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Middle East Digest - December 8, 2010

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Washington, DC
December 8, 2010


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 December 8, 2010

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1:48 p.m. EST

MR. CROWLEY: And finally, just to kind of review where we were yesterday, I know we had a briefing here and then had a briefing in New York. But as we did acknowledge yesterday regarding the Middle East, we have determined that a moratorium extension will not at this time provide the best basis for resuming direct negotiations. In the coming days and weeks, we will engage with both sides on the core substantive issues at stake in this conflict and with the Arab states and other international partners on creating a firm basis to work toward our shared goal of a framework agreement on all permanent status issues, a goal to which we and the parties remain committed.

We will consult with the parties in the coming days as we move forward. And as we proceed, our position on settlements has not and will not change. The United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements, and we will continue to express that position.

We indicated that we – we’ll be having meetings and contacts with both the Israelis and the Palestinians in the coming day – days. Senator Mitchell will travel back to the region next week to consult both with the parties and also with other regional leaders.

QUESTION: So there are meetings both here at State and in the region next week?

MR. CROWLEY: We are and will remain in contact with the Israelis and Palestinians through this week. George Mitchell will be in the region next week. I don’t have particular days yet, anticipating your question. When we have more clarity on exactly where he’ll go, when, we’ll let you know.

QUESTION: This looks like a major step back from September 1st. It looks as if now everything is going back into indirect talks, no more face-to-face talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Some are even suggesting that this is a major failure for the Obama Administration. What’s your response?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, not at all. Let me work from back to front. We continue to pursue a framework agreement on the permanent status issues. We continue to believe that in order to resolve those core issues, direct negotiations will be required. And we will be consulting with the parties on the best way to achieve that shared goal. I would describe this as a change in tactics, not a change in strategy. It’s not a change in our objectives at all. To some extent, in our view after intensive discussions with the Israelis over a couple of weeks at the request of the Palestinians, we thought that this had, in a sense, become an end in itself rather than a means to an end. So we are shifting to a different path and we’ll be consulting with the parties in the coming days on how to move forward.

QUESTION: What is the different path?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we’re going to focus on the substance and to try to begin to make progress on the core issues themselves. And we think that will create the kind of momentum that we need to see – to get to sustained and meaningful negotiations.

QUESTION: So basically you’re going to ask the Palestinians next week to give up their own demands for freezing settlements and say, “Let’s go directly to the core issues.”

MR. CROWLEY: Well, again –

QUESTION: That’s the Plan B.

MR. CROWLEY: We’ve had a very clear position all along that the parties should get into direct negotiations. That remains our point of view. The real issue is how to both achieve that and then make progress. We’re – so we’re just – we’re simply acknowledging that after intensive effort, the moratorium was not the best basis to move forward and, in essence, we’re shifting gears.

QUESTION: So are you looking for other confidence-building measures other than freezing settlements? Is that what you’re going to look for next week when you meet with the Palestinians and Israelis?

MR. CROWLEY: No, we’re looking to find a way to make progress on the core issues, to move towards that framework agreement and move toward the point where we end the conflict once and for all. So in other words, we’re talking about how do we get from here to there. We had pursued the concept of a renewal of a moratorium at the behest of the Palestinian delegation, and after intensive effort we’ve come to the conclusion that at this time that’s not the best way to proceed.

QUESTION: Next week will there be three-way talks? Will there be talks between the Israelis, the Palestinians, and the U.S. together in the same room? It doesn’t look like it. You’re just going to meet separately? It will be indirect proximity talks.

MR. CROWLEY: Again, George will be in the region next week. I’ll be able to describe where he’ll go and who he’ll see and in what form a little bit later.

QUESTION: Will there be meetings in Washington?

MR. CROWLEY: Right now, I’m not anticipating that we would have Israelis and the Palestinians in the same room at this time.

QUESTION: But if you’re saying the moratorium is not the best way to advance the peace talk and the same time you’re saying that you’re still adamant that the settlement issue is of major concern and you consider them illegitimate, isn’t that contradictory in terms? I mean, simply this position?

