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Daily Press Briefing
Sean McCormack, Spokesman
Washington, DC
January 5, 2009



Secretary’s Calls Discussing Gaza
Sustainable, Durable Cease-Fire
Terms of Cease-Fire
U.S. Humanitarian Aid to Gaza
Diplomatic Delegations Visiting the Region
Arab League Initiative
Hamas/Iran Links


View Video

10:37 a.m. EST

MR. MCCORMACK: Good morning, everybody. Welcome to the first briefing of 2009. Before we start and get into what I expect are a lot of questions about the Middle East, I’ll just review a little bit of the Secretary’s activities over the weekend. She did about 17 calls with foreign interlocutors. And if anybody is interested, I could read through that list.

Clearly, the intensive diplomacy that she is engaged in continues. We are looking for and working towards a sustainable, durable, non-time-limited cease-fire in which the Palestinian people can live better lives and the Israeli people can also live better lives and not fear rocket attacks from being launched from the Gaza.

Now just to unpack this idea of a sustainable, durable cease-fire, what does that mean? The Secretary is working on -- trying to work on three elements that would be part of this cease-fire: that there would be an end to the rocket attacks, that you would have the opening of crossings into and out of Gaza, and also the issues of the tunnels would be addressed.

Now those final two points are, you can see, perhaps mutually reinforcing. You have the legitimate trade flowing through those crossings in a way that encourages that trade and also encourages that trade in such a way that there’s security and there’s a good understanding of what is passing through those crossings -- that those two things are mutually reinforcing. So we’re doing a lot of work on these three elements. The Secretary is trying to get the international system and various actors in the international system to coalesce around those three elements. Now obviously that will – there’s a lot of detailed work that needs to go into that as well. Luckily on the crossing issue, there is already an existing agreement that has not been fully implemented. There’s the 2005 Movement and Access Agreement which she negotiated, which the Israelis as well as the Palestinians had signed on to.

So there are – there is material to work with there. All of that said, there is still ongoing violence. And we would like, along with others in the international community, to see that violence end as soon as possible and we are working towards that end. But – and I know this question will come up concerning an immediate cease-fire -- of course everybody would like to see violence end immediately, but you also don’t want it to end so that it recurs again in the same, if not, a worse fashion in the future.

So that is what we are working on at the moment. And with that, I’ll be happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: Can I just – a point of precision on this --

QUESTION: The President talked about the other day -- you signally don’t mention anything about monitoring.

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, there are a lot of different ways to come at this. And you know, again, with – in terms of the crossings, there is provision in there for monitors, Palestinian Authority working with EU monitors. And for some time, that was working quite well on the Rafah crossing. And again, that could serve as a model for reopening those crossings. But again, all these pieces have to fit together. You know, there is obviously going to be a need for expertise, perhaps equipment and technical assistance. And we are taking a look at how we, as well as others, might fill those needs.



QUESTION: Do you think it’s a good idea at the crossings to have a European group monitoring the crossings, and that would be kind of a neutral broker?

MR. MCCORMACK: Right. Again, I don’t want to get too far into the details here. We’re trying to put these pieces together. That has, in fact, been the model that has worked in the past. And again, I cited the 2005 Movement and Access Agreement which served as the basis for, at least in part, those crossings working. So I don’t want to get too far ahead of myself. But I did want to start to give you a little more of a window into what the Secretary is doing and not have to just repeat for you the same lines of durable, sustainable cease-fire, and give you a little bit better idea of what that means.

Now, on the other side of that, I’m limited in terms of the details that I can get into on what exactly the Secretary was talking about. But we will try to keep you informed as we go along here whether or not we have buy-in to certain elements of this.



QUESTION: Maybe just a point of precision. You said about 17 calls. Was it 17 or about?

MR. MCCORMACK: Seventeen. Yeah, it was 17 calls with foreign interlocutors. I say about – I should have been – you’re right, I should have been more precise. Seventeen calls with foreign interlocutors. She had countless others with her staff as well as others here in the government.

