|The White House
President George W. Bush
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For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
July 13, 2006
Press Briefing by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and National Security Advisor Steve Hadley
Kempinski Grand Hotel
10:30 P.M. (Local)
SECRETARY RICE: All right, let me just make a brief statement, and then Steve will follow on with a brief statement. And then we'll be happy to take your questions.
Obviously, there is considerable concern about the situation in the Middle East, both the situation in Gaza and the situation that has emerged in Lebanon. Let me just step back for a moment and remind us all how this began. This began with the abduction of an Israeli soldier in Gaza, a similar abduction in Lebanon. It had followed weeks of rocket attacks against Israeli population centers. This itself escalated today with attacks against Haifa, a major population center.
And the reason that I mentioned this is that it -- suggests a way ahead. First of all, let me say that Israel, of course, has the right to defend itself. And we would not ask of any country that it not take steps to stop the kind of rocket attacks that have been going on against Israel. It also suggests a way ahead, which is that it is extremely important that the abductions stop and that the soldiers be returned safely.
It is also very important that the international community continue to condemn acts of terrorism. And because we believe strongly that there needs to be another day -- in other words, that once this crisis ends, we need to be able to return to the road map, we need to be able to return to our partnership with the people of Lebanon to fulfill their democratic aspirations -- it is extremely important that Israel exercise her restraint in its activities of self-defense.
Those are the messages that we have been sending to the parties; those are the messages that are being sent through numerous diplomatic channels. Steve is going to describe some of the diplomacy that we have been engaged in, but let me note that we believe that the best opportunity now for de-escalation of this crisis is the effort that Secretary General Annan has announced -- he's sending a three-person team to the region to seek means of de-escalation.
This came, in fact, out of conversations the Secretary General had had with a number of us. I had a conversation with him yesterday morning, suggested that it might be useful for the U.N. to send a mission, and he is now sending such a mission.
We are particularly noting that, as to Lebanon, there is a U.N. Security Council resolution, Resolution 1559, that governs Lebanon -- governs the issues of sovereignty in Lebanon, that oversaw the withdrawal of Syrian forces, and that has tried to bring together an international consensus, an international consensus that is actually quite strong, about a role ahead for Lebanon in accordance with that resolution, including the disarmament of militias. And so I'm quite certain that there will be some discussion when Kofi Annan's mission is there about how to proceed with 1559.
Lastly, let me say that it is obviously extremely important that regional states play a positive, not a negative role. And in this regard I would highlight the very positive role that Egypt and a number of other countries have played in trying to diffuse the crisis, in trying to bring the parties together. But on the other hand, I don't think that there is any doubt that Syria and Iran have been very much in the opposite direction, encouraging and, indeed, in the case of Syria, sheltering the people who are perpetrating these acts.
We have to remember that both the external leadership of Hamas and a number of the Hezbollah activities are carried out from the territory of Syria, and Syria needs to act responsibly and stop the use of its territory for these kinds of activities, and it needs to bring all pressure on those that it is harboring to stop this and to return the soldiers and to allow the situation to de-escalate.
So it's a complex situation. We've been very active, very involved, but we do believe that this is a situation that can be resolved if the parties will take responsible actions.
MR. HADLEY: Condi has laid out most of it. I'll just talk a little bit, give a little color to some of the things we've been doing. We have obviously been in contact with representatives of the government of Israel. Secretary Rice has talked to her counterpart, Foreign Minister Livni, as well as talking to Prime Minister Olmert. I've been in touch with the -- Prime Minister Olmert's Chief of Staff.
The purpose of these communications have been to get some sense of what Israel is doing, but also make some points about -- and to hear from them their indications that they were focused on Hezbollah, which is the perpetrator of this, not the Lebanese government; that the actions they are going to take are going to deal with Hezbollah, will be done in such a way to try and minimize collateral and civilian casualties, recognizing this is difficult because Hezbollah has put targets in civilian areas precisely to try and protect them.
We've had a number of comments and conversations about the need to try and shore up and not destabilize the Siniora government in Lebanon. This is a good government that is trying to bring -- create a democracy and freedom to Lebanon, has a lot of challenges. This is one more challenge that they do not need. So we talked about how to strengthen and avoid undermining the Lebanese government.
