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 Home > News & Policies > April 2002

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
April 16, 2002

Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer

The James S. Brady Briefing Room

12:38 P.M. EDT

MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. Let me begin with an announcement, then I'll be happy to take your questions.

President Bush will meet with the Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah at his ranch in Crawford, Texas, on April 25th. The U.S.-Saudi relationship, which extends back over six decades, has been a bulwark of U.S. engagement in the United -- in the Middle East. Among other things, the two leaders are expected to discuss a Saudi peace proposal presented by the Crown Prince at the March 27th to March 28th Arab summit in Beirut. As well, they will discuss U.S.-Saudi bilateral relationship, the next phase in the war against terrorism and the general situation in the Middle East.

And with that, I'm happy to take your questions. Ron.

Q Ari, did administration officials or their representatives say or communicate anything to Venezuelan opposition leaders that a reasonable person could conclude as even tacit approval of removing Chavez?

MR. FLEISCHER: United States officials explicitly made clear repeatedly to opposition leaders that the United States would not support a coup. The tradition, the history in the last 20 years in Central America and South America has been a tradition of democracy, thanks in great part to the United States' efforts. And that's a message the United States proudly repeats with all our allies in the region, that the answer to all these problems remains problems that have to be solved through democratic solutions. Ron.

Q Let me follow-up, though. Did you do research this morning to determine whether or not anything was said that could even be construed as tacit approval for --

MR. FLEISCHER: That's why again I reiterate that the United States policy is to support democracy and democratic solutions to any type of problems in nations around the world, particularly, though, in our own hemisphere we take great pride in the advancements and the changes that have taken place in that region.

We explicitly told opposition leaders that the United States would not support a coup. Many of these conversations took place in repeated numbers of levels throughout the State Department and the NSC, as well in conversations that newly appointed Ambassador Charles Shapiro and former Ambassador Hrinak had with officials in Venezuela.

Q Is it possible, though, that the explicit statement was accompanied by a wink and a nod that we wouldn't mind it happening?

MR. FLEISCHER: Ron, I think at this point it's incumbent on you now, if you have any evidence, if you have anything that you think you're aware of, bring it forward and I will evaluate it. But there is nothing that I can find to substantiate any of those charges. I think it's just the opposite. But, again, if you have anything, present it. I don't think you'll find a thing.

Q Can I ask a specific question? Did anyone in the administration, in particular National Security Council staff or Jim Maistow, or Assistant Secretary of State Otto Reich, meet with Pedro Carmona, the man who dissolved the Venezuelan Congress, dissolved the Venezuelan Supreme Court and the constitution last Friday, did he meet with any administration officials?

MR. FLEISCHER: Terry, U.S. officials met with a broad spectrum of Venezuelan officials, including business association representatives, including Mr. Carmona, as well as pro-Chavez legislators, including labor officials, officials from the Catholic Church, throughout the routine course of discussions with officials in Venezuela, yes.

Q They met with Mr. Carmona, but he never gave any indication that he was willing and ready and able to take this step of seizing power illegitimately?

MR. FLEISCHER: Rewind your tapes, and I think you'll see what took place very clearly. That on -- throughout last week, popular protests began and accelerated and grew in number. It's no secret that President Chavez has had a rule that has been controversial and has not met with widespread popular support within Venezuela or among his neighbors, and certainly in the United States with President Bush.

So it should be no surprise that there were widespread protests that grew, increased in number to the point where, on Thursday, heading into Friday, some 500,000 people peacefully protested his rule. And that is what set in motion the whole series of events after forces who were loyal to him fired on the protesters.

Q One more. Last Friday, you said that it -- the seizure of power illegitimately in Venezuela -- happened in a very quick fashion as a result of the message of the Venezuelan people; that the seizure of power, extraconstitutionally, that is, dissolution of the congress and the supreme court, happened as a result of the message of the Venezuelan people. On that same day, the President --

MR. FLEISCHER: No, that's not what I said.

Q -- the President of Mexico, the President of Costa Rica, the President of Argentina, and the President of Paraguay all stood up with moral clarity and condemned the seizure of power. This President, and you as his spokesman, did not. What does that do to American credibility when it comes to promoting democracy around the world?

