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Farewell Remarks to the State Department Press Corps

Secretary Condoleezza Rice
Washington, DC
January 16, 2009

(10:11 a.m. EST)

SECRETARY RICE: Good morning. I thought on my last day that I would replace Sean McCormack and do the briefing myself. (Laughter.) No, I asked Sean for the podium at the beginning of his briefing just to thank you for all that you do. It has really been an honor and a great pleasure to represent this great country and the values that it stands for and the work that it tries to do.

America is not without its ability to make mistakes, like anyone can. But it also a country that tries to do the right thing -- not always the easy thing, but the right thing. I think it’s a country of great generosity. It is a country that reaches out not just to the powerful, but to the poorest and those who are most in need. And whether it is in the tremendous work that this country does with refugees or in humanitarian assistance or the foreign assistance that particularly this President has made a hallmark of his presidency, working with children and parents who might have otherwise died of AIDS, and seeing them live in hope, or sometimes using American power to deal with difficult and sometimes controversial issues, I think the United States of America is extraordinary in being a powerful country that has never sought and will never seek empire.

It is also, I believe, a country that has great internal strengths. It’s a country that despite internal difficulties always seems to find a way to overcome them with a kind of toughness and resoluteness and commitment to values. It’s a country that truly tries to make the promise of a multiethnic democracy that is inclusive and for all people true. It wasn’t always the case, but we’ve made that journey and we’ll continue to make that journey, and we’ll of course in many ways reach a new height on that journey when President-elect Barack Obama is sworn in on Tuesday.

But it’s also a country that started out with certain very important institutions. And in many ways, first and foremost among them was a free press. Thomas Jefferson called it the fourth estate. And he understood and the founders understood that a free press was at the center of the ability of a democracy to deliver on its promise of accountability to those who brought them to power, because the consent of the governed cannot be taken for granted. And the consent of the governed cannot be known without a free press.

So many times around the world, I’ve found myself in discussions about democratic institutions, democratic change, the need to respect human rights, the need to give liberty and freedom to peoples who are living in tyranny. Many times, throughout discussions with countries that are trying to break free of authoritarianism or in cases where countries are still under authoritarian rule, I’ve found myself defending the free press. I’ve found myself talking about specific reporters who have been held, about internet bloggers who have been charged with crimes. I’ve found myself defending newspapers. I’ve found myself talking about journalists who, just in their pursuit of truth, have actually paid the final price in the greatest measure.

And because of those conversations, I think it has, for me, affirmed and reaffirmed again and again what I’ve always known, and that is that America is very fortunate indeed to have at its core, from its founding, and until now a press that takes seriously its responsibilities to democracy, seriously its responsibilities to hold officials accountable, and seriously its responsibilities to tell the truth. And in working with each and every one of you, I see that professionalism and that commitment. And it’s been really a great honor and a great pleasure not just to represent the United States of America, but to do it in the glare of your cameras and your pens. (Laughter.)

Thank you very, very much.

QUESTION: Madame Secretary, thank you very much for those comments. I’m – you’ve been warning us for some time that it was going to be a sprint to the finish, and –


QUESTION: -- today – (laughter) – today, in this 11th hour, it really is a sprint to the finish. I’m wondering if, one, you can tell us a little about what you’re going to be signing with Foreign Minister with Livni, and two, based on your comments just now about the press, if you’re prepared to ask or to tell the Israelis to make certain or to do everything that they can to protect journalists and reporters who are in Gaza now.

SECRETARY RICE: Yes. First, on the second point, I’ve made the point and we will continue to make the point again. It’s a difficult situation. Warzones are difficult with the press, but the protection of the press is an extremely important principle from the point of view of the United States, in that regard.

