Briefing by Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell on His Recent Travel to the Region and Efforts Toward Achieving A Comprehensive Peace
Special Envoy for Middle East Peace
MR. CROWLEY: Good afternoon. We have been trying steadily to work our way through the ranks of the envoys here at the Department of State. And we are very pleased this afternoon, I think coming up on your fifth month on the job, that we thought it was a good time to have George Mitchell, our senior envoy for – our Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, to come by and kind of give you a sense of where he thinks things are currently and the way forward.
MR. MITCHELL: Thank you, P.J. Thank you, ladies and gentlemen. I’ll make a brief statement and then I’ll be pleased to try to respond to your questions.
The President and the Secretary of State have made U.S. policy clear: The only viable resolution to this conflict is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states. We believe that’s the best way to guarantee Israel’s long-term security. We believe it’s in the security interest of the United States and of the entire region. The President, the Secretary, and the entire Administration are working vigorously toward a future where Israelis and Palestinians live side by side in peace and security, and where Israel has normal relations with its neighbors.
I have made four trips to the region, including several visits to Israel and to over a dozen Arab countries. Our focus right now is to create the context for the resumption and early conclusion of meaningful negotiations. To help achieve this, we’re asking all parties to take meaningful steps. Israelis and Palestinians have a responsibility to meet their obligations under the Roadmap, to which they committed in 2003. It’s not just their responsibility. We believe it’s in their interests as well.
For the Israelis, that means a stop to settlements and other actions. For the Palestinians, that means continuing their efforts to take responsibility for security and to end incitement. We’re also asking the Arab countries to take meaningful steps toward peace and normalization. We’re now engaged in serious and intensive discussions with our Israeli, Palestinian, and our traditional regional partners to support this effort. These are not disputes among adversaries. They are discussions with allies, with all of whom we share the common objective of peace.
We recognize the challenges that lie ahead, and we know that we’re asking all parties to take steps that are difficult for them. We’re encouraged by the progress we’re making in these discussions, although hard work remains. But we intend to bring these discussions to a very early conclusion.
It’s in the interests of all who seek to promote peace – Americans, Europeans, Arabs, Israelis, and others – to support this effort through tangible steps. We all share an obligation to help create the conditions for the prompt resumption and the early conclusion of negotiations.
That completes my statement, and now I’ll be pleased to try to respond to any questions.
MR. CROWLEY: Since this is George’s first time in our briefing room, why don’t you introduce yourselves personally and your outlet so he’ll have a sense of you.
MR. MITCHELL: (Laughter.) I thought you were going to make the choices here. (Laughter.)
MR. CROWLEY: I can do that, if you wish.
QUESTION: Sylvie --
MR. MITCHELL: You’re right. I don’t know who’s who, so maybe you might, but go ahead. You’re first.
QUESTION: Sylvie Lanteaume from AFP. The Israeli press says that you agreed to consider national – natural growth of settlements within their boundaries. Is it true?
MR. MITCHELL: I don’t believe in conducting negotiations through the media, but I will --
QUESTION: But it’s already – it’s already out. (Laughter.)
MR. MITCHELL: But I will say that the story is highly inaccurate.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: A follow-up on the same issue. The issue that – Fadi Mansour with Al Jazeera – Fadi Mansour with Al Jazeera channel.
MR. MITCHELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: The issue that was brought up by the media is practically saying some of these settlement activities are done by private sector. So the Israeli Government has no power over them to stop these activities, and it’s up to the courts or the law to decide on this matter. And that’s why the media is reporting that this is going to be part of a deal between yourself and Mr. Netanyahu that’s supposed to be reached in Paris next week.
MR. MITCHELL: No.
QUESTION: Do you see that as a legitimate demand by the Israeli Government to consider these activities?
MR. MITCHELL: Our position is clear. In 2003, Israel agreed to the Roadmap. It calls for a stop to settlements. We believe there should be a stop to settlements.
QUESTION: Senator Mitchell, Elise Labott with CNN. I was wondering if you could tell us – you just traveled for the first time in your new capacity to Syria.
