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Special Event

White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart Holds News Briefing on Middle East Peace Talks

Aired July 24, 2000 - 11:51 a.m. ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: We have to go live to a site right near Camp David. Want to hear from Joe Lockhart, White House press secretary, talking about the latest on the talks taking place between the Israelis and Palestinians.

JOE LOCKHART, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Good afternoon, everyone. Let me give you a recap of the president's activities since we returned here to Camp David last evening.

Around 7:00 last night the president had a meeting with his team, who brought him up to date on the weekend's activities since he was in Okinawa at the G-8 summit. Following that meeting, the president had a bilateral with Prime Minister Barak. That followed -- following that, was a bilateral with Chairman Arafat.

After that meeting, the delegations and the leaders had dinner together. It was probably about 30 or so people in one room at the cabin where they've been eating for the last two weeks. The president sat between the two leaders and engaged in discussion over the dinner.

The dinner broke, and by agreement that he had worked through during his bilaterals, the president then proceeded to begin a meeting with a small group of negotiators from each side to work through the issues that are before them. That meeting lasted, with the president hosting it, until just after 5 a.m. this morning. Those meetings were intensive and substantive and, as the time indicates, went quite long into the night.

President got up this morning just after 10, met with his team. And at about -- I think it was about 10:30 or so, began another meeting along the same lines with a small group of negotiators, and I expect that to go for some time.

QUESTION: Are the principals in those meetings?

LOCKHART: No. This is the president, he has negotiators from each side, and then someone from the U.S. team trying to work through the issues.

That's the schedule for the day. I don't have an absolute sense of how long this will go on, but I expect this meeting to go on, you know, for several hours. QUESTION: When the president came back we were told that he was going to make as assessment of where the talks were. What was that -- what is that assessment?

LOCKHART: I think, in the most general sense, the president, in his mind, is working on what I'll call a rolling assessment of whether the substance and atmosphere at these talks are one that potentially could lead to an agreement.

While that is the case, and while the president believes that the discussions are substantive and have the potential of leading to an agreement, he will remain here and he will keep the parties here to keep working.

Should he come to the conclusion that the substance of the discussions and the atmosphere of the discussions do not have the potential to lead to an agreement, then he will act accordingly and bring these discussions to an end.

I think the fact that he was up till 5 a.m. working through the issues in a very personal, hands-on way, and that he was back at it again this morning, should lead you to believe that he thinks staying here for the time being is worthwhile.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... is that with the same group of negotiators that he met with until 5 a.m.?

LOCKHART: I think there may be some variation. Certainly, obviously, the president will continue to host it, but I think there's some changes on our side and within the teams.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) one of the specific working groups?

LOCKHART: Well, I think there have been various permutations of who's working on what and how, so I wouldn't -- it has moved around over the last six or seven days, so I wouldn't try to tie it to the groups that were established, what, seven or eight days ago.

QUESTION: Are they discussing a specific topic?

LOCKHART: They are discussing specific topics, yes.

QUESTION: Where, Joe? Where?

LOCKHART: In the president's cabin.

QUESTION: Is it fair to say that they are now in the process of putting down understandings, that have been reached on various issues, on paper?

LOCKHART: I think that would get to the substance of what they're discussing, so I'll refrain from commenting on that.

(CROSSTALK) QUESTION: Joe, have the groups divided up into committees, like they did at Shepherdstown?

And, also, what was the sense of urgency that caused the president to be working until 5 a.m.? Is there a deadline now or some...

LOCKHART: Well, the deadline is as I described it, based on the president's assessment of the realistic chance that we can reach an agreement here. It's not -- it is not a calendar-driven deadline.

But, having said that, I think that all the parties know that there's a balance here between taking the time to work through the issues and taking too much time that will never lead to an agreement. So there's -- I cannot give you a precise formula, except to say that the president's got this very issue foremost in his mind, and he will remain here as long as he believes we have some prospect of success.

QUESTION: Has the president cleared his schedule for this week, to stay up here?

