|The White House
President George W. Bush
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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
May 20, 2003
Press Briefing with Ari Fleischer
James S. Brady Press Briefing Room
12:55 P.M. EDT
MR. FLEISCHER: Good afternoon. I want to give you a report on the President's day. The President began his morning with a phone call to Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Abu Abbas -- Minister Mahmoud Abbas. The call marked the first time the President has spoken with the new Palestinian Prime Minister. The discussions were friendly and hopeful.
The President reiterated his commitment to the vision of June 24th, including two states living side-by-side in peace and in security. The President reiterated the absolute need for all parties to fight terror. The President stressed the need for all parties to take concrete steps, and called for cooperative efforts between all Arab parties and Israel to create the conditions for peace and security in the Middle East. He reiterated his commitment to the security of the state of Israel. And the President said he looked forward to calls in the future and to a future meeting with the new Palestinian Prime Minister.
Abu Mazen told the President he was committed to reform, to peace, and to ending all acts of terror. He thanked President Bush for the call.
After the call, the President had his morning intelligence meeting, had an FBI briefing, and convened a meeting of the National Security Council. Later this morning he spoke on the Healthy Forests Initiative, which is an initiative, very important in the Western states and for all who visit the Western states and care about our nation's forests. A vote is scheduled on the floor of the House of Representatives today to implement the protections that the President and the Congress have been working on for our national forests. That bill is particularly important, given the fact that the summer season is approaching, the season of forest fires.
In late morning, the President met with the President of the Dominican Republic. The two discussed the strong bilateral and trade relationships between the United States and the Dominican Republic, as we work together. Later this afternoon, the President will meet with a group of Cuban dissidents, as today marks Cuban Independence Day.
A couple other items for you. The President also, immediately following his meeting with the President of the Dominican Republic, spoke with Prime Minister Sharon of Israel. The President offered his condolences to the people of Israel in the wake of the most recent homicide bombings in Israel, which have taken lives. The President told the Prime Minister that he understood the reason that the Prime Minister would not be able to travel to the United States tonight for their previously scheduled meeting. He said that he looked forward to a rescheduled meeting with the Prime Minister.
The President talked about the importance of remaining committed to the peace process in the Middle East, to working forward on the road map. The President informed the Prime Minister of his call with Abu Mazen and told the Prime Minister that he believes Abu Mazen is a reformer who will work for peace. The President also told the Prime Minister that the United States and President Bush are committed to the security of Israel. And the Prime Minister thanked President Bush for his courage and his leadership.
Two announcements for you. One, President Bush will welcome President Musharraf of Pakistan to Camp David on June 24th. Pakistan is a stalwart ally in the war on terror. President Bush looks forward to discussing with President Musharraf regional and international issues, and to reviewing means to further deepen and broaden the bilateral ties between the United States and Pakistan.
And, finally, there is a Homeland Security Council meeting that is underway. Obviously, I am here with you, I'm not in the homeland security meeting, so I have no further information about that at this time. You'll be kept posted if there are any new developments.
Q Ari, we've got this new FBI bulletin out today warning of possible attacks here or overseas. Some intelligence sources are now framing the possibility as "imminent." Are we under an "imminent" state of alert? Is there a much more urgent concern now?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, there has been, as you accurately point out, information that has led to this status in Saudi Arabia. We have concerns about whether or not there are threats that go beyond Saudi Arabia, and discussions are underway. This is part of the daily review that takes place involving the texture, the quality, the quantity of what is often referred to as the chatter that we hear in the system. So these matters are being looked at as we speak. We do have concerns about the terrorists doing what they can to continue to inflict harm.
Q Now, the Democrats recently have been attacking the President on this issue of the focus on the war in Iraq, took his focus off, or took his eye off the ball when it came to al Qaeda, and that in pursuing the war in Iraq, it allowed al Qaeda to reconstitute itself while the U.S. focus was turned elsewhere. Was that a fair statement?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I think the President understands that there are a group of officials who are vying to become the Commander-in-Chief, who will say things that bear no bearing on reality on the international situation, on the security situation. He's focused more on his ongoing mission of providing national security to this country, in a very dangerous world, a world that he clearly understands.
