(December 20, 2021)
5:15 P.M. EST
MODERATOR: Thanks a lot. And, everyone, thank you for joining us today. Apologies for the delay.
Again, this call is with a senior administration official. It is about senior administration official travel to Israel and the West Bank.
Today's briefing will be on background, attributable to a "senior administration official" and embargoed until the conclusion of the call.
For your awareness only, our speaker today is [senior administration official]. But for the purposes of this call and from this point on, our speaker will be referred to as a "senior administration official."
Now, with that, we will turn it over to our senior Administration official for opening remarks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, [senior administration official]. I'm here to offer some observations on National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan's visit this week to Israel and the West Bank.
And just to step back, Jake's visit to Israel - really, a long-planned visit - is the culmination of a year of what's been really extraordinary engagement and consultation between Israel and the United States. And that's coming - a charge from President Biden to us in the earliest days: to ensure that we were constantly engaged with our - with our Israeli partners on the host of security threats that they face, but also opportunities throughout the Middle East, including expanding and strengthening the Abraham Accords.
So, I think if you step back - if you look at the first half of this year, of course, the singular event was the 11-day Gaza conflict. And the last Hamas-Israel war went on for almost 57 days. We think the conflict, earlier this year, really had all the same ingredients. And it was quite a lot of quiet diplomacy, hands-on diplomacy, led directly by President Biden, that the war wound down in 11 days. And I think that was due to a lot of relationship-building that we had done in the earliest months of the administration.
Since the Gaza conflict, we've been working very closely with Israel, Egypt, Qatar, other stakeholders to ensure that we can sustain the peace in Gaza. And as we said at the time, so that Gazans can rebuild, but without allowing Hamas to simply restock. And a lot of work is going into that.
President Biden had two calls with President Sisi at the time. Jake, who was in Cairo a few months ago - and we're in truly regular contact with officials in Cairo and in Jerusalem to make sure that we can sustain the peace coming out of that - that conflict earlier this year.
The second half of this year, of course, the main event was having a new Israeli government with Prime Minister Bennett taking office in June. And President Biden called him almost right away - I think within - almost within a half hour or so of the Prime Minister being inaugurated.
And we've been quite pleased by the relationship we've built with Prime Minister Bennett, with Foreign Minister Lapid, and really senior officials across the new Israeli government.
The centerpiece, of course, President Biden hosted Prime Minister Bennett here at the White House in August. The leaders had a very long one-on-one meeting, I think established a very good personal connection. And the Prime Minister heard directly from the President about his deep, lifelong personal commitment to Israel and to Israel's security.
And if you just review some of the other engagements - even over what's been a difficult year with COVID and everything else that's made face-to-face diplomacy a little more challenging than normal:
We had Secretary Blinken, who was in Israel in May. He, of course, also met Foreign Minister Lapid in Rome in June.
And Foreign Minister Lapid was here with the UAE Foreign Minister, Abdullah bin Zayed, in October for, I think, a pretty historic meeting anchoring some new initiatives, really, to the Abraham Accord between UAE and Israel.
Foreign Minister Lapid also saw Vice President Harris when he was here in town. Secretary Austin - on the security side, Secretary Austin was in Israel in April.
We just had Defense Minister Gantz here. We've had the Chief of Defense, Kochavi, here in June. And those meetings have really been kind of continuous, both by civitates and personal engagements. And Minister Gantz was here in Washington just two weeks ago.
Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield was in Israel in November. And if you just look at the kind of the pace of visits, it's really - I think the pattern speaks for itself.
Toria Nuland was just in Israel, I think, last week.
And, of course, I think one thing to highlight from this visit is what - and I've been involved in this - I think, a pretty extraordinary partnership between Jake Sullivan and his counterpart - Eyal Hulata, the Israeli National Security Advisor - just - I mean, regular engagement and discussions about incredibly difficult policy questions.
And Eyal Hulata has been to Washington three times since he took on his role in August. And that's why we've been really looking forward to scheduling this visit so Jake can meet face to face with Eyal, in addition to Prime Minister Bennett and the other leaders on the ground in Jerusalem.
