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Middle East Digest - June 6, 2011

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Washington, DC
June 6, 2011


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 6, 2011

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MR. TONER: Good afternoon and welcome to the State Department. Happy Monday. Just briefly before taking your questions, as you know, the Secretary is currently meeting in a working lunch with the Foreign Minister of France, Alain Juppe. Among other key topics, the Secretary and foreign minister will discuss ongoing events in Syria, the situation in both Libya and Afghanistan, and our coordinated efforts on the peace process in the Middle East.

France is clearly a key ally and a partner of the United States, and the Secretary and foreign minister maintain a close and consultative relationship on our mutual foreign policy priorities. And, obviously, you’ll get a chance to hear from both of them at 1:25 this afternoon.

I did want to also mention that Secretary Clinton will meet later today with senior Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, as well as with the lead Israeli negotiator, Yitzhak Molho. That’s as part of our ongoing consultations with the parties on how to move beyond the current impasse in the Middle East peace talks.

Acting Special Envoy for the Middle East peace, David Hale, and other officials have ongoing separate follow-up meetings with both officials this week.

QUESTION: Are those separate meetings?

MR. TONER: I believe, yes, they are separate meetings. They’re not together. They’re separate meetings. And I believe she is going to drop by the meetings that she’ll be having – that they’ll be having with David Hale and his team.

QUESTION: What was it you said at the top? Are you done with your announcements?

QUESTION: All right. What was it you said when you were talking about the Juppe meeting on the Middle East, that your key coordinate – what was it, coordinated?

MR. TONER: Oh, I just said our coordinated efforts on the peace process in the Middle East.

QUESTION: Okay. If your efforts are so coordinated, why are you opposed to the French holding a meeting of the Israelis and the Palestinians?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I don’t know that we ever said we were opposed. But the Secretary is meeting with Foreign Minister Juppe as – again, as I speak here. And they’re talking about next steps. Obviously, she is going to be meeting with both the Palestinian and the Israeli negotiator today. So this is an evolving situation.

QUESTION: Well, do you think it would be a good idea? Do you think it would be – it’s helpful to the process to have – for the French to host a meeting?

MR. TONER: Again, Foreign Minister Juppe was in the region last week, and they’re trading views on the best way forward now. But clearly, our ultimate goal is to get both parties back to the negotiating table.

QUESTION: Right. Well, is this something that would help along that way?

MR. TONER: Again, I mean, I don’t want to get out in front. They’re meeting right now and they’ll --

QUESTION: Do you think that at the end of this meeting, at their press conference, they’ll be able to say whether – the Secretary will be able to say whether the United States would support the French proposal?

MR. TONER: I think they’ll be able to – I think they’ll both be able to characterize what their discussions were and to talk about the way forward.


MR. TONER: Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: The Pakistani Prime Minister Gillani said that the U.S. has confirmed the killing –

MR. TONER: Okay. You can stay on the Middle East, that’s fine. Do you want to –

QUESTION: Is this the beginning of a long Pakistan thing, because – (laughter) –

QUESTION: No. I just want to – I mean, the prime minister said that you’ve confirmed the killing of Ilyas Kashmiri. The Pakistani prime minister said it on the record that the U.S. has confirmed his killing – the al-Qaida commander.

MR. TONER: I’m sorry, Elise, I don’t have any confirmation of that.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) it hasn’t – it is not confirming the death of Ilyas Kashmiri.

MR. TONER: I am not. We cannot.

QUESTION: What does the State Department say, Mark?

QUESTION: I just said we are not confirming –

QUESTION: No, no. He said that DOD is not confirming. They said there’s no confirmation. So what does the --

MR. TONER: And I also – I would just reiterate we have no confirmation.

QUESTION: The Pakistanis are saying that you have, so --

MR. TONER: I’m aware of those press reports, but I don’t have any –


QUESTION: You say, “We are not confirming.” You mean the U.S. Government cannot substantiate this, or you mean you have no comment on this?

MR. TONER: I both have no comment and no way of confirming his death.

QUESTION: Mark, what Pakistan is telling you officially or non-officially about his death?

MR. TONER: I’m not going to get in the substance of those discussions.

QUESTION: Can we go back to the Middle East peace process? Can we go back to the meetings that are taking place today?

MR. TONER: Sure. Yep.

QUESTION: So I could not hear you properly. Is there likely to be an announcement by the State Department that the United States Government supports the French proposal?

