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INDEX FOR TODAY'S BRIEFING
MIDDLE EAST PEACE/REGION
MIDDLE EAST PEACE
1:12 p.m. EDT
QUESTION: I wanted to ask about the meetings that the Secretary held yesterday. There was a press conference afterwards at which he said that there have been – they had agreed to some steps to de-escalate the tensions in the region. Today out of the region, they’re saying that the Palestinians have – all restrictions have been lifted on men wanting to go and pray at the al-Aqsa Mosque.
MS. PSAKI: Mm-hmm.
QUESTION: I just wondered what it was – first off, if the – your reaction to the news that today seems to be free movement into the mosque for Palestinian worshippers – or Arab worshippers, I guess; and then secondly, what it is that you’re asking the Palestinians to do to de-escalate tensions.
MS. PSAKI: Well, let me talk about this a little bit, and as you mentioned, the Secretary spoke about it. I will mention one thing at the top just to manage expectations. One of the discussions they had was the fact that we were not going to announce on their behalf any steps, specific steps, they were going to take. And we feel it’s much more important that they take steps than it is that it’s publicly announced. But I can talk a little bit more about the meetings.
As you mentioned, last night the Secretary had the opportunity to sit down with leaders, have these discussions in person. The parties – as he mentioned, the parties agreed to take affirmative steps to restore calm and implement practical measures to prevent further escalation of tensions.
Obviously, you saw the lift on age limit restrictions for Muslim men entering the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount. This is an important development, one we certainly welcome, and a positive step toward maintaining the status quo of the site. Forty thousand Muslims were able to visit the site today, and although tensions remain high, this is a positive step.
They also – during these meetings, President – Prime Minister Netanyahu strongly reaffirmed Israel’s commitment to uphold the status quo, and you’ve seen some of those actions. And President Abbas restated his firm commitment on – to nonviolence and made it clear that he will do everything possible to restore calm.
Now, the situation is still very tense. We have our eyes open. We will remain engaged and in touch with the leaders. And of course, actions by the parties going forward are the key to restoring and maintaining calm.
QUESTION: So on the Palestinian side, one of the issues that we’ve seen has been this spate of sort of lone attacks either by car rammings or stabbings or the instance of such ilk. Could you tell us what it is you are hoping that the Palestinians will be able to do to avoid those kind of actions taking place in the future?
MS. PSAKI: Well, obviously, as I just mentioned, President Abbas made it clear that he is willing to do everything possible to restore calm. Broadly in the discussion they talked about a range of areas, including access to holy sites, security for holy sites, coordination among security forces and authorities, regional security architecture, incitement, and settlements. Those are a number of the pool of areas that obviously need to be addressed.
And I think the fact that there was a commitment to take affirmative steps we obviously feel is positive. Now, of course, the proof is not in the words. The proof is in the actions. So we’ll see what happens over the next couple of days. But we’re just not going to get into more specific details.
QUESTION: Jen, you mentioned that the proof is in the actions, clearly, but you’ve only cited one action and that was on the part of the Israelis to open up – to drop the age restriction. Have you seen any affirmative action from the Palestinians to do what President Abbas said that he was going to be doing?
MS. PSAKI: Well, Matt, obviously, these discussions happened last night, and we certainly anticipate that there will be in the coming days.
QUESTION: Right. But there was – I mean, there was pretty quick and demonstrable action taken by the Israelis. I’m just wondering if you saw any quick and demonstrable action taken --
MS. PSAKI: There’s public and private actions, but I don’t have anything more specific.
QUESTION: All right.
MS. PSAKI: We’ll see what happens in the next couple of days.
QUESTION: Is it – I’m not sure I understand why you think that it is wise to announce that the two sides have – or that three sides have agreed to steps to calm things down and then to keep them secret. It seems to me that this is exactly the way the peace talks collapsed by you and them trying to keep everything secret, which only leads to all sorts of speculation and tempers flaring based on inaccurate speculation and information and flat-out erroneous reports that are driven by people with agendas that you – with the – I don’t want to use the word “extremist,” but people with agendas to try and disrupt or continue the – continue the conflict.
