Via Teleconference

(August 24, 2021)

4:05 P.M. EDT

MODERATOR:  Today’s call is on background and attributable to “a senior administration official.”  We’ll actually have two SAOs on the line.  Again, the contents of this call are embargoed until tomorrow, Wednesday, August 25th, at 5:00 p.m. 

For your awareness, our officials are [senior administration officials].  But again, for the purposes of this call, they are both Senior Administration Official One — SAO One and SAO Two. 

With that, we’ll turn it over to SAO One for opening remarks. 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks.  I’ll do about five minutes or so up top here about the upcoming visit of Prime Minister Bennett. 

So, as we head into this visit to the White House, I just wanted to frame the visit how we see the relationship with this new Israeli government. 

So, we’re very excited about this visit.  As soon as Prime Minister Bennett took office, we began working to find the earliest opportunity to have the two leaders get together face-to-face. 

This will be their first meeting face-to-face.  But, of course, President Biden called Prime Minister Bennett to congratulate him less than two hours after Bennett was sworn into office on June 13th.  And I think that sent a very clear signal of U.S. support for the prime minister and for this new government, which is a truly extraordinarily broad, big-tent coalition, which is steering Israel as we speak. 

Since then, of course, we’ve had high-level engagements on a weekly — daily and weekly basis.  Their new national security advisor was here in Washington earlier this month.  Secretary Blinken met the foreign minister in Rome in June.  And we have, truly, daily engagements with senior Israeli officials. 

The Prime Minister will also meet with Secretary Blinken [today] and Secretary Austin also [today] before coming to the White House to see the President on Wednesday [Thursday]. 

Again, Bennett leads one of the most diverse coalitions in Israeli history.  We think it’s truly remarkable at a time when, as the President often says, we’re demonstrating that democracies can deliver for their people.  That’s something we think his government is truly doing, and showing that people with divergent backgrounds and views can come together to solve big problems. 

It’s a coalition that includes a diverse array of political parties.  And we’re, of course, attuned to the complicated political dynamics in Israel.  But that’s something that we think Bennett is navigating quite effectively. 

Some themes — of course, it’s just — the theme is the strategic partnership between the United States and Israel — ironclad, axiomatic, unbreakable, any word you want to use. 

I’ll just use the — as the Prime Minister was getting on an airplane to fly to Washington earlier [Tuesday], he said, quote, “Joe Biden is a true friend of Israel.  There is a new government in Israel and a new administration in the U.S., and I am bringing with me a new spirit of cooperation.” 

I think we are receiving him very much in that spirit.  And, of course, Joe Biden truly is a true friend of Israel.  It’s just part of who he is.  And if you’re around him, talking about Israel and the relationship, you just — you really feel that. 

So, it’s a chance for the Prime Minister to hear directly from the President his ironclad commitment to Israel’s security and self-defense, and supporting Israel’s defense needs. 

The President will also, I think, obviously discuss with Prime Minister Bennett our commitment, not just to Israel, but to our partners in the Middle East.  And obviously, in the backdrop of what’s going on in Afghanistan, I think that’s quite important. 

It’s important in the context of those events because what’s happening there — if anything, the end of America’s military involvement in Afghanistan frees up resources and attention and ultimately allows us to better support our partners like Israel.

I’m often asked, “Are we de-prioritizing the Middle East and our friends in the Middle East?”  And nothing could be further from the truth.  If anything, in the Biden administration, we are not pursuing, you know, unachievable goals. 

We’re not trying to transform the Middle East.  We’re not trying to overthrow regimes.  We are pursuing a very steady course, centered on achievable aims; alignment of ends and means; and, first and foremost, support to our partners, and, of course, Israel being second to none. 

The Prime Minister also — when he got on the plane to come over here [Tuesday] — said, quote, “I’ll discuss with President Biden the leap that Iran’s nuclear program has taken in the last two to three years and discuss ways to counter it.” 

And that is quite true.  I think something that is going on outside the headlines is the fact that since the last administration left the Iran nuclear deal, Iran’s nuclear program has just dramatically broken out of the box, and it’s accelerating from week to week.  This is a very serious problem, and the two leaders, I think, will have the opportunity to sit together and discuss what to do about it.  

We, of course, committed to a diplomatic path.  We think that is the best way to put a ceiling on the program and roll back the gains that Iran has made over recent years on the nuclear side.  But obviously, if that doesn’t work, there are other avenues to pursue. 

And they’ll, of course, discuss Israel’s [Iran’s] destabilizing activities in the region and particularly a very effective bilateral program we’ve set up with the Israelis during a strategic consultation group that we had with them a couple months ago on countering Iranian UAVs.

The President also will discuss our commitment to Israel’s normalization with Arab partners in the region.  We’re very pleased with the relations between this new Israeli government led by Prime Minister Bennett and Jordan.  King Abdullah, of course, was just here a few weeks ago and that was a key theme of his.  And, of course, also relations between Israel and Egypt.  And Egypt plays such a critical role in ending the Gaza War.  And we think relations between Israel and Egypt are also very much on the right track. 

