Background Briefing by Senior Administration Official
The Briefing Room
12:59 P.M. EDT
MS. MYERS: The following will be a BACKGROUND briefing.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We'll just take questions, no contact statements.
Q: When are they coming?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Beginning of next week.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, we have to follow up with them and work out the precise times.
Q: What do you think the effect on the conference will be, the details of the conference on Palestinians concerned about their own security?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, obviously I think that's going to be an issue that's going to be prominent in their eyes and they'll be raising it. There have been detailed discussions already on all the issues, including security issues as they apply to the Declaration of Principles, and they have made very good progress. As you heard the President say, the reason we chose to do this is that while very good progress had been made, this kind of event, as emotionally charged as it is, really created a potential to unravel, or undo the progress that had been made. And one of the things that was critical was to maintain the focus, make it clear that the process should not be derailed, make it clear we're committed to doing what we could to ensure that was the case and helping them have a solid reason and explanation to proceed.
Q: Yassir Arafat has been calling on President Clinton directly, and on the world community to provide some protection for the Palestinians there. Is there any reaction officially now from the White House?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think our focus right now is to get these negotiations resumed as quickly as possible, and get them to come to an agreement as quickly as possible so that implementation can take place and that that will change the realities on the ground.
Q: Did you have to do any convincing in your phone calls this morning, or was there immediate agreement that the only way to save this thing was for everybody to come to Washington as soon as possible?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think the Secretary made the calls, and the reaction was immediate on the part
of both the Prime Minister and on the part of Chairman Arafat. He suggested that he thought given this event and given what was happening and the importance of accelerating the process that is was important to come to Washington and they both agreed.
Q: The history of the Middle East has been an eye for an eye. What gives you any reason to hope that this won't be followed by more retaliation and more fighting and interfere with the talks?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The objective in the peace process is to end that kind of a history and to create a different kind of future. And what we have to press for and what we have to hope for is that the pays offs of peace can be clear enough that they will discredit those who are determined to try to subvert it. The fact of the matter is, this was an act whose purpose clearly was designed to try to kill peace. And the fact is, that everything has to be done to do as much as we can not only to protect the promotion of peace, but also to protect the possibility of achieving it.
And if, in fact, we can move as quickly as possible to an agreement and implementation, that's the best way to change the realities on the ground in a way that will also discredit those who are determined to try to do it in.
Q: Well, what are your expectations? What do you think is going to happen in the next few days or weeks over in the Middle East?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think it's -- you're in a very emotionally charged environment right now and we're all going to have to do everything we can to calm it.
Q: In this call to Arafat, did the Secretary ask for or receive any assurances that Arafat reads the situation the same way, that he will try to restrain his people with an eye towards the longer view?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He certainly made it clear that it's, from his own standpoint, it's very important to calm the situation, ad he would do what he could. But he also expressed his concerns about what was happening on the ground.
Q: Are there any legal ways that the U.S. can curb American financial aid to the Arab and Jewish extremist *? What are the legalities of that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, I'm not the person to ask. I don't know the answer to that. I can check and see of there's anything being done, but I just don't know the answer to that. I don't --
Q: Was Arafat concerned about the level of security. When yo say he's concerned about what's happening on the ground -- concerned about the rioting, concerned about the police reaction --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, he certainly hopes that -- he is concerned that the IDF operate in a way that from his standpoint, obviously, doesn't increase the risk to the Palestinians.
Q: And how have they been operating as far as he is concerned?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think he's concerned about the nature of this incident. He and Rabin have spoken today, and he's expressed his concerns to Rabin and Rabin has
expressed his shock over the incident and that they will do everything they can to try to restore calm. You've seen, you may have seen the Israeli cabinet statement, and they've made it very clear that they are going to be exploring a series of different kinds of proposals to curb, as they put it, some of the Israeli extremists. And the prime minister will be reporting back on Sunday on what steps they intend to take.
Just one other part to that -- that they were informed that Rabin told Arafat that he would be investigating the incident and he would be giving Arafat the details of his investigation.
Q: Can you lay out for us what exactly the phone conversations, phone contacts were today and the Secretary *, did the President also have conversations?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, the President instructed the Secretary to contact both the Prime Minister and the Chairman and see -- basically with our proposal, and as I said, the conversations were not long conversations because there was an immediate acceptance.
