For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
December 29, 2008
Press Briefing by Deputy Press Secretary Gordon Johndroe
Crawford Middle School
9:54 A.M. CST
MR. JOHNDROE: Good morning, I'll give you an update on the President's day. President Bush spoke by phone to His Majesty King Abdullah of Jordan this morning, regarding the situation in the Middle East. Following that, the President received his daily intelligence briefing via secure video. He then joined a discussion via secure video with the Vice President, Chief of Staff Josh Bolten, and National Security Advisor Steve Hadley. They updated him on overnight developments in the Middle East and discussed U.S. actions.
For six months, a ceasefire, a state of calm, was in place between Hamas and Israel. Recently, Hamas refused to renew it. During that ceasefire, Hamas continued to fire rockets. Last week, Hamas substantially increased its rocket and mortar attacks on the people of Israel.
Hamas has once again shown its true colors as a terrorist organization that refuses to even recognize Israel's right to exist. In order for the violence to stop Hamas must stop firing rockets into Israel, and agree to respect a sustainable and durable ceasefire. That is the objective to which all parties need to be working, and that is what the United States is working towards.
We also remain concerned about the humanitarian situation for the people of Gaza. We ask that all parties involved allow food and medical supplies to reach the people there. We appreciate the efforts of a variety of countries in the region who are working to help the humanitarian needs of the people of Gaza.
With that, I'll be happy to take your questions. Deb.
Q What does Israel hope to achieve by this? I mean, what's the end game?
MR. JOHNDROE: Israel is responding to a barrage of rocket and mortar attacks that increased substantially last week, following Hamas's refusal to renew the ceasefire. Israel has made clear that they do not want to retake Gaza, that they simply want the people of southern Israel to be able to live in peace, free from this barrage of rocket attacks.
And that's what we expect. We also want to see, as I've said, the ceasefire restored in a sustainable and durable fashion, so that we can get back on the road map, work towards the goals of the Annapolis process, which, again, is two states living side by side in peace.
Q -- I mean, is just going to rekindle radicalism, isn't it?
MR. JOHNDROE: You know, it's hard for me to speak to specific casualty numbers. We have urged the Israelis to avoid civilian casualties. But they are working on decreasing the number of Israeli citizens that are vulnerable. And we know -- I believe someone died this morning, a couple of people a couple of days ago. The Israelis are working to reduce the threat against their own people.
So they're going to continue, it appears at this time, to deal with this Hamas terrorist threat. But ultimately, we want a sustainable and durable ceasefire.
Q You said in your opening statement that the President was updated on U.S. actions. What are these U.S. actions that you're taking related to this?
MR. JOHNDROE: Well, the U.S. goal is for the sustainable ceasefire, as I've discussed. Secretary Rice has been on the phone throughout the weekend with various heads of state, primarily foreign ministers, to try and urge the various parties involved to get behind a sustainable ceasefire. That is what the United States is working on right now. Secretary Rice has been the primary interlocutor on that, and that's our goal.
Q And how long before the United States might come out and call for restraint from Israel on the air strikes?
MR. JOHNDROE: Well, that's really, in my opinion, a hypothetical question. Israel is going after terrorists who are firing rockets and mortars into Israel, and they are taking the steps that they feel are necessary to deal with the terrorist threat. Now, no one wants to see violence. But what we're going to need to see in order to end this is Hamas needs to stop firing rockets into Israel and we all need to get to a sustainable ceasefire.
Q Gordon, you said that Israel has made it clear that they don't want to retake Gaza. But Deputy Prime Minister Ramon came out today and said that the goal of the operation is to topple Hamas. Is that consistent with not retaking Gaza? Is it consistent with U.S. objectives? And how would you expect Hamas to accept a sustainable and durable ceasefire if the goal of the operation is to knock them out?
MR. JOHNDROE: Well, I haven't seen his comments. I'm referring to the Israeli Foreign Minister comments from yesterday that she made on a variety of television programs, that their goal is to deal with Hamas in a way that will ultimately protect the Israeli people.
Hamas has an opportunity to be a partner in the peace process. There has been a role laid out for them for quite some time. They can recognize Israel's right to exist, renounce violence, and live up to previous commitments made by the Palestinians. Hamas, instead, is choosing to fire rockets into Israel. So, as I've said before, as many people have said, Hamas has a choice to make. Right now they are choosing to be a terrorist organization that fires rockets into Israel. That is not going to lead to a sustainable ceasefire.
