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White House Press Briefing

Aired April 10, 2002 - 12:39   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: Ari Fleischer is getting ready to step to podium now, coming out with his staff.

Bush has long opposed human cloning. When he announced his decision, back in August, to restrict, but not forbid, federal financing of so-called of embryonic stem-cell research.

We'll see if Ari Fleischer will address that also today. Let's listen in.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: Good afternoon. Let me give you a report on the president's day. I'll be happy to take your questions.

The president this morning had his briefings from the Central Intelligence Agency and then from the FBI, and then he convened a National Security Council meeting.

Late this morning, the president met with a group of Republican House and Senate leaders to discuss the upcoming agenda. He specifically talked about an update on the war in Afghanistan, events in the Middle East, as well as important domestic issues; specifically, the need for the Congress and the Senate to pass an energy plan. The House has already passed one. He talked about the need to have trade agreements put in place, terrorism insurance, a budget, a supplemental appropriation bill. And I'll return in a moment to one of the topics that was discussed at this meeting.

Early this afternoon, the president will make remarks in the East Room, where he will push for a comprehensive ban on human cloning. The president is going to talk about the importance of medical science, the importance of advances in health care to solve and to cure people from some of the diseases that we have in our society, while at the same time doing so in a way that is always ethical, that bans the cloning of humans or the taking of life through human cloning.

Later this afternoon, the president will meet with a group of Republican House members to talk about the importance of welfare reform. And tomorrow the president will welcome the bipartisan leadership of the House and Senate to the White House for continued discussions about our shared agenda. One foreign policy announcement, then I'm going to return to something at the meeting this morning. The president will welcome President Andres Pastrana of Colombia to the White House on April 18.

Finally, from the meeting this morning, one topic that came up that is currently under consideration in the United States Senate is an energy plan, the first comprehensive energy plan that our nation has had debated in a considerable amount of time.

As the American consumers know, they're increasingly paying for more -- paying more money at the gas pump to fill up their car. And Saddam Hussein has just said that he would cut off oil to the United States.

The president thinks it is vital that the Senate pass comprehensive energy legislation to help the American consumer and to protect America's energy independence.

One issue that is pending in the United States Senate is the question of whether or not exploration should be allowed in the ANWR region of Alaska. And the president knows that ANWR represents 46 years' worth of imports of oil from Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

And the president thinks that Saddam Hussein's threat, promise to cut off oil is another reason why our nation needs a comprehensive energy plan that is independent of such threats. And the president hopes the Senate will agree.

He hopes that the bill will go to conference and that ultimately what comes out of a House-Senate conference, the House has already acted, and hopes the Senate will, as well.

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

QUESTION: Will the president consider cutting off any form of aid to Israel, as the Sharon government continues to defy his requests to withdraw from the Palestinian territories...

FLEISCHER: Secretary Powell made crystal clear before his trip that the answer to that is no.

QUESTION: What then are the consequences, the real-world consequences, for Sharon and for the Israeli government in their defiance of the president's request?

FLEISCHER: Democracies talk to each other on the basis of respect and on the basis of principle. And the United States presents its reasons to Israel about what the United States believes is the best course to pursue in order to create an environment for peace in the Middle East. We do so on the basis of friendship and on the basis of respect.

The president reiterates that all parties in the region need to step up to their responsibilities in order to create that environment.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) from that reiteration, there's really nothing more the president can do.


FLEISCHER: The secretary has stated he's looking forward to meeting with Prime Minister Sharon. There have been a series of contacts, have been for quite some time, will continue to be, with the government of Israel, as well as with the Arab allies and other nations in the region.

So conversations will continue; the point will continue to be stressed. And the president will remain persistent.

QUESTION: One more. Does the president believe that Israeli use of American-made weapons in these operations is consistent with the obligations that Israel has in use of those weapons for defensive purposes...

FLEISCHER: The president has made abundantly clear that he believes in Israel's right to defend herself. The president has also indicated, regardless of type of weaponry, that the time has come, that Israel should pull back.

QUESTION: Does he also believe that the Isralies have a right to lay siege on the West Bank and Gaza?

Will Powell see Arafat on Sunday?

Does America have any peace plan, any plan to try to bring about a cease-fire and to get this friendly nation to cooperate a little?