QUESTION: United Nations relief workers on the ground in Gaza say that a genuine humanitarian crisis exists there. Does the United States agree that a humanitarian crisis exists? And if so, given the President and the Secretary’s repeated comments about the need to act in case of a humanitarian crisis, does the United States intend to do anything to relieve the suffering and death of Palestinians in Gaza Strip?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, the humanitarian situation is dire, and it has been for some time. And again, I don’t want to – I don’t want to rehash for you all the reasons behind that, but they have primarily to do with Hamas and their management of the situation there.

The Erez crossing is open for humanitarian – the flow of humanitarian goods, I think, since last week, and we can get you the precise numbers. About 450 truckloads have gone through the crossing providing humanitarian assistance.

We ourselves have committed, I think, about $85 million to UNRWA as well as other humanitarian assistance. I think Gordon talked to you a little bit about that last week during his briefings. And again, we can get a little bit more of a breakdown for you of those numbers. In part, that money was devoted to the emergency call by UNRWRA for donations. So we are responding in a concerted way and in a meaningful way to the humanitarian situation in Gaza. You’ve heard it from President Bush. You’ve heard it from Secretary Rice. The – what’s really at stake here are the lives of people, the futures of people both on the Palestinian side and the Israeli side. That’s why we’re trying to work to get to a point where we don’t have this level of violence. In the meantime, we do want to do everything we possibly can to address the humanitarian situation.

QUESTION: And would you agree with that characterization?

MR. MCCORMACK: Which characterization?

QUESTION: Humanitarian crisis.

MR. MCCORMACK: The situation is dire. I don’t know, you know, what bumper sticker you want to apply to it. There are people in Gaza that are in dire humanitarian circumstances. Unfortunately, that is not a new story and it didn’t begin with the most recent rounds of violence. It has been like that for quite some time. We have been able – we have been trying to address that situation for some time with humanitarian assistance, but fundamentally, it’s not going to change – that is not going to change until you have a change in circumstances of the people of Gaza.

QUESTION: Can you run down the list of the 17?


QUESTION: This is from Saturday: the Lebanese Prime Minister Siniora, UK Foreign Secretary Miliband; there was a conference call with Foreign Secretary Miliband and Foreign Minister Kouchner of France; another call with Foreign Secretary Miliband, Swedish Foreign Minister Bildt, Czech Foreign Minister Schwarzenberg, Turkish Foreign Minister Babacan, Israeli Foreign Minister Livni, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faysal. That was on Saturday.

And on Sunday, you have a call with Foreign Minister Steinmeier, Egyptian Foreign Minister Aboul Gheit, Foreign Minister Livni again, Quartet Representative Blair, Egyptian Foreign Minister Gheit once again, Israeli Prime Minister Olmert, Czech Foreign Minister Schwarzenberg, and Chinese Foreign Minister Yang.

QUESTION: And can you --

MR. MCCORMACK: And just one – just – I know that there was some interest as well – and I don’t know if, Gordon, you covered this last week. But she did also speak with Secretary-designate Clinton last week, on Thursday[1] the 29th.

QUESTION: Can you – I mean, it seems clear that a precondition for a cease-fire, from your point of view, is that Hamas cease firing rockets into Israel; correct?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, we think that this combination, the combination of these three elements – you know, a cessation of rocket fire, some provision for opening these crossings in an orderly, secure way, and addressing the tunnels – can provide the conditions where you have a sustainable, durable, cease-fire, that obviously, that will have to be part of it.

QUESTION: Well, you talked about getting the buy-in of the various parties. Do you have any reason to believe via the Egyptians or others that Hamas is at all disposed to cease the rocket fire?

MR. MCCORMACK: We’re obviously not in contact, either direct or indirect, with Hamas. But thus far, you haven’t seen, as far as I know, any cessation or diminution in the level of rocket fire, as far as I know.

QUESTION: Right. But even if you’re not in contact with them, clearly this is one of the things you’re trying to achieve. It’s the first of the three goals that you sort of laid out --


QUESTION: And therefore, I wonder – I mean, indirect contact – I mean, surely, the Egyptians deal with them, and you talk to the Egyptians. I mean, do you have any reason to think --

MR. MCCORMACK: Indirect in the sense that there is no --

QUESTION: Right. No, I’m not saying you’re passing messages.


