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Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
April 14, 2004

Press Background Briefing by Senior Administration Officials on the President's Meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon
The James S. Brady Briefing Room

3:16 P.M. EDT

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The President has spoken for himself on this issue. We have released the documents, the letter that the President sent to the Prime Minister and a document that is a written statement by the President. The Prime Minister will be releasing his letter to the President. I would just urge folks to read those documents carefully. There is a lot in them. And they are -- provide the context and the framework for what we're doing.

With that, I'll be glad to answer any questions.

Q Can I try you all on the instant, angry reaction by the Palestinians? Arafat even suggesting this could touch off a new cycle of violence -- but you get two for the price of one. If I may, just one at a time, all right?


Q Are you distressed? Did the President anticipate that this would not go down easily with the people -- he's the first in history to promise a state to?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, one of the things that has happened is there's a lot of -- there's been a lot written in the press about what is or is not the subject of the conversations between the Israeli and the American sides. And it's obviously generated a lot of anxiety. And it's, I think, regrettable that some of these statements are being issued and positions taken before anyone has had an opportunity to actually look at the language of what the President has said and what the Prime Minister has said.

And our hope is that if people will take the time and look at the language and put it in the broader context of the opportunity that is here, the strategic opportunity is here, they will, on reflection, see that there is really an opportunity for peace.

And, just if I might elaborate on that, what the President is trying to do is take this plan that the Prime Minister has proposed and will be taking back to his government and using it as a device to jumpstart the process for moving towards the two-state solution that was envisioned in the President's speech of June 24 and is in the road map.

So in the President's view, it is a device to jump start progress on the road map. And it is also a device that will allow the international community, the Quartet, the United States, states in the region to re-engage in an active way with the Palestinian community and try and assist and enable the Palestinian community to do what the President called for them to do in the June 24th speech.

Q There's nothing ambiguous, there's nothing shaded about the right of return being explicitly rejected by the President, the issue on which Bill Clinton's far more expansive concessions to the Palestinians were rejected by Arafat? I mean, the right of return isn't jump-starting the process, it is a position --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: This is why people need to go back and read what the President said, and read what the President wrote. The President said, the United States will not prejudice the outcome of final status negotiations, that is a matter for the parties. Matters of borders, matters of refugees, our final status issues -- the final status issues have to resolve by agreements of the parties. The President simply says that when the parties get to those issues, they'll have to take into account realities. Everybody else who has dealt with these issues has said the same thing. But we're not at final status negotiations. We should be so lucky to get there.

In the interim, what the President is saying is there's a real opportunity to get started on the process, to get Israelis taking steps consistent with the road map, to get the international community to engage with Palestinians to enable, empower and encourage them to take steps, and for countries in the region to do, again, to take the kinds of steps the President called for in his speech.

Q Two quick ones. Prime Minister Sharon has made clear exactly which settlements in the West Bank he would intend for Israel to retain control over. And I wonder if you have an estimate as to, based on that list that he has provided, what percentage, geographically, of the West Bank it would entail Israel retaining control over? The figure has been put at 50 percent by one Israeli monitoring group.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What Sharon has said and the implications, that, you're going to ask him about. The President's position is that any issues with respect to territorial and demarcation of territory are final status issues to be agreed by the parties.

Q You don't have an estimate?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I do not have an estimate.

Q The other question I wanted to ask was, there seems to be one difference that I noticed between the President's statements on television and the letter to the Prime Minister, and that is that in the letter he makes reference to Israel having secure and defensible borders, as opposed to secure and recognizable borders -- I wonder if there's any significance to that, and, if so, if you would explain it for us -- or one of you would.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Our view has been that in order to be secure borders, they must be defensible. And so we think we are still consistent with the language of 242 and 338.

Q You say you're not pre-judging final status, but would you concede that you have -- in the language is a statement in particular, the President's statement in particular, come farther toward the Israeli position and, in particular the Likud position, than any other government in the history of the United States?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, if you look at what the President said, he noted that, for example, when he talked about territorial issues that, "in light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli population centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion."

What he's saying is, in fact, everyone who has looked at this has come to the conclusion that as part of a final status agreement there will have to be agreement on borders. And that agreement on borders will have to in some way take into account realities. How that's done is going to be up to the parties as part of a final status agreement.

