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Middle East Digest - September 7, 2011

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Washington, DC
September 7, 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 September 7, 2011

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MS. NULAND: Good afternoon, everybody. Let me start by welcoming our special visitors from Afghanistan, who are here on an international visitors program. Special communications specialists, we welcome you to the State Department, as we do all of you.

I have one announcement at the beginning, and then we’ll go to your questions. This evening, Secretary Clinton will host a reception commemorating Eid ul-Fitr. The Department has been hosting these kinds of receptions and celebrations of Ramadan and of Eid for some 15 years. This year’s celebration is going to honor American Muslims’ contributions in the field of athletics. And we’ll have some 11 special sports guests. We’ll put out some more information about them later in the day.

The honorees will also include players from the movie Fordson, which is a film about majority-Muslim – a high school football team that is majority Muslim in Dearborn, Michigan. We’re also going to have some NBA and NFL players, college athletes, amateur competitors in boxing, weightlifting, and fencing. And this event starts at 5:30 this evening.

Let’s go to what’s on your minds.

QUESTION: Mideast. Can you give us any readout on David Hale’s meetings there? Palestinians – senior Palestinian officials are on the radio saying some fairly negative things about U.S. policy toward Palestinians and particularly on the UN bid, so it doesn’t sound as though that they have made any progress. Did they?

QUESTION: And why Dennis decided to go.

MS. NULAND: I had an exchange with White House Senior Director for the Region Dennis Ross this morning. He did attend the meeting with President Abbas along with Dennis Hale. Apparently, it was his plan to attend, and I got it wrong yesterday.

QUESTION: David. David Hale.

MS. NULAND: David Hale. Sorry. They saw President Abbas today. Those consultations were good. He is – they are both now consulting with members of the Quartet. They’ve been speaking by phone with the various Quartet members, and they are on their way home, I believe, tomorrow.

QUESTION: The Palestinian official who spoke on the radio said that it was his impression that it was – the only objective of these talks was to prevent the Palestinian bid at the UN from going forward, that no other issues associated with the peace process were even brought up. Is that a correct description of what happened?

MS. NULAND: Well, first of all, I’m not going to get into the back and forth of our private diplomatic exchanges. But you know that our objective has been, first and foremost, to get both of these parties back to the negotiating table, to get them to consider that a better option than other options, including New York. So the conversation was about how to get back to negotiations and obviously about the fact that we consider the New York course misguided, and we think it’s going to make coming to a lasting peace much harder.

QUESTION: At an event hosted by (inaudible) yesterday, a round table event, the – Ms. Hiba Husseini, the advisor to the PLO for the ongoing effort, said that, first of all, that the Palestinian effort does not threaten the United States, that in fact there is no divergence between going to the United Nations and doing the negotiations at the same time. You don’t concur, do you?

MS. NULAND: We do not. We disagree with those statements.

QUESTION: Why do you disagree? Why are they mutually irreconcilable?

MS. NULAND: Said it before, say it again, will say it every day if I need to. The only path to two states living side by side in peace and in security is through negotiations. You can say whatever you want in the UN. It’s not going to lead to that outcome, and it could exacerbate tensions in the region, exacerbate tensions between the parties, and make it harder to get back to the talks. That’s why we want to focus on getting back to the talks.

QUESTION: But why is it either the United Nations or negotiation?

MS. NULAND: Again, I think I’ve been over this again and again.

QUESTION: Would you be willing to substitute the phrase “settlement construction” for going to the UN in what you just said about the negative consequences of going to the UN? Are they the same? Are the equal obstacles in your – I realize they’re different, but are they equally problematic?

MS. NULAND: You know where we’ve been on settlements. We do not think that they are helpful to the peace process.

QUESTION: Right. But do they exacerbate tensions between the parties and in the region?

MS. NULAND: I think I’m not going to go beyond what we regularly say about settlements.

QUESTION: Okay. I understand you don’t want to get in trouble, but it seems to be that there are obstacles on both sides here. Correct?

