Background Briefing on Secretary Clinton's Upcoming Trip to Jerusalem
MODERATOR: All right. We’re on our way from Alexandria to Jerusalem. Here to set up our day in Jerusalem tomorrow with both the Israelis and the Palestinians is [name and title withheld], hereafter known as Senior State Department Official.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: So, obviously the Secretary has a long history with Israel, going back to her days as First Lady and senator, has – sorry, I’m always aiming this way; I apologize for that – and is excited to be going back again here at the end of this long trip.
Obviously, a number of government meetings with the senior leadership in Israel and with Prime Minister Fayyad of the Palestinian Authority, but this is also an opportunity for her to convey some messages directly to the Israeli people, messages of solidarity and friendship and the unbreakable bond between the United States and Israel.
A number of issues on the agenda – obviously, at the top of it will be her impressions and assessment of the last two days that she spent in Egypt. Israel has a deep stake in Egypt’s role as a leader in regional peace and security and Egypt’s commitment to the Egyptian-Israeli treaty of peace, so she’ll want to talk with Israel about the present and future of the U.S.-Egypt relationship as Egypt goes through this democratic transition.
She met with President Abbas in Paris last Friday, as most of you know, so this will be an opportunity for her to consult with Israeli leaders on the latest state of play in terms of trying to get negotiations going and to advance an Israeli-Palestinian peace. She’ll also have the chance to talk to Prime Minister Fayyad about a range of issues related to the Palestinian Authority, not just on the political track but on the institution-building track as well, where she will hear from him on the Palestinian Authority’s needs, their financing needs, their – the economic challenges they’re facing, and how the United States can be supportive in that regard.
Developments in Syria have obviously been moving at an urgent pace, both in terms of what’s happening on the ground and in terms of the diplomacy, so she’ll take the opportunity to bring the Israeli leadership up to speed on what’s happened in Geneva and Paris and what’s unfolding now in terms of diplomacy in New York, and to hear from them about their assessment of what’s happening on their – with their neighbor.
Obviously, a major issue for the Israelis and for us is the issue of Iran and its nuclear program. Under Secretary Sherman will be joining the visit. I should mention, just as an aside, that Special Envoy Hale will also be there to be part of the conversations on the peace process. Under Secretary Sherman will obviously be supporting the Secretary on every issue under the sun because they’re all within a remit, but she will take the opportunity to help the Secretary bring the Israelis up to speed on the latest in the P-5+1 process and also to talk about the pressure side of the dual-track strategy, and to hear – and to compare notes with the Israelis on the Iranian threat, both with respect to the nuclear program and with respect to its activities in the region.
I think also she’ll be looking forward to a broader strategic conversation about more than a year now of great change and transformation across the region and what it means for the people of the region, what it means for the United States, what it means for Israel. And comparing those strategic notes will be an important broader element of a conversation that will also be focusing on these specific issues that I’ve walked through.
They will probably in the course of what are very free-flowing conversations touch on a range of other issues as well, but those are the highlights.
Just to go quickly through the day, she’ll begin in the morning with Foreign Minister Lieberman at the Foreign Ministry. She’ll see President Peres. She will see Defense Minister Barak. She will see Prime Minister Fayyad. She will see Prime Minister Netanyahu. And she will have an opportunity to address both you guys and the Israeli press at the end of the day and to give a statement that, like I said at the start, will both touch on many of these issues, but also speak directly to the Israeli people.
MODERATOR: Let’s go to what’s on your minds.
QUESTION: Just one – sorry. I thought I saw an email go across saying that Donilon was there just this weekend. Is that correct?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah --
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) Was Donilon there this weekend?
QUESTION: Why all those (inaudible), two senior officials in three days?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well --
PARTICIPANT: (Inaudible) finish the dialogue.
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, I was just going to say, Bill Burns was actually just there this past week for the U.S.-Israel Strategic Dialogue. Tom Donilon was there this weekend for long-scheduled strategic consultations on regional security issues. Secretary Panetta will actually be coming out in the relatively near future as well. So there is nothing special about the sequence of events other than we always have a very sort of intense case of engagement and diplomacy with the Israelis. And Tom Donilon’s visit had been long scheduled.
