|Special Briefing on Middle East Peace Process|
C. David Welch, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs
September 17, 2007
(3:30 p.m. EST)
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: ...
The Secretary travels tomorrow and she's going to do parallel meetings with the Israelis and Palestinians. Then we return here and we have a busy weekend, which kind of starts our General Assembly calendar, but for me, more importantly, has a number of NEA related items. On Saturday, we have meetings related to Iraq and on Sunday, we do two separate sessions of the Quartet at a ministerial level. One of those is with Mr. Blair coming and presenting the results of his first serious swing through the area. And then in the evening, we have a meeting with certain members of the Arab Follow-Up Committee and the Quartet.
The next day, Monday the 24th, is a meeting of something called the AHLC, the Ad-Hoc Liaison Committee. This hasn't met, I think, since December of '05. This is the -- an organization that is chaired by the Norwegians and it brings together the principal donors to the Palestinians and again, it seems like an appropriate time to have this discussion. Again, that's the ministerial level. It's going to be a -- the meeting itself will be longer than just the ministerial session, but Secretary Rice will go to the ministerial plenary.
We also have a variety of bilateral meetings scheduled that relate to this issue, so you will see those, some by the Secretary, some by others during the course of the UNGA week. There will be a meeting also of the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, plus Egypt and Jordan while we're up there and typically, those meetings touch on the Israeli-Palestinian issue as well. Our goals here are not only to support our broader regional agenda, but also to focus in particular on this one.
And let me just reflect on where I think we are right now and how we, the United States, might make a positive contribution to helping what the parties are trying to do. And I realize that this is an association with a great deal of interest on the international meeting that President Bush has called for in his speech in July.
There's been, I think, some encouraging progress in the Israeli-Palestinian summit meetings so far. And in the one that was just held a week ago, each side felt it appropriate now to intensify these discussions by appointing some teams who would actually look at how the content of what have so far been very restricted one-on-one meetings is written down.
So we're coming now with our involvement into what I think is a more fertile atmosphere, but still one in its early stages. We'd like to encourage this progress. We think that any effort in rebuilding a real dialogue leading to what we hope will eventually be negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians, as they both would like, has to rest on a bilateral process that's productive for the interest of both parties.
We think that region is receptive to that and we think the international community is expectant of that. I know that expectations are controlled about these possibilities, and that's not unreasonable under the circumstances because it has not been an easy year to rebuild these bilateral contacts. But where we started is certainly a lot different than where we are today.
I expect the Secretary is going to be busy with this. As I've described what our schedule is just for the next ten days, I think you can -- you will continue to see that degree of involvement and intensity on our part. As you know, periodically I go out there and try to preface and prepare these meetings. You will see some of that, too.
Okay, I'll open it up for some questions.
QUESTION: Can you talk about the idea of drafting some kind of document of principles or of understandings between the two sides that the Secretary might be pushing them to do either starting on this trip or towards -- as we move up to the international conference?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, we'd like to hear what the views of each side are with respect to that. It seems that there is some interest on the part of each in a -- some -- finding some way to formalize the discussions that have occurred so far. What they're called is also -- appears to be a subject of some discussion. But I would say it's probably best to visualize this now as some form of joint document because it's not so much the form that matters but, you know, what might be the substance of it.
So we'll hear from them on that and then, of course, as always, we will have our ideas and I'm sure that they'll be willing to listen to those. And we'll need to see where they've gotten.
QUESTION: Do you see -- just one quick follow-up -- do you see this as a working document that can evolve and eventually take the shape of a possible final status deal?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Before answering that question, I'd like to hear from each of them how they see it. I mean I've had some conversations with them about what the purposes are for the bilateral summits, but I think when the Secretary gets involved she'll hear a different level of discourse. Also, there's been -- they've gone through the beginning of Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah so there's been a bit of a pause. And I don't know how much follow-up work they've done to the last summit. I'll wait to hear from them on that and then we'll see whether we can elaborate further on it in public.
