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Dennis Ross Update On Middle East Peace Process

THE WHITE HOUSE

Office of the Press Secretary (Cairo, Egypt)

For Immediate Release August 29, 2000

PRESS BRIEFING BY SPECIAL MIDDLE EAST COORDINATOR, AMBASSADOR DENNIS ROSS

The Sheraton Heliopolis Cairo, Egypt

9:45 A.M. (L)

MR. CROWLEY: Good morning, fellow world travelers. Welcome to Cairo. It has been an amazing trip. Barely 10 hours ago we were in Arusha, Tanzania, focused on the Burundi peace process -- and here we are 10 hours later with the President meeting with President Hosni Mubarak, focused on the Middle East peace process.

One peace process where you have the complexity of 19 parties trying to reach an agreement; here you have fewer parties, but perhaps the most complex issues of any peace process that the United States is currently supporting. And it's a testimony that in both cases the parties in Burundi and the parties here in the Middle East have tremendous trust and confidence in the United States and in the President of the United States, Bill Clinton.

It was a very important meeting this morning, where the President had the opportunity to consult with Hosni Mubarak. Egypt, of course, is a key player in the peace process. This was a meeting that the President hoped to have in Washington, in conjunction with the millennium summit; but given that he had to make a refueling stop, shifted his schedule here to Cairo so they'd have the opportunity to consult as we now focus on the millennium summit in the next couple of weeks.

Here to give you a readout of this morning's meeting is the President's Middle East Coordinator, Dennis Ross.

AMBASSADOR ROSS: Thanks, PJ. Let me just add a word, then I'll take your questions.

I think PJ said it quite well. The purpose of this meeting was to give the two Presidents a chance to compare their assessments on the kinds of contacts we have both been having with both the Israelis and the Palestinians. This was a chance to bring each other up to date, on the one hand, and was also a chance to consult about how best to try to be helpful to the parties and how the two of us can be working together to try to be most helpful to the two of them in order to try to mover towards an agreement.

I think it was a very good meeting. I think there was a chance to offer that kind of comparative assessment, and it was also a good opportunity to talk about how we will continue to work together and to consult in terms of moving us forward.

So why don't I take a few questions.

Q Did the two Presidents make any sort of commitment to what steps they're going to take next, either together or individually?

AMBASSADOR ROSS: Well, I think the main thing that we've been doing is working in parallel and keeping in very close touch. Both of us are talking to the Israelis and the Palestinians. As we do so, we're letting each other know what it is we're hearing. If one or the other of us comes up with ideas, we also want to be sure that they're aware of those. And that's been a process now underway for the last couple of weeks and we will continue to do that.

Q What are the chances that there will be a three-way meeting, and not just bilaterals in New York, and therefore going to Washington from New York next week?

AMBASSADOR ROSS: Well, I think the plan right now is to have separate bilaterals between the President and Chairman Arafat, and the President and Prime Minister Barak. And he'll also be seeing other regional leaders. But the focus is really on what can be done with the two of them separately.

Q By the end of the month might there be a three-way?

AMBASSADOR ROSS: Well, I think our focus right now is let's work the substance and focus more on the substance, and we'll focus on the procedure at a point when we're satisfied that we have the substance to a point where it makes sense to make a procedural move. The President has always said that -- since Camp David -- that he would be prepared to get together with the leaders when he saw a readiness to make decisions.

I think we're, obviously, still at a point where we're focused on developing an approach to substance that gives us a level of confidence that there's a readiness to make those decisions.

Q Dennis, Mubarak said in the photo op that he thinks that with the cooperation of the United States an agreement can be reached. Does the United States share that optimism, that an agreement can be reached before the deadline?

AMBASSADOR ROSS: Well, we have believed an agreement could be reached, or we would not have gone to Camp David. Camp David, itself, was called by the President largely because there was a clear perception on our part that there was a stalemate between the two sides and we had to break that stalemate, we had to create a new dynamic.

But the purpose was to create a new dynamic to reach an agreement. We know that, based on discussions we've had at Camp David, that it is possible to reach an agreement. The real question is how do you translate that possibility into a reality. I know, and the President was very clear on this in the photo op, that we don't have a lot of time, that there is a window here, there is a possibility and it shouldn't be lost. And there is a risk that it could be lost. But there is a possibility and everything needs to be done to try to capitalize on that possibility. We're determined to do so, and one of the things that emerged very clearly from the discussion of the two Presidents today is the Egyptians are prepared to do all they can, also, to ensure that that possibility is realized.

Q Mr. Ross, you were talking about substance. Is there any progress in substance? And if you can also tell us, with your experience in all this -- how can you see the parties getting closer together in Jerusalem? What kind of ideas are you discussing right now --

AMBASSADOR ROSS: Well, first of all, I think the best place to discuss those ideas is with the parties, and not in this setting. Secondly, I think that there is a very active effort being made by the parties with us, with the Egyptians, to try to find ways to overcome differences.