Q But on refugees, no prior President has ever said that refugees would have to return to a Palestinian state.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: What the President said is that the issue of refugees, obviously, a final status issue, resolved by the parties. But what's also new under this President is the call for the creation of a Palestinian state. And all the President is saying is that the resolution of this issue as part of final status by mutual agreement of the parties is going to have to take, and should take, into account the fact that the President has done something very different here -- called for establishment of a Palestinian state. That is now an element of the mix.

Q I just want to go back to Barry's and Barbara's question. I don't see how this is ambiguous, this statement from the President where he says: It seems clear that there will need to be found the establishment of a Palestinian state, the settling of Palestinian refugees there, rather than in Israel. That seems very direct to me. Tell me why how that's not direct.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Because it's a final status issue to be resolved by agreement of the parties. And I have to say, I think you guys are missing the news here.

Q There wasn't -- (laughter.)

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I mean, the news here is that the Israeli government, headed by Ariel Sharon, has decided to pull out of Gaza and to abandon settlements -- not only on Gaza, but also on the West Bank; and that that is an opportunity for us now to move the Palestinians, because what he's doing is opening the door for a pathway to a Palestinian state. That is big news. And he's also said the United States is prepared to rally the international community and the Quartet to try and enable that process by working with the Palestinian community to build political, economic and security institutions that can be the basis for a Palestinian state. That's big news.

Q But isn't it also the big news that it looks as though the United States is backing Israel on the question of keeping Israeli settlements in the West Bank?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, I'm going to sound like a broken record, but the President couldn't have been clearer. It's a final status issue, mutually agreed by the parties, he's taken nothing off the table. But what he said is what, really, everybody knows in the region and in here, that there are new realities on the ground and that the parties, when they sit down with final status, are going to have to reach agreement on ways to take those new realities into account. That's not news, ladies and gentlemen. That's what everyone who has struggled with this issue --

Q And you have no reason to believe that this will undermine the U.S. standing in the Middle East as an honest broker between Israel and the Palestinians?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I would think one of the lines you ought to be writing is that the President's policies --

Q Wait -- (laughter).

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: -- what the President's policy has done has gotten the Israeli Prime Minister to abandon settlements, abandon settlements and disengage and withdraw from territory.

Q Wasn't this Sharon's idea, not President Bush's idea?

Q Excuse me --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It is Sharon's plan. You asked me, what's the news here. The news here in my view is, as I said, the Israeli government has decided to withdraw from Gaza, to withdraw from settlements on Gaza -- all settlements on Gaza -- and certain settlements in the West Bank; and offered the prospect that if a Palestinian leadership will have emerged that will perform its obligations under the road map, he will do more. That's big news.

Q But isn't it true -- 1949 armistice line, which is actually the June 4, 1967 line, the President is, in effect, abandoning 242, which are the basis for all these resolutions? And my follow up on this, you keep saying that the President is the first President to speak about a Palestinian state. Well, Mr. Sharon speaks about a Palestinian state, as well. But he talks about a Palestinian state maybe in 42 percent of the West Bank. So would you give us, you know --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On the first issue, if you go back, what the President says is that changes to the '49 line have to be by mutual agreement. That's what he says. Changes to the '49 line will have to be by mutual agreement as part of the final status negotiations.

What the contours of a Palestinian state will end up being is one of the issues that's going to have to be resolved in this process between the parties. The road map and the President's speech sets out a set of gates as to how you get to the Palestinian state. And, regrettably, for about two-plus years we've made little progress, and what the President is trying to do is seize on a decision that Sharon is making for his own reasons -- which the President believes is very much consistent with, and, indeed, is taking steps that are called for by the Israelis in the road map in some of the later phases, he's prepared to do those now.

And what the President is saying, that he's trying to then use that to enable and empower others to take steps on the road map so we can move to the point where we can start discussing what a Palestinian state will look like.

Q -- that settlements are not --

Q Two quick questions. You said that everyone who is involved in this has always recognized these realities. But what impact --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Can I just answer your question? Sir, I'm sorry, I don't know your name. There's nothing in this paper, in what the President said or his letter, that changes our policy on settlements. What's new is that Sharon has decided to abandon settlements, both in Gaza and in the West Bank. We think that is a very positive precedent. We hope people will spend as much time focusing on that potential precedent as they are some of the fine wording on these other issues. Because in our view, that's what's different here and that's what opens the door for real progress towards peace.

Q Two questions. Isn't it also new that an American President formally, in a policy statement to the American government, says what has been said sotto voche in negotiations, which is that settlements are a fact and they're going to stay there. The Israeli population centers are going to stay there.