MR. MITCHELL: Yes.
QUESTION: Could you tell us about your discussions and whether you see a meaningful opportunity for the Israeli-Syrian track? And what steps specifically is Syria prepared to take? Are they prepared to stop the flow of arms to Hezbollah, for instance?
MR. MITCHELL: Right. The President’s objective from the beginning has been a comprehensive peace in the region. As I have stated repeatedly, publicly and privately, that means peace between Israel and the Palestinians, between Israel and Syria, and between Israel and Lebanon, and the full normalization of relations between Israel and all of its neighbors.
My visit to Syria was a part of our effort to move toward the President’s objective. And we had serious, productive discussions that will continue as we seek to begin progress on all of the tracks that I’ve described, including Israel and Syria.
QUESTION: Can you just expand on that a little bit? I mean, do you think that, you know, that that track is ripe? Do you see the potential for quick progress on that? And do you see Syria is seriously committed to taking the steps that you need it to take?
MR. MITCHELL: We’re pursuing that approach as vigorously as possible, and we hope very much that we’ll be able to make progress in moving toward all tracks in the near future.
QUESTION: Senator --
QUESTION: -- you’ve now said twice that there should be a stop to settlements.
MR. MITCHELL: Right.
QUESTION: But you didn’t say the phrase “natural growth.”
MR. MITCHELL: Right.
QUESTION: And I just want to confirm that that is – it’s still what the Administration is asking for, a stop to settlements --
MR. MITCHELL: Yes.
QUESTION: -- including natural growth. And secondly, can you give us just a definition of what the United States considers natural growth? What does that phrase mean in your mind?
MR. MITCHELL: There’s been no change in our policy. And there have been – there have been discussions on every aspect of the issue.
QUESTION: Well, what does natural growth mean? I mean, can you just use it in --
MR. MITCHELL: I’m constantly asked by editors, you know, please give a plain explanation of what natural growth is.
QUESTION: If it’s for your editor. (Laughter.)
MR. MITCHELL: Well, of course, one of the issues is that there is no universally used and accepted definition. The most common definition is by the number of births, but there are many variations of that. I’ve had numerous discussions with many Israeli and other officials, and there are almost as many definitions as there are people speaking. But I think the most commonly used measure is the number of births.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) that number, please?
MR. MITCHELL: Yes. Yeah.
QUESTION: There seems to be a lot of focus on the talk about settlements, settlements.
MR. MITCHELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: But it seems like (inaudible) of the world, and many people and many governments are forgetting that the real issue is the withdrawal of Israel from all the occupied land according to UN Resolutions 242, 338, that this is an issue that, as a country, Israel cannot annex the lands of other countries to it by force. So why are you not triggering the talk about implementing the UN resolutions as much as the United States talks about the need to implement these resolutions on other countries? Why not Israel also?
MR. MITCHELL: We’ve discussed the full range of issues. And our hope, of course, as I’ve stated previously, is that the parties will resume meaningful negotiation on all issues as soon as possible in an effort to reach a rapid conclusion on all issues.
Yes, I’ll come back to you. Go ahead. Did you --
QUESTION: When you say the most common definition is births, are you saying –
MR. MITCHELL: The one that – the most commonly used in conversations with me.
QUESTION: I see. So when the U.S. say no natural growth –
MR. MITCHELL: Right.
QUESTION: -- is that what it’s saying is the definition?
MR. MITCHELL: We’re engaged in discussions on a wide range of issues. And different people have different interpretations of different phrases. And we listen to all points of view. We listen to every aspect of every discussion, and we’re trying to reach an agreement and understanding that helps us move the process forward. And I think I wouldn’t want to get beyond that.
QUESTION: Lachlan Carmichael from AFP. Does the Obama Administration endorse Prime Minister Netanyahu’s request that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state?
MR. MITCHELL: The prime minister stated a number of objectives that Israel is seeking in the negotiations. The Palestinians have in the past, and no doubt will continue, to state their objectives. Our effort is to begin meaningful negotiations in which those objectives will be part of the discussion, and ultimately to reach an agreement satisfactory to both sides.
