Background Briefing Previewing Secretary Kerry's Trip to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Ramallah

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
Via Teleconference
November 21, 2015

MODERATOR: Thank you very much. Hi guys, thanks for joining us today. Sorry about the little bit of a delay here, but I’m glad you could get back on. As you know, we’ve got [Senior State Department Official] on this call. He will be a Senior State Department Official. This is a background call. I’m going to turn it over to our State Department official for a few minutes. He’ll have just a couple of comments to make about our stop in Israel, Ramallah, and the West Bank, and then he’ll take a few questions. I know there’s another stop on this trip to Abu Dhabi. That schedule is still working its way through. We’ll have more to talk about that either later today or tomorrow as we get to Andrews. So we’re not going to have a whole lot of context on that part of the trip. Obviously, it will be a Syria-related focused trip, and again, we’ll get you some more background on that just as soon as things firm up.

But in any case I’m going to turn it over right now to our Senior State Department Official. Go ahead.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thanks. Hi, everybody. It’s [Senior State Department Official] calling, Senior State Department Official talking on background, as [Moderator] just said. I look forward to seeing all of you, I hope, in a few days here in Israel. I just wanted to take a second and let you know what the general outlines of this trip are from our perspective.

And I think the main point is that the Secretary is here as part of the – a trip he’s taking which will also include the UAE, where’s he’s working on (inaudible) situation in Syria as he’s been doing on an ongoing basis. It’s a good opportunity for him to see Prime Minister Netanyahu to talk about a range of bilateral issues following up on conversations that we had in Washington that covered, obviously, Syria, Daesh, and the normal things you’d imagine we’d have to talk about with the Israelis.

We also had a meeting, as you all know, on Veterans Day with Prime Minister Netanyahu in which we talked about some ideas for how to stop the violence, improve conditions for the Palestinians, and start to get things headed in a more positive direction. So I’ve been here this week having some further conversations along those lines. Nothing concrete has come out of that, and I don’t want to get into any of the specifics other than to say that a variety of different ideas have been talked about, all with the purpose of trying to stop the violence and restore calm in a sustainable way.

The Secretary will be talking to Prime Minister Netanyahu about those issues, but we’re not trying to make any kind of an agreement with the Israelis ourselves, and we’re certainly not trying to make any kind of agreement between the Israelis and the Palestinians to resume negotiations or otherwise. That’s not our objective.

We have called many times publicly and privately for the both sides to take concrete steps to demonstrate a genuine commitment to a two-state solution, and that’s what we continue to stress to them. We also talk, obviously, to both sides about steps that we think they can take that can help to reduce tensions. The Secretary will speak to President Abbas and obviously he will be talking to him about a lot of the same things we’ve been talking to him about over the course of the last year, which are hoping to keep the Palestinian Authority from collapsing, trying to prevent that situation from becoming even more unstable than it already is, and steps we think he can take to try to help cut down the violence. The Secretary has talked about incitement before. We’ll continue to obviously stress that.

But we also want to – we want to see bigger changes on the ground to try to get that situation stabilized in a more sustainable way. Obviously, in Amman, we worked very hard to try to address some of the misinformation out there in terms of the public rhetoric about the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount, and wanted to get the public dialogue more positive in tone and we wanted to try to get the private dialogue back up between the – between the Israelis and Jordanians. I think we did both of those things, but we never – we never thought that alone was going to be enough to stop the violence, and we were happy to see that the violence seemed to have abated somewhat over the course of the last few weeks since we were there. But then you obviously saw the violence spike back up again – five people killed, it’s a terrible tragedy, including an American citizen. We’re a bit concerned about that and said so publicly.

But even at the time we were working on the Haram al-Sharif stuff, we always knew that bigger steps would be required beyond that. That was really what we thought of as the first stage. So that’s just – the best way to think of this, it’s part of an ongoing dialogue we’re having with both sides going back to the war in Gaza and before last summer, where we’re trying to remain engaged to try to restore calm and stabilize the situation as much as we possibly can.

So that’s the brief overview, and with that I’d be happy to take any questions.

OPERATOR: Thank you. Ladies and gentlemen, if you wish to ask a question, please press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. And you may remove yourself from the queue by pressing the # key. Once again, if you have a question, please press * then 1 at this time. And we’ll go to Carol Morello with Washington Post. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. You mentioned that the Secretary has really tried hard in Amman to get both sides to be positive in their tone and sort of calm down the rhetoric. Yet in the wake of the violence last week in which a number of people were killed, including an American, Prime Minister Netanyahu made a statement essentially comparing what was happening in the West Bank and in Tel Aviv with what happened in Paris, part and parcel of the same ideology.

