US Department of State daily press briefing – Middle East peace process/Non-UN document (excerpts)

Marie Harf

Deputy Spokesperson
Daily Press Briefing

Washington, DC

April 4, 2014

  • Evaluation of Next Steps / U.S. Still Committed to the Process
  • White House and Department Working Closely Together
  • Both Sides Have Taken Unhelpful Steps
  • Talking To Congress about Aid to Palestinians
  • No Plans for Special Envoy Indyk's Return


12:18 p.m. EDT


QUESTION: — Sure. The Secretary, in his news conference in Rabat, said that it was time for a reality check and to make a decision on whether to go forward on the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: Is it your intent to continue trying to make progress on this through April 29th, or rather, is this wholly in question now whether the United States will continue its efforts, and that you may, in effect, pull the plug now?

MS. HARF: Well, no. I think the Secretary said a few things. We are still at the negotiating table. In the last few days, regrettably, both sides have taken steps that are not helpful. We’re going to evaluate very carefully exactly where the process is and where it might possibly be able to go. And as the Secretary said, there are limits to the amount of time and effort the United States can spend if the parties themselves are unwilling to take constructive steps.

So the parties have said they want to continue. We are focused on continuing. But again, quoting the Secretary, it’s reality check time. We intend to evaluate precisely what the next steps will be, and see if we can keep making progress here. We are still committed to the process, but as we’ve said many times, we can’t make tough decisions for them.

QUESTION: But you’re not saying that you’re committed to keep trying for the next three weeks? In other words, you’re going to decide now whether it’s worth continuing or not?

MS. HARF: Oh, no. We still believe it’s worth continuing. The question is where the process goes from here.

QUESTION: So you said we are still at the negotiating table. Is that a literal statement or is that a figurative statement? In other words, have there been any direct Israeli-Palestinian talks since the meeting of the other night/day?

MS. HARF: Between each other. Let me check and see if there were any direct talks. We’ve remained engaged with both of the parties.

QUESTION: Okay. And what is the – what, if any – since you’re clearly internally debating whether to continue with this process, absent what I think the Secretary said, the willingness of the parties to make difficult decisions, what, if anything, are you doing to try to mitigate against the negative repercussions if the process falls apart, if it ends? How, if at all, are you going to try to prevent the kind of explosion of violence that there was after the collapse of the 2000 talks?

What are you – what, if anything, are you going to do to try to forestall a more direct Palestinian appeal to join actual UN agencies?

MS. HARF: Well, I don’t have any specifics for you on that. Obviously, we have said many times – the President and the Secretary have said many times – that the reason we pursue Middle East peace is because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s good for both sides. And there are benefits to both sides if they can make these tough decisions.

I’m happy to check with our folks and see if people are looking at that. I know our team isn’t focusing on what might happen in a hypothetical if we can’t get this done. Our team is very much focused on actually getting it done. But let me see if there’s a little more to share on that.

QUESTION: But – okay, thank you. I mean, but it sounded like, from what the Secretary said, that your team is really focused on whether anything can get done —

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: – not on how to move forward, but just —

MS. HARF: Absolutely.

QUESTION: So if that’s the case, then it would seem to me that you probably are or should already be thinking about mitigating the negative consequences that could flow from a breakdown which you yourselves acknowledge is a possibility.

MS. HARF: Yeah. No, it’s a good question, and an important one, so let me see if I can get some more on that. Anything else on Middle East peace?


MS. HARF: Uh-huh. Or – Lara, uh-huh.


QUESTION: No, please.

MS. HARF: No, go ahead.

QUESTION: This reassessment that’s going to happen, is that by the decision of the Secretary or of the White House?

MS. HARF: Reassessment in terms of what?

QUESTION: Well, he said that we’re – reality check time, we’re going to reevaluate precisely what steps will be taken.

MS. HARF: Uh-huh.

QUESTION: Is that something that the Secretary decided, or is that something that the White House asked him to do?

MS. HARF: They’re working – I mean, obviously, the Secretary has the lead for this issue, but he’s been in constant communication with the White House throughout this whole process. And quite frankly, our whole team – the Secretary, Ambassador Indyk, and the folks at the White House who focus on this – are all working together very closely on the same page in trying to figure out where we go from here.

