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 24, 2011
1:45 p.m. EST
MR. CROWLEY: Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Jeff Feltman has arrived in Tunisia. Today, he’s already met with the Tunisian foreign minister. He will meet with other government officials, political party leaders, and civil society advocates in order to convey U.S. support to the Tunisian people. The United States seeks to be supportive in helping with Tunisia’s democratic transition while recognizing that this is a Tunisian-initiated and Tunisian-led process. He’ll discuss ways in which the U.S. can be a constructive partner as Tunisia charts the course forward, including greater political and social freedom; works to achieve transparent, credible, and timely elections; as well as its government addressing the underlying political and economic grievances that led to the recent unrest.
QUESTION: On Assistant Secretary Feltman’s trip to Tunisia, can you tell us how long he’s going to stay? Is he having – is he going to go anywhere else in the region following? And does the U.S. --
MR. CROWLEY: My understanding is he’ll be back here on Wednesday.
QUESTION: So he’s – today and tomorrow then?
MR. CROWLEY: Yeah, because I think there’s a conference later this week on Iraq that he will participate in.
MR. CROWLEY: So right now his plans are to travel to Tunisia and then back here to the United States.
QUESTION: Okay. And does he have any – this is just a follow-up. Does he have any message to them or does the U.S. have any view on the viability of Tunisian Government that still includes members of the former president’s party?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, recall Secretary Clinton has had conversations with the prime minister and the foreign minister prior to this. Gordon Gray, our ambassador in Tunis, has been in continual touch with the interim government. What Jeff is trying to do is just assess where they are in the process and how the United States can be helpful.
QUESTION: Isn’t the Tunisian foreign minister a member of the (inaudible) regime that, actually, the people are calling for his ouster, to the best of your knowledge?
MR. CROWLEY: I believe that the foreign minister is a holdover, yes. So what’s – I mean, what’s the question?
QUESTION: The question is: Is he a member of the --
MR. CROWLEY: Again, I’ll defer to the interim government. I know there have been some resignations from the party of former president Ben Ali. But as to the political status of individuals in key positions, this is a matter for the government, and it is important for the government to continue to open up a dialogue with and respond to the aspirations of its people.
QUESTION: Can we go to --
QUESTION: Now, you said something about helping Tunisia transit to democracy. How will you do that? In what --
MR. CROWLEY: Well, clearly, the elections that Tunisia is beginning preparations for will be vitally important. We have some expertise, and I think part of what Assistant Secretary Feltman will evaluate is to what extent we might be helpful in providing some of the support through NGOs who have worked with a number of countries around the world for – to prepare – help them prepare for elections, where obviously, there’s not a history of free and fair elections.
QUESTION: Can we go east of Tunisia and turn left at Egypt and into the Levant and stop in Beirut?
QUESTION: Can I follow up on Tunisia before we --
MR. CROWLEY: Sure.
QUESTION: I mean, what’s the State’s position on this government? Do you support this government? Do you recognize it? Because it seems there’s lots of protest in the street, people are asking for the prime minister to step down. Today, there were clashes. What’s your position?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, we support the transition that is underway, and we hope that this transition will be peaceful. We understand that the Tunisian civil society has questions about the nature of the government. Clearly, after decades of mistrust, there are questions that the people continue to raise. The government is trying to be responsive. We know that this is hard, and we know that the government will, at times, have missteps along the way.
Obviously, we are very conscious of the fact that the one independent television station was briefly shut down, I believe yesterday. And we have expressed our concerns to the government about that. The government reversed its action after a few hours. So, this is government that is trying hard to respond to the aspirations of its people. We’re encouraged by steps it has taken so far. There’s a lot of work to be done.
We’re prepared to help Tunisia along this path, but certainly opening up space for political parties, beginning a dialogue with civil society, releasing prisoners, opening up space for free media to cover ongoing events – these are positive steps. But the government has to continue to respond to the demands of the people, and we’ll see where that goes. And that’s why Jeff Feltman is there getting a firsthand view.
