The President. Well, I was just asking what the press interest was in. And tonight at our dinner, the Secretary, having covered Yugoslavia and a lot of other issues at the Foreign Minister level -- we talked about the Iraq situation and we talked mainly about conventional arms control or how the various participants in the G - 7 could show their keen interest in arms control. We didn't go into the details of START or anything of that nature.
So, those were the subjects at our dinner. And, Jim, you were into several other subjects -- Yugoslavia -- --
Secretary Baker. Yugoslavia, Asia -- a whole host of regional political issues.
The President. And then a main topic at our dinner was the Middle East. And with that in mind, we have received a response from Syria. We view it as a positive response. We're not suggesting that everything is fine and that there couldn't be some last minute hitch to it, but we're approaching this very positively. And so much so that I've asked Jim Baker to go back to the area to immediately follow up.
This is what we would term a breakthrough from what we know about it, something very important. We're grateful that President Assad has come forward at this point -- appears to have come forward -- willing to engage in the kinds of discussions that Secretary Baker has been pressing for. That's been part of our policy.
So, we'll see where we go from here. And I regret that Jim won't be with me at Turkey and Greece. Both countries have been important to us. He's done a lot of work with their Ministers. But this takes priority, and so he will go to several countries in the Middle East and we'll see where we come out.
Middle East Peace Talks
Q. Mr. President, how would you describe the significance of this breakthrough? Do you see real hope here?
The President. Well, again, I will wait until I hear from Jim Baker after he's been in the area, been to several of these countries. But I think, in fairness to President Mubarak who worked with President Assad of Syria on this, and to others, we would say, from what we've seen, we would say breakthrough. But we've learned that you -- we want to go into all the details so that there can't have been some hang-up. But clearly, it is a coming forward by President Assad that we view as very, very positive -- breakthrough, perhaps or maybe, but I think these words -- we've got to be careful until the details are finalized.
Q. What is your plan, and why is it still a secret? And what will Israel respond to this, since it's already rejected it?
The President. Well, I don't know that Israel has rejected this. And the plan has -- the major components of it are well-known. But there are details of it better kept for quiet diplomacy. So, I think mostly people realize what we're talking about here in trying to get these parties to engage one with the other, starting mechanism being a conference of sorts. But we're just going to go forward and keep pressing. And I don't believe Israel has rejected this. They haven't had a chance to even understand what President Assad is proposing. And one of their concerns has been that Syria hasn't been coming forward, and now if it is proper that they are coming forward, that clearly would, I would think, be good for those who want peace in the area. It is a very important step that's taken place.
Q. You mean he has made a concession on some of the -- --
The President. I wouldn't call it a concession. He's just agreed now to come forward to the kinds of meetings that are necessary to get this process going. And that is a major step if it proves to be correct.
Q. Mr. President, how will you convince Israel to get on board now that the Syrians have made this move?
The President. I would like to think that when they say they want peace, that they would get on board naturally. They've been wanting talks with people in the area, and if all goes well here, that's exactly what will happen. So, I'm not going to do anything other than -- to suggest that they'll be unwilling to. My view is that, if it's as represented, that they will want to. They've made statements to us of wanting to do these things, so now here will be a good test, a good -- --
Q. You mean they have not responded?
The President. Well, we haven't asked Israel to respond to the Syrian response yet. We're, as I say, examining it in every detail.
Q. Mr. President, the other side of this is the possibility of renewed bombing inside Iraq. When you talked to the various leaders tonight, do you have support -- if Iraq does not come forward and give the information that we all want, do you have support for military action against Iraq?
The President. There would be strong, strong support for that. I would refer you to what President Mitterrand said yesterday morning, very clear, very direct. The British clearly are in that supportive mode. And I think most countries, recognizing the terrible danger of this man going forward with a nuclear program, would be of the same mind.
Mr. Fitzwater. Thank you all.
The President. Thank you all.
Q. Mr. President, can I ask you one last question?
The President. Yes, you've got it.
