Special Briefing via Telephone
David Schenker, Assistant Secretary
Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs
September 8, 2020
Moderator: Good evening to everyone from the Department of State’s Dubai Regional Media Hub. I would like to welcome our participants dialing in from the Middle East and around the world for this on-the-record briefing with David Schenker, the Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs. Assistant Secretary Schenker will provide a readout of his recent trip to Kuwait, Qatar, and Lebanon, as well as discuss the recent sanctions announced today.
We will begin today’s briefing today with opening remarks by the Assistant Secretary then open the floor for questions. We are pleased to offer simultaneous interpretation for this briefing in Arabic. We request that everyone keep this in mind and speak slowly.
I’ll now turn it over to Assistant Secretary Schenker for his opening remarks. Sir, the floor is yours.
Assistant Secretary Schenker: Great. Thank you, Geraldine, and good afternoon, everyone. It’s good to be doing the briefing today with the Dubai Hub. Following the Secretary’s visit, I spent a week in the – in the region, returning this past Friday.
My first stop was Kuwait, where I visited to reassure Kuwait that we value their longstanding partnership of close cooperation. And I previewed our upcoming strategic dialogue, and I also thanked the Kuwaitis for their ongoing effort to mediate the Gulf rift.
In Qatar, I held meetings to preview our strategic dialogue, which will be on the 14th and 15th of this month. We have high expectations for a productive dialogue covering a wide range of issues. And we also discussed our excellent advanced counterterrorism cooperation.
In Lebanon, I carried a message to the Lebanese people that the United States was committed to helping the Lebanese people recover from the horrific August 4th explosion at the port. And I supported their legitimate calls for economic and institutional reform, transparency, accountability, and an end to the endemic corruption that has stifled Lebanon’s tremendous potential.
Although the UAE was not among the stops of my trip, of course, it undergirds all of our recent engagements in the Middle East, following the announcement of the Abraham Accords. It’s not – it shouldn’t come as a surprise, but the Abraham Accords agreement has had a major impact on our recent dialogue with Gulf partners. However, as I said, during my stop in Kuwait – and it’s worth repeating now – the United States Government respects the sovereignty of all Gulf states. It’s our hope that others will follow the example of UAE and move forward with normalizing relations with Israel. We believe the agreement provides a foundation for advancements toward regional peace and puts the region on a truly transformative path.
Of course, the Abraham Accords agreement wasn’t the entirety of my discussions with the leaders in Kuwait and Qatar. The theme of the need for Gulf unity remains a persistent one. The Gulf dispute only serves the interests of our adversaries and harms our mutual interests. We have important work to do together, and we want to see the parties involved resolve this dispute. Now more than ever it’s imperative that the GCC unite against regional threats. It’s time for all Gulf nations to find the unity needed to confront the challenges they face.
This is particularly important when it comes to countering Iran’s malign influence in the region. Last month we saw a powerful step forward when the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council asked the UN Security Council to extend the arms embargo against Iran, highlighting the importance of the collective strength of the united Gulf that’s needed for the sake of advancing greater peace and security. And so we look forward to continuing our Gulf engagements with a series of strategic dialogues ahead, starting next week with Qatar.
I spent the final leg of my trip, as I said, in Beirut, where I met a broad range of civil society leaders, including activists, NGO representatives, journalists, academics, and recently resigned parliamentarians. As you know, next month will mark a year since the Lebanese people began taking to the streets to express their demands for reform. The devastating August 4th exploration has only magnified these calls. The Lebanese people made clear their desire for meaningful change, and for their government and political leaders to chart a new direction advocating for reform and anti-corruption, to help Lebanon exit this current crisis. And we stand with the Lebanese people during this challenging time and we are committed to assisting them in recovering from the tragedy of August 4th.
As Secretary Pompeo has stated, business as usual in Lebanon is unacceptable, which brings me to my last item. That’s that today the United States is sanctioning two former Lebanese ministers, Youssef Fenianos and Ali Hassan Khalil, for providing material support to Hizballah, a U.S.-designated foreign terrorist organization. Political allies of Hizballah should know they will be held accountable for in any way enabling these terrorists and illicit activities. Sanctions targeting Hizballah and its supporters and other corrupt actors will continue. We will use all available authorities to hold Lebanon’s leaders accountable for failing to live up to their obligations to the Lebanese people.