QUESTION: Was that message on the TV station conveyed directly by Assistant Secretary Feltman?
MR. CROWLEY: I can’t say whether he conveyed that, but it has been conveyed from the Embassy to the government.
QUESTION: Can we go to Lebanon?
MR. CROWLEY: Sure.
QUESTION: How big a blow – excuse me – how big a blow is it that the next prime minister looks like he’s going to be from Hezbollah supported?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, look, everyone’s got a whip count. There’s a constitutional process playing itself out. Ultimately, the makeup of the future Government of Lebanon is a Lebanese decision. We’re monitoring the situation closely, and we’ll wait to see exactly who is offered formally the opportunity to form a government and what the composition of that government looks like.
QUESTION: Well, is there anything statutorily that will get – that will – is there anything statutorily that will be triggered by a Hezbollah dominated – or led – government?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, we will – we’ll see what the final makeup of the Lebanese Government is, and then we’ll evaluate what that means in terms of our relationship.
QUESTION: Well, there’s some reports that unnamed U.S. diplomats have been going around saying that if a Hezbollah-backed person becomes the prime minister that the U.S. will sever economic aid to the Lebanese Government. Is that correct?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, we will reserve judgment until a government is formed. Our view of Hezbollah is very well known. We see it as a terrorist organization and will have great concerns about a government that – within which Hezbollah plays a leading role. It is hard for us to imagine any government as being truly representative of all of Lebanon if that government is prepared to take steps back, for example, from its ongoing support for the work of the tribunal.
So we will – we’ll look at the composition of the government, look at the implications in terms of policies that we feel are vital to the future of Lebanon. We continue to want to see a government that is serving the interests of the people of Lebanon and not the government of other countries. We want to see a government emerge in Lebanon that will continue to support the work of the tribunal and end the era of impunity in Lebanon.
QUESTION: Well, I --
MR. CROWLEY: So – but again, we’ll reserve judgment until we see exactly what happens in that process.
QUESTION: Okay. But without talking – without asking you – without asking you in a way that you’ll say we reserve judgment and wait to see what’s happening, is it legal for the Administration to provide funding to a government that is led or dominated by a group that you call a foreign terrorist organization?
MR. CROWLEY: That would be difficult for the United States to do. All right. In other words, the larger the role played by Hezbollah in this government, the more problematic our relationship will be.
QUESTION: When you talk about leading role can you define that? Is it reflected by the number of ministers?
MR. CROWLEY: Again, I – we --
QUESTION: Yeah, but let me finish, please.
MR. CROWLEY: We have very well – we have stated – well stated concerns about Hezbollah.
QUESTION: Hariri’s government had two ministers from Hezbollah in it. And it seems they’re probably not going to get more than two ministers. Are you more focused on the role of Hezbollah or the process itself? Because it seems the process is democratic and constitutional. So you’re not going to recognize a government that reflects the will of representatives of the Lebanese people?
MR. CROWLEY: Again, I don’t – we’ll wait to see what the government looks like, who is involved in that government, what the policies of that government will be. And then we will – we’ll evaluate what the impact on our relationship will be. All I’m saying, which is the obvious, is that we have great concerns about Hezbollah. We see it as a terrorist organization, and the larger the role played by Hezbollah in this government the more problematic it is for the relationship between the United States and Lebanon.
QUESTION: But are you doing anything before waiting for the result, because the Hariri people are saying that this an Iranian coup by Hezbollah?
MR. CROWLEY: Again, we want to see a government emerge in Lebanon that will serve the interest of the people of Lebanon and will sustain the independence and sovereignty of Lebanon. We want to see a government that will continue to support the work of the tribunal. So we’re going to wait and see as this constitutional process unfolds.
QUESTION: Is the Secretary doing any contacts regarding Lebanon, any talks with other leaders?
MR. CROWLEY: We continue to monitor the situation in Lebanon very closely. We have had recent conversations with government officials and will continue to engage across the full spectrum as Lebanon goes through this constitutional process.
