"As is" reference - not a United Nations document
The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
Press Briefing by Principal Deputy Press Secretary Josh Earnest 4/4/2014
Q. First, on the Middle East, Josh, Kerry today sounded perhaps the most pessimistic that he has during this whole effort to restart talks. He said it was time for a “reality check.” Does the President share that view? I wondered when the last time he and Kerry spoke about this. And did the President essentially encourage the Secretary of State that it was time to focus more on other pressing issues -- Ukraine, Syria, Iran nuclear talks -- because this seemed to be stuck in a stalemate?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Jim, as you know, Secretary Kerry and the President traveled together to Europe just last week. So they spent a decent amount of time together over the course of that trip. They were obviously covering a range of topics, principally the challenge of dealing with Russia and their encroachment on the territorial integrity of Ukraine. But they did have the opportunity to talk about Middle East peace a little bit on that trip.
As Secretary Kerry himself has said, that it is a good indication of how critical the issue of Middle East peace is, that when he does meetings with world leaders on other topics, people will ask him specifically about Middle East peace. Secretary Kerry has played a very important role in trying to facilitate conversations between the Israelis and Palestinians. He has done that not because it was obvious that an agreement could be struck. In fact, the reason that he was involved and the reason that he was doing so under the banner of the United States of America is that it’s been very difficult for generations for the Israelis and Palestinians to try to resolve their differences.
So what Secretary Kerry has done is worked tirelessly to travel to the region frequently. I think he’s been there 11 times now just in the last year or so. And he has been tireless in his efforts to try to broker some common ground between the Israelis and Palestinians. Ultimately, however, what we have seen is that it’s the responsibility of the Israelis and Palestinian leaders to make these difficult decisions, to take these difficult steps on their own.
The decisions that need to be reached to pursue common ground cannot be imposed by the United States or any other country in the world. The difficult steps that the Israelis and Palestinians need to take to try to build some faith are not steps that can be dictated by the United States or any other outside entity.
So yet, despite all of those challenges, it is clearly within the interest of the United States and the globe for the Israelis and Palestinians to resolve their differences. What we’re aiming for is the creation, or the -- the creation of a circumstance in which you have a Jewish state of Israel living side by side in peace and security with an independent Palestinian state. That is the ultimate goal. And reaching that goal is in the clear interests of our strong allies in Israel. It’s in the clear interests of the Palestinian people. It is in the clear interests of restoring greater stability to the Middle East region. And the outcome would have clear benefits for the entire world.
It’s an indication that the United States continues to be the indispensable nation in the world that the Secretary of State has devoted so much time and effort to a task that is so difficult, to a task that so many others have tried and failed to achieve. So there is no doubt that we have reached a point where Palestinians, the Palestinian leaders and the Israeli leaders need to spend some time thinking about their commitment to making some difficult decisions and taking some very difficult actions. And Secretary Kerry will be returning to Washington in the days ahead, and I would anticipate that a conversation with the President is in the near future.
Q So having said that, that the next steps are clearly in the hands of the Palestinians and the Israelis, is the role of the U.S. as broker exhausted at this point? Does the President feel that it’s exhausted?
MR. EARNEST: No, we remain committed to this task. We remain committed to this task because the stakes are high, because there is a clear benefit for our strong allies in Israel. There is a clear benefit for the Palestinian people, for nations in the Middle East region, and for nations around the globe. So we remain committed to this task.
At the same time, this ultimate goal that we’re aiming for is something that can only be accomplished when the leaders of the Israeli people and the Palestinian people decide to make the very difficult decisions that they alone can make.
Q Is the President disappointed that it’s reached this stage even after he so shortly ago had separately Abbas and Netanyahu in the Oval Office?
MR. EARNEST: I think the President, even in the midst of those meetings, was incredibly realistic about how difficult of a challenge this is. For generations, American presidents and even the leaders of other countries have tried to intervene in this dispute to reach an agreement. And those efforts have experienced some peaks and valleys but ultimately have not reached the end state that I described earlier.
So the President is very clear-eyed in his assessment about where things stand and about the prospects of reaching the kind of agreement that would be so clearly in the interest of the world. But those difficult challenges in no way diminish the President’s passion for trying to reach an outcome here that is so clearly in everybody’s interest
Q Josh, just to be clear, is the current phase of the Middle East peace process over?
MR. EARNEST: No. I think what I would say is that we have reached a place -- and I think Secretary Kerry spoke to this earlier today when he was in Morocco -- that we have reached a place where it’s time for a reality check; where it’s time for the Israeli leaders and the leaders of the Palestinian people to spend some time considering their options at this point.
