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Middle East Digest - October 9, 2009

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Washington, DC
October 9, 2009


The Middle East Digest provides text and audio from the Daily Press Briefing. For the full briefings, please visit daily press briefings.

From the Daily Press Briefing of October 9, 2009

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QUESTION: I’m sorry if you addressed this yesterday. It doesn't sound like things are going very well, maybe not necessarily in terms of the actual talks, but over the long term. Did you see Foreign Minister Lieberman’s comments that there’s not going to be a peace process or a peace deal anytime soon?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I’ll leave it for the foreign minister to --

QUESTION: It doesn't really indicate, though, that the Israelis are kind of negotiating and ready in good faith to --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, let me say – I mean, these are, obviously, extraordinarily difficult, emotional challenges that we’re dealing with, and they will have to be dealt with through a formal negotiation. And we would expect that that negotiation will take some time and will involve very difficult, complex issues. We’re prepared to work through that. That’s why the President and the Secretary have called for the parties to enter negotiations as soon as possible. It’s why George is in the region as we speak to try to push to that point.

But we’re under no illusions here that even when a formal negotiation begins, it is going to be arduous. It’s going to take a considerable amount of time. How much? Who knows. But this is what this phase in the process is all about, to find out if the parties are, in fact, ready to move forward. Are they ready to make the affirmative commitments up front regarding settlements, regarding incitement? Are the other countries of the region prepared to do their part and provide support in ways that perhaps have been missing through past efforts? So that is part of the ongoing assessment that we’re going through. As the President indicated last month during the General Assembly, the Secretary, when she gets back from this upcoming trip, will work with the Middle East team, assess where we are, and make a report to the President.

QUESTION: Well, I mean, just the fact that the Israelis are saying this before you’re even starting the negotiations, doesn’t that kind of not forebode very well for the actual negotiations once they start?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think no other than Senator Mitchell in his various briefings to you both recently and going back a few months said that whatever posturing that might occur in advance of a negotiation, that’s why you ultimately need to see the negotiation begin.

Jill. Sure, go ahead.

QUESTION: Oh, that’s all right. Same topic, but if you’re --

QUESTION: Oh, the other topic.

QUESTION: Okay. Just on Mitchell, maybe I misheard you, but I thought you said that he was going to meet with President Abbas tomorrow. Isn’t he meeting with President Abbas today and Fayyad tomorrow?

MR. CROWLEY: If I have – my information was tomorrow. If that’s wrong, we’ll correct it.

QUESTION: Okay, great. And then the other thing is, our Jerusalem bureau believes, I think, that the meeting with President Abbas, assuming it has begun, is supposed to end in about 30 minutes. So if indeed they did meet today, can you try to get us some kind of a readout on both Senator Mitchell’s meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu and with Abbas?

MR. CROWLEY: I suspect it’s probably better done with the team in the region.

QUESTION: I would suspect so, too --

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, I understand. I mean –

QUESTION: – but you’re the State Department spokesman --

MR. CROWLEY: I hear you.

QUESTION: -- and (inaudible) asking you about the Middle East --

MR. CROWLEY: I am simply saying that it is unlikely that we’re going to have a readout from Senator Mitchell’s activities before he reports back to the Secretary.

QUESTION: P.J., on the trip by the Secretary, she’s going at a particularly important time, obviously, with the discussions of Afghanistan. Can you tell us a bit how she will be briefing or informing her – the officials with whom she’ll be meeting, in their various stops where she’ll be meeting, telling them what the state of play is. How does she expect to explain what the United States is doing on policy? And I’m –

MR. CROWLEY: Which topic?

QUESTION: On Afghanistan.


QUESTION: Because you – remember the question yesterday from the New Zealand correspondent who pointedly said: We in New Zealand have recommitted, while you are still thinking about it. So what does she do talking to the allies to explain where the Administration is on Afghanistan?

MR. CROWLEY: Maybe I’d say, help me out here. I mean, I have heard no U.S. Government official, from the President down to your modest spokesman, say that there’s anything but a long-term commitment to the region and a long-term commitment to Afghanistan and Pakistan. We’re talking about how to best carry out that commitment, how we can best serve our interests and those in the region. But I have heard no one say that we are prepared to walk away from Afghanistan or Pakistan or the region, expressly because it is in our interest.

