Background Briefing: Senior Administration Official on an Update of the Middle East Peace Process

Special Briefing
Office of the Spokesperson
Via Teleconference
Washington, United States
June 21, 2011

OPERATOR: Welcome and thank you for standing by. At this time, all participants are in a listen-only mode until the question-and-answer session. At that time, to ask your questions, please press *1 on your phone. Today’s conference call is being recorded. If you have any objections, you may disconnect your lines at this time.

I would now like to turn the conference over to your host. We have Mr. Mark Toner. Sir, you may begin.

MR. TONER: Thank you so much and thanks to everyone for joining us this morning. We’re very fortunate to have with us today [Senior Administration Official], who’s been traveling in the region, and we thought it would be helpful to give you all just an update on his travels, his trips, his meetings, and an update on U.S. efforts to advance Middle East peace.

So without further ado, I will hand it over to [Senior Administration Official], but just – I’m sorry, just one – briefly before I do that, for the attribution on this, he should be henceforth known as senior administration official. This call is on background.

[Senior Administration Official]?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, thank you. Thank you very much, Mark. Well, I’m calling in from Cairo, and I can go over a little bit of the itinerary that I’ve been following. But I thought it would be helpful to just step back with a few points at the beginning here to remind us of what it is we’re working off of.

As you know, last month, the President made a significant set of remarks on the region. They included a component on the pursuit of peace between Israelis and Arabs, which he described as a cornerstone of our approach to the region. The President acknowledged that expectations have gone unmet, but he also made clear that regional developments make a peace that ends the conflict and resolves all claims more urgent than ever.

I don’t think I need to go through today what the specific elements were that he described, but on their basis, we are working with the parties in coordination with the international community and the Quartet to continue the difficult task of closing the gaps between the parties on how we proceed in a productive way. Our goal in this effort is to – now is to work with the parties toward negotiations on the basis of the President’s remarks. We’re consulting the parties, the Quartet, Arab officials and other supporters on the best way to proceed.

As you know, Israeli and Palestinian negotiators recently visited Washington and met with Secretary of State Clinton and other senior officials. Last week, Dennis Ross from the Washington and I followed up and met with Prime Minister Netanyahu and his advisors, and then I stayed on in the region and I’ve met with President Abbas, with the lead negotiator Saeb Erekat, Nabil Abu Rudaina, and others on the Palestinian side, and I’ve also met with the Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Elaraby this afternoon, the head of the Egyptian intelligence service General Mawafi, and I have other meetings later today at the Arab League. Now, I’ve also met on this trip with the special envoys of Norway and Japan and will meet with the Quartet envoys on Friday in Brussels to review where we are. Dennis and I plan another round of discussions with the Israeli leadership on June 22 and 23, and I’ll be following up with the Palestinians at the earliest opportunity after that.

Now, our focus is on seeing how we can get over the current impasse and back to the negotiating table. This is a difficult task. The circumstances on the ground and the gaps between the parties are challenging. I hope that with persistence and goodwill the parties can move this effort forward in a productive way. But ultimately, it’s up to the Israelis and Palestinians to take action. As the President said, no peace can be imposed on them, but endless delay won’t make the problem go away. The status quo is unsustainable and return to negotiations, in our view, is the only way forward. But they have to make the decisions on how to do so. We’re encouraging the parties and seeking to create an environment in which these difficult decisions can be made with the help of friends and allies.

I might stop there, Mark, and turn it over to questions so we can have a good give and take.

MR. TONER: Great. Thanks so much, [Senior Administration Official]. And operator, we are ready for questions. Just one more reminder about the ground rules here, [Senior Administration Official] is with us today as a senior administration official on background. Thanks.

OPERATOR: And as a reminder, to ask your questions, please press * then 1, on your phone. One moment, sir. The first question comes from Kim Ghattas. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Good morning, Mark and [Senior Administration Official]. Thank you for doing this call.

I was wondering, [Senior Administration Official], whether you could tell us a little bit more about what it is you’re telling the parties that might convince them now that they should go back to the negotiating table that wasn’t enough to get them to the negotiating table before. And also, is it really about bringing them to the negotiating table or about getting them into some kind of process that will help avert a showdown in September?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Kim, and nice to hear from you. Well, I don’t want to get into the specifics of our diplomatic exchanges, particularly since we’re smack in the middle of a trip and with the effort. But I think that it’s important that the parties see that there are interests of their own that are best served by resuming the negotiating effort. They need to see that it’s in their own interests. They have their own politics, of course, and will be drawing their own conclusions. But we believe that the President’s speech has offered a firm foundation that the parties ultimately will be able to find from that a way forward. And frankly, it’s obvious that we have some deadlines out there in September that have been talked about, but we ourselves are focused on how we can use this speech as the best way forward – not as a tactic and not as a process, but in order to get to the end state of a two-state outcome.