And I don't think you have to be a student of international affairs to know prior to the war in Iraq, we had an enemy who hit us. We have an enemy who hit -- tried to hit us during the war; we have an enemy that wants to hit us after the war. That's what the President is focused on. That's why the meetings are underway. And that's why the President will continue to remind the American people that this is, indeed, a long war against terror, a war that carries risks not only to Americans abroad, but to Americans at home.
Q But when he said on board the USS Lincoln that the tide was turning in the war on terror --
MR. FLEISCHER: Correct.
Q -- was that premature?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think there's no question that the tide is turning, and as the President said, al Qaeda is diminished, but is not destroyed. Tides that turn also have a way of trying to return so they can continue to spread whatever waves they can. And that is why there is an ebb and flow to wars. There is a battle rhythm to wars. And in this long battle against terrorism, the United States has been very successful in rounding up and arresting such prominent leaders of the al Qaeda organization as Khalid Sheik Mohammed, many of the other top operators around the world. The fact of the matter is, the situation has been made much more dire, much more difficult for the terrorists, but it is not impossible for the terrorists.
Q Can you talk at all about this meeting with the Cuban exiles and dissidents? Was it planned to be a larger type event and then scaled back?
MR. FLEISCHER: Today is Cuban Independence Day. And as you know, the President has previously met with groups of people who have important stories to tell about the suffering that they have seen in their native country -- Iraq comes to mind. And so this is a meeting that has been scheduled for the Roosevelt Room to discuss this with these brave individuals.
Q Is he in the process of considering steps that might be taken? I know a lot of it -- a lot of the exiled groups have called for stronger actions, ranging from declaring a regime change policy in Cuba to economic -- more economic pressure. Is he thinking about changing the U.S. policy?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think the administration is always reviewing what the best policy is around the world, and that would include the best policies toward Cuba.
Q And finally, on Sunday, Ricardo Alarcon, who is the head of the Cuban National Assembly, said on the Stephanopoulos on ABC that Jeb Bush had been lobbying his brother to attack Cuba, to do for Cuba what you did for Iraq. Is there any White House reaction to that?
MR. FLEISCHER: First I've heard about that, so I can't tell you any more.
Q On the Middle East, Prime Minister Sharon in the past has made it clear that there really can't be a peace process as long as it's hot on the ground, if there is violence on the ground. There needs to be a cooling off period before he would even enter into any framework for peace like the road map. Did this come up in the phone call today, and how does the President feel about that? What is he saying to the Israelis about that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President has always said that what's important is that 100 percent effort be made by the Palestinian Authority to fight the violence and to stop the terrorists. The problem is, if you set a standard of 100 percent success, one or two individual terrorists then can hijack the peace process and put themselves in a position where they decide whether or not the peace process shall go forward or not, because they attack. And that's why the President looks to 100 percent effort from the Palestinian Authority. And this is also why the President, as he evaluates the new leader of the Palestinian Authority, has high hopes.
Now, clearly, for Israel, they are suffering from more grievous attacks on their nation at this very time. And that's why the President said to Prime Minister Sharon he understood the reasons Prime Minister Sharon would not come -- be able to come to the United States for his meeting tonight.
But this is a process that will take time. The President is interested in solving this process and the President understands it is not the type of dispute that will be solved immediately. It's going to require a longer view, a longer-term approach, and the President will give it whatever time it needs. He hopes it can be done as short as possible, but he'll have that long approach to getting it done.
Q The President talks about using political capital, that you've got to use it when you've got it. But he's also said when it comes to this conflict that prior administrations that the President -- President Clinton used a lot of political capital when he was dealing with somebody, in the President's estimation, Yasser Arafat, who is not going to deliver. So the question is, at a time when people are calling on the President to get personally involved -- and by that I suppose they mean when the time is right, maybe convening a summit where, again, he's personally involved -- would he ever consider doing that if events on the ground made it possible to get some breakthrough?
