Background Briefing on the Quartet Report

Special Briefing
Senior Department Official
Washington, DC
July 1, 2016

MODERATOR: Thanks, David. And thanks to all of you for joining us on this morning before the long Fourth of July weekend. Look, we – we’re doing this because the much anticipated Quartet report is going to be released in less than a half hour now. So we thought it would be useful for us to do a background call – and this is on background – with a senior State Department official. Now, for your information, as many of you can probably can guess, that person is [name and title withheld]. And again, [Senior State Department Official] will walk you through some of the conclusions of the report, and then we’ll answer some of your questions as well afterwards.

So without further ado, I’ll hand it over to our senior State Department official.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Hi. Thanks very much, [Moderator]. I appreciate it. And thank you guys all for joining this morning. At the outset, obviously, just would like to note that we saw reports of another terrorist attack this morning – a family, an Israeli family shot. Their car was shot at near Hebron. We’re still gathering all the facts on that, but obviously we condemn these attacks in the strongest possible terms.

I’ll take a second if I could to just talk about some of the highlights of the report and some of the main themes that were focused on. And then I’m happy to take any questions.

So as you all know, the Quartet Principals had agreed to prepare this report I think back in March on the situation on the ground, building on the statement that we did in September of 2015 in New York, which expressed our very serious concern the trends on the ground are imperiling the viability of the two-state solution. So that’s obviously one of the prime drivers of this report – our concern that while the leaders and the people on both sides still express support for the two-state solution, if they continue on the current course, this process will become increasingly remote.

We really are concerned that if there are not significant changes, it will risk entrenching a one-state reality that will not be to the benefit of either side. And so that’s one of the main points we’re focusing on here.

In particular, we’re highlighting some of the major trends, and I’ll describe those briefly. There are obviously continuing violence, terrorism, and incitement to violence. We saw yesterday that really a truly horrific terrorist attack in which a 13-year-old girl is shot – was stabbed to death in her bed. And I just said today we learned about another shooting near Hebron. This just has to stop. We cannot have a peaceful two-state reality on the ground when this kind of violence is going on.

At the same time, we’re concerned about (inaudible) settlement construction and expansion, designation of land in the West Bank for exclusive Israeli use, and the denial of Palestinian development, particularly in Area C. So we’re not just talking about settlement construction here; everybody focuses on that. There’s really a broader process here that includes legalizing outposts, not giving any permits for Palestinian development, and demolishing large numbers of Palestinian structures, particularly in the first part of this year.

In effect, what’s really happening there is that the transfer of greater powers and responsibilities to the Palestinian civil authority in Area C that was contemplated by prior agreements has effectively been stopped and in some ways reversed. So we’re very concerned about that. And obviously, there’s the situation in Gaza when there are continuing efforts to rearm Hamas, to build more rockets, to dig more tunnels. That obviously poses a grave threat to the prospects for a lasting peace. So we’re very concerned about that. In addition, obviously, there’s a grave humanitarian situation in Gaza, and we’re really concerned if something isn’t done to address that, pressure will continue to build and the chances for a new conflict will increase.

So the report provides details on those trends so that people will be clear about why we’re concerned about where the situation is headed. But really what we – the main point of this report and the main thing we’re focusing on is where we go from here. The main objective is not to assign blame; it’s really to provide a way forward to support the goal that we – everybody says they share – well, not everybody everywhere, but certainly on the – members of the international community and the leaders in Israel and the Palestinians – of achieving a negotiated two-state solution. We really want to stress the urgent need for affirmative steps to reverse each of these trends. In other words, we can’t just continue on the path we’re continuing on. We really need both sides to take affirmative steps to move this in a very, very different direction.

That’s why we’re calling on both of them to independently demonstrate through policies and actions a genuine commitment to the two-state solution, which you’ve heard from the United States quite a bit. And we’re trying to elaborate here in the recommendations of what we mean by that.

But I really want to emphasize this point: We’re trying to provide a constructive path forward that will advance a two-state solution on the ground and create the conditions for the resumption of negotiations. The report is very clear that this kind of permanent status agreement that really ends the conflict can only be achieved through direct bilateral negotiations, but we really do want to stress that important progress can be made now towards advancing the two-state reality on the ground.

