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

Aired July 14, 2000 - 12:03 p.m. ET


JUDY WOODRUFF, CNN ANCHOR: We are going to go now live to the reporters' briefing room near Camp David, Maryland, where the Middle East summit is under way.

This is White House spokesman Joe Lockhart.


JOE LOCKHART, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... dwindled the crowd to a hardened but committed few. Let me go into last night, a little bit on today, and then I'll take your questions.

Just before the dinner last night the president had a brief meeting with Shlomo Ben-Ami, one of the Israeli negotiators. They had a session on the back porch of the president's cabin and then walked down to dinner. The dinner started at about 8:30 last night, went for about an hour and a half.

After the dinner, the president spent a little bit of time, about an hour or so, with his team, and then proceeded to have bilateral discussions first with Prime Minister Barak and then with Chairman Arafat. His evening ended sometime after 1:00 a.m.

This morning, as far as the president's schedule, at about -- I'd say about 10:30 or so he had a meeting with his team. I left that meeting while it was still going on. I expect that during the day he'll continue his previous efforts of meeting both with delegations and with the other leaders. We'll let you know later in the day to the extent we have more information.

As far as other things, I think the negotiators today will be primarily meeting with each other. They have divided up into smaller groups and will be dealing directly on the core issues that we have talked about.

Finally, as I think some of you know already, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is meeting now, as we speak, with a Palestinian delegation that's here in the -- in Emmitsburg.

She will meet with them. This comes out of a discussion that we've been having over the last day or so. This group had come here. There was some discussion about meeting with Chairman Arafat. Given the spirit of the ground rules we put down, we indicated that we'd prefer that that meeting not happen up at Camp David.

Secretary of State Albright offered to meet with the group in Emmitsburg. The Palestinian delegation accepted that offer. The meeting is happening.

One logistics -- piece of logistics: I will brief again later on this afternoon, but I do not expect to brief tomorrow. So after the briefing at 5 or so today, you will not see me up here until probably early Sunday morning.


QUESTION: Joe, minor clarifications, the dinner, were Arafat and Barak there?


QUESTION: The dinner was similar to dinner...

LOCKHART: The dinner was similar to dinners the previous evenings. It is in the Laurel Cabin. Last night's dinner probably had 30 or so attendees. Chairman Arafat, Prime Minister Barak and President Clinton sat at a table together, but each -- separated by two or three people at least, so their conversations were primarily with others in the delegation.

LOCKHART: On the way into dinner as a measure of -- you know, of how things are working here, the president arrived first, spent a moment or two with Chairman Arafat when he arrived. And as the president walked away, Prime Minister Barak walked in and they spent a few moments talking and then proceeded into the -- what's being used as a dining room.

QUESTION: As you described the seating, was there still an opportunity for the president to talk to the two leaders at -- both at -- in this dinner?

LOCKHART: Once they sat down for the formal eating part of it, the president was engaged in conversation with others, as were the other leaders. Their conversations directly happened in the session -- in the, sort of, mingling outside of the room before they walked in.

QUESTION: One more question: The group's meeting, you know, are these on -- are they grouped by issue or by expertise, or is it looser than that?

LOCKHART: My understanding is they're grouped by issue. But that -- I think that's the extent to which I want to describe them.

QUESTION: Joe, can you tell us more about the Albright meeting with the Palestinians, and is that (OFF-MIKE)

LOCKHART: My understanding is that, at this point, I would use the instead of formulation. But, you know, it's -- I wouldn't completely rule out the possibility that at some point he might want to go see them. I think, at this point, we want to keep the focus on the negotiating that's going on at Camp David.

LOCKHART: But I think we also recognize -- the president recognizes the importance of both being able to articulate the importance of this, to keep a positive atmosphere around this for those who are interested. So I think it's a positive use of the secretary of state's time to go down and talk to these people.

QUESTION: Regarding again the seating arrangement, you described how Arafat and Barak are separated from President Clinton by three seats. What about the seating arrangement as far as Arafat and the rest of the delegation? Is he seated next to some Israeli delegation?

LOCKHART: Yes. Generally each of the leaders will have someone from one delegation to their left, someone from the other delegation to their right. And as is the case in many of these dinners, the conversation will vary between turning to your left and talking to someone, turning to your right and talking to someone, and having a conversation between the three of them.

