print-only banner
The White House Skip Main Navigation
In Focus
News by Date
Federal Facts
West Wing

Home > News & Policies > Press Secretary Briefings

For Immediate Release
Office of the Press Secretary
May 14, 2008

Press Gaggle by Dana Perino and National Security Advisor Steve Hadley and Deputy Assistant to the President for National Security Elliott Abrams
Aboard Air Force One
En route Jerusalem

6:16 P.M. EDT

MS. PERINO: Hi, everyone. Of course we're on our way to Jerusalem. I'm going to just quickly turn it over to Steve Hadley, he will have a little bit of opening for you and then take some questions.

MR. HADLEY: I thought that, if it's all right with you, I'd like to begin sort of extending an answer that I gave to Michael Abramowitz during the background briefing before the trip -- sort of what we've been doing over the last seven years in the Middle East and what the progression has been. I think it'll be useful context for folks. I'll try not to go on too long. My colleague over there -- another senior administration official -- will jump in as appropriate.

Q So are you speaking on background or on the record?

MS. PERINO: On the record.

MR. HADLEY: On the record. Not senior administration official, but on the record.

Remember what we found, the Clinton administration made a bold effort to promote a settlement between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It was close. It went up until they ended. Expectations were high. And for reasons we all know -- largely, Chairman Arafat could not accept the deal -- it failed. And expectations were dashed and it began an intifada -- a pretty violent one -- that one for years. So that's the situation we found: failed peace efforts, dashed hopes and an intifada; considerable violence against Israel.

The President came in and one of the first things he did was make it absolutely clear that the -- in the context of the war on terror that if you harbor a terrorist, you'll be treated as a terrorist, and every country has the right to defend themselves against terror. And he was very clear and defended Israel's right to defend itself against terror. That was very important in getting, I think, the confidence of the Israeli leadership, but also the confidence of the Israeli people. And that's the first thing he did; it was extremely important. This would be 2001.

2002, a couple speeches the President articulated the two state solution. What was important about that was it was the framework for finding peace; it was a recognition that the two state solution had to be a democratic state, a democratic Palestinian state committed to fighting terror and to building a better life for its people. Why did the President say that? One, because he understood that to get a peace, Israel would have to make concessions in negotiations with the Palestinians. And Israel would be comfortable making those concessions only if it knew it was going to have an allayed neighbor living side by side with it that was democratic, had the support of its people and was willing to fight terror. That kind of neighbor is the kind of neighbor next to which Israel could live and to which it could make some concessions in order to get a peace.

But the other thing that was equally important is the President was the first person I know who started to care about the kind of Palestinian state the Palestinian people would get; that it would not be a state run by terrorists or run by folks who were interested in lining their own pockets -- it ought to be democratically elected leaders who would do the best for the Palestinian people. He wanted to have a Palestinian state worthy of the dreams of the Palestinian people for their children. And he's the first that really cared about the kind of state the Palestinians would get.

He also at the same time said he would no longer negotiate with Arafat, that in his view Arafat was a failed leader who had not led for his people, had not delivered peace for his people and was, in fact, compromised by terror and he would not deal with him. And you need to understand that there was great -- as you know, great consternation in the international community that the President would call it like it was. And he called at the time for new Palestinian leadership uncompromised by terror and set that standard.

April '03, the first plan towards getting towards a two state solution and an overall peace, the road map, April of '03; looked for progress, within two years had an objective, in terms of timetable; talked about the key need to build Palestinian institutions to fight terror, and also for the Israelis to make progress on issues about outpost settlements and easing the ability of Palestinians to move around in terms of movement of access.

There is hope. June of '03 the Aqaba meeting, Sharon, Abbas, then Prime Minister, talking about a -- you had a Palestinian leader talked about peace and fighting terror and clearly and publicly on behalf of his people. We talked about the beginning of the building of the institutions of a Palestinian state. It was a hopeful time. The President then began for the first time to talk about direct aid to the Palestinian Authority, something that had been a barrier in the Congress -- for good reasons, since it was a Palestinian Authority compromised by terror -- Palestinian Authority now under new leadership, committed to fighting terror and the United States started providing direct support to build their institutions.

'04, Gaza disengagement. A bold decision by Sharon to move unilaterally to fill the vacuum, if you will, and to withdraw from the Gaza. The supposed founder of the settlement movement decides for the first time to disestablish settlements founded by Israel -- first time that has occurred -- to do it unilaterally and to give a down payment, if you will, on a Palestinian state -- an area, a territory that the Palestinian Authority could begin to govern and, as I say, begin to demonstrate the out contours of a Palestinian state.

