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Middle East Digest - June 21, 2010

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Washington, DC
June 21, 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 June 21, 2010

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MR. CROWLEY: And finally, we are – we will shortly be releasing a statement by the Quartet which I will read in part: “The Quartet reaffirms that the current situation in Gaza, including the humanitarian and human rights situation of the civilian population, is unsustainable, unacceptable, and not in the interests of any of those concerned. Consistent with these objectives, the Quartet and the Quartet representative have worked with Israel as well as consulting the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, and other concerned parties to effect a fundamental change in policy in Gaza. The new policy towards Gaza just announced by the Government of Israel is a welcome development. The Quartet will continue to work with Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and other concerned parties to ensure these arrangements are implemented as quickly as possible. At the same time, the Quartet recognizes that Israel has legitimate security concerns that must continue to be safeguarded and believes efforts to maintain security while enabling movement and access for the Palestinian people and goods are critical.”

With that --

QUESTION: Can we go to that to start with?


QUESTION: I don’t understand something. So the current situation in Gaza is unsustainable and unacceptable and not in the interests of anybody. Does that mean that even with the announcements made by the Israeli Government yesterday, it is still unacceptable to you?

MR. CROWLEY: No, it means that the current situation as of this moment is of concern to the United States, to the Quartet. What – the policy that the – Israel announced yesterday is a welcome step. And we believe, as I think the White House statement said yesterday, that once implemented, these arrangements should significantly improve conditions for Palestinians. But now comes the hard part of actually implementing this policy and, in the process, working effectively with the Palestinian Authority to increase the flow of people and goods between Gaza and the West Bank.

QUESTION: So once that’s been implemented, then from your point of view, will the situation will be sustainable and acceptable?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we’ll wait to see how the policy is further developed and fully implemented. But certainly, the policy framework that the Israelis announced yesterday, we believe can help improve the situation significantly.

QUESTION: In what ways do you expect it to improve their daily lives? What in particular are you looking for?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, as I understand it, the Israelis are kind of flipping the current process on its head. So now, instead of having a situation where goods are excluded unless they are specifically authorized for transit, now you have a much broader array of goods that are authorized for transit into Gaza and that only the restrictions will only apply to those things which have military value.

QUESTION: So you think they’ll have a normal healthcare, education, food – just in most parts of the --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I don’t think anyone could describe the current situation in Gaza as being normal. But clearly, this can offer the opportunity for progress. It will require the Israelis, the Palestinians, others to work in good faith and work through established channels, through international organizations and the UN, to channel more assistance to the people of Gaza.

QUESTION: The checkpoints, maybe? The improvements is including the checkpoints? Because Hamas wrote a letter to European Union and they are suggesting that Larnaca or Cairo or the Egypt – in a harbor in Egypt maybe – new checkpoints for the control of the goods. Is it --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we would like to see an expansion in the flow of goods, the flow of people. That may well require more openings for the flow of material. These will all be part of the process now of implementing the policy that the Israelis announced yesterday.

QUESTION: But last week (inaudible) --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. CROWLEY: We’ll have time.

QUESTION: -- seemed to suggest that it is not enough. It was a welcome thing, but really not enough. Do you agree with that assessment?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we will see as this policy is fully implemented. And I mean, obviously, you fit this in a broader context of continuing to develop the capability of the Palestinian Authority and their ability to meet the needs of their people both in the West Bank and Gaza. We also want to see the parties get to direct negotiations. But certainly, this has the potential to significantly improve the daily lives of the Palestinian people. But let’s be cautious. This is not going to be something that happens overnight. The Gaza – the people of Gaza have profound needs in terms of housing, in terms of education, a lot of infrastructure that needs to be either rebuilt or further developed. But those are the kinds of things that Prime Minister Fayyad is working on on behalf of all the people of the Palestinian territories.

Now, that – this would also – in order to really change, fundamentally change, the lives of the people of Gaza, you need to have a more responsible government working on their behalf rather than working against their long-term interest.

QUESTION: Considering that this has gone on for three years now, I mean, what is the sudden – why is it all of a sudden so urgent? I mean, is it something that you realized now that you did not three to four months ago?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think everyone has recognized, particularly in recent months, the profound plight of the people of Gaza. We’ve had many conversations with the Israelis about their previous policy, and we’re gratified that they have responded to our thoughts and others.