And the way we think the parties can do that is to comply with commitments that they have made under prior agreements, right. So there’s a path forward based on things they’ve already said they would do, and we’re hoping that they will resume complying with those kind of commitments to move this thing forward in a much more positive direction. And I would stress that one small point: We’re not talking about confidence-building measures or other things that can be done just simply to get back to negotiations. We’re really talking about calling on the parties to take steps now to move towards creating a peaceful two-state reality on the ground. And we expect, obviously, that both sides will have issues with this report. I’m sure that there are going to be people that are upset about it on both sides, and we expect that. We understand that. But we hope that they’ll embrace the report’s recommendations and engage with the Quartet or on their own about constructive steps that can change the situation on the ground and move things forward in a more positive direction.

So that’s basically what we’re doing here, and I think you guys all have a copy of the report, now embargoed for another 19 minutes. And happy to take any questions.

MODERATOR: Great. We’ll open up to your questions now. Go ahead.

OPERATOR: Once again, ladies and gentlemen, if you’d like to ask a question, please press * then 1. The first question will come from the line of Arshad Mohammed with Reuters. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Thanks for doing the call, and in particular for making sure we got an embargoed copy of the report in advance. Two questions, or three. One, do you think that Palestinian President Abbas has the capacity and the will to actually reduce acts of Palestinian violence against Israelis?

Second, you, in recommendation six – actually not in recommendation six, in recommendation nine – you say that Gaza and the West Bank should be reunified under a single, legitimate, democratic Palestinian Authority. Does that mean that you think that there should be elections in both Gaza and the West Bank?

And are you confident that if there were such elections, that it would actually yield a unified government, let alone governments, that are actually committed to moving forward with a two-state solution. And then, finally, do you believe that Prime Minister Netanyahu has the will or desire to take the steps outlined in recommendation four to cease settlement construction and expansion, cease designated land for exclusive Israeli use, and cease denying Palestinian development? And if you do, what makes you think that he is willing to do that now?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay. Thanks, Arshad. I appreciate it. Well, with respect to President Abbas and his capacity and his will, I think the report reflects that they are doing some things. The PASF is doing some important things, I think, to try to crack down on terrorism. But at the same time, the incitement issue is one that we really are very concerned about. And we call on him specifically here to condemn terrorist attacks, which I don’t know why he doesn’t do that, but obviously it’s something that we feel like should be done. And I can’t speak to exactly what impact that would have on the ground, but it’s certainly something that he can do, that we are calling on him to do, that would send a strong signal on that subject.

As for the Gaza issue, we’re not specifically calling for elections right now. I think that’s really up to the Palestinians to decide. And we obviously all remember what happened in 2006, I guess it was. So we’re not calling specifically for elections now, but we are hoping that they – we are identifying this as a problem in terms of the ultimate implementation and negotiation of a two-state solution. And we hope that they’ll do what they can to move that forward in a more positive direction, but no, we’re not calling specifically for elections right now.

Now, as – Prime Minister Netanyahu, really, that’s up to them. I can’t speak to that. We have talked, obviously, to the Israelis since this Quartet put out this report in September of 2015 and we stressed that these are things that can happen on the ground that don’t impact Israel’s security that we think can make a difference in terms of really moving towards implementation of a two-state solution. Whether he wants to do that or not, that’s up to him. Our job is merely to try to provide a constructive path forward and hope the parties will pick up on these recommendations, but that’s ultimately up to them.

MODERATOR: Great. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Our next question will come from the line of David Clark with AFP. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. The report notes that the settlement construction expansion designation of land for exclusive use and denial of development is eroding the viability of a two-state solution. Was any thought given to dubbing it illegal?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: That’s not our position in the United States. We speak of settlements as being illegitimate and counterproductive to the cause of peace, and this is a consensus document that has to reflect the views of all of the parties that are a part of it. So that’s what you see here.

MODERATOR: Great. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Next we’ll go to the line of Barbara Plett Usher with BBC. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks. A couple of questions. First of all, what makes you think – I mean, these recommendations and assessments are nothing new, really. What makes you think they will actually be acted on now?

And secondly, is there any possibility that this will be turned into a UN document? Mladenov yesterday was asking for a UN endorsement – I don’t know – a resolution or something that would give it sort of international law legitimacy or strength.

And thirdly, is there – is this supposed to coincide with the various methods being suggested for getting negotiations back on track? So the Egyptians have talked about an international conference. The French are talking about one. The Palestinians are looking for a multinational – multilateral negotiation like the one over the Iran deal. Is that – is there going to be any move towards that, towards – in terms of getting negotiations back on track?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, thank you very much. Obviously, as I said before, we – it’s up to the parties to decide whether they want to engage with the Quartet and whether they want to implement these recommendations. We’re trying to provide them with what we think is a constructive path forward, should they choose to take it, but whether they will or not, that’s entirely up to them. We’re obviously hoping that they will, and as the Quartet, we’re prepared to engage with them and to have a dialogue about implementation of these recommendations, but that’s really up to them.

