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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
June 19, 2007
Press Briefing by Tony Snow
White House Conference Center Briefing Room
1:53 P.M. EDT
MR. SNOW: As you all know, nine firefighters in Charleston, South Carolina died last night while fighting a blaze. A building collapsed upon them. It was the deadliest such incident in 35 years, and once again calls into memory the heroism of people who, on a routine basis, place their lives at risk so they can save others.
The President and First Lady have a statement about that: "Laura and I mourn the devastating loss of some of America's bravest. Our prayers are with the families and friends of nine firefighters from Charleston, South Carolina, who selflessly gave their own lives to protect their community. These firefighters were true heroes who demonstrated great skill and courage. Their unwavering commitment to their neighbors and to the city of Charleston is an inspiration to all Americans."
And with that, I will take questions. Yes.
Q I have two questions.
MR. SNOW: I'll try to answer both.
Q Okay. Abbas has 60 days to either hold a new election or do something else. What does the United States hope that he will do?
MR. SNOW: Well, we're certainly not going to advise the Prime Minister in terms of how he would proceed. What's next is we continue to speak with Prime Minister Abbas and -- President Abbas -- I'm sorry, Prime Minister Olmert -- on the way forward, because this is a government that we want to support. We want to support their democratic aspirations and their working with the Israeli government.
As the President noted before the session today, as I told you yesterday, he was sharing with the Prime Minister some of President Abbas's thoughts about reinvigorating the political process and trying to work again toward what everybody should want, which is a two-state solution that preserves the rights and the freedoms of the Palestinians.
Q How do you respond to critics who say that the United States should have done a lot more for Abbas a lot sooner? And do you think the administration feels any responsibility at all for the split, Palestinian split?
MR. SNOW: I think what you really need to be thinking about is the President of the United States did not bind people's hands behind their back and throw them from rooftops. The President of the United States did not mascarade around with masks pulled over the face and slay people who disagreed with Hamas.
It's important to realize the terrorists represent a force of radicalism and extremism that continually tries to bring down democracies. And the President certainly has made note of that. What we have tried to do constantly is to provide real support for those who have democratic aspirations and are moving in the direction of democracy. And we will continue to do that.
The one thing that is clear in conversations both with the Prime Minister of Israel and also with the President of the Palestinian Authority is that they understand not only the dedication and commitment of this President, but also the importance of bringing in people throughout the region. It is not as if the United States is the hegemon. What we are trying to do both in Iraq and also within the Middle East is to figure out ways to empower those who are pursuing democracy. And we certainly have come to their aid when we can and when is necessary. You saw very swift action in terms of supporting President Abbas in just the last couple of days. The Secretary of State laid that out yesterday.
Q Some people are saying that the administration could have done more, earlier.
MR. SNOW: I can't -- "more, earlier," what does that mean? I cannot respond to a vague criticism that sounds like backseat driving. I think what you really want at this point is to realize that the President has maintained a real commitment -- the first President in American history to say that we should have a Palestinian state; a President who has worked aggressively on the diplomatic fronts to try to bring in people throughout the region not only to exert influence on those who are trying to destabilize, but also to create a larger partnership, so that it does become possible for the Israelis and the Palestinians to live peacefully, side-by-side. This is an administration that has been constantly involved in this activity.
Q The policy of isolating and cutting off Hamas has seemed to make it stronger in the past. Is there an indication now that it's going to work differently this time?
MR. SNOW: I can't imagine that killing people in the streets is going to be a big vote getter. The fact is that what people now have seen is that Hamas remains a terrorist organization. It had run on an anti-corruption campaign and it had made promises of bringing to people food and medical attention and social services, precisely the things that are being deprived because of this act of terror.
We've seen that in the case of Hamas, Palestinians turning against fellow Palestinians. And what the United States has always said is that Hamas is a terrorist group, and that it is important to realize that you do have -- the only person who is elected by all the Palestinians is the President, President Abbas. We have been dealing with him, and we will continue to deal with him, and we'll continue to deal with his new Prime Minister as they work through the very difficult issues not only of continuing to try to build greater strength and prosperity and democracy within the West Bank, but also to provide relief to those in Gaza.
Q We heard from the President and the Prime Minister before their meeting and their lunch meeting. Can you give us any other readout about how the meeting went, or specifics of it?
MR. SNOW: I can't give you a lot of specifics. I did talk to the President afterward. I was in the lunch, and I spoke to him afterward. The President and the Prime Minister met privately for nearly an hour and a half, with nobody else in the room. After that, there was a brief interval where the National Security Advisor and the chief NSC -- Elliot Abrams were in the room with him, and their Israeli counterparts, but that was just a couple of minutes.
