Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs David Schenker
DAVID SCHENKER, ASSISTANT SECRETARY
BUREAU OF NEAR EASTERN AFFAIRS
PRESS CORRESPONDENTS’ ROOM
NOVEMBER 26, 2019
MS ORTAGUS: I’ve asked Dave to go on the record today. I thought it would be good for him to read out his last trip and go over a number of issues with you, all of you.
Okay. Go ahead. Take it away.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: I have a couple prepared remarks, and then we’ll go to Q&A. Good morning, everyone and – good evening – afternoon. (Laughter.) Happy almost Thanksgiving.
Before I take your questions, I’m going to go over a few regional issues. I’ll touch briefly on my travel to Paris and Rome last week for meetings with allies and partners on Middle East peace and security. I’ll also touch on Israel a bit, where I visited the week before.
So the protests in Iraq, Lebanon, and Iran. The protests continue in Lebanon and Iraq. Popular discontent has also re-surfaced in Iran, where people took to the streets frustrated with the Iranian regime’s economic mismanagement and repression. First and foremost, what is occurring in these countries is indigenous to these countries and reflects citizens’ strong desire to exercise their rights for peaceful assembly and freedom of expression.
These protests arose from popular discontent. People are fed up with economic stagnation, endemic corruption, and mismanagement. They want better from their leaders. In Iran, they want the government to focus on the economy at home instead of funding terror abroad. From the start, we have been clear that we support the right for people to peacefully protest. Their voices should be heard without fear of retribution or violence. Protestors, journalists, and civil activists must be protected from attacks and not have their rights violated.
Now let me turn to Egypt, where as part of our long-standing strategic partnership we continue to raise the fundamental importance of respect for human rights, universal freedoms, and the need for a robust civil society. We urge Egypt to ensure that the new NGO Law’s implementing regulations don’t restrict civil society, U.S. assistance programs, and Egypt’s economic growth. We also call on the Egyptian Government to respect freedom of the press, as Secretary Pompeo mentioned from the podium just a little while ago, and to ensure journalists can work without threats of imprisonment and intimidation.
We’re also aware of the reported raid on the offices of the Egyptian independent news outlet Mada Masr, as well as the detention and subsequent release of some of the reporters and editors. We have called on and continue to call on the Egyptian Government to respect freedom of the press.
The U.S. Government takes seriously the treatment of U.S. citizens detained abroad as well, including Reem Desouky and Moustafa Kassem. We have raised our concerns about Mr. Kassem’s health with Egyptian authorities and have asked for his immediate release based on humanitarian concerns. We will continue to emphasize our concerns regarding these cases to the highest levels of the Egyptian Government.
So I had robust discussions with the French, Brits, and Italians over the course of my travel last week. We share a mutual interest for peace and stability in the Middle East. In Paris, my discussions with my French and British counterparts centered on the political and economic situation in Lebanon. We agreed on the urgency for political leaders to quickly form a capable and responsive government backed by the Lebanese people that is dedicated to enacting reforms and ending endemic corruption.
The Libyan conflict was another topic of my discussion in my P3 meetings in Paris as well, as well as with my Italian counterparts in Rome. As previously stated by Secretary Pompeo, the U.S. urges all parties to de-escalate the fighting, agree to a ceasefire, and take concrete steps toward a political solution.
The United States is committed to a secure and prosperous future for the people of Libya. For this to become a reality, we need real commitments from external actors to stop fueling the violence. In particular, Russia’s military interference threatens Libya’s peace, security, and stability. We conveyed this same message in high-level discussions with the LNA and the Government of National Accord this month.
In Rome, I attended the MFO’s annual Trilateral Meeting, which brings together the MFO’s 19 troop and fund contributors to review the last year of operations and forecast this year’s activities. As part of the Trilateral Meeting, I had a series of bilateral engagements with representatives from the Governments of Egypt and Israel, as well as MFO leadership from both Rome and Sinai.
