The White House, President George W. Bush Click to print this document

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
July 16, 2006

Press Briefing on the G8 Leaders Joint Statement on the Situation in the Middle East by Under Secretary for Political Affairs Nicholas Burns and Tony Snow
Via Conference Call

9:52 P.M. (Local)

MR. SNOW: As you know, the G8 leaders have now put out a statement on the Middle East. We thought you might want to hear about it. Do you all have the text?

Q Yes, we do.

MR. SNOW: That being the case, what I'm going to do is let Nick put it in context, and then answer any questions you may have. Nick, over to you.

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Good evening. I just want to say first, it's been an interesting week in the international discussion about security issues, because not only was Lebanon a major issue of discussion in St. Petersburg; Iran and North Korea were, as well. And you also have today in the statement of non-proliferation some -- an agreed message by the eight countries on North Korea, as well as on Iran, and of course that follows a Security Council resolution, 15-0, yesterday on North Korea, and it also follows the Iran declaration in Paris on Wednesday, when Secretary Rice was there with the European foreign ministers, China and Russia.

And in all these cases, we're now sending very strong messages to each of these countries about their behavior. Lebanon was probably the most important issue discussed here, certainly the one that was most on the minds of the leaders. And they got together today, had a very long discussion of what's happening there. The statement reflects, I think the common concern that they had -- they wanted to point at the origin of the problem. And so if you look in paragraph 2, both in Gaza and in Lebanon, in Gaza it was Hamas that began the crisis by launching rocket attacks against Israel, by killing an Israel settler, by abducting an Israeli soldier. In Lebanon it was Hezbollah that violated U.N. Security Council resolutions by crossing the blue line, and then, of course, capturing Israeli soldiers, killing some of them, and they're still holding them.

So I think all the countries felt, all the leaders felt that this statement and the discussion really had to start with indication that Hamas and Hezbollah, two of them, of course, both of them have links to each other, that had started the problem.

Then if you notice in the third paragraph, it refers to "these extremist elements," and those, of course -- those foursome are clearly understood to be Syria and Iran, who have been longtime backers and funders of Hezbollah.

Q Just Syria, or what about Iran?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I said Syria and Iran. They've been longtime backers and funding of both Hezbollah and Hamas. You'll notice there's a paragraph calling on Israel to -- acknowledging Israel's right to defend itself. And I think everyone agreed that given the fact they were attacked by Hamas in Gaza and attacked by Hezbollah, Israel did have a right to defend themselves. That's an important point. But the feeling was that Israel also had to be mindful of the need to exercise restraint, as we've been saying for a couple of days now, and of course seek to avoid innocent -- casualty among innocent civilians.

The leaders didn't want to just comment on the situation, they felt it was most important to try to figure out what we should be doing now to bring the fighting to an end and to reestablish a sense of calm and a sense of forward progress, in terms of Israel's relations with Lebanon, especially.

And so everyone agreed, again, in the middle of the statement, that the first order of business would be the return of the Israeli soldiers to the Israeli government unharmed, and that the shelling of Israeli territory had to end.

You know it's been remarkable, over the last several days, several hundred Katyusha rockets have been fired on Israel from Lebanon, and as you know, in the weeks leading up to the attacks in Gaza, a very large number of Kassam rockets have been fired from Gaza into Israel. And so the feeling was that that was the first order of business to be stopped, both the shelling of Israeli territory, but also the return of Israeli soldiers.

And there really wasn't much argument on that. Everyone had pretty much the same point of view. And then if those were established, of course, it might allow Israel to end its military operation.

Q I'm sorry, what did you say?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: The discussion among leaders, and certainly the discussion among the delegations over the last several days presupposed the notion that we had to see the return of the Israel soldiers to their families unharmed and an end to the shelling of Israel territory. And then at that point, Israel would be ready to end military operation and withdraw its forces from Gaza. And there was also a lot of sentiment that the Palestinian ministers and parliamentarians who had been taken prisoner in the first days of Israel's Gaza operations should be released.

But most of the discussion was forward-looking, and there is great support for the United Nations. Kofi Annan has sent a team to the region to try to figure out how we can restore peace. We expect that team to return to New York mid-week, this week, and I would expect a Security Council meeting on Thursday or Friday. That meeting is going to focus on both of these issues.