MR. FLEISCHER: I can't speculate about what will come many steps down the road. There's a road map that hopes to get there. Clearly, the first parties that are responsible are the Israelis and the Palestinians. They have to be the ones to work genuinely with each other, because that's where peace will be found. The United States' role is to lean very forward into that process to help make it happen, and that's what the President is doing.
In terms of personal process by the President, I think it's absolutely fair to say that if it hadn't been for the President's personal involvement there would not be a reformist-minded Palestinian Prime Minister today. There would still be a terrorist-minded leader of the Palestinian people. So that's a very helpful change that has taken place on the ground in the Palestinian institutions. More has to come, more needs to follow. All parties have responsibilities and the recent terrorist violence has, unfortunately, set back the timing of the meeting, but it has not set back the cause of peace.
Q One more. The President does believe that it was because of his pressure that there was, in effect, regime change within the Palestinian Authority?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think there's no question about that, yes.
Q Does the President think that it is a more dangerous world because of our invasion of Iraq and the upswing in terrorism which seems to be really more rampant now since -- do our policies have anything to do with that?
MR. FLEISCHER: Helen, you may have missed the fact that the bombing in Bali took place before the war in Iraq, or the attempted attacks on the consulate in Bashara took place before the war in Iraq.
Q You don't see it as a more dangerous world today?
MR. FLEISCHER: No. I think the President sees the world more safe today as a result of removing the threat of Saddam Hussein to the region and to people in that region who want to work for peace.
Q Well, was it Saddam Hussein who caused the terrorism?
MR. FLEISCHER: Yes, but not the attacks in Saudi Arabia. But that's why I made the point to you now that even before the war in Iraq there were terrorist attacks in other parts of the world that took great tolls.
Q But you never linked them totally to Saddam.
MR. FLEISCHER: That's correct. So why are you?
Q Why am I? I think that there is a whole -- there's a turmoil in the Arab world, obviously, from all the things we've been doing.
MR. FLEISCHER: I think there's a lot of silent rejoicing in the Arab world that Saddam Hussein is gone.
Q Does the administration believe that the recent attacks in Saudi Arabia and Morocco, and the information that led to the FBI alert, and whatever pending action that this government may be taking on this matter, represent a resurgence in the power of al Qaeda to plan and carry out attacks?
MR. FLEISCHER: That's being evaluated. We have concluded that the attack in Saudi Arabia was al Qaeda. In Morocco, it remains under review. Clearly, al Qaeda has lost its central training grounds. It is far dispersed, making anything they do much, much harder. But nevertheless, the ability of people to drive car bombs still is a real problem, day-to-day problem, in many parts of the world.
The coordinated efforts that they undertake are harder to do. But, clearly, in Saudi Arabia, it was done. What it tells you is what the President told the American people two years ago is just as valid today. And that is, we have a determined group of enemies of freedom, who hate Westerners, who hate our values, who will do everything in their power, under the most difficult circumstances for them, to regroup to hit this country, and to hit our friends. That's why the President refers to it as an ongoing war.
Q And in recent weeks and months, as John pointed out, the President has been out there saying -- boasting almost -- that some of the top leadership has been captured, or suffered other fates --
MR. FLEISCHER: Correct. That's correct.
Q -- and that it's almost been decapitated --
MR. FLEISCHER: No, he hasn't said that.
Q That's my question. Is what is happening in the world, and what may be a threat in this country, evidence to the administration that the al Qaeda leadership has reconstituted itself in other ways?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think we're evaluating that at -- what levels. But I think it's important to cite what the President said. And I think that his best and his most recent summary of the information based on intelligence that leads him to analyze al Qaeda is when the President said that al Qaeda is diminished, but is not destroyed.
And both those are statements of fact. They have been diminished as a result of the arrests of some of their most senior operatives, their planners, their key planners. But clearly, any terrorist organization, any organization that has people filled with hate, they will try to replenish themselves. And that's why it is an ongoing effort, as the President says, to hunt them down and bring them to justice. We haven't gotten all of them. But we, at the President's direction, will continue taking every step possible, along with our allies around the world, to find them, wherever they may be.