Q Israel is amassing tanks and troops along that border. Is the President urging them not to launch a ground invasion? Is he urging restraint already now, in his diplomatic efforts?
MR. JOHNDROE: The discussions that we've had with the Israelis are ones that everyone needs to recognize that the ultimate goal here is to get to a ceasefire. I can't speak to any potential ground operation. I think that any ground operation, according to the Israelis, would be part and parcel of the overall operation, given their statements saying that they don't want to retake Gaza, that they simply want to protect their people.
So we'll just have to see how this unfolds. Obviously, as I've said, we don't want them -- we want civilian casualties to be avoided. But it's is unfortunate as Hamas, as we've seen in the past, tends to base its people and some of its rockets in civilian areas. So we'll see.
Q Is it fair to say that the U.S. would prefer not to see a ground operation, but defends Israel's right to do that? What exactly is the U.S. position?
MR. JOHNDROE: I'm not going to speculate on a ground operation. Let's just take this one day at a time, all right.
Q What is the message to the broader Arab world out there. In the official statement that was released by the Jordanian news agency about the phone call that you mentioned this morning, they used the phrase, the discussion was about stopping the "Israeli aggression" on Gaza. What is the U.S. message with this rising Arab anger?
MR. JOHNDROE: The President's message to King Abdullah, his overall message, is that we want to see the violence stopped, but in a way that leads to a durable and sustainable cessation of violence. We can't have the violence stopped now only for it to start up again in the near future. That would be unacceptable to all parties involved, and certainly doesn't help the Palestinians achieve their goal of a viable independent state.
So we're obviously very familiar with the Arab position. But I think ultimately they want to see a peaceful end to this that leads to a Palestinian state.
Q And so no comment at all about whether or not there are suggestions on the part of the U.S. to Israel to somehow narrow the scope or - as John was talking about the length of the attacks because of the concern of the casualties? The U.S. basically suggested to Israel that as more and more of these strikes happen, and civilian casualties are mounting, that the response is appearing, at least to some, to be disproportionate. Has the U.S. expressed that concern?
MR. JOHNDROE: I've seen various casualty figures. It's not for me to say what they are. All I can say is that we've seen innocent Israelis die, as well. We want civilian casualties to be avoided, period.
Q Gordon, I don't think you answered John's question earlier. Is it accurate to say that the U.S. thinks Israel is justified in its air strikes on Gaza targets?
MR. JOHNDROE: The United States understands that Israel needs to take actions to defend itself.
Q Do you expect Israel to negotiate with Hamas?
MR. JOHNDROE: You know, there is an Egyptian brokered ceasefire that was in effect until December 19th. It was a bit of a shaky ceasefire, considering Hamas continued to fire rockets during that period of time.
But last week, they refused to renew the ceasefire, and substantially increased the rocket and mortar attacks into Israel. So I don't expect them to speak right now. But I think that the rockets need to stop, and then the violence will stop, and then there will be an opportunity to renew the ceasefire.
Q Is there a role for President Abbas in all of this?
MR. JOHNDROE: Well, he's the President of all the Palestinian people. And I know that he wants to bring Gaza and the West Bank together. We've all said this is a two-state solution, not a three-state solution. So we'll just see where it goes.
Q Can you just tell us a little bit about how you're keeping the President-elect abreast of the situation today?
MR. JOHNDROE: I don't have a whole lot of specifics on that. I know the President-elect receives daily intelligence briefings from the intelligence briefers that are there with him. I know that he's spoken with Secretary Rice to get an update on this situation, and I think some other situations around the world. And we will continue to stay in touch with his staff as events warrant it.
Q Is Saudi King Abdallah the only foreign leader that President Bush has spoken with about this?
MR. JOHNDROE: No. And to clarify in case I wasn't clear, he spoke to Abdullah of Jordan this morning. He spoke to Abdallah of Saudi Arabia on Saturday.
Q Can I just be clear about something. When you said that Israel has been clear that they don't want to retake Gaza, was that in public pronouncements, or did they assure the United States privately that they weren't looking to retake Gaza?
MR. JOHNDROE: I've heard it both places; both publicly in the press, as well as that's the message that they're passing along.
Q Is there any indication that the timing of the attacks are linked in some way to the Israeli elections coming up on the 10th of February?
MR. JOHNDROE: No, I believe -- if you were saying the timing of the attacks, do you think Hamas started its substantial increase of rockets and mortar attacks, do you think Hamas started its substantial increase of rockets and mortar attacks because of the Israeli elections?