QUESTION: Did something change over the last 24 hours? I mean, yesterday at the podium you noted that both sides had taken unhelpful steps – I think yesterday or the day before. Anything happen that would make him sound so pessimistic today?

MS. HARF: Not – I mean, not to my knowledge, no. What I said is there have been unhelpful steps. He also noted, I would say, that he said both sides want to continue. So that’s where we’ve – we’re in the same place we’ve been over the last 24 hours: that there have been unhelpful steps on both sides, our team remains on the ground, but we really need to see them make some tough decisions, which we haven’t seen.

QUESTION: Well, just to put a finer point on it, I mean, he sounds like he’s pretty exasperated. And I mean, the – for him to say we’re not going to sit here indefinitely —

MS. HARF: Yeah.

QUESTION: – and, I mean, beyond the pessimism of it all, it sounds like he’s fed up. And he – while he says that this wasn’t a waste of time —

MS. HARF: Absolutely.

QUESTION: – because he did give it a try, he is not going to do this forever, and it sounds like he is starting to come around to the realization or to the belief that he wants it more than the parties want it.

MS. HARF: No, I would – that last point I would not say at all. I think a couple points. He has been, in his own mind certainly, and with the team and everyone else, very clear about the reality of how hard this would be. He has never, I think contrary probably to some reports out there – or commentary, I should say – has never been naive or wide-eyed about what we could get done here. He’s always been very realistic about how hard this would be.

But the fact is we have seen steps taken that are not helpful. He still has said that we believe there’s a path forward here, but we have to find that path. And more importantly than us finding it, the two parties have to find it, and we haven’t seen that yet.

QUESTION: So, I mean, what is – like at what point do you stop looking for signs that they’re going to do it, they’re going to take that path or whatever and come to the realization that they just don’t want it?

MS. HARF: Well, they’ve both said they want the process to continue, and what they have to do now is back up those words with actions. So we’re waiting for some actions. And you’re right though, as the Secretary said – this, I think, probably is a common sense statement – but there are limits to the time and amount of energy we can continue spending on this.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: So when you say that there – excuse me. So they – when you say that there are limits, I mean, what is the limit? Like, and does he – has he, whether you want to say it right here or not, but has he given the party what his limits are? As if, “If I don’t see some kind of movement by X-time or if I don’t see X amount of things, I’ve reached my limit?”

MS. HARF: Well, I think we’re not going to outline what he said to the parties.

QUESTION: I didn’t ask you to say what he – specifically what he said, but has he given the parties a benchmark by which he would see that they’re ready to take this way forward?

MS. HARF: Well, I don’t want to describe it that way. We have certainly – he and Ambassador Indyk and the team have certainly made clear to the parties that there need to be steps taken. Now, what that path forward looks like can take a couple different – it can look a couple different ways, I should say. But we have said that if we can’t take steps forward, then yes, this unfortunately will come to an end. But we’re not there yet.

And I think that – I know a lot of people try to read the Secretary’s language – which is important, right? – and the tone. And he really, I think, has throughout this process maintained, at least with us and with the team, a realistic assessment of how hard it will be: Optimism that we did get them back to the table and there had been some progress, but he does know right now that this is a turning point, and we hope that we can move the process forward.

QUESTION: He sounds pretty exasperated. He actually says —

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MS. HARF: He’s also at the end of a two-week trip, guys. I mean, I wouldn’t try and read too much into his tone about Middle East peace.

QUESTION: Well, he uses the word, “indefinitely,” or, “We’re not going to sit here indefinitely.”

MS. HARF: True.

QUESTION: So it’s pretty clear that he’s making – he’s telling the parties —

MS. HARF: Yes.

QUESTION: – that time is limited here, right?

MS. HARF: Time isn’t on anyone’s side. It’s not on the parties’ side either, to be clear. But yes, he is. That’s – he is. He made it very clear today. Yes.

QUESTION: Do you think that that time will be – I mean, I don’t want to use the word, “deadline,” but, I mean, are we still looking at kind of April 29th?

MS. HARF: I’m not sure if he was referring to a specific date, but I think the concept is absolutely correct. And you are right to note that we haven’t said that before.


QUESTION: So what is Ambassador Indyk’s mission at the moment? Is he supposed to stay in the region and meet with both sides to see what they are trying to do to keep this from falling apart?