I think this Administration’s had a consistent point that process for process’s sake will get us nowhere, and delay for delay’s sake similarly takes us nowhere. It’s time for some tough decisions on how we can move this process, move this effort ahead to an end state.

MR. TONER: Next question.

OPERATOR: This question comes from Natasha Mozgovaya. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hello, thank you for doing this call. I’m just a little bit confused where you see Hamas in this equation, because it was told that the Israelis are not expected to negotiate with the Hamas, and we saw it in (inaudible) between (inaudible) and Hamas, but I mean, still we are talking about deadlines and they are still there and there is an agreement. So where are (inaudible) in these talks?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. Well, Natasha, it’s a very good question. Obviously, the reconciliation issue is a significant one. It raises profound questions that the President himself has mentioned in his speech. The Palestinian leaders will need to answer: How can one negotiate with a party that’s shown itself unwilling to recognize the other party’s right to exist? So you’re right; we’ll need to face those questions.

But right now, we’re dealing with this as a wait-and-see attitude, that the reconciliation deal has not actually been implemented yet. The president of the Palestinian Authority remains Mahmoud Abbas, the prime minister remains Salam Fayyad, and the government has not changed. I can go through the details, but I think you’ve heard them before from the podium on what we would do under different scenarios. But we will be judging our ability to provide assistance and have a relationship with the Palestinian government that might emerge from reconciliation based on the composition of that government in accordance with our law and our policy.

MR. TONER: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: And this one comes from Laura Rozen. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Thanks. Thanks for doing this. My understanding of someone from the White House speaking to the Jewish groups, I think a week ago, was that the Palestinians and the Europeans have basically said we can work with the terms that Obama set out as parameters for negotiations and that the U.S. was kind of waiting on Israel to see if they would accept what Obama laid out as kind of principles for talks. Is that still the kind of – is it mostly you’re waiting for Israel to see if the ’67 with mutually agreed swaps would be an acceptable principle for returning to talks?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, we believe that the President’s remarks in May in their totality provide a very strong foundation for a return to talks, and that is the tenor of our conversation with the parties is to see whether we can use that as a basis for breaking through this impasse.

I don’t want to pick and choose different elements of what the President said. He carefully crafted this speech and I think made the tradeoffs he wished to make on them, and elaborating further on it is not going to be of any benefit. But we have reason to believe that there is a strong interest in finding a path forward, otherwise we would not be having these conversations.

MR. TONER: Thank you. And next question.

OPERATOR: And this one is from Mina al-Oraibi. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. I have a couple of questions. The first is your meetings to come up with the Quartet and also consulting more widely with the Arabs, do you see that there’s now a push for more of an international role, whereas previously we’ve been looking very much just at the U.S. taking the lead?

And also if I can ask you how you see the developments in the region are actually impacting any decisions made on the peace process, especially what’s happening in Syria. Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you, Mina. Maybe I’ll address the last question first. I think again in the President’s speech he made a very clear connection between – and it was a significant theme of the speech – between the Arab Spring developments, the powerful forces calling for democratization and greater freedoms in this region, and the need to work for – on behalf of the Palestinian and Israelis so that there is a peaceful environment there as well. So we see, frankly, if anything, a greater urgency to working on peace on this issue than ever before.

As far as it goes in the case of Syria, our objective remains comprehensive peace, without question, and an Israeli-Syrian agreement is a component of that. But we can’t really contemplate a peace negotiation with someone who is actively killing their own people, 1,300, as I understand it, up to date. So that’s essentially going to be the situation there for now.

Your other question I guess – remind me – related to the international role versus a U.S. role. We don’t see them as in conflict. The Quartet was founded in 2002, if my memory serves me, and I believe this Administration has committed to close consultation and work with the Quartet on a very strong basis. I personally have been taking the lead on that since 2009, and we have a very strong, I think, consensus within the Quartet on what we should be doing. The Quartet endorsed the President’s speech the day after he delivered it, and we’re going to continue to work with them.

We believe that an international role and an international consensus for our activities is of vital importance for success. So too is a strong Arab role, which is why I am in Cairo today, that Egypt traditionally has played a very important role in promoting peace and regional stability, and we believe that that role remains important to all of us, as is the case with other key Arab partners in peace with Israel, such as Jordan.

Thank you.

MR. TONER: Thanks. We’re ready for the next question.

