"As is" reference - not a United Nations document
Daily Press Briefing - December 27, 2016
Mark C. Toner
Daily Press Briefing
December 27, 2016
2:53 p.m. EST
MR TONER: Hi, everyone. Welcome to the State Department. Okay. I’m sorry, first of all, to be – not even a little late – quite late. I apologize. I can guarantee you it’s not because I was sleeping off my holiday feast. But let’s get started.
Welcome, everyone, to the State Department. Just – I have one thing to announce at the top, and indeed, it’s been a question on quite a few of your minds over the past couple of days, but I can announce that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry will deliver remarks on Middle East peace tomorrow morning, on Wednesday, December 28th, 2016 at the U.S. Department of State. In this speech, the Secretary will lay out a comprehensive vision for how he believes the conflict can be resolved in the Middle East. And all of his remarks, of course, will be open to the press and this event will be livestreamed at state.gov.
That’s all I have at the top, believe it or not, for being that late. Where are we starting? Lesley, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah. So – and where is the speech going to take place? Do you have details?
MR TONER: We’ll get to that to you. We’re going to – we’ll put out a Notice to the Press. I just wanted simply to announce the speech would be tomorrow morning.
QUESTION: And I gather he’s going to talk about the UN resolution on --
MR TONER: He will touch on that. I – but I don't want to – so he will touch on that, certainly, but he’ll talk more broadly about, as I said, coming to the end of his term as Secretary of State – but indeed, this is an issue – Middle East peace – that he’s worked on for many, many years, so he’ll talk about his view, I think, on the way forward and where he sees it going.
QUESTION: Well, the tensions being --
MR TONER: Where to begin, right? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Yeah. (Laughter.)
MR TONER: I felt a little bit the same way. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: Yeah. I mean, tensions have been increasing since the UN vote on Friday. I’m sure you’ve seen all the reports and heard a lot of the words. The Israeli officials are now being quoted as saying that they have evidence that they will lay out to the Trump administration of – in which the U.S., specifically Kerry, had discussions with the Palestinians before the vote, a few weeks before, during a visit to Washington where Saeb Erekat was around, and basically that he pushed them to go to Egypt and to move ahead with this resolution. That’s one of the things.
MR TONER: Okay.
QUESTION: So the question is: Was the U.S. hiding behind this other group of countries to submit the resolution? Were those discussions ever taken place? Because the Israelis feel that they’ve got evidence that there was meddling by the Americans.
MR TONER: Excuse me. Forgive me. (Coughs.) I picked up a cold over the weekend too, unfortunately, so I apologize.
So you’re right. We’ve obviously seen the same reports, an amalgamation of different allegations that somehow this was U.S.-driven and precooked. What I’ll say – excuse me – (coughs) – is that we reject the notion that the United States was the driving force behind this resolution. That’s just not true. The United States did not draft this resolution, nor did it put it forward. It was drafted and initially introduced, as we all know, by Egypt, in coordination with the Palestinians and others. When it was clear that the Egyptians and the Palestinians would insist on bringing this resolution to a vote and that every other country on the council would, in fact, support it, we made clear to others, including those on the Security Council, that further changes were needed to make the text more balanced. And that’s a standard practice on – with regard to resolutions at the Security Council. So there’s nothing new to this.
You look like you’re pouncing on me, but go ahead.
QUESTION: No, we just --
MR TONER: No, we’ll continue. I can continue, but if you have a – do you have a follow up?
QUESTION: No, no. Let’s just keep going with this.
MR TONER: Okay, sure. And this is a really important point. We also made clear at every conversation – in every conversation – that the President would make the final decision and that he would have to review the final text before making his final decision. So the idea that this was, again, precooked or that we had agreed upon the text weeks in advance is just not accurate. And in fact --
QUESTION: But we know that --
MR TONER: Go ahead. I’m sorry. Go ahead.
QUESTION: No, we know that the U.S. didn’t draft it or put it forward. But was the U.S. in any way coaxing on any – another group of countries to move ahead and go and move ahead with this resolution?
MR TONER: Well, again, these are – I mean, again, I think it’s important to have the proper context, in that all through the fall there was talk about – and we often got the question here and of course we replied that we’re never going to discuss hypotheticals in terms of what resolutions or what is circulating out there – but of course, there has been for some time in the fall talk about this resolution or that resolution with regard to the Middle East peace and the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
So of course, in the – of course, in the course of those conversations, we’re always making clear what our parameters are, what our beliefs are, what our – what we need to see or what we – in order to even consider a resolution. That’s part of the give-and-take of the UN.
