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White House Press Briefing: Arafat Legitimate Leader

Aired April 1, 2002 - 12:02   ET


CAROL LIN, CNN ANCHOR: Let's turn to CNN's Major Garrett. He is at the White House. We are expecting some news out of there today. Major Garrett, with all the action going on in Israel and the Palestinian Territories, what are we expecting to hear?

JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: I believe we're hearing the White House briefing right now. Stop. OK, there we go.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ...on April 9. This visit is an opportunity for the president to discuss with the leader of NATO our progress in the war against terrorism and our preparations for the November NATO summit meeting in Prague. This meeting will mark the fourth time the president has met with Lord Robertson in just over one year.

And with that, I'm more than happy to take your questions.

QUESTION: Ari, does the president think that the Palestinians have a right to resist 35 years of brutal military occupation and suppression?

FLEISCHER: The president believes that as a result of a process that has got to focus on peace between Israel and the Palestinian, the president was the first to go to the United Nations and call for a Palestinian state. That remains the president's hope, that remains the president's vision, and obviously events in the Middle East have grown very violent. But that is the vision that the president continues to hold out for.

QUESTION: But he does think they have a legitimate right to fight for their lands?

FLEISCHER: I do not accept the description of the premise of your question and the manner that you asked it.

QUESTION: It's been 35 years.

FLEISCHER: The president believes that there is a process that can bring the parties together that he is very dedicated to and that he has General Zinni in the region, that he is involved in this on a very regular basis to try to find a way to bring the parties together so that peace can be achieved, so Israel can live in security and so a Palestinian state can be implemented.

QUESTION: When he asked Prime Minister Sharon to leave a pathway for peace, when he just said that a moment ago in the photo op, what does the president? What does he want Sharon to do?

FLEISCHER: Well, what the president is saying is just as he indicated Saturday in his remarks over the weekend. The president believes that, given the suicide attacks against Israel, Israel has a right to live in security, and Israel has a right to defend herself.

The president also believes at the end of the day, Israel has got to be cognizant of the fact that a path to peace still has to be the focus of everybody's efforts in the Middle East and that as Israel conducts whatever Israel is going to do as a sovereign nation, the ultimate goal must still be creating the circumstances for peace to take hold in the region.

And the history of the Middle East has been that, for every step forward, there's a step backward. Sometimes, it's two steps forward, one backward. Sometimes it's two backward and one forward.

The president always wants to find a way to move the process moving forward, even in times of violence.

QUESTION: So what does he want Sharon to do, considering the amount of military force now being used that apparently they say will be in place for weeks if not months?

FLEISCHER: Well, he wants to be certain that both parties can agree to the creation of a security environment that they have ostensibly agreed to which is what's called the Tenet plan. The Tenet plan is a series of specific, on-the-ground, real-life security arrangements that are designed to reduce the level of violence if not stop it.

The problem has been, in getting to Tenet and making it endure, that there are people in the region who are opposed to peace no matter what. These people take out their actions in the form of suicide attacks that take the lives of innocents. It is terrorism, pure and simple. The president believes that Israel has a right to defend herself against those type of attacks.

But the president does not want Israel or the United States or the Palestinians to be derailed from a path that leads to peace, because the future cannot be one of one bombing after another, after reprisal after a bombing, after a reprisal.

Both parties need to exercise statesmanship to find a path to peace, even despite the violence. That still is the core mission.

QUESTION: There are people on both sides, as well as many observers, who insist that this isn't going to change until the president of the United States gets more personally involved. Is there any sign that he will?

FLEISCHER: The president is personally involved. QUESTION: More personally involved.

FLEISCHER: The president is deeply, personally involved. The president has made numerous phone calls, spoken directly with the leaders in the region. There have been a number of entreaties that have been sent out at very high levels, and that will continue to be what the United States does.

But, I think, there's -- it's not so much who takes what role, as much as it is the violence on the ground that is denying people like the president, people who want to bring the parties together an opportunity to achieve peace, and that stems from the terrorists attacks.

And again, the president will remain deeply involved. That will not change.

