Background Press Call Previewing Day Two of the President’s Trip to the Middle East
8:00 P.M. IDT
MODERATOR: Good evening, everyone. Apologies for our delay in this, and we appreciate everyone’s flexibility and bearing with us. And thank you for joining our NSC background call to preview day two of the President’s trip to the Middle East.
As a reminder of the ground rules, this call will be on background with the contents attributable to “senior administration officials.” It is under embargo until 6:00 a.m. Israeli Standard Time tomorrow morning, which is 11:00 p.m. Eastern Time for those of you who are back in the States.
For your awareness but not for your reporting, our two speakers today are [senior administration official] and [senior administration official].
With that, I’ll kick it over to [senior administration official] for — as our SAO number one.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hey, good evening, everybody. Thanks for hanging in there with us, and I apologize for the delay.
I’m just going to do a quick recap of today, and then I’m going to turn it over to my colleague to talk a little bit more detail about tomorrow.
I think as you all know, we arrived this afternoon, Israeli time. This is the President’s 10th trip to Israel. He’s known and had a relationship with every single Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir. So he very much felt in many ways like he was coming home.
Two big muscle movements today. The first was right at the airport where he had a chance to get a briefing from the Israeli Defense Minister, Benny Gantz, who walked him through the Israel Iron Dome technology and system, and also talked to him a little bit about a new promising technology they call Iron Beam, which uses lasers. And it’s a program that Israel was doing in conjunction with the United States Department of Defense, specifically the Missile Defense Agency.
So a pretty impressive technology. The President had a chance to actually see it up close and personal outside the briefing room, and had a chance to talk to the men and women from both armed forces who are working to develop this technology and advance this particular defensive capability.
Worth noting that the Biden administration has provided Israel now with $4.8 billion for its security; that includes $1 billion to help replenish Israel’s Iron Dome. That’s the highest-ever total in a single year. And it’s been a real priority for President Biden to help secure that funding following the conflict in May ‘21 with Hamas in Gaza.
And then, of course, the next big muscle movement today was the visit to Yad Vashem, a memorial that the President knows well. And he was able to lay a wreath and then meet with a couple of Holocaust survivors — a sort of deeply personal, deeply touching but, the President believes, also a very, very important way to start this visit off.
And so that was today, and I’ll pass it off to my colleague who will give you a better sense of what tomorrow is going to look like.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, [senior administration official]. So, great to be here, everybody.
Tomorrow, the President will start the day meeting with Israel’s Prime Minister, Yair Lapid. And this will be a significant bilateral meeting we’re really looking forward to.
They will discuss a number of issues: of course, President Biden’s and the United States’ strong support for Israel; their ironclad support for Israel’s security — what you heard the President speak to today quite, I think, pointedly, given that this is his first visit here to Israel as President; how to counter Iran’s destabilizing activities — of course, we have very close security cooperation and coordination with the Israelis on a host of security efforts here in the region. The Ukraine — the war on Ukraine, and the need to help the Ukrainians in the face of Russia’s aggressive war is a theme. And, of course, as you heard from the President today, in his opening remarks after landing, how to preserve prospects here for a two-state solution — something he’s believed in his entire life.
The President and the Prime Minister will sign a new joint declaration reaffirming the unbreakable bonds between our countries and expanding on the longstanding security relationship between the United States and Israel.
This declaration is pretty significant, and it includes a commitment to never allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon and to address Iran’s destabilizing activities, particularly threats to Israel.
Of course, the keystone U.S. support for Israel’s security is the memorandum of understanding that was originally finalized in 2016 when the President was vice president. And the declaration that will be signed tomorrow will note our ongoing support for that memorandum and support for extending it at an appropriate time.
The declaration will also emphasize support for the Abraham Accords and expanding Israel’s integration into the region, which of course is a theme of this trip. And it will reiterate our shared concerns about a number of global challenges, from food security, to the situation in Ukraine, and of course, support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. And, of course, Israel voted with much of the world in the U.N. General Assembly back in March, condemning Russia’s aggressive war in Ukraine.
We will also tomorrow launch a new U.S.-Israel High-Level Strategic Dialogue on Technology. And this was released today, so some of you may have it. But the strategic dialogue, which has been going on for some time and we’ve now formalized it, is really designed to elevate cooperation between Israel and the United States in four key fields: its technology for future — current and future challenges such as pandemic preparedness; climate Technology, using climate to affect — using technology to affect the climate crisis; artificial technology; and other trusted technology ecosystems.
