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 Home > News & Policies > May 2002

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
May 2, 2002

Press Briefing by Ari Fleischer
The James S. Brady Briefing Room

12:23 P.M. EDT

MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. I'd like to give you a report on the President's day. The President began his day this morning with two phone calls to foreign leaders. He spoke with President Karzai of Afghanistan. It was a very friendly 10-minute phone call with him. During the call he reiterated America's commitment to helping the Afghanistani people in the rebuilding of their country by expressing his support for the development of infrastructure of institutions to help build the lives -- rebuild the lives of the Afghani people. And they also discussed the progress in Afghanistan on the upcoming loya jirga.

Also, the President this morning spoke to President Shevardnadze of Georgia. The President expressed his condolences for the suffering caused by the earthquake which took place in Tbilisi. The President also conveyed gratitude for Georgia's contributions to the international fight against terrorism. President Shevardnadze welcomed the counterterrorist assistance being provided by the United States for the training -- program intended for Georgia's Pankesi Gorge region. Finally, both Presidents agreed on the need to reduce the political and military tension among the states of the Caucasus in pursuit of peace and stability.

Then, the President had his CIA briefing, followed by FBI briefing. And then he is in the middle now of a luncheon as part of his some three and a half hours of meetings that he is having today as part of the summit between the United States and the European Union. EU Council President Jose Aznar and EU Commission President Romano Prodi have joined the President.

They had a private meeting in the Oval Office, followed by an expanded bilateral meeting, at which time they discussed issues involving the war against terrorism, the war in Afghanistan, the situation in the Middle East, other issues. At lunch, I anticipate they will be talking about some trade matters between the EU and the United States. And then later this afternoon, the President will host a reception for the National Day of Prayer.

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

Q Ari, can you expand on -- when you said they talked about the Middle East, just give us a little more detail on what specifically came up?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President talked about his remarks from the Rose Garden on April 4th and the need for all three parties in the region to commit themselves to a peace process in the Middle East, and the responsibilities that are incumbent on Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the Arab nations to act on. The President shared with the European leaders his belief that the meeting with Saudi Arabia was a very successful meeting, that the Saudis are playing a very constructive role in helping to bring peace to the region.

Q Did the other leaders raise any concerns about the approach that's being taken?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think they all agreed about the importance of all three parties to do their part to help bring peace to the region.

Q Do you expect any breakthroughs or advancement on the trade issues, trade disputes at this meeting?

MR. FLEISCHER: Ron, I'll wait for the meeting to be over before I make any statements about it. As you know, they're still meeting. The trade agenda was to be taken up during the lunch. It's a working lunch. I have chosen to spend my working lunch with you, rather than eating food and listening to the conversation. But we'll get you a read afterwards, for sure. And, of course, we'll have the news conference with the President.

Q Ari, in terms of where the Mideast peace process goes next, the Saudis are quite emphatic in saying we should go for a final settlement, a final settlement that includes all of the elements, rather than incrementalism, because incrementalism has not worked. What is the White House attempting to do by the time that Sharon gets here, sometime next week, to move in that direction toward a final settlement? And then do you agree that what's needed is a final settlement and an end to incrementalism?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, John, the administration is going to remain hard at work with the Arab nations, with the Palestinian Authority, and with the Israelis, on ways to move the political process forward, in concert with the security arrangements that are necessary. And the exact pace of that will, frankly, be in large part determined by the principals involved. If the principals involved can do more, and do it earlier, the United States will be very supportive. If the principals involved believe that an approach that builds confidence and trust over time is the most likely way to reach an agreement, we will work with them on that.

And so we'll continue to listen very closely to the parties involved. And I think we're hearing a diversity of views, frankly, from the Arab world about the pace and the timing, and about how to proceed. Suffice it so say, good events have taken place, there have been some good developments. The key now is to build on them in whatever fashion we can build on them.

Q Do you see a way in which you can -- the strategy so far has been let's implement Tenet and let's get to Mitchell. Do you see a way in which there can be parallel tracks, so that you try to achieve both at the same time?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, Secretary Powell, some three weeks ago, did raise that. And I think you're seeing already an integration of security, as well as political talks as a way to do both. They are both vital to bringing peace to the Middle East. It's hard to have peace in the region if there is violence. It's easier to have a comprehensive solution or interim solutions if there is less violence, so the two go very well together.