MR. CROWLEY: No, I mean, we have always supported direct negotiations as the only means to reach an agreement and, through an agreement, end the conflict. That remains our view. There was considerable thought given to moratorium as being a mechanism by which we could make the kind of progress we’re looking for and, at this point after an intensive effort, we’ve concluded that that particular course is just simply not going to bear fruit at this time and we’re going to move in a different direction.

QUESTION: So can you give us an idea what the other alternatives, I mean, if this is – if this path has been blocked and is not working. In the scope of thinking and new ideas that’s been thrown around, what other alternatives that you think you can pursue? How can you move the Palestinians from a position of saying, “We’re not going to negotiate unless you freeze the settlements,” to say, “Now you have to overlook that because we’re looking in different direction now”? How can you –

MR. CROWLEY: We’re not looking at – we’re not overlooking anything. In other words, the core issues remain at the heart of this effort. We are going to shift the discussion and begin to focus intensively on the core issues and see if we can make progress on the substance itself. And we’ll be looking to see if these discussions and this effort creates the momentum that we would expect. Ultimately, we’ll have to move back into direct negotiations at some point.

QUESTION: Are you still giving incentives to the Israelis? That package of incentives is still on the table for the Israelis to take? The package of incentives that you gave – still there?

MR. CROWLEY: That is not under discussion at this time.

QUESTION: It’s not under discussion at this time?

QUESTION: Has it been withdrawn?

QUESTION: But it’s not been withdrawn, yeah.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, we are no longer – at this time we are not pursuing a settlement moratorium, renewal of the settlement moratorium. We’re moving in a different direction and that package is not currently under discussion.

QUESTION: Should the IDF then assume that it’s not going to get the 20 fighter jets?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we remain committed to Israel’s security, but that – those discussions will occur in a different context.

QUESTION: Did you rule out giving the Israel’s the F-35 fighter jets because –

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I – put it this way, I will rule in that we will continue to work with Israel as a friend and ally on its security requirements. We have done that over decades and that’s not going to change.

QUESTION: Can I ask you does the U.S. know yet how it plans to get the Israelis – I’m sorry, not the Israelis, the Palestinians to agree to any future talks? They’ve been pretty firm on holding that they’d like to see the settlement freeze before resuming any sort of negotiations.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we had to – Daniel Rubinstein in Jerusalem had two meetings with – well, all right. Daniel Rubinstein who is in Jerusalem had two meetings yesterday with President Abbas and we will continue our discussions with the Palestinians. And as we said, George Mitchell will be in the region next week.

QUESTION: As a result of those two meetings, did your consul general get any sense that the Palestinians are willing to move forward on talks without that settlement freeze as a prerequisite?

MR. CROWLEY: Again, we are explaining where we are and explaining – and also seeking Palestinian views on the best path forward.

QUESTION: I mean, take us – the next step. Are the Palestinians willing to move forward, based on your conversations with them?

MR. CROWLEY: Again, we’re having discussions with both sides, and we’ll just leave it there.


QUESTION: P.J., just to understand you clearly you’re saying that that package was contingent upon the Israelis agreeing to a settlement freeze and that that did not happen so the package is no longer --

MR. CROWLEY: We are – at this time, we are not pursuing a settlement moratorium, and we’re not pursuing that kind of discussion with the Israelis.

QUESTION: Okay. The spokesperson for the European Union yesterday said that the settlements were illegitimate and an obstacle to peace. Would you say the same thing?

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, this is a concern, obviously for both the Israelis and the Palestinians. As we’ve made clear, both parties have responsibilities here. Both parties need to avoid unilateral actions that undermine trust and do impede the process. Our position on settlements is clear. I just reiterated it again. We’ll continue to express that view, but we are focused here on how can we get the parties to begin to work on the substance, and through that, move this effort forward.

QUESTION: Okay. Yesterday, just to follow up, a quick follow up --


QUESTION: Yesterday you said or someone said that we will look for different ways to reignite basically – I mean I’m paraphrasing here – to revitalize the talks. Can you share with us what are these things of how --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, that’s the fundamental purpose of the contacts we’ve had over the last few days and the contacts we’ll have in the coming days, what is the best path forward, how can we begin to actually address the substance, the core issues inside this process. And we’re looking for ways to create forward movement and momentum. We had viewed the moratorium as one way to achieve that. We don’t think that’s going to bear fruit at this time, and we’re moving in a different direction to achieve the same objective.

