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C. David Welch IV at Arab Journalists Roundtable

Interview at Arab Journalists Roundtable

C. David Welch, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs
Interview focusing on the Middle East and his recent trip to the region with Secretary Rice
Washington, DC
October 11, 2006

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Let's go right to questions and take advantage of everybody's time, get our work done quickly. Joyce, that's your cue. Do you want to pass or are you ready?

QUESTION: No, sure, I'll start. Joyce Karam of Al Hayat. My question is about there's a report today in (inaudible) I think.

QUESTION: No, (inaudible).

QUESTION: No, no. Another report saying that the Americans told the Israelis that they are not willing to talk to the Syrians now and urged them not to do so. Is there --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: The Americans told the Israelis --

QUESTION: The report says that the U.S. is pressuring Israel not to talk to Syria. And they (inaudible).

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: We don't pressure anyone to do anything. They do what's in their national interest. I don't know what the basis to this report is. I think I would know about any such conversations between the United States Government and the Israeli Government. We talk about advocating for peace not against it.

That said, I don't know of anything underway directly or through any back channel between Israel and Syria. I find the statements of the Syrian Government confusing on this subject. For the European press they profess an interest in dialogue and peace negotiations. For the regional press, or what some people call the Syrian press, there is another language.

QUESTION: Kuwaitnews agency. Regarding Syria, too. Last week, Canadian commenting that a Canadian citizen was sent to Syria to be interrogated. The United States actually sent them to Syria. So it happened three years ago, so I'd love to know your comment and to which level your cooperation with Syrian regime reaches, and why that happened at the time so Syria was backing Hezbollah and occupying Lebanon. It's the same reasons you are criticizing Syria right now for it. And what has changed it to change your position now?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Okay. I'm sorry, sir, I'm not informed on this specific case. So --

QUESTION: Okay. (Inaudible.)

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: I know -- I know what I've read in the press but I didn't prepare on this specific case for your question. We'll try and give you an answer for the record. If so, forgive me for not answering that part of your question.

The second part of your question if I understand you correctly -- it's, you know, has our view of Syria's role, vis-Ã -vis Lebanon, changed. Well, I think we have had some very considerable concern about Syria's influence inside of Lebanon and that concern remains high. I believe that the Syrian Government must by now be getting some message from the international community, however, because first we had Resolution 1559. Then we have the package of resolutions associated with the consequences of the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and now we have Resolution 1701. All of these, if you look at them as an aggregate, have a common concern expressed on behalf of the international community by the Security Council that Lebanese sovereignty should be protected and the institutions of democratic governance in Lebanon should be strengthened.

I think our view is that Syria must respect these resolutions and behave accordingly. We would be very concerned about any interference by Syria within Lebanon. And I think that there is ample historical record of that, otherwise, again as I said, the Security Council would not have taken such decisions.

QUESTION: But you were cooperating with them.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Cooperating with Syria in what respect?

QUESTION: Regarding these (inaudible).

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: First of all, I can't speak to the specific case and I don't think that that entailed, in any event, cooperation with the Syrian Government, perhaps with the Canadian Government -- that's a different matter -- but not with the Syrian Government. And as far as I'm concerned, it's the responsibility of any law-abiding, serious member of the international community to fight against terrorism. The performance of Syria in that regard has not been up to the standard that we would expect. As you know, Syria remains on the list of state sponsors of terrorism and we have some very serious concern about their harboring of terrorist groups in Damascus.

QUESTION: Sir, I'm (inaudible) news agency. I just want to ask you about the visit of Ms. Rice to the region? What kind of momentum is (inaudible) going to take out of this visit? I mean, what are the next steps the U.S. is going to take to push forward the process?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, thank you. It's a very good question and an important one. At the General Assembly President Bush said that he was mandating Secretary Rice to go to the region and work on -- in three areas. First, engage our natural partners in the region for the purpose of trying to advance peace; second, to strengthen the security reform effort within the Palestinian Authority; and third to see if she could bring Israelis and Palestinians closer together to work on the issues of concern to both. So the trip was devoted principally but not exclusively to that. As you know, we also went to some other places and worked on other issues as well.

