Background Briefing on Middle East Peace
MODERATOR: Thank you, everyone, for joining us this afternoon for this background briefing on Middle East peace issues and the Quartet statement that was just issued. For your records, our briefer tonight is [Senior Administration Official], hereafter known as Senior Administration Official. Without further ado, [Senior Administration Official].
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. Well, thank you very much. I’m sorry for – it took a few minutes to get organized and join you, but I just left the meeting of the principals of the Quartet a little while ago. And I think you’ve seen the statement that was issued by them.
I think it’s important, though, before we get into the details of that, to sort of step back and review a little bit about how we got to this point in our efforts, starting with what President Obama said in May 2011, this year. He laid out, as you know, a comprehensive vision of what will be ultimately required from the parties and from the international community to get back to negotiations. And we’ve been dedicating ourselves to use every opportunity and every tool to make that a reality. And we certainly have had many consultations with the parties along the path.
As the Palestinians develop their own ideas of what was necessary in terms of coming here to New York, we were intensively engaged with them in providing ideas for an alternative path. And it was clear that the Quartet also had a consensus view that an alternative path was what was needed for this situation. So we’ve been consulting them throughout the summer after our meeting in July, and have now come forward with a statement.
The focus here, as I said, is to provide an alternative. And the Quartet, I think, in issuing this statement is very much focused on encouraging the parties back into talks. I think as you review that statement, I can make a few points going through the details of that, that the statement shows the international consensus behind a couple of key ideas. One is that the only way for the Palestinians to achieve real statehood is through negotiations with Israel. Second, that if these negotiations are going to succeed, they must be serious and credible and deal with all of the core issues. I think a very important departure point – and it was stressed throughout this statement and in our discussions with the Quartet – has been the fact that the remarks of President Obama in May that are guiding us and that provide the solid foundation for the negotiations to succeed. And in fact, I think the Quartet, in the statement, is making clear those ideas that are key.
I think it’s also important to point out that the statement provided some very new elements as well. There is a specific timeline for the negotiations that should be agreed upon by the parties. This is a realistic timeline that the Quartet is offering, but it’s also a very serious one in the effort to reach an agreement by the end of 2010, certainly no later than two thousand – I’m sorry, 2012.
I think it’s also important to emphasize the idea that there’s going to be a period early on in negotiations, if the parties agree, where they’ll have an opportunity to ensure that this effort is serious and that they are getting down to business quickly, with a preparatory meeting early on and then the idea that they’ll be able to come forward with comprehensive proposals within a three-month period on territory and security.
I think it’s also important to emphasize that we have, I think, during this time period here at the General Assembly, Secretary Clinton and her active diplomacy – I think you all saw what she’s been doing this week in reaching this goal and to help bring this home. And obviously, we’re now focused, as we should be, on what’s going to happen here and making this statement a reality, working with the parties to provide this alternative to action in the United Nations, which of course, as you’ve heard from [Moderator] and others on many an occasion prior to this, in our view is not the way forward to reaching the goals that we all share in terms of the negotiated outcome for this problem.
I might stop there, [Moderator], and listen to some questions.
MODERATOR: Let me just remind everybody that in addition to the folks in the room here, we have about 25 participants by phone. I just want to confirm, Operator, that you can hear us.
OPERATOR: We can hear you.
MODERATOR: Good. So we will take three from the room and then we’ll go to the first three on the phone.
Go ahead, Arshad.
QUESTION: The statement that you came out with does not provide the sort of terms of reference that – the statement that you put out and agreed on does not provide the sort of terms of reference that Abbas has been seeking and that he emphasized again in today’s speech that he wants.
One, what makes you think he is likely to be willing to engage in a serious negotiation absent those terms of reference? Two, to what extent has the statement been – was the statement shared prior to its public release with both parties? And to what extent have you had indications from either that they are, in fact, willing to come to a preparatory meeting and then perhaps to engage in real negotiations?
MODERATOR: Were the folks on the phone able to hear the question?