QUESTION: But surely these countries, before they would move ahead, would want to get the view of an influential member of the Security Council of the UN of who – of what their position would be on this.
MR TONER: Well, again, I think we – of course, as the draft or the text was circulated, we said to those on the Security Council that – what further changes were needed to make the text more balanced. And in fact, we ended up abstaining because we didn’t feel it was balanced enough in the sense of it didn’t hit hard enough on the incitement-to-violence side of the coin.
Go ahead. You look perplexed. (Laughter.) Go ahead, Said.
QUESTION: At what stage did you intervene to try and balance? Was it after Egypt said they’d withdraw it?
MR TONER: I think it was once – yeah, I mean, once – I mean, I don’t have a date certain. It was once the Egyptians and Palestinians made it clear that they were going to advance this text or bring this resolution to a vote and that, in fact, it would be supported by other countries.
QUESTION: Does that date predate Mr. Erekat’s visit to the State Department?
MR TONER: I don’t know the date of his visit. But again, I’m not – I’m not exactly – and I’m not necessarily excluding that when he did visit to the State Department that they didn’t discuss possible resolutions or anything like that in terms of draft language. But again, there was no – nothing precooked. There was nothing – this was not some move orchestrated by the United States.
QUESTION: Could you be clear what you just said? I heard a double negative in there. You’re not precluding that they didn’t discuss it. Are you saying they – that when the Palestinians were here --
MR TONER: I don’t have a readout. Yeah, I don’t have a readout of that meeting in front of me. I just – but I said I can imagine that they talked about Middle East peace broadly and efforts to reinvigorate the process. I don’t know that they discussed the possible action at the UN. But of course, as we – as I said in answer to Lesley’s question, that was something that was in the mix for some months now in New York at the UN that there might be some action taken there.
QUESTION: And what about New Zealand, when the Secretary was there before Antarctica?
MR TONER: Yeah.
QUESTION: And also I believe he had a meeting here with Mr. Shoukry at some point in early December.
MR TONER: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: Was the resolution discussed at either of those meetings with those diplomats?
MR TONER: Again, I can’t specifically say whether the resolution – but certainly, if a resolution or action at the UN was discussed, it wasn’t discussed in the level of detail where there was some final text. We always reserved the right with any text that was put forward, drafted and put forward, to veto it or to not take action or abstain, which is what we ended up doing.
QUESTION: But you advised them on how to put together a motion that the United States would feel comfortable abstaining or voting in favor of?
MR TONER: Well, I think what we said is – and this is not just unique to this process, but once a text, a draft text is to the point where it’s going to be put forward to a vote, of course we would provide input on what we believed were – was language that didn’t pass or didn’t allow us to vote for it or --
QUESTION: You see what I’m saying?
QUESTION: You didn’t just say bring whatever motion you like up and we’ll vote however we feel about it. You were encouraging them to bring forward a motion that you would feel comfortable not blocking.
MR TONER: Well, but we have to be really careful in how we’re talking about this because what the allegations --
MR TONER: No, I know and I understand that. But no, no, but I’m saying that some of the allegations out there, frankly, are implying that this was somehow some – as I said, some orchestrated action by the U.S. to pass a resolution that was negative about settlement activity in Israel, and the fact is that that’s just not the case. Of course, we would always provide, when the final text was going up for a vote, our opinion on where the red lines were. But I think that – I think this is all a little bit of a sideshow, to be honest, that this was a resolution that we could not in good conscience veto because it condemns violence, it condemned incitement, it reiterates what has long been the overwhelming consensus international view on settlements, and it calls for the parties to take constructive steps to advance a two-state solution on the ground. There was nothing in there that would prompt us to veto that type of resolution.
QUESTION: But there was nothing in there --
MR TONER: And in fact --
QUESTION: -- because you told them not to put anything in there that would cause you to veto it.
MR TONER: But that – but again, not at all. And I said we did not take the lead in drafting this resolution. That was done by the Egyptians with the Palestinians. But again, in any kind of resolution process, of course there’s moments where – or I mean, it’s not like our views regarding settlements or regarding resolutions with respect to Israel aren’t well-known and well-vetted within the UN community. There’s been many times in the past where we’ve not – or we vetoed resolutions that we found to be biased towards Israel. But that’s another point here is that there’s nothing – the other canard in all of this is that this was somehow breaking with longstanding U.S. tradition in the UN Security Council, when we all know that every administration has vetoed – or rather has abstained or voted for similar resolutions.