QUESTION: Ari, can you explain why then did we support -- did the U.S. support the U.N. Security Council resolution on Friday, that called for Israel to withdraw? And then, the president, in a matter of hours later, said that he supports Sharon. And essentially, what he's saying today is that, Israel has a right to defend itself. So I guess, I'm confused, which is it, do we want Israel to withdraw or do we support what Sharon is doing?

FLEISCHER: Well, you've addressed one small section, one important but small section of 1402.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) important section, do we support -- we've supported everything else and just not that one section or...

FLEISCHER: The resolution speaks in its entirety, not just any one section of it isolated. The resolution speaks in entirety. And, of course, the president supports that.


FLEISCHER: Here's what the resolution calls on: both parties to move immediately to a meaningful cease-fire -- that's the very first sentence; calls for the withdrawal of Israel troops from Palestinian cities including Ramallah; calls upon the parties to cooperate fully with Special Envoy Zinni and others to implement the Tenet work plan.

It further reiterates that, the demand and resolution for an immediate cessation of all acts of violence, including all acts of terror, provocation, incitement and destruction.

So it's perfectly consistent with the president's view about what needs to happen to create peace in the region that will allow for Israeli withdrawal and an end to the incitement, an end to the violence, an end to the terror.

That's in totality what the resolution calls for, and the United States is proud to play a role in having that be drafted and voted for. QUESTION: So what the U.S. meant when we were supporting that resolution was that we want Israel to withdraw once Sharon does whatever he needs to do?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think the resolution speaks in totality, and I don't think you can give a fair interpretation of a resolution in isolation of any one particular section of it or another section. It's the totality of the document, Security Resolution 1402; it represents faithfully the position of the United States.

QUESTION: You're talking about every two steps forward, there's one step back. When is enough enough? When is Tenet and Mitchell walked away from, and serious intervention under then filing a standard peace accord and going another way, as Bill said, the president having direct involvement, picking up the phone, meeting with people face-to-face versus talking to just regional, talking to the leaders themselves, the two that really matter?

FLEISCHER: This president will never walk away. This president will always remain committed to finding a way to achieve peace in the Middle East, no matter how difficult it gets. And the president has set in motion a series of events that create a pathway for peace to be achieved.

But at its core, it remains an issue where no one can force peace on the region. The Israelis and the Palestinians have to want peace, seek peace, and work to create peace. And in so doing, they will always have the United States standing at both sides' shoulders, in order to achieve peace.

QUESTION: Going back to what I said, when is enough enough? When will there be -- is there a line that Tenet and Mitchell are not going to work? I mean, because it's escalated so far. Is there a line coming up in the near future, that you will walk away from Tenet and Mitchell and say possibly there's another step?

FLEISCHER: Keep in mind what Tenet and Mitchell are. These are names that get bandied about, and I think it's important to attach specific definition to what they mean.

Tenet is a series of actual, on-the-ground, agreed upon security steps that are taken collaboratively by the Palestinian Authority and the Israelis at the same table. An example of what is included in the Tenet as part of meaningful security cooperation is information exchanges between the Israelis and the Palestinians, so that if Israel hears of an attack that is taking place or is about to take place, they can give that information to the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian Authority will act to stop the attack before it takes place.

That's literally what Tenet is.


QUESTION: ... right now, you have one leader in a room secluded with a cell phone and then another one making plans over here free to do whatever. There's no information exchange...


FLEISCHER: Actually, that's not a full characterization of the facts on the ground. On Wednesday morning last week, you heard the president directly state how much progress had been made as a result of General Zinni's effort at getting the parties to agree to that security framework of the Tenet accord. Significant progress had been made Wednesday until it was derailed by a suicide bomber who attacked on Passover.

Chairman Arafat does have the ability to communicate. He has demonstrated that repeatedly on many of your shows over the last several days. He has the ability to talk to his people in the field, he has the ability to reach out and tell people that they need to stop the violence.

The president believes Chairman Arafat has the authority to do so, he believes that there are people in the Palestinian Authority who will listen to him and that it can make a difference to reduce the violence. So even armed with a cell phone, the president believes that Chairman Arafat has the power and the responsibility and the authority to reduce the violence.

