4:40 P.M. EST
MODERATOR: Hi, everyone. Thanks so much for joining the call to discuss National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan’s travel to Israel.
As a reminder, this call will be on background, attributable to a senior administration official, and embargoed until the completion of the call.
For your awareness, not for your reporting, on the call today we have [senior administration official].
With that, I’ll turn it over to you for your thoughts at the top, and then we can take some of your questions.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Eduardo. I thought I would — I’m in a car, so if I break in and out, my apologies. I’m here in Tel Aviv.
I’ll go through kind of the roundup of the day and the sequence of meetings, and then just some points on the substance of the meetings. I’m happy to take any questions.
So we started here this morning, in Tel Aviv, fairly early, with a meeting with our embassy team, who’s doing an incredible job out here, and they’ve been working literally 24/7 since October 7th on every aspect of the situation here, from the humanitarian to military support to everything else. So we had a good meeting with our embassy team.
We then went and began our bilateral meeting. And this is Jake’s second visit here since October 7th. I think it’s his fifth visit here as National Security Advisor, second since the October 7th events, of course the first being with the President shortly after October 7th.
The bilateral meetings began this morning with a very intimate, very substantive, very detailed discussion with Jake’s counterpart, Israeli National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi. We kind of sketched out where we are overall since October 7th — everything that has happened, discussing the humanitarian situation, the state of the military campaign, some thoughts on the day after, and also looking forward to the day ahead with the meetings that went through the course of the day, which I’ll now discuss.
We then went to the Ministry of Defense and met with the Minister of Defense, Gallant, and his entire team, and got a very detailed, substantive briefing on the state of Israel’s military campaign, its objectives, its phasing, and what we expect to see over the coming days and weeks.
We then went for a meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu and a very small meeting with Jake, myself, the Prime Minister, and Tzachi Hanegbi. That meeting lasted about an hour, again, talking about almost every aspect of the current crisis, from the humanitarian situation to the military campaign, to the regional situation, to threats coming from the Houthis, from Hezbollah, from Iranian proxies, and our efforts to deter those threats and contain the conflict in Gaza. Again, a very substantive, detailed, very good discussion between Jake and the Prime Minister covering the full waterfront of issues.
After that bilateral meeting with the Prime Minister, we met with the full war cabinet. That included the Prime Minister; that included, again, the Minister of Defense and the Chief of Defense, Halevi, who — Halevi gave a very detailed, again, presentation of his views on the military campaign and the phasing, objectives, and the next steps.
We then, again, after that war cabinet meeting, met with the Prime Minister directly in a very small setting, following up on the war cabinet meeting, and, again, kind of expectations as we move through the course of the coming weeks or towards the end of the year and into the early part of January.
So we then met with the former Chief of Defense and former Minister of Defense, Benny Gantz, for a bilateral meeting on his thoughts as we move forward in the campaign, and also, finally, with the Mossad director, David Barnea. That meeting was scheduled for an hour; it went about two hours, with a very detailed discussion particularly on the hostages, which remains, first and foremost, on all of our minds, including the President’s mind, particularly after his meeting with the families of the remaining American hostages just yesterday.
In all of these meetings, Mr. Sullivan expressed, of course, his support for Israel, following the barbaric attacks of October 7th, Israel’s right to defend itself, and ensure that Israel can never see a day like it saw on October 7th from any enemy, whether it’s Hamas or anyone else.
We also discussed in detail, as I mentioned, the state of Israel’s military campaign, its objectives, its focus on maintaining continued pressure on Hamas, and, of course, the phasing of the campaign. Any military campaign has phases to it. And frankly, the Israelis have been briefing us, beginning with Tony Blinken’s trip here just a couple of weeks ago — with Secretary Blinken a couple of weeks ago — on its own thinking through timelines, timeframes of how things might go, but of course, always based upon conditions on the ground.
There was a discussion in these meetings and also in our prior meetings, and in calls between the President and the Prime Minister, on kind of shifts in emphasis from a high-tempo clearance operation — high-intensity clearance operations, which are ongoing now, to ultimately lower-intensity focus on high-value targets, intelligence-driven raids, and those sorts of more narrow, surgical military objectives.