There are some opportunities but also some difficulties. I mean, the opportunities are that coming out of a summer of difficulty and crisis, even warfare, we see a chance to get renewed momentum. Of course, renewed momentum will not come without effort not just on our part but on the part of the parties themselves and others in the region. We thought it would be useful to try and advance this in -- I would say in small, but they're not really small steps but important ones. For example, the whole basket of issues about access and movement, we've worked on those questions with the Palestinians and with the Israelis.

For example on security, we believe that it's really important to bolster the legitimate security authorities reporting to the president of the Palestinian authorities. We also feel that in circumstances where the Hamas-led government is failing to do its duty toward its people, the international community should be there to provide some support and others within the region should provide that support, too. So we were trying to advocate for that.

The impasse on the -- between the Palestinians remains a very considerable problem. You know, Egypt has tried to negotiate something on this. President Abbas himself has tried to negotiate with Hamas. And the latest effort is conducted by the Qataris but so far with no success. It appears that the Hamas government is saying no to every such opportunity. I think by now if they had wanted to find a way to help their people, they would have found a way to change their policy. Their policy sticks out because they're the only ones in their whole area who appear to take it -- take that approach.

Now, how this will be resolved, I mean, we're not sure. President Abbas is doing his very best to cope with the situation and to try and change their views, but again as I said, without success so far.

QUESTION: Can you follow up on the security issue?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Sure.

QUESTION: You are saying that your own policy of working with agencies -- security agency that (inaudible) under President Abbas directly (inaudible). Is it a kind of pitching Palestinians against each other especially by weakening Hamas and strengthening Abbas? Is it a kind of taking the situation to an endless violence?

QUESTION: And if you can give (inaudible) what are you doing in order to give him more strength, military strength?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, we don't want to see violence. That's not in anyone's interest and we are not advocating that. You'd have to ask this question of those who have responsibility within the Hamas government what is their intention, because they're the ones who have isolated themselves within the region and internationally with their decisions. And the most violent areas in the Palestinian territories are indeed those areas where they enjoy the greatest control, Gaza for example, and where we are not present in any way. So I think this is their responsibility not ours. And we are following the requests of the president himself in this to support the legitimate security institutions.

QUESTION: Did Abbas ask for it?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Absolutely he did. We have the security coordinator mission that is active in the area, who enjoys considerable international support. In fact, the lion's share of resources that are going through General Dayton are not American ones; they are European. And this is all part of a basket of effort to establish law and order and good governance.

Let me give you an example. The presidential guard which reports to President Abbas is in charge of security on the Palestinian side of the Rafah border crossing. We and the Europeans expect this international crossing to operate to the standard of an international crossing and for that you need people who are committed to good security on the other side and happily the presidential guard is that. I mean, I think in a normal situation you would have regular police perhaps. But they are, unfortunately, not capable because of their leadership within the Ministry of Interior. If the Hamas government were doing its job many of these questions would not arise.

MODERATOR: Any question on -- more on this issue?

QUESTION: Yes. There was another report --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Who are you, please?

QUESTION: I'm Tal Schneider from Ma'ariv. There is another report in Israel that following Rice's visit to the region there is -- again a new thinking appointing -- again a point person and that Israel is now, you know, thinking about it according to a request by Rice that was given there or, you know, discussed over there. Is that -- because, you know, the whole thing seems like a deadlock right now and it's not going anywhere since everybody said that Israel and Palestine are the core problem for the entire region problems. It seems like they're making more effort there. My question is I guess those two things.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, there's a controversy in New York now. They have a baseball team that they poured a lot of money into. Unfortunately, it can't win championships. So you could ask, you know, do you need to have a new manager? Do you need to change the third baseman? You know, they will make their decisions about that. I can't make them for them.

What we want to see here is progress. Ideally, we would love to see success. For that we don't need to change personnel. What we need to do is change decisions. Secretary Rice is the point person for the Bush Administration on this issue. The President of the United States said that to the world on the floor of the General Assembly on September 19th, and we have no other proposal on the table publicly or privately. We want to make progress on this issue. We consider it important for the region and its health and important for the American national interest. For that to happen some decisions have to be made.

We think that on the Palestinian side this means that the Hamas government should change its policy. I don't believe we're the only ones who feel that. In fact, there's some senior and responsible people in the Arab world saying the same thing.