The Secretary had an opportunity to come to Egypt at this point because of the way her travel schedule worked out, and she did not want to come to Egypt without also having the opportunity to consult with the Israelis. So that’s why it happened. I would not read into it --
QUESTION: Okay. And then just one other simple substantive one: What is the state of play on Israeli-Palestinian peace? Because as far as I can tell, other than the exchange of letters, there hasn’t been a whole lot of meaningful conversation between the two sides. And do you – so what does the state of play? And do you expect – do you foresee any reason to expect a resumption of talks before the U.S. election?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m not going to get into the prediction business. I will say that the Secretary had a very deep and detailed conversation with President Abbas in Paris and is expecting to have the same with the Israelis this weekend. And on the basis off that set of conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu and others in the Israeli Government, she’ll be able to take stock and assess how the U.S. can support next steps in the process.
We’ve made clear what we’re trying to achieve here, which is to get the two parties back engaged with one another directly in a way that can help them move forward on the substance. But I don’t want to characterize the state of play before she has a chance to engage with the Israelis tomorrow. After tomorrow, I think both David Hale and I will have an opportunity to talk to you guys about where we think we are and where we think we’re headed.
QUESTION: Just a quick follow on this one. I mean, neither one of the parties seems all that enthusiastic about your efforts. I mean, the Palestinians are – after the meeting were kind of very sour on how they feel that your little engagement moved the peace process back. So I mean, what do you really think (inaudible)?
And on Iran, it definitely seems like you had a steady stream of visitors. There was, like, basically daily communication on Iran, and 100 percent intel sharing. And so what happens next? I mean, they’re – at what point are you making these kind of (inaudible) discussions about (inaudible) and (inaudible)?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: On the first one, I don’t want to characterize the Palestinians’ impressions of the meeting last Friday. I think the Secretary was clear from her perspective that it was a very constructive meeting that explored a number of aspects of the ongoing effort to get the two parties engaged directly. So it’s hard for me to respond to what you’re hearing from the Palestinians.
With respect to Iran, tomorrow is a conversation that is about the diplomacy through the P-5+1 and about the pressure track, both unilateral and multilateral, that is being placed on Iran. It’s not about anything beyond that. It really is, from the Secretary’s perspective and Under Secretary Sherman’s perspective, where we think we are in the diplomacy and where we think we are on the pressure track, and what next steps we can take on each, and what the Israeli assessment is on each track.
And in this regard, our view is that the intense pace of engagement we’ve had with the Israelis only matches the intensity and urgency of the issue. And it’s similar to the type of engagement that we have with our other close allies, including the British and the French, on this issue.
QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official], you said that she’s going to share her impressions and assessment of what she heard in Egypt. Is it going to be a reassuring message that she’s bringing back to the Israelis? Is she sounding confident that there is a way forward for those two countries? And if the United States can engage with President Morsi, is her message to the Israelis that they should accept the reality of the new Arab world?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I don’t think she’s going to be telling them what to accept and what not to accept. I think she will want to talk to them about where our common strategic interests lie in a changing Middle East. On the issue of Egypt specifically, I think she will convey to them that she heard privately what President Morsi has been saying publicly about positive commitments on the Egypt-Israeli peace treaty, but at the end of the day this is ultimately about follow-through, and that she was clear in her meetings about how important it is to the United States and to the Egyptian people that these commitments be followed through on.
And I think in talking to the Israelis, she will be keen to think about what next steps all of the parties can take to make sure that the positive signals we got in the early going turn into something tangible over time.
QUESTION: The Israelis have expressed a lot of impatience with the pace of the diplomacy you’ve been conducting. Do you have any sense that coming – yes, sorry, on Iran – and do you have any sense coming into this meeting whether that impatience has eased, whether they are sort of more accepting of the pace at which you’re doing this diplomatic work?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We have had throughout the P-5+1 process, as I think one of the earlier questions alluded to, a very kind of consistent and an intense back-and-forth with the Israelis about what it is that we’re trying to accomplish and how we’re proceeding in the P-5+1 process. I think we leave every one of those consultations and conversations feeling like we are in a very similar place in terms of how we assess the diplomatic opportunities and how we’re proceeding on this track. I think we’re at an important moment in the P-5+1 process, which is why these conversations will be valuable. And I think I would defer to until after she’s had a chance to have the conversations tomorrow and until you guys get a chance to talk to Wendy directly, because even this evening Wendy was having a chance to have some discussions with her counterparts on the issue. And as the person who’s been the point of the spear on the diplomacy, she can, I think, give you a better answer on that than I can.
