U.S Condemns Israel Attack Against Hamas Leader
Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer On Israel Assassination Attempt on Hamas Leader
Q Ari, not long after you said the President was deeply troubled by Israel's attack this morning on Abdul Rantisi, the Hamas leader, there was another helicopter attack -- three Palestinians killed, 32 injured. What's the White House response to that attack?
MR. FLEISCHER: The White House is just now beginning to receive the reports about this second incident. We will study this carefully to see what the facts and the circumstances are, and I have no additional information. This is breaking news, so we want to ascertain exactly what took place in this second series of events.
Q Now, you said earlier today that there were contacts between the White House and both sides in the Mideast. Who made the contacts, and who were the contacts with?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, first, let me say that the President is deeply troubled as a result of the attack by Israeli helicopter gunships that claimed at least two lives and wounded more than 20 people. The President regrets deeply the loss of life and the innocent -- the injuries to innocent Palestinians. The President is concerned that this strike will undermine efforts by the Palestinian Authority and others to bring an end to terrorist attacks, and the President thinks that this action does not contribute to Israel's security.
To express this strong sentiment, the President has directed members of his administration to carry that message to the Israelis and to the Palestinians. As a result, a rather full-court press has been made, conversations have been had and phone calls were made by National Security Advisor Rice, Assistant Secretary of State Burns, the counselor in Jerusalem Feltman, Ambassador Kurtzer, as well as Mr. Abrams here at the National Security Council. A wide-ranging series of phone calls have gone out to senior Palestinian and Israeli officials.
Q Did anybody talk with Ariel Sharon?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, the principals have not been contacted directly. This has gone just at the levels I described.
Q Ari, the President's reaction today, the deeply troubled, seemed to be stronger than his reaction yesterday, when there was violence by Palestinian groups in an Israeli checkpoint in Gaza. Is this -- are the two -- are the violations equal in his mind, or was the one today of a more serious nature?
MR. FLEISCHER: To the President, this is not a linear matter of which action presents the greatest threat to making progress toward peace. They both do. And the President doesn't have to put one before or after the other. The issue for the President is in the hopeful moments after Aqaba and the hopeful moments leading up to Aqaba. Neither party can afford to take actions that derail the road map because it's too important to the peace and security and the well-being of the Israeli people and the Palestinian people. And that's why the President finds this deeply troubling.
Q Yesterday he insisted he was still optimistic, despite the violence. Does this shake his optimism at all?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think the President would tell you he still is optimistic that, as I put it, just said, what alternative do the Israelis and the Palestinians have other than to pursue the road map, to pursue peace? Because the alternative is surely one the President believes they will reject, which is continue killing.
Q Does he intend to make --
MR. FLEISCHER: Campbell.
Q You said that a full-court press was underway after this first attack, and I know you don't want to comment on the specifics of the second attack, but it did take place, presumably after you made this full-court press to key Israeli officials. Wouldn't this suggest that they're ignoring you?
MR. FLEISCHER: No. I don't know how you can reach any conclusions about it until you know what the facts and the circumstances are. Let's await and find out what took place on the ground, what caused this to happen, who caused this to happen, whether this was action of a retaliatory nature, or whether it was action of a preemptive nature, whether it was a planned attack action. We don't know those facts yet. Those facts will be very important before anybody can make any judgments about this second incident.
Q In that first attack today, does the United States believe Israel acted in disregard of the road map?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, when the President says that this action did not contribute to the security of Israel, the road map is about the security of Israel. And that's why the President is so troubled by this Israeli action.
Q Okay. And secondly, the United States has used unmanned aerial vehicles, for example, to take out or kill al Qaeda leaders in Yemen. What's the difference between that sort of attack and what took place today, where Hamas, which is recognized by the United States as a terrorist group, was attacked?
MR. FLEISCHER: This President has been very up-front and will continue to be very up-front about the right of Israel to defend itself. But this attack deeply troubles the President particularly as a result of the new environment that has been created in the post-Aqaba era. That means both parties agree that the best way to dismantle terror, and therefore, enhance Israel's security and the livelihoods of the Palestinian people is through the actions laid out in the road map. Both parties said they would follow the road map. And the President wants to remind all parties about their responsibilities. Today he reminds Israel.
Q So this attack was outside, was not following the road map and he's trying to keep them back on it?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct.
Q Ari, if the President is so deeply troubled, why doesn't he pick up the phone and call Ariel Sharon?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think there is a -- moments when the President will decide when it's appropriate for this to be a presidential contact and --
Q This doesn't rise to that level?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think again, remember the history of the Middle East. You want the parties to be able to work together to solve these problems with the help of the President of the United States, without the President of the United States being the only crutch that they have to get anything done. It's important that they can rely on the President, but it's also important for the parties to take actions themselves. And the administration is actively engaged through the series of phone calls made in helping the parties to find that way.
Q Just one question. Does the President still believe Ariel Sharon is a man of peace?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, he does. But this is a test for all those who are committed to peace and committed to the road map to reenforce that commitment to the road map and rededicate themselves to the road map, because that is the best way to achieve peace.
Q Ari, two on the Middle East. Is it simply the fact that there was an attempt at a targeted strike against an individual that is deeply disturbing, or is it the timing of it? Would it be okay if we weren't a week after the summit?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, what's important to note is both Israel and the Palestinian Authority have vowed to work together to dismantle terrorism, which is how Israel will have the security most enhanced. And according to the road map, which all the parties have agreed to, the dismantlement of terrorism will come as a result of the actions taken by the Palestinian Authority. And that's what's been agreed to.
And this President has continued to say that Israel has a right to defend itself, but in this instance, in this post-Aqaba environment, the parties adhere and agreed to adhere to the road map. That's the way to the future. That's the way to security. And that's why the road map is so important. And that's why the President today reminds Israel and the Palestinian Authority of the importance of getting back to the road map.
