Bill Clinton photo

Background Briefing by Senior Administration Official

October 29, 1994

Aboard Air Force One

En Route Andrews AFB

1:20 A.M. (L)

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Topics they discussed -- I'd say the main topic was Iraq. The King expressed his concern about the threat that Iraq still poses. The President agreed that it does indeed still pose a threat, which is, of course, the reason why, of course, we've taken the actions that we did. The King said he was reassured and impressed by the way we had acted so quickly.

They discussed the upcoming conference in Casablanca. The President said how important he thought it was; that he regretted that he was going to be unable to attend -- as you know, Christopher is going now -- but encouraged the Saudis to send very serious representation. And the King will be sending a very serious delegation, including representatives of their business sector.

The President then -- and this took some considerable amount of time, of course, partly because of the interpreting -- the President then reviewed his trip pretty much stop by stop. And they had a particular discussion of Syria and where we are now, and we had talked about that before.

Q: But he didn't tell us?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't know, I wasn't in the meeting. And Helen, we tell you almost everything.

And then they talked about the importance of raprochement between King Hussein and the Arab world.

Q: Who raised that? Clinton?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me say, in general terms, this is not something new today. The Saudis have been much more receptive to that than have the Kuwaitis, and that was clear again today. And after this, it will simply have to work along at its own pace.

Q: Is Saudi Arabia going to sign any kind of peace agreement with the Israelis? Are we going to see any kinds of similar partnership?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The issue really here is Syria and Lebanon. And then that's -- that didn't come up, really. The Saudis have played a very effective role on the boycott. And they were among the leaders of getting rid of the -- getting the others to go along with it -- getting rid of the secondary and tertiary boycott.

Can I say a few words about the trip as a whole?

Q-- cost sharing?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't know whether it came up with the Saudis or not. It did come up with the Kuwaitis, and they reaffirmed -- they reaffirmed their willingness to carry the burden.

Q: But I mean, Saudi Arabia was a major contributor.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not saying that it didn't come up. I just got a read-out from the President, and that's what I got.

That's what I told him, the damndest thing, that's exactly what I said to him. (Laughter.)

Some general themes if you want them, okay? From the whole trip.

Q: On the record?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Tell me if you want them on the record.

MR. LAKE: Okay, on the record, five general themes and goals. First -- and you'll recognize some of the rhetoric here -- first, our standing by the peacemakers, both in the President's presence and also in the various programs. For example, he just got through Jordan. That meant addressing the Knessat, talking to the Parliament in Jordan, meeting first with Mubarek and just making it very clear that those who take risks for peace will find that the United States does stand by them.

Secondly, standing by our commitments to the security of the region. And that was, of course, going to Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. And again, there the President's presence, I think, was the main part of the message.

Third, standing up to terrorists. This was a very important theme and discussion at every stop and in every speech. It meant talking to Yassar Arafat at the beginning about the importance of this, cooperating in the struggle against Hamas. We think that Arafat understands very clearly that since he is a part of the peace process, those who are using terrorism now to try to prevent peace are also not only the enemies of peace, but the enemies of Arafat.

We have -- you'll be getting a joint statement from this last stop, which will have a strong paragraph on terrorism. And even in -- and of course, you heard the President's very strong statements about terrorism in his speeches to the Parliament in Amman and at the Knessat. And he had lengthy discussions on terrorism, as you know, in Damascus. And we can go back through that again if you want. But the point is that in the private meeting, Assad did tell the President that he is against the taking of innocent life anywhere -- which he considers to be terrorism.

Q: But the terrorists didn't hear him say that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We were disappointed that they did not, but --

Q: It's nice that he said that in private, but --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It is interesting that when the President then said, here is what he said to me -- that evening, we heard, that Syrian television was playing over and over again the President's statement characterizing Assad's position, which is, in Syria, what plays on television is not necessarily accidental.

Q: On the reason Assad didn't come through and --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Wait, I'm not even through doing my general rap, here. Let me do that and then we'll get to reality here, okay?

