Background Briefing by Senior Administration Officials
The Briefing Room
4:45 P.M. EST
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me just give a kind of brief overview of what went on today, and then my colleague and I can take a few questions.
The President and the Prime Minister discussed a range of different issues. They covered all of the bilateral negotiating tracks, but there was a special focus that was put on the IsraeliPalestinian negotiations and also on the Israeli-Syrian negotiations.
With regard to the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and overall process, there was a discussion about how you get things back on track not only with regard to the resumption of negotiations and the conclusion of the Declaration of Principles and its implementation, but also how you address the security environment and how you address some of the concerns that Palestinians have about security in the territories.
On the Israeli-Syrian track, there was a discussion -- there was an agreement of the two that, as you may have heard in the Prime Minister's statement, that there's a window of opportunity, but the time is moving and time shouldn't be lost. And there was an agreement that this is the year to produce a breakthrough between the Israelis and the Syrians. And there were a variety of options that were raised and discussed during the course of the meeting today.
There was also an issue that the Prime Minister raised, which was really the Russian role in all of this and their relationship to us as part of the cosponsors and how that fits into our working together and coordinating to ensure that the process itself gets promoted.
Q: Could you elaborate a little bit on the measures that the President generally said ought to be done for Palestinian security; and when are you and maybe your colleague going back to Tunis?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On the second question, I can't give you an answer right now. We'll, obviously, be continuing with our intensive consultations frequently on the phone. Whether it makes sense to go back, we'll have to think a little bit more about where things are based on the discussions that we're having.
On the first part, there were a number of ideas -- and I know this is going to surprise you, Barry -- that I don't want to get into. There was a recognition that something has to be done about the security environment, a recognition that Palestinians do need to feel secure. One of the things that you heard the Prime Minister say is that Israel understands it has an obligation to ensure law and order in the territory and that that has to be applied to everyone who is in the territories, the Palestinians and Israelis alike.
They are considering a variety of ideas to address the security question, and I must say that there was not a particular focus on any one. But there is a consideration of a variety of steps that they need to take and that they themselves are still in the process of finalizing those. But they're doing it with some dispatch. And what came through very clearly was a real -- again, a sense of not only urgency that it's important to do these things, but it was also a sense that from an Israeli standpoint, doing these things don't simply respond to what the Palestinians feel that they need for security, they also respond to problems that the Israelis themselves see.
And I have the sense -- I must say that after being in Tunis on Monday where I felt that we began to see a narrowing of the gaps on the substance, today's discussions also lend in my mind a further manifestation that the Israelis are quite serious about taking certain concrete measures on the ground. And I think that will help in this process.
Q: Can I follow it up just quickly -- you said it wasn't a focus. That means a special emphasis. It's got to be one or the other. Either the United States did not specify things that they thought the Israelis could consider -- ought to consider; or the U.S. did. So, did the President speak to Rabin of specific measures that he thought maybe Rabin ought to at least look at; or did he just speak in general terms that there have to be new security measures?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me make one comment and then my colleague will comment. Obviously, in the course of the discussions that we have had over the last 10 days or so, a variety of ideas have come up, in our discussions with both sides on the kinds of things that might well contribute to changing the environment, reassuring Palestinians, and frankly, Israelis alike, on how to deal with the security environment. When I say that we didn't focus, the President didn't focus on any particular one, that's because there were a number of different kinds of measures that were discussed.
Do you want to add?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Just to make a general point, which is that the President has said before that he's not in the business of second-guessing the Israelis about how they take care of the security situation. He's very concerned that they address the issue and so, there was a discussion about the various things that could be done. But the notion that the United States is pressing Israel to do a particular thing is not an accurate characterization of the way that the discussion went.
I think it's very clear that, and various U.S. government spokesmen have made clear since the Hebron massacre, that we welcome the measures that the Israeli government announced, but we wanted to see prompt and effective implementation. What we heard from the Prime Minister in private and what I think he also said in public was that he is determined to go ahead and implement those decisions and is also looking at other things. And there was a discussion about those other things.