MS. PSAKI: Well, Matt --
QUESTION: I just – it doesn’t make any sense to me that you wouldn’t want them – that you would want these alleged steps that were agreed to to become public. That way, people know what to expect.
MS. PSAKI: Well, we sent a strong message that there were – there was an agreement to take affirmative steps in order to hopefully generate some calm in the region. There was an evaluation and discussion made by all the parties involved that this was the best way to proceed.
QUESTION: Right. But there was an evaluation and discussion made by all parties involved when they agreed over a year ago that they would get a deal by – within a year’s time or within nine months’ time. And look where that is – nowhere.
MS. PSAKI: Well, we still have no regrets about how we handled or how we managed the process last year either.
Go ahead, Said.
QUESTION: Just a follow-up very quickly. What would be demonstrable and quick action by the Palestinians that you would like to see?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to spell it out further, Said, other than to convey that President Abbas made clear that he’ll do everything possible to restore calm. He restated his firm commitment to nonviolence. They talked about a range of issues that both sides can work on, including regional security structure, coordination among security forces, incitement, settlements – a lot of the issues that have been causing tensions in the region.
QUESTION: But really, when you go through it, you’ll find that he’s only able to sort of demonstrably and quickly sort of lower the level of incitement. Because the Palestinians have no control over East Jerusalem or any part to sort of dissuade the public from going out and demonstrating and burning tires and throwing stones and so on – so you’re expecting --
MS. PSAKI: Well, Said, he committed to the Secretary he was going to do everything he could to restore calm.
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to get into more details.
QUESTION: Now, I know that you, from this podium – and, of course, the Secretary in his press conference – emphasized that it was really most – they were focused, as you suggested, on what’s going on in Jerusalem. But also he mentioned at the end of one statement or one question that – the talks and restarting the talks and going back to the talks. Could you give us a broader picture or maybe a clearer picture on what future is there for these talks?
MS. PSAKI: Well, it remains the case that there won’t be long-term peace and stability without a two-state solution. But I can – there’s no plans to restart the peace talks. Right now we’re focused on reducing tensions and creating a climate where it may be possible to address the underlying causes of the conflict in the future. That was the focus of their discussion.
QUESTION: Okay. And also the Foreign Minister of Jordan, Nasser Judeh, said or suggested that they will not send back their ambassador until they see on the ground. So would the action today – the Israelis allowing 40,000 worshipers of all ages, as a matter of fact, to go into al-Aqsa Mosque – is the kind of action that should give incentive to the Jordanians now to send their ambassador?
MS. PSAKI: We’ll let Jordan make that decision, but I certainly can convey to you that, of course, diplomatic relations between Israel and Jordan are critical, given the two nations share security challenges and economic opportunities, and the importance, of course, of the Jordan-Israel Treaty of Peace and Jordan’s special role in Jerusalem’s Muslim holy places. The Secretary spoke with King Abdullah about this yesterday and about Jordan’s decision to withdraw its ambassador to Tel Aviv and how tensions can be reduced going forward. But we’ll let them make decisions moving forward.
QUESTION: And finally, anything new or an update regarding the Palestinian efforts in the UN?
MS. PSAKI: I don’t have anything new to report on that front.
QUESTION: So have you raised the issue of the continuing settlement activities, and do you think that any freeze of this activity will actually be helpful in maintaining calm and stability for a while?
MS. PSAKI: Well, as I mentioned, that was one of the topics that was discussed. Obviously, as we’ve also stated here before, we believe that ongoing settlement activity or construction in East Jerusalem is contrary to the stated goal of achieving a two-state solution. And that continues to be our view. But there are a range of factors at play here; that’s not the only factor.
QUESTION: So what was – did you get a clear reaction or commitment from the Israeli side on this?
MS. PSAKI: I think as I stated earlier, I’m not going to lay out more – further what – where they’ll go from here.
QUESTION: Jen, just a couple brief things on this.