So in the coming weeks and months we will maintain pressure on Hizballah and its supporters and other corrupt actors who are obstructing the Lebanese people’s aspirations for economic opportunity, accountability, and transparency.
And with that, I’m going to stop here and I’m pleased to take your questions.
Moderator: Thank you, Assistant Secretary Schenker. We will now begin the question-and-answer portion of today’s call. For those on the English line asking questions, please state your name and affiliation, and limit yourself to one question related to the topic of today’s briefing. Questions submitted in advance have been incorporated into the queue.
Our first question goes to Moustafa Soukal from Al Hurra TV, and his question is, “Please tell us more about the goals of the new sanctions on Lebanese officials announced today.” Over.
Assistant Secretary Schenker: Thanks. Moustafa, listen, we are constantly looking to designate and sanction Hizballah and its members and its leadership. Fenianos and Ali Hassan Khalil were designated for providing material support to Hizballah. But in addition, Fenianos and Khalil were involved in directing political and economic favors to Hizballah and involved in some of the corruption that makes Hizballah’s work possible in Lebanon.
And so this should be a message, both to those who cooperate with Hizballah and those who enable Hizballah, but also Lebanon’s political leaders who have ignored their responsibility to address the needs of their people, and have not fought corruption. It should be a message to all. It’s time for different politics in Lebanon.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question comes from the queue, and it will go to Fadi Mansour.
Question: Thank you. Assistant Secretary Schenker, thanks for the opportunity. I have two questions. Secretary Pompeo last week again talked about the challenge of Hizballah still hasn’t been disarmed. Is disarming Hizballah still a priority for this administration? And do you see eye to eye on this issue with President Macron?
And if I may, another question on Qatar. We saw in the statement about the phone call between President Trump and the king of Saudi Arabia that President Trump urged the king to find a solution to the – to the current disagreement with Qatar. Is solving this issue still – is it an objective for the administration before the upcoming presidential election? Thank you.
Assistant Secretary Schenker: Thanks. Listen, we have always said that Hizballah is a terrorist organization. It happens to participate in Lebanese politics, intimidate many people in Lebanese politics. But it is a terrorist organization. In this fact, we have a difference of opinion with the Government of France; we do not believe that Hizballah is a legitimate political organization or a legitimate political party. We believe, in democracies, that you have to choose between bullets and ballots. You cannot have both. Hizballah – political parties do not have militias. So Hizballah is a terrorist organization, and this is one small difference that we have with the Government of France.
As for the Gulf rift, this has nothing to do with solving it before the U.S. elections. There is an enormous amount of high-level attention on this issue. It is a priority for the administration. We think that the Gulf rifts serve no one’s interests except for Iran’s. We think that it puts money in the pocket of the regime in Tehran by Qatar being forced to pay over-flight fees to the regime. It also puts Qataris and those who are flying on Qatar Airways in danger. We saw what happened when the Ukrainian jet who was shot down over Iran a few months back.
So yes, we are working to solve this. There is high-level engagement and this is a topic that we are highly focused on.
Moderator: Thank you. The next question was submitted by Mohammed Mahdi from Al Mayadeen network. And the question is, “How do you view the new Lebanese Prime Minister, and under what conditions is the United States ready to work with this new government in Lebanon?” Over.
Assistant Secretary Schenker: Thanks. We – as a matter of policy, we are more focused on principles than on personalities. So I’m going to stay away from making any comment on the new Prime Minister-designate in Lebanon.
What I’ll say is that we are narrowly focused on the concepts of reform: that any new government moving forward must embrace reform, must implement reform; on transparency, on holding those who have not been transparent or accountable, or have been corrupt, accountable. So there should be accountability. There should be a government that is dedicated to fighting corruption, and it should be a government that adheres to the principle of disassociation, as any government that moves forward – get Lebanon out of the politics of all of the countries in the region. And if a government does all those things and is committed to all those things, then we will look forward to working with that government.
Moderator: The next question comes from Said Arikat in the question queue.
Question: Hello? Hello?
Assistant Secretary Schenker: Hello.
Question: Hello. Can you hear me? Hello?