QUESTION: But do you have any reason to believe that they are disposed to, you know, do that?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, look, they obviously made a certain set of calculations when they increased the level of rocket fire to a point where it was not sustainable for any democratic nation to tolerate that level of rocket fire coming in. They can clearly make another calculation where they stop that rocket fire or bring it down gradually over time to stop it completely. So they have proven themselves capable of making these kinds of calculations. We’ll see, again, whether or not they will make the calculation that it is in their interest to stop this behavior.

QUESTION: Is it your sort of hope – this is my last one on this – that the prospect of reopening some of the crossings with greater monitoring will be a sufficient incentive for them to stop?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, again, I can’t get inside their decision-making process. You know, one would hope that putting in place a set of conditions that would improve the lives for the Palestinian people in Gaza would be a sufficient incentive for them to make a different calculation. That’s what the focus here is: the people of Gaza, the people of Israel.

You know, I have seen the pictures, as have you all, of, you know, unfortunate – you know, victims of the violence in Gaza. I have seen the pictures of Israeli citizens cowering, hiding from rocket fire. That shouldn’t be the – that shouldn’t have to be the state of existence for the people on both sides of that border, and that’s what we’re trying to change.


QUESTION: Last month, the Egyptians were trying to extend the truce between Israel and Hamas. And the Secretary explained that she was not involved in that effort and she didn’t want to be involved in that effort.


QUESTION: In this retrospective, do you think it was the good choice? You could have spoken about this crossing – opening of the crossing and everything. You could have avoided this bloodshed, maybe.

MR. MCCORMACK: No, I – look, to lay the – lay blame for what has happened at the doorstep of anyone else than Hamas is, I think, misguided. Clearly, they made a calculation here. And as I said in response to Arshad’s question, they can make a different calculation.



QUESTION: If it’s true, as you say, and I think that you agree because you do say this humanitarian situation is dire, that lives are at stake, that there have been civilian casualties despite the efforts to minimize them.


QUESTION: What’s wrong with an immediate cease-fire that doesn’t have to be sustainable and durable if, during the pause that you get from an immediate cease-fire, something longer-term can be negotiated?


QUESTION: I don’t understand the calculus. If you say you want to save lives and protect people, why not accept something that is less --


QUESTION: -- than perfect if you can get to that point?


QUESTION: If you can use that to get to a point that is (inaudible)?

MR. MCCORMACK: I guess the calculation is, Matt, fundamentally that you’re not going to get to that point under those circumstances.

QUESTION: How do you – how do you figure? How do you --

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, you know, we’ve gone through circumstances like this before, and it – look, it’s – well, there are no sureties in these things. You know, you take a look at the facts, you take a look at history, and you make your best set of calculations and you do what you think is right in order to achieve the objectives that you have laid out. And it doesn’t – it perhaps helps the situation in the immediate term --

QUESTION: Well, if this is something that can perhaps do that, what’s wrong with that?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, you know, the question is, Matt, you know, are you trading off against lives in the future just for, you know, an immediate cease-fire? You don’t want to get to the point – you don’t want to get --

QUESTION: Do you want to save lives or not?

MR. MCCORMACK: Of course, Matt. Of course. Of course --

QUESTION: Well, if you can perhaps do that, what’s wrong with that?

MR. MCCORMACK: That’s exactly my point, Matt. Are you trading off against lives in the future that will be lost if you don’t go for a durable, sustainable cease-fire? We’re not willing to do that. Now, this may – of course, we have seen various protests, you know – capitals in the region as well. We’re aware of that. And we’re aware of the fact that lives have been lost, innocent life has been lost. In none of this are there any easy decisions. But you have to take the set of decisions that you believe will ultimately best benefit the people of the region, whether it’s the Palestinians or the Israelis. And people may disagree with our approach, our --

QUESTION: But isn’t the best benefit keeping people alive?

MR. MCCORMACK: It is, Matt, but I – you know, I --

QUESTION: If there’s a chance that you can save some lives by going for an immediate cease-fire rather than one that is going to be – you know, that you know is going to be long-term and that meets your conditions, I don’t understand what’s wrong with that.

