Background Briefing on Quartet Working Dinner

Special Briefing
Senior Administration Official
Via Teleconference
July 11, 2011

OPERATOR: Welcome, everyone, and thank you so much for standing by. At this time, all parties are on a listen-only line until the question-and-answer portion of today’s call. At that time, you may press * and 1 and record your name to ask the question. This call is being recorded, so if you do have any objection, please disconnect at this time.

And now I’d like to turn the meeting over to Mr. Mark Toner. You may begin, sir.

MR. TONER: Thank you, and thanks to all of you for joining us. And I apologize given the late hour – the bit of delay in starting this, but the dinner did run long.

As you know, members of the Quartet did hold a working dinner tonight at the ministerial level, and that was at the Department of State, in order to discuss the way forward and efforts to advance Middle East peace. And joining us tonight to give a readout of that dinner and to answer a few of your questions – and I emphasize a few given the hour – is [title and name withheld]. And just before handing it over to [Senior Administration Official], I just wanted to emphasize that this is on background as a Senior Administration Official, so henceforth he’ll be known as Senior Administration Official.

[Senior Administration Official.]

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, thank you very much, Mark, and let me just reiterate the apologies to everyone for the brief delay. But as Mark said, the dinner did go a little bit longer than planned. Let me just make a few comments at the beginning and then get into your questions, but I’d like to start by emphasizing that the Quartet principals felt that they conducted a good meeting over the dinner tonight, characterized the discussion as excellent and substantive with a full and complete exchange of views. This was an opportunity for them that they’ve not had in a little while to compare notes on recent developments and have a serious discussion on what next steps are necessary.

The Quartet principals once again expressed their support for the President’s remarks that President Obama delivered in May, and in light of that vision the Quartet principals are reiterating the feeling that they see that there’s an urgent need to appeal to the parties to overcome current obstacles and find a way to resume direct negotiations without delay or preconditions and to begin with a preparatory phase of talks to maximize the chances of success.

The principals concluded this evening, based on their recent conversations with the parties, however, that there are still gaps that are impeding progress. And they concluded that realistically, for the Quartet, more work needs to be done to close those gaps before the Quartet can go forth publicly with the kinds of statements that might allow the parties to actually break through the impasse.

But the members of the Quartet reiterated also that they remain committed as a group, collectively and individually, to continue this effort and continue their intense engagement with the parties. Clearly, as I said, more work needs to be done, and the members of the Quartet will remain in close coordination as they tackle this difficult challenge. And in fact, the envoys have agreed to meet again tomorrow morning to continue this discussion under the guidance of our principals.

We’re realistic about the gaps. We know that more work needs to be done. But ultimately, we have to say, of course, it’s up to the parties to make the tough decisions required for peace, and we’re going to stand ready to help and facilitate in any and every way possible and continue our close engagement. The Quartet will continue its meetings at various levels, and we look forward to doing all we can to advance this effort.

So I might stop there, Mark, and entertain any questions.

MR. TONER: Great. Thank you so much. We’ll open it up to questions, Operator.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Again, if anyone does have a question, please press *1, record your name clearly. And if you’d like to withdraw your question, you may press *2. Again, that’s *1 to ask a question.

And Elise Labott, your line is open.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing this at this late hour. I’m just – can you hear me okay?


QUESTION: I was kind of a little bit confused by your comment. I mean, I think I know what you’re saying when you say that the gaps are such that you, as the Quartet, can’t make the statements that might move the parties to go forward. It sounds like there are enough gaps on the ’67 borders that you can’t endorse it as a kind of pre – as a starting jumping-off point for negotiations. Correct me if I’m wrong. But I’m confused by that because it would mean that, I mean, you’re just endorsing it because you know the parties will go for it. I mean, if this is an active group that’s trying to make forward diplomacy, aren’t you supposed to be making the kinds of statements that would push the parties in that direction? I mean, I don’t – and respectfully, because I’m not trying to make light of what you personally or what the U.S. is doing, but I fail to see whether – why you think that a statement from the Quartet would honestly, in all honesty, be the thing that’s going to bring the parties to the table.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. No, thanks for the question. While I don’t want to, either by omission or commission, get into a discussion in detail of what we perceive the gaps to be, but to answer your question, there’s a time and a place for public statements and there’s a time and a place for private diplomacy. And each has its limitations, each has its appropriateness for the occasion and the challenge that we’re facing.

