Bill Clinton photo

Background Briefing by Senior Administration Official

October 27, 1994

Aboard Press Plane En Route to Israel

3:45 P.M. (L)

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me start by offering -- a major surprise -- a few points. The first point I want to make is that one of the reasons that we wanted to come is because we wanted to give the negotiating process a push. I want to explain in a sense what that means.

We have been working in a process that was, in fact, making some incremental -- very incremental progress. The concern that we had was that that incremental progress might get us to the finish line in a year, 18 months or even two years. The problem with that is that there are many, many things, obviously, that could intervene between this point and that end point, whether it's terrorist acts that change the political climate in a way that makes it difficult to pursue peace; whether it's different kinds of political calculations -- whatever.

So one of our key, if not key, most central objectives in coming here, in a circumstance where the President was going to be in the Middle East anyway, was that we needed to give the process a push so that we could accelerate things. So instead of talking about a year to two years to finish, we might be able to get to an agreement in four to six months. And from that standpoint, we wanted to give the substance a push.

Well, we did give the substance a push today. The President referred to the fact that there was progress made -- Assad himself said there was progress on some points, not on others. It's not going to surprise you that I'm not going to tell you where the progress was. But because I'm a context kind of guy -- in fact, my colleague said I was going to do this on the context channel -- I want to tell you, without telling you where the progress was, I want to tell you about the legs of what I call the peace table.

There are different legs to this table. David Makovsky knows it because he's in Israel all the time and hears it. One leg is withdrawal. One leg is the content of peace -- the substance of peace. Maybe this isn't an independent leg, but it's also the relationship between withdrawal and peace in terms of how they unfold -- when do you see the elements of withdrawal; what elements of peace are related to withdrawal as you proceed. All of that is one general leg -- or two legs, if you will.

A second leg is how long does it take to complete this process. A third leg -- really I guess it's a fourth if you count what I was saying -- one is withdrawal, the issue of withdrawal and the issue of peace. Two is the interrelationship between withdrawal and peace and how they fit together during the process. Three is the overall time period to implement this process. And four are the security arrangements.

Now, today, without telling you where, there were concrete moves made on a number of these legs. And I can tell you that where we got the concrete movement was on something that we have been working on really for the last month without a whole lot of success. That's why I come back to this point that we have been making what I would describe as incremental moves in the right direction, but in a process that could take a long time. And if you didn't accelerate it, you might not get there.

So that was the first basic objective of coming here. And from that standpoint, we got what we wanted in terms of some concrete moves on the substance.

Now, in a second area, in the area of what was said publicly, I'll tell you we would have liked to have seen more said publicly that would have been positive. David Makovsky asked a question that, in fact, offered a possibility of reaching out to the Israeli public, and it would have been helpful if we had seen a response that did a little bit more reaching out. I thought the last part of his answer to your question was interesting in terms of citing Israeli officials who say that Syria is serious about peace, including the Prime Minister. Not an uninteresting thing for him to say to a Syrian audience.

But in any case, you may have heard the President talk about the fact that in the public statement there were some things that were positive. And here I would simply say, again, you have to look at the kind of terminology that Syrians use, which to the average watcher in Syria reflects a very clear set of slogans and a very clear formulation of language.

Now, there were a number of things that were new, and I don't want to exaggerate the significance; I would put them, again, in the context of the Syrians taking small moves that, over time, can have a cumulative impact. The President referred to Assad's speech to the Parliament. He referred to the interview with Israeli TV by Foreign Minister Shara. In this -- in the public statement today there were a number of these kinds of changes. Let me give you some examples.

This is the first time that Assad, in talking about the objective requirements of peace, instead of simply referring to withdrawal, referred to -- as he put it -- "peaceful, normal relations with Israel" by name, which he had not done before. In Geneva he talked about --

Q: Yes, he did.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: If you go back and look at that last statement -- again, I'm saying look at the way they formulate things.

Q: He said --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, he didn't. Go back and take a look.

Q: We just did. It's right there --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: With Israel, by name. I'm saying, the point is -- I know where -- that's right, "in which normal, peaceful relations among all shall dawn anew." Now, this -- he said normal, peaceful relations with Israel, by name. For the Syrians, that represents in their mind a significant move. For you, for us, it represents maybe a slight change in language, and it's part of what's an ongoing process.

That's not the only thing that was said today. The other thing he said, also, again, in talking about the future was that he referred to the need for all the peoples, "both Arabs and Israelis alike" -- he had not said this before -- have security, prosperity and stability.

Again, it's not just a general formulation of all peoples, it's Arabs and Israelis. For those who follow this closely, they know that they've not made a habit of talking much about Israel or Israelis. So when they do these kinds of things, it represents a change.

