The White House
Office of the Press Secretary
Press Briefing by Special Envoy for Middle East Peace Senator George Mitchell
South Court Auditorium, Eisenhower Executive Office Building
10:24 A.M. EDT
MR. HAMMER: Hi, good morning, everyone. Sorry for the slight delay. The senator was coming from a meeting.
So today we have Senator Mitchell, the Special Envoy for Middle East peace, will give you an on-the-record briefing. It is embargoed until 9:00 p.m. tonight. And with that, I don’t want to take up his valuable time and give him the most time with you. So, Senator, if you will.
SENATOR MITCHELL: Thank you, Mike. Good morning, ladies and gentlemen.
Last week Secretary of State Clinton invited President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu to Washington on September 2nd to resume direct negotiations to resolve all final status issues. We believe these negotiations can be completed within one year.
As you know, both have accepted. They will have bilateral meetings with President Obama tomorrow, as will President Mubarak of Egypt and King Abdullah of Jordan. The four leaders then will join President Obama for dinner at the White House to help launch these discussions.
Egypt and Jordan have a critical role to play, and their continued leadership and commitment to peace will be essential to success.
After the bilateral meetings, the President will make a public statement, and then just prior to the dinner, the President and the other leaders will make public statements.
On Thursday, Secretary of State Clinton will convene a meeting at the State Department between Prime Minister Netanyahu, President Abbas and their delegations, following which I will provide a readout to the press.
Since the beginning of this administration, we’ve worked with the Israelis, the Palestinians and our international partners to advance the cause of comprehensive peace in the Middle East, including two-state solution, which ensures security and dignity for Israelis and Palestinians.
We’re pleased that negotiations will be relaunched after a hiatus of more than a year and a half. And we will engage with perseverance and patience to try to bring them to a successful conclusion.
Thank you. And with that, I’ll be glad now to take your questions.
Q Sir, can you put the negotiations in the context of the unfreezing of the settlement moratorium, and how much of it -- how important that deadline is, whether or not you guys are counting on Ehud Barak to not approve settlements going forward or whether you expect that settlements will commence once again?
SENATOR MITCHELL: Our position on settlements is well known, and it remains unchanged. We’ve always made clear that the parties should promote an environment that is conducive to negotiations.
As Secretary of State Clinton has said, as we move forward it’s important that actions by all sides help to advance our effort, not hinder it.
Q Do you expect that the settlement freeze will continue, or what are the Israelis telling you in terms of if negotiations are still going on on the 26th, whether they will continue the freeze?
SENATOR MITCHELL: Our discussions continue with both sides, and they are consistent with and comprise in part the points that I just made.
Q Senator, as you know, there’s so much pessimism in the region that they talk about failure more than success. And many people believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu was tested in 1996 and he did everything to destroy the peace process. Now they enter in this phase of negotiation where there’s no, like, timetable, there’s no, really, preconditions. So what makes you optimistic that anything is going to substantially come out of it?
And if I may, something else. The President talked about in the beginning of the administration about comprehensive peace talks, on two tracks. But now we’ve seen two leaders from the region being invited, and that excluded Syria. So why Syria was not on the table?
SENATOR MITCHELL: With respect to opinion in the region, by coincidence I just received last evening from Shibley Telhami, who is at the University of Maryland and with whom I consult regularly, among others, for advice and counsel, some key findings from polls taken in conjunction with the Zogby polling organization in six countries in the region: Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Morocco, Lebanon and the United Arab Emirates.
Among the key findings are that over 80 percent of Arabs polled are still in principle open to the two-state solution; also, that if and when a two-state solution were to come about, a plurality of those polled -- 39 percent -- believed it would happen through negotiations, and only 16 percent believed that it would come about through another war or conflict.
And finally, those polls, the respondents, believed that if prospects for the two-state solution collapse, a majority of those polled believed that the result would be intense conflict for years to come.
Now, I believe that it is an awareness of these and other realities by the two leaders and their leadership that there is a window of opportunity, a moment in time within which there remains the possibility of achieving the two-state solution, which is so essential to comprehensive peace in the region, that difficult as it may be for both leaders, and we recognize that difficulty for both of them, the alternatives for them and the members of their societies pose far greater difficulties and far greater problems in the future.
