Background Briefing on Secretary Kerry's Travel to Rome, Italy

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Officals
En Route to Rome, Italy
December 14, 2014

MODERATOR: Okay, so everyone knows [Senior State Department Official One and Two]. Standard rules, senior State Department officials all on background. As you all know, the meetings we’re having over the next few days are primarily focused on recent developments in Israel and the West Bank, including, of course, initiatives – current initiatives at the UN, so obviously, a lot of the meetings will focus on that. And I’m just going to run through the schedule very quickly and then I will turn it over to them.

So tomorrow, or later today I guess, we land in Rome, meet with Foreign Minister Lavrov. Most of that, obviously, will be about Middle East issues, but of course, Ukraine, Syria are both likely to come up as well.

Monday meeting with Cardinal Parolin and then Prime Minister Netanyahu, of course, on all of the same issues that we’ve already talked about. Then we head to Paris for a quick stop, where he will meet with the EU3 foreign ministers – so Fabius, Hammond, and Steinmeier – and Mogherini to talk about the same issues, although other things may come up as well.

And then after that we head to London, and then Tuesday he’ll meet first with Saeb Erekat and then with the Arab League Secretary General Elaraby. Just for your planning, I think we’re going to do the press availability Tuesday morning before those meetings, but obviously, we’ll do readouts of the other meetings before that as well. So – and then Wednesday we come home, fingers crossed.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MODERATOR: We were talking about maybe having a Judeh meeting on the schedule. I’m not sure he’s going to actually be in Rome now, so that may come off, but it’s a scheduling issue.

So I will pass it over to my colleagues. Do you want to say anything to start?

QUESTION: [Senior State Department Official One], do you want to start?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: No, not really. Might as well start with questions.

MODERATOR: Okay, we’ll go right to questions. Who wants to ask the first one?

QUESTION: What are you hoping to achieve from these talks? There is – there are these competing resolutions at the UN. Is the U.S. going to back any one of them?


QUESTION: What are you hoping to achieve with these talks, number one? Number two, if – there are competing resolutions. There’s a European resolution that’s being concocted on Palestinian-Israeli issues, and then there’s the Jordanian one. How do you – does the U.S. currently see itself working on – with the Europeans on language that would be suitable to the U.S. so that it doesn’t have to veto this one? But maybe just let us know what the talks are aiming at here?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: All right. Well, I think it’s important --

MODERATOR: (Off-mike.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I think it’s important to understand that our overall goal here is to hear from and engage with other stakeholders, of whom there are many on this issue, to hear their views, and to the best of our ability work towards a common path forward. We want to stay coordinated to the greatest degree possible.

We share common objectives in all of this. We all want to defuse tensions and reduce the potential for violence. We all want to keep open the hope of a two-state solution. And we all want to prevent, to the best of our abilities, a de-escalation – an escalation of the violence on the ground there in a way that could fundamentally destabilize not only Israel and the Palestinians but also the entire region. So we have a lot of common ground to build on, and I think we really need to hear from a lot of the other – the Europeans and the Russians, as well as the Israelis and the Palestinians, and hear what their thoughts are on all this.

As for any specific UN Security Council resolutions, I think it’s really important to understand that there is no consensus European text. There’s a draft, a paper that the French floated around, but it by no means represents a consensus European position. It hasn’t been tabled at the United Nations. It’s not something that we’re being asked to take a position on. It doesn’t even represent a common position among the Europeans, as far as we understand it anyway at this point.

There was a Jordanian draft of a Palestinian resolution that was circulated in New York well over a month ago. I don’t think there’s been any further consultations on that particular draft either. I’m not sure exactly what the status of that is. There’s been some talk between I think the French and the Palestinians on whether they have common ground there.

But the point is that these things are all very much in flux. It’s not as if we’re being caused to take a position on any particular Security Council resolution right now, and I think it would be premature for us to discuss documents that are of uncertain status right now.