Q And just one more on this. After a year -- more than a year and a half since the 9/11 attacks, and a lot of effort by the federal government and state and local governments on this issue, what's the President's assessment of how hardened America has become to these attacks at airports, at ports, in the streets of our cities and elsewhere, how much progress has been made?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, clearly, since 9/11, both the private sector and the public sector have become much better prepared and are better equipped to deal with terrorism. But living in an open society, living in a free society, living in a society that has -- I think I saw the statistic the other day, this might be off by some number, but some 345 million visitors to our country every year across our borders -- the fact of the matter is, what makes us great, what makes us free is also what makes us vulnerable. And the President's judgment is we have to fortify, we have to reduce those vulnerabilities, but never at the price of our freedom.
And this is one of the reasons why we have enemies who hate us. Because we are so free, we are so strong. But in that freedom comes vulnerabilities. We are always working to shore them up. But make no mistake, we have enemies who still want to hit us within our shores, within our country. And we evaluate that information every day, and the evaluation is underway right now.
Q Ari, the President said yesterday Europe must do everything it can to discourage terrorist activities that derail the peace process. What's he specifically talking about, and would he consider any meetings with Arafat unhelpful?
MR. FLEISCHER: Obviously, the President has reached the conclusion that meetings with Yasser Arafat are unhelpful. That's the conclusion that he has reached.
Q For Europe, as well as the United States?
MR. FLEISCHER: I don't think the President views it as his role to dictate to other foreign sovereign leaders what they should or should not do. But, clearly, the President has good reasons for it and he believes those reasons are valid and universal. But it's not his business to dictate to other foreign leaders, but, clearly, he thinks it's the right thing to do.
But the President said what he said because the President thinks that after Israel is attacked like this, it's important for leaders of Europe to speak out and condemn terrorism in no uncertain terms, and to let the Israeli people know that the European people and European governments care about Israeli security.
Q Does the administration see any signs that Osama bin Laden or any other senior al Qaeda leaders are still operating out of Pakistan?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as far as Osama bin Laden, we do not know where he is. I assure you, if we had precise information about where he is, he would no longer be operating there. But we don't know. Clearly, there was a long period of time where we thought there was a possibility that he had been killed. Then some of the recent tapes emerged. But at all times, we did not know.
Q If I can turn, for a moment, to the tax cut. Yesterday the President told the congressional tax writers that he would like to have them get a bill to him by this weekend, by Memorial Day.
MR. FLEISCHER: Correct.
Q A few hours before he did that, the Treasury Secretary sent a letter to the Hill saying that he absolutely needs in the next week an increase in the debt limit of roughly $1 billion. How does the President square pushing through a tax cut now with an increase in the debt that, after all, amounts to a tax on future generations who are going to have to pay it back?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, clearly, if there is no tax cut, the debt will still need to be increased as a result of conditions in the economy that predated the pending tax cut. And those conditions were led by, principally, the recession, the large spending increases that related from the attacks on our country, and then, of course, the expenditures on the war.
The debt, even at times of surplus, interestingly, has to be increased. It is, in many ways the way that the government calculates what's called long-term debt, which principally is the payments that are made in future outlays for Social Security and Medicare beneficiaries. That still is a long-term debt that is considered on the books that impacts the debt that has to be increased, the debt subject to the limit, even in times of growing surpluses. That's how it works. The recession, the expenditures, the war, all moved up that date, but it still would have to be done even in times of surplus, as the way the federal government calculates debt.
Q But would the tax cut accelerate it -- because, otherwise, you'd have higher levels of revenue?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think, again, what accelerated the path the most is the recession. It was the recession's depletion of revenues that came into the Treasury -- that, more than anything else. And that began, of course, even before the President took his term in January of 2001, and then extended for nine months, and then the terrorist attacks. In the President's judgment, still, the tax cuts remain the best way to boost the economy to help create growth and jobs.
Q The FCC new media ownership rules had been attacked, or the possibility of those rules have been attacked by both the right and the left. What is the President's position on the new FCC's ownership rule?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the FCC is the expert agency that takes a look at these matters; they do so based on the facts that are presented before them. And the President believes that they are the ones who should make those judgments.