But the two are in regular - really, weekly contact. And having been a part of these discussions, I mean, I can say the dialogue has been honest, constructive, open. I mean, these are two officials exchanging - these are not officials exchanging talking points. It's truly a genuine dialogue between partners.
And I think it also reflects the charge from President Biden - just the unwavering commitment we have to working together with allies, as we just face these very difficult challenges in the Middle East region.
Central to that, obviously, is Iran. And Iran will be very high on the agenda for Jake's visit to Israel this week. The discussion will be a continuation of our ongoing consultations on the threat posed by Iran, particularly its nuclear program, but also its destabilizing activities in the region.
We share, with our Israeli partners, a deep concern about the advancements in Iran's nuclear program - something I've discussed with many of you before.
Following the previous administration's withdrawal from the JCPOA without much thought or plan as to what would come next - and we've just seen this dramatic acceleration of Iran's nuclear program since then. The U.S. and Israel are totally aligned in our determination to ensure Iran can never acquire a nuclear weapon. And we've had a very active dialogue about our approach on that. And that will, of course, we discussed face to face with the Prime Minister, the national security advisor, and others in Israel this week.
Jake and Eyal will also host - it was really the fourth Strategic Consultative Group. And that is a meeting between our inter-agencies - between our Pentagon Minister of Defense, our Intelligence Community, our State Department Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and the National Security Councils to discuss a range of issues.
And I think it's really quite something; I've been discussing with, you know, former officials who - or, current officials who've served in multiple administrations, who've been engaged in these types of meetings.
And I think the level of - the level of dialogue, trust, and candor by which we approach these issues with our Israeli partners is really quite extraordinary and has helped us navigate through some pretty difficult issues and also just kind of gaming out next steps as we look ahead over the coming months in the Middle East.
Finally, I want to highlight that Jake will go to Ramallah to meet with President Abbas. Jake was with President Biden in May when President Biden and President Abbas spoke. It was a very constructive call.
And since then, Secretary Blinken, Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield, as I mentioned, Tori Nuland have all visited the West Bank meeting with President Abbas and representatives of Palestinian civil society.
And, of course, these were ties that were nearly severed when we entered office in January. And we feel good - the fact that we have redeveloped these patterns of interaction, and now we're looking to strengthen them.
So, I think, with that, I can turn it over to questions. And I'm happy to address what's on your mind.
Q Thank you so much for doing this. Nadia Bilbassy with Al Arabiya Television.
Can you address the much-reported disagreements between the administration and Israel vis-à-vis a military strike against Iran?
And on the Palestinian issue, can you update us on a potential date for reopening the consulate in East Jerusalem, and whether that's been sorted with the Israelis and now it is a fact that it's going to be open, it's just a matter of time? Thank you so much.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, when the Minister of Defense was here meeting with Secretary Austin and our military teams last week, talking about the real dangers that - it's a danger to not just Israel, but danger to the entire international security - of Iran's rapidly advancing and accelerating nuclear program. We are, I think, both committed to ensuring that Iran - as I mentioned, totally aligned on the fact that Iran will never have a nuclear weapon.
With that, I'm not going to get into, obviously, discussions between our military teams. And also, Nadia, I also have nothing to add on the on the matter of the consulate.
Q If you could address: What do you want to talk to Prime Minister Bennett about as it relates to Iran? And should we take away anything about the timing of this visit since the Iran talks seem to be teetering on the brink of collapse?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Steve. I think I would not take too much into the timing because this was actually a long-planned engagement.
Jake has - particularly has done many calls with Eyal Hulata - promised that we would visit Jerusalem for a face-to-face in Israel's capital, just as Eyal has visited here three times, and the Prime Minister visited the President shortly after he came into office.
So, the timing is a long-planned trip and the culmination of a year of close engagement. But I think it will be a very good opportunity for a face-to-face with Prime Minister Bennett.
And I should also add, of course, we have our ambassador on the ground, Tom Nides, who has brought a wealth of experience and has had very good engagements from the Prime Minister on down.
