On-the-Record Conference Call Previewing the Visit of Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu

Via Conference Call  

5:08 P.M. EST

MR. PRICE:  Thank you for joining this call.  We wanted to preview the visit next Monday of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.  First a word about the ground rules.  This call will be on the record but it will be embargoed until the conclusion of the call.  So while the call is ongoing we ask that you not tweet or otherwise report its contents.

We have three senior administration officials on today’s call.  We have Ben Rhodes, the Deputy National Security Advisor for Strategic Communications.  We have Rob Malley, the NSC Coordinator for the Middle East, North Africa and the Gulf.  And we have Ambassador Dan Shapiro, the U.S. Ambassador to Israel.

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AMBASSADOR SHAPIRO:  

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I'll say one word on the Palestinian issue, and then I'll let Rob continue.  We clearly have been in a difficult period with violence on the ground in Israel and the Palestinian areas. We always condemn terrorism and we always condemn incitement, and we have done so.  We also, though, recognize that we're in a period where it's been difficult to generate the momentum on diplomacy on negotiations that gives people a sense of direction toward our goal — the goal that everyone has articulated, which is two states for two peoples outcome.

And so we've been doing a lot of work internally to try to think about, if we are in a period without negotiations, how we can still generate some direction and progress and hope that there is a pathway and steps that can be taken on the ground to reinforce that pathway toward a two-state solution even if negotiations will have to wait for some later period.  So that's a discussion I expect the President and the Prime Minister to engage in — what steps everybody can contribute to providing that atmosphere, obviously reducing the tensions and the violence that has been going on, and maintaining the viability of the two-state solution for the future.

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MR. RHODES:  And what can get done to get going on a two-state solution.

MR. MALLEY:  I think as Ben said, on the issue of the two-state solution, the main conversation I think the President is going to want to have with the Prime Minister is to hear from him, given the situation we’re in — where, as the President has said, we have to reach a realistic assessment, but there will not be a comprehensive final status agreement in the remainder of his term, and there likely may not even be meaningful negotiations between the two sides — given that reality, which is a new one, how does the Prime Minister himself see Israel going forward, given its own interests in stabilizing the situation in preventing the emergence of a one-state solution.  So what ideas is he going to be putting through to the President so they can discuss what can be done in the absence of negotiations between the parties to help stabilize the situation on the ground and to signal — both Palestinians and Israelis to signal that they are still committed to and moving towards a two-state solution even if they’re not in a position today to talk to one another about it.

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Q    Hi, thanks for doing the call.  A quick question.  Back in March, after the Israeli elections, there was talk out of the White House of needing to sort of reevaluate the U.S. strategy towards the two-state solution after some of the comments that Prime Minister Netanyahu made during his campaign.  There hasn’t really been any outward evidence of any reevaluation.  Could you sort of update us as to where that's at?

MR. RHODES:  First of all, obviously, it’s a good question.  And Rob I think pointed to the fact that looking at the situation, we do not see a likelihood of achieving — through the end of this administration, there’s not obviously a great likelihood of achieving a negotiated two-state solution.  So, clearly, part of our assessment has been that we don't see a clear pathway right now to the type of negotiations that could produce a two-state solution, as much as we would like that to be the case.

We’ve tried many different approaches over the course of the administration — direct negotiations, indirect negotiations, the U.S. putting out some principles.  And again, at each juncture, ultimately the parties themselves did not take the sufficient steps forward to reach a negotiated two-state solution.  So again, part of our assessment has been to calibrate to the reality on the ground.

Given the current context in which tensions have been very high, I think what we'll be looking for in the immediate term is what type of confidence-building measures can be pursued to build some trust back to reduce the tensions and to leave open the promise of a two-state solution.  Because ultimately, Israelis and Palestinians need to believe that two states for two peoples is possible as part of a means of ensuring that you don't have continued tension.

And frankly, there are practical things that can be done on the ground to build back some degree of trust and cooperation between the two sides.  Clearly, part of that also involves rejecting violence and rejecting incitement.  And we’ve called upon the Palestinian leadership to do so.  

And from the Prime Minister, though, we’ll want to hear what his views are for how the Israeli government can take steps to build some confidence and to make clear the fact that the aspiration of a two-state solution remains the one way to assure for security and dignity for both the Israeli and Palestinian peoples.

