Preview of Secretary Kerry's Travel to Cairo, Egypt

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Officials
Via Teleconference
Washington, DC
October 10, 2014


MODERATOR: Hey, everyone. It’s [Moderator] here. Thanks for joining today. I think we have a quorum, so we’re going to go ahead and get started. Can the operator let folks know how to ask questions on the keypad?

OPERATOR: To ask your question, please press * and then 1. Once again, to ask your question, please press * and then 1.

MODERATOR: Thank you. So we’re going to do a few opening remarks. Here we have [Senior State Department Official One] and [Senior State Department Official Two], who both of all, I’m sure, know. This is all going to be on background as Senior State Department officials. So I think [Senior State Department Official One] will start, again, on background, but he’ll start, give a few opening remarks, and then we’ll do some questions, and then we’ll all have a great weekend until we leave tomorrow morning.

If you can just give me one second though, we’ll be right back in just 10 seconds.

Okay, so we’re going to go ahead. Our Senior State Department Official Number One will make a few brief remarks and then we’ll do your questions.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Hi, everybody. As you know, we’re leaving tomorrow at around 11:30 or 12 for Cairo. The main purpose is for the Secretary to attend a reconstruction conference for Gaza. I think that there’s 40 other foreign ministers that will be there, so we expect that there will be high-level attendance from many in the region and around the world.

There’s obviously a major challenge when it comes to the reconstruction of Gaza there. The conditions there are – let me get back to you with the exact number of foreign ministers there. I think it may be closer to 30, but in any event, there’s a significant number of – a significant amount of ministerial-level participation there.

The focus is obviously on the reconstruction of Gaza, and that’s something that we all have an interest in on behalf of the Palestinian people there who have – many of whom had their homes bombed out and have been suffering under very difficult humanitarian conditions for the last several months.

So the first order of priority is to address the immediate concerns of the people of Gaza. I think more broadly, we’re interested in sort of breaking the cycle that we’ve been in for the last six years of war and reconstruction there.

So you can imagine the Secretary’s remarks. He’s going to talk about the things that we need to do to chart a different course for the future of Gaza, which includes trying to change the fundamental dynamic there. I think the Israelis have taken some significant steps forward already in that regard in terms of allowing humanitarian assistance in.

And for their part, the Palestinians have taken some important steps in terms of agreement between Fatah and Hamas to have the Palestinian Authority exert greater control in Gaza Strip, starting at the crossings. I think they’ve reached some kind of an understanding with respect to payment of salaries and some of the other things that would need to do – that would need to happen in order to change the dynamic.

I think the Secretary will also talk about the need for – to address the underlying issues in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict writ large in order to really have an enduring solution to the problem in Gaza. And I think that’s something that folks who are attending the conference will really want to hear, that the United States remains committed to seeking a negotiated two-state solution.

We’ll also be meeting with Abu Mazen on – while we’re in Cairo, in addition to a number of other bilats that the Secretary will be having. And that will be an important next step. Obviously, the Palestinians have spoken about an initiative that includes a lot of things that I think would be very destabilizing over there. And so we’re hoping to channel that into a more positive direction. We’ll also be meeting with some of the European leaders and Arab leaders both in Cairo and onward from there, and our message to them will be very much along those lines, that we want to try to keep open the possibility of negotiations and we want to try to keep things headed in a positive direction to the greatest degree possible.

So that’s a very quick overview of where we’re headed, and if we have time, anything else, otherwise happy to take questions.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, I just wanted to add that the bilateral meetings that will be taking place around the margins will obviously have as part of their focus the situation in Israel and in Gaza, but we’ll also try to touch on other key regional issues, including issues like Libya, Iran, and the situation in Syria and Iraq with regard to ISIL.

MODERATOR: Great. Can the operator remind the folks who just joined how to ask a question, and then we’ll do a few questions.

OPERATOR: Okay. To ask your question, please press * and then 1. To ask a question, press * and then 1.