I know there’s been some reporting on timeframes, and I just have to say that it’s just not entirely accurate. The Israelis have briefed us on kind of its thinking of potential timeframes, and Jake had a very good discussion about the kind of conditions that, obviously, we all hope to be set.
There was a heavy discussion on, of course, civilian protection. And the Israelis briefed us in detail, particularly in the Chief of Defense briefing, about the extraordinary efforts that they are undertaking to try to separate the civilian population from Hamas as it undergoes this incredibly, incredibly difficult endeavor. And again, it goes without saying, as I think Jake gave an interview here on Channel 12 News tonight, about this incredibly difficult situation the Israelis face. And you have to go back to October 7th, when about 2- to 3,000 Hamas terrorists basically invaded Israel, killed 1,200 Israelis, took hostage over 200 Israelis, and then basically retreated into underground fortresses underneath schools, hospitals, and civilian neighborhoods.
I think it goes without saying, again, that the military challenge Israel faces is extraordinarily complex. It also, of course, adds an extra burden on the Israelis to make sure they’re carrying out their operations with doing the utmost, everything they possibly can, to protect the civilian population. There was a very, very detailed discussion about how the Israelis are going about this and prosecuting the campaign.
Needless to say, there was a very detailed discussion in all of the meetings about the humanitarian situation in Gaza. I would just remind everyone the United States is the primary contributor to the humanitarian response in Gaza. We are the number one funder and backer of UNRWA. We are the primary facilitator of all the aid going into Gaza. David Satterfield, who was in most of our meetings here today, is working this literally 24/7 to make sure that as much aid as possible is getting into Gaza.
We discussed in detail what is called deconfliction to ensure that humanitarian responders from the U.N. on down are fully able to communicate with the Israeli military day to day and hour by hour. We talked about the protection of hospitals, even when those hospitals are being used by Hamas, both in the hospitals and underneath the hospitals.
We talked about the facilitation of trucks and aid getting into Gaza, including the decision recently taken by the Israeli government to do inspections at Kerem Shalom — that is the Israel border crossing into Gaza — and very soon, we hope and anticipate, the direct entry of aid from Israel into Gaza, through Kerem Shalom, for the first time since October 7th.
We also talked about corridors — set corridors inside Gaza to enable the delivery of aid from the south to the north, and also the institution of humanitarian pauses as part of Israel’s military campaign.
Finally, as I mentioned up top, there was a very detailed discussion of the effort to get hostages out of Gaza. There’s about — I don’t want to go through the total numbers, but about 100 or so, maybe less, hostages that are being held by Hamas. We know who many of them are. Some of them are American citizens. And we again call on Hamas to release those hostages, and we’re doing everything we possibly can to locate and to bring those hostages to safety, to get them out of Gaza.
Of course, Jake arrived here after meetings in Saudi Arabia. We saw the Crown Prince last night, talking about this overall situation. Of course, the Saudis have their views on the conflict, which we discussed in detail and which we relayed to our Israeli counterparts, and also talked about what can come after this crisis, including the hope and the expectation that what can come after this crisis and after Hamas in Gaza, a more stable, more integrated, more peaceful Middle East.
I think anyone working on this realizes that there’s a way to go in that, but there is a real focus and effort I would say from every capital in this region to try to focus on what comes after this crisis and to set the conditions to ensure that we never see what happened on October 7 happen again.
And, of course, Jake will be in the West Bank tomorrow, in Ramallah, to talk to the Palestinian Authority about its role in setting those conditions and, of course, our historic support for the Palestinian Authority in many aspects, which we’ll discuss in detail tomorrow with President Abbas and others.
And I think with that, I’m happy to take some questions.
MODERATOR: For those interested in asking a question, you can use the “Raise Your Hand” function here.
Our first question will go to Aamer with the AP. Aamer, you should be able to unmute yourself.
Q Thank you, [senior administration official]. You mentioned that some of the reporting on the timetable has been inaccurate. Was there any specific ask or call for when the President would like to see the high-intensity combat wind down? Is there a specific timetable that the administration sees?
