• Digital press briefing with Assistant Secretary Barbara Leaf on the latest developments in the Middle East, including the Israel-Hamas conflict, the U.S. efforts to prevent further escalation in the region, and the pathway to Palestinian statehood

MODERATOR:  (In progress) from the U.S. Department of State’s Dubai Regional Media Hub.  I would like to welcome our participants joining us from across the world for this on-the-record briefing with Barbara Leaf, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs.  During this call, Assistant Secretary Leaf will discuss U.S. policy toward the Middle East following the terrorist attacks of October 7th.  Assistant Secretary Leaf will also take questions from participating journalists.

We are pleased to offer simultaneous interpretation for this briefing in Arabic.  We request that everyone keep this in mind and speak slowly.

I will now turn it over to Assistant Secretary Leaf.  Ambassador, the floor is yours.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LEAF:  Thanks so much, Sam, and thank you for the opportunity to speak to this far-flung group of press colleagues on the critical issues of the day, and, of course, most importantly, our ongoing efforts to address the Israeli-Hamas conflict and support the groundwork for an enduring peace in the region.

So look, this work is profoundly important and it’s also personal for me.  I’ve spent my – almost my whole adult life working in and on the region, and there is nothing like – in my experience, nothing like the challenges that present themselves to us today and indeed present themselves to the region in terms of the far-flung and expanding impact of this conflict.

So since October 7th, I have been back and forth to the region six times, and in fact I’m going to head out this evening, which is why I will have to keep this to a short 30 minutes with our colleagues.  Early in the conflict I shuttled with the Secretary between Israel and the West Bank and among a circle of Arab partners.  I’ve made stops in the UAE, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, Oman, and Türkiye.

And throughout this my aim, like the Secretary’s aim, has been to seek a durable solution to this conflict – so not only ending the conflict of this moment but, as importantly, looking beyond to how we can build a pathway to a Palestinian state and put aside for good the causes of insecurity for Israel and insecurity for the Palestinian people, as well as the larger region.

So our priorities for the immediate, the near term, are as follows:

First, we’re wholly focused on improving the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza, and that means working with all of our partners to increase the aid making its way to the people of Gaza and urging that every feasible measure be taken to protect civilian lives.

Second, we’re pushing hard for the secure and safe and immediate release of all hostages.

Third, we want to ensure that October 7th and the ensuing conflict can never happen again – not to Israelis, not to Palestinians.

Fourth, we’re seeking to ensure that the conflict does not expand, and that has been a focus of every bit of our diplomacy since the first days of the conflict.  This goal is complicated, obviously, by this destabilizing action undertaken by Iran-backed actors across the region.

And finally, let me just say while we remain focused on the shorter-term, immediate goals, concurrently we are working with partners to begin the hard work of establishing a pathway to a Palestinian state.  It is the only way to create a longer-lasting peace that will benefit not just Israelis and Palestinians but the region more generally.  We are as committed – the United States is committed as ever to this region and to finding a better pathway to security and stability and prosperity for the region.

I’ll stop there.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Assistant Secretary.  We will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s call.

Our first question is a pre-submitted question, and it comes from our colleague Suzy Elgeneidy, from Egypt’s Al-Ahram newspaper.  And Suzy asks:  “Assistant Secretary Leaf, what role can the United States play in preventing the escalation of the conflict in Gaza and ensuring that there are no plans to forcibly displace Palestinians from the Gaza Strip?”  Over to you, Assistant Secretary.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LEAF:  Well, thank you, Suzy, for that question.  Look, it has been an unstinting piece of work for us from the very first days of the conflict to ensure that the conflict did not spread – that it was not escalated, that it was not weaponized by others in the region to spread the conflict – whether it’s to Lebanon, to the West Bank itself, to Iraq, Yemen, et cetera.  So that is a constant piece of our work.

