Background Briefing on the Secretary's Meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov And Broader Israeli-Palestinian Issues

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Officials
Waldorf Astoria
New York City
September 19, 2011

MODERATOR: We have [Senior State Department Official One] and [Senior State Department Official Two] to talk about the Secretary's meeting with Foreign Minister Lavrov of Russia this evening and the broader Israeli-Palestinian issues.

Senior Official Number One, please start.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thank you. The Secretary spent a significant amount of time talking to Foreign Minister Lavrov about Middle Eastern issues, obviously, with the Palestinian question looming this week. They talked about that issue in their respective approaches and the prospect of a Quartet statement. [Senior State Department Official Two] is going to address that issue so he can put it in the context of the other diplomacy that the Secretary’s been undertaking on that in the course of the week.

Before he does that, let me just go through a couple of the other bilateral issues that they discussed. One was Russia’s WTO membership. As I think you all know, this is something that the United States strongly supports. President Obama believes that Russia entering the WTO would be good for Russia, good for American business, and we’ve made significant progress on some of the bilateral questions between the United States and Russia that have to be resolved for that to take place.

Foreign Minister Lavrov reported on some of the progress that has been made between Russia and the European Union for that to take place. And then the Secretary and the minister discussed a particular issue of Georgia in the context of the WTO. As you know, all members of the organization have to sign on to new memberships. And so Georgia needs to be onboard, and we have been very supportive of efforts undertaken by Switzerland to help facilitate the agreement between Russia and Georgia that would enable Russia to join the WTO. And so the Secretary underscored our support for Swiss efforts and our hope that those efforts can be completed in a very -- in the near term so that this -- Russia’s membership can go ahead.

They talked about missile defense cooperation. We’ve been very clear in our view that, one, we are determined to proceed along with the deployment of European -- the phased adaptive approach to missile defense in Europe. NATO has endorsed that objective of protecting European territories, populations, and forces from the threat of ballistic missiles, and we’ve been very clear about the approach and the four phases of that plan and the President’s commitment to move ahead and deploy all four phases. At the same time, we’ve been very clear that we’d like to do it cooperatively with Russia, and we’ve had extensive talks with the Russians about how that might proceed.

And so the Secretary reiterated both parts of that equation -- our determination to move forward, but also our great desire to do it cooperatively with Russia. We think that this would benefit Russia and the United States. Our missile defense for Europe is not targeted at Russia, and we think that it would be a benefit for European security as a whole for both countries’ security and frankly for the overall relationship if we could work together on missile defense.

A number of other bilateral issues were discussed. They reviewed where we are on some of the things we’ve been working on together, on adoptions and visas. Maybe just the last issue I would flag is Syria. And the Secretary expressed our view, our interest in seeing the Security Council go on record with a strong statement on Syria. That is not -- the Russians as well are concerned about the situation in Syria and the violence. And the Secretary urged Foreign Minister Lavrov to support a strong expression from the Security Council because she doesn’t believe the United Nations Security Council should be silent in the face of such inexcusable violence. Maybe I’ll stop with that and turn it over to [Senior State Department Official Two] on the Middle East.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: On the Middle East peace issue with Foreign Minister Lavrov, the Secretary and the foreign minister reviewed the current state of play, including the ongoing work of the Quartet to establish a pathway and a context for negotiations between the two parties that can lead to the goal that both Russia and the United States agree on, which is a two-state solution that is agreed between the two sides. They had some discussions about the various moving pieces here in New York, other conversations that have been going on, and heard from their envoys, the Quartet envoys about the latest sets of discussions that have taken place at that level and in that context.

Both Foreign Minister Lavrov and Secretary Clinton agreed that the Quartet envoys should continue working to find a way forward among the Quartet in the form of a statement that can help establish a pathway back to negotiations over time. And they also agreed that we’ve got a lot going on here in New York over the coming days so that they’ll stay in close touch as we go forward and continue consulting both among the teams and personally between the two of them as necessary.

