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State Department spokesman Sean McCormack briefed the press August 18.
Following is the transcript of the State Department briefing:
U.S. Department of State
Daily Press Briefing Index
Thursday, August 18, 2005
12:49 p.m. EDT
Briefer: Sean McCormack, Spokesman
QUESTION: Change of subject? Okay, on the Middle East, we've obviously all seen the very emotional images that are coming from Gaza. I have two questions. One, what is your overall assessment of how the Gaza withdrawal is going up until this point their?
And secondly, the Secretary had an interview with the New York Times in which she again reiterated that the U.S. desire to see fairly expeditious work on follow-up to make sure it's not Gaza last. Given what you've seen today, given the statements we see coming from Israel, how quickly do you think we're going to be able to get to that follow-up?
MR. MCCORMACK: On the first of those issues, I think that, you know, we've all seen the images on television, on cable television, and clearly this is a very difficult and deeply emotional time for many Israelis, in particular, some of the people who are leaving their homes in Gaza and for some of them, these are the only homes that they've known. So I think anybody who watches what's going -- what's happening in Gaza can only empathize with what is a very difficult moment for the people who are leaving these settlements, but also with the Israeli people.
But as Secretary Rice has said and others have said, we believe that this is the -- Prime Minister Sharon's courageous and bold decision to withdraw from Gaza -- is the right decision for Israel to help improve stability and security for the Israeli people. The withdrawal process is -- some of these images notwithstanding -- progressing and I think that our -- General Ward is continuing to work with Palestinian officials. David Welch is now in Egypt for a meeting with officials from Egypt that focus on bilateral and regional issues. I expect that he'll probably return back to work with General Ward as well as Israeli and Palestinian officials in the near future.
And I think that what we have seen with some difficult circumstances, I think we talked a little bit yesterday about what happened with the deaths of some Palestinians, that both President Abbas and Prime Minister Sharon have shown really exemplary leadership in working through tough issues. And I think that the cooperation between the Palestinian officials and the Israeli officials continues. It continues to be good. I think the Palestinian officials and the officials of the Palestinian Authority need to be focused and ready to assume the responsibilities that will come with Israeli withdrawal from a lot of these areas and that will be coming up in the coming days and weeks. So that's where their focus needs to be.
As for the second part of your question, Secretary Rice, in the interview with the New York Times -- and we'll have the transcript out for you at some point here -- what she was talking about was, what I've been talking about a bit, and that is in order to -- the process of Gaza withdrawal and the cooperation that is needed in order to make this successful is -- one of the potential positive results from this is the increase in the trust and confidence between Israeli and Palestinian officials.
And, you know, I think our approach as well as the approach of Palestinian and Israeli officials is to build on the accomplishments of a successful Gaza withdrawal that we all hope will be successful and to use that increase in trust and confidence and that success, to work on other issues, such as the Sharm-el Sheikh understandings and that's what Secretary Rice was referring to. And what she was talking about was building on these accomplishments. She didn't talk about -- she didn't apply a particular timetable to that, but these are all obligations that are out there in terms of the roadmap and the Sharm-el Sheikh understandings.
So she wasn't saying anything different than you've heard her say in the past, in terms of the horizon beyond the withdrawal and the fact that we, as well as the Israelis and the Palestinians, are also focused on that.
That said, we -- Secretary Rice, as well as members of her team, are focused on making the Gaza withdrawal a success.
QUESTION: Sean, can I just follow up on this subject?
MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, sure.
QUESTION: Prime Minister Sharon has said repeatedly that after Gaza, they're going to need "a cooling off period" there. Does the U.S. subscribe to that logic there because, obviously, the Palestinians wouldn't?
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, I think that everybody subscribes to the roadmap and also everybody understands the Sharm-el Sheik understandings. And we're going to be -- and we have already on Secretary Rice's last trip -- talked to the Israelis as well as the Palestinians about the fact that there is a horizon beyond the Gaza withdrawal and this involves the questions of addressing entry points and easing the plight of the Palestinian people through those entry points and check points, as well as transit between Gaza and the West Bank and also working on Gaza-specific issues as well.
She also -- we have also continued the discussion about the importance of meeting Sharm-el Sheikh obligations, as well as using a successful Gaza withdrawal to re-energize progress down the roadmap. And I think that those are going to be topics for continuing discussion as we move forward from what we all hope is the successful withdrawal from Gaza.
QUESTION: The roadmap is a formula for negotiating. I don't have the text of what the -- the Times isn't -- doesn't have quote marks around it. The Times has Rice saying, Israel must, must withdraw from other Palestinian cities.