And the second part of your question is just as vital.  And I think you’ve heard the Secretary and the President speak to this issue repeatedly in public, and certainly it informs our diplomacy.  It informs the set of parameters, or principles rather, that the Secretary laid out in Tokyo in November at the G7, which is to say that we absolutely reject and will ensure that there is no displacement of Gazans from Gaza.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Assistant Secretary.  We do have many, many pre-submitted questions from our Arabic-speaking journalist colleagues, so I’d like to get through at least a few of those before we go to the live queue.  I see many of you have your hands raised as well.  We’ll take another pre-submitted question, and that comes from our colleague Jubran Nour – or Nour Jubran, from the Ma’an News outlet in the Palestinian Territories.  And Nour asks:  “Assistant Secretary, regarding the funding for UNRWA and the suspension, even if it is proven that some employees were involved in the October 7th event, what – how will the U.S. deal with that, and how will the U.S. balance between the steps it needs to take to hold UNRWA accountable and the need to get assistance to the Palestinian people?”  Over to you, Assistant Secretary.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LEAF:  Thank you for that question, Nour.  And look, it’s an issue of absolute urgency for the U.S. Government.  I know it is for other donors.  We’ve had intensive consultations over the last days, including I myself this morning with my EU counterpart.

Look, there’s an urgency for several things.  One is to get to the bottom of these extraordinarily serious and really terrible allegations that members of a mission that are dedicated – that the mission itself is dedicated to humanitarian support for the Palestinian people, be they in Gaza, West Bank, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan – that members of that organization would be involved in the horrendous attacks of October 7th is really just, just terrible.  So the urgency of getting to the bottom of that, which the UN secretary-general said he is committed to.  I understand he said – it was announced today that they would look for an independent assessment of this investigation.  It’s critical that that be done with the greatest speed and thoroughness.  It’s also critical that there be accountability.

But as you know, UNRWA serves a population, including right now in Gaza, for which there is no alternative to the work they do and to the structure, the – to the staffing that they bring to Gaza in particular.  But I think that’s also true across those other populations of Palestinians.

So there’s urgency in both directions.  We really had no choice but to suspend our funding last week, given the severity of these allegations.  But we and other donors and the UN are working with all speed to understand what – to get to the bottom of this, and also to ensure that it does not happen again.  And we’re consulting closely, obviously, with the Israeli Government, as well as other donors and countries of the region, and of course, with our own members of Congress.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Assistant Secretary Leaf.  We’ll now go to a question from the live queue, and that comes from our colleague Monalisa Freiha, from Annahar newspaper in Lebanon.  Monalisa, I’m going to go ahead and open your line, and you should be able to unmute yourself and ask your question, please.

QUESTION:  Hello?  Can you hear me?

MODERATOR:  Yes, we can.

QUESTION:  Yeah.  Hello, Assistant Secretary.  I want to ask you about – there were a lot of speculations about the U.S. intended possible retaliation on the American base in Jordan-Syria border.  What would you say about this attack and the possible retaliation?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LEAF:  Thanks for that question, Monalisa.  Look, our soldiers, our military is there on that Jordanian post for one reason, and it’s a part of the mission to defeat – to bring an enduring defeat to ISIS.  ISIS has threatened all of the countries of the region, including Iraq and Syria and Jordan itself.  It is both a horrendous and tragic loss of life, but it is also an absolutely unacceptable attack on both Jordanian sovereignty and on U.S. forces.  The President’s been very clear – the Secretary, the Secretary of Defense have all been clear – that it is unacceptable, and the President will decide on a course of action.  And I’m not going to speculate about that.

I would also just say that this is part and parcel of a proxy network across the region fostered in some places, created altogether by Iran, but resourced by Iran, that has had terrible repercussions on the stability and security of this region.  But I won’t get ahead of the President in speculating as to when and where that response might be.  But it is also going to be at a time and place of our choosing and could be in a multitude of ways.

MODERATOR:  Thank you.  We’ll go back to our pre-submitted questions – from our colleague Manal Sharaf from Yemen’s Al Joumhouriya Channel.  And Manal asks: “Assistant Secretary Leaf, what are some of the upcoming steps – or what can we expect – from the United States to address the ongoing Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea?”  Over to you, Assistant Secretary.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LEAF:  Thank you for that very pertinent question, Manal.  Look, these wholly unacceptable and reckless attacks by the Houthi in the Red Sea on civilian shipping, as well as some military ships, they are, first and foremost, devastating for the countries and the peoples of the Middle East.  Countries whose ports and economies directly benefit and rely on Red Sea commerce and the Suez Canal are feeling the greatest effects.  All Arab countries depend on shipping from these vital waterways.  But it’s – more broadly, the attacks threaten everyone’s economies and livelihood.  So this is not just about the U.S., and it’s by no means about the conflict between Israel and Hamas.