But I think there was a clear indication from him of his determination to go ahead. The constraint that he felt was constraint which he referred to publicly, which is similar to what he said privately, about the problem that Israel is a democracy and it has laws and it has courts and there are some things which he can decide on that the courts can overturn.
Q: Is one of the things on the table the specific request that some PLO negotiators are talking about today and that is that perhaps Israeli settlers not be able to carry their weapons off their own settlement? If they want to protect themselves at home, okay, but they can't go off. I mean, is that one of the things that is under consideration?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, I would say, if you go over the course of the last 10 days or so in our discussions, there are a very large number of ideas that have come up. What you have is a case of Palestinians raising many ideas and the Israelis also having a number of ideas. What we've been trying to do is to focus on where there might be some intersection among those ideas and the fact is, at this point, that process of seeing whether or not there is an intersection is still ongoing -- in part, because Israelis are in the process of still thinking through some of the ideas; in part, also, because, frankly, these are things that can only be worked out directly between the two. And the fact is, when they sort out how to deal with the questions of security environment, we may be helpful, but it's going to come as a function of their direct discussions.
Q: Do you have any indications or feelers from Syria that it intends to return to the bargaining table?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I can tell you that when the Syrians and the others departed, they made it very clear to the -- and they announced it themselves -- that this was a pause from their standpoint, not a break in negotiations. We will be going back to the Syrians at some point, and we will talk to them about what we think is the right time to resume those negotiations. And, at this point, we have eery indication from them that they are quite serious about resuming, but we, at this point, have not really gone through and had a discussion on precise timing.
Q: Has the U.S. been asked whether it would be willing to participate on the ground in this temporary force, international or foreign force? And also, has the United States government even considered putting U.S. troops or civilians on the ground?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, again, what is in the Declaration of Principles is a temporary international or foreign presence -- presence; I underscore the word "presence." There have been, from time to time, questions about who might participate. And there have also been a number of countries that have come to us and suggested that they might be willing to participate. What we have said throughout is that in the Declaration of Principles it's very clearly stated that the temporary international or foreign presence has to be agreed upon. Obviously, it is up to the Israelis and Palestinians to determine the nature of this presence -- its purpose, its rule, its location. And that really has to be the first order of business.
Q: Well, would the U.S. participate --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think it depends upon what it is that is agreed to in terms of all the questions I just described.
Q: According to a Reuters story that just moved a little while ago, PLO in Tunis is saying they considered the results of the meeting to be disappointing. Have you got anything that you can tell them to convince them that they should be less disappointed?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, we will obviously spend a little time briefing them on the results of the meeting. It's a little hard to be disappointed on something when you don't yet know what it is.
Q: U.N. Security Council, as I understand it, will vote on Friday as to resolution stemming from the massacre at Hebron. And one of the things that come up is what security is Israel prepared to do, to provide? And it seems that the international presence will be a factor, a proviso, in the resolution. The question is whether or not the United States will support that and whether or not the issue of Jerusalem will be in the resolution as well, and what the United States will do about that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: First, the resolution and the discussions on it are ongoing, so there's no point is getting into the details. Second, we have said repeatedly that when it comes to the idea of a temporary international or foreign presence, our attitude is that that's something that was provided for in the Declaration of Principles and that the parties have to agree on it. And from that standpoint we support it.
Q: What about the Jerusalem issue?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I've just said that the issues are still being discussed. I won't go beyond that.
Q: How significant is the Prime Minister's suggestion of a Palestinian police force that would operate outside of GazaJericho framework?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think that it is, I think, noteworthy that he referred to the Palestinian police who used to operate in the areas outside of Gaza-Jericho. Obviously, they operated throughout, but he drew a distinction because in GazaJericho, once you have a agreement, you're going to have a Palestinian authority. And the police that will be there will be under that Palestinian authority. In the rest of the territories there will be a negotiation to develop an agreement for the interim period. The fact is, until that takes place, his discussion of Palestinian police, who would be welcome, is one that is put in the context of them being in the rest of the territories but under an authority that is still basically the military government and the -- administration.