LOCKHART: I think we're taking this day by day, but today we have nothing else on the schedule. I think those of you who cover the White House know that the president has a personal event tomorrow that he would like attend in Arkansas. But we're taking this day by day.

QUESTION: Joe, when the president left on Wednesday, as you know better than most, it literally went from one hour to the next where you felt the summit was ending in failure, you got both leaders agree to stay. They've been talking now for the last several days. Do you feel any more hopeful that perhaps they did make some progress over the weekend? And were you able to kind of characterize what happened over the weekend and where you think things stand for the next day or so?

LOCKHART: I, you know, I think -- I hesitate to use a phrase like hopeful, because these issues are so difficult, and I don't know that I'd be able to back that up with any substance. I think the fact, obviously -- the last time I stood here it was an hour or so removed from the collapse of these discussions. The fact that these discussions are continuing is a positive thing.

The fact that the president is using his time to sit down and work through each and every issue is a decision that he and his team do not take lightly, as far as devoting the time to this. And as long, you know, as we're here and discussing things, there is a prospect for reaching agreement. But it's impossible to predict the likelihood of that.

QUESTION: What is the president's mood? Can you tell us -- he also -- he had his fingers crossed and now mouthed some words.

LOCKHART: I think he was -- you know, it was a long flight back. He had a lot of time to mull over the issues. He was anxious, once we got on the plane, to get back here and get back to work. And that's exactly what he did. I think this morning, he only got a few hours of sleep, but he was anxious to go. And, you know, in fact, we were sitting around the table in his cabin in the briefing and he cut us off and said, you know, let's get going, let's the groups in here, let's get back to work. So I think that's some indication of where he is.

QUESTION: Two questions: Can you give us a sense of what Prime Minister Barak and Chairman Arafat are doing today? Will there be meetings with the president?

And can you give us maybe a little clearer sense when the president -- you expect him to make this decision about whether or not to go forward?

LOCKHART: Well, I think that decision is a -- you know, the best word I can use for it is it's kind of a rolling decision. There's no timeframe on it, and it's just a judgment that the president will have to make.

As far as the leaders, I'll let you know if they schedule a meeting today. There's nothing at this point. But they are working very intensively within their teams and with their negotiators as far as working through the issues.

I mean, obviously the negotiators are working the president but also have a good deal of contact with their leaders on the specific issues that are on the table.

QUESTION: Is it a matter of hours till the president decide? Or can it take days or even weeks?

LOCKHART: I think it's impossible to speculate at this point, you know, on a judgment that hasn't been made.

QUESTION: Joe...

LOCKHART: Yes?

QUESTION: Can you tell us if Mr. Arafat was on the phone with either President Mubarak or Crown Prince Abdullah during the last 24 hours?

LOCKHART: I don't know the answer to that.

QUESTION: Can you tell us about, though, about the input of the rest of the world? How is it -- I mean, does Arafat have to check things or have to -- does Arafat check things out at periodic junctures with the Saudis, who control the money, and with the Egyptians, who control the prestige?

LOCKHART: I don't know to what extent the consultations are going on between the leaders of either delegations with the rest of the Arab world.

As far as -- I mean, we have a good sense of the international community's focus on this with the president's meetings in G-8. I mean, they were all very interested in the process and any progress we made. It was a brief discussion, which never got into the numbers or how it would all work, but on the international community's responsibility to help, at the Friday night session among the G-8 leaders. And I think, you know, it's not just the Arab world, it's the rest of the international community that's watching this very closely.

QUESTION: Joe, we understand the president made several phone calls to regional leaders last week. Can you tell us the purpose of those phone calls? Is he trying to rally support?

LOCKHART: You know, in the most general sense, the president has said all along that it's important for everyone involved here, whether they're here at the talks, whether they're outside the talks, whether they are regional leaders, whether they're international leaders, to try to work toward creating an atmosphere that's conducive to reaching an agreement here.

