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The White House

Briefing by U.S. Special Envoy for Middle East Peace George Mitchell

Office of the Press Secretary
For Immediate Release                                                 September 22, 2009
Press Filing Center
Waldorf Astoria
New York, New York
2:24 P.M. EDT
MR. GIBBS: Good afternoon. Sorry we're running a little bit late today. We will do a statement from, and take some questions -- our Special Envoy for Middle East Peace, former Senator George Mitchell.
SENATOR MITCHELL: Thank you, Robert. Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen. I'll make a brief statement, and then I'll be pleased to respond to your questions.
The President had direct and constructive meetings with both Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas, and then he held his first trilateral meeting with the two leaders. As the President said, this was an important moment. Let me first give you some brief details.
Each of the three meetings was about 40 minutes long. The tone was positive and determined. The President made clear his commitment to moving forward, and the leaders shared their commitment. In the meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas, the President was joined by Secretary Clinton, General Jones, Tom Donilon and myself. For the trilateral meeting, the President was joined by Secretary Clinton, General Jones and myself.
In their meetings, Prime Minister Netanyahu was joined by Foreign Minister Lieberman, Defense Minister Barak, and National Security Advisor Arad. President Abbas was joined by Secretary General Yasser Abed Rabo, Negotiations Affairs Department Director Saeb Erekat, and Foreign Minister Riyad Al-Maliki.
This was the first meeting between Israelis and Palestinians at this level in nearly a year. Even nine months ago, such a meeting did not seem possible. Less than a week before President Obama took office, conflict was raging in Gaza and southern Israel, causing deep suffering on both sides. Today the atmosphere is different. Both parties share the goal of a two-state solution and of comprehensive peace. And both parties seek the re-launch of negotiations as soon as possible, although there are differences between them on how to proceed. The United States stands with them to help advance toward these objectives.
We have made progress, on security and economic opportunity in particular, but we have much further to go. As the President said in his public comments, it's past time to talk about starting negotiations. All sides must summon the will to move forward. Permanent status negotiations must begin, and begin soon. This was a message that the President conveyed to each of the leaders in private, as well.
We're now going to enter into an intensive, yet brief, period of discussion in an effort to re-launch negotiations. Our aim is clear: to finally succeed in achieving our shared goals and to end the cycle of conflict that has done so much harm.
I will be meeting with my Israeli and Palestinian counterparts, and with the Arab states as well, and we'll build on the work that was done today to encourage all parties to take responsibility for peace and to act on their commitments.
I want to make a brief personal comment. I believe deeply, rising out of my past experience, that just as conflicts are created by human beings, they can be ended by human beings, with patience, determination, and dedication. Our aim is to achieve a comprehensive peace in the region that will enable Israelis, Palestinians, and all of the region's people to share a secure, prosperous, and stable future.
We knew this wasn’t going to be easy. It's a mark of the President's deep, personal and ongoing commitment to peace that he chose to participate directly at this juncture. As he said today in his public comments, despite all the obstacles, despite all of the history, despite all of the mistrust, we have to find a way forward. That's what we will be focused on in the days ahead.
Now, I'd like to just read to you a couple of quotes from what the President said in the meetings. I wrote these down -- they're either 100 percent accurate or very close to 100 percent accurate. (Laughter.)
He said, "It's difficult to disentangle ourselves from history, but we must do so." "The only reason to hold public office is to get things done." "We all must take risks for peace." "Peace between Israel and the Palestinians is critical to Israel's security and is necessary for Palestinians to realize their aspirations."
Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, and now I'll be pleased to take your questions. And I'll leave it to Robert to identify the questioners.
Q You said that -- you were talking about your own respect for the President's willingness to engage in the process at this point. Why did you decide to go (inaudible) these meetings even though there's nothing to announce and the two sides remain so far apart? Why did you decide to take that step?
SENATOR MITCHELL: Because of his deep personal commitment and his desire to move forward to convey to the parties his sense of urgency, his impatience, his view that there is here a unique opportunity at this moment in time. That may pass if there is further delay. And as I said in my remarks, I think it does demonstrate his -- it's a demonstration of the depth and sincerity of his commitment.
Q But why is this a moment of opportunity when they're so far apart right now?
SENATOR MITCHELL: Well -- I'm sorry, you can't hear her?
Q Can't hear.
SENATOR MITCHELL: Yes, she said, why is it a moment of opportunity when they're so far apart right now?