And so having spent much of the time that I served in this position in the region, meeting with these leaders and with many, many others in both societies, I think it is that general recognition combined with the presence, the patience, the perseverance and the commitment of President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton and the leaders of this administration that have persuaded these leaders to take this step which, as I acknowledged and repeat, is difficult for them in many respects -- because their societies are divided, not just the Arab nations to whom I referred in these polls, but Israeli and Palestinian society.
With respect to Syria, our efforts continue to try to engage Israel and Syria in discussions and negotiations that would lead to peace there and also Israel and Lebanon.
You will recall that when the President announced my appointment two days after he entered office, he referred to comprehensive peace and defined it as Israel and Palestinians, Israel and Syria, Israel and Lebanon, and Israel at peace with and having normal relations with all of its Arab neighbors. And that remains our objective.
Q I was wondering if you could tell us more about what comes after September the 2nd in terms of further meetings? Is there any sense that while the parties are committed to a process, is there any sense of how you’re going to conduct the next round of talks? And are you expecting there will always be an American presence in the room, or are you going to let the two parties sit together and call on you when needed?
SENATOR MITCHELL: I’ll answer the second question first. The United States will play an active and sustained role in the process. That does not mean that the United States must be physically represented in every single meeting. We recognize the value of direct, bilateral discussion between the parties and, in fact, will encourage that between the two leaders on a regular basis.
On the other hand, it does not mean that the United States will simply stand aside and not participate actively. We will operate in a manner that is reasonable and sensible in the circumstances which exist, but the guiding principle will be an active and sustained United States presence.
Q At what point did you --
SENATOR MITCHELL: Oh, I’m sorry.
Q What comes after September the 2nd?
SENATOR MITCHELL: We hope to proceed promptly on an intensive basis with the parties. Prime Minister Netanyahu has stated privately and publicly that he hopes to meet with President Abbas about every two weeks. We think that’s a sensible approach, which we hope is undertaken and that, in addition to that, there will be meetings at other levels on a consistent basis.
Indeed, we have had extensive preparatory meetings with the two sides last week and yesterday and today and continuing through tomorrow, right up until the time when the two sides get together. And so we want to maintain this -- we want to establish this process going forward and to maintain it in an intense way at several levels of engagement.
Q At what point during the proximity talks you realized the two parties are ready for direct talks? And everybody realizes during these future talks that Hamas will be the elephant in the room. How confident are you that these talks will succeed and will achieve the two-state solution while excluding Hamas?
SENATOR MITCHELL: Once again, let me take the questions in reverse order, if I might. We do not expect Hamas to play a role in this immediate process. But as Secretary of State Clinton and I have said publicly many times, while in the Middle East and in the United States, we welcome the full participation by Hamas and all relevant parties once they comply with the basic requirements of democracy and nonviolence that are, of course, a prerequisite to engage in these serious types of discussions.
There has been a good deal of a discussion about references to Northern Ireland, and I have repeatedly been asked by reporters and individuals when I make public appearances, well, Senator, you talk to the IRA in Northern Ireland, but don’t you talk to Hamas here. The questions reflect an incomplete understanding of what occurred in Northern Ireland and its relationship to this situation.
So, first, let me say they’re very different. It’s not useful to try to make direct comparisons because the participants, the circumstances, the situation, the timing are all very different. And while we should learn what we can from other processes, each is unique.
But on the central point, the reality is that in Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin, the political party that is affiliated with the IRA, did not enter the negotiations until after 15 months had elapsed in the negotiations, and only then because they met two central conditions that had been established. The first was a ceasefire, and the second was a publicly stated commitment to what came to be known as the Mitchell Principles because I was the chairman of the commission that established them.
And those commitments included -- I’ll just quote briefly from them -- a commitment to democratic and exclusively peaceful means of resolving political issues; a commitment to renounce for themselves and to oppose any efforts by others to use force or threaten to use force to influence the course or the outcome of the negotiations; and finally a commitment to agree to abide by the terms of any agreement reached in negotiations and to resort to democratic and exclusively peaceful methods in trying to alter any aspect of that outcome with which they may disagree.
