Background Briefing on the Secretary's Trip to the Middle East

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Officials
Via Teleconference
Washington, DC
November 1, 2013

MODERATOR: Hi. Good morning everyone. Thanks for joining us. We have, unfortunately, a limited amount of time here given all that’s going on in the schedule. Just to repeat, this call is embargoed until we land at our first stop in Cairo tomorrow. So – sorry, we land Sunday, so it’s embargoed until then. So just keep that in mind. We – this call is all on background for attribution to Senior State Department Officials. I’m going to turn it over to our first Senior State Department Official.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I’m going start by – I’m going to go through the Secretary’s trip stop by stop. The first stop, as was just mentioned, is in Cairo starting Sunday afternoon. He will be meeting with Interim President Mansour, Interim Foreign Minister Fahmy, General al-Sisi, and he’ll be meeting a broad cross-section of civil society leaders. The focus there will be on – as Egypt is moving forward with its political roadmap, the discussion of the amendments to the constitution, followed by parliamentary and presidential elections and a discussion of how much we would want this transition to be sustainable, inclusive, and democratic, and that we want it to succeed.

So the trip – this trip allows us to reinforce the importance we attach to our bilateral relationship and highlights the benefit that both we and the Egyptians receive from it and how strong our support is for the democratic transition that the Egyptian people want. We’ll also – the Secretary will also focus on the importance of economic reform as a key element in Egypt’s future success.

In – the next stop will be Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. There, the Secretary will be meeting with King Abdullah. The – this is a trip to have a – yet one more opportunity to engage at a very high level on all of the issues that we work on with Saudi Arabia. We have a tremendous number of ongoing discussions, virtually on a daily basis, with senior Saudi officials. For example, there was a military planners meeting that just finished yesterday in Riyadh. There are lots of working groups, we work on trade and investment, critical infrastructure, all those kinds of things.

On this trip, the Secretary will focus on Syria, Iran, Egypt, and Middle East peace. All of these are issues that we have ongoing discussions with the Saudis about – on Syria, finding a resolution to the civil war, particularly moving toward the Geneva peace conference; on Iran, preventing Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon as – particularly as we head into the P5+1 talks in Geneva next week; helping Egypt to move forward on its political roadmap and to discuss the importance of economic reform. Of course, the Secretary will have just been in Cairo, so he’ll be able to talk about that in greater detail. And then he’ll want to talk with King Abdullah as well about achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

So it’s onto Warsaw from there, which we’ll talk about separately, and from there to Jordan, where the Secretary will meet with King Abdullah and Foreign Minister Judeh. They’ll discuss a range of bilateral issues as well as Syria, of course, and Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. And the Secretary will be talking with them about the importance of providing support for the peace process negotiations.

In the United Arab Emirates, the Secretary will meet with the Emirati Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, and the Foreign Minister, Abdullah bin Zayed, where there, the conversation will focus again on Syria, Egypt, and Iran. Much like in Riyadh, on Syria, the Secretary will follow up on the London 11 meeting, discuss the best way to move forward to Geneva – to Geneva 2. On Iran, they’ll review U.S. policy on assuring that Iran does not acquire a nuclear weapon, and he’ll be able to give a little readout of the P5+1 meetings that will have just taken place in Geneva. On Egypt, they’ll discuss how we can work together to support the interim government as it moves forward on its roadmap toward a transparent, inclusive, democratic, and civilian-led government, and they’ll also discuss the importance of economic reform coupled with – sorry, the economic financing coupled economic reforms.

The last two stops are in Morocco and Algeria. In both places, the Secretary will lead the U.S. – first, the U.S.-Algeria Strategic Dialogue, and then the U.S.-Morocco Strategic Dialogue. This is the second for each in these annual dialogues. They were launched in Washington, both of them last fall – one in September, one in October. Both of these strategic dialogues are important to the United States because they strengthen our bilateral relations across multiple areas with these countries. They help us advance our policies and programs in the region where we share common goals and interest and give us a chance to talk at a high level about regional issues and how best to move forward.

In Algeria, the Strategic Dialogue in particular will focus on the political issues. Security and counterterrorism is a big part of this as well as economics and civil society. And we’ll be talking – the Secretary will be talking bilaterally about enhancing our close cooperation on counterterrorism and related issues.

