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Press Briefing, Middle East Camp David Conference

PRESS BRIEFING BY JOE LOCKHART

Thurmont Elementary School Thurmont, Maryland

11:42 A.M. EDT

MR. LOCKHART: Good morning. I'll give you a little update of what's gone on since I saw you last, since we reported to you last, yesterday evening. I think we took you up through the two bilaterals that happened late in the afternoon. After that, the President, the two leaders, and their delegations -- roughly somewhere around 40 people -- had dinner together in the Laurel Cabin.

The President, Prime Minister Barak, Chairman Arafat sat at one table, with about 15 or so of their aides. Secretary of State Albright hosted another table. National Security Advisor Berger hosted the third table, filling out the room. They dined on tenderloin of beef with sun-dried tomatoes, fillet of salmon with Thai curry sauce, roast baby Yukon potatoes, steamed green beans with almonds, a mixed garden salad, fresh fruit, and assorted desserts.

After that meeting -- after the dinner, the President had a brief bilateral session with Chairman Arafat in his office at Laurel, and they retired for the evening. The President, for his part, went back and watched the end of the All-Star game with his daughter, Chelsea.

This morning the President got up and was out by about, I think, 8:45 a.m.-9:00 a.m., for a walk with his dog, Buddy, and stopped by the Laurel Cabin, and then started his day in earnest just before 10:00 a.m. with a meeting with his team. As I left, he was beginning a bilateral with Prime Minister Barak.

What I expect for the rest of the day is a series of meetings between the parties in a number of different formats and at a number of different levels. I expect the President will possibly meet later today with the negotiators from each side. I expect that members of our team will meet with the negotiators. I also expect the negotiators to meet with each other. I have no firm sense right now of exactly how that will all transpire, and when we come back later today I'll give you as much as I can on that.

Let me just point out one thing that struck me as I walked around this morning. There is a certain informality on the Camp David site that I think is adding some value to these discussions. There's meetings going on, both formal and informal, all over the place. At breakfast, the delegations are sitting together in small groups and having discussions. You see people walking around, you see members of the delegations driving around together in golf carts, which is the mode of transportation out there. So there's a certain informality out there that's adding to the contact.

Now, having said that, and to not try to underplay the seriousness and the problems that they face here, as an overall statement about the discussions that they are having, as we've said all along, as the President said, these are very difficult issues -- these are very serious issues. So I don't want to create the impression, although it is what I still believe is a good atmosphere there, we have known all along that this was going to be a struggle, and it is. The discussions are serious, but the positions that both parties bring here represent what they see as vital interests to their people and have been difficult issues that we've worked on now for many, many years.

So, to the extent that we went into this knowing it would be a struggle, we have not been disappointed by that. This is a very difficult process in a short time frame, with very difficult issues, and they are working in a very serious way. But we certainly know that this effort, from the beginning, will be a struggle.

Q There were some reports that Chairman Arafat is convening a meeting tomorrow of his senior leadership. Would the United States be amenable to such a meeting on the Camp David summit site?

MR. LOCKHART: I have not seen that report. As I understand the situation, the delegations are remaining on Camp David, and only those -- there are only some members, like myself, who come back and forth, who will be leaving Camp David.

Q -- the substance of their previous negotiations in Israel -- have they gotten into any substance that you could talk about?

MR. LOCKHART: They certainly entered into discussions on the substance. We all know what the core issues are. All of them have been discussed at the highest level. And this is -- let me say that we have a difficult task ahead, and I think yesterday was a day where they got right to it.

Q What is the White House reaction to the Israeli announcement, the confirmation that they have canceled the -- sale to China?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, obviously, given our previous statements, we welcome the decision. This has been an important issue to us and a subject of continuing discussion at a variety of levels of the government, including between the President and the Prime Minister. And we are pleased to see that they've taken our security concerns into account in making this decision.

Q May I follow up?

MR. LOCKHART: Sure.

Q But haven't they -- two questions. One is existentialist --let's do existentialism first. One of your rationales for promoting and sort of prodding Israel into making concessions and coming to terms with the Palestinians and with other Arabs is that it will enhance Israel's status in the world, that it will enhance its diplomatic contacts, its business contacts, it will be accepted by the international community. And here you have the cancellation of a quarter billion-dollar sale that would do a lot for Israel's economy, for its relationship with a country that you're locked in an embrace with -- China.

So let me put the two questions together. Did it turn out you didn't believe Israel when it said that it would do nothing that would hurt American security concerns, and doesn't this run counter to your objective of opening the window on the world for Israel?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't believe so on either a philosophical or a practical sense. Israel has made a decision here, they took into account our security concerns. We appreciate that, and welcome their decision. As far as what the government of Israel, what Chairman Arafat gets out of this, we believe and it's the reason we're here, that it is in the best interest for both parties and for the region as a whole to engineer a peace.

Q Did the United States promise Israel to compensate over the cancellation of the deal?

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not aware of any such promise.

Q Do you see it having any effect at all on the summit?

MR. LOCKHART: I view the issues that face the summit as complicated enough and difficult enough to not have to bring other issues into it.

