DAVID SCHENKER, ASSISTANT SECRETARY
BUREAU OF NEAR EASTERN AFFAIRS
MS ORTAGUS: Hi. Good morning, everybody, and (inaudible) for the late notice on getting the – getting this call set up, but I think everyone has seen the announcements by Secretary Pompeo, Israel, Lebanon, and so we wanted to make sure that we briefed all of you as soon as possible.
So welcome. I’d like to welcome all the participants to today’s telephonic briefing. We have, of course, our Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs Dave Schenker to discuss today’s announcement on a common framework agreement between the governments of Israel and Lebanon for maritime discussions.
We will begin with opening remarks from Assistant Secretary Schenker, and then we will turn over to your questions. We will do the best we can to get as many questions as possible, and I know we have a lot of people on the line, so I would just ask everybody to keep the questions on topic, please, keep it to one question if you can, so that way we can call on as many of your press colleagues as possible.
You could go ahead and get into the question queue at any time by dialing 1 and then 0. Just a reminder that this call is on the record today, however we are going to embargo the contents of this call until it is completed.
So with that, I will turn it over to Assistant Secretary Dave Schenker.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thanks, Morgan. Good afternoon, everyone, and thanks for coming out today. Earlier today, the governments of Israel and Lebanon announced an agreement on a common framework to begin discussions focused on establishing a mutually agreed maritime boundary.
As Secretary Pompeo noted in his statement, this landmark agreement between the two parties on a common framework for maritime discussions will allow both countries to begin discussions that have the potential to yield greater stability, security, and prosperity for Lebanese and Israeli citizens alike.
The agreement was brokered by the United States and is a result of nearly three years of intense diplomatic engagement. The U.S. has been requested by both parties to participate as mediator and facilitator in the maritime discussions, and we’re happy to do so. So we support efforts to reach a mutually beneficial agreement.
We note that this is a framework to begin discussions. It is not the actual agreement upon the delineation of the maritime boundary or upon sharing of potential resources. That will be the subject of the discussions that will take place between the two sides. But that said, we encourage both sides to take advantage of this opportunity to reach a mutual, beneficial agreement.
At Secretary Pompeo’s request, I’ll represent the United States in the first round of talks to be held the week of October 12th at UN Headquarters in Naqoura, Lebanon. I want to thank UN Special Coordinator for Lebanon Jan Kubis for agreeing to host this initial meeting and be there to celebrate the conclusion of a successful final round. I also wish to commend Lebanon’s Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Israeli Minister of Energy Yuval Steinitz and their teams for their efforts to ensure that this decision came to fruition. The U.S. remains committed to participating as a mediator and facilitator in the maritime discussions and are hopeful for a long-awaited resolution.
And with that, I’m pleased to take your questions.
MS ORTAGUS: Wonderful, thank you. Okay, so just a reminder to everybody to please dial 1-0 to get into the question queue. Okay, first up we have Michel Ghandour.
QUESTION: Yeah, thank you for doing this. My question is why are you discussing this issue with Speaker Berri, not the prime minister or the Lebanese president? And did Hizballah agree on it? And will these talks between the two countries lead to normalized relations between Lebanon and Israel?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Goodness, Michel, that was three questions there. Nabih Berri, the speaker, has been responsible for negotiating the framework agreement. The president’s office is going to be putting together the delegation and moving forward with the negotiations.
What were the other questions? These talks have nothing to do with the establishment of diplomatic relations or normalization. These discussions are solely focused on establishing a mutually agreed maritime boundary so that both sides can take advantage of potential national natural resources.
And what was the question about – something about Hizballah? What was that?
QUESTION: Did Hizballah agree on the talks and what Speaker Berri has announced?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: As you know, Michel, we don’t talk to Hizballah. So I know now the office of the president of Lebanon has the lead on this issue, and that’s all I’ve got to say.
MS ORTAGUS: Great, thank you. Okay, let’s go over to Will Mauldin, The Wall Street Journal.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you so much. I was just wondering if – what both sides agreed to to come to the table in these kind of talks, and if you could comment a little bit on that. Thank you.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thanks. Well, listen, this arrangement is contained in sort of diplomatic exchanges between the U.S. to Israel, and Lebanon. We’re not going to release – we don’t (inaudible).
It took about three years to come to an agreement on this, perhaps due to certain sensitivities from all sides involved. I think if you saw this framework, nothing in there would surprise you. The important parts are, once again, that the United States is the mediator and facilitator, that the UN is the host, and there will be talks in Naqoura, and both sides seem eager to be able to get a deal on this. I’ve spoken with the speaker’s office. I’ve spoken with Steinitz’s office – Minister Steinitz. Both sides, I think, came to an understanding that it was time and that made it possible to get – to reach this agreement now.
