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TRANSCRIPT: STATE DEPARTMENT NOON BRIEFINGMiddle East talks/Wye
State Department Spokesman James Rubin briefed.
MIDDLE EAST TALKS/WYE -- The eighth day of the latest round of Middle East Peace Talks started off with a "good tone" and "good effort," according to Rubin.
The spokesman briefed reporters at the Wye River Conference Center on the eastern shore of Maryland where the talks are being held.
Despite reports that the Israelis had been threatening to leave, working level meetings among the experts on all sides continued, the spokesman reported.
President Clinton and Secretary of State Albright spent the morning of October 22 continuing their "very serious and intensive effort" with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority Chairman Arafat, Rubin said. He said that Clinton "is hoping that the leaders will seize the moment and move forward to make some of the key decisions that need to be made -- hopefully, as soon as possible."
"Certainly we want today to be a day when key decisions are made," Rubin said.
He announced that King Hussein of Jordan was expected to rejoin the talks at Wye the afternoon of October 22.
A draft of an American initiative focusing on security and land issues was distributed among the parties the evening before, Rubin said. He noted that because "major progress" has been made on security questions, discussions now are focused on economic issues, an airport in Gaza and setting up a safe passage for Palestinians between Gaza and the West Bank.
But he cautioned that "all the significant gaps have not been closed. The key decisions that need to be made today include areas where gaps remain."
Following is the State Department transcript:
U.S. DEPARTMENT OF STATE
Office of the Spokesman
(Wye Mills, Maryland)
October 22, 1998
Press Briefing by James P. Rubin, Spokesman
RUBIN: Greetings. Welcome to day eight here at the Wye River Middle East Peace Conference. With the events of yesterday behind us, we are in a situation where the leaders arrived at the Wye Woods conference area and began what I would describe as a very serious and intensive effort to try to make the key decisions necessary for us to put the peace process back on track.
The three met with Secretary Albright and their Ministers and advisors for an hour. Then Secretary Albright met with Chairman Arafat while the President was meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu.
I think the way I would describe the day is that there will be three tracks running almost simultaneously and sometimes brought together. Those three tracks -- obviously, the most important track being the President's activities and meetings either with the two leaders or with the leaders separately; the Secretary meeting with the other leader while the President is meeting with the one; and the third track being legal and technical experts working on the text that both sides were provided late last night. So that is the procedural situation.
As the President made clear earlier today, he is hoping that the leaders will seize the moment and move forward to make some of the key decisions that need to be made -- hopefully, as soon as possible.
QUESTION: Jamie, have the Israelis seen on paper the security steps -- specific steps -- that the Palestinians are willing to take to back up their security assurances?
RUBIN: I wouldn't be able to get into all the aspects of the security meetings, but let me say this. Clearly, major progress was made on that yesterday and the day before. The focus of the efforts today is not on security.
Q: The Palestinians said something about providing the Israelis with a detailed security plan in 30 days. Is that something that's being discussed?
RUBIN: Part and parcel of the American initiative has been a comprehensive, systematic approach to fight terrorism in all its aspects in all the effective ways. Obviously, to do that one needs a plan of work. That is part and parcel of what we have been trying to create here -- a credible, comprehensive, systematic approach to fighting terrorism so that the peoples of the region have greater security and that the interests of the parties can be advanced.
Q: James, as recently as Tuesday (October 20) you were saying significant gaps need to be closed -- big differences and all of that. At what point were these significant gaps closed?
RUBIN: All the significant gaps have not been closed. The key decisions that need to be made today include areas where gaps remain. We wouldn't be here, the President wouldn't have rolled up his sleeves and urged the leaders to get down to serious business today if there weren't significant gaps remaining. But as I just indicated, substantial progress -- major progress -- was made on security in the last couple of days, which gives us a greater chance to move on the other important issues.
But what we have found in this process throughout is that in the absence of progress across the board and closing files across the board, every file remains open.