And then, secondly, what impact does it have if one of the parties wasn't in the room for all this?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: A, he didn't say the settlements are going to stay there. He did not say that. What he said is, the issue is a final status issue to be negotiated. And it hasn't been said sotto voce. Look at the settlement plans that were talked about at Taba and Camp David, look at the Geneva plan -- all of them involved negotiated adjustments to the '67 lines. This is not sotto voce. This has been at the core of every discussion that has looked at these issues.

But again --

Q But has an American President ever formally declared that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: -- but again, as the President said, final status issue to be mutually agreed. There's no change there, gentlemen, ladies. There's just not.

Q Can you do anything to disabuse me of the crazy notion that I'm getting out of all of this, that this endorsement of Sharon's withdrawal really precludes the move toward final status as opposed to jump-starting the road map because it creates untenable conditions for the Palestinians that they could never get past, meanwhile Israel retreats behind a hard and defensible border?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't understand the hard conditions of the Palestinians. What the Palestinians are going to get is Gaza, broader areas in the West Bank from which there are no settlements; they are getting international engagement to help them build political institutions to reconstruct the country, to get economic life in the country; to get assistance in terms of building up their security institutions so that they can take responsibility for these areas. I don't see barriers to the Palestinians. I think that, in fact, it's terrific opportunities for the Palestinians.

Sharon has also talked about continuing to move towards a settlement freeze, getting rid of unauthorized outposts. His letter talks about facilitating movement and greater mobility through the Palestinian people. I think the Palestinian people get a huge amount out of this, and we hope they will capitalize on the opportunity that has been provided.

Q But as Barry said, they seem to have a completely opposite opinion on that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There are no additional obligations imposed on the Palestinians. The only obligations that are mentioned are those that exist in the road map.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No new obligations for the Palestinians and enormous opportunities for the Palestinians.

Q But, again, as Barry said, the Palestinians seem to see it diametrically opposed.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Palestinians have been reading press reports for three weeks, and none of them at this point have seen these documents. And we have -- we have also --

Q Isn't that a problem?

Q They weren't in the room.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I was -- we made three trips to the region. We saw Palestinians on two of the three. The last time, we met with Prime Minister Abu Ala and his whole leadership, about four or five others. My colleague can give you the names. In addition, there have been a number of conversations since.

So, in fact, we have had a process of consulting with the Israelis, consulting with the Palestinians, and consulting with countries in the region. As you know, President Mubarak was here. We saw President Mubarak in Sharm el-Sheikh. We also saw King Abdullah. King Abdullah will be coming next week. We've actually had good consultations.

Do you want to see a little bit more about this?

Q Why do they have such a misimpression, then? Why do they have such a misimpression, then, if you've had these consultations?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There's a lot of concern. There's a lot of concern. They have not seen the document. There was a lot of concern at the time. We talked to them about the kinds of principles we were looking at. We tried to give them assurances that we will not prejudice final status issues. There was a lot of people that a lot of press were writing to say we were going to prejudice final status issues. I think that caused some apprehension, and I think your people see people reacting on that basis.

We hope that when people look at the documents, they see not these narrow issues, but put it in the broader strategic context of the opportunities available for the Palestinians, we will see a different response.

Q What is it that the Palestinians get in the West Bank out of this plan? Isn't the implication that Israel is giving up sovereignty over the settlements outside of the five blocks that are mentioned, what do the Palestinians get in the West Bank? You know, Gaza is -- nobody wants that anyway.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They're going to get Israel moving out of some settlements.

Q What settlements?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That is in Sharon's plan. You're going to have to talk to him. The specific ones he's got -- he's decided on. He's got a plan that he's got to take to his government and get approved.

Q But he has not specified in his plan what settlements he's going to give up, has he?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: He has some settlements in mind that he's got, that --

Q But --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Can I -- shall I try and answer the question? All of Gaza, all settlements out of Gaza; some settlements in the West Bank, which will clear a fairly large area, which will be free from Israeli settlements, free from Israeli military institutions and installations. They will get -- as I say, he has made some pledges to the President about dismantling unauthorized outposts, putting restrictions on settlement growth as he moves towards a freeze on settlement, and a number of measures that will free the mobility of Palestinians on the West Bank.