The MOU that Foreign Minister Livni and I will sign is – should be thought of as one of the elements of trying to help bring into being a durable ceasefire, a ceasefire that can actually hold. As you know, there are a number of conditions that need to be obtained if a ceasefire is to be durable – not to have a ceasefire, but so that it can really endure. And among them is to do something about the weapons smuggling and the potential for resupply of Hamas from the – from other places, including from Iran, Iranian weapons supply or backed weapons supply coming into Gaza. And you know that we’ve worked with regional partners, including Egypt, on some of these issues through the Army Corps of Engineers. This we foresee as a part of broader international effort on information sharing, on using some of the aspects that we’ve learned through, for instance, the PSI of how to deal with weapons shipments and how to deal with supply lines.

It is a bilateral memorandum of understanding with Israel, but it’s my understanding that Foreign Minister Livni is going to pursue similar efforts with our European colleagues. And indeed, I’ve talked with David Miliband, Frank-Walter Steinmeier and Bernard Kouchner this morning to brief them on what we’re going to do. And I suspect that those efforts will be followed up quite soon with the Europeans.

Yes, Sue.

QUESTION: Where does this fit in with the general, sort of, ceasefire agreement? How much longer do you think that Israel is going to continue pounding Gaza? I mean, the death toll is already above a thousand people who have been killed. So could you put this in the context of a larger agreement?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, you know that we have wanted to have an immediate and durable ceasefire, and we’ve been working aggressively toward that goal. We are hoping that as the elements of durability begin to come into place that the need for continued operations can cease. We know that, after all, Hamas is responsible for this. They’re the ones who refuse to extend the Egyptian ceasefire, the Egyptian tahadiya, and we are – the front line of this – the U.S. effort is, I think, important here, but the front line, of course, is what the Egyptians are trying to do in their mediation. We’ve been in very close contact with them as well as with the Israelis and with others, and hope that that effort is bearing fruit. But we see this as supportive of that effort.

Yeah, a couple more. Yeah.

QUESTION: Even though this fighting will stop in the next -- everyone hopes a couple of days, it doesn’t look like Hamas, while weakened, will be completely destroyed. It looks in the territories like it’s still very strong, it’s further radicalizing the region and, as Sue mentioned, the death toll and the humanitarian condition is extremely dire. There are some in the region and even within the expert community here in the U.S. administration that say, given the fact that the U.S. is Israel’s – one of the closest allies, if it really wants to be a good friend to Israel, that it will start – urge them to exercise restraint, wrap this up, and pay more care to the fact that the death toll is rising and the Palestinian plight is really bad.

SECRETARY RICE: Well, first of all, I wouldn’t make any judgments about how Hamas is going to be viewed after this. Because after all, Hamas, by making Gaza into both a prison for Palestinians and isolated, and also as a launching pad against Israel, has significantly deepened the misery of the Palestinian people. And I think that that story will be – will be known. There is a significant contrast between Gaza and the West Bank, and I think that it’s important. We know that President Mahmoud Abbas – Abbas’s forces were expelled effectively from – in a coup by Hamas. So let’s keep the focus where the focus should be.

I do think that, in time, it will be clear that Mahmoud Abbas, who still cares about the people of Gaza, who talks all the time about the need to stop this fighting, who contributes 58 percent of the PA budget to Gaza, is demonstrating that he is the Palestinian leader for all the Palestinian people.

Now, we have been aggressively pursuing a ceasefire. And we have talked to the Israelis about the need, while defending themselves, to always be aware of the impact of military operations, particularly in such a densely populated area, on civilian populations. It’s why we have pressed very hard for, and achieved in a couple of circumstances, humanitarian pauses and humanitarian corridors. I think the Israelis said yesterday that the bombing of the – the shelling of the warehouse was an error. But it does just show that the difficulties of fighting in close quarters like this. And so this action – we are doing everything that we can to help bring it to an end, supporting the Egyptian mediation, trying to help put in place some of the pillars of a durable ceasefire.

The United States, of course, actually negotiated in 2005 the Agreement on Movement and Access, which could be a basis for the opening of the crossings. And that was, after all, an agreement between Israel, the United States, and the Palestinian Authority, as well as with Egypt and with international support. So we are doing everything that we can to help bring this to an end.

