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Middle East Digest - January 23, 2009

January 23, 2009


Bureau of Public Affairs
January 23, 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 January 23, 2009

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2:47 p.m. EST

MR. WOOD: Good afternoon, everyone. Welcome to the briefing. If you like, I’d run down – I’ll run down some of the Secretary’s calls that she’s had over the last couple of days. Okay, let me start. Well, first we’ll start in the Middle East. She’s spoken with Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, Israeli Foreign Minister Livni, Israeli Defense Minister Barak, Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit, the Jordanian King Abdullah, Palestinian Authority President Abu Mazen, Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Fayyad, and Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faysal.

QUESTION: On the Middle East, were these introductory calls or was she already --

MR. WOOD: These are all introductory --

QUESTION: But on specifically on the Israeli and Palestinian and Egyptian calls, was she kind of diving into, you know, the issues surrounding the cease-fire and how the U.S. wants to see it implemented, or were these purely, like, looking forward to working with you type of calls?

MR. WOOD: As I was about to say, these were, you know, brief introductory calls where the Secretary basically introduced herself in those instances where she needed to, and spoke about how much she looks forward to working with them on some of the major foreign policy issues that confront all of us.

QUESTION: Well, can you explain to us, aside from the appointment of George Mitchell to be special envoy, exactly what is different about this current Administration’s Mideast policy, as opposed to the last one, which you also ably spoke for?

MR. WOOD: Well, let me just say that, look, the Secretary – this is her second day on the job. And as you can tell, the Secretary and the President are very interested in pursuing a Middle East peace. They’ve named, you know, a Special Envoy for Middle East Peace. And I think the Secretary made very clear in her testimony what our views are on the Middle East, particularly with regard to Hamas. And she reiterated the three points that I think are not just conditions that the U.S. will adhere to, but other countries have said that they adhere to.

QUESTION: Those conditions date back to the prior administration, though. With the exception of the appointment of George Mitchell and getting – and apparently delving into this on the second day in the job, what is different about the policy now as it was last – than what it was last week? It seems to me that you’re asking – you’re saying the same – exactly the same thing --

MR. WOOD: Well, let me just --

QUESTION: -- or, they – the President has said exactly the same thing.

MR. WOOD: Well, let me say that --

QUESTION: The Secretary --

MR. WOOD: -- the Administration hasn’t fully enunciated its Middle East policy. It will do so at an appropriate time. However, I think the Secretary in her testimony was, you know, making sure that it was understood how she views and how the Administration that was coming into being viewed the situation going on in Gaza. And she made very clear what Hamas needed to do if it was going to play a constructive role in the region.

QUESTION: And that is somehow different than what --

MR. WOOD: That’s just one element. There are going to be similarities in policies. There’s nothing unusual about that. There are certain principles that the United States stands for with regard to the Middle East, and those are not going to change. And with regard to Hamas, I think she was very clear on where we stand.

Let me get someone – let’s – we’ll move to (inaudible). Please.

QUESTION: The Hamas – one the Hamas leader yesterday was saying in the announcement of the Mr. Mitchell mission to the area as a – as he described it to be that President Obama – as if he put a stick in the wheel of the mission already, meaning that it won’t go on because what they see – not only them, but so many in the Middle East -- that the new Administration’s announced policy so far actually *vouch for* exactly the conditions of Israel and how there is anything changed from that? They see only humanitarian aids for Gaza or building in Gaza, but they don’t talk about (inaudible), about occupation, about people want to be free from the Israeli brutality there.

MR. WOOD: Well, first, let me just say that Senator Mitchell is going to be going to the region at some point. He will be talking to all of the players about how we move forward to try to bring about a two-state solution.

QUESTION: All of the players except Hamas.

MR. WOOD: Again, we’ve basically enunciated what our views are with regard to Hamas. And as I said, Senator Mitchell will be trying to see if we can find – all find common ground to try to move the process forward. So I don’t want to get out ahead of what his plans are, but let us just be very clear that Middle East peace is a priority, a very high priority, for this Administration.

QUESTION: But President Obama said yesterday that the aid would be funneled through – President Obama said yesterday that the aid would be funneled through President Abbas to reconstruction in Gaza. But given the fact that Hamas is running Gaza right now, don’t you think some kind of coordination or dealing with Hamas is going to be necessary to make sure that the aid, that the supplies get through, that they get delivered to those that need it? I mean, I understand what you say about no talks with Hamas, but given the realities on the ground, don’t you think some kind of accommodation with Hamas is going to have to be made through – even through a third party?

MR. WOOD: Look, as I’ve said, we’ve – I’ve outlined our views with regard to Hamas. What we’re trying to deal with right now on the ground in Gaza is getting a durable, sustainable cease-fire, and also getting humanitarian assistance delivered to those people who need it.

QUESTION: Well, how are you going to get it delivered without some kind of accommodation with the organization that’s running the territory?

MR. WOOD: We are working with our allies in the region to try to do what we can to help alleviate the humanitarian situation, and we’re going to continue to do that. And when Senator Mitchell goes to the region, he’s going to be looking at the entire Middle East picture, and try to see how we can best go forward.