Q -- the Israeli response.
MR. JOHNDROE: The Israeli response is in response to the mortar and rocket attacks on its people.
Q And do you think it has anything to do with the --
MR. JOHNDROE: It's not for me to comment on the Israeli political -- their elections, their election season. But it appears to me that they're responding to the hundreds of rockets that have fallen on southern Israel in the last few days.
Q What are the chances that the President, himself, might comment and weigh in on camera about this?
MR. JOHNDROE: We'll just have to see. We'll have to see.
Q Does he not think it would be helpful at this point in time for him to actually come and make this statement? Because obviously what you've said this morning just varies slightly from what we heard a few days ago when this started. Does he think it would just not be helpful at this juncture for him to --
MR. JOHNDROE: At this point, we don't have any plans for the President to make a statement on this. We will continue to monitor the situation. I mean, he's staying in touch with the National Security Advisor, as well as the Secretary of State, and we'll see.
Q Aside from the Secretary Rice phone call, is the United States taking any other action? Are you helping Israel in this campaign in any way in terms of military supplies or --
MR. JOHNDROE: No, the United States is not involved in this action in any specific way. The United States has provided millions of dollars of humanitarian assistance to the people of Gaza, and so we are certainly encouraging countries in the region to continue their efforts to bring medical and food supplies to the people of Gaza.
Q Why hasn't President Bush spoken with Israeli and Palestinian officials? I mean, I would assume that they have tried to contact him, no?
MR. JOHNDROE: I'm not aware of their contacting him. I know Secretary Rice has spoken to the Prime Minister of Israel, as well as the President of the Palestinian Authority.* But I'm not aware of any contacts that have been made to President Bush on that front. If that changes I'll certainly let you know.
Q When did the United States -- when did the President first know that Israel planned these operations?
MR. JOHNDROE: That Israel planned --
Q Was planning the operations or --
MR. JOHNDROE: Well, their cabinet voted earlier -- sort of middle of last week on this. So it was a very public indication that they were likely to take action.
Q Is there going to be a point when the United States will come out and urge restraint on this Israeli action, or not?
MR. JOHNDROE: Toby, I understand your question -- at this point, we understand that they're taking efforts to defend their people in the face of just hundreds of rockets.
Q You say that you're working towards helping a cease-fire being restored. Is there anything beyond diplomatic pressure that the United States can do at this juncture?
MR. JOHNDROE: I think that's the appropriate response at the moment from the United States, and I think we've heard the same thing from the European Union and others. We will talk to all the various parties involved and urge a return to the ceasefire, but a ceasefire, as I've said, that is sustainable and durable and is respected.
Q I want to go back to Abbas. Do you think that this situation weakens or strengthens his position?
MR. JOHNDROE: You know, it's difficult for me to say right now about President Abbas. I think what strengthens President Abbas's position is when he delivers for the Palestinian people. And that is what he is trying to do, and succeeding in some parts of the West Bank -- greater Palestinian security forces, greater investment we've seen in security forces in Janin, greater investment in Nabulus and other cities like that on the West Bank.
You know, the people of Gaza could have that, as well, but instead Hamas has chosen to take a different course of action, and that's to fire rockets into Israel.
Q Senator Sherrod Brown said yesterday that President Bush is in a politically weakened state, and that what the situation calls for now is some strong leadership come January 20th. Do you have any response at all to that
MR. JOHNDROE: No, I haven't seen those comments, and, no, I'm not.
Q The President, earlier this year - well, I guess last November during the Annapolis process, had hoped that there would be a peace deal before he left office. Obviously that's not going to happen. So what is his feeling now, given what's occurring right now over there, about the prospects for a peace deal in the future?
MR. JOHNDROE: You know, this is a very similar situation that the President found when he took office in early 2001, with increased violence on the ground. I know that his goal is that this violence come to a, as I've said, sustainable, durable and end with a ceasefire, but a ceasefire that's respected by Hamas, so that then all the parties could come together and work towards the goals in the road map and the goals of the Annapolis Conference. The Annapolis goals are ones that have been widely accepted. We saw a good U.N. Security Council Resolution 1850 within the last couple of weeks.
Everyone -- what I think is different from eight years ago is that everyone recognizes that the two-state solution is the right way forward. And so I think the President feels that he has laid good groundwork that will ultimately lead to a two-state solution, but clearly, with the Hamas actions in the last few days, it's not something that's going to advance in the immediate near term.
