Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf On the Secretary’s Upcoming Travel to Egypt, Israel, and the West Bank

MR PATEL:  Thanks so much, and thanks, everybody, for joining us this morning.  Apologies for the slightly tardy start.  So today joining us we have Assistant Secretary Barbara Leaf to preview Secretary Blinken’s travel this upcoming weekend to Egypt, Israel, and the West Bank.  This call will be on the record but embargoed until the call’s conclusion.  We, of course, will have some time for Q&A towards the end.  But with that, I would like to turn it over to Assistant Secretary Leaf.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LEAF:  Thanks, Vedant.  And good morning to everybody.  So happy to be here to give you some context and detail to the Secretary’s planned trip to the region starting this weekend.  So as you all have seen from the announcement, he will be traveling to Egypt, Israel, and the West Bank January 29th to the 31st, consulting with our partners on a range of bilateral, regional, and global priorities and including advancing efforts that will – that promote human rights, democratic norms and values at the heart of our foreign policy, expanding our economic partnerships, and promoting regional security, stability, and prosperity, including through mechanisms like the Negev Forum.

He —his trip comes on the heels not only of the National Security Advisor’s visit, but as you’ll have seen in the last couple weeks, on the heels of the Negev Forum working groups in Abu Dhabi, which was an event that was pretty remarkable in its own right as the largest gathering of Arab and Israeli officials since the Madrid process.  You had Bahraini, Egyptian, Emirati, Israeli, Moroccan, and U.S. officials who worked to advance projects in these meetings to promote regional integration across a spectrum of areas, including regional security, water and energy security, tourism, food security, health, education, and coexistence.  And these are projects that we hope would eventually wrap around the Palestinian people and their economy and benefit them directly as well.

On January 29th to 30th, the Secretary will go to Cairo, where he will meet with President el-Sisi, Foreign Minister Shoukry, as well as senior Egyptian officials.  In those meetings, we expect that he will underscore our commitment to continuing to advance the strategic partnership we have with Egypt and to working with Egypt to promote peace and security in the region, whether it’s in support of elections in Libya or the ongoing Sudanese-led political process, or in working to ensure a calm in the Gaza Strip.

In Cairo, the Secretary will also meet with Egyptian youth leaders and with Egyptian human rights defenders to underscore our commitment to human rights and our continued support for civil society and, of course, the enduring importance of people-to-people ties between our countries.

The Secretary will then travel to Jerusalem and Ramallah from January 30th to 31st.  In Jerusalem, he’s going to have an opportunity to meet up with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and, of course, the prime minister is just a month into his tenure as prime minister.  He’ll also meet with the foreign minister and other senior Israeli leaders.  In those meetings, the Secretary will highlight the special 75-year – special nature of the 75-year bilateral relationship with Israel and our unstinting commitment to Israel’s security and democracy.  He will also underscore the United States commitment to countering the continued spectrum of threats posed by Iran to Israel, the U.S., and the wider region, and ensuring Iran can never acquire a nuclear weapon.

Obviously, normalization – advancing it and deepening it – will be on the agenda in support of a more integrated and secure Middle East that will be to the benefit of all peoples.  He will, of course, reiterate President Biden’s unstinting commitment to a two-state negotiated solution and equal measures of prosperity, freedom, and security for both Palestinians and Israelis.

In Ramallah, the Secretary is going to meet with President Abbas to, again, underline the administration’s, the President’s commitment to a two-state solution as well as talk through efforts to bolster the Palestinian economy and further strengthen American and Palestinian ties.

In both sets of engagements, he’s also going to meet with members of the Israeli and Palestinian civil societies, where he will underscore the administration’s belief that respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms and a strong civil society are fundamental, are critically important to responsible, responsive, and democratic governance.

I think that’s where I’ll stop, and I’d be happy to take your questions now.

MR PATEL:  Great.  Thanks so much, Assistant Secretary.  Amy, could you please remind our speakers on instructions on how to ask a question?

OPERATOR:  Yes, thank you.  If you wish to ask a question, please press 1 then 0 at this time.

MR PATEL:  Great.  We will first go to the line of Will Mauldin with The Wall Street Journal.

OPERATOR:  Your line is open.  Please, go ahead.

QUESTION:  Thank you so much for doing this, Assistant Secretary and Vedant.  I just wanted to ask, you mentioned a spectrum of threats coming from Iran – would you say that the U.S. and Israel have more and more common ground on how to address that?  And what would be in the arsenals or toolkit?  How far along are the two countries in figuring out what to do to address that?  And are there any concrete steps or expediting weapons to our partner, Israel, or other things that could be done to achieve that?  Thanks.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LEAF:  Thanks for that.  So I would describe the place we are with the Israeli Government as kind of a seamless transition from one government to another in terms of really a fundamental alignment of our perspective on the nature – multi-headed nature of the threats that Iran poses.  It’s obviously most significantly in the untrammeled, unrestrained nuclear program and the lack of insight that we have – and that the IAEA has – into the dimensions of that program.  But it’s also obviously in the plethora of activities that Iran undertakes in the region that press in upon Israel’s security, and indeed the security of many of our partners through proxies, through transfer of advanced weaponry and so forth.