QUESTION: Is – are you guys going to work on or propose – is there any discussion of a U.S. resolution, some sort of alternate to either what the Europeans are doing or the Jordanians are doing? And I’m curious about the meeting with Erekat. Are you going to be trying to – are you going to be trying to encourage the Palestinians to just hold off? What’s the main goal of your time with Erekat?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, again, it’s just – it’s premature to talk about any U.S. text. We’re just not at that point right now. We’re talking to the parties; we’re hearing what their views are. As I said, we’re engaging with the other stakeholders and trying to the absolute best of our ability to stay coordinated and work to achieve the goals that we all share, preventing an escalation of the situation on the ground.

What was your second question?


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Oh, Erekat. Yeah, again, we want to hear from them. We haven’t seen the Palestinians since Amman about three or four weeks ago, and we really need to hear from them what are they thinking right now, what is President Abbas’s latest views on the situation. I don’t think he wants to see the situation spiral out of control and more violence on the ground. So again, it’s – this is an important trip in terms of gathering information, consulting with the parties, and as I said, with the other stakeholders as well.

QUESTION: Can you just tell us a little bit about how you see the Israeli election, domestic politics there affecting what you’re trying to do?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: [Senior State Department Official Two], do you want to take this?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: We’re not getting involved in the Israeli elections in any way, form, or fashion, right. That’s absolutely –

QUESTION: (Inaudible.) I understand that, but it does affect the work you’re trying to do on these separate issues.


SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Look, there’s a lot of different variables in this equation right now on the ground. And the Palestinians have politics and the Israelis have politics, the Europeans have politics. There’s a whole bunch of different political considerations that all of the stakeholders have in where we go from here. And it’s just really important that we take pains always to make sure that we’re not attempting in any way to influence or get involved in anybody’s else’s domestic political affairs. That’s for them to decide. We do want to hear from them what their views are on where we go from here, and obviously, those views will be impacted by their own internal political dynamics. So we’re not, obviously, oblivious to the fact that there’s an election in Israel, nor are we oblivious to the fact that Abbas has terrible political pressures on him. I think there’s been plenty of reporting about the pressures he’s facing from the Palestinian people as well. So we need to hear from them how that impacts their calculus and how they see the path forward from here in light of their politics.

QUESTION: So without addressing the French resolution that hasn’t been tabled yet, can you say why, in principle, the United States is – opposes or is hesitant to the idea of timetables set by the UN Security Council or parameters, terms of reference for how a two-state solution or even two-state negotiations take place?

MODERATOR: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: Okay. Without going into the French resolution, which hasn’t been tabled, can you say why the U.S. opposes or is hesitant about the idea of the Security Council imposing deadlines on negotiations, setting terms of reference on negotiations, just why in principle you would have concerns about such approaches in theory?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, listen, there’s one thing I can tell you about deadlines at the United Nations, which is that the Palestinian draft through the Jordanians contains a hard deadline for the withdrawal of the IDF from the West Bank of two years, right. So that’s not the way I think we would look at handling a very complicated security negotiation by simply mandating a flat deadline of two years. That’s just not – that’s not consistent with the conversations we had with the Israelis and the Palestinians over the course of the negotiations. So we would certainly take a different view of that particular issue.

But as to anything else at the United Nations, as I said, it’s all premature. We’re just not in a position to comment on something that’s speculative at this point. If there’s a resolution that’s been tabled, we’ll analyze it and we’ll assess it and we’ll take it from there. It is the case, obviously, that we’ve never had terms of reference between the parties let alone at the Security Council, so it’s something that is obviously a significant step. And we would have to think very carefully about it if and when we were ever confronted with making a decision on that, but as I said before, we’re just not there right now.

QUESTION: Just to hammer home the point, you’re not, in principle, opposed to such a step? It’s not – the very step of going to the Security Council and proposing such things doesn’t automatically bring your opposition?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, if you want to read into the fact that we’re not going to take a position on something that doesn’t yet exist, and suggest that from that one could extrapolate that it would not be therefore impossible that there could be something that we would support, I wouldn’t disagree with that. But I really wouldn’t read too much into it, either.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: I mean, part of the problem with answering a question like this – and I think you’ll remember if you followed the discussions during the nine months of negotiations around a framework is that any individual element of this cannot be viewed in the abstract from everything else. I mean, in terms of what we would or wouldn’t support, we would have to look at a holistic package of elements. So to ask – to pull out one idea that’s been discussed and ask if we would support that idea is basically an impossible question to answer if we don’t know what else is part of the discussion.

