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Diplomacy in Action

Middle East Digest - March 23, 2010

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Washington, DC
March 23, 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 23, 2010

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QUESTION: Yesterday in her speech to AIPAC, Secretary Clinton said that Israeli construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank – but we’ll just confine ourselves to Jerusalem here – was – did not help; it damaged the credibility of both the peace process and also the credibility of the United States as a mediator. Several hours after she spoke and after she met with Prime Minister Netanyahu, he addressed the same crowd and said that Jerusalem is not a settlement, it’s our capital. He said that Jews have been building in Jerusalem for 3,000 years and would continue to do so.

What gives here? Where is – is there any attempt to reconcile these positions or have you just – have you guys just decided that they win and you’ll agree to disagree on this?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we are continuing our discussions with Israeli officials and with Prime Minister Netanyahu. He’ll meet President Obama later this afternoon. We understand that Jerusalem is deeply important to Israelis and Palestinians, and to Jews, Muslims, and Christians everywhere. We believe it’s possible to reach an outcome that both realizes the aspirations of all parties in Jerusalem and safeguards its status for the future.

Without getting into the specifics of our ongoing conversations with the prime minister or with Israeli officials, we’ve raised our concerns with them. Jerusalem is one of those issues. The prime minister has responded to our concerns. During the course of our dialogue over the past two weeks, he has added some thoughts of his own in terms of how we can create an atmosphere of trust and move the proximity talks forward, address the substance, including Jerusalem. It’s a final status issue. The only way to ultimately resolve competing claims on the future of Jerusalem is to get to direct negotiations.

We’re not putting any preconditions on this. Our task at the present time is to get the parties – get the proximity talks moving forward, get the parties into direct negotiations, putting the substance on the table, and finding a just resolution that ultimately reaches a peace agreement. That is our ongoing effort, and that conversation and that effort will continue this afternoon at the White House.

QUESTION: Yeah, but he was extremely emphatic, so I’m a little suspicious about whether this response that he gave to the Secretary contained anything in it that you would like – that you actually want to see done. I mean, how can you convince us that, in fact, progress is being made when he basically said last night that he’s taking your suggestion on East Jerusalem and said thanks but no thanks?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, the Israeli Government has a policy, but we also have a point of view that Jerusalem is a final status issue. And we look forward to addressing these issues first within the proximity talks, moving to direct negotiations. Ultimately, the future of Jerusalem can only be resolved through the direct negotiations that we hope will get started as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: And you don’t see him – you don’t see what he said last night, and not just in the comments that I quoted, but in others, as that Israel does not agree that Jerusalem is a final status issue?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think at one point the prime minister also added that he did not see a distinction necessarily between in Jerusalem and building in Tel Aviv. We – and we disagree with that. And that Jerusalem is a --

QUESTION: So is that the bottom line here?

MR. CROWLEY: -- is a final status issue. It’s a city of significant importance to multiple communities. The issues surrounding the future of Jerusalem as part of this process can only be resolved through direct negotiations, and the sooner we get there, the better.

QUESTION: So the bottom line is you have agreed to disagree on this specific issue?

MR. CROWLEY: We are continuing our discussions.

QUESTION: Do you have any hope that you’re ever going to bring him or his government onto your side on this?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, one of the reasons we’re not doing a play-by-play that --

QUESTION: I know the reason you’re not doing a play-by-play is because you’ve lost.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, Matt --

QUESTION: No, I mean, you have. You’re like 0 and 10 here. You’ve been going at this for a long time, and that’s why --

MR. CROWLEY: Well --

QUESTION: I mean, I understand why you’re not doing a play-by-play, but is there any reason to think that your efforts will result in a change in Israeli policy on Jerusalem?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, our efforts are designed to get to a negotiation through which the final status issues can be addressed and resolved as part of a comprehensive peace agreement that ends the conflict and creates the security that Israel wants and deserves and a viable Palestinian state that the Palestinians want and deserve. That is our effort.