MR. TONER: Again, I think we’ll let them meet, have lunch, talk about his trip to the region last week. She’ll be meeting with both the Palestinian and the Israeli negotiators later today. But she’ll have – she and the foreign minister, I suspect, will have more to say after their lunch.

QUESTION: Okay. Is the Secretary of State –

MR. TONER: I’m not going to preview their discussions. I’m not in that lunch, so I’ll let them get out and talk about what they talked about.

QUESTION: Because, you know, this meeting with the Palestinian negotiator came out of the blue, considering that he resigned as a negotiator. So could you tell us what are the elements, what are the – what’s going on in this meeting that came out of nowhere, or is it to follow up on the French proposal? Please, enlighten me.

MR. TONER: Thanks. Look, we’ve said all along, and since the President’s speech several weeks ago, that we want to get both sides back to the negotiating table, while being well aware that there are significant hurdles to overcome. The President, in his speech, laid out some ideas or some foundations on which to build from. And despite Senator Mitchell’s resigning, we’ve said that we’re going to remain hard at work on this process. And I think today just indicates how significantly committed we remain.

QUESTION: Are we likely to see follow up meetings in this building between Palestinian and Israeli negotiators?

MR. TONER: Again, these are separate meetings today, and I don’t want to get out in front of the process or these meetings. But I think I just said that David Hale and his team will be – will have ongoing discussions with both negotiators as the week goes on.

Yes, go ahead, Tejinder.

QUESTION: What is U.S. reaction to the brutal beating of –

QUESTION: We’re still on the Middle East.

QUESTION: Oh, okay. Sorry.

QUESTION: Is Juppe going to be in these meetings with Secretary Clinton and the two negotiators? And when were they scheduled?

MR. TONER: As far as scheduling, I’m not – I don’t know. I mean, she’s just basically dropping by both meetings to talk to both negotiators, is my understanding. And no, Juppe will not accompany her.

QUESTION: And what about the timing of these meetings with the Palestinian and the Israeli delegation after her meeting with Alain Juppe? Is there any message here to the French?

MR. TONER: I think our message is a consistent one, which is that we’re pursuing a path back towards direct negotiations. And we’re working hard, and the Secretary – and both the Secretary and foreign minister are hard at work on trying to overcome some of the obstacles and get both sides back to the negotiating table. And that’s clearly the message she is going to deliver to both negotiators.

QUESTION: How long are they in town for? You said that --

MR. TONER: That’s a good question, Arshad. Both officials this week, I have no idea when they’re both departing, but it’s – I don’t know.


QUESTION: Just staying in the region but moving a bit north to Syria, do you have anything to say about the violence yesterday and the situation today in – the violence on the border yesterday and –

MR. TONER: Okay, thank you.

QUESTION: – and what happened – and what’s happened there today, as well as the situation, domestic situation inside Syria?

MR. TONER: And, sadly, we have to delineate between the violent incidents. But we’re obviously deeply troubled by attempts yesterday to cross the disengagement line in the Golan Heights, resulting in both injuries as well as the loss of life. As we did previously, we condemn what appears to be an effort by the Syrian Government to incite events and draw attention away from its own internal issues. And it’s clear that such behavior will not distract international attention on Syria’s – the Syrian Government’s condemnable behavior on its own citizens. And I just would add that Israel, like any sovereign nation, has a right to defend itself.

QUESTION: Mark, on Syria, two things.


QUESTION: Wait, just – can I follow up on that thing?

MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.

QUESTION: The reports – do you find credible the Syrian reports that – or the Syrian News Agency report – it’s either 22 or 23 people, I believe they claim, died in this?

MR. TONER: We’ve seen conflicting reports. Obviously, the Israelis have cited far fewer deaths, and it is a dangerous place. It is – there are minefields there as well as other obstacles, which is why, again, we would strongly discourage anyone from trying to make that crossing.

QUESTION: Do you have any –

QUESTION: Well, do you think that excessive force may have been used in this instance?

MR. TONER: Arshad, we really don’t know. I would just reiterate what I said, which is that they have a right to defend themselves from –

QUESTION: From unarmed –

MR. TONER: -- this kind of onslaught, and –

QUESTION: Even if the people are unarmed?

MR. TONER: But again, this is clearly an attempt by Syria to incite these kinds of protests, and they have a right to protect their – this disengagement line.

