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Middle East Digest - September 28, 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 September 28, 2010

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MR. CROWLEY: First of all, the Secretary did have about a 30-minute meeting today with Indian Defense Minister Antony. They talked regional issues such as Afghanistan and Pakistan. They agreed that their – that India and the United States have a mutual interest in a stable Afghanistan, and the Secretary welcomed India’s contributions in terms of diplomacy and development in its – building its own relationship with Afghanistan. They also talked about a mutual interest in expanding our defense partnership, and although, I think India is contemplating the purchase of a number of upgrades in its defense capability, and of course U.S. firms are bidding on those projects.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) if possible. Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman presented today to the UN slightly different vision of peace than the one that was agreed between the U.S. Administration and Prime Minister Netanyahu, so he was talking about long-term intermediate agreement, exchange of the populated areas. And he said that basically this conflict has nothing to do with Iran, et cetera. So do you have any reaction to this?

MR. CROWLEY: I actually haven’t seen the text of what he had to say.

QUESTION: On that --

QUESTION: Did you not follow that issue? Because that is a major – the major difference between the position of the Israeli Government and the position of the foreign minister of Israel.

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not questioning that there may be divergent views between the prime minister and the foreign minister, but I’ll defer to the Israeli Government to explain the difference.

QUESTION: But there is more than just divergence of views. I mean, are we likely to see a statement issued by the State Department saying that we have already gone through a process and we have agreed on a methodology and we have agreed on certain aspects to these negotiations, and this comes out of that – the blue, sort to speak, this new peace plan, with different priorities altogether?

MR. CROWLEY: Again, we are in direct discussion with the prime minister. We had meetings last week with the defense minister, and we are actively engaged in working to continue direct negotiations. I will let the Israeli Government comment on what the foreign minister had to say and whether that actually reflects the views of the Israeli Government.

QUESTION: Can you give us an update on team Mitchell and what they’ve done today, if anything?

MR. CROWLEY: They have arrived in the region. They are consulting with those on the ground prior to meetings tomorrow. I think our – when I last left George last night, his intention was to have meetings with the Israelis tomorrow, the Palestinians on Thursday. He will likely remain in the region and have other discussions with regional leaders before coming back to the United States, but a lot of what he’ll do subsequently is still being worked out.

QUESTION: Does that mean that he is going to be talking to them ahead of the follow-up – the Arab League Follow-on Committee meeting on the 4th?

MR. CROWLEY: Yes, he will definitely have meetings in the region, and it’s hard to say how many stops he’ll make and when they’ll conclude, but he’ll be consulting broadly in the region prior to the follow-up committee meeting early next week, then of course, prior to the Arab League Summit at the end of next week.

QUESTION: Is it fair to say that you would like the Arab – the Follow-on Committee to endorse the Palestinians staying in the talks despite the --

MR. CROWLEY: It is our absolute position that it is important for both the Israelis and Palestinians to remain in direct negotiations to reach an ultimate agreement.

QUESTION: Right. But in terms of what you would like the Arabs to do, would you like to give their – them to give the stamp of approval to Abbas to stay at the table?

MR. CROWLEY: That would be our desire, yes.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Given the situation, I’m just wondering if you could sum up what his message is to Netanyahu and company?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, as you know, the Secretary had a phone conversation with Prime Minister Netanyahu last evening before she came back here to Washington. She had other contacts with him over the weekend. George Mitchell has been in daily contact with the negotiators on both sides, and we are working to see how we can best help both sides make a decision to stay with the direct negotiations that were started barely a month ago.

QUESTION: But do you think the Israelis – I mean, the Israelis aren’t going to pull out. They’re (inaudible) stay with it, so what specifically are you asking the Israelis to do?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, as we’ve said from the outset, while we are convinced that both sides have to this point taken the process seriously, their discussions here in Washington and in the region and in New York last week were substantive, intensive. We think there’s value here and we’re looking for both sides to do whatever they can do to demonstrate their commitment to stay in the negotiations. And so we are looking to see if both can advance ideas that help each see value and importance in continuing the talks.