We have been talking to countries in the region, representatives of countries in the region. We've been also talking to traditional allies. I've talked to my French counterpart, my German counterpart, my U.K. counterpart, my Saudi counterpart. Condi has made similar conversations.
I think the sum total of those are to reinforce some of the points that Secretary Rice has made that -- remember how this began with Hamas and Hezbollah. We need to bring pressure on Hezbollah, and we have urged all of those who have a line and have influence with Hezbollah to use that influence.
It has been very important to get the regional players involved -- to get Egypt involved, in particular, but other regional players, as well. Our diplomacy has been to encourage them to get involved and see the significance of this event for long-term prospects for peace in the region.
Thirdly, a lot of emphasis about concern about the role of particularly Syria and Iran. And Secretary Rice mentioned that one of the purposes of the emphasis on 1559 is it is both a device for shoring up the new Lebanese government, but also putting pressure on Hezbollah and Syria.
Finally, I would mention that this element has been -- this effort has been aided by the fact that when it began to develop, Elliott Abrams from the NSC staff and David Welch from the State Department have been in the region. They have been in neighboring states in the region. They've been in Jerusalem. They've been a source of both information of what's going on and counsel and direction to the major participants, and they have helped formulate this effort.
The last thing I would say is that we hope that the U.N. mission the Secretary talked about can be a framework for going forward, can do a number of things -- can increase the pressure on Hezbollah and Syria, who are going to be key to winding this down and getting these hostages back to Israel; can be a vehicle for strengthening the Siniora government and help them ride out this very difficult path; and finally, to be a framework for avoiding further escalation.
And that's what we've been doing over the last two days or so. I don't know -- Secretary Rice, do you want to add anymore details?
SECRETARY RICE: I won't add more details, but let me just note, we've also been working very hard, particularly with the Israelis, on trying to deal with the humanitarian situation for the Palestinian people -- conversation about crossings, opening of crossings; also to make certain that the attacks that are made -- do everything that they can to avoid both civilian casualties and to allow the Palestinians to continue to have a reasonable life.
Q Secretary Rice, the administration consistently said that -- and you said just previously, a few moments ago, that Israel should exercise restraint, and should keep that under consideration, both sides need to exercise restraint. Is that what they're doing at this point? Do you see what is happening as of this moment is restraint?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, the point about restraint I think has been taken by our Israeli colleagues. I think that they understand why they need to exercise restraint. They have said that they are principally concerned about dealing both with the source of the attacks that have come at them and with any efforts that might be made to get the abducted soldiers out of the region so that they are, so to speak, out of reach of Israel. And I think that that is a definition that we understand.
Obviously, we don't talk about every single tactic or every single means that the Israelis may use; that would not be appropriate between sovereign states. But it is a message that we are continuing to emphasize, we are going to continue to emphasize.
And I'd like to underscore something that Steve said and that the President said this morning, which is that it is, in the case of Lebanon, especially important that Israeli actions not undermine a new, fledgling democratic government, which obviously has its problems in that it has within it Hezbollah, which is the source of these attacks. And we understand that the Siniora government, therefore, has a very complicated situation and nobody wants to make that worse because, ultimately, the best chance for peace is going to be a democracy in Lebanon in which Syrian forces are out and remain out.
Q Are you worried that the --
Q -- is there anything in this --
SECRETARY RICE: I'm not going to try to judge every single act. As I said, the Israelis have said to us that the target of their attacks are those places, those elements that are causing the attacks against Israel, as well as trying to prevent the transfer or movement of the soldiers. We just continue to ask that the Israelis exercise restraint, be concerned about civilian casualties, be concerned, of course, about civilian infrastructure. And that's been the nature of our conversations.
Q In the blockade of the ports, you don't see that as a problem, then? If that's a means of moving the abducted soldiers?
SECRETARY RICE: Again, I'm not going to judge any specific action. The key here is to always be mindful -- for Israel to always be mindful when it is trying to defend itself that the broader defense of Israel will come from the establishment of democratic states in these troubled regions; that we have the best chance that we've had in Lebanon in more than 30 years to have a democratic state that will actually be a fighter against terrorism rather than a harborer of terrorism; we have the best chance that we've had in 30 years for a diminution of Syrian influence in that region, and that strategic point has to be kept in mind when you talk about the broader defense of issue.