The key takeaways are that the MFO is an incredibly effective peace-keeping organization and the parties to the 1979 Treaty of Peace – Egypt and Israel – are keen to see it continue and to do so with a robust U.S. presence in the organization. The U.S. involvement in the MFO sends a clear signal that we remain committed not only to the 1979 Treaty but peace throughout the region as a whole.
Lastly, in general terms, I had fruitful discussions in Israel on a wide range of bilateral and regional issues. I discussed with Israeli officials shared concerns about the Iranian regime’s destabilizing aggression, proliferation in the region, and our strong commitment to Israel’s security. And the bonds, the alliance between the United States and Israel have never been stronger.
MS ORTAGUS: Okay.
QUESTION: Can I ask – I got three things, but all real brief. One, in the statement that came out – was it last night about the Haftar meeting?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah.
QUESTION: In Libya. Can you just go in a little bit – give us a little bit more on that? And when you talk about this Russian military interference, can you be more specific about that? That’s number one.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Okay.
QUESTION: Number two, what is the deal with Lebanon FMF? I was told that they’re – it looked very promising, and now it’s – well, it’s not unpromising, but it’s just not happened yet, obviously. The Secretary said he —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah.
QUESTION: And then – I forgot what the third one was.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Okay. So – all right, so you asked about Russia.
QUESTION: Russia, yeah. Just more specifics on this military interference that you said —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah, no. So this is something we’ve been talking about for some time, but it is Russian regulars and the Wagner forces that are being deployed in significant numbers on the ground and support of the LNA. We think this is incredibly destabilizing. And the way this organization the Russians in particular have operated before raises the specter of large-scale casualties in civilian populations. So it’s —
QUESTION: We’re talking about Libya, right? It’s hard to hear back here.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yes. Yes. So we raise these concerns and – yeah. It’s incredibly problematic.
QUESTION: Well, but what are you prepared to do to try and stop it?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Well, we are encouraging our European partners to step up. We’re coordinating with them, but we —
QUESTION: Right, but – sorry. I don’t want to – I’m not trying to be contentious, but when you say that you’re encouraging them to step up – how? How so?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: By designating, for example, the organization as well.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yes. It would suggest that they, too, have a concern about it, which we know they do.
QUESTION: Have we designated that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yes.
QUESTION: We did for what, though? For election interference or for Middle East?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: I’ll get details on that.
QUESTION: Okay. And then Lebanon.
MS ORTAGUS: Yeah.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Sorry.
MS ORTAGUS: No, go ahead.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: So Lebanon. As the Secretary said, he wasn’t going to provide any additional detail —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: We’re still working. It’s still working its way through the bureaucratic process. As David Hale said during his testimony, there’s a review that is ongoing. And at the same time, no equipment, weapons, ammunition that was supposed to arrive – be delivered to the LAF has been delayed in any way.
QUESTION: Right. Well, but if this goes on for much longer, though, does that become an issue?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: No, the money has been appropriated —
QUESTION: No, no, no.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: — and has been allocated.
QUESTION: Yeah, but if the review continues to go on, when does it become —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: It’s 2019 money, so when’s the FY – goes for 20, right?
MS ORTAGUS: We’re in FY20. Yeah. So we’re —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: And so it goes through the end of —
QUESTION: No, but I mean when does it become a – when does it become —
QUESTION: Does the flow stop?
QUESTION: Yeah, exactly. When does it actually have an effect?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: We’ve got some time. We’ve got some time. I’m not going to —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: I’m not going to put a date on it, but we’ve got more time.
MS ORTAGUS: I’m going to try to give everybody who didn’t get one during the press conference to go, so go ahead, Carol.
QUESTION: A couple quick questions. How concerned are you with Israel that Israel’s just becoming ungovernable, given the stalemate that they’re in and continued prospects for it to be evenly split?
And on Iran, could you talk a little bit about how you reached the conclusion that people – the protestors, that they’re just fed up that the regime is spending money on things like foreign adventures, and they’re just – it’s terrible because —
MS ORTAGUS: Could I just push back on the first question? Would you call the United Kingdom ungovernable?
QUESTION: The United States.
QUESTION: Some might.
QUESTION: Some might. I mean —
QUESTION: I would.