That's what Tenet addresses. The Mitchell series of recommendations are a step-by-step, incremental approach to how to achieve peace in the region, and it's a recognition that in order to achieve a lasting peace, in order to keep the pathway to peace open, as the president has called on Prime Minister Sharon to do, there's got to be a recognition of a political solution. A political solution as defined by the Mitchell accords includes a discussion of the settlements, includes a discussion of the boundaries.

Those are the vital steps that have to be taken in order to bring the parties together. So whether you call it Tenet, whether you call it Mitchell, those actions -- security, cease-fire, action against terrorists, discussion of political solutions, settlements, boundaries -- those are the steps that have to be taken, in the president's judgment, in order for peace to be brought to the region.

QUESTION: Ari, I'd like to ask you two questions about the facts on the ground, one dealing with Israel, one with the Palestinians.

First, on the Israeli situation, two weeks ago, from this podium, the president of the United States said ongoing Israeli military activity at that time was not helpful. The military activity has dramatically increased since then. Does the president believe what the Israeli government is doing now is helpful -- using his words from today -- toward keeping open a pathway to peace?

FLEISCHER: As the president said on Saturday, the president understands and respects Israel's right to defend herself and to live in security. What's changed is the repeated suicide bombings that are targeting the innocents, and that does change events, because this type of terror stands in opposition to all those who seek peace. This type of terror is undermining Yasser Arafat's ability to lead, and that's why the president has called on Chairman Arafat to do more. But it's a recognition that any nation that was confronted with the type of violence and terrorism and targets the innocents that Israel has been, the president understands that nations have a right to self-defense.

QUESTION: You touched on it a little bit there. You just said terrorist factions are undermining Chairman Arafat. So it's the administration's contention that he is not completely able and may only be partially able to diminish the violence, and, therefore, is still a partner with whom the United States government will continue to negotiate and does not fall under the Bush doctrine of terror; is that correct?

FLEISCHER: The president has repeatedly said that he believes Chairman Arafat can make 100 percent effort, and that's what he believes.


FLEISCHER: I had not heard any type of definition of that.

QUESTION: Are there any discussions at this point -- I know this came up this morning -- but, are there any discussions at this point about sending Secretary of State Colin Powell over there possibly? And does it potentially undermine General Zinni's attempt to have calls from abroad as well as Capitol Hill's of sending the secretary of state...

FLEISCHER: As we indicated this morning, the president has deep faith in General Zinni, his ability. The respect that the leaders in the region hold for General Zinni is very helpful.

I also indicated this morning that the president will never rule anything out. There are multiple steps that any day could possibly be taken.

But the president believes that General Zinni was just that close last Wednesday to getting an agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians toward achieving a cease-fire until those good efforts were derailed as a result of the suicide bombing in Israel. It's proof that, if the parties are willing, General Zinni can be successful.

QUESTION: Ari, you said the president himself said that he's been on the phone from the ranch talking to world leaders, but has he talked at all to Ariel Sharon since the military action started?

FLEISCHER: As always, we'll keep you informed about any calls the president makes.

QUESTION: In the time being, he has not called him?

FLEISCHER: I think Secretary Powell spoke to Prime Minister Sharon late last week and I think over the weekend. I can tell you the secretary of state called the European Foreign Minister Solana.

He called Spanish Foreign Minister Pique. He called Shimon Peres. He called Jack Straw. All of that was over the weekend, and I think it was yesterday, as a matter of fact.

Already this morning, before even the National Security Council meeting here at the White House, the secretary of state called Kofi Annan and the Japanese foreign minister. So the secretary of state continues at the president's direction to be the chief diplomat working the issue, and the president will continue to be involved himself.

QUESTION: Ari, if I could follow-up, please if you'd be so kind? As you have heard most of my colleagues say that the Mitchell and the Tenet-Mitchell, the two plans are out there, both governments have accepted, but it doesn't seem to be leading us anywhere.

