Briefing with Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker and Dr. William Walters, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Operations, Bureau of Medical Services On Secretary Pompeo’s Travel to Israel
David Schenker, Assistant SecretaryBureau of Near Eastern Affairs
Dr. William Walters, Deputy Chief Medical Officer for Operations, Bureau of Medical Services
MR BROWN: Hey, good afternoon, everyone, and thanks for joining on a Friday afternoon. Before we got into the weekend, we wanted to share a bit about Secretary Pompeo’s upcoming trip to Israel next week.
As the Secretary has said, even as the United States and the world continue to confront COVID-19, the administration and President Trump want to make sure we execute our foreign policy mission. We are focused on that even when the virus challenge confronts us all. It’s in that spirit that the Secretary will travel to Israel next week, May 12th through the 13th, to meet with Israeli Government officials and discuss a full range of bilateral and global issues on the table. Assistant Secretary David Schenker, who heads our Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, will present some more details regarding the trip in just a minute.
We recognize that international travel isn’t a given in these unprecedented times, but we’ve taken every precaution to comply with the guidance of the State Department’s fantastic medical team and ensure the safety of all those who will be a part of the trip and those who will support success. So I’ve asked Dr. William Walters, deputy chief medical officer for operations from our Bureau of Medical Services, to join us for this call to present that information also.
Assistant Secretary Schenker will speak first, followed by Dr. Walters, then we’ll take your questions. As a reminder, the focus of this call is on the trip next week, so if you could keep your questions likewise focused on that issue. As always, the contents of this briefing is embargoed until the end of the call.
So Assistant Secretary Schenker, please, go ahead.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thank you. Good afternoon, everybody. The Secretary will return to Israel next week to consult in person with Prime Minister Netanyahu and Speaker of the Knesset Benny Gantz. As you know, the two of them are in the final stages of forming a government of Israel, a new government of Israel, which they have pledged to inaugurate next week. Israel is fortunate to have such strong and experienced leadership during this challenging time, and we in Washington are fortunate to have such a strong and experienced – to have such strong and experienced partners in Jerusalem.
The Secretary is making this trip because he recognizes the United States and Israel have much to learn from each other as we address current threats, whether those threats stem from a global pandemic or from Iran’s malign regional influence. The United States and Israel draw on each other’s strengths. That is true whether we’re mitigating and containing COVID-19 or countering Iranian destabilizing behavior. We stand side by side with Israel in addressing all threats to the security and prosperity of the American and Israeli peoples. Our unshakable commitment to Israel’s security is stronger than ever, as is the unbreakable tie between our countries.
And with that, I’ll turn it back over to you and then Dr. Walters.
DR WALTERS: Yeah, thanks, David. Dr. Will Walters, deputy chief medical officer for operations. The Bureau of Medical Services fully supports the essential travel of the Secretary. This is what we do for a living as the United States lead foreign affairs agency. And as both myself and the physician to the Secretary look at this trip, we’ve been able to develop a regimen of risk mitigation steps that we feel – it creates a safe environment for both the Secretary and the traveling party through close coordination with the embassy in Jerusalem as well as our Israeli counterparts.
For those of you who have traveled with the Secretary before, either before or during this outbreak, you will all know that this is a highly choreographed operation. People show up well in advance during COVID. That will include days beforehand or a day or two beforehand undergoing COVID testing to make sure that those that are getting on the aircraft are safe. That’s what the Secretary has directed. The Secretary’s physician will be on hand at all times, will screen individuals onto the plane. Masks will be used in accordance with CDC recommendations. Every person that comes in contact or near contact with the Secretary or with the traveling party will have been screened ahead of time to – for symptoms, and no unknown cases or unknown individuals will be allowed inside what we would call a bubble of six feet or more. The interactions will be obviously brief and professional, and then the Secretary will head back to the plane and come back to the United States.