MS. HARF: Well, he’s on the ground working with both sides. Onto Arshad’s question, I’ll check and see if they’ve met directly since the one we talked about yesterday. But yes, there are things that they are talking about, elements that could go into a path forward. He’s working with both sides to see if we can get a path forward agreed to.

QUESTION: What’s the minimum that Indyk has to try to achieve in order to keep this process going?

MS. HARF: I’m not going to get into those kind of details.


MS. HARF: Said. Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Just to follow up on Lara’s point, now when he says the limited time, so to speak, on the limit of time, he is not suggesting that we might meet that point before the end of the month, before the 29th?

MS. HARF: I don’t think he was referring to a specific date when he says —


MS. HARF: – this won’t go on indefinitely.

QUESTION: So we are likely to continue to have this – some sort of engagement over the next three weeks?

MS. HARF: Well, we certainly hope so. But again, we’re focused right now on the immediate task at hand.

QUESTION: Okay, let me ask you on the – we know that the Secretary is enthusiastic. He’s put forth an incredible effort and so on, so he doesn’t lack enthusiasm. What about other senior members of the Obama Administration? Is there like a – are they resigned to the fact that this whole episode might be coming to a close?

MS. HARF: No. I mean, Said, look, everyone in this Administration from the President on down knows how hard this is. But I think you heard, starting with the President when he went to Israel at the beginning of the second term, and then the Secretary, the President at UNGA, you’ve heard everybody speak out very forcefully about our commitment to pursuing Middle East peace. So just because we’re getting to a tough point in the negotiations doesn’t suddenly mean that people think it’s a bad idea.

QUESTION: I guess my question is, let’s say people in the White House, for instance, whether —

MS. HARF: People in the White House.

QUESTION: Well, okay. Officials in the White House, okay? Do they feel that maybe the Secretary of State invested a great deal of time and effort for something that was a losing proposition to begin with, losing that prize?

MS. HARF: No, that’s not how I would describe it at all. The folks – the people, to use your term, that I’ve spoken to in the White House understand that everybody there is very supportive of the Secretary’s efforts. They’ve been in very close contact with the Secretary. They weren’t naive either about how hard this was going to be, and about the fact that success was going to be a challenge to get. And again, I think everyone’s writing it off now like we’re at the end of this process when that’s just not the case.

QUESTION: We’re not writing it off. We’re not writing it off.

QUESTION: Because you know we have been there before —

MS. HARF: Well, I think Said’s question a little bit goes to losing prospect that this is not going to happen, and we’re not there yet.

QUESTION: Well, he sounds – I mean, we’re just taking it on what he said and his tone. And he is the one that is pretty much saying, if not the exact words, saying: I’m close to reaching my limit with you people.

MS. HARF: But he didn’t say that. And he said they both wanted to continue. They’ve both said they wanted to continue, but they have to make tough choices. The words may have been a little different than we’ve used in the past. The tone may have been, I think, indicative of the fact that we are at a very important point in the negotiations. But I wouldn’t read into it, certainly, that we’re at the end of this process because that’s just not the case on the ground.

QUESTION: Can I follow up quickly?

QUESTION: We already have —

MS. HARF: Wait, let me have Said – let me let Said follow up and then we’ll go around.

QUESTION: To follow up very quickly, if we are to have a reassessment, what shape would this reassessment be?

MS. HARF: He actually said we intend to evaluate precisely what the next steps will be, which —

QUESTION: Okay, evaluate. So what does that mean?

MS. HARF: Well, we’ve been evaluating what the next steps will be all along. But where we are now, as we’ve said, unhelpful steps on both sides. We know what those are.


MS. HARF: So is there a path forward that both sides can agree to where we can go from here? We are evaluating that right now, whether there is; if we can’t get there, what else we can do; all of the different, if you looked at a decision diagram about where we go from here, that’s the evaluation that’s going on right now.

QUESTION: Mm-hmm. After – the reason I’m asking this is after the debacle of, let’s say, 2010, I mean, his predecessor, Secretary Clinton reached a point where she could not do anything, and in fact, the whole thing was on hold for the remainder of the term, as you know, at that time.

MS. HARF: Well, I don’t want to compare this to any previous negotiation, and I don’t want to venture to guess what will happen if we get to the end here and we don’t get an agreement.

Anything else?


