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Background Briefing on Middle East Peace Summit

THE WHITE HOUSE

Office of the Press Secretary (Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt)

For Immediate Release October 17, 2000

BACKGROUND BRIEFING BY A SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL ON THE MIDDLE EAST PEACE SUMMIT

Hyatt Regency Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt

2:15 P.M. (L)

MR. CROWLEY: Good afternoon. We've obviously seen an extraordinary period of intense negotiation by the President and our Middle East peace team -- Secretary Albright, Sandy Berger, Dennis Ross, Aaron Miller, Bruce Riedel, Rob Malley. You know, the President, in essence, was on the ground for 28 hours, and during that period was -- except for a brief, about four-hour break this morning -- was fully engaged for roughly 24 of those 28 hours. By my count, when you consider the bilaterals, the trilaterals, the plenaries, the meetings, he had more than 20 meetings during this 24-hour period of engagement to help these parties begin to walk back from confrontation, back towards a process of reconciliation.

Here to provide you a little bit of perspective behind the scenes is one member of our Middle East peace team who's no stranger to any of you. But for the purposes of this briefing, he will be a Senior Administration Official.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm actually too tired to give context, so I think I'm just going to answer questions.

Q Can you shed any light on the sequence with which this agreement is going to be implemented? It was unclear to me whether there are any quid pro quos, or whether this is all just going to happen simultaneously.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me put it this way. There clearly are a set of commitments that both sides have made, and there are also understandings that we have. I think the most important thing is that each of them has made a commitment, on the security questions, to recreate the situation, to work to recreate the situation that existed prior to the onset of this crisis.

So, in a sense, what you have is, each will be undertaking certain kinds of steps to do that. And I think the best way to describe it is that they will be operating on the basis of the commitments they've made, and carrying them out on the basis that -- what I would describe as good faith.

Q Can you tell us about the composition of the fact-finding body? I'm not certain whether or not -- who names the members, and who's actually on it?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think the key here is that up until now, we did not have a formula on the fact-finding committee that was agreed. That formula is now agreed. We will -- the President will be the one who in the end is appointing, but he's going to do it by working with the parties, and also by consulting with the Secretary General. Because we had to first arrive at a formula that could be agreed, we haven't yet focused on who will actually be put on it, but that will obviously be something that we get to shortly.

Q Is there some deadline set for Arafat to issue this statement, unequivocally renouncing -- calling for an end to violence? Does he have to do it today, does he have to do it tomorrow?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well I think, if you look at the statement, you'll see the word "immediate" is used, when it comes to measures that both sides will be taking. Immediate from our standpoint means soon.

Q To follow up on that, why didn't Arafat and Barak make a statement there at the press conference?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, very frankly, the decision was made to have the President do it. We are interested right now in trying to do what we can to turn the corner and move in a more positive direction. And frankly, we're still in a period that I think is emotional, and we felt it was best to have the President be the one who would speak.

Q Can I just follow up? Did Arafat and Barak refused to make a statement?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. No, no, no, no. Frankly, it was a decision that we made.

Q How did they make this -- literally, how did they make this commitment? Did they sign anything? Did their aides sign anything? Was it just by their presence at the press conference? And if they didn't sign anything, why not? And is that a precedent in any way?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We were focused primarily on reaching understandings, and doing it -- even though we were in the setting that was here, we were mainly interested in doing it through a bilateral process, meaning the President working with each of them -- and then also, obviously, discussing what was going on with some of the other participants who were here.

What we were most concerned about was not so much the format, but the reality. So getting the understandings was something that was very important to us.

Q But they didn't sign a document?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. We reached understandings on a bilateral basis. They were understandings with us, commitments that were made. And I think what's important is that it was done basically in the three areas.

The President set three objectives when he came out here. One was to do all we could to try to change the situation on the ground by identifying the kinds of commitments and undertakings that could have the best impact, the most likely impact, or the most likely to have an impact. Second, to resolve this issue of the fact-finding committee, because it had become a problem. And third was to begin to build the bridge back to peacemaking, which meant resuming the peace process. And that's why, in fact, we will have consultations with the two sides in Washington within the next two weeks. And they will come at the same time for those consultations with us.