Assistant Secretary Schenker: Hello, Said. I can hear you.
Question: This is Said Arikat. Yeah, thank you very kindly. I appreciate you taking this call. Very quickly, we need to clarify the issue on annexation. Is it postponed? Is it put off permanently? What is the situation? Because there is all kinds of conflicting issues as a result of the normalization accord between the Emirates and Israel. And did normalization have a role to play in that, and so on?
And second, next Tuesday’s ceremony at the White House – do you have – for signing – do you have a list of who might be attending? Thank you.
Assistant Secretary Schenker: Thanks, Said. So maybe you can tell me. What did the language say in the – in the letter?
Question: Well, it says that – the language says that – for now it is “put off.” But then when the inquiry was made, it says “postponed.” And then the Israeli Prime Minister keeps insisting that everything is going according to plan.
Assistant Secretary Schenker: Yeah. So the – well, I mean, we have what the letter said, and the letter —
Assistant Secretary Schenker: — is what it says. So the Prime Minister, who I know, has said – had said publicly that Israel does not, in perpetuity, cedes territorial – cede territorial claim to the West Bank. And so he said that as well.
Assistant Secretary Schenker: So – but that’s what the agreement is. The agreement says that there’s no annexation right now. And I – so I think that’s suitable for the Emiratis to move ahead and my guess is that it will be suitable to have other countries in the region move ahead with establishing relationships with Israel that they don’t have, or establishing relationships that are overt rather than covert because they see them very much in their – in the economic and strategic interests of their peoples.
Was there another question?
Moderator: That’s it. We’re going to move on to the next one. It was submitted by Marlene Khalife from Masdar Diplomacy in Lebanon. And the question is, “You previously stated that the framework of the demarcation of the maritime border between Lebanon and Israel has been completed, but this topic was not raised during your last visit. What are the remaining obstacles, and is there a role for the United Nations in this?” Over.
Assistant Secretary Schenker: Thank you, Marlene. Well, I don’t think there’s anybody in the government – I certainly haven’t said that we have reached an agreement on the maritime and land border framework yet. I think we’re getting closer. We’ve engaged a bit on this. I don’t really want to get into what the sticking parts are here. Remember, we – David Satterfield, who’s a top-notch diplomat who is currently our Ambassador in Ankara, spent a year shuttling back and forth between Lebanon and Israel to try and get what is actually only a framework agreement, that is, an agreement which provides the framework for actually starting to negotiate on the borders.
I think that this framework is important, but that we – this should have been completed a long time ago. Like I said, I think we’re getting closer, but this will open the opportunity for both Lebanon and Israel to start to make – actually make some real progress. But I’m not going to get into the details on what’s holding it up, but I hope to be able to come over to Lebanon and then sign this agreement in the coming weeks.
Moderator: Our next question comes from Ghada Alsharif in the queue.
Question: Hello? Hi, I was wondering, are you encouraging allies in the Gulf to get more involved in the formation of government in Lebanon? And do you think their withdrawal has left a gap for Iran in Lebanon?
Assistant Secretary Schenker: Listen, I don’t think outside states should be meddling in the government formation. Right? I think we had the French step in and try and push this along. We are closely coordinating with the French. But I don’t think anybody’s telling – or nobody should be telling the Lebanese who these figures should be. Once again, the President of France, just like the Secretary of State, have been talking about these principles – these principles of reform, and not about individual personalities as much as these principles.
To be sure, the Lebanese people themselves have demonstrated some frustration with their – with their political class. But yeah, I think – I don’t think it’s healthy for all these external states to be telling Lebanon what to do. Lebanon has long depended on external actors, and it’s not been particularly helpful for the stability or sovereignty of the state.
Moderator: Our next question was submitted by Dima Alsayed from Rozana. And the question is, “Did you discuss Syria with regional partners during your recent trip?” Over.
Assistant Secretary Schenker: Yeah, Syria is – yes. It’s one of the region’s biggest crises. So to be sure, yes, we discussed Syria and the direction of our efforts there – the future of the Assad regime, the implementation of Resolution 2254, the Russian role, and other regional actors and particularly Iran, in Syria. So yes, this was a topic of discussion.
As well as the refugee crisis and the efforts to create a situation in which refugees can return home safely and voluntarily.