So our view is that it’s best to get into negotiations. That’s what negotiations are about. Different parties have different objectives in the negotiations. The important thing about the prime minister’s speech is that he set forth his – included in his objective a Palestinian state. So there now is a common objective, which was not the case until that speech was made. And the President rightly noted and welcomed that comment, because now we have both sides moving toward the same objective with different points of view on how best to get there. And what we want is to get into a negotiation on that.
QUESTION: So you’re not asking Abbas right now to recognize Israel as a Jewish state?
MR. MITCHELL: What we are saying – the prime minister made very clear that is not a precondition, that’s something that he would require for an ultimate agreement. So our objective is not to try to prejudge every issue before there’s even been a first meeting of the parties. I’ve never heard of a negotiation that succeeded through – in that fashion. What you want to do is to get the parties moving toward a common objective and to start talking about their differences in a way that will enable us to reach an early resolution in a manner that’s ultimately acceptable to both.
QUESTION: Senator Mitchell, Nadia Bilbassy with MBC Television Middle East Broadcasting Center. President Carter just met with Ismail Haniya, in which he clearly said that Hamas is willing to accept a state on the ‘67 border, and I believe this is not the first time they articulated this. I think Khaled Meshaal mentioned it before. Why not engage Hamas in a dialogue to make it part of the solution as opposed to be a part of the problem?
MR. MITCHELL: Right. We’ve made our position clear in that regard. We welcome the participation of any party that will meet the requirements for a democratic dialogue. They’ve been set forth in the Quartet requirements. So we welcome the participation of any relevant party who is prepared to engage in democratic dialogue in accordance with those requirements.
QUESTION: Can I follow on that, sir?
MR. MITCHELL: Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: We understand that you would welcome the participation – James Rosen with Fox News, excuse me. We understand that you would welcome the participation of all groups that would meet the requirements –
MR. MITCHELL: Right.
QUESTION: -- that you’ve set forth. But the obvious fact on the ground is that Hamas is unwilling to meet those requirements and exercises control over a significant percentage, perhaps the majority, of the Palestinian population. So perhaps you could explain for us how you propose to arrange negotiations and a swift resolution with the Palestinians when one of the key parties is unwilling to meet the requirements you’ve set forth. How do you get around that block?
MR. MITCHELL: Well, in every negotiation in which I’ve been involved, parties have taken seemingly irreconcilable positions at the outset. If you accept the premise of the question, which is that because they’ve said it now that will always be the case, then, of course, you can never reach agreement on anything. So our objective is to get a process going to encourage parties to take steps necessary to move that process forward. That doesn’t just include Israelis and the Palestinian Authority and all the Arab states. Hamas should consider whether it is prepared to take steps that would enable it to participate in the process by meeting these requirements.
QUESTION: But aren’t you held hostage and the process held hostage, as long as they do not?
MR. MITCHELL: No.
QUESTION: How come?
MR. MITCHELL: No.
QUESTION: How can you move forward without them?
MR. MITCHELL: We will move forward, and we welcome the participation of those who are willing to participate.
QUESTION: How? How are you going to move forward with --
MR. MITCHELL: We will have a meeting in a room in which those who are interested in proceeding in a democratic fashion will begin the dialogue. That’s how we’ll do it. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Libby Leist with NBC. You mentioned several times that you want to see an early conclusion --
MR. MITCHELL: Yes.
QUESTION: -- to the negotiations. Could you define that a little bit more? And when are you going to start looking for each side to take the steps? Can you give us some sense of the sequencing here?
MR. MITCHELL: Well, I don’t want to set a deadline for an end to a process that we haven’t been able to get to begin. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: But you did mention three times that you wanted to see an early conclusion. So what does that mean? What is an early conclusion?
MR. MITCHELL: It means that it won’t be open-ended and that it won’t continue on an indefinite basis. But it would be unwise and unrealistic for me here now to try to set absolute and specific deadlines. We have a sense of urgency about this. We want to get going. We want to get this process moving, and we want to bring it to a conclusion. And I think that’s as far as I should go now.