So there are analogous -- not identical and not directly comparable -- conditions that have been set forth by the Quartet with respect to Hamas. And if there is movement to accept those principles, as occurred with Sinn Féin and the IRA in Northern Ireland, why then, of course, they would be welcome. And we would want them to participate in those circumstances. So I want to make clear in that regard what our position is.
Go ahead, I’m sorry. Did you want to follow up?
Q At what point in the proximity talks you realized that --
SENATOR MITCHELL: Please keep in mind that when we began the proximity talks, I stated publicly in announcing them that the purpose was to provide a transition into direct negotiations, to encourage the parties to establish the conditions and reach the conclusion that this would be the best to accomplish.
The circumstances were such that before we reached the four-month period which had been established for a review of those proximity talks by the Arab League Follow-up Committee, we felt that following the President’s personal meeting with President Abbas in June and his personal meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu in July, and his direct discussions with them, that the opportunity existed to make the transition from proximity to direct talks at an earlier time. As it turns out, the time is very nearly consistent with the four-month period that had been established.
Q Yes, sir, Senator Mitchell. We’ve seen -- we’ll see that President Obama will be taking a direct personal role tomorrow in the bilateral talks and the dinner with the leaders. But going forward, how much of a personal engagement will we see from the President? Will he be ready step in himself to help bridge any differences? Would he possibly be looking at another meeting, a trilateral meeting at the U.N. General Assembly at the end of the month? And what about a trip to the region that he’s talked about in the past?
SENATOR MITCHELL: The President has been engaged personally from the very beginning. As you may recall, on January 21st of 2009, less than 24 hours after taking office, the first calls he made to foreign leaders were to leaders in this region. And on the following day, he announced my appointment.
Please do not confuse personal engagement exclusively with public activities, because as you know, there’s a lot that a President does that isn’t in the public arena but that is a very -- represents very active participation.
With respect to all of the items that you mentioned, I’m certain that what the President will do will make a judgment based upon the circumstances at the time, the reasonableness and the necessity of his participation, and will continue to be fully and actively a participant in the process, as necessary. He has many, many important obligations, but he places a high priority on comprehensive peace in the Middle East.
Q Senator, good to see you. Two questions. The one-year deadline, does that reflect what the parties have communicated to you and others what they believe is possible, or is the one-year deadline meant to create a sense of urgency and place them in a calendar that sorts of tries to apply a bit of pressure? That’s one question.
The second question is, of course these talks occur in a larger security context for Israel as it relates to Iran. There are national security questions facing Israel and there will be diplomatic implications to whatever they do or do not decide. Can you give us any sense of how this larger context, the question of Iran, and what may or may not happen, could in any way shape the outcome of these talks?
SENATOR MITCHELL: The latter is obviously an issue of high importance, not just to Israel and the United States but to all of the countries in the region and indeed around the world, and has been the subject of intensive activity at the United Nations and elsewhere. I think you would be better served if I deferred on that to those who are directly involved in the specific formulation and implementation of policy toward Iran.
But I can say, with respect to this conflict, it is an important issue. I was struck that when I first went to the region last year, I took out and reviewed the report that I had authored in 2001 and President Bush as chairman of what came to be known as the Sharm el-Sheikh commission regarding the conflict. And I read it through quickly, but I found no reference to Iran. And yet on my first visit and subsequent visits, during which I met with the leaders of, I believe, 14 or 15 countries in the region, without exception Iran was included in the conversation. And in most of them, it was the first or second item mentioned. So clearly that is an important issue and one which has an impact on this process.
What was the first part?
Q The one-year deadline.
SENATOR MITCHELL: Yes. During his visit to the United States in July, Prime Minister Netanyahu in a public statement, not at the time of the meeting in the White House, said that he believed this could be done within one year. And we were pleased to hear him say that, and President Abbas has privately expressed to me his view that he does not want this to drag out, that he wants to get it done as soon as possible. And I would let him speak for himself. But he has provided us with an indication that he wants to move as soon as possible.