Q. Is there a possibility that by the time you meet Mr. Gorbachev later this week there will be an agreement on a strategic arms accord?
The President. Well, I meet him the day after tomorrow, and so I don't want to raise people's hopes, except to say this: that the hard work that went into this by the Foreign Secretary, Mr. Bessmertnykh, and by our Secretary of State produced a lot of results, a lot of results. And we have one sticking point that is highly technical. And whether President Gorbachev and I are able to even discuss something of this technical nature without a lot of experts around I'm not prepared to say.
This G - 7 meeting was not to be dominated by some agreement or lack of agreement on START. And I'm determined to keep it that way. But clearly, if he wants to discuss it further at this meeting, we will be prepared. Maybe there will be other ways to meet. Maybe after Jim and I and General Scowcroft and others who are key to this have a chance to discuss in detail the highly technical arguments, maybe we'll be able to sit with the Foreign Minister when he gets here.
So, we don't have a plan to try to hammer it out in that way. And again, I don't want to confuse President Gorbachev's coming to the G - 7 summit with arms control, with START. It still remains, however, that we want a summit agreement. It still remains that to have a summit agreement, we should have all these details worked out and to have broad agreement on START -- not every single ``t'' crossed or ``i'' dotted. We're talking there, I'm told, of several hundred pages of documentation. That isn't necessary, but the Secretary and the Foreign Minister, having hammered out agreement on the major sticking principles, we're now -- I think, to use Jim's word -- about 99 percent of the way there. But having said that, this last issue is sticky, and we'll have to see where we go.
But I think the Soviets want a summit. We've got many things that I want to talk to him about at a summit. And so, let's hope that this matter will be resolved in the short period of time that lies ahead. I still would say to you that if that's done, there could be a summit by the end of this month still. So, pack your bags, but don't have them zipped up. It's that kind of a thing.
Q. Well, if it's 99 percent, what's that big hang-up? It seems to me -- 10 years.
The President. The other one percent; you've got to deduct 99 from 100. [Laughter]
Q. When do you leave? When do you leave? Wednesday night or Thursday?
Secretary Baker. Probably Thursday morning.
The President. Why don't you ask the Secretary of State a few questions? [Laughter]
Secretary Baker. Probably Thursday morning.
London Economic Summit
The President. No, but it's been a good meeting so far. Let me just say this since we're here at Winfield House: We are very grateful to Prime Minister Major, not just for the hospitality and the lovely evening and the arrangements and all of that but to the time and attention that he put in, the leadership that he put into this G - 7 summit. He's worked out the agenda in a good way. He's been very tolerant of dissenting views, and these discussions we've had are freewheeling. And I am very impressed with the job he has done. I think everyone else attending the summit would agree with that.
Q. Yes, but he won't let us cover anything.
The President. Well, that's your problem, not Major's. [Laughter]
Hey, would you like to say a few words for Helen [Helen Thomas, United Press International]? [Laughter] She wants somebody to answer her questions about anything.
Mrs. Bush. I'll be out later, Helen. [Laughter]
The President. Here's our hostess. Helen Thomas would like to get your view on the balance of payments. [Laughter]
Q. No. We just want to be able to cover the wives occasionally.
Note: The exchange began at 10:50 p.m. at Winfield House, the residence of U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom Raymond G.H. Seitz, upon the President's return from a working dinner with summit participants at the Tower of London. In the exchange, the following persons were referred to: Secretary of State James A. Baker III; President Hafiz al-Assad of Syria; President Mohammed Hosni Mubarak of Egypt; President Francois Mitterrand of France; President Mikhail Gorbachev and Foreign Minister Aleksandr Bessmertnykh of the Soviet Union; Brent Scowcroft, Assistant to the President for National Security Affairs; and Prime Minister John Major of the United Kingdom. Marlin Fitzwater is Press Secretary to the President. A tape was not available for verification of the content of this exchange.