For trying to widen the circle of peacemakers -- that means obviously trying to bring the Syrians in -- and then trying to then find reconciliation within the circle, which means bringing King Hussein closer to the Saudis and then the others, with whom he had -- with them after the war.

So, just one other thing, if you think about it, there is something that was happening here, though, which is -- you saw the reaction to him in Israel. And I think that it is evident that the Israelis have a tremendous confidence in him. He has a very good relationship with Rabin. And the reaction after the Knessat speech was almost overwhelming.

At the same time, he really has been working very closely with Mubarek, with King Hussein. One of the interesting things about the meeting this evening was that he has been writing King Fahad, they have spoken many times on the telephone, but they had not actually met. And I think a major point of the meeting this evening -- I think more important than the substance -- was for them to meet each other in the flesh for the first time, and to solidify the kind of friendship that gets things done in the Middle East. The point being that he really does have very strong personal ties and confidence across the -- both with Israel and with the Arabs.

This is one of the reasons, very specifically, that's been able to bridge this, which is very specifically why he emphasized that he did in the speech that he did at the Parliament in Jordan, the distinction we make between extremism and Islam; just to make absolutely sure that they do not see in our dual containment policies a rejection or a hostility towards Islam itself. It's very, very important; it's something he's going to keep working on. And it's the reason why the President, himself, injected into the Knessat speech the reference to Islam, and wanted to make sure that he was quoting the Prophet in his speech to the Knessat to say to the Muslims, look, it's not just when I'm talking to Jordan; it's not just when I'm talking to you as an audience -- that speech went all across the Muslim world -- it is even when I'm talking in the Jewish faith.

So I think that those kinds of relationships that he solidified on this trip on both sides are going to pay us very well good investment in the future. Because the fact is, especially in the Middle East, that personal relationships among the leaders matter hugely -- more than any other region of the world. And he has those kinds of personal relationships.

QOn the issue of reconciliation among peacemakers, why is it that you didn't mention -- and the President hasn't mentioned at all on this trip -- expansion of reconciliation of the peacemakers such as Israel and Kuwait, Israel and Saudi Arabia and so on. You did mention the boycott, but we're beyond the boycott now -- long beyond the boycott.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The issue now between those states and Israel is the boycott. That's certainly one of the main issues, and that's a very specific thing that we've been working on for months. We certainly --


SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We're encouraging that. We've encouraged it between Morocco and Israel, Tunisia and Israel. We certainly encouraged it with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. What I'm saying is that -- and Israel -- and it was interesting that one of the questions to the Amir that he was, I thought, rather forwardleaning in his response about talking to the Israelis. All I'm saying --

QWhy don't you mention it, though?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Because our focus is, to get a comprehensive peace, you need Syria and Lebanon. If you get Syria and Lebanon, I think all those other pieces will fall into place, as well.

Q: Does it take a perceived -- President Clinton is someone who is perceived to be a strong friend of Israel to get the Israeli Parliament and the Israeli people to agree to give up the Golan Heights. Will it take a friend, as opposed to someone who might be seen as a little more hostile to the issue?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They, of course, have to reach the agreement for what it is. But I think it is certainly true that an American President in whom the Israelis have confidence can offer an Israeli Prime Minister much more in the way of political support and telling -- or in endorsing such an agreement. I think that's absolutely true.

Q: The reaction in Israel last night was fairly positive with Rabin. But it turned sour today -- most of the media reports, and Israeli government officials say that he really didn't come here with anything new. What's your reaction to that? Are you aware of the sort of turn in events in Israel?


QI have a whole list of editorials, reactions that I can show you and they're all negative.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: First of all, the fact is that we did make progress. Again, you'll have to print that because I'm going to simply, in effect, say, trust me, because we're not going to talk about the details. But there was some progress on important issues there. And you heard --

Q: As much as you hoped for?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, I think the private progress was about what we had hoped for. Again, publicly, we were disappointed that the public statement did not come out the way we had hoped, or, indeed, the way Assad had said he planned in his conversations with the President.

