PRESS BRIEFING BY A SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL
Radisson SAS Plaza
7:25 P.M. (L)
I think it's worth keeping in mind as you look at this that, the Norwegians, by having this commemoration for Yitzhak Rabin created a setting and a forum that we think -- I guess we thought could be very useful in terms of getting both leaders together, getting them energized on the permanent status issues. Implementation of the Sharm agreement has gone ahead, but the process of moving ahead on permanent status has obviously been slow to get off the mark. And with a timetable and with a target of February 13th to try to reach a framework agreement, we felt it important to be able to get the sides working, get them focused on how to get from where we are to February 13th.
I think what this forum has provided was a very useful environment in which to do that. I say environment not only because it creates a setting, but also because the commemoration of Yitzhak Rabin is something that reminds both leaders, as well as ourselves and others who are here, that there is a certain spirit that needs to govern the negotiations, and there is a certain commitment about trying to resolve differences that is essential to keep in mind in this kind of a setting that is, in fact, possible. And I think we found it tonight -- at least the President found it tonight.
I think his discussions with both Prime Minister Barak and with Chairman Arafat, in his eyes were serious. They focused very much on how to move the process forward in a practical way, how to get down to business and to work intensively between now and February 13th, and how to try to ensure that the two sides working together and with our help will be able to get to and be able to produce a framework agreement.
I think the President was quite satisfied with the meetings he had tonight,
and I think he feels that, in fact, they were useful and they really have served
the purpose of getting the two sides focused on how best to get down to business
and move ahead. So why don't I stop there and take a few questions.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, that's really not what the focus has
been. The focus has been much more on how do we get them developing a structure
so that they can work in an intensive way together, given the issues they're
going to have to overcome.
These are enormously difficult issues, and the most important thing is to
create a process that is practical, that is intensive, that creates the right
kind of agenda for each of them to organize themselves in a way that allows
them to deal with the issues, and have a reason to believe that working together,
and also with our help, that they can get there. So our focus has been much
more on developing that structure and developing that process.
Q Can I follow it up? Camp David focused Mr. Sadat and Mr. Begin very much on the issues at hand. I don't think you really answered -- you know, we know what the focus is, the issues. Of course it is. The question is whether this focusing can be done at Camp David. Will it help to bring them to Camp David? Is that what is being contemplated, or at least thought about?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think what's being contemplated is much more the development of a process and a structure that will produce a basis that gives you a chance to succeed. There's not a lot of reason to be focused on bringing them together at a point when there is no basis. So the focus much more at this stage is, can you create the structure, the process. Can they be working in a fashion that is sufficiently practical, that allows them to get at the really hard issues in practical and creative ways to believe that you can move from where we are to where we'd like to be, which is to see them achieve a framework agreement?
Q So you don't see a three-way summit as part of --
Q Could I check a quick fact with you, though?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'll come back to you.
Q You don't see a three-way meeting as part of like an initial phase of this? It sounds like you say --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, there's going to be a three-way meeting tomorrow.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And that's part of the effort of having talked to each of them. The President then brings them together to see if there can be the kinds of understandings on how to get from where we are to where we want to go.
They haven't begun to engage, themselves, on the substance. So this is not the time for us to be focused on the substance, it's a time for us to be focused on structure, process, organization, so that you have a reasonable chance to get to what they have established for themselves -- an objective of reaching a framework agreement on all the permanent status issues by February 13th.
Q Just a small fact: I was told that November 8th is now November 9th -- excuse me, November 7th has become November 8th.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. There are -- what they have agreed to do is, there are permanent status negotiations, and there is also a steering and monitoring committee. They've agreed to have the steering and monitoring committee, which deals with looking at the implementation of all of the interim issues, on November 7th, and to have the permanent status negotiations get under way on November 8th.
And the two leaders themselves, as you may know, are meeting tonight.
Q Arafat had some rather loud complaints about Israeli policy on settlements. He mentioned specifically Bethlehem and Jerusalem, a lot of faits accompli that are underway. And he says it's against the spirit of the talks. So did the President raise this with Barak?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think it's fair to say that the President got into all the issues, including the issues of concern not only to Prime Minister Barak, but also to Chairman Arafat. I think his focus was, first and foremost, how do we move from where we are; how do we create together the right kind of process, and to some extent the right kind of environment to move ahead. That means taking account of the other side's needs as well as your own, and that's something that you can assume that, from the standpoint of Prime Minister Barak, whatever concerns he may have raised, those would also be raised with Chairman Arafat.
