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A Conversation with H.E. Mahmoud Abbas

Speaker: Mahmoud Abbas, president, Palestinian Authority
Presider: Richard N. Haass, president, Council on Foreign Relations
May 27, 2005
Council on Foreign Relations

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Washington, DC


RICHARD HAASS: I'm Richard Haass. I'm fortunate enough to be president of the Council on Foreign Relations, and this morning I'm even more fortunate to have on my right the president of the Palestinian Authority. I'd like to collectively and personally welcome back President Mahmoud Abbas to Washington and to the Council. He has brought some of his senior, most respected, and well-known lieutenants with him. [Inaudible] former ambassador. And we've brought around the table an awful lot of journalistic talent, as you know, and also [inaudible] talent, but just simply knows this part of the world and have been working on the issues that you've lived for decades.

I think how we're going to do it, is the president is going to say a few things in Arabic and— Jamal [inaudible].

UNKNOWN: [Inaudible] for 30 years.

HAASS: Jamal is going to translate, and then we'll open it up to [inaudible] we have the option to give [inaudible] Mahmoud Abbas.

MAHMOUD ABBAS: [Through interpreter] Good morning. I am delighted to have the opportunity to meet with this distinguished gathering of scholars and those who work on these issues in the media as well as in think tanks.

After an absence of two years we came back to Washington. We're delighted to be back and we've had the opportunity to talk with a number of senior members of the administration during the last 48 hours. I'll start by briefly talking about the various meetings that I had with the U.S. Congress; they were all very important meetings, and then I'll talk about the meetings that I had with the Vice President [Dick Cheney], with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, then the briefing I had yesterday with President Bush, which basically crowned all the discussions that we had and produced the results we have seen. I am not going to talk a lot about what you have heard either from President Bush or myself, but I can tell you that we are very pleased about the clarifications which we believe were essential and we got from the president. We feel very satisfied about everything that we learned during our meeting.

There is a very important issue here, which is the linkage between what is going to happen in Gaza and the West Bank. There was a clear indication about issues that are related to settlements, related to the wall, related to changing the character of Jerusalem. Also there was mentioning, as you know, about the return in the West Bank to the positions prior to September 28th, 2000. There is also a clear indication that all permanent-status issues will be discussed by the two sides and will be negotiated by the two sides and an agreement by both sides— it will be the outcome. And here I would like to remind you again of the permanent-status issues: the borders, the settlements, Jerusalem, the refugees, water, and other issues.

It was clear that we felt that the administration is committed to this process. President Bush said that during our meetings, and this basically translates itself in terms of the various envoys who are on the ground such as General [inaudible], who is a man with credibility and security experience work, alongside with Secretary Condi Rice. This intensive presence of U.S. officials is an indication that the issue is taken seriously by the administration, in addition to also the presence of [former World Bank President] Mr. [James] Wolfensohn as representative of the quartet to deal with the economic situations for both Gaza and the West Bank.

Also represented to the American officials indicate [inaudible] clear explanation of how the past four months were carried out and the efforts that we have conducted on the— in the areas of security, finance, economics, the administrative changes, as well as the changes we are undertaking in our justice system. We have exerted a great deal of pressure, but there's still a lot more to be done and it will be waiting for us when we return. Also, we talked about what is needed from the Israeli side; steps that can facilitate the lives of Palestinians and also steps that can facilitate the return to the peace process. Thank you very much for listening. Now we can have a dialog of questions, comments, and answers.

HAASS: Thank you, Mr. President. I think the way we'd like to do it is get as many people involved in the back and forth. Obviously, it's on the record, and if people could shut their cell phones off when people talk that would be appreciated. Anyone who has a pacemaker, however, keep it on. Why don't we open it up and get— if we keep the questions short we can probably get a chance to include more [inaudible]. Excuse me, by the way, I'm not sure if the president will necessarily know all of you, so if you would just sort of identify yourself and your affiliation that would probably facilitate things.

QUESTIONER: [Inaudible] UPI and CSIS [Center for Strategic and International Studies]. Mr. President, is a viable Palestinian [state] possible without East Jerusalem as the capital?

