Aboard Air Force One
En route Miami, Florida
10:03 A.M. EDT
MR. FLEISCHER: All right, I’ll give you some information on this, so far, non-newsy day.
The President left his ranch. He’s heading for Florida, where the President will make remarks to senior citizens, on Medicare. During these remarks the President will also talk about the importance of getting generic drugs to seniors.
He will deliver his remarks to the Little Havanna Activities and Nutrition Center. This metropolitan senior center was established in the late 1960s as one of the national senior center demonstration sites created by the Older American Act of 1965. It’s one of 21 sites operated by the Little Havanna Activities and Nutrition Centers. They serve 54,000 seniors in Miami-Dade County, and it’s the first and the largest organization serving Hispanic seniors in the United States.
Q: The largest organization serving Hispanics?
MR. FLEISCHER: It was the first and the largest organization serving Hispanic seniors in the United States. They provide nutrition, health, home and community based and supportive services to Hispanic seniors. In addition, they operate three inter-generational child care centers. They have a geriatric primary health care clinic, and employment and economic development services for the poor — they provide that.
The senior center is located within the Robert King High Housing Complex, which is 850 apartments for low-income seniors and disabled adults. The housing complex is operated by the Miami-Dade Housing Authority and is the largest in Miami-Dade County.
From there, the President will participate in a Bush-Cheney 2004 luncheon. And then he will depart in the late afternoon for Tampa, Florida, where he will depart [sic] in a Bush-Cheney 2004 reception, before he returns to the White House, where he will arrive at a scheduled hour of 9:45 p.m.
That’s today’s highlights for you, and with that I’m more than happy to take your questions.
Q: His assessment on the Middle East?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, the President has worked very hard to create a new atmosphere in the Middle East, an atmosphere that’s marked by hope, instead of despair; and an atmosphere in which the leaders of Israel and the Palestinian Authority have a vision of peace. It was just over one year ago that he gave his June 24th speech, saying that Yasser Arafat was not a person that the United States could work with to achieve peace.
We’re entering a new era now, hopefully. And the President is encouraged by the work that the Israelis are doing together with the Palestinian Authority leaders to promote the vision of peace, to make progress toward peace. He just got off the phone with Dr. Rice, where he received a briefing on her visit to the region. And he urges all parties to continue their efforts — this is to the Israelis, the Palestinian Authority and the Arab nations — to making progress on the way forward to a two state solution to the violence in the Middle East.
Q: Ari, there was a Rumanian contract worker, construction worker who was killed in the West Bank area, and a group affiliated with Fatah was claiming responsibility for that. It sort of is an indication that the cease-fire might be a little bit more fragile than we thought. Is he aware about that new incident?
MR. FLEISCHER: Of course, the President is aware of it and there will be elements who will try to prevent peace. In the President’s judgment, what’s important is for the Palestinian Authority to bring to justice perpetrators of terrorism and to take action to prevent violence in the future. And it remains the President’s very strong position that it’s important to dismantle terrorism.
Q: But he doesn’t think that the cease-fire is in any trouble at this particular moment?
MR. FLEISCHER: We’re, literally, mere hours into this. That’s the President’s position, just what I said.
Q: Ari, is he disappointed at the — that the cease-fire is for three months, instead of permanent? And how can you make it permanent?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President’s focus is on diminishing the violence, and the best way to diminish violence is to dismantle terrorism. The terrorists are the greatest threat that the Palestinian people have to receiving a state. The terrorists are not just a threat to the Israeli people, they are a threat to the millions of Palestinian people who want an era of peace to take root and who want and deserve a state that’s led by a legitimate government. The terrorists are a threat to that.
Q: So he is disappointed, then, that it’s temporary?
MR. FLEISCHER: No, the President’s focus remains to help the process through, and the process is the two state solution and that involves the dismantlement and calls for the dismantlement of terror.
Q: When are we going to see Prime Minister Abbas come to Washington?
MR. FLEISCHER: Dr. Rice in her visit reiterated the President’s offer that he would host Prime Minister Abbas at the White House. Now staff for the Palestinian Authority is working with staff for the White House on setting the date. We have not yet determined the date, but I anticipate it will happen. I can’t say when yet.
Q: Days, months?
MR. FLEISCHER: I wouldn’t want to make a guess.