Q Will this security panel, and the resumption of it, address concerns from the Israelis that Arafat had to disarm his militia, and fully arrest -- I mean, it's unclear how many of these Hamas agents are still at large. Could you comment on that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, are you talking about the fact-finding committee, or are you talking about the security -- the trilateral security?

Q No, not the fact-finding, I'm talking about the security -- yes, trilaterals.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the trilateral security committee is going to deal with all the various commitments and undertakings and responsibilities that each side has. And we're going to be facilitating those discussions and those efforts.

If you look at what is outlined in the statement, there are a series of things that both sides undertake to do. And I'm not going to go into the details of what those are. Suffice it to say that if the purpose is for each side to do all they can to recreate the situation that existed prior to the onset of the crisis, then obviously you have to get back to what was status quo ante. And the steps that they will take, and what we will help facilitate in terms of their efforts, are designed to do that.

Q Can you tell us when the agreements started to appear? We had heard that yesterday the discussions were very, very tense, that there couldn't be any agreement on the final document. So all of these happened this morning?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes, I'll give you a little sense of how it unfolded. Yesterday was really characterized by what I would describe as a kind of parallel effort. On the one hand, the President was meeting his counterparts. At the same time, there was a Foreign Minister meeting. And also, a little later in the day, there were security officials who were also meeting. So you kind of had three levels operating at the same time.

The meetings that the President was having were designed to sort of focus on the objectives that he had and he thought were important for this meeting. And in the Foreign Minister meeting, there was an effort to begin to see, all right, in light of those objectives -- which were the ones that I think basically everybody shared -- what could be done to reach understandings?

I think the report you got about the discussions being tense came mostly out of what was the Foreign Ministers meeting, which was intense, at times emotional. Because after all, we're emerging from a period of the last two weeks that has been extraordinarily difficult, that has frayed relationships -- certainly, I think, has raised questions on each side about the other -- and as a result, each side was, in fact, airing their views.

I think it's worth noting that when you're in any negotiation, but especially a negotiation where you're operating in this kind of environment, you also have to let sides ventilate. I mean, if you try to suppress that, you'll actually delay the point where you get into serious discussions. And I think it's fair to say that they did vent. (Laughter.)

And yet at the same time, they helped to lay the basis for what was going to emerge. Those discussions reached a point where they weren't going to go any farther, and by late last night, the President sort of picked up what had been done there, and went back to bilaterals.

He had a meeting -- I don't remember the precise times, other than the fact that I had to work through all of this -- I think he had a meeting with Chairman Arafat and President Mubarak together that went from around 12:30 a.m. to around 2:00 a.m. in the morning, and then he met Barak from about 2:00 a.m. until 4:00 a.m. in the morning, or 2:15 a.m. to about four in the morning. And those meetings turned a corner, because I think the things that we could not overcome at the Foreign Minister level the President was able to overcome in those meetings. And then by this morning, by around 10:00 a.m., after he went through another series of bilaterals, by about 10:00 a.m. this morning, we basically knew we had the understandings in all three areas.

Q Could you explain -- on the security side, for example. Did they put anything in writing, either in bilateral commitments to us, or in some other kind of document?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Basically everything was done by us in a verbal way, but I think it's fair to say that when we do these things, obviously it's quite concrete. I think the security officials had concrete discussions, and were also prepared to reach some understandings with us.

Q How does this differ from what was agreed to in Paris, two weeks ago?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think it differs in the following ways. One, there's a greater degree of specificity on the specific steps that will be taken. I think one thing you have to understand is, in Paris, we did not have security officials from both sides, and here we did. And they had extensive discussions. So they were able to deal in a much more practical way than was the case at Paris, where the discussion was really much more general, and it was sort of limited to giving a set of orders and setting up some procedures. This was more -- this was really more precise, number one.

Number two, we focused on trying to reach an understanding in all areas, meaning security, the fact finding, and the bridge for turning back and resuming the political process.