QUESTION: And one last thing. You would not endorse a Palestinian effort to declare a state, I mean, or have --

MR. CROWLEY: Our view on that is not changed. Ultimately, again, to end the conflict you need an agreement. To get to an agreement you’re going to have to have direct negotiations. We continue to believe that is the only mechanism through which we achieve success. And we believe that bringing this issues to an international forum will be a distraction and will just add complexity to an already difficult circumstance.

QUESTION: So then how do you persuade President Abbas to stop his efforts to get countries in Latin America, possibly in Europe as well, from not recognizing a Palestinian state with (inaudible) borders.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, all I can tell you is President Abbas is very familiar with our position.

QUESTION: Is the U.S. going to take any measures against countries that recognizes a Palestinian State in a unilateral way?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, countries have the right to set their own polices. We believe strongly that as this moves forward we’re going to need international support for this effort. And that’s why we’ve worked effectively with the Quartet and others to support this process. This is why in addition to George Mitchell talking to the parties next week he’ll be talking to others in the region. So we want to have as much international support for this process as possible, and we continue to believe that international support for other avenues is ultimately a distraction.

QUESTION: Are you --

QUESTION: (Inaudible) for this direction – you didn’t really say the direction you’re going.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, no. There’s a clear plan for this direction, Lach.

QUESTION: You have a plan?

MR. CROWLEY: No. I mean we think we have the right plan. We think we have the right strategy. We are just adapting the tactics in support of that strategy.

QUESTION: Sorry. What’s the plan again?

MR. CROWLEY: Well --

QUESTION: Well, you’ve described it (inaudible) plan --

MR. CROWLEY: Thanks, Lach.

QUESTION: And now you’re saying you’re talking to the others about consulting with the parties on what the new path or plan will be. But – so --

MR. CROWLEY: Again, I mean, I can’t be more clear in saying that our – it is our belief at some point in this process the parties will have to return to direct negotiations. We don’t see an alternative to be able to resolve the core issues, get to a framework agreement, and ultimately get to a final agreement that ends the conflict once and for all. So at some point in time, we want to see a resumption of direct negotiations. What we’re talking about now is what is the means to get to that point. We try one avenue. That avenue has not borne fruit and now we’re pursuing a different avenue, but the destination is still the same.

QUESTION: Okay. What’s the avenue then? If we don’t ask about the plan, what about the avenue. What’s – I mean you seem to be leaving a gap here as to how you get from here to there.

MR. CROWLEY: That’s what we’re trying to figure out.

QUESTION: What is – you don’t know what the avenue is.

QUESTION: You’re not having --

MR. CROWLEY: No, no, no. I mean we – put it this way: There is a path forward. The real question is can the parties summon the political will to move down that road. And we understand that there are different political challenges on both sides. At the heart of this, this is not a substantive challenge. It is a political challenge, and for a combination of regions – reasons, the politics on both sides did not actually enable us to move forward along a path and through a settlement moratorium. So we are adapting our approach, but we’re not adapting our strategy. Ultimately, the parties themselves have to sit down together, work through the core issues. The core issues are very well known. Actually, the potential solutions are already outlined through previous efforts. We just have to figure out what combination works most effectively to get to the kind of sustained, meaningful dialogue that is required to get to a framework agreement, and ultimately to achieve peace in the region.

QUESTION: Given that the moratorium extension failed, do you believe that Netanyahu and his team were negotiating in good faith --


QUESTION: -- in the last three weeks?

MR. CROWLEY: Yes. We believe that both sides are committed to this process, they want the United States to continue our involvement in this process, and we reached an impasse through the mechanism of a settlement moratorium, and we are simply trying to see if there’s another way to advance this effort.

QUESTION: On the political will, though --


QUESTION: -- settler groups were arguing --

MR. CROWLEY: One at a time.

QUESTION: Settler groups were arguing today that this is a victory over the Americans and their irrational pie-in-the-sky request. Do you believe that (inaudible) a political will to make this happen?

MR. CROWLEY: It’s not a victory for anybody. It’s not a loss for anybody. It is simply a recognition that an intensive effort at achieving a settlement moratorium as one mechanism to advance the process did not bear fruit. We are now going to look at other vehicles, one or more vehicles through which we can make the kind of progress we’re looking for.