QUESTION: Do you have any way of verifying the figures from independent sources?

MR. TONER: That’s a fair question. I don’t know. I assume that there are NGOs and others looking at it. But again, it is obviously a very dangerous area, and we’ve seen conflicting reports about casualties, but what we want to see is an end to the – this kind of violent behavior.

QUESTION: Another subject?

MR. TONER: Yeah.

QUESTION: On Syria –

MR. TONER: Yeah, Michel.

QUESTION: Syria has said today that 40 policemen and the security forces have been killed in ambush in north Syria. Do you have any information?

MR. TONER: I don’t, frankly. It’s – I’ll look into it, but – what are they – what’s the – these are press reports or the Syrian Government claiming that?

QUESTION: Syrian Government.

MR. TONER: In northern Syria?


MR. TONER: Yeah. I don’t have any reaction. Sorry.

QUESTION: Can we stay – staying in the region, on Yemen, what’s your understanding of the situation with President Saleh and the situation on the ground in Sanaa?

MR. TONER: Right. It’s – Sanaa has been relatively quiet since Saturday. There have been clashes taking place in other cities throughout Yemen. We understand the airport remains open and is functioning with respect to scheduled flights. Our Embassy obviously remains open for emergency services only, and we – our personnel remain on ordered departure.

We are aware that President Saleh is currently in Saudi Arabia, where he’s receiving medical treatment, and the civilian government remains in power in Yemen with the vice president currently serving as the acting president. And I can say that our ambassador there has met with the – with Acting President Hadi, I believe earlier today.

QUESTION: Well, what would you like to see happen? I mean, do you want – do you think it would be a good thing if Saleh came back? Should he stay out of the country? Is this the kind of transition that you were looking for?

MR. TONER: I think – well, I think what we don’t want to see is a return to the violence that we saw on Friday with these retaliatory attacks. This was clearly – this kind of violence, escalating violence, and the situation was clearly leading to – or rather was fueled by the instability and lack of security in Yemen, and we condemn this kind of violence.

There’s a path forward. Yemen has a strong constitution, and we believe that any future steps towards any transition should be in line with that document. Our fundamental desire is that we see a peaceful and orderly transition take place and one that respects the aspirations of the Yemeni people.

QUESTION: Well, but that doesn’t answer the question. I mean, you said what you don’t want to see, specifically –

MR. TONER: Well, again, I think –

QUESTION: -- is a return to violence, so what do want to see, specifically?

MR. TONER: I think what we don’t – well, what we want to see is an orderly transition. We want to see, based again on the Yemeni constitution –

QUESTION: Well, but –

MR. TONER: -- whether – it’s unclear to us rather Saleh has – President Saleh has any intentions of returning. We can’t speculate on his intentions, obviously.

QUESTION: Well, are you –

MR. TONER: What’s important right now is to focus on the fact that the violence needs to end and there needs to be, again, an orderly transition take place.

QUESTION: Do you want him to return?

MR. TONER: Well, again, it’s not really what we want. It’s what we want to see happen in Yemen. And we’ve always said that it’s not about one man; it’s about a process and an orderly transition. We believe that can take place. There’s a strong constitution there. There’s an acting vice president. The civilian government does remain in power. Violence has abated. So we believe now that the time is right for this kind of transition to take place.

QUESTION: But his sons and nephews remain in charge of some military units there.

MR. TONER: That’s correct.

QUESTION: What are the chances that the fighting will stop as long as they are?

MR. TONER: Well, again, nobody wants to see a return to what happened last Friday. I think right now the clear desire for all in the international community, as well as in Yemen, are to see an orderly transition begin. That’s our message, and we believe that that’s best achieved through working with the GCC and the plan that they laid out, frankly.

QUESTION: Do you know that –

QUESTION: That means that you are in favor of – still in favor of the GCC plan, which essentially says Saleh should stay out.

MR. TONER: Step aside, yes, and for a transition to take place, right.

QUESTION: But what – but are you saying that Saleh cannot – I mean –

MR. TONER: I’m not saying at this point.

QUESTION: -- your druthers would be that he doesn’t return?

MR. TONER: I’m not – well –

QUESTION: Because you have said – I mean, in other instances like this, you’ve said that it’s time for whoever to leave –

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: -- and leave the country. You’re not saying right now that Saleh should stay out of the country forever.

