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U.S. Reviews Palestinian Leadership Aid Ban

U.S. to Review Ban Against Direct Aid to Palestinian Leadership

(Bush administration favorably impressed with Abbas government)

The Bush administration plans to examine the prohibition against sending direct financial support to the leaders of the Palestinian Authority (PA), and could soon approach the U.S. Congress to seek changes, according to a senior administration official.

The official, speaking on background June 5 aboard Air Force One en route to Washington, said that while the Palestinian people are currently receiving help for their most immediate needs, it will be important that the Palestinian leaders under Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas have "the means to help their own people directly."

"I think everybody is very impressed with this Prime Minister, impressed with his team, impressed with what the finance minister is trying to do with a transparent budget," said the official.

"[W]e want to go back, we want to take a look, we want to talk to the Congress about what the new conditions now mean for when it might be appropriate to do direct support to the leadership of the Palestinian Authority," the official said.

The administration has "been able to see the promise" of Middle East peace, the official said, "and the President has been willing to seize the moment."

Turning to Iraq, the senior official praised the work of Ambassador Paul Bremer, saying he has been "actively involved in trying to help the Iraqis get civil society moving again."

According to the official, Bush told Bremer that help for building Iraqi civil society has been offered by the leaders of the G-8 countries, Arab leaders, and by the United States. "And so mobilizing that help will be important," she said.

The official added that President Bush had spoken with General Tommy Franks, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, who felt there was "an increasingly stabilizing situation in most of the country," although he said there are still some Baathist strongholds.

"[E]verybody understands that we have not been at this very long. When you look at a country that was under the most severe totalitarian dictatorship for 30 years, the last 12 of it under international sanctions and with a regime that was getting increasingly brutal, it's quite remarkable what has been achieved in this period of time," said the official.

Following is the transcript of the background briefing aboard Air Force One:

(begin transcript)

The White House Office of the Press Secretary June 5, 2003


Aboard Air Force One En Route Washington, D.C.

1:30 P.M.(L)

A SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay, I can answer whatever questions you got at the moment.

QUESTION: The Amir, right?

A SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: If you would like to hear about the Amir, I'm happy to talk about the Amir.

Q: I thought you had something.

A SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I didn't. I just came back to answer question if I can start to --

Q: The overflight and whether or not you guys have decided to do this, and if the President decided to do it and what the President was doing.

A SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'll let my colleague do those questions about the overflight. You can ask me foreign policy questions. You can ask him the travelogue questions.

Q: Where were you during the overflight?

A SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Travelogue questions. I was looking out of the window at the beautiful rivers and thinking about the infrastructure and thinking that this is a country that has a lot of assets to have a great future, really. It should have a great future because it has a lot -- when you look out at it, it has a lot of assets, the river-ways. And you could see that there are roads and infrastructure. It should have a great future.

Q: The President, when he was speaking to the reporters yesterday, he indicated that prior to the fighting in Iraq he made some promises to the Arab leaders about the Middle East issue, and that was one of the reasons why the meetings went so well, and he turned his attention to it when he did. And he was kind of indicating that he followed through on that commitment. And I was wondering if you could talk a little more about that and what he had said to those leaders before and after?

A SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sure. The President had always said that when there was an opportunity to advance the peace process, he was prepared to do it and to do it with great vigor. The administration has been involved in this process from the very beginning. But new conditions have begun to emerge that make this an opportunity that has more promise than we've had in quite a long time. The President had talked with, I think, all of the Arab leaders who were there in the run-up to the Iraqi conflict that he thought that just as in 1991, the Gulf War had led to a kind of opening for peace, that that might be the case after the Iraq War. And in fact, he gave that speech at the American Enterprise Institute, which said precisely that.

He also, though, believed that the other and, in fact, more important ingredient was that you were getting changes in the Palestinian Authority with the selection of a prime minister who was devoted to ending terrorism and starting the direct process with the Israelis in a constructive way, that now the time had come. And he had told the Arab leaders when they had that interlocutor on the other side, when there was an interlocutor on the other side, the United States was going to try to push the process forward. So a number of things have come together over the last couple of months that lead to better opportunity. And the President, yesterday and the day before, by coming to the region, by talking to these leaders now in group -- he's had many meetings with them and many phone calls with them over the last two and a half years -- but now talking to them in a group, and then going on to meet directly with the parties, signaled his personal commitment, signaled that he expects everybody to live up to their responsibility by putting a mission on the ground with a senior diplomat who can help push the process forward. He said he's going to have lots of people in the region. He thinks it's a hopeful time.

