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  • U.S. Officials Present Special Briefing on Israel

    Special Briefing on Israel by U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Melech Friedman and Victoria Coates the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Strategic Assessment of the National Security Council




    Washington, DC - - (May 11, 2018) - - Today, U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Melech Friedman and Victoria Coates the Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for Strategic Assessment of the National Security Council held a special briefing on Israel:

    MS FITZSIMMONS: Thank you, good morning from the State Department. Thank you to everyone for joining us for today’s background briefing on the upcoming opening of the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. We have two briefers this morning. Our briefers are the United States Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, who will be referred to as Senior Administration Official One. We are also joined by Special Assistant to the President, and Senior Director for Strategic Assessment of the National Security Council, Victoria Coates. She will be referred to as from here on as Senior Administration Official Two. I just want to remind everyone that this morning’s call is on background and is embargoed until the conclusion of the call. I’ll turn things over now to Ambassador Friedman, who will open with brief remarks, and then will take your questions. Thank you.[1]

    AMBASSADOR FRIEDMAN: Thanks very much. This is David Friedman. We’re very excited about the opening of the embassy in Jerusalem, Israel on Monday afternoon. I’m speaking to you now from Tel Aviv. We just had a little toast where we all got together and toasted our last day as Embassy Tel Aviv on Monday. People will be coming back to work as the embassy branch of the Jerusalem embassy, and we’re – I think we’re all very happy and excited to be participating in such a historic event. People have been working literally around the clock in getting ready for our opening dedication ceremony on Monday. We’ll be ready. We are expecting about 800 people. We are expecting a healthy number of dignitaries from the Congress. You’re aware of the presidential delegation; there’ll be others.

    And we are extremely proud of the fact that we have been able to open the embassy, as the President likes to say, ahead of schedule and under budget. And I think it’s a great testament to the skills of the White House and being able not only to – not only having the vision and the courage to make the decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, but then to follow through in a very cost-effective and efficient way, such that we are opening our embassy roughly four and a half months from the – or five months from the President’s decision.

    With that, I’m happy to take questions.

    MS FITZSIMMONS: Beth, we’re ready for questions. Can you open the lines please?

    OPERATOR: Ladies and gentlemen, again, if you would like to ask a question, please press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. Our first question comes from the line of David Clark with AFP. Please go ahead.

    QUESTION: Hello, hello?

    AMBASSADOR FRIEDMAN: Yes.

    QUESTION: Hello?

    MS FITZSIMMONS: Dave, we can hear you, go ahead with your question.

    QUESTION: Hello? Can you hear me?

    MS FITZSIMMONS: Dave, this is Elizabeth, we can hear you. Go ahead with your question.

    QUESTION: Oh, sorry, yes. Hi. Obviously, the moving of the embassy to Jerusalem is a longstanding request of the Israeli Government. Did they – did they give you any concessions towards your concerns towards the restarting of the peace process in exchange for this?

    AMBASSADOR FRIEDMAN: The decision to open the embassy in Jerusalem was made by the United States, and it was – the United States, it used to be an American interest to open the embassy. So it was not something that was done at the – the Israelis are obviously desirous of this, and they’ve requested this, and they’re very happy by it. But the decision was made because it was viewed to be in the best interests of the United States and something the President had promised during the campaign, and something the United States felt was in its best interests. And so no, there was no give and take with Israel with regard to this decision.

    QUESTION: Thank you.

    MS FITZSIMMONS: We’re ready for the next question.

    OPERATOR: And our next question comes from the line of Sarah Macklin with NPR. Please go ahead.

    QUESTION: Hi. Can you just tell us – obviously, there have been concerns by past administrations about making this move, whether it would sort of upset whatever balance exists there right now. How do you expect this to affect sort of the mood in the region?

    AMBASSADOR FRIEDMAN: We focus on the environments around us very carefully. There are people who are happy with the decision, there are people who are unhappy with the decision. I think it’s far too early to be measuring reactions. In the long run, we’re convinced that this decision creates an opportunity and a platform to proceed with a peace process on the basis of realities rather than fantasies, and we’re fairly optimistic that this decision will ultimately create greater stability rather than less.

    MS COATES: And if I could just add to that, David, we had yesterday the Bahrain foreign minister tweeting support for Israel’s right to self-defense against Iranian aggression. So I think that pretty much wraps up any notion that this has isolated Israel in any way in the region.