This is really important because Israel, as you know, has such an innovative and remarkable tech sector, as do we. And we want their tech sector to be connected with ours and looking west as we look to build the technology apparatus for the future.
So we think this new tech dialogue that was now formalized is quite important as we position ourselves for the future.
The President will then participate in the first I2U2 summit with the leaders of Israel, India, and the UAE. And this grouping of countries is unique in how they can work together to tackle global challenges. And a focus tomorrow will be on the food security crisis and also on advancing clean energy.
And I think it’s an interesting moment to be in the Middle East because, of all the global challenges and crises, very few of them, if any, are really emanating here from the Middle East region. And, in fact, countries here in the Middle East region are lending their resources, their ingenuity, their innovation to actually try to tackle those challenges.
And this unique grouping of countries tomorrow — with the UAE and Israel kind of serving as really innovation, entrepreneurial hubs, linking hemispheres — will focus quite a bit on the food security challenge.
And we’ll have a $2 billion project, which the UAE is helping to fund, for agricultural parks in India, which is focused on the food security challenge, among some other things that will be announced.
The President will then meet with President Herzog at his residence, and they will discuss in a bilateral setting a number of issues, including the important regional diplomacy President Herzog has done recently at Jordan, Turkey, UAE, among others; of course, advancing the shared goals of Israel’s further integration into the region and stability here in this region.
As is traditional for U.S. leaders, the President will meet the leader of the opposition, Benjamin Netanyahu. They, of course, go back many years and know each other well. And we are clear, during this visit, that the relationship between the United States and Israel is about the countries, our strategic partnership as two states, not about individual leaders. And I’m sure they will discuss many of the same topics.
Finally, the President greatly looks forward to meeting some of U.S. athletes competing in the Maccabiah Games and viewing a portion of the opening ceremony. This connection between Israel and the American Jewish diaspora is, of course, a very important one with very strong links, and we look forward to highlighting that.
I previewed briefly, before turning it to questions — we also have a very full morning the next day with a visit to the West Bank and East Jerusalem; to the East Jerusalem Hospital, where we’ll be announcing a significant funding package for East Jerusalem Hospital Network; and, of course, an important meeting with President Abbas.
And I think some significant announcements coming then, such as enhancing Palestinian economic opportunities, including with development of 4G capabilities, both in Gaza and the West Bank, and some other things that we’ll be talking about on the Palestinian file as we head into the following morning.
So, with that, I think we can take it — take some questions, and I thank you for listening to the opening.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you very much. We’ll ask you to indicate that you have a question by raising the “Raise Your Hand” feature on Zoom.
We’ll start off with Chris Megerian from AP.
Q Hi, everybody. I was wondering if you could talk a little bit about what it’s like to be — for the President to be visiting Israel at this time politically. Obviously, when President Biden was invited, the previous government was in charge, and now it’s sort of an interim period where there’s a lot of uncertainty about who will be leading Israel in the future. How is that, you know, coloring the President’s visit and impacting his plans for the trip?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: (Speaker muted.) (Inaudible.)
And so, I think it really doesn’t affect the trip much at all. I think, as I mentioned in my opening, this is a state-to-state relationship. It’s a strategic relationship. It’s a relationship that is, as the President mentioned today in his opening after arriving, is “bone deep.”
And so, I think we feel good about where the Iraq — sorry, the Israeli government is right now. And I think the meeting with Prime Minister Lapid tomorrow and the signing of the declaration, I think, is a great opportunity to strengthen those bonds.
But of course, the Israeli political system is — you know, who their leaders are is up to the Israelis. And our relationship is with countries, not leaders. And that has been a theme of ours, I think, since Joe Biden entered office and it remains so.
MODERATOR: [Senior administration official], my apologies, you were accidentally muted for the first about 15 seconds of your answer if there’s anything you wanted to add. My apologies on that.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That’s okay. I don’t know what I said in the first 15 seconds.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And sorry, everyone. Next, we will go to Justin Sink from Bloomberg.
Q Hey, guys. Thanks for doing this. Jake mentioned on the plane that there would be a significant announcement on food security as part of the I2U2 virtual meeting tomorrow, so I was wondering if you could preview that.
