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Middle East Digest - March 3, 2010

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Washington, DC
March 3, 2010


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 3, 2010

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1:20 p.m. EST

MR. CROWLEY: Before taking your questions, we appreciate the Arab League Follow Up Committee’s decision, which it announced today in Cairo. This is positive. And as we’ve said for some time, we believe that negotiations should and ultimately will take place through a variety of channels. And we continue to work closely with the parties. Senator Mitchell will return to the region in the next few days to continue our efforts to re-launch negotiations as soon as possible.

QUESTION: And where?

MR. CROWLEY: I’ve got nothing to announce at this point.

QUESTION: Can you shed any light on what the proximity talks are likely to look like? In other words, do you – if they actually begin, do you expect an Israeli team in one room and a Palestinian team in another room and Senator Mitchell or his team going back and forth? Or do you think it’s more likely to look a lot like Senator Mitchell’s work over the last year and more, which is to say going to see the Israelis, going to see the Palestinians, sort of shuttling back and forth, but it’s not like the two parties are actually in proximity, you know, in a room or a building somewhere, that he just goes and sees them in various places and --

MR. CROWLEY: I think, Arshad, I’ll pick up on a key phrase, which is: if we get to that point. We’re not there yet. I think we’re getting close. But as we have said, it’s important for the parties to begin to address the issues at the heart of the peace process if we’re going to get to a comprehensive peace agreement. They have to begin to wrestle with the particulars. And that can be done through a variety of ways, both direct and parallel talks. I think we have to just wait to see how the process unfolds here. Senator Mitchell will be back in the region in the next few days, and we’ll consult with the parties in light of this meeting that’s happened over the last couple of days and see where they are and when – if and when the process begins, we’ll let you know.

QUESTION: Is there – just one other thing: Is it your understanding that with the announcement by the Arab League Follow-on Committee that President Abbas’s concerns about resuming even indirect talks have now been addressed and satisfied? Or are there additional things that he wants or wants to see before engaging even in indirect talks?

MR. CROWLEY: I think that’s expressly the reason why George Mitchell will go back to the region, that in light of this meeting and, say, further meetings that President Abbas may have during the course of this week, that we’ll assess where he is in the process. As George does – when he goes back to the region, he’ll be consulting with the Israeli side as well. But it will be to assess, in light of these developments, where the parties see themselves and what they’re prepared to do.

QUESTION: The Arab foreign ministers have agreed on a four month timeframe for (inaudible) negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis. Do you think this is enough?

MR. CROWLEY: I think if we’re going to get from where we are to a comprehensive peace agreement, our guess is that it will probably take more time than that. But as we’ve said, we want to get these parties talking about the specific issues, not just the final status issues but some of the nuts and bolts of how two states ultimately live together. There are a whole set of issues – water, borders, what have you. We want to get this process started. The sooner it starts, the better. Once we get into the process, we think that it has the potential to create a dynamic that will create some momentum. So I know that at various times, people will look at evaluating the progress. We want to – we recognize that until you get into a process, it is almost impossible to make progress on these issues. So getting them started, beginning to address the specific issues at the heart of this effort, then we think that that dynamic – it will take care of itself.

QUESTION: Do these talks – these indirect talks will address any and all of those subjects? Or --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, that – we have to make sure that the parties are themselves prepared with these steps that we see. We’re close. We will assess with the parties in the coming days where they are. I think that once we get into a process when the leaders make that decision, then we’ll be in a position to see what they’re prepared to talk about.

QUESTION: Sorry. On the same point, so the point is that you would – they would agree in advance what the agenda would be?

MR. CROWLEY: We have – this has been one of the issues that we’ve been talking to the parties with for some time. I think this – again, this is why Senator Mitchell will go out to the region and – to see where they are and then to kind of judge what steps they’re prepared to take, what form such talks would take, and obviously what the topics will be.

QUESTION: Is there any possibility that the indirect talks might indeed commence during his upcoming trip in the next few – when he leaves in the next few days?

MR. CROWLEY: If that happens, we’ll be happy to let you know.

QUESTION: So it is a possibility, in other words?

MR. CROWLEY: I’ve got nothing to announce.

QUESTION: Can you tell – you said that you appreciate the Arab League’s Follow-on committees. What is it about what they’ve done that you appreciate? What’s good in this?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, we have been working hard for several months to create the kind of political support that we think the parties will need if they make the decision to enter into discussions. That is particularly true, given the difficult dynamic that we saw last fall. As we’ve said since coming into office, it is not only about what the parties are prepared to do; it is about making sure that they have the confidence that, as they address critical issues inherent in this process, that they have the support that they need throughout the region. And so anything that moves us closer to creating that dynamic that gives the leaders confidence to enter into negotiations, enter into discussions on these issues, we take as a positive.

QUESTION: Let me ask a follow-up, then. Are there any restrictions in what the Arab League has done today that you have concerns about?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, I’m going to put the ball back in the court of the leaders that, in light of what’s happened here over the past couple of days, and in light of further discussions that might take place in the coming days, whether they now feel that they have the ingredients in place to make the decision to enter into discussions. We will be consulting with them in the coming days, and we’ll see what they’re prepared to do.

QUESTION: And, P.J., one more about this. When you talk about entering into discussions, but the reality is they’re not going to enter into discussions. They’re going to be talking to Senator Mitchell and members of his team. And it’s almost as if one has gone backwards in time, two decades, to the pre-Oslo period when they wouldn’t even sit in the same room and talk to one another. Why should somebody looking at this not say, “Well, jeepers, they’re not actually going to talk to one another. It’s still going to be entirely mediated.”

