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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
December 31, 2008
Press Briefing by Deputy Press Secretary Gordon Johndroe
Crawford Middle School
10:10 A.M. CST
MR. JOHNDROE: Good morning, everyone. President Bush called Israeli Prime Minister Olmert this morning to discuss the ongoing situation in Israel and Gaza.
The President also called Prime Minister Singh of India, and separately, President Zardari of Pakistan. President Bush urged both countries to cooperate with each other in the Mumbai attack investigation, as well as on counterterrorism in general. All three leaders from the United States, India and Pakistan, agreed that no one wanted to take any steps that unnecessarily raised tensions. In addition to the calls, the President also received his daily intelligence briefing.
This evening the President will spend a quiet New Year's Eve on the ranch with Mrs. Bush and some longtime friends from Texas.
And with that, any questions? Toby.
Q In the call to Olmert, what was the substance of -- was the President asking him to do anything? Was he --
MR. JOHNDROE: Prime Minister Olmert assured President Bush that Israel is taking appropriate steps to avoid civilian casualties. That was something the President asked for an update on, and got a -- President Bush got an assurance from Prime Minister Olmert that Israel is, as they have said they are doing, only targeting Hamas and that terrorist organization, and people involved with Hamas, and that they are working to minimize any civilian casualties.
I think the purpose of the call in general was to get an update from Prime Minister Olmert on where he sees the current situation right now as it relates to Gaza, and to think about what the future steps are.
Q Does the President agree with Israel that the time is not right for a cease-fire right now?
MR. JOHNDROE: I think President Bush thinks that Hamas needs to stop firing rockets and that is what will be the first steps in a cease-fire, and that Hamas needs to agree not only to stop firing rockets now, but to not fire any rockets in the future, stop smuggling weapons in so they don't even have the ability to fire rockets, which also shows a good intent that they don't intend to continue to target Israel. So I think they're certainly on the same page on that.
Q Did the leaders discuss the idea of a 48-hour truce in Gaza?
MR. JOHNDROE: They discussed what steps could lead to a cessation of violence. I don't want to get into too many details, but no matter what the details are, it all begins with Hamas agreeing to stop firing rockets and to stop targeting Israel.
Q Did they also discuss the possibility of a ground offensive by Israel in Gaza? And how much is the administration concerned about such a ground offensive? Is this something you are trying to prevent?
MR. JOHNDROE: As I said, I'm not going to get into too many details of their conversation, but I don't look at a -- a ground offensive is a very -- it's a large -- it's a term that encompasses a lot of things. It probably means different things to different people. And I think it is just part and parcel of the overall operation that Israel is undertaking to rid Hamas of its ability to fire rockets into Israel.
Q Gordon, can you repeat the questions, because we can't hear the questions, okay? So this might have already been asked, but is it -- is the U.S. still asking Israel to, you know, accept a cease-fire?
MR. JOHNDROE: You asked -- the question is, is the U.S. still asking Israel to accept a cease-fire? I don't recall any specific announcements or requests that we've made on that front, except to say that we want to see a cease-fire that is durable, that is lasting, and that, in particular, is respected by Hamas. And that's --
Q It joined with the U.N. yesterday -- it joined with the U.N. yesterday, and the EU, and all the other people in calling for a cease-fire.
MR. JOHNDROE: Look, we all want to see an end to the violence. We absolutely all want to see an end to the violence as soon as possible. But we also don't want to see it start up again in two days, three days, two weeks, three weeks, two months, three months. There needs to be a sustainable and durable cease-fire that Hamas respects. That's what we want to see.
Q Has President Bush expressed any reservations that they haven't accepted this thus far? I mean, is he disappointed that Israel hasn't accepted or responded to the international calls for one yet?
MR. JOHNDROE: President Bush is disappointed that Hamas continues to fire rockets onto the innocent people of Israel.
Q Did President Bush and Olmert discuss any kind of timing for when the air strikes will stop? Did President Bush ask him to stop air strikes at a certain point looking ahead?
MR. JOHNDROE: Asking about timing of air strikes, or the cessation of air strikes. They talked about the ongoing operation, and again, Prime Minister Olmert's assurance that they're seeking only -- or targeting only Hamas operatives, those affiliated with Hamas. But there's not a timetable that I can get into, nor did they really get into specific timetables, because what's more important is the goal.
As I said, we all want to see an end to the violence as soon as possible. President Bush wants to see an end to the violence. I know Prime Minister Olmert wants to see an end to the violence. But I think probably from the Prime Minister's perspective, an end to the violence first means that Hamas stops firing rockets into Israel. And then Israel won't need to go after the rocket launchers.
And so I think we want to see a cease-fire that's durable and lasting. And the most important thing is that Hamas respect it. They had a cease-fire up until about December 19th. Hamas sort of respected it. They fired rockets from time to time. There was about four months of calm. But then they failed to renew the cease-fire, and substantially increased the rockets to a level that forced Israelis in southern Israel to live in -- spend a lot of time in bomb shelters, to a level that was unacceptable to them. So the onus is on Hamas.
