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Powell on the Sharm el Sheikh Fact-Finding

Office of the Spokesman
For Immediate Release May 21, 2001

On-The-Record Briefing by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell

May 21, 2001 Washington, D.C.

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, good morning, ladies and gentlemen. On behalf of President Bush and myself, I want to commend Senator George Mitchell and the entire Sharm el Sheikh Fact-Finding Committee for the excellent Report they produced, and which Senator Mitchell and Senator Rudman briefed on a little bit earlier this morning.

I have written to Senator Mitchell, complimenting him and giving US views on that Report, and copies of my letter to him will be available to you right after my briefing.

Though the task given to the Committee was a very, very difficult one, the Committee performed that task with professionalism, a great deal of independence, and with very, very solid leadership from Senator Mitchell. And I congratulate specifically former President of Turkey Demirel and Foreign Minister Jagland, and High Representative Solana, Senator Mitchell, of course, and Senator Rudman, a distinguished international group who came together at the request of the parties, under the sponsorship of the United States, to perform this very, very difficult mission.

When the Bush Administration came in, Senator Mitchell came to see me to ask whether the work of the Commission should continue. The Bush Administration gave Senator Mitchell our strong support. Both parties continued to work with the Commission, and now their work is done.

We also welcome the spirit of cooperation that guided both sides in their dealings and in their work with the Committee. Both the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority have now expressed their support for the Committee's Report. As the Government of Israel noted in its response, "The Committee's Report provides a constructive and positive attempt to break the cycle of violence and facilitate a resumption of bilateral negotiations for peace."

The Palestinian Authority stated that, "The findings and recommendations of the report offer Palestinians and Israelis a sensible and coherent foundation for resolving the current crisis and preparing a path to resuming meaningful negotiations."

So both sides that commissioned this Report have accepted this Report, and it is now time for both sides, with the help of the international community and the United States, to move forward on the basis of this Report.

The United States believes the Committee has provided the parties with ideas that can help to find a solution to the terrible tragedy that has trapped the Israeli and Palestinian peoples in a continuing downward spiral of violence for the past eight months, a spiral that has gotten worse in the last few days.

We believe that both sides should give every consideration, the most serious consideration, to the Committee's recommendations. And it is in that spirit that we endorse the report.

The United States calls on both sides to address the Committee's primary recommendations by reaffirming their commitment to existing agreements and undertakings, immediately implementing an unconditional cessation of violence and resume security cooperation. In this context, we note the Report's reference to the need for the Palestinians to make an all out effort to enforce a complete cessation of violence.

The parties should also give prompt consideration to adopting the confidence building measures recommended by the Committee as a means of effecting a rapid transition to the resumption of negotiations. Both sides -- both sides -- must avoid unilateral acts that prejudice the outcome of permanent status negotiations and that could be perceived by the other side as provocative during this very delicate time.

In this connection, we note the Report's observations on the negative impact of continued settlement activity on the prospects for peace. We believe that this issue is an essential confidence building measure that must be addressed by the parties.

As you know, Senator Mitchell and the other Committee members put the settlement issue in the context of confidence building measures. It is not linked in any way to his earlier call for an immediate cessation of hostilities. The settlement issue has to be dealt with at the end of the day, however, as part of the confidence building measures between the two sides. And there are two strongly held different points of view on settlement issues between the two sides at the moment.

Carrying out these and other measures proposed by the Committee to restore trust and confidence will not be an easy task. The United States is prepared to work closely with the parties to develop a framework and time line to implement the Report's recommendations, including the return to negotiations.

At the end of the day, negotiations must start again. But negotiations cannot start in this current situation of intense violence and a total lack of confidence and trust between the two parties.

Nevertheless, we want to make sure that negotiations are an essential part of this undertaking. We note that the Egyptian-Jordanian non- paper proposal that has been well reported on contains ideas that are complimentary to the recommendations in the Mitchell Committee Report. And we will also discuss with the parties which of these elements in the Egyptian-Jordanian non-paper might be included in the implementation plan that Senator Mitchell made some reference to.