I think there's a natural rhythm in these things, in that at first, the progress that you make is welcomed. And then you look at the task that lies before you the following morning, and you probably do have some of that reaction. And there may be, to the degree they're quoting Israeli officials, a degree of bargaining as well; because any good bargainer is not going to look too pleased at the concessions the other side might make, because that's simply not the way you bargain.

What matters is where we are a month or two from now, not what the reaction is today.

Q: Can we have that part on the record?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. I have too many friends in the Israeli government.

Q: You do this on television all the time.

Q: Can you tell us the chemistry with King Fahad. And is he sick? He's lost a lot of weight. What's the bi-play between them?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I thought he seemed fine. No, I didn't notice anything at all. He was lively, alert; he seemed fine.

QDid they -- I mean, they're not on a first-name basis, obviously, whatever his first name is. (Laughter.)

Q: How much money are they giving for the burden-sharing?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That came up this evening. Could I not put that on the record? Because I really hate to characterize the views, by name, of people that I know, probably. I just haven't seen their report; I don't know who it was that they were quoting.

QIt was practically everybody; I can show it to you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Can I be on background, please? Thank you, Terry.

QI didn't see any of the statements or anything on Kuwait. Did you guys talk about the possibility of stationing more troops or anything like that in Kuwait? Saudi Arabia loosening its stand? It never came up because it had all been hashed out ahead of time and agreed to, or what?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, that I'm aware of, stationing more troops did not come up because that's not the phase that we're in now. As you know, we've frozen our deployments.

Q: That's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about specifically why Iraq --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: -- both places, but not in any detail and not in a negotiating sense, that's being done at a different level.

Q: What the Saudis are doing on that score? On the prepositioning score?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We're still working through what we'll do. So, it's too early to say whether I'm satisfied or not. But I'm satisfied.

Q-- issue, so you're not satisfied?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: With the course of the discussions, yes.

Q: What's your take on why Assad said things privately to the President, and even told the President he would say them publicly and then didn't? Is it because he's inexperienced at press conferences, or was it a deliberate slight?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, let me tell you what I am absolutely, absolutely convinced of -- and this is based on the President's sense of him, and I talked to him two or three times about it afterwards; a conversation, then, that Christopher and I had with Shara; and a conversation that I had with my opposite number.

And I am absolutely convinced that what happened was, first of all, Assad has not had a lot of press conferences in which he gets questions which are not extraordinarily respectful -- it's in the nature of Syrian society. And when he got a multi-part question, which was very specific and challenging with regard to whether the President had raised with him Syria's presence on the terrorist list, he said no. That was factually accurate because the President did not raise with him their presence on the terrorist list because we do not -- because they are on the terrorist list and we do not link their presence on that list to the diplomatic side. So we discuss terrorism, but not the list because there they are, okay? So that was actually accurate.

Then he went into this long explanation of why he does not consider Syria to be supporting terrorism. And then I think he just -- either because he was irritated, or because he forgot -- he didn't get into the other part of the question, which was, what is your policy on terrorism?

Q: But if he was so eager to make that point, why didn't he come back and make it unilaterally -- I want to add one thing, or something?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Because, if I recall, that was the next to the last question. They played it on state television.

Q: That our President said it right.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, but if Assad did not want the Syrian people to think that that was their policy, he would hardly have the President of the United States on television saying, here is what Assad thinks.

QWhat is the next step in this dance between Syria and Israel? Will Assad now make this statement? Or he's made the changes in the wording --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: -- be helpful, but that's not the key to negotiations over the central issues. And over the -- what?

Q: Will we take them off the list?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, not until they stop doing the things to which we object.

Q-- statement.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: His making a statement saying that they are opposed to taking innocent lives would be welcome and that would help. But it is specific activities --harboring groups that we believe commit terrorism -- that means that they are on that list. That does not mean that we cannot work with them on trying to bring about peace. And indeed -- two points about that, one, we do not link them; terrorism is terrorism and diplomacy is diplomacy. But two -- that's in the short run -- but two, in the long run -- and I hope it's not a very long run -- the best way to combat terrorism in the somewhat longer run is to bring about peace. And when you get peace, the conditions of peace, then you dry up the sources of terrorism nd you've isolated the terrorists all the more.