Q: What's your role and Secretary Powell's role? That announcement -- is that just a further way that he wanted to demonstrate that at the highest level of his administration, the attention would be there ongoing, and that was your kind of part of it?

A SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He said to Secretary Powell and to me, I want you to make this one of the highest priorities. In fact, because he believes it's a time of great promise, to make it extremely high priority. The Secretary of State, of course, will always go to the region as Secretary of State, has been doing so, will continue to do so. What he said is that from time to time, when it is appropriate, he'll ask me to go as his personal representative and to try and help the parties, too.

But this has been a really great time for the administration because we've been able to see the promise, and the President has been willing to seize the moment. And it's been really a great time for all of us, I think, that have been involved.

Q: The question on Bremer in your meeting today: Can you talk to us a little bit about what led to the decision to have this appointed council, how long you think that will delay the Iraqi Interim Authority? And then, what Bremer -- this was the first face-to-face assessment Bremer has been able to give the President, what he found when he got there and what he thinks needs to be done? Can you give us a sense of that?

A SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, actually, David, Bremer has been able by teleconference to speak to the NSC on another occasion. So this was the first human contact, but we've, in fact, had updates from him before.

On the Interim Authority, we're moving toward the establishment of an Interim Authority. It was always the case that we believed that events and conditions on the ground were going to have to dictate the timing of the creation of an Interim Authority. The Council will help toward that process. But Ambassador Bremer is doing a really terrific job of getting out, meeting people, expanding the circle of people with whom he's involved. He told us about his meeting with, I think, 50 plus women -- 50 plus women, I guess, last week. He's been actively involved in trying to help the Iraqis get civil society moving again. And so he's very much on top of this. But everybody remains committed to getting into a situation in which the Iraqis can take control of their own future. Obviously, this is a country that has not had a horizontal political dialogue for a very long time. It's all been aimed at the top. And so taking some time to engage people and talk to them while working with Iraqis that we have gotten to know, as well as those that we've known for a long time, to get Iraqi advice on what is going forward, that's really what Bremer is doing.

Q: The Council is not in the initial plan that we had all discussed earlier --

A SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The flexibility to do what is necessary on the ground is what the President emphasized with Jerry Bremer when he first met with him. I was there when he first met with him. And he said, we've done a lot of planning. We've done a lot of thinking about this. But obviously, you're going to get on the ground, you're going to see what conditions look like, you're going to see who your interlocutors are. And you'll need to make decisions based on that.

I think he believes that this is just an important step in moving toward the Interim Iraqi Authority. But he talked a lot about -- not just the Interim Iraqi Authority, which he is completely devoted to, but about the importance pretty soon of getting started on Iraqis thinking about their own long-term political future in terms of how the constitution will look, what the institutions will look like, and the like.

Q: The President said he expected within days to see the start of some of the implementation of some of the promises made yesterday. What are we likely to see first -- from the Israelis and from the Palestinians?

A SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the first thing is that the parties committed in a very strong fashion not just to words but to deeds. And the Prime Minister said that he was going to begin to remove outposts. We expect that that will begin to happen. The Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority -- his first priority was to get results in terms of security, organization, reorganization, training. So we expect that to begin to happen. Prime Minister Sharon has also already begun -- even before the Aqaba meeting -- with goodwill gestures of prisoner releases, with beginning to open some of the closures, with issuing more work permits. So those are the kinds of important steps -- these are steps that will signal the commitment of the parties. But they will also improve the lives of people. And that's going to be very important. But security is extremely important here. And a lot of the conversation yesterday between the President and the Prime Ministers, as well as among the delegations when the President and Prime Ministers was outside, was how to get moving on the security reform, how to get moving on the consolidation of the security forces, who could help with that. Because everybody understands that the security dimension here is extremely important for almost everything else we want to do.

A SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let's try to do just a couple more if you want to get this down to the filing center before they leave.

Q: What did Tommy Franks tell the President today about the situation on the ground, what he needs in the way of troops? More, less, what?

A SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, he talked about the fact that they are in the process of deploying and redeploying forces to deal with conditions as they find them on the ground. Again, everybody understands and believed that there would have to be flexibility once you got on the ground to deal with specific circumstances. Clearly, the need to bring other forces in, international forces in is being pursued with our partners and also with others who, since 1483 was passed in the UN have been very forward-leaning in being willing to talk about brining other forces in. Tommy Franks talked quite a lot about what he sees as an increasingly stabilizing situation in most of the country. There are still pockets that were Baathist strongholds that they're going to have to deal with. And he understands that and said that to the President.

