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Middle East Digest - January 26, 2009

January 26, 2009


Bureau of Public Affairs
January 26, 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 26, 2009

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MR. WOOD: Good morning, everyone. Happy Monday. Welcome to the briefing. Let’s see – why don’t I just go straight to your questions.

QUESTION: George Mitchell.

MR. WOOD: Yeah. Let me tell you from a statement here I’ll read and then I’ll fill in some more details for you.

Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell will travel to the Middle East and Europe from January 26 to February 3. On this trip, Special Envoy Mitchell will meet with senior officials to discuss the peace process and the situation in Gaza. Okay.

As part of this trip, he will be visiting Egypt, Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. Special Envoy Mitchell will be accompanied by other State Department officials, including Deputy Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Hale, as well as representatives from the National Security Council and the Department of Defense. In addition, the traveling party will be joined in Jerusalem in Ramallah by Acting Assistant Secretary for Population, Refugees, and Migration Sam Witten, and USAID Special Assistant to the Administrator George Laudato.

The Administration will actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Israel and its neighbors. And in furtherance to these goals – or of these goals on this trip, Special Envoy Mitchell will work to consolidate the ceasefire in Gaza, establish an effective and credible anti-smuggling and interdiction regime to prevent the rearming of Hamas, facilitate the reopening of border crossings, and develop an effective response to the immediate humanitarian needs of the Palestinians in Gaza and eventual reconstruction and reinvigorate the peace process.

So that’s what I have for you on the trip.

QUESTION: Is that the sum total of the places that he will visit, or is there any possibility of his going to other places?

MR. WOOD: There are always possibilities that he may travel to other places. We’ll try and keep you posted if, indeed, there are any changes to the schedule.

QUESTION: And you remember, I had asked – I asked Syria last week. Is there any possibility of his going to Syria?

MR. WOOD: I don’t believe that’s planned at all, but I’m certainly not going to rule out anything because, again, they’re still looking at the travel itinerary and we may have some updates. But I haven’t heard Syria.

QUESTION: And just last one from me on this. Is there any possibility of his having any contact, even indirect, say via the Egyptians, with Hamas?

MR. WOOD: He will not have contact with Hamas.

QUESTION: Did -- there is no – no stopover planned in Turkey? Because Turkey -- the Turkish say they are going to --

MR. WOOD: Well, like I said, you know, there may be some refinement to the travel itinerary. But I don’t have anything more for you on that at this point.

QUESTION: You mentioned Europe as well, but you didn’t mention any stops in Europe. Is that just refueling?

MR. WOOD: No, I think that’s still being looked at. Again, I just – I’m giving you what I have at the moment. And we’ll certainly update you if there are any changes.

QUESTION: Is he likely to meet UN officials in Gaza, since he talks about the humanitarian situation, on the ground?

MR. WOOD: Well, he’s going to meet with officials of the region and talk about the overall situation on the ground and, of course, longer-term steps for trying to get us back on the road to peace.

QUESTION: But he’s not going to Gaza?


MR. WOOD: I’m sorry?

QUESTION: He’s not going to Gaza?

MR. WOOD: Well, I’ve given you what I have here. And again, if we have any updates, I’ll certainly be happy to provide them.

QUESTION: But does he have permission to travel to Gaza? I mean, is that an option?

MR. WOOD: Again, like I said, this is what I have for you in terms of travel. We’ll see what else – if there are any updates, we’ll try and get them to you.

QUESTION: Robert, in more of a broader clarification of exactly what he’s going to do, is he in listening mode or is he in --

MR. WOOD: Absolutely. He is in a listening mode. He wants to talk to all of the – he wants to talk to regional leaders and try to get, as I said, back – get the peace process back on track. And he’ll obviously be discussing the humanitarian situation. And he’s eager to get out to the region and begin working.


QUESTION: On the long-term process, you’re talking about advancing the peace process in a broader sense.

MR. WOOD: That’s right.

QUESTION: Would you take into consideration his recommendation in 2001 that already talk about stopping violence, stopping Israeli settlement? Or is that past the point and you’re looking for a fresh start?

MR. WOOD: Look, he’s going out to listen. He wants to hear what the leaders have to say. And he’s going to report back to the Secretary and the President on his trip, and we’ll begin to continue formulating policy from there. But let’s let him to get to the region and have discussions, and then we’ll go from there.


QUESTION: Does he plan to pick up on the Annapolis process and where those negotiations were? Are you going to continue what the Bush Administration did? Is that your goal?

MR. WOOD: Well --

QUESTION: Or do you have a whole bag of new tricks?

MR. WOOD: Well, again, he’s going to go out to the region, do his own assessment, and then report back to, as I said, the Secretary and the President, and then go from there.

QUESTION: But how do you see the Annapolis process? Dead, alive, half-alive?

MR. WOOD: We have a new Administration. It’s taking a look at a number of different policies from the previous administration. It will be coming up with its own initiatives. And so why don’t we just give it a little time and let, you know, Senator Mitchell do this work.

QUESTION: Do you regard the program of helping to build up the PA’s defense and security forces that General Dayton worked on as continuing?

MR. WOOD: That was very good work that was being carried out. And again, what we’re about is trying to strengthen and build up these Palestinian institutions so that one day, the Palestinian Authority will be able to, you know, basically manage the affairs of a new state once we get to that two-state solution.