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, again, Matt, there are people who are advocating that position. I understand that. But ultimately, we don’t think that you address the underlying issues if you don’t try to get a sustainable, durable, non-time-limited cease-fire. And if you don’t get that, you’re going to be right back here again, whether it’s – and you’re going to have somebody else up here three months from now, four months from now, five months from now, talking about the same kind of tragedy. Again, nobody wants to see the sort of humanitarian suffering that you’re seeing in Gaza. We’re not blind to that. We’re trying to address the immediate circumstances, as well as to try to address something that is more durable, so those people in Gaza and the people on the other side of the border can maybe perhaps have some more semblance of a normal life.

QUESTION: What makes you think over the long term that the continuation of the Israeli military operation will not simply increase the desire of Hamas-affiliated militants to continue lobbing rockets into Israel? I mean, if we’re talking about the long term, what makes you think that a continued Israeli operation will not simply create more angry people, more willing to shoot rockets at Israel?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, ultimately – I mean, the ultimate answer to that question is a political settlement between Israel and the Palestinians, which is something that we have devoted a tremendous amount of energy to. Secretary Rice personally has devoted many days, hours and weeks, to that effort and has advanced that cause. We are going to hand over a framework to the next administration. And it will be up to them to consider whether or not that is a place where they can pick up, you know, post -- on January 20th. That is – that’s the long-term answer to your question. How do you address that? How do you address the desires of the Palestinian people for their own state, and to have more control over their own future, and ultimately you get that through a political settlement.

And you know, again, we have worked as hard as we possibly could to try to advance that cause. And I think in all of this, overarching all of this, the situation in Gaza, I think you have underscored even more the importance of trying to reach that political settlement.

Now specifically to Gaza, we are going to do what we can to try to stop the violence, and also build a more normal, sustainable life for those Palestinian people on the other side of that border so that they can have the same sort of hopes – to start to build the same sort of hopes and aspirations that we all have for a better life for their family and for their people.

QUESTION: But in adopting the position that you’re not calling for an immediate cease-fire, you must, surely then, believe that the continuation of the current operation somehow serves a longer term goal and somehow is going to make Hamas less inclined to fire rockets at Israel.

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, look, Hamas made a calculation to provoke this – provoke the crisis. They can make – you know, they can make the opposite calculation. We have from the very beginning sought to bring – stop the violence and bring it back down to a level in which the Palestinian and the Israeli people can live more normal lives. That hasn’t been the case up until this point. I think the – just the Secretary’s activities over the weekend, which I have tried to outline for you, is an indication of how hard she has been working. And I know that that also extends back to the very beginnings of this on the day after Christmas. So we are trying to bring an end to the violence as soon as possible – immediately, if you will, but under the right set of conditions.

QUESTION: Sean, can I – is the Secretary – does the Secretary have any plans to travel to the region? Is she sending anyone else to the region? If not, why not? And the EU delegation that’s going there today, the Czech Prime Minister made reference earlier today of them having a “scenario” – quote, unquote – for how to get involved. Is that the same scenario that you just outlined? Are the EU and the U.S. on the same page in terms of specific elements of a potential cease-fire plan?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, we’re coordinating very closely. You can see just by the call list here, we’re talking to the Czech Foreign Minister and doing a conference call with Foreign Minister Kouchner and Foreign Secretary Miliband. So we’re coordinating very closely, and we’ll see what the diplomatic efforts of these various missions yield. Certainly, it is helpful to try to surface these ideas. And I expect that they will surface some of the ideas that I’ve outlined for you here of these elements that I have outlined here, but I’ll let them speak on their own behalf. But we are coordinating very closely with the EU as well as individually the Czech Government and the French Government.

QUESTION: Sean, just going back to --

QUESTION: Any plans to – I’m sorry – any plans to send anyone or for the Secretary to go --

QUESTION: Sean, just going back to --

QUESTION: Any plans to --

MR. MCCORMACK: She doesn’t have any plans at this point to travel to the region.

QUESTION: Just going back to this question of an immediate cease-fire. Last week, the State Department put out some talking points after the Quartet conference call --


QUESTION: -- saying that all sides agreed to the need for an immediate cease-fire.