And then afterward there was a general discussion at lunch about many of the issues that the President outlined. He told me, again, what you had was a -- first you had a conversation about an ideological conflict, forces of radicalism and extremism trying to destabilize democracies, and how important it is to find the best way of supporting those democracies. They talked about Lebanon, they talked about Syria, they talked about Iran, they talked about Gaza, they talked about regional relations, and they also talked about a host of bilateral issues that are subjects of normal conversation.
Q On Hamas again, and back to Bret's point -- if you've got a population isolated there, isn't that a recipe to make extremism grow? How do you counter that? I mean, they certainly viewed Fatah as corrupt -- some of the Hamas people did. So you throw out this corruption, and what's happening there right now, but if you isolate them, it could make them more extreme.
MR. SNOW: Well, I don't think you isolate them when you devote -- when you dedicate $40 million to humanitarian aid. Again, I think -- Martha, also you have to ask yourself, here in Gaza -- and you have seen people who pretend to be "liberators and governors" slaughtering people in the streets -- it's probably going to change your view of them. The real point here is that there is an effort on our part, and there are parallel efforts with our allies, to provide humanitarian aid and to try to deal with this crisis.
Q Okay, but look at Iraq. People are slaughtering people in Iraq, and it's only getting worse and worse. And why in Hamas, if they're looking at -- I don't see how you can't be concerned that that is going to be --
MR. SNOW: Of course, we're concerned about radicalism, and that's why we're doing what we can to stanch it. When you talk about Iraq, just today, you have seen yet other evidence that we continue to have -- as General Petraeus was pointing out the other day, we now have some data points pulling together -- and we've discussed this before -- where, in fact, the blanket statement "it's getting worse" doesn't quite fit. It's not getting worse in Baghdad neighborhoods, where, in fact, locals are cooperating. It's certainly not getting worse in Anbar. Now you are seeing focused activities elsewhere, including areas outside of Baghdad and Diyala, going directly after al Qaeda.
One of the reasons why there is more precision and effectiveness in this particular case is that the Iraqi people themselves are beginning to provide evidence at levels that they haven't done before. So the point here is that, again, what you try to do --
Q They've been doing that for years, and for year after year, people say they're providing more, they're providing more. But Diyala is an example. I mean, it's a mess right now, and you have to do these large-scale operations because it has gone downhill, because people from Baghdad have moved up there.
MR. SNOW: Well, in some cases, also you've had a number of apprehensions and you've taken out bad guys. Martha, they're terrorists. We understand that. They're not simply going to lay down arms easily. But simply to say a problem is difficult is not the same as arguing that it should not be confronted.
Similarly with Hamas, we are dedicated and devoted to the cause of Palestinian democracy and defending the human rights of people who are being deprived their rights right now. It is a difficult chore, but you simply do not embrace a kind of neologism. Instead what you do is you demonstrate steadfastness by supporting those who are allies in the fight.
Q Let me just finish up, if I can. In Afghanistan -- you probably saw this video that was obtained by ABC, which was apparently suicide bombers. What does that say about what we've done in Afghanistan?
MR. SNOW: Well, first, we're looking at it. At this point, we don't have a definitive thing. It's not clear exactly what they're claiming, but we're reviewing it. But look, it's typical al Qaeda propaganda. Al Qaeda is also good at slick propaganda that encourages people to go out and blow themselves up. Notice that the leaders don't make that effort; instead what they do is they pick younger people and they send them off to die. They are good at manipulating the press. They will continue to do what they can to try to destabilize that government. Again, it fits into what I was talking about, is the forces of radicalism and extremism.
But on the other hand, you also have evidence that a government in Afghanistan and certainly allies in Afghanistan are fighting back because it is a cause worth promoting and defending.
Q Prime Minister Olmert said that he would do everything possible to cooperate with President Abbas. Specifically, the only concrete action he seems to be taking is releasing Palestinian tax revenues that have been frozen. Did the President press him for any further concrete steps, such as releasing Palestinian prisoners, dismantling Jewish settlements, or removing roadblocks?
MR. SNOW: They've had discussions, and I will let Prime Minister Olmert make whatever -- the fact is that, again, a free-flowing conversation. The President does not go in and press. I think that's a -- for one thing, if you're a head of state, you treat a fellow head of state, especially a colleague, with respect. You don't issue orders. What the -- and the President and Prime Minister Olmert have a very good and very candid relationship, and it's one where they're very relaxed about being candid with one another. So I can assure you --
Q Did he ask him to take --
MR. SNOW: No, I'm not going to tell you. But the point is that they are looking for ways to strengthen the government of Prime Minister Abbas, and to be supportive of him and to look for ways forward. And they discussed a whole host of different ways in which that might be accomplished.
Q What did they discuss specifically that the Israelis could do --
MR. SNOW: I'm not going to do that. That's for the government -- the government of Israel may make whatever announcements about its specific intentions.