I was wondering if you think that that was not helpful and how much the Secretary is going to be stressing this need to try and be a little bit more positive in tone and keep the Palestinian Authority from collapsing, as you say?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, listen, I think just to be clear, what we were trying to do was to get the rhetoric on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif headed in a more positive direction. We had a pretty discrete goal in that regard. Obviously, we continue to encourage both sides – and the President of the United States has done this, I know, publicly and privately – to take affirmative steps to reduce calm – to stop – to put an end to provocative rhetoric. I don’t – we’re never going to get into the business of commenting on anything that any particular leader says or we’re not going to be criticizing the prime minister of Israel in that regard. But our – and I wouldn’t necessarily characterize what he said there as being provocative rhetoric in the sense of the violence on the ground here.

But in any event, we continue to push both sides as best as we possibly can to say things publicly and, frankly, privately and really do things that will help to change the dynamic and reduce tensions on the ground here. So I’ll leave it at that.

OPERATOR: And did that answer your question?

QUESTION: Yes, it did. Thank you.

OPERATOR: We’ll go to David Clark with AFP. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing the call. I was just – can you hear me?


QUESTION: Yes. I just wondering – it’s a technical issue, maybe on the side issue. But after the – after the last Amman round of talks on this, there was talk of putting cameras on the Temple Mount. Whatever happened to that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yes. My understanding is – and I have had – I’ve asked that question. They are having meetings of technical teams and that process is proceeding. That’s what we said was the next step when we were in Amman; the technical teams would meet to talk about putting the cameras up. And so I think members of – the Israelis are meeting with, I think, folks in the Waqf to have those conversations now, so I think that’s proceeding exactly as we had intended.


OPERATOR: We’ll go to the line of Pam Dockins with Voice of America. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. Two questions. First of all, during this trip will there be discussion of other regional issues of concern, for example, Pollard with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s call for him to return to the United States. And of course, the President has given some dialogue on this, but will this be further discussed?

And then secondly, a question for you, [Moderator]. And that is you mentioned more information this afternoon on the UAE stop. Are you saying there’s going to be a second background briefing? Should we expect a second background for today on that?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Why don’t you go ahead and take the last part first.

MODERATOR: Yeah, sure. I can’t say that for sure, Pam. We’ll still work that through. Can’t guarantee that they’ll have another background call today, but certainly as we get to Andrews and get on the way, if there’s more context to provide, we’ll provide it. It may just be me doing it, but we’ll make sure you get the context you need.

OPERATOR: We’ll go to the line of Lesley Wroughton with Reuters.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Hang on, please. I wanted to answer the – there was another part of the question with respect to, first of all, whether other regional issues were going to be discussed. And the answer to that is absolutely. As I said at the outset, there are a range of regional and bilateral issues that the Secretary will be talking to the prime minister about, including Syria and Daesh.

With respect to Pollard, I don’t know that there’s anything in particular there. Mr. Pollard served his sentence and was released. I don’t – we haven’t heard anything from – I actually haven’t heard anything in my meetings here about any kind of request that he be allowed to travel. He is in the United States. I’m not familiar with any further specific asks on that side. So if they have something to raise on that, we’ll hear that when the Secretary gets here. But I haven’t heard anything about that up till now.

OPERATOR: And we’ll go to Lesley --


OPERATOR: Ms. Dockins, your line is open.


OPERATOR: Yes, your line is open.

QUESTION: I’ve asked my question. Thank you.

OPERATOR: Thank you. We’ll go to Lesley Wroughton with Reuters. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, yeah, thanks. Who exactly is the Secretary going to meet during the visit in Jerusalem? And when you say that you’re not trying to come up with an agreement between the Israelis and Palestinians, exactly then what is it that one is trying to do?

And has the – has Israel’s announcement of settlements this week been one of the reasons why the Secretary feels he needs to talk directly to the leaders?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay, let me take the last one first. The Israelis have made settlement announcements repeatedly over – for decades now, and we continue to express our view very clearly publicly and very clearly privately on that. That would – and we continue to do that. That would not be a reason for the Secretary to come on this visit.