MS ORTAGUS: Great, okay. Let’s go over to Hiba al-Nasr.
QUESTION: Hi, David. Thanks for doing that. Hello, Morgan. Just a quick question. You said that Nabih Berri, the speaker, was responsible for this negotiation, and now the president’s office took over. But we know that both are Hizballah-allied. What led to that? Why they – did they agree now? Do you believe the sanctions or what? You have been negotiating or discussing that for three years with the Lebanese leaders.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Look, and Hiba, I can speculate, but it would just be speculation. My understanding is that Lebanon has – as you might know, Lebanon has a bit of a financial crisis and would benefit greatly from exploiting its natural resources, which could help ameliorate some of the financial problems that they’re having right now. I think that the Lebanese people want very much to tap these resources and to move ahead on what likely will be the most profitable of Lebanon’s Blocks 8, 9, and 10 that are in the vicinity of the border, wherever the border may be, and – but this is all speculation. I don’t know why we got this now, but for whatever reason we are here, and in a few weeks’ time from now we will meet and start talking about delineating a border.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Thanks, Schenker. Sorry, let me just get my queue back up again. Barak Ravid, Axios.
QUESTION: Hi, David. Thanks for doing this. First, if you can explain what exactly is the difference between the U.S. role and the UN role in the talks. I heard it was a quite sticking point during the negotiation.
And the second question about the land border: The framework has a clause that talks about going forward with the negotiations on the land dispute in the future. Does this contain or include also the Shebaa Farms?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thanks, Barak. Listen, I’ll tell you what I told you before, that both parties had asked the United States to participate as a mediator and facilitator on the maritime discussions, and we will be doing that. The UN is the host. They are going to be providing the facilities, and Jan Kubis, as I said, as UNSCL will be present at the beginning and the end. And so they have a role there. It is the – at their headquarters, among other things.
As for the land border, these – as you know that there had been discussions about the Blue Line previously and that we welcome at this point steps by the parties to resume expert-level discussions on remaining unresolved Blue Line points with the objective also of reaching agreements on that. So that’s a separate track and that obviously is a discussion traditionally between the Israelis, the Lebanese, and UNIFIL.
MS ORTAGUS: Great, thank you. Joyce Karam, The National.
QUESTION: Yes, hi, good morning. David, I want to just make sure, from what you said, a final agreement would sort out the dispute on Blocks 8, 9, and 10. And given your praise to Speaker of the House Nabih Berri, does that mean that he and his party are off the hook when it comes to U.S. sanctions?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Really, Joyce?
QUESTION: Why, yes. I mean, this is Lebanese politics.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Well, let me say that these blocks are – that’s Lebanon’s issue, the blocks. This agreement provides a basis for convening discussions on the boundary between the two countries, and they will hopefully come to a resolution that will enable both sides to benefit from the resources in this area of dispute, which is about 855 square kilometers. So – and if you’ve seen a map, 8, 9, and 10 are in the vicinity, but also there are Israeli assets that are close to the disputed area as well. So hopefully this will be able to sort that out and enable both parties to move forward and benefit economically from the resources.
As for sanctions, we don’t preview sanctions. Yeah. We – I’m just going to leave it at that, Joyce, but thank you.
MS ORTAGUS: Thanks. Matt Lee, AP.
QUESTION: Happy Thursday, I guess it is.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thanks, Matt.
QUESTION: You said they’ll begin the week of October 12th. Do you have a specific date? And then two more extremely brief things. The Israelis announced that this was going to happen on Saturday. What is new here today? Just the Lebanese agreement? I guess that’s it. Thanks.
ASSISANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thanks, Matt. Well, these things take time, just logistics, et cetera. Well – okay. Well, first of all, let me start off – it’s the week of the 12th. I think we’re looking at the 14th right now, October 14th as being the date, but I can confirm that for you later, but I think that’s when it’s going to be in Naqoura. I will be there for that. As for who announced what on what date, we’ve been working on this for a very long time, and the agreement I think technically – I think the parties, we finally agreed and sent out all the papers maybe Tuesday night, so that would have come into mailboxes of our friends in the Middle East maybe Wednesday morning or really late on Tuesday night. So we decided we were going to make the statement today and we did.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Thanks. I have – apologies if I don’t pronounce the name correctly –Khadija Habib, Asharq News.
QUESTION: Yes, hi. My question to you: Will the border tracing contribute to solve the gas crisis between Israel and Lebanon?
ASSISANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Well, I think that’s – Khadija, that’s the hope, if they can just delineate the border and where the lines are, then this should also sort out – they will have experts, technical experts, who meet and talk about where these lines are and this should sort out where – whose resources are whose.
MS ORTAGUS: Great. Thanks. Jacob Najeed, Times of Israel.
QUESTION: Hi, yeah. Thanks for doing this. Just wondering, is there – if Minister Steinitz is planning on going to this himself, and what’s the exact precedent of Israeli officials kind of crossing into Lebanon?
ASSISANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Listen, I’ll leave questions about delegations to the individual parties, whether – who will be their representatives, who will be there for the first meeting, et cetera. We – that’s not – that’s something for them to answer.
QUESTION: But Israeli officials in general going, is that precedent-setting?
ASSISANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: I think that – well, as you know, there are discussions in a tripartite mechanism, where Israeli officials are in Lebanon with some frequency at the UN headquarters.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Christina – sorry. Okay, Christina Ruffini, CBS News.
QUESTION: I know you guys have been working on this for a while, and you said I don’t know why we got this now. I just wanted to ask if you’ve seen or felt any kind of change in attitude with the Lebanese since the explosion, since the tragedy, and how the politics have unfolded. And while I’ve got you, can you comment on reports, including by CBS News’s own Margaret Brennan, that the U.S. is making plans to potentially shutter the embassy in Iraq and what that would do, and if that would happen before the election? Thank you.
ASSISANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thanks, Ruffini. Well, technically – I’ve been sort of remiss. I haven’t mentioned in the statement – I didn’t mention even yet today the really amazing work that Ambassador Satterfield did for a year and a half before I arrived at the State Department in laying the groundwork and the text of this framework agreement. So kudos to Ambassador Satterfield today as well.
But whether there were changing – because as I mentioned earlier, Ruffini, maybe the economic imperative became stronger in Lebanon. But we had been making slow and steady progress on this for months. I think you might have heard – I gave a few interviews before the explosion that we had been making some incremental progress on this. So it’s great that we got it done. Once again, it’s all speculation on why it happened. But the stars seemingly aligned.
As for Iraq, listen, I’ve not seen the – Margaret Brennan’s reporting on this, but we don’t comment on the Secretary’s private diplomatic conversations. What I will say is that the Secretary of the United States will – we won’t – we can’t tolerate the threats to our people, our men and women serving abroad. And we will not hesitate to take action when we deem it necessary to keep our personnel safe.
The single biggest problem in Iraq is the Iranian-backed militias that are undermining stability there and attacking the United States, and the arms are not under the control of the central government. These groups continue to launch rockets at our embassy, attack American and other diplomats, and threaten law and order in Iraq in general. So we are working, and we look forward to continuing to work with our Iraqi partners to keep our personnel at our facilities safe. And that’s my answer, Ruffini.
MS ORTAGUS: Great. Okay. I will try to get through a few more if we can, while we still have time. Ibrahim Rihan from Asas Media.
QUESTION: Hello, good morning, Mr. Schenker. Good morning, Morgan.
MS ORTAGUS: Good morning.
QUESTION: Mr. David, in our latest interview in June you mentioned that Lebanon will benefit from the framework that it set. But I want to ask what happened that everything got finished in one night, and what was the obstacles in the past three years?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Ibrahim, as I said earlier, it’s not finished in one night. It was finished – it was finished over a three-year period, right. Nothing changed overnight. We made progress; I know David Satterfield made enormous progress. We pushed it along and finally got it over the finish line. I don’t want to comment on the back and forth. There was a great deal of effort put into this by our embassy. Certainly, I made a – I spent a good bit of time on this as well. But I – yeah, I don’t really have anything to add to that, Ibrahim.
QUESTION: Yeah. Can I ask one more question?
MS ORTAGUS: No, I’m sorry. I just want to – we’re trying to do one each so everybody gets a chance. Sorry. Let’s go to Matt Spetalnick from Reuters.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you very much. So here we have a case again of Israel about to sit down with a longtime enemy. I’m wondering if you could – could you see this foreshadowing or setting the stage then for any further normalization deal between Israel and the Arab or Muslim world? I realize you’ve said that’s not necessarily the case with Lebanon, but how about others?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Hey listen, I – yeah. So this is obviously different than – just on the face of it. And different than what the agreement with the United Arab Emirates, different from the agreement with Bahrain, right. These are not – have nothing to do with the establishment of diplomatic relations. Of course, it’s a positive step that Israel and Lebanon would be talking directly to each other about an important issue.
