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CNN Live Event/Special

Ari Fleischer Holds Daily Press Briefing

Aired April 11, 2002 - 12:36   ET


FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: We want to take you now to Washington to the White House for a briefing by Ari Fleischer. He's talking now. Let's go to him now.


ARI FLEISCHER, WHITE HOUSE PRESS SECRETARY: ... minority leader of the House, minority leader of the Senate to consult about events abroad as well as domestic issues. They talked extensively about the war against terrorism, events in the Middle East.

The president raised several issues on the domestic agenda, including the importance of passage of energy legislation to make us more energy independent; faith-based legislation; confirmation of judges; his hopes that the Senate will still be able to pass a budget resolution, as well as supplemental appropriations that are pending in the Congress.

From there, the president had his usual intelligence briefings with the CIA and the FBI.

And then the president spoke with King Hamad of Bahrain this morning. The two expressed mutual concern over the continuing tension in the Middle East. The president reiterated his commitment to bring about conditions for an end to the current violence and a return to negotiations. He outlined the need for Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab states to do more to achieve that objective.

The king of Bahrain also expressed his support for the approach that the president outlined in his April 3 statement issued from the Rose Garden here at the White House.

And finally, the president also expressed his deep appreciation for the strong relationship between the United States and Bahrain, and for Bahrain's support for efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East.

The president, as we speak, is having his regular lunch with the vice president. And then this afternoon, the president will conduct an event and give a speech to call on the Congress to pass legislation to help improve the lives of those who are living in poverty or near poverty through what's called the Charity Aid Recovery and Empowerment Act, or the CARE Act.

Finally, one other notice, the president will meet with Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri at the White House on April the 17th.

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

QUESTION: In the last week, since that Rose Garden speech you were talking about, have the Israelis, the Palestinians or Arab leaders done anything to address his pleas? And if so, be specific as to what they've done to meet any of the conditions he laid out (OFF- MIKE).

FLEISCHER: OK. In the president's remarks last week, the president called on the Israelis, the Palestinian Authority and Arab nations in the region to take specific actions to help bring about peace in the region.

He urged the Palestinian Authority to declare a cease-fire, to agree to implement the Zinni plan and the Tenet accords. He urged the Palestinian Authority to issue orders to security forces to exert maximum effort against terrorist activities. He also urged Chairman Arafat to make public statements denouncing suicide bombings and to renounce violence as a political instrument.

The president called on the Arab states to do everything possible to stop terrorist activities, to disrupt terrorist financing and stop incitement to violence in state-owned media.

He also urged them to denounce publicly suicide bombings, and to use their influence with the Palestinian Authority and other groups to stop the violence.

And finally, he called on Israel to halt its incursions into the Palestinian areas and begin withdrawing from Palestinian cities recently occupied, including Ramallah; to acknowledge publicly that the occupation of Palestinian territories must end through a withdrawal and to secure recognized borders consistent with U.N. Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.

Now, to answer your question -- I go through that for a reason, that's the record. That's what the president publicly called for.

Here is where we are: Israel has continued the withdrawal that began that the president called for, in some areas. There are additional incursions in other areas.

The president reiterates this call to all three parties that they need to do the very specific things I just walked through. They have not been done yet. The president calls on all the parties to keep working to get them done.

I think it's also fair to say, that when the president said what he said in the Rose Garden, he did not expect all three parties that night to salute and say yes. That's not how the Mideast works.

And if you note that since the president gave that speech in the Rose Garden, where, in very direct language, he called on all the parties to do what they need to do to create peace, the United Nations' Security Council has spoken out, what's called the quartet, which represents the European Union, Russia, the United States and the United Nations, have also spoken out.

There's no shortage of people who are following the president's lead on speaking out around the world. What still remains to happen is the three parties on the ground to take the actions he's called for.

QUESTION: Ari, would you go on the public record and stand by a statement you made earlier this morning, which was that Sharon is a man of peace, which some Israelis might not even agree with? Do you stand by that, that he's a man of peace, considering his record?

FLEISCHER: The president believes that Ariel Sharon is a man of peace.

QUESTION: What does the president hope that the secretary of state is able to accomplish in his meetings over the next few days? Are you looking for a cease-fire specifically?

FLEISCHER: The president hopes that the secretary, in his visits with Arab nations, Israel and the Palestinian Authority, will be able to create an environment that reduces the violence, that hopefully leads to a cease-fire, that hopefully leads to a beginning of the political process once again in the Middle East.