But you know the history of the Middle East, John, is that both measures have been tried. There has been an attempt in incremental ways to reach peace agreements in the Middle East, and there's also been an attempt to have a comprehensive agreement in one fell swoop entered into in the Middle East. So the experience shows that both attempts, both ways are very difficult. The President is going to remain hard at work with a shoulder to the wheel to help the parties to figure out how to make progress on either front.

Q Ari, you just said the exact pace will be determined by the principals involved. Doesn't that, in effect, give a veto to progress towards peace to either one of these old, recalcitrant warriors?

MR. FLEISCHER: Terry, it's a fundamental fact that in order to get an agreement, either incremental or comprehensive, the two parties have to agree to it. Nothing can change that. Nobody can impose a solution. What the United States can do and what has started to happen as a result of the good work of Saudi Arabia and others is the parties are increasingly listening to the friendly advice they're getting from nations that want to be constructive.

But nothing can change the fact that if Israel and the Palestinian Authority don't themselves find a way to peace, no external force, no matter how helpful, can do it for them. The trick in the Middle East is to be the party that can work well with all parties to get the job done. And that's what the United States' role has been and will be.

Q If I could just follow on that, there are ways to bring pressure onto both parties. The United States has a lot of influence with Israel; Saudi Arabia has a lot of influence with the Palestinians through money, among other things. Is it not possible, as some argue, to construct a solution and impose it?

MR. FLEISCHER: What's important is that you work constructively with all of the nations in the region, including Israel, work constructively with the Palestinian Authority and the Arab nations so they can find ways to help themselves to find the path to peace. So you call it pressure; the United States calls it diplomacy. We call it using our good influence in the region and welcoming the good influence of the Arab nations -- that is an integral part of the mix. And that's the helpful event that took place in Crawford last weekend which has helped to change the dynamic in the region.

Q One more on a different subject. The House Majority Leader, Mr. Armey, suggested on an appearance on Hardball that it would be preferable for Israel to keep the West Bank and for the Palestinian people there to be transferred, ethnically cleansed. What does the President think of this -- he didn't use those words, but --

MR. FLEISCHER: Terry -- yes -- did the Majority Leader use those words?

Q No. He said that they should leave.

MR. FLEISCHER: No, he did not.

Q That's the way Milosevic said it; he never said ethnic cleansing, either. (Laughter.) And I wondered what the President felt about this high official of the United States government calling for the forcible transfer of a civilian population.

MR. FLEISCHER: Terry, given your characterization of it, I think it's only fair to go back and read the words with precision before I would give you a comment on something based on the way you've asked the question.

Q And if you would take a look at the transcript, id appreciate the President's thoughts.


Q What did you make of Prime Minister Sharon's statement that Chairman Arafat might not be allowed to go back to the West Bank if he were to leave to go to a meeting of other Arab leaders.

MR. FLEISCHER: The American position, what President Bush feels is that Yasser Arafat is now free to leave, and Yasser Arafat is now free to travel. And that includes to return to Ramallah or to the Gaza Strip as part of the agreement. Also what the President believes is while Yasser Arafat is free to travel, he is now free to lead and free to take responsibility, and that's what the President wants to see.

Q Speaking of that, what was the President's reaction to Yasser Arafat's comments last night, soon after he was pretty much free from his compound, talking about what was going on at the Church of the Nativity, in essence, calling Israelis, "terrorist, barbarians and racists"?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President believes that now is the time for all parties in the region to ask themselves what they can do to bring peace to the region and not to speak ill of others. The President believes that all three parties in the region have responsibilities. Israel's responsibility is to think beyond the immediate military actions involving security, to think about how to bring a broader peace to the region.

Yasser Arafat's responsibility is now to demonstrate that he can lead, that he will fight terrorism and that he is committed to the cause of peace. And the Arab nations' responsibility, in the President's opinion, is to work constructively to help bring about peace by using their good influence on their neighbors in the region.

Q Ari, last night on Nightline, Prime Minister Sharon was asked about withdrawing from the West Bank. He was asked the question within the context of President Bush urging that he do that. And he made it very clear that he will not do that, at least until he presents this plan. What's the President's position on a withdrawal at this point?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President's position is exactly as the President stated on April 4th in the Rose Garden, that Israel needs to end the incursions and continue to withdraw, withdraw from the positions they occupied in the West Bank, as a result of the recent military efforts.

Q Is this an issue that the President is willing to talk to Sharon about before he comes here?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President's focus is on building on the progress that was made as a result of the meetings in Crawford, and finding a way to bring together political solutions with security solutions. And that's going to require a focus on all kinds of issues. And those issues will get discussed when the Prime Minister arrives.