In '05 we are beginning to focus on Palestinian institutions, but also to focus on movement and access. Remember, in and around the time of Gaza disengagement there's the exchange of letters between the President and Prime Minister Sharon. That exchange of letters is important for a number of reasons. One, it begins to articulate the outlines of what a Palestinian state might look like, the kinds of compromises that the parties would need to make; but it'll also start working on the movement and access provisions and concrete steps that the Israelis need to take to ease up the restrictions under which Palestinians live at the same time the Palestinians need to be making progress on security and fighting terror and the infrastructure of terror.

That continues in '05 --'05 we have Palestinian elections and to a surprise -- sorry, December of '05, Palestinian elections and to everyone's surprise Hamas wins those elections. It's important, as the President said many times, to understand what that election was about. If you look at the Hamas candidates, many of them were not Hamas members; many of them were school teachers, professors -- and their platform was not "vote for me and let's push Israel into the sea." Their platform was "vote for me and let's work on sewers and roads and educational systems and building the institutions of a Palestinian state."

Hamas nonetheless does get elected. The international community says they are willing to recognize Hamas, but Hamas needs to get on the program for peace and to do some very predictable and understandable things: recognize Israeli's right to exist -- how can you negotiate peace with a country whose right to exist you do not recognize; a willingness to eschew terror and fight terror. Again, the President says many times, a Palestinian state cannot be borne of fear. And finally, accept the agreements that Israeli and the Palestinians have laid out, that are the building blocks of a broader Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Hamas is unwilling to do so. We have a setback. It leads ultimately, as you know, to Hamas basically staging a coup d'etat and taking over the Gaza. And in the middle of this, of course, summer of '06, you have the war between Hezbollah and Israel waged in southern Lebanon -- not the most auspicious time, obviously, for a negotiation between the Israelis and Palestinians on a peace.

So I would say to you in this period of time the President is putting in place the building blocks for a potential Israeli-Palestinian peace. Another important building block was actually done by then-Crown Prince Abdallah, now King Abdallah of Saudi Arabia, who in the initial peace plan that was adopted by the Arab League in Beirut offered the prospect for the first time that an Israeli-Palestinian peace could occur in the context of an overall Arab-Israeli reconciliation. The Arabs were beginning to come into the process of trying to build peace, something they did not do in the negotiations at the end of the Clinton administration.

So I would say in this period of time the President was working in a concrete way to put into place the building blocks for the establishment of a Palestinian state, a two state solution and a broader peace. Were there setbacks in this period? Absolutely, you bet. And the decision he finally made in, of course, the fall of '07, and specifically in Annapolis in November of '07, is to respond to the willingness of the parties to launch formal negotiations. The parties were prepared to do it. He was prepared to support it.

And what he did was really launch -- what the parties did was launch a three-pronged effort. One was the formal negotiation of the contours of the Palestinian state -- borders, refugees, security, Jerusalem. Second was to accelerate the building of the institutions of a Palestinian state so the Palestinians would be able to govern democratically the state that they would get as a result of the negotiations. And finally, at the same time, he negotiated a third element, which was the broader outreach to the Arab world, to get the Arabs involved in this process -- so as I say, Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation to be in the context of a broader Arab-Israeli reconciliation.

And that's where we are now. The negotiations are going forward. They are largely secret. There is less known about them publicly than is going on. We continue to be hopeful. There are ups and downs. The issues are hard. And the process goes forward, and obviously the President is going to try and give some impetus to that process in the conversations he is having on his trip.

Elliott, do you want to add anything to that?

MR. ABRAMS: I would add one thing, which is that as we move forward there are those who would like to slow us down and stop us. It's interesting, as I was listening to you recite the progress of the last seven years, one other thing that's happened in these years is a very significant increase in the amount of assistance that Iran is giving to Hamas. Seven years ago there really wasn't much at all. Now there is a lot.

So you see the enemies of a peaceful settlement stepping up their activities in an effort to stop us.

MR. HADLEY: And that's why when the President talks about this he starts in a way where I should have started, but it's where we will end up -- that what you're seeing and Elliott has described is part of a struggle going on in the Middle East between those forces that are interested in democracy and peace and trying to resolve these problems, and those forces that are committed to a different agenda and a terrorist agenda. And as the President says, that is the great struggle you see.