MR. FLEISCHER: Rewind your tape and check the precise time and sequence of events. The briefing that I gave took place first in the morning at approximately 10:00 a.m., and the second briefing was approximately at 12:30 p.m. The dissolution that you just referred to did not take place until later Friday afternoon. It could not possibly be addressed in my briefing because it hadn't taken place yet.

It was those events that led to, more than 24 hours later, to the region, through the Organization of American States putting out a statement late into Saturday evening that was voted by the United States, with the support of the United States, condemning the events that took place and urging the restoration of democracy, condemning the deplorable acts of violence and the loss of human life. That took place as a result of subsequent events.

And the timing and the sequence is crucial here, because what you need to realize is that as you ask me questions, all I can do is give you answers based on the facts as they're known at that time.

Q But the facts that were known at that time enabled President Fox to speak with moral clarity --

MR. FLEISCHER: Not until later Friday afternoon, Terry.

Q Can't the American people and the world expect this President to speak with the same moral clarity?

MR. FLEISCHER: Terry, you have to get the sequence of your facts established. Those statements made by Brazil and by President Fox did not take place until later on Friday afternoon, as events unfolded. And repeatedly throughout our conversation Friday, I reminded all of you that events were combustible, events were fluid. But you cannot hold any spokesman responsible for events that take place following a statement.

Those events were not anticipated, and once those events took place, the United States did move to condemn it, to criticize it. And, again, you have to be precise on your timing on this issue, because the news was breaking Friday, as I spoke. I shared with you information as it was developed.

Q Ari, was the United States prepared in any way to offer President Chavez safe passage to a third country?

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't know. The best information I have on that, John, this all developed through the Venezuelan military.

Q Can you speak to the idea? Was an American aircraft on standby, should it be needed?

MR. FLEISCHER: I don't know. I have no information about that. I think his transportation was arranged after his resignation through the Venezuelan military, which flew him to a Caribbean island. You'd have to try to find anything out about that.

Q Did you consider issuing a separate statement in addition to the OAS action?

MR. FLEISCHER: You mean, in between --

Q Condemning the coups. Right.

MR. FLEISCHER: In between Friday at noon and Saturday night?

Q Yes.

MR. FLEISCHER: I think that the statement Saturday by the OAS, with the United States' vote, speaks very powerfully for itself.

Q But not as powerfully as a statement by the President or by the White House.

MR. FLEISCHER: That statement came on Sunday, if you recall. So you had a statement Friday on the basis of events, as they were known at 10:00 a.m. when I spoke with you the first time, and then at noon following that. And then the events that Terry cited took place, developing into Friday afternoon and into the evening. And then Saturday the OAS met, with the United States' support, to issue the condemnation. And then that was expressed by Dr. Rice on the Sunday shows on Sunday, as well as in the statement by me on Sunday afternoon.

Q Just more generally, does the President think the people of Venezuela would be better off if Chavez weren't in power?

MR. FLEISCHER: As I indicated Friday, that these are issues for the Venezuelan people to resolve. And this is a matter of listening to the people of Venezuela.

Q But just a moment ago you indicated that, you know, the President was not entirely happy, thrilled, with some of the decisions Chavez made, and --

MR. FLEISCHER: That's an accurate statement, but the question you asked about, would the Venezuelan people be better off, is the question left only to the Venezuelan people.

Q Ari, a couple of clarifications. Does the U.S. believe there was a coup?

MR. FLEISCHER: That's the purpose of the OAS fact finding mission, that the United States voted in favor of. That is underway now, and that will establish all the facts. And I think what you can imagine -- again, rewind your own tapes. You showed the large spread protests in the street of Venezuela gathering steam into last week, culminating in Friday with some 500,000 people in the streets. And as I indicated Friday, President Chavez resigned under pressure. And the purpose of the OAS mission is to ascertain all the facts.

Q I just want to follow, too. We asked you this earlier, but I want to ask again. You said that U.S. officials made it explicitly clear the U.S. would not support a coup. How do you account then for this top Defense Department official telling the New York Times, "We were not discouraging people. We were sending informal, subtle signals that we don't like this guy. We didn't say, 'No, don't you dare.'"

MR. FLEISCHER: And what's the name of that official?

Q The official is unnamed. But it is --

MR. FLEISCHER: Then how do you know he's "top"? (Laughter.)