QUESTION: It was not clear.
MODERATOR: The question went to whether this statement we expect to be well received by President Abbas, and to whether the ideas were shared with the parties ahead of the conclusion today.
QUESTION: But specifically, it’s not terms of reference. That’s what he said he wanted. What makes you think he’s going to agree, absent that?
MODERATOR: That it’s less than the terms of reference.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I mean, you’re going to have to ask, obviously, President Abbas his views on the statement once you have an opportunity to do that. We’ve been engaged in intensive consultations this week and, in fact, for months now with the parties as we go out – prepare for every opportunity, use every opportunity to move forward with the idea of launching – getting them back into negotiations.
What the Quartet has said here today is that their imperative is to get back into talks without preconditions and without delay, and they provide a tangible, credible timeline for that. They have offered our ideas on how you could structure that time so that there are periods here where the parties can discuss, in a preparatory way, what’s necessary for those talks to succeed, and then to focus on what the President has offered, which frankly will provide the framework for these talks. This is – the foundation will be from what President Obama – will be drawn from what President Obama said in May, and we’re very gratified the Quartet has, again, endorsed that – the sort of guiding principles for what we’re trying to accomplish here.
QUESTION: Did you share it in advance?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We had intensive consultations with the parties on this. I won’t elaborate further on the detailed nature of those discussions.
MODERATOR: Steve Myers, please speak up very loudly with your question so that the phone people can hear.
QUESTION: As you pointed out, the Quartet statement has these deadlines in it. What happens if, within one month, you don’t have an agreement to sit down and talk?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, what I heard from the parties today – I mean, both President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu, in their addresses at General Assembly, did what they have, in fact, said now for quite a long time, that both are very anxious to get into direct talks. They realize that no matter what happens here in New York or doesn’t happen in New York, that it’s – this main story is getting back into direct negotiations.
So we feel that this provides, as I said, a credible, serious alternative path, and we believe that both sides, if they’re true to their words, will find a way to respond favorably to this. Now, we have to work with them. Obviously, this is just one step in a pathway, and we’ll be working with the parties in helping them do this. But they’ll have to make the decisions to make this – make this (inaudible) a reality.
QUESTION: But about the deadline itself, if I can follow up, what happens in 30 days if there’s no agreement? Does it go back to the Security Council?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No, the Security Council is not part of this agreement. This is a Quartet statement. And obviously, we’ll be working with our Quartet friends to continue to offer their ideas. But it’s direct talks that are going to provide the way forward here, and the Quartet’s role is not to interfere in the process, but obviously can be a consultative supplement to their efforts. So I think we’ll have to take this as it comes. We think that the idea of offering this timeline gives the parties a sense that this is not open-ended, that there are real goals and that there’s a serious process underway.
QUESTION: Can I ask you, one, why no terms of reference? What we have been hearing all week was that you’re trying to craft a statement that had a mention of ’67 borders, that had – with swaps, that had a mention of the identity of Israel being a Jewish state, things along those lines. So that’s number one.
Number two, why doesn’t this address – why does it only take note of the Palestinian submission, and why doesn’t it refer to the – what was likely to happen at the General Assembly after the Security Council vote or resolution fails for whatever reason?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Right.
MODERATOR: Was the question clear on the phone?
QUESTION: We did not hear the question.
MODERATOR: Why no terms of reference? And the second half of the question?
QUESTION: Oh, don’t put me on the spot now. I’ve forgotten what it was.
QUESTION: No – oh yeah, why does it only take – why doesn’t it address this big – the elephant that’s in the room here? Why doesn’t – why does it only take note of and not talk about General Assembly action that could follow (inaudible).
MODERATOR: And the second part was that – noting that it only takes note of the UN action and doesn’t address it further.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. Well, I think that the question actually links two – the two questions link an important idea here. President Abbas presented his letter today that had been anticipated for a few days now. In the process leading up to today, the Quartet – the United States, obviously, and members of the Quartet were working on the statement. The United States had offered a lot of ideas, based on the President’s remarks, of how we could proceed. Frankly, the Israelis have responded quite flexibly. I think that Prime Minister Netanyahu, in fact, referred to this process in his speech today, responded quite flexibly and responsibly to some of these ideas. In the Quartet discussions, there were other ideas that were voiced.