QUESTION: Why is it not a victory for the settlers if they can continue at will to build wherever they want in the West Bank and East Jerusalem?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, it’s not a victory in the sense that both the Israelis and the Palestinians have significant interests in crossing this finish line – on the Palestinian side, a viable state, and on the Israeli side, the recognition and stability and peace that it has long sought. So the real question is: Choose the yard line that you’re on, just what is the means through which you can get from here to there. And there’s no one way to achieve that. We’ve tried one way and it didn’t enable the progress that we’re looking for, and so we’re moving in a different direction.

QUESTION: P.J., can I ask you, given that you’re changing your tactic now midstream, does the Administration still believe it can achieve the framework deal within a year --


QUESTION: -- as it did originally? What do you base that optimism on? You seem to be the only one who’s --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, put it this way. We – our objective remains the same as it was back in August.

QUESTION: But the circumstances don’t appear to have improved.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, that’s – and that’s – we were clear-eyed when we entered into this in August. We’re clear-eyed today as we recognize that our efforts of the last four months have not given us the forward momentum that we’re looking for. And so we are shifting our approach, but we are still focused on the goal of a framework agreement within a year, and we believe that is still achievable.

Obviously, a lot of hard work is going to have to be done. It’s not going to be easy. But we haven’t changed our objective.

QUESTION: Can you say whether the ball has moved forward at all since early September when you launched this? I mean, are you really now starting again and trying to achieve this now --

MR. CROWLEY: No, we’re not starting again, we’ve – because both sides remain committed to this. We have reaffirmed that in our recent conversations. We’re just moving – we’re trying a different avenue to get to the same ultimate destination.

QUESTION: But can you say how the ball has moved forward in the intervening three months now that --

MR. CROWLEY: I think there’s – there is a commitment to the process. We have had conversations that touch on substantive issues. We just want to find the right mechanism to get into a more intensive, detailed discussion of the core issues. To some extent, as I mentioned a minute ago, it’s almost like the moratorium had become an end in itself rather than a means to move the process forward. We’re just shifting our approach.

QUESTION: Would you say that the right mechanism is to include other Arabic states in terms of the Arab peace plan and have a comprehensive peace deal similar to Madrid --

MR. CROWLEY: But the other states in the region are already involved. We’ve had --

QUESTION: But not on the Madrid-style conference.

MR. CROWLEY: Yeah – no, but we – the other states have been supporting this process. They have had their own conversations with the parties. And they remain as determined as we are to continue to find ways to move forward.

QUESTION: Can I just --

QUESTION: I cannot understand the optimism. I mean, talking about a few month from now, end of the year, everything failed so far. You’re not giving us any ideas --

MR. CROWLEY: We’re – again, we are --

QUESTION: -- of how you’re going to make this process --

MR. CROWLEY: -- clear-eyed and realistic about this. We knew going in this was going to be hard. It has proven to be as hard as we had anticipated. And it is difficult, it is emotional, it’s complex, it requires the leaders to summon the political support to advance this process. And we’re committed to that and we’re – we’ll be sending George back to the region next week to see how to – what’s the best route forward.

QUESTION: Will the Secretary talk about new ideas on Friday night at the Saban Center?

MR. CROWLEY: The Secretary will have a speech on Friday night. It will touch extensively on these issues and I’ll not step on the news that she’ll make.

QUESTION: P.J., you said --

QUESTION: Can you talk about --

MR. CROWLEY: Hey Laura, go ahead.

QUESTION: Can you talk about how this was announced yesterday, that essentially you’re – that the Administration is abandoning the moratorium idea? Sort of – I know you were asked it at the briefing yesterday and on the record, you didn’t speak to it, and then it was announced on background in Jerusalem by a U.S. official and then confirmed by U.S. officials on background yesterday.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, the --

QUESTION: I’m curious why you guys decided to do it that way.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, the only point to yesterday was that we were timing our announcements to meetings that were being held in the region where we were keeping both sides informed of our thinking.

QUESTION: And you didn’t want to wait till you had the Secretary to say what the positive new policy would be? I mean, it seems like all the headlines today, worldwide, are U.S.-Middle East policy.