Q Ari, you said today that this conversation dealt with the war against terrorism, war in Afghanistan, the Middle East. I want to ask you if the subject of Saddam Hussein came up, because we all know there's big differences between the position of the U.S. vis a vis Saddam Hussein, and the European position. Did that position come up --

MR. FLEISCHER: In the EU meeting?

Q Yes.

MR. FLEISCHER: Not in the portion of the meeting I was in, no.

Q And the second question. On the press conference that will be held in a few minutes, is it going to be just President Bush and President Aznar? Is Mr. Prodi going to be a member?

MR. FLEISCHER: No, Mr. Prodi, of course, will be there as well?

Q And how many questions per --

MR. FLEISCHER: You're going to force me to answer that here on this forum, in this -- I'd hate to let you down by giving you an answer. Exactly as I told you this morning; there will be one question from the American press, one question from the European press, one question from the Spanish press.

Q You said this morning, and again I think just now, that all parties in the Middle East need to think -- take a step back, think carefully about what they can do now to achieve a broader peace. It's pretty clear what the President expects of Yasser Arafat and of the Arab countries. What specifically does he expect Israel to do now, beyond the withdrawal, which is now nearly complete?

MR. FLEISCHER: Precisely what I just said. I began it --

Q -- got a little vague. Can you fill in some the details? What specifically --

MR. FLEISCHER: I began it precisely with a statement about Israel's responsibilities, and that is the President believes that beyond Israel looking at its current security needs, Israel, too, needs to look at a vision of peace tomorrow, so that they can live side by side.

Q What does that mean more precisely?

MR. FLEISCHER: That means getting into the political settlements and the political agreements, which as you know are the hard-core nut and bold issues that have prevented for decades the parties in the Middle East from coming together. That's the purpose of the President's diplomacy.

Q Does it mean freezing settlements, and beginning to pull back --

MR. FLEISCHER: Settlements are clearly an issue that needs to be discussed as part of the political dialogue.

Q Is that going to be something that the President urges Prime Minister Sharon to do next week?

MR. FLEISCHER: Settlements are clearly one of the issues that needs to be discussed as part of the political dialogue.

Q Since you've gone across the road, forgive me for going off topic, but Frank Luntz is circulating a poll, an analysis up on Capitol Hill, suggesting that for the Republicans to regain control of the Senate, they're going to have to pass some kind of Medicare prescription benefit. Does the President agree with that? What is the status of all that?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I haven't seen or heard anything about a poll that's being circulated, but I can tell you, going back to even before the President was elected, in 1999 and in 2000, the President made an issue of the fact that he wants to find a way to get prescription drugs to senior citizens. The President has several proposals as part of the reform plan that he has sent up to the Hill. And the President welcomes a focus on the Congress -- in the Congress to get the job done. The President believes that Medicare needs to be strengthened, Medicare needs to be modernized, and that seniors need to get prescription drug coverage as part of the Medicare.

Q Does he share that urgency in terms of the politics of it?

MR. FLEISCHER: Listen, I don't think the President focuses on it or addresses it in terms of the politics. He addresses it in terms of seniors deserve it and need it.

Q Ari, it seems that this U.N. investigation of the events at Jenin have -- is not going to happen. And my question is, how was the decision made to pull back on that? Was that completely a U.N. decision? It seems that the administration had been supporting some form of an investigation. What do you have to say about --

MR. FLEISCHER: David, number one, the administration regrets that it did not work out. And I'd have to refer you to the United Nations for any detailed tick-tock on how they make the decisions they make. I can share with you the President's reaction. And I think what's important now, from the President's point of view, is that journalists are free to travel to Jenin and make their own independent observations and judgments. But the President also wants to make sure that people focus now on how to bring humanitarian aid, broadly speaking -- not only the people who live in the camps in Jenin, but throughout Palestinian areas. The United States commitment to the Palestinian people is real and is sincere, and it's financial -- it's real money that the United States is providing and will continue to provide because we do have a humanitarian concern for the plight of the Palestinian people.

The President hopes that the Palestinian Authority will be helpful to the Palestinian people, and an authority that can be representative of their legitimate aspirations and dreams.

Q Beyond regretting that it didn't happen, and the President has not been shy in the past when Prime Minister Sharon has been less than responsive to Americans desires, to pick up the phone or in some other way communicate his interest in having him do something -- did he do this in this case, or did he just let it pass?

MR. FLEISCHER: I think I've shared with you what the President has said and done.