And then the other thing that obviously got a lot of attention heading in was the extent to which the President would be doing sort of personal interactions with Israeli leaders. We saw that go from sort of fist bumps at the beginning to embraces and handshakes towards the end. And so, if there’s anything fresh you wanted to say on that, we’d be interested. Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, so on food security, as I think I previewed, there will be — it’s a $2 billion project that the UAE is funding for agricultural parks in India. We’ll have some more details about it tomorrow. And Israel lending some of its technological expertise and then also some support from the U.S. private sector.
So it’s a pretty unique, collaborative effort that we think really gets to one of the key challenges that the world is facing today. I think we’ll have some more to say about that tomorrow.
But it’s about how these interesting groupings of countries and pulling people together and pulling ideas together, pulling governments together, pulling private sectors together is really the way, we believe, to go about tackling some of these challenges. So that will be a theme tomorrow.
Look, I think, as we’ve said, we are — anyone in this traveling party, we’re under heightened COVID protocols. That remains the case. As those of you traveling with us know, we’re testing every morning. And given the new variant, that remains the case.
But we never put out guidance that nobody would shake hands or anything else. The President today, I think, did a combination, as President Biden often does, of different sorts of greetings.
The President is going to be meeting a host of leaders over the course of these three days — I think 13 — 12 heads of state, 13 leaders, plus their ministers, deputies, everything else. So I think there will be a lot of meetings, and we will follow the protocols in every capital where we are.
And, you know, the President will do his greetings. And I think — I just — we don’t really make too much into this. We’ve really been focused on spending a lot of time here with the President, preparing for this trip — the substance, the diplomacy, what’s coming out of the trip — more so than the particular form of greeting.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Next we’ll go to Felicia Schwartz with the FT.
Q Thanks so much for doing this. Going back to the joint declaration and what you’re going to say on Iran, just more broadly, in your meetings with the Israelis, is there some sort of ask on your part? They don’t agree with you that there should be time to let these negotiations play out, so I’m wondering if you’re asking them to give you more time. Or — and then, just more broadly, how tense would you say
your talks with the Israelis over Iran are, especially as compared with, let’s say, 2015, during the Obama administration?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, Felicia — I would not describe them as tense. We are in a constant dialogue with the Israelis up and down our national security teams. And I think what you’ll see in the joint declaration is a pledge and a commitment never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon and that we’re prepared to use all elements of our national power to ensure that outcome. And I think that’s something the President himself has spoken to recently.
We also, you know, commit to working together when it comes to trying to confront Iran’s aggression and destabilizing activities here in the region. And that’s something that we’re very well coordinated with the Israeli government on.
I would just say on this issue: You know, our — where we are right now — the door is open to diplomacy. If Iran wants to sign the deal that’s been negotiated in Vienna, we’ve been very clear we’re prepared to do that. At the same time, if they’re not, we’ll continue to increase our sanctions pressure. We’ll continue to increase Iran’s diplomatic isolation.
As the President mentioned in his op-ed on Friday, when we entered office, the United States was isolated on this issue. We’ve now rebuilt a coalition against Iran. We had 30 countries join us to condemn Iran’s lack of participation with the IAEA regarding its past nuclear activities. And frankly, this is something also, of course, that we discuss with the Israelis constantly.
So, I actually think we have a pretty good meeting of the minds with the Israelis on where we are on this issue. And of course, this will also be a topic when we’re in Saudi Arabia and for the GCC+3 Summit on Saturday.
MODERATOR: Great. Next, we’ll go to the line of Ben Samuels with Haaretz.
Q Hey, thanks for doing this. So you mentioned Ukraine would be a topic of conversation. So, Israel has notably been reluctant to send weapons to Ukraine at risk of alienating Russia and jeopardizing its freedom of movement in Syria, even though it’s a large source of humanitarian aid. So is the President planning on pushing Israel to start sending weaponry?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, thanks for the question. I’m not going to go into specific forms of support. I think, in the joint declaration, there’s a — you know, a strong, mutual understanding about the concerns about Russia’s ongoing attack against Ukraine. And of course, Israel, again, joined in the U.N. General Assembly with a very strong condemnation of Russia’s invasion.