People ask whether the long history of negotiation has been beneficial or harmful. It’s actually been both, in some respects. Beneficial in the sense that this has been discussed so often that people have a good sense of what the principal issues are and how they might be resolved; harmful in the sense that it’s created attitudes among many in the region that it’s a never-ending process, that it’s gone on for a very long time and will go on forever. So it’s very important to create a sense that this has a definite concluding point. And we believe that it can be done and we will do everything possible, with perseverance and patience and determination, to see that it is done.
Q You mentioned the long, rich history of U.S. mediation in the peace process. There have been any number of frameworks under which these talks have taken place in the past -- the road map, the Tenet agreement, the “shelf agreement,” Annapolis. Assuming that you’re not going into this sort of winging it, can you give us some sense of which parts of those frameworks you’ve adopted? Give us a little review of the framework you’re using for these talks.
SENATOR MITCHELL: What we’ve tried to do is to avoid a slavish adherence to the past while trying to learn what might have been improved in the past, what worked, what didn’t work. And so we have avoided deliberately any specific label or identification that this is a continuation of process A or B or C.
Rather, what we want to do is to learn what we can from those and take the best of them. And they include, in my judgment, frequent direct contact between the leaders, between the Prime Minister of Israel and the President of the Palestinian Authority.
Secondly, active and sustained United States participation so that we are not on some distant sideline cheering the parties on without active participation, but at the same time we recognize that this is a bilateral negotiation, and in the end the parties must make this decision by and for themselves.
Thirdly, maintaining broad international support, which is critical. I have been to the region many, many times, and that’s all been widely reported. What has been less widely reported is that on most of my trips, I stop in Europe and in other places on the way over and back. I’ve made many visits to Brussels, to European capitals and to the United Nations. We think it important that there be a broad basis of international support. We take seriously the Quartet’s role, and that’s reflected in Prime Minister Blair’s presence at the diner tomorrow evening.
And finally, it is to try very hard to create an atmosphere that is conducive to success and positive development of the process. That’s not easy. There is a free and vigorous press in the societies that are involved -- here as well, as there should be. There’s a constant back-and-forth, and conflict and sensational statements, of course, generally get quick and widespread coverage. But we think it’s very important that they establish some degree of confidence in the sincerity and the seriousness of purpose of each other so that they can begin to contemplate the very difficult decisions that each of them will have to make if we’re going to achieve success in the process.
Q What’s your estimate, Senator, of the sincerity of purpose on each side? Following up on Major’s question, many people in the region see the one-year deadline as simply a way of running out the clock.
SENATOR MITCHELL: Well, we can’t avoid the fact that many people in the region disagree with one or more aspects of this. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say that if you took every sentence that I’ve uttered today and spent 24 hours, you could find someone in the region who disagreed with some part of it or all of it. That’s just the reality. This is a conflict of longstanding, very deeply held views, very strong emotions, high level of mistrust, and therefore sharply divided.
So if -- anybody who wants never to be challenged or face confrontation ought not to get involved in this process because that’s just the reality. And we have to do our best in a realistic way to try to create the conditions, imperfect in all circumstances, that will enable them to go forward.
What was the other part of it, Bill?
Q The people in the region seeing the one-year timeline as a way of running out the clock.
SENATOR MITCHELL: Yes, yes. Well, we don’t -- we disagree with that. We think it is realistic. We think it can be done. We recognize that there are many -- indeed, many very knowledgeable and experienced people who hold a different view. And there are also many who aggressively advocate the view that this can’t be done and shouldn’t be done -- on both sides -- in public statements and public advocacy.
But in my judgment, what it really comes down to in the end is what is best for the people of Israel and what is best for the Palestinian people.
And I believe that a strong and persuasive and convincing argument can be made and must be made by us and others that a peaceful resolution, which ends this conflict, which ends all claim, which creates a viable, democratic, contiguous Palestinian state living side by side in peace with Israel is in their best interest. And the alternative to that, of the possibility of continuing conflict into the indefinite future, is far more problematic.
So thank you all very much. Thank you, Mike.
MR. HAMMER: Thank you, Senator. We don’t want to abuse your time. We know you’ve got important work to do and we hope to have you come back at some other point. As a reminder again, this briefing is on the record, but it is embargoed until 9:00 p.m. tonight. Thank you very much, everybody, for coming.
10:54 A.M. EDT