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04 April 2002

Middle East Crisis Prompts U.S. To Act

(Senior official discusses decision to send Powell to region) (2700)
A senior Bush Administration official said the deteriorating situation
in the Middle East had prompted the president to send Secretary of
State Colin Powell to the region to try to "stop what we saw as a
spiraling level of violence that might expand beyond the current
area."
"[I]t started to create conditions throughout the world that we
thought were becoming dangerous to the point that the United States
had to step in, play a leadership role, and act. And that's what the
President did today," said the official, speaking to reporters at the
White House April 4.
Secretary Powell will travel to the region to help "find a way forward
that will involve negotiations and the political settlement under 242
and 338, land for peace," said the official.
"You're not going to find a way forward strictly with violence or
response to violence," he said.
The official added that a "broad net" of telephone contacts had been
made during the morning to Arab and European leaders in advance of the
trip.
Following is the transcript of a background briefing on the Middle
East by the official:
(begin transcript)
THE WHITE HOUSE Office of the Press Secretary April 4, 2002
PRESS BACKGROUND BRIEFING BY SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL
The James S. Brady Briefing Room
12:45 P.M. EST
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, good afternoon, ladies and
gentlemen. I just might review some of the things that happened this
morning, before the President's speech. I called Prime Minister Sharon
at 7:00 a.m. this morning, and had a conversation with him about the
situation and I previewed to him what the President would be saying.
And I told him we would have an opportunity to talk again later in the
day.
The President called Prime Minister Blair and also President Aznar in
Spain, who is head of the European Union presidency at this time, and
discussed the speech with them, and the situation with them as well.
And in the last 30 or 40 minutes, I have spoken to Crown Prince
Abdullah, to King Abdullah, to President Mubarak, and I have
additional calls in to leaders in the region, to include a call into
Chairman Arafat, which I hope I will be able to conclude before the
afternoon is too far along.
As you all know, I speak regularly to Chairman Arafat, and I have met
with him on several occasions in the past, and spoke to him as
recently as Friday evening. And I hope we'll be able to get him later
this afternoon.
That's all I'd like to put out as way of what else has been going on
this morning that you might not have been aware of. And I'd like to go
right to questions.
QUESTION: It just seems so obvious, with the Palestinians, was there
no attempt to contact them prior to the President's speech?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We were putting out calls in all
directions this morning, as you can appreciate. And when I came in
this morning, we placed calls to all of the leaders I just described
and just mentioned. And those calls are coming in. They're not always
right there by a phone.
And in the case of Chairman Arafat, it's a little more difficult to
reach him. But there was no attempt not to call. In fact, an attempt
was made to contact the major Arab leaders, our European partners. And
my staff is hard at work at that. We also were calling members of
Congress at the same time.
So we put out a broad net in a period of just a couple hours early
this morning.
Q: This is being projected by the White House as a new plan. It looks
to me like the same old -- not that something's wrong with the old
plan -- but it's 338 and 242 and land for peace. What's new about it?
And, secondly, why now? Israel now is on the offensive against
terrorists. There don't seem to have been -- luckily -- suicide
bombings of any moment in the last few days, and they seem to making
headway. Why jump in now and tell them to get out of there?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, first of all, I would say that
what the President described earlier today in his speech is the vision
that we had put forward previously. What he has said before, what I
said I think in a rather definitive way for the administration in the
Louisville speech, saying that the two parties have obligations, they
have hard choices they have to make, and the President wanted to
review that, to remind everybody of that vision, and to reinforce that
vision as the way forward.
You're not going to find a way forward strictly with violence or
response to violence; you have to find a way forward that will involve
negotiations and the political settlement under 242 and 338, land for
peace. And I don't think there is anybody who would seriously suggest
there is any other way to do it.