On Lebanon, there is a -- I think there is a lot of interest in seeing what we can do to restore a dialogue between Lebanese and Israel government, first of all; and, secondly, see what we can do to end the violence, but also to see what we can do to set up some kind of a monitoring mission on the border between Lebanon and Israel.

And in Gaza, is to try to strengthen Abu Mazen, President Mahmoud Abbas, and elect the Palestinian government and try to see if some of the agreements that have been negotiated so far to be respected. And I think you'll see a lot of activity in the next couple of days. Certainly after the U.N. team reports back to the Security Council there is going to be a significant effort made to see if we can stop the fighting.

The President, of course, has been on the phone with leaders in the region, as has Secretary Rice been very active. And it was the kind of discussion that sometimes you normally don't have in a situation like this. There wasn't a lot of disagreement and there was pretty much a consensus as to what had to happen.

So with that, I'll be happy to take your questions -- (inaudible), and Iran and North Korea.

Q Nick, you said that Israel would be ready to end its operation if the soldiers are returned and the shelling stopped. Is that something that --

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I want to be clear --

Q -- the G8 (inaudible), or is that something -- your expectation, or is it just a belief that it could happen?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I want to be very clear about that. I didn't say that Israel is ready to end its military activity; that it was the opinion of most countries that if the soldiers were returned unharmed to both Gaza and Lebanon, and if the shelling of Israel stopped from both Gaza and Lebanon, then that would set up the conditions for Israel to end up its military activity. And that was the opinion of most of the countries here. But I'm not making a statement on behalf of the Israeli government. It's going to be a sovereign decision as to when they end this.

And I must say what was striking to all of us about the conversations over the last few days is there is a real understanding that Israel was attacked, that Hamas started it in Gaza and Hezbollah started it in Lebanon, and both of them violated international law in doing so. Hamas invaded Israeli sovereignty; Hezbollah crossed the blue line. And if you look at what the Egyptian government, the Saudi government have been saying, the Jordanian government -- they've all been critical of Hezbollah and Hamas.

There is a remarkable statement by Kofi Annan's spokesman a couple of days ago that cites chapter and verse all of the illegalities of Hezbollah in crossing the blue line and attacking Israel and in shelling Israeli towns. And you saw the attack today in Haifa, where nine Israelis were killed.

So there wasn't much of an argument at all -- much of a discussion at all about who is responsible for starting this. But most of the focus was on trying to end the violence, end the fighting, restore calm -- and there are certainly too many civilians have been killed in both places, particularly Lebanon, where it's been very bloody the last couple of days. And it was more of a forward-looking conversation.

Q Nick, you say that the end of the Israeli military operations is conditional on the first -- on the other two elements, the Israeli soldiers being released and the end of the shelling. It's not so clear in this statement -- does everybody agree, is there any disagreement on that issue, or not?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Hi, Terry. You know, it wasn't that formal. There wasn't a causal equation drawn between the two. It was more that I think there was an understanding that if a country is attacked -- particularly Israel having been attacked by two different forces in two different parts of the country -- Israel had, you know, most countries around the table are (inaudible) that Israel had the right to defend itself. And there was not an argument about that.

But leaders here didn't presume to set up some kind of test whereby Israel would have to stop if certain conditions were met. It was just the expectation that since the Israelis, of course, said that they were responding to both the taking -- the hostage-taking of their soldiers, the killing of Israel civilians and the targeting of their town, should all that stop, then there's a general expectation that the conditions for the military intervention would also stop. But the G8 wasn't trying to give some kind of specific recipe to the Israel government. It wasn't that type of atmosphere at all.

Q Hey, Nick. You just said too many civilians have been killed, especially in Lebanon. Does that mean that you believe that Israel has not shown proper restraint?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: No, I didn't -- I don't think I said that. I didn't mean to imply that.

You know, I pointed to the fact that there have been missile attacks on Haifa, on Tiberius, and Safad. These are towns that haven't seen a missile attack in 35, 36 years. And, again, there's been loss of life on the Israel side, there's been loss of life on the Lebanese side. And if you look at the very first paragraph of the statement, the leaders drew attention to the fact that there are rising civilian casualties on all sides, and damage to infrastructure. So nobody was pointing the finger just at Israel. I mean, I think in most cases, as I said before, people felt that Israel had a right to respond, but it is now time to try to bring the violence to an end, if that's possible.

