for the President's ideas last night and we had another discussion with him this morning. But what he said this morning was consistent with what he had said last night. Yes, we spoke to him by phone this morning. The call with Chairman Arafat this morning was about 15-20 minutes; the call with Prime Minister Barak was about 35-40 minutes.

Q Where was Arafat?

Q And in what order --

MR. SIEWERT: He spoke to the Prime Minister first.

Q Is he being not available because he still has to meet with the Arab leaders in Cairo tomorrow?

MR. SIEWERT: He will be consulting, obviously, with the Arab leaders in Cairo tomorrow. And I think the Prime Minister is talking to his own cabinet and his own government.

We recognize that there is still a lot of work ahead. There is some progress -- the Chairman's trip was helpful here in helping clarify the parameters that the President laid out. But we have a lot of work ahead.

Q Well, what is the next step, Jake? Does Dennis Ross go to the region? Are there talks with each side now?

MR. SIEWERT: We're not, today, prepared to announce anything. The President's team will be immediate contact with both parties and with other leaders in the region. We have a wide range of ways to communicate with them, but I'm not prepared to announce anything now. We're working on it.

Q Are you hopeful that there's going to be a summit before the President --

MR. SIEWERT: We're not at that stage yet. I think it's premature to talk about a summit.

Q Jake, technically, you still do have time between now and January 20th to have a deal, should parties agree. I mean, there's not some technical reason why that couldn't happen.

MR. SIEWERT: No. I don't know that we'll get there. I think there's an awful lot of work to do, and all we can do is give it our best efforts. But, ultimately, the parties are going to have to make the tough decisions. And even if we see our way to a negotiation, that negotiation involves the very hardest issues, those are why these issues have been left to the last piece of work.

So when we do make a judgment about how to proceed, there's still a lot of work to do. So we're going to give it our best shot, but I don't know that we're going to -- I would not presume that we will get this done, but the President is committed to trying.

Q Jake, when you say parameters, conditional acceptance of parameters, both sides agreed to a conditional acceptance of parameters -- what do we mean by parameters? Do we mean the subjects under which they might -- what does that mean?

MR. SIEWERT: The President has offered -- I mean, we haven't discussed the substance of those, so it's a little difficult, but I think what's happened here is the President has offered some ideas about how a negotiation could be conducted and which issues should be on the table, which issues should be off the table, and offered some guidelines that would shape a negotiation, a serious negotiation of the final status issues.

Those are the parameters within which we think the parties have the best chance of success of resolving their differences. But we don't presume that they will be successful in doing that. So what we've done is shared those ideas with the parties. Both parties think that that was helpful and they want the President to remain engaged until the last day. They want the President to stay involved in this, and they think his involvement has been helpful, his ideas have been helpful.

But I understand we're somewhat handicapped here in describing this because these are negotiations that are being conducted privately. There have been, I'd caution you, there have been a lot of reports out of the region; obviously both sides, and in some cases, the enemies of the process, trying to make the best-possible point that they can for their own interpretation of this. But we can't do that here. We have to conduct these negotiations privately and avoid talking about the substance.

I understand that leaves us in a slightly difficult position, but that is our judgment about the best way to try to work through these most difficult issues. But there are, essentially, guidelines that would guide -- that would inform a negotiation on the final issues.

Q Jake, you guys haven't been specific, but of course, the Palestinians have put on a website a very specific outline of the issues, and they've detailed in great specificity their reservations. I guess I'm wondering, without getting into the substance, what's the difference between accepting the plan with this long list of several pages of reservations, and actually rejecting the plan?

MR. SIEWERT: Very hard for me to go through those individually because, one, we're not in the business of discussing the substance; two, whether those go to the parameters or actually what would be subject to the negotiations is something I simply can't discuss from this podium. That's something that we're not going to do.

At the same time, the meetings were designed to come to some sort of common understanding of what a negotiation would look like, and what the parameters are. And that's, I think, why Chairman Arafat came here, to get a better understanding of what is still to be negotiated if we move to that stage.