Q Ari, in the conversation between the President and Prime Minister Sharon, was there a message by the President of restraint in the wake of these attacks, to give some breathing room to Abbas to try to put together and regroup the security forces to take on the militants?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, the President's message there was that, as I said earlier, that the President told Prime Minister Sharon that in President Bush's judgment, Abu Mazen is a reformer who wants to work for peace. That's what the President said. And the President said that it's important for us to find a way through the process, the peace process, through the road map, so that Abu Mazen can be successful. And that that's an important goal that Israel has, the that United States have, that the Arab neighbors have.
And this is also why the President has a long-term view of how to bring peace to the Middle East. He will not be deterred by the current terrorist bombings. He understands it will present a slowdown, a delay in this meeting, a bump on the road, but it will not deter him, because he thinks there is no other choice.
Q So an indication, but not a direct message?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, the President did not give him any message, whatsoever, about specific actions that Israel will or will not take as they defend themselves.
Q And one other thing. Barring a formal summit between the three leaders, does the President envision, perhaps, an informal meeting of some kind in the near future?
MR. FLEISCHER: With Abu Mazen?
Q With Abu Mazen and Sharon together.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, let's take first things first. And there has been -- and again, one of the reasons the terrorists attack when they do is they attack when peace has its greatest chance. They attacked right at the time of Ariel Sharon's meeting with Abu Mazen. The Israeli leader was sitting down with the Palestinian leader to talk about a way forward, to talk about peace. A hopeful moment for most of the world; a terrible moment for the terrorist who want to derail peace.
So first things first. We had that important meeting between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Prime Minister Sharon was scheduled to be here. The President had previously said he wanted to meet with Abu Mazen. We had all the good things you would have hoped to see happen from a process point of view that can lead to agreements on the ground. What's important now is to get back to that point.
Q Ari, when did the government, the U.S. government conclude that the Saudi bombings were the work of al Qaeda? And what is the nature of the evidence?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the nature of the evidence is the work of the investigators who were on the ground in Saudi Arabia working with the Saudis on this. As you know, the initial assessment team went into Saudi Arabia. Since then, the Saudis welcomed an even larger assessment team into Saudi Arabia, a team of additional agents. And I couldn't give you more specifics on that. That's the work of the experts. You might want to talk to the FBI about that.
Q Ari, what went into the decision to close, temporarily, U.S. embassies and missions in Saudi Arabia? You mentioned increased chatter. Tell us about that, if you would.
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, these are judgments that the State Department makes around the world to protect Americans who work abroad, and who live abroad. And based on the information that the United States obtained as a result of what's been called this chatter, a determination was made to shut down those facilities as a precaution. It's a description of how real we see the threat in Saudi Arabia right now.
Q And was it based on specific threats in Saudi Arabia?
MR. FLEISCHER: Not to any one site -- I can't say that. It was just based on, as often is the case, information that causes concern, chatter that causes concern. But, typically, the information is never so site-specific, so we take precautions at many different places, as a way to protect Americans.
Q And one final question on that. Correct me if I'm wrong, my understanding is that the embassies in question, the missions in question were going to be closed for two days anyway because of Muslim holy days, and that they'll reopen on Sunday. So the net effect is really only that they'll be closed for one day. And so, what did we hope that this move would accomplish?
MR. FLEISCHER: You need to talk to State about that. I really couldn't tell you if they were going to be closed at any other period of time. It's their purview.
Q Did you coordinate -- did the White House coordinate with Britain in it's decision to make a similar move?
MR. FLEISCHER: You might want to check with State if they coordinated with Britain or not.
Q Ari, two questions for you, please. The FBI has announced the danger of more terrorism in this country and abroad, and also raised the possibility of raising the color from orange -- from yellow to orange. Has the President had the last word when the code is to be raised?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, the process works as following: The Homeland Security Council -- per their charter when they were created by an act of Congress, and the procedures that are established -- the Homeland Security Council convenes to review the facts, the circumstances, the intelligence, and to listen to the judgments of the experts around the table about whether or not the code should stay at its current elevated level or be raised to a higher level. They review that information, and it is the decision of the Homeland Security Council. What typically happens is they will make the decision, they will come to the President with it. The President will basically acknowledge, but it is the decision of the Homeland Security Council.
