Daily Press Briefing
January 5, 2015
INDEX FOR TODAY'S BRIEFING
1:29 p.m. EST
MS. PSAKI: Well, I don’t have anything at the top. I know there are a lot of topics on all of your minds, so why don’t we get straight to it?
QUESTION: Right. So there was quite a bit that happened over the holiday season, but I want to focus on – first, at least – on the Middle East and on the Palestinian move to join the ICC. You or the building has said that you don’t think it’s a – you think it’s counterproductive, it’s not a good move, and it will have implications for aid. I’m just wondering what those implications are, what you’re planning to do to respond, and when we might see that – such a response.
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Well, since we haven’t had the opportunity to all be together, let me just repeat that we’re deeply troubled by the Palestinian action regarding the ICC. Hard as it is, all sides need to find a way to work constructively and cooperatively together to lower tensions, reject violence, and find a path forward. This action is entirely counterproductive and does nothing to further the aspirations of the Palestinian people for a sovereign and independent state. It badly damages the atmosphere with the very people with whom they ultimately need to make peace.
The Secretary has been closely engaged with the parties, as have the leadership on the ground, and the focus right now is to continue to encourage both sides – we’ll reiterate that we strongly oppose actions taken by both parties; obviously, I talked a little bit about the ICC action, but there are others we can talk about from the other side – and to reiterate that constructive engagement and lowering tensions is the only way to move forward to a more peaceful environment.
Now, as you noted, and as I think my colleague said last week, obviously there could be implications on assistance. There are a range of ways that could take place. Congress has a great deal of power in that regard, and that has been historically true. They are obviously watching closely what happens. I’m not going to get ahead of any action they may take. As you know, the Secretary of State also has a range of authorities, but I don’t have anything to preview for all of you today.
QUESTION: So it’s our understanding that the law written into the 2014 appropriations law, which then has been carried over – at least the language – carried over into the what was called the Cromnibus for fiscal 2015, says that aid to the Palestinians must be suspended, and there’s no waiver for it, if they initiate or support a case against Israel at the ICC. It doesn’t say anything about just – about the Palestinians joining it. So I’m wondering from your answer, are you saying that short of being legally required by the law to cut off aid, if the Palestinians initiate or support the case, that you might take action against the Palestinians with regard to aid simply for them joining the ICC?
MS. PSAKI: Well, we continually review our assistance to – around the world – to ensure it complies with the law. That certainly is the case as it relates to assistance to the Palestinians. I’d have to check on – specifically, I think you’re referring to the legal language in the bill, as I understand it, on waiver authority. I don’t believe that applies here, which is what you also just conveyed.
I don’t have anything else to preview for you. The next step would be Congress deciding what step or action they may take as it relates to assistance.
QUESTION: Well, are you saying that the Administration would not act against the Palestinians in terms of aid unless the law absolutely required it to do so?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to get – obviously, we constantly review our actions, our assistance. Right now, our focus and the Secretary’s focus is on engaging with both parties. I don’t have anything else to preview for you.
QUESTION: All right. And then on the engagement, can you just say what the —
QUESTION: Actually, can I stick with the money?
QUESTION: Well —
MS. PSAKI: Sure. Oh —
QUESTION: I’d like to know though – the money apparently has come up in conversations the Secretary has had with both the Palestinians and the Israelis. Can you enlighten us as to who he’s spoken to and when about what’s going on or what your plans are going forward?
MS. PSAKI: He’s been engaged with both parties, as has our team been on the ground. Really I should say we’ve been engaged with both parties. He’s been a part of some of those conversations and some others have been through our ambassador and through our consul general on the ground. I don’t have anything else more to preview for you or outline for the specifics. Did you have an aid question?
QUESTION: Yeah. You said, and as you pointed out it was previously stated by your colleague over the holidays, that the decision to join the ICC could have implications for U.S. assistance to the Palestinians. Could continued Israeli settlement activity, which you say is a unilateral act and which you don’t like, also have implications for U.S. assistance to Israel?
MS. PSAKI: Well, these actions are actions that would be taken by Congress, so I suggest you direct your question to them.
QUESTION: No, I mean, you were just very careful in answering Matt’s questions to not take a position on whether or not you would act vis-a-vis assistance to the Palestinians only if required to do so by law, i.e. by Congress. You’ve clearly, in your previous answers – and you also pointed out that the Secretary of State has some authority and jurisdiction and flexibility here. So —
MS. PSAKI: Depending on the case, as you well know.