QUESTION: Were they able to describe any progress forward? The envoys met yesterday, they met again this afternoon --


QUESTION: Do you sense any movement forward at all on this?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: When you say movement forward, what – can you be a little more specific?

QUESTION: Movement forward on a statement that might lay out a context and a pathway toward a resumption of negotiations over time --


QUESTION: -- that would lead to the goal of --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: The foreign minister arrived in New York two hours – he arrived two hours before the meeting began. So this was the first opportunity that the Secretary and he had had to discuss these issues. So they talked about the whole range of – the entire kind of context of what’s going on here in New York for the week. And they talked about what the purpose or nature of a Quartet statement and product would look like and the desire by both of them to have the Quartet play a constructive role in producing -- as I said, producing a pathway that could lead back towards negotiations.

And they also talked about what some of the elements might look like in a statement that could provide a useful framework or context for negotiations between the two sides. And then they agreed that the envoys should continue working, that those discussions had been productive to date and could continue to be productive as we go forward.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official Two], I mean do you – is this about getting a Quartet statement that the Russians can live with, or is it about getting a statement that the Palestinians and the Israelis can sign on to, because right now it seems that the Russians are the ones that are the sticking point here, and they’re not being constructive in terms of what they don’t want to be signing on to in a statement?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I think, actually, Foreign Minister Lavrov and Secretary Clinton share the same basic goal, which is that they want the Quartet to play a positive role in the overall effort, the bigger picture effort, to create an atmosphere of progress and a platform for successful negotiations to begin at an appropriate time. So they agree on that goal. So then the question is: what is the best way to go about doing that?

QUESTION: So it sounds --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: One element to that would be, potentially, to have the Quartet take some action. There are other elements as well that are incumbent on the parties that are to do with the two parties’ willingness to come forward and be prepared to engage in negotiations in good faith on all of the permanent status issues and to produce an agreement.

So I don’t think at this point I could characterize any particular individual or country as being a sticking point the way that you’re saying right now. I think we are in a process where there’s a discussion about how to proceed keeping that big picture in mind – keeping that ultimate objective in mind. And the conversation today was productive in that it yielded a conclusion where the respective envoys of the foreign minister and the Secretary would sit down and try to work through this. And so that’s where we are, and now we have to see how that plays out.

QUESTION: Yeah. But I’m just not clear though about, I mean, when you talk about a Quartet statement, and you’re trying – it sounds like you’re negotiating with the Russians on a Quartet statement rather than about what the parties want to see in a statement that could get them to the table for negotiations.

MODERATOR: Elise, I think he’s already answered that one.


QUESTION: No, wait a minute. I’m sorry, [Moderator], I mean – we’re trying to – we’re not just trying to get some talking point, we’re trying to get to the bottom of what it is that you’re trying to negotiate.

MODERATOR: You’ve just asked the same question a second way. I want to see if we have other questions.

QUESTION: I’m curious whether there is – in this meeting whether there was a convergence of views on the elements, whether from the beginning of the meeting to the end, they were able to at least get a little bit closer. You said that they were going to have the envoys go back and try to hash it out. Were they able to get any closer themselves? And do you see – I don’t know if you want to put a chance on it, but do you see it as likely that there would be a principals-level Quartet meeting before the end of the week?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I don’t want to get into the prediction game on anything. I think there’s a lot of moving pieces. There are a lot of actors who are engaged in various ways in this process, so I would like to stay away from putting percentages on really anything.

With respect to the nature of the meeting, the Secretary and Foreign Minister Lavrov were not looking at specific words or going through lines of text. They were speaking about the elements that would be necessary from their perspective, not to deal simply with the context of New York this week, but to deal with a conflict that’s been going on for years and decades. And they -- in many ways, the meeting tonight was useful in allowing the two of them to take a step back and look at the bigger picture, which is that at the end of the day – and both sides agree on this – both the Palestinians and the Israelis, but also the Russians and the United States, agreed that the only way to produce a two-state solution that is the core mission of the Quartet and the core objective of the United States on this issue is to have negotiations that can work.

