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 July 13, 2011
QUESTION: I realize it’s – this has just happened, but given the allegations of Pakistani involvement in the Mumbai attacks of 2008, do you have any reason to suspect that there may be Pakistani official or unofficial involvement in these bombings?
MR. TONER: Arshad, we don’t. It’s far too early to speculate. The Indian Government will no doubt begin an investigation of this incident, and we’ll wait for their results. And as I said, we stand ready to cooperate with them.
QUESTION: Can we move on?
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Can you enlighten us as to what happened at what I’m sure was an incredibly productive meeting of the Quartet envoys yesterday? I understand that once again they failed after three hours of intense negotiations to come up with a unified statement and may be trying to go at it again tomorrow. What’s the status?
MR. TONER: You want to get up and brief? (Laughter.) You seem to have a fairly full readout. Look, they did meet yesterday. We’ve said yesterday and indeed after the dinner that the intent of these meetings is not to issue a statement. When we’re ready and we feel that a statement will be productive and help push the process forward, the parties – or the members of the Quartet are ready to do so. But at this point, it was a productive session yesterday. They’re going to continue to be in contact. As you said, they may meet additionally today. They’ll remain in phone contact in the days ahead. I have no update on any travel at this point, but – and certainly we remain engaged.
QUESTION: All right. So the official record of the envoy – of the principals’ meeting on Sunday – or sorry, on Monday – Monday night, the official record that the U.S. and its partners want out there is basically no comment. That was – that’s the – that’s what it produced.
MR. TONER: No –
QUESTION: And nothing on the record about – other than the fact that there were significant gaps.
MR. TONER: Well, that’s not true. We – as you know, we did a backgrounder following the dinner –
QUESTION: I said on the record.
MR. TONER: -- to try to give you an early readout. Oh, I’m sorry. On the record. And Toria has spoken to it at length yesterday. We – it was the judgment of the Quartet after this dinner and continuing through yesterday that realistically more work needs to be done to close the gaps that they believe are still there between the parties. But again, our goal is to get them back to the negotiating table.
QUESTION: Mark –
MR. TONER: He did have his hand up.
QUESTION: Mark, yesterday in an event, the Palestine Center just down the road from you guys, the PLO ambassador to Washington, Maen Areikat, said that the gaps are not between the Israelis and the Palestinians because these gaps are known. But there are apparently unbridgeable gaps between the United States and its partners within the Quartet. Could you comment on that?
MR. TONER: I mean, we’ve acknowledged that there are gaps between the parties. The Quartet remains committed to bringing them back to the negotiating table. And to that end, as I said, they continue to meet to find practical ways to encourage them to do so. But I’m not going to get into the substance of their meetings.
QUESTION: Could you tell us what these gaps might be? I mean, where do they differ and where do they agree – let’s say the United States and Russia or the United States and the United Nations?
MR. TONER: Well, there are – I’m not going to necessarily get into the gaps between the parties as well. As you said, some of them are known, and some of them are – pose significant challenges to bridge. But we would call on the parties to overcome those obstacles and find ways to resume direct negotiations. As I said, some of these are quite public, but others are not so much. But what’s important again is that we feel that there’s an opportunity here, and it’s worth staying engaged on.
QUESTION: So finally, do you still believe that you can still dissuade the Palestinians from going to the United Nations in September as they have promised?
MR. TONER: And again, it remains our policy and our firm commitment that the only way to reach a comprehensive peace is through direct negotiations, not through the UN.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Just a small thing.
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: How long was the envoys meeting yesterday? Do you know for a fact whether they will indeed meet again today (inaudible)?
MR. TONER: I think several hours – I wasn’t sure that – I’m not sure – I didn’t confirm that they will meet again today. That was being discussed. I’ll confirm that later. And what I was told is that they’ll remain in close phone contact over the coming days.
Yeah, go ahead.
QUESTION: What do you know about the situation in Turkey, the arrests –
MR. TONER: Oh, go ahead. Yes –
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) What does the U.S. think of this law that the Israeli cabinet and their parliament is talking about that would ban any boycotts of products produced in settlements?
MR. TONER: Right. Well, the law itself is an internal Israeli matter. It’s important to note, as we often do, that Israel is a vibrant democracy and has strong democratic institutions that allow its citizens to address concerns they may have about their laws. And clearly, freedom of expression is something that we consider a basic right under democracy.
QUESTION: Well, so does that mean that you have problems with the law?
MR. TONER: Not necessarily. What I think I just said was that the law itself is an internal Israeli matter, that – I stated our commitment to basic freedom of expression. But also, it’s important to recognize that Israel does have the kind of democratic institutions that allow its citizens to express either their concerns or their grievances or their support for any given law.
QUESTION: Right, but does that mean that you have concerns and that you’re confident that those concerns can be addressed because Israel is a vibrant democracy or is that --
MR. TONER: I think what I would just say is it’s an internal Israeli matter. However, the concerns that some Israelis may have about the law can be addressed through Israelis’ --
QUESTION: But the U.S. Government does not have any concerns itself?
MR. TONER: We view it as an internal matter.
QUESTION: Why would you pointedly note the U.S. support for freedom of expression? That leaves the – that is a well-known policy. It’s not one that needs to be sort of repeated from the podium. It does, however, leave lingering the notion that maybe you feel that freedom of expression may be compromised by this.