QUESTION: A lot has been made about the incitement or alleged incitement coming from the Palestinian side, and the – I’m just wondering, in view of the last questions about settlement activity and construction in East Jerusalem, does the Administration regard Israeli announcements of these kinds of things as incitement?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to put a new label on it other than to convey it’s contrary to the stated goal of achieving a two-state solution --
QUESTION: Right, but --
MS. PSAKI: -- and contrary to what they want to achieve.
QUESTION: But do you believe that contributes to the --
MS. PSAKI: Tension?
QUESTION: -- to the tension, and also can spark protests, some of which turn violent?
MS. PSAKI: Certainly contributes to the tension, yes.
MS. PSAKI: Obviously, there are a range of factors at the same time that are in play contributing to the tension.
QUESTION: Secondly, are you disappointed that you didn’t get a firm commitment from the Jordanians to return their ambassador?
MS. PSAKI: I think the Secretary felt they had a good discussion about it. Obviously, Jordan will make their own decision. I think the --
MS. PSAKI: -- foreign minister spoke to this yesterday a little bit, too.
QUESTION: Right. He said that it would depend on whether Israel actually does what it says it’s going to do. But is it your understanding that if Israel – that if the Israelis actually follow through on whatever it was the secret steps that Prime Minister Netanyahu pledged to take, that the Jordanians will return their ambassador?
MS. PSAKI: We’ll see, Matt.
QUESTION: Is that your understanding? You don’t know?
MS. PSAKI: I would point you to the foreign minister’s comments.
MS. PSAKI: But I don’t have anything more to explain on that.
QUESTION: And then lastly, I’ve got two brief ones on something you said yesterday.
QUESTION: You were asked about the home demolitions.
QUESTION: And – well, you had a brief line that – you said “punitive demolitions are counterproductive to the cause of peace and exacerbate an already tense situation.” I’m wondering, the – do you regard that, these home demolitions, as – you didn’t say this, but some have interpreted it to mean that you believe that these home demolitions constitute collective punishment?
MS. PSAKI: I didn’t convey that. I think --
MS. PSAKI: -- they’re one of the factors that contribute to tension.
QUESTION: So there are some in Israel who read that – who took what you said yesterday and said flat out that you had condemned what – collective punishment and that these – you condemned the housing demolitions as collective punishment. That is incorrect?
MS. PSAKI: We said – I said, as you just quoted, they were counterproductive.
QUESTION: Jen, can I just --
QUESTION: Meanwhile – hold on. I just – because I want to ask now about Egypt and home demolitions, because yesterday or earlier this week, there were – the Egyptian Government demolished several hundred homes in the Sinai. Do you take the same view of those home demolitions as you do of the Israeli demolitions?
MS. PSAKI: Well, every – as we often – as I often like to say, every situation is different, Matt. And as you know, there have been some serious security challenges in the Sinai. We respect Egypt’s concern about their security in the area and support its right to self-defense. We also expect that they will ensure the rights of those being displaced are respected and that they are adequately compensated. That continues to be what we have conveyed to the Egyptians.
QUESTION: So you don’t regard that as being counterproductive to the cause of peace or fighting extremism, these home demolitions?
MS. PSAKI: Well, it’s an entirely different scenario, Matt.
QUESTION: All right. But you would not argue that – I mean, you say that there are serious security problems in the Sinai for the Egyptians. Are there not also serious security concerns and security problems for the Israelis?
MS. PSAKI: Well, they’re not – Egypt is not predetermining what borders would be by taking these steps. It’s a different scenario.
QUESTION: Oh, I understand it’s a different scenario, but it’s the same tactic, as it were, to fight what is believed to be by a government to be terrorism or extremism.
MS. PSAKI: With entirely different context.
QUESTION: Yeah, but it’s not okay for the Israelis to demolish homes, but it’s okay for the Egyptians to demolish homes?
MS. PSAKI: We believe it’s counterproductive to their stated goals. In Egypt, we understand their concerns about their security. We’ve seen recent threats to that in the Sinai, as you all have reported on. I think I’m going to leave it at that. They’re different scenarios.
