Background Briefing by Senior Administration Official
The Briefing Room
2:35 P.M. EDT
MR. STEINBERG: This is a BACKGROUND BRIEFING. The officials who will talk to you can be quoted as Senior Administration Officials, one and all. [Names Deleted].
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: First, a bit on the logistics. There was a restricted meeting that the President had with President Mubarak, which lasted approximately one half hour which concentrated on the Arab-Israeli peace process. And after that there was a one-on-one between the two presidents, which lasted again for approximately 25 minutes. And then the party went to, obviously, the press conference and then to a luncheon in which other issues were discussed, particularly a range of bilateral and regional issues.
My colleagues will expand on the substance of the discussions, especially on the peace process.
During the meeting the President congratulated Mubarak on his reelected, his third term, and reiterated that the United States looks forward to working closely with him, both on the peace process and regional issues, and then the bilateral relationship. And the President assured Mubarak of our strong support. And Mubarak characterized the bilateral relationship as working -- "working very well." And the President agreed that the state of the bilateral relationships were excellent.
There was an extensive discussion on the peace process which my colleague will expand on. The two presidents discussed rather extensively during the expanded meeting on Somalia. The President made a point of thanking Mubarak for Egypt's participation
in the efforts in Somalia, especially in the UNOSOM II -- UN0SOM II effort, and characterized Egypt's role as very important to the success of the operation. They expressed their support -- first President Mubarak expressed his very specific support for the President's policy in Somalia and the U.S. position. And both presidents supported the Ethiopian efforts under President Meles to mediate a solution. And they discussed in some detail the road ahead in terms of establishing security, peaceful reconciliation and the continuation of humanitarian effort.
There was -- in some detail -- a discussion of Libya and the Pan Am 103 issue. And the President made very clear how -- the importance that he attaches and the United States attaches to Libya's compliance to the key resolutions -- U.N. Security Council Resolution 731 and 748; that was made very clear. And they discussed next steps in terms of trying to obtain compliance from Libya.
There was an extensive discussion on our bilateral relationship. In terms of the aid levels, the President did reiterate that the United States will exert its best efforts to preserve the current levels of assistance and underscored the importance that the President attaches to assisting Egypt as well as Israel because of the critical role both countries play in the ArabIsraeli peace process.
A key link to the talks on assistance with Egypt was the importance that the President and the U.S. attach to Egypt's economic reforms, which in the U.S. view are vital to the future of Egypt. And we want to continue to be supportive as possible in that effort and helping Egypt progress towards self-sufficiency as a key objective.
With that general opening, I would like to turn it over to my colleague to discuss the peace process, which took, I think, a large portion of the discussions between the two leaders.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The two presidents had, as my colleague was saying, an extensive conversation on the peace process. And the President really outlined a presentation that has three elements in it and emphasized that in all of these elements, he, the Secretary and all of us have been working very actively.
The first element is the implementation of the Declaration of Principles. The Declaration of Principles has to be transformed into an enduring agreement. There have to be real changes, and there has to be a profound change in the realities on the ground. Each side, the Israelis and the Palestinians, have to see that in fact what has been worked out is in fact going to be implemented in a way that ends up building up a confidence on both sides.
We and the Egyptians together have made it clear that we'll do all we can to be supportive of this process of implementation. Both of us feel, based on the discussions we've had
with the Israelis and Palestinians, that this has gotten off to a good start, that the negotiations, the committees that have been set up, reflect the seriousness and earnestness on both sides. But there's also a desire on our part to be as helpful as we can. We have found -- we have heard from the Israelis and the Palestinians that they want us to play an active, supportive role. We will do that, and we'll do it in a way that coordinates closely with the Egyptians as well.
The second element has to do with broadening the process itself and making headway on the other tracks. You heard the President talk about a commitment to a comprehensive peace settlement. And we are determined to go ahead and do all we can in that direction. Here again, the Egyptians also -- President Mubarak also emphasized the importance of this and stood ready to be helpful where they could in working with us.
