MR PRICE: Thanks very much and good afternoon, everyone. Thank you for joining today’s call. Very pleased to have with us today Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Yael Lempert. She will preview the Secretary’s travel to Israel, the West Bank, Morocco, and Algeria. The acting assistant secretary will speak today on the record. This call is embargoed until its conclusion, and after the acting assistant secretary offers some opening remarks, she will have a couple minutes to answer questions.
So with that I will turn it over to Acting Assistant Secretary Lempert.
MS LEMPERT: Great. Thank you so much, Ned. Good afternoon, everybody. Nice to be with you today.
Secretary Blinken is going to travel to Israel, the West Bank, Morocco, and Algeria from March 26th to March 30th. While there, he’s going to engage with our partners on a range of regional and global priorities, including Ukraine, Iran, the Abraham Accords and normalization agreements with Israel, preserving the prospects for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and building support for the UN’s engagement on Western Sahara, among other topics. Of course, this will be Secretary Blinken’s second visit to Israel and the West Bank as Secretary, but this will be his first visit to Morocco and Algeria since he became Secretary.
During his visit to Israel and the West Bank, the Secretary will underscore the United States’ ironclad commitment to Israeli security, coordination on Ukraine and Iran, and work to build upon the gains from the Abraham Accords. While there, he will meet with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and also with Israeli President Isaac Herzog. The Secretary will also meet with President Abbas of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah as well as with representatives of Palestinian civil society.
During the visit, Secretary Blinken will affirm the commitment of the United States to a two-state solution, and to greater freedom, security, and prosperity for Palestinians and Israelis alike. He will also underscore the importance of the upcoming month when major religious holidays across faiths will be celebrated, and reiterate the importance of actions to build trust, and enhance stability and security, and the need to avoid steps that can inflame tensions on the ground.
Turning to North Africa, the Secretary will first visit Morocco, where he will meet with Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita and other senior government officials to exchange views on regional issues and bilateral cooperation, and on advancing human rights and fundamental freedom, and he also will engage with Moroccan youth. While in Rabat, the Secretary will also meet Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan to discuss regional security and international developments.
The Secretary’s trip will culminate in Algiers, where he will meet President Abdelmadjid Tebboune and his counterpart Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra to discuss regional security and stability, commercial cooperation, and advancing human rights and fundamental freedom. The Secretary also will officially inaugurate the United States as the Country of Honor at the Algiers International Trade Fair – it’s the largest trade show of its kind in Africa – and he will meet with U.S. businesses. During the course of this trip, the Secretary will emphasize to all the foreign leaders he meets with that the U.S. stands in solidarity and support with the government and people of Ukraine. He will affirm the need for Vladimir Putin to end his premeditated, unprovoked, and unjustified war on Ukraine.
This region – the Middle East and North Africa – has seen the damaging effects of Russia’s military campaigns before: In Syria and Libya and Mali, Russian military and paramilitary forces have exploited conflicts for Moscow’s own selfish interests, posing grave threats to regional stability and global commerce.
Putin’s invasion is already causing food prices – especially wheat – to rise, just as our economies recover from the COVID pandemic. We know this pain is keenly felt in the Middle East and North Africa, where most countries import at least half of their wheat. Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Qatar, and Tunisia import at least a quarter of their wheat specifically from Ukraine.
Putin’s reckless war will only continue to increase the price of basic staples like bread in the region, taking money from the pockets of the hardest working and most vulnerable families as he invades a sovereign country without provocation.
This war must stop, and we will work hand-in-hand with our partners the world over to get there.
MR PRICE: Terrific. Operator, if you wouldn’t mind repeating the instructions to ask a question, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you. And again, if you wish to ask a question, please press 1 then 0 on your touchtone phone. Again, that’s 1-0.
MR PRICE: Let’s start with the line of Jennifer Hansler of CNN.
QUESTION: Hi. Can you hear me?
MR PRICE: Yes. Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: Great. Thank you. I was wondering whether the Secretary intends to bring up with President Bennett their – his outreach to President Putin, whether the U.S. finds these efforts helpful, if there’s going to be any effort to get on the same page in Bennett’s diplomacy with Putin. Thank you.
MS LEMPERT: Thank you. Yes, we do anticipate that we’ll be discussing Ukraine in Israel and elsewhere as well, but in Israel we’ll be discussing Israel’s efforts. We appreciate Israel’s role. So that will be on the agenda.
MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Humeyra Pamuk of Reuters.
QUESTION: Thanks for doing this. Just a couple of quick ones. Just to follow up from Jennifer, how much of this trip do you think will be about Russia, Ukraine, given Israel’s emerging role as a potential mediator? Because the Iran deal is also a big topic. Like how – which one is going to dominate?
And a quick question on Secretary’s meeting with Abu Dhabi crown prince. The relationship has not been at its best, to say the least, and there seems to be an expectation on the Emirati side for concrete proposals. Will the Secretary have those in his suitcase, and what will those be? Thanks.