Q You have shared with us what he is -- his view of it is. You haven't shared with us what he's done. Did he actively at any point step in to express to the Israelis that they should, in fact, let the U.N. mission go ahead?

MR. FLEISCHER: I really have nothing more to add beyond what I've indicated to you.

Q You said yesterday, Ari, that the idea of an international conference was premature. But obviously, some things have changed now; Arafat is free to travel, the Israelis have pulled back to some extent. What are the conditions for your decision on whether or not to support an international conference, and have you moved at all? Are you likely to move by the time Sharon arrives here on --

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, there are two issues that I think you need to distinguish between. One is an international conference at the ministerial level, as Secretary Powell has discussed; and secondarily, an international conference at the summit level. The President has indicated that, of course, the idea of the ministerial level is an interesting one. It requires a lot of groundwork for it to be done, and done right. There's no decision made about whether that is the root that will be pursued. At the summit level, that is premature, that it has not yet risen to that point, and I'd just leave it at that.

Q So are you -- I mean, obviously, Sharon comes here Monday, it was his idea. Are you likely to tell him the same thing you just said as far as --

MR. FLEISCHER: I think, again, Sharon -- actually, we don't have the date for it yet, so you said Monday --

Q Sorry, pardon me.

MR. FLEISCHER: Sharon will be here next week -- a very clever try. (Laughter.) If I'd answered the question, you'd have said, "White House acknowledged" -- no, as soon as we have the date, too, we will let you know. But that will be a topic of discussion perhaps, and I'll share it at the time.

Q Now, one of the things -- you talked about the humanitarian aid -- one of the other things you talked about is trying to rebuild Palestinian security forces so that they can, hopefully, get a control over those who would be inclined to engage in terrorist acts. What is the next step on that, and what is the U.S. involvement?

MR. FLEISCHER: Next step on --

Q Rebuilding Palestinian security forces.

MR. FLEISCHER: What the President hopes will happen now is that as a result of the progress that's been made, that the Palestinian Authority needs to look inward and say, how can we be constructive in moving forward on a longer-term vision of peace, as well as a longer-term building of the infrastructure for the Palestinian people. And the United States, as I indicated, is committed and has been helpful, and will continue to be helpful in terms of providing humanitarian aid and reconstruction aid for the Palestinian people. Certainly the Arab nations have many resources that they, too, can properly apply to help of the Palestinian humanitarian plight.

These will be interesting steps that show the future direction of the Palestinian Authority to make certain that their focus is on the infrastructure of a potential Palestinian state, on the education system of the Palestinian people. There is existing large amounts of self-rule in the Palestinian Authority, and these examples of self-rule provide a helpful way to measure the Palestinian Authority's influence and ability to create a better life for their own people.

Q Could I inject one domestic issue very quickly? The President indicated --

MR. FLEISCHER: Then we have to go to somebody else --

Q -- indicated this morning he's going to sign the farm bill.


Q At one point, the whole idea here a few years ago was to wean farmers off subsidies. Now the President is signing a bill that will wind up spending about $110 billion over six years on farmers. Has the White House, has Washington given up on the idea of trying to reduce payments to farmers?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as you saw from the President's statement, he's expressed the reasons why in the bill that he is pleased to sign it. And he cited specifically the commodity loan rates, the reduced spending that falls within the congressional budget resolution, the fact that it's no longer front-loaded, the strong conservation measures that are in the agricultural bill, and that the farm bill is consistent -- and this is very important -- with America's international trade obligations, because it's the President's belief that foreign products provide not only jobs for America's farmers, but exports around the world, which is good for our trading partners.

But, not to overstate what took place in 1996 by the question alone, keep in mind that after that measure was passed, the Freedom to Farm Act, virtually every year since it was passed the Congress passed supplemental appropriation bills that provided aid to farmers. So this is an attempt to also bring some order to a post-1996 environment in which the annual appropriations did not match the intended action of 1996.

Deborah, who keeps moving to a different seat every briefing or gaggle.

Q Well, if we only had a permanent one, I wouldn't have to do that.

MR. FLEISCHER: You don't have a permanent seat?

Q That is correct.

Q Me, too.

MR. FLEISCHER: Is there anybody who'd like to give up their permanent seat? (Laughter.)

Q Thank you, Ari. This morning, you said that Yasser Arafat had yet to earn the President's trust, and you expressed, both this morning and again, some dissatisfaction with his first remarks after leaving his compound. Is there a point at which the President will conclude that Yasser Arafat cannot earn his trust?