Q Second question, Ari. The President is meeting with Cuban dissidents this afternoon. Can you tell us how many of them will be present? And what is the message that the President is trying to send to Havana, Fidel Castro at this meeting today, Cuban Independence Day?
MR. FLEISCHER: You might want to check with Lower Press on how many people will be there. I don't have that here with me. The President's message at this meeting with these Cuban leaders is that Cuba deserves to be free, that the Cuban people have suffered long enough at the hands of a tyrant, and the Cuban people, like people all around the world, deserve liberty and freedom.
Q What led the President to decide to call Abu Mazen for the first time today?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think it was a combination of the fact that the President was looking forward to talking to him because he sees him as a hopeful leader in the Palestinian people. And so the President wanted to have this contact. I think it's also the timing of the recent violence. The President thought it might be constructive to have this conversation with the Palestinian Prime Minister.
Q Was the timing such that he felt that perhaps this would help shore up a leader whose leadership is being questioned by -- under threat by Hamas and Hezbollah?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President views Abu Mazen as a new leader. He has just come into office, and these terrorist attacks are threats to him. He's not the first new leader in the world to be greeted with terrorist attacks. Unfortunately, these terrorist attacks took Israeli lives, but they represent a threat to the Palestinian people, as well.
If you remember the inaugural just a few months ago of the new leader of Colombia, as the new President was sworn in there was an attack by terrorists at the very moment of the swearing-in. And this is why these people are called terrorists. They do not have an interest in peaceful resolutions of disputes. They do not have an interest in peaceful process. And Abu Mazen, the President believes, does.
Q Is the President also trying to send a message to Prime Minister Sharon that this is a guy that I believe I can work with and by telling him the process, and telling Sharon that, perhaps trying to leverage some more cooperation from Sharon?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, I reported to you what the President said to
Prime Minister Sharon. He stated that he thought Abu Mazen was a man who was a reformer who would work for peace. And I also remind you Prime Minister Sharon, himself, met with Abu Mazen. I don't think the Prime Minister would have taken that step if he did not think it could lead to constructive results.
Q Following on that, there's been growing criticism from the Israel right that Abu Mazen is just a tool of Arafat and is really -- that these bombings just prove that he's just not the leader who we think he is. Does the President have any concerns that there might be some collusion? Or does he really feel that Mazen is independent of this?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I stated to you what the President thinks. The President thinks that he is, indeed, a reformer and somebody who will work for peace. He also thinks Ariel Sharon will work for peace. The key is to bring the two together so that peace can be achieved, despite the terrorist attacks. And this is why it's so important to stop the terrorist attacks, because they represent the greatest threat to Israeli security and to the prospects for peace.
Q Ari, Prime Minister Sharon has signaled a willingness to pull IDF out of some Gaza areas. However, he's very concerned about doing the same in the West Bank, apparently, because Arafat still controls the security apparatus. Is this a feeling also that the Quartet members have? And what does Arafat have to do to show that this isn't the case?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, these are the very issues that the road map is designed to address. This is exactly what we want the two parties to be talking about with the United States' assistance, which is deployment issues, specific on-the-ground issues. These are the issues that affect the daily lives of the people in the region. And these are also the issues that define whether security is growing or shrinking. And the greater security Israel feels, the more steps they will take. The more steps Israel takes, the greater the Palestinian Authority will have of being successful.
So this is a process where each step is locked with another, and why the President reminds all parties that their job is to focus on the positive steps that they need to take so that they can work together. And that's why they need the United States, to help them to do it.
Q But, specifically, do you -- does the White House believe that Arafat does still have too much control over the security apparatus in the West Bank, and this is a problem?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President thinks that Yasser Arafat has not been constructive in aiding the cause for peace. And there is a new security chief that is now reporting to Abu Mazen. And as I said, again, Abu Mazen has just entered this position and it's important that he be given the chance to achieve the objectives of fighting terror.