You will note that in his statement he talked about the necessity -- once we get the violence under control, down unconditionally, then we need a time line and a sequence to implement the confidence building measures and get on a path that takes us to negotiations.

In order for the United States to play a constructive role in the creation of this time line and the sequencing and to help the parties start down the road toward implementation of the recommendations of the report, I am instructing Ambassador Martin Indyk and Counsel General Ron Schliecher to begin working immediately with the parties to facilitate the implementation of the Report's recommendations.

Concurrently, I have instructed Ambassador to Jordan and Assistant Secretary-Designate for Near Eastern Affairs William Burns, who is currently on his way back to Amman or in Amman, to join these efforts and make himself available to the parties.

Ambassador Burns will be serving as a special assistant to me for this purpose. And I hope the Senate will be able to confirm his appointment as Assistant Secretary in the near future. But until that happens he remains Ambassador to Jordan, with the added assignment reporting to me and to the President on what we can do to help bring these recommendations into effect and then set out the time line for implementation of the confidence building measures leading to the resumption of negotiations.

Following these initial discussions with Ambassador Burns and Ambassador Indyk and Counsel General Schliecher, I have asked them through Ambassador Burns to report directly to the President and me on the prospects for ending the violence immediately and resuming negotiations, as well as how to put in place a time line and sequence for implementation of the confidence building measures.

Once we have had the opportunity to review the situation, when Ambassador Burns has completed with this initial round of discussions, I will determine what more I might do in a personal way to promote the process and to help with the reconciliation between Israel and the Palestinians and to keep this process moving forward. The United States will remain engaged. I will remain engaged. The President will remain engaged.

It is clear -- now more than ever -- there can be no military solution -- no military solution -- to this conflict, and that negotiation provides the only path to a just, lasting and comprehensive peace in the Middle East.

Let me close now by encouraging the international community to join the United States in calling on the leaders to bring about, in the very, very first instance, an unconditional cessation of violence.

I have been in touch with Kofi Annan, the Secretary General of the United Nations, and I have been in touch with the leadership of the European Union. And I expect they will be making supportive statements in the course of the day.

The burden I think is now then on the leaders of the region and principally on Chairman Arafat and Prime Minister Sharon to give these recommendations and to give this report their most earnest consideration as soon as possible because we cannot keep going in this direction. We all understand that lives are being lost. And this is not the time to sit and point fingers. This is the time to use this Report in the spirit in which it was written, to look forward -- not look backward -- to look forward as to how to get out of this situation and how to break this cycle, and to move to a position, where as Senator Mitchell said, we can deal and meet with the legitimate aspirations of both the Palestinians and the Israeli people, as they try to share this land together.

Thank you very much, and I would be delighted to take your questions.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, not that I am saying it's correct, but much has been written and said that the Administration took sort of a detached view at the beginning and is now moving in. And you and your spokesman said from the outset that you have been trying to end the violence. That's unquestionably true.

But the tone has changed now. You are talking about getting involved in the diplomacy, if the violence goes down.

Is there a change, would you say, albeit caused by the violence? And also, has the violence succeeded in bringing the United States right back into negotiations with the aim of promoting Land for Peace (inaudible)?

SECRETARY POWELL: I think we have been involved from the very, very beginning. In my first trip to the region, in President Bush's phone calls, we have always indicated that what we needed was an end to the violence. And then we needed economic activity to begin once again. And then we needed to return to negotiations.

Regrettably, we did not see the end to that violence, and instead the violence became worse. It became more intense. More lives were being lost. We gave new energy to the work of the Mitchell Committee, and that Committee has now given us a new opportunity to focus all of our efforts and focus all of the efforts of the international community on this Report, with its very clear recommendations.

