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 30, 2010
1:52 p.m. EST
MR. CROWLEY: We have consulted with – been watching a situation in the Middle East and consulted to make sure that statements made in recent days were firm before we were commenting. But regarding a claim by a senior Palestinian official that the Western Wall is an Islamic Waqf, we strongly condemn these comments and fully reject them as factually incorrect, insensitive, and highly provocative. We have repeatedly raised with the Palestinian Authority leadership the need to consistently combat all forms of delegitimization of Israel, including denying historic Jewish connections to the land. As the United States has long maintained, the status of Jerusalem must be resolved in final status negotiations between the parties. We recognize that Jerusalem is a deeply important issue to Israelis and Palestinians, to Jews, to Muslims, and to Christians everywhere. We believe it is possible to reach an outcome that both realizes the aspirations of all parties for Jerusalem and safeguards its stature for the future.
QUESTION: Before moving on, P.J., on that, if you recognize that the Jerusalem – status of Jerusalem is so important to all sides, why were you so noncommittal when I asked the other day about the Israeli approval of new Jewish construction – new Jewish housing in East Jerusalem?
MR. CROWLEY: I was only noncommittal in the sense of before commenting to affirm that we had, in fact, raised our concerns with the Israeli Government as we have in the past. We have raised our concerns with the Israeli Government, as we’ve said many times. This Jerusalem, in all of its dimensions, must be part of a negotiated settlement. But I would be (inaudible) caution that there’s not necessarily an equivalence, that the kind of statements that we heard the other day, we think deserve strong condemnation.
QUESTION: Well, you’re right. There’s absolutely no equivalence between some guy mouthing off and giving his opinion, whether you agree with it or not, and actual bricks and mortar going up in an area that’s disputed. I mean, the equivalent – you come out and denounce this statement, which is mere – simply words, and it took a question from a reporter to get you to say anything about the actual, physical, on-the-ground construction there. So I don’t understand the equivalence that you’re – your idea of equivalence here. One seems to be much more serious than another.
MR. CROWLEY: We agree, but I think we have a different view as to what that equivalence should be. Look, what we are saying again to all sides is that they both have responsibilities here. Both have to take the responsibility to create conditions for negotiations to resume. And when you have a senior Palestinian official who denies the historic connection that the Jewish people feel to the Western Wall, we have an obligation to speak out. At the same time, we do recognize that rather than changing facts on the ground, we want to see the parties return to negotiations. But we will continue to express our concern to both sides when appropriate that inflammatory remarks on the one hand and actions on the ground on the other hand both have the potential to undermine a return to negotiations.
QUESTION: You said we agreed that one is more serious than the other. Which one is more serious?
MR. CROWLEY: I mean – well, we see –
QUESTION: You said, “We agree,” so (inaudible) more serious.
MR. CROWLEY: No, no, no. I’m just saying the United States condemns the words of a senior Palestinian official the other day. We have raised our concerns with the Palestinians directly, but we thought it was appropriate to make clear that these kinds of inflammatory remarks are uncalled for. They’re uncalled for any day, but they’re uncalled for particularly at a sensitive time in the process.
We have raised our concerns with the Israeli Government, not only recently but successively going back many months, about developments on the ground and the need to come back to negotiations. And both sides have responsibilities here, but we thought that these particular words were inflammatory. We’ve called upon the Palestinians for a long time to avoid these kinds of statements that are not conducive to getting the parties into a negotiation or from – through that negotiation to a final agreement.
QUESTION: Well, we all know that diplomatic language is very important. Why won’t you condemn the approval of new construction in East Jerusalem by Israel, and yet you come out and you --
MR. CROWLEY: We have expressed our concerns to the Israeli Government. We’ve done it in the past. We’ve done it recently. We’ll be doing it in further meetings that we’ll have with the Israelis in the coming days. The Israelis understand our position very well.
QUESTION: Just --
QUESTION: (Inaudible) as to what constitutes a viable Palestinian state? Because it seems that in Mr. Netanyahu’s mind, a Palestinian state is completely demilitarized, it should not have control over its airspace, it should not – according to WikiLeaks. So does the State Department, does the Government of the United States, have a clear definition as to what constitutes a viable Palestinian state?