MR. MCCORMACK: Again, I don't --
QUESTION: I mean, the fact that she -- I mean, I thought the two sides decide such things. Is she decided that Israel must withdraw from Palestinian cities? And could you tell us some of the cities she has in mind and does she have Jerusalem in mind, for instance?
MR. MCCORMACK: Well --
QUESTION: Or is she being misinterpreted?
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, first of all, I think you're kind of --
QUESTION: I'm reading the newspaper.
MR. MCCORMACK: Right.
QUESTION: I have it in text, we didn't get the transcript --
MR. MCCORMACK: Right, and you're extrapolating from their --
QUESTION: I'm not extrapolating anything.
MR. MCCORMACK: -- from their -- from their --
QUESTION: "Must withdraw from other Palestinian cities." Period.
MR. MCCORMACK: Right. But then you added your own commentary on that.
QUESTION: Well, not a commentary. I'm asking what cities?
MR. MCCORMACK: Right. It's exactly what I said.
MR. MCCORMACK: And that is that we -- there are existing obligations under the roadmap and the Sharm el-Sheikh understandings. And we encourage both parties to build on what we hope is a successful withdrawal from Gaza, in order to continue discussions and continue actions along with respect to those obligations. Everybody, under the Sharm el-Sheikh, understands. It talks about freedom of movement under the roadmap. It talks about various steps, which are not sequenced exactly. They are designed to move in parallel.
And, as you know, the roadmap is a performance-based document. It allows the parties to move as quickly as they are able to come to political decisions as well as have the capability to enforce those decisions.
QUESTION: Well, also it talks about ways to get together and negotiate a settlement. It doesn't prescribe the terms of the settlement.
MR. MCCORMACK: And neither --
QUESTION: I mean, we've been saying here for weeks --
MR. MCCORMACK: And neither is Dr. Rice.
QUESTION: She is. She says Israel must withdraw from those cities.
MR. MCCORMACK: I don't see any quote marks around what you just said.
QUESTION: There are no quote marks around them.
MR. MCCORMACK: Right. Exactly.
QUESTION: That's why I'm checking with you.
MR. MCCORMACK: All right. Does anybody have another question?
QUESTION: So I really want to know that. I don't want to drop it. I want the State Department's, please, position. Let's not -- we don't have to use this to revisit the New York Times' interview. If we get an interview, we'll ask the same questions.
MR. MCCORMACK: You have had an interview.
QUESTION: But what is the State Department's position? Forget whether she said it that way or said something like that. Does the State -- has the State Department concluded that Israel must withdraw from additional Palestinian cities?
MR. MCCORMACK: What the State Department has concluded, Barry, is that we support the roadmap as a political way forward so the two parties can achieve what they both want: two states living side by side in peace and security. What we also stand by are the Sharm el-Sheikh understandings as well. Again, this is a matter for the two parties to work out. Nobody can want peace more than the two parties want peace. We stand ready to assist the two parties as do members of the Quartet and other countries in the region. So what our focus is on is the roadmap and the Sharm el-Sheikh understandings and bring the two parties together to come to the difficult political decisions that are required by those documents.
QUESTION: Ambassador Bolton made some comments this morning in New York --
QUESTION: Can I stay on this just for a second?
QUESTION: Well, it's about Gaza, yes. That the Palestinians were using money from the international community and possibly the United States for kind of Gaza withdrawal paraphernalia that said stuff like, you know, Gaza First, West Bank Next, things like that. Do you have any knowledge that the Palestinians are using U.S. funding for that and do you think that's a responsible --
MR. MCCORMACK: I think that was UND -- the question was -- it was UNDP funding.
QUESTION: Well, but the implication was that it could have been U.S. money as well.
MR. MCCORMACK: The United Nations Development Program provided financial support -- communications to the public and media in Gaza. UNDP has indicated that the Palestinian Authority was responsible for the content of the campaign. The United States takes very seriously the need for UNDP to maintain complete political neutrality. In this case, UNDP provided assistance to a political campaign, which was, by its very nature, not neutral. And as Ambassador Bolton said yesterday, funding this kind of activity is inappropriate and unacceptable.
We have followed up with the UNDP, and I think that if you talk to UNDP officials they will say that they have very serious concerns about the manner in which this money was used and that they have taken corrective actions. I think we all understand that there are better uses for UN development funds than producing bumper stickers.
QUESTION: Do you have any knowledge that the Palestinians have used U.S. funding for any of these activities?
MR. MCCORMACK: No, I don't.