Moderator: Thank you. Our next question will come from Joseph Haboush.
Question: Assistant Secretary, thanks for doing this. I know you mentioned you don’t want to get —
Assistant Secretary Schenker: Hello?
Question: Yes, can you hear me?
Assistant Secretary Schenker: Yeah, yeah.
Question: Thanks for doing this. I wanted to ask about the maritime dispute. I know you just said you don’t want to get into details, but there was an article in a local Lebanese newspaper that said that you had met with one of the advisors to the speaker – parliament speaker. And they – the report claims that you were frustrated with the lack of, if you will, leniency on the Lebanese part. Is that accurate?
And also another question. We saw Walid Jumblatt meet with the – Ismail Haniyeh yesterday, and obviously, Jumblatt is considered a U.S. ally. What is your message on that? Thank you.
Assistant Secretary Schenker: Thanks. Listen, I talked to two media outlets on this trip, I believe, in addition to doing some TV. I don’t recall talking to any local media outlet or website, whatever you’re referring to there. But I can confirm that I did speak with Ali Hamdan, but I’m not going to get into the substance of diplomatic conversations.
As I said to you before, or as I mentioned before, I hope – I hope and I believe that we are making some incremental progress. And I’m looking forward to finishing up with this framework agreement so you and the Israelis can actually move on to actually negotiating about your borders. This has gone on way too long; it’s been an unfortunate waste of time.
As for Ismail Haniyeh, in Beirut, Ismail Haniyeh is a designated terrorist – head of a terrorist organization. I don’t – I don’t believe that states should be providing visas or entry into their countries of these figures. I think it’s counterproductive for what’s going on in the region.
Moderator: Our next question was submitted by Mai Elsoukary from Al Qabas newspaper in Kuwait. And the question is, “Will there be any U.S. action to solve the Gulf crisis before the U.S. presidential election?” Over.
Assistant Secretary Schenker: Thanks. This is a repeat of the question. As I said earlier, this is an issue that we are working on all the time. There is a lot of high-level attention. I know the President, President Trump, is engaged on this. The Secretary of State has been engaged on this. This means phone calls. This means engagements with regional leaders. We are trying to solve this conflict, this rift. As I said, it serves nobody’s interests except Iran’s. There are some long-standed – long-standing and deep-seeded disagreements between – within the GCC that have proven difficult to get past. But we continue to make efforts to do so, and also are hopeful that we will eventually get to a resolution on that.
Moderator: All right. Our next question will come from Courtney McBride in the queue.
Question: Thank you. Assistant Secretary Schenker, does today’s action with respect to the former Lebanese officials signal that more sanctions against similar officials or former officials should be expected, particularly to men who have been accused of both corruption and facilitation of Hizballah, Gebran Bassil and Riad Salame?
Assistant Secretary Schenker: Well, thanks for the question, Courtney. We don’t – so we don’t preview sanctions. I won’t talk about who’s being considered or names or personalities once again. I will say that these designations take a long time to prepare because of the level of specificity, their review by lawyers through the interagency, the careful preparation of the packages, which is why these designation packages are credible. And so I hope that we can get a bunch more of these out there as soon as possible. They take time, but yes, I think everyone should absolutely expect more designations of sanctions to come.
Moderator: Our next question was submitted by Mohamed Abdallah from Nile News Egyptian TV. And the question is, “The normalization of relations with Israel works well for Gulf countries on a government-to-government level, but the people in the Gulf are against it. How can the United States make this work on all levels?” Over.
Assistant Secretary Schenker: Thanks, Mohamed. It’s a – it’s a great question. I mean, we still have – we have the Camp David Peace Treaty from 1978, and there is not a great deal of people-to-people connection between the Israelis and the Egyptians. We have since 1994 the Wadi Araba, which is a great strategic relationship also between Amman and Jerusalem. And yet, we haven’t seen the type of normalization between peoples that we would have liked to have seen. And we continue to work on that through trying to promote both private business ventures – we saw – we had in both Egypt and Israel these QIZs, that Israeli companies would come and invest and the Egyptian workers would work and Jordanian workers would work, and everybody would profit off it. But we haven’t seen that sort of level of tourism, et cetera.
