US State Dept Presser

US State Dept Presser – Mar 2, 2023

29 Min
US State Dept Presser – Mar 2, 2023

The US State Department held a press briefing with spokesperson Ned Price fielding questions on a host of issues that included G20 FM meeting in New Delhi, Khalistani violence, and Pak domestic political scene.  The Q-A on India and Pakistan is brought upfront.

Some Excerpts 

2:07 p.m. EST

MR PRICE: Good afternoon, everyone. I’ll have two announcements at the top, and then happy to take your questions.

First, the United States has sent a robust interagency delegation to the Our Ocean Conference currently taking place in Panama. The delegation, headed by Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry, is announcing nearly $6 billion in voluntary commitments at Our Oceans Panama this year, more than double our commitments in 2022.

Next, and finally, we congratulate Ambassador Cindy McCain on her important – on her appointment by the UN secretary-general and the FAO director-general to serve as the next executive director of the World Food Program. We are grateful for Ambassador McCain’s service as permanent representative to the UN Agencies for Food and Agriculture in Rome, and we are confident she will continue to be a powerful voice in the global fight against hunger.

So with that, happy to take your questions. Please.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ned.   My question is that now, in the next coming weeks and months, India chairing the G20 will be the global stage for many global leaders, or especially for the G20. Does the Secretary believe that India still has the – not power, but to break the ice as far as to stop the – or end the war between Russia and Ukraine, or Russia’s war against Ukraine? And while in India, meeting the Indian officials, do you think they discussed this that India still can play a role?

MR PRICE: So, a couple things, Goyal. First, and you heard this from the Secretary, we’re deeply grateful to our Indian partners for the way they have led the G20 to date. And as you alluded to, there is a lot more work to be done over the course of this year, but India is off to a very promising start with its stewardship of the G20.

Our partnership – and this is – was a subject of discussion between Secretary Blinken and his counterpart, Foreign Secretary Jaishankar, earlier today – our partnership with India is one of the most consequential relationships we have, and that’s because we work closely with India on just about everything that is a priority to us and everything that is a priority to India – increasing our mutual prosperity, supporting democracy, addressing the climate crisis, upholding a rules-based order grounded in international law. And it is that point, the rules-based order, that is so important to us around the world, but particularly important to the United States and to India in the context of the Indo-Pacific. It is helping to build and to preserve a free and open Indo-Pacific region, a vision that we share with our Indian counterparts.

The Secretary and his counterpart had an opportunity to talk about the tremendous work India has done so far in hosting the G20 foreign ministers and hosting the finance ministers as well, and creating an agenda, really, that allows us to tackle the key issues that are so important in our Global Strategic Partnership with India in all of its breadth and in all of its depth.

The G20 is an important instrument for us, it’s an important instrument for India. We’ve seen how the G20 can bring together countries for collective action. We think what we’ve seen in India over the past couple days was no exception. And the United States, for our part, participated in this foreign ministers meeting with two imperatives in mind. First, to see to it that the G20 – again, with India at the helm – was a success, which clearly it was. And second, to demonstrate how the United States together with our partners is working collaboratively to build a world that is more prosperous, is more sustainable, it is more inclusive in terms of the global economy, and that delivers for the needs of people around the world, whether that’s food, whether that’s energy, whether that is health, whether that is helping people around the world confront the challenges and threats that they face from fentanyl and narcotics, to a changing climate, to COVID, and to everything in between.

Now on the question of India, there are countries around the world that have a relationship with Russia that is distinct from the one we have. India certainly falls within that category. India has longstanding historical ties to Russia. It is connected in Russia to ways that the United States is not and, for that matter, has not been. India also has tremendous leverage in different areas, whether it’s economic leverage, diplomatic leverage, political leverage, but also moral leverage. And India has the ability, as we’ve seen from Prime Minister Modi, to speak with tremendous moral clarity. When Prime Minister Modi said last year that this is not an era of war, the world listened, as they should, because when Prime Minister Modi and his country says something to that effect, it is meaningful to the United States, it’s meaningful to Russia, it is meaningful to countries near and far.

So we will continue to work with our Indian partners. They of course have a unique role to play in this as the G20 hosts, but also as a country with whom we have a Global Strategic Partnership, a country that has a relationship with Russia that we don’t. And just as India has consistently expressed that this is not, should not be an era of war, we hope that we can work closely with India to bring about an end to this war, an end to this Russian aggression that is, at its core, just and durable and very much in line with the principles of the UN Charter.

I think you see that reflected in the Chair’s Summary that emanated from the G20 meeting earlier today. Of course, this was the Chair’s Summary that was subscribed to by all 20 members of the G20, except for two key paragraphs. And we all know those two countries in question: Russia and China. We all know the issue in question: Russia’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine.