On the Israeli side, we think that this means a renewed commitment to giving Palestinians that there is hope, that there is a partnership to be had with Israel in working on the issues that are of concern to them. And if you ask me what those are, I think we all know what they are. They are spelled out considerable detail in the roadmap. That's the plan, and I think it's high time that people begin looking at it and trying to move forward on it.

QUESTION: Sara Hussein, Saudi News Agency. So would it be fair to say that the two issues -- that at the moment what's being reported is possibly Hamas has made some kind of agreement -- they may make some kind of agreement to accept the previous agreements signed by the Palestinian Authority. Would that be enough or is that essentially an irrelevant sort of concession by Hamas? And can there be any movement while there are still three Israeli soldiers being held (inaudible)?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Let me answer the second part first. First of all, we don't see what good it's doing people to hold these soldiers. We've called for their immediate release, immediate and unconditional release.

In terms of our views about what Hamas is thinking about, let me be very candid about this. It's up to them to decide what their policy is. They appear to have decided that they will not recognize or accept the existence of Israel, that all these other agreements that are out there, well, maybe they'll pick and choose from them depending on which one guarantees their vision of Palestinian rights or some other such thing. And on the question of violence and terror, you know, they embrace the right of resistance, which they leave it to themselves to define.

Our principles are very clear and when I say our, I don't mean the United States alone. I think in one way or another, the majority of the international community, if not all of it, embrace these principles in some manner. Oddly, they're the only ones that can't find a way to do that. It's not my job to tell them how to do it. That's their problem. And every day that goes by that they fail to do it is another day of hardship for the people who they are pretending to represent.

The majority of the Palestinian people, in every single poll that's taken, even in the hardest of times want peace with Israel. What is peace? It means you don't fight. What is Israel? It's a country with a people of its own. There are signed agreements between the PLO and Israel. Are we supposed to throw those away?

QUESTION: But would them recognizing the previous agreements be a good compromise?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: It's up to them to define what their position is and I have seen at least four separate versions of that decision coming from people who say they belong to the Hamas political party. It's not my problem to right their position. What I need to know is it yes or is it no. And so far it looks to me to be no. And the Prime Minister of the Hamas government, in case you had any doubt about it, said so on Friday. And he was so excited that, you know, he had a brief moment where he could not speak. So it's up to him to figure out where he's leading his people.

And in the meantime, there is a president of the Palestine Authority who has said yes, told the General Assembly what the position of his presidency is and the international community could treat that with respect and welcome. There was a session of the Security Council that embraced those very same principles. The Hamas government to this day cannot recognize the Arab League initiative. I find that very puzzling.

QUESTION: Is there a change in the Israeli position toward accepting the Arab initiative because I read the statement by the Foreign Minister after Secretary Rice's visit that Israel should consider this initiative in a positive way, while the prime minister said he only accepts the roadmap. Are you aware of any new attitude to accept the Arab League?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Look, Israel is one of the parties to this conflict. I'm sure they bring different positions to the table than the Arab side, including the Palestinians. The roadmap mentions the framework for peace, including the previous agreements, resolutions and initiatives. You know, I think if people want to advance along this track they know how to do it. And I'm convinced that the Israelis are prepared to do that and I'm convinced that one part of the Palestinian leadership is prepared to do that. There is another part, unfortunately, that does respect the wishes of its people and that is where we are right now.

QUESTION: Can I follow up?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Yeah.

QUESTION: Also Prime Minister Olmert he confirmed in a way to the press that he met with a member of the Saudi royal family.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: I'm not Saudi and I'm not Israeli and I wasn't there if it did occur. I'm not confirming or denying that it occurred. You have to ask them.

QUESTION: What about Jordan --

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: I was not in Jordan.

QUESTION: -- on that night?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: I was not in Jordan. I was not in Jordan recently on any night. So you have to ask the Saudis or the Israelis.

QUESTION: I didn't finish my question. (Laughter.)

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: I did. I finished my answer.

QUESTION: My name is Samir Nader with Radio Sawa. Also Foreign Minister of Bahrain visited Ramallah.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Yes.

