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 November 19, 2010
1:34 p.m. EST
QUESTION: Well, I hesitate to ask this question because the answers that I’ve been getting to it for the last two years have been incredibly unsatisfying, but I guess I have to anyway. What’s the latest in the – what are the latest developments in your attempt to get the Israelis to re-impose a settlement freeze and get the peace talks started?
MR. CROWLEY: I believe we remain in contact with the Israelis, with the Palestinians. David Hale is in the region and has had contact today and will tomorrow with counterparts in Jordan and Egypt. But beyond that, I’ve got no other activity to point to today.
QUESTION: Has he been able to tell the Palestinians anything about where the process stands with the Israelis?
MR. CROWLEY: We are keeping the Palestinians informed of our discussions with the Israelis.
QUESTION: Right. But has he had actually anything to tell them?
MR. CROWLEY: Our conversations with the Israelis continue and our conversations with the Palestinians continue.
QUESTION: We’re quoting an Israeli official in a story from Jerusalem as saying that the Administration is reluctant to put into writing some of the commitments that Secretary Clinton orally gave to Prime Minister Netanyahu in New York. Is that true?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, we continue our discussions with the Israelis. If there’s a need to put certain understandings in writing, we will be prepared to do that.
QUESTION: Haven’t you already begun to do that?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, there’s a process that’s ongoing, but beyond that, I will not comment.
QUESTION: See, I don’t understand something. You said if there’s a need to do it. But it seems that there is a need if the cabinet won’t approve all the measures you’re looking them to without some assurances in writing.
MR. CROWLEY: This is not unusual in negotiations that if there are understandings that need to be codified in writing, we’re fully prepared to do that.
QUESTION: Then why can’t you take the next step and say that you’re doing that if it does appear, by all public accounts, that you do need to do that? (Laughter.)
MR. CROWLEY: And I said we’re prepared to do that.
QUESTION: Well, I just don’t understand why you can’t say where you are in the process of doing that.
MR. CROWLEY: We are still having discussions with the Israelis to encourage them to return to direct negotiations and to create the conditions for a direct negotiation to resume. If, as part of this process we need to write certain things down, we will.
QUESTION: Would you prefer not to?
MR. CROWLEY: I – we’re happy to. There’s no mystery here. There’s been public conjecture about a letter for several days. We’ve not denied that that is something that we’re prepared to do.
QUESTION: Well --
MR. CROWLEY: We haven’t commented on it either.
QUESTION: There’s no mystery here. The entire thing is a mystery. (Laughter.)
MR. CROWLEY: Anyway, go ahead.
QUESTION: What about the offer that was given --
MR. CROWLEY: I’m not going to go into the deal.
QUESTION: Well, the feeling around town that it was really too excessive and too generous for a freeze for 90 days. Is there a feeling in the State Department that it may have been a bit too excessive?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, you’re presuming something that I can’t comment on, but I would just caution you that, as always, reports that involve certain specifics, some of them may be true, some of them are not true. And I can’t comment about which is which. This is important to the region. It is important to our national security. It’s important to the future of Israel and a prospective Palestinian state. How do you put a price tag on that? We are interested in doing what needs to be done to see a two-state solution. That is something that goes beyond a particular price tag on a particular set of actions. This is in the interest of the region. It’s in the interest of Israel. It’s in the interest of the Palestinian people. And we, the United States, are going to do everything that we can to move this to a successful agreement.
QUESTION: General Powell expressed a bit of dismay that what do settlements have to do with an F-35. I mean, should he be dismayed? What is the connection between the freezing the settlements and 20 --
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, General Powell knows as well as anyone that inherent in this, the calculations that these leaders will make, is concern about security. And these are ultimately political decisions that are made and they have to involve reassuring the population in Israel and the population in the Palestinian territory that not only is an agreement in their interest, but they are getting something of value from this process. But ultimately, it will be up to Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas to look at what is on the table and determine that this is in the best interest of their people. We believe earnestly that what we are putting forward as part of this process is definitely in their immediate and long-term interest. And we hope that they will, in turn, be able to convince their governments and their people to continue this process.
QUESTION: One last issue. The Palestinians claim that every time they attempt to exercise anything akin to independence or would suggest that they are pursuing the sort of declaration of a state, that you guys stop them. And they cite little modest steps in Mexico City and other places, UN agencies, all across the map. Could you comment on that?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, we have been in a direct negotiation. We’ve made clear and the leaders themselves have agreed that this direct negotiation is the best path to reach an agreement that will yield security, prosperity, and a two-state solution. And that continues to be our view, and we think that is a view that is shared by Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas.