But when it comes to the broader set of issues that neither Russia nor China could agree to accept, I think it was pretty notable that the key paragraph referenced the essential need to uphold international law and the multilateral system that safeguards peace and stability. It is a paragraph that speaks to defending, protecting the principles of the UN Charter, ensuring that countries around the world adhere to international humanitarian law, including the protection of civilians and infrastructure in armed conflict, and that makes clear where countries stand in strongly condemning the use or threat of use of nuclear weapons in any conflict.

The fact that neither Russia nor China could sign on to a paragraph that should be as anodyne and common-sense and basic as that, it tells you a lot about two countries that purport to believe in the UN Charter, have been permanent members of the UN Security Council, consistently raise international law and the principles of the UN Charter, only to ignore them in contexts like this.

Yes, Goyal.

QUESTION: Another question – and thank you, sir – because of growing relations between India and U.S., and also India’s rise, neighboring countries, including China and Pakistan, of course, are not very happy, and they are trying their best to curtail back or whatever they can do. Now, as far as Pakistan is concerned, there are some elements of – Khalistani elements in Pakistan, and they are attacking the Hindu temples there, and also in Australia now, according to reports, press report – Australia, UK, Canada. Now, as far as Canada is concerned, this Khalistani movement or elements, they are the same group which – in 1985 they brought down the Air India flight, killing 389 people from Canada going back to India…

My question is those elements have threatened the Indian temples here in the U.S., and they are now having the cells here in the U.S., with the support of those same elements. Is the U.S. Government aware of that? And – because Indian community or Hindu community here are very much now meeting so many officials here because they are threatened or their temples are threatened by the terrorist or Khalistani movements.

MR PRICE: Goyal, without weighing in on the specifics, I can tell you that we condemn any form of violence. We condemn the threat of violence, any form of violent extremism. This is a country that has always had at its core key values. One of those is religious pluralism, tolerance for people of all faiths or no faith. That is a principle that we uphold, we respect, and we condemn any individual or movement that seeks to carry out and enact a different vision.


QUESTION:  Jahanzaib Ali from ARY News. I have different topic, but just one question came into my mind as you talked about Secretary Blinken meeting with his Russian counterpart. You told me, a couple of days ago, that whenever American diplomats meet with Russian diplomats, they just discuss bilateral issues, don’t discuss Ukraine. Same thing was confirmed by the Russian diplomats and ambassador. I met them a few days ago. So, this is the first meeting of Secretary Blinken with the Russian foreign minister after the war began. So, is U.S. trying to negotiate, mediate, or just asking a simple question to stop the war, and further negotiation or further talks can be followed?

MR PRICE: The Secretary’s meeting was – he conveyed a very simple message on that. It is the vision that President Zelenskyy has put forward for a just and durable peace. We’ve been very clear from the outset that we are never going to discuss anything about Ukraine without Ukraine. This was not that, and not that at all. In fact, the Secretary referenced the very plan that President Zelenskyy and his administration have put forward, a plan that would be just, that would be durable, that would be lasting in its outlook, and that would respect and adhere to the core principles of the UN Charter, including sovereignty and territorial integrity.

The Secretary and we thought it was important that the Russians hear directly from us at that level that we are continuing to stand by Ukraine, continuing to, in turn, stand by the UN Charter. But, of course, Ukraine wants this war to end. They have put forward a proposal. We are ready, working with Ukraine and countries around the world that want to see the UN Charter upheld, to support the – to support bringing this brutal war of aggression to a conclusion on a basis that is both just and durable.

QUESTION: Today the internet advocacy watchdog Access Now, they’re saying in their latest report that India topped the list of fifth successive year for highest number of internet shutdowns in the world in 2022. More than 85 internet shutdowns were recorded in Indian-occupied Kashmir. Your thoughts on that? You always talk about the freedom of speech.

MR PRICE: You’re right, we always do talk about it. We talk about freedom of expression, freedom of people around the world to access information, and we continue to highlight the importance of freedom of expression, including via access to the internet as a human right that contributes to strengthening democracies and to strengthening countries around the world. This is something we advocate for with our partners and allies in countries around the world.

QUESTION: Sir, there is a crackdown on Afghan refugees in Pakistan. Afghans, including women and children, are being arrested for their illegal presence. They crossed the border after Taliban took the power in Afghanistan. Sir, is there any discussion with the Pakistani authorities to give them, like, temporary shelter till the situation is better in Afghanistan?