We – if your question is, is there a win-win proposition as part of this, the answer is yes. Ultimately, both sides will have to compromise and come off stated, firmly held, emotional positions on Jerusalem, on refugees, on borders, on security, on other issues. We are – I think it’s important here – we’re not trying to put – we’ve pushed against the idea that there have to be preconditions to get to negotiations. We believe and understand that the only way you resolve these issues is by getting to those negotiations. The proximity talks are a means to that end.

We have outlined some concerns to the Israeli Government. They have responded to our concerns. That conversation continues. This is a dynamic process. There’s a lot of give-and-take involved in these conversations. But we ultimately – we do understand that there are different perspectives among the parties. We agree with some. We don’t agree with others. Our objective here is to get to – through proximity talks, begin to address the substance, get to direct negotiations, ultimately to reach a fair agreement.


QUESTION: Is it fair to infer that Prime Minister Netanyahu refuses to discuss East Jerusalem as part of the proximity talks?

MR. CROWLEY: No, it’s not fair.

QUESTION: So he’s agreed then to --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, the – I mean, there are ongoing discussions about a range of issues. And we are satisfied with the Israeli engagement. That is not to say that we have – we see eye to eye on every detail. But this is an ongoing conversation. As the Secretary said yesterday, we’ve seen progress as a result of these conversations over multiple days, not only with the direct engagement between the Secretary and the prime minister but also the meetings that George Mitchell had with the prime minister on Sunday, President Abbas yesterday.

This is an ongoing process. And it is a process. And the conversation will continue with the President today and then beyond as we work to make progress through the proximity talks.

QUESTION: So he’s agreed to open some areas of East Jerusalem for discussions, but not others.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, all I’ll say is that we will continue our conversation with the Israeli Government and with the Palestinians. We want to get to the substance. Jerusalem is part of that substance. Our efforts here are to begin to help the parties move through these issues. We want to have them achieve a common understanding on the most productive way forward. But our real immediate objective is to use the proximity talks to get to negotiations where the final status issues can be addressed, hopefully resolved, and an end to the conflict as a result.


QUESTION: P.J., we’ve gone back and forth even as long as 10 days ago on whether the proximity talks had started formally or not started. And now we’ve had the interruption, the Quartet meeting, and yet Mitchell’s – Senator Mitchell’s gone back and had meetings with both sides. Is it your contention that the proximity talks are ongoing or they’re yet to be resumed? What’s the way to phrase it?

MR. CROWLEY: We are looking to make progress through proximity talks, and that is the focus of our effort.

QUESTION: Well, are they ongoing or are they yet to start?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, again, let’s go back to – the proximity talks are a means to an end. And the first step is proximity talks. The second step is direct negotiations. Hopefully, the end result is a peace agreement that ends the conflict. What we want to see through the proximity talks are to see the parties begin to tackle the substance, to tackle the core issues at the heart of the process. That has not started yet. So we hope to resume that, but before we can, obviously we need to make sure that there’s an atmosphere of trust, so that when those proximity talks begin to address the substance, they will be productive.

QUESTION: Can you discuss a little bit the atmosphere of trust between the Secretary and Mr. Netanyahu? I mean, given the fact that the various public utterances that the Israelis said shouldn’t have been made public, some sort of understanding, and then again last night, as has just been pointed out, Mr. Netanyahu coming right back, very loudly and boldly reiterating his position that doesn’t quite seem to be the one the U.S. agrees to – what’s your position of trust here? Does that still need to be built?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, all I can tell you, yesterday the Secretary met with the prime minister for about an hour and 15 minutes, towards the – it was one on one. So, several of us were camped out outside the suite. The Secretary knows Prime Minister Netanyahu very well. They have a good rapport. We felt it was a constructive meeting. We feel that the prime minister has responded to the concerns that the Secretary expressed in her phone call of March 12th.

Do we see eye-to-eye on everything? No. Have we – but we – are we satisfied with the exchange and the seriousness with which the prime minister has taken our concerns on board? We are. So – and this is a conversation that has involved the Secretary, but obviously, today, will involve the President as well.