QUESTION: But it’s true then that you had opportunities to ask them not to bring it forward at all and didn’t take them.
MR TONER: I’m not sure what you’re --
QUESTION: Well, instead of saying why not write the motion this way, you could have said please don’t bring a motion.
MR TONER: Well, again, I think when it was clear to us that they were going to bring it to a vote and that every other council – every other country on the council was going to support that resolution, that draft text --
QUESTION: When did it become clear to you that it would --
MR TONER: I don’t have a date certain for that.
MR TONER: I think it was last week or so.
QUESTION: Mark, give me just a follow-up, please, quickly.
MR TONER: Please.
QUESTION: Now, you said that everything in the resolution really is consistent with your position, and in fact, it did include language that was very strong against incitement and violence and so on. So why did you vote against it? Why would you not --
MR TONER: Because --
QUESTION: I mean, not --
MR TONER: Yeah, yeah. That’s okay.
QUESTION: Why did you abstain?
MR TONER: Yeah. So --
QUESTION: And why not vote for it?
MR TONER: No, no, it is – and I think others have spoken to this, but we believe that the resolution didn’t put sufficient emphasis on the violence and incitement and terrorism that is also eroding --
QUESTION: What would be – in this case, what kind of language? I mean --
MR TONER: Well, I’m not going to draft it off the top of my head, but we felt it wasn’t sufficiently strong.
QUESTION: But you must have very clear points at what these terms or these phrases would be exactly for you to vote for it, right? What are they? What are these points and phrases that would have made you vote for it?
MR TONER: Well, again, I think – and forgive me if I’m not specific enough, but I think our criticism in past draft resolutions has been that they are not – that they’re one-sided, that they unfairly target Israel. In this case, there was language in there regarding incitement and basically making the point that both sides need to do – to do more in order to create a climate conducive to what we believe is the way forward, which is direct negotiations. So what – it’s important to remember what this resolution is and what it isn’t.
I mean, what it was was simply a recognition that the dynamics on the ground, in particular on the Israeli side with regard to the growth and increase in settlements, the marked increase in settlements, settlement activity, over the past years is making the viability of a two-state solution more and more impossible. It recognized that. It also noted, as I said, the fact that the Palestinian side also is partially to blame for incitement to violence for creating an atmosphere, again, not conducive to what we all agree needs to happen, which is direct negotiation. So this wasn’t in any way an attempt to prejudge or to promote a certain outcome in that negotiation. It was simply recognizing what we believe are dangerous trends.
QUESTION: Let me ask you about what – seeing how this resolution lacks sanctions, it lacks any kind of really a roadmap to implement it and so on. What should the steps – in your view, and I understand how this Administration is departing – on review – in your view, what steps can be taken to ensure that the spirit and the letter of the resolution is somehow --
MR TONER: Sure.
QUESTION: -- implemented and translated into reality?
MR TONER: Well, I think that’s, frankly, something that Secretary Kerry will – hopefully will address and make clear in his speech tomorrow. I think he’s going to kind of take that – what we need to see in terms of next steps – in his speech tomorrow. This resolution – you’re right. It doesn’t – it certainly doesn’t have an impact in terms of sanctions or actions that would directly negatively affect Israel. I think what we’ve said is it’s a call to action. It’s a recognition that international opinion is noting the fact that Israeli settlement activity is an impediment to a negotiated two-state settlement.
QUESTION: Mark, (inaudible)?
MR TONER: That’s okay. We’ll go to Carol and then you, Michel. We’ve got time.
QUESTION: There was a – there’s a report in an Egyptian newspaper (inaudible), about the meeting between Secretary Kerry, Susan Rice, Saeb Erekat, and Faraj. And they’re reporting that Secretary Kerry and Ambassador Rice said that they were – the United States was ready to support a balanced resolution in the Security Council, and there also was some discussion about moving the embassy to Jerusalem, and that Saeb Erekat said if that happened that throughout the Arab world, Americans would be kicked out. Is – can you confirm or discuss whether this conversation, in fact, happened?
MR TONER: I apologize. I can’t, Carol. I just don’t know. I don’t have that level of detail. I just got a roadie note here, though. Sorry. (Laughter.)