MR PRICE: This is a matter we’re discussing with our Pakistani counterparts. We’re in regular discussion with our Pakistani counterparts about this. We encourage all states to uphold their respective obligations with regard to Afghan refugees or asylum seekers, and to refrain from returning them to anywhere where they could face persecution or torture.

QUESTION: One last question, please. Sir, Pakistani court issued arrest warrants for former prime minister Imran Khan for selling state gifts and concealing his assets. His party workers termed it a political victimization. Sir, what are your thoughts on rising political unrest and chaos in Pakistan?

MR PRICE: These are questions for the Pakistani people. These are not questions for the United States. As I’ve said before, we support the peaceful upholding of democratic, constitutional, and legal principles around the world, including in Pakistan.

QUESTION: Ned, what are you learning about the ongoing protest in Georgia over a draft law on so-called foreign agents that the ruling party – Georgian Dream – initiated and adopted, actually, a few hours ago at the first hearing in the Parliament of Georgia? So the initiator of this law, they are arguing that this is similar to U.S. law FARA. So what do you think this leaves the 30-plus years of building democracy in Georgia by the U.S.?

MR PRICE: Well, this is something that we’ve spoken to over the past couple days. We have expressed our consistent concern about this. The law is still going through the process within the Georgian system. But nevertheless, we remain deeply troubled by the introduced foreign agents law, precisely because it would stigmatize and silence independent voices and citizens of Georgia who are dedicated to building a better country for their fellow citizens, for their communities. We are deeply concerned about the potential implications of this law for freedom of speech and democracy in Georgia.

Our point has been a simple one, and we’ve made this point in public but we’ve also conveyed it in private. Anyone voting for this draft legislation would be responsible for potentially jeopardizing Georgia’s Euro-Atlantic future. A law like this is not consistent with the aspirations that the Georgian people have expressed over the course of decades now, the future they have set out for themselves, and the future that we, as the United States, are determined to continue to be a partner to help them achieve.

It’s not just the United States expressing these reservations. Several other partner countries, the EU, the UN, and Georgian civil society groups have also issued strong statements of concern about this draft legislation.

Now, there has been a lot of propaganda about this law. You mentioned one of these untruths: the idea that this law was based on our Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. Our Foreign Agents Registration Act requires people who are agents of foreign governments to register as such. Our law does not affect NGO operations or funding sources. We can provide you with additional details on FARA if that would be of use. But FARA is very narrow; it is tailored to apply only to those agents of foreign government. This is something very different, and that’s why we’re quite concerned about it.

QUESTION: Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the Russia expert, Fiona Hill, the other day, at a Brookings Institute event, mentioned that U.S. attention to human rights record of Georgia and freedom of speech, et cetera, was not sufficient. How would you respond to that? Because for many years, especially in the past few years, Georgian civil society organizations, opposition leaders, and Western-oriented Georgians collectively, we are calling and urging the U.S. to impose sanctions against the oligarch Ivanishvili and his puppets in the government. And there is a growing concern that the state capture and the growing authoritarianism and oligarchies is just booming in Georgia.

So would you agree with Condoleezza Rice and Fiona Hill on that?

MR PRICE: What I would say – and this has been a project of successive administrations, and that’s why I think you are right to point to what Fiona Hill said, what former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said as well. This has been a project of the people of Georgia, but also a partnership with the United States of America since Georgia’s independence, going on decades now.

From the beginning we have stood in solidarity with our Georgian partners and, again, their own aspirations to be a free and sovereign country within its internationally recognized borders. We, of course – and you’re alluding to this – have heard damaging rhetoric from some who may be opposed to those Euro-Atlantic aspirations that the Georgian people have put forward. We’ve spoken to this law as well. When we have seen that, when we have heard that, we have used our voice publicly; we’ve also used our voice privately. Ambassador Degnan and the team in Tbilisi have been deeply engaged doing the work of this partnership with their Georgian counterparts, not only over the course of recent weeks, but over the course of some 30 years now, because over the course of some 30 years we have turned this partnership into a strategic one. It’s an important one for us. We wish to continue to work together towards that shared vision of Georgia fully integrated into the Euro-Atlantic family of nations and part of a Europe that is whole, free, and at peace.

Now obviously, there are many challenges to that, some within Georgia, some on the periphery of Georgia’s border. But this is a vision that we know will take political will, it will take hard work, it will take resources to help realize. The United States is ready to continue to be a partner, and we hope to continue to find partners in the Georgian Government.

QUESTION: If we can stay in the region, if you don’t mind. I’ll just – you mentioned those who are going to vote for this resolution, that they’re responsible. Can you be a little bit more precise, particularly when it comes to talking about the elephant in the room – my colleague mentioned Mr. Ivanishvili. Will the United States Government be willing to actually go after Ivanishvili and his party if they succeed in, let’s say, sucking the oxygen from Georgia’s democracy?