FLEISCHER: Well, it's not right. I mean, it was leading to almost success Wednesday morning last week, until it was derailed as a result of a suicide bombing. So I think that you have -- you were here, you heard the president in his own voice talk about -- he was optimistic last Wednesday.

But it's important also to take a step back from the events and see it in the longer context and understand the president's approach. And that is, no matter what the level of violence this president will remain committed to finding a pathway to peace, to helping the Palestinian Authority and the Israeli government to achieve peace.

The Middle East is one of the most difficult, if not the most difficult, regions in the world. And the president will not be deterred as a result of violence. He will still try to find a way to peace.

So it's important not to judge everything just by a 24-hour, by 24-hour, by 24-hour perspective. The events each day count. They are important. Violence and the taking of any innocent lives, the loss on the Palestinian side, losses on the Israeli side trouble the president deeply. But the president's approach, still to work through it all to find a way, as he was that close last Wednesday, to achieving peace and not to allow setbacks to deter him from that ultimate goal.

QUESTION: This was the most, what you call important week or holiest week for many world religions. Including for Hindus, it was (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Holi (ph). For the Jews and Christians Passover and Easter. But many priests are going around the world, including in Kashmir over the weekend and also in the Middle East (UNINTELLIGIBLE). So, if the president is saying that that Israel has the right to defend itself against terrorism, so you think the president also believes that India also has a right to defend itself from terrorism? And Musharraf is not doing what he promised to President Bush and to Secretary Colin Powell, according to the Washington Post last (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in his editorial. And also, finally, why Arafat (ph) not condemning these suicide bombings?

FLEISCHER: On your first question, the president does believe that nations have a right to self-defense. And consistent with that message, as the president has said, is the pursuit of peace, and that's why the president has been working as hard as he has, working with India and Pakistan on settlement of any of the disputes that could lead to a more volatile situation in the region.

The president is consistent in that approach -- terrorism is terrorism is terrorism. And that applies worldwide.

The president, recognizing that, does hope that the world will speak out and not condone suicide bombings. There can be no peace, in the president's opinion, if people use suicide bombings as a way to achieve their political objectives.

QUESTION: So, Ari, under what circumstances would President Bush consider pursuing face-to-face meetings between Arafat and Sharon, encouraging meetings between them or even inviting them to meet with him, or is he just closed altogether to the idea of face-to-face meetings?

FLEISCHER: The president will take whatever steps that he deems would be constructive. If it becomes the president's judgment that that is the final step that would achieve something that leads to peace, he has never ruled anything out, but he always will weigh what is constructive, when the time is right, when it will lead to peace.

QUESTION: If I can follow up, so he is open to, at any point, stepping into this process himself to encourage meetings between Arafat and Sharon?

FLEISCHER: The president has said at all times that he will take whatever steps that he deems would be constructive in achieving that goal, and he has many tools available, he exercises them on a daily basis, for bringing the parties together.

But I remind you again, this issue at its core remains an issue that outside influence, United States influence, will be and continue to be applied, but at its core, Israel and the Palestinian Authority have got to demonstrate the will to work toward peace.


QUESTION: How is it that -- having Arafat on a cell phone -- promoting statesmanship and allowing him to be a statesman? And secondly, by the White House not saying anything about him being penned in, is that not tacit approval for that?

FLEISCHER: Israel is a democracy. Israel is a sovereign government, and Israel, as the president said, has the right to defend herself.

The president made clear this morning that there is a pathway to peace, and he hopes that Israel will continue to pursue it.

QUESTION: You keep going back to what the president said and what you said about Israel having the right to defend herself. Does Mr. Arafat have the right to call in help and defend his compound which has been under siege now since Friday?

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to get into hypotheticals.

What the president is referring to -- when suicide bombers take the lives of innocents, in something that can only be described as an act of terror, a sovereign nation state has a right to self-defense. And the president's been consistent and clear in the application of that principle about combating terrorism. That won't change.

QUESTION: I'm not sure I understand how it's a hypothetical. The siege is a reality. It's been going on since Friday. Does he have the right to defend himself against an attack on his compound?

FLEISCHER: I'm not going to get into hypotheticals of the Palestinian Authority calling in somebody else. I don't know who you have in mind.