QUESTION: There were reports that Bahrain may improve relations with Israel and reports that Mr. Olmert met with the Saudis. Is this part of the new coalition of moderates that Secretary Rice was aiming to build?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Samir, it's a good question. Look, we're not aiming to build new coalitions or alliances. I think what you're seeing is a demonstration of the fact that the responsible leaders in the region want to see progress towards peace. Shaikh Khalid, the Foreign Minister of Bahrain, gave the speech on behalf of the Arab League to the Security Council session and it was a very positive speech. It was not one that complained about everything that happened in the past. It was the one that said we make an offer for the future. And it seems to me to be responsible that he should carry that kind of a position wherever he wants to go. He is the first foreign minister from a GCC state to visit the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah. I think that's a good thing. There is some contact between him and certain other GCC leaders and certain Israeli leaders. We believe that's a good thing.

And I don't think it's a matter of is that controversial or not, I think this is an effort of leadership to move things along toward peace.

QUESTION: SalamehNematt Al Hayatnewspaper. On the issues of regional priorities, the foreign ministers, the six-plus-two, appear to have given more emphasis to the Palestinian issue, at least in the public stage. And they're almost implying that we cannot help you much on the Iran front, or we should not actually tackle the Iran front and contain the Iran threat without us having -- you know, being in a better position as moderate state with an advanced -- you know, with progress being made on the Palestinian. Does the U.S. see the same -- does it have the same (inaudible) as to the priorities whether Iran and Iraq are the priority or is it the Palestinian? What's the more urgent issue; that's first?

The second is that it looks like the question of democratization has been put on the back burner because of these regional new priorities. And Secretary Rice was criticized by some in the media for not raising this issue again during her latest tour. So what's your comment?

QUESTION: These are intelligent questions. I think it's entirely appropriate that when you have a gathering of different countries like the one we had in Cairo that there are going to be different expressions of priority in the national positions. It was important and noteworthy to us the emphasis that the GCC states, Egypt and Jordan, put on the Palestinian question. I might add that the second thing that they really emphasized was the situation in Sudan.

We benefited from this advice. This was a healthy and good exchange, not one about a difference of views but one in which we need to understand each other's interests, understand the perception of risks and benefits to various courses of action and, finally, understand what are the options as we go forward. And we look -- we, the United States, I speak for the United States' point of view on this, we consider this to be a very productive discussion, and we hope that it will continue in that or other formats.

Now, our priorities -- I would not say that they are different. But we do obviously have a very important concern here with the situation in Iraq and we believe that our regional partners ought to elevate their interests in the situation there and make meaningful contributions, and we expressed that.

We had a good chance to discuss Iran also. There I think our friends in the Arab world have a common concern about what they see as a dangerous rise in Iranian influence and a good deal of interest in how the international community intends to meet it. I mean, you're dealing with -- we are dealing here with countries who, by and large, don't you know use threatening language and violence against each other or against their neighbors. And by contrast, the Iranians do, and I think that's a common concern.

I would not have expected, Solana (ph), that out of this meeting you would see exactly the same public language about what the priorities are and I think it's entirely healthy that there are such differences. What's more important, is there a common set of concerns at the heart of this, and that is to see the region advance in a better direction, and I think we share that.

Finally with respect to your second question, we didn't de-emphasize this issue of reform and democratization. If anything, we believe that it's a sign of progress in that discussion that we don't entertain you in the press -- forgive me for saying so -- by making it such a volatile issue anymore. We can talk about this soberly and maturely, reflecting the differences in the various places and thinking about ways in which we might reduce any tension or misunderstanding but also trying to move forward.

The Secretary of State was asked about this in a press conference after the GCC meeting and she answered forthrightly. That was with respect to Egypt, but I can tell you it came up within other bilateral and in the multilateral discussion as well.

QUESTION: The issue of democracy bringing Islamists to power, I read a report today that Jordan -- that King Abdullah of Jordan may be considering postponing elections next year in view of fears that holding them is going to bring Islamists into dominating parliament and et cetera. What do you know about this and what's your view?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: I don't know about that. I mean, there's quite a bit of talk about, well, especially in the think-tank community is the impulse to democratization ill-founded because it might bring people who have antithetical views to power, and not just Islamists but maybe others. You know, of course in any election there is a risk that those who disagree with you might be elected. I mean, here in the United States I guess we have that problem every two years, or that opportunity every two years, depending on your point of view.

Look, our concern is not with are Islamists going to be elected, but how do people behave in government. Are they willing to observe the rights of the others? Do they share the same goals and aspirations that their people do? Do they want to contribute to a future for their country or the region that is more peaceful and secure?