Q Is there a danger -- do you see a danger here of the whole area slipping into a war, that this will spin out of control?
SECRETARY RICE: Steve, I think it doesn't help to speculate on kind of apocalyptic scenarios. What we have to do is we have to work day-by-day, hour-by-hour, and that's what we're doing, and that's what a lot of others are doing. And I want to emphasize it's not just the United States. I was with the P5 yesterday, P5 plus one, on Iran. We had discussions there; we had discussions with Chancellor Merkel today. I'm quite certain the President will have discussions with his G8 colleagues when he's in St. Petersburg. So a lot of people are working to de-escalate this crisis and to get back on the road to peace. And I think that's how we have to spend our energy.
Q Madam Secretary, you've said that democracy is the best solution here. But, clearly, Hezbollah draws on democratic support in Lebanon, and Hamas has majority democratic support in the Palestinian Territories. Wasn't one of the ideas here that being part of government in Lebanon would somehow normalize Hezbollah? Do you think that that's still possible?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, it's certainly the hope that when people -- when groups go to their people, ask for their vote, receive that vote, that they then act responsibly, rather than making the lives of their people worse, which is precisely now what the actions of Hamas and Hezbollah are doing. And so I wouldn't blame democracy for this. I think that it is always a good thing when people have an opportunity to choose their leaders. But they chose these leaders because they thought they were going to bring a better life and because of aspirations that they would be -- that these people would be able to fulfill.
There's an obligation, when you're elected democratically, not to try to have one foot in terror and one foot in politics.
And we've been saying that all along, and I think we're getting a demonstration now of why that is so critical, because Hamas is clearly not delivering a better life for the Palestinian people because they have one foot in terror. Hezbollah is not helping the Siniora government to deliver a better life for the Palestinian people because they have one foot in terror.
And so that has to be resolved. We have a mechanism in Lebanon by which to resolve that -- Resolution 1559 -- and in the Palestinian Territories we still have a strong figure and an important and elected figure in Abu Mazen, with whom everybody is working. So we have some important and responsible leaders on our side.
MR. HADLEY: Let me just make two points on that. One is about Hezbollah. Hezbollah took this action using Lebanese territory to attack northern Israel without the authorization of the Lebanese government. This is not the way democratic parties behave. It is also one of the reasons 1559 talked about disarming militias, getting them out of the terror business into the political process, and having only one authority, which is the government authority, imposing security throughout the country.
So this is an example of, in some sense, a failure in democracy by Hezbollah, and that's one of the reasons I think you've seen some real outrage about this -- some very strong statements, for example, from Secretary General Kofi Annan.
Secondly, on the Israel point, I would just add one point, and Condi can speak to her communication -- I don't want you to think that we're -- that this is a struggle. In my first conversation with the Prime Minister's Chief of Staff, he's the one who raised with me that they were concerned about Hezbollah, they were going to narrowly focus on Hezbollah, they were going to pick targets that minimize civilian casualties and loss of life. And similarly, after a quick discussion about what Israel has invested in success and democracy in Lebanon, this is now part of the Israeli program. So I don't want you to think there's been an arm wrestle here. This is the kind of inner discussion that close allies have in difficult situations, and this is a very difficult situation for Israel.
Q The President this morning raised the specter that the attacks by Israel could actually topple the government of Lebanon if they went too far. Has this been communicated to Israel? And what can the United States do to help prop up this government, this Lebanese government?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, yes, the concern about -- as I said, the strategic issue of giving Lebanese democracy a chance has been communicated to the Israelis. They understand this. They want the Siniora government to succeed, as well, because I think they understand that there's a good opportunity here for a different kind of Lebanon. So, of course, that's been communicated.
I've talked twice with Prime Minister Siniora personally. There are a number of other ministers who have talked with him. The Secretary General is sending this team. Part of that is to strengthen the hand of the Siniora government in dealing with elements like Hezbollah that are within it, but not of it, I would say -- an element that decided to launch these attacks without the knowledge of the Siniora government.