MR. TONER: I’m not saying. What I’m adamantly saying is that we want to see a peaceful democratic process or transition take place, along the lines of what the GCC has already laid out. We believe it offers a path forward for a peaceful transition. As I said, Yemen has a strong constitution, and future steps to select new leadership along the lines of that document can take place.

QUESTION: Can I clarify something?

MR. TONER: Yeah. Sure.

QUESTION: Because when I asked you, “Do you want him to return,” you said, “It’s not what we want to see happen.” What you meant by that was it’s not about what we want –

MR. TONER: Yeah. It’s not about us. Yeah. It’s not necessarily about us. It’s about what the Yemeni people want to see happen. Thanks.

QUESTION: Have you had discussions with Saudi Arabia about Saleh’s return? Have you had discussions with them?

MR. TONER: We’re in contact with the Saudis, yes.

QUESTION: On the severity of his injuries –

MR. TONER: But I’m not going to get into the substance of this.

QUESTION: Do you –


MR. TONER: But I think we’ve been quite clear that we support the Saudi-led process, the way forward, in Yemen.

QUESTION: Do you know the nature of his injuries?

MR. TONER: I do not. I’ve seen press reports that he’s been slightly injured, but I have no idea.

QUESTION: Mark, you have said repeatedly that he should go.

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: You have noted that it is –

MR. TONER: Well, we’ve said –

QUESTION: – it is –

MR. TONER: Wait a second. We’ve said that he should sign the agreement that he committed to signing –

QUESTION: Right, right.

MR. TONER: – which charts a peaceful way forward. Last week when he stepped away from that document, what we saw throughout the week was escalating violence and, as we said, retaliatory attacks that culminated on the – in the incident on the presidential mansion on Friday. We don’t want to see a return to that kind of instability at all. And so President Saleh has now left. I don’t want to predict or speculate on what he may do, but what’s clear now is that there is a civilian government still in place, and they can take steps to chart this transition.


QUESTION: So would I – just so I can finish my question, I mean, you made clear repeatedly last week that you wanted him to honor the agreement, which entailed his departure from power. Now that he would appear to have departed from power, at least temporarily, having handed over to the vice president and physically left the country, why would you wish to leave open the possibility that he might return?

MR. TONER: Again, I don’t want to appear to be dictating what Yemen should do, apart from the fact that they should – they, being the Government of Yemen, should seize an opportunity to begin a democratic transition that’s, frankly, overdue given the level of violence and instability of the past several weeks.

QUESTION: Mark, do you think that Saleh’s return to Sanaa means the return of violence?

MR. TONER: Well, again, I don’t want to say one way or another what his return or lack of return may lead to. What I – what we think is important is that the government that is in place, the civilian government, act immediately to begin the democratic transition that, as I said, is, frankly, overdue. And –

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. TONER: Yeah. We’ve said that there’s a civilian government that remains in place.

QUESTION: Do you think his injuries –

QUESTION: The path (inaudible) Yemen, are they on that path yet?

MR. TONER: Again, what I think is encouraging is that the violence appears to have gone down. And as I said, there is a strong constitution in Yemen, and we believe that the government that’s in place now can begin that process.

QUESTION: Do you think him being injured helped break the stalemate and may be a blessing in disguise?

MR. TONER: Look, I would never speculate on the – on whether the injury of another human being is a good or bad thing. But –

QUESTION: Do you think that helped him depart and, in a way, break the stalemate?

MR. TONER: I would just say that it was clearly a sense of escalating violence last week. We don’t want to see a return to that level of violence. And what we want to see now is for the Government of Yemen and the opposition to move forward in a – towards a peaceful transition.


QUESTION: Do you have a readout of the ambassador’s meeting with the acting president?

MR. TONER: I do not.


MR. TONER: You’re changing, Goyal, or you’re –

QUESTION: I want to stay in the Middle East.

QUESTION: Still on Yemen. One more.

MR. TONER: Go ahead.

QUESTION: Most of these people, when you go back and see the history, dictators or terrorists, after killing innocent people, they either go to Saudi Arabia or they go to Pakistan. What I’m asking you now, people wants him to bring to justice.

MR. TONER: People want him – I’m sorry, I didn’t get – I missed the question.

QUESTION: They want him to bring to justice.

