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

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
May 18, 2008

Press Briefing by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice
Aboard Air Force One
En Route Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland

4:35 P.M. (Local)

SECRETARY RICE: I thought that I might just come back and recap a little bit some of the impressions of the trip and some of what we were able to do here, what the President was able to do here, and then I'll take your questions. I'll be pretty brief.

I think first and foremost, of course, the President came to celebrate Israel's 60th. And Israel is a remarkable place. If you looked at the pictures of those Israelis arriving at the time of the partition, and you look at Israel now, you can't help but be impressed by all that's been achieved.

But the President didn't really want to dwell on the last 60 years, he wanted to really talk about laying the foundation for the next 60 years, and what a different Middle East Israel could find itself in. And it's why he used the same language in both speeches at the end about the vision for the future.

And that Middle East would be one, of course, in which there is a democratic Palestinian state. And so the President had an opportunity to talk with the Palestinians, to have a sense of where they are, and with the Israelis where they are in terms of the negotiations. And I know myself, when you have a chance to really sit with them and listen to them, you can start to help them think about points of convergence that they themselves may not see.

And so he had extensive discussions with all of the Israeli leaders and with all of the Palestinians about how to continue to move the negotiations forward. I don't want to speak for him, but I think he found that they are going about this in a serious, systematic and really quite intensive way. It's by far the most serious negotiations that Israelis and Palestinians have had on all the issues that would lead to the creation of a Palestinian state.

He reaffirmed that it is the goal, as it was at Annapolis, to have an agreement that would define and create the Palestinian state, solve the major issues that have to be resolved in order to have a Palestinian state, and then be in a position to begin implementing, which obviously would take some time. But even on the implementation, since it's subject to the road map, we're continuing to move forward on road map implementation as well: training the Palestinian security forces, removing road blocks, et cetera.

So a lot of work on the Palestinian-Israeli issue. A lot of work also with the regional powers, the Arab leaders, really on four issues: support for the Palestinians and Israelis, and particularly financial and other support for the Palestinians -- I think you probably caught the line in his speech about these countries needing to fully support the Palestinians; secondly, to talk about the situation in Lebanon, how to support the democratic government there; third, to talk about Iraq. And these all have to be seen in a regional context, where I think you have a very common view of what needs to -- of what the situation is and the role of Iran as a destabilizing force through its proxies -- Hezbollah, Hamas in Gaza, and Jaish al Mhadi in southern Iraq. And so he had an opportunity to do that.

And then also a chance to talk about reform, and what a different place this could be. One of the most interesting meetings really was with the Pakistanis, who are fresh from their democratic elections. The first words from the Pakistani Prime Minister was, thank you for standing for free and fair elections, which the United States has, and listening to their agenda about social and economic reform.

So it was a -- really I think a very fruitful trip, productive trip. It's not the last time that the President is going to be with these leaders. It's not the last time that he's going to have an opportunity to press this agenda forward. But it was yet another opportunity for him to make sure that everybody understands America's very firm commitment to all these goals. So that was the nature of the trip.

Q Can I ask you about President Abbas? Both in him talking directly to reporters today after he met with Mubarak, and also through his lead negotiator, he expressed disappointment with the President's Knesset speech; through his negotiator said that it was a missed opportunity not to talk more about the Palestinian side of the equation at that time. What's your reaction to that?

SECRETARY RICE: The President had a chance to talk to them about it, and I think he told them, stay tuned to the bookend speech, because this is a really two-speech trip, not a one-speech trip. And the President also, in the Knesset speech, talked about the need for, if we're going to reach this different Middle East, for leaders to take difficult choices. And at the end, he talked about the vision of the Palestinian state -- the Palestinians living in their own homeland, which they deserve, and then today had a chance to elaborate on that vision for the Palestinians. And there was one line that he himself chose, that says, I believe that the Palestinian people will do this, in effect, I believe in the Palestinian people; I believe they will build a democracy.

But it was really an expression of belief in the Palestinians. And when you talk with Salam Fayyad or with the people around Mahmoud Abbas or with President Abbas himself, you recognize that this is a very good and dedicated group of people. They just need some help.