He talked about moving from a state of war to a state of peace. But what may be even more interesting -- and again, I put this in the context of those who follow this rather closely -- he gave a definition of comprehensiveness today, which he's never done before. Many people in Israel -- and you can probably confirm this -- have always worried that when he talked about doing normalization -- and that's what the normal, peaceful relations mean -- and for him, he sees himself conceding on normalization, he sees that as being the main card he has to give away. When he sees himself conceding on that, he wants to see the Israelis conceding on what he wants to hear.

Now, the fact is many people in Israel have been concerned that comprehensiveness meant that we wouldn't see normalization until every issue on the whole -- on all of the Arab issues, including when the Palestinians had final status, had to be resolved before you see that. Today he was very clear. In fact, he put it in this context of when normal, peaceful relations would come. He said, withdrawal from the Golan Heights and south Lebanon. That's a whole lot different than talking about final status covering all of the Palestinian issues.

So I mention this not to emphasize great drama in these statements. There is not great drama in these statements. They are part of a process that we have seen where the Syrians continue to take small steps towards the Israelis.

The third point I would make is that, on the issue of terrorism, we would certainly -- in condemning, we would certainly have liked him to say in public what he said to the President in private. Now, I believe -- I want to tell you what he said, and then I'm going to -- I'll mention what I think Christopher is saying on the record. But since I'm not there, I'll just mention what I think he's saying, and then you'll have to check it out.

What he said to the President was -- and this was in a discussion on condemning terrorism -- he said that he condemned the killing of innocents like on the bus in Tel Aviv, just like he condemned the killing of innocents in the Hebron mosque. And what I believe Shara told the Secretary is that he, Assad, had intended to say that in the press conference. And for whatever reasons -- perhaps because he got side-tracked on a question that in his eyes was not just focused on the terrorism list, but was talking about his supporting terrorist acts. He moved on one direction on that and didn't say that. But I believe that Christopher will say on the record that that was confirmed by Shara, that that is what, in fact, President Assad not only said but intended to say.

Now, that you'll have to check when you get there. I can tell you, though, that is what he said to the President in private.

Now, the last general point I would make, and then I'll turn it over to your questions, is that, obviously, on the issue of terrorism there is a difference between us. Now, the fact is, when Assad said what he said, the President didn't just let it stand in terms of saying that it hadn't been raised. He immediately came back and said it was raised, set the record straight -- what?

Q: He was prompted, I believe, by the questioner. Rita came back and said, "Can the President comment on that."

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I didn't hear him getting prompted by the question. What I was saying is he didn't let the record stand when Assad said what he said in terms of it not being raised. He came back and said that, indeed, it had been raised.

And here, I would say that the issue was raised very much in keeping with what the theme of what this trip has been about. On the one hand, we're making it very clear that we stand shoulder to shoulder with those who are acting on peace, and we're going to do everything we can to support them. On the other hand, we're going to stand with those who are threatened by terrorists and those who carry out terrorist acts and who are trying to subvert peace.

In his statement, in the President's statement, he said there are two targets of those who carry out violent terrorist acts. One is the people they kill, the innocents they kill; the other is peace, itself, which President Assad said he supports.

So it was discussed. It was discussed very much in that way. And in doing that, obviously, he made reference to those groups who are, in fact, taking -- as he put it last night -- deadly aim on the peace process.

Why don't I stop there.

Q: I know what the President said in his statement was strong, but it was generic. Why, given the fact that this President is the first in 20 years to come to Damascus and give Assad this large status on the world stage, why didn't he specifically question Assad about specific Syrian tolerance of Hezbollah and other groups on their territory?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What I can tell you is that he -- their meeting today was structured and broken into two parts. The first part went on for I think about an hour and 40 or 45 minutes. And it was a small group that included on our side the Secretary, Tony Lake, Martin, myself and Chris Ross. And in that discussion the focus was almost entirely -- in fact, it was entirely on the peace process and some of the specific issues that we wanted to move ahead on.

In the private meeting, which I believe went on for it must have been about an hour -- and that was just the two of them -- the terrorism issue is what, in fact, was raised at that time. And he took it on in terms of what I described, at least as best -- I mean, I wasn't sitting in there, so I can't tell you categorically all that was covered, but in briefing us he made it clear that he had gone through the issue, how it related to what we're trying to get done, those groups that represent a threat to the process -- including those groups that, in a sense, have had a relationship with Syria, and logically speaking, are threatening Syrian interests. You can't simply say that a group like Hezbollah, when it shoots katouchias into Israel, is doing something that is necessarily going to be helpful to Syrian interests, because if, in fact, it changes the climate in Israel, changes the reality of Israel, it's not going to make it easier to promote Syrian interests.