In Morocco, the Strategic Dialogue has four working groups – one on political issues, another security issues; the third is economic and commercial issues; the fourth is education and cultural cooperation. We see Morocco as a key regional actor and our relationship with Morocco is quite wide-ranging. We have a free trade agreement and we recently completed a $700 million Millennium Challenge Corporation Compact to close counterterrorism and to – assure close counterterrorism and military cooperation.

And from there, the Secretary goes home.

MODERATOR: We’re going to turn it over to Senior State Department Official Number Two to preview the Poland stop.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Hi, everyone. The Secretary is really looking forward to recognizing Poland’s regional leadership in democracy and support for civil society, its dynamic, innovative economy that is the largest commercial partner for the United States in central Europe, its support for the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and our close NATO alliance, and the defense modernization program that Poland is embarking on now.

So what the Secretary will do is he’ll have a bilateral meeting with his counterpart, Foreign Minister Sikorski. He will have a meeting with Prime Minister Tusk. He’ll then participate in a – he’ll have a roundtable with Polish innovators who have been working with U.S. Silicon Valley representatives and discuss their products. He’ll have – go directly to a lunch with – sponsored by the American Chamber of Commerce – leading American and Polish businesses, and he’ll speak to that group at the TTIP. And then he’s going to travel up to Lask, which is an Air Force base, about a 20-minute flight, to greet and speak with U.S. and Polish pilots. We’ve had for the last year a – four rotations of U.S. F-16 and C-130 crews that have been participating in joint training exercises with Polish counterparts up in Lask, and that’s been a success that he wants to mark and talk about with the Polish defense officials.

So I think that’s it for now, and we’ll go to questions.

MODERATOR: Great. So I’ll do a little preview of the stops in Jerusalem, but just given we have limited time with Senior State Department Official One, why don’t we go to questions on the first couple of stops of the trip.

OPERATOR: This question is from Michael Gordon with New York Times. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes. I have a – on the first stop, as we’ve all written and you’ve backgrounded, the Administration has withheld the delivery of some big-ticket weapon systems and some 260 million in support for the Egyptian budget. Under what conditions would that aid be provided? What would the Egyptians need to do in terms of their democratic transition to trigger the release of that? And will Secretary Kerry be discussing that during his visit there? And then just a very quick administrative issue: Has the Secretary met with the Saudi king before as Secretary of State, or will this be his first meeting with him?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: On the last question, I – my recollection is that he has not previously met with the Saudi King. In his two previous trips to Saudi Arabia, the King was still recovering from some serious illness on both of those trips. So we’re delighted that this is going to be possible on this trip.

In terms of your question about the holds that we have on some of this – the larger weapon systems, what we’re looking for is – we will be informed by the progress the Egyptians make on their roadmap, and on the kinds of issues that are important to the United States, such as freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, the human rights issues, the participation of civil society in government. And some of the specifics there include development of the draft NGO law, for instance. We’ve been working hard with the Egyptian interim government as well as with civil society as to what the – what would be appropriate to include in that legislation so that it meets international standards for support for NGOs.

So those are the – that’s the set of issues that will inform our decision as we do basically a constant review of progress to help us understand how well the Egyptians are moving along their roadmap to whether – when it’s appropriate to lift some of the holds that we have on the equipment.

MODERATOR: We’re ready for the next question.

OPERATOR: Kim Ghattas with BBC, please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yes, good morning. Thank you for the call. I wanted to ask you a little bit more about the stop in Saudi Arabia and whether the Saudis have already said much about their views on Iran’s participation in a Geneva conference, if and when it happens. And what is the key message that you’re really taking with you to Saudi Arabia? We’ve seen all the reports about the relationship being on the rocks: the Saudis need the Americans more; no, the Americans need the Saudis more. Tell us a little bit more about how you view the relationship and what is, in essence the message to the Saudi King. Are they throwing a tantrum for nothing?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. On the first question on Iranian participation in the Geneva peace conference, the Saudis are quite opposed to Iranian participation. What we have said about it is that it’s appropriate for those countries to participate in the U.S. view only if they have accepted all of the elements of the Geneva 1 communique, and Iran has not done that. Without that, even we couldn’t even consider the possibility of their participating.

