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Middle East Digest - August 10, 2010


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Washington, DC
August 10, 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 August 10, 2010

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1:37 p.m. EDT

QUESTION: And all the --

MR. CROWLEY: They’re all in Leh, yes.

QUESTION: All the hundred Americans?

MR. CROWLEY: Yes, most of them, not all of them. But of the roughly hundred, the majority are in – well, let me put it this way, the largest – a significant concentration of Americans is in Leh. They have been affected by this. I think there was a town hall meeting yesterday, roughly 200 people showed up, and – but we are tracking American citizens in that vicinity who may have been affected by this.

QUESTION: Right. Wait, just – and I’m sorry, but I have some familiarity with this area. Were they in, actually, the city, the town of Leh, or were they out trekking around in the mountains?

MR. CROWLEY: I think it’s both.

QUESTION: But they’ve all been accounted for?

MR. CROWLEY: There are some citizens --

QUESTION: Everyone that you know that is –that was in the area has been accounted for and is safe?

MR. CROWLEY: I think we’re still looking. I don’t think we have – all American citizens that we’re aware of in that area have not yet been accounted for.

Also, in China, flooding in China has been occurring for a couple of months. And within the authorities existing at the embassy, the ambassador has approved an additional $50,000 contribution to the Red Cross Society of China. That brings our total to $200,000 thus far that we have provided to the Red Cross Society of China in support of ongoing relief operations there. And likewise, in Russia, the ambassador has released $50,000 to assist populations affected by the fires. We do have – as we announced yesterday, the OFDA team remains on the ground. They have experts from the U.S. Forest Disaster Assistance Support Program. They’re working – continuing to consult with the Russian Government about how we can be helpful.

We mentioned yesterday that we were evaluating an authorized departure of non-essential emergency staff – of non-essential staff and dependents. We’ve approved that authorized departure and expect that roughly 100 people at the embassy in Moscow will have the opportunity to depart if they choose, and that departure is for 30 days.

And likewise, we have updated our Travel Warning for Russia given the state of emergency that’s been declared by the Russian Federation. We highlight that people should take that into account as they determine their travel plans in Europe.

QUESTION: So where do they go from Moscow? Do they have a choice? Can they come back here or do they have to go somewhere in Europe?

MR. CROWLEY: They can voluntarily return to the United States.

And anticipating your questions, obviously, George Mitchell met today with President Abbas and he will meet with Prime Minister Netanyahu now tomorrow, not today. I think George Mitchell characterized his meeting with President Abbas as serious and positive, but indicated that we will continue our efforts in the coming days to push the parties towards direct negotiations. I think we are getting closer. But since George Mitchell is a baseball fan, as he would say, we have not yet reached home plate.

George Mitchell --

MR. CROWLEY: Yeah.

QUESTION: -- serious and positive, why was the meeting with Netanyahu put back till tomorrow?

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t know. I asked that very question and did not get an answer before I came to the podium.

QUESTION: Okay. And when you say you’re getting closer, does that mean you’re getting – what exactly is that? You’re getting closer to direct negotiations? Is that what you think?

MR. CROWLEY: We are pushing the parties to agree to direct negotiations. And we think after today’s meeting, we are closer to reaching that point than we were yesterday.

QUESTION: So is Mr. Mitchell coming back tomorrow or --

MR. CROWLEY: My understanding is he still plans to come back to the United States after he meets with Prime Minister Netanyahu tomorrow.

QUESTION: Are we likely to hear some sort of announcement on direct negotiations before he leaves?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, he’s had one meeting. He needs to have a second meeting and let’s see where we are after tomorrow.

QUESTION: So we should look forward to a statement right after he finishes his meeting with Mr. Netanyahu?

MR. CROWLEY: I wouldn’t – I’m not here to predict that there’ll be a statement tomorrow.

QUESTION: President Abbas is saying that he wants the Quartet to reaffirm its March 19th statement on asking Israel to halt construction of the settlements. Is that something that the Quartet is willing to do? Are we going to see a reaffirmation or a new statement from them?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, in recent days, the Secretary has talked to Secretary General Ban. He’s talked to the Quartet Special Representative Tony Blair. This was a subject that came up during her conversation on Friday with Foreign Minister Lavrov. So we are consulting within the Quartet and looking to see how we can encourage the parties to begin direct negotiations. So, the Quartet – we are contemplating how we can be supportive.

Yes.

QUESTION: In other words, there could be a Quartet statement later today or tomorrow?