In any case, that's when he also briefed us and what Assad -- he obviously came at the issue of condemning the recent acts, as well, and that's when he told us what Assad said -- that Assad had said he did condemn it; he condemned the killing of innocents; and that he condemned the killing of the people on the bus, just as he condemned the killing of the people in the mosque.

Q: Who was the helpless U.S. official who couldn't cite a single act of terrorism?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, first of all, that refers -- he's referring to a different administration. He's referring to a different administration --

Q: Tell us his name.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not going to -- the fact is I think it would be fair to say it's not an exactly accurate recounting of history.

Q: You've been talking for months about the importance of public diplomacy. Do you think -- and Assad had a chance to step up to it when David asked his question in a very unambiguous way. Do you think that the very subtle reference you mentioned and the fact that he may or may not have said something in private is going to assuage the feeling --


Q: Okay, but he didn't say it in public. Is the Israeli public, which has been traumatized, as you know, in the last three weeks by three incidents in the heart of Israel -- do you think what he said is sufficient to accomplish the public diplomacy goals that you have said for so long are important?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it is fair to say that -- and I did earlier -- I would say the answer there is where we made progress today was on the substance. I can't say that we made much progress on the issue of public diplomacy today.

Q: Can you address the timetable now? As a result of today, do you now expect to wrap it up in the four to six months you talked about?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I want to make two observations. The first is I do think that what happened today on the substance does help us accelerate the process. I don't want to predict for you now that we'll get it done in four to six months. I can tell you this: that if we hadn't had today, this process would have continued at a very slow pace, and it certainly would have taken a lot longer than four to six months.

The second observation I want to make is I also want to again put this meeting in sort of historical perspective from the standpoint of where we were when the President saw Assad in January in Geneva, and where we are now. One of the key things about the Geneva meeting was we were at a state in the negotiations where we really did not have concrete things that were being discussed in the negotiations. Starting in May we began to have proposals on each side put on the table. Since July, we began to have slow narrowing of differences. Now we have a chance to accelerate that move.

One of the interesting things about what happened in January was, if you go back in time, in the aftermath of Hebron, one of the things that allowed us to get the negotiations resumed at that time was that Assad, in response to the President, was willing to announce that he would return to the table at a time when the Palestinians said they could not. Now, had we not had that meeting between the President and Assad, I think it's very questionable whether or not Assad would have been willing to do that.

Here again what you have is the President meets with him and he gets some movement on some issues that we had not been able to move on over the last four to six weeks.

Q: Will the substantive progress made today be acceptable to the Israel side?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You've got to look at this as a process of give and take. When you get a move it doesn't necessarily mean that the move is something that will meet the Israeli needs. But it is something that will narrow the gap between the positions. A negotiation involves give-and-take. I wouldn't expect from an Israeli perspective that they would look at this and immediately say, well, we can accept that. I wouldn't expect that. What I would expect is that they would see, yes, there's been a substantive move and that obviously demonstrates a degree of seriousness; moreover, an interest in wanting to accelerate the process. That's the most valuable thing from today.

Q: Can you just explain, the four to six months that he said, he agreed to a timetable of four to six months?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, that's not -- no. I was saying, in terms of -- what I'm saying is we came out here concerned that the pace of the negotiations was such that if it continued at this pace, it would take us at least a year or two to try to finish. Now, if it becomes a year or two to get things done -- and that is not a given in any case -- but if it takes a year or two to get things done, who knows what else is going to intervene in the meantime which may upset the whole ability to do anything?

What we wanted to do is see if we could accelerate it and make the chance of coming to an agreement more likely in a four-to-six-month period.

Q: as a result of this meeting that the fourto -six-month timetable is possible?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What I said in answer to the question before was I can't tell you that we'll get it done in four to six months. What I can tell you is we had no chance on moving in that kind of a time frame before. What I can say is now you have more of a chance. That's no guarantee; it's just a chance.

Q: Public diplomacy and substance, however, come very close. And in the public diplomacy he did today, what he did was he suggested that terrorism was a smokescreen put up by the Israelis and their allies; that he rejected any direct talks with Israel, which they were doing back there when the Madrid process began. And it seems to me that that is a backing away of where he is. He also suggested that security should not be an issue when the Israelis are holding his land.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You have multiple observations built into a question. The essence of the question was that public diplomacy and substance do merge, and that, on the one hand -- let me put it this way -- you mentioned that he's not willing to do direct negotiations. Not so. He responded to a question in which visits were identified in his eyes as is that a condition for peace. Now -- or at least is it a condition in negotiations. That's not the same as direct negotiations.