But just an update, because I was deliberately vague because I did not have a readout – but in fact, we did not discuss any language or give any indication whatsoever about a U.S. position on a settlements UNSCR in either the meeting with Erekat or in New Zealand. So that just --
QUESTION: Let me just take you back to Thursday, because we had --
MR TONER: Correct the record there.
QUESTION: -- a great deal of discussion right after the Egyptians went through their drafts of a resolution. And I asked a question at the time whether you were disappointed, because that was the impression that you were giving. So were you glad to see that these four countries had the intention and then they actually, in fact, did submit the resolution once again? If – am I clear in what I’m saying?
MR TONER: Yeah, I understand what you’re saying. You’re asking whether we, in essence --
QUESTION: Yeah. Well, I mean, were you actually, because it seems like it’s the last – sort of the last effort or the last conceivable effort.
MR TONER: Yeah. I mean, Said, I don’t want to attempt to characterize it. I think I’ll just leave it where I thought I put it, which is that there was nothing in this resolution that we could so profoundly disagree with that it would lead us to veto it. It was, in essence, a recognition that, as I said, that – a recognition of the trends that many on the Security Council and around the world have been concerned about regarding the viability of a two-state solution, and that is the marked increase in settlement activity. I mean, you and I, Lord knows, have discussed this in great detail. And you also know that our policy, our public statements about settlements are well known. And so there’s no surprise to the reason that we chose to abstain from this vote.
QUESTION: Can I follow-up on that one?
QUESTION: So what comments – what is your reaction to the news today that a – that a Jerusalem municipality is due to consider a request for construction of new homes – of settlements today?
MR TONER: I mean, I saw it. We obviously saw the reports of those actions. I’ll go back to what I just said, which is we would hope that the UN Security Council resolution that was passed on Friday would serve as a wakeup call, as a call to action, as an attempt to alert both sides, but certainly Israel, that its actions with regards to settlement activity are, as I said, are a detriment to moving forward with a – toward a two-state solution.
QUESTION: Has the Secretary, since the vote, spoken to anyone about that --
MR TONER: Hitting my --
QUESTION: -- prime minister – about Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reaction to it and his anger and his --
MR TONER: I apologize. What – you’re saying has he spoken with --
QUESTION: So has he spoken since the vote to Prime Minister Netanyahu?
MR TONER: He has not. No, not since the vote. No.
QUESTION: Not since the vote?
MR TONER: No.
MR TONER: No, he spoke with him last on December 22nd.
QUESTION: And would you say this Administration is surprised by his – by Prime Minister Netanyahu’s reaction of anger and towards the Administration?
MR TONER: I don't know if – I don't know if I’d term it “surprised.” I mean, certainly, they feel aggrieved – that’s apparent – by their reaction. But – and I would refer folks in this room who weren’t there to the Secretary’s remarks at the Saban Forum, where he talked in great detail and great personal experience about the fact that we have a relationship with Israel that is so strong and so close that sometimes we need to be able to tell them difficult things. And through our abstention on this resolution, we were conveying our concern about Israel’s future. We want to see Israel succeed and prosper as a Jewish and democratic state. And we believe that if the present settlement activity is allowed to continue and intensify, that it’s – it will render the possibility of a two-state solution, which we all agree is the ultimate goal here, an impossibility. And that was part of the message that we hope was conveyed.
QUESTION: So the Israelis are saying --
QUESTION: -- apart of Prime Minister Netanyahu is that you cannot have a – that actually this resolution makes it more difficult for peace talks to take place, that they feel that the Israelis would not be seen fairly or treated fairly in those discussions. Would you agree with that?
MR TONER: I wouldn’t. I don't want to delve too deep into hypotheticals, but that’s between the parties. This isn’t something – and we’ve said this very clearly – that we want the UN in any way, shape, or form to decide the outcome of a negotiated settlement. That’s between the Palestinians and the Israeli Government.
QUESTION: And just a last question.
MR TONER: Yeah. Go ahead and I’ll --
QUESTION: Just a last question on the – is Secretary Kerry or anyone from this Administration going to the Paris talks --
MR TONER: I don't have an answer for that.
QUESTION: -- on that?
MR TONER: Yeah. Not that --
QUESTION: Did you notify the Israelis ahead of time before you’d vote? And if so, can you tell us when and --
MR TONER: How we were going to vote?
MR TONER: I’ll take that question and see if I can get an answer for you.