We thought it was helpful that he came here. We thought the discussions yesterday, three and a half hours or so with the President, were helpful in clarifying his understanding and our understanding of what the parameters of such a negotiation would look like.

Q Didn't you know that weeks ago, months ago?

MR. SIEWERT: Look, I think the Chairman thought it was helpful for the President --

Q The President said last week there was nothing left to speak about unless they were willing to agree to his parameters, right?

MR. SIEWERT: Well, I think that both sides now have accepted those parameters. They have some reservations, and we're going to work with both parties to try to reconcile their interpretation of it so that we can make a judgment about how to move forward.

Q What was Prime Minister Barak's reaction to Arafat's acceptance with reservations? How do the Israelis feel about what they heard today?

MR. SIEWERT: Well, I think he wants to take -- he has accepted the President's parameters and would like to move towards negotiation. But he has to talk, obviously, to his own cabinet, his own people. And I don't want to characterize his specific reaction; I'll leave that to them to do.

Q Do you think that the reservations on each side are equal? Are they equally big and problematic?

MR. SIEWERT: I don't want to get into that, but I think that we appreciate that both sides have accepted the President's ideas and think it's helpful to move forward. And we're going to make a judgment about how best to move forward after we've spent some more time working with the sides.

At the same time, let's not lose sight of the fact that there's too much violence in the region today. Chairman Arafat made some specific commitments to the President last night about intensifying his efforts to fight terrorism, arresting those responsible for violence, and resuming cooperation with security forces to stop violence where we can. And it's going to be very important that some of that work gets done and gets translated into action on the ground, because it's impossible, as I said, to imagine the parties concluding a deal while there's an atmosphere and a climate of violence on the ground. So seeing some action on those commitments is going to be critical.

Q So was there an agreement that action has to be taken in those three specific areas before there can be a summit?

MR. SIEWERT: I think -- I don't want to -- I think it's very hard to imagine that we could conclude an agreement, much less have serious negotiations, unless there's a change in the climate, a change in the violence.

Q With all this talk about parameters, conditions and reservations, is it fair to say that President Clinton gave Arafat "wiggle room" in terms of the proposals --

MR. SIEWERT: No. The parameters are what we've laid out before. I mean, he has accepted them; he has some reservations; and we're going to work with him to see if we can reconcile his reservations and the reservations that the Israelis expressed in a way that will allow us to move towards a negotiation.

Q Has the President said that -- at least about the proposals that have been reported -- that there is room for negotiation on those proposals?

MR. SIEWERT: I don't specifically understand your question. I think the President -- the President said, these are the parameters in which a deal could be struck. This is our best judgment of how we can -- to move towards a resolution of the final toughest issues. That's our judgment. Chairman Arafat and Prime Minister Barak have said that they accepted those parameters and they have some reservations, and we're going to continue to discuss that. That's what we're going to continue working on for the next couple of days.

I don't know that we'll get there, but we've made some progress, we've taken a step forward in that both sides are willing to accept the parameters that we've laid out.

Q Jake, in making his case, does the President ever say to Arafat and/or Barak, look, I've now got 17 days left in office, it's going to be very difficult for an incoming president, even though he may have an interest in the region, even though he may have the best of goodwill toward you, he'll be an incoming president, he has a lot to do bringing in a new administration, he simply can't focus on your problems right now; therefore, this is your last best chance at least for a long time, to conclude a deal -- does he ever use that argument, the remaining days of his presidency?

MR. SIEWERT: I think everyone recognizes that time is short. And the President said that there are some obvious deadlines here and I think everyone is well aware of those. In fact, I think the parties very much want the President to stay engaged. And that's why Chairman Arafat came here to meet with the President to spend some of his time here -- somewhat unusual, I would imagine. I'll leave it to the historians to judge that. But it's somewhat unusual for the President to be this deeply engaged in a process at this late in the game, but it's because the parties want him to be engaged. But what's going to be critical is that they make the decision that they want to make the tough decisions, the final decisions.

