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Middle East Digest - April 2, 2009

April 2, 2009


Bureau of Public Affairs

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 March 31, 2009

View Video

11:53 a.m. EDT

QUESTION: New topic. A topic – new topic. Israeli foreign minister said he’s going to meet with Secretary Clinton. Is there any specific date and place set right now?

MR. WOOD: No, they – the Secretary had a conversation with Foreign Minister Lieberman. It was yesterday. It was primarily to congratulate him on coming into his new position, but no dates have been set for any type of meeting.

QUESTION: What about Ambassador Mitchell?

MR. WOOD: He’s going to the region soon. I don’t have dates for you yet, because I don’t think they’ve been worked out, but he’s planning to travel to the area.

Yes, Matt.

QUESTION: Did the Secretary seek from the foreign minister any kind of an assurance on his position regarding a two-state solution in the Annapolis process?

MR. WOOD: It was a brief call. What I can tell you about the call is that she looked forward to getting together with him. But just to make it very clear, Matt, that our position has been for quite some time and remains focused on a two-state solution.

QUESTION: Did she make that clear to him?

MR. WOOD: That – our position is well-known by all the players in the Israeli Government.

QUESTION: Well, he had some – you know, several controversial comments yesterday, presumably before this phone call took place. She didn’t raise them at all or seek an assurance that the --

MR. WOOD: Matt, I’m not going to get into much more detail than I have on this call, but --

QUESTION: I’m not asking for detail. I’m just asking if she brought up anything other than congratulations and I hope I see you soon?

MR. WOOD: Look, I think – the Secretary looks forward to meeting with the foreign minister.

QUESTION: I got that. I understand that part.

MR. WOOD: Okay. And – and I draw you to Prime Minister Netanyahu’s comments yesterday about wanting to engage on the peace process, and his commitment to peace in the region. And again, this is a – this government is, what, a day or so old. It’s --

QUESTION: Right. Maybe I’m not making the question clear enough. Did the Secretary yesterday speak to --

MR. WOOD: Try it one more time.

QUESTION: -- ask the foreign minister about his position on either Annapolis or the whole idea of the two-state solution?

MR. WOOD: Look, we have had discussions with a number of officials in the Israeli Government about this issue. He is certainly – Foreign Minister Lieberman is well aware of what our position is.

QUESTION: Whether he is well aware of it or not, did this issue come up in the phone call, or was it simply a phone call to say congratulations and I hope I see you soon?

MR. WOOD: Well, it was – as I said, it was a very brief phone call. She wanted to congratulate him on assuming his position. They look forward to getting together at some point.

QUESTION: I’m sorry. I’m curious –

MR. WOOD: You know, I don’t want to get – obviously, I don’t want to get beyond that. But I just want to reiterate for you --

QUESTION: (Laughter.) Well, yeah, obviously. But did – well, did anything other than “Congratulations and I hope I see you soon” come up in the phone call or was that it?

MR. WOOD: Well, I can only – I got a readout of the phone call. I wasn’t on the phone call. But the important point here, Matt, to make, as I made already, is that a two-state solution --

QUESTION: Forget about the phone call. Is the Administration convinced that the new Israeli Government, including its foreign minister, is committed to finding the solution – a two-state solution to this conflict?

MR. WOOD: Look, I can only go by what has been said by the prime minister, who is the head of the Israeli Government. And he said he is committed to a peace process with the Palestinians.

QUESTION: Yeah, but he also refused to use the formula – a two-state solution or a Palestinian state.

MR. WOOD: Well, all I can tell you is that the new government, as well as the old government, is well aware of where the United States stands on this. And we are going to pursue that two-state solution because we believe it’s in the best interests of all the parties in the region, and we’ll go from there. But it’s – again, it’s a – the government is very new. The Secretary is going to have further discussions with both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Lieberman and we will go from there. But --

QUESTION: Is the U.S. Administration optimistic about the chances to make progress on the two-state solution?

MR. WOOD: Look, you have to be – in our business, you have to be optimistic about it. The problem – you know, but having said that we’re optimistic about it, there are some difficult issues. This conflict is, as you know, one of long standing. It’s not going to be solved overnight. But we believe that it’s in the interests of not just the region, not just the United States, but the entire world that we solve this conflict.

And we’re going to be working hard to see what we can do to move the process forward. But we’re under no illusions. It’s not going to be easy.

QUESTION: What about Senator Mitchell? What’s he hoping to achieve when he goes?

MR. WOOD: Well, he --

QUESTION: What’s the reasoning behind that at this moment?

MR. WOOD: Well, as Senator Mitchell himself said, he is going to be actively engaged on a regular basis trying to set up the framework so that we can move forward toward that two-state solution. He will be having conversations with a number of leaders in the region, and to try to see how we go forward, where we can make the most process – I mean the most progress, as soon as possible, and you know, also to try to help build some confidence among the parties and to try to do what we can to bridge some of the gaps.