And then, secondly, if you can just talk a little bit more to the visit to Ramallah tomorrow. What makes you think that the Gazans want the PA, when Palestinians seem to want Abbas gone? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Aamer. So, on the first question, again, it’s not really about timeframes, it’s about the conditions that will be set. And the Israelis have briefed us in tremendous detail about the phasing of its overall campaign.
And I think for those — you know, you have been following this from day one — I think the Israelis had ideas for the military campaign very early, which we found problematic. And I think the President’s visit out here very early in the crisis discussed that in some detail. And the ground campaign was adjusted based upon some of our advice, some of our recommendations, with the recognition that this ultimately is not our war. This is Israel’s campaign; this is Israel protecting its own country.
But I think we have had incredibly frank, I think constructive, and detailed discussions with the Israelis about the prosecution of the campaign, the best way to go about it.
Now, one of these inflection points will be the point at which there is a shift from major clearance ground operations, which have been ongoing and which actually are ongoing now in parts of Khan Younis, and a shift to a more targeted, surgical, intelligence-driven, kind of longer-term effort against high-value targets, specific military infrastructure, things like that.
And when that time comes, I’m just not obviously going to get ahead of this on this call; I think it would be irresponsible for anyone dealing with these issues to talk about timeframes. There is an enemy here that listens to everything that is said.
But this has been a part of the conversation that’s been going on, really, since the early phase of the crisis. There was never an anticipation that there would be major ground clearance operations going on. And definitely, there’s a period of major ground clearance operations in key areas and then a shift to a more lower-intensity — again, for lack of better of phraseology, but that’s the way it’s used — lower-intensity, surgical, focused, targeted campaign. And that means that Hamas leaders will never be given any sanctuary or any quarter because it is Israel’s right to go after the leaders that planned and executed the October 7 attacks. But it will look much different, I think, from what you’re seeing now.
When that happens, everything else, I’m just not going to get into that on the call.
And again, it’s not totally up to us, it’s also up to the Israelis, and it’s part of the back-and-forth conversation we have with the Israelis. And Secretary Austin will be following up Jake’s visit here on Monday.
So, in Ramallah, I think we expect to have a very good conversation with the Palestinian Authority — I was just there a few weeks ago, and this will be, I think, Jake’s first visit since he was last here last year — about, first, stability in the West Bank. And if you look at the West Bank, since the October 7 crisis, you know, Hamas cells in the West Bank tried to instigate violence and uprising in the days after October 7th. That actually failed because the Palestinian Security Forces actually performed incredibly well. And we worked with those forces and helped train those forces through the United States Security Coordinator and Lieutenant General Mike Fenzel — again, who works these issues 24/7 — long before this crisis and every day since this crisis.
So we’ll talk about both the Palestinian Security Forces. We’ll talk about efforts we are doing to rein in violent extremist settler violence, which we’ve been very vocal about and we’ll continue to be, and also the capacity of the Palestinian Authority, which we recognize needs to be revamped, revitalized. And I think they would tell you that themselves.
So I think we’ll have a pretty good discussion with President Abbas and his senior team about — primarily about stability in the West Bank, but also, over time, about what comes next in Gaza. There are a number of security personnel linked to the Palestinian Authority, which we think might be able to provide some sort of a nucleus in the many months that follow the overall military campaign. But this is something we are discussing with the Palestinians and with the Israelis and with regional partners, and it very much remains a work in progress.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to JJ with Bloomberg. You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q Thank you. I’ve got a few questions. Will Jake Sullivan leave the region after your meetings tomorrow, on Friday? Or is he staying longer in the Middle East? And if he’s staying longer, which other countries will he visit?
And then, you talked a little bit about the revamped and revitalized Palestinian Authority. I’m wondering if there’s anything you can share on what that might look like. What might it need to look like in order to return to governing Gaza? You just mentioned the security personnel, but is there anything else that you can share on what you would like to see revamped and revitalized about the PA?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks so much. For stops, I have nothing else to preview, but I think there will likely be a stop or two after our visit here in Israel to the West Bank.