QUESTION: On the actual withdrawal, when you -- you described U.S. empathy with the situation and how emotional it was. But is there any sense of relief that, in fact, it's going better than -- it's defying some of the predictions? On a timetable it seems to be going quicker than the Israelis had predicted. And also, at least today, the level of violence doesn't seem to be that high.
MR. MCCORMACK: I think, Saul, I would defer any comments and sort of final assessments about how things are going until the withdrawal is completed. I think that what we have seen is good cooperation between the Israelis and Palestinians, and I think both sides can be proud of the way that it has unfolded to date.
We all know that there are certain to be difficult challenge and possibly perils as the withdrawal process continues. We all know that there are groups and individuals who would like nothing better than to see this withdrawal process sullied by violence or terror. And I think what needs to happen is that all parties need to maintain their perseverance and their vigilance and their good cooperation to make sure that those people who may want to see this withdrawal process derailed don't succeed.
QUESTION: Just to go back for a second on what Barry was saying. I took that remark by the Secretary as -- even though it's not in a direct quote -- to mean --
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, then it's not a remark by the Secretary.
QUESTION: Right. Well, I take it that she was talking about those four settlements in the West Bank. They've been discussed for more than a year now. Isn't that -- am I not right about this?
MR. MCCORMACK: What she was talking about was the Sharm el-Sheikh understandings, if I read their paraphrase correctly.
QUESTION: Change of subject?
MR. MCCORMACK: I don't know. Jonathan.
QUESTION: I was going to change subjects.
MR. MCCORMACK: Oh, you were going to change the subject, too. Okay.
QUESTION: We see, and, you know, we would rather hear it ourselves from you than retype the New York Times. Could you touch on the Hamas buildup? She did directly and critically. The Ambassador told us that there is a buildup. It's a ticking bomb. They're on a low flame right now, Hamas, but it could be explosive. She seems to have -- she evidently has the same view.
Can you, as the spokesman, if even tersely, tell us what the U.S. perceives Hamas to be up to so far as a buildup in Gaza?
MR. MCCORMACK: I think there are certainly concerns about that and I think that, you know, and our views of Hamas have not changed as a terrorist organization. At the same time, what needs to happen is that -- and this is something that we're working very closely with the Palestinians on and General Ward is working on -- is that the capabilities of the Palestinian security forces continue to increase and so that they have a robust security presence so that they can provide security for the Palestinian people. That's what they want.
And so what does that mean? That means working with them on equipment, things like you know, basic outfitting in terms of uniforms, communications gear, transportation gear, as well as command and control. I think the process of consolidation of command under one authority is a process that is continuing and ongoing, and I think that throughout the run-up to the withdrawal process as well as during the withdrawal process we've seen an acceleration in progress but more will be need -- more needs to be done, and even post-withdrawal we'll continue working with them on that.
QUESTION: Very briefly, there is a distinction between the Israeli view and what you've just said. The Israelis say they have 70,000 -- 60,000 security people, at least ten times the size as Hamas, so they have already -- although obviously everybody would like to see an improvement in security except maybe Hamas wouldn't -- that they have the wherewithal to move against Hamas now. Are you and -- is the State Department of that view or does the Palestinian Authority need some retooling and some chain-of-command improvements before they can really take on the job?
MR. MCCORMACK: Well, our views with respect to Hamas and the need to dismantle terrorist networks is certainly a matter of policy and a matter of the obligations of the Palestinian Authority are well known. Secretary Rice has talked about that. I've talked about that. You know, as I was touching on with the Palestinian Authority, yes, there needs to -- more work needs to be done and we are working with them on issues of command and control, chain of command, the effectiveness in terms of deploying the assets, and in part -- part of the answer to that is equipment, you know, for instance, transportation equipment, communications equipment. So we're working to try to answer some of those questions with the Palestinians.
And this is, you know, absolutely consistent with what President Abbas has called for. He called for one authority and one gun. So we are working with the Palestinians to assist them so that they can have the most effective security forces to provide security for the Palestinian people, to provide a peaceful and calm atmosphere for the Palestinian people. And we have made clear our views on Hamas. And as for how the Palestinian political space develops, as we have said, those are decisions for the Palestinian people to make. But very clearly, our views on Hamas have not changed.
Anything else on this?
MR. MCCORMACK: Joel.
QUESTION: Sean, is it appropriate to send either a religious delegation or a special religious envoy to defuse this situation before it gets out of hand, as a result of the withdraw from Gaza?
MR. MCCORMACK: I think those are not decisions for the United States Government to make.