President Abbas presented his letter. That became clear now what he was going to do, this – today and this week. At that stage, I think it was very important for the Quartet – we actually had an imperative to note that and offer ideas in response to that. So I think you should view the Quartet statement as sort of looking forward from this point on of what it’s going to take to get to the real source of the problem, which is the dispute between the Israelis and the Palestinians. It’s not what may happen here in New York.
So I think that was a key thing that decided us anyway – was instrumental for us, saying we need now to focus back on the basics, which is, how do you get a negotiation going? By giving a timeline. How do you do that? You use the remarks of the President, the ideas the President laid out in May, the formulas that he very carefully balanced and constructed. The Quartet has endorsed that and now provided a very tangible way forward for the parties to use those effectively.
MODERATOR: Let’s go to --
QUESTION: (Inaudible) if I could just interrupt to follow up, could you talk a little bit, though, about the Security Council process? Because that has now begun with the submission of this letter.
MODERATOR: Steve, I think that’s a new question, and I want to give the folks on the phone a chance, so if you could hold please. Let’s go to the first three on the phone, please. Go ahead to question number one, please, Operator.
OPERATOR: Our question comes from Elise Labott of CNN. Go ahead. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Thanks so much for doing this. It’s kind of a two-parter question that’s related. You talk about the fact that we still have this kind of sword hanging over your heads in terms of he can go back to the UN Security Council or the General Assembly. So that kind of makes this Quartet statement and all these things a little moot if he does that. So – and it doesn’t seem as if he’s really deterred from going back to the Security Council and General Assembly. So what affect does this statement have if he does that?
And secondly, on the Quartet, I mean, a lot of statements are put out. The parties usually ignore them. And I’m just wondering, like, with no – it’s obviously not a legal authority. You can’t force them back to the table and you can’t want it more than they want it themselves. So you can make these constructive statements that offer a way forward, and they can (inaudible) choose not to take them, and I’m just wondering what the relevance of the Quartet is. Yes, it’s an international kind of consensus, but it doesn’t even seem, based on the statement that you put out today, that there’s that much consensus inside the Quartet itself as to the way forward, except these general ideas. I mean, a couple of days ago, you were speaking about much more specific ideas, [Senior Administration Official].
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, obviously, time will tell. I mean, we’ll see how the parties react to this statement and what affect that has on their actions. Again, I think it’s important just to focus on what it is that President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu have said. President Abbas, in his speech in Ramallah before he left for New York and here in New York, has repeatedly stressed that he knows that the only path to independence and a Palestinian state is through negotiations. So I think it’s a fairly simple proposition that we would want to focus ourselves on providing a pathway to that.
We, and I think now you can see the Quartet, believe that that pathway is through negotiations, not through actions here in New York. And so we’re going to – in the spirit of this Quartet statement, we’re going to work with the parties to see what we can do to help them back into that process. Again, I don’t want to comment on past Quartet statements. I just think is a significant Quartet statement. These are very hard issues, frankly, to work on.
And the Quartet has worked in, I think, a very serious fashion, a very diligent fashion, and basically decided that the best thing to do today in light of what has happened was to issue a straightforward and simple call to a return to negotiations with a timetable, and to do so without pre – that these negotiations should start without preconditions and without delay. And that actually – if you look back at past Quartet statements, I think you can say this is actually something that is a significant step forward for us, and now we’re going to have to work with the parties to make it a reality.
MODERATOR: Operator --
QUESTION: But you can’t want it more than they want it. You can’t want it more than they want it. I mean, you can’t drag them to the table.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, they have to –
QUESTION: You just can’t make them drink. (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Direct negotiations are the goal here. Only the parties themselves can make the tradeoffs and the decisions needed in order to reach a final status agreement. But what the international community can do is help lend their support with ideas, with encouragement, and with some direction, and that’s what we’re doing. That’s what the President did in May, and now the Quartet is doing it through this operationalization of what he had to say.