It's a very difficult mission. There is no guarantee of success. The president has given the secretary of state maximum flexibility so he'll have maximum influence in the region and also an open itinerary toward the end of the trip so the secretary can make determinations on where to go, how best to implement that mission.

QUESTION: Is it possible that he would stay on in the area until there is a cease-fire?

FLEISCHER: Well, the secretary of state will determine his agenda. The president has given him the flexibility.

But the trip is really just beginning. I mean, he's finished meeting with several of the Arab nations, has had several meetings with them. He's in Jordan right now. He'll get to Israel late tonight, and he'll meet with Israel tomorrow. He'll meet with Chairman Arafat the following day.

So I think it's also fair to say, give the secretary time, and we'll see how events unfold.

QUESTION: Ari, the president has made very clear his goal of defeating terrorism around the world. Ariel Sharon says he is fighting a war on terrorism against the Palestinians and other groups like Hezbollah and Hamas.

Does the president have an opinion as to whether the Israeli offensive, to date, has been successful as to reaching that stated goal?

FLEISCHER: The president's opinion is that Israel needs to withdraw, that Israel needs to withdraw, as he said in the Rose Garden, and that, to fight terrorism, the Arab nations need to step up to their responsibilities to take on terrorists, to stop funding terrorists, to condemn terrorists. And the Palestinian Authority needs to renounce terrorism, because despite what Chairman Arafat said at Oslo, the Palestinian Authority has not done so.

QUESTION: Right. But the question is, Ariel Sharon says they're making progress, that they have to complete a job that is a successful job to rout out terrorism and terrorists in their midst.

The question is, does the president believe that this is a successful and worthy operation that the Israelis are embarking on?

FLEISCHER: Here's how I put it from the president's point of view. I think what he would say to that is, one, he recognizes Israel's right to defend herself. Israel, of course, had been attacked in a series of suicide bombings, which are really homicide bombings. I think the name suicide bombings is not an apt description of what Israel faced from these attacks across the border.

Having done so, the president, as you know, in the Rose Garden, reached the point where he said to all the parties, enough is enough, because his concern now is that the issue has moved away from how to create a political environment where the parties can at long last sit down and talk with each other to one where it was spiraling out of control.

QUESTION: To follow up on the statement that the president believes Ariel Sharon is a peacemaker, given that Sharon has long been on record saying that he is against the Oslo accords; that, as minister of housing in several governments, he is on the record saying that one of the purposes of building settlements in the West Bank is to render impossible the establishment of a Palestinian state there; and given that he's twice in his career been reprimanded by Israeli authorities for atrocities committed by forces under his de facto control against Palestinians, on what evidence does the president believe that Ariel Sharon is a man of peace?

FLEISCHER: Well, on several. Number one, Ariel Sharon is a democratically elected prime minister of the free state of Israel. And the state of Israel is committed to peace, and they elected a leader who would help them achieve security on the path to peace.

The president knows, because he's discussed it directly with the prime minister, that the prime minister is committed to the Tenet accords and to the Mitchell plan, that he supports both of those.

And what's happened in the Middle East is, as a result of the suicide attacks or the homicide attacks, the progress that had been made by General Zinni's cooperative efforts with Israel and the Palestinian Authority was derailed.

The point the president is stressing now is his deliberate perseverance to emerge from the chaos and the violence with a plan that gets the parties back to peace. That's where his focus is now.

QUESTION: Has Prime Minister Sharon's refusal to accede to President Bush's demands, stated clearly and unequivocally, that Israel withdraw, does that damage the president's confidence or trust in Prime Minister Sharon at all?

FLEISCHER: All the entities I cited have a responsibility to bear in creating peace in the Middle East, in the president's opinion. The burden of responsibility does not fall on only one. All three need to step up the responsibilities to achieve peace.

As I noted, the withdrawals the president called for are continuing. But Arab nations, as well as the Palestinian Authority, were called on specifically to do certain things by this president, and the president is waiting to see results from them as well.

QUESTION: The Prime Minister Shimon Peres said that withdrawal of Israeli troops from the West Bank will probably require another two weeks. Do you consider this as an acceptable timeframe?

FLEISCHER: I'd reiterate what the president said about urging the Israelis to withdraw, urging the Palestinian Authority to denounce violence, and urging the Arab allies to do their part to influence the Palestinian Authority so the violence can be stopped.