But for Jake Sullivan to sit face to face with the Prime Minister and kind of just talk about exactly where we are, what we're seeing, hear from Prime Minister Bennett and the Israeli side exactly what they're seeing - it's always better at face to face than the video conferences, although we've all gotten used to the video conferences - nothing like a face-to-face engagement. And I think talking about exactly what we're seeing and then, you know, looking ahead over the coming months.
And, you know, the Vienna talks - they - after President Raisi and his administration came in in June, we had four almost five - one paused - in those talks. They have resumed. We've had two rounds.
But as you said, Steve, I wouldn't characterize "on the brink of collapse." But I think, as we have said, given the rapidly accelerating pace of Iran's nuclear program, its stockpiling of highly enriched uranium day after day, this is a very serious situation. And it's something that both, I think, we and the Israelis very much agree on.
And we'll talk about where we are and kind of where we see the coming weeks - how we see them unfolding.
Q Hey, there. Thanks. So, I want to actually follow up on Nadia's question in terms of - I want to - could you tell us a little bit about the conversations with the Israelis insofar as trying to defuse their escalating rhetoric with regard to Iran?
On the one hand, you all talk about Ira- - Israel's right to defend itself against threats. I mean, this has been something that you talk about with Gaza, you talk about it with Iran as well.
And so, you know, with this tiny, tiny window - although it appears to be closing - this tiny window of possible hope with the Iranians, as far as talks go, is there an effort to sort of establish some level of patience or just something with the Israelis that will de-escalate the situation versus them wanting to kind of go forward and take measures into their own hands? That's first.
The second is, if you could just kind of update us on U.S. efforts - humanitarian efforts with regard to Gaza, and whether or not there's going to be any discussions with the Israelis and the Palestinians about stepping that up, given some concerns that, you know, if the situation does not improve dramatically soon there could be some discontent, you know, some uprisings in Gaza and threaten security again.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So, those are big questions. I think, on the second one, Vivian, we've really focused quite a bit on - after the conflict - on working on the post-conflict. And I mention Egypt's role.
I mean, Egypt's role has been quite critical - and particularly at the Rafah Border Crossing, to make sure that, you know, crossing is open to humanitarian supplies while it is not open to restocking of weapons and materiel that can help Hamas retrigger a new round of fighting.
And the cooperation with the Egyptians on that particular issue has been, I think, quite strong and extraordinary. And we saw Prime Minister Bennett was in Egypt meeting with President Sisi, I think, about two or three months ago, and Foreign Minister Lapid was in Egypt about 10 days ago, I believe, talking about the series of issues.
And that cooperation between Egypt and Israel has been just quite essential to ensuring that we got the post-conflict - you know, about as right as we can; I don't want to under- - I don't want to - there's no - I don't want to overemphasize this because it's an incredibly difficult situation in Gaza - the humanitarian situation, the risk of renewed fighting. This is something that we're focused on every day.
We've also focused - from other regional partners - on getting support into Gaza for the people of Gaza. So, a lot of that is ongoing.
And I think, given where we were in May, we feel pretty good about the progress, but it's never enough. So, there's more to do. But that'll be a good topic of conversation.
Look, on Iran, I think I've kind of addressed this. We're totally aligned on the goal. We will talk about, I think, where we see the state of Iran's nuclear program and some of the timelines. And some of this is an art more than a science, in terms of looking ahead.
But I think it'll be just - it'll be a good opportunity to sit down face to face and talk about, you know, the state of the talks, the timeframe in which we're working. And I think, just to re-emphasize what Steve noted, it's true: We don't have much time.
And that's not just coming from United States of America and Israel. This is very important.
This point about the rapidly accelerating Iranian nuclear program being a threat to international peace and security is a common position of the United States, of the E3 - the UK, Germany, and France - and Russia, and China, in the talks in Vienna.
So, we've kind of built the united diplomatic fronts. And I think the Iranians are in Tehran now kind of sorting out, you know, how they plan to approach a new round of talks. And we'll see.
But I think these consultations with the Israelis - as I mentioned, this is a long-planned visit, but I also think it's a very well-timed visit for all those reasons.
Q Thanks so much for doing this call. We appreciate it. One of tense points, it seems, in the Israeli-American relationship has been the export of cybersecurity products by private Israeli companies. We've seen a response by the State Department, by the Commerce Department, other agencies.