MODERATOR: Operator, next question please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Alex Spillius of Daily Telegraph. Go ahead. Your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi. Yes. I’m sort of following on from the man’s question about relevance. I mean, the U.S. for 20 years and more has been the principle mediator between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but this week saw President Obama retreating into sort of – maybe sort of pro-Israeli position, given the political considerations he’s got. And here we are at the Quartet, now out in front, but the mediator – I just wondered if – it just seems to me Quartet is replacing the U.S. in the leading role. Do you see it that way?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the Quartet has been in existence now for about 10 years, and we have the advantages of the membership of some very significant players – as you know, the Russian Federation, the European Union, United Nations, and ourselves. And I think that U.S. diplomacy and our objectives are amplified and strengthened when we’re able to reach consensus with the Quartet.
But there’s no question that without U.S. leadership, what the Quartet does or doesn’t do would, frankly, be of much less consequence. This is all built upon, frankly, this initiative, and these concepts in the statement are built upon what President Obama laid out in May. And all we’re doing here – it’s significant, but in light of your question, I think it’s worth emphasizing – what we’re doing here is taking what the President said and turning it into an operational tool. The Quartet will not be involving itself in the negotiations or trying to interfere in what can only be direct negotiations. And the United States will be playing a consistently active role in helping with the parties on that basis.
MODERATOR: Operator, third question and then we’ll come back to the room.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Laura Rozen of Yahoo! News. Go ahead, your line is open.
QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. [Senior Administration Official], the U.S. proposed an ambitious one-year timeline last year and it collapsed early on and was arguably quite demoralizing for confidence in the peace process. The speeches by President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu today reiterated some of the reasons it’s so hard for the parties to agree on terms of reference for the talks. Can you talk about concerns among the U.S. delegation and the Quartet about the seeming risks of raising expectations again for a hugely ambitious peace process timetable without having seemingly narrowed any of those differences?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think that the United States, through the Quartet, believes that the parties actually are committed to doing what they can to reach an agreement. What we can offer them, as I said earlier, is a structure and some ideas on how to accomplish that. And when the President said in May what he said about his vision for a comprehensive peace, we, frankly, have been working since then to construct ideas on how we can help the parties back into those talks.
The idea of a timeline, I think, is important because it’s a sign of seriousness of purpose. And obviously, there are deadlines that are missed and there are deadlines that are met, and we will obviously do our best to make this process succeed in a timely fashion. But I think what’s important to judge – and you will be the judge of this as we proceed – is: Are the parties responding in a serious fashion to these ideas? Are they engaging this – in this effort in a serious way? And certainly, we’ve been – and in our intensive consultations believe that they are seeking an opportunity to do so. And that’s what the Quartet’s offering here.
MODERATOR: Let’s come back to the room, please, if you want to --
QUESTION: If I could go back to the question on the Security Council action. Now that the request has been submitted, what happens and how does that relate, or not, to this one-month deadline to resume negotiations?
MODERATOR: So for those of you on the call, the question went to what happens next in the UN Security Council and how does that relate to the Quartet’s one-month deadline.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I’ll confine my remarks because I’m no expert on Security Council procedures, but there are procedures and this is a first step. The president submitted his letter, and now those procedures will be – will unfold. They’re not in any sort of linked fashion related to the Quartet statement. As I said, the Palestinian leadership itself has been the first to say that it’s only through negotiations that they’ll reach the goal of statehood. And so we’re focused on that. Our position on the Security Council has obviously been made very clear. I don’t see a need to repeat that today.
QUESTION: I just wanted to ask, does this replace the French plan? I mean, the French had come up with a proposal, so what’s your take on the French proposal?
And then as a second point, you had previously been to the region just before coming to the UN and had proposals, and the negotiations were not able to start. So what changed? Why would they go back to the table now?