QUESTION: P.J., are you ready to give the Israelis guarantees that after 90 days, you won’t ask them to renew the moratorium again and that the freeze doesn’t include Jerusalem?
MR. CROWLEY: Michel, again, I’m not going to get into particulars. If you think back to --
MR. CROWLEY: Well, if you think back, though – for example, the – as the Secretary has said, the moratorium that did run for 10 months did not include East Jerusalem. It was something that initially was discounted, but as the process evolved, became something of great value and is something that the Palestinians have indicated publicly they want to see renewed. We are trying to create the conditions for a resumption of the direct negotiations. We have – we continue conversations with both sides and we hope that from these conversations will yield the conditions that will allow both sides to indicate a willingness to resume direct negotiations. That is – in terms of what it will take, that is something that we’re still trying to determine.
QUESTION: The Israelis are in need for these guarantees to resume negotiations?
MR. CROWLEY: I’m sorry, what?
QUESTION: The Israelis are in need for these guarantees regarding Jerusalem and --
MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, these are decisions that the leaders have to make now. And if we are successful in convincing the governments to resume negotiations, these will be judgments that will have to be made during the course of the process. I’m not getting into particulars. We want to get them back into the negotiations. We’re trying to create the conditions to allow that to occur.
QUESTION: P.J., the original 10-month freeze only became something of great value because you were – you ended up being forced to pressure the Palestinians to accept it. Is that not correct? They made it – it wasn’t everything that they wanted.
MR. CROWLEY: Again, I can’t speak for President Abbas or Prime Minister Netanyahu. We are – we want to encourage them to resume the negotiations --
QUESTION: Understood, but --
MR. CROWLEY: -- and they will be the ones that determine --
QUESTION: Let’s look back.
MR. CROWLEY: -- whether to do that. And as – if we were able to resume the negotiations, that sufficient progress is being made to enable those negotiations to continue.
QUESTION: But looking back at August when the direct talks – the only reason the Palestinians came back or agreed to go into the direct negotiations – because you told them to. So this thing that you say that was of great value, that was discounted at first, it was also discounted by you at first.
MR. CROWLEY: Well --
QUESTION: I mean, the U.S. position at the beginning was that all settlement activity had to stop. They said, “Okay, we’ll stop it for 10 months in the West Bank, but not East Jersualem.” You got on board with that, and because you got on board with it, that became some – that you pushed the Palestinians to accept it. And that’s why it became something of great value, no?
MR. CROWLEY: I’m – well, again, the – we’re just trying to get the parties back into negotiations and that remains our --
QUESTION: All right. And then my last one on this --
MR. CROWLEY: -- earnest and intensive effort.
QUESTION: What does it – my last one – what does it say about the state of U.S.-Israeli relations that the Israeli Government, which is the – your top ally in the region and the beneficiary of billions and billions of dollars in aid over the last 60 years is demanding written guarantees, that a verbal assurance from the Secretary of State of the United States isn’t good enough for them?
MR. CROWLEY: Again, it is – Matthew, you have been around the State Department for a long time. It is part of the regular order that as you are going through negotiations, that certain details of those negotiations are written down, and that happens every day in relationships between the United States and any other country.
QUESTION: All right. I said that was my last one, but I lied, because I do have more. (Laughter.) And that is, why is it until today no one was willing to say publicly that you were agreeing to – that you were going to write this stuff down? What has changed in the course – since the weekend, what has changed over the course of this week that you are now willing to stand up here and say, “Yes, we’re willing to put these things in writing.” Whereas before it was, “Oh, we’re not going to comment on the play by play, and we’re not going to talk anything of substance” even though --
MR. CROWLEY: It’s the pluckiness of the media in this room.
QUESTION: What – has anything changed in the process, in the discussions that you’re now willing to say this? Whereas, even yesterday, your able replacement was --
MR. CROWLEY: If I spill out all the news every single day, what in the world will you have to write about?
QUESTION: So we --
QUESTION: P.J., can you tell us who the conversations are with? The only – I think you’ve described Ambassador Hale as having conversations with his Jordanian counterpart. I mean, who are you talking to (inaudible) the Israelis?
MR. CROWLEY: I happen not to know, but I’m sure it’s someone within the --
QUESTION: Can you find out?
MR. CROWLEY: I’ll ask David.
QUESTION: You have been talking about this plan. This is Plan A. But I’ve come to understand in the last two days there has been a drastic changeover being discussed about a Plan B. Would you like to spill the beans? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Good luck.
MR. CROWLEY: I would caution you. We have a Plan A. We think it’s a good Plan A. We’re focused on Plan A. We’re not focused on Plan B.
QUESTION: So what is – so there is a Plan B. You’re not focused on it.
QUESTION: There is a Plan B, as you said. I’m just repeating what you said.
