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Middle East Digest - November 25, 2009


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Washington, DC
November 25, 2009

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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 November 25, 2009

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1:35 p.m. EST

MR. KELLY: First of all, I want to wish you all a Happy Thanksgiving. Thanksgiving is a day not only to give thanks, but to gather with your families, or if your families aren’t here with you, to reconnect with them in some way. Today is known as getaway day, and in the interest of getting away, I have no statement at the top. I’ll go right to your questions.

QUESTION: Can I just – recognizing that Senator Mitchell was just here talking about the extraordinary achievement of getting Prime Minister Netanyahu to do exactly what he intended to do the entire time since he’s been in office, do you know when exactly the senator is going back? He seemed – he said in the near future, but we --

MR. KELLY: Yeah. I don’t think he’s actually set any specific date, but he does plan to go back in the near future.

QUESTION: And do you know – has there been any contacts – has the Secretary reached out to the Palestinians at all or other Arabs? Or are you aware of any contact trying to sell this --

MR. KELLY: Sell it, Matt?

QUESTION: Well, all right, maybe not.

MR. KELLY: I mean, she was recently --

QUESTION: Maybe you wouldn’t agree with “sell,” but --

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- trying to tell people that this is a good thing and you should support it?

MR. KELLY: She’s had a lot of contacts, a lot of telephone conversations in the last couple of days, and I’m afraid I don’t have a list of all the conversations she’s had with foreign leaders lately. Let me see if we can – if I can get you some information. I don’t recall anything in the last few days with any Israeli or Palestinian Authority leader offhand.

Yes.

QUESTION: Does the Administration bear any responsibility for the fact that Abu Mazen is sticking to the line that he wants a total settlement freeze? I mean, some Israelis feel like, you know, Abu Mazen thought that the Americans would deliver a total settlement freeze because that’s what they were demanding, and it hasn’t happened. So to what extent did we talk him into a tree and --

MR. KELLY: Well, I certainly hope not. I mean, our policy has been consistent. We haven’t wavered from our policy that we stand for a complete cessation of all settlement activity. And this is something that the Israeli Government committed to in the Roadmap. And at the same time, we’ve called on not only the Palestinians, but also Arab states, to take steps that would lead to the kind of environment that could create significant negotiations. But I think that maintaining a consistent policy throughout is – I don’t think that that’s necessarily --

QUESTION: Is there a way that he can agree to this without – and still save face after having demanded --

MR. KELLY: You’ll have to ask him. You hear what Senator Mitchell said is that what’s needed is leadership on all sides, that the positive thing here is that everyone agrees on the goal. And in order for us to get to that goal, a comprehensive peace agreement, the two sides have to agree to sit down and negotiate. And we recognize that they’re – given the long history of problems and conflict, that it is a – it’s a – can be difficult politically to agree to do something like that. And that’s why Senator Mitchell said that this is going to take leadership on all sides.

Yes.

QUESTION: Many in the Arab world see the hope as diminishing, the hope for achieving anything with this current Israeli Government is kind of diminishing. And I wonder if the United States has in mind to reactivate, actually, its efforts on a higher level, like foreign – like Secretary of State or more active role on a higher level in the future. And my second question is if the next trip of Senator Mitchell will include Damascus.

MR. KELLY: I don’t know the answer to the second question, so I’ll just answer that one right away, or not answer that one right away.

Regarding the first part of your question, we have not lost hope, obviously, and we are engaged at very high levels in this government. President Obama has been very engaged in this and engaged in a direct way, of course, at the UN meetings in New York. Secretary Clinton recently was in the region. And we are putting in tremendous efforts, and we are doggedly committed to try and get the two sides together. And that’s – I mean, that’s our pledge, that we will remain focused and committed on getting the two sides to resume negotiations.

QUESTION: What would you say to those who repeat in the Arab world now, who are recalling the previous Israeli government saying that they are going to negotiate for the sake of negotiation, and not to achieve any result out of these negotiations? Mr. Shamir in the past has said that. And he said that it will – we can continue to negotiate for 10 years, but the Arabs are not going to get anywhere with us.