MR PRICE: Alex, our focus right now is making very clear where the United States stands. We want there to be no doubt about the concerns that we’ve expressed, the concerns that the EU has expressed, the UN has expressed, a number of countries around the world have expressed – and probably most importantly of all, the concerns that the Georgian Government should be hearing from civil society within their own country, from their own citizens. That’s our focus.

Of course, this passage of this law, implementation of this law would be a great concern for us. We’re not going to cross that bridge at this stage. It remains draft legislation that’s under discussion by Georgian lawmakers. That’s why we think at this stage the most important thing we can do is to leave no doubt about where we and the international community stands on this.

QUESTION: Staying in the region, I know I’ve asked this before, but yesterday was the first month of new Caucasus negotiator, who was just appointed to the region. Is it fair for us to expect his first trip anytime soon to the region?

MR PRICE: You can expect that, in fact. The Senior Advisor for Caucasus Negotiations Lewis Bono is traveling to the region next week on his first trip in this role. This is the first of what we will – what we expect will be regular travel to all three countries of the South Caucasus. Mr. Bono plans to meet with senior leaders to support the Armenia-Azerbaijan peace process and our sustained commitment to Georgia’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. As I mentioned before, he will visit all three South Caucasus countries as part of his visit. He’ll travel to Baku, to Yerevan, Tbilisi as well, in that order.

This, we believe, will be an opportunity for Mr. Bono to build on the meeting between Secretary Blinken, Armenia’s prime minister, and Azerbaijan’s president at the Munich Security Conference a couple of weeks ago now, in mid-February. We – as we said at the conclusion of that trilateral engagement, we are encouraged by recent efforts by Armenia and Azerbaijan to engage productively on the peace process. And Mr. Bono helps to – hopes to be in a position to build on that effort, and to see that progress continue. In all three of these cities, Mr. Bono will emphasize the United States is committed to promoting a peaceful, democratic, and prosperous future for the South Caucasus region.


QUESTION: I had a couple of questions on the Secretary’s meeting with Lavrov this morning, Ned.


QUESTION: What caused the Secretary to want to reach out to Lavrov at this point in time? Was there some development that led him to believe this would be a productive conversation? And this serious proposal he raised on Paul Whelan, how long has that been on the table? What can you tell us about it, and have the Russians engaged at all on it?

MR PRICE: Sure. A couple things, Jenny, and you heard the Secretary speak to this. First, what this was not, as opposed to what it was – you heard from the Secretary this was a rather brief encounter with Foreign Minister Lavrov. This was not a bilateral meeting; this was not a protracted discussion between the two. This was a rather brief encounter that the Secretary took advantage of to convey clearly and directly messages that are important to the United States and, in many cases, to the rest of the world.

The Secretary outlined those three messages. His first was on New START, and again, we’ve spoken extensively to this since the Russian Federation suspended its implementation of the New START Treaty, because it’s not only a concern for the United States as a responsible nuclear power, but it should be – and, in fact, is – a concern for the rest of the world, as the rest of the world expects Russia and the United States – just as we did with the Soviet Union during the course of the Cold War – to cooperate and to engage in talks on strategic stability and arms control.

Second, you mentioned this but the Secretary did raise, as he consistently has, the continued wrongful detention of U.S. citizen Paul Whelan. He noted that we had put a proposal on the table. He again encouraged Russia to accept it.

And third, he underscored our continued commitment to Ukraine, including the proposals that we’ve heard from President Zelenskyy and his government for a just and durable peace, a peace that respects the UN Charter as well as the principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity. He stressed that Ukraine and the United States want this war to end. We want this war to end on that basis. No one wants this war to end more than Ukraine. We are standing right by Ukraine in our desire to see this war come to a close, and we are continuing to be ready to support that effort, but what continues to be missing is a similar determination from Moscow.

The Secretary is not going to hesitate to convey clearly and directly messages that are important to us and that are important to the rest of the world. Of course, the continued detention of Paul Whelan is a concern to us. He’s an American citizen. The practice of wrongful detention is a concern to the rest of the world. It is a concern to the rest of the world that Russia has purportedly suspended its implementation of the New START Treaty. It’s a concern to the rest of the world that Russia is waging a brutal, illegal war of aggression against Ukraine, and as we’ve heard from most of the G20 – in fact all except Russia and China – the G20 wants to see this war come to an end on a basis that’s consistent with the UN Charter and on a basis that is both just and durable. So the Secretary had an opportunity to convey these messages directly to Lavrov, and we thought it was important to do so.