QUESTION: But where do you seeing this progress being built? I mean, on settlements it doesn’t look likely that you’re going to make much progress on that. I mean, where do you see room for success here?

MR. WOOD: Well, where I see room for success is that all the parties in the region want to see an end to this conflict. And as I said, Prime Minister Netanyahu is committed to a peace in the region. President Abbas is committed to a peace in the region. No one wants to see further bloodshed in the Middle East. You know, one of the reasons the new Administration decided to name a special envoy to the region was to have this routine, regular, if possible daily, focus on trying to solve this conflict.

As I said, we’re under no illusions about how difficult it’s going to be, but we have to engage and we have to engage constantly and remind the parties of their obligations, and to try to set up a framework, a process for getting us toward that goal of the two-state solution.

QUESTION: So at what point are you going to send the Secretary – or is the Secretary going to go over? I mean, you say you want to be involved on a daily basis, it’s a high priority, President Obama has made that clear, too. But yet you can’t provide any dates of when she plans to go there or when she plans --

MR. WOOD: Well, the Secretary was just in the region, and Senator Mitchell is going very soon to the region. So there is – and we have, you know, our diplomatic missions in the region. So there is constant engagement. I just – I don’t know when the Secretary is next going to go to the region, but as I said, (inaudible) Mitchell is going very soon.

QUESTION: Yeah, is the new Obama Administration committed to the Annapolis process, in particular dealing with the final status issues right away, which Annapolis provided for?

MR. WOOD: Well, Annapolis provided for and further elaborated on the idea of a two-state solution, and so that is what we’re committed to doing. We’re trying to figure out the best way to get the parties to move in that direction. And you know, there will be ongoing – there will be conversations that we will have with the parties and – but it’s a difficult road. I don’t want to kid you, Lach. I mean, it’s not an easy situation. The region is very tense. And what we want to try to do is calm down those tensions and get everybody to focus on the number one objective, and that’s to bring about a stable peace to that region.

QUESTION: So did you decide then to deal with confidence-building measures and postpone the status of refugees, the status of Jerusalem and the boundaries of a few --

MR. WOOD: I don’t think you – well, again, those are questions that Senator Mitchell can better address. But certainly, all of these issues are important elements to getting to a peace, and they’re going to have to be addressed and addressed substantively. I just – you know, I’m not able to give you a better readout than I’ve given you. I think Senator Mitchell can probably do a better job in terms of how he best can carry out that mandate.

QUESTION: Robert, you said – you said that you were – the Administration is still trying to figure out the best way to bring the parties together? Is that what you said?

MR. WOOD: Well, I don’t remember exactly what I said, but what I’m talking about is we’re trying to bring them together the best way we can to get toward the two-state solution.

QUESTION: Right, okay. But you know, unless my memory is horribly bad, and I don’t think it’s that bad, up until January 20th, this Administration, as well as the former Israeli Government and the Palestinians were – kept talking about how – what great progress was being made on the Annapolis process. And even though there was no tangible evidence and no one believed them, everyone kept saying that there was great progress.

Are you saying now that we were, in fact, right that there wasn’t any progress being made, that that perhaps wasn’t the best way to bring the two sides together?

MR. WOOD: You know, Matt, certainly, at many periods you’re going to see progress. Progress, you know, ebbs and --

QUESTION: But that’s the problem. We didn’t see any progress, and yet we kept being told there was being progress made behind the scenes.

MR. WOOD: Well, the reason – there was progress, but we didn’t want to talk about – talk about that publicly.

QUESTION: So if – and if you’re saying now that you’re not – you’re still looking for the best way to bring the two sides together, it’s kind of an – it seems to me to be an admission that, in fact, there was no progress being made and that perhaps wasn’t the best way to get the two sides --

MR. WOOD: Look, Matt, as I was trying to say, progress with regard to the Middle East ebbs and flows. It’s – you’re going to have lots of ups and downs in this process. We’re going to have more of those. But we have a new Israeli Government and we have, you know, obviously a relatively new Administration that’s very engaged on trying to bring about an end to this conflict.

You know, you’re going to have ups and downs, which the important thing here is that there’s a commitment to work through all those ups and downs to get to our final objective. And so I – but again, this is not going to be easy. Nobody is going to say that it’s an easy task. But it’s an important task, and we have to go forward and work with the parties and get them to that two-state solution.

QUESTION: You said that Senator Mitchell could come to speak to us before his --

MR. WOOD: I didn’t say he could come. I said he’d be better able to address these issues --

QUESTION: Yes. Well, would it be possible for him to talk to us?

MR. WOOD: Well, we’ll see. You know, he’s going to be going to the region, so we’ll see. I’m not going to make any promises here because I haven’t talked to him.

QUESTION: Change of subject?

MR. WOOD: Okay.