For his part, he has done some work on that with both calls to the regions, with his discussions in Okinawa with the G-8 leaders. And that will continue.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... diplomatic sources says that...

LOCKHART: I think I know what your question is.

Go ahead.

(LAUGHTER)

QUESTION: ... there will be a union proposed to the United States, a solution regarding Jerusalem that could be close in substance or close to the Pope's statement yesterday. How do you comment on that?

LOCKHART: Well, I know that a lot of people have made a lot of statements. But as far as what's being discussed within the confines of Camp David on this and some other difficult issues, I'm not going to comment on that.

QUESTION: Joe, can you -- now that you already know what my question is -- comment on the fact that CIA officials have confirmed that George Tenet has been here and visited the talks a few times? Can you explain what role the intelligence agencies, the American intelligence agencies, may play in both the peace talks and any settlement?

LOCKHART: Well, sure. I think those of you who followed previous talks understand the role that Mr. Tenet has played. I would describe it as similar to the last talks. He was here for a day or two. He's now gone. And beyond that, I'm going to leave it to the CIA to say no comment.

(CROSSTALK) QUESTION: Joe, what about the Jonathan Pollard issue, which has been raised by some of the media. As you know, George Tenet was adamantly opposed to releasing Pollard the last time around. Has that come up again? And has he changed his view?

LOCKHART: There is no change in the president's view or the U.S. government's position. It's not come up that I know of, but I know that it frequently comes up when the president talks to the prime minister of Israel, and the prime minister of Israel raises it on a regular basis. We're certainly aware of what the government of Israel's view on this subject is.

QUESTION: Well, Joe, can we just stay on this for just a minute...

KAGAN: We've been listening to White House Press Secretary Joe Lockhart as he give an update from near Camp David on the peace talks going on between Israelis and Palestinians, brokered by President Clinton. These gentlemen worked through the night, till 5:00 a.m. There continues to be a rolling assessment as to the potential that anything of these talks could lead to an agreement. We continue to monitor the situation.

BILL HEMMER, CNN ANCHOR: They're now in their second week there at Camp David. We'll let you know if there's any developments from there.

In the meantime, we are done for our duties today on this Monday. We'll see you again tomorrow on Tuesday.

Now up to Wolf Blitzer, live in Washington for "NEWS DAY."

Hey, Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Bill.

The talks at Camp David are, of course, being reported extensively by our team of reporters near Camp David.

Jerrold Kessel is standing by, our veteran Middle East reporter.

Jerrold, we heard the press secretary, Joe Lockhart, say that the president will remain as long as he believes some prospect of success is there. Is there any indication we're getting at all how much longer these talks can go on? It's now day 14.

JERROLD KESSEL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, I think the way that Joe Lockhart phrased it was very, very interesting. He said this is not -- there is a deadline. It's not a calendar-driven deadline, it's a deadline based on a rolling assessment of whether there's a realistic chance of getting a deal. And the fact, he said, that the president is remaining here now must mean that, at this stage, there is that realistic assessment that they may have a chance of getting a deal.

And I think that possibly is the way they're going to approach these talks. Everybody had said, well, into this week will be the crunch week. The Israeli number-two man in the negotiations possibly, certainly, has been the chief negotiator, Shlomo Ben-Ami, was quoted on Israel's Army Radio this morning saying, in the next couple of days, it will become clear, or nearly clear, whether there will be any possibility of reaching a deal.

And I think that characterizes just where they're at. They really are into the nitty-gritty. And I think the most -- I don't want to overstate this because he didn't overstate it, but I think this was possibly the most optimistic assessment that we could glean of any briefing that Joe Lockhart has given in these two weeks, and even what the president himself said on the two occasions on which he has spoken publicly when he said, Joe Lockhart, that they're into substantive and intensive negotiations, and that the president was willing to work through each one of the issues. In other words, they're really down to the nitty-gritty on those core issues -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Jerrold Kessel near Camp David.

Of course, we'll be monitoring the situation at Camp David as long as these talks continue.

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