Q: Ari, he’s got some difficulty there, doesn’t he, Abbas? He said he can’t travel so long as Arafat is still locked into Ramallah, I guess he got a waiver to do so, to go — to meet with the President last time. How does he handle that situation? He almost undermines his credibility with the Palestinians by making this trip.
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think he enhances his credibility with the Palestinians because he’s a man who can bring results, unlike Yasser Arafat. I think there was tremendous frustration within the Palestinian people about corruption in the Palestinian Authority. Now the Palestinian people for the first time actually have a leader in whom they can place their hope and trust; and they have a finance minister who is actually dedicated to fighting corruption. There are many Palestinian legislators who actively spoke out against corruption.
So this is an interesting moment for the Palestinian people and the Palestinian Authority because we may, as a world community, be able to watch the birth of a new nation. What’s important is that nation serve the needs of the Palestinian people. Those needs involve education, they involve health care, they involve access to economic opportunity. That’s really what this process ends in.
Now, the violence and the terrorism can mar the process. That has been the history of the region. And that’s why the President’s focus here is helping the parties to keep their eyes focused on the long-term solution, which is really under the road map a couple years’ solution, which is to take the meaningful steps, the result-oriented measurable steps that lead to a two state solution — Palestinian Authority, Palestinian state and an Israeli state that can live in security.
Q: Ari, on Iraq, just for a second. There were two more American soldiers wounded over the weekend. There were the two bodies found over the weekend — actually, two soldiers wounded yesterday. Again, is the President concerned that this is going to drag on and on and on into sort of constant guerilla warfare for months and months?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, as Ambassador Bremer said, the United States will remain dedicated to mission to rout out those who engage in violence in Iraq. The people conducting these operations against the United States forces in Iraq are enemies of the Iraqi people. And in this, the United States remains the ally of the Iraqi people who want to have a free country and a stable country and a secure country. And the President is determined to see that mission through.
It is, as he said on the Abraham Lincoln, dangerous still. And he mourns the loss of every life. He mourns everyone who receives harm in the conflict by being wounded. But he is determined and will remain determined to complete the mission.
Q: Why can’t you find Saddam Hussein?
MR. FLEISCHER: As Ambassador Bremer said, we will.
Q: Now you’re saying he’s alive —
MR. FLEISCHER: It’s just a question — just a question of time. If he’s alive, we’ll find him. Thank you for that clarification. If he’s alive, he’ll be found over time.
Q: Is he alive? Did you say he was alive?
MR. FLEISCHER: No. I said —
Q: What did you say?
MR. FLEISCHER: I said, Elizabeth very, very cleverly — good question, I answered it. And then I indicated that if he’s alive, we will find him.
Q: Ari, what is the next step now? Now that you’ve got this truce, now that the Israelis have pulled back from — they’ve had a troop pull-back. What do you expect to see now?
MR. FLEISCHER: Well, under the road map, Israel has responsibilities and the Palestinian Authority has responsibilities. Both parties are taking active steps, concrete steps to fulfill their responsibilities here in the early stages. They both have more responsibilities to go. And this remains a difficult process.
But it’s beginning with the right notes, hopeful notes — especially by the Israelis and by the Palestinian Authority. The terrorists still are the ones who stand in the way.
What happens next is that Israel has obligations to help improve the human conditions, the economic conditions of the Palestinian people by making life easier at the checkpoints, by giving the Palestinian people access to jobs that they’ve held in Israel proper. What’s next for the Palestinian — and by continuing, as Israel has done, with the release of funds that belong to the Palestinian people. Israel has done that. They have additional obligations to take.
For the Palestinian Authority, this is a real test now of their ability to bring perpetrators of terror to justice. They need to do so. That is paramount. Security is paramount. The Palestinian Authority has an obligation to fight corruption, thereby creating confidence within the Palestinian people, within the United States, and within the international community that funds received by the Palestinian Authority actually go to the betterment of the Palestinian people and not to the pockets of Palestinian leaders.
But these are the good and decent actions that two states that one day soon we want to live side-by-side in peace, should be expected to take.
Q: What is our next step?
MR. FLEISCHER: Our next step continues to be the active involvement of the United States to help the Israelis and the Palestinians work together. Also America’s next step remains to work closely with the Arab leaders in the region who are playing a helpful role here. Many of the developments that are taking place are thanks to the vision of the Israeli leaders and Prime Minister Abbas, but also to the helping hands of the Arab nations.