FLEISCHER: Secretary Powell has already announced that he will be meeting with Chairman Arafat.

And the president has made clear what he thinks need to be done in order to create peace. The president has a long-term goal -- that is, an Israel that can live in security, and a creation of a Palestinian state living side by side with Israel.

To get to that goal, that is the essence of the diplomatic mission that Secretary Powell is involved in right now. It is a challenge, it is difficult. It is nothing new in America's foreign policy, but that is the commitment of the United States.

The short-term is represented by Secretary Powell's mission, which is to get the parties to agree to a cease-fire, as well as a focus on the political talks that need to begin so that all parties in the region can have hope.

And that's the purpose of the secretary's visit. That's why he began meeting with the Arab nations that can have good influence on the Palestinian Authority to demonstrate their commitment to peace. And he will meet with Israel, and then he will meet with Chairman Arafat.

QUESTION: Is the president aware that there is widespread perception that he has given a green light to Sharon to keep on the siege until finally he will agree to a cease-fire, that the killing will go on?

FLEISCHER: I think everybody's heard the president talk directly himself, and they know that's not the case.

QUESTION: If this is the way democracies talk to one another, it seems that the other democracy isn't listening. The president has made repeated demands, not requests, but demands that Sharon pull back, or begin to withdraw. It's gone completely unheeded.

FLEISCHER: Welcome to the Middle East. This is the situation in the Middle East that has been a ongoing issue for decades. And because it's so important, because so much is at stake, because it's so crucial, the president is committed.

And that is why he has directed his secretary of state to go to the region despite the difficulties that are present not from one side, but from all sides. Israel remains America's friend. America remains a trusted ally and partner of Israel, a democracy. And in that process, the president will continue to make clear to all parties what he believes the obligations are in order to achieve peace.

The difficulty, Bill (ph), is the violence has gotten to the point now where both parties are so engaged in the ongoing struggle for the Middle East that the president wants to find a way to help the parties to help themselves. It'll be difficult -- it will be a challenge, but the president remains committed to it.

QUESTION: Why do you have any reason to believe that both parties want to help themselves?

FLEISCHER: What alternative do the parties have? The future for the Middle East cannot be endless violence. The future for the region has got to be where statesmen step up, where people can be found on all sides who are willing to commit themselves to the process of peace. And that is the purpose of Secretary Powell's visit -- is to work with those elements. To give those elements political hope, to give those elements more reason to work with each other, so that peace can again take root.

QUESTION: I guess what I'm getting at is that it's been almost a week since the president had asked Israel to move back and asked the Palestinians to stop the suicide bombings.

QUESTION: Neither side has paid heed. What glimmer of hope have you seen in the last six days that there's going to be a breakthrough (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

FLEISCHER: No matter how difficult this is, this president will not give up. The United States has no choice but to help, and help we will. Under President Bush's direction, the secretary is in the region, and that's the challenge of his mission.

But I don't think it surprises the American people that this is a challenge, that this is difficult, and that people in the region don't simply stop, salute the United States and say, "Yes, sir." That is not how diplomacy works. But it will not stop this president from doing everything in his power to find ways to bring the parties together.

QUESTION: The meeting between Powell and Arafat, Sharon today called it a tragic mistake, Powell's decision to meet with Arafat. What's your reaction to that? And has Sharon given you any assurances that he'll even give Powell access to Arafat that'll allow the meeting to take place?

FLEISCHER: The secretary always said he would meet with Arafat if the circumstances permit, and we have every indication that the circumstances will permit, in terms of his being able to have access to Chairman Arafat.

QUESTION: So you have assurances from Sharon that he would allow that?

FLEISCHER: We anticipate that the meeting will take place.

Having said that, no one can predict what the results will be. There have been a series of events in the Middle East that depended in good part on Chairman Arafat, and the results were not favorable. And so the president is looking at this as a chance to see what Yasser Arafat can or cannot do.

The president is looking at this as an opportunity to see what Chairman Arafat wants to do or doesn't want to do. And that will be a very important measure of Chairman Arafat's future intentions in the region.

There are many other people that the secretary of state is meeting with, he will continue to meet with. There are many people that he's met with already this week who have demonstrated a desire for peace.

