Monday, August 31, 2009

Abbott & Costello at the State Department


Philip J. Crowley
Assistant Secretary
Daily Press Briefing
Washington, DC
August 27, 2009

1:25 p.m. EDT

MR. CROWLEY: Good afternoon, and welcome to the Department of State. And for the first time since I’ve been here, we have nothing formal to announce. So against my better judgment, we’ll go right to your questions.

QUESTION: There’s some reports in Israel and elsewhere that in the meeting yesterday in London, that Mitchell agreed to an Israeli proposal that would see a – you know, a temporary freeze in West Bank settlements, but leave out any promises or pledges on East Jerusalem. Is this accurate?

MR. CROWLEY: Matt, I think we’re in intense discussions with Israel, with the Palestinian Authority with other countries in the region, and characteristic of difficult discussions, you’re seeing – you’re hearing a lot of noise coming from a lot of different directions. I’m not going to get into details to say, this one is right, this is one is wrong. There’s a lot of posturing that’s going on. I think what is important here is that Senator Mitchell is work – continues to work with the parties. Our objective is to get them vested in formal negotiations. And in those formal negotiations, we will tackle the hard issues that we know exist, and get not only to the finish line, but get across the finish line.

Ultimately, this is not a process by which the United States will impose conditions on Israel, on the Palestinian Authority, on other countries. This is – ultimately, the judgment as to both getting to negotiations and getting to a successful conclusion is something that the parties will have to make. We, the United States, are prepared to help them. So at this point in time, what Senator Mitchell is trying to do is to make sure that all of the parties, all of the vested interests in these negotiations, they have – they are putting forward a political commitment. And we will make the assessment in the coming weeks whether we feel that the conditions are right.

But it’s not about what we’re asking. We’re asking them to meet their commitments under the Roadmap, but most importantly, we’re asking them what they’re prepared to do and to demonstrate the steps that that they are prepared to take that allow us to have confidence that these negotiations can be restarted.

We recognize that once we get into those negotiations, all of the issues that you’re probably hearing in the press will be there for debate, for negotiation, for resolution. But this is not something that we’re imposing on them. This is something that we’re discussing with the parties on an ongoing basis. We’ll do so again next week with the delegation that comes to the United States from Israel. And hopefully through these discussions that will be ongoing in the coming days and weeks, we can get to a point where we have confidence that these negotiations can be restarted.

QUESTION: Well, all of that is fine, but --

MR. CROWLEY: Thank you. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: -- it doesn’t really answer the question. Is the hard and fast position that was stated by Secretary Clinton in May, and again restated from the podium on Monday, I believe, that all means all, in terms of settlements? Is that a negotiable position now?

MR. CROWLEY: The position that the Secretary has stated remains our position. And we continue to discuss with Israel and with the other parties what they have to do on the settlement issue, on other issues, including incitement and security, and the support that we need in the region for us to have confidence that negotiations can begin. Ultimately, it will be up to the United States, together with the parties. We’ll make a collective decision in the coming weeks as to whether – what the various parties have put forth, give us confidence that negotiations can begin.

QUESTION: So that position is not negotiable? That’s what you’re saying.

MR. CROWLEY: What I’m saying is that our position on the importance of settlements, on the importance of the commitments made under the Roadmap remains unchanged.

QUESTION: But that’s not actually what you said. What you said was that the Secretary’s position remains – our position, your position – and the position, as she stated it, was, I think quite categorical in May when she said that all settlements – activity must stop, including so-called natural growth. That is – I’m not talking about the importance of settlement or the importance of the Roadmap or the importance of keeping commitment. That is your – that is and continues to be your – the U.S. Government position that Israel should have a complete, total cease to settlement activity, including natural growth?

MR. CROWLEY: Our position in these discussions remains unchanged. At the same time, ultimately, it will be up to the parties, together with the United States, looking at all of what has been put forward in these discussions to reach a determination whether the conditions exist for negotiations to begin. So that’s why these discussions have been taking place over many months and why we will continue them in the coming days and week.

QUESTION: So it’s --

QUESTION: Does that mean, then, if you can get the Palestinians and the – or the Palestinians particularly, but the Arabs more generally to buy into some kind – something that is less than the Secretary’s position, if you can get them to agree that that’s okay, that you will – that your position is, in fact, negotiable depending on --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, remember what we are trying to achieve here, okay? We are hoping to get to a formal negotiation through which we can reach a resolution between the Israelis and the Palestinians as part of our ambition to see comprehensive peace in the Middle East, okay? The key here is getting to the negotiations, okay? The discussions that we are having are to create the conditions so that the Israelis, the Palestinians, other countries in the region have the confidence that the negotiations can not only be started, but they can be successfully completed.