Months ago, it seemed the Americans had reached out to the Israeli Government for clarifications on the export process. And, you know, the - obviously, the result - it would lead one to believe that that issue has not been resolved to any extent.
Can you give any overview whatsoever on the process between the American government and the Israeli government insofar as these private cybersecurity licenses and how this might go about being resolved in an amicable way?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, thanks for the question. I appreciate the opportunity to address it. And it's a complicated issue like everything. But as a matter of policy, I think we take a global approach to these issues; it's not an approach aimed specifically at Israeli-based companies. And the purpose of adding certain companies to the entities list was made clear, I think, when we announced the listing. And we did have consultations with the Israeli government on that.
But we remain engaged with the Israeli government about the importance of ensuring that foreign governments are not able to misuse these tools to target human rights defenders, journalists, U.S. officials, you know, others who should be protected. And I think, on that principle, we have agreement.
But again, it's really important, as a matter of policy, this is a global approach. It's not an approach aimed specifically at Israeli-based companies, certainly. And I think any suggestion otherwise that would just be false.
But I appreciate the question.
Q Hey, thanks for doing this. I'm going through what you said from time running out on Iran and working on getting humanitarian aid to Gaza, nothing new on the consulate and Chinese exports.
I'm trying to find something new here. Is there a new message that you're trying to send to Israel on this trip, or just a review of everything that's kind of already happened?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, no, as I mentioned, it's a visit that was long-planned, the culmination of a year of very close consultation. So, there's not - you know, there's not a new deliverable or anything. This is part of a face-to-face engagement with close partners.
And also, I think, importantly, meeting President Abbas face to face because, as I mentioned, we came into office in January - those connections between the United States and the Palestinians had been almost severed.
So we think it's important. And I think - I know, again, responding to the charge of the President - our boss - ensuring that we are, you know, fully engaged with our friends and partners in the Middle East.
And I think Jake is really looking forward to the opportunity to meeting face to face with the Prime Minister and with Eyal and with other senior officials, because we do so much of this, you know, by secure video or by phone.
So, the face-to-face engagements - just nothing beats face-to-face diplomacy. And that's what we're looking forward to.
So - but no, there's no new initiatives to be announced on the trip.
Q Hi, thanks for doing this. Something you haven't talked about really is settlements. And that's really been a real kind of public flashpoint between this administration and the new Israeli government in ways that other potentially touchy issues have been sort of dealt with on the sideline.
So, is that something that you guys are going to be addressing with the Israeli government on this upcoming visit? And are you planning on maybe stepping up the pressure even more than has been done before on this front? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I think we've been pretty consistent in emphasizing over the last 10, 11 months, you know, the need to avoid steps that can increase tensions on the ground, and that includes settlement activity. And we've been engaged with the Israeli government at senior levels on this issue, and, we think, in a fairly constructive and honest manner.
And I think - I think I'll leave it at that. But it's obviously an issue that is discussed in our engagements with the Israeli side and our partners in Israel. And I think the engagements, particularly with the Bennett government, on the settlement issues have been honest, constructive - but obviously, there's more to do. So that will be a topic of discussion.
Q Hello, thank you for doing the call. Two questions on Iran. So, U.S. officials have said that "plan B" to the JCPOA can be worked on and potentially implemented while Vienna talks are still continuing, just given how slow diplomacy has been there. So, I'm wondering if there's any expectation that the pieces of "plan B" - at least in terms of what the U.S. and Israel could do together - would be fermented on this visit or if, you know, any agreement between the U.S. and Israel on joint action is actually a ways off.
And then my second question is: What level of enriched uranium is acceptable to the U.S. for Iran and their program right now? Is it, you know, the 90 percent, which is weapons-grade uranium? Or is it a thres- - is the threshold lower than that? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Iran's level of enriched uranium spinning through advanced centrifuges - all of which were prohibited under the JCPOA - is not consistent with a civilian program, just given the extent of stockpiling of 60 percent, 20 percent highly enriched uranium, which the IAEA is documenting. So, I'm not divulging anything; this is all documented.