The reason we decided to move now, we have been following this
situation hourly since last week. And as the President said in his
speech last Wednesday, we had grounds for considerable optimism. I saw
a lot of pieces, we all saw a lot of pieces coming together: the Arab
summit; the previous U.N. Resolution 1394; Prime Minister Sharon had
set aside the seven-day waiting period; General Zinni was welcomed by
both sides; General Zinni had gotten an agreement from the Israeli
side on his bridging plan to get into the Tenet work plan. We were
just about there, I think, with the Palestinian side.
All of the pieces were coming together, and then we had the horrible
massacre on Seder. And as a result of that, we went into this new
situation where Israel felt a need to respond in a far more aggressive
way than they had previously. And I think in my statement last Friday
and the President's statement last Saturday, we acknowledged that
Israel had a right to respond. But as we watched the situation over
the days since last Friday, we became very concerned -- and we
examined it several times a day, constant, nonstop meetings, just
about, with all of the President's security advisors following this --
and came to the conclusion that the President had to act to try to
stop what we saw as a spiraling level of violence that might expand
beyond the current area. And we saw a deteriorating situation with
some of our best friends in the region, but, more importantly, some of
Israel's best Arab friends in the region with whom they had developed
solid relations over the years.
And so we felt this was the time for the President to step forward and
once again reinforce the vision that we have for the region, and ask
both sides to take up their responsibilities.
And another side I would mention is for the Arab nations to do a lot
more with respect to economic development, and I'll be speaking to
them about this next week when I'm out there, and to do a lot more
about working with the Palestinian leadership at all levels to get the
violence ended.
And so the President put all these pieces together, and this was the
time he felt to make a bold statement, come forward, and then send me
to the region.
Q: Does the United States still consider Yasser Arafat to be the main
Palestinian interlocutor? Do you intend to see him when you're there?
And do you have any assurances from Israel that you will be allowed to
see him?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I have not yet put in place a schedule
of who I'll be seeing. But in my conversations earlier with the Crown
Prince and King Abdullah and President Mubarak, they will all be on
the schedule. It takes a couple of days to put this kind of a thing
together and make sure you have a solid agenda and you're not just
showing up with no plan or agenda.
And with respect to Palestinian leadership, we're still working out
who I will see and at what level. I do take note of the fact that the
Israelis said a little earlier today that General Zinni will have the
opportunity to visit with Chairman Arafat tomorrow. And so I think
after General Zinni has had a chance to visit with Chairman Arafat and
reports back to me, I'll be in a better position to start structuring
my trip.
Q: Do you have any commitment from Sharon, finally, to stop the
settlements? To really also go along with the U.N. resolutions, which
they have defied for all these 35 years?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: The Israeli government -- this Israeli
government has said they support the Mitchell process and the Mitchell
plan. And the Mitchell plan, as one of its confidence-building
measures, includes a stop to the settlement activity.
There is no question but that, as we go forward into the Mitchell
process, one of the early challenges will be for Israel to face the
fact that the settlement activity has to stop. And I think the
President made that clear in unmistakable terms a few moments ago.
Q: How about the U.N. resolution, pulling back  -- 
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: There are many U.N. resolutions, 242,
338 --
Q: Like 69?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, 242 and 338 remain the basis for
a solution. And they are as solid a basis for a solution as they were
when they were first enacted a number of years ago.
And recall that the President is sending me over not only to convey
his vision and mobilize the international community and our Arab
friends behind that vision, but also to help the international
community and the U.N. implement the latest resolution, 1402, which
speaks to these very specific issues of cease-fire, of Tenet,
Mitchell, and of a withdrawal.
Q: Sir, you know that the Israeli army can't turn on a dime. So what's
your idea of a timetable for withdrawal?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We hope that they will be able to do
it as soon as possible. And I'm sure we'll have conversations with the
Israelis in the day ahead. I need to give them an opportunity to
reflect on what the President has said. And in due course, we will see
what their reaction is.
Q: But not today?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: We'll see what their reaction is.
Q: Thank you, sir. My usual two-part question, if I may. Nothing has
changed.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I'll give you a one part answer.