We discussed this tonight, and I think the upshot of it was that we need to do more work privately, quietly with the parties, in order to see if we can’t close these gaps. And then if we’re successful in doing that, there’ll be a time in which incorporating our progress and commenting on it publicly can help capture that. But we still need to do more work.

QUESTION: I mean, are you saying that you’re not ready – without getting into where the gaps are, are you saying that you’re not – and I think my understanding is that it’s the United States more so than maybe some of the other members – that’s not ready to make the President’s speech, the ’67 lines, as a kind of jumping-off point for negotiations a kind of international declaration?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the Quartet has already --

QUESTION: You endorsed them personally, but you didn’t say that they should be – you didn’t kind of make it your own. And there’s talk about maybe that this would be the kind of resolution that they discuss at the United Nations. It sounds like you’re not ready for that.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, just to answer the question about what we believe is necessary to get negotiations going, the President laid out a comprehensive vision on that. And as I mentioned earlier, the Quartet has expressed its support for that vision. So that’s not in dispute. There’s just a realization that there are gaps between the parties and we need to do more work on that before we can take a step forward with a new – into a new threshold. That’s the basic point where we are right now.

MR. TONER: Thank you. Next question.

OPERATOR: And Matthew Lee with Associated Press, your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks. I want to ask a question, but first I want to wait – ask everyone to wait half an hour before I do it. Can you explain, [Senior Administration Official], why the – how long the meeting went? It went over time obviously, which is why this took so long to happen. But also you talk about gaps, but the gaps aren’t just between the parties, are there? There seem to be gaps within the Quartet itself. So I know you don’t want to talk about the gaps between the parties, but what are the gaps between the Quartet that made this meeting unable to come up with a statement? I mean, it is not tough for a Quartet statement to be done. One was done on the Gaza-- the flotilla; one was done after the President’s May speech, in support of it, and the principals hadn’t met then. So looking at it from the outside, if you guys are unable to come up with a statement now after basically having agreed on some main principles here, it doesn’t look good at all. So can you explain what the gaps are between the Quartet members, and also just – how long did the meeting actually go?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah. Well, again, my apologies for keeping people waiting. I’m quite sensitive to that personally, and I do sincerely apologize.

The dinner started with a conversation that began in an outer room at 7:00, and we then moved to the dining room table around 7:20. And I wasn’t watching my watch, but I think we broke up from the table at about 9:15, and then there was a good discussion amongst some of the envoys that continued for a little while after that, and I came downstairs and immediately joined this phone call. So you can add that up; I think it’s just a little over two hours, close to two and a half hours, maybe two hours and 15 minutes that the principals were together.

In response to your question about the gaps and the way in which the Quartet relates to statements, the truth is that you’re right; we’ve had statements when the ministers have not met because we felt that it was important and that we had something significant to say at the time that we felt was helpful for our diplomatic effort. And there have been times when the ministers have met and we’ve not issued statements because we had a different objective in mind. The Quartet doesn’t meet in order to issue statements. The Quartet – only, anyway. The Quartet meets in order to allow these principals to consult on some very complex and challenging issues and discuss how best to work and push them forward.

And this evening, the decision was that we needed to realistically acknowledge the fact that more work needs to be done with the parties on their gaps in order to allow us to get to the point where we might be able to have a productive public product by the Quartet.

MR. TONER: All right. Next question.

OPERATOR: Dmitri Zlodorev, your line is open.

QUESTION: My name is Dmitri Zlodorev. I am from ITAR-TASS news agency, Russia. How you would characterize the position of Russia in Quartet now? And what do you expect from Russia in the near future? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you, Dmitri. Well, we value greatly the Quartet as an instrument. It is the embodiment of the international community’s commitment to these issues and its strong desire to contribute what it can to making progress toward peace. And clearly, having such a strong international partner as Russia as part of that is something of great satisfaction.

So I don’t want to characterize exactly where we were in terms of each member of the Quartet this evening. You’d have to ask that of your-- of the Russian participants. But I hope that answers your question in terms of how we regard Russian participation.

MR. TONER: All right. Next question.

OPERATOR: James Kitfield, your line is open.

QUESTION: Yeah, I appreciate you doing this. Could you talk a little bit about this September deadline where it’s supposed to be a UN vote with the Palestinians on statehood? And what sort of urgency that is lending to your efforts – does the Quartet think that that would be a really negative step? And if so, I mean, again, address me how that is contributing to a sense of urgency of these talks, please.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, it’s not entirely clear at this stage what it is that the Palestinians will be seeking in September. We’ve heard a lot of different statements publicly. I think that they’re actually still evaluating what it is they want to do. But we’ve heard a consistent message from the Palestinian leadership that they prefer negotiations, that they see the ultimate goal of a two-state solution coming through a negotiating path.