QUESTION: On this new law for Shi’ite Muslims in Afghanistan that seems to infringe the rights of women, I wondered if you had any more details on this, any – whether you’ve been speaking to the Afghan Government recently about this. And how far – there seems to be some confusion as to whether it’s actually been signed or enacted, and I just wondered what information you had on it.

MR. WOOD: Well, with regard to whether it’s been signed or enacted, I’d have to refer you to the Afghan Government. But we’re very concerned about these reports with regard to the legislation. We ourselves are reviewing the legislation, and we urge President Karzai to review the law’s legal status, to correct provisions of the law that, you know, limit or restrict women’s rights. And that’s about all I have for you at this point.

QUESTION: And I’m sorry if I missed this. Did the Secretary raise this with President Karzai during her meeting with him?

MR. WOOD: Well, this issue has been raised with, you know, other officials – by other officials of the U.S. Government with the Afghan Government. But when she met with President Karzai in The Hague, it was to talk primarily about how we go forward with – in the aftermath of the strategic review.

But I also draw your attention to the fact that in The Hague the Secretary met with some Afghan – female Afghan parliamentarians, and she made the point to them that – and reassured them that, you know, women’s rights are going to be paramount in this Administration’s foreign policy – not an afterthought, but, you know, a major focus of the Administration’s foreign policy.

QUESTION: But she didn’t bring it up with the president? I mean, she had the perfect opportunity there.

MR. WOOD: She may have. I – you know, I don’t know. There was a lot of diplomatic activity and discussions going on. But I do know that the focus of her conversation, her meeting with President Karzai, was to talk about the outcome of the strategic review and how we go forward.

QUESTION: Could you please find out whether she did actually raise it with him? Because this is becoming quite a big issue.

MR. WOOD: Well, look, it’s certainly an issue that President Karzai is – his government is familiar with. The Secretary made that clear to the female Afghan parliamentarians that, you know, women’s rights are at the core of our foreign policy. So there’s – President Karzai is certainly well aware of our views with regard to this legislation.

QUESTION: Somalia and this al-Qaida-linked group al-Shabaab there seems to be this very broad recruitment effort of Somalia using the U.S., Australia, Canada to bring these youths into this group in Somalia. Is there’s something that you’ve been discussing with officials in Australia and Canada, this concern?

MR. WOOD: Well, I’m not going to talk about specific discussions we may or may not have had, but it’s certainly a very serious concern of ours about the recruitment activities of al-Qaida around the world. And you know --

QUESTION: Can you talk specifically about Somalia?

MR. WOOD: Somalia would be one of those areas that we’re concerned about with regard to al-Qaida recruitment. But look, this is – this requires broad cooperation – the United States with other countries not only in, you know, the Horn of Africa, but outside of that region, to try to do what we can to prevent al-Qaida from being successful in recruiting young people to their cause. Their cause is one of just human destruction. It’s a cause of terror. And law enforcement officials, governments, others have to join forces to come together to do what we can in that regard.

And so it’s a big concern of ours. There’s no question about it. And everybody in the world should be concerned about what al-Qaida is up to. We haven’t defeated al-Qaida, but we’re going to do everything in our power to do it. But we can’t do it alone, and we need to work with other governments and other peoples to try to do that.

QUESTION: Yeah, on Nina’s question, if there were conversations among these three governments, could you tell us? I mean --

MR. WOOD: I really don’t want to get into those types of discussions, Lach, for obvious reasons, and you can understand why.

QUESTION: Have you heard – had any response yet from the Iranians to the aide-memoire, which was handed over in The Hague?

MR. WOOD: Nothing new.

QUESTION: Do you – have you received any information from the Swiss about Roxana Saberi?

MR. WOOD: I checked this morning. There was no update at all on her.

QUESTION: And nothing new on Mr. Levinson either?

QUESTION: Just on the matter of – just to follow on on the aide-memoire. In terms of diplomatic protocol, would they reply directly to you or would they send their reply via the Swiss?

MR. WOOD: It would depend. I mean, they could reply to the Swiss or could reply to us. I just – it’ll depend on what they decide to do.

QUESTION: You don’t know how that would – reply would?

MR. WOOD: Well, we don’t have relations with the Government of Iran, so you know –

QUESTION: Yeah, I know.

MR. WOOD: So it would likely – and I’m saying likely – go through the Swiss. But I don’t know. They could decide at some other point to have it forwarded to us. I just don’t know. I’d refer you to --

QUESTION: And would that be okay to have it just a direct reply to you in terms of diplomatic whatever?

MR. WOOD: Well, look, what’s important is that, you know, Iran and the United States engage. And we are obviously committed to direct engagement with Iran as demonstrated by what took place in The Hague. But we’ll have to see whether Iran wants to reply.

QUESTION: Did it ask – did it ask for a reply?

MR. WOOD: I don’t recall. I don’t know. I mean, obviously if you – you know, you send that type of a message, you know, one would expect a reply. But it’s really up to the Iranians. To date, we haven’t received any reply.

(The briefing was concluded at 12:24 p.m.)

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