We, as you know, cooperate with Islamist governments elsewhere. That doesn't mean we would embrace all their views, and nor does it mean that they would have to embrace all of ours.

QUESTION: Majid Joneidi, BBC Persia. I want to follow up the question of Iran (inaudible). First of all I want to know what were the major differences between the Arab states, the moderate Arab states, and the United States according to the way America has been asking for dealing with Iran. And second, are there any new developments on the sanction issue? It seems that the North Korean missile -- nuclear test, differences between the P-5+1 being increased on the Iranian issue.

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Well, I'm not certain that's the case, sir. I think we will be able to deal with the North Korea question in the Security Council briskly. The Iranian discussion may take us some more time, but we'll get there. We are discussing now with our partners in the EU-3 + 3 what are the appropriate next steps, and all are agreed that the next steps should be within the purview and responsibility of the Security Council. There are some differences of view on what the appropriate next steps are, but I think in the coming days we'll see those narrow and we will come to some sort of agreement.

It's very important that the international community stand up in a credible way behind what it says are the necessary steps from Iran, which has to convince everybody that its nuclear intentions are really truly peaceful and that it isn't using its right to a peaceful program as a disguise for a nuclear weapons program. That's the heart of the matter and that issue isn't going to go away. It's one that is threatening to the region and beyond.

There are differences between us and our friends in the EU-3+3. There are differences between some of the Arab countries about this. But the differences among those groups are far less considerable than the difference between them and Iran. That's important because I think here the Iranians don't understand that one reason that every day all you can read about Iran is negative news is because of the decisions they are taking or not taking. For example, the other day Egypt declared that it was interested in a peaceful nuclear program. Well, no problem as far as we're concerned because the Egyptian relationship to the IAEA is well established and good, because their intentions are not to develop sensitive technology but to provide an option for power needs in the future. I mean, look at the reception that that statement gets, as opposed to what we hear from Iran. The Iranian position is unconvincing on its face.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) past days and they were concerned that because of this North Korea nuclear test there has been increasing concerns within Israel and there's the increasing risk of Israel attacking Iran's nuclear installations. If so, will the United States try to stop such action by Israel, or what's your position on that?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: No, I think there's ample room for diplomacy here. That's our preferred course. I don't see any difference in view about that from the Israeli Government. Obviously Israel is concerned about the prospect in the future of a nuclear-armed Iran. I would be worried, too. But I think Israel's view is that they would like to see a diplomatic option pursued and that continues to be their position.

QUESTION: Mayysa Zeidan, Al Mustaqbal. We heard today President Bush saying that the statement on regarding the North Korea shouldn't have nuclear weapons still stands, and we heard him years ago say that he will not allow North Korea to have nuclear weapons. And today, North Korea tested their nuclear capability. So are we here on the same stand with Iran, meaning you said (inaudible) with North Korea but now we have something else? On Iran, it seems today that you're still, you know, entertaining the possibility of diplomacy while Iran, they're continuing with the progress. We have your position regarding Lebanon and Syria. You said that the assassination of Rafik Hariri should be -- they should have accountable and you said that Hezbollah should be disarming. You said a lot of things in this couple of -- two or three years. But where we are here now, you know? We want to know what's your steps, your real steps, regarding all these issues in the region. It seems that Iraq is, you know, it's the main issue but we still have a lot of other issues and no, you know, solution, nothing.

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Well, you're very impatient. Look, there's quite a bit of difference in terms of the progress so far of the nuclear programs in North Korea and in Iran, but a common part of the approach is we'd prefer a diplomatic solution for both and we certainly don't want to see a nuclear weapon in the hands of either. That remains our view and we intend to continue to make that at the forefront of our diplomatic approach.

With respect to the other things you mention, which are principally, I think, Lebanon focused, look, I would love it if I could achieve the perfect and all these things would be solved. But I won't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Six months ago, we had a requirement in Resolution 1559 for all militias in Lebanon to be disarmed and for foreign forces to leave. Today, we have a requirement, a stronger one under international law in Resolution 1701, not simply for no armed groups to be present other than the Government of Lebanon's authorities, which is the security authorities in this area of UNIFIL's operation, but also for all members of the United Nations not to allow any weapons into Lebanon.