Q When did the Prime Minister tell the President?

MR. LOCKHART: I know they've been talking about this for a few days. I know this was part of their discussion yesterday, so I have to assume that this was done yesterday.

Q We know that Barak talked to Senator Lott yesterday. How important was cancelling this deal to ultimately getting congressional approval for any aid package?

MR. LOCKHART: That's a question you would have to ask Congress.

Q Joe, knowing that the President will be leaving for Japan, I think at the end of the week, do you think that the next few days until he leaves for that trip, do you think it will be enough to come up with some positive progress from this conference?

MR. LOCKHART: I don't think we'd be here if we didn't think we could achieve a positive outcome. There's a lot of work to be done, but I think all sides have come here in a serious mode in order to try to get that work done.

Q Joe, are there any extracurricular outings planned while the summit's going on? When you were in Shepherdstown, I don't know that it was the President, but somebody took the principles to some --

MR. LOCKHART: I would expect -- there's nothing planned at this point, and I actually would not anticipate there being too much of that. I think whether there would be any outside trips, outside of Camp David, I think given the fact that we have an enormous task in front of us, and that time is not unlimited, that they'll stay concentrated on the issues at hand.

Q The cancellation of -- during these talks until now -- can we suppose that the cancellation was the potential issue of the talks between Clinton and Barak during the first day of the talk?

MR. LOCKHART: That would be an incorrect assumption if you assume that. The main focus, both in effort and time, were the core issues that are in front of us in order to reach a final agreement.

Q Had Israel made the decision when Mr. Barak talked to the President last night, or did their conversation help produce the decision? In other words, did the President encourage him further, or was it a decision already taken?

MR. LOCKHART: I do not know the precise answer to that question. I think it would be best put to their people.

Q -- but is there is a sense in the Camp that progress is being made within these --

MR. LOCKHART: I think, as I indicated yesterday, I'm not going to try to get into a -- go down the slippery slope of progress or no progress. I think at the beginning here I tried to indicate how difficult this is, and I think I'll leave it there.

Q We've been told that the President is going to be leaving after the Barak meeting, about 6:00 p.m. He's got the NAACP speech tomorrow and then we've got the Sabbath. That doesn't leave a lot of time for him to be here. And one of the things that people have said about the 1978 Camp David Accords was Carter ever presence was very helpful in getting that agreement.

MR. LOCKHART: Well, listen, let me make a couple points here. A is I would warn against trying to draw too many comparisons to 1978; this is not 1978. Secondly, I'd warn against what you've been told by people who are not at Camp David, because that information you were told is inaccurate. We don't know whether he's leaving tonight. He's certainly not going anyplace at 6:00 p.m. tonight. He would either leave very late this evening or very early in the morning.

We have sufficient time to get this done. The issues are well-known to the parties. They've been working at this for seven and a half years now; the question is will there be -- can we create something that will allow the leaders to take the courageous steps to peace.

Q You told us about one plenary session yesterday and half a dozen or more bilaterals. What's the schedule going to be for additional meetings -- three-way meetings, or do you know that yet?

MR. LOCKHART: I think I indicated at the top here that there will be a number of different sessions this afternoon. They're being put together as we speak. And what I will try to do is give you some sense later in the day if I can of the format of some of these things. But I'm not going to try to preview them before they've happened.

Q Do you expect more members to join the Israeli official delegation at Camp David --

MR. LOCKHART: Not that I know of.

Q What was the reaction at Camp David when the leaders saw the picture this morning of Prime Minister Barak pushing Arafat inside? What was the reaction?

MR. LOCKHART: It was the subject of a lot of laughing around the breakfast table.

Q Can I ask a different question on a domestic topic? Does the White House have any reaction to Senator Roth's move this morning to propose a government-administered program for drug benefits for Medicare --

MR. LOCKHART: I think that the move in the Senate to have a prescription drug program within Medicare should provide momentum for what the President's been proposing. It is a sharp repudiation of what the House Republicans proposed, and it's a program that everyone knows won't work, because the insurance companies that would administer it have said they don't want to participate in it. It was a program to provide political cover and not coverage.

Now, having said that, there are a number of problems we have with that plan as far as how it would work, the kind of resources that are being applied to it. But I think overall, it's certainly our hope that the Senate, now weighing in on the side of the President on prescription drugs, should give this issue momentum.

Q May I ask a question about the atmospherics? Are they all eating breakfast together in one large room? What cabin is it in and how do they sit --

MR. LOCKHART: Meals are served in the Laurel Cabin. In that room, there are I think three large round tables set up throughout the day with probably 12 chairs or so around them. The meals are served buffet-style, and it's really first come, first serve. When you -- so anytime you walk in there during the day, you will generally find a small number of people and a cross-section of various delegations, sitting together having a meal.

Q Did they have breakfast together --

MR. LOCKHART: There were certainly across from me about three members of the Palestinian delegation and two members of the Israel delegation having breakfast together, and that's fairly typical.

Q -- President's personal relationships? I mean, any anecdotal thing about his interactions with these guys?

