MR. MITCHELL: Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. I apologize for the delay, but it’s the result of the fact that a serious and substantive discussion is well underway. The trilateral discussion this evening lasted for about two hours. Present were Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Abbas, Secretary Clinton, and myself. We’re grateful to the prime minister and to the Government of Israel for hosting the meeting.
Prior to the trilateral, Secretary Clinton and Prime Minister Netanyahu met bilaterally. She will have a separate bilateral meeting with President Abbas tomorrow in Ramallah. Earlier today, the Secretary also met with Israeli President Peres, Foreign Minister Lieberman, Defense Minister Barak, and Palestinian Prime Minister Fayyad. Her discussions were productive and focused on ways to support the complementary political and institution-building tracks that are both necessary to achieve a just and lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace.
In this evening’s meeting, President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu resumed yesterday’s discussion of core issues and key challenges to this process. While today, as in the past, what I’m able to share with you is limited, I will say that the two leaders are not leaving the tough issues to the end of their discussions. They are tackling upfront and did so this evening the issues that are at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. We take this as a strong indicator of their belief that peace is possible and of their desire to conclude an agreement.
The president and the prime minister again reiterated their condemnation of violence that targets innocent civilians and reaffirmed their conviction that the goal of two states for two peoples can be achieved only through negotiations. They pledged to continue working together, to maintain security, while steadfastly pursuing this goal. The Secretary and I pledged our full support for their efforts. We reconfirmed that the United States will play a sustained and active role in these negotiations and in the implementation of an agreement. We will stand by the parties as they make the tough choices that are required to secure a better future for their people and for the entire region.
The two parties agreed that their negotiators will continue these discussions next week to lay the groundwork for the next round of talks at the leadership level. These face-to-face talks are critical for both sides as they work to build trust and confidence.
Tomorrow, Secretary Clinton will travel to Jordan for a meeting with King Abdullah, whose support has been critical to the resumptions of these negotiations. That will be following her meeting with President Abbas in Ramallah. I will travel tomorrow to Damascus for a meeting with President Asad and Foreign Minister Mualem. I will then go on to Beirut for meetings tomorrow evening and Friday with President Suleiman, Prime Minister Hariri, Speaker Berri, and also with senior United Nations officials. I will brief the Syrian and Lebanese leaders and seek to elicit their support for our shared goal of a comprehensive regional peace and will do the same in the next few days with many other leaders from this region.
I thank you again for your patience and I’ll now be pleased to try to respond to your questions.
MODERATOR: Questions? Go ahead, please.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) from (inaudible) newspaper (inaudible). The fact that President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu and also President Obama will be in New York next week, does that mean that all of them will be meeting by the – the next round will be in New York? And the second thing is that, is there any progress in the issue of settlements (inaudible)?
MR. MITCHELL: The second part of your question, that subject was discussed this evening. We continue to – in our efforts to make progress in that regard, and believe that we are doing so. The – with respect to the next meeting at the leadership level, that will be a subject of the negotiators for the two sides who will meet, as I said, next week.
QUESTION: Yes, (inaudible) newspaper. The first question – I have a follow-up question on the next meeting between the leaders. I think we are, what, 10 or 12 days away from the end of the moratorium, which means that the next meeting between the leaders will have to happen in the next few days. If not, does that mean that it’s not (inaudible) that there’s some kind of a progress or agreement on the issue of the moratorium which would allow another meeting between the leaders? Can you add anything on that?
And about Syria, are there any steps taking place on the ground to try and move the talks between Syria and Israel? There is a report on Channel 10 in Israel and on – in an Arabic newspaper that Fred Hoff was in Syria and met President Asad and conveyed messages from him to Prime Minister Netanyahu (inaudible). Can you share anything on that?
MR. MITCHELL: With respect to Syria, when President Obama appointed me to this position just two days after taking office, he set forth his objective of comprehensive peace in the region, one element of which he specifically identified as an agreement between Israel and Syria, and also between Israel and Lebanon, in addition to ending the conflict and reaching a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians, and the full normalization of relations between Israel and all of its neighbors in the region.
And so a part of our objective has been to encourage discussions between Israel and Syria, just as we have done so with respect to Israel and the Palestinians. In that effort, both Fred Hoff, who serves as my deputy with specific responsibility for that area, and I have made several visits to Damascus and to Jerusalem to discuss that subject. Fred was recently there, has reported to me, to the Secretary, and to the President on the results of those visits. And he will accompany me there for the meetings that will be held tomorrow evening, and then on to Lebanon for the meetings there as well.
So we continue in our effort in that regard. We do not believe that proceeding on both tracks is mutually exclusive; to the contrary, we believe that they can be complementary and mutually beneficial if we can proceed toward comprehensive peace on more than one track.
With respect to the meeting, I can add little or nothing to what I’ve said. The negotiators for the leaders will be meeting in the very near future to lay the groundwork for a follow-up – the next meeting of the leaders, and among the subjects that they will discuss will be the date and time of that meeting.
MODERATOR: A question from (inaudible) press, please.
QUESTION: Senator Mitchell, Mark Landler with The New York Times. I wonder if I can actually draw you out on particulars you’ve addressed in some detail already. On the subject of the talks here today, can you say with confidence tonight that you would not expect the Palestinians to walk away from these negotiations at the end of this? First question.
And the second question is, on the issue of the Syrians and the Syrian track, are you concerned that the ongoing tribunal and investigation into the assassination of Prime Minister Hariri could pose an obstacle to you in your effort to draw the Syrians deeper into peace discussion negotiations?