And so I think we’ve — Israel has done quite a bit. And I think they just announced yesterday — Minister of Defense Gantz — about protective gear, other forms of humanitarian aid. And, of course, we welcome that. And I think there are some specific needs we might discuss with the Israelis, but I don’t want to get ahead of those conversations.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Next we’ll go to Jeremy Diamond with CNN.
Q Hey, [senior administration official], thanks so much for doing this. I wanted to ask you about Iran. We know that CENTCOM has been conducting review on how to deter and, if necessary, respond to Iranian threats. Do you plan to share anything from that review with the Israelis tomorrow?
And more broadly, do you expect that you’re going to get more on the same page with Israel about how to move forward on the Iranian issue? And are there any assurances that you’re prepared to provide for the Israelis to assuage them of their concerns about these negotiations? Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Again, I leave it to the Israelis to discuss where they think we are in Iran. I think we have, as I mentioned, a pretty good meeting of the minds right now. And the joint declaration that will come out tomorrow I think will reflect some of that.
I thought if you really focus in on the event today with Iron Dome and Iron Beam technology, I mean, Iron Dome really came about through a collaborative U.S.-Israeli effort going all the way back to when President Biden was vice president in 2011 or so. And obviously, it has developed in this extraordinary technology in which 90 percent of threats — yeah, sorry — nine- — I’m talking on an iPhone here, so sometimes it looks like it’s off, but it’s not. Ninety percent of the 4,000 rockets launched from Gaza during the conflict last year were actually taken down.
And now the Iron Beam technology — and of course, we’re now entering beginning discussions about the possibility of some co-development projects with our industry and Israel’s on this type of technology — is truly extraordinary and is the wave of the future.
So I think our cooperation — the defense sector is about as good as it’s ever been. You mentioned CENTCOM. Having Israel a part of CENTCOM has just really been, I think, a force multiplier for us, and allowing us to better integrate, organize, share information across the board here in the region has really been — I’ve seen it with my own eyes. But I won’t speak to any particular CENTCOM assessments or anything like that.
But I think we are very closely tied with the Israelis and their national security team on how we see the threats; how to confront them and how to combat them; and how to make sure, first and foremost, we’re helping the Israelis wherever we can with their national security.
MODERATOR: Thank you. And we have time for a couple more, and then we’ll have to end it. Next, we’ll go to Aurelia End with AFP.
Q Hi, thank you so much for — you can hear me? Yeah.
MODERATOR: Yes, we can hear you, Aurelia.
Q Yeah, thanks. Thanks for doing this. Just to follow up on the Iron Beam, can you be, maybe, a little bit more specific about how the administration will support the development of that technology? And what, you know, possibilities of “core developments” — I think that’s the words you used — you are seeing?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Yeah, so I’m not — some of it, I think, was discussed today. I’m not sure how much of it was public. I was there for — a lot of it, of course, was not public.
But, look, our industry is developing these technologies in a way that we think is quite encouraging. The tests are working. And then Israel’s technology, similarly. So it’s similar to how Iron Dome came to be. And we think, you know, moving forward and finding a way to cooperate in these cutting-edge defense technologies such as these high-energy laser weapons systems, which defend the skies of Israel and the future of those of other, frankly, U.S. security partners over time, really is the way of the future.
I think you’ll sense on this trip, throughout, Israel positioning the U.S. and our partners for the future. And I think the Iron Dome, Iron Beam was a theme of that.
The technology dialogue, which was announced and we formalize tomorrow, was a theme of that. The joint declaration that will be signed tomorrow is a theme of that. And a number of things we’re announcing for the Palestinians, some of which I previewed similarly. And also, at the summit and at the stop in Saudi Arabia, I think a number of initiatives about really positioning and anchoring ourselves for the future. And Iron Beam really does that.
But I don’t want to get into the specific — you know, how the technology works or anything. I’m not the expert. But I will say we are cooperating quite closely. And we now have the authority and the approvals for — to begin discussions about how we can get into co-development to this type of technology. And I think that’s a great sign.
MODERATOR: Next, we’ll do Jacob Magid from Times of Israel.
Q Hi, thanks for doing this. I just wanted to follow up on 4G. Is there any specific in terms of — is it just an announcement or is there a step planning to be taken? As I think the Israelis notified the Palestinians in November that there was going to be movement on this, and there really hasn’t been anything since.