MODERATOR: So two questions for those of you on speaker: Does this replace the French plan? How do we feel about the French plan?
The second one was: What’s changed since [Senior Administration Official] and company were last in the region?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, maybe I’ll start with the last question. We had several trips out to the Middle East in recent weeks in order to consult with the parties on how to get back to negotiations and also to understand fully what it was that, in the case of the Palestinians, they were proposing to do here in the United Nations this week, and obviously to discuss that with other interested parties, including the Government of Israel.
We – these discussions are a continuum, and here in New York I can’t even tell you how many times we’ve been meeting with the parties and everyone else who’s interested in this. The Secretary of State, as you’ve observed, has been extremely active.
Again, I’m not here to make predictions about how successful this process is ultimately going to be. What I am here to tell you is that the Quartet statement, I think, is a reflection of a unanimity of purpose by its members, who, frankly, reflect a very broad spectrum – the EU, Russia, the UN, ourselves – on what it takes and how we can help the parties do the utmost. So that’s what our focus is on.
On the French proposal, I think that what we need to do is focus on a tangible plan to get us back to talks. That’s what the Quartet’s done. The EU is part of that. And I’m sure here in New York there’ll be more specific discussions about what the French proposals actually entail.
MODERATOR: Here we have one more on the phone. Let’s take that one, and then we’ll finish here in the room. Go ahead, Operator.
OPERATOR: Our question comes from Josh Gerstein of Politico. Go ahead, your line is open.
QUESTION: Hi, I wanted to ask about this item four in the statement – Quartet statement that addresses the Palestinians’ sovereignty interests, talking about identifying additional steps to support Palestinian statehood individually and together. Can you explain what that means exactly? What aspect of Palestinian statehood would the U.S. be open to advancing before talks are completed, given that we’re apparently not open to their proposal for full membership at the UN?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think one conclusion – well, let me step back. The idea here is that the Quartet has recognized that the institution building that has been undertaken by the Palestinian Authority with Prime Minister Fayyad and President Abbas’s leadership has been quite impressive. I think you’ve seen the meeting of the Ad Hoc Liaison Committee on Sunday commend what has occurred in that connection. We in the United States have been strong partners in that effort. And obviously, the concept here is that we need to help the Palestinians build the institutions so that when they are ready for statehood, because a political agreement has been reached, that the institutional framework is ready to pick up right away the governance of the Palestinian people.
So obviously it’s, I think, important as we look prospectively at the day in the future when a Palestinian state is emerging from negotiations that we think of ways how we can support that process. But again, our focus is on – very much on the idea here that there’s an opportunity on the negotiating side for the parties to seize as an alternative to sort of actions here in New York which will not, at the end of the day, contribute constructively to this process, but to seize the opportunity that the Quartet’s offered to resume negotiations.
MODERATOR: Any last questions in the room?
MODERATOR: Matt and then Arshad.
QUESTION: Two things. One, what was there that you wanted from the statement that you didn’t get?
And then two, is this meeting in Moscow ever going to happen? I mean, it’s been in every damn Quartet statement for about four years now, and it’s never happened, and the Russians (inaudible).
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think the Russians are happy that the Quartet – I mean, you’ll have to talk to them, but I think that --
QUESTION: Well, that’d be a (inaudible). (Laughter.)
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Let me put it this way.
QUESTION: I mean, I don’t understand this, where it says to that end, the Quartet will convene an international conference in Moscow, but it doesn’t say like in six months or – in fact, it says, “at the appropriate time,” which leads me to believe that you’re just – this is another – a line you’re giving Russians.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah.
MODERATOR: So for folks on the phone, the question was: Is this Moscow conference that we’ve seen in other Quartet statements going to happen? Matt Lee wants to know when he should get out his fur coat.
QUESTION: It would be preferably in the summertime.
QUESTION: Also, what did you not get?