Q: Jamie, this phrase, "plan of work", is given to various interpretations. Maybe we can get back to it. You don't mean a work plan here, do you? You mean you want a plan adopted that sounds like a concrete approach to countering terrorism?
RUBIN: We want a concrete program of work that will enable us to be satisfied and the Israelis to be satisfied and the Palestinians to be satisfied that there's a systematic battle against terrorism. That is what we want.
Q: Can I ask you -- what's coming around again, as the parole board meets trilaterally, is the Sabbath. Do you think -- does this play a factor in how long this can go on? Apparently, the Israelis need to leave by 2:00 a.m. tonight if they're going to leave in order to land in Israel before the Sabbath. That's at least one theory going around. Can you talk about this problem at all?
RUBIN: Well, it is true that the Sabbath is coming around again. We are on day eight, and that means that it can happen twice, because we're into our second week.
I don't want to speak for the Israelis in terms of their intentions and plans. I can say that, as we indicated yesterday, we're here to work as best we can. We respect the religious practices of the Israelis, and we will accommodate whatever is necessary.
On the other hand, I think everyone, if they can achieve their objectives, would want to move sooner rather than later. Certainly, we want today to be a day where key decisions are made.
Q: Can I just follow it up and ask you whether you're at a stage where, if time is short, -- I mean, presumably, Netanyahu would have to go get something approved by his government. He can't actually sign; he can only initial something. Are you still planning on having a sort of Washington ceremony, an opening of final status talks if all of this works out?
RUBIN: If it all works out, as I've indicated before, I don't think we're going to have a problem codifying it through ceremonies or whatever. That's an easy problem to solve.
Right now, we're focused on trying to make today a day of key decisions and trying to overcome the significant issues that we need to overcome to reach the point that you've described.
Q: Ambassador Gold yesterday was complaining that the plan on security was too general; it wouldn't involve specific commitments by the Palestinians and therefore, would degenerate into something like Hebron is today. Without going into detail, is the American proposal for bridging these gaps more specific, more detailed than it has been in the past?
RUBIN: I tried to indicate to you that our proposal has been constant throughout. It's how to create a systematic approach to fight terror. The experts work at an expert level on many of the specifics that you described and try to work their way through practical problems that would occur on the ground or could occur if this agreement were brought into force.
All I can tell you about specificity is that the experts have been working around the clock for many days now, and that major progress on that front was made in the last couple of days. That is why the focus -- not the only subject that's going to be discussed today, but certainly the focus -- will be on other issues.
Q: In one other statement made yesterday, the Palestinians -- Dr. Tibi -- said this has turned into a debate between the Americans and the Israelis. Is that where the focus is -- trying to bring the Israelis in, rather than the Palestinians?
RUBIN: I wouldn't regard it as such. The issues today are real; they're real for both sides, and we will know whether we can get these key decisions made as the day unfolds. But it's not only decisions by us or the Israelis; on the contrary.
Q: Jamie, can you shed any light on King Hussein? And also, I wonder if there's been any contact, presumably by phone, with President Mubarak?
RUBIN: I do not know the answer to the question of President Mubarak. I'm just being handed a note.
King Hussein is going to be coming today. He has been invited and will come. He is expected to arrive around 1:45 p.m., so he will be here. He's been a very positive influence. He's been someone who garners the respect and the trust of the leaders and the President, so we felt that he could play a constructive role, and he is arriving today.
As far as Egypt is concerned, I know we've been in regular touch with the Egyptians. I know that the President has spoken to President Mubarak in recent days. I would have to get you an update as to what the last contact was.
Q: Could you also get what the last contact was with the State Department?
Q: If it's a land-for-security deal and if you're not focusing on security, are you focusing on land today and on map schemes?
RUBIN: I think I've tried to indicate to you that the essential elements of the U.S. proposal on the one hand is security and on the other hand is land. That is, as security cooperation and the systematic approach to fighting terror is implemented in parallel, land would be transferred pursuant to the Oslo accord.
But that doesn't mean that those are the only issues of concern to both sides; and certainly, some of the other issues out there are the ones that I think will get the bulk of the focus.