QUESTION: The same subject. Yesterday, Netanyahu, in the meeting he said that his government gave a lot of concessions to the Palestinians. He talked about that they open roads; now they have shopping centers. Also, he mentioned cinemas. He’s saying that the Palestinians are not giving any concessions to Israel. He says in the meeting yesterday, Netanyahu mentioned some specifics that he wants from the U.S. to press also the Palestinians so they recognize Israel like a Jewish state, or things like that?

MR. CROWLEY: Let’s – suffice it to say that over the last two weeks in our multiple conversations with the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Government, we have made clear to both sides and they have made clear through us to each other that there are responsibilities that the Israelis have, that the Palestinians have, to create the – a constructive atmosphere. I don’t think there’s any shortage of dialogue in terms of what one thinks the other should do. Our choice here is to make sure that both sides are sufficiently invested in the process, that both sides are taking affirmative actions that create this atmosphere of trust and both sides are refraining from actions that impede progress.

And as we’ve said here, we have addressed the Israelis and expressed concerns about what they have done recently, including the announcement regarding the 1,600 housing units. And likewise, we have addressed publicly concerns that we have about Palestinian actions on the ground and concerns that we have about incitement towards violence. We are going to continue in our unique role in this process to both – thank both parties when they do constructive things and challenge both parties when we think they’re taking actions that are unconstructive.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) seen progress. Israel has responded. What specific concessions have they made?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not going to talk about the specific substance.

QUESTION: What message do you think this sends to the Arab world now that, twice, you’ve said stop the settlements; twice, Israel has said no, but yet you’re asking both sides to go back to the bargaining table?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, first of all, the process we’re in is a means to an end. We – and while we have stated our views on settlements and we’ve stated our views on construction in East Jerusalem because we understand that they are important to all of the parties in the region, but we are not laying out any preconditions to negotiations. Our efforts over the past year have been to get the parties into direct negotiations as quickly as possible so that these issues can be addressed and, hopefully, resolved. That remains our effort.

Now, at various times in this process, we have made our position clear. As we go forward, we are prepared to offer our thoughts when we think it’s appropriate. What we want to do right now – our message is crystal clear to the Israelis, to the Palestinians, and elsewhere in the region – we want to get these parties into negotiations, address the substance, address the core issues, and resolve them. And our efforts are focused on moving the parties forward, establishing this atmosphere of trust, and that continues to be our effort as we speak today.

QUESTION: So, you’ve stated your views but you’re not willing to take action. Is that the message?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, ultimately, this is about what the parties themselves are willing to do. They are the ones that ultimately have to compromise off of firmly held emotional positions. They’re the ones that have to wrestle with these complex facts on the ground. We will help them through that process. We can’t want this more than they do. So we have stated our positions, but ultimately what counts is what they are willing to actually sit down and try to do. We want to help them get to the table. And then, as the Secretary said yesterday, once they’re at the table, we’ll work as hard as we can for as long as necessary to help them reach an agreement.

QUESTION: What purpose does it serve to keep these alleged concessions the Israelis have – are making a secret? You can tell already that there is a high degree of suspicion in this room about it. And if there is a high degree of suspicion in this room about it, you can only imagine what it’s like in – among the Palestinians and among the Arab states, if not just the Arab street, as it were.


QUESTION: Why can’t you prove to us, or why can’t the Israelis prove to us that, in fact, there has been some movement and some progress?

MR. CROWLEY: Well --

QUESTION: Because, to be honest with you, P.J., and during the last administration we were constantly told that Annapolis was yielding results, that everything was – and they were, oh, just trust us. Yes, it’s happening. Well, it went nowhere. Why should we believe either government this time?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, no. Look, I mean, there is a simple pass/fail test here.

QUESTION: And where do you think you’ve gotten on that right now?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, all right, can I – give me a chance, Matt. All right, the proximity talks are not an end to themselves. The proximity talks --

QUESTION: But you haven’t gotten proximity talks yet.

MR. CROWLEY: All right.


MR. CROWLEY: Do you want to switch places?

QUESTION: No. (Laughter.) I just want to – if you can’t – there’s a simple answer, which is why keep this stuff secret? Why keep it secret?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, it can be a straightforward answer if I can get it out.