First, the reality is that while differences remain between them, we have made very substantial progress. And without being argumentative, I would not characterize their positions as being so far apart right now. Secondly, it is precisely because there are still differences and that we need to move forward that the President elected to hold this meeting for the very purpose of seeking to impress upon the parties the need for urgency and to close these final gaps.
Q As you said, the tone of the President's comments to the press was one of impatience. And I'm just wondering what specifically was said in the talks today that give the President hope that this can move forward? You talked about things that have happened in the past that you see as progress. But what happened today? What did they say in the talks that made him feel like this can go forward?
SENATOR MITCHELL: I would not be so presumptuous as to quote the other leaders, but I can tell you my understanding and interpretation of their comments was that they are committed to a comprehensive peace. They both, of course, have previously expressed their support for a two-state solution. They recognize the urgency of moving promptly and have so stated. But they did restate their views and their positions on those issues on which there remain differences.
And so I think it will be very helpful for them to have heard from the President the views that I've just identified that he has and has expressed to them, and to recognize that, notwithstanding all of the many issues which he confronts, that he is prepared to take the time at this juncture, when there is not an agreement between them to re-launch negotiations, to devote his time, effort, and his -- what I think is his deep commitment to get this process going, to move to the next stage.
Q I know you don't want to quote for them, but can you talk about the tone of the conversation?
SENATOR MITCHELL: The tone was at all times cordial. It was direct, frank. I think it fair to say at some points, one could describe comments as blunt on all sides. These are men who have serious responsibilities, who recognize their responsibilities, and I believe the President impressed upon them, including but not limited to some of the quotations I read out here, that this is a matter of urgency.
Q The administration has spent the last few months focused intensely on settlement freeze on the -- of the Israelis, and confidence-building measures on the part of the Palestinians. Now, today you're talking about the need to move quickly to permanent status negotiations. Does that mean you've decided to skip the settlement freeze focus, and that it might be easier and quicker to get results if you go -- move straight to final status?
SENATOR MITCHELL: Our objective all along has been to re-launch meaningful final status negotiations in a context that offered the prospect for success. We have never identified the steps requested as ends in themselves. We have always made clear that they are means to an end, the end being the re-launching of negotiations on permanent status in a context in which there is a reasonable prospect for a successful conclusion to those negotiations.
So there is absolutely no change in our focus. There is no change in what we feel is the way forward. We want to get negotiations re-launched, and everything we have said and done in this period has been in an effort to achieve that objective.
Q But are you moving --
Q -- about the format of the negotiations? Will the U.S. be at the table, or are there going to be only bilateral, or will the Quartet be somehow involved?
SENATOR MITCHELL: We have had discussions with negotiators from both sides on those and many other issues. We anticipate that there will be a substantial period of time -- in I would say a matter of weeks -- between the time that there is an agreement to re-launch negotiations and the time that they commence. And we will, during that period, explore in even greater detail than we have the resolution of those issues.
We anticipate that there will be an active United States presence. But of course that does not preclude the likelihood of direct negotiations between the parties. No successful negotiation is all of one or all of the other. There has to be both in appropriate circumstances on appropriate subjects. And we're going to try to proceed in a manner that is guided by a single standard: What is the method that will be best calculated to achieve the desired result of a comprehensive peace in the region?
Q Can I ask if you've got any more details on who is going to participate in the intensive talks in New York this week, in Washington next week? And what realistically can Secretary Clinton report back to President Obama so quickly -- he said mid-October, right?
SENATOR MITCHELL: Right. I will meet on Thursday in New York with two representatives of the Prime Minister of Israel -- Isaac Molcho and Mike Herzog -- both of whom have participated very actively in the discussions that have gone on. I also will meet with Saeb Erekat in behalf of the Palestinians, with whom also we've had extensive discussions. I expect also to meet with Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak, with whom I've also met on many, many occasions.
We do not yet know the composition of the negotiators that they will send next week, but we anticipate that they will be the same ones -- either those I mentioned or people with whom we have also been engaged over the past several months.
Q How directly was the issue of a settlement freeze discussed? Did you push the U.S. view that they were illegal?
SENATOR MITCHELL: I'm sorry. What's the question?
Q How directly did you -- was the issue of the freeze on settlements discussed? And was there any pushing of the -- what I understand is the U.S. position that they are illegal?
