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Middle East Digest: Feb. 15, 2007

Bureau of Public Affairs
February 15, 2007

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The Middle East Digest provides text and audio from the Daily Press Briefing. For the full briefings, please visit http://www.state.gov/r/pa/prs/dpb/

From the Daily Press Briefing of Feb. 15, 2007:

QUESTION: Regardless of whether the United States Government has yet taken decisions on how it may treat with future members of Palestinian unity government should one come into being, have you communicated any thoughts to the Palestinians about how you might deal with non-Hamas members?

The reason we ask is that Palestinian officials are saying, I think some now on the record, that it has been conveyed to them that the United States Government does not think it would be able to deal with non-Hamas members of a Palestinian unity government that did not accept the Quartet principles. Are they wrong?

MR. MCCORMACK: Let's back up. Where are we in this process? You don't have a national -- a government of national unity. You don't know who's in that government, you don't know the platform of that government. You don't know if it comes into existence, what they are going to say about their policies and what they're actually going to do. So you have a lot of blanks here to fill in. And on the basis of that lack of facts, I can't offer you an answer as to how the United States or the Quartet is going to relate to a potential government of national unity.

What we have said and clearly in the Quartet statement is the kind of government that we would hope for the Palestinian people and the kind of government that they would deserve would abide by the Quartet principles which were reaffirmed as recently as this current week. That's what we hope for the Palestinian people. There's a lot of ferment within the Palestinian political system right now. We can see that. You saw some of that evident in Mecca and that continues, as they are still trying to resolve -- find the answers to a lot of the questions that still exist out there. We can't answer those questions for them. The Egyptians can't answer those questions for them. Israelis can't, the Saudis can't. They need to answer those questions for themselves. So we -- the ball is in their court at this point.

What I can say is that Secretary Rice is determined to go forward with her trip, her meetings with President Abbas, Prime Minister Olmert, as well as with the two of them together. And she is going to lend her full support and her energy to try to move this process forward, so that we can support the two parties in coming together to resolve all the differences that may exist between them from large to small. And that's what -- why she is going out to the region on this next trip.

Clearly, the uncertainties concerning the formation of a possible national unity government have added to the complexity of the system -- of the situation and we will deal with those in turn. But if you waited for perfect clarity to all the issues in the Middle East and all those unanswered -- currently unanswered questions in the Middle East, you would never -- the plane would never take off. It'd save a lot of jet fuel, but you would never get involved. So despite the fact that it is a more complex situation because you have these uncertainties, Secretary Rice is determined to do what she can to help bring the parties together to work on those issues that they can resolve and to start a conversation. That's the whole idea, start the conversation that hasn't yet been had for six years now.

QUESTION: Is she or anyone else offering advice -- and you can say that we can't answer the questions for the Palestinians, but you might be able to offer some guidance on what the U.S. view of various outcomes would be?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, of course, we're talking to the Palestinians at various levels. I can't catalog all those interactions for you. But our public and private advice is the same. You can see it in the Quartet statement. That is the core of our policy position that the Palestinian people deserve that kind of government -- the government that can meet their expectations as well as the expectations of the international community.

QUESTION: Have the Palestinians or the Israelis suggested that it might be useful to postpone this meeting until there's more clarity?

MR. MCCORMACK: I'm not aware that anybody is -- anybody who's at this point backing off having these meetings. And certainly Secretary Rice sees value in going forward with them. As I said, if everybody waited for the perfect moment when you had clarity on all issues and all complexities were resolved in the Middle East, then you wouldn't do anything.

QUESTION: Isn't there a risk that the Secretary might squander some of her credibility on this issue if you come out with nothing on Monday because the two sides are still too far apart?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, again, it's not designed as a set of meetings that is going to result in a formal outcome. It is designed to start a series of conversations, we would hope, between the Palestinians and the Israelis dealing with all variety of questions, whether those are quality of -- so-called quality of life issues that are rooted in some of the security concerns on both sides or with respect to the political horizon for both sides involving the very difficult issues that we all know exist out there. But it's important to start that conversation because they haven't talked about those things really in a serious way at that high level for really six years. There have been some intermittent contacts but not in a serious way. So that's what Secretary Rice hopes to achieve out of this trip is to start that conversation.

QUESTION: Sean.

MR. MCCORMACK: Yeah, Charles.

QUESTION: These meetings -- and you said you're not aware that anyone's backing off of these meetings. You're including the three-way meeting?