MODERATOR: Okay, great. It looks like the first question’s from Michael Gordon of The New York Times. Go ahead, Michael.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official One] and – well, for both of you – how can you have a successful conference in reconstructing Gaza if you don’t have a political settlement on Gaza, given that there seem to be hostilities there every 18 or 24 months. You’d simply be building it up – and with the possibility it would be knocked down again. And even without any understanding on how construction material or supplies could be shipped into Gaza with some assurance that it wouldn’t be diverted from – for military purposes by Hamas, how can you have a successful, serious conference in reconstructing Gaza under those circumstances?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Okay, thanks very much, Michael. I’ll start at the end, which is that I think it’s very important that everybody understands there has been agreement reached on a mechanism for the delivery of reconstruction goods to Gaza. It’s an end-use monitoring protocol that the UN has had in place for many years now that they’ve agreed on the protocols to scale that up. That was an agreement that Robert Serry at the UN helped to broker with Prime Minister Hamdallah and Poli Mordechai at COGAT. And so we’re confident that there is a mechanism in place that the parties have all agreed to that will allow for reconstruction materials to be used for their intended purposes.

There also have been additional steps that both sides have taken. As you know, there was a reconciliation meeting in Cairo a couple weeks ago, at which the Palestinians came out with an understanding that the Palestinians would – the Palestinian Authority would take over control of the crossings. I think that they – we don’t know all the specifics, but my understanding is they’ve reached at least some sort of an agreement on the payment of salaries. I think they’ll be characterized as a humanitarian grant or something along those lines.

But there have been some positive steps taken in terms of changing the dynamic there. The Israelis have also agreed to take a number of steps, including allowing for exports of some agricultural goods from Gaza Strip, and they’ve been facilitating the delivery of a significant amount of humanitarian assistance through the crossings, and I think they’re willing to continue along those lines of – with respect to reconstruction assistance, subject, obviously, to this end-use monitoring protocol. So we do have some – at least initial steps in place that we think will facilitate addressing the immediate humanitarian and reconstruction needs in Gaza.

Now more broadly, it will require a two-state solution. It will require addressing – resolving the underlying issues between the Israelis and the Palestinians in order to create long-term stability for Gaza Strip. You – we’re obviously not at the point where we’re going to be able to do that now, so we need to take the steps that we’re able to take, and hopefully that will lay the groundwork for addressing these underlying issues as we go forward.

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official One], can you explain how the end-use monitoring agreement works in practice since it’s so important and integral to the success of this effort?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Yeah, Michael, I can get you the details of that. I don’t know much more about it in terms of how the specifics and the mechanics would work other than to reiterate that my understanding is it is a scaling up of the existing UN end-use monitoring protocols. Now remember, UNRWA provides a significant amount of reconstruction materials to Gaza Strip and has been for quite some time. I think it’s through UNRWA.

And they have established protocols that have been proven effective over time, and my understanding is what they did is effectively agreed to scale that up to allow for a private sector – now you have some 20 or 30,000 homes that were destroyed there, so it’s not going to be possible for that all to be done by government agencies or by the United Nations. So you’re going to have to have the private sector engaged in the smaller-scale reconstruction efforts.

And so I think what Serry and Hamdallah and Poli Mordechai came up with was a mechanism to allow for the monitoring of the end use of the reconstruction materials that are used for private – for the reconstruction of private homes and that sort of thing. How exactly they did that, we can get you more details on that.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: And Michael, just one – one the first part of your question, I want to be clear. I agree with everything [Senior State Department Official One] said, but I think the fundamental premise of your question is valid. I think our view is that a ceasefire is not the same thing as lasting peace, that this conference is something that has to be done and is absolutely the right thing to do, but it’s not a celebration or a culmination. It’s more of a necessary step that has to be followed by continued work to reach a sustainable solution.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think that’s right.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: And I think, Michael – I think that’s an important thing to understand that we would all like to be in a different situation here for this reconstruction conference. It would obviously be ideal if coming out of the Cairo negotiations there had been more substantive agreements to build on. But we’re in a situation where there’s immediate need for the people in Gaza, and so it really isn’t an option just to say, okay, we don’t have everything we need so we’re not going to do anything. Right? We’re going to build on what we do have, hope to take that in a positive direction, recognizing as [Senior State Department Official Two] just said I think very eloquently, that there does remain a need to address these underlying issues as we go forward.