Q It's my understanding that no one from the U.S. is speaking with anyone from Hamas. Well, how can you work toward a ceasefire if you're not talking to one of the sides?
MR. JOHNDROE: That's why we talk with other leaders in the region who do speak with Hamas and have been the interlocutors, so to speak, with Hamas. The ceasefire was Egyptian-brokered, the one that was just -- that Hamas failed to renew last week. And so that's how we deal with Hamas.
Q Why -- in your estimation, why did Hamas break the ceasefire?
MR. JOHNDROE: You know, it's hard for me to get into the minds of a -- get into the mind of terrorists. I don't know why they would rather fire hundreds of rockets and mortars into Israel rather than work for the good of their own people. It's impossible for me to answer.
Q One more -- you said that the U.S. is behind humanitarian aid. Can you give us any specifics of what sort of humanitarian aid you'd like to see or will see brought into Gaza?
MR. JOHNDROE: All I have is some of the general numbers the U.S. provided the U.N. Relief and Works Agency: $57 million in 2008 for the Palestinian people; another $12 million to $14 million through the International Committee of the Red Cross. I don't have any specifics about how that money has been used for the people of Gaza as it relates to the current situation. I know that Egypt and Jordan, as well as Israel, are working to make sure that humanitarian medical and food supplies get to the people of Gaza.
Q Just coming back to something I asked before, but maybe not cleverly enough. Was there no -- Olmert did not reach out to the President prior to the attack? There was no warning? You've relied entirely on the public actions of the Israeli cabinet?
MR. JOHNDROE: I'm not going to speak to all the private conversations we've had. I'm not aware of any conversations that President Bush and Prime Minister Olmert have had in the last couple of weeks. We have pretty regular contact with the Israeli government, so I don't have any specifics for you on that.
My point in my answer was that this was a very public action that they took earlier in the week in signaling that the rocket attacks were not acceptable.
Q Gordon, in the U.S. view, would the Israelis be justified in seeking to destroy Hamas, so long as it doesn't disavow future rocket attacks?
MR. JOHNDROE: I think that's a question I'm not going to go down -- a road I'm not going to go down. I don't think anyone wants to see anyone destroyed, although Hamas has indicated sometimes they'd like to see Israel destroyed. But I think what people want is just peace on the ground and end to the violence, so that people can go about and live normal lives. And this is especially true of the people of southern Israel who end up having to spend so much of their time in bomb shelters. It's unacceptable.
Thank you all. One more.
Q What is the President doing today?
MR. JOHNDROE: What is the President doing today? After his phone call with Abdullah and his intelligence briefing, he went to his office to work on paperwork and a variety of things. And I expect he'll probably ride his bicycle today and spend time with Mrs. Bush. And we'll -- I expect he'll also probably receive updates on the ongoing situation in the Middle East, as well.
Q Gordon, I'm sorry -- you said, "I don't think anyone wants to see anyone destroyed," but if Hamas is a terrorist organization, as you say --
MR. JOHNDROE: No, no, you heard the rest of that sentence, which was -- and, Mark, you heard what I said -- that Hamas has indicated they would actually like to see Israel destroyed. They say that from time to time.
Anyway, my point is --
Q I heard that, too, but that doesn't really go to the core of the answer. I mean, you're right, they have said they want to see Israel destroyed periodically. But you're saying now that --
MR. JOHNDROE: The point is I'm not going to -- it's impossible for me to answer the question about Israeli intentions, which was what I was asked. But I said that I believe everyone's ultimate goal is not for the destruction of each other -- although the terrorists have indicated sometimes that they would like to see the destruction of Israel -- their ultimate goal is for the people to be able to live in peace. And what I also said is right now the people of southern Israel are not able to live in peace; they have to live in bomb shelters a lot of the time. And that's unacceptable.
Q Will either Hadley or Rice be coming to Crawford?
MR. JOHNDROE: No.
MR. JOHNDROE: No.
Q I think you said earlier that Secretary Rice has been in touch with both sides. Is she in touch with Hamas?
MR. JOHNDROE: No, when I say that I'm referring to Palestinian Authority President Abbas - so just to clarify, as I answered to Patty's question, as well.
Okay? Great. Thank you all very much.
END 10:20 A.M. CDT
*Secretary Rice has not spoken to the President of the Palestinian Authority.