Now, how will we do that best going forward? That is the purpose of these series of meetings and this broad review. As we have said continually, we’re looking at the situation on the ground. We’re looking at the implications of the election results to be determined here in the next few days. We’re looking how best to make sure that we are coordinating our activities on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border. So this is, in fact, part of a long-term commitment. We are in year nine of this effort. And we will continue until we believe that we have done what we’ve got to do, which is to provide a stable – help build a stable government in Afghanistan, until we have helped Pakistan stabilize the situation on its side of the border.

As to how long this will take, who knows.

QUESTION: Well, I mean, you answered a question that I actually didn’t ask. What I was asking --

MR. CROWLEY: It was a good answer. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: No, it was a very long and detailed answer. I do give you credit for that. The question actually was more simple. How can you describe what she is going to do with her interlocutors there to tell them what the state of play is? I mean, will she say kind of what she – what you’re saying? Because we get very little from the Secretary in terms of what the thinking is. Will she let them in on some of her thinking? Will she let them in on President Obama’s thinking? How much can she tell them at this point?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, for example, let’s choose a place on the upcoming trip. She’ll be in London. The United Kingdom has a significant commitment in Afghanistan, as we do. The McChrystal report and assessment have been presented to the NAC in Brussels. So the United Kingdom Government, it’s very familiar with the – with his assessment. And I suspect that they, like us, also continue to assess what was happening in the country and their particular role. So I’m sure that during that – her discussion with the prime minister, with the foreign minister, this will be a significant topic of discussion. And – but as to – I’m sure she will update them on the status of our process. How much depth we’ll go into, I won’t prejudge.

QUESTION: On the idea of political prisoners, I mean, you’re unequivocal that all political prisoners in Burma should be released. But I don’t see the same kind of unequivocal comment about all Chinese political prisoners being released or all Egyptian political prisoners. Is it the position of the United States that all political prisoners everywhere should be released, or just in Burma?

MR. CROWLEY: That’s a fairly broad statement you’re asking me to make. Certainly, the idea – and it is the policy of the United States – that political prisoners who were put there as part of a process to intimidate or restrict political processes in any country should be released. We certainly favor the idea that those countries that have restrictive political systems need to broaden them, need to make sure that the political systems produce a debate, candidates, and results that meet the needs of those people.

As to a particular situation in this country or that country, I think your question is a little too broad to go beyond that.

QUESTION: How about Egypt? Do you feel that about Egypt?

MR. CROWLEY: We have made significant statements over a very long period of time about the fact that political – the detention of political activists, including someone like Ayman Nour, are not helpful to Egypt’s future.

QUESTION: On Afghanistan, if I can go back, is it out of the question that the U.S. may tolerate some role, or any role, for the Taliban in Afghanistan politics?

MR. CROWLEY: I think this is ultimately a decision for the Afghans. When you think about – when you think about insurgencies, and I’ll speak generally, that policing has a role, military activity has a role. But ultimately, you solve insurgencies through political processes and reconciliation. So if going forward, the Afghan Government, when it emerges from the election cycle, chooses to engage in a political dialogue, and that dialogue brings people who are currently outside the political process, if not attacking the political system that exists in Afghanistan, to a position where they will choose to be invested in that process, we think that will be a positive development. But that ultimately will be a decision for Afghanistan to make.

QUESTION: To follow on that. I mean, does that mean that the current Administration would not have the belief that it’s kind of crucial, as the past administration did, to eliminate organizations and regimes that harbor al-Qaida?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, certainly, as the President’s made clear, our presence in the region is expressly because al-Qaida poses a threat to the United States and, in fact, has – poses a threat to others around the world as well. And we have – we will make sure that whatever we do in the future, that there will not be a safe haven, whether it’s Afghanistan or anywhere else, that allows a terrorist organization to plot and execute attacks against the United States and against our allies around the world.

Now, this is where you ultimately have to make sure your focus will not be a cookie-cutter approach. There are a wide range of groups within the label “Taliban,” tribal figures that are used to changing sides depending on what is happening at any particular time. It’s one of the reasons why we believe that central to a solution to the current challenge in Afghanistan is a competent, legitimate, effective government. And if that government performs and delivers services to the Afghan people, that reduces the space and reduces the motivation that might provide either explicit or tacit support to various groups that form the umbrella called the Taliban.

So to the extent that Afghanistan wishes to engage in some kind of political process in the future, that tries to peel away support for the insurgency, we think that’s part of a very effective, long-term counterinsurgency strategy.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:12 p.m.)

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