On Gaza, I just — you know, you have to keep in mind that Gaza has been governed by Hamas since 2006. So this is hardly a light switch. And there was a civil war in Gaza about a year after that in which Hamas basically kicked out what was left of the Palestinian Authority. And so, there’s a lot of work to do here.
And I think that there’s a very pretty rich conversation going on with a number of regional partners and also with the Palestinian Authority. And we hear from them, of course, their deep concerns about the current situation in Gaza, and of course, we have concerns about the situation in Gaza — about the humanitarian situation in Gaza, about the civilian casualty toll in Gaza, and also about Hamas in Gaza. Because until Hamas is no longer in charge of Gaza, it really precludes the type of future that everybody wants to see, which is a path — a pathway, ultimately, to a viable two-state solution in which Israel’s security is guaranteed and which of the aspirations of the Palestinian people can be met. That simply can’t happen if Hamas, who has dedicated its entire existence to the elimination of Israel and to killing as many Jews as it possibly can, is in charge of Gaza.
So if there’s a future in Gaza in which Hamas is no longer the dominant power in Gaza, and we hope that will be the case, it opens up a lot of possibilities.
But I’m not, on this call, going to lay out what those possibilities might be, but I think the Palestinian Authority will look to ultimately have a role there. And that is something that we’re talking about with them and with the Israelis and with regional partners. And I think, you know, we’ll have to see how things play out.
But we’re making sure that we are prepared for every possible contingency, depending upon how Israel’s military campaign plays out here over the coming weeks.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Yuna. You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q Hi. And thank you for this. Can you elaborate a little bit about the talks and — (audio cuts out) —
MODERATOR: I think we’re having a little bit of trouble —
You know, we’ll come back to you.
Q (Inaudible) the hostages.
MODERATOR: Are you able to repeat your question? We had a bit of trouble hearing you.
Q Oh, yeah. So I’ll just ask again. Is there anything you can say about the negotiations and the release of the hostages? Are they’re — start over with Qatar, with Egypt? Is there anything new about that?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, thanks for the question. It is really central on all of our minds. And as I mentioned, the meeting with David Barnea tonight lasted an extra hour, mainly on this point.
And we’re working this every day — Jake Sullivan, Bill Burns, myself, Tony — to work on inroads to try to get the hostages home. And so, I think it’s worth reminding everybody that the deal we had brokered in Qatar broke down because — it was a very clear, very detailed agreement in which all women and children, and women of whatever age, civilian women, would be released. And Hamas, at the last moment, had chose to recategorize young women who are not in the Israeli military, many of whom were kidnapped and held hostage from the music festival, as hos- — I’m sorry, as soldiers. They’re not soldiers. And that’s what broke down the deal.
So the issue now is whether and how to try to get this process back on track, again, starting with those women that Hamas has acknowledged that they are holding but they have refused to release. And there are a number of initiatives now being pursued. I cannot state with any confidence which initiative might gain traction. But having been involved in this from the very start, all the way back to the pilot, with Judith and Natalie, the American mother and daughter, the first two hostages we were able to get out, that also felt very uncertain in those early days.
So we’re working on a number of initiatives to get this back on track, but I just can’t speak with any detail about those now. But we’re doing all we possibly can to locate, identify, rescue, or secure the release of all the hostages that Hamas is holding.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Karen DeYoung with the Washington Post. You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q Hi. I wonder: The Israeli government, and Prime Minister Netanyahu in particular, have publicly said in recent days, or reiterated, that they are opposed to a two-state solution and that they are opposed to any Palestinian Authority control over Gaza. I wonder if that’s something that you brought up during the talks, if you view it as an impediment to your conversations with partners such as Saudi Arabia and with the Palestinian Authority itself, and whether you see any movement on that.
Secondly, I wanted to ask you about the question of the idea of flooding the tunnels in Gaza. Is that something you discussed? Is that something that’s been started? Have you advised against it or for it? Or do you have anything to say about it? Thank you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Karen. I think — look, our position is very clear, and the President stated it not only throughout his entire career but as President, and during his visit here in the summer of
2002 , particularly around this trip to Ramallah, about the importance of a two-state solution as being the only path to a viable, secure outcome for Israel. And I don’t have to repeat the President’s deep conviction for Israel and his desire to see a secure future for Israel as a Jewish State.