The third element is what we call the Arab world reaching out to Israel. It's importance because it reinforces the peace constituency, especially in Israel. It certainly affects the ability of Israelis to look at what has happened because of the Palestinians and see that it's part of a larger whole, and to see that the revolution and attitudes that Palestinians have vis a vis Israel is reflected by Arabs also reaching out. And the more one sees a demonstration of an embrace or a reaching out towards Israel, the more one can have confidence that the process as a whole not only can go forward, but that it is not going to be reversed. And a major objective that the President laid out to President Mubarak was to work on all three of these elements because there's a relationship between them. He emphasized the things that we've been doing and he took note also of some of the signs that we're beginning to see of this kind of reaching out.
You saw Rabin stop in Morocco on his way back from the signing here. Tunisia hosted the regional working group on refugees, and the Israelis were present. Crown Prince Hassan met Foreign Minister Peres here in the White House. The Qatari Foreign Minister met with Peres and announced it. And most recently now, there was a previously scheduled boycott meeting that was scheduled for yesterday -- and it's not only not taking place, but it's been indefinitely postponed. And I think that's a reflection of many of our efforts to push on this last track, but also it's a reflection that there are changes that are taking place out there.
The upshot is that the two presidents emphasized a commitment to working in all of these areas -- working closely together in all these areas. And we feel one of the things that we will be doing with the Egyptians is coordinating very closely as we proceed.
Q: Could you tell us what is the genesis of the optimism that Mr. Mubarak spoke of today about Israel and Syria, bridging the gap between them?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I don't know that he specifically was making any kinds of predictions other than his own belief that there is, in his view -- and frankly, in our view as well -- there is a real commitment on Israel's side and on Syria's side to not only stick with this process, but to try to work out an agreement. There are continuing gaps in the -- in what I call this complex of issues which are territory, peace, and security. And we're going to have to do all we can to try to overcome those gaps. One thing we know is that there is a commitment to trying to work out an agreement. There is a commitment to try and to produce a peace agreement. And it's hard to know how long it's going to take to be able to overcome the gaps, but what's very clear from our own discussions, as well, is that the commitment is quite serious.
Q: Well, he spoke of a short period of time -- I mean --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think he spoke about his hopes that this might be realized in a short period of time. It would be desirable, obviously, to realize it as soon as possible, but we have to be realistic as well.
Q: Is it our view that he is beginning to get on top of the terrorists' threat in his own country? Where does that stand now with the various fundamentalist groups?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think the -- what we know is that there continue to be groups that at least have their leaderships based in Damascus. What we have seen from the Syrians on the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian agreement is a posture that makes it clear, number one --
Q: Fundamental -- in Egypt.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm sorry -- I was locked in there, wasn't I? (Laughter.)
Q: You were cruising --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I was on a roll. Was that cassette 103 I was giving? (Laughter.)
Q: And I'm writing it down. (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I saw you writing, and that's why I said, it must be good. (Laughter.)
Q: -- said it's okay to be hopeful, but you need to be realistic about the time frame. What is a realistic time frame?
Q: answer the question about terrorism in Egypt.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, you're talking about -- the issue is fundamentalism in Egypt. I'll offer a couple
of thoughts and I'll invite my colleagues to add anything they might like to to it.
He is certainly very confident that in the aftermath of his election that in fact the situation from his standpoint is improving, that they are making headway in terms of dealing with the problems that are there; that the Egyptian population and the Egyptian public are quite sympathetic to the government, not only because the government is making an effort to sort of deal with the problem, but also because there's a sense that what some of the groups have done is so alien to Egypt itself and its tradition. And as a result, I think he conveys, I think, a very strong sense of confidence and authority about continuing to be able to make headway against the problem
Q: Well, if that's the case, why is security so offthe -wall more intensive than it is for any other leader of his stature that comes to this country today -- blocking off traffic in front of the Blair House, those big turnpike barricades? What is the threat --
Q: It's never been done.
Q: It's never been done.
Q: Don't even try to say it -- you don't know what you're talking about.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not responsible -- (laughter.)
Q: It's better for -- (inaudible) -- that it's based here in the United States, and what is the nature of that --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Judgments made about protection of visiting Presidents are made not be themselves but by the people responsible here for their protection --
Q: Based on what kind of --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not -- we don't have -- we don't make those assessments. Those are made by the people responsible for his protection.