ABBAS: You answer the question. [Laughter] No, you're OK. You cannot have a viable state without East Jerusalem for a very central reason. We are talking about territories that were occupied in 1967, and East Jerusalem falls into that part of territories that were occupied in 1967. We are not asking for anything more than what was taken in 1967 and became occupied territories. I think this is a clear issue, and we made that very clear in all of our meetings, either the ones we had with the Israelis or the ones we had with various [inaudible].

QUESTIONER: Mr. President, when Mr. Sharon visited Washington not long ago, he got a letter from President Bush which stated that certain assurances and certain pressures from the American side [would be made]. Would you like a parallel or similar letter, and if so, what is it you'd like to see in it?

ABBAS: All that we need is a clear American position regarding the issues of permanent status, and as I said many times, the issues of permanent status should be subject to negotiations; they should not be judged or prejudiced prior to negotiations between the two sides over these issues. The [inaudible] perhaps was misunderstood, because they basically concluded that two issues— settlements as well as refugees— they became a foregone conclusion and then determined on the basis of other assurances. What is accepted here is that for the permanent-status issues to be discussed by the two sides as a part of the permanent status negotiations. What I have proposed on numerous occasions is to start now discussing the permanent-status issues. We can discuss them; we can have time to look into them in depth in order to come up with results and outcomes that are accepted by both sides as a part of negotiations. What President Bush said yesterday that any changes related to the armistice line of 1949— it should come as a part of a mutual agreement between the two sides. This is a solution that we accept.

QUESTIONER: Just so I understand what you said, now. The idea of starting final-status talks now— what about the argument that we've got enough to do with making the withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank— make that happen, make it succeed, and [inaudible] if that goes well, then it gives us a foundation to turn to the next phase. To go directly to the final status now, many people contend, is— how do I put it?--too much too soon?

ABBAS: There is a difference between basically jumping over a phase of the road map and go straight to the third phase of the road map and start to discuss these issues now and prepare for them and come up with creative solutions. These issues will require some serious look into them and some creativity. What I'm saying is that we can have a back channel not to negotiate these issues, but to look into these issues. This should not impact at all the Gaza withdrawal or the road map, but they can go in a parallel way. What I'm saying is that we can always divide our efforts: some would focus on the immediate issue of Gaza now; the others can focus on studying and looking into the permanent-status issues. The back channel would not be direct negotiations on the permanent-status issues, but it will be looking in depth about issues and come up with creative solutions so when the time comes for these issues, we will be ready with solutions by both sides.

I'll give you an example that you personally have witnessed. When we had these negotiations in '91 and '92, there were parallel negotiations: one here in Washington, DC, with a variety of countries and the United States, and at the same time there was a secret channel led by [Palestinian Authority Prime Minister] Abu Ala negotiating also in Oslo with the Israeli side various issues, and we succeeded in achieving an agreement on that channel. Both negotiations at that time were under one leadership— the one negotiation— the one set of negotiations that took place in Washington and the other one that took place in Oslo. That did not affect anything— luckily, we achieved an agreement in Oslo and I believe this was a good way to conduct negotiations.

HAASS: You have [inaudible] you've stimulated many of our colleagues around the room. Start with Jim Hoagland from the principal newspaper of this capital city [the Washington Post].

QUESTIONER: My question is about the fence. You've recently criticized the Israelis for building the fence not along the 1967 line. That implies at least that a fence built along the '67 line would be acceptable to you at least as an interim measure. Do you have timelines in mind about how long such a fence would be possible to sustain as part of negotiations toward the final settlement, and are you prepared to work with the Israelis in administering the controls that the fence implies to try to soften the impact?

ABBAS: We are working right now with the Israeli side in order to prevent any penetration either related to security or otherwise. You can ask and check with the U.S. side, you can check with the Israeli side that there is a close cooperation with the Israelis on the issue of security in order to diffuse any potential operations that could impact the situation and could torpedo the efforts that we are making.

Regarding the wall, we have said all along since the inception of that project that this wall— we look at it as a wall that does not reflect a civilized action. It does not reflect a [inaudible] action and it does not reflect a political action. And we said that the civilized world has destroyed the last standing wall and that is the Berlin Wall when it was destroyed and eliminated by the end of the last century.