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t think there will be one today.

QUESTION: Tomorrow.

MR. CROWLEY: Let’s get through tomorrow.

QUESTION: Well, let’s get through today. (Inaudible) about tomorrow.

MR. CROWLEY: If a Quartet statement can be helpful in encouraging the parties to move forward, obviously, I think that’s something that we, the United States, support.

QUESTION: Can you address the issue of – I don’t want to say putting expectations on – but President Abbas has talked about wanting some sort of clearer sense of what the focus of the discussions will be, afraid that the Israelis would run out the clock. Does the U.S. have a position on sort of a statement of what the talks should be about, parameters of the talks, to use an old peace process word?

MR. CROWLEY: I think today George Mitchell referred to a defined timeline and agenda. These are things that we are continuing to talk to the parties about. Obviously, we think we’ve spent a lot of time in proximity talks laying a foundation for negotiations, but I’ll leave it there.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Can I just follow up on that? In terms of agenda, you don’t want to say what the agenda would be? Refugees, Jerusalem –

MR. CROWLEY: Well, wait. The ingredients of a final solution are well-known to everyone –
Jerusalem, refugees, borders, and security. So, we do know to use a well-worn Middle East phrase. We do know the parameters. There are a lot of issues associated with that, but we remain firm in our position that the only way to successfully address the core issues is to get into that direct negotiation. That’s why we continue to encourage the parties to do so as soon as possible.

QUESTION: So to clarify at this point, the Palestinians and in fact, the meeting – their meeting in Cairo last week – and someone requested that terms of preference, timetable, and all these things, they sort of agreed to by the U.S. Administration to launch the direct talks. So are you saying that these are issues that are now being discussed with both Israelis and the Palestinians?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I’m not going to get into specifics of what we are discussing with both parties. We want to see them get into direct negotiations as quickly as possible. As we’ve said throughout the past few months, we don’t think that it’s appropriate to set conditions for the direct negotiations. There’s a lot of work that’s been done to help pave the way for this point, and all we’ll say is that the sooner we get into direct negotiations the better.

QUESTION: If there is some sort of an agreement or let’s say consensus among Israelis, Americans, and Palestinians that these issues ought to be discussed, will that take place in a trilateral meeting preceding the discussions – the direct talks?

MR. CROWLEY: As to – put it this way. If and when the leaders say yes, we would expect the United States to be a part of the direct negotiations.

QUESTION: Change of subject.

MR. CROWLEY: Sure.

QUESTION: Can we stay on the region?

MR. CROWLEY: Sure.

QUESTION: Middle East. Are you still on the Middle East?

QUESTION: No.

QUESTION: No. Lebanon. There seems to be growing concern on the Hill about the military assistance to the Lebanese army, and it came out yesterday. You have now – you have two people on your team, i.e. the Democrat – two Democrats who are holding up this assistance and others from the other side of the aisle who are joining in the expressions of concern. What do you make of this? And are you concerned at all that the program to support the Lebanese army, and by extension the Lebanese Government, in exerting its sovereignty will be damaged?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, first of all, we continue to believe that supporting the Lebanese Government and the Lebanese army or military is in our national interest to contribute to stability in the region. That said, we obviously expressed our concerns about the incident last week. We still have an ongoing dialogue ourselves with Lebanese officials including discussions with the Lebanese military to try to fully understand what happened and how it can be prevented in the future.

We do understand the questions that the incident has raised about the nature of our assistance to Lebanon, and whether any of our assistance was in some way implicated in this incident. As we have stressed, we have no indications that our training programs were in any way implicated in what happened, and we will continue to discuss our assistance, our programs, with Lebanon with congressional leaders.

QUESTION: Do you think that the action of holding up that future military aid is in any way detrimental to the situation between the U.S.-Lebanon relations? And apparently Iran’s ambassador is saying that Tehran is ready to step into the breach; if the U.S. isn’t going to help, the Iranians are ready to help the Lebanese army. Is that a serious proposition or in any way a danger?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we think that activities, directly or indirectly, by Iran actually compromise Lebanese sovereignty. That’s one of the reasons that we’ve worked hard to build an effective relationship with the Lebanese Government and to help expand the capabilities of the government and thereby improve its sovereignty over its territory. So I think that the statements by Iran are expressly the reason why we believe that continuing support to the Lebanese Government and the Lebanese military is in our interest. Nonetheless, we understand that this incident has raised very legitimate questions on the Hill, and we will continue to engage leaders on both sides of the aisle to try to help assuage any concerns that exist.