In terms of the key message that the Secretary is taking to Saudi Arabia, one of the things to keep in mind is that the Secretary and various of his senior cabinet-level colleagues are in constant touch, actually, with the Saudi leadership. So it’s not a new message by any means that the Secretary is taking. It is very important that he will be able to have this conversation with the Saudi King. But the discussions that we have been having with the Saudis are ongoing about what is the best way to assure support for the Syrian Opposition Coalition and the military wing of the Syrian Opposition Coalition in order to assure their self-confidence in going to Geneva and feeling ready to negotiate with the regime with the help of Joint Special Representative Lakhdar Brahimi.

On Iran, again, we have constant conversations with Saudi Arabia about Iran. They’re very clear about their concerns. We, frankly, completely agree with the Saudis about their concerns. By no means are we leaning toward loosening any of our views on what the Iranians have been doing to support terrorist operations, terrorist groups around the region. And obviously, the P5+1 talks are geared toward ensuring that Iran cannot ever obtain a nuclear weapon, and on that we completely agree with Saudi Arabia. So that’s a question of just making sure they understand the details of how firm our position is.

On Egypt, there, again, it’s a question of just making sure we have a sufficiently detailed conversation about what it is that we are – we have in mind for Egypt’s progress on the roadmap and on heading for a credible, transparent political transition with the constitution – reform of the constitution – referendum, parliamentary elections, presidential elections. And another element of this is as much as we support Saudi Arabia providing much-needed economic assistance to Saudi Arabia[1] that it would be appropriate to link that in some way to advocating for economic reforms so that Egypt can have the bright future that it deserves.

MODERATOR: So we’re going to lose Senior State Department Official One here, so let’s kind of – I can give a Middle East peace update, but let’s go to the next question.

OPERATOR: A reminder: To ask your questions, please press * and then 1. We’ll go to Lesley Wroughton with Reuters. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, hi. So we’ve lost Official One so we can’t ask questions on Egypt?

MODERATOR: We could do one more, Lesley. You’re the lucky winner.

QUESTION: Oh, I’m very lucky. Particularly on Egypt, is there any plan – I believe – is this going to be several hours we’ll be on the ground in Cairo? Is that true?

Number two, given that the issue of the F-16s, aid being cut – okay, not all of it but most of it – and Secretary Kerry now going a day ahead of the Morsy trial, what is – what are you doing to send out the message regarding the Brotherhood and the treatment just generally of people and how the process moves forward? And also, what should we be reading into a visit that comes just ahead of the Morsy trial and tries to set a new tone going forward?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Okay. On the timing of the visit to Cairo, the timing of the visit to Cairo is totally and completely unrelated to the Morsy trial. The timing was dictated by the agreement that was reached on when the Algeria and Morocco strategic dialogues will take place, and the rest of the stops were built around those dates. So that’s the basic answer there.

On the F-16s, the F-16s have been held – the deliveries have been held. Sustainment has not been held. So there’s – it’s not that they’re not being delivered. They’re just not being delivered yet. And the lifting of that suspension will be informed by progress on the roadmap, as we already discussed.

On – so – and as I said, the goal of this discussion is to be – is to advocate clearly and directly face-to-face for the kinds of – the kind of progress that we’re looking for in Egypt so that the Egyptian interim government hears in a – in lengthy – in a lengthy back and forth why it is that we think that this is important and what about it we think is important. One of the things that’s good is that the roadmap, of course, was drawn up and announced by the Egyptian Government without reference to anybody else. This is what – this is their aspiration, which we completely support.

That said, we’ve added to it some of the elements of sort of fundamental basic international human rights kinds of issues as things that we know are important to the Egyptian population based on their revolution and things that we know that – or principles that we know that the Egyptian public aspires to. And one of them I think I didn’t mention, but one of them that’s very important, of course, is protection of minorities. That will be a subject that we will discuss.

So the – and in particular, because the Morsy trial happens to be the day after the Secretary is going to be there, the Secretary will be simply advocating to the government to ensure that all Egyptians are afforded due process, transparency, and open trials. And as you know, we’ve consistently called for the end to politicized arrests and detentions, and we’ll continue to do that.

MODERATOR: Great. We’re going to shortly lose Senior State Department Official Two as well, so why don’t we go to – do we have any questions on Poland? If you have a question on Poland, hit your queue.

OPERATOR: Once again, please press * and then 1 to ask your question. And no questions in queue at this time.

