Previewing Secretary Pompeo’s Trip to Beirut, Jerusalem, and Kuwait City

MODERATOR: Thank you. Good morning, everyone. Thank you for joining us for today’s background call to preview Secretary of State Pompeo’s upcoming trip to Beirut, Jerusalem, and Kuwait City. For your situational awareness only and not for reporting, we are joined today by [Senior State Department Official], who will be referred to as senior State Department official. [Senior State Department Official] will give a brief overview of the trip and then we’ll open it up for some questions. And as a reminder, today’s call is on background and will be embargoed until the conclusion of the call.

With that, I will turn it over to our senior State Department official.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you, [Moderator]. I want to give as much time as possible for questions, so I’ll go very briefly over the itinerary here. The Secretary will be traveling from the 19th through the 23rd. He will be visiting Kuwait. That will be the stop that many of you will recall we had planned for the end of the Secretary’s January trip. Because of a death in the family, we had to cancel that stop at the last minute. We promised we would put it back on.

The centerpiece for the visit to Kuwait will be the U.S-Kuwait Strategic Dialogue the Secretary and his counterpart will chair. That dialogue will be focused on a variety of bilateral issues both in the region and beyond, including defense, CT, cybersecurity, cultural, trade, and investment issues. This will be the annual event. It was in Washington last year. We look forward to a very successful exchange with Kuwaiti officials. The Secretary, of course, will have bilateral meetings along with the strategic dialogue.

We will then travel to Jerusalem. The Secretary will meet with a range of senior Israeli officials. We’ll be talking about regional issues, obviously, discussing the challenges posed to the region, to Israel, to the United States by Iran and by Iranian proxies. The Secretary will reaffirm both privately and publicly during that visit our unwavering commitment to Israel’s security and its right to self-defense.

And then in our last stop, Beirut, the Secretary will be engaging with a wide range of senior Lebanese officials and others to discuss broadly our view of the need for Lebanon to be able to move forward in prosperity, peace, lasting security, as a nation capable of taking independent decisions on behalf of the people of Lebanon. Obviously, in those discussions the Secretary will be discussing quite directly the challenges posed by Iran, its illicit activities, its threatening behaviors, Lebanese Hizballah, their illicit activities and threatening behaviors, and how this all plays for a promising future � or against � for the people of Lebanon.

That’s it in a nutshell. Happy to take questions.

MODERATOR: Thank you very much. Let’s now open it up to questions, please.

OPERATOR: Okay. Ladies and gentlemen, if you’d like to ask a question, please press * then 1 on your touchtone phone. You will hear a tone indicating you have been placed in queue. You may remove yourself from queue at any time by pressing the # key. If you’re using a speaker phone, please pick up the handset before pressing the numbers. Once again, if you have a question, please press * 1 at this time. And to get through as many questions as possible today, please limit yourself to one question per turn.

Your first question comes from the line of Matthew Lee from the AP. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you, [Senior State Department Official]. Two really, really brief ones. One is: How unusual do you think is it � or is it in your experience for a secretary of state to visit a country like Israel just so close to the elections? And then secondly, on the Lebanon stop, is U.S. support for the Lebanese armed forces as unwavering a commitment as U.S. commitment to Israel’s security? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Yeah, Matt, the Secretary’s already spoken to your first question. We have major U.S. interests with Israel. Those interests don’t go away. They don’t go into suspension because of the electoral cycle in Israel any more than they do for Israel and other states when we’re in an electoral cycle, and that is precisely how you should view the frame for this visit.

With respect to your second question, we strongly support, Matt, the continued U.S. engagement with Lebanese security forces, most notably but not exclusively the Lebanese Armed Forces. They are the legitimate security institution or institutions of Lebanon. Our support for them, the work that they do, their ability to be seen by the people of Lebanon as the legitimate defenders of the state stand in stark contrast to the illegitimate security presence structures of Lebanese Hizballah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps presence in Lebanon.

MODERATOR: Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Francesco Fontemaggi from AFP. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thank you, [Senior State Department Official], for doing this. I was wondering if the Secretary will be meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu himself during the trip since it’s just before the election? And also, just for that, if he’s also meeting with other candidates, like General Benny Gantz or � or others? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Francesco, the Secretary will be meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu. He meets with him as the head of government in Israel. As I said in response to Matt’s question, we have critical, important bilateral, regional, and transregional issues to discuss with the Government of Israel. That is the context for all of his meetings. He will not be meeting with candidates because the meeting with the prime minister is in his capacity as the prime minister of Israel.

MODERATOR: Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Nick Wadhams from Bloomberg News. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, [Senior State Department Official]. Could you give us a little more detail on the other events or things that the Secretary will be doing when he’s in Israel, aside from his direct meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu? Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The (inaudible) will have a range of meetings with Israeli officials, not just with Prime Minister Netanyahu. Beyond those meetings, the Secretary will be doing some visits to sites, but I am not going to get into detailing that part of the schedule at this point for reasons I think you understand.