Q: But you must be aware --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We are not responsible for his protection.
Q: and the justification for them.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There is a general
level of precaution after the September 13th signing ceremony because the enemies of peace have made it clear that they are out to do what they can to subvert the process. So --
Q: But you understand, there wasn't this security on September 13th, so that has led a lot of us to think --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No -- there was -- President Mubarak had -- I do not -- if you want a security briefing, you need the security experts. We're not responsible for this -- for deciding what the level of protection is.
Q: But presumably they pass on their conclusions to you, because it has political ramifications.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, all I can tell you is that we don't make those decisions, and we're not privy to the assessments that lead to those decisions.
Q: So you're not aware of any higher level of threat or specific threats?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, we're not aware of any higher level of threat or specific threats. We are not aware of it, no.
Q: You mentioned that the two presidents discussed additional steps to enforce compliance by Libya in the Pan Am 103 case. Are there -- what's -- is there something in the works there? What are the additional steps?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well first, as you well know, the exercise now in the U.N. is that for several months there have been all sorts of -- and I must stress -- rumors more than reports that the Libyans were prepared to somehow finally comply with Resolution 731 and render the two suspects to either U.S. or British jurisdiction, which is the key requirement in that resolution.
And, quite frankly, we've been very skeptical of those rumors/reports because in the last year, year and a half, we've been dealing with more -- if I can put it -- intermediaries than one can count somehow or another pledging or promising that Qadhafi was ready to give up the two suspects. It's never happened, and we were, I think, given the experience factor, very skeptical it would happen this time, and it didn't; it didn't happen by October 1st. So we're now in consultations with our U.N. Security Council partners to determine a new effort at sanctions, reinforced sanctions, which would include oil technology exports, a limited freeze on assets and closing some of the loopholes in the previous resolutions. And that's the effort underway now.
Given the relationships -- after all Libya is Egypt's neighbor, and President Mubarak knows Qadhafi well -- there was an extensive discussion of Qadhafi, his state of mind, his -- any
assessments on what his intentions might be, which was very helpful. But the main part of the exercise is that certainly as long as Libya does not comply with these resolutions that we're going to have to reinforce sanctions and force them to comply.
Q: Did President Mubarak think there was any realistic chance that Qadhafi was going to comply?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think he voiced same type of skepticism that we have in terms of actual compliance. But there was an extensive discussion of that.
Q: When the President urged -- progress on the Syrian track, he drew special attention to the state of play in the Knesset or -- that there is this thinning majority that Rabin has -- he specifically mentioned Shas dropping out. Is there concern here that there is only a very limited time frame for Rabin to act across the board, that if something doesn't happen quite soon, he could effectively lose the political clout he needs to translate agreements and to act?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think our general view, and I'll ask my colleagues to join in that, our general view is that Rabin enjoys substantial support within Israel for the peace process and certainly the Israeli-PLO agreements and the breakthrough. What the President was referring to are the specifics of Israeli coalition politics, which Rabin obviously has to factor into his equation as he moves ahead -- and nothing more, nothing less than that.
Q: But how important is it in terms of our consideration in urging Israel to get cracking on the Syrian track? The President seemed to indicate that there was a certain amount of urgency to this.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What the President was indicating is that what has been a constant of our position is that this is a comprehensive peace process, which means peace on all fronts, and it's important to engage all the parties. And I think, as my colleague pointed out, we have no indication of any flinching on the part of any of the leaders as the engagement in that process, either from Syria or Israel, in the case of the Israeli-Syrian track.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The implication is actually different than what you're raising. And the point is that from the standpoint of an Israeli population that is absorbing a major move on peace, you've heard Rabin talk about the need to digest what has happened. So what we're talking about, number one, is taking account of the need to digest on the one hand. And on the other hand, one of the things we're emphasizing is, one of the ways to maintain the momentum and one of the ways to help build the strength of those in favor of peace is to demonstrate that things are happening to reach out to Israel, to demonstrate that what has happened between Palestinians and Israelis is mirrored and
parallelled by what is happening between the larger Arab world and Israelis.