We cannot imagine that two peoples who truly want to coexist together— there is a genuine desire on the part of the majority on both the Palestinian side and the Israeli side to live together. Instead of building that wall, there should be bridges— bridges of confidence, bridges of a loving relation between neighbors— in order to build life between both the Palestinians and Israelis.

So our objection to the wall was against the principle of that wall, not the results that this wall will produce. We do not see a necessity for this wall to be erected, but if the Israelis insisted to build that wall because they believe it would prevent security violation and penetration— which I do not believe it is the case— then the question is, why do they not build it beyond the Green Line and on those territories? Why are they trying to create a political de facto on the ground? As you see, there is an attempt to alter the 1967 borders as they see it. I do not believe there is a need for this wall for security, but if there is a need as they see it, then it should be on Israeli territories. And the irony here that the only operation that took place during the last four months, which was condemned by all segments of the Palestinian society, it came through the wall.

We are looking at the future and we believe that, if there is a withdrawal from all the Arab and Palestinian territories and the start of a serious peace process, there will be recognition by all Arab and Islamic states of the state of Israel, and I don't know why the Israelis are not paying attention to this issue. This issue was presented basically on a silver platter or a golden platter [inaudible] relationships between Israel and all the Arab and Islamic countries and they can live a peaceful coexistence.

The interesting part about this initiative, that it came from the kingdom of Saudi Arabia in particular; a country that its position has been well known; its location, its history, and its role, and they are basically saying, "Yes, there would be a normalization with Israel if Israel withdraws from the Arab and the Palestinian territories."

QUESTIONER: Just so I understand one point, sir. If you look at the president's letter to Prime Minister Sharon, he seemed to accept the idea that some of Israeli, as he called them "demographic concentrations" could stay— some of the areas where the Israelis built up, and clearly, the fence is not going along exactly the '67 lines. Does the idea of what is called compensation— is that something that has appeal to you?

ABBAS: When we look at issues of the territories, the compensations, the swaps if you will, I'm saying that now is not the time to talk about this. The time is when we sit down around the table to discuss those permanent status issues, the settlements as well as the borders, and then as a result of negotiations and discussions we reach an agreement and we reach an understanding. This agreement or this understanding will be the basis for the demarcation of the borders between the two sides so we can do it without prejudicing the outcome. But the— we cannot simply basically give or talk about the outcome regarding the borders or the land right now before we get to the permanent status [inaudible].

Well, one way of doing this is if [Israeli] Prime Minister [Ariel] Sharon would agree to a back channel to discuss these issues now; then when the time comes we would be in a position to announce the results of negotiations on this issue.

HAASS: Ambassador [inaudible]?

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Mr. President, I think that you know Mr. Sharon very well. I, of course, have had some experience with him. I think you know that he doesn't accept this idea of talking about final-status issues. He doesn't want to talk about final-status issues. But there is another idea— a concept on the table, and I wonder if I could get your reaction to it. It's one that the United States has brought up, and it's one that Prime Minister Sharon seems to be willing to talk about, which is the idea of a state with provisional [inaudible], which is provided as an option in phase two of [inaudible], and I wonder what your feelings about that are. It might actually be able to finesse this difference between you about talking about final-status issues by discussing stable provisional borders with guarantees about what the final borders might look like.

ABBAS: I cannot say, or Mr. Sharon can't say, or anybody can't say that regarding this proposal on this occasion we can pick and choose which part we like and which parts we don't like. What came in the road map was that part of the road map must be accepted from A to Z. I can say that there are many things that I don't like in the road map, but we have accepted the road map as a compromise and the permanent-status solution which is there— it's in the road map— and President Bush talked about it clearly and basically: It is the establishment of two states that can live in peace and security and stability and next to each other.

Then the outcome— there must be an acceptance of a permanent-status solution. It is a part of the— of this plan. In the road map, it is an option— the idea of a state with a provisional border. It's not something that's meant totally— that has to be accepted. When I talk about the state with provisional borders, and then we can say that maybe 10 years from now the issues will be settled or will be accepted, that means that the issues will still be percolating and there will still be the fire even if you try to put it out. It means also the conflict hasn't been solved, it hasn't been determined what will the final— the outcome— and this is a situation that can erupt any time. Therefore, when it comes to a state with provisional borders, it's an issue that can erupt any time in the future.