I think that’s going to take a real government effort in these countries and in the Gulf. We’re seeing that the UAE is pushing forward for a whole bunch of commercial investments. We’re seeing that they’re moving ahead with the direct flights, et cetera. And they appear to be really genuine about having what would look like at a real people-to-people peace. And we will look at areas in which we can promote that. I know the Government of Israel would like to have that, and I hope we can do better in the future with fostering the people-to-people in both Egypt and Israel and Jordan and Israel, as well.
Moderator: The next question will go to the question queue. Nick Schifrin.
Question: Hey, David, thank you for doing this. I wanted to go back to France and just make sure we understand your message about Macron. Did you have a problem with his meeting a member of Hizballah? And do you think that is intervening in the way that you were saying is a negative, or do you believe that he’s singing from the same sheet of paper as the U.S.? And then to go back to the Abraham Accords, will there be a signing ceremony next week? And if so, who will be there? Thanks.
Assistant Secretary Schenker: Thanks. All right. So, listen, we have a different view from France on Hizballah. We don’t believe that people should be meeting, attempting to legitimate or otherwise these organizations or individuals. But that said, putting aside the engagements with MP Ra’d, I would say, as the Secretary said, we think that the French initiative has a lot of merit. The idea of getting a government that is committed, as we discussed earlier, to reform, transparency, anti-corruption, disassociation, all these sort of factors, and getting a government of people who are expert in what they do, who are committed to moving ahead on the reform agenda so they can actually help the Lebanese people, that this would be the prerequisite for unlocking financial assistance. I think we’re on the same page. Likewise, we have heard from the President’s office that those who try to obstruct reform, that the Government of France would look to designate or sanction them as well. And we think that’s a very productive approach as well.
So moving on to the Abraham Accords, I know there is a signing ceremony. It’s been pushed once or twice. I know that there’s a series of individuals from foreign missions who are invited. I’m not going to comment on who is attending yet or who has RSVP’d. I’ve been out of the country this week; I haven’t seen it.
Moderator: Great. Our next question comes from the queue, and it goes to Alice Hackman.
Assistant Secretary Schenker: Hello.
Question: Hello. Hi. So thank you for doing this. My question was, you said that you’re going to – that more sanctions were likely to follow in Lebanon. To what extent would those apply to allies of Hizballah who are currently in government or in positions of power such as, for example, the head of the central bank?
Assistant Secretary Schenker: Once again, I’m not going to – I’m not going to preview who the sanctions are targeting. We’ve always said that we will target Hizballah. We’ve always said that we will target allies of Hizballah. And of course, we also have Global Magnitsky sanctions that target those who are engaged in corruption, and sometimes in corruption in the service of Hizballah, among others. But I’m not going to talk about what individuals are next. My apologies.
Moderator: All right. Our final question was submitted by Waleed Sabry from Al Watan newspaper in Bahrain. And the question is, “Do you think sanctions are capable of weakening Hizballah and Iran?” Over.
Assistant Secretary Schenker: Yes. I mean, you can look at it. Sanctions against Iran have denied the Government of Iran something like $70 billion in revenues in recent years. We see that they are not able to provide all their regional proxies, particularly Hizballah, with everything they were providing with – for them before, that they’re not able to meet all their payrolls, that they’re not able to send all kinds of people to kindergarten, that they’re not going to be able to pay all their obligations. So this does have an impact. Whether it will have a decisive impact, that’s to be seen. But it’s undebatable that it is having a significant impact. Yeah. That’s my view.
Moderator: Great. And now, Assistant Secretary, if you have any closing remarks, I’ll turn it back over to you.
Assistant Secretary Schenker: Thanks, everybody, for joining in. I’ll look forward – it was great getting out to Kuwait, Qatar, and Beirut, and I’ll look forward to the time when I can get back on the – on the road again and go see our friends in the region. So thanks for your time today, and we’ll talk to you again soon.
Moderator: Thank you, Assistant Secretary Schenker. That concludes today’s call. I would like to thank the Assistant Secretary for joining us and thank all of our callers for participating. If you have any questions about today’s call, you can contact the Dubai Regional Media Hub at [email protected] Information on how to access the English recording of this call will be provided by AT&T shortly. Thank you and have a great day.