But certainly a necessary precondition -- I'll just speak as an American, from the American point of view -- has to be that the Hezbollah and Hamas have to stop the shelling of Israel towns --

Q Well, can I just go again to the restraint question, then? I mean, do you think thus far Israel has shown the proper restraint?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: You know, Secretary Rice has said, I think in every press conference she's given, and the President has said it as well, that all parties have to exercise restraint. The phrase used is "utmost restraint." And that's the logical thing to say in a situation like this --

MR. SNOW: Martha --

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: -- contesting Israel's right to defend itself.

MR. SNOW: And, Martha, I mean, it may be a debater's point, but it's an important one, which is, Hezbollah definitely has not practiced restraint.

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: In fact, you saw Nasrallah essentially incite open warfare against Israel yesterday when he made his statement.

Q Nick, the statement as you noted in the second paragraph, makes reference to those who support Hamas and Hezbollah, but there's no specific mention of Syria and Iran, and those are countries the President has named repeatedly in the last few days. How much of a push was there to name these two countries explicitly in the document, and why didn't it happen?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Well, I think, you know, these are eight governments. Some governments felt comfortable doing that and some did not. I think everybody knows what we're talking about in the second paragraph.

Those states that are supporting the extremists are Syria and Iran -- and just look at the facts. There is a lot of detailed discussion about the facts. Iran is the major funder of Hezbollah, and the major director of its operations. And Syria, of course, has been a friend and benefactor to Hezbollah for 20 years. There have been summits recently of Assad and Ahmadinejad and the leaders of Hezbollah. So there's no question about that, and no one argued about the facts.

And, you know, --

Q (Inaudible).

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: -- different political cultures, not everybody wants to be as open as, perhaps, some other countries.

Q Okay.

Q And, Nick, there's a (inaudible) in here about potential -- you say you welcome an examination about the U.N. Security Council and the possibility of an international security monitor present. So where --

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: That's one of the forward-looking items that the President was pushing here. The situation in Gaza is a very different situation -- the Gaza-Israeli border from the Lebanese-Israeli border.

In Gaza what we've been trying to do is build up the capacity of the Palestinian security forces to maintain order, law and order in Gaza, itself, and, of course, with very mixed results, as you've seen -- but that's (inaudible) effort.

The problem in Lebanon is that for a long time now there have been U.N. efforts -- UNIFIL and the border monitoring commission -- that have tried to solidify that border. And there have been rules of the road, and U.N. Security Council resolutions have set the rules of the road about not crossing certain lines, like the blue line, and Hezbollah crossed it.

So one of the things that we're interested in looking at as a diplomatic part of the solution -- what more could the U.N. do to strengthen that border than to have, perhaps, some kind of monitoring force along that border that would, in essence, push back Hezbollah to the border, so that it wouldn't be in a position to rocket Israel towns. There is no detailed proposal that comes out of this meeting. There is -- a lot of countries were intrigued by the possibility that this could be a way to resolve the crisis, by giving confidence to Israel that it wouldn't have to fear that Hezbollah would send Katyusha rockets down on Israel civilians, as they've been doing for many days.

And so we're looking at this U.N. -- there is a three-person U.N. team that's in the Middle East right now, led by Kofi Annan's senior aide, Mr. Nambiar, an Indian civil servant, and they'll go back and report to the Security Council. And what the U.S. intends to do is push the U.N. to look seriously into options as to how to strengthen a U.N. or international monitoring presence on that border. Because the basic problem is unless Israel knows that Hezbollah has been pushed back, Israel is going to have no confidence that Hezbollah won't have the capacity to do what it's doing in the future, what it's been doing over the last couple of weeks.

Q So would that be, per se, a peacekeeping force or some hybrid of --

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: No, I wouldn't go so far as to name it formally a peacekeeping force. We chose the words, you know, a security and monitoring outfit, mechanism, carefully, because we really don't have a consensus yet on what it should be. And, frankly, we're looking at the experts in the U.N. and some of the Middle East countries to try to help us decide how best to do this -- (inaudible) -- congressional security monitoring presence, as you saw.