MR. CROWLEY: Well, let me – a couple of responses, Arshad. First of all, if we’re going to get to a comprehensive peace agreement, they will ultimately need to talk directly to each other. And – but in order to get the process started, we’ve always envisioned multiple channels of communication that, in some cases, you’d have meetings at leadership levels. In some cases, you’d have parallel talks mediated by the United States. In other cases, you’d have discussions at the expert level wrestling with the details of particular issues that are inherent in providing the security that Israel deserves and building a viable state that the Palestinians deserve. It’s not one thing; it’s all of these things.

And what we are looking to do, working with the parties, is to get them to where you can begin to address these issues. If it starts through indirect talks and then creates momentum that leads to confidence that eventually gives the leaders a sense that there’s now an understanding – a common understanding – that should lead to direct talks, that’s the kind of step-by-step process I think we envision.

QUESTION: I want to ask a question. Syria and Hamas have opposed the Arab League decision. What do you think about that?

MR. CROWLEY: We value the work that a number of countries have done during these meetings and what they’ve done throughout the previous weeks and months. These are difficult issues. And not everyone is going to agree on every step, and not everyone’s going to agree on every detail. But ultimately, we have no choice here. If you are going to arrive at a comprehensive peace agreement that is in everyone’s interest in the Middle East, then ultimately the two parties in this channel, as well as other channels, are going to have to sit down face to face, deal with these issues, make some painful compromises along the way, and ultimately reach an agreement that ends the conflict. That is everyone’s goal.

There’s never going to be a perfect time where everyone feels confident that this is the right time to take a step. This is why these are courageous, difficult steps that leaders are contemplating, but we think it’s time for them to step up, step forward, and get the process started.

QUESTION: Can we do a quick one on – back to the Middle East for a second?


QUESTION: On Libya, as I believe you’re aware, the Libyan Government has voiced its displeasure at a comment made from the podium last week. And according to their state news agency, they summoned a U.S. diplomat in Tripoli to voice their displeasure and demand an apology. Do you have any – one, can you confirm whether they did indeed summon a U.S. official and, if so, who? And second, if you have anything to say in response?

MR. CROWLEY: All of what you say is true. I made an offhand comment last Friday regarding statements from Libya. It was not intended to be a personal attack. That said, a call for a jihad against any country or individual has the potential to harm and is not something the United States takes lightly. We remain firmly committed to the U.S.-Libyan relationship. Our chargé was called into discuss this and we look forward to continuing our dialogue with Libya, but we will not hesitate to express our concerns about the statements or actions of any country.

QUESTION: You said it was an offhand comment? What did you say?

MR. CROWLEY: I made a comment. I think it was the last question of the briefing on Friday.

QUESTION: Just so we’re – wait. That’s the word you used in your statement? Is that what you said?


QUESTION: Offhand? Is that what you just said?



MR. CROWLEY: Just two things –

QUESTION: But they are asking for an apology and they are saying that U.S. failure to apologize will affect political and the economic relations between the two countries.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean we will continue to discuss this and we will be prepared to comment from this podium when we have concerns about the statements or actions of other countries.

QUESTION: But I think what they’re objecting to is less comment about their call for jihad than the suggestion that Colonel Qadhafi didn’t make any sense when he spoke at the United Nations in September and the implication that he didn’t make any sense in calling for jihad against Switzerland. That’s different from saying, “We don’t think countries should call for jihad against other countries.” I mean what they’re upset about doesn’t seem to me to refer to the jihad comment so much as to this suggestion that you were – you appeared to suggest that their leader didn’t make any sense.

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not going to comment further.

QUESTION: P.J., Viktor Ivanov, the head of the Russian anti-drug force, enforcement agency, really blamed NATO for the increase of the heroin traffic, specifically NATO’s refusal to go after the drugs. Ninety percent of the drugs – of the heroin in Russia come from Afghanistan, and NATO’s backing off on going after the drugs he blames primarily on the increase of the heroin traffic in Russia. What is your response to this? Is there some basis for this? And where does it stand in the NATO’s list of things to do? Where does fighting the heroin trade stand in (inaudible)?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, clearly this is a significant challenge for the international community and for the Government of Afghanistan. I think in previous years, we had an approach that stressed eradication, and quite honestly, the drug trade has continued apace. We are pursuing a different strategy that has a combination of issues. It’s not that we’re failing to address the issue of narcotics in Afghanistan. We are aggressively pursuing that, because ultimately part of the solution in Afghanistan has to be the emergence of a strong, legitimate Afghan economy. Lots of things happened with the money that is generated by the drug trade – corruption inside Afghanistan and obviously concern about increasing drug usage in the region and beyond. So this is a shared challenge for the international community because it manifests itself in Russia, throughout Europe, in other parts of the region.

We’re not ignoring it. We are actually attacking it aggressively, but now we’re doing it through a different kind of strategy that where we can be seen as supporting the Afghan people as opposed to being seen as attacking the livelihood that they have relied on in recent years or recent decades. So we are looking at this comprehensively. We are going after not so much the farmers. We’re working with the farmers to see if we can’t see the emergence of alternative livelihoods. You’ve had Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack here a couple of times talking about what we’re doing to try to grow a legitimate agricultural economy with the expert – export of fruits and other materials. And we’re finding, as we’re able to work with farmers to convert their crops that actually the gain of the farmers is more significant with legitimate agricultural products than it is through the drug trade. We are still aggressively attacking the drug middlemen that we think are both sustaining the drug trade and responsible for much of the corruption that surrounds that.

So – and this is – as Richard Holbrooke said here at the podium yesterday, he’s been to Russia, we’ve had discussions directly with the Russian Government. I think we all have a shared understanding of the challenge it represents, and we’ll continue to work aggressively to convert the Afghan economy from an illegitimate one a legitimate one.

MR. CROWLEY: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:59 p.m.)

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