Q It says, according to the New York Times. So is this official mistaken?

MR. FLEISCHER: You don't know the person's name.

Q No, I don't know the --

MR. FLEISCHER: The person obviously doesn't have enough confidence in what he said to say it on the record. And that same story you're citing also has other officials saying that is not the case. And you have me saying on the record that it's not the case.

Q But you know officials talk on background --

MR. FLEISCHER: So I think if you can establish the name of this person who now without a name you're calling "top," we can further that. But I think you're -- you need to dig into that.

Q Was there discussion about working on a referendum? Any discussion about working with the opposition leaders on pushing any kind of referendum to seek the removal of Chavez?

MR. FLEISCHER: I have no information on that. It's the first I've heard anything on that topic.

Q Ari, the President have any comments on this new videotape from Osama bin Laden? Because last week I asked Secretary of State -- Secretary of Defense that why we are not talking about more Osama bin Laden. He said because we have not heard from him, no more new tapes. Now, somebody is listening and heard somewhere in that part of the world and now tape is there. And, number two, demonstrators still in Pakistan are carrying the photographs of Osama bin Laden and now during this elections or referendum coming.

Now that means he's still alive in that part of the world, somewhere on that border?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, one, as to the tape, it's just unclear what that tape represents, the timing of the tape, when it was made. And so I don't think there's anything conclusive to report on that. But, obviously, one thing that is known is that hatred is still alive and that hatred is aimed at harming the United States and the United States' allies. And that's why this war against terrorism remains a very important issue, regardless of Osama bin Laden's status.

Q Is Osama bin Laden still alive?

MR. FLEISCHER: We don't know.

Q Are you analyzing that tape to find out when it was made? I mean, there's plants and whatnot in the background.

MR. FLEISCHER: I have not gotten any reports. I can only imagine that's being done. I have not gotten any reports on it. Ron.

Q Can we use this as a springboard to preview tomorrow's speech, will there be any new policy, any new shift in what he's doing at --

MR. FLEISCHER: Tomorrow, the President, at the Virginia Military Institute, will give a speech that will have a war update. And that's all I'm prepared to say at this time. I'd imagine we'll have some more information to share tomorrow, but that's all I can indicate right now.

Q Any new material in it?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think you'll hear some new thoughts from the President, yes.

Q And can you preview the Lebanon meeting, what you hope to get out of that?

MR. FLEISCHER: The meeting with the President of Lebanon is going to be discussed, to discuss the prospects of bringing peace to the region. Of course, the Arab summit, which for the first time recognized the proposed recognition of Israel's right to exist in secure borders along with a pull-back to the '67 borders was a topic that came up in Beirut at the Arab summit.

And so there will be a variety of ideas that I think -- be talked through at this meeting with the President and the President of Lebanon and how to continue the efforts to find peace in the region.

Q Just in general, why is it important to update the American public --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President has always said that in order to successfully prosecute the war against terrorism, it's vital to have the support of the American people. And to have the support of the American people, the President will continue from time to time, as he sees fit, to reach out and discuss with the country, latest developments in his thoughts about where we need to go and why we need to go there. So it's what democracies do, is the short answer.

Q Ari, a few days ago Suha Arafat praised suicide bombings and said she only wished she had a child who could be a suicide bomber. Could you tell us whether that casts doubt on her husband's renunciation of killer bombings? And could you also comment on the fact that a growing number of Saudi officials are now praising these bombings and what that tells us about the Saudi government?

MR. FLEISCHER: Anybody who praises these homicide bombings will find themselves in sharp disagreement with the President of the United States. The President has said unequivocally that these people are not martyrs, they're murderers. That's the President's view and that's based on the fact that these people go into civilian areas with the sole purpose of killing innocents. And the President has spoken out about it in as clear a moral tone as can be, anybody who expresses an other point of view will find that the President of the United States disagrees.

Q But, Ari, with all due respect, that really wasn't the question. The question was, what do the comments from Suha Arafat tell us about the credibility of her husband, and what do the comments from the Saudis in praise of these bombings tell us about the credibility of the Saudi government about this issue?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, again, on the question of what specifically was said with Chairman Arafat's wife, the whole purpose of Secretary Powell's mission to the region is to find out what the prospects are to bring people together to achieve peace. And I think the results of that will speak for itself over time, as the Secretary continues his efforts to bridge the differences between the parties. And the President looks forward to having a full-fledged range of conversation with Saudi leaders and will do so.