MR. LOCKHART: I think the President has a very good relationship with both Chairman Arafat and Prime Minister Barak. He's now worked with them extensively. I think just watching the interaction, you can see that they believe that they can engage in discussions and that there is a certain level of trust. I think that is something that's essential to this process here, and essential to the U.S. role, that both parties come here in a position where they trust the President and understand the role he's trying to play.

Q You said that they discussed all of the issues. Can you give us some sense of how long they spent on each issue? Is the President initiating discussion of an issue? Are they hopscotching around --

MR. LOCKHART: I'm not going to try to dissect the meetings down to percentages, but suffice it to say that the core issues are well-known and they're all being thoroughly discussed.

Q What about the level of trust between Chairman Arafat and Prime Minister Barak? How are they interacting together?

MR. LOCKHART: They interacted yesterday, both at the dinner and in the walk with the President and the plenary session. I think, obviously, as I said in the beginning here, these issues are difficult and getting there is a struggle, and that's just something that I think will continue from now until we pick up and leave here.

Q I was just wondering, is Palestine receiving an equal representation in talks, especially since cancellation of the -- talks by Barak give even a closer relationship between the U.S. and Israel?

MR. LOCKHART: I think that the reason that the President and the United States government can act as an honest broker here is that because they are an honest broker and both sides understand that.

Q Considering the China deal, is it your understanding that the deal has been cancelled once and for all, or suspended? The Israeli announcement is a little bit vague on that.

MR. LOCKHART: My understanding from the announcement was that they have taken fully into consideration our security concerns and the concerns we have raised about security in the region. From our point of view, those security concerns and our overall concern for that system in the region will not change.

Q Joe, did you think the President and Arafat and Barak -- (inaudible) --

MR. LOCKHART: Not that I'm aware of. I think all shapes, forms, possibilities, combinations are in the realm of possibility and in the realm of probability.

Q -- timetable for meetings over the next few days, or will they be --

MR. LOCKHART: I think they took some time both last night and this morning to look at what today will look like, and I hopefully will give you a bit more of a sense of that later in the day.

Q Are you including interim issues or --

MR. LOCKHART: No, I think the issues that are central here are the core final status issues.

Q Can you say at this point that the President is completely understanding of where both sides are and is now trying to forge a compromise between the two, or are you still trying to get a handle on where they're --

MR. LOCKHART: I think it's impossible to separate those two things, they're both part of the process.

Q -- schedule, when you expect to be back here --

MR. LOCKHART: I will try to come back here between 4:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. I can't tell you that I'll have any more than I have right now, but if you'll have me, I'll be here.

Q -- develops, anything else this morning -- is that different from all their meetings --

MR. LOCKHART: Let me say this without getting into too many other meetings. I think Camp David is uniquely engineered to provide sort of an informal atmosphere, given the closeness of all of the different living facilities, given the propensity for people to walk between places or take golf carts, and given the common facilities for things like eating and recreation.

Q Can you imagine any circumstances where Clinton would not go to Japan because his presence would be so necessary at a crucial juncture at this summit?

MR. LOCKHART: Well, there's a reason that I don't try to get up here and talk about my imagination, and that question is one of them.

Q -- if it's not too early, when he is away this week, on Thursday, does the Secretary of State sort of step in and --

MR. LOCKHART: Yes, the Secretary of State will be here the whole time and it will be her function to direct our group in the absence of the President.

Q -- if Chelsea has gone to the dinners, or has she interacted with the other --

MR. LOCKHART: She had a chance to meet both leaders yesterday as they came for the first bilat. She was there with the President; the President introduced her to both. What she's been doing during the meetings I'm not really sure. I know she had a chance to spend some time with her father last night to watch the end of the baseball game. I think she's both getting a chance to witness an important event and also enjoy something she's grown to enjoy, the atmosphere of Camp David.

Q Any recreation by anybody, any bowling, any jogging?

MR. LOCKHART: I understand from my people here that bowling has become a preoccupation with many of you, and I checked this morning, and no one entered the bowling alley yesterday.

Q Why? (Laughter.)

MR. LOCKHART: Well, I don't know, but I certainly have personal plans to change that today. (Laughter.)

Q You know it's the Nixon bowling alley? Do these people know that?

MR. LOCKHART: I didn't know that. That could be the answer to Anne's question. (Laughter.)

Yes, we'll take a couple more.

Q You said, Joe, earlier that they were laughing together at breakfast. Have they been communicating to one another directly or with interpretation?

MR. LOCKHART: Most -- the vast majority of the conversations are direct, as I think most of the people here have excellent linguistic skills in several languages. But I think the structure of Camp David and the closeness of everything has given everyone a chance to talk not only in the formal sessions that they enter in, but also informally.

Q Joe, what kind of a message does he want to take to the NAACP tomorrow?

MR. LOCKHART: I think the President will talk about what this administration has done over the last seven and a half years for African Americans in this country as far as bringing opportunity to that community, what we've got done and what we still need to do.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 12:05 P.M. EDT

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