So that will give them the -- when the Secretary General's team gets there, I think it will give Siniora, because 1559 speaks to a number of these issues, an opportunity to draw upon the strength of the international community.
Q Can you indicate at this point what you suspect or what you know the Iranian role to be in this?
SECRETARY RICE: I'm not going to speculate. I will just note that Iran is a principal funder and supporter of Hezbollah. That is well-known and well-established. There have been obvious, numerous contacts -- public contacts between the Iranian regime and both Hezbollah and the external elements of Hamas. President Ahmadinejad was, not that long ago, in Damascus doing exactly that. So the Iranians are not hiding their hand in this. They have their links to Hezbollah, and I think it would be unthinkable that they are not playing a role. There's plenty of evidence that this had to be also external powers that were interested in this kind of outcome.
Now, Syria, obviously, there's a very direct link there. Khaled Meshaal lives in Syria. Hamas offices are open in Syria. Hezbollah operates there. The Syrian hand is also very clear.
Q You mentioned having spoken to allies throughout the day. Any reaction to Russia and France condemning Israel's strikes?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, I haven't had a chance to talk today to the French or to the Russians about this. I think you heard Chancellor Merkel and the President today when they talked about always being aware -- I think the Chancellor paraphrased, said something about "of the origin" of this. And so whatever one wants to say about how this has unfolded, you're only going to resolve it if you get back at the origin of it and how it all started. The rocket attacks against Israel need to stop; the abducted soldiers need to be returned.
Obviously, people are very concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people. That's why we focused heavily on the humanitarian assistance issues. And even in the midst of the Gaza crisis, in particular, I've talked to the Israelis, including the Israeli Defense Minister, about keeping Karni open, making sure people can cross back from Rafah, because we do want the Palestinian people to be able to have as normal a life as possible. So I think going to the origin of this, and then recognizing that the only way that you're going to eventually deal with it is to go to the origin of it.
Q Madam Secretary, the first soldier kidnapings were about 17 days ago. The rhetoric heated up almost immediately. Why did it take 17 days to send envoys over there?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, let's separate the two situations. There was the taking of the soldier in Gaza after the tunneling into Israeli territory. There had been and there continues to be an intensive diplomatic effort by regional states to resolve that issue. It is not as if nothing was being done about that. And let me just say about the rhetoric heating up, while the taking of the soldiers was the approximate reason for the escalation of this situation, let's remember that Qassam rocket attacks against Israel had been going on for some time.
So the regional states that have been involved in trying to get the return of the abducted soldier, that was going on during this entire 17-day period. You then had, a couple of days ago, the incidents in Lebanon, which have -- which I think we do need to keep separate. Here in Lebanon, you have issues under 1559, and in part because you have issues under 1559, the U.N. role is very obvious, very clear. I think that is what helped to trigger Secretary General Kofi Annan.
But it also makes sense, given the generalized sense that there are these crises in the region, to have a new diplomatic effort, one that can bring the weight of the United Nations. But I don't want to leave the impression that for that 17 days nothing was happening. There were very intense diplomatic efforts between regional states, Israel and the Palestinians.
Q Could I ask you a quick follow-up there? Why not stop by Damascus? The President said they were responsible -- partly responsible for the escalation. Why not impose some sanctions on Syria, or go to Damascus and deliver a tough message?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, let's see what the U.N. Secretary General's efforts bring. That will be a regional effort. His envoys are going to travel throughout the region, including to Damascus. And so let's see what they bring. I would just note that we have not had particularly warm relations with Syria for quite a long time. I don't think it's a surprise to the Syrians that we think that they're a problem here. I think we've sent all kinds of messages in that regard. But I think that the most -- what we should all do right now is to focus our efforts on trying to make the Secretary General's effort a success, and that's how we'll spend our time over the next couple of days. And we can reassess after that mission is over.
Q Do you expect any sort of diplomatic mission, or something to come out of the G8 summit about this? How big a topic is it going to be on the agenda?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, you know how the G8 is. When there's a major issue like this, it tends to be taken up at the G8, and it would be unthinkable that these leaders are going to get together and not discuss what is going on there. But I think everybody -- when I've talked to my colleagues, including to Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier today -- everybody is now very focused on trying to help the U.N. Secretary General's mission work.