MR. CROWLEY: We share the goal of the Palestinian Authority that there needs to be a Palestinian state and the borders of that state need to be viable. That has been our position. But that’s why we’re encouraging the parties to resume negotiations, because absent a negotiation, you cannot get to a viable state with recognized international borders. There’s only one way to do this and that’s through the direct negotiation that we continue to encourage both sides to resume as soon as possible.
QUESTION: But surely after like, 19 years of direct negotiations under the auspices of the United States, since 1991, you must have a picture of what this viability should look like.
MR. CROWLEY: Well, there’s been a lot of work done here. I think we have a broad understanding of what this might look like. But ultimately, this is why the two sides have to sit down into a negotiation. Palestinians have their views, the Israelis have their views. The United States and others, we’ve done a lot of work on this. There have been negotiations in the past that enable us – will inform negotiations should we get the parties back together again. But through this negotiation, that’s how you get to a viable Palestinian state. If there are no negotiations, then we’re not going to see a Palestinian state emerge.
QUESTION: One last question, related question.
MR. CROWLEY: Wait, hold on, (inaudible).
QUESTION: Just let me – can I just continue my one last question on this?
MR. CROWLEY: All right, all right, all right. I tried.
QUESTION: In the city of Hebron, which is home to 220,000 Palestinians and 600 settlers, there is an area called the Martyrs Street that is completely closed to Palestinians where they have to traverse on rooftops. Are you aware of a situation like this? Is this something that you would raise with the Israeli Government to sort of relieve the hardship of the Palestinians in Hebron?
MR. CROWLEY: (Inaudible) that’s one of the reasons why we have been the strongest supporters of building institutions of the Palestinian Authority, and through those institutions and with dramatic changes on the ground that are occurring, we can see the Israelis adapt its posture. We continue to talk to both sides about how to improve the situation on the ground as one means among several of continuing to build the necessary public support so that the leaders can have confidence that they can enter into negotiations, they have the proper political support through those negotiations and can get to an agreement. So we have conversations with the Israelis and the Palestinians, both sides, on how we can adapt the situation on the West Bank.
QUESTION: Just on the condemnation part of what you said, I just wonder, why do you feel strongly that you have – from this podium, you have to condemn a senior Palestinian official, considering that on the Israeli side, you have a foreign minister who publicly, officially advocating the transfer of the Palestinians, deny their right to exist, et cetera? So I’m just wondering about – it is a double standard here, or why do you think that you have to condemn one side more than the other? Or why the language is very important?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I would tell you that there have been times where senior Israeli officials have spoken in ways that do not reflect the policies of that government, and the government has made clear and it disassociated itself from those statements.
We have talked to the Palestinians about these words, and we just felt that it was appropriate for us to make clear our position and to condemn them.
QUESTION: So they haven’t – the Palestinians haven’t disassociated themselves from these comments?
MR. CROWLEY: I’ll defer to the Palestinians to describe how they view these comments.
QUESTION: Well, you just deferred to the –
MR. CROWLEY: I’m just --
QUESTION: -- you just spoke for the Israelis. So are you sure that the comments by the senior Palestinian official do not reflect the Palestinian Authority position? Or are you concerned that they do reflect the Palestinian Authority’s position?
MR. CROWLEY: We have talked to the Palestinians at length on many occasions about the impact of controversial statements that we think have the potential to incite conflict in the region.
QUESTION: And okay, but at the same time, you don’t see that the construction of houses that the Palestinians are completely opposed to, in territory that you yourself say is disputed, and earlier this year called – were calling for a complete freeze to all construction, you don’t see that as inflammatory or could --
MR. CROWLEY: I mean, as I said --
QUESTION: -- inciteful to the Palestinians?
MR. CROWLEY: We – Matt.
MR. CROWLEY: As I said, we have expressed our concerns with the Israelis about this project. We’ve done so directly. We expect to have further conversations with them. And as we say, both sides have responsibilities here. We’re in a period where we’re looking for both sides to assume responsibility, create the necessary conditions that allow negotiations to resume. And both sides have these responsibilities and have to take them seriously.
QUESTION: But one side gets condemned in public and the other one gets your concerns expressed in private.