MR. FLEISCHER: You know, I just am not going to speculate about the future. What's important for Yasser Arafat is the here and now. Yasser Arafat is now free to leave his compound. Yasser Arafat is now free to travel. And with that freedom comes a responsibility to show the world and to show the Palestinian people, and the Israeli people and the Arab nations, that he meant what he said about renouncing terrorism and ending violence as a way of settling political disputes.

Freedom means freedom to prove that he can lead, and that he will take responsible actions to help bring peace to the region. The President is watching.

Q Following up on David's question, Secretary Powell, last week I think it was, quite definitively said that there was no evidence of a massacre at Jenin, and he staked his own prestige on that, in effect. Did we have some kind of American on the ground, informal investigation, before he made those statements?

MR. FLEISCHER: Let me go back -- you might want to address that directly, and I'll go back and re-read the Secretary's words, to be precise. Again, I always am hesitant to take a characterization of somebody's words, if I haven't read them directly myself. But suffice it to say that we have ways of obtaining information and seeing things. I don't know that you can say "formal investigation." But that's why, again, the President thinks what's important now is Jenin is a city that journalists are free to travel into. Journalists are very good at making independent judgments and observations. And they report what they find, and they do so freely.

Q For the record, I'd also love a permanent seat. Why do you believe, Ari, that the congressional resolution -- pro-Israeli resolution would be detrimental to the peace process? And also, why does the administration agree that the areas under Palestinian rule are still called refugee camps under U.N. auspices? Many of them are actually cities now.

MR. FLEISCHER: I'm not diplomatic expert enough to give you historical reasons for lexicon. But on your first question, about the resolution, the President understands and respects Congress' right to enter into non-binding resolutions. Congress has a right to speak out. Having said that, the President also knows that Congress is cognizant of the fact that no foreign policy can have 535 different Secretaries of State. So non-binding resolutions are precisely non-binding; and are resolutions because they neither require the veto or the approval of the President of the United States.

It's a longstanding mechanism for Congress to express itself in a non-binding form. And the environment in which Congress is proceeding with this today is a totally different environment from which they were proceeding earlier, when the administration asked them to postpone action. And that was prior to the meeting in Crawford, prior to the non-violent resolution of the situation in Ramallah?

Q It's all right now? Now you're not upset?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I've expressed to you the on the one hand, on the other hand approach the administration has toward it.

We're going to keep to the back. We have people who have not asked questions yet. And as you know, the practice -- Kelly, we'll be there shortly.

Q Next week we approach the one-year anniversary of some of the President's circuit court nominees being nominated. A large number of those have yet to have a hearing in the Senate Judiciary Committee. What can the President do that hasn't been done or say that hasn't been said to get any kind of movement on there? Or is there just a sense of resignation that nothing's really going to happen there until there are some elections?

MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think this is an issue that the President is deeply concerned about. The President has just made his 100th nomination to the federal bench, and the pace of congressional action is very, very slow. And that's a real problem for people who want to get justice in America, people who want to be able to go to courts and not count on big backlogs in our federal courts.

The problem is even worse at the circuit court level, which is one level down from the Supreme Court, where the Senate has barely taken any action at all on the President's nominees. So it's a concern for the President, but even more importantly, given the number of judicial emergencies and vacancies, it's a real concern for the country.

Q Ari, you said a few minutes ago that the Arabs have expressed a diversity of views. Is the President concerned that Arab support for the Saudi initiative is beginning to unravel?

MR. FLEISCHER: No. No, what I was expressing was a characterization of one Saudi official, who I'm not even sure we have a name for, who --

Q I can provide it to you later.

MR. FLEISCHER: -- who's indicated, at least privately, that a comprehensive solution is the only solution. There's a diversity of views. That is reflective of the fact that people recognize in the Middle East previously, incremental approaches have been tried, comprehensive approaches have been tried, and there's no one magic approach.

Q -- on the ministerial level meeting, you said it's an interesting idea. What does the President see as the promise or the hope for a ministerial level meeting?

MR. FLEISCHER: Again, that's an interesting idea that remains at the idea stage, and for the time being that's where I'll leave it.

Q On the Hill, some House Republicans have decided to start pushing again for legislation to arm commercial pilots with guns. I was just wondering what the President's view of that is, if it's necessary at this time to have pilots with guns?

MR. FLEISCHER: The President on this decision looks to his experts in the area of transportation and transportation security. And the recommendation of the experts is that this not proceed. And the President listens to his experts on technical matters like this, which is how he views this.

Thank you.

END 12:52 P.M. EDT