Q: What did the President learn from Dr. Rice? Can you share anything with us?
MR. FLEISCHER: I really kind of have reflected on that in what I said to you. I think that the President is hopeful, but he is realistic — the Middle East is an area where on a good day, you take two steps forward for one step backward. He also is cognizant there likely will be days where there are two steps backward for one step forward. And that’s why this President remains focused on the vision and on pushing the parties forward to achieving the vision.
And then he uses the various levers at his disposal, up and down the United States’ governments ranks — Secretary Powell and Dr. Rice, who operate really as a team; to Ambassador Wolf, who is in the region — or Secretary Wolf, who is the region, to the implementation group that’s left behind in the region to keep pushing the parties forward.
But the violence began in September of 2000. Perhaps we’re on the door of a quieter day in the Middle East. We’ll see.
Q: Anything on a head’s-up, Supreme Court-wise?
MR. FLEISCHER: I do not.
Q: Is it your sense that as we get further into this week that it’s less and less likely that we’ll see any turnover in the Court?
MR. FLEISCHER: I think those are questions that need to go to judicial observers. You know if there is something, the White House will deal with it. But I have no knowledge of anything.
Q: So you’re not standing down as we get further away from the recess — further into the recess?
MR. FLEISCHER: Again, I leave these judgments up to others. You know, many people who have watched the Court thought last Friday would be the day, if there was a day. Some people say it doesn’t have to be last Friday. Those are judgments others are best able to make. If it becomes a White House story, we’ll have a White House story.
Q: Ari, does the President want a compromised Medicare package by July 30, which I understand is the anniversary of the 1965 law?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President wants the House and Senate to make as much progress as quickly as possible. This is a complex bill, an important bill. And he will urge that we get it done as quickly as possible.
Q: July 30 would be a nice date?
MR. FLEISCHER: He’s saying as quickly as possible.
Q: Ari, how important is Florida to the President’s reelection?
MR. FLEISCHER: At this point I’m not going to get into a state-by-state analysis of an election that is more than a year away. The President is focused on governing. And as he said, there will be coming a time for politics. And he’s not there yet, so therefore neither can I be.
Q: It’s just a coincidence he’s talking to Hispanic seniors about Medicare in Florida?
MR. FLEISCHER: He’s been to Florida many times. He’s talked to all kinds of in Florida. He’s talked to Hispanic groups and all kinds of different groups across the country. It’s part of governing.
Q: Seem like it would be good for the reelection, though, to talk to this group today?
MR. FLEISCHER: The President thinks it’s good for policy, and that’s why he’s here.
Q: That’s good, Ari. (Laughter.)
Q: Ari, one last thing, if Abbas does come to the — does do the Oval Office — if he does do the Oval Office shot, I mean, doesn’t that kill Abbas back at home? I mean, doesn’t that set him up as such a tool of the West and, by extension, the Israelis? I mean, that would undermine all of his credibility on the Palestinian street, to be photographed — not to mention kill Arafat?
MR. FLEISCHER: Prime Minister Abbas’ hope is to build a state. Hamas’ hope is to destroy a state. Hamas is an enemy of the Palestinian people. Hamas are terrorists. The Palestinian people aren’t terrorists. There are millions of Palestinian people. There’s a comparatively handful of people who belong to Hamas, who are terrorists. They have no interest in living side-by-side with Israel in peace and security. They’ve said their goal is to kill Israelis and drive Israel into the sea. They are the enemies of the Palestinian people. Prime Minister Abbas, by fighting terror, fights for the Palestinian people.
Q: Ari, my only point is that photo opportunity would drive Arafat crazy, and it may undermine Abbas’ credibility among Palestinians.
MR. FLEISCHER: No, I think it’s just the opposite. The Palestinian people didn’t get anything out of Yasser Arafat. What did they get? They got corruption. They got more terrorism. They had a leader who would lie about his involvement in terror. And they had somebody who walked away from a potential agreement that would have resulted in a Palestinian state. The Palestinian people are worthy of more and they deserve better. And Prime Minister Abbas may very well represent that hope. That’s America’s goal here. That’s the President’s goal, is to help Prime Minister Abbas and all who are working for peace to deliver it.
END 10:23 A.M. EDT