The second question with respect to an agreement, again, we encourage both sides to take concrete steps genuinely demonstrating a commitment to a two-state solution. So there’s a difference between saying we think that these are the kinds of things that need to be done to help stabilize the situation on a more sustainable basis and trying to broker some – which we are trying to do – and trying to broker some kind of an agreement between the parties to resume or continue negotiations, which is what we were doing two years ago. And so we are not – and I want to stress that – we are not doing that now, right?

So there’s no agreement to be reached between the parties now. There’s nothing we’re trying to get them to agree to, right? We’re trying to encourage both of them to do the kind of things that we think will be helpful and in their interests and in our interest in preserving stability and moving the situation forward in a more positive direction.

I’m sorry, what was the first part of the question?

QUESTION: Who is the Secretary going to meet?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Oh, he’s going to meet Bibi and either it will be the presidential (inaudible) in that meeting, and then we’re going to go see President Abbas. And is there another – something he has publicly? And I believe that there may be one more meeting he’s going to have in Israel, which it would not surprise anybody, but I don’t believe – I’m not sure whether it’s been announced or not, so I’ll let [Moderator] speak to that further as he thinks appropriate. But we do know that we’re planning to see Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Abbas.

QUESTION: Are you going to meet Herzog?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m not familiar with – I’m not aware of any meetings, any other meeting that he is thinking about doing that have been – that were – that we’re at liberty to talk about now.


OPERATOR: Then we’ll go to David Sanger with New York Times. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you very much and thanks for doing this. The two other regional issues I wanted to ask you about. When Prime Minister Netanyahu was here, there was discussion of the size of the aid package that would be renegotiated with Israel. This is the renewal of the military – obviously, the military aid. And we all know that we’re getting near the implementation day on the Iran agreement, and I suspect that the Israelis have some thoughts about what needs to be done to contain Iranian power while the money gets released, which will happen then. I’m wondering if those two issues are coming up and whether the U.S. has developed positions beyond what happened during the meeting in Washington.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL TWO: Hi, thank you, David. I’m [Senior State Department Official Two]. Due to the complexity and sensitivity of those issues, I think they’re very good questions but I’m not sure I could answer them, unfortunately.

QUESTION: [Moderator], do you have anything you can throw in on that for this part of the trip?

MODERATOR: No, David. No, I don’t have anything for that right now.

OPERATOR: And once again, if you have a question, please press * then 1. We’ll go to Felicia Schwartz with The Wall Street Journal. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. Going back to Lesley’s question, if you could talk a little bit more about the timing and why now with this meeting. Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, well, I can tell you the Secretary is – as I said, he’s coming to UAE to talk about issues related to Syria, and he also has a very busy travel schedule coming up. I know there’s a bunch of things he’s doing in Paris related to climate change and otherwise, and so this was just a good opportunity to come and follow up on the conversations that we had in Washington. But there’s no particular magic to this that’s a moment for the trip, other than I will say that we have been engaged on an ongoing basis pretty steadily over the course of the last 18 months or whatever since the negotiations have ended in an effort to do all the things I’ve described here. So this is a good opportunity to continue to remain engaged on that – on those issues. But other than that, there’s no particular significance to this moment in time for him coming to Israel.

OPERATOR: And we’ll go to the line of Carol Morello with Washington Post. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: I just wanted to know if the Secretary has any plans to meet with families of some of the victims of the recent – the most recent violence.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’ll have to look into that. Let me check up on that and get back to you. I’m not – I haven’t seen the latest schedule. And I know the trip wasn’t finalized until – and the final decision that he could make this trip has been just relatively recently finalized. So I’ll just have to circle back around on that.

QUESTION: Okay, thanks.

OPERATOR: And once again, if you have a question please press *, then 1. And we’ll go to Lesley Wroughton with Reuters. Please, go ahead.

Lesley, your line is open.

QUESTION: Is this call embargoed in any way or is it not?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’m sorry, I didn’t understand the question.

QUESTION: [Moderator], is this call embargoed or is it live? I mean can we do write today or do we keep it there till we get to Jerusalem?

MODERATOR: No, there’s no embargo, Lesley. Since the trip announcement is out, you’re free to write once the call is over.

QUESTION: All right, thanks.

OPERATOR: At this time, there are no questions in queue.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. Thank you all very much. I’ll allot some time when you’re here on Tuesday. If anybody wants to chat, I’d be happy to do so. Okay, thank you very much. Have a nice day.