Q Ari, I'd like to go back to what David was talking about a few moments ago. In the past, the administration did not object or complain when Prime Minister Sharon insisted that there be a cooling-off period, no violence underway on the ground before even preliminary discussions of a road map or any similar apparatus could take place. Given what you all have said about the new Palestinian Prime Minister today, clearly, you see it as a new day. Do those old criteria apply? Will the President be encouraging Prime Minister Sharon perhaps to be a little more flexible and to be willing to get things started if he thinks there is a good-faith effort coming from the Palestinian side, irrespective of whether there is still violence on the ground?
MR. FLEISCHER: I go back to what I said today. The President, in his call with Prime Minister Sharon, talked about the importance of staying committed to the peace process. And that is coupled with a recognition that steps must be taken to crack down on terror.
Q In the past you were perfectly willing to let Prime Minister Sharon sort of set that standard, no formal discussions, no face-to-face get-togethers, anything like that while there was still violence on the ground. There was no opposition from --
MR. FLEISCHER: There has been violence on the ground and the Prime Minister has his meeting with Abu Mazen. That's why the President -- in Abu Mazen, the President sees signs for a more hopeful new era between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The President wants to have everything done possible to fight and to stop the terrorism on the ground, because that's the best way to make this new era a reality. That's the President's approach.
Q Ari, can you give us an idea of what the President wants to talk to -- to talk about at the Coast Guard Academy tomorrow?
MR. FLEISCHER: Tomorrow at the Coast Guard Academy, the President will deliver an address on foreign policy. The President will give an update on the war on terror, and the President will also, at a military academy, talk about the great role America's compassion abroad plays in averting wars and in solving problems, because of the huge generosity of the American people by our aid abroad.
Q But the other commencement speech that the President gave at the University of South Carolina was specifically about the Middle East and the need to push forward. Is he going to come back to that at all, or tie it together?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President was back to that topic today, of course, in his conversations with Abu Mazen and Ariel Sharon. I think the President's speech tomorrow is going to be focused on what I described as the foreign policy and the compassion side, not specifically the Middle East side.
Q Compassion in terms of what, American aid abroad, or the AIDS initiative?
MR. FLEISCHER: The huge generosity of the American people that funds many initiatives around the world that increase the health of people around the world, that increase the education of people around the world, that lead to the betterment of people around the world.
Q Two quick questions. One, on General Musharraf's visit, this is the first time that from the White House it has been moved to Camp David -- it's something different, not meeting at the White House, but at Camp David. And two, is it a day-long visit, or a night's stay, or lunch, or dinner, or what kind of visit is it?
MR. FLEISCHER: Ah, the old modalities question. We will -- we'll fill you in on the modalities as it gets closer to the meeting. It's still a little bit far out.
Q I'm sorry, if any Indian leaders are on the list of invited with General Musharraf?
MR. FLEISCHER: We'll keep you posted.
Q Ari, given that the Abu Mazen is a fairly new leader, but long under the shadow of Yasser Arafat, and that Arafat has his tentacles still, after all these years, in the Palestinian community, given Ariel Sharon is the head of a coalition government with many smaller parties that he has to constantly deal with, and disagree with him in terms of dealing with the Palestinians, how can you have any confidence that even, given goodwill on the side of the two leaders, that anything can be accomplished?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President has hopes that peace can be accomplished because, one, Israel is a democracy and democracies yearn for peace. And, two, because Abu Mazen is a reformer, and the Palestinian people deserve a better life. That's what the President sees, and that's how he hopes it will happen. He's a realist, but he's determined to do everything in his power to make it happen.
Q Last week, the Kyl-Cornyn amendment was stripped from the jobs and growth package. The measure that may be reintroduced as a stand-alone bill would force trial lawyers who received $9 billion in excessive fees in the tobacco settlement, to give that money to their plaintiffs, the states. Would the administration support a bill like that?
MR. FLEISCHER: I've not taken a look at that provision, specifically, so I really don't have anything for you on it.