QUESTION: Right. So – but is what you are saying is that it could have implications solely as a function of congressional action?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t —
QUESTION: Or could it have implications as a result of the authority that the Secretary of State himself and the Administration have?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think what I was referring to there is waiver authority, which when Congress takes an action, obviously, there are occasions and certain laws where the Secretary can use waiver authority. I don’t have anything to preview for you in terms of that. I was just giving you the broad overview of the law.
QUESTION: So the implications or the consequences that the Palestinian action could have with regard to U.S. assistance to the Palestinians, from your point of view, solely relate to congressional requirements in that regard?
MS. PSAKI: I didn’t state that. Obviously —
QUESTION: I’m asking, I’m asking.
MS. PSAKI: I wasn’t stating that. What I said was we constantly review our assistance; I don’t have anything to preview for you in terms of that assistance. We clearly do see a benefit in the U.S. assistance that we do provide and have provided to the Palestinian Authority. It’s played a valuable role in promoting stability and prosperity, not just for Palestinians but for the region.
QUESTION: Well, I guess the fundamental question is: Why, if it is not solely related to congressional action, to the legal framework within which you operate, if it is perhaps also a function of the Administration’s authority and policy decisions on their own, why shouldn’t unilateral Israeli actions also potentially be subject to diminution in U.S. assistance?
MS. PSAKI: Well —
QUESTION: Why should it only be the Palestinian —
MS. PSAKI: — let me try to unwind this a little bit.
MS. PSAKI: Overall, as you know, funding goes through Congress. They make decisions about what funding they will move forward on and not. That is the case here as well. So what I’m implying there, and you all know, is they are also watching and will make decisions accordingly. There are steps, depending on what it is, that the Secretary of State can take. But overall, the first step would be Congress.
QUESTION: So – but it – I don’t understand why you won’t then address hard-on the straightforward question, which is whether the consequences for the Palestinians or the Israelis are solely a function of what Congress does.
MS. PSAKI: I think I conveyed that we review it and there are a range of steps that we can take. But there’s a lot of different components and technical details here, so I’m just not going to go through every specific. And more importantly —
QUESTION: But I’m not asking you to.
MS. PSAKI: Let me finish.
MS. PSAKI: More importantly, our focus right now is on engaging with both parties. I’m not going to stand here from the podium and preview or discuss internal discussions if we were having them because there’s no benefit in that.
QUESTION: Right. But there is a question of whether or not there’s a double standard vis-a-vis the treatment of unilateral actions by either of the two parties to this dispute.
MS. PSAKI: But we’re talking about what’s legally required in a congressional bill as it relates to the Palestinian funding.
QUESTION: And Congress can apply whatever conditions it wishes or does not wish to, to either side, and there are no conditions that I’m aware of imposed on the state of Israel. So I get that. What I still don’t understand, though, is why you are not able to state categorically – if what you’re saying is right, that all you’re talking about here is congressional action – why you won’t say, “Look, we’ll do whatever the law obliges us to, but that’s it. We’re not looking at other things with regard to the money.”
MS. PSAKI: Because, Arshad, I’m not going to preview or discuss internal discussions. I conveyed to you what our focus is on, and beyond that I don’t have anything further to add.
QUESTION: One other one on this, if I may.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Has the Secretary sought to dissuade the Palestinian Authority from undertaking all of the subsequent steps, of which I think there are two, regarding the deposit of the instrument, the document under which they sign the Rome Statute, et cetera? Is the Secretary making an effort, given how concerned you are about this, to dissuade the Palestinians from moving forward? Because as I understand it, there is at least a 60-day or so period during which they would need to make additional actions. Are you trying to forestall them, forestall that, trying to prevent them from doing that?
MS. PSAKI: We’ve certainly conveyed at high levels our view on the ICC action, and obviously, we’d like to prevent it from moving forward.
QUESTION: Jen, can I just find out when was the last time that the Secretary spoke with either the Palestinian president and/or Prime Minister Netanyahu?
MS. PSAKI: He spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu over the weekend. We’ve been engaged from our team on the ground with President Abbas. I don’t have an exact day on that, but it’s been recently.
QUESTION: And just so that – I want to make sure that I’ve understood this correctly.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: In the specific case of the Palestinian Authority going to the ICC – seeking to join the ICC, does the Secretary have a waiver for that or not? Matt seems to suggest he doesn’t, but can he exercise a waiver to any congressional action that’s taken as a result of that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think what Matt is referring to is specifically how the law is written, which I’d encourage anyone to look at —
QUESTION: Yeah. Well, I’ve been —
MS. PSAKI: — which is stating about action at the ICC —
QUESTION: Yeah, yeah.
QUESTION: Not – okay.