Q Just a quick follow on Ron's question. You said there will be new thoughts tomorrow? No new policy or --

MR. FLEISCHER: Yes. I'm just not going to go beyond any of that, to preview something tomorrow today. That will be something the President wants to talk about tomorrow. He's still looking at various drafts of his speech, and so you'll have that tomorrow.

Q Ari, do you expect when the President meets with the Prime Minister from Lebanon, that he'll pick up Secretary of State Powell's conversation about cross-border attacks at the Blue Line, as well?

MR. FLEISCHER: I anticipate that will be a topic they discuss tomorrow as well.

Q If I can follow, does the President expect Secretary Powell to return from the Middle East with a cease-fire agreement in hand?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as Secretary Powell, himself, said, he felt that it would be a difficult thing to achieve on this trip. His trip is not quite over, he has additional important meetings that remain. As the Secretary said this morning, he cited progress, there will be continued contacts that he'll have with various parties. The whole purpose of his trip was to try to bring about a diminution in the violence so that the chances of having meaningful political talks that can begin can be enhanced. And that's the goal of his mission.

Q And do you think that's been achieved at this point? Do you think that things have diminished --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, he's not complete with his mission yet.

Q Any more you can say on the progress --


Q Thank you --

MR. FLEISCHER: Kelly, didn't you have yours already? (Laughter.)

Q I did. Other people get more than one. (Laughter.)

MR. FLEISCHER: You did. Remember, this is our orderly system. And then we come back to the front, and you ask something, and we go to -- Connie. (Laughter.)

Q Thank you. Does the massive pro-Israeli demonstration yesterday have any impact on the administration? And, also, have you finished analyzing the alleged Arafat papers yet, which appeared to authorize terrorism acts?

MR. FLEISCHER: One, I think that the march yesterday is another sign of the important passions that people feel on this issue. And the President has been very clear that Israel has no better, greater friend than the United States. Israel is an ally; Israel is a democratically-elected government. And the President stands strong in his support for Israel and Israel's democracy.

And there are important voices to be listened to on many sides. And that is why the President is working so hard to bring peace to the region, to help protect the cause of the Palestinian people who have not been well-served by their leadership, the Palestinian people who deserve a state, while recognizing Israel's right to live in security.

And so that's a part of our American system of democracy and it played out yesterday in as fine a tradition as our nation has known.

Q And the Arafat papers?

MR. FLEISCHER: I have no new information on that. I'm sorry. David.

Q Ari, yesterday you said that the Israelis were making some progress with the announcement that they would be pulling out of two of the cities. Of course, it was now, I guess, 10 days ago today that the President said that they had to pull out from all of the West Bank areas they were occupying without delay, which Condi then interpreted to mean now.

We're 10 days out. What you don't have is any commitment on Ramallah or any of the other major cities. You've got a commitment on two of them. Does that fulfill the President's definition of without delay, or the National Security Advisor's definition of now?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the withdrawals are continuing, as Israel indicated. And when the President gave his speech in the Rose Garden, the President laid out in very clear terms the responsibilities for all three parties to uphold in order to bring peace to the region. And the purpose of the Secretary's visit is to impress upon each of the parties -- the Israelis, the Palestinian Authority and the Arab nations -- the importance of each of them doing exactly what the President called on them to do.

It did not happen immediately. It did not happen overnight. The President is still committed to making it happen. And the reason he is, is what alternative do these three parties have? What choice do these three parties have other than to follow the road map that the President outlined in the Rose Garden? The alternative is war. And that's not an alternative that is acceptable to anybody. And that is why the President is working so hard to hold the three accountable, to urge them to take these steps so they can unwind from the violence that they're currently in. Which, for the people in the region, they will tell you, right now feels like a war. And that's why the President is so dedicated to fulfilling this.

And the President wishes that everybody would have immediately said yes and done what he asked. They didn't. That will not stop him from committing himself to finding a way to bring about peace in the region, no matter how long it takes.