QUESTION: Do you -- does the United States plan to invite Syria or Lebanon to this international meeting? And just generally beyond -- can you take us beyond that international meeting, what the vision is going forward over the next -- what the follow-up steps would be from that international meeting?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, I'd like to take us to the meeting first. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Well, I'm obviously looking ahead.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, it's appropriate to look ahead, but it's also appropriate to allow them to get there.
QUESTION: I want to get the -- I want to get a sense of what the context for this international meeting is and what you hope --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Those are good questions. I'm not sure I can fully answer them all right now. I mean, we're looking forward here as a way -- I mean, the President sketched it out in July, he talked about having an event that tries to intersect a number of goals. But in respect of what you're asking about, that it would support the dialogue between the parties and any negotiations that they have underway, you know, there are lots of ways you can design this and I think it's risky to try and do too much in anticipation of understanding what the specific answers to Elise's is, for example. Until we really know where the parties are, we can better see how to use an international event of this type. We may have more to say on that during the course of our visit.
QUESTION: Can I --
QUESTION: Wait, wait.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: But did you -- what about the (inaudible)?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: I said what I was going to say with respect to that.
QUESTION: Let me follow up on that because the reality is that you've got two months to pull off a major international meeting of some sort with players who have not participated in the past. We're hearing a lot from --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: With players who have not participated in the past?
QUESTION: Saudi Arabia has not been present. You know, there are -- excuse me?
QUESTION: It's silly for us to be hearing from other countries what the United States is trying to achieve in the run-up to this conference and what -- and their concerns about what follows next. We'd really like some language from you that gives -- that lays out --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: I understand that. And in due course, you will get that. And -- but most --
QUESTION: We have to write our stories tomorrow.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Pardon me?
QUESTION: I said we have to write our stories tomorrow.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Yeah, but I don't. You do. You might want to check and see what is the precedent because I'm not sure it's exactly as you describe it. That's just a fact to be checked.
Look, I -- we want a constructive and effective bilateral process. To the degree the region can support that, I think that's a worthy objective. To the degree the international community can support it, that's worthy (inaudible) we have some new ideas in play, like the idea of an international event or gathering. And yes, Robin, it will be hard to organize that -- to make that contribution in just two months, as you say. But it's -- the goal here isn't just to have a meeting. The goal is to make something succeed for the interest of Israel, succeed for the interest of the Palestinians -- that they get their bilateral process going in an effective and constructive way. Without that, I mean, we can have meetings all the time and --
QUESTION: Do you expect in the meeting, whatever kind of gathering it is, to discuss the final status issues or to have a declaration of principle that deals with refugees, Jerusalem and borders?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, you know, when we were -- when you and I were having this kind of colloquy on all the many trips earlier this year, you all chided me for talking about the words "political horizon", which you did not see as very meaningful at the time.
Well, political horizon has now been transformed into fundamental issues. So the parties themselves are gaining, slowly but surely, the confidence necessary to take on what they see as the key things that separate them. That, we believe, is an important evolution that we want to encourage. There are again, as I said, various ways you can do that. You can have international gatherings to do that. You can have regional support. We have other tools now, too. We're involved in direct assistance to the Palestinians for the first time in quite some while. Mr. Blair is now organizing his mission, which has some pretty important components for trying to advance this, too. I mean, it might be possible, even in two months to aggregate these in a way that really gives a sense that we've turned a new page.
QUESTION: Can I just follow -- one last one the Saudis?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, you've had three.
QUESTION: No, but the Saudis -- you didn't answer my question.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: I didn't answer --
QUESTION: You -- are you confident that the Saudis will attend?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: You know I'm not addressing participation right now. They have attended -- they attended in Madrid, if you check that.
QUESTION: Can I back up a quick sec. Are you still -- and the Secretary still committed to having this international meeting this fall because it sounds --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Yes, we are.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Sue.
QUESTION: How far have you got in looking at the fundamental issues? You've been going backwards and forwards between the Israelis and the Palestinians. If these are going to come up at the conference meeting, whatever it's going to be called, how far do you think you will have got by that stage?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: I can't -- I honestly can't say. It's a little unfair to ask the question because I think we need a perspective from each of them -- what they've talked about, where they think they could go, where they want to go and what would be necessary to get there. I believe that we have an interest in seeing it advance, and that's the purpose of the Secretary's travel and her investment in this kind of American diplomatic capital.
