Background Press Call by a Senior Administration Official on the President’s Trip to The Middle East

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Background Press Call by a Senior Administration Official on the President’s Trip to The Middle East

Via Teleconference (June 13, 2022) 8:01 P.M. EDTMODERATOR:  Good evening, everyone.  This call will be on background attributable to a

Via Teleconference
 
(June 13, 2022)

8:01 P.M. EDT

MODERATOR:  Good evening, everyone.  This call will be on background attributable to a senior administration official.  For your awareness, not for reporting, on the line is [senior administration official].  The contents of the call will be embargoed until 8:00 a.m. tomorrow, June 14th.

And, [senior administration official], I’ll hand it over to you to get started.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Thanks.  And thank you for joining this call to a preview the President’s trip to the Middle East later next month.

My opening here is about 15 minutes or so, maybe a little longer.  There’s a lot of information, and so I wanted to get it all out there.  I point out at the top that this trip has been in the works for some time.  

We’ve long recognized the importance of the President visiting this vital region in a manner similar to the Summit of ASEAN leaders here at the White House, the President’s visit to South Korea and Japan and convening the Quad Summit, the Summit of the Americas last week, and the G7 and NATO summits next week.

So this visit to the Middle East region, where the President will engage with nearly a dozen of his counterparts in three stops — Israel, the West Bank, and Saudi Arabia — is part of this clear sequence of global engagements at an important moment and demonstrates, we believe, the return of American leadership to bring countries together to address common threats and challenges, something the United States can uniquely do, and with new frameworks that aim to harness unique American capabilities to enable partners to work more closely together, which is essential to a more secure, prosperous, and stable Middle East region over the long term.

This comparative advantage of ours — bringing countries together, building and strengthening coalitions and alliances –atrophied under the last administration.  We’ve worked to restore it.  And as I think we’ve seen since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the United States and President Biden personally has begun to revitalize our unique strength in building alliances and coalitions through diplomacy and highest-level engagement.

In the Middle East region, the topic of this call, I’d point to the vote last week at the IAEA Board of Governors in Vienna, where 30 countries condemned Iran’s lack of compliance with safeguard obligations, a resounding vote clearly isolating Iran, whereas a year and a half ago, it was the United States that was isolated internationally on this important issue.

So while there’s a great deal of work to do, this historic visit to the Middle East comes against that larger backdrop, both globally and in the Middle East region itself. 

So now some details on the trip.  The President will visit the Middle East region from July 13th to July 16th with stops in Israel, the West Bank, and Saudi Arabia, and engagements with nearly a dozen counterparts from across the region and beyond.  The first stop is Israel.  This will be President Biden’s first visit to the country as President, and it comes nearly 50 years after his first visit to Israel as a young senator. 

As the President often says about Israel, he learned as a young boy from his father that if Israel did not exist, then we would need to invent it.  He has a lifelong connection to the country, and his charge to all of us is to make sure we’re doing all we can to strengthen Israel’s security, prosperity, and integration into the larger region, both now and over the longer term.

One of the first foreign crises of the presidency was the Israeli-Hamas war in May of last year.  The President’s personal relations with leaders in the region and his very hands-on diplomacy helped end that war, one that had all the ingredients to last for months, in 11 days.  He has since remained deeply engaged with Israeli and other regional leaders to help maintain the peace.

Our administration also worked with the Congress to secure $1 billion to replenish the Iron Dome Missile Defense System after the Gaza conflict.  And in March, earlier this year, the Congress passed an NDAA with the largest funding package for Israel in U.S. history, with a particular focus on missile defense and security assistance. 

While in Israel, the President will likely visit an area where these defensive systems are utilized, as well as discuss new innovations between our countries that use laser technologies to defeat missiles and other airborne threats.

In meetings with Israeli leaders, the President will reaffirm the ironclad U.S. commitment to Israel’s security and new areas of deepening cooperation in technology, climate, commerce, trade, and other sectors. 

The visit will also focus on Israel’s increasing integration into the region, both through the Abraham Accords with UAE, Morocco, and Bahrain; through deepening ties between Israel, Jordan and Egypt; and also an entirely new groupings of partners, including Israel, India, UAE, and the United States — what we call I2U2.

We consider these initiatives central to our strategy of empowering partners and encouraging them to work more closely together, which will lead to a more stable region and also to Israel’s security and prosperity over the longer term.  Secretary Blinken, just last month in the Negev, in southern Israel, met with counterparts from Abraham Accord partners UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, together with Jordan and Egypt, highlighting these deepening regional partnerships.

Importantly, some of these new partnerships reach beyond the Middle East, and in this regard, the President will hold a virtual summit with the I2U2 heads of state for discussions of the food security crisis and other areas of cooperation across hemispheres where UAE and Israel serve as important innovation hubs. 