Three, obviously, it was a summit, with the President, but not just the President. We have a regional dimension here, which I think is very important. I think one of the telling factors here -- I can tell you that President Mubarak played a very, very constructive role here. There is no question that he was extremely helpful in terms of overcoming some of the differences, working with President Clinton to overcome some of the differences at key moments. And King Abdullah as well.

But I think what we saw here, with that regional presence, was also that there was a real understanding that if you care about the future of this region, you had to find a way to bring this to an end, or at least begin to create the mechanisms, the steps, the vehicles to try to bring it to an end, bring it under control, restore normal life. And if there was one emotion that I think came through, and was really quite striking, it was that concern -- and it was, I would even use the word "that care." There was a real recognition, not to be able to do this was to turn a corner in the wrong direction, was to turn a corner in a way where the prisoners of the past, who believe in struggle, gain the upper hand.

And I really think that was a kind of subtext of what was going on here, and why there was such an effort to try to put in place the kinds of vehicles that can lead us back to where we need to be in terms of peacemaking. It's not going to be easy, because it's clearly difficult. But nonetheless, I think that was, I found that -- personally, having worked on this a long time, I found that rather striking.

Q Who is going to be coming from the Palestinian and Israeli sides in two weeks? And was there any talk, during the talks, of this sort of longer pause that some people feel is needed before you get back to the real final status negotiations?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think -- I can't tell you who's going to be coming, because we left that up in the air at this moment -- although we set, as I said, a time frame within two weeks, number one. Number two, what I can tell you was also pretty apparent, and I think it's consistent with what I was just saying, about the concern, the care about the region. What was pretty clear was, everyone participating -- but I would say especially, also, both Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat -- felt it was important to find a way back to peacemaking. That was also something that was clear in the discussions more generally, but it was also true with them, find a way back to peacemaking.

No illusions here about the difficulty. No illusions about the environment that they're operating in, and understanding that you've got to find -- this is not something that is like a light switch, where you simply flip it, and then you're back to business as usual. But nonetheless, a -- what I would say is a profound concern that the future cannot be characterized by what we've seen the last two weeks, and that as neighbors, they really do have to find a way to coexist, and therefore you really have to find a way back to the political process, and a readiness to come and consult with us about how best to do that.

Q What is the timetable for the Israeli pullback, and how does that fit into the secrecy of the statements that are supposed to be delivered, and so on?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, I'm not going to try to get into the details. If you look at the statement, it talks about immediate measures and steps, and I think that you'll see that things will take place -- everything can't happen all at once, but I think things will move fairly quickly.

Q How bad is the damage, in your mind, over the -- the last three weeks have caused? It's one thing for the folks here to say something, but how impassioned are the people on the streets? I mean, how hard will that be?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think there really are deep wounds. I don't think there's any other way to describe it, but there are deep wounds. There are question marks that didn't exist before, or at least had seemingly disappeared from the scene. And I think you -- we felt it, I think, in some of these meetings. I mean, the sense of grievance on each side is very strongly felt.

But what also exists, what coexists with that, is this other reality that there isn't an alternative. To think that the future will be what we've seen the past two weeks is simply unacceptable, and that you have to find a way to get back to what they were trying to do before, in terms of making peace. But obviously it takes place in an environment that is different, and I think you have to try to build a bridge, as I've said, from where we are, to where we need to be.

Q You said the agreements are bilateral, between the two leaders and the United States. Are the agreements identical in both cases, and was there anything that anybody looked at to sign or initial, or anything?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What I said is the understandings, our understandings between us and them. They are not understandings that are between them. They are understandings between us and them, about the kinds of things -- about the kinds of things that they will do. Obviously, each of them knows what the other has basically said. In the security area, we facilitated discussions which also facilitate cooperation there.

Q Again on the understandings. How is it that nothing seems to have been put in writing? And isn't there a risk of something going wrong as a result?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I don't think so, because we went over very carefully everything with the sides. In fact, I described -- we knew by about 10:00 a.m. this morning that we would have understandings in all three areas. And in the end, before coming out, the President met with the leaders together, to go through again -- to be very precise over what were the understandings, and what it was he would say.

Q Then why not sign them? I don't understand. Why not put a signature to them?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Pardon me?