QUESTION: Can I just —

MS. HARF: Ali, Ali. Wait – Ali.

QUESTION: How do you reconcile what you said a minute ago about the commitment broadly among the White House with the statements we have seen over the past 24 hours along with –

MS. HARF: Anonymous quotes that are blind-quoted in stories. I’m sure people can find one person to say one thing. But I will tell you, the people I have spoken to, people the Secretary’s spoken to at the White House – we’ve had many conversations about this – are fully supportive of his efforts from the President on down, and think that we – but also agree with him that we are at a point where we can’t do this indefinitely and where they need to make some tough decisions.

QUESTION: But I mean, they may be supportive of his mission, but when you get folks saying they want him to lower the volume, that doesn’t sound like it’s —

MS. HARF: I don’t even know what that means. That’s like a word – that’s something people throw out on background – I’ve probably done it – that is probably meaningless. And I don’t know what that means when it comes to the negotiations. What I know is that when the Secretary talks to Susan Rice, talks to the President, talks to the whole other range of people that are working on it, that they are in lockstep about trying to move this forward, but about not being able to make decisions for the two parties themselves.

QUESTION: Was it a mistake for Israel to insist upon an extension of this time period for negotiations in the first place?

MS. HARF: What are you referring to?

QUESTION: The insisting upon an extension of the time to negotiate in exchange for deciding to release the fourth tranche of prisoners. Was it a mistake for Israel to insist upon that when that had not been part of the original agreement to start these talks last July?

MS. HARF: Well, I’m not going to get into the details of what the two parties may or may have discussed around the prisoner release, around how we move the process forward. I think some reports out there are accurate and some just aren’t.

QUESTION: Well, the Palestinians are saying: Look, this is not something that was part of the original agreement when we said we would hold off on our actions to try to be recognized by a number of UN bodies. We went into these talks in good faith, and from our perspective, the Israelis have tried to change the terms of the negotiation and essentially our hand has been forced.

MS. HARF: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: I know a couple of days ago – I know that yesterday you said this Administration is not interested in ascribing blame.

MS. HARF: Absolutely.

QUESTION: But is there not any consideration for the Palestinians’ view of where they are? They say they have had to tolerate new announcements of settlements in the occupied West Bank, that they’ve had to deal with ongoing arrests and harassment of Palestinian citizens. They feel as if the U.S. is picking sides here.

MS. HARF: Well, we’re not. And we’ve been very clear that we’re not playing the blame game here. Both sides have taken unhelpful steps. That’s why we are where we are today. And also what we would say is that a tit-for-tat like we’ve seen over this past week isn’t conducive to moving the process forward and isn’t helpful. So we’re not going to put blame on anyone. These are complicated issues. There’s a lot at stake, and I don’t think there’s any upside to trying to play some sort of blame game here.

QUESTION: Do you expect that this process that is supposed to end on the 29th of this month – an abrupt end to it or an announcement that this – we have – this is no longer ongoing and it’s null and void, or whatever language that you might —

MS. HARF: Said, if I could look into a crystal ball and tell you how this process ends, I would love to be able to do that. But I have no predictions to make about that.

QUESTION: When you say that the parties are committed to continuing the talks, do you mean till the end of April?

MS. HARF: What the Secretary said is they say they want to continue. I don’t think he specified a specific date. They have throughout this process said they were committed to talking for nine months. But what he is focused on right now is that they’re at the table saying they’ll continue talking.

Middle East peace?

QUESTION: So no time period specified? There’s still this overarching desire to find some sort of peace deal?

MS. HARF: In general, is that still our position that we want to get a peace deal?

QUESTION: No, that – is that what both sides have expressed to the U.S.?

MS. HARF: They have expressed that they want to keep talking, yes.


MS. HARF: Uh-huh. Middle East peace?

QUESTION: Yeah, yeah. When the Secretary said we’re going to reevaluate, is that imply – does that imply in any way, shape, or form that the Administration may change the approach? In other word, of instead of being facilitator it could be an initiator of laying down a plan and say, “Hey guys, this is it,” because it’s not – it’s not working. You say that the two —

MS. HARF: Well, it hasn’t worked yet.

QUESTION: Yeah. Well, but they want to continue. Continue for what? On what?