So the same kind of imagery now is spreading across the Arab world, seeing that Mr. Netanyahu’s government is as hardliner as Mr. Shamir in the past. So is the United States having any kind of technical kind of thought that will actually prevent the Israelis from dragging this process as much as they want to without reaching any result?

MR. KELLY: Well, as I suggested before, the – what we have to remain focused on is the commitment of all sides to a comprehensive peace, that it is in the interests of the people of Israel, it’s in the interests of the people of the Arab world that we come to a comprehensive solution.

Both sides have agreed what that is. I mean, that is the two states living side by side in peace and security. That’s what everybody should stay focused on. That’s the kind of future that people should be working towards to have a more prosperous future, to have a more – to have more optimistic prospects for their children. So everybody should stay focused on that. I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna, but that is what’s driving us, and that’s what should drive everybody.

Andy.

QUESTION: What does the U.S. think should be done if – one goal would be to make this current offer that’s on the table permanent; i.e., extend it beyond the 10 months. What would need to happen in order to get this freeze set down in stone?

MR. KELLY: Well, what we’re working on and what Senator Mitchell has just been describing is developing the kind of environment, the kind of atmosphere that’ll get the two sides together. This is one step towards that. But I think the main thing is this is something that has to be negotiated between the two sides, and that’s why we’re working so hard to get this process started again.

QUESTION: Ian, this may have been better asked to Senator Mitchell, but there wasn’t enough time. What exactly is different about what the prime minister – what Prime Minister Netanyahu has laid out today than what he was – than his position, say, on January 23rd, the day that Mitchell was appointed? What exactly have the Israelis conceded on here, if they seem to have built in, in the 10 months – or, sorry, in the months since January, there have been new settlement approvals. It looks as though they have already approved the amount of settlement – the number of buildings that they would have been doing in the next 10 months without a freeze.

MR. KELLY: Well, I --

QUESTION: What exactly have they given up here?

MR. KELLY: Yeah. First of all, you’re right; you probably should have asked that of Senator Mitchell. But I mean, you – I think you all saw what the Secretary said. We see this as a step in the right direction. And so in that sense, this is a – it’s a positive development.

And I think that any steps that can lead to a resumption of the talks is something positive. But if I can get you a better answer on that, I will.

Yeah. Dan, you’ve had your hand up a long time.

QUESTION: Yeah. Just following on Matt, I mean, is it the U.S. understanding that this is a freeze that excludes natural growth, since obviously it is a freeze that excludes kindergartens and synagogues and so on? So that seems to exclude natural growth to me. Is that your interpretation as well?

And secondly, is it your understanding that the time span of this freeze means that there is a window of 10 months, if not to achieve success in talks, at least to gain traction?

MR. KELLY: Well, I think on the question of what exactly the announcement means, our policy on what has to happen, our position on what has to happen, has been clear, and that we mean – when we say a stop to all settlement activity, meaning all settlement activity, including natural growth. What exactly is contained in the Israeli proposal, I don’t have those details.

And I’m sorry, what was your second question?

QUESTION: Is there now a 10-month window to, if not succeed in talks, at least gain traction in those talks?

MR. KELLY: Yeah. Well, I think the – as I suggested before, what we are calling for from the Israelis, the Palestinians, and also the Arab neighbors, is taking steps that would lead to a – to resumption of talks. And we don’t want to put any kind of – once the talks start, of course, they should – we believe they should continue until there’s a – some kind of resolution or some kind of agreement between the parties, so we wouldn't want to put any kind of artificial timeframe on it.

You – let’s get – I think – also on Israel-Palestine?