MS ORTAGUS: They’ve had four – three foreign ministers since the – in the UK since the Secretary’s been here, so —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah, yeah. No, listen, on the first part, the Israel, I don’t – I won’t entertain that. This is a government that still can – still takes decisions of consequence, right. In support of its defense, it’s going out and tackling threats every day in neighboring states, right, defending itself. So it is operating and defending its national security, right, and making decisions where necessary. So, no, I’m not concerned that it’s ungovernable.
But on Iran, part of it is anecdotal, part of it is what we see and what we hear directly from Iranians. We, too, follow social media. We, too, talk to a great number of Iranians moving in and out of Iran. So yes, this is what we’re hearing.
QUESTION: But people using social media in countries like Iran would come from a certain socioeconomic —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah, a certain strata. But also, yeah, people that we need – but we also – we talk to other people that have diplomatic presence in Iran, so yeah, we talk to Iranians. We believe it to be true.
QUESTION: Thank you. A follow-up on Iran. The Secretary said you – he received, like, 20,000 messages, videos, and so on. Did the U.S. – was the U.S. able to make its own determination on how many people were detained, killed during the repression and the violence?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: I can’t get into the numbers on that. I personally – I don’t know. Then maybe others in the building would know better than me about that. We’ve seen press reports in the low hundreds – is that correct? – on people that have been killed.
QUESTION: Yeah, 104 or something.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: And I would think the numbers of arrests are enormous, but I don’t have any detail on that for you. We can get back to you if – there may be somebody at State who knows better than I.
QUESTION: Yeah. Thank you. Mr. Schenker, can you tell us, in the State Department today, in the lexicon of the State Department, what is the status of the Palestinian people in the West Bank under occupation? Are they stateless? Are they resident aliens? What are they? In your lexicon, how do you define them or you refer to them?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Do we have a – do we have something, Stephanie, that is – that —
QUESTION: Do you have a policy on the Palestinian people? (Laughter.)
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: No, no, no, no, no, no. I was looking for, like, the lexicon – yeah, for the term —
QUESTION: Yeah, you do. You want to know what it is?
STAFF: No, we don’t have – I mean, we don’t have a lexicon. It’s Israel and the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: But it’s like a term —
QUESTION: Do they have any kind of definition? Do you refer – how do you refer to them?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: No, it – this idea – as we know, the White House is working on a peace plan that —
QUESTION: Well, I understand they’re working on a peace plan. How do you, in this building —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: So I was just – when I was in Israel, I spent half my time —
QUESTION: Right, and therefore —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Right. I stayed at the American Colony.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: I met with a handful of Palestinians.
QUESTION: What are the Palestinian people? What are —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: What are they? They are —
QUESTION: Are they occupied?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Huh?
QUESTION: Are they stateless? Are they resident aliens? What are they? (whisper)
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: The Palestinian people are the Palestinian people.
QUESTION: That’s it?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: I’m not going to engage in a gotcha, I mean, so —
QUESTION: Okay. All right. I have a quick – okay, that’s fine. I have a quick follow-up. You said that you saw the Brits, the French, and so on, and you see eye-to-eye on many things. But they actually don’t see eye-to-eye with you on the settlements, do they?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: We don’t agree with our allies about everything. This is true. We don’t see eye-to-eye with them on – about everything.
QUESTION: But this is really a major thing that you disagree with them on, right?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Actually, we agree that Israeli-Palestinian peace is not going to be determined by whether the Israelis build settlements. It’s going to be determined on whether the parties can get back to negotiations and come to an agreement on borders, on the status of refugees, on the final status issues. That’s going to be up to them.
QUESTION: When did it become okay for you guys to stay at the American Colony? Great hotel, but —
QUESTION: Yeah, it’s a great hotel.
QUESTION: — didn’t use to be – it was not, shall we say, kosher for U.S. officials to stay there. (Laughter.)
QUESTION: You get to choose wherever you —
QUESTION: Can I ask a follow-up question?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: No – I’m not going to answer that. (Laughter.)