MR. MITCHELL: With respect to the second question, there are inevitably, in these situations, many issues, both those that are historic in nature, have been pending for a long time, some that are recent, some that occur after the process begins. And there is no way to proceed other than to deal with the issues as they arise and as they impact upon the process in which we’re engaged. And I don’t – I’m not able to get into specifics about any one issue, but obviously, we have to take into account all of the circumstances, including the issue you raised and many, many others.
On the first issue, we believe that these negotiations, having begun and having moved very quickly to serious and substantive discussions, should continue. And that has been and remains our policy. We recognize that there are serious issues and challenges that are highly sensitive politically for both parties and for both leaders. We have and do encourage them to engage directly on those issues, and we join with them to share our views on how best to deal with them. That includes the issue to which you referred.
So our hope is that this process has started, it’s gotten underway at a very rapid pace. I have in the past referred to my experience in Northern Ireland, and I will do so again while noting at the outset, as I always do, that circumstances are very different and one must be careful about transferring principles. But I’ll just say that the negotiations there lasted for 22 months. And it was many, many months into the process before there was a single, serious, substantive discussion on the major issues that separated the parties.
In this case, within a matter of literally days since this process began, the leaders have, yesterday at Sharm el-Sheikh and this evening here, engaged directly, vigorously, seriously in the most difficult and – in what are among the most difficult and sensitive issues that they will confront. And so we think, as I said in my remarks, we – by “we,” I mean the United States, and specifically the Secretary and I, that this is a strong indicator of their sincerity and seriousness of purpose.
I do not want to suggest or imply that discussing issues seriously is the same as agreeing on a resolution to them. It is not. It’s a necessary predicate for it, and I don’t want to suggest that just by talking seriously about serious issues that they’ve reached a concluding point. But it is very – to me, it has been extremely impressive to see both leaders engaging in this fashion. They are serious. They mean business. They do have differences. We believe they can be overcome, and we are going to remain and support them with patience, perseverance, and determination.
QUESTION: Is there anything on the ground, Senator Mitchell – excuse me, Chris Mitchell with CBN News, no relation, I believe. What on the ground do you see – you said these are very serious discussions. Do you see anything on the ground substantively that would give you reason to believe that there will be a breakthrough? And do you feel optimistic that within a year you’ll have a framework agreement that they can sign?
MR. MITCHELL: The second answer is yes, and if I didn’t believe that, I wouldn't be doing what I’m doing.
With respect to the first answer – to the first question, I’ve been in this region many, many times and have been involved at an earlier stage, a completely different and much more limited fashion, in this process. And while there is much about this conflict and these circumstances that is truly historic in nature in terms of length of time, location, circumstance, and longstanding issues, there is also much that is dynamic, changing, both in terms of the threat and in terms of the possibilities for resolving the conflict and for dealing with the threats.
And one can only, in my case, look positively on, among other things, for example, the dramatic changes on the West Bank that have occurred in the past two or three years under the leadership of President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad. I was here in 2000 and 2001 as chairman of the Sharm el-Sheikh commission at the time of the second intifada. I’ve been here on a regular basis both before and since. And I said in my remarks that the effort that is underway, what we would call from the ground up on the West Bank, has been a very significant development in laying an important foundation that makes possible a realistic negotiation and a realistic prospect for success in those negotiations.
And I think it is in the nature of life and news that sudden, dramatic controversy or accident catches human attention, but slow and steady progress, measureable not in headlines but in the changes in the way people live and their hopes for the future, not being as dramatic and eye-catching but, in fact, perhaps have much more effect on the future than the single dramatic event.
So I have seen a lot of things here, some changes not for the good, particularly in the nature of the threat. But I have also seen, having now been on the West Bank a great deal in the last few years, a truly significant change. And I think President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad have not gotten the recognition and credit for that kind of effort, and I should also add the Government of Israel for what it has done to help facilitate that in the most recent months in altering circumstances on the West Bank.
MODERATOR: We have time for one more question.
MR. MITCHELL: One more. You get the last one.
QUESTION: Senator Mitchell, you spoke about the difference between Northern Ireland and here. Prime Minister Blair said, on one hand, it was almost easier to get (inaudible) parties agreed to (inaudible) a two-state solution (inaudible). I just wondered if you could share with us some ideas of how they may (inaudible) in order to allow this moment to pass and to get through the tunnel and to continuing negotiations.
MR. MITCHELL: Right.
MR. MITCHELL: Right. Christiane, at the first of these briefings that I had, I said in my comments that the leaders involved in these talks feel very strongly that while they wish to be as open and transparent as possible have as their primary concern the resolution of conflict and the reaching of agreements, and in order to do that, their discussions must remain completely confidential and that I would not be able to comment on the details of the discussions that are underway. And it, frankly, would be impossible for me to answer your question with any degree of truthfulness and accuracy without impinging on what has been said, because that’s what they’re discussing. That’s what we’re discussing with them.
And therefore I must respectfully say that I’m not able to get into that kind of detail in this format. And I regret that. I think we all must recognize that there is an inherent inevitable conflict between what the objectives of you ladies and gentlemen are in representing the public and seeking to get information and detail to present to the public, full information on very important discussions, with the simple reality, I think acknowledged by all or most, that it’s not possible to conclude successfully these types of discussions if they are done in a completely transparent and open way. There has to be some degree of confidentiality to assure the most full and frank discussion by the parties. So I hope you’ll be as understanding as all of your colleagues have been.
Thank you all very much.