So, we want to see a return to compliance with the JCPOA in which there's no question that the level of enriched uranium is only - solely for civilian usage. And so, that is what we're trying to get back to.
We've made clear - and I think our negotiating partners in Vienna have seen this, which is why we built this united, diplomatic front, which I think that the Iranians now fully expect that - you know, we are prepared to comply on our side, but not unless the Iranians return to full compliance with their nuclear program.
So, that's the formula. And it's actually pretty simple formula: They return to nuclear compliance; we will return to our compliance with the JCPOA.
And compared to the alternatives, that is the best way forward. And that is why the President has committed to giving diplomacy a chance here.
But as the Iranians are hearing from, again, not just us, but from our European partners, also the Russians and the Chinese in Vienna - the time very much is running short.
I'm sorry, what was your second question?
OPERATOR: I'm sorry, their line has already been released.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Okay. My apologies.
Q Yes, hello. Thank you for doing this. You mentioned the fact that the line is open again with the Palestinians since January, but the Biden administration is basically focusing on economic developments for the Palestinians and not on any political ambition to resolve the conflict. Is this because you consider that nothing will move on the Palestinian side as long as Mahmoud Abbas is around?
And the second question regarding Israel: Have you sent - about Iran, sorry - have you sent any warning to Israel regarding the current talks in Vienna on the JCPOA? Something like, "No cyberattacks against Iranian facilities in order not to jeopardize the diplomatic efforts."
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I think, on the first question - I mean, look, I think President Biden has been clear his entire career and as President: Believes a negotiated two-state solution is the best way to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
And I think we've made clear on numerous occasions that Israelis and Palestinians alike equally deserve to live in security, prosperity, and freedom.
And so, our focus is doing everything we can to significantly improve the quality of life for the Palestinian people and to improve Israeli-Palestinian relations.
And I also fully recognize - and I think it's kind of assumed in your question - that there's a lot to do to build the foundations for restoring a political horizon.
And so, this will be a topic of conversation on the visit. I think those engagements have also been constructive. We want to, in the first instance, reduce the flashpoints, reduce the risk of a new flare-up of conflict, and build from there.
And so, this will be a topic of conversation with President Abbas and the Prime Minister and the Israeli leadership. And I think it's central to President Biden's agenda.
Look, on your second question, we support Israel's right to defend itself. I think that's quite clear. And so - but I don't want to get into any, you know, internal discussions about - particularly when it comes to their own self-defense needs or activities that they might undertake to advance their own self-defense.
Q Hi, good evening. Thanks for doing this. So, if I hear you, I would say subtext during this conversation, it seems - that's at least my impression - that maybe the goal of the visit is to improve the image of the U.S. here in the Middle East because you probably (inaudible) the critics of (inaudible) came from Israel. But it looks like the U.S. is weak, especially after the result from Afghanistan. So, would it be right to say that one of the goals is to improve the image of the U.S. here and still active in the Middle East, and try to be - look, at least, strong here?
And connected to that, are you worried from the talks, the - looks like coming close between the UAE and Saudi, as well, with Iran. Are you worried from this new direction, new momentum in the Middle East again between the Emirates, the Saudis, and Iran?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, I would just - I think if you went through the outline of what I put up front, I just think there's no question our level of full spectrum engagement in the Middle East, but in Israel in particular, which is the topic of this call, I think it's quite a record over the last 10 or 11 months.
I think - look, this question on Afghanistan, we get it a lot. Afghanistan is sui generis. Related to Afghanistan, that had nothing to do with our commitment to the Middle East, our partnerships in the Middle East, our commitment to helping our partners defend themselves.
We are focused on deterrence, de-escalation, and integration. And I think that all kind of - it all comes together in this visit.
Deterrence: We want to deter the Iranians from taking provocative measures that can threaten our friends and partners. We want to de-escalate wherever we can. Where there's an opportunity for diplomacy, we're willing to pursue it while being very clear-eyed about who is across the table.
But that also goes in the region. If there's an opportunity to de-escalate tensions that have existed for years - recent years or even longer - that's something that we will support. We support, for example, the Emiratis engaging again with Turkey - which has been a rivalry which has kind of spawned, I think, proxy conflicts around the region - and, of course, I think the channels that have developed between the Gulf States and Iran.