MS. NULAND: I don’t disagree that both parties have to show the will and roll up their sleeves and come back the table.

QUESTION: And that includes the Israelis doing things, not just the Palestinians not going to the UN. Correct?

MS. NULAND: We have made clear that we believe that settlement activity is unhelpful to the process.

QUESTION: Right. But I’m just – forget about the specifics. Forget about going to the UN. Forget about settlements. Both sides have to do stuff here in order to get the talks back together. It’s not just one side not going to the UN.

MS. NULAND: Both sides have to show the will to come to the table. Absolutely.

QUESTION: Alright. Are you – you’re familiar with these comments that we’re allegedly made by former Defense Secretary Gates to Prime Minister Netanyahu, are you, the reported comments?

MS. NULAND: I’ve seen the reports.

QUESTION: And what do you make of them?

MS. NULAND: Secretary Gates, along with his successor Secretary Panetta, have worked extensively with their Israeli counterparts to strengthen the security of Israel, including the decision to move forward on a number of weapon systems that are helpful to the Israelis. Secretary Gates’ goal was the same as the President’s, when he was in office, and we stand by where we are today.

QUESTION: But what – well, I’m wondering what you make of the reported comments that he’s reported to have made to the – to Prime Minister Netanyahu that Israel is being ungrateful.

MS. NULAND: I’m not going to comment on stray comments that may or may not have been made in a meeting by a former member of the Administration.

QUESTION: Would you say that officials in this building, that you’re aware of, share that – share the sentiment of those reported comments?

MS. NULAND: I’m not going to comment on supposed comments that may or may not have been made.

QUESTION: Okay. Well, how about this: Is it the view of people in this building or is it the view of this building that Israel is ungrateful in some way for – has shown ingratitude for the assistance the U.S. has given it?

MS. NULAND: No. It is the view of this building that Israel is an ally of the United States, that we have a strong relationship, and we have shared interest in coming to a peaceful resolution in the Middle East.

QUESTION: Okay. And you’re convinced that the current Israeli administration is interested in pursuing peace negotiations?

MS. NULAND: That is why we are working so hard, and sending David Hale and sending Dennis Ross, and continuing to discuss this issue, because we want to get back to the negotiation table.

QUESTION: So is it the view in this building that Israel is a grateful ally?

MS. NULAND: You’re asking me to pick and choose adjectives to describe relationships. I’m just not going to go there. It was a good effort, though. Good effort.

QUESTION: A quick follow-up on the delegation. Are there any plans to meet with this delegation that are made of businessmen, Palestinian businessmen?

MS. NULAND: Which delegation?

QUESTION: There’s a Palestinian delegation in town that are meeting in the think tanks. It’s composed of the advisor to the PLO for legal matters; it is composed of the former ambassador to France, Ms. (inaudible), and then two other businessmen. And they said they were meeting with a number of U.S. officials as well during this week. Are there any plans to meet with any Palestinian delegation?

MS. NULAND: Here in this building this week?

QUESTION: Yes, ma’am.

MS. NULAND: I’m going to have to take the question. I don't know about this particular delegation.

QUESTION: Thank you very much.

QUESTION: Can I ask one more on this – the Hale-Ross comet that flies into the Middle East every so often? You said that they’re coming back tomorrow, but they’re talking with the members of the Quartet. I presume that’s by phone. They’re not stopping in Europe on the way back.


QUESTION: And so the conversation with the Quartet is what? To having a meeting and preparing for a meeting in New York at the UN? Coming up with some kind of a statement, even though we know that those aren’t important at all, unless you decide that they are? What – to what end is the consultation with the Quartet?

MS. NULAND: My understanding is that phone calls made today in the first instance were to debrief members of the Quartet on the consultations that they had with the Israelis and with the Palestinians and to talk about next steps. I think they’ve obviously got to come home and report, and then we’ll figure out what happens next on the road to New York.

QUESTION: So you would not expect any action by the Quartet before the end of this week or before the --

MS. NULAND: Not going to speculate one way or the other.