Q Did the President ask Olmert to release the 11,000 Palestinian prisoners and the one-third of the legislature -- all lawmakers who are in prison?
MR. SNOW: Again, I am not going to tell you what the President may or may not --
Q You're interested in humanity and democracy. Why don't you make a plea for some of these people?
MR. SNOW: We'll also plea for the end of slaughter in Gaza. Can we agree on that?
Q I say that you haven't opened your mouth about people being kidnapped and taken prisoner in Israel.
MR. SNOW: There are conversations ongoing.
Q I'm wondering, when Hamas won the initial legislative victories, they were viewed with some degree of surprise here. And the explanations given were that the garbage is being picked up now and essential services are being provided for the first time. Is there a view inside the White House that perhaps what this does is vindicate an administration position, and that perhaps the initial positive was a fundamental misread and wishful thinking on the parts of others?
MR. SNOW: A couple of things. First, I'm not sure that there was that much surprise about the Hamas parliamentary victories, the winning. That was an election that was close all along, according to the polls. I don't think you ever look upon the slaughter of innocents as vindication in any way, shape, or form. It is a sad confirmation of the way in which terrorists operate.
Q The degree to which those Palestinians are isolated now by Hamas, what is the administration's confidence that aid can actually get to them, and that they -- if they are so terrorized and afraid, will be able to respond in a way that would be unhelpful to Hamas?
MR. SNOW: Well, unfortunately, I can't pose as an expert on how you get the money through NGOs. But I do know that we're very serious about working through international organizations to get aid to them. It's been done before; we're presuming it can be done. I will -- we'll try to do some inquiries. I honestly don't know precisely how you would do that. It is obviously an immensely important practical question, and it's one that our people do -- are thinking about very seriously -- and also the international organizations, because, again, you're working through the United Nations and others to try to make sure -- they have long experience in dealing with this in areas that are quite often amid the ravages of war. And we're counting on them to make sure that the aid gets to innocents and not to those who are victimizing them.
Q Tony, President Abbas has called for fresh peace talks. Today the President and the Prime Minister referred to Abbas repeatedly as the only representative of the Palestinians, the real representative of the Palestinian people. Is there any point to peace talks so long as he effectively controls, or is the government of half the Palestinian people?
MR. SNOW: Well, I'm not -- what you're doing is you're -- the point is, yes, there is a point of talking to the person who has been elected. There is also a point of trying to restore a semblance of democracy throughout the Palestinian areas. This is not a time to try to write off Gaza. It is important, once again, to make sure that the rights of those in Gaza are honored.
Q I guess I'm specifically asking about peace negotiations with Israel, with the goal of the President's two-state solution. If Hamas effectively controls Gaza, is the two-state solution effectively shelved?
MR. SNOW: No. We are going to continue -- look, I think what you -- there are a whole series of things that have to happen before you get to the two-state solution. Among them is making sure that you have acceptance of the Quartet principles; it is that you have a way of addressing those who are trying to destabilize -- those whose ideology of destroying democracy has certainly reared itself in Gaza. But on the other hand, you continue to work with those who are committed to it, understanding that you do not want the status quo to remain in effect in Gaza, but you want to create conditions in which democracy can survive there.
Q Could that two-state solution involve a state that's just comprised of the West Bank?
MR. SNOW: There's no conversation about that.
Q Tony, we're seeing some stories about the rather dire circumstances of people trying to leave Gaza. Does the administration believe Israel should allow this to happen more freely?
MR. SNOW: Again, that's a question for the Israelis to answer.
Q Tony, two questions. One, there is disturbing news, and the Indian American community is very angry that Senator Obama and his campaign has been calling the Indian American community taboo and other names, calling names, and all that because of the relations with the Clintons, President Clinton and Hillary Clinton. My question is, how does -- what does President think about the Indian American community and his relations with the Indian American community?
MR. SNOW: Well, the President, obviously, is proud of our -- the growing closeness of the United States and the Indians. Not to be holding a brief for Senator Obama, but I don't believe that he made comments of that sort. I do believe that was a staff comment for which he issued apologies. But having said that, it is important to realize that the United States looks upon India as the world's largest democracy, as an important and vital ally in a whole host of things -- regional security, global trade, climate change. I mean, the role of -- the importance of India is not to be understated. And we are certainly glad that the relations between the nations continue to draw closer.
Q Second, just on Sunday I was in Washington, here at the Verizon Center, over 20,000 Indians, mostly Hindu, gathered together there. And their message was peace and unity, internationally and here also. The question is here that President has gone to all the denominations here, but never to a Hindu temple. And he goes to church, I go to temple, but he is a religious man, so am I. What my question is that this weekend --
MR. SNOW: You want to know if he's going to go to the temple?