MODERATOR: Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Barbara Usher from BBC. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you. [Senior State Department Official], I want to return again to this issue about the use of the word occupation, which the State Department is using less and less. It used to be quite prominent in your statements and your press releases and now it’s almost disappeared. So my question is: Is that an accident or is it part of a deliberate process to de-emphasize occupation as a way to describe Israel’s hold of the territories?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I will answer this question as directly as I can. There has been no change in the policy of the United States with respect to the status either of Gaza, West Bank, or of the Golan Heights, full stop.

MODERATOR: Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Tracy Wilkinson from The L.A. Times. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi. Thanks, [Senior State Department Official]. I have a question about the Lebanon leg. Given that Hizballah is part of the government, how does the Secretary step around that? Are you � are you � is � are you trying to be very clear that he not meet with any Hizballah officials, or will they be in some of the meetings? Thanks.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Oh, there’ll be no stepping around the issue of Hizballah’s presence in the Lebanese parliament, in the Lebanese cabinet. That, in fact, is an issue which the Secretary will be addressing quite squarely in his meetings. The challenge here, the issue here for us is not that fact; it is what does Hizballah do with that presence? What is the impact, the influence of Hizballah, of Iran through Hizballah, on the future of Lebanon, on the fate, the hopes of the Lebanese people? No, the Secretary will not be meeting with Hizballah. That is not U.S. policy, not in Lebanon, not anywhere else in the world. But there is going to be no skating around the challenges posed to Lebanon and its people by Hizballah.

MODERATOR: Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Michel Ghandour from MBN. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, thank you for this call. I have three short questions, [Senior State Department Official]. Any progress regarding the oil field � fields dispute between Lebanon and Israel, first? Will the Secretary meet President Aoun? And the third question is: Is the U.S. interested in having military bases in Lebanon, especially in Hamat airport in the north?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I’ll take those in order. The United States stands ready, as has been the case for the last several years, to facilitate discussions between the governments of Lebanon and Israel, their representatives, for a resolution to mutual benefit of the dispute involving potential offshore resources. The rest of the Eastern Med is moving forward in exploring and exploiting for the benefit of their people � Greece, Cyprus, Turkey, Egypt, Israel � those resources. It would be regrettable if the people of Lebanon were denied, as a result of Hizballah and others, their ability to join in this as well. We stand ready to help.

Your second question, yes, the Secretary will meet with President Aoun.

Third question here, no, the United States is not pursuing a base of any kind in Lebanon.

MODERATOR: Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Kim Dozier from The Daily Beast. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing the call. I wanted to ask about your reaction to the notion that by Secretary Pompeo going to these two Middle East countries he’s putting his thumb on the scale of domestic politics there by giving Bibi Netanyahu a made-for-TV event to show his close cooperation with the Trump administration, and then by protesting the actions of a political party that was elected by a significant portion of the Lebanese electorate.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Kim, I answered your first question twice, and I’ll answer it again. His meetings in Israel are squarely in the context of bilateral discussions on critical issues of importance to the U.S. that do not halt, stop, diminish in importance, go into a suspended animation state because of an electoral cycle.

With respect to the second question, I’ll elaborate a little further on my previous remark. The issue here is not that Hizballah is part of the Lebanese Government. That’s a fact. It is what Hizballah does to Lebanon and the people of Lebanon through that participation. That’s the question.

MODERATOR: Next question, please.

OPERATOR: Your next question comes from the line of Joel Gehrke from The Washington Examiner. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Hi, thanks for doing this. I just wondered: Is there anything specific that you’ll be � any specific outcome that you’ll be hoping to accomplish there in terms of actually marginalizing the influence of Hizballah forces and Iranian-backed forces in Lebanon, perhaps with particular reference to the reports now of Hizballah in the Golan Heights?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, obviously we have an overarching regional and trans-regional objective of constraining, throttling back, ultimately rolling back the malign adventures, influence, presence of Iran’s forces, as well as their variety of proxy and associated forces throughout the region. But certainly that includes Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Yemen most prominently. That’s an overall objective, and this trip should be seen in part as part of that process.

MODERATOR: Last question, please.

OPERATOR: Your last question comes from the line of Nadia Charters from Al Arabiya TV. Please, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you for doing this. [Senior State Department Official], you know that Hizballah is in charge of the ministry of health. They deal a lot with Syrian refugees. How does the United States make sure that the money that’s allocated to the much needed cause of the refugees does not go to Hizballah? Thank you.

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: We’ve made very clear to the Government of Lebanon � Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs David Hale during his visit, I during the visit that I just concluded last week to Beirut, have outlined our concerns about potential Hizballah access to Lebanese state funds or, beyond that, to funds from the international community, including the United States, provided through any institution of the Lebanese state. We are watching this and we have been absolutely transparent on this point very, very closely. It is not just that we are required by statute to act if there is any credible indication of misdirection, appropriation of funds. It is part of our policy as well.

MODERATOR: Thank you, [Senior State Department Official], and that concludes today’s question and answer session. Thank you all for joining us. Have a great Friday. Bye-bye.

Source: U.S. State Department