Q Why not sign them on, you know, just --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Frankly, we felt once we had the understandings, and we were very precise with them, we wanted to go ahead. We want them to find ways to get moving right away. As I said before, it's not the format that matters, it's what happens on the ground that matters.

Q Is there a transcript of these discussions?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: A transcript?

Q Yes. Is there a written record of these agreements?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well --

Q Of the verbal agreements?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Obviously, in every meeting, we keep a record, and the people who are involved keep a record.

Q On the fact-finding commission, this agreeing, working with the parties, consulting with the Secretary General. Does that give the parties and the Secretary General effective veto power about -- over any potential members? Or conclusions?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think the way I would describe it -- you know, if this is going to be an American-led effort, obviously when we focus on who should be on it, we want to take into account the concerns of the parties. This is going to be an independent committee, and I think both sides need to feel that its composition is a fair composition. So I would describe it that way. We will obviously take into account the kinds of concerns that they might have, and want to ensure that each side feels that it's fair.

Q How will each side issue these statements calling for an end to violence? Will the leaders make those statements? Will they be written statements? Will they go on television? How will it be done?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I would expect that we would -- I mean, I can't tell you precisely when. We've used the word immediate to describe what we think our measures and steps that should be taken, I think as soon as possible. On that, we didn't spell out who has to do it, just that it's important that it be done very, very quickly.

Q Barak had said that unfortunately if there is violence, quote, "we unfortunately know what to do." Given the fact that the U.S. seems to be more involved now than it was before in this process, what will the U.S. do if that happens?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, again, let's put this in perspective. This works if the kinds of commitments and undertakings each side has made are in fact carried out. What has happened here is we have worked with them to create a vehicle that can help to transform the reality on the ground. But in the end, they're the ones who will have to do everything they can. We're there to facilitate their discussions and their cooperation, but the ability to change things in the end is in their hands.

Q If you go back to the status quo ante, then you have the Hamas-niks in jail, but you have Tanzim with arms. Is there anything specific? Does that mean that it was specifically stated that the PA would make an effort to re-arrest the Hamas-niks, and that it was left unsaid what would happen with the arms of the Tanzim?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm not going to get into the details, as I said. They made commitments to recreate the situation that existed on the ground with regard to the status quo ante. And with regard to obligations that exist as part of the whole interim agreement, Wye-Sharm process, and committees that exist to see how obligations are being fulfilled, that's something that will also be a part of the ongoing effort between the two sides, and in terms of our efforts with them.

MR. CROWLEY: Last question.

Q Does that mean that -- I just want to clarify what you were saying about the word "immediate" for the Israeli pullback and the other issues. Does that mean, when you say that you're not going to get into details, that there aren't any specifics within the agreement?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I couldn't get the question.

Q Are there specific deadlines in the agreement that you're not talking about? Or are there just no specifics in the agreement?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me put it this way. I think the understandings that exist are very specific. But I'm not going to get into any details.

Q Would you call these secret --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. I would say, you know, there's a question -- these are understandings that are designed to have both sides carry out the kinds of practical steps that will change the reality on the ground.

I think you have to look at this. This is not -- the purpose here was not to forge an agreement, like we're negotiating an agreement whose purpose is making peace. What was designed -- what we are focused on here is, if you are going to change the realities on the ground, if we're going to see the violence brought to an end, if we're going to see normal life restored, there have to be very practical steps. And so this was geared towards very practical steps and how each -- what those steps might be and the kinds of understandings they might have with us about how to do it.

Q Nobody got much sleep the last couple of days. To what extent is that a factor in diplomacy like this?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, when I was a student, SDS meant something different -- sleep deprivation syndrome.

I've done this for a long time. I've gone through these kinds of negotiations where you work around the clock. This was at least, fortunately, only a day, not 10 days or two weeks.

I think when you're involved in something like this, adrenaline takes over and people get tired. But when you feel that what you're doing is very important, it does wonders for concentrating the mind. I wouldn't recommend it as a normal course of business, even though I don't always subscribe to that.

MR. CROWLEY: Thank you very much.

END 2:41 P.M. (L)


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