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

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
September 20, 2006

Press Briefing by Elliott Abrams on the President's Bilateral Meeting with President Abbas
Press Filing Center
Algonquin Hotel
New York, New York

11:05 A.M. EDT

MR. JONES: This is Deputy National Security Advisor Elliott Abrams here to discuss the President's meeting with Mr. Abbas today.

MR. ABRAMS: Thank you. The President met with President Abbas for about 40 minutes, including interpretation, today. This was their fifth meeting by their count. The President began by welcoming President Abbas and telling him that we continue to view him as a man of peace, as a leader who is seeking what we seek, which is a Palestinian state, that will live -- a democratic Palestinian state that will live in peace and security with Israel.

The President commended him on his efforts to find a way out of the very difficult Palestinian political situation now, that is having a government that has not gained international legitimacy and has not committed itself to the criteria that the international community has set out, namely recognizing Israel, abandoning violence and terrorism, and agreeing to respect all previously signed Israeli-Palestinian agreements. The President welcomed his efforts and told him, we certainly hope they succeed in producing a Palestinian government with which we and others in the international community could work.

President Abbas expressed happiness in meeting the President now for the fifth time, and commended him on his General Assembly speech yesterday. He reiterated his own strong commitment to building a Palestinian state. He was encouraged by what the President said yesterday to the General Assembly, including the statement that it was one of the great objectives of his administration to succeed in doing this.

President Abbas described at some length and in some detail the difficult political situation in which the Palestinian government finds itself -- a government broadly defined, including the presidency, as well as the cabinet and the legislative branch -- because the government now does not have that international legitimacy. And he discussed with the President what some of the options are as he tries to create a government that will meet those criteria and would, therefore, be able to meet the needs of the Palestinian people better. And there was considerable back-and-forth and discussion of possible strategies.

The President said several times that what he wants is a way for President Abbas and Prime Minister Olmert to meet -- obviously after the freeing of the Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit -- a way for them to meet and to reengage and to begin to move forward again toward agreements, toward respect for previous agreements that the two of them have made, and toward that ultimate goal of achieving a democratic and peaceful Palestinian state.

Why don't I just stop there and see if there are any questions I can answer.

Q There was a lot of talk in the past few days about some sort of new Middle East initiative. What's the next step for U.S. policy? The President talked about the Secretary of State getting engaged. What's the next step from the U.S. perspective?

MR. ABRAMS: Well, prior to making the speech, there had been a lot of discussions with representatives of both European and Arab governments and with the government of Israel. And as you know, we had a number of visitors in Washington over the past couple of weeks, including the Foreign Minister of Israel. The President has talked regularly to people like Chancellor Merkel, Prime Minister Blair; he just met with President Chirac. We now have, today at 12:30 p.m., a Quartet principals meetings, and one of the things that will be discussed at that meeting also is, what is the way ahead.

Clearly, I would say there is responsibility here for Secretary Rice to organize our thinking and our efforts to build the institutions of a Palestinian state. I don't have any announcements to make about her intentions. That will come from her and from the State Department when it comes to details.

Q -- basically said that any government that's formed will not necessarily recognize Israel, that it will say the resistance is legal. So am I right to assume that this is -- if there was any shot of the Quartet getting behind this unity plan, it's over now?

MR. ABRAMS: We're not presented with a national unity government or with an agreement to approve or not approve. As you know, President Abbas said that he had suspended those discussions for his trip to the General Assembly. So it isn't -- it isn't going to -- the Quartet is not going to approve or criticize anything.

I think it's fair to say that what the Quartet will do will be to commend and welcome his efforts to produce a government that would meet the criteria, and say, we all hope that those efforts succeed. But it is clear -- at least it is clear for the United States -- that if that does not happen, that is if the Palestinian government, Palestinian cabinet will not accept those criteria, then our relationship to it will not change -- or you might say our lack of a relationship with it will not change.

Q But earlier, when we first started hearing about these talks, there seemed to be an agreement that this new form -- newly formed government would recognize all previous agreements, which would have implicitly implied that there is a recognition of Israel. But that's still not good enough because we -- the U.S. would want a -- and the Quartet would want an outright statement that Israel exists?

MR. ABRAMS: I don't want to get into semantics over what the agreement among Palestinians says because there is no agreement as of yet. We have not been presented with an agreement by the Palestinians saying, here's the basis for a new national unity government. Our own view on that is clear. Obviously, as we try to understand any statements in an agreement, we would be hearing from President Abbas, but we would also be hearing from Hamas. And if a Hamas spokesman say, we know exactly what such a potential agreement means and it does not mean that we accept the right of Israel to exist, it does not mean that we abandon violence, well, it's hard to say then that they had, in fact, done that. But again, this is hypothetical because they've not concluded or abandoned negotiations yet, as far as we understand it.

Q Elliott, where do things stand now on U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority?

MR. ABRAMS: Unchanged. That is, the Palestinian cabinet under Prime Minister Hamas [sic] is under the control, as we see it, of Hamas, a terrorist organization. And by policy and by law, we will not give them any aid. It is possible, however, to give humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people through NGOs, and to work with parts of the PA that do not report and are not under the control of Hamas, of the Prime Minister, of the cabinet, but rather are under the control of President Abbas, or are independent agencies that are like the judiciary. That has not changed.