QUESTION: What kind of ideas can be advanced? I mean, there were expressions of disappointment all across the board yesterday – the State Department, the UN, the EU, all together. And Mr. Netanyahu made it very clear, I mean, the settlement will continue and so on. So what are the ideas that you are looking to advance? I mean, what do you want the Palestinians to do?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we want the Palestinians to stay in the direct negotiations and we want the Israelis to demonstrate that it is in the Palestinian interest to stay in these negotiations. And obviously, on the other side of the coin, the moratorium has expired and it is important for both the United States and the Palestinians and others to understand what the Israeli policy is going to be going forward. So these are the kinds of discussions that we are having and will continue, but we understand we’re in an intense period of time where we need to find a way to help both sides resolve the immediate situation and continue in the negotiations. And that will be what George Mitchell is working with both sides on this week.

QUESTION: Is it correct that you are --

QUESTION: So the prime minister --

QUESTION: Is it correct that right now you are entirely focused on just overcoming this settlement issue and keeping the talks alive, or are Mitchell’s talks a little bit broader in nature? Do they go with the assumption – do you start with an assumption that, in fact, the talks will – there will be another round of talks?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, those are not mutually exclusive. We earnestly believe that if the parties stay in this process, we can successfully complete negotiations within a year. We have – as George Mitchell said in the region, the talks got off to a fast start. They have been working through the substance. And in fact, the substance can be part of the solution to the immediate challenge that we face. They can’t be separated out. So we understand these issues. They’re important to both sides. And to the extent that both sides are engaged in putting ideas on the table that demonstrate the value of continuing the negotiations, clarify where the talks can lead, show the kind of promise that allows each leader to say to his respective constituencies it is important for us to stay in this process, stay engaged, and work through these issues. We understand that this is very hard. These are highly complex issues.

We knew that going in. We understood what was confronting us immediately on the calendar. We’re aggressively trying to work through this situation, but we’re also keeping both sides focused on the long-term goal. And to the extent that each is clarifying what both they think they need to stay in the negotiation and what they can offer as a commitment to provide incentives to the other side to stay in the negotiation, this is the kind of dialogue that we have ongoing.

QUESTION: P.J., has the defense – the defense minister, Ehud Barak, in his discussion with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, proposed that they can stop the settlements altogether – settlement activities in exchange for the Palestinians recognizing Israel as a Jewish state? Where did this discussion go? How far did it go?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I –

QUESTION: And how did it evolve?

MR. CROWLEY: Saeed*, you’ve now crossed a line. I’m not going to comment on any specific idea that may or may not have been advanced in discussions that we’ve had.

QUESTION: P.J., you’ve spent several months addressing the settlements issue and it’s not solved yet. How can you achieve a peace agreement in one year and you didn’t discuss yet the core issues?

MR. CROWLEY: Michel, actually, I would disagree with you.


MR. CROWLEY: We are, in fact, discussing the core issues.

QUESTION: But it’s not solved.

MR. CROWLEY: Settlements are, in fact, a –

QUESTION: The settlements issue is not solved yet.

MR. CROWLEY: Pardon me?

QUESTION: The settlements issue is not solved yet, and –

MR. CROWLEY: (Laughter.) That’s true. I mean, I’m not standing here saying that the core issues have been resolved. In fact, the current situation demonstrates that we are dealing with an unresolved issue. Our point to the parties is and continues to be that the only way to resolve the settlements – which is either a core issue or a derivative of a core issue, depending on how you want to look at it – the only way to resolve this is by staying in the negotiation, and that’s what we’re encouraging both sides to do.

But at the same time, we’re saying, okay, in order for both sides to stay in the negotiation, you’ve got to put things forward that demonstrate that there is the potential to reach an agreement. We know what we’re dealing with here, among everything else, is a fundamental lack of trust that’s been built up over the years. Each side has to demonstrate not only – each side has to demonstrate that by staying in this negotiation, you really do, in fact, have this potential to reach an agreement within a year.

We are convinced that if we can get the parties to stay at this, they can, in fact, get to a negotiation that resolves the core issues. That’s why we’re doing what we’re doing.

QUESTION: P.J., I’m sorry. To go back to the issue of alternatives, are the Palestinians or the Israelis or you, in this case, providing any kind of alternatives to, let’s say, the Palestinians thinking that settlements must stop and the Israelis saying the settlement moratorium is over; it has run its course?

MR. CROWLEY: There is a multilevel conversation going on. The Israelis, the Palestinians, others in the region, the United States, everyone is advancing ideas and formulas that we hope will convince the parties to stay in the negotiation and will convince countries in the region to continue to support this negotiation.