The President looks forward to this unique engagement with Prime Minister Bennett of Israel, with Prime Minister Modi of India, and President Mohammed bin Zayed of the UAE. 

He will also, of course, hold side meetings and engagements, which we will preview in the run-up to the trip.

I note, finally, for the Israel portion that the President will be in Israel at the start of the Maccabiah Games, which brings Jewish athletes from around the world to Israel for an Olympics-like competition.  And he may have an opportunity to meet some of the athletes, and we’re pleased that this joyous event, the first since 2017, happens to overlap with the President’s historic visit to Israel.

The President will also visit the West Bank to meet with President Mahmoud Abbas and other Palestinian leaders.  The President, of course, has known Abbas for decades, and he looks forward to reaffirming his lifelong commitment to a two-state solution and to discuss the ways in which we might rekindle a new political horizon that can ensure equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity, and dignity to Israelis and Palestinians alike.  

Of course, when we entered office nearly a year and a half ago, ties between the U.S. government and the Palestinians had been nearly severed.  We’ve worked to restore those ties, and we now have regular engagements with the Palestinian leadership.

Jake Sullivan visited Ramallah shortly before the new year.  My State Department colleague Barbara Leaf was there just this past Saturday.

And we’ve provided over half a billion dollars in support, including humanitarian, economic, and security assistance for the Palestinians since April of last year. 

The President’s visit is a culmination of these contacts but also the start of what we hope will be new and reinvigorated dialogue, both between the United States and the PA, but also between the PA regional capitals and, most importantly, Israelis. 

Following the visits to Israel and the West Bank, the President will fly directly from Israel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where he will participate in a summit of the Gulf Cooperation — GCC+3 — the GCC+3 — so the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar, plus Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt. 

The President will also hold bilateral meetings with the Saudi hosts and other counterparts. 

We are grateful that Saudi Arabia, which holds the rotating presidency of the GCC in 2022, will host this important summit bringing together nine heads of state from across the region to meet the President at the invitation of King Salman. 

The President will discuss a range of bilateral regional and global issues in Jeddah.  These include support to the U.N.-mediated truce in Yemen, which has led to the most peaceful period there since the war began seven years ago.  

He will also discuss means for expanding regional, economic, and security cooperation, including new and promising infrastructure and climate initiatives, as well as deterring threats from Iran, advancing human rights, and ensuring global energy and food security. 

The President also looks forward to outlining an affirmative agenda for America’s engagement in this vital region, making clear that the United States is fully committed to supporting the territorial defense of our partners against threats from Iran or elsewhere, and doing so in new integrated and innovative ways, while also combining these strong deterrent capabilities with proactive diplomacy to de-escalate tensions and wars wherever possible.  

One of those wars, of course, is Yemen.  And from the earliest days of our administration, we have sought to de-escalate and ultimately end this terrible conflict.  Intensive U.S. engagement and diplomacy in the region, including with Saudi Arabia in particular, helped facilitate the first durable truce in Yemen in nearly six years.  That truce, as I mentioned, is now in its ninth week, after having been extended just last week.  

For the first time since the war began more than seven years ago, civilian flights are flying from Sana’a to Cairo and Oman.  And Yemen itself has a new government under new leadership that seems determined to establish a durable peace.  

This will require a great deal of work going forward, and I’m sure it’ll be an important topic of discussion between the President and other leaders. 

That brings me to Saudi Arabia.  From the earliest days of our administration, we made clear that U.S. policy demanded recalibration in relations with this important country but not a rupture.  And that is because we have important interests interwoven with Saudi Arabia, and engagement is essential to protecting and advancing those interests on behalf of the American people. 

Saudi Arabia has been a strategic partner of the United States for nearly 80 years, and the President considers Riyadh an important partner on a host of regional and global priorities that we are working on.  

Since entering office, the President has had two constructive conversations with King Salman.  And senior officials from across our national security team have been engaged with the Saudis regularly on a host of issues from climate, to energy security, to new openings for regional cooperation, to human rights, to ending the war in Yemen, containing Iran, supporting our maritime defense, among many other topics. 

And these engagements do deliver results.  Only 10 days ago, of course, we welcomed the announcement from OPEC Plus, where Saudi Arabia is the leading producer and exporter, to raise its plant supply increases this summer by 50 percent, as well as the important renewal of the Yemen truce.  These are welcomed moves, and we anticipate more of them over the coming months. 