On the proposal for Paul Whelan, this is something that in all of our key engagements with Russian interlocuters we raise, and we impress upon them the need to see the release of Paul Whelan. He has been held for far too long, wrongfully detained. He should never have been held in the first place. We have, as we’ve said before, been relentless in our efforts to secure his release, just as we were relentless in our efforts to secure the release of Trevor Reed and Brittney Griner over the course of the past year. The proposal that the Secretary alluded to – this was not a proposal that the Russians heard for the first time today. This was a proposal that we have conveyed to them consistently in the past. What he did here today was once again a strong statement from the Secretary of State that Russia should accept this proposal, and in turn it should release Paul Whelan.

QUESTION: Can you say – have the Russians engaged meaningfully with that proposal at all? Have they acknowledged it?

MR PRICE: We have two overriding imperatives: number one is to see the release of Paul Whelan and to see more broadly the release of Americans who are wrongfully detained anywhere around the world. In the conduct of seeking that first imperative, we’re not going to do or say anything that could jeopardize those efforts. So you can understand why we’re going to continue to be circumspect in what we say publicly about this, but we have conveyed in some detail – in all of the necessary detail to the Russian Federation the proposal that we have put on the table. We have gone about this relentlessly. We have gone about this creatively, seeking to do everything we can to see the release of Paul Whelan, and beyond Paul, Americans who are wrongfully anywhere around the world.

QUESTION: Ned, can I just follow up on that?


QUESTION: The Secretary has said that he – the day before he did not have any plans to meet Lavrov. I was just wondering, did the meeting happen at the request of the United States or at the request of the Russians?

MR PRICE: I know our Russian colleagues are attempting to make some hay out of this. What is important for us to convey is that this was a brief encounter. This was not a protracted bilateral meeting or a protracted sit down between the two of them.

But more broadly, we make no apologies for clearly conveying what is in our interest. It is in our interest to see Russia resume implementation – full implementation of the New START Treaty. It’s in the interests of the rest of the world to see that as well. It’s in our interests to see Paul Whelan return home just as soon as can be accomplished. And it’s certainly in the interest of Ukraine, of the United States, of all of the countries around the world who believe in the UN Charter to see the war in Ukraine – Russia’s brutal war of aggression against Ukraine – come to an end on a basis that is both just and durable.

The Russians may be trying to make some hay and to delve into some inside baseball or inside diplomacy. We are just not going to engage in that. What we want to make clear is precisely what the Secretary said, why he said it, and we make no apologies for that. Rather, we will continue to be relentless in raising these issues at every appropriate opportunity.

QUESTION: Was this —

MR PRICE: Let me move around. Yes, go ahead, Julia.

QUESTION: Thank you. Senator Peter Welch, who just got back from a CODEL to Israel, delivered a letter to President Biden today urging him to take action to help improve relations amid the violence in the West Bank. In the letter, he said, “as far as the Netanyahu government is concerned, the two-state solution is dead” and is calling on the U.S. to acknowledge that and is calling Biden to take a more active role in the region, saying, “We have a choice: stand by passively as a withered two-state approach recedes into oblivion or do our best to reenergize it with more assertive efforts to persuade the Netanyahu government.” What is your response to this letter? Do you think that the posture should change amid the tension in the West Bank? Do you think that Biden should be taking a more proactive approach?

MR PRICE: A couple things on this. Number one, we continue to believe deeply – as do Israelis and Palestinians and people around the world – in a vision of a two-state solution, a negotiated two-state solution, a vision of two states for two peoples living side by side in peace and security. That is the vision that the United States has maintained over successive administrations. It is the vision that is consistent with Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state. It is a vision that is consistent with the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people to live in freedom in a state of their own, in a state that is governed by their elected officials. There’s no other formulation that we could envision accomplishing all of those goals, and all of those goals are important to us, but more importantly, they’re important to Israelis and Palestinians.

Now, on the question of engagement, I would note that we’re hearing this within some 72 hours or so of senior American officials being on the ground with Israelis, with Palestinians, with Jordanians, with Egyptians. We’re hearing this a couple weeks after the Secretary of State was in Israel, was in the West Bank, was in Cairo. We’re hearing this a few weeks, a month or so, after the National Security Advisor was in Israel and the West Bank. We are deeply engaged in the region. We are deeply engaged with the parties.

We have consistently made the point that the steps that the parties need to take to de-escalate tensions and to ensure that calm prevails – these are not steps that the United States can take; these are not steps that countries in the region can take, but these are steps that the parties themselves will have to take. But, at the same time, these are steps themselves that we will continue to partner with the parties, with Israelis, with Palestinians as we hope – as we expect – they continue to take them, as they committed to one another in Aqaba, in the meeting in Jordan I alluded to just a moment ago.