Q But the impression that the President left behind in the Arab world was that he's extremely pro-Israel, but not as pro-Palestinian, maybe. I mean, even his speech today, there's a lot of criticism about things that are going on in the Arab world, and things that the leaders there need to do. And it wasn't as laudatory as his speech about Israel in the Knesset. That's how they're viewing it. So how do you respond to that?

SECRETARY RICE: Toby, I haven't heard how they're viewing it. I know that these allies know they have a very strong ally in President Bush. You know, it would have been interesting to see if that was a view from Iraqis, for instance, who've been liberated from Saddam Hussein. So when we talk about leaders here, we need to recognize that leaders -- there are emerging democracies in this region, and in the broader Middle East, like Afghanistan, who understand fundamentally that if they're going to make it to a more reform-oriented, modern, progressive states, the United States of America is standing with them.

And these are discussions that the President and I and all of us have with Arab leaders all the time. The Middle East needs change. It needs reform. This is not the first time the President has said it. It's not the last time that he's going to say it. We do it in a spirit of respect for them and for their traditions, but also in an understanding that when you have a region that's producing fewer patents than South Korea alone, you have a problem. But it's not just something the United States has said. You remember, the Arab Human Development reports that talk about the need for change.

But, you know, the President isn't pro-this or pro -- the President is pro-democracy and pro-peace -- and pro-peace. And he has stood for a Palestinian state, he's pressed, through Annapolis, to bring together the coalition of states that can support it, and now he's pressing both sides to come to an agreement. And that's being in favor of both sides, because both sides need a say.

Q The President often says that he believes the contours of a state can be defined by the end of his administration. But many analysts don't see that. They say Olmert is weak, Abbas is weak, the political conditions on the ground are not good. So what is it that the President knows that gives him this confidence that other people don't know?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, Sheryl, I'd like to ask those people, when have the conditions on the ground been right for a Palestinian state, and therefore why haven't we had one? You know, I listen to the argument that the conditions are not good now, and I say, all right, well then when were the conditions better -- when Yasser Arafat passed up a deal that might have actually created the state and instead launched the second intifada? Were the conditions better then? Look, if you wait for the perfect conditions in the Middle East, it will never -- they will never come. There will always be puts and takes.

What you have right now though is you have dedicated leaders on both the Palestinian side who have given up -- who have -- who don't support violence, who believe negotiation is the way, who are working hard for their people in the West Bank in places like Jenin and Nablus. You've got Israeli leadership that is broader from -- in terms of the political spectrum, for a two-state solution, than you have ever had. When Ehud Barak was doing this at Camp David in 2000, Likud was opposed, including Ariel Sharon. Ariel Sharon is the one in 2003 who then said we have to divide the land. And so you now have a much broader political base in Israel for the two-state solution.

So I think that's what the President is looking at. And he's looking at the fact that frankly the states of the region, seeing that there is a problem in the region, but maybe it's not Israel, may be ready finally to give their full support to resolving this problem.

The final thing I'll say is, a lot of analysts aren't in the room with these people when they talk about what it is they're actually doing. I was with them for two-and-a-half hours. I know how seriously they're negotiating. But they're not going to come out and talk in front of the cameras about what it is they're doing. And if they did, the negotiations would be dead on that day.

Q So are you indicating that privately they may be making some progress that we just don't know about publicly? And more broadly though, are you disappointed, even if they are making some progress privately, that after two trips to the region, the President doesn't at least in public have anything to show the American people that says, we've moved the ball forward?

SECRETARY RICE: Ed, all that matters is that they make progress and that they get a treaty, a peace treaty. That's what matters. We're five months after Annapolis. We are not at the end of the year. And the parties, five months before Annapolis, were not even willing to talk about the core issues -- borders, refugees, Jerusalem, the settlements. Now they are.

And so, yes, there is more. I can tell you for certain that there is more going on in private, but that's the way people actually negotiate. They don't -- if -- because these are very sensitive issues for both sides and if a position that may or may not hold gets exposed prematurely, it's going to produce nothing but trouble for the negotiations. I don't know if you remember, but the most successful agreement between the Palestinians and Israelis was Oslo. Nobody even knew they were negotiating, and it suddenly came out that they had an agreement.

So I think they're very wise to -- I'm not -- I don't want to suggest that they are ready to make an agreement and you just don't know it -- that's not the point. But I do know how seriously they are discussing all of the key issues -- that they're deep discussions; that they're professional discussions; that they're trying to see where they can overcome areas of difference. And I think you're going to see them intensifying those discussions over the next several months.