QUESTION: Let me rephrase the question. Does he have the right to defend against the attacks on his compound?

FLEISCHER: The president again hopes that, as deep as the violence can get, that all parties will remember that it needs to be followed by peace.

QUESTION: The president briefly spoke to the issue that we were all discussing here this morning, which was whether there was an exception carved to the Bush doctrine for Arafat.

And his response, if I understand it right, came to he's a negotiating partner. We were engaged in serious negotiations with him until last week, as you said here. So if we're trying to understand the Bush doctrine now, is it that the Bush doctrine tolerates no terrorists or people who support them, but if you support terrorists and you're engaged in peace negotiations, then there is a category for you?

FLEISCHER: The president has made clear around the world, given the wake of the attack against the United States, as he said in reference to the Taliban harboring Al Qaeda, those who harbor terrorists will be treated like terrorists. The president made that clear.

The situation in the Middle East is indeed different. What makes it different is the fact that you have parties who themselves have agreed together to the Tenet accords, to the Mitchell accords, which all follows the Oslo peace process. That was not, is not the case with Al Qaeda. And I understand you want to compare them, but that's not a comparison that the president accepts.

QUESTION: They may have -- all that you just said may be true, but he may also be harboring terrorists at the same time, by virtue of the fact that you've said today, you think he has some control over them. So is your view that he is a signatory committed to the Oslo accords but is also harboring terrorists?

FLEISCHER: The president's view is that Chairman Arafat continues to be the authority for the Palestinian Authority, that he speaks for the Palestinian Authority, that he is in a position of command and control and that he has the ability to do more.

The president also believes that Chairman Arafat cares deeply about the plight of the Palestinian people and that Chairman Arafat knows that President Bush wants to create an environment for more commerce, more travel, more business job opportunities for the Palestinian people to travel to where their jobs are. That's what the president is committed to.

And because of that combination of Chairman Arafat's ability to influence events on the ground and the president's stated goals of creating a Palestinian state and easing the plight of the Palestinian people, that Chairman Arafat can take action in accordance with agreements that he has made, and that's not the case with Al Qaeda.

QUESTION: Ari, the Middle East news agency says that the United States has arranged for political asylum for Yasser Arafat in Morocco, and that Arafat declines to go. Is this report true or false? Is the U.S. doing what it can to ensure Arafat's physical safety, is it making efforts to ensure his physical safety? And does the president believe that the path to peace that he wants Israel to leave open goes through Chairman Arafat?

FLEISCHER: I've not heard the first report. So that's news to me.

The president does believe that the path to peace goes through Chairman Arafat. He believes, as I indicated just moments ago, Chairman Arafat continues to speak with the authority of the Palestinian people, that Chairman Arafat has the means and the ability to reduce the violence, and that Chairman Arafat also has the ability to enter into productive and fruitful peace talks with Israel. We were very close last Wednesday.

QUESTION: Ari, over and over again, you and the president have come back to the Tenet process, but some of the discussion coming forward now is that what will stop the terrorism is the hope, the light at the end of the tunnel of a final resolution. And so, some people are now suggesting that we sort of leap-frog forward to a final resolution, so that there is a greater sense of hope about it. What do you all think about that?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think if the parties were willing to agree to leap-frog forward to a final resolution, that's something the president would welcome. The president will pursue whatever path gets to a peace settlement, a political peace settlement.

That's what Mitchell entails. And whether they do all of Mitchell in one day or if Mitchell takes more time, that's something the president will work with the parties to achieve.

QUESTION: Just a follow-up. Are you actively, yourself, pursuing that as policy and encouraging a leap-frog?

FLEISCHER: The Mitchell path has always been a path that has been available to the parties, but I think it's hard, at this moment, to think that the parties are going to leap-frog to the end of Mitchell, given the state of the violence the way it is today.

QUESTION: Some of the senators on the weekend talk shows expressed concern that Palestinian terrorists are using suicide bombings as sort of a testing ground in Israel for a method of killing that they'd like to see spread to other parties of the world. Does the president -- does the administration share that concern?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think that, obviously, terrorism anywhere in whatever form it takes is something that the administration will always concern itself with and speak out against and urge nations around the world to speak out against.