QUESTION: Ari, aides to Congressman Gephardt said that during the breakfast this morning, while he thanked the president for these consultations and these breakfast meetings, he felt that Democrats and Republicans need to have more regular meetings with this White House to find out what's going on in terms of the war on terrorism and the Middle East, that it's sort of like pulling teeth to get some briefings.

So, A, how do you respond to Democrats who say that they're simply not getting enough information from the White House about what's going on?

FLEISCHER: Well, you know, I just -- this president and this administration, in the midst of a war against terrorism, in the midst of a terrible situation in the Middle East, have carved out of their schedules considerable time to keep the Capitol informed. It is Congress' right and prerogative to be informed, and they are being informed on an ongoing, regular basis.

Sometimes you just have to recognize in Washington no amount of consultation is ever enough for the Hill, and I think that extends well before this administration. That's sometimes just the way the Hill works.

But I also want to add that, from the president's point of view, as much as he's consulting, he's also interested in actions and results from all the consultations that he has given to the Hill.

For example, the president wants to make sure that the Congress passes the defense appropriation bill first. They understand the seriousness of the war. They've been consulted. The president is looking for results and action. He wants to make sure Congress doesn't pass defense last.

The president wants to make sure they pass an energy policy that helps make us more independent.

There are a host of issues that the president, in these meetings, has called on the leadership, particularly in the Senate, to do. They've gotten the consultation. They've gotten the message. The question is, what are the results?

QUESTION: Let me just follow though, because Congressman Gephardt sent a letter to the president just at the time of your briefing, so you can't obviously comment on the letter. But he is calling for a more formal procedure, having key members of the House and the Senate, the chairs of respective committees meeting with the administration or the president on a weekly or bi-weekly basis, saying this was done during Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, why shouldn't it be done now?

FLEISCHER: Well, I think the administration is always going to be willing to work with ways to find -- to help members of Congress get access to information.

I can assure you that if any of these meetings are set up, we hope the members of Congress will show up. There's often an issue where people go up to the Hill to brief, and very few members of Congress even show up.

Now, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, the president's national security adviser, will be meeting with the Democrat leadership to consult. They were just down here to consult. There's plenty of consultation going on. The question is, are there results from the consultations?

QUESTION: So the White House doesn't see any need to have more formal consultations with lawmakers?

FLEISCHER: We'll always be interested in ways to productively consult with the Congress. Like I say, you know, I hope people will show up to the meetings. Sometimes they seek these things and then fail to show up.

QUESTION: When Saddam Hussein of Iraq announced that he would suspending all exports for 30 days, there was a fear in the world market that that could create all kinds of disruptions. I think Saudi Arabia stepped in and decided that -- said they would make up any difference.

Does the United States feel there is a danger that the oil in the Middle East would be disrupted, as we speak now?

FLEISCHER: Well, the United States, the Department of Energy is monitoring very carefully oil markets and the price. And it does not look like there was any adverse reaction marketwide on any long-term basis, at least so far, as a result of what Saddam Hussein has done.

The situation, though, is an ongoing problem for the United States and for consumers and for people who want to be able to fill their car up with gas and not to have worry every spring heading into the summer driving season about empowering other nations to exercise domination over the United States when it comes to the price of energy.

And that's why the president feels so strongly in the need for the Senate to do what the House did, which is to pass a comprehensive energy plan that focuses on conservation, on greater efficiency and on greater exploration here at home so America can rely on America for energy needs and not be vulnerable to the actions that others take.

I think it's fair to say that, as of today, the confluence of events in Venezuela, the decision by Iraq to shut off its oil supplies has not created any impact in the markets as of today.

But the point is, why take the risk? Why should the United States be vulnerable to these other nations? Why can't the United States do more at home? The House has taken action to help America do more at home. The president hopes the Senate will, as well.

QUESTION: Since you mentioned the situation with Venezuela, which is a state (UNINTELLIGIBLE) having a great conflict with President Chavez and this may create all kinds of problems. But also President Chavez is being accused of violating freedom of the press and trying to use the media -- control the media on that particular strike, saying that the strike is actually an attempt to overthrow the government.

Does the White House share that view?

FLEISCHER: I have not heard any updates from the events in Venezuela other than there's a strike in Venezuela, which appears to be an internal Venezuelan issue. However, the United States will monitor it. But I don't have anything for you beyond that.

QUESTION: I know that the president's been sharply critical of Arafat's behavior recently, but does he also consider Yasser Arafat ultimately to be a man of peace?

