THE WHITE HOUSE
Office of the Press Secretary
PRESS BRIEFING BY
A SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL
ON PRESIDENT'S MEETING WITH PRIME MINISTER BARAK
12:25 P.M. (L)
MR. HAMMER: Good afternoon. We're going to have a briefing, on BACKGROUND, buy a senior administration official, who will provide you a few more details on this morning's meeting between the President and Prime Minister Barak.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think you heard the President describe in general terms the meeting, let me just amplify a couple of points. Number one, the Secretary will go out for a short meeting after the Moscow summit. The main purpose of the meeting will be to follow up on today's discussion, have a chance to meet with Chairman Arafat, as well, see if there are differences that can be narrowed.
I do not expect this to be her only trip. All along we have said that the President would be prepared to have a summit with the leaders if the basis was laid. And we've always felt that the Secretary would make a trip at a certain point to make a judgment as to whether or not we were at that juncture, where the basis had been laid. This particular trip is geared much more to follow up. We're not at a point, we don't see, we don't believe, where the basis is sufficiently laid to be able to go to that kind of a summit.
That said, I think the President feels, again, that in the aftermath of this meeting what he sees is a very determined effort on Prime Minister Barak's part to seize the moment and to see if, in fact, from his standpoint it's possible to reach an agreement. He feels, based on his conversation on the phone yesterday with Chairman Arafat, that he, too, has a commitment also to try to seize the moment and end this conflict.
I do want to say one thing and then I'll take your questions. We are dealing with the most fateful issues there are between Israelis and Palestinians. The issues of permanent status, borders, settlements, refugees, Jerusalem, security arrangements -- all of these issues go to the heart of identity, existence and security, and these are very tough negotiations, to be sure, given how profound the issues are. But there is no question that what we have seen is, at least in the negotiations, there is a chance to overcome the differences. But there's still an awful lot of hard work that will have to be done.
I'll take questions.
Q The President in his remarks called on both sides to do the things that they have not done in the past. Can you specifically lay out what these things are that they have not done in the past?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I mean, I think what he was getting at was specifically, you're trying now to deal with the permanent status issues. The fact is, when the Oslo process was laid out, it was envisioned that there would be a three-year period to negotiate permanent status issues.
In fact, the discussions on permanent status have really been going on for about the last six months, and really only for about the last three to four weeks have we seen the kind of -- what I would describe as serious business going on. So what you're really dealing with at this point is being able to go to the heart of the matter. Oslo was built on taking a series of interim steps. Now we're dealing with the issues that go to the heart of the matter, and they're -- as I said, they're issues that deal with identity, with existence, and with security.
Q Do you expect a new level of involvement by Albright? Will she be making repeated trips or --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. I just wanted to make it clear that there might have been -- some might have assumed that this trip would be the trip that's designed to lay the basis, or determine whether the basis would be there. It's not that. I would expect that she will make at least another trip.
Q How has the pullout from Lebanon, in your view, affected the state of these negotiations?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, obviously, it's created a new reality. No matter how you slice it, in the Middle East there is a new reality. Israel is out of Lebanon. The U.N. is working right now to put itself in a position to be able to confirm that withdrawal. It will mean that one of the Security Council resolutions, as often cited, will have, in fact, been implemented. So it creates a new reality.
For many, it shows that something like this, which many thought couldn't happen, can happen. And I think it is also a reminder that when, maybe, different parties on different sides say that there's a historic moment, this tends to crystallize the reality that there is a moment here -- that things can change, they can change in a very profound way on the ground.
When we say there's a moment, one of the concerns we have is that there is a moment because both sides seem committed to wanting to overcome these very profound issues. But you know, moments don't last forever. And if they're not seized upon, the consequences of not seizing upon them are usually pretty significant. So I would just say that what Lebanon does is highlight that the realities can change in a very significant way. Israel had been in Lebanon since 1982. And for many, that was simply a fact of life. Well, it's clear that's no longer a fact of life.
Q Does the President still believe that a September 13th target date is realistic?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I believe that he does. I believe that he thinks it is possible to reach an agreement.
I think he has no illusions. I think on the one hand, the President is quite hopeful, because he sees the level of intent on each side. On the other hand, he's quite mindful of how difficult these issues are for both sides, how difficult the decisions are for both leaders. I think it's why he -- he often times speaks about the importance of both sides having the vision and the courage to take these steps -- and it will take both, because these are enormously difficult. But there is a pathway that's there, and there is an intent that is there; now we'll have to see whether it's possible to translate that intent into a reality.
Q Prior to today's meeting, Mr. Barak accused the Palestinian's of some foot-dragging in negotiations. Did Arafat give the President an indication that there is a hang-up here, or will negotiations proceed apace?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The negotiations will proceed apace. Again, when you're dealing with what are very difficult issues, and you also have an environment that has been difficult the last few weeks, as well, it's not surprising that one side or the other will have a sense of grievances. And, in fact, the reality is, both sides have a sense of grievance.