Q Did Abbas raise the issue of aid with the President?

MR. ABRAMS: No, he didn't raise the issue directly, because I think he understood that -- our ground rules and understood that changing them -- let's put it this way, that the ground rules won't change. The question is whether there will be any change on the Palestinian side.

Q Well, if there is a change, would you then resume this humanitarian aid through the NGOs? Or are you doing that now?

MR. ABRAMS: We're doing that now. Right now what we're doing -- what is off limits for us, as a matter of law and policy, is any aid to any part of the PA that is under the control of Hamas, of the cabinet, of the Prime Minister. For parts of the PA that are not, or for direct aid to the Palestinian people through NGOs, that's fine. That's neither illegal, nor a policy problem.

Q When the President talks about resolution being one of the great objectives of his presidency now, is that -- was this some indication of some sort of rededication of his administration to this? Or is there a renewed effort --

MR. ABRAMS: It's a statement that -- it's a repetition that the President is really committed to trying to achieve this. He's well aware of the fact that conditions may, in the end, not exist to make it possible. But he wants it understood that his interest, his commitment, his view that the establishment of a peaceful, democratic Palestinian state is very, very much in the interest of Palestinians and Israelis alike -- none of that has changed. And he intends to continue his own efforts and to call for efforts on the part of everyone in the administration to do everything possible to move that forward.

Q What, then, does the administration hope will come out of the Quartet meeting today?

MR. ABRAMS: We would like to see -- I guess you have to say, we'd like to see a Quartet take a position close to American policy, as always, which is to say, we'd like to see the Quartet commend the efforts that President Abbas is making. There is a kind of stalemate on the Palestinian side, because of the inability of this government to win international legitimacy. And he's trying to figure out a way out of that. And we certainly hope he succeeds. But the standards that the Quartet set we believe are the right standards, and we -- the criteria that the Quartet set -- and it's our hope that the Quartet would then reiterate our commitment to those.

I think we'll also ask for a repetition of some of the other statements that had been made in the past. For example, a desire -- a call on the international community -- that is those of us in the Quartet, but also people outside it, like the Arab states -- to increase the amount of humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people who need that aid. It will also, I think, call for, as the President did, for the resumption of discussions between Israelis and Palestinians when the conditions make that possible.

MR. JONES: Last question.

Q Elliott, just quickly, is Secretary Rice going to go to the Middle East soon?

MR. ABRAMS: Again, I have -- first, I haven't discussed that with her. But second, announcements about her travel are going to come from the State Department.

Q He just seemed to indicate that yesterday, the President.

MR. ABRAMS: You mean at the General Assembly speech?

Q Yes.

MR. ABRAMS: Well, I really have nothing to say about that.

Q Just to be clear, you're talking about -- it almost sounds a little bit like we're kind of a spectator right now to what the Palestinians are trying to do, working out their own situation. Is there anything the United States government can do to push that along, or are we sort of waiting for this process to work out and see what happens?

MR. ABRAMS: Well, I would, to some extent -- yes, we are certainly not part of the discussions with Hamas. These are discussions between the President -- President Abbas -- and Prime Minister Haniya, and obviously, there are people on the outside who are playing in that. Some of them -- some of the Arab states, we think pushing very much in the right direction, in a positive direction, and others, such as Syria, we think pushing in the wrong direction, and Khaled Mashaal in Damascus pushing in the wrong direction. But we cannot be part of that internal Palestinian conversation.

MR. JONES: Last question.

Q I just wanted to ask about settlements in the West Bank. After the war with Hezbollah, Israel announced that they were going to go ahead and build the settlements. And there were a lot of Israeli analysts who are saying, okay, now, after this war, we don't see a withdrawal from the West Bank anytime soon. Can you tell us if the President has had any conversations about these settlements, given that he's talking about a Palestinian state as such an important objective?

MR. ABRAMS: Well, I guess I can say two things. First, the President -- at the time that Prime Minister Olmert announced his realignment plan and came to Washington, as you know, the President supported it and continues to support the idea that there should be a withdrawal of Israeli settlements in the West Bank as we move closer to peace.

I think I would -- the second thing, though, is I don't think that Israel has announced any new settlements. I think there was an announcement last week that several of the settlements west of the fence are expanding, with additional housing starts in them, rather than new settlements.

But I think our position has been made clear over time and was made clear during the late July 2005 Sharon meeting with the President, where he talked -- gave a sense of his view about settlements on the West Bank, the major blocks, and so forth.

Q So there's been no new discussions with the Israelis about that announcement of expanding settlements in the West Bank?

MR. ABRAMS: I think there has been -- I believe that either -- I believe the U.S. embassy may have sought further details to what exactly was announced because they are aware that we are concerned about any expansion of settlements that has any impact on the life and interest of Palestinians living near those settlements.

MR. JONES: Thank you very much.

END 11:20 A.M. EDT

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