MR. CROWLEY: I’m not encouraging you to think along those lines.
QUESTION: Well, can you address why it is that the Administration does not wish to see even small steps toward recognition of the Palestinian Authority as a participating member in international fora?
If I email you the story, will you just email me back a comment?
QUESTION: You can give the same answer you did when the question was asked the first time if you want.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, we’ve been asked this question a number of times. In the context of the peace process, we have encouraged both sides to avoid steps which are perceived as undermining the negotiation. And so some of the public statements made in recent days by Palestinian officials about taking issues to the United Nations, which, in essence, would preempt the direct negotiations that we believe are the best route to a two-state solution. That remains our view and that – what is the view that we continue to express to both sides.
QUESTION: Egyptian officials have responded basically with contempt to your call for allowing international monitors. Do you have any comment on that?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I commented on this yesterday. We have made our position clear in terms of the steps that have to occur inside Egypt for us to have confidence in a credible result coming out of the elections at the end of this month. We’ve called on a robust domestic observation of this election. And in fact, over the years, we have contributed to Egyptian civil society to build up capability for meaningful oversight of Egyptian elections. We believe that Egypt will put itself in the strongest position possible by acceding to international norms and ensuring that there is international representation as well. So we did hear Egypt’s response, but we haven’t changed our view.
QUESTION: Question on Iran. Yesterday the Fifth Fleet issued a statement describing the rescue of the U.S. Navy – the rescue by the U.S. Navy of two Iranian sailors in the Gulf region. I want to get your reactions to that. I also wanted to ask about --
MR. CROWLEY: Be clear. My reaction to?
QUESTION: To --well, to the operation itself, and specifically, I guess, the details I want you to provide are how communication between the U.S. Navy and – they were ultimately picked up by an Iranian Coast Guard ship. Was this done through the Swiss or --
MR. CROWLEY: I’m familiar with a statement that was put out by military officials in Manama, in which case they were aware of two Iranian sailors that were adrift in the Gulf and they were able to rescue them, and then they alerted Iran through -- I believe Oman was it. And then arrangements were made for the transfer from the U.S. ship to the Iranian ship.
It is something that we do on the high seas all the time. Whenever we – our sailors and sailors of navies around the world – they respond to distress calls regardless of politics. We were happy to do this, and I believe that there was a gesture of thanks provided by the Iranian Government, and that’s what we do.
QUESTION: Also on Iran?
MR. CROWLEY: Yeah.
QUESTION: Is there anything new on the attempt to get them back to the table?
MR. CROWLEY: No response at this point.
QUESTION: What was the gesture of thanks?
MR. CROWLEY: I actually think that the – I think I’m aware that the Iranian Government simply acknowledged its gratitude for the rescue.
QUESTION: Anything new on the hikers? Anything new on the hikers? Have you heard whether they’ll be released?
MR. CROWLEY: I’m not aware that we have heard anything directly, no.
QUESTION: On Iran, yesterday you said that you are open to Turkey option for this negotiation. But Gary Samore from White House made a statement, and he said Turkey is not possible because you don’t see Turkey as a neutral venue, because they vote against the sanctions and --
MR. CROWLEY: Who said that?
QUESTION: Gary Samore from White House.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I’ll just repeat what I said. We have advised Iran that the first meeting should happen perhaps in Austria or in Switzerland, but we are, in fact, open to a subsequent meeting being in Turkey.
QUESTION: Okay. So is there -- there’s no problem from your view about Turkey that they vote against the sanctions?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, let me be clear. We are seeking a first meeting. We are then seeking the beginning of a process. We’ll see what Iran comes to the table prepared to do. But should there be subsequent meetings, we would not rule out that those meetings could happen at a variety locations, and that would include Turkey.
QUESTION: P.J., the Azerbaijani Government released bloggers whose case had been taken up by both the President and Secretary of State. Your reaction? Also they – although they released them, they didn’t overturn their convictions, and is that a relevant --
MR. CROWLEY: Sure. We welcome the early release of – let me start again. We welcome the early release of Azerbaijani youth leaders and bloggers Adnan Hajizade and Emin Milli. We hope for a speedy release of editor Eynulla Fatullayev as well. We closely monitor the trial and sentencing of the bloggers. Both President Obama and Secretary Clinton publicly called for their release. The United States remains committed to working with the government and people of Azerbaijan to advance democratic reforms, including freedom of expression and association.
QUESTION: Are you disappointed that the criminal charge wasn’t expunged?
MR. CROWLEY: As you can tell, we have followed these cases closely. We will continue to follow them closely, and we will continue to work on these issues with the Government of Azerbaijan.
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:04 p.m.)