Q When you talk about the points of convergence -- that you did see points of convergence going on in there -- any ones that you want to share?

SECRETARY RICE: No. (Laughter.)

Q But you can say that there were points of convergence?

SECRETARY RICE: What I said is that you can help them see where points of convergence may be.

Q Are they converging on those points?

SECRETARY RICE: I think there are some places where they see things similarly. It doesn't mean that they found a solution, but sometimes recognizing, each side recognizing that they're looking at the same problem and not a different problem is the beginning to get to a solution. And I just can't tell you how really impressive they are as negotiators.

Q Steve said the President might come back. Do you see the President coming back?

SECRETARY RICE: I think the President will have to determine whether it is of value for him to come back, but he's committed to this and I think he'll do what he needs to.

Q Quick Iran question. At every stop, Bush raised concerns about Iran. Leaders raised concerns about Iran. Is there anything you can tell us about progress, specific progress being made on getting them to change their course on nuclear weapons and the other issues that you raised?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, let me go at this question in the following way -- Iran has significant vulnerabilities -- significant vulnerabilities. They demonstrated one of those vulnerabilities in southern Iraq when they backed the special groups in Basra that ended up being overrun by the Iraqi security forces. Now if you think for a minute that the Iranians coming out the next day and saying, oh, no, those people in Basra, those were just criminals -- come on; they were armed and trained by Iran, and they got beat in southern Iraq.

And the United States forces supporting the Iraqi forces are going after their networks, going after their people who are doing the training. We've picked up Quds Force operatives. When we've picked up Quds Force operatives, the Iranians have rightly wondered what they're saying about the rest of their operations. So they have a problem in southern Iraq now because the Iraqis are not very pleased that they are meddling in the affairs of Iraq with Shia splinter groups. So that's a vulnerability.

In Lebanon, yes, Hezbollah made a show of military power, if you want to call it that, but in doing so it exposed that it is actually not the great resistance movement. They didn't attack to the south, they attacked Lebanese. And they made it very clear that what they are is an arm of Iran. That's a vulnerability.

Iran is having great difficulty accessing the international financial system because of the designations first that the U.N. has done through three Security Council resolutions -- where the Iranians cannot claim, by the way, that it's the United States going after them, it's the Security Council; but also because of the collateral effects of designations that the Treasury has made that are making people choose between their Iranian business and their American business. And it's no contest. That's a vulnerability. That's part of why you're seeing inflation and economic problems and daily criticism of Ahmadinejad about what he's doing to Iran.

Finally, Iran has vulnerabilities because everybody in the region resents their efforts to aggressively interject themselves into Arab and Gulf affairs. When we get together as something like the GCC plus now Egypt, Jordan and Iraq, it is a strong signal that there is a strategic alignment in the Middle East that wants to challenge Iran.

Now, let me just close with the following sort of strategic picture, because I don't mean to suggest -- Iran is a problem and it's a dangerous state and it has to be taken very seriously, but it has its vulnerabilities. We have our strengths and we can play to our strengths to make Iran's vulnerabilities -- to exploit their vulnerabilities.

I know I've heard a lot about how emboldened Iran should be, but if you were Iran and you had an emerging democratic Iraq with an American presence and probably in American long-term strategic relationship agreement, and you look to another border and you've got democratic Afghanistan with American and NATO forces and a long-term strategic relationship agreement, and you've got strengthened strategic cooperation in -- with America's traditional allies in the Gulf -- Saudi Arabia, UAE, Bahrain -- and you've got stronger American relations in central Asia -- you know, that's not such a great geostrategic picture for the long run.

MS. PERINO: Thanks everyone.

Q No deals, no behind the scene developments that we should know about on this trip?

SECRETARY RICE: I think the important thing is that the President significantly advanced the discussion about really using the strengths that this community of states has. And one of the pieces is the more that the Arab states embrace Iraq, the more Iraq will be strong in its Arab identity and will be a bulwark against Iran, because you know that these are Iraqi nationalists. And I think the Iranians because of the way they dealt with southern Iraq have helped us to advance that cause, as well.

Q Thank you.

END 4:56 P.M. (Local)

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