QUESTION: On the leak of documents relating to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations --
MR. CROWLEY: Hold on, hold on.
QUESTION: -- does the publication --
MR. CROWLEY: Hold on. We’ll go from issue to issue.
QUESTION: Very quickly, P.J., there has been a call for a day of anger by the 14 March coalition, which is the Hariri coalition, which may develop into a flash point. Are you counseling – they’re close U.S. allies. Are you counseling them against any kind of activity that they --
MR. CROWLEY: That goes without saying. We – there is a constitutional process here. Every indication is the government is following this constitutional process. And certainly, we do not want to see any faction of any kind resort to violence.
QUESTION: Did she have any contacts with Mr. Najib Mikati in Lebanon, the presumably new prime minister? And what’s your position on --
MR. CROWLEY: I can’t say – not to my knowledge. But our ambassador, Maura Connelly, has been closely monitoring events, has been meeting with various officials across the political spectrum as we continue to watch what is unfolding.
QUESTION: A little bit more broadly on the – I just want to – this is a technical point. Twice – once in relation to Tunisia and then once in relation to Lebanon – you were asked a question about whether you recognize their government, and you did not respond with the usual line that we have heard for many years here that the U.S. doesn't recognize governments, it recognizes states. Has that changed?
MR. CROWLEY: No.
QUESTION: So – okay, so by not --
MR. CROWLEY: I mean, we have diplomatic relations with Tunisia.
QUESTION: I just want to make sure that --
MR. CROWLEY: We have diplomatic relations with Lebanon.
QUESTION: The line has always been we don’t recognize governments, we recognize states. That continues?
MR. CROWLEY: Yes. That is true. Yes. Okay.
QUESTION: On the leak of the documents relating to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, does the publication of these papers kill off any life that might have been left in the peace process there?
MR. CROWLEY: Not at all. And just to clarify, these are not U.S. documents and we can’t vouch for their veracity and we do not plan to comment on any particular document.
QUESTION: But you must know whether or not what’s reflected in the documents reflects your recollection of these negotiations.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, none of this changes our understanding of what is at stake and what needs to be done. We continue to believe that a framework agreement is both possible and necessary. So we continue to work and engage the parties as we’ve done throughout this process. We’ve had contact with both the Israelis and Palestinians over the last 24 hours. We’ve had contact with a number of leaders in the region, first and foremost because we have an important Quartet meeting coming up at the end of next week. But obviously, in working through the details of the Quartet meeting, we’ve been able to get perspective on the possible implications of this. We don’t deny that this release will, at least for a time, make the situation more difficult than it already was. But again, we are clear-eyed about this. We always recognized that this would be a great challenge. But it hasn’t – it doesn't change our overall objective.
QUESTION: Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat was planning to come to Washington this week. To the best of your knowledge – first, can you confirm that he was? Second, has there been any change in his plans?
MR. CROWLEY: We did talk to Mr. Erekat yesterday. I’ll take the question as to what his future travel plans are.
QUESTION: P.J., you just said that you don’t deny that the release will, at least for a time, make the situation more difficult than it already was. Isn’t that tantamount to confirming that they’re accurate? I mean, why would – if these things are just – have just been created out of whole cloth and are lies and misrepresentations, as some Palestinian officials are saying, why should it make anything more difficult?
MR. CROWLEY: This – the pursuit of peace in the Middle East is, at one level, a substantive challenge. We know what the core issues are. We’ve been involved in many discussions with Israelis and Palestinians for a number of years on these issues. At a second level, this is a political challenge. And regardless of whether one document is accurate, one document is not, or one document represents a past position and one document represents a – doesn't represent a current position, obviously, we’re evaluating the political reaction to what has come forward in the last 24 hours and what is likely to come forward in the coming days. Again, it doesn't change our understanding of the challenge and it doesn't change our pursuit of a framework agreement. We’re going to continue to engage with the parties, see if we can’t narrow differences that do exist, and continue to move them towards a framework agreement.