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks, Michael. The next question is from Matt Spetalnick of Reuters.

QUESTION: Thank you. I’m also wondering what, if anything, will be done at this conference to make sure, in fact, that some of this reconstruction aid or building materials do not make their way to the – make it into wrong hands, that of Hamas. That’s the first question.

The other one, I was wondering as far as bilats and multilats go at this gathering, will the Secretary meeting with the Turkish foreign minister continue to try to find common ground on Turkey’s role in the coalition against ISIS, and if there’s any plan for any grouping of coalition – a meeting with any grouping of coalition members since there will be a number of them represented at this gathering.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Okay, well, I’ll take the first part of it, again, building on what I was talking about a moment ago with Michael, and then I’ll let [Senior State Department Official Two] handle the – any questions with respect to bilaterals.

The important thing to understand is this is an agreement that the Israelis reached with the Palestinians and with the United Nations. Right? So obviously, they have to be comfortable that there is adequate and appropriate end-use monitoring mechanisms in place before they’ll allow the reconstruction materials to go through. And they say now that they have reached that kind of an agreement. So we don’t – we trust that the Israelis have gotten comfortable that that money is not – that those reconstruction materials are not going to be going to Hamas, or they never would have agreed to the protocol.

So obviously, we’ll have to see how it plays out going forward. And obviously, it will require vigilance by all parties as we – as the reconstruction effort unfolds. But I think everybody seems comfortable for now, but particularly the Israelis are comfortable for now that there are appropriate protocols in place to make sure that material goes to its intended purposes.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, on the bilaterals I think we’ll have the same answer for any of these specific questions beyond the meeting with President Abbas, which we already explained, which is that the schedule is still coming together, as is the sort of final attendance list of the Secretary’s counterparts. So there is no currently scheduled meeting with the Turkish foreign minister, but I don’t want to rule out that there might be one added at some point during the weekend.

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks, Matt. The next question’s from Michele Kelemen of NPR.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks for doing this. You know that the Palestinians are asking for $4 billion. It doesn’t sound like the U.S. is really coming with much more money, and the Europeans don’t want to keep pouring in money just to have it destroyed over and over again. But who do you expect is going to bring that kind of money?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, listen, I don’t think it’s quite – I think it’s very fair to say that there are serious questions being raised by a lot of the donors about why they were involved in a – or, well, how best to break this cycle and how best to ensure that we’re not going to find ourselves back here doing the same thing again in a year or two. I don’t know the specific contributions that other countries have. I have a sense of the general ballpark. And I think that there will be significant contributions that will be made that will have an immediate impact on the ground. My guess is you’ll find that the Gulfies are providing the bulk of the money. I don’t know whether anybody thinks we’re going to get to four billion or whether we need those kind of pledges right now. But I can tell you I think you can expect that there will be significant contributions from the Gulf, and really meaningful and appropriate contributions from the Europeans and from us and from others as well.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah, I’d just add your question points to part of what we mean when we say that there is a real need for a more durable, sustainable solution that addresses the underlying causes of the conflict. We very much believe that if a solution like that were in place, the level of funding would be commensurate to that increased level of confidence that people would have in the future not just of Gaza but of the entire region. And you’re right, we’re not there at this point.

QUESTION: And are you asking the Israelis for any sort of assurances going into this?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFFICIAL ONE: Well, we’re asking the Israelis to continue to do what they’ve been doing in terms of facilitating humanitarian assistance. They have, as I mentioned before, already taken some steps that we think are important in terms of changing the dynamic in Gaza. And we’ll obviously look to them to continue with those kind of efforts. I think it’s in everybody’s interest that we don’t have a repeat of this cycle in Gaza again. I think if there’s greater economic growth and greater opportunity for the people of Gaza, then that’s to the benefit of Israel, it’s to the benefit of their security; I think it reduces the chances that we have another blow-up again soon. So I think they understand that.

