Special Briefing
Philip J. Crowley
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Public Affairs
Cairo, Egypt
November 3, 2009


MR. CROWLEY: Just to kind of give you a little bit of a sense of when we land in Cairo, George Mitchell will just have flown over from Amman, Jordan. He’ll come on the airplane, and the Secretary and he will spend a few minutes comparing notes on what each has done since we last saw them Saturday night. George stayed in Jerusalem, had some additional meetings with Israeli officials on Monday, and then traveled over to Amman and – for meetings with Jordanian officials.

From our standpoint, Egypt has a 30-year history of direct involvement in peace in the Middle East going back to the historic treaty of 1979. So from the Secretary’s point of view, given that Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit was not able to come to the Forum for the Future – he was hosting some Iraqi officials in Cairo – that we thought it was just very important that before leaving the region that we touch base with one of the key players in the peace effort.

So the Secretary will first meet with General Suleiman, the national security advisor to President Mubarak. He has been focused on the reconciliation effort among the Palestinians, and he’ll have the opportunity to update us on his efforts. Then the meeting will be joined by Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit, and then they’ll have dinner, and then tomorrow morning before we depart Cairo for home, the Secretary will meet with President Mubarak and I think there’ll be a press availability for all of you before we head back to the States.

QUESTION: Sorry. You were talking about the meetings that Senator Mitchell had. Can you tell us who all he met with? I understand King Abdullah. Did he meet with Abu Mazen again? And what happened differently than in the meeting with – in Abu Dhabi with the Secretary?

MR. CROWLEY: I’m not aware that he met with Abu Mazen. I believe he did meet with King Abdullah. I have not gotten a readout, to be honest with you, on what they discussed.

QUESTION: P.J., this may seem obvious, but can we – do you – the totality of what the Secretary is saying recently about how positive it is for Israel to offer a halt to settlements and no more expropriations, can we deduce from that that part of what’s going on here is she’s asking the Palestinians to drop the precondition and to consider what Israel has done as important and something that they can sell as a freeze to their public and get on with the peace talks? Is that what she’s doing?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, let me start from a different place and come back to that. As we’ve said throughout the trip, there’s clearly a gap between the two parties. We’ve been encouraging for several weeks now for negotiations to begin as soon as possible. That remains our hope. So on the standpoint, we’re simply trying to chip away at this gap. And as she has said yesterday and today, any steps that we feel narrow this gap and move the parties forward to a negotiation we see as a positive development.

So certainly, she – in her meeting with President Abbas the other day, she suggested very directly that, in our view, his best interest is to get to negotiations as soon as possible. And obviously, in her meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu, while their offer falls short of what we had suggested, obviously that is, in her view – the word again – unprecedented. And so – but certainly, we’ll have the opportunity with President Mubarak to compare notes on – he’s a very adroit reader of the parties. He’s had his own interaction. President Mubarak has a very good working relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu.

QUESTION: Just as a follow, so is it too strong for us to report that she’s become an advocate for them dropping the precondition?

MR. CROWLEY: Let me get there a different way. We do not think that there should be preconditions to negotiations, and we do not think – and we believe that it – that both parties will be best served by getting into negotiations as quickly as possible. But we do understand how the settlement issue is important to the Palestinians. It’s important to the Israelis. It’s important to others in the region. And what we’re trying to do, what we were doing in our consultations with various leaders in Morocco is to try to just figure out what is the best way forward. How can we help move the parties towards the start of negotiations? So I wouldn't – I just wouldn't say it as directly as that, but our view is, on the one hand, there should be no preconditions. On the other hand, we want to see negotiations start as quickly as possible, and we’re just simply trying to see how we can move the two closer to where they feel comfortable with making that decision.

QUESTION: Two questions. One, the Palestinians say that it’s not a precondition that they’re putting to restart the talks. They’re simply saying Israel has to fulfill its obligations under the Roadmap, and if they can’t even do that, why should we sit down to talk to them? But another question is you’ve said several times that you’re looking at creative ideas to kickstart this process. Can you tell us a little bit more? I mean, what is the way around this issue of settlement freeze? It’s – neither side is really budging enough to satisfy the other.

MR. CROWLEY: I suppose I would just say this will take political courage on both sides. These are very difficult issues. As the Secretary has reflected at various times, they’ve been close before and for whatever reason, or a combination of circumstances, they’ve just never been able to get over the finish line. So this is a – I mean, there are specific technical issues involved here. They’re well known. But this is also a political challenge, and so it does take what kind of confidence-building measures can we establish that, whether or not they’re perfect – and the Secretary has said again today in the interviews – we can’t – in this process, you can’t afford to make perfect an obstacle to the very good. So if you take absolute positions, then it’s unlikely that negotiations are going to start. We feel very strongly that both parties are best served by getting to negotiation, putting all of these issues on the table. And if you get to an agreement, then you’ve solved – you have, in fact, solved these various issues, including settlements, including borders, including refugees, and obviously including Jerusalem.