QUESTION: But where do you think the sticking points are going to be when you're there? What do you think you're going to make the most progress on?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, we could go on for hours about, you know, what I understand to be the sticking points in some of these issues. That's not really new.
QUESTION: To go back to the trip this week, do you plan to organize a three-way meeting with the Secretary, Abbas and Olmert?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: We've kept the geometry of these discussions flexible. We had a trilat when probably it was necessary to have one because otherwise we would not have had a meeting at all. This time around, I think we will focus on having parallel meetings, as I said earlier. We don't rule out the trilateral format in the near future. To be perfectly candid, I think we'll call then, as the Secretary sometimes says, as an audible. Or, you probably don't follow American football as avidly as she does, but that's when you change the signals right on the -- during the play.
QUESTION: So that means yes? (Laughter.)
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: That means I do pretty much what I want, and then she can overrule and do whatever she wants.
QUESTION: Well, when you say -- but when you say that you're not ruling it out, are you going to go there and see how things look, and then maybe you'll do it or maybe you won't? Are you intending to do it and you're not sure if it's going to happen?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: No, I would not lead you to conclude any of those things. You, the press, in this instance, can't serve as Belichick's camera. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: I understand that AIPAC has circulated a letter calling for the United States to put conditions on those participants in the conference, so somebody like Saudi Arabia, and that AIPAC has asked that whoever participates in this conference recognize Israel. I know you don't want to talk about who may or may not be participating in the conference, but is there any idea whatsoever that there might be such conditions on participation?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: You know, I haven't seen the letter so I don't know what they're suggesting, and I'd rather not comment on the letter specifically. The goal here is to have -- to take steps to realize the vision of two states living side by side in peace and security. And I -- you know, I see that there is -- and that promise within the Arab initiative and, you know, so I accept that the governments who signed up to that initiative are willing to envision bilateral negotiations to realize that. You know, the issue of who participates in the meeting, as I said, we'll answer that when the time is appropriate.
QUESTION: So beyond signing up for the Arab initiative, you know, there isn't an idea of conditions --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Look, I think people have to be devoted to peace, and that's a key drawing line. But you know there's a lot of comment about the international meeting out there already saying what it is not or should not be. It's better to try and construct something that's positive, and we will in due course have those things to say. But you know, the way we conduct -- our approach in this is we will make suggestions to -- the Secretary makes suggestions eventually to the President about how the United States organizes itself for this event, and I don't want to preclude what any of the options might be in that regard.
QUESTION: In terms of -- you talked about direct assistance to the Palestinians. The $80 million that went -- that's going to its security training, I think -- I understand that it's there. Do you -- can you break down for us where it's going, how it's being spent, which organizations are --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, I don't -- it's -- whenever you do foreign assistance, it's a little bit different than when you pay the electricity bill. It doesn't like get there immediately. I believe the component that's already physically started on the ground producing results is there's some antiterrorism training being organized for certain units of the Palestinian security forces. And that has already -- I think one caliber of those people have actually graduated already from that training course and there are follow-ons to that.
There are other parts of the program that are on a slower timeline to implement. To be honest with you, I haven't really looked at where those are right now. It doesn't mean they're not important. I just know they're entrained. And there are still other items that might be -- take a little longer to implement that require both parties to agree and we're working on those issues.
But this is -- I don't believe there are any difficult issue or controversies that -- in doing this, mostly just straightforward assistance work at this point. If this is a subject of common interest, I'm sure that by the time we do the trip, I can get you a breakout of where we are on the whole $80 million.
Is it -- yeah, okay.
QUESTION: David, can you talk a little bit about how concerned you were about the Israeli raid or non-raid over Syria and whether or not this is something you think the Secretary might discuss with the Israelis on her trip?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: I think Tom and Sean have -- have been up here and addressed this several times. You know our concerns.
QUESTION: No, I don't.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, then reread the transcript. I think they -- they have handled this question at least as much as I want to handle it, so I don't know whether it'll come up or not. I'll bet you guys ask.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) Syria next week?