And I think we don't want to send confusing signals. The kind of "too many cooks in the kitchen" problem is one that we want to avoid, because the Secretary General has all the right mandates to deal with this issue. I might note, too, that as to the Gaza situation, of course, the U.N. is a member of the Quartet. And so the U.N. Secretary General I think has all of the right mandates. Let's put all of our efforts behind making his effort work.
Q If the Lebanese government isn't capable of securing the south of the country, would you consider a role for an international peacekeeping force there?
SECRETARY RICE: I think it's too early to talk about what else might be done. Obviously, we have been concerned for some time to build enough Lebanese security capability so that the Lebanese army can deploy to the south of the country, so that there can be, as Steve put it, a unified force under the Lebanese government. We are in discussions and have discussed these issues in the Contact Group that has been supporting 1559 -- that's Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, the United States, France and the U.N. And I would not be surprised if, in support of the Secretary General's efforts, there might be some discussions among members of that group again, as well, about what might be done to support 1559.
But I don't think we need to jump to conclusions right now about what next steps there may need to be. Let's see if we can't get Lebanese capabilities --
Q Are you distressed by the Security Council's strong support for the resolution condemning Israel?
SECRETARY RICE: Well, let's remember that there were five abstentions on that vote, as well as a U.S. veto. We tried to have people understand, have the sponsors understand, that the timing of a resolution, when the Secretary General's mission has not even lifted off the ground, was really not -- this was not very well-timed, and that it would be best not to use particularly inflammatory language to inflame the emotions of the parties prior to launching the Secretary General's mission that will have to deal with those parties and try to bring a de-escalation of the crisis.
When it was clear that people wanted to go forward with the resolution, we asked for time to talk about language that might be more balanced and less inflammatory. When we were unable to get either of those dispensations, we decided that we had no choice but to veto.
The U.S. veto does not mean that we are unconcerned about this crisis in the Gaza. Obviously, we're very concerned about it. That's why we've been spending as much time and effort as we have diplomatically in trying to help to resolve it. But it does not help to have a resolution that doesn't address in a concrete and useful way the origins of this crisis -- that is, the abduction and the rockets -- and it doesn't help to have a resolution that has inflammatory language about one of the parties. It's simply not going to create an atmosphere in which this crisis is going to be -- we're going to be able to de-escalate the crisis.
Q Steve, this is on a different subject, but two Republicans, John McCain and John Warner, said today that senior administration officials had agreed to back legislation that would prosecute terrorism suspects under a court system based on the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And they said they based that on meetings with you and others. Is this something that the administration can support?
MR. HADLEY: We've had some very good conversations with senators and representatives on the subject of how we move forward after the Hamden case in the Supreme Court. One of the things that we need to do in moving forward, obviously, is to, as the Court invited the executive branch and the legislative branches to do, to work together and come up with a commission structure that will allow for the prosecution of people who have been engaged in terror in a way that is respectful of their rights, but is tailored to the fact that it's sort of a unique problem posed by these terrorists, and the challenges it poses in terms of classified information and all these other things.
That's what we've agreed to do. We've started that process between the executive and the legislative. How it's going to -- where it's going to come out is still to be worked out. I think what we ought to do is focus on that result: What are the objectives, what are the elements of a tribunal system that we need in order to achieve those objectives? We've started those discussions, and they're going pretty well.
I just might say, by way of summary, what you're probably going to see going forward, in terms of Gaza and Lebanon, one, you're going to see continued diplomacy of the sort that Secretary Rice has talked about. Again, we make a choice -- in answer to a question earlier -- when is it useful for the United States to have a high profile and when it's useful for the United States to have a low profile -- and the key is what is going to be effective.
We will see that the U.N. mission go forward. That will be a framework to try and come up with some initiatives that can avoid further escalation. We will obviously be supporting that mission. We will be getting -- the time is right now, I think, to get the President involved in talking to some of his counterparts, to try and help ensure the success of that effort as we try and take a very difficult situation and put it in a different place.
Thank you very much.
SECRETARY RICE: Thank you.
END 11:00 P.M. (Local)