QUESTIONER: [Inaudible] Wall Street Journal. Mr. President, I also have a question about the wall. I assume yesterday when you spoke with President Bush, you complained specifically about the fact that the wall separates East Jerusalem and the rest of the Palestinian territories. What I'm curious about is his response to that. Did he express any sympathy to that point of view? Did he believe there would be any feedback from the Israelis on that subject? Or what was his reaction generally to your complaints about the wall?

ABBAS: Regarding the issue of the reaction, I believe when I talked with him the first time before, and when I talked to him this time, the reaction that I got from President Bush about the wall was a negative reaction from him. He was not very comfortable with it. And when he talked about— he did talk about Jerusalem and various activities around Jerusalem and how that changes the character of Jerusalem. I believe that all these issues do not really lead to peace. If we want to have peace and if we want to make it with the Israelis, I would say that they should put themselves in our shoes and we can put also ourselves in their shoes. We know what are their needs and we are willing to fulfill their needs, but they also should know our needs and should fulfill our needs. What I'm asking for is East Jerusalem, not all of Jerusalem.

Now, the issue of how people can coexist and live together in the City of Jerusalem— these are issues that we have talked about and I'm sure we can come up with all kinds of arrangements for the people to live in Jerusalem. I know that there are religious sites that are important— we can look into all these issues. But we cannot say no to Jerusalem and then build the wall that basically will separate Jerusalem from the Palestinian towns, which is happening right now. There is an isolation between Jerusalem and various Palestinian towns. I don't think this will be helpful to peace.

If we truly want to achieve true peace, then we have to be satisfied— both sides will have to be satisfied— and I'm here preparing to those issues of permanent status. I'm not preparing to other issues. For example, I am a Palestinian refugee. I was born— I was born in another city that is now in Israel. I'm not asking for that part where I was born. All we are asking for is the 22 percent of the territories of historic Palestine that will be the future state of Palestine. I'm not asking for more, and I'm not going to allow other people to ask for more. It is very important here that peace should produce satisfaction on both sides. Let us work for peace and let us get what the international law and international legitimacy gives.

HAASS: Steve Weisman from the New York Times.

QUESTIONER: Thank you. Mr. President, I would like ask about the current state of discussions with Israel about the Gaza disengagement. They seem not to be going very well and Israel seems determined to leave Gaza, but perhaps stay in the Philadelphia Corridor [between Gaza and Egypt], and there seems to also not be very much progress on the crossings and the access issues. What concern do you have about that and what support did you seek from President Bush to resolve these issues?

ABBAS: It is known that the Israeli withdrawal— it is a unilateral Israeli initiative. It was announced by Prime Minister Sharon and he is in the process of making it a reality. When we were asked about our views about this unilateral plan, we said that we are prepared to coordinate and actually prepared to cooperate with Israelis in order to make this withdrawal clean, calm, and complete.

We have informed both the Israeli side and the American side and we reassured both of them that we are prepared for the cooperation and the coordination. The Palestinian Prime Minister, with a full team, has been talking with the Israeli side, because we really need to know— we have many questions that we need answers to. We do not have too many answers. We are talking with the Israeli side, but we still don't know what is the scope of this withdrawal, which areas they will withdraw from. What is going to be the relationship between the West Bank and Gaza? We need the coordination because we need the answers to these questions.

And I would tell you here that we did pose those questions to President Bush and to Secretary Rice and Abu Ala [Prime Minister Ahmed Qurei] did meet twice with [Israeli Vice Prime Minister] Mr. Shimon Peres, but we still do not have an answer and there were no conclusive answers to the questions that we have posed. We still want to know the full answers about this withdrawal.

There is also a security plan that discusses these issues and the Palestinian minister of interior met with the Israeli Defense Minister Shaul Mofaz, but this meeting was inconclusive. They did not reach any results. This plan requires specific things. It requires preparation, it requires that we have to be ready, and there are also certain capabilities have to be put together, but we have not reached the result yet. But the meetings will continue and if the meeting with Abu Ala and Shimon Peres, the minister of the interior, and the defense minister on the Israeli side did not produce results, it does not mean at all that we should stop these meetings. To the contrary, we should intensify our meetings with the Israeli side in order to achieve a withdrawal that is satisfactory not only for the Palestinians and the Israelis, but also satisfactory to the international community and for the benefit of both the Palestinians and the Israelis.