QUESTION: What's your reaction to Sharon calling the meeting a tragic mistake?

FLEISCHER: The policy of the United States is that the secretary of state will work with whoever he can work with to try to bring peace to the region. And he'll spend more time with the people who can be most productive.

QUESTION: Ari, former Prime Minister Netanyahu is going around saying that Israel is held to a different standard than the U.S. and other countries in the war against terrorism. Is it? And who does the U.S. consider to be the terrorists in this, Israel or the Palestinians?

FLEISCHER: Well, here's the standard that the president has set for the war against terrorism -- and if you recall, the president has made very clear that in America's war against terrorism we are fighting a multifront level. It's a multifront war. And one of those fronts is cooperation, is diplomacy, is working with other nations around the world to build a coalition against terrorism.

And that's why the secretary's first visit was to Morocco, that's why the president met with the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, that's why the secretary of state -- I'm sorry -- went to Egypt and met with President Mubarak. That's part of the way to fight terrorism is to build a coalition that's dedicated to stopping terrorism. That's why the president has called on the Arab states to speak out against terrorism, to stop financing terrorism, to stop the hatred in the press against Israel or against Jews. Those are all the statements that the president has made that needs to be done from the Arab perspective, from the Israeli perspective.

As you know, the president has said, "Enough is enough. Israel needs to pull back." Enough is enough applies to the Palestinians, as well, and to the Arab neighbors, as well. And that's the difference in the approach.

The president also believes that events in the Middle East have gotten to the point where Israel exercised its right to self-defense. Israel acted against, what can only be viewed as terrorist attacks against Israel; the suicide bombings are murder bombings. They are acts of terrorism. And Israel acted to defend herself.

But the president was increasingly worried that once Israel had acted, that the situation was going beyond where it could contribute to peace, that would start to contribute to increase violence in the region, that could impact the United States' goals and Israel's goals of working with others to achieve peace.

QUESTION: So are the Palestinians terrorists or freedom fighters?

FLEISCHER: Clearly, the president's view, and he's said this many times, anybody who engages in suicide attack is an act of murder. They're not just suicide attackers, they are murderer attackers.

QUESTION: Ari, many of the European allies have been critical of the way the United States has handled itself in the Middle East.

QUESTION: How important is it that the White House is starting to -- Colin Powell has met today with European leaders in Spain and with the and with the foreign minister of Russia? Do they feel a need to support Europe, or they feel Washington to go out alone if they don't agree with Washington's policies?

FLEISCHER: Well, let me assure you that the president will always consult and work closely with our European allies. And the United States will always be Israel's best friend. The president will receive advice, will receive guidance. The president understands America's vital role in helping Israel and being Israel's friend. And the president will not waiver from that. The president feels that as a crucial part of America's involvement in that region. So the secretary of state is listening, is consulting. And he's aware there are a number of voices on these issues, and supporting to listen to them. But the president will remain committed to the state of Israel.

QUESTION: Could you go back to the Middle East? Is the administration receiving any assurances privately from Israel that it will pull out more troops from the Palestinian areas, before Secretary Powell gets on the ground in Jerusalem? FLEISCHER: Well, I think by the very definition of your question without indicating whether the answer is yes or no, if you ask me if something is happening privately, how can I answer that question?

QUESTION: Well, but are you getting any signals? Because obviously, there's a concern that Secretary Powell's mission, the success of it, could really hinge on if there's more pull-outs. And when you get...

FLEISCHER: I think it's fair to say that Israel has heard the message that the president has sent. And the president is a man of results, and we will wait and see what actions are taken.

QUESTION: You're not getting any signal one way or the other that...

FLEISCHER: Yes, I think the signals the president is looking for are actual results from all parties.

QUESTION: One other thing, is the administration absolutely against any armed monitors or armed peacekeepers in the Middle East to try to keep the peace between Israel and the Palestinians when and if there's any...


FLEISCHER: Going back to summer of 2001, the president made clear, he said so publicly at the time, that the United States would support monitors in the Middle East if that's what the parties themselves agreed to, and requested.

QUESTION: Would they be armed?

FLEISCHER: I think the modalities of all that would be something that would be reviewed and arranged. You should not use this as an interpositional force. This would be monitors to help the parties to adhere to a cease-fire.