So I don't think that our policy has changed. It remains in the same sequence. The United States is not putting forward a peace plan today; the United States is not convening a meeting for the purpose of going over various final status issues. What we are doing today is very simple and very direct, the same thing that Senator Mitchell did earlier, calling once again, and this time, we hope, with the support of this distinguished group of envoys who took six months to work on this Report, and that looked at both sides of this issue, and with the support of the entire international community to call for an unconditional end to the violence. Simple, clear declarative recommendation, not requiring any additional, frankly, negotiation if we are serious.

It is now up to the leaders in the region to show that they have heard this clarion call from this Committee in a loud and clear way, and take actions that are available to them on both sides to let's have a cessation of hostilities. Then we can begin the confidence building measures and move toward negotiations.

It has become clear -- it has been clear for months now -- that unless the violence goes down, there are no prospects for negotiations. It is as simple as that. You can't wish that away.

QUESTION: Yes. Mr. Secretary, you said that the settlement issue has to be dealt with. As you know, the Israeli Government is resisting a settlement freeze.

What more muscle can the United States put behind these recommendations in order to get that settlement freeze? Are we going to be returning to something like the first Bush Administration, when it was quite a confrontation with the Likud Government over this issue?

SECRETARY POWELL: Well, as Senator Mitchell clearly points out in the Report, every administration for the last 20-odd years has raised settlements as a problem. When Ambassador Burns goes in, he will engage both sides on the settlement issue, and I expect he will once again point out to the Israeli side the difficulties associated with their settlement activity, and how it is going to be a key feature and a key element that has to be dealt with in laying out the confidence building measures.

Unless there is some progress in that one, then it is going to be very, very difficult to see how we get into a cooling-off period and a process that leads to negotiations. It is not linked, however, to ending the violence. We should end the violence, and none of the confidence building measures, or all the confidence building measures together, are not linked to ending the violence. It is a very sequence in my mind.

QUESTION: Just to follow up on that, can you tell us what attitude the United States will take if the violence ends and negotiations resume, and then settlement activity begins?

SECRETARY POWELL: I can't answer that question since it is quite hypothetical. I wish all those hypotheticals come true, and I was faced with that problem at that time. But we are quite some distance from seeing that. So I really do have to say we would have to see it in the context of the final status agreements that were made at the end of the negotiating process.

QUESTION: A couple of things. First of all, you have repeatedly called on both sides to cease violence. So has the European Union and so has the United Nations.

What gives you any hope that there is going to be any change by either side because a Commission has come out?

And secondly, when you talk about that you might personally play a role, what are the parameters? Are you talking about getting involved in shuttle diplomacy, direct mediation? Can you give us an idea of what that role might entail?

SECRETARY POWELL: I hope the parties will see this Report in the context that they helped launch it; it is their Report. They have commented on it and found it to be an acceptable report, and they should take action on that which they helped commission and which they have found acceptable.

Secondly, I hope both sides will be rather sobered by the events of the last several days, where we have seen serious incidents, each incident giving a rise to something coming back from the other side. And I hope both sides will now realize that this is unbearable and cannot continue without the whole region breaking out into an even more serious conflagration. And this is the time to start moving back down that ladder.

But at the end of the day it is not something that the United States can impose or the European Union can impose. It is not something that a special envoy can go and impose. It is something that will require the leaders -- as Senator Mitchell said earlier this morning -- to be leaders and look beyond the passions of the moment, look in some ways beyond the public opinion of their sides and now take the bold actions necessary to bring this cycle of violence to an end.

On the second part of your question, I don't want to set out what my role or the role of any other Bush Administration official might be, but shuttle diplomacy is not what we need right now. We have had this group of very distinguished leaders from around the world who have essentially gone out and looked at this already. And so they have come back with a clear report. And I will play whatever role is most useful in moving this process of confidence building along until we get to the point of negotiations. And then we'll see what form those negotiations take and what role I might play or others in the Administration might play.