    OPERATOR: And our next question comes from the line of Felicia Schwartz with WSJ. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. I missed the ground rules at the top, so I’ll figure that out later, but I know, ambassador, you said that the U.S. did this because it was in its own self-interests, but between the U.S. pulling out of the Iran deal this week and opening the embassy next week, it seems like the Trump administration is drawing very close with Netanyahu’s government. So I was wondering if you could talk about the relationship between Trump and Mr. Netanyahu and what you think the prospects are and what the common interests are going forward.

    AMBASSADOR FRIEDMAN: Look, Israel has always been an extremely important ally to the United States and that’s, I think, growing ever more important over time, really unrelated to the relationship of the leaders. This is the very important relationship. President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu have a very close relationship, a relationship of great mutual respect and trust, and I think that that certainly creates a conducive atmosphere to the relationship. But again, the United States makes its decisions on the basis of what’s in the best interests of the United States, and whether it’s the Jerusalem decision or the decision on Iran or – I could name 10 more – the analysis is what is in the best interests of the United States.

    OPERATOR: And our next question comes from the line of Josh Lederman with AP. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Hey, thank you for doing this. I wanted to see if you could talk about the isolation that this has created between the U.S. and some of our European allies and others. And specifically, if you could talk about who you expect to be coming to the reception, to the opening of this, whether it’s accurate that roughly 56 out of the 86 foreign ambassadors who serve in Israel will not be coming, and that many have said that they – particularly the EU countries, are staying away out of principle and how you respond to that sentiment. Thanks.

    AMBASSADOR FRIEDMAN: Okay. I think you’re confusing two different events. The Israeli ministry of foreign affairs, I believe, is holding – they’re holding an event Sunday night. They have invited the diplomatic corps and I really have no familiarity with who’s coming or who’s not, but I’ve read that there are people who are coming, people who are not. The opening of the embassy is a bilateral celebration between Israel and the United States. We have not invited any of the diplomatic corps, and so it would be incorrect to report that any other nation declined our invitation because we simply didn’t send any out.

    As far as isolation is concerned, we’re not isolated from our allies. It’s – it’s not the case. There’s healthy disagreements from time to time between our allies, but this decision has not created any isolation of any kind.

    OPERATOR: And our next question --

    MS COATES: I just --

    OPERATOR: Okay.

    MS COATES: If I could just add to that, Josh, on April 13th, we executed a seamless joint exercise with the Brits and the French against Syria, which was so tightly wrapped together, and that was after the Jerusalem decision in the knowledge that this was going to happen. So it has absolutely no impact on the way we’re working with our European allies.

    OPERATOR: Thank you. And our next question comes from the line of Kristen Welker with NBC News. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Hi, everyone. Thanks so much for doing this call. Two questions, and I apologize if someone already asked this: Can you say specifically how President Trump will mark the opening of the embassy? Will he be doing something concurrently? And can you also weigh in on the comments by Bahrain essentially saying Israel has the right to defend itself against Iran? I believe that’s the first time they’ve said that so definitively. What’s the significance of that? Thank you very much.

    AMBASSADOR FRIEDMAN: Victoria, I – you may have more current information than me on the President. I mean, the President, from my side of things, will be addressing the audience by video. As far as Bahrain is concerned, I’d leave that to Victoria.

    MS COATES: The only other piece I can add to that is that we are going to be having an event at the EEOB for staff, and I assume for anybody from the administration who’s interested in coming over, and can get through the Secret Service, just to watch the event. So that’s what we will be doing on our level.

    As for the Bahrain tweet, I think that just is enormously important, and there were further comments in a Jerusalem Post article yesterday from their foreign minister about just focusing on the intolerable aggression of Iran. And obviously, that’s something that predated the President’s decision on the JCPOA that actually precipitated the decision that their behavior hadn’t improved. And I think it’s so important to see a Gulf nation, an Arab nation like Bahrain come out, recognize Israel as a country, which is something, and then a country that has the right to defend itself against a country like Iran. And I just – I think that’s – the sea change has been coming over a period of years, but to come out publicly and make that statement, I think is really powerful, and to make it three days before the embassy move, I think it shows you that the President is absolutely doing the right thing here. It is not upsetting any regional balance; in fact, his leadership is what’s bringing the region together.

    OPERATOR: Our next question comes from the line of Eric Cortellessa with Times of Israel. Please go ahead.

    QUESTION: Hi, thanks. Ambassador Friedman, you mentioned earlier that the decision to open the embassy in Jerusalem was one that was made in American self-interest. I’m wondering if you can kind of explicate a little bit more about how you see this as advancing American interests. As you know, one of the big criticisms that was out there on the time of the announcement was that this was sort of the crown jewel of American foreign policy, and that the Trump Administration was giving it up and not getting anything back in return. And I’m also wondering, what sort of preparations or concerns do you have about potential Palestinian protests and demonstrations that might happen in conjunction with the opening of the embassy next week?