QUESTION: Now, you’re refusing to say that. Did Secretary Rice lose an internal battle? What’s changed in the past week that you --

MR. MCCORMACK: No, nothing’s changed. We would absolutely like to see an immediate cease-fire – but again, under the conditions that we have outlined here, that it be sustainable, durable, and non-time-limited. So absolutely, we would like to see this end tomorrow. We would like to see these various pieces be able to come together today.

QUESTION: You would like to see --

MR. MCCORMACK: We would like to see them – see them come together tomorrow. But again, you have to have the right conditions. Because – and this was the – you know, the question that Matt was asking and the answer that I was giving. Of course, nobody wants to see human suffering. Nobody wants to see that. We’ve seen the – we’ve all seen the pictures. Of course, that affects people. But you also have to do what you believe is right and what we believe is right to try to bring a sustained – sustainable end to this.


QUESTION: The Saudis and, more recently, the Arab League have been making efforts to bring Fatah and Hamas together. The Arab League last week, both the Saudis and the Egyptians, instead of just outright blaming Israel, they were holding Hamas fairly accountable and they were saying that the Palestinians need to speak with one voice.

Now, again, looking into the future, if this initiative is built up again and some kind of unity government comes out of this whole situation, would the U.S. then deal with a government that had Hamas elements in it?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, it’s hypothetical. Look, we’re not going to deal with Hamas. We have another, what, 15 days – 15 days here. You know what our policy is. So we’re not going to deal with Hamas. We are going to, however, deal with the legitimate – legitimately elected Palestinian Authority, President Abbas as well as his government.

QUESTION: Given that --

QUESTION: When was the last time she spoke to President-elect Obama?

MR. MCCORMACK: What’s that?

QUESTION: When was the last time she spoke with President-elect Obama?

MR. MCCORMACK: I’ll try to get that for you. I think it was right after Christmas, but let me --

QUESTION: So not over the weekend?


QUESTION: Well, following on to that, given that this crisis may, in fact, still be going on 15 days from now, could you characterize any sort of stepped-up level of consultation between the Secretary or the Department and the Obama team? How much are they being kept in the loop? Are they providing suggestions even of their own for how to proceed?

MR. MCCORMACK: No. I think, you know, the quote that I’ve been reading is they understand that there’s one president at a time. All of that said, we are keeping them as best informed as we possibly can. And of course, any requests for information coming from their side we will absolutely provide it.

But I expect the Secretary will probably reach out at some point this week to the Obama team, President-elect Obama’s team.


MR. MCCORMACK: Give them an update on where we are.

Yeah, sure.

QUESTION: I may have missed it, but in all the telephone calls, was Mr. Abbas – was Abu Mazen included? Has she talked to the Palestinian leadership?

MR. MCCORMACK: Not in – not over the weekend. But President Bush, I think, spoke recently with President Abbas.


QUESTION: Well, unless I’m mistaken, this building has not yet offered any comment about the actual ground operations that began on Saturday. Your statement that came out Saturday afternoon was pretty much verbatim what Secretary Rice had said the day before. And I recognize that you can never go wrong quoting your boss, but that was – her comments were from before the ground incursion began.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right, mm-hmm.

QUESTION: What does this – what does the building think about the Israelis going in on the ground?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, there was a second part to the statement, a couple points after that in which we urged the Israeli Government to take all possible care to avoid any harm to civilians or innocents.

QUESTION: Yeah, I’m sorry, but what – so what was – so what’s your reaction to the ground incursion?

MR. MCCORMACK: I think, you know, again --

QUESTION: Your reaction is, “We urge the Israelis to take all possible --

MR. MCCORMACK: No, we --

QUESTION: You think it’s a good thing for them to go in on the ground?

MR. MCCORMACK: Look, I’m not going to comment on that, Matt. Every state – every sovereign state needs to decide for itself how best to defend itself.