QUESTION: Can I just quickly follow up on something that Matt said?
MS. PSAKI: Okay.
QUESTION: On the issue of the settlements, you may not consider it incitement, but you do consider it provocations, correct?
MS. PSAKI: I said there are a range of factors that contribute to the tension, Said.
QUESTION: But you – you consider it to be a provocative action, correct?
MS. PSAKI: Let me finish. I’m not going to have you put words in my mouth. I’m going to leave it at what I just conveyed.
QUESTION: Okay. I wonder if you would consider – would, let’s say, statements by Naftali Bennett, a cabinet member, yesterday – only made yesterday, that he actually killed many Arabs and there was no problem with that. Is that an incitement?
MS. PSAKI: I’m not going to put further labels on it, Said. We speak out against issues when we have concerns.
QUESTION: And finally, on --
MS. PSAKI: I just mentioned – let me finish – that settlements is one of the discussions – one of the topics that was discussed.
QUESTION: And on the home demolitions, since Israel, if it says someone is a terrorist they’d kill him or whatever, do they go afterwards to demolish the home, which is really punishing the family, and these families are quite large. That wouldn’t be considered collective punishment?
MS. PSAKI: I think I just gave an answer to that question.
Go ahead, Samir. On this topic or a new topic?
QUESTION: On the meeting with the Prime Minister of Israel.
MS. PSAKI: Sure.
QUESTION: Do you know if the Secretary briefed Prime Minister Netanyahu about his meetings with the Iranian foreign minister in Oman and the talks with Iran?
MS. PSAKI: They did talk about Iran, as well – and of course, the ongoing discussions that are happening, and we’ll reconvene next week. The Secretary made it clear that our position has not changed and that we are working to close off all possible pathways to a nuclear weapon for Iran, in order to ensure the peace and security of the international community, including Israel. And we will continue to keep all of our friends and allies informed of what we are going to be doing in the days ahead.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MS. PSAKI: Any more on this topic, or --
QUESTION: Yes, please.
MS. PSAKI: On this? Oh, on this topic. Okay, and Jo, you too? Okay, go ahead.
QUESTION: When you were talking about the issues discussed this, you mentioned the expression: pool of ideas need to be addressed – need to be addressed. I mean, you mean the regional security and different issues related to the conflict – Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Are these issues part of the deal or an agreement or there is a mechanism to do it, or the first thing is to – is just to lower the tense between the two parties?
MS. PSAKI: So just so I make sure I understand your question, are you talking about the topics I referenced that were discussed?
QUESTION: Yes. Yes.
MS. PSAKI: Those are the topics that we’ve all seen have contributed to the tensions on the ground. So it’s natural they were discussed as a part of the meetings.
MS. PSAKI: Obviously, it’s important that both sides agree to take affirmative steps. We’ll see, though. It’s not words, it’s actions that matter. I wouldn’t call it a deal. I would call it an agreement by both sides to take positive steps to reduce tensions. And that certainly is separate from, as I mentioned, any effort to restart a peace process.
QUESTION: So it’s – so there is – first to handle the situation now, and then to take care of these issues, and then peace process?
MS. PSAKI: Well, our focus is on reducing tensions.
QUESTION: You’re focused on.
MS. PSAKI: There’s no plans to restart the peace talks at this point in time.
QUESTION: Sorry. I just wanted to go back to Israel just very briefly.
MS. PSAKI: Oh, sure. Sorry, Jo. Go ahead.
QUESTION: No, that’s okay. I just wondered, very quickly, you keep saying that – or you said that we will see where these steps were implemented. Did – was there any kind of understanding about a timeframe within which these steps would be implemented? Was that something that you discussed with the leaders?
MS. PSAKI: I think, obviously, it’s important that they happen soon in the coming days. We’ll see what happens, but some of these pieces will be up to them to, of course, implement.