QUESTION: The Jerusalem mayor has decided to demolish 22 Arab houses in East Jerusalem. How do you view this act?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we understand that this is an action undertaken by the municipality of Jerusalem, not the Government of Israel, and it’s an initial step. We have made it clear that we disagree with some Israeli practices in Jerusalem affecting Palestinians in areas such as housing, including evictions and demolitions. The status of Jerusalem and all other permanent status issues must be resolved through negotiations. So we’re concerned about it. We’ve had a number of conversations with the Government of Israel about it.

This, I think at this point, is still an issue between the Government of Israel and the Jerusalem municipality, but this is expressly the kind of step that we think undermines trust that is fundamental to making progress in the proximity talks and ultimately in direct negotiations.

QUESTION: Do you think that will affect the proximity talks?

MR. CROWLEY: It hasn’t right now, but obviously, this is – these are the kinds of steps that Israel needs to understand belong in final-status negotiations.

QUESTION: P.J., you mentioned --

QUESTION: The final --

QUESTION: P.J., on the --

MR. CROWLEY: All right. Hold on. I’m getting whipsawed here.

QUESTION: Go ahead.

QUESTION: On – you just mentioned the role of the United States. How would you assess the role of the United States in this decision leading to this decision? Why do you think it came about at this point by the – not the housing, I’m talking about opening up –


QUESTION: -- Gaza.

MR. CROWLEY: Try me again. Our role in this --

QUESTION: Opening up Gaza, yes. The role --

MR. CROWLEY: This was a decision by the Government of Israel. We welcome the decision. We want to see prompt and full implementation of this new policy. I think this is something that we’ve been discussing with the Israelis over many months. We’ve had concerns about the plight of the people of Gaza. So have many others. And this is the culmination of months of diplomatic effort and both public and private discussions that we’ve had to try to encourage a change in the Israeli approach to Gaza.

QUESTION: You mentioned about the plight of people and everything. Last two days we have been hearing statements welcoming, and when are we going to see the real difference on the ground?

MR. CROWLEY: This will take some time to put into place.

QUESTION: Is there a timeframe?

MR. CROWLEY: That’s a good question to offer to the Government of Israel. We’d like to see this policy fully developed and implemented as rapidly as possible. Some things like the flow of food and medicine; that can probably be done fairly quickly. Rebuilding housing and infrastructure obviously takes longer and getting the materials into Gaza will be a little bit of a greater challenge, but we – it’s expressly that point. We want to see a change in the lives of the average person in Gaza as quickly as possible. We think that can have a constructive impact on the broader environment.

So we do have a sense of urgency about this, but ultimately it requires goodwill and effective action by all of the parties in the region, including further discussions and cooperation between the Israeli Government and the Palestinian Authority.

QUESTION: P.J., what – the Israeli Government has taken the view that a certain number of materials that are highly useful in construction, like concrete and so on, have military uses. Do you have any – and you’ve spoken a couple of times here about construction – do you have any assurance that basic building supplies and materials will, indeed, be allowed in?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not aware that we have seen the full implementation of this yet in terms of lists.

QUESTION: Well, then why are you welcoming it wholesomely?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, the Israeli policy says that you’ll go from a situation where everything’s permitted unless it’s-- that everything’s prohibited unless it’s permitted to the reverse, where everything is permitted unless it is specifically prohibited. We do recognize that Israel has legitimate security interest in excluding certain things that can have direct military value. But we definitely think that the list of things that are relevant to improving the daily lives of the average people – average person in Gaza should expand significantly and that Israel should narrow down its area of concern to those kinds of things which really contribute to Hamas’s military capability.

As we reflected here at various times, no one is sure – exactly sure how potato chips factor into the strategic equation in Gaza. So this was part of the basis on our discussions with the Israelis. I just said the – their present approach is unsustainable and we’re gratified that the Israelis have heeded our advice and others and are moving to change the policy. But now it remains to be seen how it will be implemented and expressly if we have the impact on the ground that we would like to see. I think a broader aspect of this is not just improving the basics in terms of the lives of the average citizen of Gaza. One has to find a way to rebuild the economy of Gaza in a way that supports the people, but does not support Hamas and its policies.