QUESTION: If you haven't already, can you address this weekend's back and forth of Prime Minister Olmert and Abbas about -- you know, going to the Kadima meeting and apparently saying what he isn't willing to do and Abbas responding by saying that they might boycott? And in that context, do you see a difference of opinion between the Israelis and the Palestinians about what the goal of this process is? Is it to write something down? Is it to have some looser and less sticky outcome?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: It's a good question, Anne. I'm not sure at this point. I believe that both of them, though, are putting -- are making a major investment in trying to make the bilateral discussions that they've had, especially the one-on-one conversations, produce something. I think that's why they took the decision a week ago to find a format in which they can work on memorializing that, putting it down in writing.
Establishing this level of confidence carries with it both benefit -- both want to get that moving, but also, let's be clear, there are politics on each side. So I would expect that they have to address those, particularly as people outside see more happening and more going on and wonder what exactly it is and whether or not it affects them politically or practically.
This is a very important moment and we think we can make some progress here. And you all know that I -- my briefing style is to be very spare when it comes to words like encouragement. You know I try to be direct and objective, but I think for the first time here and in quite some time, I really do feel that there is an opportunity and with a little hard work, and that may take quite a bit of time, we can get it in a way that it looks a little bit better, more dramatic to you all.
QUESTION: Why do you think there is a real opportunity -- is there a difference of approach in --
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Because --
QUESTION: -- the leaders of (inaudible)?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Because -- look, the -- look, what everybody commonly calls the peace process really hasn't been doing very much for quite some time. And so this is an important turning point and I think that both sides understand that a lot depends on them assuring each other that it can work to their benefit, but also understanding that they -- their public is not so confident that it may succeed and living with the expectations of the past, is conditioned to believe that the obstacles are greater than the opportunities.
QUESTION: David, how do you reconcile the fact that a whole section of the Palestinian population is being kind of completely left out from this process? And although Prime Minister Abbas has the negotiating authority as the Palestinian President, at some point, if you're memorializing these understandings, I mean, you're going to -- don't you think you're going to have to bring some Hamas leaders into the equation, so that they can not be a factor when you try to implement the deal?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: Well, I'm sure that on the part of President Abbas, there are political considerations. But I would disagree with the way you posed the question, all due respect.
No one is intending to leave a segment of Palestinians out of this process. We think that if you're building two states, there is one state that's for Palestinians, including those -- if you meant this, those that live in Gaza. Hamas excluded itself from what is the commonly accepted basis for the peace process. You accept the right of the other to live in peace, free from terror and violence, and you accept that there are agreements out there that have been forged by previous governments. We don't see what's so unreasonable about that. And frankly, most people in the international community didn't see what was so unreasonable about it. To this day, Hamas has not explicitly accepted even the Arab initiative.
So I mean, it's -- they're the ones who have excluded themselves. But that's a -- they're a political party and they make that decision, you know, for themselves and obviously, it hasn't kind of turned out the way they had hoped, I guess, because I would measure the public effect of that quite a bit differently. I think that, you know, many Palestinians today question the wisdom of that track. I'm not saying that the other track is automatically answered for them as a success. That's what we're trying to do here. But the contrast is stark and look at what their leadership got them when they had it.
Yes, I'll take this last question. I got to run because --
QUESTION: David, when the President declared a Palestinian state with the intention to help secure a Palestinian state, something came up, something called the roadmap. What happened to it? We don't hear about it at all. And every time the Secretary goes back to the region, they're exploring political horizon. So what happened between the time that everything was spelled out in clear details to now? They're looking backwards. Is this completely sort of over?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY WELCH: No. I think that there are certain important agreements that form the foundation of our approach. One of them is the roadmap and there are others too. But what we were trying to do, and put out there words like "political horizon," is to galvanize this bilateral discussion, to change its -- the tone there, to give each side the sense that they could revive this process so that then they can look meaningfully at what's in the roadmap and how to move along it. We are not setting it aside. It's not antique. It is there. It's a part of the framework of our approach.
Thanks. See some of you tomorrow evening.