Q: Jamie, I know you've said this is a problem that you'd like to have, but have you thought about how you're going to tell us when there's an agreement reached? I'm not talking about a signing ceremony, which will presumably come later; but are you going to let us know when you've finally got it?
RUBIN: I think the word is if, not when. If we were to reach an agreement, I would certainly tell the White House and the President's advisors that you all would be interested to know about it as soon as possible.
Q: Can you say a little bit more about the appearance of the American draft, the pages, how it breaks down? What are the confidence-building measures and other things included in there?
RUBIN: With respect to the draft, I've seen different versions of its length, so let me try to be specific for you. Depending on whether it's single-spaced or double-spaced, it's either in the 10 or 20 category, or somewhere a little less than that in both.
It covers the elements you would expect. It's going to address the question of the security, the land, the interim issues. We're very close on the subject of the airport. That's something that's been of substantial interest to the Palestinians -- that is, getting the Gaza airport opened.
There are other issues of concern that may or may not be reflected in the text; that's still an open question. I hope that was responsive.
Q: (inaudible) -- issue included in this?
RUBIN: Well, that is an issue, as we've indicated to you, that Chairman Arafat took certain steps during the previous Israeli Government. He wrote a letter to the President some time ago, laying out the elements of the charter that had been rescinded. The Israelis have felt that that was necessary but not sufficient, and have sought additional action. We have taken the view that that moved the issue in the right direction -- their previous steps -- and have encouraged the two to talk to each other about it. I expect that to happen today.
Q: Ten months ago, the United States and the Palestinians had a CIA-facilitated document ready for the Israelis to sign. Mr. Netanyahu didn't want to sign it. Now we've got a new document today. To what extent have there been appreciable changes in the security package which was ready by last December and what we're going to see later today, hopefully?
RUBIN: Well, that's a perfectly legitimate technical question that I would like to leave to the security experts, who would be able to make a better judgment on it. Clearly, what we've tried to do is to bring to bear all the experience that exists in cooperation when it occurs, all the possible ideas that people have had about security cooperation and try to get the best possible way to fight terrorism in a systematic and comprehensive approach.
Q: You have reported success -- not success, but progress -- on the security matters. Can you report any progress on the 3,000 Palestinian prisoners released?
RUBIN: Again, that is one of the issues I would expect to be discussed.
Q: Have you reached the point at which you could say that the substance of the gaps is now of less importance than the existence of a political will on the side of the parties to bridge them?
RUBIN: No, the political will -- that is, the decisions that need to be made -- will carry over into the substance. There are a number of substantive categories where a lot of work has been done and progress has been made. But with respect to some of them, key decisions are necessary if we're going to have the substantive progress that's necessary to reach an agreement.
Q: Two questions -- first one is, -- (inaudible) indicated an agreement may be reached today. Do you believe he's being too optimistic, or is there a chance that today there could be an agreement?
RUBIN: Well, I hope he's right; but I think no one has any way of knowing.
Q: The second question -- in terms of compromising, have you seen both sides make significant compromises up until today, and give us some examples?
RUBIN: Those are good questions. What I don't want to do during these public discussions of these conferences is make it harder on the parties to reach an agreement. So I'd prefer not to answer that question.
Q: Part of this agreement -- (inaudible) -- jump into final status talks. I'm wondering whether you might want to use this opportunity to discuss some of the issues that would be involved -- the critical issues -- and perhaps reflect on whether you feel there's a sense of urgency in these issues.
RUBIN: Well, on the first, I think the more I discuss them, the less chance they would have to be resolved if we ever got those negotiations started. I certainly think the categories are quite well known -- the question of borders, the question of territory, the question of water, the question of refugees, the subject of Jerusalem. Those are all highly sensitive issues for the parties, and those would be the issues that would need to be addressed.
With respect to a sense of urgency, let me say that the day began with a good tone and a good effort an both parties' part. The President made clear to them that he would like to see key decisions made today. Whether we make them, as I've indicated, is an open question, and whether they're made today.