Q A senior Israeli official briefing reporters after the Barak-Clinton bilat said that Barak outlined sort of three categories of issues on substantive issues -- red-line, non-negotiable issues that couldn't be touched, as far as Israel was concerned; a next category that were highly important, where they might be willing to talk about it; and then a third category of sort of the negotiable matters. Does your understanding of the meeting accord with that? And can you give us some sense of what those issues were?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think that that's -- from what I heard, in a general sense, that sounds about right, but I really can't get into the detail. I would say, by the way --
Q Could you repeat the question?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The question was that an Israeli briefer after the meeting talked about different categories, three categories, the Prime Minister laid out three categories of issues -- those on which they're red-lined were or couldn't go beyond; those on which there would be room for maneuver -- what was the third?
Q Third was where he was more open to negotiating.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Third was more open to negotiation.
I mean, I don't know if I could break it down with that kind of precision, that that's the way he categorized things. But I think when you're beginning a process, it's not unusual for each side to focus on what's important to them, to try to understand what's important to the other side, and to also try to focus on where are those things that the two sides have to find a way to meet each other. And it's a pretty natural way to begin a discussion.
So I think you can -- it's not surprising that you'd have in these discussions the President would focus on the structure and the process, but also want to get a sense, at least, of where the points of departure that each side might be raising as they get into this in a more serious fashion.
Q Several weeks ago in Jerusalem, there was a trial balloon floated to the effect that there were certain issues which were just so contentious they couldn't be resolved -- Jerusalem, return of refugees, for example. Is that still a viable approach in this process, or is that a dead horse now?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I guess the best way to answer the question is to say that both sides have made it clear to us that what they're seeking to achieve is a framework agreement that at least creates a general understanding on the outcome on all the issues.
In other words, as they get into this, their approach is not to say, well, we'll fix one or two of these, but hold everything else for later. Their basic approach is, let's see if, in fact, we can come to an understanding at a general level -- not at a detailed level, but at a general level -- on all the issues. So it is clearly a framework agreement that would demonstrate that the two sides have resolved the issues in general terms, and they're not leaving issues open.
Now, obviously, when you get into negotiations, they'll have to see whether, in fact, they're able to achieve that objective that they have established for themselves or not, but that is clearly their point of departure.
Q What specifically needs to happen at this meeting for President Clinton to see it as a successful one?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think the President -- let's bear in mind two things. First, this is a commemoration for Yitzhak Rabin, and the President not only held Yitzhak Rabin -- not only viewed him with great respect, but he also admired him. And I think the commemoration, on the one hand, is something I think he wanted to be a part of, but I think he also saw that it had great benefit in terms of bringing the two sides together not only to focus them, but perhaps also try to imbue both sides with the spirit that launched this process in the first place, and that reflected the commitment that Yitzhak Rabin brought to bear in the pursuit of peace.
So I think the real focus, the real objective, has been getting the two sides to get down to business on permanent status because we have a little more than right around three and a half months. That's really been the objective of this, and if we see as a result of this that we really do have a structure and a program and an agenda and an organization for how to proceed, then I think that we would feel that this was pretty successful at this stage.
Q Does your answer to my question mean that if we have a final status agreement, we had a general understanding, but you didn't have closure?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, my answer to your question was, they have established for themselves two target points. One target is February 13th for a framework agreement, the other target is September 13th for permanent status agreement. The difference between the two is, the first is designed to reach a general level of understanding on each issue of permanent status. What you were asking was a suggestion -- or what you were reflecting was a suggestion that some were making that some of these issues are too hard, so put them to the side, maybe reach a general level of understanding on some, delay on others.
That is not the approach either one is taking. The approach they're both taking is for the framework agreement, see if you can reach a general understanding on each of the issues of permanent status. You'll still have to negotiate the details between February 13th and September 13th, but the objective is to see if you can reach a general understanding on all the issues, not to agree on some and defer others.
Q -- the two sides have not started to engage yet on substance. Would they have to start to engage in substance from the American point of view before the President would want to engage in multi-day talks at which he would preside or at least try to be some sort of facilitator, whether it's at Camp David or Wye or elsewhere -- would you have to see movement toward substance before the President would get involved in that kind of high-risk effort over several days?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think we would certainly have to see that there would have been an engagement on substance that also showed some promise. To think that one could get together in that kind of a setting without a basis, would not be particularly realistic.
Q What do you expect to come out of the meeting tonight between the two leaders?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that, as I said, they're beginning to focus on how they get down to business. There's the how, there's the what, there's the when, and they are beginning to focus on how best to do this. They've named their negotiators. Their negotiators have had a meeting to begin to plan how to do things. I think this is to begin to have the two of them talk to each other about how they see the negotiators working, how they'll relate to the negotiators, and how they can work in this process in a way that increases the chances that it will succeed.