QUESTION: Robert, the previous administration was decidedly cool to the Turkish-sponsored Israeli and Syrian peace talks. It was fine if they went ahead, but the previous administration was very clear that their focus was on the Israeli-Palestinian track. Given that you’ve just said that Senator Mitchell will be looking at the entire region, is the current Administration any more interested in the possibility of promoting, facilitating, assisting in Israeli-Syrian peace efforts?

MR. WOOD: Well, as I said, I think it’s a bit early to start talking about what the new Administration is going to be doing. Let’s let Senator Mitchell go to the region, have some discussions, and then – and let the Administration further review what policies it wants to take before, you know, answering those questions.

QUESTION: Is there a sign that he might go to Damascus?

QUESTION: Will he go to Syria?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know at this point. But when we have something to announce about his travel, we certainly will do that.

QUESTION: Robert, does the Administration regard President Abbas as still the president? Does it regard his continued occupancy of that office as legally legitimate or lawful?

MR. WOOD: Well, my understanding is that it’s been extended -- his authority there. And he is, as far as we’re concerned, president of the Palestinian Authority. And he’s certainly an important interlocutor for us.

QUESTION: So you regard the means that were used to extend his authority as lawful?

MR. WOOD: I’m not going to get into questions. I’m not a lawyer. I can’t answer that question for you, specifically. But what I can say is that we recognize him as the leader of the Palestinian Authority.

QUESTION: One last question, if I might.

MR. WOOD: Sure.

QUESTION: How – does the Administration concede the control of Gaza to Hamas as something that’s going to exist for some time to come?

MR. WOOD: Look, we’ve – what we’re trying to do right now is, as I said, deal with the current situation on the ground. And what’s primary here is getting assistance to those who need it, and trying to see if we can get a sustainable and durable cease-fire. And we obviously will be – Senator Mitchell will be addressing a lot of these issues at some point. But again, with regard to Hamas, I think I’ve made pretty clear what our policy is.


QUESTION: On a related question, Egypt is planning on holding a donors conference early in February or maybe mid-February. Is this something the United States is going to attend? And then secondly, if Hamas attends – because they might be the people who would be distributing some aid from some quarters, not necessarily the Europeans or yourself – would you still be prepared to go? What would the situation be*?

MR. WOOD: You’re asking me to speculate on, you know, what if, and I – I just --

QUESTION: Well, not what if. I mean, are you going to go to the conference?

MR. WOOD: Well, again, I -- this is the first I’ve heard about an Egyptian conference. I’ll have to look and see indeed – if this is indeed is going to take place and when it’s going to take place. But I’m – to be very honest with you, I’m not aware that Egypt was, you know, putting forth an idea for a conference.

QUESTION: Mubarak announced it last weekend and said (inaudible).

MR. WOOD: I’m sorry. I must have missed it.

QUESTION: Well, you’re not aware -- is this the first you’ve heard of it in this Administration?

MR. WOOD: I’m just saying this is the first I’ve heard of it, period.

QUESTION: Would you attend such a conference if – I mean, it’s not a hypothetical – if Hamas were there?

MR. WOOD: Well, look --

QUESTION: (Inaudible) hypothetical (inaudible).

MR. WOOD: Well, you’re – (laughter). You know, I just – I just – I was very clear on that, Sue, that, you know, you’re asking hypotheticals here, and I’m not going to, you know --

QUESTION: Do you acknowledge, though, that you do possess memories that predate Tuesday?

MR. WOOD: This is a new administration. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: *Sounds good now.*

QUESTION: Any forthcoming foreign minister visits to the State Department from other --

MR. WOOD: I don’t have anything that’s been confirmed. I know there have been a number of requests for meetings with the Secretary, but I don’t have anything that’s nailed down at this point to give you.

QUESTION: Did you – have you gotten any response or interaction with the Saudi Government? I don’t know if this – Prince Turki wrote a very sharp article in the FT today, basically saying U.S.-Saudi relations under the Obama Administration could be seriously in jeopardy if there’s not a sharp shift in U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Has – I mean, he was the ambassador here just a few years ago. Is there – have you gotten any readout on that or what’s going on with --

MR. WOOD: No, but just let me say that, obviously, Saudi Arabia is an important player in the Middle East and can play an important role in helping bring about a two-state solution, so we’ll be working closely with the Saudis. But I don’t have any response to that piece at all.

QUESTION: Going back to North Korea, or actually, to the idea of a review, is there some review underway with regard to Iran? And if so – a formal review, I mean. And if so, who’s leading it for the Secretary, and does it include the question of an interests section, which the past administration --

MR. WOOD: I think the Secretary spoke to that in her confirmation hearing. Yes, indeed, our Iran policy is being reviewed. We’re looking for ways that we can engage the Iranian people. The interests section is something that’s under review as well. But I don’t have anything more for you on that.

QUESTION: Is there a timeline?

MR. WOOD: No timeline that I’m aware of. We’ll obviously try to get that done as quickly as we can, because Iran is a very important matter for us to deal with.