Q Nick, it's a bit interesting that she doesn't want to go to the region until she knows that there is a way forward and that she can make a difference towards peace. Does this statement mean that we have a way forward and she can make concrete progress in everything?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I think what -- she has been on the phone -- of course, the President has been on the phone first with a lot of the regional leaders; she has been on the phone every day with leaders, as well. She was on the phone with Kofi Annan today, got an update on his views. I think he feels -- as we understand it, he feels strongly that his team needs to come back, make a set of recommendations to the Security Council. The Security Council will meet on Thursday. And at that point, we're going to -- I think Secretary Rice will confer with the President and judge what we should best do from then on. So she hasn't made any specific --

Q Hey, Nick, President Chirac is out there already spinning this thing differently, saying that the G8 leaders agreed that Israel is being disproportionate. Now, is that a fair representation --

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: -- Steve, that word is not used in this statement. It doesn't exist.

Q I don't see it, either.

Q He also said --

MR. SNOW: It's not in the French version, either.

Q He also apparently called this -- everyone agreed to a ceasefire. Is this a ceasefire --

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: It's not a ceasefire. The United States and the G8 did not call today for a ceasefire, because everybody realizes that there are events out there that have -- the return of the soldiers and the cessation of Katyusha rocket attacks. Four-hundred rocket attacks on Israeli civilians in the last three or four days. That's an extraordinary number of rocket attacks, some of them 30 to 40 kilometers inside the northern border of Israel.

And so disproportionate doesn't appear. I was not at the leaders' discussion, so I can't give you chapter and verse on what everyone said, but I was present at a lot of discussions throughout the weekend, and there was no push from any country for a ceasefire. There was no push for a ceasefire this weekend.

Q Publicly they were -- it's certainly -- publicly, the word "ceasefire" was used a lot here over the last couple of days.

Q Is the word "ceasefire" in this document?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Ceasefire is a very specific word in international diplomacy going back a long -- a century, it means a certain thing. It means that parties agree to stop fighting, and unfortunately, we saw Hezbollah raise the stakes yesterday, and say that they wanted to fight some more. So it doesn't appear here.

But more importantly, no government that I'm aware of made a case of it. And that's why if you look at how we order things -- look at this document for a moment, this is interesting. It starts out, in paragraph one and two, with an attack on the extremists. Recall that in Gaza, Hamas started it; in Lebanon, Hezbollah started it. It said those extremists in Syria and Iran, those support the ones responsible. It acknowledges Israel's right to defend itself; that's the first 10 lines of the document. So you have to be mindful. These documents, negotiated among eight countries, don't just happen. Everybody agreed, that's the order here, because you have to establish that predicate before you say anything else, and before there was the advice to Israel about restraint you had all the criticism and condemnation about what Hamas and Hezbollah had done, and that was the quality of the conversation in which I observed and participated.

Q Was the U.S. in touch with Israel as it was negotiating this, and do you -- how do you think Israel will respond to this request for the release of the --

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I'm sorry, I didn't mean to interrupt you. We've been in touch with the Israelis every day, and the Israelis certainly knew potentially what countries were saying, but it wasn't just us. Israel has got a lot of friends, and I think a lot of countries here were conferring with the Israelis, to see what could be done to bring this to a conclusion. But, frankly, the onus is on Hezbollah and Hamas. It's very interesting if you look at some of the regional statements, and a lot of countries were citing -- the Saudis put out a statement which condemned Hezbollah for what they had done, Kofi Annan's statement condemning Hezbollah. This wasn't a conversation where people debated who was responsible for starting this all.

MR. SNOW: Jim, let me ask you a quick question. Is your -- I want to make sure I've got the sort of gist of the question correct. Are you asking whether we consulted the Israelis on language to put in? Is that the corner of your question?

Q I guess that's part of my question, and how do you think the Israelis are going to respond to this request for release of arrested Palestinian ministers and parliamentarians?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: I'll put it this way: There are a lot of people here in the American delegation, but I can tell you that our senior leadership was not on the phone working out language with the Israeli government, but the Israelis obviously know what's going on here, know what our position is, and know what the position of some of the other countries are.