QUESTION: Yeah. What did you not get that you --
QUESTION: Yeah. What (inaudible)?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay. Well --
QUESTION: And what would you have liked to seen.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: It’s, I think, been important for the Quartet to be responsive to one of its members’ strong desires to see, at the appropriate time, a conference occur in Moscow, and we’re all in agreement on that. The emphasis is on appropriate time. In my discussions with Russians officials – again, I urge you to ask them – they don’t want a conference just for a conference’s sake. That would be very easy to organize, and we’d all go there, and nothing would happen. They want a conference that actually is helpful in sort of capitalizing on progress that the parties may have made and then finding itself as an opportunity to proceed into a new phase.
So it’s very much linked into the concept of a negotiation and not just some detached idea of having a conference for a conference’s sake. So that’s why we will do it when we think it’s going to be a positive contribution to this process, not just because we need to have a conference, not just because we want to have a conference.
QUESTION: Well, but I mean, does it imply that some progress, perhaps not substantial progress, had been made and that would be a trigger if you felt that they needed a push?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, we’ll use it. I mean, these conferences for us are tools, and we will judge what we need when we need it. And having a conference in one of the capitals of the Quartet members could be a very important tool to helping, as I said, to capitalize on progress being made and encourage more to be made.
QUESTION: What would you have liked to have seen but didn’t get? What – please don’t try to say you got everything you wanted.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. I mean, as I said earlier, we had ideas to develop from the President’s remarks. As I said, the Israelis were responding very flexibly to these ideas, being very responsive to them. Other members of the Quartet had other ideas, so we were in that discussion. And that discussion was ongoing, frankly. And these ideas, though, I think will continue to help us as we proceed into negotiations. But we felt, right now, the important thing was, in light of what had happened with President Abbas’ letter, the Quartet had to come out with something now that dealt with that in a constructive fashion. So tactically, this is, I think, a very important step and it’s – we’re focused on the – on what we’re going to do with it now.
MODERATOR: Okay. Let’s do Nicole and then Arshad, last question. Then he’s got to go.
Go ahead, Nicole.
QUESTION: [Senior Administration Official], you characterized the Israeli response to your suggestion twice now as very flexible. Can you tell us a little bit about the response from Palestinians when you talked with them?
MODERATOR: The question for those on the phone was how have the Palestinians responded.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think that our discussions with Palestinians have also been very constructive, and I firmly believe President Abbas is committed to seeing – doing everything he can to get into successful negotiations. For us, this Quartet statement provides that avenue, and we will be consulting with them as – in the days and weeks ahead.
MODERATOR: Last one, Arshad.
QUESTION: A question about the money: You make reference to holding an international donors conference. As you’re well aware, a number of members of the U.S. Congress have threatened to cut off aid to the Palestinians or to the Palestinian Authority.
So, two questions: One, do you have any sense of whether the events of today and this statement may be able to head off some of those congressional calls for cutting off money? And two, if the United States goes to a donors conference, do you really think you’ll be able to promise money, given how much hostility there may be toward it after President Abbas submitted his letter today in Congress?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah.
MODERATOR: The question was about money, congressional attitudes, and whether the U.S. will actually have money to bring to a donors conference.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. Well, again, I’m not in a position to predict the future or respond to questions about the future, and certainly not to speak on behalf of the U.S. Congress. What I can say is that we should be taking this step by step. We have a Quartet statement now. It has a clear set of organizing ideas on how we should proceed. Obviously, having a strong Palestinian partner capable of ensuring that there’s security in its streets and that its institutions are functioning well is very important, and that involves financing. So the concept of having a donors conference, I think, is very consistent with our ideas on how we move this forward and preserve not our interests only, but obviously, the interests of both parties as well.
MODERATOR: Thank you all very much, in particular thanks to [Senior Administration Official] for joining us immediately after a very intense day, a very intense week, a very intense couple of months.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yes. Sorry. I’m a little tired. Yeah.
MODERATOR: If you need Quartet statement copies, they are here. Thank you all on the phone as well.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you.