Q You say time is running short. Time is running short for Bill Clinton. Is he saying that because time is running short for him --

MR. SIEWERT: I think they, as I said earlier, they believe that the President has been absolutely essential to helping them narrow some of their differences, and they appreciate the work he has done and want him to remain engaged in his -time left.

Q Is there a timetable?

MR. SIEWERT: For us there is. Absolutely.

Q I mean within this --

MR. SIEWERT: No. I think we're just going to work in the next several days and see whether we can reconcile these interpretations, see a reduction in the violence.

Q Anyone going to the Middle East from here?

MR. SIEWERT: I don't have anything to announce on that yet, but we're working on that.

Q Former Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger said yesterday, publicly, that in some ways he hopes that there is not a deal that results now, that any deal structured in the waning days of an American presidency and with the Israelis facing their own election will be inherently flawed. Does the President think he may be pushing too hard and it might be better left to another administration?

MR. SIEWERT: No, I think these issues don't get any easier over time. The President does not think that -- these issues are not going to get easier, these choices are not going to get easier over time. The parties have never been closer to resolving their differences, to reconciling their differences. And the President believes that we ought to use this time to see if we can bridge those gaps, narrow those gaps a bit and find a way to tackle the toughest issues.

Q Jake, will the President call on other Arab leaders -- perhaps Egypt or Jordan?

MR. SIEWERT: We'll certainly be in contact, the team will be in contact with other Arab leaders today and over the next coming days. But I don't know if the President has any calls specifically planned, but we'll let you know if he does make any calls.

Q By seeking clarifications in the plan, was Arafat actually seeking changes in the President's parameters?

MR. SIEWERT: No, the parameters are set and I think both parties understand that. But it's understandable that there be some reservations, some differing interpretations. These parties come at these issues from very different perspectives and they have different views on even basic, very basic things. So what we're trying to do is bring them together, bring them closer. And what we're going to be discussing in the coming days is whether we can reconcile their interpretations in a way that allows to conduct serious negotiations.

Q Jake, how does the White House evaluate the response from other Arab leaders so far?

MR. SIEWERT: I think that the leaders the President has spoken to have been very supportive of the process and want him to stay engaged and want us to do everything we can to try to move these parties closer together. But it's very hard for me to assess that without a more specific question. I mean, most of the Arab leaders the President has spoken to -- President Mubarak, Crown Prince Abdullah -- King Abdullah -- have all expressed their interest in seeing the President remain engaged and seeing the parties do everything they can in our final days here to resolve their differences.

Q Jake, does the President believe that this process over the last couple of weeks has brought the two sides closer together?

MR. SIEWERT: Yes, very much so. The President said the parties have never been closer than they have been --

Q But he said that in advance of this process.

MR. SIEWERT: Yes, and I think that we think that the Chairman's visit here was useful and productive in gaining a broader understanding of what the parameters are and what a negotiation might look like. So I think that that has been a helpful process and that the President thinks that the work they've done over the last four and a half hours or so was useful work.

Q Which Arab leaders is he going to call?

MR. SIEWERT: We don't have anything scheduled, but the team will be in touch with Arab leaders and with others.

Q Today?

MR. SIEWERT: The team will be; I'm not sure he will. But if he does make calls, I'll let you know.

Q Jake, do you think the President believes that this is the best plan for the peace process in the Middle East, even when the political situation in Israel could be a threat for this proposal?

MR. SIEWERT: I guess I'd answer it the same way that I did to the question about our own time here, is that the choices do not get any easier with time; if anything, they can get harder. And we've done a lot of work through the Camp David process and the work since then to bring the parties closer together, and we want to do everything we can to try to narrow the differences further.

I'm not saying we'll get there -- I don't presume to know that we will. But the President wants to remain engaged and see what he can do to help narrow those differences.

Q Jake, are you troubled at all by the fact that the Palestinians have not yet, themselves, unequivocally said that they accepted the President's proposals -- admittedly, with reservations -- as some sort of a basis for further talks?