MODERATOR: Okay. Let me just give you all – thank you very much, [Senior State Department Official Two]. Let me just give you all just a brief preview of our stops in Jerusalem, Bethlehem – in Jerusalem and Bethlehem. As has been the case, as you all know, the negotiators are meeting regularly. Just a quick update here: They met twice this week. They will meet again before the Secretary arrives on Tuesday. The pace of talks, as the Secretary has said, has intensified. Ambassador Indyk has been participating in many of these meetings. Simultaneously, the leaders have been in regular touch and meeting to help advance the negotiations.

This trip is a continuation of this leader engagement, including, of course, the Secretary’s part of this engagement. So his trip to Amman also, as Senior State Department Official One already mentioned, also reflects their important role as a stakeholder.

So to summarize where we are in the process, we and the parties remain focused on our goal of achieving a permanent agreement which ends the conflict and all claims, and creates peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians. All final status issues remain on the table, and the role of the United States continues to be to facilitate the talks.

Also, we’ve talked about this a bit, or people have talked about this a bit in the briefing room, but just to reiterate for those of you who have not paid as close attention to where we are on some of the big issues that have been out there over the course of the last week, including, of course, the release of Palestinian prisoners by the Israeli Government that happened this week. We feel that step is a step that has helped to enable the start of and continuation of the final status negotiations. We think it’s a positive step forward in the overall process. We believe – the Secretary believes that the leaders of both sides have made courageous decisions in the name of peace, as you’ve heard him say many times.

We never have thought this process would be easy. That continues to be the case. Both leaders continue to face political pressure. That’s been the case from the beginning. And this – Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to release prisoners, and before that, but ongoing, President Abbas’s decisions to put aside efforts to upgrade the status of the Palestinians in international organizations during the nine-month timeframe of the negotiations are both positive steps that we feel continue be conducive to creating a positive environment for peace.

As we’ve said many times, but just to reiterate, we don’t consider continued settlement activity, given those reports this week, or East Jerusalem construction to be steps that create a positive environment for negotiations. That has been communicated on countless occasions when warranted, and at no time in the course of pursuing a negotiated two-state solution have we or the Palestinians condoned settlement activity, which we continue to regard as illegitimate.

So while we’re there, the Secretary will have meetings with both Prime Minister Netanyahu, with Prime Minister Abbas, he’ll see President Peres. And we’re still working out the final details of the schedule, but that is the plan for our time in both Bethlehem and Jerusalem.

So that concludes our conference call. Although if you have questions on that, I know you see Senior State Department Official Three quite frequently, but I’m happy to address them as we preview the call as well – or preview the trip, I should say.


OPERATOR: We do have one question in the queue.


OPERATOR: Kim Ghattas with BBC, please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hey, [Moderator].


QUESTION: Just a quick question. Hello again. There’s some talk coming out of the Palestinian Territories of the negotiators from the Palestinian side are looking to resign. Is that something that you are hearing? And second, forgive me if I’ve missed something. Why is it Bethlehem and not Ramallah? You may have said something about it that I missed.

MODERATOR: So on the first question, we’ve, of course, seen those reports. We’ve been in touch with the Palestinian side and have been informed that they remain committed to the negotiations for the nine months agreed to. They fully intend to participate in the next round of negotiations, which includes these ongoing meetings that I mentioned at the top of my, kind of, overview/preview. And we of course, as I stated, but it’s worth stating in this regard, we know this is tough, and so we have ongoing conversations with them as these issues arise, including responses to settlement activity. And I stated what our position is on that.

In terms of our – why we’re visiting Bethlehem, we are – it’s not uncommon to have meetings outside of Ramallah. The Secretary has met with President Abbas in Amman. He’s met with him in Washington. He’s met with him a range of places. That is a place that we thought would work logistically for this trip. We also, of course, want to highlight the important role tourism plays in that, which is part of our economic leg of our efforts here, but tourism especially in Bethlehem. We’re coming up to the holiday season here, and I expect he’ll have an opportunity to talk about that while we’re there as well.

QUESTION: Is he doing anything else than just official meetings in Bethlehem?

MODERATOR: We’re still determining that, but part of being here is certainly highlighting the important role Bethlehem plays as a tourism destination and boosting up the economy there.

QUESTION: Okay. Thanks.

MODERATOR: Great. Well, thanks, everyone. We’ll see you around the building.

[1] Egypt

PRN: 2013/T17-01