And every time one of these emerging democracies -- whether it's Afghanistan, Iraq, Lebanon or an inchoate Palestinian state -- tries to move forward, who are they opposed by? They are opposed by Hezbollah in Lebanon, they are opposed by Hamas on the West Bank, they are opposed by various elements -- some of them al Qaeda and some of them Iranian-backed militia in Iraq. We know that Iran is getting much more involved in Afghanistan supporting the Taliban.

So as the President says, it is really a struggle between the forces of freedom, democracy and a positive future on the one hand, and the forces of terror, backed largely by Syria and by Iran and, as we say, their handmaiden, Syria. It is a struggle for the future of the Middle East, and it is the challenge, I think the President would say, of our time. If the 20th century was about establishing peace, democracy and prosperity and freedom in Asia and Europe, at the dawn of the 21st century I think we're going to find that the struggles that we are charged with are to be on the side of those that bring freedom, democracy and prosperity in the Middle East, against the forces of terror and oppression.

That's what it's about. It is a big deal. And that's why Lebanon matters, that's why Abbas matters, that's why Afghanistan matters, that's why Iraq matters.

Thank you.

Q Steve, I want to ask a question that might be over-simplified, but can you just make an argument against the notion that by being seen as siding with Israel on so many issues and in so many contexts, that the President is actually diminishing Israeli's chance for having peace, because he increases Palestinian anger and maybe increases Iran's influence with Hezbollah or Hamas. I mean, can you counter that a little bit?

MR. HADLEY: Yes, I would, because I think the irony is why is it -- why is it that both the Israeli Prime Minister and the Palestinian President said they wanted to engage in negotiations and they wanted to get the agreement done on this President's watch? It's because ironically he has been both a very strong friend to Israel, supporting them as they defended their security, but also urging them on the path towards negotiations, while at the same time being a good friend to the Palestinian people by, one, embracing and articulating the two state solution, speaking strongly for a Palestinian homeland -- and not just any homeland, but a democratic homeland, prosperous, offering a chance for the Palestinian people to actually not only have a homeland but a better life.

So the irony is he has been a good friend to both. And I think that's why they talk the way they do and why they said they're going to try and do it on this President's watch.

You know, it's interesting that we are going to Israel to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the founding of the state of Israel, and that is a great event. We also recognize that that event resulted in hardship for many Palestinian people. And the President in some sense is the first leader to come forward and say, we're going to redeem that hardship by giving the Palestinian state a homeland for the Palestinian people in the same way that Israeli 60 years ago became the homeland for the Jewish people. That's what this President is about.

Q Why not make a more dramatic statement, then, to recognize the flip side of the anniversary -- why not go to the West Bank? Why not make a more -- you know, appear with Palestinians during the same visit?

MR. HADLEY: Let's see what the President says. He's got some opportunities to speak here. Secondly, he just met with President Abbas and his delegation a couple weeks ago. He's scheduled to meet with President Abbas again. He'll meet with Prime Minister Fayyad.

One of the reasons he is going to Sharm el-Sheikh is to meet with Arab leaders, because one of the things he needs to do is rally the support of the Arab world behind both Israeli and the Palestinian leadership so that they will support whatever is negotiated between the two sides. That's an important element of this, because support from the Arab world can both empower President Abbas to make some very hard decisions, but it also can empower Prime Minister Olmert, because it allows him to say to his people what's at stake here is not just Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, what is at stake potentially is a broader peace between Israel and the Arab world.

Q Shortly before we took off from Andrews, Prime Minister Olmert gave a speech in which he said that there had been certain understandings and points of agreement that have been achieved between Israel and the Palestinians on some issues. The Palestinians officials reacted somewhat skeptically to his comments. Can you shed any light on what he's talking about, if there's any truth to it?

MR. HADLEY: What I would say is that the negotiations have gone forward. These are obviously very sensitive for both parties. They have decided, I think, that the details are better kept confidential among the negotiators, not leaking out piecemeal. They obviously want to come up [with] something that they think is balanced for both sides. And that's the right approach. So we have not talked publicly about where they are in the negotiations, and we won't be doing so.

Q Are you aware of them having made significant progress, in a general sense?

MR. HADLEY: We're pretty much aware of the conversations they have had, the issues that are on the table, the kinds of thinking both sides have been doing. And obviously Secretary Rice has been very active on that score. And if you listen to her and if you listen to the President -- who she keeps very much informed -- we still think this can be done.

Q So in January the President said that he was optimistic there would be a signed deal before he left office. Do you think he's still that confident?