We're focused much more on, again, dealing with what we have seen in the negotiations that indicate that both sides are quite serious about trying to find ways not only to overcome the differences, but I will say, one thing that clearly characterizes this track, and has, is that both sides make much more of an effort to try to take account of the other side's needs, not only their own needs.
Q When do you expect the meeting between the President and Chairman Arafat in Washington to occur?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President said, "soon." We'll obviously have to find a date that's mutually convenient, soon. It will take, I would expect, fairly soon after the Secretary has seen him and after the President gets back.
Q It's not scheduled yet?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It's not scheduled yet because we'll have to work it out with Chairman Arafat.
Q Would you expect in June, sometime within June?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: When the President says "soon," I think he means soon.
Q More and more reports are emerging that rather than 60 percent of the West Bank or the Jordan Valley, up to 90 percent is being put into play by Barak. Is that something that was discussed today? Is he offering that through President Clinton or signaling that he's prepared to offer much more land than anyone had anticipated from the Jordan Valley of the West Bank?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I'm not going to go into the specifics, and I think what either the Israelis or the Palestinians offer at the negotiating table is something for them to talk about, not for us to talk about. But I would say that both sides have signaled to each other and to us that they're prepared to try to take account of the needs of the other, as well as meeting their own needs.
I think it's fair to say that in Prime Minister Barak's case, he is very much governed by what Israel needs for security, but he's also mindful that if you're going to reach a deal you're going to have to make some painful decisions. And that he signaled to us and he certainly has signaled that to his own public.
Q You said that Secretary Albright will go to the Middle East next week and that she'll have to make another trip before there will be a Camp David summit. Is that your thinking on the timing -- I mean, do you know, you're able to project that it's only going to take two Albright trips to the Middle East and then you're ready for a three-way summit?-
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not projecting yet. We know where we are right now. We know, on the one hand, that, in fact, they have made some headway, they have narrowed some differences. But we also know that the differences that remain are very significant. And more has to be done to create a kind of basis before you would go to the kind of summit that the President has in mind.
How long that's going to take, I can't predict right now. What the exact nature of the process will be, I can't predict right now. What I can tell you is that this trip doesn't have that as its purpose. This trip will be geared towards following up on the discussion that was here, which the President found to be quite useful; following up both with Prime Minister Barak and with Chairman Arafat. And then Chairman Arafat will come see the President -- I use the word "soon" and it will be soon -- and then I would expect that in the aftermath of that, we will make a judgment.
There are different ways we may proceed. It may involve the Secretary going back out; it may involve bringing the negotiators to a spot; it may involve me working with the negotiators. We'll see, based on the aftermath of these discussions where we think we are. But we basically feel there is a pathway here that offers promise, but there is still an awful lot of work that has to be done.
Q Is she going to Syria, too?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No.
Q Does the President plan a follow-up phone call with Mr. Arafat today? And in the meeting with Mr. Barak, was there talk about the Israeli-Syria track?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On the first question, I don't believe so, because I think what the President envisions is that in terms of fully briefing the Chairman, the Secretary will be in a position to fully brief the Chairman on the meeting.
Most of this meeting was devoted to the Israeli-Palestinian track, but there was at least a brief discussion about Syria, as well.
Q To follow up to that, is there any reason to think that this latest turn of events might get the Syria track moving some, that it might -- President Assad might feel motivated to start talking more?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think when you look at the Middle East and you see something that changes the landscape fundamentally, traditionally, there is a tendency for people to read into it the potential for danger. But the reality is there is also a potential for opportunity. So I think in the aftermath of the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon, you have a new situation. If you have a new situation, that may also create new possibilities.
We have never closed the door on the Syrian track. We've made that very clear. We have stayed in communication with the Syrians. They haven't closed the door and we haven't closed the door. So we continue to believe that there is a possibility there.
Q What was the length of the meeting? How long was the meeting?
Q -- confirmation of the report by the U.N. negotiator in Syria that the Syrians have accepted the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon as per the U.N. report?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The only thing that -- no. Right now, Terje Roed-Larsen is out there; what he is reporting and said publicly is that the Syrians have accepted the U.N. reports. That's what he said. We have not heard anything differently, but he is a very reliable reporter and we have no reason to question it.
Q And is the Secretary going directly from Moscow?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think she'll be going from Ukraine. She'll get in the night of the 5th.
Q The night of the 5th. And will she go only to meet with Arafat, or will she also be going to Jerusalem to meet with --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: She'll meet with Prime Minister Barak, as well as with Chairman Arafat.