QUESTION: All right. Well, that sounds like a yes to me.

MR. CROWLEY: Yes to what question?

QUESTION: The question that I asked --

MR. CROWLEY: Which --

QUESTION: -- which was simply that if you can get buy-in from the others on something that is less than your May --

MR. CROWLEY: Well, drawing from --

QUESTION: -- the Secretary’s May demand, that in fact, it is negotiable.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, what I’m saying is we have discussions that are ongoing. We’re going to see how these discussions unfold. Ultimately, it will be up to the United States, and in this case, Israel, the Palestinian Authority, to make an assessment as to whether we believe the conditions are right so negotiations can be restarted. I’m not going to prejudge where these discussions go, and I’m not going to prejudge – ultimately, the judgment that the President, the Secretary, the prime minister, the president of the Palestinian Authority will have to make, together with other countries in the region, whether we think the conditions exist for negotiations to formally start.


QUESTION: Can I try this slightly a different way? So it is possible, I would understand from what you’ve said, that the U.S. position may not be relevant, in fact, if the Palestinians and Israelis can agree to start negotiations on whatever basis?

MR. CROWLEY: I mean, I understand the fascination, Charlie. Maybe I think we’re – what we’re trying to do is get everyone back on the highway towards a formal negotiation. You’re talking about characterizing the activity where various people are driving around the parking lot. I mean, that’s not the point. The point here is ultimately, we have to find a way back to negotiations, and we have to have confidence that when those negotiations start, that all of the parties – the Israelis, the Palestinians, the rest of the region – is invested in this peace process.

We have seen negotiations in recent years where the negotiations took place, but there was no real investment by the parties in the process. We’re trying to make sure that in the discussions that Senator Mitchell is leading right now, that the parties are sufficiently invested in this process. They’re putting real skin into the game so that when we get to those negotiations, there is this confidence that they can start, they can be meaningful, and that they can reach a successful conclusion. I’m not going to prejudge the judgments that will have to be made as these discussions continue as to whether we have reached those conditions.

Our objective is to reach the conditions that – and we have our ideas, and we put forward our ideas publicly and privately about what it will take for negotiations to be restarted. But ultimately, it’ll be up to the parties themselves, with our help, to determine whether that threshold has been met.


QUESTION: So do you see, like, a situation or a possibility of where total freeze of settlement is not achieved, but at the same time, there’s a possibility to resume negotiations? Is that a possibility?

MR. CROWLEY: All right. Try me again?

QUESTION: Do you see – do you foresee, like, a situation or a possibility in the future where the Israelis actually don’t freeze total – have total freeze on settlements, but at the same time, there’s a place to resume negotiations?

MR. CROWLEY: I see a situation some weeks from now where the President of the United States and the Secretary of State and Senator Mitchell, together with the Israelis, the Palestinians, and others in the region, will make a fundamental judgment, at the conclusion of this phase of the process, after many discussions over many months, the question we put on the table: Do we feel that the conditions are sufficient so that a formal negotiation can begin?

That will be a judgment that everyone I just enunciated will have to make. Now where we are when that point is reached, I can’t predict. That’s why this process is continuing. It’s why Senator Mitchell met with Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday, why we continue to consult with the Palestinians and other countries in the region. We have to see how this plays out. We have to get to a point where you reach that fundamental judgment.

As I said, we, the United States, have outlined in these meetings what we feel is necessary for those conditions – for the atmosphere to be such, for the investment to be such that a formal negotiation can begin and can be successful. But ultimately, this will be judgments that are made not just by the United States, but by Israel, by the Palestinian Authority, by others. And let’s wait till we reach that point.


QUESTION: Just to follow up, you said the decision will be made by those in the U.S., Palestine, Israel, and those in the region. What about the Quartet? Do you envision that the Quartet will be part of this decision-making process of whether the conditions are suitable for talks? And also, when you’re referring for the conditions to be suitable for talks, are we talking about Palestinian-Israeli talks, or are we talking about talks for all those involved in the Arab-Israeli conflict?

MR. CROWLEY: I think right now, our focus, obviously, is on the Israeli-Palestinian element. Our desire is for a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. We recognize that over time, we will hopefully address the other issues that exist within the region. Right now, our focus is there. But we recognize that obviously, drawing from our experience over 15 or 20 years, that for this to be successful we have to have significant support by the region. That was what was missing, say, in 2000. So that’s why George Mitchell has been talking not just to the Israelis and Palestinians, but a wide range of other leaders who will need to be involved in this process as we go forward.