    AMBASSADOR FRIEDMAN: Okay, well, I could speak about your first question for longer than the time we have, but I guess I’ll put it simply like this: I think there are two important American interests that are vindicated here. The first is the American interest for peace and stability in the region. And we’ve recognized the obvious, which is that despite the best of intentions, after 51 years since the Six Day War, 70 since the State of Israel was created, and something like 23 since – 24 since Oslo, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is no closer to a solution than it’s ever been. And that’s with the best efforts and thinking of people who devoted their lives to trying to find a resolution.

    One of the things that we thought was important in terms of the conflict was to look at the various leverage points and to see how we thought we could adjust those to create a better dynamic for peace. What the President saw was that the Palestinians essentially had a veto over the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, meaning that if you say we’re only going to have – we’re only going to recognize Jerusalem as the capital when the Palestinians say it’s okay, you’re empowering the leverage in a way that’s not helpful. And frankly, that card has been misplayed over many years. Now, people can get unhappy about losing that leverage point in the short run, but in – at the longer run, there’s also a recognition that circumstances are changing, that the world is moving ahead and people have to kind of get on board before events overtake them.

    And we think that notwithstanding, again, you can’t – this is a 50-plus-year conflict, maybe it’s a 500-year conflict depending upon how you gauge it. You can’t measure it in terms of weeks or months any more than you can measure climate change in terms of weeks and months. You have to look at the thing at a broader perspective. And so from the broader perspective, we think this is going to help stability.

    In terms of potential conflicts, we look at this issue hourly. We work closely with our law enforcement and security establishments here, and our own people here in the – from the United States. And we work closely with Israeli police, with the Shin Bet, and we measure the risk of demonstrations and violence minute by minute. And so we – we’re confident that we’re considering all potential issues and risks, and doing everything we can to mitigate those risks and to keep people safe.

    MS COATES: And Eric, I would just add that – I mean, we’re Americans. We support the right for peace – to peaceful protest. But the operative word there is peaceful, and particularly as you look at what’s going on down in Gaza, there are a lot of people who are legitimately protesting the very, very difficult humanitarian situation that they are enduring. But at the same time, you have some people flying kites as symbols of freedom, you have some people flying kites with Swastikas, and gas bombs attached to them, and that’s intolerable. So I think we need to blame that violence not on anything the United States has done or Israel has done, but firmly on Hamas.

    OPERATOR: And our next question comes from the line of Nick Wadhams with Bloomberg News. Please go ahead.

    QUESTION: Hi, thank you. Mr. Ambassador, you mentioned you’re in Tel Aviv. Can you tell us when you plan to move full time to Jerusalem, and also let us know what is the plan for a larger embassy complex? When the announcement was initially unveiled, there was a lot of conversation about how it’s going to be a multi-year process to identify that site and proceed with that building, and obviously, it would be quite costly. What’s the plan for that building? Thank you.

    AMBASSADOR FRIEDMAN: So, first of all, in terms of my own whereabouts, I have been splitting my time between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv already since the day I got here. As you know, the prime minister’s office and the president’s office in the Knesset are all in Jerusalem, and I spend a lot of time both with the prime minister and the president and with members of the Knesset. So I am constantly going back and forth to Jerusalem and I will continue to do that. The difference is that now I can have meetings in my office in an embassy rather than renting a room at the King David Hotel. So I’ll have – I’ll continue to go back and forth because much of Israel is based in Jerusalem and much of the commerce and other aspects of Israel are based in Tel Aviv. How that tends to adjust is really – it changes week to week, day to day. It’s a very fluid, fluid schedule.

    We will start the transition as quickly as we can. We have something like 18 acres in Arnona. There’s huge capacity there to expand. There are other sites that potentially could be available to us as well. This is not going – I think there’ll be interim steps, probably a good number between now and the full transition, but we’re going to try to do it as efficiently and effectively as we can, and I think a lot of that is still in the works, but I don’t think – this is not going to be all or nothing, where there’ll be myself and a few people – and even on day one, we’re going to have more than 50 people working at the embassy because we have the consular section working on visas and passports and serving American citizens. They’re all there on day one, so we’re going to start off with about a 50-60 person operation, and then it will grow. The exact timing of that and the transition and how we do it we’re still working on.