FLEISCHER: As the president himself has said in the Rose Garden, Yasser Arafat has yet to earn the president's trust.

QUESTION: Can you give a more specific answer to Terry's second question...

FLEISCHER: Remind me of what it was. It was nine or 10 questions ago.

QUESTION: Is Sharon losing support in the White House because of his slow withdrawal?

FLEISCHER: No. The president has, will be and does -- the president has, does and will continue to work directly with Ariel Sharon to achieve peace in the region.

QUESTION: So that's a no, that story this morning is incorrect?

FLEISCHER: Yes. I just -- you know, the other thing, too, you cannot separate in a democracy the leader of a democracy from the nation. Ariel Sharon is the democratically elected prime minister of Israel, representing the people of Israel. They elected him. The United States' relations with Israel goes through their democratically elected leader.

QUESTION: So the story about frustration within the White House about the Israeli leader's actions is not accurate?

FLEISCHER: Well, I again go back to what I said at the beginning. The president gave a speech in the Rose Garden where he called on three entities -- Israel, the Arab neighbors and the Palestinian Authority -- to step up and exercise statesmanship to bring peace to the region.

And the president is determined and persistent to try to accomplish that goal, and that's why the secretary is in the region. And the president will keep at it and remain committed to helping get it done.

Obviously, the parties themselves have not made much progress, and that's why the United States can and should and will play a vital role.

QUESTION: Well, I mean, so when Keith asked you, you said that the story was incorrect, and then you sort of hedged with Kelly just asked the question.

I mean, is there more frustration now then there was say three days ago with Sharon and his cooperation with...


FLEISCHER: And I urge you, there are three key parties here. Your questions continue to focus on one party. And that is not the president's approach. The president recognizes that all contribute to what's happening in the Middle East, and he called on all to take certain steps.

The focus here and the focus repeatedly has just been on one nation. That is not the president's focus. No one nation bears the burden of the responsibility of what's happening in the Middle East today. And that's why the president called on all to do their part. And that's an important difference.

And so when the president -- the reason I hesitated on Kelly's question, I wanted to bring the focus back to the president's message to all three -- not one, all three.

QUESTION: Yesterday, House panel on immigration voted, or recommended, that INS should be dismantled. So yesterday, since (UNINTELLIGIBLE) INS (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and they have no friends on the Hill. They said that they are not going to wait for President Bush to do this, but we are going to do this. Now, what I'm asking is, by dismantling the INS, what would be the status of the (i)245s and also pending applications and new applications? Are they going to be affected in any way by this?

FLEISCHER: Is who going to be affected? I didn't hear you. QUESTION: The new applications or pending applications or (i)245?

FLEISCHER: First of all, what's moving now in the House is just the beginning. And so it's a separate question from what'll impact anything, because you don't know the timing of what the House ultimately will do. The Senate has to take it up, et cetera.

I'm not sure "dismantling" is the right word for it. The president had made a proposal, and we're working with the Congress, that involves both an administrative step for it, as well as working legislatively on reforming the IRS (sic), breaking it into one agency responsible for enforcement, one agency responsible for the immigration services that are provided.

So that's just beginning in the House, but this is consistent with what the attorney general announced with the reorganization last -- I believe it was last fall, I think in November, the attorney general announced the administration's intention to split the agencies in two.

QUESTION: Ari, as much as I'm reluctant to belabor this issue, the president did say to a key American ally, "Withdrawal without delay." And the Israelis, although they have withdrawn from some areas, have redeployed in others.

My question to you is, is withdrawal, the word that you have used, is that an accurate description of the sum total of what Israel's doing if they're still in major cities and towns?

FLEISCHER: Israel is continuing its withdrawal, as the president asked.

The Palestinian Authority has responsibilities they have not yet taken. The Arab nations in the region have responsibilities that the president has called for which he is still looking for results. And so, again, I remind you, it is not only one nation; it is all of them. And that's the president's focus.


WHITFIELD: All right, you have been listening to Ari Fleischer, spokesperson for the White House. He says it is not just about one nation. It is all of us, the U.S., Palestine, Israel. However, it was the state of Israel and Palestine that was the focus of his press conference this afternoon.

Ari Fleischer, put under pressure, says the president believes that Ariel Sharon is a man of peace because he is a democratically elected one and because he supports Zinni's plan as well as the Tenet plan. Fleischer, however, would not answer the question as to Israel's refusal to withdraw in any way undermines the U.S. efforts.

Of course, we will be following this continued story, the crisis in the Middle East.