At bottom, the President believes strongly that at this particular moment in the world with interests at stake for the for the United States and the American people, visiting Saudi Arabia for a summit of leaders from across the Middle East region and to discuss face to face with those leaders, including the Saudis, how we move forward as partners is a smart thing to do at the right time, and offers opportunity for significant gains both for the United States, for Saudi Arabia, for the Middle East region, and for advancing our strategy towards a more stable, more peaceful, and more integrated region, which ultimately benefits the American people and the world. 

I will not get ahead — on this call, I will not get ahead of some of the initiatives that are underway or that may be announced before or during the visit.  But I will say that this visit is the culmination of months of diplomacy, bilateral and multilateral, and also sets the stage for what we hope to get done through the rest of this year and through 2023 as well. 

So with that, I’m happy to take a few questions.

Q    Thank you so much.  Thank you, [senior administration official], for doing this.  This is Nadia Bilbassy of Al Arabiya.  If you remember, during the Obama administration, there were mechanisms where they had a similar summit — as you just mentioned, this one will be analogous to the Asia and the Americas Summit — where President Obama met with the GCC countries and they discussed the U.S. and regional interest. 

So will this new summit — will it establish to a mechanism similar to that, adding Iraq, Jordan, and Egypt permanently where it’s held every year, in an Arab capital?  And will be the main focus, in addition to very serious issues, of course, is countering Iran?

And one quick technical question: Will the President meet Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem or in Ramallah? 

Thank you so much.

Q    Well, thanks, Nadia, for great questions.  Look, I think it’s a much different time than six, seven years ago.  And I think this unique gathering of leaders in Jeddah and of the President flying directly from Israel to Jeddah, I think it offers some unique opportunities to discuss some important issues in the world, some of which I laid out, but obviously, containing Iran and energy security.

I think the President will discuss some pretty innovative initiatives we have ongoing in CENTCOM, in the Red Sea; some unique naval task forces, which we’ll discuss on the security side; but also the economic integration.  Again, I don’t want to get ahead of anything, but there’s some really important infrastructure and climate projects that are being done across borders by capitals who are cooperating with each other in really new and promising ways.

So the Middle East is much different than it was six, seven years ago, and I think we’re looking — really looking forward in trying to build on some of the opportunities in ways that can benefit both the region but, most importantly, the United States and the American people. 

And I don’t — it’s likely to be in Bethlehem, Nadia, but I don’t want to — I’m not going to discuss the specific meetings, details, or anything like that.  We’ll have more details as the trip approaches. 

Thank you.

Q    Hey there.  Thanks for doing the call.  I — two quick questions.  One, you just said — you said it’s likely to be in Bethlehem.  I didn’t quite hear what you said.  

And, secondly, on the trip to Jeddah, is it to be assumed that the President will have a bilat, then, with MBS?  And then, can we assume — I mean, what do we say about if the Khashoggi issue comes up during that meeting?  Does he intend to bring it up during that meeting, or is it an attempt to leave it in the past at this point?

And then, anything else you tell us about who he’ll meet with?  Will he meet individually with each of these nine leaders there or only as a group?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, so the President, I think, will have meetings with leaders.  I would just say he’ll see over a dozen leaders on this trip, and so that includes King Salman and the leadership from our Saudi hosts for the GCC+3 Summit.  So, yes, we can expect the President to see the Crown Prince.

And I would just note that our teams have been quite constructively engaged over the last five or six months on Yemen and a host of things that I laid out in the introduction.  So I think that answers your question, Peter.

But, you know, I’m not going to get into specific meetings or the tick-tock of the visit.  Obviously, one reason — I know there’s been a lot of speculation on when the visit will be announced.  One reason is simply we’re scheduling a lot with a lot of different leaders from all across the region, so to nail everything down takes time.  But we’re now in a place where we feel this has come together in a very constructive way for everyone involved, and the President is looking forward to it. And I think we have a lot of work to get done over these four days in the Middle East.

Q    Thanks.  Will there be any particular asks on human rights during the trip, as some lawmakers, including many Democratic allies, have made of the President as a condition of the trip? 

And then secondly, have the Saudis made any commitments, as a condition of the trip, on energy? Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  So I think the first question follows up on something Peter asked; I don’t think I fully addressed.  Look, human rights is always a part of the conversation in our foreign engagements, and I think it’s what makes the United States unique.  I think it’s what makes our administration unique.  And I think if you look at our record, including in the human rights region, I think we’re the first administration that reprogrammed FMF funding from Egypt; we’ve taken a number of other measures.

I’ll also say, though, a lot of these conversations we do hold them behind closed doors, and we think engagement — and that is the best way to get results.  

But our administration is not overlooking any contact that took place before we entered office.  And, of course, early on, we issued an extensive report about the Khashoggi murder.  That, of course, was not new news.  That was a report from the U.S. government that was issued years earlier that had been bottled up.  And we promised to issue it, and we did.