Secretary Kerry observed that there is a limited amount of time and resources that can be dedicated by the United States of America to an effort like this. And the reason that there are limits, beyond the obvious limits of time and physical space, is that there are a range of challenges that are on the plate of the most indispensable country in the world.
Q Was there a single incident that pushed these talks over the edge?
MR. EARNEST: I wouldn’t characterize it as a single incident. I think I would characterize it as unilateral steps taken by countries on both sides of this issue that have been unhelpful, that have contributed to at least some degradation of the trust that had been built up through the course of these talks over the last several months.
Q And is the release of Jonathan Pollard still on the table?
MR. EARNEST: Well, as we’ve described to you earlier, Steve, the reason that the release of Jonathan Pollard was on the table was because this is something that the Israeli government regularly raises with the U.S. government. It is still true that the President has not made any sort of decisions about Mr. Pollard. He was tried and convicted of very serious crimes, and is serving a serious sentence.
Q How does the White House counter the critique of a lot of people that in that sort of Middle East policy community that it was quite clear a year ago that Israelis and Palestinians have not built a political capital among their people or were not prepared to make these kind of tough decisions, and that therefore John Kerry’s investment of so much time and political capital could have been better used elsewhere?
MR. EARNEST: Well, Stephen, I think what I would say in response to that is that the stakes in this situation were very high; that the world would stand to benefit significantly from the peaceful resolution of the differences between the Israeli people and the Palestinian people. And because the stakes were so high and the challenges of reaching an agreement were so difficult, there are not a lot of people volunteering to take on that assignment.
So what I think it is, is indication of the influence around the world that the United States still wields; that the United States is the one that’s willing to step into the breach -- and in this case, principally Secretary Kerry who’s been willing to step into the breach here and try to broker an agreement. As I mentioned, he’s traveled 10 or 11 times to the region in just the last year, or a little over a year.
So the odds of getting something like this done -- I don’t know if people in Las Vegas are betting on these kinds of things these days -- but I’m sure the odds, if they were, the odds would be very long. But the benefits that could be gained for the world, the lives that could be saved, the stability that could spread throughout the region would be significant. And there would be significant benefits for the two countries we’re talking about here, a Palestinian state and a Jewish-Israeli state would be significant, but the benefits to the United States of America would be significant as well.
So this is why the Secretary of State, at the direction of the President of the United States, has invested so much time and effort in this endeavor. And our commitment and our passion for achieving this goal has not waned. But again, this goal will only be achieved and only can be achieved if the decisions that are required are made independently by the leaders of Israel and the leaders of the Palestinian people.
Q So if those decisions are made at this point, this critical point, is that it for this administration? Do you sit there and say, okay, we’re not going to get involved in this until you guys come back and tell us you’re ready?
MR. EARNEST: Well, that presupposes an additional step here that at some point somebody throws up their hands and walks away. Secretary Kerry is certainly not willing to do that.
I think it’s also notable -- and I’ve not mentioned this yet -- I think it’s also notable that the designated negotiators on the Israeli side and the designated negotiators on the Palestinian side continue to assert their willingness to participate in conversations. So as long as they’re willing to continue to talk, that’s something that we’re going to continue to try to facilitate.
But ultimately, those talks will only lead to tangible progress if the leaders of the two sides are willing to make some difficult decisions. Again, these are decisions that the United States cannot make for them; these are steps that the United States cannot impose on them. Ultimately, the two sides are going to have to make these courageous decisions on their own, certainly with the support of the United States in our efforts to marshal the support of the international community. But ultimately, it’s on them.
Q And I wanted to ask you to go back, if we could, back to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And obviously when the President decided to have the leaders here and then to move forward after that, he must have thought there was some reason, even though the challenge was high, that there might be some reason there could be some success. Has what he was told been changed, or has there been any bad faith or lack of good faith from the parties that has changed things?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me start by answering your question this way. One of the hallmarks of these ongoing conversations that have been taking place, that have been facilitated by Secretary Kerry and members of his negotiating team that have spent a lot of time on the ground in the region, has been to keep the content of the talks confidential, that that is a way to build some trust. And I know that it’s made covering these conversations challenging, but they have been an important part of preserving the ability of negotiators on both sides to negotiate.
So I’m not in a position to divulge specific details or commitments that may have been made to the President by one or both leaders. I think it is fair to say that over the course of the last six or seven months there have been some courageous steps that were taken by leaders on both sides. But in the last week or so, we’ve started to see that cooperation break down a little bit; that we saw the Israeli government refuse to release the fourth tranche of prisoners that was scheduled for last weekend. It didn’t happen, obviously. The Palestinians, earlier this week, signed instruments seeking to join a number of multilateral conventions.