MR. MALLEY:  I just want to clarify.  I think it was clear from your question, but just to make clear to everyone that the reassessment was always the reassessment of the U.S. position on Middle East peace, not on our relationship with Israel.  

And now as regards to the Middle East peace, as I said earlier and Ben just said again, the major reassessment already — this is really the first time since the first term of the Clinton administration where we have an administration that faces a reality where the prospect of a negotiated two-state solution is not in the cards for the remainder — in the time that's remaining.  That was not the case until now.  

And that does, in and of itself, imply a major reassessment of what we can do, but also what the parties are going to do.  And I think the onus is also on them to assess what they're going to do, given this landscape where for various reasons that prospect of a negotiated comprehensive settlement is not right now in the cards.  

Now, that means taking steps to prevent confrontation, and that's been, for example, what Secretary Kerry has been doing recently with regards to Jerusalem and the relations between Israelis and Palestinians; taking steps to make sure that Palestinian and Israeli lives can improve and that both can live in security and that, in fact, we can see improvements of the conditions, particularly in the West Bank; and to — Ben just said, not only safeguard the possibility of a two-state solution, but seeing if there are ways that we could, in fact — that we and the parties can indicate that that prospect not only is alive, but that there are ways of moving there, even, as I said, in the absence of negotiations.

So don't expect sort of a big announcement that the reassessment is over.  We are reassessing given the fact that the landscape is different, and that we’ve reached that conclusion.  The President has reached that conclusion that right now — baring a major shift — that the parties are not going to be in a position to negotiate a final status agreement.

We can't be satisfied with the status quo, so we have to find ways of making sure that there’s not — that the situation on the ground does not lead to confrontation, but that also we can preserve the option of the two-state solution and try to find ways to move in that direction, despite the current context.

Q    About this last issue we just talked about, you said, Rob, I think earlier in the call that the President is going to ask Netanyahu to show that he’s moving forward on steps that will prevent a one-state solution.  And I was wondering if one of the things that the President is going to ask the Prime Minister is to take some steps on restraint of settlement activity.  And second question, the Israeli national security advisor Yossi Cohen was at the White House today.  I was wondering if you heard from him anything about any steps that Israel is willing to take to do what you just said.

MR. MALLEY:  The President will decide what he wants to discuss and how he wants to discuss it with the Prime Minister.   But I think it’s something that we’ve now said for some time very, very publicly that we're expecting from both parties that they take steps that prove not just in words, but in their actions that they’ve committed to a two-state solution.  And frankly, that they convince the other side that they're committed to a two-state solution.

Our position on settlement activity is — I don't need to repeat it.  Settlement activity is not consistent with moving toward a two-state solution.  I don't know that that will be any news to Prime Minister Netanyahu to hear that.  And whether it’s settlement activity, whether it’s other actions that both sides take, we would hope and we would expect that they would take actions that are consistent with a two-state solution, and that they would refrain from actions but make that prospect more distance.

MR. RHODES:  And I’ll just say on your second question, Susan Rice had a meeting with Yossi Cohen today.  Obviously, she’s setting up the meeting between the Prime Minister and the President, discussing all the various issues that we’ve discussed on this call.  I think we’ll have a more formal readout of that meeting to come, but really it’s preparatory work for the meeting between the leaders.

Look, I will just say on your question, the fact that we have the realistic assessment that we're not looking at a very near-term conclusion of negotiations toward the two-state solution in no way diminishes our very fervent belief that a two-state solution is the one way to achieve the lasting peace, security and dignity that the Israeli and Palestinian people deserve.

And frankly, it continues to be the President’s view that the urgency of moving in the direction of a two-state solution very much remains in part because of what you're seeing in the facts on the ground, and the demography, and the development of technology, all of which complicates both the security picture and the ability to move swiftly at the appropriate time towards the achievement of a two-state solution.  Clearly, settlements, continued settlement activity complicates both the trust that is necessary to move in the direction of peace and could very practically complicate the achievement of a viable Palestinian state.

And so that's why it will continue to be the position of the U.S. government that that clearly is not constructive in terms of the pursuit of peace and the achievement of a two-state solution.

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