OPERATOR: And this one comes from Ms. Shohrhe Ares. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Yeah. My name is Shohrhe Ares with the Middle East News Agency. My question is: Do you expect a breakthrough in the Middle East peace process? What would be the impact of the declaration of Palestinian state on the process?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, what we’re trying to work on here at this point is to see whether we can use the elements that the President has laid out as a foundation for a way to get over the impasse that we obviously face right now. I’m not in the business of predicting what we can do. To be honest, this is – requires a fair amount of determination and diligence to keep doing the hard work that’s necessary to move forward.

The objective is, of course, to achieve a lasting peace that will have a state for the Palestinian people, just as there will be a state – as there is a state of Israel for the Jewish people. So we believe that the declarations now are not – unilaterally are not going to accomplish the goal, but a negotiation will bring about what we all know are the wishes of the Palestinian people and all of their supporters throughout the Middle East.

MR. TONER: Thanks. We have time for just a couple more questions. Next question?

OPERATOR: And this one comes from Corinne Lesnes. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi. Good morning. Thank you for doing that. I would like to know what to – a follow-up on Mina’s question. What do you make of the French proposal of international conference before the end of July? Do you think it’s dead now? And another quick thing, about your reaction to the op-ed in The Washington Post of the Saudi Prince Turki al-Faisal saying there would be consequences for the U.S.-Saudi relations if the U.S. vetoed the Palestinian state in the – at the UN in September. Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you. Well, we have close consultations with the French. We talk all the time. I was discussing this issue with my French counterparts just as recently as yesterday. And of course, they’re represented in the Quartet through the European Union.

As far the specific French initiative goes – and this was a topic of discussion between Secretary Clinton and Foreign Minister Juppe a few weeks ago when he visited Washington – but just to reiterate what was said at the time, the fact is the parties have not agreed to resume negotiations. So if you’re thinking about developing concepts like meetings or conferences, the reality is they have to be linked to willingness as we’ve developed and emerged from the parties to resume negotiations.

As I said in an answer to the earlier question, that’s going to require a lot of persuasion and preliminary work if we’re going to set up productive meetings between the parties, and I think our focus needs to be on that, and then later on, if we are to succeed, as we hope we will, we can work with our friends and make sure that we’re thinking about how best to memorialize that and move forward.

Your other question I’m afraid I’ve forgotten, about Prince Turki, I believe, and his op-ed piece – I don’t want to respond to specific op-ed pieces from different personalities. I’m not an expert on the U.S.-Saudi relationship, so I would defer, perhaps, your question later on today to the podium. But our effort is clearly to see if we can use the President’s speech for a negotiating effort. That’s the path forward to what the Palestinians say they want. President Abbas has said he supports that effort, and that’s the foundation that we’re working from.

MR. TONER: Thank you. And time for just one more question.

OPERATOR: This final question comes from Jay Solomon. Your line is open.

QUESTION: Thanks. Thanks for doing this. Catherine Ashton last – I guess about a week ago sent a letter to Secretary Clinton calling for a Quartet meeting within a few weeks in which she seemed to be saying they really wanted to formalize in sort of a statement the President’s speech coupled together with some of the things the EU has put forth as far as kind of a framework for the negotiations.

Is that something the U.S. supports, sort of very – kind of formalizing the President’s speech and almost like creating a document or some sort of really set parameters that the Quartet would put out to sort of bind the Israelis and the Palestinians in some sort of negotiating process?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. Well, I think the speech is powerful in and of itself and, I mean, this was a game-changing, historic development by our President. At this stage, I think I really can’t address questions related to what we might do in the future with it. It’s the ideas themselves and gaining the parties’ acceptance for them in a detailed fashion and to see if there’s – we can get agreement on that as a path forward. That’s our focus.

And then I think we can easily anticipate that there will be strong support, I believe, from members of the Quartet and all those who wish this process well to look for ways to help support that. And the Quartet’s already endorsed the President’s speech, so that’s helped us. And I think we’ll look to the Quartet also to help us in the future. But I don’t want to steer you one way or the other in detail on how we might craft that.

MR. TONER: Well, again, that’s all we have time for this morning. I certainly do appreciate, [Senior Administration Official], you taking time out to update us on your travels and your meetings to advance Middle East peace. And I thank all of the journalists who joined us this morning. We’ll try to do these again going forward as periodic updates. Again, thanks to all, and have a good morning.


OPERATOR: This does conclude today’s conference call. Thank you for joining, and you may disconnect your lines at this time.

MR. TONER: Thanks, all.

PRN: 2011/1022