They also discussed the humanitarian shipments going into Gaza. Israel has permitted dozens of truckloads. And so we're seeing a good flow of humanitarian goods, medical supplies, food into Gaza from various ports of entry. President Bush is certainly concerned about the innocent people of Gaza, and wants to make sure that they have the supplies they need.
Q Change of topic?
Q No, wait --
Q Go ahead, I'm sorry.
Q Have you seen any ramped up activities from Iran towards Israel? President Ahmadinejad today said the Arab world was not doing enough related to the Gaza strikes.
MR. JOHNDROE: Have I seen any ramped up activity from Iran towards Israel. I've seen no change in their position in their desire to wipe Israel off the face of the earth, which they have stated a couple of times before. So I haven't seen anything new on that front.
I think Hamas is pretty well-supplied by Iran, and to a certain extent, Syria. I mean, these two countries, Iran and Syria, supply Hamas and Hezbollah. I mean, they're basically their proxies in the region and in other parts of the world. And so I don't think Iran or Syria -- neither Iran nor Syria have been playing a helpful role, they are not playing a constructive role in this current crisis, which is pretty typical for their actions with regards to Hamas and Hezbollah. They continue to supply them.
Q When you say "supply," what are you talking about -- supply them with what?
MR. JOHNDROE: Weapons. Weapons. So we'd like to see -- there are some Arab states that are stepping forward and saying, we want peace in the Middle East. You have Egypt playing a positive role; Jordan; Saudi Arabia is very concerned. And then you have countries on the other end -- Iran and Syria -- who seem to want to continue to foment violence. And we'll see.
Q Have you seen supplies increasing to Hamas during the current crisis?
MR. JOHNDROE: I'm not going to get into any specifics on supplies from Iran and Syria that we've seen over the last few days, but there is no doubt that Iran and Syria are the ones who have assisted Hamas with their weapons acquisition, and that's a problem.
Q Hamas today said that they were prepared to study proposals for a cease-fire. Basically, the United States and Israel are not taking that seriously or --
MR. JOHNDROE: I don't know what Hamas needs to study. I mean, I'm not sure -- I don't get what Hamas needs to study. Hamas needs to stop firing rockets into Israel. It's very clear.
Q It's my understanding that the U.S. signed on to this Quartet statement calling for an immediate cease-fire. Did the President ask the Prime Minister of Israel to follow through and go for the 48-hour cease-fire?
MR. JOHNDROE: They discussed their mutual desire to see an end to violence, but they also discussed that there is a need for a lasting and durable cease-fire that Hamas respects. I think most countries understand the need -- that a cease-fire that Hamas doesn't agree to isn't a -- they may agree to it, but a cease-fire that they don't respect is not worth the paper that it's written on, because then we'll see violence flare up again in a couple days, a couple weeks, a couple of months.
So President Bush wants an end to the violence, but he also wants a durable and lasting peace.
Q Did he ask for a 48-hour cease-fire?
MR. JOHNDROE: I'm not going to get into the specifics. They both committed to wanting to see an end to the violence right away, and they both realize an end to the violence will come when Hamas stops firing rockets into Israel.
Q Gordon, is there a disconnect between the Quartet call for an immediate cease-fire and what you have been saying every day at the lectern, that any cease-fire that is not long-lasting and durable is not worth the paper it's written on?
MR. JOHNDROE: The Quartet statement says an immediate cease-fire that is fully respected. I think those statements are very consistent. I've been talking about the need for Hamas to fully respect a cease-fire since Monday, or otherwise it won't be worth anything, no matter whether it's immediate or not. So we all want to see an end to the violence. It has to be a respected cease-fire. I think that we're all on the same page.
Q Gordon, what's wrong, though, with a cease-fire, even if it's not one with complete terms, it would lead to an enduring peace? What's wrong with having a short-term cease-fire while they negotiate the terms for a longer-term one?
MR. JOHNDROE: You know, there's nothing wrong with a cessation of violence. But at the end of the day, we still need to see a cease-fire that will be an agreement that is lasting and durable. So a pause in fighting, you know, I don't have any issue or concern with that. But there can't be a pause in fighting that, you know, is that -- is a pause, and all of a sudden Hamas arms up again, fires another 150 rockets into southern Israel. So we'll just have to see. We'll have to see.
Q Do you feel like you're any closer to a durable cease-fire than you were when the fighting began on Saturday?
MR. JOHNDROE: We'll have to see. Hamas hopefully realizes that they are in a situation that is not helpful to their own people. I mean, their own people are dependent on supplies from the United States and other countries. And so hopefully the Hamas leaders will realize that that is not a -- that sort of situation doesn't lead to a viable, independent state. So we'll see.
Q Changing topics?
MR. JOHNDROE: Changing topics?
MR. JOHNDROE: No.
Q Is the President contemplating sending Rice either to the region or to, say, Europe to consult with allies on this?