At the same time, we instituted the so-called “Khashoggi ban” to make sure that any country that seeks to use tools of repression against people abroad who criticize their government will pay a price.  We’ve used it multiple times.  So we imposed sanctions or visa restrictions on over 70 Saudi individuals and entities, including the Saudi Royal Guard’s Rapid Intervention Force.  This, of course, was all done over a year ago. 

 I think it’s very important also, though, of course, to emphasize, as we did then, that while we recalibrate relations, we’re not seeking to rupture relations, because Saudi Arabia has been a strategic partner of the United States for eight decades.  And we share a host of interests with Saudi Arabia, from containing Iran, to counterterrorism, to helping protect its territory where, importantly, 70,000 Americans live and work.  And I just think that’s an important fact. 

I mean, Saudi Arabia has faced hundreds of missiles and UAVs over the last 18 months, many of them targeting areas where Americans live and work.  And so we have been engaged very deeply and very constructively with the Saudis to help defeat those threats, and that’s something, obviously, that is going to continue.

So, yes, human rights is always a part of our conversation; there’s no doubt it will be part of the meetings the President has in the region, both in the stop in Jeddah and also, of course, in the stop in Israel.  It’s a very important topic of our conversation with the Israelis as well, and the Palestinian Authority.

Q    Hi, thanks for doing the call.  I just want to follow up on what you were just talking about regarding the Khashoggi ban.  And I know you don’t want to go into any of the specific meetings, but can you just address the criticism that is already being made that engaging more directly with the Saudi leadership could inadvertently be interpreted as allowing them to sort of get off the hook for what happened and sort of reinforce some of the problematic tendencies around that event? 

And how can the United States think about perhaps engaging with the Crown Prince while he’s still the Crown Prince — he’s not the leader of the country just yet — and without doing that?  Anything just to sort of talk about that angle would be helpful.  Thanks.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL:  Yeah, so I think — look, the — as I think as we said before, the President is not going to change his views on human rights; he made that clear.  And he’s also made clear that as President of the United States, it’s his job to “bring peace, if I can.”  I think that was his direct quote.   And that’s what he’s going to try to do.

And he focuses our entire national security team on getting things done for the American people.  And if he determines it’s in his interest to engage with any particular leader, and if such an engagement can deliver results, then he’ll do so.

I just would point again to our engagement over — you know, a lot of it is not above the surface until something actually happens, such as the truce in Yemen.  I mean, the truce in Yemen is a clear example of where our engagement with the Saudis delivered results.  And, obviously, we have more to do. Our Special Envoy, Tim Lenderking, is (inaudible) this every single day, together with Hans Grundberg, the UN Envoy.

But ending the Yemeni war was a priority for the President from the earliest days of the administration.  And we explained, at the time of the Khashoggi ban, we issued the report that one reason we’re going to remain engaged with Saudi Arabia is because it is our priority to try to end this war.  And I have to say the Saudi Crown Prince played a critical role in securing the extension of the truce — that was in place since April — just last week; Khalid bin Salman, who was in town last week, similarly.  

I cannot speak to what happened in the Yemen war years ago. We’re focused on what’s happened on our watch.  And this truce has brought about one of the most peaceful periods since the terrible war began seven years ago, saving thousands of lives, and it’s the type of example of how our engagement is important.

And I mentioned the 70,000 Americans who live and work in Saudi Arabia under threat from missiles and drones, not to mention the energy security piece, which, of course, is a pressing issue and, of course, will be a topic of engagement during the summit.

So I think, Missy, it’s a fair question, and I think — but if you just look at the breadth and the totality of interests we have with the countries that the President will be engaging on this very important visit to the Middle East, I think it speaks for itself why he believes very strongly and has given the charge to all of us to do all we can to work with these countries, to encourage them to work together cooperatively using unique American attributes and enablers wherever we can, including diplomatic enablers, to try to forge a more stable region.

And that takes a lot of work, and it takes presidential engagement. And I think his engagement here over four days in July, with about a dozen leaders, we think there’s significant opportunity not only to deliver some immediate results, but to really set the foundation for a more integrated, more cooperative, more stable region down the line. 

And I think the President’s engagement is essential to that — and I would just finish from where I began — as you saw in the ASEAN Summit, and his trip to Asia and the Quad Summit and Summit of the Americas, and now the trip to the Middle East for a very important summit with about a dozen leaders from across the region.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, [senior administration official].  To everyone, as a reminder, this call was on background attributable to a senior administration official.  The embargo will be lifted at 8:00 a.m. tomorrow.  And that’s it.  Thank you, everyone.  Have a good night.

8:25 P.M. EDT