(Laughter.)
Q: That's fair enough. With all due respect, other than escalating the
level -- sending the Secretary of State over, what can you do that
Tony Zinni has not done or is not doing? And, secondly, since we all
know that Iran is the nation that fosters and trains the Hezbollah and
Hamas and others, and obviously is unwilling to do anything to stop
it, other than go to war with Iran, what can you possibly do to end
that violence?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, first of all, I think General
Zinni has been doing a great job trying to get this process moving
forward. His focus has been on security, seeing if a cease-fire can be
put in place. And then General Zinni would have continued, beyond just
the cease-fire, to begin getting into the Mitchell plan. And I had
hoped to keep him involved throughout this whole process.
But I think we have reached the point where I need to also go out and
follow up on the President's vision, the principles he set forth
today, and U.N. resolution 1402, and work with General Zinni. He will
be with me during my trip. And we will work together as a team. And I
think I can take it to a higher level of involvement as the Secretary
of the State and as the President's designee to do this. So I think
we'll be able to bring more attention to it.
With respect to Iran, we have constantly condemned Iran's support of
terrorist organizations. That's why it's on our list of nations that
sponsor state terrorism. We will continue to make that point. It was
not by accident that the President included Iran in his very famous
"axis of evil" remarks in that speech. And we're not looking for a war
with Iran.
There is a debate taking place within Iran now between those who sense
that they are on the wrong track; 65 percent of all Iranians are under
25 years old. They know there is something wrong with the way their
country is being run, and those who continue to run that country from
an un-elected capacity, and not running it in the right direction.
So we will try to talk to those elements within Iranian society who
realize that there is a better life for them if they would forswear
terrorism and stop trying to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Q: On the issue of how the administration views Chairman Arafat, the
criticism by the President today was the most pointed it's been to
date. Is this, in effect, the President saying to Chairman Arafat, you
either put up this time and do what we tell you to do or we will write
you off, we will support your exile, we will deal with somebody else
within the Palestinian leadership?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I don't want to take the President's
remarks beyond where the President took them today. But I think it was
a clear message that Chairman Arafat has not done everything we
believe he had the capacity to do, and he may still have the capacity
to do.
And I also hope that in the course of my work, there are other
Palestinian leaders who I might have a chance to talk to. I've talked
to them before. Chairman Afarat is not the only Palestinian leader I
speak to. And so I'm going to ask our Arab friends and others in the
region to help us engage with all of the Palestinian leadership, at
every level. Chairman Arafat is who the Palestinian people still look
to as their leader. And it is simply not practical to say he isn't
there when he is there and he is looked to by the Palestinian people.
I can only take one more, because I've got to introduce the President
in about five minutes.
Q: Can I just follow up on the "why now" question? You said, because
of the spiraling violence. Does the President -- do you and the
President believe that Israel's response has been proportionate and
just? Or has it been difficult for the United States to stand alone,
as essentially it has in endorsing this?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, we are often accused of standing
alone, and when we think it's appropriate to hold a principal
position, we will do so, whether others agree with us or not. We're
not doing this in response to what the EU may be doing or what others
may be doing.
We have followed this situation very closely. Last weekend, we
recognized that we had had -- we witnessed a sea change in the
situation with the Passover evening massacre. And as we watched the
Israeli response, recognizing the anger of the Israeli people to this
yet once again suicidal attack against innocent people, and then as
you watched other bombs going off throughout the course of the
weekend, we saw them respond.
But as the response picked up more steam and it went in more
directions, it started to have a greater effect than just going in and
rooting out a few terrorists. It started to create conditions in other
nations in the region, it started to create conditions throughout the
world that we thought were becoming dangerous to the point that the
United States had to step in, play a leadership role, and act. And
that's what the President did today.
Thank you very much.
(end transcript)
(Distributed by the Office of International Information Programs, U.S.
Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)



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