QUESTION: *There’s talk of* a political directors meeting of the P-5+1 coming up soon in Germany. Will the U.S. be there, or will that depend on the review, if it’s complete?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, the P-5+1 meeting – you know, we’ve had many of them over the past. It’s not unusual to have another one. But I’d refer you to the German Government for, you know, confirmation of whether the meeting is taking place or not.

QUESTION: Well, will the U.S. participate in the --

MR. WOOD: At the next P-5+1 meeting? Of course, we would participate.

QUESTION: Even if the review isn’t finished?

MR. WOOD: Well, again, that would be part of the review. *We want to hear* – and I think, well, we do have that next P-5+1 meeting. The U.S. representative – I’m assuming it will be Bill Burns – will want to hear from his counterparts about their ideas and bring them back to the new administration.

QUESTION: You don’t – seeing as he’s participated in the last several of those, don’t you think he probably already knows what their thoughts are*?

MR. WOOD: Like I said, we have these meetings. They’re, you know, periodically. It’s not unusual. And the Secretary is very interested in hearing what these people have to say.

QUESTION: Well, if he’s – if you’re having a review, why do you have to wait for the next meeting? Why can’t you call a special meeting of the P-5+1, or why can’t he go out there and start consulting with allies on --

MR. WOOD: As I said, Elise, we’ve had these P-5+1 meetings periodically. We’re going to continue to have them. They’re a useful channel for, you know, consulting on issues with regard to Iran. And that will be fed into the overall review.

QUESTION: Robert, do you have anything on the nomination of Dennis Ross as the special envoy to Iran, and why this nomination didn’t happen yesterday?

MR. WOOD: No, I don’t have anything for you on that, Michel.


QUESTION: Will Susan Rice be at the UN Monday?

MR. WOOD: I don’t know. You might want to check with the mission up there. I don’t know when she’ll be up there.

QUESTION: Can you tell us anything – the President mentioned when he was here at the State Department yesterday, he was referring to the Arab Peace Initiative, and he said that there are some elements of it that are constructive. Can you tell us which elements specifically he was talking about in that sense?

And then on sort of an unrelated note, but somewhat related, in the appointment of George Mitchell and Richard Holbrooke, have they made any statements or are they going to be going through any procedure in terms of conflict – potential conflicts of interest, anything like that?

MR. WOOD: Not that I’m aware of with regard to that, dealing with the second part of your question. The first part of your question, the President spoke to it. We’re very early on in the Administration. I mean, he’s obviously seen some elements of it that he likes. Probably, for more details, I’d refer you to the White House to get clarification on what he said.

Let me go back here for a minute, because they’ve been very patient. Yes, ma’am.

QUESTION: Yesterday morning, President Obama signed a bunch of executive orders, one of which related to Guantanamo Bay and its close, ordering it to close in a year. He’s obviously gotten an early start on this, so in the 24 hours since, what has the State Department been doing to help advance this? You guys have been – played a pretty major role in trying to resettle and get detainees out and resettled into third countries. How many calls have been made toward that end? What’s – what’s --

MR. WOOD: I couldn’t possibly give you an idea of how many calls have been made. But that’s been something we have been working on for quite some time, trying to find countries where we could send some of these individuals who are being held in Guantanamo. But I’m – the President and the White House Press Secretary spoke at this at length. I don’t have anything more to add on it.

Kirit, last one.

QUESTION: I just wanted to follow up on the Middle East. Secretary Clinton’s predecessor, obviously, was very personally involved in resolving that by traveling there. Do you expect Secretary Clinton to take a similar role on this sort of level, or is she going to leave most of that to her new envoy?

MR. WOOD: The Secretary is going to be very involved in bringing about, you know, Middle East peace. I would look at these envoys as, to be very honest, force multipliers. There’s a lot of work that can be done with regard to the Middle East and with regard to the situation in Afghanistan and Pakistan. And so that’s how I would characterize the efforts of the envoys.

QUESTION: And see what – you would consider her if she would travel with Mitchell or something like that?

MR. WOOD: I – it’s hard for me to say, at this point. But certainly, the Secretary will be, you know, traveling at some point to the region when it’s appropriate.

QUESTION: Isn’t force multiplier a military term?

MR. WOOD: Whatever term it is, I think you should look at it in those terms.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) in terms of the assistant secretaries of state, they’re reporting directly to Secretary Clinton or to --

MR. WOOD: Assistant secretaries of state?

QUESTION: Yeah, where do they fit in, these special representatives, with respect to the assistant secretaries of state for those respective regions? What’s the, kind of, reporting line?

MR. WOOD: Well, the special representatives for Afghanistan and Pakistan and this – you know, the special envoy for the Middle East, those two individuals will report through the Secretary to the President. The assistant secretaries in the geographic regions cover a broad range of – a broad number of – a large number of countries. And so, all of those things will be worked out. The important thing here is that we have real high-level attention on these two parts of the world that require serious attention and that are key to U.S. national security interests.

Okay. Thank you everyone.

QUESTION: Thank you.

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