So while the obligation for Hezbollah to disarm has not been reduced, the ability to protect Lebanon from those who want to increase the tensions inside it has increased because there's now a law that says you cannot rearm anybody in there.

Now, this is a good step. It's not the perfect one of a full and final solution to this terrible problem inside of Lebanon, but it is a step toward that direction, and we call upon all members in the international community to observe that resolution.

There's also a considerable new international force in Lebanon. Today, the Italian Prime Minister is visiting, second prime minister of a European government to do so since the war. Italy has already 1,000 troops and will have many more in Lebanon shortly. The new UNIFIL force is much stronger. I think this will help to protect Lebanon.

And again, in a perfect world, you would not have the need for a force. There would be peace between Lebanon and all of its neighbors, diplomatic relations between Lebanon and Israel. But there isn't right now and there is the need for this additional security assurance for both Lebanon and Israel. Now we have it. It's not the perfect solution. I would prefer peace, but it is a good solution.

By the way, it would be good also if there were diplomatic relations between Beirut and Damascus, which is I think I've told this group before, it stands out as unique in the Arab League for not having such relations. It would seem to me the trend is in favor of that, and certainly we see that embodied in resolutions in the Security Council also, 1680 for example. It would be perfect if there were such normal relations, but right now we have difficult with abnormal relations between Syria and Lebanon.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) Syrians (inaudible).

AMBASSADOR WELCH: I'm sorry, is that a question or a statement?

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

AMBASSADOR WELCH: You know, it would be good if they were simply to have more friendly relations.

QUESTION: Well, what about the assassination of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri? Where are we now? What about the tribunal (inaudible)?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: There is an international investigation underway. It is making progress. I don't know if you read the report from Mr. Brimmer. It was just issued a couple of weeks ago, a very intriguing report. Another one is due in December. You know, a murder conspiracy of this type is a very complicated affair. That investigation enjoys considerable international support. It is not going to go away. It is going to be there until it leads to justice.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

AMBASSADOR WELCH: I don't know who that will affect.

MODERATOR: Shmuel will have the last question and then we'll -- maybe one or two after that.

QUESTION: The last two. First of all, I would like to go back to the Secretary's visit to the (inaudible). You talked about it in very general terms. And I would like to ask if you can point to any specific achievements, whether it's on the Gaza* passages or any other issues discussed. Did you achieve anything that we can take a look at?

The other thing is more theoretical. And it's about a perceived new linkage between progress on the Iranian diplomatic solution and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and whether you can comment about it?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: On the first, we still have conversations underway with the Israeli Government, but we've checked -- they have told us that they intend to be more forthcoming with the operation of the Rafah crossing, and that they accept a plan that we have presented, which has been worked out in common with Israeli security and Palestinian Presidency for the operation of the Karni crossing as well.

We have some other elements under discussion but those are private, but they are specific. We think that movement and access issues are considerably important. The fact that we focus on small steps, Shmuel, does not mean that there should be no steps, and that the small steps, in our judgment, should be meaningful. The thing that would have the most meaning to Palestinians is some greater freedom to move around and some better economic situation for their families. A lot of that is the responsibility of the current government that they have, which is miserably broken and hopeless in doing its duty. But another part of it is the responsibility of the Israeli Government to lighten on up on these restrictions so that there is greater ease of movement and the Palestinian economy can breathe more.

What was the second question?

QUESTION: Linkage.

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Linkage. We don't do linkage. We don't do pressure except for when we want to do linkage and we want to do pressure.

QUESTION: One of the people who work for this office made this linkage just a couple of weeks ago.

AMBASSADOR WELCH: None that work for my office. I gave a speech about the same time which you all failed to notice. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: There is a lot of fear in Lebanon that before the last report that Hamas is supposed to (inaudible) that some chaos might drop again in the country, bombings or, you know, assassinations. Like, do you have any assurances to give to the Lebanese people that they have asked for (inaudible) to prevent any such things from occurring?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Look, I'm deeply worried about those who would interfere inside Lebanon whether there are Lebanese or from outside. That's a fact. So I understand that many Lebanese are scared and concerned. But let's remind ourselves where we are. The murder of Rafik Harari and some 20 other people that day was one of the most horrific crimes that this part of the world has seen, and it's seen a lot of horrific crimes. There is an international investigation underway of a high standard. There is no other case that I can think of except for crimes of genocide or war where that is the case. This is truly a unique investigation. And the credibility of the Security Council is on the line for its performance.

