Public Papers

Exchange in Kennebunkport, Maine, With Reporters on the Hostage Situation in the Middle East


The President. The only thing I've got on my mind is I just wanted to say that I talked to Javier Perez de Cuellar today, the Secretary-General of the United Nations. I don't think I needed to say this, but I told him that we fully support his efforts. He and his team are running down every possible avenue. He has my full support in everything he's trying to do. I caught him in Geneva; he's still working the problem in Geneva.

I asked him whether he was optimistic and all. He said, well, perhaps a little bit more reason to be hopeful, but no specifics that I can share with anyone. But it was a good conversation, and I really do think that we ought to be grateful to the way the U.N. operates under his leadership at a time like this.

Q. Sir, do you have anything from the Israelis on the prospects for releasing Sheik Obeid?

The President. No, there wasn't anything at all from them. I noticed that they are very interested in getting back their own, having accounted their own military, and I can certainly sympathize with that. I wasn't perhaps overly clear on that the other day, but when I spoke about people being taken for political reasons I still feel strongly that everybody ought to release those.

But then we've seen that there are some that are held in Germany that are violent breakers of the law. There are some soldiers unaccounted for, and all that should be cleared up, certainly. But those that are in jails convicted of terrorist acts, hijacking planes, bombings, clearly they've got to pay the price. But it's these political kidnapings and hostage-takings where I hope people will all go ahead and release them.

Q. So are the soldiers in that category?

The President. Well, there's a full accounting that's required, and I can certainly understand Israel's desire to have the full accounting for those people. Absolutely.

Q. Is the United States putting any pressure on Israel to go in the same direction?

The President. No, no pressure. We can't pressure anybody. But we keep repeating our policy, and I still repeat that I don't want to get the hopes up of families. I think that's still the tragedy in all of this.

Q. But do you find yourself, sir, now more optimistic after -- --

The President. Well, not particularly over yesterday, for example, but I think he feels there's enough movement going on in various corners that there's reason to have more optimism. I just hate to raise the stakes on our side by expressing greater optimism because I've seen too many families hurt.

Q. Would you discourage them from negotiating on behalf of the prisoners?

The President. He's doing his level-best to act as an honest intermediary and taking messages back and forth and trying his level-best, and I support that fully.

Q. If he negotiates, that's okay with you?

The President. We stay with the United States policy. And he is trying to facilitate the release, and I salute him 100 percent for what he's trying to do.

Q. He indicated that the release of those seven, or the accounting for those seven Israeli military guys, that that seems to be really the main sticking point. And he said that if that could be solved then the hostage situation could be solved; not a direct quote, but it seems to be what he's saying.

The President. I think the military people are unaccounted for, whether they're MIA's in Vietnam or whether they're Israeli soldiers presumably held somewhere else, there should be a full accounting. And I certainly share Israel's concern, just as I expect all countries share our concern about MIA's that are not accounted for.

Q. Just to be clear on this business of negotiating, you wouldn't tell -- are you saying that you would not tell Mr. Perez de Cuellar not to negotiate -- --

The President. He's free to do whatever he wants to do, and the other parties are as well.

Q. Have you received any clarification of the letter?

The President. And I support him in what he's trying to do.

Q. -- -- of the letter he -- --

The President. I've seen the letter, yes -- eight pages of it. In fact, I looked at it this morning.

Q. As I understand it, they were trying to get clarification of meaning -- --

The President. Well, there hasn't been anything since this morning that I know of in terms of clarification. You mean in terms of people that are held all over the world kind of thing?

Q. All over the world, yes.

The President. That needs clarification.

Q. Do you feel -- is there anything new since yesterday? Marlin told us that there were some positive aspects to it. Does it seem like, that this letter shows more hope than we've had in the past because of -- --

The President. Well, maybe the fact that some of these groups are even discussing a hostage release is important, but I can't tell you that, having looked at that letter and read an analysis put together for me by the National Security Council people, that I see any reason to be extraordinarily hopeful because of that long letter.

So, it's still murky, and it's still ugly business. But I am very pleased that we have a Secretary-General, that the United Nations does, that's willing to go the extra mile. And he's sure trying hard, and maybe it'll have some results. I certainly hope so. I know the American people all do.

Q. Did he give you any indication of he hopes to have it settled within a week, or any kind of a -- --

The President. No, he didn't have any timeframe on it, Rita [Rita Beamish, Associated Press]. That's a good question. And there was no kind of, ``Well, if I find out something by 24 hours or 48 then it would lead to something else.'' There was none of that.

Q. Are you certain that all the groups that are holding hostages are represented in whatever the U.N. talks are?

The President. No. I think some of it is so shadowy you're never really sure.

Well, thank you all very much.

Note: The President spoke at 6:10 a.m. on the course at the Cape Arundel Golf Club in Kennebunkport, ME. In his remarks, he referred to Sheik Abdul Karim Obeid, Moslem cleric and Hezbollah leader held by Israel. He also referred to a letter from Islamic Jihad and delivered by former British hostage John McCarthy to United Nations Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar de la Guerra. Marlin Fitzwater is Press Secretary to the President. A tape was not available for verification of the content of this exchange.