MR. CROWLEY: Laura, as you know very well, holding information in the context of Middle East peace is a very difficult thing for the parties to do.

QUESTION: P.J., on the – you said that Mr. Netanyahu negotiated in good faith. So when he told you – what did he tell you: “I’m sorry, I cannot convince X number of my cabinet, I’m awfully sorry”? How did he say it? Where was the stone wall?

MR. CROWLEY: We do not have any quarrel with how either side has approached this, and we are convinced that both sides remain as committed to this process today as they were back in August. Again, there are substantive challenges to this and there are political challenges to this, and the political challenges are showing themselves to be complex, difficult. And we’re looking for the right combination that allows us to develop the political support necessary for leaders to make the hard decisions that they will have to make.

QUESTION: Wait, you don’t have any – you don’t have any quarrel with how either side approached this? Or do you have a problem with the way both sides approached this?

MR. CROWLEY: There’s no good in pointing fingers. We are committed to this process. We believe they are committed to this process. And we are trying to find the right mechanism to make – to move the – to move forward and get the kind of sustained and meaningful dialogue and negotiation that is necessary to achieve success.

QUESTION: P.J., some observers would say that, actually, you brought this upon yourself, the U.S. brought it upon itself, by making that such a huge issue. And then when it fell apart, it looks as if your strategy failed. What do you say?

MR. CROWLEY: Jill, settlements is a big issue on both sides. That’s obvious by the politics of both – on the Palestinian side and the Israeli side. This is not something that we brought upon ourselves. This is a reflection of a reality that still exists, and the real issue is how to move forward and be able to address the core issues in the current environment. We tried one tactic, and now we’re shifting to a different tactic.

QUESTION: Can I change the subject?

QUESTION: Sorry, just one more --

QUESTION: Can I just stay on here one second?

QUESTION: I thought I understood that the Palestinians and Israelis were going to come next week to Washington to discuss this. You said George Mitchell is going over there, so have you taken that --

MR. CROWLEY: We are having and will be having meetings on both sides prior to George’s travel.

QUESTION: On both sides (inaudible)?

MR. CROWLEY: Yeah. Hmm?

QUESTION: Say it again?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, again, we are – we expect to have discussions with senior representatives on both sides. We are still working to set those up.

QUESTION: So that could be in Washington?

MR. CROWLEY: It could be in Washington or it could be both in Washington and in the region.

QUESTION: Is it your understanding that an overwhelming majority of Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet were opposed to the deal?

MR. CROWLEY: That’s a better question to ask the Israeli Government.

QUESTION: But you have negotiated with --

MR. CROWLEY: Again, that’s a – we understand the political challenge the prime minister has faced and is facing, but we’ll leave it to the Israelis to describe.

QUESTION: I guess my question is: Is it your feeling that with the current composition of the cabinet, is it insurmountable that we would actually reach --

MR. CROWLEY: If we thought it was insurmountable, we wouldn't be doing what we’re doing.

QUESTION: Just on Iran meetings yesterday, can you say anymore than you said yesterday about the informal encounters with the Iranians, again, at what levels those took place and what happened? Did they raise the hikers, and if you can’t say that, why not?


QUESTION: Why can’t you say that?

MR. CROWLEY: Again, there were informal encounters. We raised a number of issues, including human rights, but I’m just not going to go into particulars.

QUESTION: Follow up? Can I follow up on that?


QUESTION: You know that Turkey’s hosting next rounds. Are you expecting any other contribution from Turkey, beside hosting the talks as a country?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we’ll be setting the agenda led by Lady Catherine Ashton between now and then. We don’t rule out any role for any particular country, but obviously the P-5+1 is the core group, and we expect next month’s to revolve around that same group.

QUESTION: How much do you think the – on the one hand Turkey’s tried to increase its trade with Iran and has a goal of triple trade within next five years. On the other hand, the U.S. Government is trying to isolate Iran. How do you think (inaudible) allies are working --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, those are not in contradiction. Turkey is a neighbor of Iran. It does have an economic relationship with Iran, and in fact, there are categories where trade between countries and Iran are fully authorized. There are special categories under Resolution 1929 that are prohibited, and Turkey has clearly indicated publicly that it will abide by its international obligations.

Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 2:36 p.m.)

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