I would say this: Obviously, visits are the kind of things that we would want to see. And they help to create a climate in which it's possible to move even more quickly. If we're going to try to move things more quickly, obviously things have to happen not only in private on the substance, but things have to happen in public. That helps to underpin what's happening in private.

And from that standpoint, as I said, in terms of the substance we made a move; in terms of the public diplomacy, I would say that we didn't see today what we would have liked to have seen.

Q: How much closer are you to direct negotiations between Israel and Syria?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The truth is we could call for a resumption of direct negotiations at an authoritative level at any point. We're not doing it because we believe that the process we're involved in right now is, in fact, the one that offers the best chance to get us to a point that when the time comes to resume negotiations directly at an authoritative level, they'll be productive.

We know -- and we've made it clear to both sides, and they each understand it very well, and they each accept it -- that in the end this is a deal that has to be done directly or it will not be completed. Each side has to invest in the deal. Each side has to demonstrate that it's their deal. It cannot be done in the end strictly through us. It's going to have to be done by them, and we want to work to the point where we feel confident that the resumption will itself spawn the kind of negotiations that will lead to a result.

Q: Can I ask you about the Lebanon thing? Can I ask you -- you earlier commented on what you thought was a narrowing of Syria's view of comprehensiveness by limiting their goals to Golan withdrawal and withdrawal from southern Lebanon. Until recently, the Syrians have essentially taken the public position that, hey, Lebanon is Lebanon; we don't control Lebanon, talk to the Lebanese government. One could read today's Assad statement as suddenly, Syria is scarfing up the southern Lebanon withdrawal as an additional, not a narrowing, of their comprehensiveness.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Two points. First, the fact is I think what I say is quite accurate when I say that many in Israel have been concerned that his definition of comprehensiveness means the whole ball game before he could normalize. And that's what -- you read his statement, you see very clearly the definition. And he's using normal, peaceful relations as linked to those two questions.

Second, in the discussions with us, they have repeatedly said to us that the issue -- that they don't want to be moving unless there's also progress on Lebanon, or at least that they can't be concluding a deal unless there's also progress on Lebanon. And they have said that repeatedly to us.

Now, the fact is I think that's what this is addressed to. They're simply making it clear that as they proceed in these negotiations, they are at least mindful that Lebanon has a set of concerns as well. They have not in the negotiations -- and I can say this with more authority than most -- they have not in the negotiations introduced Lebanon except the way I just described it, that they'll have to be moving on Lebanon as well.

Neither the Israelis, nor the Syrians have gotten into a discussion of Lebanese issues. They have not done that.

Q: The President justified the trip to Syria, despite its terrorism status, by saying he was going to raise the issue. Did the President ever raise the issue of serious sponsorship of terrorism rather than the issue of terrorism generically?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The answer is --let me make an observation. The answer is, he raised the issue. And he raised it in the context of how it relates to those groups that clearly threaten peace, and some of those groups are groups that have a relationship with Syria.

Q: Did he say, though, you have a relation with these groups, or did he say "these groups," and let Assad assume that meant --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I can't tell you categorically because I wasn't sitting in the room. But my assumption is that it was very clear about who these groups were and what the relationship was between them and Syria, number one.

Number two, understand that Syria is on the terrorism list, and if you read the Terrorism Report, not because there have been identifiable incidents involving Syrians since 1986; they're on the list because there are groups to whom, in our judgment, they give safe haven, and those are groups that we see committed to terrorism.

Q: Obviously, he treated Arafat much differently -- I'm talking about President Clinton. He put specific conditions to him, and then came out saying, I'm satisfied with the response. Why didn't he ask for a response --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There's a very fundamental difference here. In the case of Arafat, Arafat has made commitments to us that were not only to Israel, but to us as well, that were a function of resuming our dialogue with the PLO. We have been providing assistance to the Palestinians through the Palestinian authority through the whole donor effort, and we're not in a position to do those kinds of things unless the commitments that they have made to us have continued.

Now, let's bear in mind one thing. Syria today is on the terrorism list. Nothing has changed in that regard. Nothing has changed in that regard.

Q: Assad came out of this meeting saying, we're not sponsors of terrorism, it's all phony to cover up your concern about the relationship with Israel. What do we think might have gone wrong that let him come out saying that? It certainly doesn't sound like a guy who got the message.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, look, I'm not going to try to account for what he says, especially in Damascus when he's got his own audiences in mind. In the end, we're not responsible for what he says. We're responsible for what we say and do.

That's it. Thanks.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 4:15 P.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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