QUESTION: P.J., (inaudible) money and the pipeline are ready and – the aid that is in the pipeline are ready. And now, it is said that members of the appropriation committee is holding up that money. What is your recourse to see that the money --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, as you say, there is aid already in the pipeline, so I can’t say that a hold today necessarily has an immediate impact. We will address the concerns that congressional leaders have rightfully raised about what happened recently and what its potential implications are, but nonetheless, we continue to support our assistance programs to Lebanon.

QUESTION: Can you say how long you have until the hold would affect?

MR. CROWLEY: I can’t say. I don’t –

QUESTION: I mean is it weeks? Months?

MR. CROWLEY: It’s hard to calculate.

QUESTION: Okay.

QUESTION: So Chairman Berman has raised the issue more generally of potential collaboration between the Lebanese army and Hezbollah. So, are you concerned that there might be overlap now with Hezbollah involvement in the Lebanese army? And just in terms of working with Congress to alleviate their concerns, what are you doing? What kinds of information are you providing, et cetera?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think our concerns about Hezbollah are very well-known. One of the tests of sovereignty is the exclusive monopoly on the use of force. And we recognize in recent years you have key examples of where a sub element within Lebanese society has drawn that country into conflict. That’s expressly why we think that the solution for Lebanon in terms of dealing with an armed element like Hezbollah is, in fact, to improve its own capabilities and professionalize its military so that it can extend its writ to areas that might not be fully under government control. So –

QUESTION: Right. But he’s –

MR. CROWLEY: -- we think that’s a direct reason – it’s not a reason to be concerned; it’s a reason actually to work constructively with the Lebanese Government to try to reduce the impact that a group like Hezbollah can have.

QUESTION: And on the army itself though, I mean, are you worried about Hezbollah corrupting the very army that you’re looking to, to be countering Hezbollah?

MR. CROWLEY: I can’t cite anything specific, but obviously, Hezbollah is a fact within Lebanese society and part of our effort in turn – much of our effort in dealing with and supporting the Lebanese military is, in fact, the very professionalization that we think helps mitigate that risk.

QUESTION: Would you make, like, vetting the process to ensure that there are no infiltration by Hezbollah in the sense of the army? Would you make that – the aid conditional to that point?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, in fact, any security assistance that we provide comes with the regular reviews to make sure that our assistance is being constructively utilized.

QUESTION: P.J. --

QUESTION: Can I --

MR. CROWLEY: Wait, hold on.

QUESTION: On Lebanon, Hezbollah has accused yesterday Israel of Hariri assassination, and the Hezbollah secretary general has presented evidence and indication – indications, as he said, that open new horizons for the investigation. Do you have any reaction to what he presented as evidences?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we would reject any attempt to try to politicize the work of the tribunal. We think it has been methodical, professional, and is ultimately in the long-term interest of Lebanon. As Secretary Clinton has said, the tribunal should not be viewed as a bargaining chip, and it is something that’s important for the Lebanese people, the Lebanese Government, and the United States to end the era of impunity regarding political assassinations that are unfortunately part of Lebanon’s history.

QUESTION: What do you think about the area reconnaissance footage that Hezbollah has presented yesterday?

MR. CROWLEY: Look, let’s wait for the results of the tribunal investigation and any particular findings that they announce, and then we will have more to say.

QUESTION: On WikiLeaks, can you talk about reports that you’re pressuring Britain and other allies to launch their own criminal investigations about WikiLeak and to block the site? We had talked about this a little bit over a week ago, but there are more reports surfacing that you’re putting pressure on allies to do something about that.

MR. CROWLEY: Yeah. Let me take that question. I’m not aware of any specific conversations that we’ve had with some of the countries mentioned. Obviously, there’s something that’s cropped up in different conversations that we’ve had; citing one, in the Secretary’s call last week with President Karzai, they did talk about WikiLeaks and she asked the president what his perspective on it was. So I’ll take the question as to whether we’ve had conversations along those lines and are encouraging others to consider their own potential prosecutions.

QUESTION: On the issue of the Imam from the Ground Zero Mosque – there was some discussion yesterday – do you have any update on that, the ground rules of the trip, the relationship to fund-raising which some have raised, and anything on the places he’s going?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, first of all, Imam Feisal will be traveling to Qatar, Bahrain, and the UAE on a U.S. Government-sponsored trip to the Middle East. He will discuss Muslim life in America and religious tolerance. This is part of a program – and yesterday, I actually was in error. I attributed it to our ECA Bureau, Education and Cultural Affairs. It’s actually our International Information Programs – IIP, our office that handles this particular program.