QUESTION: Okay. Just – at today’s gaggle at the Pentagon, they referred to you for this question.

MR. CROWLEY: (Laughter.)

QUESTION: They said – we asked him about the – if the Pakistanis officially lodged a complaint about the cross-border – the fighting and the helicopter raids that took place.

MR. CROWLEY: Not that I’m aware of.

QUESTION: On Pakistan, is there a connection between the ramped-up drone attacks and the flooding that’s going on there? Holbrooke mentioned yesterday something cryptic about using bridges and roads, and wondering if the two are connected at all.

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not sure I – the connection between --

QUESTION: Drone attacks and the flooding.

MR. CROWLEY: They would appear to be two – is someone suggesting that the drone attacks caused the flooding?

QUESTION: Well, it’s cut off major transportation in Pakistan. Have the --

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t see a connection.

QUESTION: Okay. Are the Pakistanis --

QUESTION: Are you acknowledging that there are drone attacks?

MR. CROWLEY: The State Department does not have an air force. Actually, we do have an air force, but they’re all helicopters. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Another follow-up?

MR. CROWLEY: They’re not all helicopters. There are some fixed wings.

MR. CROWLEY: P.J., just going back to South Asia for a second, President Karzai has named his members of his peace council or mission, which is going to be looking at the reintegration or reconciliation. Yesterday, General Petraeus said that high-level Taliban people had been in touch with Karzai about this. And I’m just wondering if your position has changed at all, or the U.S. Government’s position has changed at all regarding the whole issue of reconciliation and who should be allowed back into the community.

MR. CROWLEY: No, our position hasn’t changed at all. And it is – it’s a position shared by the Afghan Government. First, this is an Afghan-led process and what the Afghan Government has announced and what they’ve done in terms of designating the members of the High Peace Council as a follow-up to the Kabul conference, the London conference – these are things which the Afghan Government pledged they would do. But our position remains that we support this process and we will – and the keys to participation and reconciliation and reintegration are to cease violence, break ties with al-Qaida and its affiliates, and live under the Afghan constitution, which includes protection of rights of all Afghan men and women.

QUESTION: I just wanted to go back to the peace talks. The Washington Post today described your effort as scrambling and somewhat frantic and so on. Do you – is there a feeling of frustration and maybe that the process is in free fall?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I wouldn’t characterize what we’re doing in that way. We understood when both the – both parties agreed to enter direct negotiations a few weeks ago that there – the first date on the calendar was September 26th. We saw this coming. We’ve been working on this issue from the outset of these direct negotiations. Our position is clear. It was enunciated by the President and the Secretary last week at the UN, and we are working directly and, as you have seen, with the – intensively with the Israelis and the Palestinians to try to resolve this.

Are we frustrated? Tell me about a Middle – a dimension of the Middle East peace process that at some point in time has not been frustrating. (Laughter.) Of course we’re frustrated, but we understand that these are just very, very difficult. We’ve been at this for some time, and the issues are not yet resolved because the issues are very, very complex. And you’ve always had a challenge where, for whatever reason, the politics on one side and the politics on the other side have not converged at a point where the parties, since going back to Madrid, have been able to resolve these issues. I think we take some comfort in the fact that the people that are involved in this process we know very well; we’ve been at the table with them all before, we know the issues very well, we even know the rough parameters of the solution very well. That’s why we’re convinced if we can get by this current challenge that there is real promise that we can reach a successful negotiation within a year.

QUESTION: P.J., have you heard from the Omanis yet about their delegation in Iran and if they’ve made any progress in trying to negotiate the release of the two other hikers?

MR. CROWLEY: We stay in close touch with the Omanis and the Swiss. I’m not aware of any reports at this point.

QUESTION: All right. So, but you are aware that there is a delegation there?

MR. CROWLEY: Yeah. We – as I said yesterday, we – the Omanis pledge to continue to help with the release of the two hikers and we’re very grateful for their efforts.

QUESTION: Well, but you didn’t say – actually, I read it pretty carefully – the transcript – and I was listening in, too. I mean, you said that, but you also said “if this is the case.” Are you aware that there is a delegation there specifically talking about --


QUESTION: -- the two hikers?


QUESTION: You are aware of this delegation?


QUESTION: Do you know when they got there?

MR. CROWLEY: No. As I also said yesterday, for the details, I’ll defer to the Omani Government.

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