And the prospect of a major international engagement with a Palestinian Authority, that if it results in a Palestinian leadership, able and willing to build democratic institutions and fight terror, can get us back on the road map towards the final two-state solution. That's the prospect.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Just to add a political point, in previous years when withdrawal from settlements was discussed in Israel, you had, essentially, a split between Labor and those left of center who were in favor and including those right of center who were opposed to any withdrawal from settlements. And, in fact, the previous Israeli government fell over that issue.

You now have a Likud Prime Minister saying, not only must we, in principle, withdraw from settlements, we will withdraw from settlements in Palestinian areas. And he is taking this now to a Likud Party referendum, which, if he wins, will have the Likud Party on record in favor of withdrawing from settlements. To have that achievement in the Israeli political system is also a considerable advance on the road to peace.

Q But you must have an estimate of how much it's going to retain if you just said it's a fairly large area?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, not that he's retaining a fairly large area --

Q Well, you said a fairly large area would be evacuated, so you must have an estimate of how much would remain under Jewish -- Israeli control. That was my question before.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, your question was, could I give you statistics on the seven, or six settlements that Sharon identified. I cannot do that. What I can say is that they're willing to withdraw from settlements in an area that will give a contiguous area, but it is not, in any way, the Palestinian state. It is a step. And I think one of the things that you heard from Prime Minister Sharon today was he said, he hoped this would be a first step. This is not an end state. This is not the Palestinian state. We don't say that, the Israelis don't say that. This is a step. But my colleague is right. If I could say, that's the news.

Q If I could ask you a little bit more about the Palestinian side. That seems to be the key to bringing this back to the road map. Can you talk a little bit more if there is anything in this plan that's going to assist the Palestinians in meeting their obligations? Because the administration has always identified the Palestinian leadership as the problem here, and without them stepping up, doesn't this just create a new reality on the ground, where Israel is basically setting the line?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: If you read the President's statement, and the President's letter, he talks about -- and maybe my colleagues can help me about it -- he talks in his statement about, "We are consulting closely with other key leaders in the region, in Europe and with our Quartet partners. These steps can open the door to progress toward a peaceful, democratic, viable state. Working together, we can build democratic Palestinian institutions, as well as strong capabilities dedicated to fighting terror." He also talks about, "the United States will join with" -- this is in the letter, on the 2nd page, the bottom paragraph -- "the United States will join with others in the international community to foster the development of democratic political institutions and new leadership, the reconstruction of civil institutions, the growth of a free and prosperous economy and the building of security institutions."

We have already begun -- when we made our last trip, we met with representatives of the Quartet in Brussels. My colleague has met several times with his counterparts in the Quartet. We have already talked about them with developing fairly ambitious plans for assisting the Palestinians with political reform, economic development and restructuring and making effective their security institutions.

Look, it's very important what happens when the Israelis disengage from Gaza. What we want is a situation where Palestinian leaders, committed to democracy and fighting terror, have a chance to take control of that territory as a downpayment on the way towards a Palestinian state. And we propose to engage very vigorously with the Palestinian Authority to try and create the institutions that will allow them to do that. So we very much anticipate that.

I don't know if you want to say a word about where we're headed with the Quartet?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: When President Mubarak met President Bush on Monday, a fair amount of the discussion focused, for example, on what the Egyptians can do to help in rebuilding security institutions. And President Mubarak said publicly afterwards, Egypt is prepared to play a role.

We've talked to the Jordanians, we've talked to the Quartet, as my colleague said, about the kinds of programs and economic development institution building in Gaza for the day after Israeli withdrawal. They're going to be critically important, and I think there's a fair amount of interest in taking advantage of this opportunity. Palestinians, themselves -- Abu Ala, the Prime Minister, has made statements acknowledging the opportunity for Palestinians in Israeli withdrawal or disengagement from Gaza.

Q Do you notice a difference with the Egyptians and Jordanians, for instance, that is different than even in Aqaba, where they were saying a lot of the same things?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We detect here a willingness to get more involved, more actively involved than we've seen before. And that's one of the things we think is an opportunity -- it's an opportunity for states in the region to support the process, and it's an opportunity for the Palestinians to get help to do what they need to do.

Q I want to try one more time on final -- on the right of return, if I may. Does this statement close the door to right of return?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: All the issues associated with right of return, and all those issues you write about are going to be -- have to be discussed in final status negotiations, and will be discussed there and have to be agreed there. That's the whole point. There is nothing that's been taken off the table in terms of final status negotiations.