We have about 1,200 of these kinds of programs every year, sending experts on all fields overseas. Last year, we had 52 trips that were specifically focused on religious – promoting religious tolerance. We will expect to have roughly the same number of programs this year. For Imam Feisal, this will be his third trip under this program. In 2007, he visited Bahrain, Morocco, the UAE and Qatar. And earlier this year in January, he also visited Egypt. So we have a long-term relationship with him. His work on tolerance and religious diversity is well-known and he brings a moderate perspective to foreign audiences on what it’s like to be a practicing Muslim in the United States. And our discussions with him about taking this trip preceded the current debate in New York over the center.

QUESTION: And the fundraising issue?

MR. CROWLEY: It is something that we have talked to him about and we have informed him about our prohibition against fundraising while on a speaking tour. We do not expect him to fundraise.

QUESTION: Wait, you said that his first trip under this program was in 2007?

MR. CROWLEY: That is my understanding.

QUESTION: Who was President then? Can you remind me?

MR. CROWLEY: I believe it was George W. Bush.

QUESTION: Thanks. The other thing is has the – has this Administration, the Obama Administration, taken a position on this mosque at all, the proposal, the Ground Zero proposal?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, it’s not normal that the federal government would get involved in what is a – I think a zoning issue in New York City.

QUESTION: Can you – right, okay. So can you explain why --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, we are obviously supportive of religious tolerance not only around the world, but in the United States, and – but this is a particular decision for the city of New York. And we do note the fact that Mayor Bloomberg made a very eloquent appeal for freedom of religion and religious tolerance recently in the city.

QUESTION: Right, and you noted it so much that you decided – or it was posted –

MR. CROWLEY: We posted it on the IIP – on America.gov. We did, yes.

QUESTION: Why was that not posted on the regular State Department website?

MR. CROWLEY: I think Smith-Mundt probably has as much to do with that as anything.

QUESTION: Can you explain to me how you’re –

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, this is the first time that this has come up in a domestic context here at this podium.

QUESTION: But why would Smith-Mundt prohibit this?

MR. CROWLEY: It doesn’t. But again, part of our efforts to help people understand a vigorous debate that is going on within New York and around the country, we posted Mayor Bloomberg’s remarks on America.gov, which is our website that is geared primarily to helping people overseas understand views on important issues here in the country. We did not think that it was necessary for us to make sure that American citizens are aware of Mayor Bloomberg’s remarks. Obviously, through your colleagues in New York City –

QUESTION: Okay, but –

MR. CROWLEY: -- there’s been ample reporting of that. So we posted it because we thought it was useful for people overseas to understand what –

QUESTION: But in those remarks –

MR. CROWLEY: -- the perspectives on this issue.

QUESTION: In those remarks, he made a quite impassioned defense of the rights of the people of Imam Feisal and others to build their mosque wherever they want. So doesn’t – don’t you, by posting this, imply that you’re supportive of the project?

MR. CROWLEY: Again, we – the Obama Administration nor the United States Government have taken a position on this project. The decision is up to the people of New York. We simply posted the mayor’s comments –

QUESTION: All right.

MR. CROWLEY: -- as being – as we do frequently, helping people understand. We certainly support what the mayor was underscoring which is the history of religious diversity and religious tolerance in his city.

MR. CROWLEY: All right. Hold on.

QUESTION: Can we just talk about religious tolerance? There doesn’t seem to be much of that in Iran. They just sentenced seven Baha’i leaders to 20 years in prison each yesterday. Any comments on that and then I have a follow-up, please.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we obviously have concerns – long-standing concerns about the persecution of minorities inside Iran. It is not a tolerant society. And we are concerned about that particular verdict, but also about other actions that Iran has taken.

QUESTION: You just mentioned that it has taken other actions. Human rights issues is a major issue there. With the second P-5+1 meeting with Iran possibly coming up soon, would human rights be on the agenda aside from the nuclear issue?

MR. CROWLEY: We have – the short answer is yes. In our encounters with Iranian officials, we have not hesitated to raise the full range of issues. We know that if you go back 30 years, we have a fairly long list of concerns about Iran. We recognize that Iran has its own list of concerns about the United States. We are prepared to have a broad-based dialogue with Iran going forward, but obviously, right now, the nuclear issue remains at the top of our list.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:32 p.m.)



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