QUESTION: I just wondered if there’s – considering there’s no resolution yet tabled, which you’ve stressed a couple of times, why the rush to put together this trip then if – why is it such a sense of – or were you – there’s a feeling of a sense of urgency. And I also wanted to ask about the meeting with Lavrov, whether you expect to hear more about their proposals for a new kind of round of Syria peace talks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Well, obviously, there’s a sense of urgency about these meetings because the Europeans have a real sense of urgency about moving forward, the Palestinians have a real sense of urgency about moving forward. And so it’s very important that we sit down with the key players and discuss with them what they’re thinking and how we can all stay coordinated, and as I said, work together to achieve our common goals. But the impetus behind this and sense of urgency is coming from the Europeans and the Palestinians, who are certainly eager to move forward in the near future on all this.

I’ll let [Senior State Department Official Two] answer the question on Syria.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: So I missed part of that answer, but just in case [Senior State Department Official One] didn’t say this, which he probably did – the real driving sense of urgency is coming from the facts on the ground, the fact that tension is high, that there have been instances of violence, and that none of us wants this to continue to escalate and potentially explode.

So what is driving -- these initiatives at the UN are not emerging spontaneously from purely political forces. They’re driven in very large part by concern that everybody feels about things that are happening on the ground. So I mean, that is at least in part how I would explain what you’re seeing.

And then the second part of your question on Lavrov and the potential for new Syria diplomatic process, the Secretary and Lavrov have had an ongoing discussion over a period of months if not years on establishing, restoring a diplomatic process to try to end the Syria conflict and foment a transition. I would imagine that conversation will continue. In terms of specific Russian proposals or U.S. proposals, there have been a number that have been discussed, and I would imagine that all of this will be part of what takes place in that meeting. But beyond that, I don’t want to speculate before we actually sit down with them.

QUESTION: I have a follow-up. There is a momentum not only on the ground in Israel and the Palestinian Authority, but there’s also a momentum in Europe right now to get this done before the election, before the election. So are you trying to – by coming here to Europe, are you trying to manage the situation a little bit more as far as -- John Kerry said in Bogota he wanted to try and defuse tensions clearly among the allies. But if we’re not going to come here to discuss a text, what exactly are you hoping to achieve? I mean, the Europeans want to move forward on this before the election, and so are you going to try and stall them until after the election, or what?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: I don’t know that I would accept the premise of the question. I think the – to speak about the Europeans as if they’re a – have taken a common position on this I think is – that’s certainly not my impression of where they are on it. I think obviously, we’ve all understood the French have sent a paper around. They obviously feel a great sense of urgency on this. I think everybody feels like the – as Kerry said at the Saban Forum that the gridlock on the ground impacts them and so they want to act. But whether they’re – have decided they must act before the Israeli election, I haven’t heard that from them. But again, one of the things we’re trying to accomplish here on this trip is to understand exactly where everybody is on all of these issues to get a sense from them of what they see as the way forward in light of the common objectives that we all share. So maybe we’ll hear that. I’m not sure. We haven’t had the meetings yet so it’s a little bit premature to accept that as a premise.

MODERATOR: Great. Is that it? Okay.

QUESTION: Sorry, just on Syria because I know it’s come up in recent days. And we – it hasn’t?

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

QUESTION: Oh sorry, okay. More – on Syria. Specifically, there’s been this talk about another peace conference, another peace initiative. And I know the Secretary spoke with Lavrov in recent days. Have they actually gotten to the point of talking about where, when, how, or is this purely in the realm of the speculative? Because the Russians have kind of indicated that they’ve been briefing him/you on this process.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So I guess I would just say if and when we have a viable way forward to discuss publicly, we’ll certainly do that. Until then, we probably won’t get into tremendous detail about the nature of these discussions. There are Russian ideas that have been discussed. There are ideas that the UN Special Representative Staffan de Mistura has discussed. We and our European partners have discussed various ideas for this. But at this point, there is not yet a common approach and way forward that we are ready to move out on. As I said, I think the conversations are going to continue about how and whether any of these ideas, there might be enough common ground to really gain traction. But in terms of telling you when and where and how and who, we’re not there yet.