Q Ari, just trying to put a couple things together about Abu Mazen. One, you said that the President's standard was 100 percent effort against terrorism. And you said that the President has told Sharon that he views him as a man who's committed to combating all forms of terror. Can we say, does the President believe at this point that Abu Mazen is committed to 100 percent effort to combat terror?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President, as I said, believes that Abu Mazen is a reformer who is working for peace who genuinely wants to do everything in his power to achieve peace and to fight terror. The answer is, yes. But he also recognizes that Abu Mazen has just arrived on the job. And I don't think people should make snap judgments, but everything the President has seen so far leads him to good conclusions.
Q Did the President offer to Abu Mazen any specific U.S. assistance in combating terror?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, they did not have a conversation at that level. You can assume that we've had previous conversations with Palestinian officials at the security level about trying to help them.
Q And finally, you said a few minutes ago the ultimate goal is to bring these two together, since they're both men that the President regards as people who can work toward peace. Not to put the cart before the horse, but does the President have a long-term vision in which he would host both of those men? And what does he see that would have to happen before that point would arrive?
MR. FLEISCHER: Somebody else put that cart before the horse earlier, and I kicked that horse down the road. (Laughter.) Yes, I just -- I'm not going to speculate about whether or not that is something that is in the cards.
Q Two more on the Middle East. How do you see any chance of progress in this situation in this generation while you've got fanatics who believe in suicide bombings and martyrdom?
MR. FLEISCHER: Because what's important is to diminish, if not eliminate, the influence of these terrorists who want to derail peace. There are people -- terrorists -- who don't believe in Israel, who don't believe in the right of the Israeli state to exist. And that's why they kill. And the President will not accept that. And that's why the President thinks it is absolutely vital to work for Israel's security and to make certain that we help the reformers in the Palestinian Authority emerge successfully so that they can be party to defeating this terrorism.
And as a result of that, the Palestinian people who also yearn for peace, can finally receive a better life and a better way of living for them and their families, which is very important, too, from this President's point of view.
Q One more on Abu Mazen. Has the President ever asked him whether he still believes the Holocaust never occurred?
MR. FLEISCHER: That was not a topic today.
Q Ari, I am sincerely distressed that you are leaving us. But I have a two-part question. (Laughter.)
MR. FLEISCHER: Lester, you get everybody's attention for some odd reason.
Q Part one is, The Washington Times quotes the President as saying that the latest Arab suicide bombers are, "killers whose only faith is hate". Since this amounts to a claim that these creatures are not Muslims, my question is, does he believe that the Islamic Jihad is not Muslim?
MR. FLEISCHER: He believes that those who carry out these type of killings do so in the name of a false religion because they do not amplify what Islam is about.
Q The State Department's William Burns in Jerusalem said, "The common sense of all peoples will override the conservative and Christian viewpoints once they see the road map's potential." Is the President really anxious that the Christian viewpoint be overridden?
MR. FLEISCHER: Lester, I'm not aware of the comments. I can't say anything about it.
Q It was in this morning's Washington Times. Now, you must keep track of Burns, Ari. (Laughter.) Surely, you keep track of Burns.
MR. FLEISCHER: The State Department keeps track of him. No, I haven't --
Q So you plan to avoid this question.
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I just haven't seen it. I don't comment on things I haven't seen.
Q Ari, since the President is still going to the G8 conference in France, where is he going to stay? (Laughter.) And will he meet privately with French President Chirac while there?
MR. FLEISCHER: He will stay dans la chambre a la France. He'll stay in France, he'll stay in his room in France. And of course -- Very continental. (Laughter.)
Q Just to clear up a little confusion on the economic front, does the President believe that the dollar is valued too low, too high, or just about right?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President believes that our policies are the right policies and they should be unchanged, and that is the support of a strong dollar.
Q Thank you.
MR. FLEISCHER: Thank you.
Q Could you answer the question about Chirac?
MR. FLEISCHER: The question was, will he meet with him?
Q Yes, in private.
MR. FLEISCHER: I haven't seen all the complete itinerary for it. We'll, of course, do a briefing next week prior to the trip. But he will, of course, be speaking with Prime Minister Chirac. Bien sur.
Q He is coming to the ranch, isn't he?
Q Do you have a successor yet?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, there's nothing I can speculate about that. I do believe in cherubic figures. (Laughter.)
END 1:34 P.M. EDT