MR. MCCORMACK: Yes.

QUESTION: Okay. And the reason I ask is because there are rumors in Israel that Prime Minister Olmert may not be so sure about having a three-way meeting.

MR. MCCORMACK: We haven't heard any desire to reschedule the meeting for a later date.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Do you think that all of you, meaning not only you and the Israelis but also all the members of the Quartet, are of the same mind in terms of what constitutes recognition of the Quartet principles? I mean is there a definition of how to accept the Quartet principles and how they're enshrined? Does it have to be reiterating them? It seems to be that the definition is a little bit fuzzy to some members of the Quartet.

MR. MCCORMACK: Oh, I think the principles are clear. The question then becomes --

QUESTION: How do you iterate them?

MR. MCCORMACK: -- how does a Palestinian government manifest its acceptance of those principles. And, well, I'm not going to try to provide a particular roadmap for them. They can -- they within their own political system can work out the answer to that question. And then once you have the answer to that question, the Quartet will look at what it is that the Palestinians say and do and they'll make that judgment. So the short answer is we'll see.

QUESTION: Are you saying that the acceptance could be implicit and not explicit?

MR. MCCORMACK: Let's wait for the answers to come from the Palestinians and then that will be the time when you can make -- we, the Quartet, can make a judgment on that question.

*****

Yes, ma'am.

QUESTION: A Moroccan delegation was in Washington earlier --

MR. MCCORMACK: Which delegation?

QUESTION: A Moroccan, from Morocco, was in Washington earlier this week and had talks in the State Department. Do you have any comments on these talks and their content?

MR. MCCORMACK: I'll have to check into that for you. I don't have any information I can share with you right now.

QUESTION: Okay, thank you.

*****

Libby.

QUESTION: Do you want to respond to Flynt Leverett's comments? I saw you were quoted on the wires yesterday, but we haven't talked about it in the briefing, when he said that Secretary Rice was misleading Congress last week about this apparent Iran proposal that she said she never saw.

MR. MCCORMACK: In which respect was she allegedly misleading Congress?

QUESTION: That she said she never saw it.

MR. MCCORMACK: That's right. She said that she has no recollection of having seen it or being aware of this. So I'm not sure on what basis Mr. Leverett is leveling that accusation. She has said repeatedly, and this is a question that has come up. For some time I think Flynt has been out sort of flogging this story for some time, for about a year now. And each time, in public and private, she has given the same response, and that is she has no recollection of having seen such an offer.

QUESTION: Well, I mean, can I follow up on that?

MR. MCCORMACK: Sure.

QUESTION: He maintains that he let senior members of the NSC staff --

MR. MCCORMACK: Has he ever said that he gave Secretary Rice a piece of paper?

QUESTION: No, he --

MR. MCCORMACK: As a matter of fact, the news quote that I saw -- and I think it was the New York Times or Washington Post story -- said when somebody pushed him on that particular point, he backed off and said, well, you know, it must have been Elliott Abrams or somebody else who had stopped Secretary Rice from seeing it. So I'm just -- I'm a little unclear on what basis he is saying this.

QUESTION: Well, he maintains that -- I mean, I don't think he maintains that he personally handed it to Secretary Rice. He --

MR. MCCORMACK: And then how -- then how would he know that she saw it and then how would he know that -- on what basis is he making the accusation that she misled somebody?

QUESTION: Well, he maintains that after handing it to members of the senior staff, the discussions that was -- that ensued after he handed it to it was that the proposal was rejected. And he says that, you know, given the level of discussion that was about the proposal that he believes that Secretary Rice did see it. And he said that she's impinging his --

MR. MCCORMACK: Oh, so he believes -- he believes that she saw it? Okay. All I'm -- I'm just trying to make a point here. Let's deal with the facts. And it seems as though that we have somebody who is making some accusations that, based on what we all know now in public, don't seem to be backed up by any facts. And you have Secretary Rice who has said very clearly every single time that she has been asked about this, she has given the same answer.

QUESTION: Well, when the Secretary was National Security Advisor, if there was a proposal coming from Iran for some of the specific things that Iran was offering to do in this proposal, I mean, is it conceivable that she possibly wouldn't have seen the proposal?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, all I can do is I can point you back to public statements by Deputy Secretary Armitage, who was asked this question. He was quoted in Newsweek magazine and he cast doubt on the legitimacy and the providence of this document. And you can go back and look at the quote for yourself when he talked about we didn't know how much of this came from the Swiss ambassador and how much came from the Iranians.