Q Just to make sure that I understand what the President wants and what he's getting, the President will not consider his call on Israel, one-third of that triumvirate that you've described, to be complete until they are out of Ramallah and the other West Bank cities? It is not sufficient in the White House's view to simply declare that you will be out of Jenin and Nablus?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, the President's call was for Israel to withdraw from all of the areas they occupied on the West Bank as a result of the recent incursions. The President's call remains.

Q And you do not yet have a schedule for anything other than Jenin and Nablus?

MR. FLEISCHER: What the Prime Minister indicated to the President was that they would be out of Jenin and Nablus within a week, and Jenin even earlier than that. That they are working very hard to resolve the hold-off in the Church of Nativity. Once that is resolved, I think it's fair to say that Israel anticipates a very quick withdrawal from Bethlehem, and they are working very hard to resolve issues that would allow Israel to pull out of Ramallah as well.

The Prime Minister made a commitment that he would do so expeditiously in his previous phone call with the President. And the President is continuing to press to make that happen, as well as to make the Palestinian Authority and the Arab allies see the importance of focusing on their responsibilities, so they can step back and unwind from the present violence, so that political talks can begin in a meaningful way.

Q Ari, can you say anything more about the kind of progress that Colin Powell is making? And if he is making progress, why is he coming home now?

MR. FLEISCHER: First of all, he's coming home because the President and the National Security Council are going to get a full report from the Secretary. The Secretary was never sent there to be there on an open-ended mission. He was sent there for a lengthy mission, and the mission is still ongoing. And so the Secretary used those words this morning. And he has additional meetings, and I'm going to leave it at that. He still has additional meetings, and we'll all monitor it carefully

Q Can you say nothing further about the kinds of progress that he's making?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm going to leave it at that. That was the Secretary's word. He said it for a reason. And he has additional meetings and additional contacts, and we'll let that develop.

Q Why haven't we heard from the President, in I believe what is now eight days? He has been accused, especially by members of his own party and many conservative activists, of violating his own principles, and of perhaps even distancing himself from the process or being uneasy about his administration meeting with Yasser Arafat.

MR. FLEISCHER: You know, I'm not sure what you mean. I heard the President last night talk about this topic, on his visit. So the President has addressed this topic, he has talked about it. And as I indicated, the President will be making some remarks tomorrow, as well.

Q Do you expect him to address the Middle -- the current status in the Middle East tomorrow?

MR. FLEISCHER: I would anticipate that will be a topic that comes up.

Q Could I ask you one other question about this? The rally yesterday in which Mr. Wolfowitz spoke on behalf of the President, was it the President that actually asked him to speak at that rally? And what does the administration make of the fact that the crowd roundly booed Mr. Wolfowitz on several occasions? Do you interpret that as opposition to the administration's approach?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think Secretary Wolfowitz did an excellent job delivering the President's message. And the Secretary was very well received for virtually everything he said, with one instance -- one exception. And I think what that shows, Jim, is the deep passions that run on all sides of this issue. And that is why this President, understanding how deep the passions run on many sides, is focused on finding a solution to the problem of peace in the Middle East.

And the Secretary, what he said yesterday, was fully reflective of everything that the President believes and thinks. And the Secretary did a very good job of delivering that message at a time of great unease for many communities in the United States, including the Jewish community.

Q Did the President ask him?

MR. FLEISCHER: He went with the White House blessing. And so I assure you it was --

Q One last thing, if I may. You said that American officials explicitly told Venezuelan opposition leaders that the U.S. would not support a coup. That suggests that someone asked the U.S. to support a coup.

MR. FLEISCHER: No, what it suggests, as any good diplomat will know by keeping their ear to the ground in the nation that they represent or that they are representing the United States in that nation, that it's no surprise to anybody, including your corespondents in the region, that in Venezuela for the last several months there has been talk of violence and a coup. So that's what a diplomat is supposed to do, is keep his ear to the ground in the region, and deliver a straight message from the United States government that that is not our policy, and we do not expect that to be the case.

Q So are you saying that no one asked the U.S. to support a coup?

MR. FLEISCHER: Not that anybody has brought to my attention, no.

Q But you are saying you had some advance knowledge that there was a coup brewing? That's what you just said.

MR. FLEISCHER: I just said the diplomats had their ears to the ground and there was talk, as your correspondents in Venezuela will report, as well. And in the conversations they had they explicitly told opposition leaders that the United States would not support a coup.