QUESTION: Does Senator Mitchell have any plans to return to the region anytime soon?
MR. CROWLEY: Senator Mitchell has been on the phone over the last 24 hours with several leaders. He did talk to President Abbas last night and Saeb Erekat. We have – he had been in touch with the Israelis as well. But again, part of our – a lot of our focus is on plans for the Quartet meeting next week and how we can use that meeting to continue to move the parties forward.
QUESTION: Could you explain his current role as distinct from Dennis Ross’s role? I understand he is or has recently been to visit the parties in the region.
MR. CROWLEY: There are a number of dimensions to this. George Mitchell remains the special envoy and he is our chief negotiator. Dennis Ross is in charge of regional policy within the national security staff. His discussions are more focused on security, which is an important, vital dimension of helping encourage both sides to reach a framework agreement.
QUESTION: P.J. --
MR. CROWLEY: But beyond that, I’ll defer to the White House.
QUESTION: Palestinian Authority President Abbas yesterday, during a meeting with newspaper editors in Cairo, said that if, quote/unquote, the Palestinian state is not fulfilled as was promised during the speech by President Obama at the General Assembly last September by next September, then they have an alternative that is no one can conceive of and so on. Could you – do you have any idea on what he’s talking about? He’s claiming to have an option that is beyond the realm of what is being discussed currently.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, look, we support current Palestinian efforts to create strong institutions that put the Palestinians in a position to govern, should the ongoing discussions lead to negotiations that lead to a framework agreement. We have been key supporters of the work of President Abbas, of Prime Minister Fayyad, building up security forces, helping to build an economy, a viable economy within the Palestinian territories. And we’re going to continue to do that.
That said, we have also made clear that we believe strongly that the best and only way to fundamentally resolve the core issues, reach an agreement, and end the conflict once and for all is through a negotiation, not through unilateral statements, unilateral actions, by one side or the other.
QUESTION: It seems, according to these documents, that the Palestinians actually put a lot on the table, but it seems no matter what kind of concessions the Palestinian Authority present to different Israeli Government, Israeli position is still the same. They – they’re not ready to get to a deal. Is it time for your Administration to put some pressure on Israel? And are you aware of the National Security Council new evaluation that Netanyahu actually will not work with Obama on the peace process?
MR. CROWLEY: Look, I go back to what I said at the start. We believe that a framework agreement remains possible and necessary. It’s why we are undeterred and we’ll redouble our efforts in the coming days leading up to the Quartet meeting. We continue to engage the parties. We continue to work with them on the substance. We continue to try to find ways to narrow the gaps that do exist between the two. And it remains our objective to help the parties reach a framework agreement.
QUESTION: The National Security Council – on the issue of the National Security Council and Netanyahu?
MR. CROWLEY: George Mitchell has – and the Secretary have both made clear that we believe that both sides remain committed to reach an agreement. We do understand that this remains a challenging path, but nonetheless we continue to pursue this path.
QUESTION: With a prospective Security Council resolution on condemning the settlements, which is in accordance with the American position, would that be helpful or not to –
MR. CROWLEY: We’ve made clear that we do not think that that would be helpful and we do not think that New York is the right forum to resolve these issues.
QUESTION: Another subject?
QUESTION: Can we stay just with Israel for a second?
MR. CROWLEY: Okay, sure.
QUESTION: I’m wondering if you have any comment on the report of the whole Gaza flotilla, the Israeli report, if you agree with the Turks that it’s basically – it was basically a joke without any credibility.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, we continue to regard the Secretary General’s panel as the primary forum for the international community to review the incident. We do believe that the completion of the first part of the two-part Turkel Commission report is an important step. We understand the second half will be released in the coming months. But this is a process that will be continuing under the auspices of the UN Secretary General.
QUESTION: So do you still think, as you did back when the incidents that this report deals with took place, that the Israelis have the means and – the means and the intent to conduct an impartial investigation into their own activity?