And I think that Assad understands that a true peace includes, then, not conducting activities that support terrorism. QUnder those circumstances, why did you let terrorism, per se, dominate the whole trip, rather than your goals for peace?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It didn't dominate the whole trip.

QI'm sorry, it did. Every major speech the President made, he went overboard.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The two issues go together. If you step back and look at what is going on now in the Middle East, there absolutely is -- I said this on the plane coming out -- there absolutely is a struggle between the circle of peacemakers -- those who are, we believe, the future; those who are trying to achieve something of sensational historic significance, and that is a comprehensive peace for the first time not just in decades, but in centuries. We think that's happening.

As a result of that happening, a group or groups of people who are desperate, increasingly isolated and are trying to prevent it, are carrying out terrorist actions to defeat --

Q-- the theme

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Now, wait a minute, so the way you work for peace here is both, again, to reinforce the peacemakers and widen their circle, and at the same time, absolutely stand up to terrorists. And the reason you do it is to tell the people in the Middle East who are taking great risks with these people -- people who ride buses in Israel, people in the whole area that live under the threat of this terrorism -- that the United States is with them; that we oppose the terrorism, too. And if you lived there, that's exactly what you would want to here not simply because it is denouncing terrorism, but because it is supporting peace.

Q-- thousands of prisoners they have who have never been prosecuted, never been charged, never been convicted and yet incarcerated for years?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President stated very clearly in Damascus, by talking about Assad's view, you'll recall he talked about both of us and about Hebron. And if you look at our communique in Damascus, it referred to the shedding of any innocent civilian's blood.

QWhat about the Palestinians in East Jerusalem? What are they supposed to think about all of this? And especially in light of the apparent slight --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They're supposed to think that that status is part of the final status of negotiations. And we'll get to that.

QHow is Christopher's role different now than it has been? How is it going to be different now than it's been in the past? Is there any difference in his role?


QHe's not stepped up or increased in any way?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, he's been very, very involved in this and will continue to be very, very involved in this. He's now on flying to Riyhad tonight and then to Casablanca and he will continue this. He'll be meeting with leaders in Casablanca.

QPart of the progress wasn't a larger or more prominent role?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I don't see how you could -- I mean, you saw how respected he is by all of the leaders we met with. I was struck by how, when he was given the sash or the medal by the Amir of Kuwait -- I don't know if you noticed it, but I was very struck by the look of affection on the Amir's face as he gave it to him. I think that was reflected throughout the region.

So he'll go on in what he's been doing, and what he's been doing is very, very good.

QOn Syria, unrelated to anything else we've talked about on Syria -- when you guys discussed with Assad Resolution 242 and 338 and all that, Resolution 242 calls for the withdrawal of Israeli forces from the Golan Heights. Do you or does he --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: -- from the territories.

QMy question is about the word "forces." Do you or does he ever make a distinction between withdrawal of forces and withdrawal of Israelis?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You'll have to ask the scholars -- you know, the Jesuitical, Talmudic or whatever scholars on that. I'm happily unencumbered by facts on that question.

QIs the President wearing his medallion tonight?

QIs the President prepared to come back to the region anytime soon, and under what circumstances?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: -- but what is clear is that at critical moments, as I was saying, especially in this region, Presidential involvement is very, very important. And I would expect to see him at critical moments -- and I don't know how yet -- intervening, stepping in, using these personal relationships trying to close deals; because that is how it works. But I would be very surprised if he ever got into shuttle diplomacy.

Q-- spend that kind of time?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Helen, Helen, I just said he's not going to; it's okay.

QI know, but what I'm saying is that there are so many reports out there that he's going to do that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There are no plans for him to do shuttle diplomacy, and I would be very, very surprised if he ever did do shuttle diplomacy, because that's not what Presidents do. That's different from intervening at critical moments.

QAre we going to be seeing more Middle Eastern leaders coming into Washington?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We've seen a fair number of them already --

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 1:50 A.M. (L)

William J. Clinton, Background Briefing by Senior Administration Official Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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