QUESTION: Sean, in the vote at the Security Council, the United States is the only government that vetoed a particular impending cease-fire. And to what degree does the media as well as other governments play? Obviously, Hamas realizes to put together an effective Palestinian Authority they are trying to garner votes especially from Gazans. To what degree do you also blame the Iranians? Is this a proxy war by the Iranians actually wanting that war to actually continue and involve the entire Middle East?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, in terms of the links between Hamas and Iran, there’s been a lot of talk about it. I don’t – I’m not in a position to detail those for you here, but suffice it to say there’s been a lot of talk about those links. And if you just look at the comments from the Iranian Government leadership, it is not – they have not been comments that have advocated bringing a peaceful resolution to the Palestinians and the Israelis living side by side in peace and security. But beyond that, I can’t really offer any comment, Joel.

QUESTION: Sean, two things. One, the end of your statement doesn't say that they should take all steps. I mean, what it says is the United States is deeply concerned about the humanitarian situation and the protection of innocents.


QUESTION: In this vein, we have expressed our concerns to the Israeli Government that any military action needs to be mindful of the potential consequences to civilians.

MR. MCCORMACK: Right, mm-hmm.

QUESTION: I mean, you guys are very careful with your words, and what you just said is stronger than this, which just means bear in mind what happens to civilians.

MR. MCCORMACK: It wasn’t intended to be. I hadn’t memorized it --


MR. MCCORMACK: -- when we put it out.

QUESTION: Is it fair for us to conclude, though, that from this statement that the United States supports the Israeli decision to move from the aerial bombardment to a ground invasion?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, this is – you know, this is a question that always comes up. We don’t give green lights, red lights, yellow lights. I think you heard from the Vice President they’re – they didn’t seek our permission or advice, and we didn’t seek to offer any of that. As I – as I said --

QUESTION: You know, that’s not – that’s just manifestly not true.

MR. MCCORMACK: As I – yes, it is.

QUESTION: No, no – maybe in – maybe in this, but all over the world you are involved in giving green lights, red lights and yellow lights. I remember when –

MR. MCCORMACK: Am I talking --

QUESTION: -- when Musharraf --

MR. MCCORMACK: Am I talking about anywhere else in the world, Matt? Am I talking about a specific circumstance? Look --

QUESTION: This (inaudible) what for me is the issue, which is not what position you adopted before the ground invasion. It’s what position you have adopted after the ground invasion. And given that there’s nothing in here that says please, you know, we don’t think this is a good idea or maybe you should think twice about the ground invasion, I mean, is it just fair to say that you support the Israeli ground invasion? They’ve done it. It’s --

MR. MCCORMACK: It’s fair to say that a sovereign state will take its decisions on its own as to how best to defend itself. We have offered our thoughts in the terms of a ground incursion into Gaza, and you had it in my statement.

QUESTION: Do you think Israel’s response is proportionate?

MR. MCCORMACK: Again, you know, see the answer that I just gave. Each state is going to have to define for itself what it needs to do in order to defend itself. And in these specific circumstances, we’ve offered our comment. I offered it over the weekend and just again today.


QUESTION: Is this a public relations setback for the United States, the world perception that in some way the United States is okaying the Israeli policy?

MR. MCCORMACK: Well, look, all we can do is try to explain as best we can the reasons for our policies. I have attempted to do that. The Secretary as well as the President has attempted to do that. You know, everything we do, every policy course we pursue, isn’t going to be popular. It may, in some circumstances, be unpopular. But we’re doing it because we think it’s the right thing to do, and because we think it’s in the best interest of the people of the region.

Mr. Gollust.

QUESTION: Sean, you talked about the crossings agreement as --


QUESTION: -- sort of the basis for moving ahead here.

MR. MCCORMACK: An element, one element, an element of it.

QUESTION: Do you foresee a monitoring mechanism that would geographically go beyond just monitoring checkpoints by a broader force?

MR. MCCORMACK: At this point, Dave, I’m not going to try to get into any more details. If we have things that start to gel or crystallize a little bit more and I’m at liberty to talk about them, then I certainly will. But at this point, I can’t – I can’t get into any more details. But I did want to give you an idea of the kind of framework that the Secretary is trying to put together.


QUESTION: Nothing else.

MR. MCCORMACK: All right, good. Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 11:07 a.m.)

[1] Monday the 29th

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