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: Yeah. Thank you, Ian. It’s John Terrett from Al Jazeera English. You keep saying that the United States policy on this issue hasn’t changed, but could you just speak to the fact that it did look as if it had changed a bit for a while there? A month ago when the Secretary was in Jerusalem with Mr. Netanyahu and she used that word “unprecedented” about the partial freezing of settlements, certainly a lot of people in the Arab world really took that to look as if the Obama Administration was almost giving up, that they actually couldn't get the Netanyahu government to do what they really wanted it to do.

I mean, did she know something? Did she let slip with that word? Did she know this was coming up then?

MR. KELLY: I think she was just calling it for what it was. It was a significant development, and it was the kind of offer that we had not seen before with this government, with the Israeli Government. I don’t think it was anything more or anything less. She was simply qualifying what this would mean, this kind of settlement freeze. I don’t think she meant to imply anything beyond that.

QUESTION: Do you think that what’s happened today, does that remove any doubts about the Obama Administration’s ability to try and get Israel to do what it would like to do – it to do?

MR. KELLY: I’m not quite sure I know what you mean by that.

QUESTION: Well, I mean, for a while, it looked as if you didn’t have the influence that you thought you had when you came to office in January over the Israelis when she made those comments and when it looked like --

MR. KELLY: Well, Israel is a sovereign state and will make decisions based on what it sees as it own natural – national interests. And we know this is not any kind of easy proposition, getting the two side to sit down. We’re just trying – once again, I’ll say we’re just trying to develop the right kind of atmosphere to restart the negotiations, and we hope this is a step in that direction.

QUESTION: Can I just ask a very quick follow-up?

MR. KELLY: Yeah.

QUESTION: Is there anything in what’s happened today linked to the fact that Mr. Netanyahu didn’t get the red carpet treatment that Mr. Singh got when he came to the White House? Is anything rooted in that, do you think?

MR. KELLY: Oh, Prime Minister Netanyahu came for a conference. That wasn’t an official --

QUESTION: No, I know this is different. But he didn’t feel welcome, did he?

MR. KELLY: No, I wouldn't see – I wouldn't read anything into that at all.

QUESTION: Okay, all right. Thanks.

MR. KELLY: Yeah. You haven’t had a question. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah?

MR. KELLY: Yes.

QUESTION: Okay. On Iranian president’s visit to Venezuela, what is the U.S. perception on that visit? Could you please comment on that?

MR. KELLY: I wasn’t aware that he went to Venezuela. He went to Venezuela as well?

QUESTION: Yeah. Or no, you didn’t know that?

MR. KELLY: No, I knew he went to Brazil and Bolivia, but I wasn’t aware he went to Venezuela.

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR. KELLY: Well, look, Venezuela, again, is free, of course, as any sovereign nation, to pursue diplomatic relations with other countries. Our policy with regard to Iran is to address those policies of the Iranian Government that we and the rest of the international community deem destabilizing to the region and beyond. And this includes Iran’s pursuit of a nuclear weapons capability, its support of terrorism, and its human rights record. And we expect all countries that have any kind of bilateral contact with Iran to emphasize these concerns of the international community with Iran.

QUESTION: But President Obama sent a letter to his Brazilian counterpart regarding Iran. So do you have the same perception on Brazil as you have in Venezuela regarding the visit of the Iranian president?

MR. KELLY: The same what? Sorry?

QUESTION: Perception. Is this the same --

MR. KELLY: Same perception?

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR. KELLY: No, we don’t have the same perception. We have different relations, obviously with different countries. Regarding the letter – President Obama, all I can do is confirm that there was such a letter. I’m not aware of any other letters to anybody – to any other leaders in South America. But for details on that, you have to ask the White House.

QUESTION: Ian, on Iran. The IAEA Board of Governors meeting, are you happy with the German draft resolution?

MR. KELLY: I’m not going to comment on the draft. We’ll comment on it tomorrow, but I’m not going to comment on it.

QUESTION: But --

MR. KELLY: The meeting is tomorrow. We’ll comment on it after it’s become –

QUESTION: You’re not going to say whether you – you’re not going to say whether you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing?