This isn’t an individual entering into the general population of the United States or another country. This is a tightly controlled movement in a highly screened environment that we feel is very, very safe. Obviously the Secretary, just by the nature of his duties, is – comes in contact with people from all over the world on a daily basis, and so as part of that and in accordance with CDC recommendations for safety practices for critical infrastructure workers, he’s monitored on a daily basis by his physician and has access to the medical team on a 24-hour basis.
Pending your questions, I’ll turn it back to Cale.
MR BROWN: Thanks, Dr. Walters. Okay, we’ve got time for questions. Let’s see, looks like we got first up, Barbara Usher.
QUESTION: Thank you very much. I have a question for Ambassador Schenker. There have been a lot of different officials quoted in the papers or in media recently, both Israeli and U.S., about plans for – Mr. Netanyahu’s plans for annexing parts of the West Bank, and so I wanted to ask you: Given that the map that the United States has issued along with its peace vision corresponds with the geographical boundaries of Prime Minister Netanyahu’s own plan, is this vision essentially signing off on Mr. Netanyahu’s annexation plan?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Well, thanks, Barbara, for the question. The U.S. position hasn’t changed. We continue to pursue the path that the President set out in January when presenting the U.S. vision for peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and we look forward to direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. As for borders or annexation, or whatever is on that front, I would say that I don’t want to talk about specifics here because we have a U.S.-Israeli mapping committee that is at work and I don’t want to prejudice that.
MR BROWN: Okay. Next, Matt Lee.
QUESTION: Hi there. Thanks a lot for doing this. Can I just say as – up front, Doc Walters, having covered various peace efforts over the course of the last couple decades, I think maybe it’s a good idea to get the medical profession more involved in it and have politicians and diplomats less involved in it. With that said, is – did you or have you guys gotten some kind of an exemption to the Israeli quarantine rules that they put into effect because this is an official trip?
And then for David, I just wanted to ask: Further to Barbara’s question, just how much of the conversation do you expect to be about annexation and the work of the mapping committee, and how much do you think will be on more broader regional issues like Iran? Thank you.
DR WALTERS: Yeah, it’s great to hear from you, Matt. The – what I can say is the entire trip, the entire stop is highly choreographed and doesn’t include any type of quarantine. The Secretary and his traveling party arrives, engages in a very predictable manner, goes back to the aircraft and departs. So the nature of an exemption I can’t speak to, only that this is choreographed and a quarantine isn’t part of it.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: And Matt, on that second, I’m not going to break down how much time they’re going to talk about Israel’s borders or the extension of – potential Israeli extension of sovereignty in the West Bank. I don’t know how much they’re going to talk about that versus the traditional areas of conversation, the issues of common concern – Iran destabilizing behavior in the region, activities in Syria, developments with Hizballah in Lebanon. There – there’s standard matters that we talk about with Israel as a strategic partner, so it – undoubtedly, it would be a wide-ranging discussion.
MR BROWN: Nick Schifrin.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) for doing this. I really appreciate it. Can I just zoom in a little bit on the nature of extending Israeli sovereignty, as they put it, annexation, as other people put it, to David? I know you said and the Secretary has said that the nature of that discussion hasn’t changed, but when the President released his plan, the Secretary gave multiple interviews in which he said, “The Israelis will make decisions consistent with Israeli law,” quote-unquote. And now both you and he are talking about this move being in the context of Palestinian negotiations. So what has changed?
And then just to ask, it sounds like this is a very short trip. Why do you think it’s necessary? Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Well, first, the Secretary is traveling at the invitation of the Israeli Government, and Israel is actually I think doing very well at containing the virus. And we’ve coordinated, as Dr. Rawlings said, every – Dr. Walters said, every step of this with the Israelis. And with such a close ally, I think it’s important. The Secretary is looking forward to seeing his counterparts and the new Israeli Government, the prime minister, face to face.