QUESTION: Mark, Israel’s foreign minister has suspended all working ties with the countries that voted to pass the resolution, and it summoned the U.S. ambassador to Israel. Do you have any readout for that meeting? And what’s your reaction to --
MR TONER: I don't have a particular readout for that meeting. Obviously, you can guess the topic. Look, I don't want to overstate Israel’s reaction. I think that no one – and certainly not the United States, or the United States least of all – wants to see Israel isolated in any international forum. And so, of course, we’re concerned when we see Israel take actions that we fear will further isolate it – proactive steps that will isolate it within the international community. But it’s not for us to really speak any more to what Israel decides to do.
Again, our – we took the actions we took last week – the action we took last week, rather – in an effort to, along with the others who voted for the resolution – an effort to send a clear message about our concerns regarding settlement activity as an impediment to a negotiated peaceful settlement – no more, no less. We don’t want this to create a diplomatic firestorm, in fact just the opposite. What we want is – are actions that create a climate that is conducive to a return to direct negotiations.
QUESTION: And my --
QUESTION: -- my last question on this: And how do you think this resolution will help the two-state solution?
MR TONER: Well, again, I spoke about the fact that sometimes – to use a colloquial American expression – you have to call a spade a spade. And when we see activity or actions on the part of Israel or Palestine – or Palestinians rather in this case, with regard to incitement, we call it like we see it and we’ve done that in this case. It is, I think, important for us to have any credibility as a neutral hand, if you will, in any negotiations which we’ve offered to play going forward and we’ve played it in the past. You’ve got to be honest and we’re trying to be honest.
QUESTION: Mark, the --
QUESTION: Should we see tomorrow’s speech as the last word from the Obama Administration on this issue, a summary of where we are? Or is this the start of a three-and-a-half-week push to create a new framework for negotiations?
MR TONER: That’s a very good and a very fair question. I don’t want to predict anything and nor do I have anything to announce coming up. Certainly this Administration is going to continue to work until January 20th.
QUESTION: The morning of January 20th.
MR TONER: January (inaudible) 20th – important point. But I don’t want to lean into it that there’s going to be some kind of a push behind this. I think this is, again, his – Secretary Kerry sharing his vision for how we can resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
QUESTION: I have just a couple more. Ben Rhodes noted in the press conference call that this Administration has been probably the friendliest of all administrations towards Israel --
MR TONER: Yeah, he did.
QUESTION: -- noting, like, they – most recently given them aid and to the tune of $40 billion and so on.
MR TONER: Yeah, the MOU.
QUESTION: Do you – are you disappointed in the kind of rhetoric that is being thrown at this Administration in its final days by the Israelis, by the Prime Minister of Israel, by others in this town who are friends of Israel, some even calling the President of the United States anti-Semitic and things like this?
MR TONER: Well, I mean --
QUESTION: How do you react to all this?
MR TONER: Yeah, Said – I mean, you have to be thick-skinned in this game we call diplomacy, as you know. So I don’t want to say that we’re upset over it, but the facts speak for themselves, as you noted. No administration, no American administration has arguably done more for Israel’s security. As you noted as well, just a couple months ago, we concluded a $38 billion MOU, which is the largest military assistance package in U.S. history, worked on Iron Dome to strengthen that.
We’ve done a lot of things, the Obama Administration, to strengthen U.S.-Israeli ties, which we – and of course, that’s on the security front, but we also – and this Secretary of State led a very hard-fought effort to get negotiations back on track early in this second term. And of course in the first Obama Administration – or term, we also had a pretty serious effort led by George Mitchell to get these negotiations back up and running.
So it’s not like we’ve been standing idly by the side and not caring about this issue or simply giving everyone a free pass – far from it. We have been and continue to be a staunch defender of Israel’s best interests and it’s in that spirit that we feel the resolution that was passed on Friday is in that same vein.\
QUESTION: Just go back to the – Secretary Kerry’s speech tomorrow. What does he hope to achieve through this speech? Is it just things that he felt he hasn’t had time to say or, I mean, is he hoping that it would be picked up and taken forward through – into a Trump administration, which is unlikely?
MR TONER: Well, I think that’s always – I mean, that’s always the hope. I think – look, I think he feels it’s his duty in his waning weeks and days as Secretary of State to lay out what he believes is a way towards a peaceful two-state solution in the Middle East. And as we’ve said about other proposals, it’s always important to try to keep the process moving forward, to lay out constructive visions for the future, but also to underscore the fact that we haven’t given up on this and we don’t want the Palestinians or the Israelis to give up on this either.