In terms of expanding broader normalization agreements — expansion of the Abraham Accords — we’ve done an awful lot of work behind the scenes in building upon the breakthroughs of UAE, Bahrain, Morocco.  And we’ll be discussing that with the Israeli delegation this week. 

But also behind the scenes, there’s an awful lot of work going on to expand those arrangements to other countries, so that will also be something that will be a topic of discussion.

Issues of the Palestinians coming out of the Gaza conflict, of course, in which President Biden was so hands-on in working to end that over 11 days.  It had all the potential to go on much longer.  I think we look forward to a very constructive discussion with Prime Minister Bennett and his delegation on that whole set of issues. 

Separately, we delivered 500,000 vaccines to Palestinians [Tuesday], something that I know is being discussed by other colleagues of mine here at the White House. 

So, we’ve had very constructive discussions with this new government on the set of issues regarding Israel-Palestinian peace.  President Biden believes a negotiated two-state solution is ultimately the only way to ensure Israel’s future of the [as a] democratic and Jewish state.  That’s been his consistent position throughout his career. 

And, of course, we recognize the reality that resumption of talks and negotiations is not likely in the near term for a variety of reasons.  But there are a number of steps that can be taken to kind of dampen the risks of further sparks to conflict, which is something that we have seen Prime Minister Bennett and his government very much committed to. 

So, in close, we’re confident other issues will be discussed: COVID-19 pandemic; Israel is also pursuing a third booster shot for its population.  The Prime Minister has discussed that with Dr. Fauci and others from our team.  And a whole host of other issues. 

But with that, given the time that [MODERATOR] mentioned, I think I’ll turn it over back to [MODERATOR] for questions. 

MODERATOR:  All right.  Thank you very much.  And we can go ahead and open it up for questions, please. 

Q    Yes, thank you very much.  Can you all hear me okay? 

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yes, can hear you fine. 

Q    Okay, great.  So I wonder, coming out of this meeting, do you have any expectations of any major tangible announcements of any sort?  Specifically, I mean, can we — to what extent, if any, are we going to hear about plans for firming up the reopening of the Jerusalem Consulate that served the Palestinians until Trump closed it?  And this was something Secretary Blinken announced, of course, during his visit there.  And how do you overcome Israeli resistance to that?  Any specific ask being made to Prime Minister Bennett?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, so I’ll probably disappoint you; I’m not going to talk about any specific deliverables two days before the visit.  But I think this is very much a visit — it’s a new government, and it’s very much at the importance of the two leaders sitting face-to-face.

Again, President Biden has not met Prime Minister Bennett, so for them to sit face-to-face and really get to know each other — I’ve been through a few of these visits now.  We had the Iraqi Prime Minister in town a month ago, and they ended up spending an hour together alone in the Oval Office, one-on-one. 

I know very similar, of course, when King Abdullah was here, who the President knows quite well. 

So, I think it’s an important visit in terms of the relationship, symbolic of our firm commitment to Israel as an ally. 

There is a host of detailed issues that are on the agenda that we’ll be discussing in some depth, but I’ll probably — I’ll probably leave some of that for Thursday.

Q    Thanks for taking my question.  Where does the administration stand on issuing a waiver for Egypt to provide $300 million in military assistance?  Do you think that this waiver is in Israel’s security interest?  Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well — and I’ll also let “senior official number two” weigh in as well.  I think we’re discussing here that the visit of Prime Minister Bennett — issues like that are across our agenda on MENA.  There’s — that’s one of many that we’re — that we’re discussing.

We think the relationship between Israel and Egypt is absolutely fundamental.  And the ongoing discussions between those two governments that have been going on and that we’ve been deeply involved in before the Gaza crisis, during the Gaza crisis, and after the Gaza crisis, I think have been quite critical.

And “senior official number two” has been involved in many of those discussions, as was Tony Blinken on the trip to Israel after the Gaza crisis.  So, let me turn it over to her.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, I would just say on your specific question, of course, it’s, you know — it’s an issue of deliberation for the administration, so I really can’t say anything.

But to the broader issue of how Israel is looking at Egypt, I couldn’t agree more with what [senior administration official] just said.  There’s a real discernible energy to the relationship and a very steady back-and-forth of senior officials working on the — on the Gaza piece, which takes an extraordinary amount of effort from Egypt to both manage the post-conflict situation and then to provide, you know, other thinking on the Palestinian issue set.

So, there’s no question that the Prime Minister and his team view Egypt as a critical security partner, but not just a security partner, a critical, diplomatic partner as well.

Q    Thanks for taking my question.  I wanted to ask if there are any plans to raise — there were reports recently of Israel potentially withdrawing from the Shebaa Farms in southern Lebanon.