Q: What time did those happen?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It was during the meeting that the President had with the ladies of Congress, I believe, that he had the phone call with the Prime Minister -- the Secretary walked out and had the phone call with the Prime Minister. So that would have been around 9:30 a.m. or so, and then about 20 minutes later he managed to get Chairman Arafat on the line. SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He had spoken -- he had Q: You mean the Secretary was in the meeting with the
members of Congress when he left?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Went out of the meeting to make the phone call.
Q: Where was Arafat?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think he was in --
The Secretary had called the Chairman earlier this morning, he made two phone calls to him today. The first one was to convey our concern, our shock and also to emphasize the importance of not losing the focus on what has to be done, urging him to do all he could to restrain the situation; and then there was a subsequent call.
Q: When was the decision made to invite them? What was the process this morning by which he came to that decision?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, there were discussions that started pretty early in the morning. I can't --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: 3:30 a.m.
Q: This morning, when did the President know?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President was informed when he got up this morning by his military aide.
Q: He wasn't awakened?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He was not awakened.
Q: You say you started with the State Department around 3:30 a.m.?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, there were calls that began. But the question was on the decision. I think the discussions began after the President was up, and I would say probably -- I can't give you a precise time -- but I think probably somewhere between 9:00 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. the decision was made to go ahead and not only have a presidential statement, but have the President come out and specifically propose this; and so he asked the Secretary to go ahead and initiate the calls.
Q: The President was awake and he was presented with these options or with these suggestions?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I think that discussion came later.
Q: Was this the President's idea, or is this an expansion or acceleration of something already under consideration? To move the talks here.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President has been particularly concerned from September 13th on -- if you could go back to his statement on the White House South Lawn at that time -- that we would do everything possible to facilitate the negotiations and bring them to a prompt and successful conclusion. I think it was very much in that context that we have been functioning and that he has been engaged in the talks of course; not just on this track, but on the other tracks with the other leaders, particularly on the Syrian track since January 16th.
I think that within that context, there was a feeling that the parties, as this point, were very close to an agreement after the Cairo Accord a couple of weeks ago, that Arafat and Peres signed -- Foreign Minister Peres -- there was a sense that things were moving forward. And this morning when we conferred, there was a general concern that this event could swamp the progress that had been made just at the moment when they were very close to agreement.
So that is the context in which it was felt that -- and there was general agreement; the President and the Secretary of State and Tony Lake, that is was not enough simply to express our horror and condolence and sorrow, that we had to do something more to make sure that the peace process was brought to a successful conclusion because as the President said to you just a little while ago, that in his view it was the only answer to the violence -- it's the only way to end the violence.
Q: To just make sure that I understand what you all are -- the benefit you're deriving from moving the talks into Washington is what? Just the effect of a spotlight, more emphasis, greater --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It's not so much the spotlight. The issue was, if you didn't have a clear focus immediately, also showing a level of American concern and willingness to be very active in support of bringing the process to a conclusion, that, given how emotional the environment was and was bound to be, that it could easily have been -- you could have easily have had a situation where things could have begun to unravel, where you needed to have a kind of focal point for these negotiations that both the Prime Minister and the Chairman could respond to so that the focus could again be on negotiations and not just on the consequences of this event.
Q: What level do you expect the delegations to be next week, and will Arafat and Rabin at some point enter the negotiations to seal the deal?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think they'll be sending the people who have been negotiating, and we'll have to see exactly how it unfolds in terms of who will actually be here?
Q: Are you confident that they are close enough, the parties are close enough to agreement, that by pledging them to come here and negotiate until the end you won't get into a situation where it stalls, it begins to drag on and look bad and maybe it breaks up without an agreement?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I wouldn't say -- they had made progress. They were clearly getting close. But I don't think you could say that they were close enough to agreement that all I have to do is show up and you're going to have an agreement. The fact is, our concern was that progress was being made and we were concerned that, in fact, it might get lost, it might be undone. And we wanted to keep the focus. And the reason for having them stay until they get it done is to show, A, the commitment to accelerating the process; B, to highlight the importance of intensive work so that time is not lost.
Q: Can I ask another quagmire question? Is there any thoughts to putting troops in the Golan Heights? Is there ever the possibility U.S. troops would go to help enforce the security in the region?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I wouldn't think that's too likely.