MR. CROWLEY: Guys, if you go back a number of months, we have not hesitated to express our concerns publicly and privately about what is happening in East Jerusalem.
QUESTION: Iran has agreed to come to Geneva next week to meet the P-5+1. What are your expectations from this meeting, and what are you bringing to this meeting?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I don't want to get ahead of Lady Ashton. I believe there will be an announcement shortly out of the EU, and we’ll defer comment until that announcement.
QUESTION: Okay. Have you agreed on Geneva as a place to host the meeting?
MR. CROWLEY: Michel, I anticipate there will be an announcement very soon from the EU, and then we’ll be happy to talk about it.
QUESTION: No, wait. No, hold on. Just one on that. If there is going to be a meeting, is it correct that Under Secretary Burns would be the one to go?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, the last time the P-5+1 got together last year with Iranian officials, Under Secretary Burns was our representative.
QUESTION: Right. Well --
MR. CROWLEY: Should a meeting be forthcoming, Under Secretary Burns would be our representative again.
QUESTION: Yeah, you issued a statement. My question to you is: How do you address these transgressions? I mean, you expressed your concern. There were a lot of, obviously, abuse of power, whatever you want to call it. How do you address these issues with a friendly government such as the Egyptian Government? What is your next step?
MR. CROWLEY: Well, I would only say – first of all, what’s important here is the relationship between the Egyptian Government and its own people. The people of Egypt want to see broader participation in their political process. It is up to the Egyptian Government to meet the needs and meet the desires of the Egyptian people. We will, as part of our ongoing dialogue with Egypt, continue, where we feel appropriate, to express our concerns about these kind of developments. We have recently in the discussion between Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit, and we will continue to raise our concerns where appropriate.
QUESTION: Will the United States leverage any of the aid that it gives to Egypt, for instance, so it will forgo its veto over the actions of civil society – the Government of Egypt?
MR. CROWLEY: (Inaudible) you’re – we have a commitment to a partnership with Egypt. These are not either/or circumstances. Our relationship with Egypt is multifaceted. But as you saw with yesterday’s statement, we will not hesitate to tell Egypt as a friend where we think their actions have fallen short of international standards.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: But the initial result shows that almost oppositions lost all seats or hardly made any, including the Muslim Brotherhood. Do you worry that them not being represented in the government, that might lead them now to become underground or go to more violent path?
MR. CROWLEY: Again, we had a detailed statement that described our concerns about the election. We’ll continue to raise these concerns with the Government of Egypt.
QUESTION: Why did it take so long to get that statement out, 9 o’clock last night, and you were working on it like all – I mean was there --
MR. CROWLEY: I hear you.
QUESTION: Are you concerned that Muslim Brotherhoods lost elections?
QUESTION: I just said that.
MR. CROWLEY: Try again?
QUESTION: Are you concerned that --
MR. CROWLEY: I just answered that question.
QUESTION: Sorry. I didn’t hear.
QUESTION: Can you confirm the meeting in Washington next week between Japan and South Korea?
MR. CROWLEY: Stay tuned. We’ll have more to say about that probably tomorrow.
QUESTION: There’s a report in The New York Times regarding some deals that were trying to be made to find homes for the Gitmo detainees. As it seems to be, that by September of last year, there was still no solution for the Yemeni detainee problem and that closing Guantanamo Bay by the January deadline was pretty much off the table. Can you comment on that?
MR. CROWLEY: I’m not going to comment on what’s in the paper. We are committed to closing Guantanamo, and we continue to engage Yemen and other countries about detainees who are still at Guantanamo, who we believe qualify for return or resettlement.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR. CROWLEY: Thank you.
QUESTION: Got a quick – a couple more, a couple more, I’m sorry, will be very, very quickly.
We have a report out of Kabul which says that senior Afghan officials, including the president and his brother, are involved in authorizing and requesting the release of imprisoned Taliban fighters. And it specifically says that the fact of these kinds of releases, which are sometimes done for political reasons and sometimes for money, raises questions about the government’s seriousness about fighting the insurgency. Do you have any comment on that?
MR. CROWLEY: I’ll take the question. I just –
QUESTION: Thank you.
(The briefing was concluded at 2:37 p.m.)