There is no question in our mind that there is a genuine effort being made by everybody involved to see if an agreement is possible. Right now, we're obviously still working. The differences that are there are real, but there's also an intention to try to find ways to overcome them.

Whether we can do that, I can't yet say. That we think it's possible, I can say.

Q Any progress, sir, today, after your talks? Any progress, any move forward --

AMBASSADOR ROSS: Well, I think that we have -- President Mubarak and President Clinton I think definitely feel that we have, through our consultations, a mechanism that can be helpful to the parties in overcoming the differences that continue to exist. These are hard differences, these are hard issues. They require very tough decisions. They go to the heart of self-definition and existence and security. Very tough, painful decisions are required. They're of a historic nature.

But I think both President Clinton and President Mubarak felt that their discussions today increased the level of our understanding, in terms of how we, working together, can try to be helpful to them.

Q Dennis, after Camp David, not only did the President publicly say he thought Mr. Arafat was not flexible enough, but we're told he voiced some exasperation that he had called President Mubarak, called King Abdullah, and did not feel that they were as helpful as he had hoped in nudging Arafat along.

Are the United States and Egypt still on separate pages when it comes to Jerusalem? Have they gotten over that at all?

AMBASSADOR ROSS: I think that we are working, I think, very well together. And I think it's important to understand at the end of the day, the Palestinians will make their own decisions. No one is going to make decisions for them, any more than someone is going to make the decisions for the Israelis. Each party will make their own decisions. There is no question right now that Egypt is making a very genuine effort in keeping with the role that Egypt has always played when it comes to peace.

The U.S. and Egypt have been partners in this process from its very inception and I would say that partnership is alive and very well today as we try to bring the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, which is the core of the Arab/Israeli conflict, to a conclusion.

Q How does the President plan to use next week's U.N. meeting to try to advance the peace talks?

AMBASSADOR ROSS: Well, clearly, when the President meets with each of the leaders, that creates an opportunity to try to crystalize positions, to try to understand where headway can be made, to try to see what can be overcome, what has been overcome, what remains to be overcome. When you're in a negotiating process, you want to use those kinds of meetings to see what can be done, I think, to create greater clarity over what has -- what is or can be agreed and what remains to be agreed and to see whether there are ideas that can be useful in overcoming those, as well as what kinds of strategies in the talks, themselves, can be useful for overcoming the differences.

Q Do you believe that Israelis -- the Palestinians have resigned themselves to no agreement by the deadline?

AMBASSADOR ROSS: I think that they, as well as we, are focused on reaching an agreement if we can. The most important thing to do is to reach that agreement. We obviously don't have a lot of time, given a whole set of different kinds of realities. But the most important thing is to see -- can we reach the agreement. That is probably more important than focusing on anything else.

Q Have you had discussions with either side or both sides about what happens if it's September 14th or 15th or 16th, whether there's any kind of wiggle room in that date?

AMBASSADOR ROSS: Well, as I said, I think our focus is much more on reaching the agreement than a particular date. I think also the two parties themselves are focused on can they reach an agreement. That's where the real effort and energy is right now, more than anything else.

Q Was the Syrian track discussed today and how does the United States feel about the Syrian track, should it be postponed until after an agreement with the Palestinians or should they proceed with it?

AMBASSADOR ROSS: Well, our position has always been that there should be a comprehensive peace settlement, which means it's important -- obviously critical to resolve the core of the conflict -- which is an Israeli-Palestinian conflict -- but also we need to reach an agreement between Israel and Syria and Lebanon and Israel as well, if you want to have a comprehensive peace.

And so our focus is not to say we will have one negotiating track to the exclusion of others. We would like very much to be in a position to reach a comprehensive peace and that means we're prepared to do what we can on all tracks. That remains true, it always has been and it remains true today. And if there are things that we can do to move other tracks along, we would.

Q Would you spell out why the time is so short, especially given the fact that you say the deadline is not that important?

AMBASSADOR ROSS: Our sense of timing is obviously influenced by a set of realities. There is a political reality in Israel, which is plain to see. There is a date that was selected by the parties, and agreed to in the Sharm el-Sheik Agreement. So you have different realities that affect each side.

And to think that you can maintain a process where you don't reach an agreement at this stage, especially given as far as we have moved -- and the parties have moved -- I think our view is that this is something that will be difficult to sustain for a long period of time. Indeed, whenever you're in a situation where you make some headway, if you can't reach an agreement at a certain point, there's always the risk of erosion of the advances that you made. And when that happens, then there's -- you find yourself having to climb a much bigger mountain.

Q Was the level of U.S. aid to Egypt discussed today in the meeting?

AMBASSADOR ROSS: That did not come up in the meeting.

MR. CROWLEY: For a man who has had one of the most strange working vacations that I can remember, I promised him that he wouldn't miss his 11:00 a.m. flight. So can we make one last question.

Q Where are you going? (Laughter.)

AMBASSADOR ROSS: I am returning to Israel, where I will have a chance to have some vacation and many meetings.

THE PRESS: Thank you very much.

END 10:00 A.M. (L)

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