And so their conversation tonight was at more of a strategic level than at a level of text, about how you create a context to produce those negotiations in a way that doesn’t have either side taking actions that can deeply undermine the possibility of successful negotiations and that doesn’t indefinitely delay, defer, or otherwise distract from an effort to get those negotiations going and to produce the ultimate outcome that everybody wants to see.

QUESTION: Okay. Can you just talk about this big picture that I’m not seeing right now because Palestinians -- you disagree clearly, they are trying to get a state recognized at the United Nations, and you’re talking about a Quartet statement that leads to a pathway that leads to some sort of acceptance by countries for negotiations to begin at an undefined date one day in the future. How is that going from – how is that a transformation to the big picture?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, as the Secretary said earlier today, whatever happens in New York any which way, it is not – that’s not going to be the end of a process producing an outcome that anyone is going to be satisfied with.

At the end of the day, the only outcome that will mark the end of what has been a very long process between these two parties is a negotiated solution of all of the permanent status issues that yields two states living side by side in peace and security. That is the big picture that I’m talking about. It is the ultimate resolution of this conflict, the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, and then ultimately the conflict between Israel and all of its Arab neighbors. And that is not going to be resolved here in New York this week, and that’s the message that the Secretary has conveyed publicly, and it's a message she’s conveying privately.

And so the question is: How do you deal with all the elements that are at play in the discussions here in New York in a way that can produce a pathway when people leave New York back to negotiations and then have those negotiations ultimately yield the state – the two-state solution that everybody (inaudible)?

QUESTION: What are some of those elements then, since you so poignantly ask the question?


QUESTION: What are we finding out?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I think what the Secretary and Minister Lavrov agree on is that it’s very important that we try to create a context in which the two parties can come into negotiations with an understanding of what sort of basic principles are that can help guide and shape those negotiations, and that in the meantime that neither side take the sorts of unilateral steps that can sort of endanger those negotiations in a way that is either going to indefinitely defer them or undermine them so dramatically that you can’t get to the – get to a resolution.

So all the members of the Quartet are eager to ensure that the two parties end up in a context where they can actually have successful talks that result in a resolution of all the permanent status issues and that results in essentially a final settlement.

QUESTION: Are you –

QUESTION: (Inaudible) for a minute. Do you have any sense that either side, the Israelis or the Palestinians, are willing or showing any signs or indications this week of doing anything to avoid the kind of unilateral steps that you’re warning against?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Whether either the Israelis or --

QUESTION: Are you seeing any sign that they’re not going to take these unilateral steps this week?


QUESTION: Either the Palestinians or Israelis. Are you seeing any progress in resolving this train wreck that everyone’s been talking about for the last six months?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: And when you say train wreck, you mean --

QUESTION: The unilateral steps you just suggested would not be helpful by either side.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I guess what we see – what we see from the Palestinian side is that they are saying and have said repeatedly publicly that they intend to take a letter to the Security Council on Friday. How that position today or that action, were they to take it – and I don’t want to speculate about what ultimately is going to happen – plays into the broader question of coming out of New York, whether we can get on to a successful path to negotiations – is something that’s bound up in all of the different moving pieces that are happening here, all of the conversations between us and the Palestinians and the Israelis, among the Palestinians and the Israelis and the Europeans, members of the Security Council, members of the General Assembly, members of the Quartet.

So here on Monday night with the huge number of discussions and conversations that are unfolding, it’s hard for me to make any definitive pronouncements on what’s going to happen this week or, whatever happens this week, how that’s going to impact what happens next week and the week after that. So I just am not in a position tonight to be able to sort of speak definitively in response to the question that you’re asking.

MODERATOR: I think we’re going to do two more, and then he’s got to go.

QUESTION: Are you still trying to prevent the Palestinians from depositing a letter saying that they would seek full membership in the UN? Is that still an objective of the U.S. Government?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I would say we’ve made our position clear, which is that we do not believe that resort to the Security Council by the Palestinians is a productive path to the goal that they seek and that we share in seeking. And that hasn’t changed from yesterday or the day before or the day before that. It has not changed.