QUESTION: All right. I’ll shut up.

MR. CROWLEY: Look – write that down. (Laughter.) Look, the proximity talks are means to an end. They’re not an end to themselves. The proximity talks need to lead us to direct negotiations. So our immediate pass/fail test is can we get the party into – parties into direct negotiations? You can infer that if we are successful in doing that, we will have at least addressed or begun to address the substantive issues to the satisfaction of both parties so that they have confidence to take the next step. That’s pass/fail test number one.

Then pass/fail test number two is very simple: We’ll have negotiations, direct negotiations, put the final status issues on the table. And that test ultimately is do we get to an agreement that is in the Israeli interest and the Palestinian interest and the interest of the rest of the region and clearly in the interest of the United States. Only then will you be able to judge has the effort that we put forward been successful or not.

You’re focusing on individual trees and we’re focusing on the forest.

QUESTION: P.J., change of subject?


QUESTION: No, I’ve got a related --

QUESTION: I have a related one. P.J., can you tell us about the Palestinians’ readiness to come to the talks and how they view the Israeli position now? What can you tell us about your contacts with them?

MR. CROWLEY: I have not got a readout from George Mitchell regarding his discussions with President Abbas yesterday. We remain convinced that both the Palestinians and the Israelis are committed to enter into proximity talks. We’re just right now working on the right formula and atmosphere that allows them to be productive when they do get into the substantive discussions that we hope will begin soon.

QUESTION: I’ve got two briefly related --


QUESTION: One, what does it say to you that Prime Minister Netanyahu’s meetings with top executive branch officials have all been closed to the press and yet he is quite happy to go up – to run up to the Hill and appear on television with Speaker Pelosi and Minority Leader Boehner?

MR. CROWLEY: I think you’re talking about two different branches of government, two different approaches to this challenge.

QUESTION: Well, and that’s what it says to you?

MR. CROWLEY: I mean --

QUESTION: I mean, why would the meeting with the President, the Vice President, and the Secretary be closed to everything and then --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, put it this way: I will defer to my colleagues at the White House in terms of – I mean, as far as I know, the meeting that the prime minister is having this afternoon with the President mirrors the meeting he had earlier at the White House, with the exception of obviously a different environment back in September at UNGA. But I’ll defer – as to how the White House is handling the meeting this afternoon, I’ll defer to my colleagues --


MR. CROWLEY: -- at the White House. In terms of what happened yesterday, from a protocol standpoint, it was the prime minister’s decision on where the meeting would take place and what the rules of engagement would be for that meeting.

QUESTION: Can I ask a related --


QUESTION: While the prime minister and his delegation have been here today, the British Government has come out with some pretty damning findings about Israel’s use – or Israel –identity theft involving passport theft leading up to this – the killing of this Hamas operative in Dubai. Foreign Secretary Miliband was in parliament today. He said that he had asked for assurances from Foreign Minister Lieberman that this would never happen again. Has the United States made any – not that any American passports were involved in this incident – but have you made similar representations to the Israelis?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, to answer your question, as far as I know, there were no U.S. passports used in --

QUESTION: That was part of my question.

MR. CROWLEY: -- whatever happened.

QUESTION: Do you have any concerns --

MR. CROWLEY: We are --

QUESTION: -- that this might happen?

MR. CROWLEY: We are cooperating – I mean, do we have concerns about passport fraud and the sanctity of a passport? Absolutely. We have expended a great deal of effort and resource in recent years to improve the security of our passport. It’s something that we – is part of our discussion with all governments because that’s the door that opens up borders, and potentially opens up countries to not only constructive activities such as tourism, but threatening activities such as terrorism. That is part of a discussion that we have with all governments.

QUESTION: Yeah, but have you raised it with --

MR. CROWLEY: I can’t say that we’ve raised it with the Israelis directly. But it is something that we will continue to cooperate internationally in terms of in – if we’re asked to do anything with respect to this particular case. But obviously, it is a subject of great interest to the United States.