QUESTION: Ari, could I take you, for a moment, to your statement on the energy issues. You said that Saddam Hussein's announcement was another reason that the Senate should act. Are you suggesting from that, that the oil that we get from Iraq, a fairly small amount as a total of our imports, that that will make a difference on price with supply or is that oil likely just to go to other countries and we would end up buying elsewhere, just because it's so...

FLEISCHER: Now, markets ultimately determine the answer to your question. And observation of the market for the last 48 hours showed that prices immediately spiked up, and now the prices are very quickly coming right back down again in the futures market, in reaction to what Saddam Hussein declared, so it's unclear.

But the point the president's making is, why should the United States energy security rest, in part, on the actions of Saddam Hussein? Why should the United States take any chances? Why shouldn't the United States have a energy policy that is more independent?

This is an issue that the United States faces year after year after year. And the president believes, that instead of lurching, herky-jerky, from one crisis to the next, year after year, it's about time we had a comprehensive long-term strategy, so we don't, every spring go into summer, ask ourselves the same question, why is the price of gas going up, whether it's a result of seasonal concerns or whether it's a result of instability in the Mideast.

QUESTION: How do you follow up on that, the fact that the futures have come back down tells you that the market's view is that, in the end, this is supply neutral, that Saddam's oil will go someplace else and that we will obtain our oil from someplace else?

In the particular case, why is the cutoff just to the United States anymore of an argument for an energy bill than you had before he made the announcement?

FLEISCHER: Because the United States should not risk being vulnerable to the actions of Saddam Hussein or any other nation, when it comes to creating energy independence and energy security for our own people here at home.

The United States has within its own disposal -- its own borders the answers to many of our energy problems. Those answers rely on conservation, greater efficiency and increased exploration -- all of the above.

And what the president is saying to the Senate is, we need conservation, we need more efficiency, but don't turn your back on making America more energy independent because you're not willing to explore within our own lands.

And we'll see exactly what the markets do. They will be monitored. But this is not an issue that goes away, this is an issue the American people have seen rise up before, and the president doesn't think good policy is to move from crisis to crisis. The president thinks now is the time, and the Senate should vote to make sure we have a long-term plan in place to avert potential crises.


QUESTION: Ari, just to follow, on the economy at home, in the last few days, I have been visiting a number of businesses in Maryland, Silver Spring and Georgetown and Old Town Alexandria, and also in Virginia. What they're saying is really, they are still suffering. Some airlines are recalling their fired workers back, but many businesses in different fields are firing their employees (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and business across this area, they are suffering in every field. So now they're fearing that from this crisis in the Middle East, especially the oil embargo, they will hurt more. So what message president, you think, has for them?

FLEISCHER: Well, the president remains concerned about the strength of the economy. There are, there's no question about, there are increasingly good signs on the economic horizon about the statistics in the economy, and the president is heartened to see that.

It very well may be that when economists look back, the tax cut that was such a controversial tax cut in the minds of some, that passed with such overwhelming bipartisan support, may have just been the right medicine at the right time to help get the economy going back again last fall when the economy could have been even worse impacted as a result of September 11.

So the president is going to continually monitor the trends in our society to make sure that people are getting their jobs back, but he looks at a series of things that are pending in the Congress now that, when you add them up, help restore the economy.

Trade is one of them, trade promotion authority, so jobs can be created at home through exports. Energy policy, so America doesn't have as a long-term basis these vicissitudes in the market where the prices jump up and down, where we have more energy independence. Education, of course, is something that the president views as a long- term issue that helps strengthen the economy as more of our workers are better educated. A series of those are the items the president is looking at.

So, again, there are encouraging signs on the economy. We'll see where it all ends up.

QUESTION: Ari, there seems to be a fundamental difference of opinion on the proper approach to terrorism in the Israel-Palestinian context between the U.S. and Israeli leaders. Judging from what Mr. Netanyahu said on Capital Hill today and what Mr. Sharon has said, the Israelis seem to be arguing that a military response is the only one that makes sense against terrorism and that by meeting with Arafat, by talking to Arafat, the U.S. is in a sense rewarding terrorism. What is the administration's argument?