Nobody can imagine that we as Palestinians simply would hear that the Israelis saying, "OK. We're prepared to withdraw from [inaudible] or Gaza." And we hear that and we would not be happy or we would not be prepared or we will not put our efforts together in order to achieve a calm and serious withdrawal. Anyway, President Bush did promise us that we will assert efforts— heavy efforts in order to make sure that negotiations between us and Israelis will have an accelerated basis and it will be fruitful and reach the desired outcome.

HAASS: There are five more people on the list who may have to leave it at that. [Inaudible] Let me turn next to Glenn Kessler of the Washington Post.

QUESTIONER: Mr. President, I just wanted to clarify a couple of things. You had said that President Bush's comments last year on settlements and refugees were perhaps misunderstood. Is that something that President Bush told you when you met with him yesterday?

ABBAS: You're talking about the letter? [Inaudible]

INTERPRETER: You're talking about the Israelis and the Americans [inaudible].

QUESTIONER: Yeah, let me, let me— yes, misunderstood by the Israelis [inaudible] and I was wondering if President Bush has told you yesterday that—

ABBAS: No, he did not say that, but he expressed that activities around settlements and activities around the wall [inaudible] should discuss this. [Inaudible] But the issue of permanent status, he made it clear that it should be subject to negotiations by the two sides and the outcome of the negotiations between the two sides is what will determine the fate of those issues. I wanted to say one thing that is that, I think, meaningful is what President Bush announced publicly yesterday is what he told us behind closed doors.

QUESTIONER: Just [inaudible] by clarification. You had said that, as a refugee, you were not asking for anything more. One of the key issues is the question of what happens to the Palestinian refugees. Prime Minister Sharon this week said that the statement that Mr. Bush in the letter meant that no Palestinian refugees could ever enter the state of Israel after the final peace agreement. How do you see that issue playing out?

ABBAS: Prime Minister Sharon cannot say no to the return of refugees. He can say that during the negotiations when the two sides are sitting together to negotiate the issue of refugees there are certain lines and certain words about the refugees as a part of the road map as an issue to be discussed. But on your questions, I was born and grew up in the city of Safed. Safed is part of the state of Israel. I'm not asking for the city of Safed, and I hope that this answer clears your question. [Laughter] By the way, they didn't allow me to visit Safed in 1995, even to visit there.

HAASS: David Brooks writes a column for the New York Times.

QUESTIONER: Mr. President, I would also like to ask you about your conversation with President Bush. Since September 11th, President Bush has put the words freedom and democracy at the forefront of American foreign policy, which he and many others think is a big change. I was wondering on a practical level, how does this administration seem different in dealing with the Palestinian issue than other administrations. Does that freedom agenda translate practically in a way [inaudible]?

ABBAS: Various American administrations in the past, I cannot say there were any shortcomings on the previous administrations. As a matter of fact, [laughter] they worked very hard. President Clinton exerted a great deal of efforts and he worked basically exclusively on the Middle East, but unfortunately, he could not succeed. Then President Bush came after that and he spoke very clearly and for the first time an American president would talk about a Palestinian state that it is [inaudible]; that is independent; that is viable; that is contiguous; that lives side-by-side with the state of Israel. This is something that we have not heard before and we have not seen before from an American president and we look forward for actually applying that and implementing this.

Regarding the question about freedom and democracy, we have accepted democracy as our choice. And by the way, we did not accept this because just it's an American request from the administration, but the Palestinian people and we have accepted democracy as a strategic choice for us and the Palestinian people want to have their institutions run on the basis of democracy. The important thing here is that democracy and freedom will have to work hand in hand. You cannot have democracy without freedom and vice versa.

HAASS: [Inaudible] seeds of peace, Mr. Miller. [Laughter]

QUESTIONER: Mr. President, the president's remarks yesterday on Jerusalem were new and unprecedented to this administration. Richard knows that 15 years ago, the president's father stepped into this issue and his description of Israeli activities, and his opposition to Israeli activities in Jerusalem, created enormous problems both here in the United States and among many [inaudible]. Did the president give you a commitment yesterday during the meeting that he was opposed, either rhetorically or in actual thought, to Israeli activities on the ground in, presumably, East Jerusalem?