Also, earlier this week, the Israeli government announced 700 tenders in East Jerusalem, which is a source of great sensitivity on the Palestinian side. So we have seen some unilateral actions that have been taken by leaders on both sides that have been not helpful at all in trying to move these conversations along. Those are statements and actions that have been taken in public, and I would point you to those as the reason for the recent slowdown that we’ve seen in the talks.
Q But without the specifics of what may have been promised to the President in these meetings, was the President in fact lied to in the end? And without saying what he was lied to about, but were there agreements or promises made that were not acted out in good faith by both sides?
MR. EARNEST: Well, let me tell you what we’re focused on. What we’re focused on is we’re focused on the Israelis and Palestinians living up to the commitments that they make to each other; that ultimately is what’s most important here. And we’ve seen, as I pointed out, in the last few days a breakdown in some of the trust that had been built up.
The President is concerned about that. Secretary Kerry has articulated his own disappointment about that. But the one thing that we take some solace in is noting that negotiators on both sides are still willing to negotiate, they’re still at the negotiating table. They haven’t thrown up their hands and said that they’re walking away from this process.
So we are getting down to the time where leaders on both sides need to make some difficult decisions. Again, we can’t make these decisions for them, we can’t impose these decisions on them. They’re going to have to make these decisions on their own based on the best interests of the people that they’re leading. It is our view -- and I think this is a view that’s been expressed by leaders in both countries -- that it ultimately is in their interest to resolve this situation diplomatically. But there’s a lot of hard work to go before we’re going to get there.
Q Let me just try one more time.
MR. EARNEST: Okay.
Q Did Secretary Kerry walk away because they were not getting along with each other, or because things they had told the United States they would do they did not do?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I guess it’s possible to -- I don’t want to parse this too much, again, because I want to protect the integrity of the private conversations that are ongoing. But the source of Secretary Kerry’s frustration and President Obama’s frustration are the unilateral, unhelpful actions that we’ve taken -- that we’ve seen taken by leaders on both sides.
And that has been a disappointment, and particularly because there had been some courageous actions that were taken by leaders on both sides in the past few months. But again, Secretary Kerry said that this is reality-check time, and that is where we are. This is a time for the leaders on both sides to evaluate if they’re willing to take these actions.
Q Just to follow up on that -- it sounds and it looks as if the Israelis and the Palestinians have made decisions. They decided not to tell the United States they were going to take these unilateral actions. They decided to take the unilateral actions knowing it would be inconsistent with what they’ve committed to the other and inconsistent to helping the peace process move forward. They’ve made decisions in the last week that are hostile to what the United States and Secretary Kerry have tried to accomplish for the last year. Don’t those decisions in of themselves tell you what the status of these peace talks are, and that it’s fruitless to wait for other decisions to be made to get them back to a place where they were before when they’ve already decided to do things to harm where they were before?
MR. EARNEST: Well, I think that anybody who knows Middle East history better than I do, frankly, and is intimately familiar with the kinds of conversations that have characterized previous efforts to resolve the differences between the Israelis and Palestinians understands that there has been -- that this has always been a process that has been characterized by one step forward, two steps back, sometimes.
And so there is nobody who had the expectation that there would be a straight line from talks to resolution.
Q But everyone understood that April was a crucial month. They were brought here to discuss the crucial nature of the upcoming deadline and the commitment to move beyond that. And in the context of that, they took actions harmful to the process and they didn’t even tell the number-one interlocutor, the irreplaceable country in the world, as you just described it, that they were going to do those things. I mean, isn’t that a breach that sort of tells the United States all it needs to know about where this process is, and that’s its investment for the past year has produced virtually nothing?
MR. EARNEST: I’m not sure that I would describe it as virtually nothing, but I think that Secretary Kerry himself talked about his disappointment in the steps that were taken, and we’ve talked about this for a couple of days here as well.
But again, the --
Q So you said the process isn’t over. What can continue under these circumstances? I mean, Kerry is not going to keep coming back, is he? He’s not going to keep calling them. He’s going to wait for them to do something, right?
MR. EARNEST: I don’t want to foreshadow what Secretary Kerry’s future steps will be. What he has said his next step is is to return to Washington and have some conversations with the President and other members of his team about a path forward. There is --
Q So you could formally declare an end --
MR. EARNEST: The lead negotiators on the both sides, on the Israeli side and the Palestinian side, have indicated a willingness to keep talking. So as long as the two people who are engaged in the talks are still talking, it would be a little odd for me to stand up here and say that the talks are over, right?
Q Right, but they would be talking about something that is worse than it was before because of actions they decided to take.
MR. EARNEST: But ultimately the way that we’ll resolve these disputes are not just through the talks, but ultimately by important decisions and courageous steps being taken by both sides -- steps that, again, that we can’t impose or dictate.