MR. SIEWERT: All I can tell you is what the Chairman told the President, and he said he accepted those parameters and, at the same time, he did express some reservations. But he told the President that he accepted them and he wanted to work more on this.

Q What do you think it will mean for the process if you don't reach a point right away that you think you can negotiate? How debilitating is that?

MR. SIEWERT: It's hard to judge that now. We have some work ahead of us and that's what we're going to do. We'll make that assessment. If we get to that point at some point, the President is going to have to make an assessment of where we go next. But we're not there yet.

Q Jake, because of the time constraints, is there a danger that if a deal were reached that it would be weaker than, say, if you had three more months or six more months?

MR. SIEWERT: I don't know. There's a lot of work that's gone into it. I think the President believes that the best ideas on how to resolve the final differences are on the table, and that we've spent enough time that the parties have a deep enough understanding of their positions that we are in a place where we can put the best ideas on the table.

So I think he thinks the team that he's worked with -- Secretary Albright, Dennis Ross, Sandy Berger and others -- have laid out some ideas about how best to resolve this that are the product of years and years of work, and years and years of experience, and years and years of consultation with the parties.

Those are what we believe are the best ways to try to resolve the very toughest issues. Let's not forget that we're dealing with the very toughest issues because we're at the end here, and that we've actually made a great deal of progress in resolving some of the other issues that were tackled at Camp David and other places.

Q Jake, let's just go back over what you actually hope that you can accomplish during the rest of this administration. You would like to get a framework agreement, which is different from a final agreement, right?

MR. SIEWERT: No, I'm not -- what we'd like to do is see if we can get to a point where we could have the parties sit down and begin to tackle these tough issues and try to resolve them. I'm not going to put a title on it at this point. What we want to do is see whether we have enough common understanding about parameters that we could move towards a serious negotiation. We're going to work with each party separately over the next couple days to see if we can do that.

Q Last year I think the plan was and the dates were set -- I think you were supposed to have a framework agreement in something like February, and then a final agreement in September, I don't remember what it was --

MR. SIEWERT: Yes, I don't know that those titles are particularly helpful.

Q Those titles, they're not helpful?

MR. SIEWERT: I don't know if the titles are particularly helpful. What would be helpful is resolving the issues that remain on the table. I think you all know what they are. We don't discuss them in great detail from this podium, but we know what the hardest issues are and we'd like to see if we can get the parties together and we'll make a judgment about whether getting them together would be productive over the next several days.

Q Is the Bush administration aware of all of the proposals we've presented, and also the money that's involved that they will have to obviously go along with?

MR. SIEWERT: They have been fully briefed on the progress of our talks, both through Secretary Albright and through Sandy Berger. And they know the rough shape of what we've outlined, and I think they've been kept abreast of the latest talks and appreciate again -- I said it yesterday, but appreciate again President-elect Bush's comments yesterday in support of the President's work on this initiative and his entire team's support for those efforts.

Q Does the President have any out-of-town travel planned anytime soon, or between now and the end of his presidency?

MR. SIEWERT: We actually may have a travel announcement later today that's of a personal nature, perhaps this week. And then I think next week we'll be looking at some more travel. But I don't have anything to announce yet, do I, Nanda? She says no.

Q He has New York and Arkansas, one of those, on a personal --

MR. SIEWERT: We'll let you know later. He may be going somewhere relatively shortly on a personal private matter. But we'll let you know about that when we --

Q Has he made up his mind about whether he's going to return to Arkansas on January 20th or fly up to New York?

MR. SIEWERT: Since yesterday? He may have made up his mind, but I'm not prepared to announce it yet. I'll let you know when we have a final decision on that. But we'll continue the dodge up here for now.

Q Why is it so difficult? Why doesn't he just go home to Arkansas?

MR. SIEWERT: I don't know. I don't want to speak for him. This is obviously a personal decision. He has a new home in New York and a library that's beginning construction in Arkansas. I think he probably wants to thank the people of both New York and Arkansas before he leaves office, and we'll find a way to do that.