SENATOR MITCHELL: Our position remains unchanged. It was discussed in all of the meetings. And we will continue to do the best we can to achieve a re-launch of negotiations. I want to emphasize our objective from the beginning over the last several months has been very focused, a re-launch of negotiations. The actions we've asked parties to take were not ends in themselves; they were means to the end. And that's the end we continue to seek.
Q And is this the obstacle, now? Is it still the obstacle?
Q Is it still the obstacle, the settlements?
SENATOR MITCHELL: There are many obstacles. They're not -- I want to make clear there are differences that remain, and that is one. That's not the only one, there are others. We have substantially and significantly progressed in reducing the number of issues on which there is disagreement. And we hope to complete that process in the near future.
Q Senator Mitchell, does the President support the Israeli proposal a temporary freeze of settlements for six to nine months? Does he support that, a temporary freeze of settlements?
SENATOR MITCHELL: We are continuing our discussions on that issue with both sides on how best to create the context for a re-launching of negotiations, and the -- (cell phone rings) --
MR. GIBBS: -- in the Senate and peace in the Middle East, the respect doesn't come. (Laughter.)
SENATOR MITCHELL: We had worked that out so that you'd do that when I get a tough question. (Laughter.) From now on you've got to do a little bit better in terms of the timing. (Laughter.)
And so that's what we are continuing our discussions on. We have not reached an agreement on that issue.
Q And do you think the temporary freeze would be enough to move to the final status negotiations? Is the President still in favor, he wants to see a complete freeze with all settlement activity?
SENATOR MITCHELL: We are continuing our discussions on that issue. And we're trying to bring it to a point where we can re-launch the negotiations, and we could discuss it with both sides.
Q Senator Mitchell, I want to push you on this question of a -- I know you said there hasn't been a change in what you guys are doing. However, over -- since the administration has been in office, you guys have been pushing very hard on the settlement issue and not talking as much about moving directly to final status talks. And so I guess I'm wondering has there been -- was there any discussion in the meetings today that changes or alters the approach to moving quickly to final status talks? And if not, then why the sort of apparent change in rhetoric from the President?
SENATOR MITCHELL: With the greatest of respect, I do not share your characterization of what we have done. It may be the case that the public reports have emphasized that area at the expense of others, but we have been very clear from the beginning, first, that there is a wide range of issues, and we have made significant progress on those issues, and that they were all directed to a single point, and that was a re-launch of negotiations.
I'll just tell you a story to tell you how I'm feeling right now. When I was Senate majority leader, we had a long and contentious series of debates and actions on a major issue, and we had resolved what I thought were most of the issues; there will still differences. And lo and behold, a big article appeared, I think it was in The Washington Post, which, wouldn't you know it, highlighted the differences, and proclaimed it a failure. And I asked the reporter, in a polite but complaining way -- (laughter.)
MR. GIBBS: From The Washington Post.
SENATOR MITCHELL: And he responded. He said, Senator, you will never see a headline that says "Two million commuters made it safely to work today. But if one car crashes and a couple of people are killed, that will be the headline." He said, "That's the way the world works." And I accept that's the way the world works. But the emphasis which you describe has not come from us. We have emphasized -- I have repeatedly said our objective is to re-launch negotiations. And all of these are steps to achieve that end.
And we have made significant progress in many of the areas -- economic growth, very substantial; agreement on the removal of illegal outposts; a whole series of other actions regarding specific areas that I understand don't get attention precisely because we've passed the stage of disagreement over them.
So we're going to continue our efforts. We believe that we have come a long way; that there is a very decisive difference in where we are now than where we were when the President took office; and we feel a sense of urgency to take it the next step and to bring it to a conclusion.
Q I'm sorry, can you start final status negotiations without the settlement issue being resolved? And should that happen?
SENATOR MITCHELL: We are not identifying any issue as being a precondition or an impediment to negotiation. Neither the President, nor the Secretary, nor I have ever said of any one issue, that or any other, that it is a precondition to negotiations. What we have said is that we want to get into negotiations. We believe the suggestions that we've made and the requests that we've made would, if accepted and acted upon, create the most favorable conditions available to try to achieve success in those negotiations. But we do not believe in preconditions. We do not impose them. And we urge others not to impose preconditions.
MR. GIBBS: Thanks, guys.
SENATOR MITCHELL: Thank you, all.
2:44 P.M. EDT