When President Abbas was here recently talking to President Obama and Secretary Clinton, he had some definite ideas on how working – reestablishing some of the commerce between the West Bank and Gaza could have broader impact, and we welcomed his thoughts and think that’s an area that should have further discussion as we go forward.

QUESTION: Can I – same subject --

QUESTION: Could I follow up on this? On – just on the construction issue, though, I mean, you a couple of times mentioned construction and reconstruction in your talk about the new – the people, the residents of Gaza. Obviously, something like concrete can be used to build bunkers --


QUESTION: -- which the military use, just as it can be used to lay foundations for housing. And if – I guess my question is: Why do you think that there’s going to – if you don’t have any assurance that building materials like that are going to be let in, why do you have that--

MR. CROWLEY: All right.

QUESTION: -- are you talking about reconstruction?

MR. CROWLEY: All right. Let me be clear. We have not seen the Israeli list. We definitely believe that construction materials should be let in so that housing, schools, other vital infrastructure important to the day-to-day lives of the people of Gaza can be improved.

QUESTION: Well, same general issue. A few minutes ago, you gave credit to the diplomatic efforts that have been going on for some time in an effort to get the Israelis to do this. But isn’t it, in effect, that what’s broken the logjam on this is the tragedy of a couple of weeks ago with the flotilla and the fact that nine people were killed that brought this to a head and brought pressure on the Israelis to change their policy?

MR. CROWLEY: No question it had an impact.

QUESTION: Can we go back to the housing for --

QUESTION: I want to ask about this. Ehud Barak is coming this week. He’s going to meet the Secretary? Do you think that there is any meeting coming?

MR. CROWLEY: If Mr. Barak is coming to Washington, they normally get together. Let me – I’ll take the question in terms of what that means for the schedule.

QUESTION: P.J., some groups in Lebanon --

MR. CROWLEY: It’s not unusual given what the White House just talked about yesterday in terms of the prime minister coming on – in early July, usually somebody will come ahead of time to help prepare for --
QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

MR. CROWLEY: Yeah. So I haven’t seen it on the schedule yet, but it wouldn’t surprise me and we’ll let you know.

QUESTION: Yeah. Some groups in Lebanon were planning to send the aid ships to Gaza. Have you talked to the Lebanese authorities regarding this issue?

MR. CROWLEY: We have talked to – there’s not just – there’s – lots of people are talking about other ship sailings or flotillas. Particularly, since you see a change in Israeli policy, there’s no basis for any kind of action that risks the same kind of confrontation that Charlie was talking about a moment ago.

Everyone needs to carefully evaluate actions. We – everyone’s committed to improving the situation on the ground in Gaza. There’s now a policy and increased openings that allow materials to be transported to Gaza through land crossings. We think everyone who wants to help the people of Gaza should work through established channels. ]

QUESTION: Have you discussed this issue with the Lebanese authorities or not?

MR. CROWLEY: I’ll take that question. We are very aware of what has been announced. I just can’t – I can’t cite a specific conversation. I’ll take that question.

QUESTION: Change of subject

QUESTION: Can we just --

MR. CROWLEY: Hold on.

QUESTION: -- go on to the housing for one second? You said that – I believe you said we disagree with some policies including demolitions and evictions, and then a few moments later, you said that the proposed demolitions announced today were exactly the kind of thing that you thought undermined trust; correct? Does that mean that you regard these plans by the municipal authorities to demolish these homes and to build other homes for Jewish people are unacceptable? Do you disagree with that?

MR. CROWLEY: Arshad, I don’t think – I’m careful because there are projects. They have got different histories. And so I would not want to be drawn into a discussion of 10 different items. I think in this particular case, this would appear to be the kind of action that undermines trust and potentially incites emotions and adds to the risk of violence. We do understand that there are perhaps different policy approaches between the Government of Israel and the municipality in Jerusalem. But our broad thrust here is that issues regarding housing and other projects in the occupied areas of Jerusalem, it’s a final status issue. That’s where these issues belong. And any unilateral step that anyone takes, we think, is of concern to us and should be avoided.

QUESTION: Just one quick follow-up on the Middle East.


QUESTION: George Mitchell is back. Has he been able to brief the Secretary on --

MR. CROWLEY: George Mitchell is back. He has not been in to see the Secretary today yet, but usually checks in with her at some point.