MR. JOHNDROE: I'm not aware of any travel by the Secretary at this point, but we'll keep you updated if that changes. I would say -- I think you've heard from the State Department -- Secretary Rice has been working the phones almost non-stop since Saturday. She's spoken to many, many leaders in the region and Europe and around the world on this issue, which is -- and the goal of her phone calls, the goal of the President's phone calls, the diplomacy the administration has engaged in, is to work with other countries to pressure Hamas, make them understand that a lasting, durable and respected cease-fire is the best thing for their own -- for the people of Gaza.
Q What is your assessment on the influence that the President or this administration has on the Prime Minister, the Israeli Prime Minister, on the Palestinians in this period of political transition?
MR. JOHNDROE: I think because the President has worked so closely with Prime Minister Olmert, with other leaders in the region, to include President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad, the President is someone, President Bush is someone that these leaders listen to, they appreciate his support and his understanding. And so I think that one thing that's clear is that he's established relationships that allow him to pick up the phone, give these leaders a call, and have a very frank, honest, and open discussion.
I'll also say even in a transition, the United States is a country that is always looked to during times of crisis, and during times of peace as well. Everyone in the world is constantly interested in what does the United States think, and what does the United States want to do about this. And I think that was true before President Bush, and it will be true after President Bush.
Okay, next subject. Anne.
Q Can we go back to India and Pakistan? I'd like a little bit more information on the President's conversation. The reports out of Islamabad is that a Pakistani militant has confessed to his involvement in the Mumbai attack last month. Did the President talk about whether or not this individual should be extradited, go to trial, to India, and get --
MR. JOHNDROE: I'm not going to get into details. I don't recall that specific issue coming up, that specific element coming up. The calls he had with Prime Minister Singh, and separately with President Zardari, were encouraging the sides to cooperate not only on the Mumbai investigation, but also on counterterrorism in general. And I'll leave it at that.
Okay, all right. Well, Happy New Year's Eve.
Q Oh, I didn't know you were ending this. Does the President --
MR. JOHNDROE: How can I help you? (Laughter.)
Q Does the President have a message for the people of Cuba, given that it's the 50th anniversary of the revolution that put Castro in charge?
MR. JOHNDROE: President Bush's message to the people of Cuba is that we stand with you. We want to see them live in freedom. And the United States will continue to stand with the people of Cuba. The Castro brothers have not treated their people particularly well. Many political dissidents are in jail. The economy is suffering and not free. And the United States will continue to try to seek the freedom of the people of Cuba, and support them.
Q Is this the last briefing from here? Are you briefing tomorrow?
MR. JOHNDROE: Is this my last briefing from here? It is probably my last briefing from here forever.
Q Any thoughts that the President has -- obviously the Western White House -- the sun is setting on the Western White House here in Crawford.
MR. JOHNDROE: Yes. You know, I know the President, 20 days from now, will return to Texas. They'll spend a lot of time in Dallas, but I also expect they'll continue to spend time down here in Crawford on the weekends, and, you know, possibly during the holidays. I know that he and Mrs. Bush have found their time here in Crawford to be exceptionally good. This was a place they could come and relax, get out of the spotlight a little bit -- although the presidency follows you everywhere -- just look, we're all standing here just a few miles from the ranch.
So I think this has been a place where they've been able to get away from it a little bit. And I think that they look forward to coming back to Texas in just less than three weeks.
But we'll always have fond memories of everything that took place here in Crawford during the presidency -- all the various world leader meetings, and standing in an auditorium, I think, with Tony Blair one time, and Vladimir Putin one time, here, speaking to the school children at Crawford, Texas. So I think they'll always have very, very fond memories of their time as President and First Lady here in Crawford. And then they'll continue to come back here and Dallas when it's all over.
Q Gordon, do you know, when they return to Texas in 20 days, whether they go to their new home in Dallas or whether they come here?
MR. JOHNDROE: No, I don't have any specifics yet, but as we get closer, we will let you know.
Q You mentioned that the President might be ringing in the New Year by waking up at dawn to see the sunrise?
MR. JOHNDROE: We talked about that this morning. I expect he and Mrs. Bush will get up to see the sun rise on the New Year. It's been a tradition they've had for I think for almost their entire presidency down here -- they've woken up and gone for a sunrise walk on the ranch. It's something they've always enjoyed doing and look forward to doing tomorrow.
Q Is the President going to stay up until midnight tonight?
MR. JOHNDROE: We'll check with him in the morning, but I would -- I'm not sure. I'm not sure about that. I think he's more likely to be an early riser for the first of the New Year rather than to see the old year -- to see the old year out.
Q Last question. You said you'd check today on what book the President was reading. Did you --
MR. JOHNDROE: No, amidst all the phone calls and intelligence briefings and New Year's Eve plans, I forgot to see what's on his reading list. But I'll check tomorrow.
Q Can we cover the sunrise outing in the morning?
MR. JOHNDROE: No. That is one pool call I am not getting up for. (Laughter.) All right, thank you all.
END 10:31 A.M. CST