So I’m not sure I can answer it any – in a different way, but to the extent that we can take steps, encourage them to take steps that then give them confidence, provide some momentum to this effort that gets them to a point where they might say it’s not everything we were looking for, but it’s enough, there’s enough of an investment or they’re beginning to have enough confidence that the dynamic will begin to – they’ll see the dynamic as constructive. So we’ll be looking at a variety of ways that increase the interaction between the parties in some form, find ways that they can begin to address the issues. If we can do that, then we think that at some point baby steps then create a momentum of their own and the effort can pick up steam. So we recognized coming into the region that things have stalled, and we’re just looking – keep looking to see how we can begin to create some forward momentum again.

QUESTION: P.J., you mentioned that General Suleiman will be – is focusing a lot on this issue of Palestinian reconciliation and unity government. Does – do you have any particular message that you will be giving him on that issue?

MR. CROWLEY: I don’t think so. We have a fairly clear stated position, which is we look for whatever combination of circumstances make negotiation more feasible and success more likely. Clearly, you have a situation now where you have a divided Palestine between the West Bank and Gaza. There’s a – obviously, the president, Abu Mazen, has requested of his electoral body to evaluate whether elections are even feasible at this point in time given the situation on the West Bank and Gaza. And I think they’re due to report back to him sometime in the next couple of weeks.

A national – a government of national unity, we feel would be clearly more effective. But obviously, that government would – has to be guided by the well-established Quartet principles fundamentally including recognizing Israel’s right to exist. But – so we will be comparing notes with General Suleiman on where the reconciliation process stands, and then charting out how that fits into some of the other pieces of the puzzle that we currently see.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask – I mean, given all the difficulties over the Goldstone report which you have talked about, plus the – on both sides, and the challenges that are coming up with the planned Palestinian election, tell us what is the real feasibility of anything happening before January, and to what extent is it taking all of your effort to simply just keep this alive?

QUESTION: Why not wait?

QUESTION: Yeah, and that’s the other question. Why not wait, as Jay said?

QUESTION: (Inaudible) the Palestinian Authority that sorts themselves out of it because it’s so fluid?

QUESTION: It’s its life support.

MR. CROWLEY: Well, on the first question, I don’t want to get ahead of the Palestinian electoral bodies. I mean, they’re evaluating the feasibility of elections under the current circumstances. They could come back and say, look, Hamas refuses to even hold it in Gaza. So let’s wait and see. That’s a pretty effective body. Let’s wait and see what their determination is.

On the other issue, Jay, I just think those who are experienced in these issues, waiting is never a good thing. I mean, we always carry a sense of urgency into the Middle East because if there’s a vacuum, there are lots of spoilers very willing to take advantage of that vacuum. Sometimes the effort has an impact in and of itself. As you – it does give people a sense of hope that there’s something better out there. In the absence of that hope, we too often in the past have seen events spiral into violence. And so with so much unresolved, we just think that this is part of the commitment that the Obama Administration made that they would tackle this issue on day one. And so this is just – this is a continuation of that because we just think that without this effort, it’s likely that things will go from difficult to worse.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. CROWLEY: There is value in having a process, even though sometimes it will advance more rapidly and sometimes it will advance at a snail’s pace.

QUESTION: I was just wondering – I mean, Middle East peace talks have taken place often over the last few years, and most people agree that both parties know what the final settlement is going to look like, what the deal is really going to look like. It’s just about making it happen and crossing that finish line. Has the time come for Washington to say to put a deal on the table, say okay guys, come to the table, this is what we’re going to negotiate, just come and sit down, enough of all this going back and forth about settlements and et cetera, et cetera?

MR. CROWLEY: We have constructed this phase to have discussions with the parties to see what they might be able to put forward together with other countries in the region and to see if that combination of confidence-building measures would get the parties to negotiation. That’s still where we are. And as the President said, as the Secretary reported to the President a couple of weeks ago, there has been some progress, but clearly, at this point, not enough. I think that's part of why the Secretary is here. She wanted to look Prime Minister Netanyahu in the eye, face to face. She wanted to look President Abbas in the eye, face to face. She wanted to talk directly to key players in the region, as she will President Mubarak tomorrow morning. And then based on these discussions, we'll say is there still potential in this current structure or do we need to look at other alternatives. They are available. But I think for the moment, we will – we're going to keep on this path as long as we think it has promise.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) I'm sorry, so you're actually opening up the possibility that she's going to – that the result of this analysis and these consultations might be that there is not hope in this particular way you're doing it now, that there might be a better way to do it? So I didn't realize you were even thinking of maybe scrapping this (inaudible).

MR. CROWLEY: Let's not leap ahead of ourselves. I mean, we're still on the path we've been on for several months, dealing directly with the Palestinians, the Israelis, working the various countries in the region. We think we've pocketed some actions that countries are willing to take if the parties get to negotiation. We want to see the parties get to negotiation as quickly as possible. And if this particular path we don’t think can get there, then we'll look at other opportunities.