Look, they’re very concerned about the security. They have very fresh in their minds the rocket attacks and the danger they face from the tunnels. And I think their first concern will be ensuring that their security concerns are met. But once that has been taken care of – and as I said, I think that there’s a significant step forward in that regard in terms of the end-use monitoring protocol – I think that they will be willing to and already be – have already demonstrated at the AHLC their willingness to take some steps to ease the restrictions in Gaza.

So we think that there’s something positive there that we can build on. What – I’m not expecting the Israelis will make a big contribution. In fact, I’m not aware that they’re making a contribution one way or the other in terms of actual paying for reconstruction there. But that’s not what – that’s not the most important role they can play. They need to be there to help facilitate the delivery of humanitarian reconstruction assistance and to begin to look to a different kind of model in Gaza that can help us avoid this kind of outcome again. And as I said, I think they’ve taken some important steps in that direction already.

MODERATOR: Great, thanks. Our next question’s from Carol Morello of The Washington Post. Welcome to our traveling party, Carol.

QUESTION: Oh, thank you. I’m looking forward to it. It’ll be fun.

So I wanted to ask you about the message that you hope this humanitarian assistance will send, both to Palestinians and to Americans. Because if you talk with Palestinians in Gaza, many of them will tell you what they remember about the summer is that a lot of the bombs that fell on them had American markings. And I was wondering if you were concerned that that might prevent any message you want to deliver from getting through.

And for Americans, I was wondering what you would say to Americans who – to explain to them why it’s important to use their tax dollars to rebuild what their tax dollars helped to destroy.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Okay, thank you. Well, I think in the first instance, our message is that we care about the people of Gaza, right. The Secretary was very forward-leaning on that. We’ve contributed $118 million already for immediate humanitarian assistance, and that’s food and medicine and shelter for what was I think up to a half a million Palestinian refugees at one point. And I think you’ll – if you look back over the course of the summer, the Secretary was very clear about that.

And honestly, the Israelis took pains to say that their fight was against Hamas and not against the people of Gaza. So I think that’s a message that – I know it can get lost in the context of all the violence that was going on there, but we will continue to reiterate that message, and I think it’s a very important one.

More broadly, I think you will hear the Secretary reaffirm the commitment of the United States to helping the parties to achieve a negotiated two-state solution, and our willingness to re-engage in the negotiations and help facilitate successful negotiations if the parties are willing to make the difficult decisions as necessary to get back to talks. And I think that’s an important thing for people to hear. I think that there’s a lot of discouragement around the world about where we are on efforts to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I think people feel like they’ve lost some hope that that’s really going to be possible.

So I think it’s important that the Secretary say to the world and reaffirm for all to hear that we remain committed to trying to help the parties to achieve that kind of an outcome. And I think that’s an important message, and I think that message will be one that will be very well received by the folks there.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Yeah. I guess I would only add that I think it needs to be said that we don’t shy away from our security assistance for Israel; in fact, quite the opposite. Israel is a critical security partner and ally of the United States, and when we had issues with Israel over the conduct of the war, we raised them both privately in meetings with Israeli officials and publicly from time to time. But our fundamental relationship, including a very, very strong security partnership, remains sound and, again, is not something that in any way we would walk away from.

MODERATOR: Great. Thanks, Carol. Can the operator remind folks how to ask questions if there are any more questions?

OPERATOR: Please press * and then 1 to ask your question. Please press * and then 1 at this time.

MODERATOR: While we wait to see if there are any final questions, just again, the conference is going to be most of the morning and early afternoon on Sunday. We’re still working on a schedule for any bilateral meetings or pull-asides. Obviously, we’ve already mentioned the meeting with President Abbas. So once we have more of a schedule, we’ll let you know, but that’s what it looks like right now.

And if there are no other questions, I think we’re going to conclude the call. Again, this is Senior State Department officials. There’s no embargo for you guys. We won’t release it until after we’re wheels down, so obviously, you have it before everyone else does. And otherwise, we will see folks on the plane tomorrow. We will background about the Paris and the Vienna stops in advance of those, obviously, to let folks know what’s going to happen there.

So with that, thanks, guys. We’ll see you tomorrow.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Thanks, everybody.