QUESTION: And the sequencing?
MR. MITCHELL: What?
QUESTION: The sequencing. I mean, many say the Israelis have to take the first step.
MR. MITCHELL: Yeah.
QUESTION: The Israelis will say the other side has to take the first step. So what are you looking for?
MR. MITCHELL: I believe there has to be assurance on all sides that steps will be reciprocal. And we’ll proceed in a manner that best ensures that result because that’s the – in my judgment, that’s the best way, and really the only way, to get parties to take meaningful steps.
QUESTION: Sir, as Libby said, you’ve mentioned a very early conclusion, and you’re known to be an optimist. But the prime minister has talked about Jerusalem. You just take that as his position, again, leaving room for a divided Jerusalem in the solution, if the Palestinians stick to their position?
MR. MITCHELL: Look, without reference to a particular issue, I categorically reject the notion that because there is a disagreement between the parties on one or more positions, that there can never be an agreement. If you accept that argument, then no dispute would ever be resolved.
So I’m not commenting on any specific issue, but you have to begin with the premise that the parties will see that their overall self-interest, their long-term security, and the needs of their people will best be met by reaching an agreement that permits a fair and satisfactory resolution to the conflict, and that in the process there will be compromises that have to be made, but they will be justified by the ultimate goal of peace, security, and prosperity.
QUESTION: Sorry. Do those compromises go beyond the parties to the outside? In other words, could there be some compromise made by the United States on the settlements issue?
MR. MITCHELL: Our position is very clear. I’ve stated it.
QUESTION: Well, actually, it’s not. (Laughter.)
MR. MITCHELL: I’ve stated it with absolute clarity. I’m happy to restate it again.
QUESTION: But (inaudible) positions are very clear, though.
MR. MITCHELL: What?
QUESTION: But everyone’s saying that their positions are very clear. I mean, I guess what he is asking – is the United States a party to these negotiations because it may have to provide some security guarantees? I mean, President – Prime Minister Netanyahu is saying his position on Jerusalem, his position on the right of refugees is clear and, you know, unwavering. What about the United States?
MR. MITCHELL: Right. I understand what you’re saying, and we’ll take that into – (laughter). Thank you for that clarification. (Laughter.)
Go ahead. You better speak up, though.
QUESTION: Joe Macaron with Kuwait News Agency. I just want to give you – to re-clarify your answer. You said a few minutes ago about the Hamas, you said they should accept the democratic dialogue. You didn’t mention the Quartet. Do you think Hamas is like (inaudible) change of position, or what do you mean by a democratic dialogue?
MR. MITCHELL: I said the democratic principles which are the Quartet principles.
QUESTION: And my second question is Prime Minister Netanyahu talking about demilitarized Palestinian state, and President Obama said Palestinians are (inaudible) for a viable state. So do you think there’s another point of disagreement on this?
MR. MITCHELL: The United States will not take any action which undermines Israel’s security. The Palestinians are entitled to a viable, geographically contiguous state that provides independence and dignity for their people. We do not regard those two objectives as irreconcilable. They will be part of the discussion and the dialogue. Each situation is unique to the parties and the circumstances, and we’ll address ourself to that in an effort to achieve both objectives, which, as I said, are not irreconcilable.
QUESTION: So, Senator, (inaudible) --
MR. MITCHELL: Just a minute. Right here.
QUESTION: Yes. Joyce Karam with Al Hayat newspaper. I just want to clarify on what you said on the final status issues. Are you saying that Jerusalem, the issue of refugees, borders, these are all final status issues to be discussed during the negotiations? I mean, is that the U.S. position?
MR. MITCHELL: Those are set forth in the prior commitments of the parties.
Yes. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Sue Pleming with Reuters. Are you convinced after these four trips that you’ve made that they’re any – that both sides are any closer at all to starting serious negotiations? You’ve used the word “prompt,” “early conclusion,” lots of happy adjectives, but --
MR. MITCHELL: Yes.
QUESTION: But what is your gut feel on this – I mean, you’re a very experienced negotiator – in terms of when these negotiations, really full-blown negotiations, can start? And at what level would they be, and would Obama be involved? Five questions. (Laughter.)