And also, will there be any discussions on the stalled maritime border talks for dispute between Lebanon and Israel? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  I think, of the latter, that is something that U.S. diplomats have been involved in for some time.  Of course, the situation in Lebanon and the formation of a new Lebanese government, in addition to the crisis that Lebanon is going through, has made that difficult for the time being, but we’re hopeful that a new Lebanese government can be formed and that we can pick that up again because it’s very important to us.

And, again, on the kind of other issues which you mentioned, I think I’m just not going to get into them on the call. 

But [senior administration official], anything else?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, I would just say that, I mean, we’ll be ready to brief the Prime Minister and his team on, sort of, our approach on that maritime issue. 

And, again, there is a discussion to be had just in terms of our mutual concerns — security concerns about what’s going on in Lebanon.  Of course, the Israelis are quite concerned in terms of the precision-guided missile technology transfer piece to Hezbollah.  And we’re quite concerned about that, but also concerned about the real potential for state collapse if the Israeli — if the Lebanese political elites do not get their act together, essentially, and form a new government.

Q    Hello.  So my question is about Iran.  The White House keeps on saying that reentering JCPOA serves the national interests of the United States, so do you think what the Biden administration is offering is in the national interest of the Israelis to prevent them from taking unilateral action against the Islamic Republic?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, I think, you know, we’ll have a good discussion, as we’ve been having, with the Israelis and all of our partners in the Middle East about the facts of the situation. 

And if you look at any data point of Iran’s nuclear program — from breakout, which is now down to just a few months; to number of centrifuges and advanced centrifuges; to stockpiles; to enrichment to 20 percent and now 60 percent; to experimentation with uranium metal — I could go on and on and on — this is a very alarming picture.  And none of these things were happening when the JCPOA was in place.

So, the question is, what do you do about it?  And we inherited a maximum pressure policy, which we don’t think is achieving any particular results.  And, in fact, it’s going the opposite direction.

At the same time, we have not lifted any sanctions, and we have not done anything because we’ve been very clear that sanctions relief will come through Vienna.  So, obviously, Iran has a new president, forming a new cabinet, and we’ll see if we’re back at the table in Vienna, in short order, and see how things go.

But this will obviously be a very rich and, I think, detailed conversation with the Israeli side, because our policy towards Iran is not all focused on the Vienna track.  There’s a — it’s a multifaceted, multidimensional policy of pressure diplomacy and a number of other tools and deterrence. 

So, I think we’ll have discussions at the Pentagon, here at the White House, and the State Department about the Iran — the complexity of the Iran problem, but also the reality of the challenge we face and how best to confront it.

So, I can’t speak for Israel’s views.  I think the Prime Minister spoke to them as he got on the plane about the constructive nature of — and the spirit of cooperation of which he is arriving, and we’re approaching this and all issues in the same vein.

Q    Thank you.  Thank you so much for this talk.  Will you discuss additional emergency military aid for Israel?  And would you consider Iran to be the core issue of the meetings and of the visit?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Well, we have a — obviously, our defense relationship is so — so deep and multifaceted.  And the Pentagon are having meetings even today with Israeli officials about our support for Israeli Defense Forces and our commitment to help replenish the Iron Dome coming out of the Gaza conflict.  That’s a commitment that stands, and it’s being worked through the Congress.  So, I think all of that will be discussed.

Look, Iran will be a big topic of discussion because Iran is a threat to Israel, and we are 100 percent committed to the security of Israel — no ifs, ands, or buts.  And we know this will be a key topic, which, of course, will be discussed in tremendous depth.

But it’s not the only topic.  We’re discussing diplomatic opportunities in the region.  I laid out some of the agenda –normalization — not all of which I can get into, but that’s a big agenda which is being pursued. 

And we think some other opportunities, particularly with the spirit of which this new government has approached so many of the problems in the region — again, the cooperation between Jordan and Israel, the direct communication between the heads of state; the cooperation with Egypt coming out of the Gaza conflict; Qatar has — came to an arrangement with the U.N. to restore some of the funding into Qatar, which is still being worked.

But there’s a lot of progress on the diplomatic front that we are very actively pursuing and facilitating as best we can behind the scenes. 

But it’s all being led by Prime Minister Bennett and his team, and Foreign Minister Lapid and his entire cabinet.  And our cooperation with this cabinet, I think, could not be more multifaceted and constructive. 

So, this face-to-face between the two — between the two leaders, we think, comes at a good time, comes after a lot of work between our two teams. 

And again, we’re very much looking forward to the visit, and we’re very pleased to have the Prime Minister here in Washington.

MODERATOR:  And with that, ladies and gentlemen, this concludes our call.  As a reminder, the call is on background and attributable to “senior administration officials.”  The contents of this call are embargoed until tomorrow, Wednesday, August 25th at 5:00 p.m.

Again, thank you for joining.

4:24 P.M. EDT

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