So that’s where I think the Quartet and the international community and certainly the United States is putting its emphasis – on exploring whether, by closing gaps between the parties, we can give the alternative of a negotiation real traction and be the right path forward. You know what the President said about this.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Excuse me? You know what the President has said about our view on New York – I don’t need to repeat that now here today – but that’s unchanged. But I think all of us would like to find a constructive way in order to accomplish our common goals.

MR. TONER: Okay. Thank you. Time for just, I think, one or two more questions.

OPERATOR: Okay. Arshad Mohammed, your line is open.

QUESTION: Hi, three quick things: One --

OPERATOR: Mr. Mohammed, if you’re on speakerphone, could you please get off the speakerphone? Because we’re not able to hear you.

QUESTION: Yes, sorry for tormenting all of you.

OPERATOR: (Laughter.) Thank you.

QUESTION: Just to be quick, you said that you need to do more quiet diplomacy. Are there any plans for Dennis Ross or Acting Special Envoy Hale to travel to the region to try to do that kind of quiet diplomacy anytime soon?

Second, are you now willing to say that the President’s hope of getting a framework agreement or the outlines of an agreement within a year of his September announcement last year have evaporated, that there isn’t really the time or perhaps the will in the seven and a half weeks that remain to get that done?

Those were my two questions. Thank you.

OPERATOR: And Said Arikat, your line is open.

QUESTION: Yes, sir. Hello?

MR. TONDER: I don’t think [Senior Administration Official] had a chance to answer the --


MR. TONER: That’s okay.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, the first question was regarding what our specific travel plans might be by U.S. officials in connection with the – excuse me, my phone’s ringing – in connection with following up on this. I guess the answer is: We’ll have to get back to you. This evening, I can’t say with any certainty what our specific officials’ travel plans may be. They travel frequently, almost constantly, and we’ll make sure that you’re well informed of those plans as they develop.

Look, the President outlined in May a very detailed vision of what it would take in order to be able to break through the impasse that we’re facing. He did not, in those remarks, establish deadlines for this effort. He said that when the parties are ready, we are ready to be of assistance. I don’t have the speech in front of me, so forgive me if those aren’t word-for-word quotes. But basically, he said that we stand ready – when the parties are of like mind, we stand ready to assist them, and we would do so as soon as we had clear indications.

I think as we proceed, as the Quartet proceeds individually and collectively to try to close these gaps, we’ll have a clearer sense of what’s possible in terms of timelines.

MR. TONER: Okay. Thanks. And it looks like our last questioner is maybe Said Arikat.

QUESTION: Yes, sir. Thanks.

MR. TONER: Sorry to cut you off there.

QUESTION: Thank you, [Senior Administration Official], for taking my question. Sir, you have had back-to-back meetings, first with Mr. Ross in Palestine and in Israel, then Mr. Molho came to town, then Saeb Erekat. So how far have you come in terms of closing these gaps, say, between three, four weeks ago and today? Where do you stand? How far are we to the breakthrough, so to speak?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, as I think we’re admitting this evening, we have a lot of work to do. More work needs to be done. I think that what’s been established in our discussions with the parties in recent weeks is that they too want us to continue this effort, that they too favor the alternative course of negotiations, and they too continue to look to the United States and the Quartet for assistance in moving forward. Though we’re not – we have – still have a lot of work to do. I can’t measure it for you. You’re asking for sort of a specific measurement which I don’t think is possible given this work.

But I have to say, ultimately, it’s up to them. They’ve got to make the tough decisions. All we can do – and it’s important, but what we do is offer a way to help, and we’ll keep – and be persistent and keep that effort alive.

MR. TONER: Great. Well, thanks. Thank you, [Senior Administration Official] for doing this tonight at the – given the late hour, and thanks to all the journalists who joined us. And again, our apologies for keeping people on hold for such a long time.

And thank you again to everyone. Just – again, just a reminder, the – this is on background with a Senior State – or a Senior Administration Official, rather, and thanks again to everyone, and have a good evening.


OPERATOR: That concludes today’s conference. Thank you for participating. You may disconnect your lines at any time.

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PRN: 2011/1160