MR. MITCHELL: President Obama’s election, his speech in Cairo, his early commitment to resolution of this conflict, and what I think is the total personal effort of the Secretary of State and the President have made a dramatic difference in attitudes in the region. In addition, the threat from Iran creates a circumstance unique in the region’s history in establishing the possibility of a common interest between nations who, for so long, have been in an adversarial position.
And finally, I’ve said many times, and I repeat: The people of Israel have a state, they want security, and we believe they should have it. The Palestinian people don’t have a state. They want one, and we believe they should have that. We do not believe the two are mutually exclusive. Indeed, as we’ve made clear beyond any doubt through repeated statements made by the President, the Secretary of State, and myself, we believe it is in the interests of both sides that the needs of both be accommodated.
And specifically, in the interests of the Palestinian people to obtain a state, the security of the people of Israel must be central. To the people of Israel, in order to gain security, the needs of the Palestinian state must be central. We think that yes, it is possible. I assure you I would not have taken this position if I did not believe that there is a realistic chance of reaching those objectives. And I say that without for a moment trying to overlook the serious challenges, the difficulty, the level of mistrust and hostility, the many potential problems that exists, many of which have been the subject of questions here today.
But in terms of will, of determination, of perseverance, we have it, we’re going to deploy it, and we’re going to use all of the tools at our disposal to move forward toward that objective.
Go ahead here.
QUESTION: Yeah. Hi, Kirit Radia with ABC News. Could you tell us whether the Obama Administration would find it useful to hold some sort of international conference like they – like the Bush Administration did in Annapolis? And would you tell us whether you think that anything that was accomplished in Annapolis still has any bearings on what’s going on now?
MR. MITCHELL: We want to build on the best of the past, to the extent that’s possible and to the extents that it helps us move forward. And when the time comes that – if and when we believe that a conference is – will be helpful in moving toward the ultimate objective, as has occurred repeatedly in the past, why then, we’ll make an announcement.
MR. CROWLEY: We have time for two more questions.
MR. MITCHELL: Well, go ahead and then here.
QUESTION: Nina Donaghy, Fox News. Can you tell me in your assessment what are the realistic prospects of Hamas and Fatah coming together to form a unity government at this point?
MR. MITCHELL: That’s a matter which is being led by the Egyptians. We encourage and support their efforts, provided that any government, whoever participates, and all of its members and ministers, are in full compliance with the Quartet requirements.
QUESTION: Bill Varner with Bloomberg News. Do you have any initial reaction to the extent to which the events in Iran, perhaps future questions about the future credibility of whatever government takes place or questions about, you know, unrest there might have an impact on your efforts and the positions of the Middle East (inaudible)?
MR. MITCHELL: I think it’s too early to make any definitive assessment. We’ve all lived through turbulent periods of history, I think I more than most of you. You may be close. (Laughter.) And events have rarely occurred in the manner that I thought most logical or reasonable under the circumstances. So I’m reluctant to try to be too specific in predicting future events when we’re right in the perhaps early stages of very far-reaching and as yet unpredictable events.
MR. CROWLEY: We’ll take one more from Samir and then we’ll wrap it.
QUESTION: Yes, Samir Nader with Radio Sawa.
MR. MITCHELL: Speak up, speak up.
QUESTION: Samir Nader with Radio Sawa. Mr. Solana of the EU, he stated a few days ago that the U.S. will announce its vision for peace in the Middle East before the end of July. Is this true?
QUESTION: And if so, will you do it now? (Laughter.)
MR. MITCHELL: Is this before the end of July? (Laughter.) As I said earlier, we’re going to move as promptly as possible. And in my opening remarks, I said that we hope to conclude the discussions in which we’re now engaged very soon. To me, it’s a matter of weeks, not many months, so he may well be right. But we’re going to see how well we can proceed. And what I’ll do is I’ll – he’s a good friend, so I’ll call him when we’re ready and he can announce that, and then you can have the results then. (Laughter.)
Thank you all very much, a pleasure to see you.