Q -- had advance knowledge that something was in the works?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think you have to be careful about advance knowledge of a specific act and general talk of unease in a nation like Venezuela, that has been marked by the very difficult internal democratic system.

Q You had advance knowledge that there was a possibility that something --

MR. FLEISCHER: General awareness for the last several months of unease in the population. It's not --

Q -- peaking, was there a sense that --

MR. FLEISCHER: Not specific to anything that took place over the weekend.

Q Was there a sense that this was peaking at the end of last week?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, certainly, you could turn on your TV and see it peak.

Q No, before it happened. Before it happened.

MR. FLEISCHER: No, this was, as I indicated, ongoing for months.

Q Why were these conversations taking place?


Q Yes.

MR. FLEISCHER: Because it's a normal part of what diplomats do. And I assure** you it was the --

Q Were they looking for something from the United States?

MR. FLEISCHER: Were they looking for something?

Q Were they asking for something?

MR. FLEISCHER: The United States continued to say to everybody -- to the opposition party, to various groups, to interim President Carmona, as well as to people who were loyal to President Chavez -- that we expect all problems to be resolved in a democratic way. And that as we have made clear repeatedly for 20 years into this hemisphere, coups are not the answer.

And it should surprise no one that there were rumors in Latin America, Central America, South America for 20 years in various nations that come and go. And the United States continues to say in each of these cases the solution is not through the military, that is not the role of the military, and that the answer is through democracy. That's not --

Q You wouldn't call this a coup. You wouldn't call this a coup last week, when the rest of the world did. Was the United States looking for --

MR. FLEISCHER: Terry, again -- you need to again go back to the sequence of events. At 10:00 a.m. on Friday morning and at 12:00 p.m. on Friday when I briefed, I did not call it a coup, I did not not call it a coup. The OAS is investigating to determine exactly what took place in the wake of 500,000 people peacefully protesting.

Q It was an illegitimate seizure of power from a democratically elected government. And isn't it incumbent on the United States and this administration to stand up and face that down with clarity when it happens? And the question is, doesn't it damage the President's and the United States' credibility in promoting democracy around the world when we wouldn't even stand up to what was clearly an illegitimate seizure of power?

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not sure how you can say the United States did not stand up. And let me read this to you. "The United States voted on Saturday, along with other nations in the Organization of American States, to condemn the alteration of constitutional order in Venezuela, to condemn the deplorable acts of violence that have led to the loss of human life." And I could go on.

This is all what was voted on by the United States Saturday night, along with OAS.

Q That was after several leaders -- the jig was up by that point.

It was after several leaders made clear that they were not going to accept the legitimacy of the new Venezuelan regime, that's when the Bush administration decided it wouldn't accept the legitimacy of that regime.

MR. FLEISCHER: This all developed Friday afternoon into the evening and into Saturday, in terms of the OAS's actions, Terry.

Q So the President's credibility is intact?

Q Ari, you said a couple of times it's for the people of Venezuela to decide. Is there -- I guess my question is, is there any sort of legitimizing factor that comes from the turnout that was in the streets? I mean, if the majority of people in a country like Venezuela or somewhere else support a military coup, does that have any legitimizing factor for the President, or is this a set in stone, we are against military coups of any kind --

MR. FLEISCHER: United States, set in stone is against military coups of any kind. And one of the great issues that the United States, the United States military, the militaries of Central and South America can, should and do, take great pride in the last 20 years, is that where previously difficulties were resolved through the use of military force, they no longer are. And that was the case in Venezuela on Friday, when the military refused the orders to fire. And that is to the credit of the Venezuelan military, it's also to the credit of the American military as we have worked with militaries in the hemisphere for the last 20 years to help them to see that democracy is the best way to govern, not through military power. It has been a marvelous and powerful Western Hemisphere success story for 20 years, and the United States is still and will always be a proud part of that success story.

Q Ari, back to the Middle East, with Powell returning to morrow, could you say that the United States or the Bush administration is now ready to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian issue for the long haul, that this will now be a front burner attempt by the administration to even go as far as a final resolution? Or are you more interested in just trying to get the situation there under control?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, this has always been a front burner issue for the United States for the long haul. And if you want, I would be more than happy to go into the history of this administration, starting on January 20, 2001, following the Taba discussions where Senator Mitchell came out with his recommendation and his plan. It was the United States that helped sell that to the region under President Bush's leadership.