QUESTION: So would your response to this call to take a more proactive role in the region be that you believe the Biden administration is being proactive enough? Is there anything else that you could be or plan to be doing?

MR PRICE: We are engaged in the region broadly. We are engaged in this issue in particular. Throughout the course of this administration, we have taken an approach that may not always be showy; it may not always be flashy; it may not always publicly put the United States at the forefront of efforts. But it is consistently proven to be effective. It’s the approach we took to help Israelis and Palestinians bring an end to the conflict in the spring and summer of 2021. It’s an approach that we took last year, as tensions soared in the West Bank between Israelis and Palestinians. It’s the approach that we’re taking now, with American officials sitting down, actively engaging as participants in this five-way meeting in Aqaba, Jordan that involved Israelis, Palestinians, Egyptians, Jordanians, and yes, Americans. It’s the approach we’ve taken in the Negev Forum, meeting with our Israeli partners, meeting with those countries that have normalized relations with Israel, as we encourage the parties to bring the Palestinians into the fold and to encourage progress, just as we encourage progress and normalization with Israel’s neighbors near and far, to encourage progress on the Palestinian question as well.

So I think however you look at our approach, you see an America that is engaged, you see an America that is a partner to the parties, and you see an approach that has proven to be effective.



MR PRICE: Sure, Israel. Go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah. Can you give us anything today about the trip of the Israeli delegation coming to Washington next week?

MR PRICE: We would refer you, as we always would, to our Israeli partners for any comment on travel plans. As for us, we’ve spoken to the concern we have about ongoing violence in the region. We’ve urged Israel and the Palestinian authority to protect against the further loss of life. We’ve made our views very clear on this. I don’t have any travel to announce, nor would we announce travel for a foreign partner.

QUESTION: Well, Axios is reporting that the main reason for their trip is Iran and that they’re even intending to meet with Secretary Blinken. And also that Israel’s domestic issues, as well as its performance in the West Bank is a precondition to how they – Biden administration may work with the Netanyahu government on Iran.

MR PRICE: A couple things on that. First, we engage regularly with our Israeli partners. I ran through some of the high-level visits that you’ve been witness to, Guita, from the National Security Advisor to the Secretary of State to our assistant secretary of State, to the White House coordinator for the region. There have been many other visits and engagements on top of that. We have traveled to the region; our Israeli partners have traveled here. I expect that will continue in the coming days, weeks, and months, but we just don’t have any travel to preview at the moment.


QUESTION: Not sure if this is the same – actually, two questions. First one, not sure if this is the same trip my colleague is referring to, but the finance minister, Smotrich, is reportedly planning to be in the U.S. I think next week for an investment conference of some sort. Would the U.S., based on his sort of recent comments, consider revoking his visa, which is something that some groups here have been urging?

And then sort of on a related question to something that was discussed earlier, there was a bill introduced earlier this week on the Hill to create an ambassador-level special envoy position for the Abraham Accords. Is that something the State Department is supportive of, thinks should be necessary, helpful?

MR PRICE: So a couple things. First, on potential travel here, we don’t speak to individual visa records, nor as a general matter to a particular individual’s eligibility for a U.S. visa. Nevertheless, we’ll continue to make clear that we reject the comments from the minister, just as we did yesterday, and we appreciate the condemnations that we’ve heard from our Israeli partners.

On the legislation you refer to, this is a project – building bridges between Israel’s Arab and Muslim-majority neighbors, both near and far – that this administration has been a stalwart supporter of. We celebrated a notable anniversary of the Abraham Accords and the normalization agreements here in this building last year. In our engagements with Arab and Muslim-majority countries around the world, we consistently raise the possibility of improving relationships with Israel and improving relations with Israel, and in some cases encouraging countries to pursue that path of normalization – something that we unambiguously support.

This has high-level attention in this building; it has high-level attention in the White House. We’re going to continue to do what we can as a partner to Israel, as a partner to these Arab and Muslim-majority countries, and we’re going to take a close look at all proposals. And if something makes sense, if something would allow us to be even more effective in that project, we wouldn’t hesitate to pursue it.

Yes, Leon, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah, I have a question on Tunisia.


QUESTION: We don’t talk about it so much. The situation is deteriorating there. I would like to have your assessment on that situation right now in Tunisia. I understand there was a call also by the – Brett McGurk this morning, but there’s no reference to the arrests or demonstrations that are happening there in Tunisia. And then also there’s apparently been contacts between U.S. embassy and opposition activists there and the Tunisian foreign ministry gave a pretty strong rebuke, saying not to interfere in internal affairs. Can you confirm those contacts, and can you comment on that statement?