QUESTION: All right. Can we move north?

MS. NULAND: Say again?

QUESTION: I want to move just a bit north --


QUESTION: -- to Syria for a second. Is Ambassador Ford trying to get expelled from Syria?

MS. NULAND: Ambassador Ford is courageously calling it like it is in Syria and standing with those Syrians who want to live a better life and have a more democratic future. And he is using those tools available to reach as many Syrians as possible, and Facebook has been an effective mechanism for that in his public diplomacy.

QUESTION: Does he have plans to continue these kinds of posts?

MS. NULAND: You can – I would refer you to him, but I would expect that, given his mission, which is to support those who want change and to make clear that the United States believes that it’s time for Asad to step aside and it’s time for change are heard as broadly as possible, I would guess that he will continue to make our views known using whatever means he deems appropriate.

QUESTION: So he did or did not get – the stuff that he posted on Facebook was cleared or was not cleared? Was it his own initiative and not signed off on or ordered or approved in any way by people here?

MS. NULAND: Ambassador Ford has broad guidance to support the goals of the United States in Syria, and he makes his own management decisions with regard to how he does that.


MS. NULAND: We are not in the business of clearing every Facebook post by every embassy.

QUESTION: I think that might come as --

MS. NULAND: We do support the comments that he made.

QUESTION: That might come as a surprise to a lot of embassies around the world who are petrified of saying anything unless it’s been cleared off by Washington. I ask only because in previous cases where he has done things that have antagonized the Syrian Government, it has been with the direct – on direct orders or encouragement from Washington, like his visit to Hama, like his visit to the other place.

MS. NULAND: I think I would take issue with your characterization. Ambassador Ford has the confidence of folks in Washington within his mandate to make his own decisions about travel, to make his own decisions about public diplomacy. He does so courageously and in support of U.S. views.

QUESTION: Well, I think that I’m only – I mean, I think you yourself said that he was told or at least it was signed off on for his trip to Hama.

MS. NULAND: I did not – I think what I said was that --

QUESTION: We can go back and read the transcript, but --

MS. NULAND: -- I think the question was did we know he was going to Hama, and the answer was yes, we did know, and we didn’t stop the trip. It was his choice to go.

QUESTION: Right. Okay. So it was signed – but essentially, it was signed off on, so – but you’re saying that this Facebook post was entirely his own initiative. You support it, but it didn’t have to be cleared by Washington.

MS. NULAND: His public diplomacy does not have to be cleared in the individual cases by Washington.

QUESTION: But in fact, sources connected to the Syrian Government say that Ambassador Ford is trying to force the Syrians’ hand and have them expel him, and that would be an easy way for the United States to cut off diplomatic relations.

MS. NULAND: I think he and we would categorically disagree with that. We think it’s important --

QUESTION: You wouldn’t (inaudible)?

MS. NULAND: We think that it is important to have him there and that he’s playing a very important role in terms of conveying the views of the U.S. Government and standing with those Syrians who want change.

Andy --

QUESTION: Is it the assessment in this Department that these kind of activities will ultimately force the Syrians to expel him?

MS. NULAND: I’m not going to speak to that at all. We believe that he is doing important work, as is his Embassy in Damascus.

QUESTION: Just following up on that, I’m curious if you could characterize his – the current state of his dialogue with the Syrian Government. Has he met any senior officials recently? Is he – is that line of communication still functioning, or has it suffered because of this public diplomacy that he’s undertaken?

MS. NULAND: Let me take that one, Andy. I haven’t – I don’t have anything particular about recent meetings he’s had with Syrian officials. I do know that he’s extremely active with a broad cross-section of Syrian civil society. But let me take the question about when he last saw a Syrian --

QUESTION: Okay. Since the point of – one of the points of him being there is being in touch with the government. That would be interesting to know if that’s actually still occurring.

MS. NULAND: And as you know, we are certainly open to his meeting with members of the government if they so choose. But let me take the question about what he’s done in recent weeks.

MS. NULAND: Thank you.

QUESTION: Thank you.

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