Now, I cannot tell you who did this crime, but I can tell you that this investigation is not going to go away just because someone doesn't like it.

QUESTION: Why don't you sit and talk to Iran directly?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Boy, we went from Hariri to that. We're willing to sit and talk to Iran directly. We said so. We said that if you suspend your enrichment and your reprocessing activities, then we shall sit and have a conversation about the nature of your nuclear program. You can take one or two paths, you can go the hard path or you can go the friendly path. It seems that this idea is not so attractive them so far.

QUESTION: The US announced that it will be selling Iran spare parts for the airplanes anything to do with the (inaudible)?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: No. Look, we have a concern with the Iranian regime not with the passengers on their airlines. We don't want any safety issues. That's it in a nutshell. We're not doing this for the government, we're doing it for people who want to fly on the planes.

QUESTION: A small question. The Consular Affairs at the American Embassy in Beirut was transferred to Athens two months ago. What's the reason on that?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Well, we had to draw down the staff in our Embassy in Beirut temporarily. We will restore full services in due course. This is not something that -- it may, in fact, have been restored already. I can check that for you. But it's a temporary security measure.

QUESTION: So they will come back to Beirut?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Oh absolutely. They intend to have a fully operating embassy in Beirut.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Concerning the nuclear program that Egypt announced and you gave a quick answer --

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Secretary Rice addressed this directly.

QUESTION: Yes, she gave a quick and plausible answer to this problem. So did you get any brief about what was the nature of this problem, and how the enriching process is going to happen in this case?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: No, this is a plan and an idea so far. And you know, it would take years to develop. Egypt does have some modest nuclear facilities right now which are under IAE safeguards. Their record and responsibility under those safeguards is a good one. So we don't have any concern about their behavior.

That said, nuclear programs are difficult and expensive, and they take time. So this is something that will I'm sure unfold over years. You know, Egypt has, unlike Iran, has a very limited horizon when it comes to its own gas and oil capabilities, and I think that for a nation of 70 million people, that's a big concern how they address those in the future. We understand that.

QUESTION: Will the US offer any assistance (inaudible)?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: It could be, but we haven't evaluated that proposal. Not yet. And I don't mean to state it as our view would be negative.

MODERATOR: We have time for one question.

AMBASSADOR WELCH: One more.

QUESTION: What's the message the Secretary --

AMBASSADOR WELCH: You already had a turn.

QUESTION: All right.

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Anybody that didn't get one.

QUESTION: What about the regional summit proposed by the Arab Initiative, that the -- it's not going to happen?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Regional summit proposed by the Arab Initiative?

QUESTION: Yeah.

AMBASSADOR WELCH: I don't know this --

QUESTION: By the (inaudible) moderate countries.

AMBASSADOR WELCH: I don't know this proposal.

QUESTION: It like --

QUESTION: President Assad is suggesting a summit with Egypt and the Saudis.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) moderate leaders of the area to talk about peace (inaudible).

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Well, we just did that in Cairo with some of them.

QUESTION: Without Israel though.

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Well, we do it with Israel too. You know, we haven't got any plans for any conferences or summits right now.

QUESTION: Any major development in U.S. policy regarding Iran (inaudible) before the report is released?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: I don't know exactly when this report will be released.

QUESTION: After the election in November?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: That's what they say, they being you and the press. And I don't know what this report will have. And then I don't know how the contents would influence our policy. You know, our policy has a clear direction now. We want to support the Iraqi Government under Prime Minister Maliki in its effort to have a broad and national reconciliation process and its effort to address security concerns to which we are also providing immediate and practical support, and its desire to do something about the economic security of the Iraqi population as well.

We have ideas for bringing together an international support group, something called the Iraqi Compact, which is being led by Iraq and the United Nations, to advance these objectives. That's our current approach.

QUESTION: What did they achieve in the Iraqi Compact?

AMBASSADOR WELCH: Well, they haven't met yet, but the planning for that is in progress. Thank you very much. Have a nice day.

Released on October 13, 2006

ENDS


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