Q: Do you think the Palestinians will go for that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think there are -- this as well as many other issues are best resolved by direct discussions between them. And I would just say that it's very clear to us, based on the discussions that we've had this week -- and it's clear from the ones we've had today -- that the Israelis are considering a series of meaningful measures designed to deal with the security environment.
Q: In connection with the PLO and Arafat, when will be the next point of contact with the PLO? Will the President all Arafat himself? And is it correct that Arafat did appeal to the President directly to rescue the talks?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me answer the first part by saying the contacts are almost continuous. We are -- I can say I am on the phone with him quite a lot. And so we -- it's not a case of having any kind of break in contacts. We're in contact with him at sort of this level on a very regular basis. And, in fact, the Secretary has also been in fairly regular communication with Arafat as well. We will be -- I have no doubt we'll be following up again in part, to get at Norm's question, we'll want to brief him on what it is we've heard today. And I think I'll leave it at that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I just wanted to answer the question about whether Arafat had appealed to the President. He wrote to the President, I believe it was just after the Hebron massacre, appealing for his help, of course. The President did not wait for Arafat's letter. He intervened very quickly after the Hebron massacre -- if you remember the statement that he issued inviting the parties to come to Washington to resume the negotiations and stay here in continuous session until they were completed. And since then, his staff, from the Secretary of State on down to us, have been actively engaged, including a lightning trip to Tunis for the sake of trying to rescue the negotiations. So I think that the President has responded tenfold to the appeal from the very beginning.
Q: The President talked today about -- he said that he and Mr. Rabin talked about how the United States might maintain an enhanced Israel security. Can you provide us some specifics about how we might do that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think that the discussions today -- you notice from the Prime Minister's last paragraph, he said that he didn't come here with a shopping list, he came here with only one thing on his mind, which was the peace process. But as the President said in his statement, we have said from the beginning -- the President has said from the beginning, that as Israel took risks for peace, he saw the U.S. role as minimizing those risks.
I think what he indicated in his statement today is that we're now moving from the general concept of minimizing risks to discussing how to defray the costs of peace. And that is a process that has only just begun. I know you want immediate details of how much money this is going to cost the American taxpayer -- we are well away from that kind of discussion yet. But there is a general recognition that defraying the costs of peace is going to be important if a peace treaty between Israel and Syria, Israel and Lebanon, Israel and Jordan is to be achieved this year, which was the timetable the Prime Minister put out today.
Q: The issue of concrete measures that the President mentioned at the press conference today, I'm a little unclear as to whether it's understood by the U.S. and the Israelis that these are items needed by the Palestinians in order to bring them back to the table or things that will be on the table and discussed once they come back. Can you just talk about the time frame and how it's connected?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It is clear that many of these measures that the Israelis are considering, as I said, are in part driven by an Israeli recognition that it's in Israel's interest also to effect that security environment. And I have little doubt some steps which we've already seen -- saw a decision on Sunday to -- as an example, we saw a move on Monday into Hebron to arrest and hold for a while Rabbi Levenger and others.
The Israelis are taking certain steps that are consistent with what the original Cabinet decision was, number one. Many of these concrete measures are measures that they want to talk to the Palestinians about. Obviously, they have had their own contacts with the Palestinians. And it's in that context that I think some of these measures may well be discussed.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: If I could just add one point to that. There are other measures that related to the Declaration of Principles and can only be discussed when formal negotiations are resumed, such as the temporary international presence which is provided for in the Declaration of Principles. Also the question of size of the Palestinian police force is an issue, and what kind of equipment they're going to have is an issue that has been negotiated as part of the Declaration of Principles implementation agreement and will have to be negotiated again. So I think, you see, that also is a forum for negotiation of some of the issues relating Palestinian security.