Q Israel says in some ways it is left with no choice because Prime Minister Abbas has said he will not crack down, at least immediately, on these groups. He wants to negotiate with them, and they have, of course, been publicly taking responsibility for killing Israeli soldiers just in recent days. In the conversations with the Palestinians today, was there any pressure from the White House to essentially prove to Israel the Palestinians are willing to take security matters into their own hands and round up these people?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think the Palestinians are aware of that responsibility that they have, and that's why the President thinks it's important for the Arab nations, as well as Israel, to help support Prime Minister Abbas; therefore, he will have more means to crack down on the terrorists and to implement the dismantling.
Q Yes, but Prime Minister Abbas stills says he will negotiate with them. These groups have publicly claimed responsibility for killing Israel soldiers. They are, I would assume by your definition, terrorists.
MR. FLEISCHER: The road map is a results-oriented plan. The next step is determined by whether or not results were achieved in the first step. And that's how the road map has to be looked at. Results have started to be achieved. It's now important to build on those results, despite this violence, and not to let this violence deter both parties from engaging in fulfillment of their responsibilities.
And we've been very clear, very plain that a cease-fire is not enough, dismantlement is what is required. But there have to be steps taken toward that dismantlement. And this is where the President wants to create this environment for the Prime Minister to be successful -- the Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority.
Q Ari, on the full-court press, can you tell us how quickly that was set into motion and who it was that officials called? Did they call the Palestinians and --
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes. It was immediate. I think Dr. Rice informed the President shortly after 7:00 a.m. this morning in the Oval Office about the attack. The President's reaction was just as I've read to you. And that set in motion a series of actions and phone calls and conversations at the President's instructions.
Q To both sides, Palestinians and Israelis?
MR. FLEISCHER: Both sides.
Q And how high up?
MR. FLEISCHER: To the appropriate counterpart levels, as these phone calls were made.
Q In other words, just below the Prime Minister level?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct.
Q In the contacts with the Israelis and Palestinian officials, is the White House seeking an explanation of what happened, or pressing for something affirmative to occur?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think in this case, it's making certain that Israel understands as clearly as they do as a result of these calls what the President thinks about their actions.
Q That it's out of bounds with the road map?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct.
Q One on the Middle East and one on Medicare. If I understand the timing of the call that you outlined a moment ago, they would have been made after the first attack, but before the second one. Should we draw any conclusions, therefore, about the efficacy of these calls?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's Campbell question. Unless you can tell me right now what all the facts and the circumstances are of this attack that literally took place just prior to this briefing, I don't know how you're in a position to make any judgments about it.
Q So you're holding out the possibility, at least, that the second attack would not be out of bounds from the road map and might be a legitimate --
MR. FLEISCHER: I think at all times, everywhere in the world, it's important to ascertain the facts. That's particularly the case here in the Middle East in the wake of this second incident. We will find out. These are knowable things. And so, literally, I was scheduled for this briefing at 12:30 p.m., I saw the stories on the wire shortly before I came out here. I already started to make the phone calls to find out the facts. And we are gathering them. So I think this will all be clear, it's just not clear as we speak here. And that's why -- and I know you wouldn't jump to conclusions until you knew the facts.
Q Ari, back on the Middle East. Do you expect to make a statement with regard to the second attack once you get some facts today?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, we are doing due diligence. We are going to take a look at the facts, take a look at the circumstances. And as we have those facts, we will have answers.
Q Does the President view this latest attack -- I mean, the first attack, anyway -- as a setback to the road map?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President views the attack this morning as an action that does not contribute to the security of Israel. The road map contributes to the security of Israel.
Q John Wolf was named as the monitor for the Mideast talks after the road map. Is there any change in his status, and is he in the Middle East yet, or is he --
MR. FLEISCHER: Not yet. He's scheduled to leave in the next several days.
Q Is there any thought being given to holding him off?
MR. FLEISCHER: Nothing that I've been made aware of, no.
Q Yesterday, Ari, in your answer to my question, you referred to Prime Minister Abbas as "the leader of the Palestinian Authority." But last month, Abbas himself said, "Arafat is the top of the Palestinian Authority. He's the man to whom we refer, regardless of the American or Israeli view of him." And my question, how can the Bush -- I've got a follow-up -- how can the Bush administration possibly refer to Abbas as the real leader when the said Abbas, as well as the official Palestinian newspaper still identify Arafat as the leader?
MR. FLEISCHER: Because this is the President's approach. It is well-known. The President recognizes the Prime Minister of the Palestinian people as their leader. And he thinks that's the effective way to proceed.
Q Ari, back on Israel. U.S. weapons sales to Israel are predicated on the premise that those weapons be used strictly for self-defense. In saying today that the actions did not contribute to the security of Israel, is that tantamount to saying these are not regarded as self-defense?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the action, the statement that I made speaks for itself as representing what the President thinks about this.
Q Is there any difference between that statement and saying, this was not self-defense?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I wouldn't try to parse the statement beyond what I've said about it.
Q You spoke directly about what the message to Israel was. But can you elaborate on what the message to the other side was?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the message to the Palestinian Authority remains the same, that it is important to dismantle terrorism; that the terrorists still represent a great threat to the security of Israel and the security of the region; and it is vital for all parties to focus on security and the dismantlement of terrorism. And the Palestinian Authority has a responsibility, still, to do that.
Q Okay, and one more on the Middle East. Maybe I missed this, but wasn't the attack against the five Israelis a terrorist attack?
MR. FLEISCHER: If you're referring to the action that took place several days ago, where a joint group of Palestinian- terrorists combined, wearing Israeli uniforms, to attack Israelis, yes, it was.
Q So was that condemned?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, it was.