And then you had in March of 2001 a new government elected in Israel, so there was a period of uncertainty within Israel prior to the elections. A new government elected in March. You had the Tenet mission to the Middle East, which followed shortly thereafter, in the summer of 2001.

The United States has been deeply involved at the President's direction, and always will be, because of the very importance of the issues that are involved.

Q You called the suicide bombers murderers, the Palestinian suicide bombers. I'm wondering if you believe that the Israeli defense forces committed murder in the Jenin refugee camp last week?

MR. FLEISCHER: Israel undertook a military operation that the United States has continued to say Israel needs to withdraw from that area. The United States has also called for the international committee and the Red Cross and other humanitarian observers to be permitted into Jenin to see what's happening.

As Secretary Armitage said, there is now a growing almost mythology about events that took place on the ground in Jenin. And I think what the United States would look for are facts.

Q Ari, if in fact the Israeli defense forces destroyed buildings on top of innocent civilians and there were no terrorists in those buildings, would you consider that homicide?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, this is the purpose of the international committee on the Red Cross, and the other fact finders who are in the region, to ascertain facts. I can't deal with questions that begin with "if."

Bob and then Alex and then Les.

Q Ari, since the President made his Rose Garden comments, Prime Minister Sharon has said that the offensive in the West Bank has made progress against terrorists. He says they've rounded up dozens of, scores of militants. They've gotten weapons caches and so forth. Is the President satisfied with that explanation for why this offensive has continued?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President, as he indicated himself, understands a nation's right to self-defense. And in the wake of the Passover massacre, in which terrorists deliberately took the life of innocents celebrating a holiday in a hotel, Israel exercised its right to self-defense. In the Rose Garden the President said, enough is enough. And this is now the point where Secretary Powell's mission is proceeding. So that's the chronology of events.

Q Can I ask you whether the President believes Israel has enhanced its security over the past 10 days?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think that's not a judgment for the United States to make, that's a judgment for Israel to make about Israel's security. The United States' view is that the best way to enhance Israeli security is through political process, is through political talks. Because at the end, as the President has said, of any act by the military, Israel will still have Palestinians as neighbors. And at the end of any military process, Israel still has to find a way to live in peace in the neighborhood. And Israel's neighbors still have to find a way to live at peace with Israel. And that, in the President's opinion, is where long-term stability and security lies.

Q So the President still believes it would have been preferable for Israel to have halted the offensive on the day when he asked for the halt to begin, and he doesn't accept the idea that it's enhanced Israel's security to continue beyond that?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, the President called on all three parties to exercise their responsibilities on that day.

Q I'm going back to a Saudi question. We do have Saudi officials praising the suicide bombers, and King Fahd issued a statement blaming Israel squarely for the current crisis in the Middle East. Of course, the U.S. viewpoint is the military operation was a response to the suicide bombings. Just on the surface, can you talk about -- I mean, just on the surface it seems like a very deeply troubled relationship we have with the Saudis at the moment. Can you talk about are relations with the Saudis good, are they strong, are they supportive of the war on terror? They don't seem to be.

MR. FLEISCHER: I think relations with the Saudis are strong. And, obviously, events in the Middle East lead to complications, and those complications are going to be discussed. The United States and Saudi Arabia have differing views, as friends and as allies. And in the war on terrorism and what's happening vis-a-vis Afghanistan, and support for President Musharraf in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia has been a strong friend of the United States. And in the war against financing of terrorism, Saudi Arabia has been a strong friend in terms of the actions they've taken against funding sources for al Qaeda.

The President looks forward to his meeting with the Crown Prince. As I mentioned at the top of my briefing, it's a very long relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia.

Q Ari, yesterday at the rally in support of Israel, Secretary Wolfowitz said he was representing the President and, "We deplore the killing of innocents which I believe, in my heart, the majority of Palestinians do so as well," to which the crowd shouted wake up, wake up. And my question, does the President believe that on 9/11, the majority of Palestinians were not dancing and cheering in the streets all over the West Bank? Or were those false photographs and false reports?

MR. FLEISCHER: Les, obviously, there were some people in different parts of the world, including in the West Bank who did celebrate what took place on 9/11. The President does not think that represents the majority of the Palestinians.