But clearly, if we can make them soon, we can try to bring to bear the implementation of this agreement and try to put to rest some of the breakdown in trust and confidence that has made the looming of the May 4 deadline so dangerous. That is, if progress can be made, if both sides begin to feel a greater sense of security, a greater sense of prosperity and see tangible benefits in their lives, then one would certainly hope that the danger that May 4 poses would be less.
On the other hand, if there is not an agreement, that problem is very real and very much on the President's and the Secretary's mind because of our deep concern for the interests of the people there and the broader American interests in the region.
Q: Speaking of progress on security, the covenant issue looms even larger. -- position for weeks now. As it stands now, is the US view that the covenant no longer -- (inaudible) --
RUBIN: I don't have any new words to offer you on that, and I'd be happy to provide you words that didn't get me in trouble.
Q: You have a view on security; you've had it for a long time -- there should be security. And yet the US is pushing hard for concrete security steps. Isn't there a parallel here? Why aren't you -- if you feel there has to be trust between the parties for peace to work, how can the Administration be -- if you'll pardon the expression -- basically detached from the covenant issue and leave it to the parties? Why aren't you in there pushing also for concrete steps on the covenant?
RUBIN: Well, you've equated them and I obviously haven't.
Q: I know that; that's why I'm asking you why you haven't -- since it is an issue of trust, it's an issue of atmospherics. You do call for concrete steps in other areas. Why not in this area?
RUBIN: Well, Barry, the position you're describing is a position that some feel. What we have said about the covenant is that we made -- it went a long way to eliminate the concerns, through the combination of the steps taken during the last government and the letter.
On the security side, it's a different situation. We want to see -- we've regarded it as a sine qua non of the Middle East process, and that's why we think that it's so important to have the concrete, systemic plan that I've described.
Q: Is there any differentiation between the President's and the Secretary's role today? In other words, are there any talks that would be moving above just getting the deal?
RUBIN: The way I understand the day's plan, what happened is after the three or so meetings with -- two meetings and a phone call with the Prime Minister last night and a late meeting with Chairman Arafat last night, the Secretary briefed the President several times on the phone. When he arrived this morning, she went through a proposed program that would involve a trilateral meeting. And then the President, as I indicated at the top of the briefing, met privately with Prime Minister Netanyahu while the Secretary met with Chairman Arafat; and meanwhile, the experts -- legal and technical and substantive -- are working on the text.
So that is a pattern that I would expect to continue throughout the day.
Q: Two quick questions -- one, we've received what we believe are the talking points; and they're fairly well known talking points. Can you tell us what took so long for them to get to this point where they could actually narrow down differences on these talking points? Why did it take all these days to do this?
RUBIN: Talking points? I don't understand.
Q: The text of your proposal.
RUBIN: You've received the text of our proposal?
Q: We believe it to be the main points.
RUBIN: Well, I guess you've done your job very I don't understand how I'm supposed to react to that.
Q: Why did it take so long to get to this point with them?
RUBIN: There has been a near complete breakdown of trust and confidence between the parties for 18 or 19 months. Every issue has been very difficult; every problem has seemed insurmountable until it's been resolved.
So we've worked very hard for these 18, 19 months to try to advance the process through the ideas that we've discussed both orally and sometimes with paper. We've worked very hard to try to get that to happen.
With respect to why it took so long, it's because of the lack of trust and confidence between the parties.
Q: Second question -- just atmospherically, I guess -- do you get the sense inside there that the US delegation, the Palestinians, Israelis are getting -- for lack of a better word -- cabin fever? I mean, they're just stuck with each other. What are the relationships like inside?
RUBIN: I don't think cabin fever would be appropriate. What we've tried to do is create a balance between having people in the same location -- that is, the Wye River facility -- but not on top of each other.
So the times that they've spent together, there's a lot of walking that's done -- walking along the river, walking in the woods -- between key negotiators, and time to look out over nice vistas, time to meet in very small rooms. So there's the mix of all of those things.