These negotiations -- it's the President in the middle of negotiations, it's a small room, there aren't a lot of people in it. So these reflect the discussions among the leaders.

Q Is the President going to call Olmert?

MR. SNOW: Let me -- Condi was asked this earlier today, and no doubt at some point he is. But the Israeli government, Nick was just pointing out, there's been extensive consultation. Condi has spoken with him, Steve Hadley has spoken with his office a number -- there does not seem to be any feeling on the part of the Israelis that they either A, lack attention, or, B, lack a sense of what the U.S. government's position has been, since the President has been out, then Condi has been out, and I've been out. A number have been out, over and over, talking about A, the right to self defense, and, B, the need for restraint. At some point, no doubt that he will, but I would not read too much or too little into whether he's called him. We've had consultations. By the way, Condi also has spoken with a number of other world leaders in the last few days, as well, so she's doing a lot of consultation, as well, in cases where the President hasn't made calls to those leaders.

Q Can you just explain a little, at what point, I mean, why not now, why wait, what's the timing issue here?

MR. SNOW: I'm not sure there's a big lie. I mean, there's been plenty of consultation with Israel at this point. I'm afraid I can't -- at the risk of being glib, and I don't mean to, in a way it's sort of a metaphysical question. I think at this point the President is satisfied that Prime Minister Olmert has certainly been in contact with the top officials in the U.S. government, including the Secretary of State.

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: Can I just offer something, and you don't have to follow my advice, but I think one of the stories about the whole week has been you may have had three statements made against countries that are major violators of international law -- Hezbollah, excuse me, organizations, Hezbollah and Hamas, but also North Korea resolution at the U.N. yesterday, which was 15-0, and the Iran declaration on Wednesday. And it's been a week where the President has been able to assemble major coalitions in each of those cases on three of the most important security concerns that we face.

So I think there's a feeling here not just by the United States, but among a lot of the countries, that we've done very well working with Russia and China on Iran and on North Korea and with Russia and the other countries, the European countries on all three. And there's a feeling that we're going in the right direction and we're setting down red lines for the North Koreans and the Iranians and, in this case, now Hezbollah and Hamas. (Inaudible) the article tying those three together. It would be good to see one. (Laughter.)

Q I think that's Rutenberg's job. (Laughter.)

MR. SNOW: I want to get back to Martha, because there is another significant detail, if you check the leaders the President has spoken to directly, these are all leaders, A, in the region, and, B, who have not only direct contact, but may also have some influence over the government of Iran and Syria.

Q Okay.

MR. SNOW: So he's spoken with the Lebanese, he's spoken with the Egyptians, he's spoken with the Saudis. You know, those are important calls.

Q Has the United States had any contact with any Iranian, kind of, channels?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: No. What we decided to do is have Javier Solana present the offer of the P5 countries and Germany to the Iranians. And Solana met July 11th, last Tuesday, but we do not anticipate those negotiations by design. We feel we don't want to sit down with the Iranians until they meet the conditions of the negotiations and the suspension of their enrichment programs.

Can I just say, you have a statement of nonproliferation in front of you, and in that you have the G8 speaking on Iran, as well as the G8 speaking on North Korea -- a fairly forceful statement as these things go.

Q Nick, it's Olivier. Let me have one last stab at this. You pointed out that the statement doesn't say, "disproportionate force by Israel." But as we've already discussed, it doesn't mention Iran and Syria by name, either. And is the case that you've given ever leader the chance to interpret the document their own way, and doesn't that technically undermine your ability to enforce it?

UNDER SECRETARY BURNS: No, I don't think so, because there were long discussions about this. I would say this: Each of the eight countries know exactly who we mean when we talk about those that support them -- we mean Iran and Syria -- and everybody agreed on that. You know, not everybody is, perhaps, as accustomed culturally to being as open as the U.S. is, so some countries felt they didn't want to say that in black and white. But everyone meant those two countries.

MR. SNOW: Olivier, also, if you take a look at the language, there is not something that would be similarly interpretable as a statement of disproportionate force on the part of the Israelis.

Q Thank you, gentlemen.

MR. SNOW: Thank you, guys.

END 10:20 P.M. (Local)

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