MR. HADLEY: I think he thinks it still can be done. You know, it's obviously -- it's hard. It's five months, five-and-a-half months since January, there's a limited time left. But I think we believe that the parties are making progress. It's very hard what they're trying to do, let's face it.

Q The Palestinians have been quite upset about continuing settlement activity by the Israelis. Have you seen some linkage between what are considered road map issues and final status issues that are slowing or impeding the final status talks?

MR. HADLEY: I'm sorry?

Q Are you seeing some connection being drawn by the Palestinians between road map issues, like settlements, and final -- or reduction in settlements and final status issues? Is that effecting the final status negotiations?

MR. HADLEY: No, I haven't seen a formal linkage. But obviously both sides have their politics. And obviously if you talk to the Palestinians they would say that continued settlement activity by the Israelis, failure to destroy illegal outposts, that that makes it politically harder for President Abbas. And if you talk to Prime Minister Olmert, he would say continued rocket attacks from Gaza and the prospect of terrorist attacks on the West Bank that goes on continues to pose real political problems for the Israeli side as well.

This is one of the reasons this is very hard for these two men to do it. And remember Elliott's point, that all during this time the people who are the enemies of the peace have a vote -- and that would be Hamas and that would be Hezbollah and their Iranian supporters. And it is not by accident that there are shellings come out of Gaza into Israel and efforts to do terrorist incidents on the West Bank. Because the hope of the terrorists is precisely because of the difficult political situation they can get the parties to break off these negotiations. And our argument is precisely because of the opposition of the terrorists and their backers that these parties need to stay at the table, to try and seize this opportunity for a broader agreement.

Q Can I ask a question on Lebanon, if I may? What is the President going to be looking for specifically from Saudi Arabia and other people that he meets with later in the trip to shore up Prime Minister Siniora? And how concerned are you about his hold on power right now?

MR. HADLEY: Obviously the weekend was a very rough weekend. And what you had in some sense was an effort by Hezbollah to blackmail and intimidate the duly elected government of Lebanon. And as the Lebanese are beginning, themselves, to say this was Hezbollah not defending Lebanon from external enemies, this was Hezbollah turning on the Lebanese government and the Lebanese people, themselves.

This is very troubling development. We believe they would not have done it without the support of Iran and Syria, which is an example of this broader struggle being played out in the region. What to do? One of the things we have done, and Secretary Rice has been very active, is rallying the international community to support, through their diplomacy and statements, the Siniora government. And basically condemning what Hezbollah has done, making clear our support for the Siniora government and encouraging the army to support that government and act to bring stability and peace back to the country.

That diplomacy I think you saw played out in the Arab League statement, I think you will see potentially up in the U.N. Security Council in New York. He also made clear our support for the Lebanese army; we have been providing assistance to the Lebanese army, we obviously are going to continue to do that and see what more we can do as well. Obviously we are also going to talk to various countries about additional pressure that can be put on Syria and Iran, because in our view they are what is behind this.

There's obviously more to do, and that's what we're going to be looking at. Anything to add on that?

MR. ABRAMS: We'll be actually unrolling a few things in the course of the week, starting perhaps with the Security Council, and then some thing we'll be doing --

Q Consider new sanctions?

MR. ABRAMS: Well, we'll see what happens in New York. We'll see what the appetite is both in New York and then for, kind of, coalition of the willing.

MS. PERINO: Thank you, everyone. Anything for me, outside of that?

Q No, I think we're good. Thank you.

* * * * *

MR. HADLEY: I talked about launching three processes in Annapolis. I talked about a negotiation between Israelis and Palestinians on the contours of a Palestinian state. I talked about building the institutions of a Palestinian state, that's something very much Tony Blair is involved [in]. Third is also the implementation of the road map.

And the theory on Annapolis is those three go forward together, because the negotiations will be more credible if the Israelis can see the Palestinians building the institutions that will allow them to effectively take responsible for security. And the Palestinians will be reassured that this is real if they see the Israelis, in particular, beginning to implement their road map obligations. And that's why, of course, what Will Fraser is doing to try and assist that, both Israelis and Palestinians implementing the road map obligations.

The broader engagement with the international community and the regional states -- that's of course also part of this. But the key thing I would say is the negotiations, building Palestinian institutions and road map implementations. There's synergy between those three, because everybody needs to understand it's not just words on paper, but you're actually doing the things that could make a democratic Palestinian state at peace with Israel real.

Thank you.

END 6:46 P.M. EDT