QUESTION: I mean, it’s just that it goes back to sort of Matt’s question about why not lay out what it was that you agreed? For instance, I know it’s a different situation, but when we had the Syria chemical weapons, Secretary Kerry and Foreign Minister Lavrov came out and laid out a plan and a timeline, and in some ways that was kind of helpful, I guess, for the international community to sort of see --
MS. PSAKI: Because there’s always a decision made through diplomatic channels on what’s most appropriate. At that – for that scenario, we felt it would be effective to communicate publicly. We certainly understand the appetite for that. It’s not a misunderstanding of that. We’ve already seen one step taken. We’ll see how things proceed from here.
QUESTION: But it’s just a question of accountability, of holding two sides to their commitments that they made. If you know what they are but nobody else does – nobody in the wider – and I’m not even talking about the press; I’m talking about the Israeli and Palestinian community know what they are. How do those communities and the Arab world in general hold – how they – how can they hold the leaders accountable for what you say happened?
MS. PSAKI: Well, it’s clear what’s happening on the ground now and the level of tensions, the level of violence, the level of rhetoric is something that needs to change. I think we’ll be able to evaluate, as will people in the region, whether there’s a change to that.
QUESTION: Yeah, but they can’t – this is the problem, and I get back to – you say you understand there’s an appetite for it. The appetite is not particularly for us wanting to know just so we can know; it’s for the people whose lives are affected by this. If they don’t know, if I’m a Palestinian who wants to go to al-Aqsa and worship, I want to know if I’m going to be able to get in there. I want to know if – and if I’m an Israeli --
MS. PSAKI: Well, the 40,000 Muslims who went to the site today certainly know, don’t they?
QUESTION: Well, right. But if I’m an Israeli, I want to know what President Abbas said that he was going to do about incitement. I want to know – if I’m a Palestinian, I want to know what the Israelis are going to do about checkpoints and things like that. Keeping it secret means that they don’t – there’s no – they don’t have to do it. It’s a question of accountability. If you keep – if someone --
MS. PSAKI: They just took a step. It doesn’t mean they don’t have to do it.
QUESTION: That’s one step. But --
MS. PSAKI: And as I said, they’ll be taking additional steps.
QUESTION: But we don’t know what they are, so we can’t know if they don’t follow through on them.
MS. PSAKI: Well, you’ll just have to see in the coming days.
QUESTION: And can I just ask one more? Sorry. This is just to clear it up, I guess. There was some reporting that during the meetings there was a phone call in from Sisi or a phone call to President Sisi. Can you just clarify if that was the case, and which meeting and what was said?
MS. PSAKI: It’s a very good question. I didn’t have a chance to talk about that level of specificity.
MS. PSAKI: I know there have been different versions of the report, so let me get a little more clarity for you on kind of when that call happened, which I believe it did.
QUESTION: Sorry, Jen. Very quickly – you always talked about maintaining the status quo ante, things as they were, but the Israelis are introducing metal detectors that each worshiper has to go through. Do you have any comment on that? Was that something that was discussed?
MS. PSAKI: Well, as we stressed, it’s obviously absolutely critical in our view that all sides uphold the status quo regarding the administration of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount and take affirmative steps to prevent provocations and incitement. We appreciate the prime minister’s commitment to uphold the status quo. We’ll see what happens. I know that step was referenced and reported, but obviously it hasn’t happened at this point in time, Said.
QUESTION: Okay. So you would discourage them from doing so?
MS. PSAKI: I think – obviously, the status quo does not include that.
Did we – on this topic or a new topic?
QUESTION: On this topic.
QUESTION: Jen, I’m from Northern Ireland. I have first-hand experience of construction being used to advance a political agenda. Your verbatim quote yesterday from this podium was “punitive demolitions are counterproductive.”
QUESTION: Now, if punitive demolitions are counterproductive, are punitive settlements counterproductive?
MS. PSAKI: Well, I don’t know that we’d call them punitive. But settlements are counterproductive to the goal of achieving a two-state solution, absolutely, because it prejudges the borders, it creates tension, and that’s one of the reasons we speak out every time, unfortunately, there are announcements about it.