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Middle East Digest - March 15, 2010


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Washington, DC
March 15, 2010

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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 March 15, 2010

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QUESTION: So when the Secretary spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu, did she make any specific requests of his government and what sort of actions they’d like to see taken?

MR. CROWLEY: She did outline for Prime Minister Netanyahu some specific things that we wanted to see from the Israeli Government. I’m not going to go into specific detail. I think that they involve not only specifics about the project in question that was announced last week, but really more so about the willingness of the parties to engage seriously in this process and jointly create conditions for its success and be willing to address the core issues at the heart of the peace process.

I would say that we also have some concerns today about the tensions regarding the rededication of a synagogue in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. And we are urging all parties to act responsibly and do whatever is necessary to remain calm. We’re deeply disturbed by statements made by several Palestinian officials mischaracterizing the event in question, which can only serve to heighten the tensions that we see. And we call upon Palestinian officials to put an end to such incitement.

So this is something that we are and will continue to talk with both parties about, which is – as we see, proximity talks started. Both sides have responsibilities to make sure that there’s an appropriate environment that allows progress to be made.

QUESTION: Did she specifically ask, though, to put an end to the 1600 apartments, the project that was announced --

MR. CROWLEY: Again, I’m not going to go into particulars, but her discussion on Friday did focus not only on this particular housing initiative, but also about the process more broadly.

QUESTION: Let me follow up, though. There’s word today that the project that – Netanyahu, who announced that the project’s going to go forward. Any reaction to that?

MR. CROWLEY: We – she – when she outlined for the prime minister our specific concerns, she asked for a formal response by the Israeli Government that has – and we await that response.

QUESTION: So – but tell us again, does it – you have no reaction to him saying that this project’s going to go forward? I mean, how about – can you say publicly --

MR. CROWLEY: As I just said, when she outlined what she thought appropriate actions would be to the prime minister, she asked for a response by the Israeli Government. We wait for that response.

QUESTION: So you’re discounting whatever he said today? It does – means nothing to you?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m saying that we asked for a formal response from the Israeli Government and when we get that response, we’ll react to it.

QUESTION: P.J.

MR. CROWLEY: Sir.

QUESTION: P.J., there are Israeli media reports or there were Israeli media reports over the weekend that said that she had indeed asked for cessation of this project. You can’t address that at all?

MR. CROWLEY: I just said – Arshad, as to particulars of what she asked, I’m not – just not going to get into the particulars.

QUESTION: Is Senator Mitchell still planning to go to the Middle East? And are the talks going to start or they’ve reached a dead end?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, as we have announced, George Mitchell intends to be in the region this week. However, his schedule is not yet set.

QUESTION: It’s not yet set?

QUESTION: So he’s not leaving tonight?

QUESTION: I understand there are meetings in Israel tomorrow – or tomorrow and Wednesday.

MR. CROWLEY: This is a fluid situation. As of this moment, he’s still in the United States.

QUESTION: Thanks. You mentioned the rededication of a synagogue in the Old City?

MR. CROWLEY: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: That you were disappointed in that. Are you disappointed in the rededication or in the reaction?

MR. CROWLEY: No, the reaction. I mean, there have been some mischaracterizations of this particular event, and we have concerns that this could lead to further tensions. And we just call on everyone not to – to be careful about public statements that can incite further violence.

QUESTION: So you’re not objecting to the rededication?

MR. CROWLEY: Not at all, not at all, not at all.

QUESTION: And have there been any --

MR. CROWLEY: This is about statements made about this event, not about the event itself.

QUESTION: By the Palestinians?

QUESTION: Have there been any direct --

QUESTION: By Palestinian officials.

QUESTION: Have there been any direct communications with the Palestinian officials on that issue?

MR. CROWLEY: Yes.

QUESTION: And are you requesting specific things of them?

MR. CROWLEY: We have made our concerns known about these public statements regarding this event. I mean, we remain in – over the weekend, we were in contact with officials from – both Palestinians and Israelis as we continue to look for the right conditions to move these talks forward.

Kirit.

QUESTION: A quick follow-up on the talks. Other than the Secretary’s call, the Vice President’s call on Friday, and the ambassador being called in to talk to the Deputy Secretary on Friday, have there been any meetings or calls between senior U.S. and Israeli officials since then? Anything today?

MR. CROWLEY: Calls, yes, across a range of officials from the U.S. Government, Israeli Government. I’m not aware of any further meetings at this point.

QUESTION: Can you be any specific – give us any specifics about those calls, meaning who and when and what?

MR. CROWLEY: Many. I mean, there’s a lot of --

QUESTION: From the Secretary? I mean, anything of any significant level?

MR. CROWLEY: No, I’m not aware that the Secretary has any further calls.

QUESTION: P.J.

MR. CROWLEY: Yeah.

QUESTION: One quick one on the concerns that you expressed about the Palestinian statements about the rededication of the synagogue. Who made those concerns known to Palestinian officials? Was that Assistant Secretary Feltman? Was it done through the consul general in Jerusalem? Who actually made that --

MR. CROWLEY: I’m sure it’s more than one. I just don’t have a rundown, Arshad.

QUESTION: But it wasn’t the Secretary?

MR. CROWLEY: No.