And so that is a very fixed course, in our view. And I have to say, in our conversations with the Israelis, the question is not only whether or not a Palestinian state or when, but what is the alternative. And I think we’ve actually had quite constructive conversations about where this heads.
I also want to just say something important. And it is not as though this conversation with the Israelis began on October 7th. This has been a conversation we’ve been having with the Israelis since the earliest days of the Biden administration. Now, this is really the fourth Israeli government we’ve worked with. And the movement towards ultimately forging a path to two states has been a constant discussion we have had with the Israelis, now over three years.
The issue of Israel-Saudi normalization and that prospect, the Palestinian component to that possibility has been a central feature of those talks. As the President has mentioned, it was the central feature of his discussions with Prime Minister Netanyahu in New York, at the U.N. General Assembly, about two weeks before just the terrible, horrific events of October 7th, unleashed by Hamas.
So this has been an ongoing discussion with the Israelis. I am not going to comment on everything Israel might say publicly from one day to the next. And obviously, this is a long-term effort.
But we are working with the Israelis, the Palestinians, and a number of regional partners on all contingencies as we look to emerge from this crisis, hopefully with Hamas no longer in charge of Gaza, and the possibilities that that might entail.
So that has really been the focus today. I think the discussions today were generally very candid, very detailed, and, I think, quite constructive.
On the flooding of the tunnels, that’s really a tactical issue for the Israelis. They have found — I’ll leave it to them to give you the number, but there’s hundreds and hundreds and hundreds now of entrances to tunnels, many of them adjacent to schools and protected sites and hospitals, as you know. And now they are working on how best to ensure that — because they will not be remaining on the ground in Gaza forever; they made that very clear that is not their intent — but they do want to make sure that these entrances to these tunnels are no longer accessible and that this military fortress that has been built underneath the civilian structures in Gaza are no longer accessible or usable by Hamas.
So there’s a number of initiatives going on in this regard. One of them has to do with this idea to try to use sea water to flood some of the tunnels. But I’m not going to get into kind of those tactical details on the call.
MODERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will go to Barak Ravid with Axios. You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q Hi. Thank you very much. Two questions. First, I want to follow up on something you said earlier and just see if I understood correctly.
So, the U.S. idea is to get a group of Palestinian Authority Security Forces people and get them to Gaza as sort of a nucleus for a broader Palestinian security force going forward? That’s first question.
And second question: What’s your sense, after talking to the Saudis and other Arab countries — does Saudi Arabia or do other Arab countries willing to help in reconstruction of Gaza on the day after, if the Palestinian Authority will not be involved, as Prime Minister Netanyahu said he wants?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Barak. It’s a good question. So I think — look, on the day after in Gaza — I mean, there’s a day of, which we have right now, there’s a day after, and then there’s, like, the day after the day after, so — which I guess is a much longer term.
On the day after, there’s a number of proposals, initiatives coming from almost everywhere, but first and foremost, obviously, from the Israelis, who will largely dictate a lot of the outcome here and what they decide to do in the wake of their military campaign.
But I think there’s a broad agreement that the future of Gaza should be Palestinian-led — it is Palestinian land; it should be Palestinian-led — and the future of Gaza should be one in which the Palestinians are able to pursue their own aspirations in a manner that is not a threat to Israel and that Israel is not a threat to them. I mean, that is kind of the basic equation which the Israelis agree with and, frankly, we find that the Palestinians largely agree with.
So there are a number of Gazans who have been part of the Palestinian Authority Security Forces in the past and that might be able to serve as a nucleus for a future force. But I want to stress that is one idea of many.
And so, what actually happens there is something that will be the result and the product of many meetings, many discussions, one of which was the very important visit that Jake had here today.
On the overall regional situation, Barak: Look, we are focused, as I think a number of us — is that we are focused first and foremost on the crisis and emerging from this crisis in a way that sets the conditions for something that can come that is enduring and that leads to a stable outcome, particularly in Gaza, but also overall between Israelis and Palestinians in the region. That is a theme that we hear from almost every capital around the region and is one that we are pursuing.