QUESTION: Well, they noted that hijackings, for instance, started in that part of the world -- violent hijackings started in that part of the world, and they see this suicide bombing pattern as possibly something that could be a threat here or elsewhere. I'm specifically asking about that.

FLEISCHER: That's something if you're asking, you may want to address more to the law enforcement officials who are charged with observing. I can only speak from the president's point-of-view, and he believes that terrorism is terrorism is terrorism, and the United States is committed to stopping it wherever it threatens America's interests.

QUESTION: Ari, just to follow-up on your answer. Is it the president's position that Chairman Arafat and the Palestinian Authority does not encourage terrorism?

FLEISCHER: The president believes that Chairman Arafat can do much more to stop the terrorism that exists.

QUESTION: But he's not encouraging it.

FLEISCHER: The president believes that Chairman Arafat can do more. I can only tell you what the president said, and I speak for the president. That's what the president side.

QUESTION: Ari, is there any limit to U.S. tolerance for Israeli military action? Is there anything Israel can do in the name of self- defense that would be totally unacceptable to the United States?

FLEISCHER: Again, the president, to reiterate what he said this morning, sees a peace process still despite the violence and, as he said this morning, hopes that Prime Minister Sharon will pursue whatever he pursues in a way to keep in mind a pathway to peace.

QUESTION: Can you translate that for us? What is it he could do that would derail it in your mind, given all...

FLEISCHER: That's what the president has said, and so I can't go beyond what he's said.

QUESTION: Ari, on this question of terrorism is terrorism is terrorism, Lev Grinberg is a professor at Ben Gurion University of Israel. He's written an article in the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) magazine called "Israel's state of terrorism," and he asks the following question: What is the difference between state terrorism and individual terrorism acts?

So you argue that, when a Palestinian straps a bomb around his waist and blows it up in a cafeteria killing innocents, that's terrorism. He wants to know what about the Israeli-targeted killing of 100 Palestinians or the 120 Palestinian paramedics who have been killed or the 1,200 Palestinians who've been killed over the last couple years.

QUESTION: Why doesn't the administration call that terrorism? Why do they insist that that's self-defense?

FLEISCHER: The administration is always concerned with and committed to finding ways to create a peaceful environment in the Middle East for the difficult issues there to be resolved. What threatens that is acts of terrorism that target innocent civilians where the whole purpose of the campaign is to find and kill innocents. And that makes it different in application.

There are times when in military operations innocent lives are lost, and the president decries that. The president will always look for ways, continuing throughout the violence, to find ways to bring the parties together, and I'd leave it at that.

QUESTION: Ari, the Jerusalem Post on Good Friday published former Prime Minister Netanyahu's statement that the Palestinians', in his words, "ultimate objective is our destruction, and they pursue this objective by the most barbaric means imaginable. So there is no place for negotiations, no hope for reaching any sustainable peace agreement, we must instead seek a total military victory."

And my question, considering the number of Palestinian suicide bombing through Passover and Easter, I believe it's five, how can the president, who's leading total war against terrorists in Afghanistan, disagree with Netanyahu in Israel?

FLEISCHER: As I indicated earlier, no matter what happens in terms of the level of the violence, this president will not give up hope and will not stop working to achieve a peaceful resolution of all the disputes. The president thinks that the Palestinian people deserve that, the Israeli people deserve that and the world deserves that, and that will remain the focus of his efforts.

QUESTION: Ari, there are 10 corporations, such as Aetna and FleetBoston, who are being sued for unspecified damages and black reparations, which president candidate Al Sharpton says would be good for America. The president does not agree with Mr. Sharpton...

LIN: All right. You've been listening to the White House briefing, the regular briefing with spokesman Ari Fleischer.

Speaking for the president, saying that the president does believe that Yasser Arafat is still the legitimate authority over the Palestinians, he is still the man to negotiate with, when it comes to any sort of cease-fire, he says also that the president is still very personally involved in what happens in that region.




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