I think it's important to keep in mind something happened in 2019: The former administration pulled out of the JCPOA. They engaged in a maximum pressure campaign. And I think anyone who has dealt with the Iranians for some time would have predicted that Iran will react, and they did react. And one of the ways they reacted was attacking Saudi Arabia and others in the Gulf - direct state-to-state attacks. And not only did the United States not respond, the President at the time tweeted that we shouldn't really be in the Middle East at all.
So, you know, that spoke volumes, I think far more so than anything here in the 11 months of the Biden administration. I think it's quite the opposite. I think we've quite worked to restore those partnerships' trust, confidence, and predictability of U.S. actions and diplomatic engagement.
I mean, diplomacy is day-to-day engagement. And I think just laying out the patterns of interactions between us and Israel - that's the topic of this call; if I was talking about another country, I could give a similar narrative. And this visit, this face-to-face engagement, is part of that.
So again, I would not characterize it as trying to improve the image or kind of - as was framed in the question; quite the opposite. I think it's the culmination of a year, a very deep, full spectrum engagement with the Israelis from the President on down. And we're ending the year here with an important face-to-face engagement between the President's National Security Advisor and the Prime Minister of Israel and senior leaders.
Q Hi, thank you so much for taking my question. I'm going to follow up on Kylie's question, because I don't think she got it answered - along the lines of: Is Israel part of the plan B to the JCPOA? And will that be cemented in this visit with Jake Sullivan?
And then, if I just may, what are going to be some of the toplines of the meetings in Ramallah with President Abbas? Are you going to talk about martyr payments to (inaudible) the Palestinians who were killed or imprisoned by Israel over alleged terrorist attacks? Are you going to talk about the crackdown on some of the - on Palestinian civil society by security forces? And will the U.S. be calling for the Palestinian Authority to hold elections? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Sorry, I was writing fast. (Laughs.) Let me just - following up on last question: I think deterrence, integration in the region, and de-escalation - these three themes.
I think the focus on Israel, where we're heading, the integration and building on the Abraham Accords has been a central focus of ours. And that will be an important topic of conversation.
Of course, we saw recently the important solar and water deal signed between Israel, UAE, and Jordan. Those types of things that we are working on will be a topic of discussion, particularly over the course of the visit this week.
I'm not going to discuss plan B because that's - I see this characterized a lot. That's really not how we think about it. It's a fluid situation, and there's no kind of, you know, plan A, plan B. There are different things you do at different times.
I think you've seen it's been reported our director of OFAC was just in the region talking about - mainly talking to private companies about sanctions evasion, making clear that those who might think they can evade U.S. sanctions can't. They're going to be caught, and they'll be called out.
So - and other things we can do in terms of making sure that Iran can never get a nuclear weapon - the key principle on which the Israelis and the United States are fully, totally aligned. And I think there will be a pretty constructive and detailed discussion about this issue as we head into Israel this week.
I think there was one more question. I'm sorry. I'm looking at my notes here, so let me just -
Yeah, you asked about President Abbas. Yeah, so I think - look, we expect this to be a very constructive meeting, and I think it's following on a - Jake is looking forward to it - it's falling on a number of recent high-level engagements by U.S. officials. I think I've mentioned them, but at risk of repeating myself: Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield was just there in November. Toria Nuland, our Under Secretary for Political Affairs, was in Ramallah just last week.
And I think Jake will make clear that it's the aim and a policy of the Biden administration to strengthen ties with the Palestinians and ensure the strength and stability of the Palestinian Authority.
On the question of payments, we've had a clear and consistent position on this: that we're fundamentally opposed to those payments. And so, I'm sure that'll be a topic of discussion as well. But that's been a clear and consistent position here in the administration, and that's something that won't change.
MODERATOR: And with that, ladies and gentlemen, we again truly appreciate you being on with us this evening for today's call with our senior administration official on travels to Israel and the West Bank. This is the conclusion of the call, and the embargo is now lifted.
END 5:50 P.M. EST