I mean, clearly, as the Secretary said, we believe the only way to solve these issues is through a negotiation. And only through a negotiation will you get to the aspirations of the two sides – security on the one hand and a state on the other hand. The United States has in the past put forward its ideas to the parties. But I don't want to – we're on this current path. I don't want to project too far ahead.

QUESTION: P.J., it's pretty clear what you're asking the Palestinians is to drop the demand for a freeze. Are you making an analogous demand to the Israelis? What are you asking them to do or to sacrifice, specifically right now, to get to negotiations? And – well, let's just leave it at that.

MR. CROWLEY: I think I'll defer and not do the negotiation in public. I mean, that's one of the reasons George Mitchell stayed behind is to continue the conversation with the Israel side on the ideas that they have put forward and to see what else might be there. And we've had the same – similar conversations with various leaders in the region. But we think we've closed the gap some in these last few days coming up. And – but that gap is still there, so there's still more work to be done.

QUESTION: Can you just give us a readout on her bilat with the Libyan and give us the spelling of his name?

MR. CROWLEY: Hold on a second. All right. We'll branch off a little bit. She did two bilaterals this morning. The first was with Foreign Minister Frattini of Italy. They talked about three subjects – the situation in Afghanistan, the Middle East peace, and Iran.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. CROWLEY: Iran.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. CROWLEY: Well, let me – the vast majority of the discussion was on Afghanistan. Obviously, the Italians have some efforts that they're already doing, and they kind of traded ideas on what the international community can do specifically on building different kinds of capacity within Afghanistan as the new government takes office, things like the rule of law. The Secretary obviously mentioned the importance of security forces, judges, and so forth. So it's just simply now you're beginning to get – we are in that transition period where – now it's – and as – I mean, you heard from the Secretary in terms of raising our expectations in terms of the performance of the Afghan Government.

I won't speak for the Italian Government, but they were also just trading some ideas on how the international community can be supportive of a Palestinian Authority from a – in terms of helping build further technical capacity within the PA in support of President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad.

On Iran, I think it was mostly the Secretary just reporting on our view of the current situation, and quite honestly, it tracked, in fact, very directly to what she said to you all last night.

And then she met with Foreign Minister Musa Kusa -- M-u-s-a, K-u-s-a – who's a – he's a graduate of Michigan State University. At one point, he said, Spartans and gave a thumbs up.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: Wasn't Musa Kusa indicted for terrorism at one point? Can you check, because was the intelligence chief before he became the foreign minister?

QUESTION: I thought he was indicted for killing Americans.

QUESTION: Were you going to tell us about this? Can I have the next question?

QUESTION: Yeah.

QUESTION: Why was this not on the schedule and why was there no photo opportunity of this?

MR. CROWLEY: The short answer is it happened almost – let me back up. I mean, we had a limited time and we had a number of potential candidates for bilats. And in some cases, there were a couple countries that we were looking at bilats. And for example, and – but the Secretary was able to have pull-asides during the GCC meeting, for example. I mean, Libya is a country that we are – we have an emerging relationship with. And we think it's best to continue talking to them and seeing where we can continue to advance the relationship.

And that – but I mean, it was something that – this was just a – kind of like a target of opportunity where the ministers found themselves with a similar hole and they got pulled into a room and sat for about 15 minutes.

QUESTION: Did they discuss the Lockerbie bomber's recent release back home?

MR. CROWLEY: I was in the meeting; that did not come up. They --

QUESTION: She didn't bring it up? I mean, you guys – excuse me, sorry. I mean, you and Ian were having to brief for about 10 days straight to us. Every single day we were asking you – hammering you guys with questions about the seeming welcome parade that he got and how upset people were about that, and you guys kept saying how upset the U.S. was about that. She didn't bring that up when she had an opportunity?

MR. CROWLEY: We didn't bring up the tent either. (Laughter.) Sorry.

QUESTION: The tent's a little bit less of foreign policy issue.

MR. CROWLEY: No, the – I mean, Libya has a perspective on the region. They have been very helpful and integrally involved in developments in Sudan, so we did talk about Sudan, talked about Darfur. There has been cooperation from the countries on counterterrorism. And they continue to talk about advancing our relationship. But it was about a 10- or 15-minute meeting.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Sorry, you just said it was only 10 or 15 minutes. Was that the first time (inaudible)?

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. CROWLEY: I'll check.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. CROWLEY: Yes, that's the first time that they've met.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: Is the Secretary talking with the President by phone during this?

MR. CROWLEY: We're staying in close contact with the White House throughout this, but I can't say that she has talked to the President. But I'll double check that.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. CROWLEY: I think – I don't think so, other than the press conference.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. CROWLEY: Tonight, I think, you go relax in the hotel, and we go to dinner. But we'll see you in the morning. Okay.

But just to close the loop, obviously, while the issue of Megrahi did not come up, we – our views on that have not changed and our view – the Libyans understand our concerns very, very well. The Libyans understand our concern about Megrahi very, very well.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR. CROWLEY: It did not come up.

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PRN: 2009/14-34

[This is a mobile copy of Briefing En Route Cairo]