MR. TONER: No, I don’t think it’s necessarily a commentary on that specific law, but I think it’s the broader issue that we believe that freedom of expression is a fundamental right. Again, though, it’s important that I linked it to the fact that Israel is a vibrant democracy, does have strong democratic institutions, and is able to address these concerns.
QUESTION: And even if it is an internal matter, the Secretary and other U.S. officials often discuss internal matters. In Hungary, for example, she discussed a series of legislative moves that critics at least believe, and the Secretary herself suggested, might sort of undermine checks and balances in that country. Have any State Department officials raised this matter with Israeli officials in the last few days as the legislation has made its way?
MR. TONER: That’s a fair question. I’ll check.
MR. TONER: To Turkey.
QUESTION: What do you know, if anything, about these reported arrests of al-Qaida militants planning to attack the U.S. Embassy?
MR. TONER: Yeah. The short answer is not much at this point. We’ve obviously – you’ve all seen the press reports. I’m aware that our Embassy is in touch, as they always are, with Turkish authorities about this – these arrests. We obviously closely coordinate with them. But I’m not aware of how much we know about the – whether we can confirm that these were indeed attacks. I just don’t have that information right now. We’re in contact with the Turkish authorities. We do share information and intelligence, and I’ll let those play out (inaudible).
QUESTION: So did U.S. officials at the Embassy there, did they tell the Turkish authorities about the threat or --
MR. TONER: My understanding, no, is that this was a Turkish operation that we’ve subsequently been informed about.
MR. TONER: Let’s go to Syria and then back – yeah.
QUESTION: Mark, has there been any contact – I’m sure there has been contact with Ambassador Robert Ford over the past 24 to 48 hours since the White House statement. Is there any reaction in Syria? Has he been called by the Syrian Government? Has there been any kind of official (inaudible)?
MR. TONER: You’re talking about the President’s remarks?
QUESTION: Yes. I mean, about President Asad losing one opportunity after another to reform. So has there been, like, any kind of protest by the Syrian Government officially?
MR. TONER: My understanding is – on the ground today, that it’s actually fairly quiet, and there is a larger police presence around the Embassy. I’m not aware that our Ambassador has had any additional meetings with the Syrian authorities.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Egypt. We have a report quoting a source in Cairo as saying that there is some possibility that the Egyptian parliamentary elections that were scheduled to take place in September will, in fact, slide to November; that the preparations will begin in September but the actual vote would not occur until two months later. Does the Administration have any view, (a), on the advisability of a delay, and (b) – well, I’ll leave it at that. I have nothing else to --
MR. TONER: Frankly, I’ll have to just say what we’ve said, because I’m not aware of this latest information and whether there is, in fact, a delay that’s been announced. We recognize that Egypt is navigating a difficult period as they head towards elections. It’s important that those elections stay on track. Obviously, we’re sympathetic to the logistics and et cetera that some of these elections – that these elections entail. So it’s important – again, I guess I would stress it’s important that these elections move forward in as free and fair a manner as possible. If that indeed entails a delay, that’s something we would have to look at, but it’s important that they remain on track.
QUESTION: What does “remain on track” mean? I mean, clearly, it doesn’t mean that you think that they have to occur on time.
MR. TONER: Right, but I guess too long a delay. But I will look into these specific reports.
QUESTION: Okay. So you’re open to some kind of a delay anyway, then, just not too long.
MR. TONER: Again, we’re aware that there’s significant challenges here and there’s a time squeeze, so let me get back to you if we have any more to say on it.
MR. TONER: Yeah. In the back.
QUESTION: Has the Department any information on the transfer of nuclear technology from Argentina to Iran through the Venezuelan Government?
MR. TONER: From Argentina to?
QUESTION: Iran, through the Venezuelan Government.
MR. TONER: I do not. We’ll have to take that question. I mean, clearly, we would be concerned about any reports of a transfer of nuclear material. But this is the first time I’ve heard of those reports.
QUESTION: Because the Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen wrote a letter to Secretary Hillary Clinton asking about this matter, and I was --
MR. TONER: I’ll have to look into it.
MR. TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: Maleeha Lodhi, the former Pakistani Ambassador to Washington, she said that, as far as the U.S. aid to Pakistan – military aid – the U.S. needs more Pakistan than Pakistan needs U.S., so this is not the time for the U.S. to hold any aid or anything doing against Pakistan. And also, ISI chief Pasha is in Washington. I know that this building may not be his subject, but you never know if he’s meeting anybody here.
MR. TONER: On your second question, I’ll check on that. Did – was your first question a question or was it a statement?
QUESTION: I’m asking you if he’s meeting anybody in this building?
MR. TONER: Oh, yeah, no. Pasha – I’ll check into that. I don’t believe so, but --
QUESTION: Pakistani Prime Minister Gilani spoke today, and he expressed concern about the suspension of aid to Pakistan, which is – the tone is different from what the military had to say about it. So has there been any official contact at governmental level between United States and Pakistan about this issue?
MR. TONER: Well, there’s always contact between us and the Pakistani authorities on a regular, daily basis.
QUESTION: But this specific issue.
MR. TONER: I can imagine, since this story broke, what, over the weekend, that they’ve talked about it. And in fact, this is something that we’ve spoken to publicly as well – we value our partnership with Pakistan; it’s not always easy, but it’s certainly vital and it’s in both our shared interests. We’re strongly committed to it, and it’s important to note, with all the talk about military and security assistance, our civilian assistance does continue without any restrictions.