QUESTION: Since we haven’t asked about it, what are you hoping to talk about on Ukraine both with the Europeans and with the Russians?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: So I guess this is a regular facet of our conversations with both the Russians and key European partners. The focus is more or less the same in all these discussions; it’s how to de-escalate the situation on the ground, how to bring about the implementation of the Minsk agreement, which everybody generally believes is the best path to achieving that de-escalation. And with our European partners, it’s generally speaking how to remain in lockstep on the various diplomatic initiatives and pressure, a strategy that we’ve been using to try to bring about de-escalation of the conflict and our support for the Government of Ukraine. And beyond that, I think I’d wait for the meetings to take place before I went much further.

QUESTION: Can I have a follow-up on the Palestinian issue? Is the U.S. ready to negotiate a text that would be acceptable to the U.S. and the Israelis?


QUESTION: To the U.S. and the Israelis. Are you ready to negotiate a text or have some input into something that would be acceptable to everyone here?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Well, again, we spent nine months trying to come up with a framework agreement that would be acceptable to both sides. So that’s an elusive goal, again, and we’re not at a point where we’ve decided that a Security Council resolution is the way to go, right. We have to hear from the parties and we have to understand what they’re thinking, we have to discuss various options with them, and we have to make every effort to stay coordinated and work together on this. So the – I wouldn’t get into any notion that we’re – have decided to sit down and start negotiating texts with anybody. We’re just not really at that point right now.

QUESTION: Sorry, just to labor the point and follow up a little bit: But you do seem to have stepped back on the opposition somewhat to any kind of unilateral move at the United Nations. That was the position a while ago. And now you’re sort of saying, “We want to hear what the others have to say about it”?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: This is actually an important distinction. A UN Security Council resolution – and again, I will take pains to say that we’re nowhere near that point right now – but that’s not a unilateral measure by either one of the parties.

Our objection is to unilateral measures that would prejudge the outcome of negotiations. So we don’t support Palestinian efforts to become a state through the United Nations. That’s a unilateral effort at the United Nations that we obviously oppose. We oppose Israeli settlements, which we view as a unilateral step that could prejudge the outcome of negotiations, right. But that’s a different thing altogether than a Security Council resolution, which would be a multilateral action that the Security Council would take.

And again, it depends on what would be in a Security Council resolution. So if you had a Security Council resolution from the Palestinians – which we’ve had in the past – that sought to have them recognized as a member state, that’s a unilateral action at the UN. But if you were to do some kind of terms of reference in a Security Council resolution, that would not be what we would consider to be a unilateral step in the conventional sense of the term.

But again, we’re just not at a point where that’s something that we’re – that we’ve made any decisions on.

QUESTION: What is your position on the Palestinians potentially trying to join the ICC?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: We have said a thousand times that we oppose that, so we – our position remains the same on that, yeah. No, I don’t mean to be – but no, that’s not something that we support.

QUESTION: (Inaudible.)

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Any more than we support Israeli settlement actions. Not that there’s an equivalence between the two of them, but these are things that we’ve been very clear, very consistent on in the past.

QUESTION: (Inaudible). So the Europeans are pushing for a UN Security Council resolution within the next month to set parameters and a deadline.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: Which Europeans are you refering to? (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: The French, the Germans, the British.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL ONE: (Inaudible.) (Laughter.) It seems like exactly the previous question. (Inaudible.)

QUESTION: Well, because – well, what you’re telling us is different what many Western diplomats have been telling us. And --

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: No, no, no, the – yeah, no, I understand. I don’t believe that there is necessarily any consensus among the Europeans about substance or timing, right. That’s one of the things that we’d like to find out in these meetings: Where does everybody stand on this? So that’s why we’ll be seeing the E3 ministers. I guess it’s just Hammond and Steinmeier and --


QUESTION: Fabius, yeah.


QUESTION: Oh, sorry.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Anyway, so we’ll be consulting with all of them, and it may – you may be right. Those guys may all be right. But I don’t – that’s not necessarily my understanding of where things are right now. It’s one of the things we have to explore.

MODERATOR: Thank you, guys.