QUESTION: When you talk about settlements and that there has to be some progress, what do you consider progress? Should there be a freeze on settlements? Natural growth? Can you define that?

SECRETARY POWELL: Senator Mitchell quite clearly said in his report that there should be a freeze on settlements to include natural growth within existing settlements. This will be a very difficult issue for the Israeli side and they have already said so.

I think as we go into the timing and sequence of confidence building measures, which this is the principal one, everybody knows what the United States has said about this. What I want to see is what possibilities exist to bridge the very, very sharp differences and disagreements that exist between the two sides with respect to expansion within existing settlements.

New settlements, we have clearly said -- and the Israelis have said they are not creating any new settlements. But this is a contentious one. And I want to be in a position to see if my team and I can find ways to bridge the very, very serious differences that now exist.

QUESTION: Secretary Powell, you talk about a cessation of the violence. But the Egyptian-Jordanian paper that you mentioned talks about confidence building measures, security cooperation and a resumption of talks all in tandem with each other. It doesn't lay out a sequence. Are you saying that there has to be a complete halt to the violence before negotiations can begin? And if so, what would your benchmark for that be?

SECRETARY POWELL: Is it not so much what I say, it's what the report recommends. And these distinguished people who have studied the situation -- and I agree with them; I've studied it, as well -- say that you can't get to the kinds of negotiations that will bring us a satisfactory outcome in an environment of violence. And the previous administration -- even when the President and his top team were giving this every ounce of their energy and all of their strength and doing everything they could to try to put in a place a deal that would be satisfactory, there was still violence.

And so it is very hard to get the kinds of deals you need in the presence of that kind of violence. It just is too diverting to the efforts of the negotiators. And so the Mitchell Committee, it seems to me, recognizes this and says you have to begin with an unconditional cessation of violence before the other things will flow.

And that is, I think, a clear statement of what the requirement is. Whether I wish it were otherwise, or someone wishes it was otherwise, it isn't. And it has been made clear, I think, by the two sides that it's very hard to get a negotiation under way when you have this kind of violence on the scene.

MR. BOUCHER: We've got time for two more.

QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, will Ambassador Burns be asking the Israelis to stop using F-16s and helicopter gunships specifically?

SECRETARY POWELL: I haven't had that discussion with Ambassador Burns. We're asking both sides to not take this up to any higher levels of escalation and let's start moving things down. One more.

QUESTION: Secretary Powell, the key elements of this report have been out now for a week or so. And yet the violence has only escalated, so what makes you confident that having it formally released will change anything? And secondly on this trip to Africa and Europe will you see either Prime Minister Sharon or Yasser Arafat?

SECRETARY POWELL: I hope that now that the report is out and everybody can read it and the international community can read it and the press around the world can read it, they can see the clarity of its call, and I hope that everybody can see that it has been endorsed by the Secretary General of the United Nations, Mr. Annan and that both sides have found it acceptable -- not in its entirety. Both sides had significant comment on the report, but in general they have accepted it, it seems to me it makes it harder for them not to respond to the call that is within the report to end the violence.

My trip to Africa -- my schedule is still set to leave tomorrow night on a four-country trip to Africa and then up to Budapest. At the moment I don't have any plans to see anybody from the region during that trip. But things could change. And I always have the option of doing something at some point in the future.

I think right now, though, what we have to watch is the reaction from the leaders in the region and see if we can get started on this very first step of the Mitchell Committee Report: ending the violence and beginning security consultations and security meetings once again so that we can start back up the road of confidence and confidence building. There is no substitute for this in my judgement. And I hope that the leaders in the region will see this in the same vein. And I hope that all of the leaders in the region -- not just the Israeli and Palestinian leaders -- but the other leaders in the region, the Arab leaders, will give the same powerful call to the need to end the violence.

Thank you very much.

(The briefing was concluded at 11:55 A.M.)

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