MS. HARF: We need to see if there’s a path forward here to keep the two parties at the table to see if we can make progress towards a comprehensive peace agreement here, and there are steps along the way that we would have to take to get there. And so we need to see if there is a way to do that.

QUESTION: So as far as you’re concerned, there is no change of – in terms of approach?

MS. HARF: In terms of the role that we’re playing?

QUESTION: Being facilitator and that’s it.

MS. HARF: There’s no – no, there’s no change in terms of the role we’re playing. Obviously, our approach to the discussions —

QUESTION: Although it’s not working.

MS. HARF: I’m sorry?

QUESTION: Although it’s not working.

MS. HARF: It hasn’t worked yet. You’re writing this off like it’s not going to work. We’re still negotiating. It may not work. But I think we need to all – it’s really easy to write the story that Middle East peace is dead. That’s not a hard story to write, because what’s true in the past statistically tends to continue being true in the future. But what we’re trying to do is make sure that’s not the case. So I think until we get to the end of this process, we should all be cautious about making predictions about what will come next. And look, this may not work, but the parties have said they want to continue. Our team is continuing, and we’ll see if we can make some more progress.

Middle East peace.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Are we likely to see unveiling of this secrecy over the negotiating of the framework agreement that the United States can say – I mean, because the Secretary has really invested a great deal. He made 11 trips. He met, like, untold god-awful hours until one and two in the morning.

MS. HARF: A lot, yeah.

QUESTION: And are we likely to —

MS. HARF: Who’s going to write the book? Is that what you’re asking?

QUESTION: Exactly. Okay. Well, we might wait for the book.

MS. HARF: Maybe that’s what I’ll do when I leave here.

QUESTION: Okay. But are we likely to see – this what we proposed? I mean, because nobody is talking about any —

MS. HARF: No, it’s a good question, Said. And quite frankly, I don’t know. I don’t know what will happen if we can get movement, can’t get movement. I just don’t know.

QUESTION: What does it look like from here? Like, how does this either go forward or end at this point?

MS. HARF: What does it look like from here? Honestly, it looks like constant communication and talking on the ground. Ambassador Indyk, I think, has probably slept less than any other person besides Secretary Kerry that works for the State Department. Really intense negotiations. Really intense. But that everybody, including the Secretary – and I wasn’t trying to downplay his tone in the press avail. I do think you see from him and from our team that we are getting toward – very close to a point where, if we don’t see tough decisions made, there’s going to have – there really needs to be some soul searching here among the two parties to see whether they can move forward.

QUESTION: And so what does that look like? I mean if – would there be an announcement —

MS. HARF: I don’t know.

QUESTION: – or would all three parties come out, or would the Secretary say it at a press conference, or —

MS. HARF: It’s a really good question, and honestly, I have no idea.

QUESTION: But in terms of the negotiations, I mean, what are you – are you still working – I mean, you have this kind of snag with the prisoners and the extension and all that stuff that kind of hit – put you through this latest snag. Are you trying to negotiate to get over this hump, or are you still negotiating on your frame – on the kind of larger issues —

MS. HARF: Right. We’re —

QUESTION: – and putting this aside for now?

MS. HARF: We’re doing both, really, and – but we can’t negotiate on larger issues if we can’t get over this hump, so – if that makes any sense.

QUESTION: I have a final question regarding aid to the Palestinians.

MS. HARF: Uh-huh.

QUESTION: Are you doing anything on Capitol Hill to sort of ensure that aid to the Palestinian Authority at least continues for the time being?

MS. HARF: Well, we’re going to keep talking with the parties, see if the process can move forward, and talk with the folks on the Hill. I don’t have anything more for you on the aid piece on the Hill.

QUESTION: Has there been any call from members on the Hill to suspend the aid, to follow the law?

MS. HARF: Well, I know there’s been calls from Hill members on quite a few things. In terms of the 15 conventions the Palestinians signed, it’s our understanding that they don’t – they wouldn’t trigger the cutoffs because they’re not agencies. But again, we’re talking to the folks on the Hill.

QUESTION: On that (inaudible), I think I had asked you about that yesterday —

MS. HARF: Uh-huh.

QUESTION: – and you had said that the lawyers were reviewing it. They have now reviewed it, and that is indeed the answer?

MS. HARF: Uh-huh.

QUESTION: Good. Thank you.

MS. HARF: Yeah. Yes.


Go to Top