MS. PSAKI: And in terms of whether a waiver would apply there, I’d have to check with our team. I don’t believe it would in this case, but I’m happy to check with them and see.
QUESTION: And on the actual specifics, at what point would the – would any action, congressional action, kick in? Just joining, or would it have to be actual action?
MS. PSAKI: Well, obviously, Congress has the ability to act in many ways about assistance. Beyond that, I would point you to them and those who work on the appropriations committee and fund these type of programs.
QUESTION: Okay. And I just wondered if you had any reaction to the news yesterday of Israel freezing some millions of dollars, about $127 million in tax revenues which they had been due to transfer to the Palestinian Authority, as a response to the move by the Palestinians?
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm. Well, we obviously saw the announcement yesterday. We call on both sides to avoid actions that raise tensions and make it more difficult to return to direct negotiations. Obviously, that would – this action would qualify in that category.
As we’ve said consistently, the path to a two-state solution with a Palestinian state living side by side in peace and security with Israel can only be achieved through direct negotiations between the two sides. And certainly, we’ve been – this is one of the topics we’ve been engaging with the parties on.
QUESTION: So you’re opposed to this. You’re opposed to the idea of the Israelis freezing the taxes —
MS. PSAKI: Well, we’re opposed to any actions that raise tensions, and obviously, this is one that raises tensions.
QUESTION: Can you just elaborate a little on what the discussions between the Secretary and the Israeli prime minister have been about? I mean, you’ve spoken about a law that has congressional restrictions on funding. That’s U.S. law, and we’re talking about a Palestinian action. So what does the discussions back and forth with the Israeli prime minister pertain to?
MS. PSAKI: Broadly speaking, Brad, I mean, the discussions are about where we go from here. And obviously, the Secretary reiterates our strong opposition to actions that both parties have taken, the desire to see a reduction in tensions. Beyond that, I’m just not going to outline their private conversations more specifically.
QUESTION: Are you talking to the Israelis about possible U.S. consequences for the Palestinians?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to outline it more specifically than what I’ve just done.
QUESTION: But I don’t —
MS. PSAKI: They speak on a frequent basis.
QUESTION: But I don’t quite under – well, more frequently sometimes than others.
MS. PSAKI: True.
QUESTION: I don’t quite understand the Israeli role in what seems to be a Palestinian action and U.S. law. How does Israel figure into that?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Brad, just to be clear, I mean, the reason I answered the ICC question was that it was the first question that was asked. But there are obviously steps that have been taken by both sides that have warranted conversations with both sides, and it will require both sides taking actions to reduce the tensions. So it’s not just about specific day-by-day steps; it’s about the larger picture and how to move forward.
QUESTION: And what, in this case, would he have cautioned Israel against or —
MS. PSAKI: Well, clearly, freezing tax revenues is just one step. But obviously, this is an ongoing discussion and one that they have on a regular basis, and they’re talking about the larger picture.
QUESTION: So are you asking the Israelis to unfreeze the tax revenues now?
MS. PSAKI: We’re certainly conveying, Said, that this is a step that is one that raises tensions, as others do. And I’ll leave it at that.
QUESTION: Okay. Now tell me on the money, if once Congress —
MS. PSAKI: On tax revenues or us?
QUESTION: No, on the aid.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
QUESTION: Once Congress decide to cut off aid, how is that – does that affect whatever in the pipeline now? How does it – how does it work out?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I’m not going to address a hypothetical. Obviously, that decision hasn’t been made. As I mentioned, with waiver authority I don’t believe it applies in this case, but I’m happy to discuss with our legal team and see if we can get you a more specific answer.
QUESTION: I wanted to just quickly follow up on a couple of things. Now, on the principle of the ICC, why not allow both the Palestinians and the Israelis to go to the ICC to file criminal charges against their own – whoever they accuse?
MS. PSAKI: Because we think the most productive path forward, Said, would be direct negotiations to address the issues that have been challenging for decades.
QUESTION: But in your opinion – allow me, indulge me, if (inaudible).
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
QUESTION: In your opinion, these negotiations that have been conducted over a period of 21, 22 years and so on, they really have not borne fruit, so to speak. Shouldn’t there be another alternative such as the United Nations, to which you are a party and to which you have advocated many issues, through the Security Council and through the United Nations, similar issues? Why is this —
MS. PSAKI: We’ve been pretty clear that unilateral action, in our view, is not the right path forward.
QUESTION: Why is the Palestinian action through the United Nation is a unilateral action? In fact, it’s an international action, isn’t it?
MS. PSAKI: We’ve been very consistent in this – in our position on this, Said. I don’t think I need to repeat it. There’s a lot going on in the world. Go ahead.