And just to follow up, is this the new model to kind of focus on economic matters rather than political ones in terms of Palestinians?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, thanks, Jacob. It’s a great question. We’ll have more to say about it on the day after tomorrow when we’re — when we’re in East Jerusalem and we’re in Bethlehem.
But yeah, it’s a commitment to really begin the immediate steps to begin the canvassing to how we get 4G both to the West Bank and Gaza with the rollout by the end of 2023. I think that’s the goal. And so I think that is a really important step, obviously, for the Palestinians — for the economic vibrancy and opportunities for Palestinians.
But no, it does not — it’s not an either/or. It does not mean that we’re doing that and we therefore think we don’t need to find a way forward on a political horizon — things we’ve talked about before and that the President mentioned right after landing here today.
So it’s really not an either/or, but it’s really about bolstering the digital economy to improve Palestinian economic growth and opportunities. But it doesn’t take the place of obviously a need, ultimately, for a political horizon here.
MODERATOR: And I apologize, folks, we only have time for one more question. We’ll go to Alex Ward from Politico.
Q Thanks. Just on that, what are your, sort of — maybe two questions. What are your prospects right now for — how dead is the two-state solution process, which you mentioned something you’re interested in doing, but how defunct is it really, in your assessment?
The other thing is: In the joint declaration, it sounds like a lot of the same stuff — right? — opposing Iran, working together, being close. Is there any sort of new policy development in that section of the joint declaration or any sort of new way forward? Or is it mostly reaffirming previous stances? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, on the first question, I think we’ve been — since we came into office — and I have to say, having dealt with this from day one, I mean, the relations between the U.S. and the Palestinians had almost been entirely severed, so we had to reestablish those relationships.
We turned back on funding for the Palestinians — almost half a billion dollars so far. And we began to encourage the reestablishment of political connections between the Israelis and the Palestinians, beyond just the security realm.
But we’ve also been very clear, including after the Gaza conflict, that we are not going to come in with a top-down peace plan, because we don’t believe that that would be the best approach and it would set expectations that would probably fall flat.
But we’ve also said all the time, and I think there’s some encouragement here, that if the two parties are prepared to talk, we will be there, and we will be there to help. And that’s why the fact that Prime Minister Lapid spoke with President Abbas just the other day — that’s the first contact at that level in five years. And so — and we had a good meeting today with the Minister of Defense Gantz about his contacts as well.
So these are things we want to help move forward. But again, we’re very realistic about it. And I think your question prefaces some of that. But we’re trying to do what we can to try to get a bit of a foundation in place to make some progress. And I think you’ll really hear the President speak to that not only tomorrow, but also when he’s in East Jerusalem and when he’s in Bethlehem.
The second question on the declaration — so you’ll see the declaration tomorrow. A lot of it is a reaffirmation. Of course, it’s a reaffirmation of the importance of the MOU that was put in place when President Biden was vice president, but also the commitment to look at the future and that we recognize the need for, ultimately, another MOU when the MOU ultimately expires.
But I think you’ll see a lot in there about — that will look familiar, but also, I think, a lot that will look new. And I think unique to President Biden’s experience here in Israel, which he spoke to today — and I’ve been around President Biden a lot, of course, over the last 18 months, but then before that. I mean, he really — Israel truly is in his soul.
When he says this relationship is “bone deep,” he means it. It’s really a part of his not only professional life, but going all the way back to his childhood, as he spoke to today upon landing here on his first visit to Israel as President.
So it’s an important time, strategic moment for our country with opportunities, but also, I think, an important time and a poignant one for President Biden. And as I think you’ve seen the statements from Israeli leaders up and down the political spectrum here, they very much recognize that.
So we’re really thrilled to be here. We think we have some good opportunities. And we’ll have more to say about them tomorrow and the next day.
So thank you so much.
MODERATOR: And thank you, everyone, for joining our background call this evening. My apologies we weren’t able to get to everyone with hands raised, but feel free to reach out to us individually afterwards. You know where to find me if you have any follow-up questions.
Again, to reiterate the ground rules: This call was held on background, attributable to “senior administration officials.” It is embargoed until 6:00 a.m. IST tomorrow morning, or 11:00 p.m. Eastern tonight.
Thank you very much, and I hope everyone has a wonderful evening.
8:27 P.M. IDT