Q This weekend there is a grand opening of Hindu temple in Adelphi, right on the beltway, if he can make it there sometime or --
MR. SNOW: I don't think that's on the schedule, and I think you do appreciate, Goyal, that Presidents don't do casual drop-bys.
Q He has been invited.
MR. SNOW: Again, I appreciate the suggestion.
Q Thank you, Tony. Two questions. But first I thought you would like to acknowledge the fact that today is Sarah's 50th wedding anniversary to Ivan.
MR. SNOW: Do they make medals for that sort of thing? (Laughter.)
Q I just thought you would like to acknowledge this.
MR. SNOW: Congratulations to both of you. That's wonderful.
Q Thank you. Thank you.
Q The London Times reports that Sir Salmon Rushdie is "once again the subject of death threats across the Islamic world" --
MR. SNOW: Okay, Les, don't go any further. That's not something -- I'm not going to answer a Salmon Rushdie question today.
Q Well, wait a minute.
MR. SNOW: Okay, okay, continue and then I'll shut you down. (Laughter.)
Q What is the President's reaction to this, and do you know of any Islamic leaders in the United States who have denounced this murder for money --
MR. SNOW: Again -- thank you.
Q Wait a minute, wait a minute, I had two. Two.
MR. SNOW: It just seemed like two. Okay, go ahead.
Q The AP reports from London that British police, aided by U.S. authorities, have smashed a global Internet pedophile ring with 700 suspects worldwide. And as the President's chief media advisor, do you know of any expressed and specific opposition to NAMBLA by any of this nation's activist homosexual groups?
MR. SNOW: That is such a four-bumper shot. Thank you.
Q You're dodging it?
MR. SNOW: No, I just think it's inappropriate. I really do. If you want to bring in cheesy --
Q It's a pretty important issue, Tony.
MR. SNOW: Les, the President made it absolutely clear what he thinks about the decency, dignity of every human being when it comes to pornography and exploitation. And it is absolutely -- he has made it clear. He has gone after human traffickers, he's gone after slavers, he's gone after genocide in Darfur. You know it. I think you've got to be careful sometimes because it really does sound a little more tawdry than people expect in this room.
Q Can I just clarify, going back to Hamas, basically, the administration view is that Hamas essentially forfeited any right, democratic right to govern or lead by engaging in this violent takeover --
MR. SNOW: Do you call that "governing"?
Q I'm asking you.
MR. SNOW: I mean, when people are being slaughtered that's not governing, that is, in fact, an assault on their rights. What we have always done is we have dealt with the sovereign head of government, which we tend to do, and we continue to deal with the elected head of government, President Abbas.
Q These violent tactics, though, you're saying --
MR. SNOW: "Violent tactics"? It's murder.
Q -- the Palestinian people, you're saying, are just now seeing the true face of Hamas? Is that your contention?
MR. SNOW: I don't know about that. I think that there's -- look, there has been -- Hamas had an opportunity to step up. We issued -- we made it clear the conditions under which we would deal with them, which were the Quartet conditions, and, furthermore, encouraged Hamas to enter the democratic mainstream and to work peaceably. And that hasn't happened, unfortunately.
Q Tony, with Rob Portman deciding to leave as the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, he's been influential in the immigration debate, representing the President. With his absence, how do you see that going forward? What are your expectations?
MR. SNOW: Full-steam ahead. I mean, we're going to continue to remain very aggressive because we think it's a very important part really of not only addressing an issue that is of concern to a huge number of Americans, but doing it in a way that is going to be consistent with our principles; doing it in a way that is going to secure our borders, that's going to restore the rule of law and make sure that citizenship means something; and in the finest traditions of this country where people that work hard and demonstrate a love of country and their determination to make this a greater place, that this will become a home, and at the same time, to make sure that those who have broken laws not only acknowledge it, but pay a debt. Jim Nussle certainly is capable.
One of the things that Rob brought to this -- to OMB was long experience in Congress, and prior to that, as a member of the first Bush White House, as well as serving as a U.S. Trade Rep and the Budget Director. And we're going to miss him a lot. I mean, he and I are fellow Cincinnatians. But at this point, too, you take a look -- and Rob's kids are 12, 14, and 17; their father has been commuting back and forth to Washington for 14 straight years. His 12 and 14-year-old have never seen Daddy at home during the weekdays. As a parent of a teen -- and many who understand parents of teens -- it's very important for Rob to get back. Clearly he will remain engaged in politics in Ohio, there's a little bit of that going on. But on the other hand, he's returning home.
But again, getting back to the issue of immigration, Jim Nussle brings those same talents. As a member of Congress, he knows how to talk with Democrats and Republicans and to play it straight with them and to work constructively to try to get an immigration bill that is going to solve the host of problems that clearly were not solved between 1986 and today.