Right now, the facility where the President is convening the leaders is one where there is room to move around. People tend to walk from one location to another for down time, for meals. So I think cabin fever would be a bit strong.
Certainly, I think everyone would like to see whether we can make key decisions as soon as possible.
Q: What did the United States make of Prime Minister Netanyahu's announcement last night that he was going to leave -- that was it, the plane was at the tarmac, the Israeli delegation was sent out there and the suitcases were out on the front lawn? And what impact, if any, do you think that had on the pace of the negotiations and the substance of what has been agreed to thus far?
RUBIN: As I understand, the pace of yesterday involved a series of meetings at the working levels that continued unaffected by the atmospherics of yesterday. Secretary Albright met with the Prime Minister twice, spoke to him on the phone, met with Chairman Arafat.
Yesterday was yesterday, and that's behind us; today is today, and today is a day to make key decisions.
Q: Did you take the threat, the deadline seriously? Did you actually expect them to leave?
RUBIN: I don't think that I care to answer what was in people's minds, other than to say that we were focused on the serious and substantive work. That's what we stayed focused on and wanted to stay focused on.
Q: Let me ask you this -- how would you characterize any broadening or deepening of understanding and a relationship between President Clinton and Chairman Arafat. Because it certainly seemed, as of yesterday, that the United States and the Palestinians were of like mind, and the Israelis were off on the side, and it was the US and the Palestinians trying to dissuade or persuade the Israelis to give and take. Has there been a change in this relationship?
RUBIN: I know some characterized it in that way. I wouldn't agree with that characterization.
We are an honest broker. We have a long-standing commitment to the security of Israel. We have a long-standing commitment to promote peace in the region. We try to do that the best way we can, and that is what we have done. I just couldn't agree with that characterization.
Q: Did the committee working on the third redeployment, headed by Mr. Ross, finish its work? And how are they dealing with this issue, because it is part of the significant gap that you talk about?
RUBIN: Secretary Albright and Dennis Ross and others have been working on all the key elements of this throughout, with different focus on different days. I don't want to say that that won't be discussed today, but I think that is an issue that major progress had been made in the past, and I guess the Israeli side has said publicly that they've agreed to a certain percentage.
So what I --
Q: The third redeployment.
RUBIN: The third?
RUBIN: Oh, I thought you said further.
Q: No, the third.
RUBIN: I would expect that to be something discussed today by Secretary Albright, the President and all.
Follow-up on that. Is that one of the reasons you've now mentioned three issues that you expect to be discussed today: the charter, the Palestinian prisoners, and now the third redeployment. Will King Hussein be specifically involved in those three issues as well?
RUBIN: As you saw, I was just handed a note as we came out here about his arrival; so I'd rather not tell you exactly what he's doing when he's here until I have more information.
Q: I'm trying to ask this in a way you can answer.
RUBIN: And I will try to answer it, if possible.
Q: I mean, are the sticking points, as the two sides describe them to us, the actual sticking points?
RUBIN: Well, in a negotiation like this, I think it's fairly common for each of the parties to focus on what they think advances their public presentation. That isn't always true.
Q: You said that some of the issues of concern might not be reflected in the final text. I know you will not go into substance, but did you discuss with the two parties or did you raise the idea that some of these issues that will be left out at the end, that the US might present guarantees that these issues will be negotiated within a certain time frame?
RUBIN: That's a very good question. I think without defining the bar too clearly, let me say that our goal is to get as many of the interim issues -- that is, the current and old business of Oslo -- completed so that we can move on to the permanent status talks.
The essence of the American initiative, as I've indicated, is land and security; but there are many other issues that each side has a particular interest in. The other may or may not agree, and there are various ways to skin those cats when they come up. I can't predict for you exactly how that will be done in each case.
Q: Would it be possible to get from here to Washington and a ceremony if one occurs -- just logistically, whether it happens today or tomorrow, whatever?
RUBIN: We'll do our best to help you, if that is about you. If it's about the principals, we'll try to --
Q: No, it's about us; this is a logistical question.