The President has said previously that the Palestinians do want to find a way to live at peace. And you have to make a differentiation between terrorists and Palestinians. At its core, the President believes that the Palestinian people are not being served by the leadership that they deserve, to find a way to create a Palestinian state that can live secure, side by side with Israel.

Q The New York Times reports that the district attorney of Suffolk County on Long Island is convening a grand jury to look into child abuse in the Catholic Church, while the Massachusetts attorney general and district attorneys in the five counties of the Archdiocese of Boston have formed a special task force on the same issue. And my question, as this nation's chief law enforcer, does the President believe these prosecuting attorneys are wrong to consider prosecuting any church official they find aiding and abetting clergy pedophilia?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President is deeply aware of what is happening in the Catholic Church now. And consistent with the President's view that the Church will address this fully and properly, the President also understands law enforcement is an issue that needs to be decided on the basis of facts, on the basis of evidence. And that's what local officials do.

Q Venezuela. Would the President like to see a change in administrations in Venezuela?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President has always, and anywhere around the world believes that the answers to questions like that need to be decided by the public of those countries, in a democratic process. That is what happens in Venezuela.

Q Ari, to follow-up on that a little bit. The U.S. obviously participated in the OAS proceeding, voted for the investigation. Other countries that did as well, particularly Mexico, their leaders have spoken out clearly and declaratively, saying that the coup was a bad thing. Why hasn't the United States government done the same?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, that was Terry's question earlier, and again I can just walk through the chronology of what took place.

Q Subsequent to the events of Friday night, there has not been a formal statement from the U.S. saying that this was --

MR. FLEISCHER: I just read to you the vote by the Organization of American States, and the language that the United States supported in that vote.

Q And others who voted with us, their leaders stepped out, and said separate from that, that the coup was a bad thing, and they condemned it. Why has there not been a similar condemnation from the White House?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I would refer you to the statements that were issued, Dr. Rice's comments on the Sunday shows, the United States' statements about the importance of a restoration of democracy, the concern about the loss of human life. The United States spoke out and spoke out unequivocally.

Q Mr. Fleischer, the other day, Dr. Condoleezza Rice had a meeting here at the White House with the Greek Minster of Defense, Yiannos Papantoniou. Do you have any comment on that?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, I do not have any readout on Dr. Rice's meetings.

Q Ari, does the President still have full faith and confidence in Army Secretary White? And does he worry that the FBI investigation of possible insider trading will distract him from his job as Army Secretary?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President believes that the Secretary is doing a very good job, and the job he was appointed to do. And I have no information for you about any potential investigations. That's a question for anybody in the area of Justice to fill you in on. Whether there is or is not any such investigation, I do not know.

Q Ari, how does the President or the White House generally feel about all the criticism from conservatives about its approach to the Middle East?

MR. FLEISCHER: You know, again, the President is aware that particularly when it comes to a topic like the Middle East, there are going to be some very important emotions and thoughts that are shared on all sides of the issue. But the President views this the way the American people do, that this has been a decades long conflict, that if it could have been resolved easily and quickly, it would have been done long ago, by many of the President's predecessors.

That is simply not the case in dealing with the complexities of the Middle East. And so the President is committed to the path that he has outlined for the parties in his Rose Garden address. He believes that that is the best route to finding peace in the region. He understands other people are going to have their thoughts, and that's their right.

Q Ari, when the President meets the Crown Prince --

MR. FLEISCHER: I'll let Jim finish, then I'll come back to Randy.

Q You had people, including Bill Bennett, who suggested he has angered his entire base over this. Is that a matter of concern to the President? Does he feel any need to address that in public and try to convince them that he's doing what he believes --

MR. FLEISCHER: Bill Bennett is a solid, respectable, conservative leader. He speaks his own opinion. I'm not certain that it's fair to say that his voice is the voice of the conservative or the Republican or any other base.

Q When the President meets the Crown Prince, is he likely to raise concerns on the view expressed by Saudi officials and Saudi media, endorsing suicide bombings --

MR. FLEISCHER: That meeting will take place in a little over a week from now. And as we always do, just prior to the meeting we'll fill you in in greater detail about the agenda they're going to discuss.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

MR. FLEISCHER: Thank you.

END 1:17 P.M. EDT