QUESTION: Well, are your concerns --

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, I will take this question. I’m not aware that the Secretary talked to President Abbas over the weekend. If she did, we’ll let you know.

QUESTION: But your concerns about the comments on the mosque, do they rise to the same level as your concern on the unhappiness about the statements – the announcement of the (inaudible)?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not going to draw any comparability here. We – as we’ve said many times --

QUESTION: Well, you’re trying to even it out here.

MR. CROWLEY: No. I am not --

QUESTION: You’ve gotten savaged – you’re getting savaged on the Hill --

MR. CROWLEY: No.

QUESTION: -- and by some very powerful interest groups in this city. And you come out – without anyone asking about concerns on the Palestinian side, you’ve offered this up. And so it looks like you’re attempting to balance your criticisms of --

MR. CROWLEY: I understand your question, Matt. I wouldn’t describe it in that way. As we’ve said, both sides have responsibilities, and where we have concerns about either side and jeopardizing the conditions that we think are necessary to move this process forward – as we said when we announced the proximity talks would start, we will not be – we will not hesitate to say so. We have very specific concerns about public statements made surrounding this particular synagogue rededication, and we are not hesitating to talk about those concerns.

We have very particular concerns about a housing project announced while the Vice President of the United States is standing in Israel. And we have condemned that announcement.

QUESTION: Can you --

MR. CROWLEY: But I’m – we’re not trying to achieve any kind of comparability here. Anytime we have concerns about actions being taken on either side, we will not hesitate to say so.

QUESTION: Okay. Can you say which comments by Palestinian officials concern you? What --

MR. CROWLEY: I haven’t got that kind of detail. Go ahead.

QUESTION: P.J., can you comment in general about the status of U.S.-Israeli relations? The Israeli envoy to Washington said Israel’s relations with the U.S. is facing the most severe crisis since 1975. Do you agree with that assessment?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we – Israel is a strategic ally of the United States and will continue to be so. The Vice President, during his trip to Israel last week, restated that commitment. We have very specific concerns about not only the substance of an announcement, the timing of an announcement, but its broader implication in terms of jeopardizing further progress on the peace process.

We have made some specific requests of the Israeli Government in that regard, and we’re looking forward to their response. But – this is a specific area of concern. But it should not be taken as an indication that the – our commitment to Israel’s security, as the Vice President said last week, remains unshakable.

Michele.

QUESTION: But last week, you said it was actually jeopardizing the relationship, and I wonder if you’re backing off from that now.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, no. We – well, we will evaluate the implications of this once we hear back from the Israelis and see how they respond to our concerns.

QUESTION: You said that Ambassador Mitchell’s trip was still a fairly fluid situation. Can you tell us what specifically you need to get nailed down before you can say when he’s going? And is there any possibility he might not go if those things aren’t determined?

MR. CROWLEY: I would expect George Mitchell to be back in the region, but as to the particular timing, I think that’s still the question. He will be with the Secretary at the end of the week in Moscow for the Quartet meeting. But as to his particular departure plans, we’ll let you know when he leaves.

QUESTION: But you expect him in the region before the Quartet meeting?

MR. CROWLEY: I expect him in the region soon.

QUESTION: Do you want an answer on the 1,600 housing units in East Jerusalem before making a decision on whether he’s going?

MR. CROWLEY: I wouldn’t condition one on the other. We want to see this process move forward. The proximity talks are a means to accomplish that. But we want to make sure that in scheduling the next round of talks, that we have an environment that allows us to move the process forward.

QUESTION: And --

MR. CROWLEY: So I don’t think – it’s not a question of if George will go to the region. It’s a question of when George will go to the region. But we want to make sure that we have the commitment from both sides that when he travels, we can make progress.

QUESTION: And is it still your position – last week, when asked if you were – on the day that you issued the Media Note with his statement that both sides had accepted proximity talks or indirect talks, you were asked if you were certain that the talks had indeed begun. And you said, “I am certain.” Is it still your position --

MR. CROWLEY: Yes.

QUESTION: -- that the indirect talks began last week?

MR. CROWLEY: Yes. They have begun. But as to when the next round will occur, we want to make sure – I’m confident that there will be another round of proximity talks. We want to make sure that when they happen, we – let me finish – we – that the conditions are right so that we can make the kind of progress we want to make.

QUESTION: I don’t understand the difference, then, between – proximity talks – if you have Mitchell going from Ramallah to Jerusalem and back and forth, which he’s been doing for nine months now, why aren’t you saying that proximity talks began last year?

QUESTION: Last week.

MR. CROWLEY: Last week.

QUESTION: No. Yeah, why aren’t you saying they began last year?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, the difference is --

QUESTION: He’s been shuttling between the two sides --

MR. CROWLEY: No, we --

QUESTION: You have now the Palestinians saying they’re not interested in these talks unless this project is canceled, so I’m not sure – how can you say that --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, what we’ve had for the past year are talks about talks. What we want to get to is talks about substance.

QUESTION: But it sounds like you’re still talks about talks.

MR. CROWLEY: No.

QUESTION: No?

MR. CROWLEY: We are prepared to have talks and address the substance, the core issues at stake in the peace process.

QUESTION: Thank you.

MR. CROWLEY: Thank you.



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