But Nickolay said yesterday, by the way, that the Security Council would welcome this report. They’re not talking about endorsing the report, and that’s what – that’s our view of it right now, is that we’re open to having the Security Council welcome the report, but that’s all at this point. We’re not looking for a serious, substantive UN Security Council action on this report.

As for getting back to negotiations, I don’t know. Maybe you know something I don’t about the Egyptians, but obviously, we’re all very well aware of the French initiative on this. This report is separate from the French initiative. As we’ve said many times, we’re keeping an open mind about the French efforts, but this report is separate from that.

As for getting back to negotiations, as we say in this report, we’re really calling on the parties to take steps on the ground that will create the conditions for the resumption of meaningful negotiations, and not just negotiations for the sake of negotiations, but negotiations that can be successful. I think this is an important – really an important concept. We’re emphasizing the importance – I’m just reading from the report – of both sides complying with their basic commitments under existing agreements in order to promote the two-state reality and lay the groundwork for successful negotiations. So that’s what this report is focused on.

MODERATOR: Thanks. I think time for just a couple more questions. Next question, please.

OPERATOR: The next question will come from the line of Brad Klatter with Associated Press. Please go ahead.

MODERATOR: Mr. Klatter. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Yes, yes. What is the suggestion for the Quartet going forward and the international community to build – to help build an environment conducive for peace. I don’t see anything really that says what you will do or what anyone outside of Israel and Palestine will do if none of these things happen. So are we left to assume that you’ll just issue more reports forever? Is that kind of where it is?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: This report is focused on the steps the parties can take on the ground. That’s what we’re talking about here, that’s what we’re focused on here. And – yeah, as I said, whether they choose to do that or not is up to them. We hope that they will engage with us and we hope that they’ll take these recommendations to heart and really try to change some of the realities on the ground right now. But we’re not – we’re not engaged in some sort of a broader process here where we’re – where we’re trying to impose any kind of an outcome on the parties or impose any kind of a solution. This is focused on things they can do.

There are a couple of things here at the end. Obviously, we hope the international community will all step up and meet their commitments in terms of Gaza reconstruction, and that’s a step here that others can take. But for the most part, this is – report is really just focused on what the parties can do.

MODERATOR: All right. Last question, please.

OPERATOR: The last question will come from the line of Said Arikat with Al Quds daily newspaper. Please go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, thank you for doing this and thank you for taking my call. Very quickly, you said that you consider the settlements to be illegitimate but not illegal. Can you very briefly explain to us, what is the difference, in your view? Because as far back as way back then, you considered them to be illegal, actually. So explain that to me.

And second, the secretary-general, when he was in Gaza, he called for the immediate lifting of the siege because of the horrible, inhuman conditions that Gazans suffer under. Will you take some steps to make sure that at least some effort to relieve the siege is taken in Gaza?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Okay, thanks very much. First of all, I’m not going to get into the question of the legality of settlements and why our position is what it is on that. We’re really here today to talk about the Quartet report, so I’ll leave that where I left it, which is our position is what it is on this.

As for Gaza Strip, obviously, there’s a recommendation in here – number eight – that says Israel should accelerate the lifting of movement and access restrictions to and from Gaza, with due consideration of its need to protect its citizens from terrorist attacks. That’s an important point here. We do think that there can be – that there should be acceleration of the lifting of the access and movement restrictions, but at the same time, we are, all of us, cognizant of the concerns that the Israelis have in terms of their security and the rockets in the tunnels and that sort of thing. So I really don’t have much more for you than what’s in the report on that.

MODERATOR: Okay, great. Well, look, everyone, thanks for joining us again. The report embargo should be lifted in just a few minutes. I appreciate it. I appreciate our senior State Department official briefing us on the report itself. And I hope everyone has a very peaceful, enjoyable, and quiet holiday weekend.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Hey [Moderator], can I stop you just for one second? If any of you guys --

MODERATOR: Of course.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: -- have any specific questions when you’ve had a little more time to digest the report, you can just send those to [Moderator] and we’ll try to get back to you on those. And I very much appreciate your time. Thanks, everybody.

MODERATOR: Take care. Bye.