MS LEMPERT: Great. Thanks for that question. In terms of our engagement on Ukraine and discussing Russia’s invasion and war against Ukraine, that will be a topic I’m sure at all of our stops, as well, I anticipate, Iran, which as you know is an issue that is of great interest to all of our partners in the region. So it’s difficult for me to predict at this moment what will dominate. What I can predict with assurance is that both of those are going to be really at the top of the agenda in terms of our discussions.
In terms of the meeting with the crown prince, look, we’re taking advantage of the opportunity during the Secretary’s visit to Morocco to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed and really have a strategic conversation about the full range of regional, international issues before us. This is a valued and really important strategic relationship for us, and it’s an opportune moment for this meeting. There’s a lot to discuss. So we’re pleased to have this chance to sit down, the Secretary is, with the crown prince as strategic partners and discuss the full range of issues before us.
MR PRICE: We’ll go to John Hudson of The Washington Post.
QUESTION: Is the Secretary going to push the consulate issue while he’s in Israel? Is that a campaign promise that’s just basically falling by the wayside in wake of Israeli opposition?
MS LEMPERT: That will certainly be a topic of discussion in his meetings in both Israel and the West Bank.
MR PRICE: Let’s go to the line of Nahal Toosi.
QUESTION: Hey, guys. Thanks for doing this. (Inaudible.)
MR PRICE: Halley, you are – I think we’ve lost you. Unless we can get you —
QUESTION: I’m here. Can you hear me?
MR PRICE: We can now. Go ahead.
MR PRICE: Yes, go ahead.
QUESTION: Sorry about that. Former Secretary of State Pompeo issued a ruling for – decision that said that the U.S. did not see the Israeli settlements in the West Bank as being illegal. And to my knowledge, Secretary of State Blinken has not reversed that position. Now, tell me if I’m wrong. But is it the Biden administration’s policy that the Israeli settlements are not illegal under their – our version of international law? Thank you.
MS LEMPERT: I have no update for you on that particular topic.
MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Paul Handley.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) tell us what those issues are. Can you go through the list? What are the priorities to discuss, because there’s a lot of things I could name, but why don’t you – can you just talk about them?
MR PRICE: Paul, we missed the top of your question. What was your whole question?
QUESTION: The question is could you go – you said there’s a whole list of things to talk about with Mohammed bin Zayed. Can you go through that list, please? Hello?
MS LEMPERT: Hi. Thank you. Sorry. Yes, there’s a wide range of issues, ranging from Iran to Yemen, Syria, global energy markets, and Ethiopia. We have a range of topics that we’ll be discussing, as well as the Abraham Accords and what we can do to strengthen those further. We have seen tremendous and tangible results in terms of the UAE-Israel relationship. It’s really blossomed. Tourism is thriving; direct flights are ferrying numbers of tourists back and forth. Trade is booming. And we anticipate that that will be a big topic of discussion as well. We’ll probably also touch briefly on the Expo, which has really been a tremendous success, closing soon in Dubai. That’s just a sampling. I mean, we have just a wide array of shared interests and topics that we want to cover.
MR PRICE: We have time for a final question or two. Let’s go to Yuna Leibzon of Channel 12.
QUESTION: I do want to focus on Israel. You talked about priorities in different countries. But can you say what would be the first priority on the visit and the meeting in Israel? Would it be Iran, or the Russia-Ukraine negotiations, or Palestinian issues, if you could focus that specifically, please?
MS LEMPERT: Look, our relationship with Israel is so broad and so deep, it’s difficult to choose just one issue and say that’s going to be the priority. As I mentioned previously on this call, we’ll be certainly discussing Iran, as we have had close consultations on that topic since the beginning of the administration; Russia-Ukraine, no doubt; again, Abraham Accords and what we can do to try and strengthen and broaden them; and of course, Israeli-Palestinian issues and what we can do in terms of helping to lower tensions and see movement forward on that front, in addition to a range of other bilateral topics. So it will be a broad and wide-ranging discussion. There’s no doubt in my mind.
MR PRICE: And we’ll conclude with the line of Said Arikat, please.
QUESTION: (Inaudible) Madam Assistant Secretary. Very quickly, I want to follow up on John Hudson’s question on the consulate. Now, last year Secretary Blinken stated in no uncertain terms that the consulate will be reopened. Are we likely to hear anything that is as strong in terms of a commitment to the consulate this time around?
And my second question regarding the village of Al-Walaja that is slated to be demolished, will the Secretary of State express that his opposition or – his clear opposition to the demolition of this particular Palestinian village? Thank you.
MS LEMPERT: Thank you. Look, as I mentioned before, the issue of our consulate general in Jerusalem will undoubtedly be a topic of discussion in the Secretary’s meetings both in Israel and the West Bank, and he’ll be speaking to it there.
In terms of your question about demolitions, I think that that will be among the topics that is discussed. I will say that the State Department has made the administration’s view clear. We believe it is critical for Israel and the Palestinian Authority to refrain from unilateral steps that exacerbate tensions and undercut efforts to advance a negotiated two-state solution.
MR PRICE: Thank you very much, everyone. Thank you very much, Acting Assistant Secretary Lempert. Appreciate everyone’s time. Again, this call was on the record, and we will be seeing many of you on the ground during the trip. Talk to you then.