Yeah, I mean, I’ve really got nothing more to add on this. The Secretary has given a great deal of interviews. I think Ambassador Friedman has just given I think two or three lengthy interviews about this. So I think the Secretary will probably do some readouts and talks about his conversations when he comes out. I’m sure we’ll do some backgrounders on the plane on the way back as well.
MR BROWN: Next let’s go to the line of Barak Ravid.
QUESTION: David, two questions. First, is the Secretary going to raise with the prime minister, with Mr. Netanyahu, the issue of business with the Chinese Government by the Government of Israel? And the second question: Do you think the Secretary is going to discuss with Netanyahu the issue of Iranian cyber attacks?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thanks for the question, Barak. The – as you know, the business with the Chinese is an issue of concern for us with Israel. And across the region, the Secretary’s repeatedly stated that the U.S. wants trade and investment on fair and reciprocal terms with reliable partners. China’s business dealings, by contrast, are opaque, transactional, and geared to benefit the Chinese Communist Party.
So we speak often to our friends in Israel about these risks. But I’m not going to comment on whether the Secretary will discuss this or not. These are private diplomatic conversations.
MR BROWN: Okay. Lara Jakes.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) as well. David, is Secretary Pompeo going to be talking to any Palestinian leaders or officials while he’s in Israel, even if on the phone, understanding that social distancing mandate that you guys are taking? And I’m asking in the context of what kind of assurances might be given to Palestinians as this mapping committee is doing its job, and how it will address any concerns about Israeli security forces in the Palestinian areas, as they travel between enclaves as set out in the Peace to Prosperity plan. Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thanks, Lara. Listen, as you know, we’ve provided 5 million in international disaster assistance to help mitigate sort of COVID-19 in the West Bank, and so AID is providing these funds for – to meet needs of Palestinian hospitals and households. That said, I think, as you know, that the Palestinian leadership has not spoken with U.S. officials in quite a long time. So that is their decision. We’ll look forward to the day that Palestinian leadership talks to the U.S. Government again.
MR BROWN: Okay. Abigail Williams. Abbie?
QUESTION: Can you hear me?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yes.
MR BROWN: Can hear you now. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. Thanks so much for doing this. UNWRA put an emergency appeal for almost $100 million to help the Palestinian refugees. I know the U.S. just gave a million dollars last month, as you mentioned, but obviously there’s the need for more assistance. Will the U.S. be discussing that at all during the trip, and are there plans to give anything further? I know previously the U.S. had said further assistance would be dependent on evaluations as to whether the funds had reached the Palestinian people. Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thanks, Abigail. Yeah, so we did provide the 5 million, and we are looking at other options for providing additional assistance. It’s been a tough time for everyone. We’re giving hundreds of millions of dollars throughout the world and in the region in particular.
As for UNWRA, as we announced in 2018, I think, after a review, the administration determined that the U.S. would not make the additional contributions to UNWRA, but that doesn’t prejudge any future decisions about U.S. funding for assistance in the West Bank and Gaza. And we’re constantly looking at this. Did I miss anything, Abigail?
MR BROWN: No, that answered the question. Let’s go to Victor Shalhoub.
QUESTION: Yes, good afternoon.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Good afternoon.
QUESTION: Yeah, in the statement – the State Department statement today, it says will be discussed – the Secretary will discuss, and I quote, “regional security issues if elected to ” Is that implies to the – in any way or among other things to the recent military situation and Israeli attack in Syria lately? Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Victor, I think the statement speaks for itself, where the – Israel’s a very close strategic partner of the United States. When we talk about Iran, we talk about all sorts of Iranian activities and the threats that poses to both Israeli interests and U.S. interests and personnel throughout the region.
MR BROWN: Okay. Next, Laura Kelly.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: You on mute?
MR BROWN: Laura? Okay, let’s move on to Tracey.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Wait, there she is.
MR BROWN: Okay. Go ahead, Laura.