But whether this will presage another state’s normalizing of Israel, we have not speculated on which countries may be next. You can read in the news. I know the Secretary had flown to Sudan directly from Israel on this trip of two months ago. I think that there is a changed regional environment that is unmistakable. And certainly from what we’ve seen in the Gulf and just the – what we’ve seen is that I think many of these states are deciding to put the economic and strategic interests of their people in front of other ideological interests that have prevented them for years from normalizing publicly engaging in normal state-to-state relations with Israel. And that’s not going to be every state in the region; these states are sovereign, and they will make their own decisions. But I think there is a lot of states, or many states, that are contemplating how they’re going to move forward with Israel.
MS ORTAGUS: Thank you. Nadia Bilbassy, Al Arabiya.
QUESTION: Thank you, Morgan. Good morning, David. When you come to us at the end, most of your questions has been asked. But let me ask you this question: Do you believe that this agreement, a framework of agreement, is kind of ironclad or solid, nothing can derail it, considering the sensitivity in the area, the changing all the time, and role of Hizballah as a spoiler?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Listen, Nadia, I’m not going to dissuade you from or disagree with you on the fact that Hizballah has played a – plays a spoiler role. I think that there is a consensus in Lebanon that these are resources that are required and should be exploited, and I think Israel would like to further develop its resources, and it would be adding to regional stability, I think, if we can move ahead on that front.
Whether the agreement is ironclad, that the parties agreed and appear to be – both sides appear to be very serious and focused about coming to a resolution, get an agreement, and moving ahead, this is an issue that has festered for too long. I think, all told, I’ve read that the U.S. has been working on trying to get the maritime line for something like nine years.
So this is the beginning of the road here for Lebanon and Israel, right. They took the first step, but once again, it took now three years to get this framework agreement so that they can start to negotiate. There’s a lot of water under the bridge here and opportunity missed, and I hope both sides can benefit and move ahead and get an agreement.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay, we’re going to have to do last question now. I apologize, but we tried to get as many in as possible. Alain Dargham from MTV Lebanon.
QUESTION: Yes, thank you for doing this, Morgan and David. Just – I want to tell you what the Lebanese people are thinking back home. They think that the deal was made just to ease the sanctions on the politicians from one side. David Hale came to Lebanon after the explosion. He did not talk about the early election because this was part of the deal: We don’t mention early election, just give us this agreement so we can move forward till others start.
And Lebanese people also want to hear about what happened to the FBI investigation on the ground of the explosion, and is the U.S. going to change its policy towards these politicians that, one time, you called them – they are fake, they are not working for the interests of the people. Please, David.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah, thanks. Listen, I don’t want to sort of engage in sort of the conspiratorial conspiracy theories or whatnot. I know that there is – in Lebanon, I think oftentimes, they’re reading into every particular U.S. diplomatic move or every meeting, et cetera. You saw that the United States had sanctions against two particular Lebanese a few weeks back. We will continue to designate individuals in Lebanon who are the allies of Hizballah. We will continue to designate people for corruption under Global Magnitsky Act.
So – but what was the second part of that question?
Sorry, Morgan. Are you there or —
MS ORTAGUS: Yeah, I know, we might have lost him.
QUESTION: I’m here, I’m here. Can you hear me?
MS ORTAGUS: Okay. Go ahead.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: What’s the second part of the question?
QUESTION: No, I mean, is the U.S. going to change its behavior regarding that to stand with the right of the people to accept (inaudible) election —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: No, no – yeah, no, thank you. Listen, we’ve made it clear: We are standing with the people. We think that the exploitation of this natural resource – we still will benefit the Lebanese people provided that they have a government – and we’re still calling for it – a government that is committed to reform, transparency, anti-corruption, accountability, and disassociation. We believe that as part of those reforms, the Lebanese parliament should pass a sovereign wealth fund law that is up to Western standards so that the patrimony of the Lebanese people that will be unlocked by a maritime border delineation with Israel will benefit the Lebanese people, and we continue to support that.
As for – and so we are not moving away from these principles that you heard from David Hale, Under Secretary Hale when he was there, and you heard from me. We still are committed to these.
Finally, the FBI continues to process its investigation, and when we have news, when we have something to say about it, we will say it publicly.
MS ORTAGUS: Well, thank you so much, Schenker. I know we’ve gone overboard, so thank you – or overtime, excuse me – so thank you for being generous with your time. And thanks, everybody for dialing in. Again, I apologize for the last-minute add briefing, but seems like it was productive for everyone, and thank you. Have a great day.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Thank you.