RUBIN: Right, I understand; all I can say is we'll try to help you.
Q: And can I ask just one other question about the atmospherics because I've got to do a side bar on color? To what extent do you think the atmospherics here -- the geese, the fields, the rivers, the woods -- produced a more hospitable climate here? I mean, you've made --
RUBIN: Well, we certainly hope we've helped to provide a hospitable climate. But even with the best of intentions and the best of climates, these are important decisions that leaders make based on their judgment of whether the advantages or disadvantages pertain and not because they happen to have a good walk in the woods. And we know that.
On the other hand, we want to be sure that those issues don't become distractions and people don't have problems as a result of the arrangements and that becomes a distraction.
So I understand what you need to do, but that's the best --
Q: We need a sound bite, Jamie.
RUBIN: I'll think about that one.
Q: Maybe this will do it -- you, not me. Assuming they're not doing their laundry on the rocks of the Wye River --
-- Who's picking up the growing tab for this extravagant -- not extravagant, but extended -- eight days now summit?
RUBIN: I'll have to check that for you. I think whatever the tab is, it will be a small price to pay if we can advance the cause of peace.
Q: I have a follow-up. Whatever that tab is, is it being equally shouldered by the visiting delegations --
RUBIN: I'll check that.
Q: In other words, are you paying one guy's way and not the other's?
RUBIN: I'll have to check that; that would surprise me.
Q: Could I point out that the Hebron agreement and some of the previous agreements were not fully implemented, and that's why we're here. What mechanisms are you building into this one so that implementation actually takes place? Could you cite a few?
RUBIN: Well, even if we were to reach an agreement, we are very focused on the question of implementation. We have indicated in the past that the United States would be there if we could be of help.
But implementation is where the rubber hits the road in the Middle East peace process. We'll have to see, if we cross that bridge.
RUBIN: Well, Mr. Lockhart apparently told folks that the President's dog was here today. I'd rather leave the details of that to Joe.
Q: More atmospherics -- did the Israeli threat to depart in any way focus attention that changed the pace in some way -- speed it up, slow it down -- yesterday?
RUBIN: I will know -- yesterday was a busy day, and we'll know whether it helped as a day if we get progress today.-
Q: Yesterday -- did it any way speed things up or --
RUBIN: As I indicated, we tried to continue doing the work that we were doing, and that is what we did yesterday.
Q: Without being too dogged, can you give us an idea the sort of atmospherics -- (inaudible) -- who took walks in the woods in the --
RUBIN: I'll try to provide that for you in the course of the day.
Q: You've used the word "today" a lot. Are you trying to send a message to the parties that today is the day?
RUBIN: No. If you've been here for a while, you know that every day I try to focus on the day we're here and not speculate about the next day. I even talked about a program "One Day at a Time". So I think the fact that I'm focusing on today should not be misinterpreted.
Q: Are you aware of any meetings today with King Hussein and the other three to help bridge some gaps? Are there any four-way meetings --
RUBIN: He is here; exactly what his schedule would be, I'll try to get for you as quickly as I can.
Q: Have there been any four-way meetings yet?
RUBIN: I assume that he will meet with folks. Whether it's a four-way or not, I'll try to get for you.
Q: Do you have legal experts from either of the two sides present at the Wye Center and --
RUBIN: what kind of experts?
Q: Legal experts.
RUBIN: Absolutely, yes.
Q: Now, obviously, we're into the eighth day, which is a lot -- it appears that it's taken a lot longer to clinch the deal that the Administration was planning to clinch. What does this portend for final status talks, which touch on the most contentious issues that you spoke about earlier?
RUBIN: Well, the short answer is that it's never easy, it's always excruciating to go through the negotiating process. We've gone through it and we've done it because we think we can advance the interest of the people in the region -- promote their prosperity, promote their security. We hope that we can move to permanent status talks so that that can be advanced further. But it's obviously a very difficult process, and it will be even more difficult in the permanent status.
Q: (Inaudible) -- or is that being discussed today?
RUBIN: That would be too specific for me to get into.