MR PRICE: So first to your broader question, Leon, we’ve spoken of our concerns to what has been happening in Tunisia in recent months. We spoke to it last month, I believe. We expressed our concern by the reported arrests of multiple political figures, business leaders, and journalists. We’ve expressed that concern precisely because we, and the world, have seen over the course of years now the aspirations of the Tunisian people for greater levels of democracy, for an independent and transparent judiciary, and one that is able to protect fundamental freedoms for all the people of Tunisia. We’ve engaged with the Tunisian Government at all levels in support of human rights and freedom of expression. These are not values that we support only in a place like Tunisia, but these are universal rights that we seek to defend and to promote anywhere and everywhere around the world.

Now, there have been allegations in recent days that you alluded to, and I can say that we are alarmed by reports of criminal charges against individuals in Tunisia resulting from meetings or conversations with U.S. embassy staff on the ground. This is part, as I said before, of an escalating pattern of arrests against perceived critics of the government.

This is what our embassies and our diplomats do around the world. A primary role for any U.S. embassy or any diplomat anywhere in the world is to meet with a wide array of individuals to inform our understanding of the different views and perspectives in that country. This is their primary task, to help inform policymakers back in the United States so that we can best support our partners in government and support our partners in the people of any given country, including the aspirations they have.

Tunisian and other foreign diplomats posted to the United States regularly engage in similar meetings. This is the work of diplomacy. It is the bread and butter of our diplomats, it is the bread and butter of diplomats from countries around the world, and it is a practice that should not be subject to persecution of any sort.


QUESTION: So you confirm those contacts, but can you confirm with whom, in what context they were done?

MR PRICE: We’ve seen reports of criminal charges against individuals in Tunisia, purportedly stemming from their contacts with U.S. diplomats. But again, the fact that our diplomats are meeting with Tunisians, we are doing that so that this government can best support the Tunisian Government but can also best support the Tunisian people and their aspirations. This is not any different from the kind of work that we do anywhere around the world. It is the kind of work that our Tunisian counterparts do right here in Washington, as the Tunisian Government also wants to understand what is happening in this country. It is what every – just about every foreign embassy does in the United States. It is what every single one of our embassies do around the world.



QUESTION: Ned, two questions, one on the meeting between Secretary Blinken and Saudi foreign minister in New Delhi. This is the first meeting after a while between U.S. and Saudi officials. How was the meeting? And did you open a new page with Saudi Arabia?

MR PRICE: This was a discussion with – between Secretary Blinken and his Saudi counterpart. It was important for us to welcome, as we have over the course of several days now, the important contributions that our Saudi partners have offered to our shared partners in Ukraine. Of course, the Saudi Government announced $400 million in humanitarian support. There was an important visit by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to Ukraine. That is something that we’ve welcomed. It was an opportunity for Secretary Blinken and Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan to discuss these issues and to discuss our partnership, the partnership between our two countries.

QUESTION: And is the U.S. satisfied with the distribution of aid in Syria?

MR PRICE: There, of course, is a tremendous amount of work to be done. There are going to be needs going forward for months and years to come. It is incumbent, we think, on countries around the world to contribute to this effort. The United States has attempted to lead by example. When Secretary Blinken was in Türkiye a couple of weeks ago now, he announced the contribution of $100 million additional U.S. in funding to the people of Syria, to our Turkish allies as well. The United States has to date contributed $185 million. This is funding that has translated into support for tens of thousands of people across both Türkiye and into Syria – shelter, food, water, help with recovery, rebuilding.

This is going to be a long-term project. The United States is going to remain committed to this, and we continue to call on countries around the world to show that they too are committed both in word and in deed, including by announcing generous funding for the people of both Türkiye and Syria.

Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: I have a follow-up on the Lavrov encounter. Are there any plans for further follow-up from that conversation? Did that set anything in motion for any sort of more formal dialogue on any of the specific topics or – that were raised, or just in general?

MR PRICE: We’re not expecting any more formal senior-level dialogue in the near term. Of course, we’re always going to remain open to dialogue. We believe in dialogue, we believe in diplomacy, especially – even when times are tense, especially when the state of our relationship is as it is now, and as the Russians are perpetrating what they’re doing against Ukraine. There are issues that are of profound importance to the United States, but also issues that have profound importance to the rest of the world. But there was no agreement or consensus coming out of that brief encounter for any sort of follow-up discussion, but we’re always going to take advantage of opportunities to convey our interests in manners that are clear and direct whenever we can.

QUESTION: One more along the line on G20. You said that Blinken would not hesitate to convey the interests. Why not have a similar type of conversation with his Chinese counterpart, given there are a lot of issues of concern there? To our knowledge, there was no meeting or discussion between those two leaders, so why not have a similar conversation with his Chinese counterpart?