STAFF: Lara, go ahead.
QUESTION: Well, no, because of its location.
QUESTION: Yeah, so I’m just wondering about annexation —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: American officials have long stayed there, actually.
QUESTION: — about annexation and whether the decision last week, as stated by Secretary Pompeo, basically opens the door to greenlighting annexation.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: I think that has nothing to do with annexation. It has nothing to do with annexation.
QUESTION: You don’t think Israel is going to try and annex all the settlements now that it sees that —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: I don’t know what Israel’s going to try and do.
QUESTION: It didn’t come up in any of the conversations?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: My conversation with Israel?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: No.
STAFF: Go ahead.
QUESTION: A question about Libya. Yesterday there was a high-level meeting involving Victoria Coates and other —
STAFF: Can you speak up just so we can get it down?
QUESTION: — other senior officials with General Haftar.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah, yeah, yeah.
QUESTION: And this comes months after Trump called him and appeared to express support, but then that was taken back, and in Libya we have reports that there is an increasing number of Russians that are in there. They have —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah, I just mentioned that.
QUESTION: — thousands more, right? So what was the purpose of this meeting and what concretely was it supposed to achieve?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah, listen, we are engaged on trying to find a solution to Libya. We are engaged in a diplomatic process that is being run by the Germans. We are engaged bilaterally with the French. I talk to the Italians about this and then my British counterparts.
On the ground, we, as a matter of policy, talk to everybody, right? Haftar, as you might imagine, is part of the problem, but he’s also necessarily going to be part of the solution. He – the guy controls some 80 percent of the territory of the country right now, although certainly a much smaller percentage of the population, but has armor and has significant forces under his control.
We talk to everyone, right? We talk to Sarraj. We meet with Sarraj and the GNA routinely, and we meet with Haftar. This – we – our ambassador to Libya, Ambassador Norland, meets with Haftar, and was at the meeting with Victoria Coates, this is nothing new. He met with him, I think, a month ago. I don’t – I can get the date for you on that. But this is routine. We have embassy officials who go to Libya to meet with Haftar and to also meet with Sarraj.
QUESTION: Do you have any sense that Haftar might be – might pull back his offensive because that’s the main demand that the U.S., European —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Well, so we – the U.S. Government believes that an offensive trying to enter Tripoli militarily would be – would have really bad consequences, would put a lot of civilians in danger, and that we should not be looking for a military solution to this conflict.
QUESTION: Can I follow up on —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: We have been encouraging bilateral negotiations. We have been supporting the Ghassan Salame efforts. The Germans have now a 49-point communique that talks about all sorts of steps that could be taken. It’s in draft form, but also what can be done to – to do to follow up.
But it’s a complicated problem that involves not just the LNA and the GNA and dozens of tribes on the ground in Libya, but also there is an overlay of the regional divisions that is playing out through proxy war in Libya with a lot of foreign backers, and now most prominently the Russians. So we remain engaged at the highest levels, and that means that we do talk to Haftar.
QUESTION: When have you met with him?
STAFF: Michel – Abbie, go ahead.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: When have I —
QUESTION: Can I just follow up on that really quick?
MS ORTAGUS: Abbie. Abbie.
QUESTION: No, with Haftar.
QUESTION: A few days.
QUESTION: It does seem, though, that this is the first time in a while that you’ve publicly —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: I think the press statement – did the press statement – sorry, did the press statement say where it was, where the meeting was?
QUESTION: No, no.
STAFF: We’re not saying. We’re not saying where it was.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Okay.
QUESTION: Where was it? (Laughter.)
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: If it didn’t say, I’m not going to.
QUESTION: It seems like, though, this is the first time in a while that you’re publicly acknowledging that you’re meeting with General Haftar, right? It seems like this is putting it in a —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: No, actually, I don’t think we’ve kept it a secret. I think —
QUESTION: You put out statements before —
MS ORTAGUS: Yeah.