So there are political realities in Israel, but what we see, as my colleague was saying, is very strong public support for what has been agreed to, and a desire to demonstrate that they are the kinds of changes that are taking place in the region that will demonstrate that it is truly a new day, and as that new day is more clearly demonstrated, it will become easier to take additional steps.
Q: Was the boycott discussed with Mubarak in that regard? If you're going to have confidence-building for Israel, you mentioned you were able to derail the Damascus conference. But that simply prevents the thing from getting worse. What about getting rid of it? Did the President ask Mubarak to use his good offices in the Arab League on that --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We have spoken to President Mubarak about a range of different kinds of steps, including on the boycott that can be taken. And I think that what you will find is that there will be an effort to try to promote certain steps by a variety of different states in the Arab world to move toward the Israelis. Precisely what and where that will be and when it will be, that's something still to be worked out.
Q: What are you talking -- can you give us some sense of --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, as I said, there's a range of different kinds of steps. I gave some examples of things that are already taking place -- direct contacts. When the Qatari Foreign Minister announces that he's met with Shimon Peres, you have an example that there's something different that is happening.
We look at a variety of different kinds of possibilities -- direct contacts, some practical forms of cooperation in the economic area, thinking about tourism, thinking about the possibility of having academic exchanges, journalistic exchanges. I mean, there's a whole variety of steps that each Arab state may not take, but they might take some. And we want to be out there promoting that, and I think the Egyptians are understanding of that.
Q: Has anybody shown sign of taking some of those steps?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I recited several that have already taken place.
Q: Beyond those examples. I mean --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think that --
Q: more economic cooperation.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, you have an announcement of a formation of a Jordanian/Israeli joint economic committee that parallels the one that was announced in the Israeli/Palestinian agreement. One of the things that committee will begin to do is to focus on projects of mutual benefit. Again, that begins to transform the reality as we have known it in the area.
Q: You mentioned earlier, that President Mubarak said that he felt that the security situation vis a vis Islamic fundamentalism in Egypt was improving. One, does the United States share that assessment that the situation there is improving? And two, following his election, does he feel that he has more freedom, one, to either liberalize his government, or two, to crack down further on the fundamentalist movements there as a means of improving the situation?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We're a tag team.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It's an old tradition.
No one is trying to underestimate the threat. The threat exists, the Egyptian authorities recognize it, and their policy towards it is one of working at the core issues, of course, that underscore the threat of Islamic extremism, if you look at -- in the Muslim world as a whole. And that's what we call addressing the issues, the social-economic issues which the Islamic extremists very effectively in certain instances are exploiting for their own political ends.
But what you have in Egypt and part of -- a large part of our aid effort to Egypt is targeted on this is -- is economic reforms, because it's only through, in our view, and the Egyptians share this, it's only through moving forward on the economic/social agenda that one is able, no matter if it's Egypt, if it's Algeria, no matter what country you're talking about, you're able to undercut the ability of these Islamic extremists to undermine the political process, and quite frankly, come to power.
Now, the threat has in recent weeks and in the last couple of months has receded because of the effectiveness of the measures that the -- both on the security front and the continuation of the economic reform program. And as my colleague mentioned, one of the factors that has come into play here is that the resort to lethal force has had a negative impact on the populace as a whole. You know, people don't take too kindly to these acts of violence against civilians.
Q: Was there any discussion of the World Trade Center bombing?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Excuse me?
Q: Was there any discussion between the presidents on
the World Trade Center bombing?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I don't believe there was -- no.
Q: Is there any Israeli public opinion being impacted by, for example, the deaths of the two Israeli soldiers on Sunday? There was another car bomb that, I guess, detonated harmlessly. But is Israeli public opinion continuing to stand behind, or is there some sign of erosion of --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think obviously, this is a very negative development. It's the extremists who are trying to force the agenda and undermine the peace process and undermine the Palestinian-Israeli breakthrough such acts of terrorism. But I think Prime Minister Rabin stated it best, that despite these acts which the Israeli government will deal with on its own merits, security merits, the Israeli government is proceeding on the peace process. It will not be detracted by the enemies of peace.
THE PRESS: Thank you.
END3:00 P.M. EDT
William J. Clinton, Background Briefing by Senior Administration Official Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/269087