FLEISCHER: This president will reward those who help create peace. That's the president's focus. That's where his time will be spent. The president has met on many occasions with Prime Minister Sharon, as you know. Yasser Arafat had his chance to meet with the vice president; he did not live up to the conditions the vice president established for a meeting.

The secretary of state has met with Yasser Arafat before as part of his portfolio that the president has invested in him to have the broadest, most flexible mandate, that if the secretary of state thinks it's worthwhile having a meeting with Yasser Arafat, he can do so.

But the people who will contribute the most to peace are the people who put their shoulder to the wheel, the people who help create a cease-fire and the people who, even after all the violence, express a willingness to work with each other.

And that's why the president has given the message he has to all parties, that he is concerned that, as a result of what's taking place on the ground now in the Middle East, it'll be harder to bring the two parties together. But a way must be found, and the president has committed himself to finding that way and to working with whoever can get that done.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE) problem and you know there's, obviously, a lot of conservative criticism here at home, as well, in addition to the Israelis, saying that the U.S. has characterized Arafat as a terrorist, yet we're willing to sit down and talk with him about peace. And a lot of people find some difficulty in reconciling that.

FLEISCHER: I think everybody knows what the president has said on the topic of Yasser Arafat and whether he's earned the president's trust. He has not.

Nevertheless, the president wants the secretary of state to have the broadest mandate possible with the most flexibility, so he can have the most influence on bringing peace to the region.

QUESTION: There have been many anti-Israel and anti-American demonstrations in some of the Arab countries; one of them the (OFF- MIKE) of Jordan apparently was participating in. There have been other ones. But these countries have at least, if not sanctioned them, certainly allowed them to go in and perhaps encourage them. What's your reaction, what's the White House's reaction to that?

FLEISCHER: Again, the president's message to the Arab nations is that they need to do their part to create peace. They need to stop the incitement and the hatred that can be found in government press. They need to speak out strongly, urging an end to all terrorist actions and an end to all financing.

The president's message is one of moral clarity to all, and he won't pull his punches from that. He thinks that is a vital part of the future of the region, that it's time for statesmanship in the region, that nations need to step up and express that desire.

QUESTION: U.S. aid to Israel is secure. Are there any consequences at all from the U.S. side for Sharon's refusal to heed the president's...

FLEISCHER: Listen, a lot of people have said, asked the president or asked me, "What is the president's reaction, how does the president feel about this?"

And I can only tell you, just having talked to the president in the Oval Office shortly before I came out here, the only way I can describe him is persistent. The president understands that, since 1948, when Israel was born, there have been numerous wars fought, that this has been a region that has been racked by violence for far, far too long. And the president understands that no American president can simply wave a magic wand to make it all go away overnight.

But what an American president can do is commit to working to solve the problem, and that is what this president is dedicated to do, and that's why the secretary of state is in the middle of a very important diplomatic mission.

And the president has faith that at the end of the day, these parties have no choice but to make peace with other. The job of the United states is to help the parties to help themselves to find a way to realizing that day. And he understands it might take time. That won't stop him from pushing forward.

QUESTION: Doesn't he have the feeling though that he's put his personal prestige on the line here with these very public calls, and then the personal phone call, in particularly in a part of the world where personal prestige counts for a lot, and he's getting (OFF-MIKE)

FLEISCHER: To the president, this is not a matter of a personal prestige or anything else personal. It's the right thing to do at the right time to do it. And that's why he gave the speech he gave last Thursday, and that's why he continues to press the parties to agree to the path the United States has laid out. And again, the president is going to continue to be persistent to help the region to achieve that day.

PHILLIPS: White House press secretary Ari Fleischer giving his daily briefing there at the White House, touching on two main subjects. First, of course, the Middle East making it very clear that President Bush remains committed to the state of Israel, in tremendous support of Powell's trip but to the region; he arrives there tomorrow evening, once again making clear the fact to -- the president making it very clear that the time has come for Israel to pull back. And they are going to stay focused on a cease-fire, and reach ultimate goal, that Israel can live in security and the Palestinians will have statehood.

Also talk about a comprehensive energy plan, making it clear how important this is, especially during this time when gas prices continue to climb, and Saddam Hussein putting a halt on oil to the U.S., just reiterating the importance of a comprehensive energy plan.




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