Q Can you tell us anything more about the meeting, itself; that is to say, were there certain of these fundamental issues that were discussed more than others, or are some showing more promise than others, other than just that Barak showed determination?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think it's fair to say that there was a discussion on permanent status and on the issues of permanent status. There was a discussion on sort of the status of where the negotiations are. And I think the Prime Minister gave the President his views.
When the President meets with either the Prime Minister or Chairman Arafat at this stage, the effort is very much geared towards trying to understand not only exactly where things stand in the eyes of the respective leader, but also to probe and see what possibilities might exist in terms of narrowing gaps.
Q There have been so many positive moments, and then hopes have been dashed. And you've seen just about all of them. Putting this into context --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that's right.
Q Yes -- putting this into context for those of us who haven't seen them that way, how would you characterize this?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm glad you asked that question, because oftentimes people say I like to use the word "context," and I didn't mention it, but you did.
If you look at where we are in the sweep of things, historically, you'd have to say we've made a lot of headway, at least between Israelis and Palestinians. And I think the fact that we are dealing with permanent status issues now, and that we can look at these issues and think that, as the President said yesterday, that an agreement is possible, is itself an indication that things have moved.
It's hard to sort of, on the one hand, state that things have moved, and then still relate to the reality that the gaps you still have to overcome are difficult. But the reason they're difficult is because of the nature of these issues. It's not an accident that the issues in Oslo were put off until the end -- although, as I said before, it was supposed to be three years to cover them.
The hope was that you would create a kind of environment, a kind of climate, where when you came to deal with the permanent status issues, given the nature and the difficulty of them, that there would be such a stake in cooperation that it would be easier to resolve them than might have been the case otherwise.
The fact is, we're in the seventh year of this process. And we don't necessarily have the kind of climate one would have envisioned, but we do have the kind of negotiations now that at least show that there may be a way to overcome the differences.
I think what the President conveys is a sense of hopefulness based upon the sense that, in fact, we have come a long ways -- again, measured against a historical context. But there's also no illusions that the kind of decisions that the two leaders are going to have to make are very, very difficult, because nobody can be satisfied completely on any of these issues, because to satisfy one side completely is to leave the other side dissatisfied.
So you have a reality where both sides are going to have to find ways not only to make difficult decisions, but to be prepared to build bridges that presently don't exist, to overcome the differences. And if we didn't think there was a chance, we wouldn't be making the effort right now. We obviously think there is a chance, because the two sides themselves are making it very clear that they're prepared to do what they think is necessary to reach an agreement. Now, reconciling what they need and what the other side needs is what the challenge is all about right now.
Q Did the President and Barak agree on the earmarking of $50 million to shore up the border with Lebanon?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Israelis made a request to us a couple of weeks ago, and I think actually the President made the decision before this meeting that we would respond favorably to that request. The essence of that request is to use $50 million of existing FMF, but to allow the Israelis to spend it -- in a sense, use Israeli contractors for that. So they're allowed to use offshore procurement, and that represents, in a sense, lifting the threshold of what they're normally permitted to do in that regard.
Q Did the President convey that message to the Prime Minister today or --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It had been conveyed previously, in the last -- in the past week, it was conveyed.
Q What's your sense of the current domestic Israeli political situation and its impact on the peace process? Does Prime Minister Barak have the necessary maneuvering room, given that situation, to do what he has to do?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think you're dealing with a Prime Minister who won a very large mandate personally in the last election. He clearly has made it unmistakable that his objective is to reach peace. He believes that he has sufficient support to do it. He is prepared to press ahead to do it. He is the best judge of what his politics make possible, and there is no question that what the President again heard today was a great deal of determination on his part to press ahead.
And I believe that in many respects, his own views, if anything, have been bolstered by the withdrawal from Lebanon, because this is something -- he made a decision during the campaign that he would get out of Lebanon. He felt that it was in Israel's strategic interest to get out of Lebanon. He preferred to try to do it through negotiation, but when that wasn't possible by the time period that he had set, he went ahead and he did it.
A major part of his rationale was that inertia was keeping Israel in a position that didn't serve its strategic interests. And he has also made a strategic judgment that there is an opportunity to make peace, and to end a 100-year conflict. And his attitude, if anything, is as determined, if not more so, than what we've heard before.
You asked the question about context before. I would say what the President saw with the Prime Minister is someone who is more convinced than ever that there is a moment that should be seized -- at least, the effort has to be made to seize it. And I think the President's conversations, and his meetings with Chairman Arafat recently, have also convinced him that Chairman Arafat is coming from the same standpoint.
As I said, what you see, in a sense, is the intent. What you see is also a choice. Now, the real question is, can we translate that intent and that choice into a reality?
MR. HAMMER: All right, thank you very much.
END 12:45 P.M. (L)
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