QUESTION: — saying that the senior officials were meeting with him?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: I don’t know – I don’t know if we would have at the more junior level or if it was routine, but this is certainly the first time that Victoria Coates has —
QUESTION: So there’s not a significance in highlighting that you’re meeting with him now?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Listen, the significance is we are engaging at higher levels with him. I think that suggests that. Once again, at UNGA I met with Sarraj. We’ve been meeting with Sarraj all the way along the way. We put out press statements about that as well.
STAFF: Michel, go ahead.
QUESTION: Yeah, I have two questions, one on Iraq and one on Lebanon.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah.
QUESTION: I don’t know if you talked about these issues.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah, you were late. You missed it. You missed it.
QUESTION: On Lebanon, Hizballah and Amal are more aggressive now against the peaceful demonstrators —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah.
QUESTION: — in Beirut, in the south, in the Bekaa, and it looks like there is a decision to crack down on the demonstrations and to form a new government with Hizballah and Amal. Are you aware of that?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Well, I saw the announcement today from Prime Minister Hariri that he’s not going to attempt to form a government now. I saw the reports about Amal and Hizballah on the news. Our position remains the same, that no party should be perpetrating violence against other parties, that we support what remains the legitimate demands of the Lebanese people to have a government that will reform economically and will fight corruption.
It – we will see if the Lebanese people accept a government that looks much like the last government that they protested against, right, if it is a similar government, whether they will accept it. I think the Lebanese people have shown that they have – that they’re fed up and they want a new kind of government, but this is up to them entirely. So we’ll see what happens, but we – United States is not taking a position on individual personalities or – this is for the Lebanese people to decide.
QUESTION: And on the military aids to the Lebanese army, anything new? I asked the Secretary.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: You saw the Secretary; you saw what he said.
QUESTION: And on Iraq, more attacks on the demonstrations. Two – there are 10, I think, got killed Sunday, four today, and it looks like it’s getting worse.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah, it’s terrible. It’s atrocious. We see – we have called for restraint in the security apparatus and are calling for peaceful demonstrations, but there have been cases where there’s been excessive force used. We all have seen the Youtubes and it’s tragic. We are continuing a process of investigation from our side to determine who’s responsible for some of the atrocities, and we will move ahead with designations on that front. These things take a lot of time, unfortunately.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: On the Lebanon assistance today —
STAFF: Hold on one second. Go ahead.
QUESTION: I was going to ask about Lebanon too. So I understand the aid is under the review process, but what exactly are the factors that go into that review? Can you elaborate on that? And also any idea when the review might conclude? Are we talking days, hours, weeks, months?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: Yeah, I can’t talk about government deliberation, the internal process. I can’t talk about it but —
QUESTION: Right, but can’t you talk a bit about – even vaguely about some of the factors that would go into that review? We’re just trying to understand the different ways you can —
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: No, actually, they’d probably say that’s classified, actually, unfortunately. I’d love to talk to you about it.
STAFF: Okay, Kylie, last question.
QUESTION: Just to follow up on that, but David Hale said that it is now a process that is only at OMB, so does State still have any role in this decision right now? You seem to be claiming that State Department does.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: So I think this is a matter that hopefully will be resolved very shortly. I think all the information that I can talk about is out there. There have been several reports that have been written about it in the press. I can’t really comment on those, but it’s – let’s say that I would expect the decision very soon on this.
QUESTION: And with regard to Libya and all of this engagement that you’re talking about now – Victoria Coates traveling there, you meeting with the Italians and French – what – is there any more hopeful sign that there is a resolution to come to fruition there?
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: I’d like to – I’d like to be optimistic about this. We are always making efforts to try and push this forward. I think if you’ve ever met Ghassan Salame, this guy is an eternal optimist. I guess you have to be to be a – one of these UN envoys. I think that you see some signs that could be interpreted in a positive way.
ASSISTANT SECRETARY SCHENKER: I can’t even say. You – you look out there and you see a situation on the ground, and – but it could also be read just the opposite, right. I think that there is an enormous amount of bad blood between the GNA and the LNA, so it’s really hard to get direct negotiation going. It’s – in the end, we think that’s what’s required, and we’re going to keep on pushing for that.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: Yeah, thank you.