MR PRICE: Principally because the Secretary sat down with the PRC’s top foreign policy official just a couple weeks ago in Munich. They had a more extended discussion on the current state of the bilateral relationship, covering a broad range of topics, as we’ve discussed. I expect there will be additional calls and engagements in the coming weeks, but we had just taken advantage of one opportunity a couple of weeks ago.

Yes, Alex.

QUESTION: Thank you, Ned. A few follow-ups on Lavrov-Blinken engagement, and my apologies for beating this dead horse, but a few questions need to be cleared up, starting from the last question. Who reached out to whom during the past 24 hours? Did the Secretary reach out to Russian side, or did Russians reach out to you? Can you just clarify that question?

MR PRICE: Alex, we’re just not going to go into the inside baseball dynamics of this. What’s important is that the Secretary conveyed clearly, directly, in a brief encounter what is of tremendous interest to us, but also what’s of interest to the rest of the world.

QUESTION: Did the Secretary have a chance to reach out to his Ukrainian counterpart, either before or after this engagement?

MR PRICE: We’ve – we consulted with partners and allies, as we always do ahead of conversations like this. I wouldn’t want to characterize those conversations, but we believe in diplomacy. We believe in diplomacy with countries where we have a relationship that is quite strained, even adversarial with Russia, but we’re in constant dialogue with our allies and partners in Europe and around the world on these issues.

QUESTION: If I may, this is a clear departure from your strategy from last year at this time at this very forum. Not only Secretary did not want to engage with him; he didn’t even want to be in the same photo op as him, no handshake. What changed?

MR PRICE: Alex, if I recall, the foreign ministers’ meeting was in July of last year. Secretary Blinken picked up the phone to Foreign Minister Lavrov around that time last year as well. Nothing has changed in the sense that we’re always going to convey very clearly so there can be no misconception, no misperception, no confusion about our interests, about things that are of great importance to us, and things that are of great importance to the rest of the world. That’s what we’ve consistently done. We’ve done that at lower levels, and we’ve done that at the level of Secretary Blinken when it’s been appropriate.

QUESTION: So he’s talking to Lavrov, meeting with him – a new normal. So what is the Secretary’s level of trust in him, given everything he has done? He lied about the war to the Secretary, at his face. He has spent his entire year to talk about his so-called operation. So is it new normal?

MR PRICE: Alex, this was an eight-minute, rather brief encounter. I don’t think anything was said or conveyed in eight minutes that could change the perception that has developed over the course of the past 16 months.


QUESTION: My last question on this, Ned. The Secretary said that he told Lavrov to engage in in meaningful diplomacy that can produce a just and durable peace in Ukraine. So clearly, he was talking about Ukraine without Ukraine in room.

MR PRICE: You’re taking that quite literally. They were talking about the proposal that President Zelenskyy himself has put forward, a 10-point proposal that calls for precisely what countries around the world have called for, what we have called for: a just and durable peace. It is, we think, incumbent on the United States, on us to do everything we can to help bring about the vision that President Zelenskyy himself has set out.

And look, we’re under no illusions that a very brief encounter like the one Secretary Blinken had with Foreign Minister Lavrov will, in the near term or immediately, change Russia’s attitude change its behaviour. But we think it’s important for the Russian Federation to hear from us at all levels that we believe in the vision that President Zelenskyy has set out, we believe in the principles of the UN Charter, and together with our partners around the world, including Ukraine, of course, we are going to do everything that we can to support that outcome.


QUESTION: Yeah, talking about G20 encounters, as you were coming into the briefing room, I saw a tweet from the Secretary’s account showing that he met Foreign Secretary Ebrard, Mexican foreign secretary. Do you have any readout of that conversation, how long it went, and what topics exactly were discussed beyond what the tweet says?

MR PRICE: Beyond the tweet, I don’t know that we’re in a position to issue a more formal readout. But the Secretary and Foreign Secretary Ebrard were both in the G20 together. Of course, we have a very important, broad, deep relationship with Mexico. It is a relationship that – on which we engage regularly, including at the seniormost levels. But beyond that —

QUESTION: The tweet stresses that Secretary Blinken presented the topic of strengthening democracy as relevant in the discussion between both countries. Can you expand on that?

MR PRICE: Again, wouldn’t want to go beyond what the what the brief readout we issued says. If we have any more details to convey —

QUESTION: How was it – how long was the encounter?

MR PRICE: If we have any more details to convey, we’ll let you know.


MR PRICE: Thanks very much, everyone.

QUESTION: Thank you.

(The briefing was concluded at 3:01 p.m.)