    OPERATOR: And our next question comes from the line of Michael Wilner with Jerusalem Post. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. Two quick questions: First, there were several senior administration officials who indicated that they wanted to come – obviously, the President himself, the Vice President, the UN Envoy Nikki Haley. Did they not make it for security reasons or what was behind that? And then secondly, when, Ambassador, Israelis come to you and they say, obviously, we’re experiencing this unprecedented Iranian aggression, as they put it, and they’re concerned with the President’s plans to pull out the U.S. presence from Syria, what do you tell them?

    AMBASSADOR FRIEDMAN: On – the premise of the second question is just not correct because no Israeli has yet to come to me and tell me that they’re unhappy or upset about the President’s decision, so I can’t tell you what I tell them because it never happens. I’m not saying it might not happen, but it has not happened. The – but see, I can’t speak for the President or the Vice President or Ambassador Haley and why they are not coming. I believe it all has to do with scheduling, but I just don’t know their schedules well enough. But as you know, the President’s got a lot on his plate and I’m sure that he’d love to be here if he could.

    MS COATES:
    Yeah, I would just add to that. I mean, we obviously have a robust delegation going. Secretary Pompeo was just there. I mean, we have regular – obviously, very high-level visits, and I wouldn’t read much into the scheduling. And as for the Syria policy, I mean, the President said very clearly – I believe it was in the Merkel presser about 10 days ago – that the United States is not interested in leaving Syria for Iran to just run amuck, that we take that threat very seriously, we take Israeli concerns extremely seriously, but we’re not going to signal exactly what our policy is going to be in terms of troop numbers.

    OPERATOR: And our next question comes from the line of Said Arakat with Al Quds newspaper. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Yes, thank you for doing this. I have my question to the ambassador, two things: Do you still consider East Jerusalem to be occupied? Do you still consider the West Bank to be occupied? Because you have all issued statements that are quite contrary to this. What is the status of the West Bank and East Jerusalem as far as you are concerned?

    AMBASSADOR FRIEDMAN: Well, look, I’m – I have my own personal views on the ambassador to Israel of the United States. I’m not the ultimate policymaker, so I’m going to defer to others. I think the – I think the situation in the West Bank is unique and unprecedented from a – compared to any other particular geographic locations that have similar issues, and I think it really calls for unique and different kinds of thinking, but as far as the actual terminology, I think I’ve expressed my views in the past. But I’ll stand on those and allow the policymakers to answer your question at the right time.

    MS FITZSIMMONS: We have time for two more questions.

    OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from the line of Isabelle Kershner with New York Times. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Hi, thank you. Actually my question has been asked, but since I have the chance, I’ll just ask another one if it’s not too personal, Ambassador Friedman. The official residence of the ambassador is in Herzliya Pituach. I was wondering, are you looking for a new home in Jerusalem, are you able to stay in the home you already have in Jerusalem, and when do you expect to actually move your residence to Jerusalem as opposed to the office full-time?

    SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, my wife just asked me the same question, and I’ll – give you an answer. I’m not – I’m not sure, I’m not sure. The – Israel’s a small country, there’s a lot happening in Tel Aviv, there’s a lot happening in Jerusalem. You can go back and forth every day. It’s not an ideal commute, but it’s commutable. Long term, there’s no question that we need to find a chief of mission residence in Jerusalem. I think that’s something we’re going to – that’s on the list of things to do in terms of the overall transition of the embassy, but when we do that, that would be great. My apartment in Jerusalem, I’ve been told, is not an eligible opportunity, so it won’t be that, but it’s something we’re still working on.

    OPERATOR: And our last call --

    MS FITZSIMMONS: We have time for one more question, thank you.

    OPERATOR: Thank you. Our last call comes – question comes from the line of Donia Chiacu with Reuters. Please, go ahead.

    QUESTION: Oh, hello. I was just wondering if you could tell me if any of the U.S. delegation coming for the embassy opening had plans to meet with any Palestinian authorities during their visit, and also what the effect of the opening of the embassy will have on peace prospects.

    AMBASSADOR FRIEDMAN: I’m not aware of any members from the delegation that are meeting with the Palestinians, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not, it’s just I’m not – not aware of it. They may have something else on their schedule.

    Look, I think the peace process is going to go forward. I think there’s – my own view and my own experience in discussions with many different Palestinians is that there remains a significant interest for peace, for better life, for better education, better roads and hospitals and all the things that could be made available in this region if there was more peace and less violence. And so we’re committed to it, the President is, Mr. Kushner, Mr. Greenblatt are hard at work at it, and we remain optimistic that we will – that we will make significant progress.

    MS FITZSIMMONS: Thank you very much, everyone.





    Courtesy: U.S. Department of State

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