MR. KELLY: No, I’m not. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: All right how about this. Let me approach it this way: What would you like to see in a resolution that the IAEA Board of Governors might adopt?

MR. KELLY: Well, I think what we’d like to see is a – what we’re hoping for tomorrow is a serious discussion of the director general’s assessment of Iran’s nuclear program, of its noncompliance with a number of Security Council resolutions, its failure to declare a clandestine reprocessing facility that was in a state of construction. And we’re hopeful that we’ll get – we’ll continue to have the kind of unity among our partners and allies on the need to address these problems of noncompliance in a very serious way.

QUESTION: Well, do you want a condemnatory resolution?

MR. KELLY: I think what we want is a resolution that seriously addresses these problems and makes recommendations on the way forward.

QUESTION: Well, would you like the recommendations to include a referral to the Security Council for possible additional sanctions?

MR. KELLY: I don’t know if that’s within the purview of the IAEA, frankly, to be perfectly honest with you.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Wait, wait. Wait, one more.

MR. KELLY: Charley’s got one.

QUESTION: I missed the top of the briefing, but did you go into any more detail about what the Secretary might do next week following the President’s Afghanistan policy announcement?

MR. KELLY: No, we don’t have anything to announce. She’s going to be involved, of course, in a number of events associated with the announcement of the President’s policy, but I don’t have anything particular to announce on her schedule.

QUESTION: May I ask you something on Latin America again?

MR. KELLY: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: And it’s regarding – Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere already assumed office. Is he planning to travel to the region any time soon?

MR. KELLY: I’m sure he is. Whether it’s soon or not, but I’m sure he’s planning to travel, but --

QUESTION: You don’t know?

MR. KELLY: -- I don’t have any information on his travel. But if we can get that for you, we’ll get it for you.

QUESTION: And what – (inaudible), please.

MR. KELLY: Sorry?

QUESTION: A question?

MR. KELLY: Yes.

QUESTION: Mr. William Burns at the Brookings Institute, right after he retired, he held a forum and there, he talked about the --

QUESTION: Nick Burns.

QUESTION: I’m sorry?

QUESTION: Bill Burns hasn’t retired.

QUESTION: Bill, I'm sorry.

QUESTION: Nick Burns.

QUESTION: Okay. He talked about the extreme importance of the role that Turkey is going to be playing in the coming years for the United States policies for the Middle East moderation of Islam, building bridges between the Middle Eastern countries and the European and the Western world. Now, we see Turkey actually is – has been playing that big role in the region with many other countries.

But to our surprise that we see that – or not very surprising that the Israeli – some Israeli, pro-Israeli voices in Washington have attacked very fiercely Turkey and the government of Mr. Erdogan. The Washington Post editorial a few days ago was very much in that category.

Now, I want to ask you, sir, if you can reiterate your – the way you see your – the United States-Turkey relations. Is it still the same as it had been described just months ago? Is there any change now or reservations toward the new Turkey’s role in the region?

MR. KELLY: Well, we have a very robust and broad relationship with Turkey. Turkey is a valued member of NATO. Turkey, as you mentioned Nick Burns has said, we see as an important model for the region in terms of its very vital democratic institutions. We have a growing trade relationship with Turkey. We’re looking forward to the visit of Prime Minister Erdogan in a couple of weeks. That’s not to say that we don’t have disagreements with Turkey. We have disagreements with all of our allies and we discuss them both privately and publicly And we look forward to discussing the full range of our relations when Prime Minister Erdogan arrives.

QUESTION: Can you please explain a little bit, elaborate on these differences that you could tell us about?

MR. KELLY: I don’t think I’m going to elaborate them here and now, if you don’t mind. But I mean, we – with allies, we prefer to have these kinds of discussions on a bilateral basis.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. KELLY: Thank you.

QUESTION: Happy Thanksgiving.

MR. KELLY: Happy Thanksgiving.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:57 p.m.)



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