Q Have they moved anything into the house in Washington?

MR. SIEWERT: I don't think they've closed yet. So I think probably the owners would be surprised if we started moving in. I don't know. I've never bought a house, but I understand that you usually wait until you close. (Laughter.)

Q Have they moved things out of here?

MR. SIEWERT: They've moved some things to Chappaqua, but no, I don't think they've started moving into the house. They haven't closed yet. We'll let you know when they do.

Q I mean, all the files --

MR. SIEWERT: That's a constant process. Nanda is in charge of Press Office archiving, and she can tell you that's been going on for months --

MS. CHITRE: Since when? (Laughter.) I beg to differ on that.

MR. SIEWERT: So -- anything else? We've exhausted all our other --

Q Jake, a couple of weeks ago, the White House was upset that George W. Bush and his people were talking about an economic slowdown. And yet, this morning Minority Leader Dick Gephardt was on television and he was talking about the recession is looming and that it may require a tax cut bigger than the ones the Democrats were talking about. Does that disturb the White House?

MR. SIEWERT: I think that when we're talking about the economy that we're going to stick to the facts. And the Wall Street Journal yesterday had a survey of economists, the vast majority of whom saw positive growth this year, 2 to 2.5 percent, for the most part. That's not a recession. That's growth; that's stronger than the growth under the previous Bush administration.

We think that we're leaving the economy in very good shape. We've had eight years of solid growth, low inflation, record low unemployment -- no one is predicting unemployment to go much over 4.5, 5 percent, which was unthinkable when we took office here. We're also leaving the new administration with a lot of new tools, a stronger tool box to confront any difficulties that they may encounter in the next four years. They have a lot of levers to pull. So they have a strong fiscal balance sheet, low unemployment, low inflation. So they have a lot of room to maneuver. We didn't have that kind of room to maneuver when we took office.

So, look, they'll have to make their own decisions about how to talk about the economy, what size of tax cut to have -- and they'll obviously have to work with Democrats on that, there will obviously be a lot of maneuvering in Congress over that. But when we're talking about the tax cut, I think it's very important to recognize that under their own tax plan there is no stimulus in their tax plan for the economy in fiscal year 2001 -- zero. And in fiscal year 2002, it's only about $20 billion, which is a relatively small amount in the larger scheme of things.

So this is not really about whether the economy needs a tax cut. This is largely about whether or not they want a tax cut and how strong it is. They want a tax cut whether it's raining out or snowing out or it's 80 degrees and sunny. This is -- mostly this campaign around the tax cut is a campaign for a tax cut, pure and simple. And I think it should be understood as such by their own. Any economist -- The Washington Post had a very good article on this last week -- will tell you that tax cuts are often a poor tool for immediate fiscal policy and that decisions are best left to the Federal Reserve.

Q That sounds like you have something against tax cuts.

MR. SIEWERT: No. We proposed a tax cut and, in fact, I understand why the Minority Leader might want to reassess the exact size and shape of the tax cut, given that we have new surplus figures. What is important is that we don't see the tax cut as a panacea to an economic stimulus. The tax cut is a very rough tool to use. But there may be good reasons, and we proposed a tax cut -- a very sizeable one -- to give people back some of their money.

Q Do you have any reaction or comment on the reports, rumor, speculation that Saddam Hussein is hospitalized at this point?

MR. SIEWERT: I don't have any independent information to verify that. I've seen those reports, but that's it.

Q -- have you seen the editorial in The Washington Post today? My question is, the White House always support Pastrana besides his strategy to negotiate peace with the rebels in his country. Is this administration changing its mind about the sums that President Pastrana gave to the --

MR. SIEWERT: Not that I'm aware of. I'll check on that, but I'm not aware of any change in our position on that.

I should -- maybe, can I announce that we'll have a briefing tomorrow morning, on a somewhat related topic. Yes, Barry McCaffrey will be in here tomorrow. He probably is in a better position to answer that question. At 11 a.m.

Thank you.

END 12:29 P.M. EST