QUESTION: But in using the phrase “that was very good work,” it suggests that there has been a kind of finite end to that program.

MR. WOOD: No, I’m not suggesting that. I’m just saying that, you know, it’s been good work that has been done. It’s important for us to continue to try to strengthen these Palestinian institutions. And that kind of work will continue.

QUESTION: But what – but you didn’t say the same thing about the Annapolis process.

MR. WOOD: Well, like I said to you, the Annapolis process was something that the previous administration had been undertaking.

QUESTION: Well, but the previous administration also undertook all that stuff on the security (inaudible).

MR. WOOD: Yeah, I’m just – what I’m saying is that was good work. Certainly, Annapolis was good work. But again, there’s a new Administration and it’s taking a look at overall Middle East policy, and the beginnings of that is Senator Mitchell’s trip to the region.


QUESTION: Yeah, do you have any current plans to announce for a special representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan?

MR. WOOD: Nothing yet.


MR. WOOD: Nothing yet. When we do, we’ll be happy to announce them.


QUESTION: Can I ask you about this new threat warning on the U.S. Embassy in Yemen?

QUESTION: Can I just ask you one other thing on Mitchell?

MR. WOOD: Yeah.

QUESTION: Is he going to also be discussing Iran and how the region should approach Iran and its nuclear program?

MR. WOOD: Well, he’s going to be talking about the overall situation in the Middle East, and that obviously will have some – will in some way touch on the question of Iran. But I’m not going to get into any further details until he’s had a chance to go out to the region and have those discussions.

I’m just going to -- Nina, I think you had something.


MR. WOOD: On, Yemen, we’ve seen the – my understanding is we’ve seen the reports about this. There was – let me see if I can find that for you. I think I had a little something. I’m sorry. Yeah -- no, the Embassy is open and there was a Warden Message that was issued today, but I don’t have anything more on that.

QUESTION: Thought that it was supposedly a threat from al-Qaida?

MR. WOOD: Don’t know at all.

QUESTION: Are all personnel accounted for?

MR. WOOD: All personnel are accounted for.

QUESTION: The European Union took the Iranian anti-government group, the People's Mujahedin of Iran, off its list of terrorist organizations. Is there any similar action being considered here at the State Department?

MR. WOOD: No. Well, with regard to the European Union decision, that’s something you’ll have to address to them.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. WOOD: I think you all know that – I’m sorry?

QUESTION: They’ve already done it, so I’m asking you if the U.S. is considering similar action.

MR. WOOD: We’ve already done a review and it was determined that there would not be a revocation of that status for the Mujahedin-e Khalq, so nothing has changed from our standpoint.

QUESTION: Well, wasn’t that just done like a week or two ago?

MR. WOOD: Yeah, it was about a week ago. That’s right, about two weeks ago.

QUESTION: So the new Administration doesn’t (inaudible)?

MR. WOOD: To my knowledge, there has not been – there has not been any change at this point.

QUESTION: Are you going to review it every six months?

MR. WOOD: My understanding is that I think – don’t hold me to this – I think it’s a five-year review that’s done, but I’ll have to check and see.

QUESTION: The same meeting at the EU also looked at Guantanamo Bay. I wonder what is the – we touched on this last week briefly, but what is the State Department doing in terms of reaching out to other countries to take in Guantanamo Bay detainees? Maybe you could update us on what the new Administration is doing.

MR. WOOD: Well, those discussions continue with trying to figure out how we can best, you know, fulfill the President’s objectives of closing Guantanamo. And as you know, for some time, those discussions have been going on between the United States Government and other countries with regard to the disposition of detainees at Guantanamo, but I don’t have anything further to report to you from the podium on that.

QUESTION: And just to follow up on that, the Swiss have indicated that they’re interested in helping out with this issue.

MR. WOOD: That’s right.

QUESTION: What’s your response?

MR. WOOD: Well, obviously, that’s a good thing and we’re having discussions with other countries as well, as I mentioned, to try to finally, you know, dispose of these detainees that are in Guantanamo.

QUESTION: And do you have a sense of what that --

QUESTION: Well, what is the status, please?

MR. WOOD: I’m not going to get into – those countries will have to speak for themselves, but I would just leave it at what I said.

QUESTION: To transfer them?

MR. WOOD: Transferring them, if you want to use that word. Yeah, I’ve never been comfortable, but that’s the word we’ve been using.

QUESTION: Are you discussing this with the EU, kind of as an EU issue because they’re taking it up as an EU-wide issue?

MR. WOOD: We’ve had discussions with the EU as well as --

QUESTION: And bilaterally?

MR. WOOD: And bilaterally, yes.

QUESTION: Just if I could come back to Gaza for a moment, there were some reports of U.S. Naval ships that had been stopping ships that might be suspected of bringing arms to Hamas. I mean, first of all, can you give us any guidance on that? And secondly, do you see any evidence that some of the elements of that memorandum of understanding that was signed, you know, are starting to really be put into force now?

MR. WOOD: Well, with regard to the ship, I’ll have to refer you to the Pentagon. In terms of the MOU, I mean, obviously, that’s an issue that Senator Mitchell will be discussing with, you know, countries in the region, and we’ll have to see where it goes from there, Mark. But he’s going, you know, to be traveling and then we’ll see what happens from there.

Okay. Thanks, everybody.

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