I think that obviously, as we get into a formal negotiation, the role of the Quartet and the international community will be vitally important, because whatever negotiation is ultimately – if a negotiation is ultimately successful, it will have to have significant support – both political, financial, other diplomatic, so – but our focus right now is in this particular phase. We’re in the homestretch, we hope. We hope that we can get to a point where we can make that fundamental judgment that a negotiation can be restarted and we have prospects for success.

Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes. May I ask you about a slightly different subject?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, let’s see. Is anyone – are we – go ahead.

QUESTION: The meeting is next week?

MR. CROWLEY: We’ll come back to you.

QUESTION: The meeting is next week? Any location?

MR. CROWLEY: The meeting is next week. Details are still to be determined. I don’t know when, don’t know where.

QUESTION: It’s going to be in New York, right?

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t know when, don’t know where.

QUESTION: Do you know who is coming from the Israeli side?

MR. CROWLEY: We’ll let the Israelis announce their delegation.

QUESTION: And then one other one on this.

QUESTION: New York is too (inaudible).

QUESTION: What talks, if any, does Senator Mitchell have planned, either with the Palestinians or with officials from other Arab states, over the next couple of weeks? We know about the Israeli team coming here, and I believe Prime Minister Netanyahu said he expected – or briefed reporters traveling with him that he expected Senator Mitchell back in Israel in September. What else – you know, what are the Arab – what’s the Arab side of the coin here?

MR. CROWLEY: Yeah. It’s a fair question, Arshad. I – as far as I know, the next step in the process is receiving the Israeli delegation next week. It wouldn’t surprise me if, once we get beyond Labor Day, that there’s another trip to the region before the UN General Assembly, but I don’t know that.

QUESTION: Can you check on whether there are any plans to talk to Arab officials over the next couple of weeks? It’d just be useful to have a sense of who else he’s talking to.


QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Well, I’m still confused. People, and I think the media, as well, understood that the total freeze of settlement was an American precondition to resume talks. And now you’re saying probably it’s up to negotiations and what the different factor agree on. Is that a change in the – in your stance? Do you think that what you announced in the beginning, that total freeze of settlement was not realistic because the Israelis will not accept it?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think you’re prejudging the outcome. I was clear. The United States position on settlements – we’ve said it many times. We haven’t changed it. Now, that is the American position in a discussion that we’re having among our friends in Israel, also our friends with the Palestinian Authority. But our discussions are based on the need to create conditions to get to a negotiation. And it will be a collective judgment based on what Israel has put on the table, based on what the Palestinians have put on the table, based on what other countries in the region have put on the table, is what on the table sufficient to get to where we really want to go, which is back into a negotiation where all of these issues – in terms of borders, refugees, and so forth – can be successfully resolved. I’m not going to prejudge the outcome of the discussion that leads to the judgment – that hopefully leads to the negotiation. That process is continuing.

QUESTION: Would you – one last question. Would you quibble with or dispute the statement that in all the words that you’ve said over the last few minutes, that you have left the door open to a resumption of peace negotiations, absent a total and absolute halt to settlement activity? It seems to me you’ve left that door wide open.

MR. CROWLEY: What I am saying is the United States of America is working with the Israelis, Palestinians, other countries in the region to get to a negotiation, to restart negotiations and bring them to a successful conclusion. And we are earnestly working presently, and will continue to work in the coming days to create the conditions that gives us confidence, gives the Israelis confidence, give the Palestinians confidence, gives the region confidence that a negotiation can be successfully started and successfully concluded.

QUESTION: Even in the absence of a total freeze.

MR. CROWLEY: And I – again, I’m not going to prejudge the outcome of the discussions that are ongoing. I’m not going to comment on the noise that’s coming – the posturing that’s coming from various places; only to say that ultimately, we’ll reach a point hopefully soon where we, together with the Israelis, together with the Palestinians will say, based on everything we know, based on what everyone has told us, based on the commitments that they’ve made, is this sufficient to get us into a negotiation?

QUESTION: So your position is not a hard and fast condition?

MR. CROWLEY: Our position is to get to negotiations. We’re doing that --

QUESTION: Your position on settlements is not hard --

MR. CROWLEY: -- through the process that we’re – that is currently ongoing.

QUESTION: So your position on settlements – the U.S. position on settlements, as you’ve restated here from the Secretary’s – what the Secretary said in May, is not a condition?

MR. CROWLEY: The United States has stated its position on settlements based on commitments made --

QUESTION: And that position is not a condition. Is that correct?

MR. CROWLEY: That position is our position, and that position is the position that we took into the discussions that we hope will lead to a negotiation.

QUESTION: Took half a chance.

MR. CROWLEY: Let’s go to a different subject.

Did that recall to you "who's on first?"

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