Look, the past three decades is littered with individuals approaching the United States, as well as others, purporting to speak in an authoritative manner in behalf of the highest levels of the Iranian Government making approaches to the United States. And certainly the United States has in those cases where there have been serious approaches have taken a look at them. In this particular case you have Secretary Armitage, who is stating in public we don't know how much came from the Swiss ambassador and how much came from the Iranians. That's not the basis on which a government interacts with another on this kind of serious proposal.

So again, I know there are a lot of accusations that are being thrown around out there, but I would just urge you to actually be a little more careful with the facts.

QUESTION: So, Sean, when Flynt Leverett says this is serious proposal, he was quoted as saying that, that this was a serious proposal, that's not how Deputy Secretary Armitage saw it and that's -- and Rice never saw it, so --

MR. MCCORMACK: You can -- I mean, I'm just quoting back what he said in public. You can go ask him yourself.

QUESTION: But it's your understanding that it never got to a level where it was a serious proposal.

MR. MCCORMACK: Again, you know, I'm not going to try to characterize it. I haven't -- you know, I wasn't involved in the process. Secretary Rice has said she has no recollection of having seen it or being aware of it. I can only point you to those individuals who were involved in the process of examining it at the time. The Secretary -- Deputy Secretary Armitage has said that he was one of those people and he -- you can ask him yourself. You can look at the public record

QUESTION: But -- I'm sorry. I mean, if there's a proposal and Deputy Secretary Armitage -- does the Deputy Secretary of State have the authority within the channels of protocol to decide whether a proposal of that nature is serious or not serious? I mean, it's -- how could it be something that the National Security Advisor would not be involved in the discussions of whether a proposal of that nature was serious? I mean, he is saying that there was a proposal.

MR. MCCORMACK: Elise, nobody is disputing that there was a fax that came out without any markings on it to the State Department. I think you can talk to all the people involved in reviewing it. Some of them are in government, some of them are out of government. What Secretary Rice said is she's not one of those people. As for individuals' impressions of it, you can go ask them. As for Deputy Secretary Armitage, he's the number two guy in the State Department. It's a position of responsibility and authority. And I have no reason to question his assessment of this particular document.

QUESTION: Well, Sean, if you have no reason to question that, (inaudible) years and years and years, the Swiss Embassy, the Swiss Government, has been the channel through which the United States communicated with the Iranians, is Deputy Secretary Armitage -- former Deputy Secretary Armitage's assessment of this that the Swiss are no longer a reliable interlocutor for dealing with Iran? And so how much of this is coming from the Swiss ambassador? Isn't this the kind of thing that you guys got all the time for the past three decades, as you say?

MR. MCCORMACK: That's not the point I believe that former Deputy Secretary of State Armitage was making. What he -- the point he was making was he did not understand himself exactly how much of this was the personal involvement of the Swiss ambassador. Now, as for the Swiss channel, this is a channel through which we exchange information, through which we exchange diplomatic notes. So it is not a policy formation channel. It is a communications channel. So the question was really how much of this was the Swiss --

QUESTION: I realize the question that they're asking --

MR. MCCORMACK: No, I'm answering your question.

QUESTION: This is separate.

MR. MCCORMACK: The question was how much of this was the personal involvement in the -- of the Swiss ambassador in coming up with a policy proposal. That is not what the Swiss channel is used for.

QUESTION: Okay. So this was the -- so his impression was that this was the Swiss trying to make U.S. policy or trying to influence U.S. policy?

MR. MCCORMACK: Look back at Rich Armitage's words.
*****

QUESTION: Can I just ask you what you make of these threats by the Saudi Arabian terror group to oil facilities? Do you think it's a credible group? Do you think it's a credible threat? How seriously are you taking it?

MR. MCCORMACK: I've seen the news reports. I haven't checked with our -- I haven't had a chance to check in depth with our counterterrorism guys. But as I've seen the news report, this is an al-Qaida-related group that is making threats against energy lifelines, and of course you have to take these sorts of threats seriously. You take all the threats seriously, you investigate them and then you see based on your investigation of the facts what it is that you need to do. In every case that doesn't mean that you take actions. I can't tell you in this particular case what the validity of the threat is, but we do take them seriously.


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