Q But what is the point of the statement in here that explicitly says they should be returned to a Palestinian state and not to Israel?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Because it says that one of the new realities that take in -- that needs to be taken into account when the parties deal with the issue of refugees is that there is something new from the last 20 or 30 years when this has been discussed, which is a Palestinian state. And that needs to be taken into account.

Q But you're saying there's no substantive impact, zero substantive impact on the final settlement of this dispute from what the President said today? Those are empty words.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, they're not empty words. What the President -- it's pretty simple, actually. These are final status issues. Final status issues have to be negotiated by the parties and agreed by the parties. We're not in the final status negotiations. What the President is saying is, look guys, when you deal with those issues, there are some realities that are going to have to be taken into account. And people need to be thinking about those realities now. If we are so lucky as to be able to do what the President has set out, then we'll be able to deal with those issues in terms of final status.

Q Does the new reality statement apply to the Golan Heights, as well, the new realities there, too?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Those were not -- those were not discussed at this point, in terms of the Golan discussion.

Q He spoke in the statement of '67, '48 -- it's rather historic and sweeping. But it doesn't intend to cover the Golan Heights?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, it doesn't intend to cover them, it doesn't intend to not cover them. And what the President said is some new realities, and he gave a couple examples.

Look, when the parties sit down for final status negotiations, they're going to have to take into account a lot of things.

Q So what's the next step that Sharon has to take, the Israeli government take to show that this thing is starting to work? And what type of timetable are we talking about?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: This is going to have to unfold over some time. His next step, obviously, is to take it to his government. He's talked about -- why don't you go ahead.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the line in the letter is, "Upon my return from Washington" -- this is Sharon's letter -- "I expect to submit this plan for the approval of the cabinet and the Knesset, and I firmly believe that it will win such approval." He's also scheduled a Likud primary for May 2nd, as I recall it.

Q You can't release Sharon's letter? Do you feel you shouldn't release his letter --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, he's going to release it, which is appropriate. It will be public. And I would urge you to read it --

Q But we don't have it.

Q We don't have it.

Q That's what makes it hard to write the story.

Q Details. It's one of those detail things. (Laughter.)

Q We're going to have a problem doing the story by 6:30 p.m.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: They're going to release the letter this afternoon. All I'm saying is, read it. There's some language in there, I think, coming from an Israeli Prime Minister, and particularly Sharon, that will surprise you about a continued commitment to the road map, to the two-state solution, about a willingness to support the kind of effort we're talking about with the Palestinian community. I just urge you to look at it, that's all.

Q -- you said there's nothing that changes the settlement policy? How can you say there's nothing that changes the settlement policy when you keep talking about the new realities? I don't understand that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: You know, I'm not sure I can help you. Look, the issue about the role of settlements has been a discussion for 30 years. That's point one. Point two, every time people try and articulate a vision for a final status agreement, they talk about some mutually agreed adjustments to '67 borders to accommodate and acknowledge realities on the ground. That's history. That's not news. What's news here is, as my colleague said, an Israeli Prime Minister, representing the Likud Party, in the name of Ariel Sharon -- and you know the history that he has in settlements -- is pulling out of settlements in Gaza and on the West Bank.

Q That was the question -- it refers only to certain military installations in Gaza, in the President's statement, and it doesn't say anything about an Israeli right to go back and hit Gaza if there are any problems with violence or terrorism. What's our understanding of that?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Right. It doesn't talk about a right to go back in. What it does say is -- let me see if I can find it -- if you look at the President's letter, the third paragraph, it says, Israel --

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It's not the third paragraph.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sorry, it's the second page, first paragraph -- first full paragraph on the page, the one that begins, "Third, Israel will retain its right to defend itself against terrorism, including to take actions against terrorist organizations. The United States will lead efforts, working together with Jordan, Egypt and others in the international community, to build the capacity and will of Palestinian institutions to fight terrorism, dismantle terrorist organizations, and prevent the areas from which Israel has withdrawn from posing a threat that would have to be addressed by any other means."

So what our hope is, that we can, working with states in the region, help the Palestinian institutions to take responsibility for security and to fight terror, because that's what's called for them to do in the road map and that will obviate all the rest of the discussion.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There's some issues there also associated with the Israeli-Egyptian treaty that need to be worked out. And they're talking to the Egyptians about it. And that's why --

Q Otherwise, it's a complete withdrawal?


END 3:49 P.M. EDT