So we have a growing coalition of partners who are bringing both political, diplomatic, and military pressure to bear.  But I would just say for a country that is deeply food insecure as Yemen and for other countries like Egypt and Jordan, whose commercial traffic and whose economies really depend on this waterway, this is a terrible assault on them, and the escalation in inflation and the cost of goods, the cost of foodstuff – it’s a terrible thing to – on the part of the Houthis to bring to the peoples of this region and to these countries in particular.  So we will continue to address ourselves with a growing collection of partners to this really reckless approach by the Houthi until they stop.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Assistant Secretary.  We’ll go back to the live queue now to a question from our colleague, Diyar Kurda from the Rudaw news network.  Diyar, I’m going to go ahead and unmute you, and then you can unmute yourself and ask your question.  Go ahead.

QUESTION:  Thank you so much, Sam.  Thank you, Ambassador, for doing this.  A very quick question on the Iraq.  The Iraqi Government says that the decision of the Kata’ib Hizballah to suspend their attacks on the U.S. forces came alive with our tireless efforts and pressure.  So how does the U.S. Government sees the Iraqi Government efforts to hold these groups accountable and preventing them from future actions against you personnels and facilities in the region?  Thank you.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LEAF:  Excellent question, Diyar.  So look, I would say attacks by this growing collection of Iran-affiliated militias are, first and foremost, an assault on the sovereignty of Iraq.  They are an assault on the sovereignty of the state itself – on the state to have control of arms and for the state to have control of foreign and national security policy.  So for a proxy like Kata’ib Hizballah to launch attacks on a foreign country and countries that are partners to Iraq is really just an assault on sovereignty in the most primal form.  It is a threat to the Iraqi state, and it is a source – I mean, it is an issue on which we consult very closely with the Iraqi Government, with Prime Minister Sudani and other members of the government.

And look, it’s been a situation that Iran has nurtured over the years, so it is, first and foremost, a responsibility of the state of Iraq to bring these creatures under control.  But it is a tough thing to do at the same time, because they have been nourished and resourced and provided arms by Iran over years.  But we’d like to see more action.  We’d like to see action that doesn’t – that prevents and that holds people to account.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Assistant Secretary.  We’ll move around the region a little bit and go to a question from our colleague Rawad Taha from Lebanon’s LBCI.  And Rawad sent us a question in advance, and Rawad asks:  “Assistant Secretary, are the chances of an escalation between Israel and Hizballah still high in your view, and what has been the outcome of recent diplomatic efforts to address this situation on the Lebanon-Israel border?”  Over to you, Assistant Secretary.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LEAF:  So Rawad, look, I would say the following.  There is a sobering level of volatility on that northern border, and let’s recall how it started and how it has been fostered.  It’s Hizballah getting into the fray, as it were, with rocket attacks and other attacks on Israel and violations of the Blue Line and bringing forces close to the border, which are terribly, terribly threatening to the communities of northern Israel.

So we have been working closely with the Israeli Government, in close discussions with them throughout these last several months, to counsel or to provide an understanding of what we’re seeing in terms of activity there on the border and to ensure that the Israeli military has an understanding of what is and isn’t happening.

Now, that’s important because, as you know, the two parties may not intend to go into conflict but may be seeing a different picture or misunderstanding a picture.  As for Hizballah, we’ve been messaging very clearly that they are on a slippery slope in terms of attacks on civilian communities – missile attacks, rocket attacks, attempts to infiltrate.

So we have a – as you know, we have an exceptionally talented negotiator in Amos Hochstein.  Amos is very engaged on this effort, and I would say we are first and foremost looking for a diplomatic resolution, and there’s nothing to say that we can’t find one ultimately.

MODERATOR:  Great, thank you, Assistant Secretary.  We’ll do another pre-submitted question.  Again, I see many hands raised, and we got dozens and dozens of pre-submitted questions, so we’ll try to get through a couple more questions before the assistant secretary has to leave for her travel.