MR. CROWLEY: Yes, we do, but there’s more work to be done, both on the Israeli report and then on the Secretary General’s panel.
QUESTION: I’m a little bit confused as to the – which one do you consider to be more viable, the Secretary General’s report or the Israeli panel’s report?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I don’t think that’s an either/or proposition. We have been supportive of this effort by Israel, and there has been a – we think that this is an independent report, credible and impartial and transparent investigation that has been undertaken by Israel. And it will contribute to the broader process that continues through the Secretary General. So I don’t think that’s an either/or proposition.
QUESTION: On North Korea, North Koreans said denuclearization issue is the only deterrent – the U.S. and North Korea issues. What is your comment on that, their insistence?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, that’s not true. Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is a regional and global concern. There is a Six-Party process that was put in place to deal with these issues. It involves more than just the United States and North Korea. So by definition, this is something that is of broad international concern and needs to be resolved internationally, not just bilaterally.
QUESTION: But the North Korean refuse to talk to – with that military high-level talk that contains the nuclear issue, but they do not --
MR. CROWLEY: We understand very much what North Korea would like to do, but it’s got to resolve these issues through the multilateral mechanism that has been put in place.
QUESTION: Has there been any meeting with the visiting Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa?
MR. CROWLEY: No.
QUESTION: No meetings?
MR. CROWLEY: No meetings.
QUESTION: And secondly, last week, the State Department issued a Travel Alert on Nepal saying that the Nepalese Maoist Party is a terrorist organization and asking citizens not to have any contact with them. And then two days later, assistant secretary showed a statement that he talked to their leaders. So is it some kind of – if it is a terrorist organization, how come you are talking to them?
MR. CROWLEY: I wouldn’t say so. I mean, first of all, we did welcome over the weekend a clear progress where there’s an agreement in Nepal to transfer command and control of Maoist forces to a special commission. This is an important step in the peace process, but now Nepal needs to move ahead with the rest of the process which involves a new constitution and the formation of a government. So there are – that is a major step that we welcomed.
QUESTION: Again, one on Afghanistan. A senior journalist in Afghanistan was attacked with acid last week, and the journalist and the person who attacked him both are saying that it was at behest of Iranians, and they had threatened the attacker to attack him or –
MR. CROWLEY: Yeah, I haven’t gotten information on that.
QUESTION: You have?
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. CROWLEY: Wait.
QUESTION: One more, one more.
MR. CROWLEY: One more. One more.
QUESTION: On Ivory Coast, you’ve tweeted – thank you very much – the fact that you back the – Outtara’s call for a ban on cocoa exports for one month. I’m wondering if you could talk us through your rationale for that. Cargill apparently is not buying Ivory Coast cocoa. Have you had any communication with them? And does your backing for this imply any sort of formal banning of U.S. imports of Ivory Coast cocoa?
MR. CROWLEY: A very good question. We do support President Outtara’s call for a month-long ban on cocoa exports. Our Embassy is in touch with relevant players on this. We are working closely with the EU, and their sanctions have a great deal to do not only with the export of cocoa, but its ability to be transported outside of Cote d'Ivoire. But it is part of our strategy to deny Laurent Gbagbo the resources so that he – continue to buy support from the military and political actors, and we hope that this will help convince him to step aside.
QUESTION: Just to follow up, it seems that there is a bit of distance, though, between the U.S. position on this and the EU, because the EU is saying that they wouldn’t support a blanket ban because that would affect the people of the Ivory Coast in a bigger way than the government.
MR. CROWLEY: I mean, this is – and you’re right. There is this delicate balance here. We are trying to find ways to prevent Mr. Gbagbo from appropriating more resources that belong to the people of Cote d'Ivoire so that he can resist the will of the people. So we are fully engaged with the EU. You do call attention to the fact that Cargill, a U.S.-based company and a major player, has taken this action, and we welcome that action.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. CROWLEY: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:20 p.m.)