QUESTION: Okay. (Inaudible) with a couple of issues.
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
QUESTION: Also, there was – I know that Jeff addressed it last week on the attack on – by settlers on the – at the consulate. Have you issued a statement on that? Was there a statement issued by the State Department?
MS. PSAKI: We’ve provided a comment to many people who have asked. I’m happy to repeat it if you’d like me to.
QUESTION: Are you likely to issue a statement on that?
MS. PSAKI: I think we often respond to reporter inquiries. If you’d like, I can do that from here now, Said.
QUESTION: Do you know if there’s anything more to say about that?
MS. PSAKI: There isn’t anything new to add, no.
QUESTION: So the investigation is – do you know if there was —
MS. PSAKI: We’re still working with Israeli authorities on their investigation.
QUESTION: Do you know if the video had been – the statement or what Jeff said last week said that you were providing or offering to provide the Israeli authorities with videotape of the incident. Presumably, that was taken by U.S. officials who were in this convoy. Is that correct? And do you know if that’s actually been turned over to the —
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have any update on that. We – I’m happy to check and see if there’s any update on it.
QUESTION: And then just one – just two —
MS. PSAKI: Let’s just finish this and then we can go.
QUESTION: Just two very briefly: So on the tax money, why shouldn’t Israel withhold tax money if the Palestinians take a step to file – bring war crimes charges against them and – at the ICC?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think what we’re trying to avoid here, Matt, is a back-and-forth tit-for-tat, and we’re trying to focus —
QUESTION: Well, it’s a little late.
MS. PSAKI: — the direction in a more positive direction. So —
QUESTION: It’s a little – I mean, it’s a little late for that. If the Palestinians follow through with their threat to go ahead and file this – these charges, would you still call for the Israelis to release this money?
MS. PSAKI: I think I made clear that we view any actions that reduce – that increase tensions as being unproductive, and that is the case on both sides.
QUESTION: But there’s a question of which is the spark that leads to the other side —
MS. PSAKI: I can’t speak to what the spark is. Obviously, there have been actions by both sides in the past couple of months that may not be cause and effect, but still are unproductive.
QUESTION: And then the last thing you said, as it regards to U.S. aid to the Palestinians, you said that it played a big role in providing stability and prosperity for not only the Palestinians, but for the region. And I’m just wondering if you had really – if that – how stable and prosperous is the West Bank and Gaza, and how stable and prosperous is the whole region? It seems to me not prosperous and not stable at all.
MS. PSAKI: Well, Matt, obviously, that’s one of the reasons why we’ve been providing assistance, to try to provide additional stability. But clearly, we’ve seen a benefit of that, and that was the point I was making.
QUESTION: You’ve seen the benefit in the region from aid to the Palestinians?
MS. PSAKI: Matt, I think the point is this is one of the most tumultuous places in the world. We all know that. This is —
QUESTION: Right. So throwing money at it, though, hasn’t necessarily made it more stable or prosperous, right?
MS. PSAKI: Well, you can’t disprove a negative, so if we hadn’t provided assistance, I’d like to see the AP analysis and see what that would mean.
MS. PSAKI: Go ahead.
QUESTION: Do you think that Israel is within its right to withhold that money, considering that’s really Palestinian money?
MS. PSAKI: I think I’ve addressed this, Said. Do we have any more on Israel? Go ahead, Pam.
QUESTION: Yes. Broadly speaking, the unilateral action by the Palestinians – first with the UN resolution, now the ICC bid – seems to indicate a higher level of Palestinian frustration. What is the United States doing, what steps is the U.S. taking to perhaps rethink its policy on engagement with Israel’s and the Palestinians because of these increased tensions?
MS. PSAKI: Well, when you say “rethink our policy of engagement,” can you spell that out a little bit more? What do you mean by that?
QUESTION: Is the U.S. considering any new strategies to move the process forward?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I think our view is that, as I mentioned in the beginning, that engagement with the parties is something that needs to continue. They need to make the choices themselves about what steps they’re going to take, but reducing tensions, taking steps to de-escalate continues to be the only path forward. Obviously, we’re not at a point now where we are having a discussion about a peace process, but we continue to believe that that’s the only way to address these issues over the long term.
QUESTION: Do you still consider it feasible that you could have some sort of a track going on in terms of the negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis between now and the election? Is the United States in a position to actually get something like this going?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Said, as I’ve said many times in response to similar questions you’ve asked, there – it’s obviously up to the parties. We certainly understand there’s an election going on in Israel. We don’t have any prediction of the future, but what we’re talking about is the long term and how to resolve the issues over the long term.