OPERATOR: No, she hit the *1. She’s not in no more.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Okay.
MR BROWN: Okay. All right. Let’s go to Tracey Wilkinson and then we’ll circle back to Laura.
QUESTION: Okay. All right. Thank you. I’m going to take another stab at some of my colleagues’ questions. On the issue of annexation – and I ask because some of these interviews that you’ve mentioned, Ambassador Schenker, are – that Friedman gave – contradicts somewhat the statements coming out of the State Department. To what extent is U.S. approval of Israeli annexation contingent on Israeli-Palestinian talks?
And then my second question is about the timing of this trip. Why now? It could’ve been next month or a couple months when COVID was more – was more repressed. Is it timed to coincide with the formation of the new government or what is the reason for now, doing it now? Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Well listen, on the travel, once again, close ally, and there’s always a lot to talk about with the Israelis. And so I – I think it had been quite a while since we had a face-to-face, and Israel is doing much better than a lot of countries in the mitigating the threat of COVID, and in fact opening up quite a bit now. The – whether this coincided or not, I think the – it just so happened that they announced that this thing should happen on the 13th, the government formation. I think it’s fortuitous timing, but this was something that was in the works before we learned of the date of the government formation.
So back to the annexation or potential Israeli extension of sovereignty, I – I’m going to refer you once again to the Secretary and to Ambassador Friedman, also to the peace team with Jared. I read the interviews and from where I sit, our position hasn’t changed. So that – yeah, I can’t really offer any more on this. I’m sorry.
MR BROWN: Okay. Let’s see. I think we have time for one more question. Let’s go to Jennifer Hansler.
QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. There was a recent report that some faith-based and private humanitarian organizations had sought to distribute COVID aid in Gaza and were blocked by the U.S. Government. I was wondering if you could confirm those reports and if there has been any consideration about changing that policy to allow these private donors to address the pandemic there. Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: The U.S. doesn’t provide and we won’t provide – we’ve never provided foreign assistance in the Gaza Strip with or through Hamas. Hamas is an illegitimate de facto authority in Gaza, and is a U.S.-designated FTO. I know that a number of international nongovernmental organizations, including U.S.-based charities, provide aid and assistance directly to the people of Gaza who suffer under Hamas’s rule. But any assistance that we provide will be through – to the West Bank or Gaza will be provided in accordance with stringent vetting procedures. I don’t have anything to add on whether – I’m not familiar with the story that you referenced about us taking – the administration taking steps to prevent aid from reaching the Palestinian people of Gaza.
MR BROWN: Okay. We have had one more person join the queue, so we’re still under time, so let’s take one last question from Laurie Mylroie.
QUESTION: Hi, thank you very much for this. My question involves Syria. Israeli defense officials have said recently that at least some Iranian forces were leaving Syria, and then some well-informed Israeli analysts said that wasn’t so. So what’s your view? Has there been some Iranian withdrawal from Syria?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Laurie, I’m not going to comment on whether there has or there hasn’t, but I would say that Iran has been persistent in its efforts to establish this beachhead basically on Israel’s border and to bring in advanced weaponry and assets targeting Israel and moving equipment, of course, through Syria to Hizballah with this sort of land bridge. And we see repeatedly, oftentimes with no claims of responsibility, that these assets are being hit with great regularity, just pounded, and it would make sense at a certain point that Iran would want to cut its losses and downsize its presence there just because it’s increasingly costly to them in terms of life and property. They would be well advised to start using some of this investment in this military infrastructure in Syria and with Hizballah to start spending some of that money on their own people who are suffering terribly from COVID.
MR BROWN: Okay. Thank you to our briefers for taking time out this afternoon, and for everyone joining the call. It looks like we have exhausted the queue, and so thanks for joining and have a great weekend. And now that we’re at the end of the call the contents of the call are – the embargo on the contents of the call is lifted. Thanks.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thank you.
* This article was originally published here
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