ABBAS: What happened to Aaron Miller as well as other friends here in the room like Martin Indyk and [inaudible], who were members of the previous administration. I think we have seen them over the years more than we saw members of our own family. [Laughter]

I won't say that President Bush did not give a pledge, but he expressed his views and there is a difference between a pledge and views. But he also expressed that his views where he said that these activities should not continue. On the issue of Jerusalem, I would like to refer to a number, tens, perhaps of UN Security Council— UN resolutions that talk about Jerusalem, talk about settlements in Jerusalem, and nobody is paying attention to all these UN resolutions that represents the international [inaudible]. In looking into this issue and trying to find a solution, one will have to take some kinds of point of reference. [Inaudible] there has to be international legitimacy, because we cannot simply depend on the law of the jungle. We have to use a [inaudible], which is the international legitimacy.

HAASS: We have time for two more. The penultimate question goes to Dan Shore of National Public Radio.

QUESTIONER: Mr. President, first a personal, professional favor. Could you please officially adopt one name? [Laughter]

ABBAS: My name is Mahmoud Abbas [inaudible] Abu Mazen. [Inaudible]

QUESTIONER: I'd like to know what you think of something that a very knowledgeable person said to me to sum up the present situation. He said, "Mahmoud Abbas has the intention of creating a Palestinian state but not the capability. Sharon has the capability, but not the intention."

ABBAS: This is a very difficult formula. [Laughter] On the issue of intentions and issue of capabilities, referring to military capabilities, we don't have military capabilities and we don't have any intention to use military capabilities in order to achieve peace. We want to achieve peace through negotiations and through peaceful means.

I think that if Prime Minister Sharon has the intention, he will be in a position to help us. We can work together to make peace if he can understand us and understand our needs, and I hope that Prime Minister Sharon will understand the Palestinians and he can understand the Palestinians fully. He was born in Palestine and he had contacts with the Palestinians and I believe that he will be— I hope that he will be in a position to understand the needs of the Palestinian people. And by the way, the needs of the Palestinian people now are really very humble. We lowered the ceiling in terms of expectations and needs by the Palestinian people. After 40 years of war and intifada and violence, we came and we said "no" to all of this. That's not the way to achieve our political objectives. We hope that Prime Minister Sharon will be able to understand us and will be able to help us and at that— more than that, he will be able to help us and help himself at the same time.

For 40 years, he could not stop the violence and he could not stop the intifada. We started working four months ago and we were able to stop the intifada and we said it should stop and start and we also said that violence should stop and it stopped. What we need here is a recognition of what our work produced and he can deal with us on the basis of the recognition and the achievements that we have achieved.

HAASS: A last question from Doyle McManus from the Los Angeles Times.

QUESTIONER: Mr. President, in your opening remarks, you said you were pleased to see that the Bush administration's commitment to this process is clear. What would you like to see the administration do to make that commitment more effective and, in particular, did you seek— did you get any commitment from the president to support your idea of early back-channel talks on final-status issues?

ABBAS: I will start with the second part of your question. I did not hear from President Bush any support of the idea of establishing a back-channel on permanent-status issues. I also did not hear any rejection to it. I think the problem is with Mr. Sharon, who rejects this idea.

Regarding the first part of your questions, we have noticed and felt an American commitment and perhaps this commitment manifests itself through the mandate of General [inaudible], which will expand and which would not be lifted to the views that [inaudible] expresses in his bilateral meetings either with us or with Israeli side, but he will be in the position to express his views in bilateral meetings when all three sides get together.

Also, we see more commitment through the president's sending of Secretary Rice perhaps in July to the region in order to move the process forward. This commitment reflects the— this commitment and these efforts or intervention by the U.S. in the Middle East is an indication that the administration is committed and will continue to be committed in moving the peace process and reaching a successful conclusion.

HAASS: Speaking of successful conclusions, is there anything else you would like to add?

ABBAS: I think that's it. I've said everything I've had and more. [Laughter]

HAASS: In that case, well, let's just say how much we appreciate your taking this time and also it's been a long and grueling trip, we wish you only safe travels and we look forward to welcoming you back [inaudible].

ABBAS: Thank you. [Applause]

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