Let’s take a – let’s go to a pre-submitted question that came from our colleague Mohamed Maher from Egypt’s Al Masry Alyoum newspaper, and Mohamed asks:  “In your view, Assistant Secretary Leaf, when is the appropriate time for the United States to call for a ceasefire and initiate a comprehensive political process leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state?”  Over to you, Assistant Secretary.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LEAF:  Thanks for that question, Mohamed.  Look, we are thoroughly involved in the effort to bring about an arrangement for a release of hostages, so you saw that the director of the CIA was in Europe this past weekend working intensively with our partner Egypt, our partner Qatar, and our Israeli partners to put together a proposal to forward to Hamas to kick off a deal that would also involve a humanitarian pause or pauses.  You’ve heard the Secretary say this before, and I can only reinforce this:  The conflict could end pretty quickly with Hamas ceasing its attacks – it was directing rockets this week, this past week, at civilian communities – and if the perpetrators of the massacre of October 7th lay down their arms.  That seems unlikely at this point, but I can’t exactly impose a ceasefire on Hamas.

So what I would say is this – we believe this hostage deal is a critical starting point.  Ultimately, as you say, there is a pathway that also has to be built towards Palestinian statehood.  It is kind of two separate things.  Hamas’s use of extraordinary violence has, if anything, set back efforts towards that end.  But out of every crisis, there is still room for opportunity, and you’ve heard the Secretary speak to this, the National Security Advisor speak to this, the President himself speak to this.  Ultimately, peace and stability and security for Israelis and for Palestinians is going to come about through a negotiated pathway to Palestinian statehood, and that’s something we’re committed to.

MODERATOR:  Thank you, Assistant Secretary.  We’ll go to another pre-submitted question, if that’s okay, and this comes from our colleague Moriah Asraf from Israel’s Channel 13, and Moriah asks:  “Assistant Secretary, is the Biden administration currently contemplating a reduction in the pace of arms deliveries to Israel?  And can you clarify whether this is being considered as any form of sanction or anything like that?”  Over to you, Assistant Secretary.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LEAF:  Thanks, Moriah, for that question.  In a word, no – we are not contemplating that.

MODERATOR:  Okay, that was a short answer so I’ll need to scramble for the next question.  Sorry for that.  Let’s go to the live queue, and let’s go to our colleague Jared Malsin from The Wall Street Journal.  Jared, I’m going to go ahead and unmute you on my end, and then if you can unmute yourself and ask your question.

QUESTION:  Hi, thanks very much.  I just wanted to ask another question about the negotiations towards a possible ceasefire and hostage release deal.  We understand that both Hamas and the Israeli Government are considering the proposal that was discussed in Paris last weekend.  Can you tell us if there’s been any response from them and just what the latest is in general on the negotiations?  Thank you very much.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LEAF:  Hi, Jared.  At the risk of, you know, misspeaking, well, I can certainly say I’m not aware today, at this moment, of any definitive response.  I think they’re still very much in the deliberation stage.

MODERATOR:  So that’s just about all the time we have.  I know there’s many, many, many other questions; I’m sorry we couldn’t get to all the questions today.  I do want to turn it back over to Assistant Secretary Leaf if she has any closing remarks or anything she wants to say about her upcoming travel or anything else.  Back over to you, Assistant Secretary.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY LEAF:  Thanks, Sam, and I will try to make this a longer call when I come back from the region, which will – could be anywhere from 10 days to two weeks from now.  Look, I would just underscore what I think many of you feel, especially those of you who feel – who are resident in the region.  It’s a time of extraordinary volatility, as I suggested in terms of the Israeli-Lebanon border.  It’s also a time of flux and opportunity.  We’re determined to seize the opportunities.  As grim as the starting point of this crisis, this conflict was, we’re determined to seize and use the opportunity presented by people focusing on the – focusing on the unfulfilled and quite legitimate Palestinian quest for statehood and the way that the failure to achieve that has been effectively weaponized by Iran and its proxy networks.  So, it will not be an easy course, way, to say the least, but notwithstanding this volatility, we’re quite committed to finding that – forging that pathway.

Thanks very much, Sam, and thanks for everybody who’s on the line now.

MODERATOR:  That concludes today’s call.  I would like to thank Assistant Secretary Barbara Leaf for joining us and thank all of our colleagues from the media around the world for participating.  If you have any questions about today’s call, you can contact the Dubai Regional Media Hub at  Thank you and have a great day.

U.S. Department of State

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