Q: The gunman was an American immigrant. Is there concerns that the U.S. might actually be a target of some sort of retaliatory act? Is there any heightened sense of alert anywhere?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the State Department has put out travel advisories. But I think -- this is an event that by definition is bound to produce among those who are extremist to begin with an interest in their kinds of retribution. You have to take all possible threats seriously.
Q: How close -- when you say they were close -- can you just review what you think were the major outstanding issues?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, on February 9th they had overcome most of what had separated them on three key issues, which was on the crossings on Jericho and on the security zone within Gaza. They then -- in addition to those areas, they had to deal with questions of transfer of authority in as many as 45 or 46 different areas. They had to deal with more detailed questions on security that were not addressed in these three broad areas. They had to deal with what their economic relations are going to be. They had to put all this in textual form.
Anybody who has negotiated any kind of treaty understands that when you have to put what are often times broad concepts into a kind of textual form, that takes some time. So they, in the last -- since the February 9th agreement, when they began the talks in Taba and then when they moved them to Cairo, they were proceeding and making good progress in all these areas. They had not resolved all their problems. They still had a lot of textual work to do, but they were making good progress. Both sides were, in fact, very encouraged by the kind of progress that they were making.
Q: What remained to be resolved on security issues?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, there are a variety of technical questions which I really don't want to get into, but a lot of it had to do with --
Q: But in general are --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, it's the -- in the economic area, they had to work out what their economic relations were going to be. In the security area they had to deal with questions relating to the Palestinian police. And so they'd had discussions on that.
Q: As a practical matter, won't security now be given a much greater focus in the talks? And do you see that the past security agreements will have to be reopened and renegotiated?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that, in fact, what they had been dealing with in security obviously was an attempt to anticipate the kinds of problems that they might face. I think that they have held very detailed kinds of discussions that also reflected the complexity of the subject. I am not certain that you're going to see them reopen agreements because I think that would not be the way to proceed. Obviously, security questions are bound to come up in the aftermath of an incidence like this.
Q: So you would expect that the Palestinians would now want better guarantees on security and on what the Palestinian police will be in --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think they obviously, as I said, will look at security questions, but the fact is they had made a lot of headway on that.
Q: How will the U.S. role now change with the talks being here, or will be there be a change?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the fact of bringing them here creates a difference in and of itself. The essence of our role is going to be supportive. It is still essential that what they do, they do in terms of coming to agreements on their own. And we will be helpful, we will be supportive, we will certainly be active, but --
Q: How? How will you be active? How do you be active?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I can tell you, the way we're active, the way we've been active all along even when they've held the negotiations out there -- is to be talking to both sides; getting the impressions from each side not only on where they are but what they're differences are; establishing our understanding of what seems to be most important to each of them and then conveying to each of them what seems to be critical in terms of the assessment. Sometimes their assessments of each other are not necessarily right on the mark. Sometimes we can be helpful in terms of clarifying. Sometimes we're helpful in terms of assuring.
At this point, I think that as we've said, they've made progress. It's very important that they invest in the agreements that they reach. Having invested in the agreements that they reach, they assume a commitment to it, a responsibility for it and it's important that they be able to defend these agreements based on what they themselves have done. So this is still going to be a bilateral negotiation, but we are going to be there to help. At times, if they come to us an they want us to do more, we'll be available to do that.
Q: You said that the normal people will be coming to negotiate, but Arafat and Peres have been involved in various points.
Would you expect them at any point? Would they be welcome and, if so, would you give Arafat a visa?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, he was here at the White House on September 13. We certainly -- we wouldn't --
Q: Would you give him a White House pass? (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't have one.
Q: Thomason's is available. (Laughter.)
Q: Would you expect them at any point in this process?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that -- I wouldn't want to predict it, but I wouldn't exclude it.
Q: Before the Secretary called over to the two parties, had there been contacts earlier in the day on the question that they've been fighting over?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, there had not. The first time it was raised was by the Secretary.
Q: The PLO has made another call for some kind of U.N. protection in the occupied territories. Are you going to have more difficulty fending that off to the United Nations?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think our concern and our focus is going to be on getting the negotiations done and not looking at steps that might make that more difficult to get done.
END 1:16 P.M. EST
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/269433