So I think there’s a real convergence of views on the nature of the threat and increasingly a convergence of our – or at least an alignment of our efforts across – whether it’s sanctions or other activities – to apply political and economic pressure and deter Iran from some of its really egregious activities.

I can’t really get into, obviously, issues of weapon systems and so forth, but I would just say it’s a place where we have a real alignment of views.

MR PATEL:  Next, let’s go to the line of Elizabeth Hagedorn with Al-Monitor.

QUESTION:  Hi.  Thank you for doing this.  I’d like to ask about the raid in Jenin.  What is the U.S. assessment of what happened here, and how concerned is the U.S. about the potential for renewed violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LEAF:  So we’ve been – a number of us have been working the phones since early this morning to get an understanding of what’s developing, what’s happened, and to urge de-escalation and coordination between Israeli and the Palestinian security forces.

We are concerned, obviously, at a couple things.  One, we understand there were civilian casualties, which is quite regrettable.  And then, obviously, there is the potential for things to worsen in security terms, in terms of protests or any other kind of kinetic action.

But we’re – we are in touch, in close touch, with our diplomatic and security folks on the ground.  I spoke with Ambassador Nides several times this morning and other folks in our organization out there, talked to General Mike Fenzel, who heads up our security mission, and I’ve been in touch with Israeli and Palestinian officials as well.  And as I said, we are urging de-escalation and a calming of the situation.

MR PATEL:  Thanks so much.  Next question.  Let’s go to Barak Ravid with Axios.

QUESTION:  Thank you so much for doing this.  Thank you, Vedant.  Thank you, Barbara.  First question, if I can follow up on the previous one:  Barbara, what exactly is the U.S. reaction to the Palestinian Authority announcement of suspending all security coordination with Israel?  It’s a statement they just put out a few minutes ago.  And second, is Secretary Blinken going to raise with Prime Minister Netanyahu the Israeli Government’s plan to weaken the supreme court?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LEAF:  So Barak, thank you, as always, for really easy questions.  (Laughter.)  So on the first, look, I mean, the – sorry, your second one is – eclipsed the first one.  The first one was on the situation – oh, the reaction to President Abbas’s statement, yeah.

Look, I mean, we’ve seen that; we’re in very close touch with senior PA officials.  Obviously, we don’t think this is the right step to take at this moment.  Far from stepping back on security coordination, we believe it’s quite important that the parties retain – and if anything, deepen – security coordination.  And obviously, we’ll be continuing to talk to PA and Israeli officials all the way up through our arrival on the ground in a couple of days.

On the issue of the judicial reform, look, I mean, the Secretary is going to have an opportunity to hear from a wide swath of Israelis, both the Israelis inside and outside of government.  And it’s clear that this issue of the judicial legislation packages is one that’s sparked intense, intense discussion, debate within Israeli society.  It’s clearly a measure of the vibrancy of the democracy that this is being contested so clearly up and down across segments of Israeli society.  So he’s going to be interested to hear people’s views on this, and I don’t know where things will be a couple days hence.  But he will clearly be interested in hearing from people both in and outside of government on this issue.

MR PATEL:  Thank you so much.  Next, let’s go to the line of Matt Lee with the Associated Press.

QUESTION:  Hi, thanks.  Actually, Barak asked my question which was the – your reaction to the Palestinians cutting off the security cooperation or at least saying that they’re going to, but also once again saying that they’re going to go the UN and to the ICC about the raid in Jenin.  And as you know, the last time they did that, the Israeli cabinet suspended a whole bunch of – the transfer of a whole bunch of tax revenue, which is something that is completely at odds with the administration’s position as it relates to ties with the Palestinians and the PA.  So can you address that part of it?  Thanks.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LEAF:  Yeah, sure, Matt.  Look, obviously we want to – far from seeing the sides separate further politically, in security terms, et cetera, et cetera, we want to say – them move back in the other direction.  We don’t think it makes sense to be going to international fora at this point.  This is a – this is exactly the point at which they need to engage with each other, and that’s – that will be the nature of our discussions with both sets of officials.

MR PATEL:  And we have time for one final question.  We’ll go to the line of Barbara Usher with BBC.

QUESTION:  Thank you.  Just one clarification on the Jenin question.  Do you expect it to alter any of the emphasis of the Secretary’s trip?  And I know that the State Department says that it is – discourages or is critical of actions that can be perceived as escalating tensions from either side.  Would this be one of those actions that you would criticize as escalating tensions?  Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LEAF:  No, I mean, look – what I’m told is there was a – this was an operation to – by the Israeli military forces to intercept and sort of disrupt, I guess if you will, a ticking time bomb of a threat – of a terrorist threat.  I’m not in a position to – what I would say is, as I said earlier, the concern we have right now is that this is obviously tremendously – the aftermath of this, the civilian casualties and so forth – this has tremendously roiled the waters there.  We want to get the parties to – not to cease security cooperation – far from it – but to really enhance the security coordination.  And we’ll be helping – we’ll be ready to help with that as needed.

MR PATEL:  Thank you so much and thanks everybody for joining us today for this preview call.  As I said at the beginning, this call is on the record but embargoed until the call’s conclusion, which will be concluding shortly.  And I want to thank again Assistant Secretary Leaf for her time, and we will talk to everyone very soon.


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