QUESTION: And the other thing on this is that Secretary Miliband also said that – to alert British nationals to the risks that their passports might be misused in the same way – and that meaning by – he said there was compelling evidence that Israel and its State Intelligence Service were behind this in the same way. He said he was amending their – the foreign office’s travel advice for Israel to make clear of the potential risk of passport fraud. Does the U.S. have any plans to do the same thing?

MR. CROWLEY: Not that I’m aware of.

QUESTION: Is – so is it not – so then it is not a concern for you guys?

MR. CROWLEY: Do we have concerns about --

QUESTION: About the Israeli Government or --

MR. CROWLEY: U.S. passports, as they involve travel to Israel?


MR. CROWLEY: I’m not aware that we do.


MR. CROWLEY: Sorry, try one more time.

QUESTION: Do you have any concerns that American passports might be used in the same way – misused in the same way that they – that the British Government says British passports were misused by a state intelligence agency in Israel?

MR. CROWLEY: Again, we – this is a decision of the British Government. It is a specific concern of the British Government, relative to the ongoing – the investigation of this case of a killing in Dubai. But I go back to your original question. As far as I know, U.S. passports have not been implicated in this particular case. So we would not have the same concern because we – there’s not the same evidence. That said, the security of the U.S. passport remains something that is important to the United States. And if we have concerns about the fraud involving U.S. passports in any particular country, we will not hesitate to express those concerns to any country.

QUESTION: Another subject?

MR. CROWLEY: Another subject. I’ve got to go to Lalit first.

QUESTION: Thank you. About tomorrow’s meeting on the Strategic Dialogue you’re having in Pakistan, what are the expectations from the meeting tomorrow?

MR. CROWLEY: What is?

QUESTION: What do you – expectations?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think it is – it’s an indication of the importance and the expanding relationship between the United States and Pakistan. We will, of course, talk about security. But as you see from the agenda, we will talk about a lot of other things. Our relationship is growing. It is expanding. We are in our relationship trying to understand what it is that Pakistan needs or feels important. We want to continue to find ways to expand the interaction – Pakistan and other countries in the region. So we look forward to the discussions.

And I think the other aspect is the fact that we have – we have, since coming to office, elevated the rank of the – those who will be participating. So it’s a cabinet-level meeting, a wide ranging group has assembled from the United States, from Pakistan. But I think it’s an indication that a lot of people have tried to see in recent years the relationship to the United States and Pakistan through just the security lens, and this will show that our interaction with Pakistan is about many, many larger and broader issues.

QUESTION: On the same subject. Have you received a 56-page document from Pakistan with various requests?

MR. CROWLEY: I’ll take that question. I don’t know.

QUESTION: Okay. Have you been talking to Pakistan about the possibility of a civilian nuclear deal?

MR. CROWLEY: We have – as far as I know, we have not been talking to Pakistan about a civilian nuclear deal. If Pakistan brings it up during the course of the meetings in the next two days, we’ll be happy to listen.

QUESTION: Have you considered having a bilateral working group on the issue?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, one of the groups that will meet tomorrow will be focused on energy. If this comes up during the course of the meeting – there will be a press conference tomorrow with Secretary Clinton and Foreign Qureshi. You can ask if this came up tomorrow.

QUESTION: There are news reports appearing in the Indian media and also in the Afghanistan media about U.S.-Pakistan relations. What impact does U.S. relations with Pakistan has with its neighboring countries, U.S.-India relations and U.S.-Afghanistan relations? Or is it de-hyphenated?

MR. CROWLEY: It’s a good question. I mean, we have warm and expanding relations with Pakistan. We have warm and expanding relations with India. We have warm and expanding relations with Afghanistan. It is – represents the growing importance of South Asia to our security and our interests globally.

Usually when this comes up, there’s kind of this sense that it’s a zero-sum game; it’s not; that if we have an expanding agenda with one country, it somehow comes at the expense of others. We have spent a lot of time trying to convince all countries in the region that ultimately improved relations with the United States and with others in the region is in everyone’s interest. And we continue to make that clear. Assistant Secretary Blake has been in the region and I think is trying to help various countries understand the context within which these expanded dialogues with all of the countries continue and are in everyone’s interest.