QUESTION: Some or all --
MODERATOR: Can I just (inaudible)?
QUESTION: Some or all --
MODERATOR: No, can I just --
QUESTION: Some or all of her counterparts? Did she talk all of the P-5+1?
MODERATOR: No, she talked to the Israelis.
PARTICIPANT: Israeli counterparts.
QUESTION: Oh, got it. Thank you.
QUESTION: This is, I presume, the last trip for the Secretary to Israel during her tenure. What do you – you all put a lot of time and energy into the peace process. What do you take out of it, knowing almost for sure that she will leave with no peace agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, no agreement on settlements, no real progress on any of the major pillars of the agreement?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: What --
QUESTION: I wasn’t – and it wasn’t that long.
MODERATOR: What was the question?
QUESTION: Well, what the hell do you guys take out of it? Because you really didn’t accomplish much in four years?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Obviously, every day that goes by where there’s not a peace agreement is a day that leaves us unsatisfied. The Secretary, the President, the entire national security apparatus of the United States sees it as being very much in the interests of the parties and in the interest of the United States to get to a permanent resolution to the conflict that resolves all of the claims and produces a two-state solution. We believe that this is the sort of challenge and sort of issue that’s been with us for a long time, that has proved elusive for successive administrations, but that you have to keep working at even in the face of challenges and setbacks.
And so the Secretary, over the course of the last four years, even at moments where it seems like peace was way off in the distance, was on the phone with Bibi Netanyahu and Abu Mazen, was working the issue with Itzhak Moho and Saeb Erekat, with sending David Hale out to the region. There really, in many ways, has not been a letup in the kind of consistent effort at trying to move this ball forward. But of course we would have liked to have been coming on this trip to sign a peace deal. We would have liked to have done that two years ago. The fact that we’ve been unable to do so is a testament to the difficulty of the challenge. But the fact that we’re still at it is a testament to just how important the issue is to us and to her personally.
QUESTION: Quickly, (inaudible) the reception we just got and the kind of skepticism about American-intended influence inform the tone of the conversation the Secretary’s going to have tomorrow?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: What do you mean by the reception (inaudible)?
QUESTION: The protests, the things thrown, the (inaudible) we saw today and yesterday in Cairo, that the Secretary just tried to address in some ways the speech she gave. Does that experience – of skepticism about American interests?
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I would say a couple things about this. First, Egypt’s a country of 90 million people, and so it’s easy to over-read a small group of pretty energetic protestors and what that says about --
QUESTION: No, but the Secretary’s speech today, in trying to define human rights and to finally kind of (inaudible) constitution, we understood that to be in some ways responsive to the kind of skepticism that’s been voiced. Is that not the right --
SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I just – I was just speaking specifically to the protests. I think there has been a fair amount of skepticism voiced, and also questions raised, and some degree of confusion generated by what she described in the speech as being kind of creative ideas tossed out by the Egyptian media. But I think that her focus wasn’t on the people standing outside the consulate; it was on the women that she spoke with today, on the Christian leaders that she spoke with today, on the many Egyptians who are eager to know where the United States stands in all of this. And she wanted to take the opportunity today to really spell that out.
I think it was interesting to watch heads nod in the audience when she said that some people say we talked to loud and some people said we talked too softly; some people said we spoke to early, some people said we spoke too late; some people think we support this faction, some people think we support that faction. I think that does pose an interesting and complex challenge for U.S. policy in Egypt. And her goal today, both in the private meetings and in her speech, was to really attempt to outline the principles that are guiding what we’re trying to accomplish here. And her description of the real democracy we’d like to see and support Egyptians in building, I think really speaks for itself. And I hope that you guys write about it and report on it because I think it was a very strong statement about where the United States stands on all of it.
MODERATOR: Okay. Thank you very much, [Senior State Department Official].