QUESTION: It almost sounds as if, however, your language has changed, where it’s almost as if you’re glossing over that and you’re talking about what happens beyond. And I just want to make sure you’re still trying to prevent that this week; that is still your objective.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Our objective is for the two sides to get back to negotiations, and our objective is to not have action in the United Nations try to replace or supplant or otherwise take the place of a negotiated outcome to this solution – to this (inaudible).

MODERATOR: Last question (inaudible).

QUESTION: Did you ask the Russians to take a similar position in terms of at the Security Council if it goes to a vote? Was that – or is that something that you’ve discussed with the Russians?

And my other point is about Syria, please. The Russians have sent various envoys to Syria and so that they’re – they think that there can be a negotiated solution to the crisis there. Did they give you any further information about whether that is possible? A little more detail on Syria, please.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: On the – I’ll start with Syria. On Syria, the Secretary, as [Senior State Department Official One] said, made a strong case for why Security Council action is necessary at this time given the actions that the Syrian Government has taken against its own people. Foreign Minister Lavrov presented his perspective, which was that there – the best way forward is through dialogue between Asad and members of the opposition, both inside and outside the country. That was the position that he presented today.

The Secretary encouraged him to think carefully about the role that the Security Council could play at a moment when the Syrian Government is killing its own people and imprisoning thousands of people unjustly. I cannot say that the foreign minister agreed to that, but the Secretary’s position was unequivocal, it was firm, and it’s a position that we will continue to advocate to the Russians and to others as we go forward.

QUESTION: Can you say if they agreed to keep working on the UN Security Council?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: And they agreed – yes, and the Russians did agree during the meeting to continue having the conversation over how the Security Council could act on the situation in Syria.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) something after this week everybody keeping quite busy with (inaudible), do you expect any sort of action on the – from the Security Council on Syria during this week?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I kind of stay out of the prediction game regardless, but there was nothing in the meeting tonight suggesting that there would be a Security Council session on Syria imminently.

QUESTION: Very quickly, could you --

QUESTION: Sorry, my second question? Or my first question?


QUESTION: About the Palestinians and did you ask the Russians to take the position --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, the Secretary made clear to Foreign Minister Lavrov that we believe that action in the Security Council, a vote in the Security Council, would not be productive. So --

QUESTION: Did the Secretary try to dissuade the foreign minister from supporting the Palestinian bid if it comes to the Security Council?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I think she laid out her position on why she believes that action at the United Nations is not the best way forward, and she spent the bulk of her time encouraging the foreign minister to work with her on finding a way forward that would get the two parties back into negotiations.

QUESTION: And the foreign minister’s reaction was?

MODERATOR: I think we’ve (inaudible). I think we’ve got --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I’ll just take one from Kim and then we can go.

QUESTION: All right. Can you live with the Palestinians giving the secretary general a letter, a private – just a letter? Can you live with that?

And the other one is you said something about the Quartet may be taking action. What kind of action?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: What do you mean, what kind of action?

QUESTION: You said something – one of the things they discussed – perhaps the Quartet could take some action.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I meant a statement by action. Yeah. Sorry.

QUESTION: Oh, okay.

QUESTION: (Inaudible) be another (inaudible) meeting tomorrow?

QUESTION: Can you answer the question about the letter?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I don’t know. I’ll get back to you on that.

QUESTION: Do you want to answer Kim’s question --

QUESTION: Do they have a date for the Quartet (inaudible)?


QUESTION: Any ideas?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: In terms of when there will be --

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: No, if we have more information on that, we’ll let you know at the appropriate time.

QUESTION: I’m sorry. Kim said and I interrupted – I apologize – can you live with the Palestinians giving the secretary general a letter on Friday? That’s different from a vote in the Security Council. That’s giving them a letter on Friday.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: We’ve made our position clear, which is we think that this matter should not be resolved at the United Nations Security Council.

QUESTION: You said that you don’t --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: That’s all I can say on the matter.

MODERATOR: I think we’ve really done it. We’re just going over the same ground. Thanks, guys.

PRN: 2011/1539