QUESTION: You were talking when you started about the resources that the U.S. is giving to Mexico --

QUESTION: Oh, wait, wait. (Inaudible) one more on Pakistan?


QUESTION: A.Q. Khan? Know anything about the new investigation into – the Pakistanis’ new investigation into him?

MR. CROWLEY: This will be a decision for Pakistan to make. Our interest in – is in making sure that we’ve welcomed the steps that PakA has taken. We’ve welcomed efforts to dismantle the A.Q. Khan network. And – but as to any further investigations that Pakistan decides to do, it’s up to them.

QUESTION: Have there been – has there been internal debate in the State Department about whether to move forward with more cooperation on nuclear cooperation with Pakistan?

MR. CROWLEY: What kind of cooperation? On the civilian side? Again, we have not had this discussion with Pakistan. But if it comes up, we’ll let you know.

QUESTION: But has there been internal debate within the State Department about the approach that you might take?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I would say that we have had an ongoing dialogue with Pakistan on its energy needs. We recognize that this is something that Pakistan has to tackle for the – for its own interests and for its own people. We are – it’s one of the areas that we expect there’ll be further investment in in the energy sector within Pakistan as part of the expanded civilian aid that we’re giving to Pakistan. The nuclear issues – civilian nuclear issues have not been part of this discussion up till now.

QUESTION: And one last one. On the security and military front, you’re talking about the word “expansion” a lot. Is there consideration being made of expansion of cooperation on those – in those areas?

MR. CROWLEY: In military?

QUESTION: Military and security.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, we actually – we’ve had a extensive military-to-military relationship and expansive cooperation for a number of years. I think our emphasis primarily is bringing the level of civilian cooperation up to the existing level of military cooperation. But clearly, one of the key areas in our relationship is the security dimension because we have a shared threat. And we appreciate the efforts that Pakistan has taken in recent years to address a threat that is within their borders and is a threat to them as well as to the region as well as to us.

To the extent that Pakistan comes forward with further requirements, we will obviously entertain those.

QUESTION: Secretary Clinton talked about Iran at AIPAC, as did a number of other people. And Senator Schumer was sharply critical of the Secretary’s efforts, saying something to the effect of diplomatic efforts have failed and calling on the United States to act unilaterally with sanctions against Iran. Your reaction?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, they are not mutually exclusive. Our diplomatic efforts have borne fruit. We had hoped, through our engagement with Iran, that we could change the dynamic of the past 30 years and get constructive dialogue going on - on a range of issues, including, most importantly, the nuclear issue. Iran has not responded to that diplomacy. That said, it has had a wider impact. We have seen countries move and adjust because we have offered our hand to Iran.

So we are pursuing sanctions, first on the multilateral track, and then with multilateral sanctions, they will be supported and augmented by national steps that individual countries will take. So we have this two-track approach. On the diplomacy side, we haven’t given up on that track, but we recognize that at this point in time, we are seeking to apply pressure to Iran. And that will involve both multilateral sanctions and national sanctions.

QUESTION: He was talking about how diplomatic efforts to craft multinational sanctions had failed.

MR. CROWLEY: I think that judgment is premature. We are engaged significantly in the P-5+1 process. This was, again, a major topic of discussion last week when the Secretary met with President Medvedev, Prime Minister Putin, Foreign Minister Lavrov. I think there’s a recognition that Iran’s actions over the past year, both in terms of what it continues to do on the nuclear front, but also its actions with respect to its own population, are unacceptable.

We are quite satisfied that we are ultimately going to get an appropriate resolution out of the Security Council. And then as – Congress will have a role to play in terms of additional measures that will be contemplated on unilateral sanctions that we can take nationally.

QUESTION: So a green light from you today on congressional sanctions?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, let’s say – we already have existing national sanctions on Iran.

QUESTION: Additional, new, congressional sanctions.

MR. CROWLEY: And we will hope, in the coming weeks, to see the advance of a resolution in the Security Council and then we would look to see what other additional steps we can take nationally. And it will be the cumulative impact of those steps that we think will hopefully get Iran’s attention.

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