QUESTION: The Israelis recently accelerated the process of revoking resident status for Jerusalem Palestinian Arab residents that are students or that work outside, and so upon return – returning, they find themselves that they have lost their resident status. Are you aware of that or are you cautioning the Israelis that they should not do this?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not – I can’t cite a specific example of that. Again, this whole penumbra of issues that tries to change – excuse me – tries to change facts on the ground, these are expressly the kinds of issues that belong in formal negotiations and not subject to unilateral steps by any one – any party.

QUESTION: Different topic? What can you tell us about the situation involving Ambassador Holbrooke? In Afghanistan today, there was reports that his Osprey was fired upon when they were trying to land in Marjah and of apparently coordinated suicide attacks around that same time.

MR. CROWLEY: I think this comes out of the category of first reports are usually wrong. My understanding is they were airborne, and while they were airborne, they were aware of small arms fire below in the general vicinity of Marjah, but it did not affect the airplane itself.

QUESTION: Did it hit them at all?


QUESTION: Okay. And then with the bombings that were around, there was some question as to whether a series of bombings in the same area immediately and afterward were connected with his arrival. Do you know?

MR. CROWLEY: In Marjah?

QUESTION: Correct. Do you know if that --

MR. CROWLEY: Not to my knowledge.

QUESTION: Do you have any comment on – sorry, Afghanistan or --

QUESTION: Not Afghanistan.

QUESTION: Can we stick with Afghanistan --


QUESTION: -- just to wrap – close this out? There are reports that the British (inaudible) to Ambassador Holbrooke, Sir Sherard Cowper-Coles, was going on an extended leave and ceasing to do his job of being a special envoy for Af-Pak. Do – are you aware that this is happening? And to your knowledge, does it have anything to do with his policy disagreements with the United States, notably on talking to the Taliban and his skepticism about the NATO-led forces there?]

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not aware and I don’t know the basis for his decision to leave his post.

QUESTION: Any comment on the announcement from Tehran that they’re blocking two IAEA inspectors?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, IAEA inspectors should be free to report on what they see during the course of their duties. It is worrisome that Iran has taken this step, which is symptomatic of its longstanding practice of intimidating inspectors in which Iran has engaged. Reducing cooperation with the IAEA is – will only deepen the world’s concern with respect to its nuclear program. Iran’s obligations are clear and were made more so through the adoption of UN Security Council Resolution 1929, which underscores the requirement that Iran has to cooperate fully with the IAEA. And we remain focused on our strategy of implementing and enforcing the sanctions while making clear that the diplomatic option remains available to Iran.

So we’re – this is – this will not engender or encourage the international community to believe that Iran’s program is peaceful in nature.

QUESTION: Do you know the nationality of the two inspectors who were barred from entry or declared persona non grata to --

MR. CROWLEY: I’m sure we do. I don’t have it here.

QUESTION: Were they American? Do you have --

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t know.

QUESTION: Different topic?


QUESTION: There is – the family of this American who was out looking for bin Ladin in Pakistan is saying that the State Department is not returning their phone calls when they’re looking for information about the individual. I don’t know if those were over the weekend or late last week or what, but – I don’t know if you have any comment about --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we have been in regular contact with the family and we’ve had consular access to him in Pakistan. I’m sure that, given what you just mentioned, that we will check in with the family and see if there’s anything that we can do better. But we have been in regular contact with the family since he was picked up in Pakistan.

QUESTION: Do you know if they’ve been in touch today, just because they said they’ve left messages and they haven’t been returned?

MR. CROWLEY: I can’t say we’ve been in touch today.

QUESTION: Do you know if he’s being held in Islamabad or Peshawar?

MR. CROWLEY: I think we placed him in Islamabad during the last – our last conversation. I’m not aware he’s moved.

QUESTION: Just a quick one on Iran. STRATFOR, a sort of private analysis and intelligence company, has suggested that the United States is in some kind of backchannel, behind-the-scenes talks with the Iranian Government. I’m very skeptical that you would confirm that from the podium if you were, but I’m even more skeptical that you are engaged in any such talks with Iran, a country with which you, of course, have no diplomatic relations. Can you deny this from the podium?

MR. CROWLEY: Look, if you go back over the 30 years, there have been lots of people on the other side of the equation that placed a call or found somebody in a hotel lobby and suggested that they were part of a back channel. So I certainly, from our side, am not aware of any.

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