Q Only functionally, like committees, or which issues first? What do you mean --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Not only do you have five issues, which can
be disaggregated, you also have teams of people. So they're going to have to
figure out how they organize themselves, how they create structures, will, in
fact, they end up with multiple committees. Will they decide to deal with all
issues at the same time. Will they decide to deal with a smaller subset of issues
But they've at least already set up the beginning, and now you're going to have to begin to flesh out what's -- when I say structure, it's getting to the heart of your question. How do you organize it -- issues, teams? In the past, we've seen them organize multiple teams. They may decide that that's the best way to go, they may decide maybe they would defer that for a while.
Q Did the Syrian track come up at all?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes.
Q And in what nature? Could you describe --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think it's the -- on the Syrian track, we have not been in a position where the two sides were prepared to resume direct negotiations, or the two sides made it clear to us that they were serious about trying to reach agreement. They, at this stage, going back into September, they agreed that the best way to proceed was for us to deal with the two sides in parallel to see if we could create a basis across all the issues, meaning those issues that they, in the past, have understood were the key to a peace agreement -- withdrawal, content of peace, security arrangements -- how all these fit together, to see if we could create a basis on all of those that would give them a sufficient level of confidence that they could come back to the table, and believe that they could move relatively quickly towards an agreement.
That is a process that we have continued. As long as we think that it's serious and has some prospect, we'll stick with it. If we draw the conclusion that it's not, obviously, we'd have to reassess. We're not at that point where we're prepared to reassess. I would say that what the President and the Prime Minister had a chance to do was go over the state of play.
Q Have you gotten any indication at all, here, that the President is in any way undercut or hampered by the fact that Congress did not appropriate the money that he promised on the Wye accords?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. I mean, one thing the President heard very clearly from both leaders was the criticality of the U.S. involvement, here, and particularly the President's involvement.
Q Why does Barak keep talking to him about negotiating directly with the Palestinians?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Because a peace agreement has to be resolved by them. It's not a peace between the United States and Israel, or a peace between the United States and the Palestinians.
Q He seems to be saying that they need an outside influence here.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, he understands, and has made it very clear, that the U.S. role is critical to being able to reach an agreement. But it cannot take the place of direct negotiations. Ultimately, if you're going to resolve these kinds of questions, it has to be their agreement. Both sides are going to have to own it; they're going to have to be able to defend it; they're going to have to be able to believe in it; they have to be able to stand by it. That cannot be an agreement made by somebody else. It has to be by them. But they need -- I think both sides see the value of U.S. help in this process, and they will get it.
Q What is the President's position on a giveback of the Golan Heights as a starting point for Israeli-Syrian talks? And a second question.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The answer to that is, we have decided, as I said, to try to focus on creating a basis that gives both sides a level of confidence that you could move forward to an agreement. So it means not focusing on only one side's needs; it means focusing on both sides' needs. It means looking at all these issues -- withdrawal, peace, security arrangements -- and how they fit together.
If we can create that kind of a basis, then perhaps we'll be able to see the negotiations resume and move forward. So our focus is on dealing with all of the key issues that are important to both sides.
Q And the second question: How important is it to everyone in this administration connected with Mideast policy to get this final agreement signed, sealed and delivered before January 2001?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I'm probably a good person to address that to, since I've worked on this for a long time. I think you have a moment of opportunity. And one thing I've learned from working on Middle East peace for a long time is, whenever you have a moment, it's best not to lose it, because you don't know when it's going to come again.
I think our focus is on trying to get this done as soon as we can, because we also get the sense that that's what certainly the Israelis and the Palestinians seem to feel. They, too, seem to understand -- and more than understand, believe -- there's a moment. So I think there's a convergence between all of us that there is a moment, there is an opportunity. It shouldn't be lost. If it is lost, it will probably not come again for a while.
Q Can I try -- go back a couple of questions, please? You were asked about Israel and the U.S.; how about the Palestinians? Indeed, aren't the Palestinians more in need or consider themselves more reliant on the United States? And when you get to a specific thing, did Arafat bring up the fencing out notion that the Israelis would sort of try to have a real division once all is said and done between the Palestinians, whatever their area, and Israel proper? Indeed, aren't the Palestinians more implying than Barak is to look to the U.S. for assistance?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: In answer to your question, I don't know if
he brought up that issue or not. I just can't address that. I would tell you
that at least based on what I heard from the President -- and I will tell you
also based on discussions I had this past week with both leaders in advance
of coming here, I would not draw a major distinction between the two in terms
of their desire to have the U.S. play a role. Both sides were very keen on U.S.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I believe from the way you frame your question, I get the sense that maybe you ought to be working on this stuff. What I'm saying right now is, our focus is on trying to deal with structure and process so there is a chance to get it to substance in a way that gives us a reason to believe you can reach an agreement.
Obviously, the President's words speak for themselves. He's made it clear he's prepared to go anywhere and do whatever it is that he can to help them reach an agreement. Clearly, he's prepared to do our part. He wants to be sure that they're prepared to do their part.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END 7:45 P.M. (L)
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