MR. TONER: People want him to – want to bring him to justice or want him brought to justice. Again, I don’t want to get ahead of the process here. All I can say for certain is that he is in Saudi Arabia. He’s receiving medical treatment. There is a civilian government that remains in place in Yemen, and we believe that the time is now to begin that peaceful transition towards a democratic process that, frankly, that meets the aspirations of the Yemeni people.

QUESTION: I have one more on that. There’s been some talk about a power vacuum because he left so quickly. Are you saying the U.S. is not concerned about that?

MR. TONER: Well, I think we’re concerned clearly about some of the instability of the past several weeks. But again, the ambassador met with the Vice President – or Acting President, rather, Hadi today, and we’re going to continue to meet with the government. And I would just stress that there is a civilian government that remains in place there.

QUESTION: Have you seen a diminution in your counterterrorism cooperation over the last several weeks?

MR. TONER: I can’t really give you a solid answer on that, but just to say that any time there’s this level of instability, it obviously raises our concern. But as we’ve said all along, our counterterrorism cooperation is not about one individual; it’s about our cooperation with the Government of Yemen, and we’re continuing to work in that direction.

QUESTION: I’ve got one more on the Middle East here. Last week, I asked you a couple times about this American citizen, Munib Masri, who was shot by –

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: In the – when you –

MR. TONER: And we didn’t get to that on Friday, did we? You didn’t ask me again on Friday. We didn’t talk about.


MR. TONER: Okay. No, it’s okay.

QUESTION: Why, do you have more?

MR. TONER: I just know that he’s –

QUESTION: Because the last answer I got from – the last answer I got from you was that he hadn’t signed a Privacy Act waiver and you –

MR. TONER: Yeah. That’s – okay, that’s what I was wondering if I had –

QUESTION: Well, in fact, both he and his family say that they were never asked to sign a Privacy Act waiver. And as you know, this is something that’s vexed me for many years.

MR. TONER: I understand your –

QUESTION: And so I would like to take this opportunity to ask you to ask CA to ask the Embassy in Beirut if, in fact, they gave Mr. Masri the opportunity to sign a Privacy Act waiver; and if they did, whether or not they recommended that he sign it or not sign it, or they offered no recommendation.

MR. TONER: And, Matt, I would just go back to you and say that –

QUESTION: Can I just – can you just say yes? Can you commit to asking that?

MR. TONER: I will ask that question, but in –

QUESTION: Because I find it unusual that he –

MR. TONER: – but in defense of our consular officers, I can guarantee that they carry out their duties objectively and --

QUESTION: I have no doubt.

MR. TONER: And one of their duties is to present a Privacy Act waiver to these individuals and express in very clear language what it involves, what it entails, and that usually takes place during the first meeting that they have with these individuals.

QUESTION: Right. And that meeting took place --

MR. TONER: So I’ll try to seek greater clarity on this incident.

QUESTION: That took place at the hospital.

MR. TONER: I’ll try to --

QUESTION: And the only reason I’m bringing this up is that – because you said that he had not signed one.

MR. TONER: Right.

QUESTION: And I asked if you had been – if he had been given the opportunity to sign one, you said that that was standard procedure, and --

MR. TONER: It is standard procedure.

QUESTION: And the next day or subsequent to that, I’ve been told that in fact neither he nor his family were given an opportunity to sign.

MR. TONER: I will seek more information.


QUESTION: Can you just reply on the waiver? Just is that a common procedure for everyone – everywhere?

MR. TONER: For every American citizen, obviously.

QUESTION: Every American citizen, anywhere?

MR. TONER: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.

QUESTION: Change of subject?

MR. TONER: Normally how it works is whenever we visit an American citizen who is a – I mean, normally it’s when they’re being held in prison or whatnot. We would present a Privacy Act waiver with them that says – there’s various forms of Privacy Act waivers. But the one that we’re most concerned in this room with is whether we can talk to the media about their case.

QUESTION: Mark, on Bahrain, Bahraini doctors and nurses who treated protestors during the unrest Bahrain went on trial today on allegations they participated in efforts to overthrow the monarchy. They Secretary will meet with Crown Prince this week.

MR. TONER: Right. Tomorrow, I believe.

QUESTION: Tomorrow. Will she ask him to release these doctors?

MR. TONER: I’m not going to preview or get into the details of what she may talk about, but I can – rest assured that – or I can assure you, rather, that she’ll raise our concerns about human rights there.

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