Q: When you say that Syria sees this as a pause and not a break in the negotiations, what is it they tell you they're waiting for to happen before they resume?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: First of all, we have to invite them back. It's not --
Q: Well, I thought invitations had been extended and --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, it has not. No, it has not. It has not. There was a pause, and we had not set a new date for those negotiations to resume. We will have undoubtedly some consultations with them before we make such a decision, but we have made no such decision, and we have issued no such invitation. So it's not a case of them deciding, it's a case of us, as the cosponsor, working with the Russians and deciding on what the time will be.
Q: It is fair to understand what Prime Minister Rabin has done so far is as far as he can go and that the Palestinians have to come back, and there's nothing more they will get from Prime Minister Rabin? Is that a fair characterization of what's happening now?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would suggest that the Israelis have taken a number of decisions -- some of the decisions themselves are still in the process of being implemented. It is also clear based on our discussions that the Israelis have a number of other additional ideas in mind on how to deal with the security environment. And those ideas are best -- are most likely to be sorted out and then implemented, I think, once discussions with the Palestinians take place. Whether those discussions will be part of the formal resumption of negotiations, whether they will part of the contacts that have been on-going now, it's hard to say. I think you may get a combination of both.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me just add one thing on that. Prime Minister expressed his concern that if he were to continue to take measures like this without a commitment to resumption of negotiations, that these would be pocketed and dismissed as not enough, and then more concessions would be demanded, and there would be no end to this process. So I think that the logic of the Israeli situation as expressed to us was one in which a commitment to return to the negotiations on the part of the PLO would find the Israelis more forthcoming than a refusal to commit to a return to negotiations.
Q: Well, are you saying then that suggestions on Palestinian security were made and then, in turn, rejected?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. The point that my colleague was adding was simply that the Prime Minister's view is that they have, not only have they done certain things, but they are also are considering a variety of other things. But it's also, they want to know that the Palestinians are, in fact, committed to returning and that this isn't going to be an open-ended discussion.
Q: Okay, rejected is the wrong word. Did the President make suggestions on Palestinian security that were then deferred until the resumption of --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. What the President did with the Prime Minister was have a discussion on the kinds of measures that the Israelis are considering, the kinds of measures that have generally -- that we have been thinking about as a result of the discussions that we've had with both the Israelis and the Palestinians. And what he heard from the Prime Minister was that they are still in the process of going through and sorting out what are the measures that, in their mind, make the most amount of sense. And as my colleague was saying, it's also important to put that discussion in their own consideration in a context. And the context is understanding that the Palestinians, while they are prepared to have some contacts with them, understanding that the Palestinians must also have an obligation here, and that is to commit to resuming the formal negotiations.
Q: So there was no pressure here to make concessions?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There was not a pressure to make concessions. There was a good discussion on the issue of the importance of the security environment, and the importance of concrete measures.
Q: If I could just go back to Syrians for just a second. Were you saying that once you -- all you have to do is set a date, and the Syrians will come back to the negotiating table?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What I'm saying is we haven't yet invited the other parties to come back, that we will have consultations with them. Obviously, we are also going to have to brief the Syrians in the aftermath of today's meeting just as the Palestinians will be briefed. If you read the prime minister's statement, there are things in there that obviously should be of great interest to the Syrians. I have little doubt that they will want to hear from us on what is was that was discussed by the President and the Prime Minister on the Israeli-Syrian track. And after we've had a chance to brief them and ourselves, think a little bit more about the nature of the process, then we'll make a judgment as to the right time to resume the negotiations on the other tracks.
Q: Are you expecting them to come back?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, when they announced themselves publicly that this is a pause, not a break, and they look forward to resumption of the negotiations, I think the answer is absolutely.
Q: Do you know if the briefings will be at the presidential-prime minister level or on another level?
Q: Can we expect the secretary will be calling Arafat and us or --
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't know. I can't tell you yet exactly how we'll do it.
END 5:10 P.M. EST
William J. Clinton, Background Briefing by Senior Administration Officials Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/269428