I think the one thing, just as a -- something that I noticed from last night is, just because the president had come back and had done the event on Vietnam, there was a lot of discussion around the table about the thawing of relations and the moving forward in a commercial way between the U.S. and Vietnam. There were, you know, several times that there were, you know, small groups of conversations going on that included the leaders and the delegates around the table.


QUESTION: ... the Palestinians there. I was under the impression, from your words as well as Richard's words over the past two days, that there had never been (inaudible) the Palestinians to come to -- to come to see Arafat or for him to go see them. And now you're telling us that there have in fact been discussions over the past couple days about that, which have resulted in Albright going to Emmitsburg.

What gives? What's the deal?

LOCKHART: Well, I would listen very carefully to the words I used. I said over the last day. And every time I was up here and I asked, there was no request for a meeting. I'm not sure that a formal request ever came in. There was some discussions that I'm aware of yesterday that there was some discussions -- well, I'm using the words I'm using, so you can parse them any way you like.

QUESTION: You said you preferred for this meeting not to happen between Arafat and this delegation. Now let me understand, Chairman Arafat has told these people, and even asked them, Why are you late? (inaudible) for these people. You have already let one Israeli expert to join the team. Why do you say you prefer for this meeting...

LOCKHART: Because I don't think we view this and I'm not sure the delegation views this as a team of experts coming in. This is a group of political leaders. And I think Chairman Arafat certainly can meet with them if he wants, but the ground rules and the spirit that we set up here is that we'd be bringing people in -- we would not be bringing people in that were not involved in the formal negotiations.

QUESTION: Can you say what the secretary's purpose is in the meeting? Is she attempting to appease these people? Is there concern...

LOCKHART: Well, I think -- no, I think what I expect the message she'll bring is that she will talk in general terms about the peace process, but I don't expect her to get into any of the substantive points that are going on at Camp David now. But I think she will also take a message of how important it is to keep a positive atmosphere surrounding these discussions.

Because, you know, as we all know, I think, one of the reasons that we are going through this process that we're going through, where I stand up here every day or Richard stands up here every day and gives you very little information, is the atmosphere is important. The people who are involved here pick up the paper every day, they read it. And we're trying to create an environment where they can concentrate solely on how they can positively and constructively move forward.


QUESTION: What is this about consensus? Is it just really important for Chairman Arafat to have consensus within his own faction?

LOCKHART: I think it's important that there is public support for what Chairman Arafat's doing. I think it's just as important for Prime Minister Barak to have public support.

WOODRUFF: We're listening to White House spokesman Joe Lockhart talk to reporters about the Camp David meetings under way for the last four or five days between Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and of course President Bill Clinton. You're not hearing a characterization of the meeting, but there is a sense that meetings are going on. The president's been meeting -- President Clinton has been meeting with Arafat and Barak. He's been meeting with other members of the Israeli and the Palestinian delegations.

Joining us now, CNN's John King who's been keeping a close eye on all this.

John, we're not hearing Joe Lockhart, again, describe whether there's progress being made, but there does seem to be activity. There are meetings going on.

JOHN KING, CNN SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT: Certainly a great deal of activity and meetings, Judy, from these briefings because all parties have agreed to an official news blackout. We learned more about the seating plan at dinner and the meeting schedule than we do about the actual negotiations.

But CNN is told by senior U.S. official that they believe some progress is being made. These officials telling us not to go overboard in saying that, but they believe some progress is being made and they say all of the core issues are being discusses by the parties.

When President Clinton returned here last night to Camp David, he met with aides first at the White House. And aides familiar with that session say he came here determined to, quote, "accelerate the pace of the discussions." Mr. Clinton felt the leaders and the negotiating teams have had enough time to get here and set a good mood for the talks, enough time to get here an outline, their various and quite familiar positions to one another, and that the president felt it was time for him to come up here and try now to push for progress.

That evidenced, of course, in his schedule, as we just heard from Joe Lockhart, the president meeting late into the night, indeed, early into the morning hours with both Prime Minister Barak and Mr. Arafat. This morning he began with a long meeting his Mideast peace team. Once that meeting is over, back into the discussions.

They will slow down a bit because of the Sabbath. You heard Mr. Lockhart saying he does not even plan to brief on Saturday. But U.S. officials expect some casual, informal discussions on Saturday. Sunday and Monday shaping up as big days here, the president scheduled to leave the country, head to Japan on Wednesday. So at least a temporary deadline for these talks as the discussions continue here today -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: All right, CNN's John King covering the Middle East summit at Camp David. Thanks, John.



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