But I don’t want to get ahead of that. And I just want to stress that, first and foremost, the meetings we are having — whether in Saudi Arabia, whether here in Israel, whether in the West Bank, whether in Cairo, whether in Oman — is really, first and foremost, focused on the crisis and also what comes immediately after, with the hope and expectation that we’re able to set some conditions for something enduring and stabilizing as we look ahead. Again, that’s a consensus — that’s really a consensus in the region that we’re working to forge and foster as best we can.
MODERATOR: Thank you. We’ve got time for about two more questions. Next up, we’ll go to Margaret Brennan from CBS. You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q Hi, thanks for doing this. I have two questions. First up would be: Can Israel conclude this war without killing Yahya Sinwar? Is that the main, like clearest goal in terms of defining how you destroy Hamas?
And secondly, if there are roughly 700,000 settlers in the West Bank, is it actually possible to have a Palestinian state in that territory without removing those settlers?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Margaret. Look, Sinwar as the military leader of Hamas, I think it’s safe to say his days are numbered. I also think it’s safe to say it doesn’t matter how long that takes. And we know that terrorists — and I remind you that he has American blood on his hands. About 38 Americans were killed on October 7, and he is still holding a number of Americans hostage. So, it doesn’t matter how long it takes, but justice will be served on Sinwar.
In terms of the West Bank and settlers and the prospects of two states, look, this is an issue that goes way back, and it’s an issue that is very current. We’ve been very vocal about our concerns about a particularly extreme — violent extremist settlers. We have instituted some, I think, fairly unprecedented measures, including listing — instituting visa restrictions and some other measures, which we will continue to pursue.
But in terms of the ultimate formula when it comes to forging two states, and the issue of settlers and outputs and everything, that is obviously something that will be on the table, but we’re not there yet.
But the issue of West Bank stability, Margaret — which I mentioned I think earlier on the call — in terms of a revamped, revitalized Palestinian Authority; in terms of helping to support the Palestinian Authority Security Forces, the PASF, particularly through General Fenzel’s operation as USSC; and also, again, focused on the issue of the PA’s financial viability and everything else, which we’re focused on, that is core priority of ours, again, as we look to make sure that after this crisis, the conditions are set to do all we can to make sure that there is a foundation in place, that they’re pursuing more enduring and lasting peace here.
MODERATOR: Okay, and our last question will go to Jeff Mason. You should be able to unmute yourself.
Q Thanks very much. Just to follow up on the questions about the Palestinian Authority’s preparations for governing Gaza once the war is over, can you give a sense of whether you expect that President Abbas would be appointing a vice president as part of a reform effort to do that governing? And do you have any sense of who the candidates would be for that role? There’s been a handful of names already floated.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, Jeff. That’s just really not for me to say in terms of how the Palestinian Authority decides to reorganize itself or appoint an emergency cabinet, or a number of other initiatives that have been on the table, particularly as we begin to emerge from this crisis.
But there are a number of ideas coming, particularly from the leadership in Ramallah itself, which again, I think, are encouraging but focus first and foremost on the West Bank.
And, look, Gaza is going to take time. I mean, let’s just be honest. As I mentioned throughout the call here, Hamas has been in charge, really, for almost two decades, since 2006. And so, the prospect of a Gaza no longer governed by Hamas opens up a lot of possibilities but also a lot of difficulties. And it’s going to take time, it’s going to take thought, it’s going to take cooperation from a number of regional partners. It’s going to take some, I think, very clear-eyed and clear-headed thinking from the Israeli side and also from the Palestinian side.
And we, as kind of the honest brokers of this process here, as the United States, are working with everybody and kind of collecting the ideas and looking at different ways forward, with the caveat that, again, we’re still in the middle of the main phase of Israel’s military campaign, the high-intensity clearance operations, which ultimately over time will shift to a lower-intensity phase, but we’re not there yet.
MODERATOR: That’s all the time we have. Thank you, [senior administration official]. And thanks, everyone, for joining.
If we didn’t get to your question, feel free to reach out to us and we’ll get back to you.
As a reminder, this call was on background, attributable to a senior administration official. And the embargo is now lifted.
5:15 P.M. EST