Let me just say one other thing. I do believe that when this is over, it’s going to be important for there to be an effort to deal with the humanitarian situation. The Czechs, in particular, are interested in a kind of donor conference on the humanitarian side. There is some talk with others about a donor conference, perhaps Norway leading one on reconstruction that would augment what the Palestinian Authority does with the already 58 percent of its budget that goes to Gaza. And so, I think that there is much that can be done to begin to bring Gaza out of the dark of Hamas’ reign there and into the light of reconnecting to the very good governance that the Palestinian Authority can provide. But you can be sure we’ve talked as much as we can and we’re working as hard as we can, which is why today’s agreement is important to try to get to a durable ceasefire.

I’m going to just take two more. Charlie, and then --

QUESTION: Madame Secretary, can you be specific as to what conversations you’ve had with the Egyptians? Have you talked to President Mubarak, to Suleiman, to others? Or who has, and what kind of input you’re getting?

SECRETARY RICE: Our Ambassador has talked to all the major Egyptian officials, and I myself talked last night with Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit. But we’ve been in constant contact with the Egyptians.

Sylvie, you’re going to get the last question.

QUESTION: Thank you, Madame Secretary. Do you hope you can --

SECRETARY RICE: Because you’ve been on every trip, I think. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Thank you. And it has been a joy.


QUESTION: Thank you, Madame Secretary. Do you think you can reach an agreement, a ceasefire agreement, before Tuesday?

SECRETARY RICE: Well, I think the American timeline here is not what’s important. What’s important is to reach a ceasefire agreement and to get one that can endure, so that we’re not back in this situation in six months with Hamas using Gaza as a launching pad against Israeli cities and the people of Gaza living in misery because they’re internationally – because they can’t get goods and services.

We’re working at it on as quick a timeline as we possibly can in support of the Egyptian mediation. The Egyptians are going to have to also be the source of dealing with whatever political arrangements can emerge, because, as you know, the Arab League November 26 statement that talks about Palestinian reconciliation, but in line with existing agreements and with Mahmoud Abbas as the leader of the Palestinians until elections can be held, is also going to be an important element going forward. So there’s a lot of work ahead here, but I certainly hope that we can push this to conclusion for a ceasefire very, very soon. That’s my hope.

Let me just say I also had – I’ve had several-times-a-day briefings on the humanitarian situation in Gaza. We have tried to be not just receiving briefings, but operational in going to the Israelis with specific requests for what can be done, with specific information and detailed information about what is going on. They have been receptive to receiving that information, and we’re going to continue that practice because I do think that the humanitarian situation in Gaza is quite dire. I’m very concerned about it. Our people on the ground are very concerned about it. And that is another reason to get this – to get this ceasefire in place.

Thank you.

QUESTION: Will you meet with Hillary Clinton one more time?

SECRETARY RICE: I’ve been keeping – we’ve been keeping their team involved. We, of course, had lunch yesterday, talked yesterday. We had some extensive discussions. But we’ll keep them briefed. And I believe Steve Hadley has been also briefing General Jones. But the important thing is, obviously, is, as they say, we’ll – we’re here until 12:01 on the 20th, and we’re going to do everything that we can in that time to try to push this forward.

Because – let me just say one final thing. The Palestinians and the Israelis have made a lot of progress toward ending their conflict. I do think that the work on the bottom-up approach of trying to make a better life for people, of trying to train security forces that are professional and capable, of good governance that Salam Fayyad and the Authority have pursued, will need to continue to be pursued, as too will the importance of trying to end the occupation and to build a Palestinian state. Israelis and Palestinians deserve nothing less than that. And as quickly as people can return to what Resolution 1850 lays out as the Annapolis process, we’ll all be better off for it, and so will the region.

Thank you very much.


Released on January 16, 2009

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