But on the whole, this was a very confident Tommy Franks, a very confident Jerry Bremer. Because everybody understands that we have not been at this very long. When you look at a country that was under the most severe totalitarian dictatorship for 30 years, the last 12 of it under international sanctions and with a regime that was getting increasingly brutal, it's quite remarkable what has been achieved in this period of time. But it is going to take some time. And the thing that the President most wanted Ambassador Bremer to know is that he understands that this is going to take some time.

They spent a lot of time on how to improve the lives of the Iraqi people. They spent a lot of time on how to build civil society. The President communicated to Ambassador Bremer that he had heard from all of his G8 partners, from Arabs when he talked to them, and from a lot of people in the United States that people want to help. And so mobilizing that help will be important.

Q: He didn't make any specific requests, though?

A SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, in fact, Jerry Bremer was quite upbeat about the support that he's getting from Washington about his coordination with the British and the Australians. The Poles are sending a very senior person who I think will arrive within days. He was very upbeat about his meeting with Sergio De Mello, the UN representative. And everybody is pulling together in a very effective way.

A SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'm sorry to do this. Let's make this the last one if we're going to get this to the wire call.

Q: During the President's remarks yesterday, he mentioned providing additional funding for the Palestinian Authority for security. Currently, you give about $75 million a year, all of it goes to NGOs directly because of some restrictions that Congress has imposed. Is the administration planning now to lift those restrictions?

A SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We're examining that, and we're examining how best to use the funding. I think we'll want to have conversations with Congress about how to do that. No decision has been made yet about how to do it. But obviously, the emergence -- and it is still emerging -- but the emergence of an accountable Palestinian leadership that has put in place a finance minister and transparency and accountability measures that I think are starting to give people confidence that the money would be used for what it's intended to be used for is another one of those new conditions that we're going to want to take a look at.

Q: This would be a matter of some urgency, wouldn't it, to give this money?

A SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think that if you talk to the Palestinians they are getting help on the most immediate needs. So it's not something that has to be done tomorrow. They're getting help on the most immediate needs. They're getting some help from their neighbors. They're getting some help from others. But over this next period of time, as the Palestinian Authority's leadership emerges as accountable and responsible to its own people and transparent, it's going to be important that they have the means to help their own people directly. And so I think that's something we're definitely going to want to take a look at.


Q: What developed at the meetings? I mean he seems to having a good time even when he's driving the golf carts to and from meetings -- yes, even talking to reporters --

A SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: This was a very good set of meetings. And it started in Poland with a really warm set of meetings with a Poland that is emerging as an important power in Europe. People forget that Poland is a big country. And it is a country that's providing a kind of anchor in Central Europe. And it's a country where the President said precisely what the Poles were feeling and needed to have said, which is, there is no conflict between your European identity and your transatlantic ties. And so it started there; a very warm meeting with the Russians in which we got a lot of good work done, exchanged ratification instruments on the Treaty of Moscow; good conversations at the G8, which were friendly and where people focused on the future, including by the way, on the future of a world that needs to deal with problems of weapons of mass discussion and terrorism. The President had some proposals that people were anxious to do. They had a good discussion on the global economy; and then finally, to the Middle East, where I think that the meetings were terrific in substance. They were, in some ways, even better in the interaction that took place -- the Arab leaders sitting with Prime Minister Abbas and saying, all right, we support what you're trying to do for the Palestinian people, the Arabs saying, we understand that the culture of terror and violence cannot continue, that there is no justification for terrorism, and then the really very warm interactions between the President and the two Prime Ministers and the King of Jordan at Aqaba. It was just a very, very successful trip. I think that's why everybody is in a very good mood, but plenty tired.

A SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Remember your colleagues on the ground if you're going to get this filed.

Q: You talked about perhaps reprogramming some of the $75 million, or --

A SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, I said what we want to do is we want to go back, we want to take a look, we want to talk to the Congress about what the new conditions now mean for when it might be appropriate to do direct support to the leadership of the Palestinian Authority.

Q: Any thought of increasing the amount, any thoughts to supplementing that?

A SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think everybody is very impressed with this Prime Minister, impressed with his team, impressed with what the finance minister is trying to do with a transparent budget, which he's presented to the Palestinian Legislative Council, which he's using to demonstrate to people that the money is going to go to the right things. We have a long way to go. And they would be the first to say we have a long way to go. But it is time to take a look at that. Although this is something we'd obviously have to have extensive consultations with Congress about.

Okay, thanks.

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