Daily Press Briefings : Daily Press Briefing – May 14, 2015

12:56 p.m. EDT

MR RATHKE: Hello. Good afternoon. I just have a couple things to mention at the top, and we’ll get right to your questions. The Secretary, of course, is out at Camp David today, joining the President and other senior members of the U.S. Government team, including Secretary Carter, Secretary Lew, Secretary Moniz, Director Brennan and Nick Rasmussen, the director of the National Counterterrorism Center. The discussions are ongoing there. There will be a briefing, of course, as you know, with Josh Earnest and Ben Rhodes I believe and then the President later in the day. And once that has concluded, then the Secretary leaves tonight for his trip to Beijing, Seoul, and Seattle, continuing his active travel schedule. So that’s it. Over to you, Brad.

QUESTION: So I was wondering – I saw the Pentagon had some limited information about this shooting incident between Iran and – well, by Iran toward a Singaporean ship. Do you have any more information about it?

MR RATHKE: So the – certainly aware of these reports. Bear with me for just a moment. They – we’re aware of a situation between a commercial vessel and an Iranian patrol craft in international waters that occurred today. There were no U.S. citizens and no U.S. vessels involved in the incident, so we don’t have a whole lot more detail to provide. But we’re certainly aware of that incident and following it.

QUESTION: Is it your understanding that shots were fired at this Singaporean vessel?

MR RATHKE: I’m aware of those reports. We haven’t been able to confirm that, but that’s certainly been reported.

QUESTION: So you’re not rejecting —

MR RATHKE: No, no. That’s – I just am not able to independently confirm it.

QUESTION: Do you – was there any distress call or any ask for assistance by this vessel or by any of the —

MR RATHKE: Not that —

QUESTION: — (inaudible) authorities?

MR RATHKE: — I’m aware of here. Again, the DOD colleagues may be closer to information of that sort. I’m not aware of that.

QUESTION: And then just what do you make of – this is not the first incident recently with Iran and these waterways, this internationally recognized maritime route, as we know. What do you – do you think this bellicose behavior from Iran? Are you concerned with activity that may be interfering with commercial activity in the region?

MR RATHKE: Mm-hmm. Well, we’re certainly concerned about anything that interferes with the freedom of navigation in international waters and the free flow of commerce. Of course, that includes the Straits of Hormuz and the Bab el-Mandeb. And we are – as you say, we are aware of a number of reported incidents recently. With regard to this particular incident, we’re still gathering information to understand what has transpired. Of course, the United States maintains naval forces and a force posture in the Gulf that is prepared for a range of contingencies, because, again, we have this core interest in ensuring the free flow of commerce and the freedom of navigation.

QUESTION: So can I follow up —

MR RATHKE: Yes.

QUESTION: — Brad, saying: Does the U.S. perceive this to be a – I mean, this is quite a new threat that has developed in this very strong commercial shipping lane. Does the U.S. perceive this to be a major threat at this stage, these growing incidents of it, or is it just that they’re reporting more of it?

MR RATHKE: Well, I’m not going to apply that label to it. We’re certainly concerned about anything that affects the free flow of commerce and the freedom of navigation.

QUESTION: Has the —

MR RATHKE: Yes.

QUESTION: Has the Secretary taken this up with the Iranians, or is there some kind of move afoot to discuss what’s going on in this gulf and the threat that it’s posing now to commercial trade along that route?

MR RATHKE: I don’t have any recent conversations with his Iranian counterpart to read out. Clearly this is important to the United States, but I don’t have any diplomatic contacts to read out on that specific – yes, Ros.

QUESTION: Yeah, do you have any information about this cargo ship? It’s carrying a Singaporean flag, but do you know who owns the ship, who’s —

MR RATHKE: I would refer you to Singaporean authorities for that kind of detail. But yeah, certainly we’re aware that the reports are that it’s a Singaporean-flagged ship. It is not a U.S.-flagged ship. That I’m certain of. So we’d refer you to the flag state for those kinds of details.

QUESTION: Can I just – I mean —

MR RATHKE: Yeah.

QUESTION: You’re addressing this very soberly, and that’s fine. But is anybody planning to warn Iran to stop this behavior when you’re talking about shooting at ships? Is there a plan at all to say, hey, cut this out?

MR RATHKE: Well, I take the point. I mean, we are certainly – again, as I said, we are very concerned about free flow of commerce and the freedom of navigation. I don’t have specific planned diplomatic engagements or messages to read out, but it’s certainly the case that we are paying close attention to the situation with regard to shipping in those waters, and I think that’s all I’ve got to say now. We’re still trying to find out more details about the particular —

QUESTION: Has the U.S. given a warning to the U.S. ships going through that area? I know that there was going to be some escorting of U.S. vessels through there, but has there been a specific warning from the State Department to commercial vessels operating in that area over the last week or so?

MR RATHKE: I may be wrong, but I think that those kinds of notices to mariners and to airmen typically wouldn’t come from this building. We – so for that specific question, I don’t think that would come from here. But on the question of the escort that was initiated a few days ago – a little over a week ago – that was, again, led by our colleagues from the Department of Defense, so they would be able to tell you about their current and ongoing plans and the status of any escort engagements.

QUESTION: And do you have any comment – the Pentagon said today there was no Iran warship that was escorting this Yemen cargo vessel assisting with humanitarian aid.

MR RATHKE: Oh, okay, so you’re – okay, we’re switching to Yemen. So —

QUESTION: Oh, well —

MR RATHKE: No, no, no, it’s okay. I don’t mind.

QUESTION: — I figured we were in the maritime area. (Laughter.)

MR RATHKE: I just want to be sure —

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR RATHKE: I just want to be sure – I just want to be clear which —

QUESTION: The seas.

MR RATHKE: — what you’re referring to. Yeah.

QUESTION: Yeah.

MR RATHKE: So —

QUESTION: Do you have anything further on this?

MR RATHKE: Well, I think when we talked about this yesterday, we talked about it in two separate questions. The first question was the question of humanitarian aid, and the second question was with regard to the presence of Iranian warships. And I don’t have any operational update to provide about locations of those. I don’t think – we’ve said that we’re aware of the reports of the Iranian warships. I’ve not been providing an update on their location.

QUESTION: Right.

MR RATHKE: Again, my colleagues at the Defense Department – if anyone in the U.S. Government may have information about their location, it’s possible they would. But we’re certainly tracking the Iranian warships and the Iranian convoy closely, and we stand by our position from yesterday, which is we encourage all sides to avoid provocative actions and to encourage the provision of assistance through established channels.

QUESTION: Do you know whether the Iranian ship is going to take its humanitarian aid to Djibouti, or do you still have a belief that it’s going to go directly to a port in Yemen?

MR RATHKE: I don’t have an update on its heading and how close it is to any port, but to come back – and I know this was a topic of interest yesterday – with respect to humanitarian aid deliveries, the United States point of view is that it is – that any country – this would include Iran – is welcome to provide humanitarian assistance to the people of Yemen. It’s up to the legitimate government of Yemen to decide how humanitarian assistance to Yemen is to be coordinated.

So that’s why the United States is looking to the UN to guide the international community on how to implement those aspects of this humanitarian pause. That’s why we support the use of established channels for assistance under the auspices of the UN and other international organizations. And that’s why there isn’t – we expect and the international community expects Iran to provide assistance through those channels. From our perspective, a refusal to coordinate could raise suspicions about a donor’s intentions and its willingness to assist all civilians in line with humanitarian principles. And that’s why we consider it important that aid during this humanitarian pause be coordinated and that it be done in ways that encourage and strengthen international confidence not only for the international community broadly, but especially for countries in the region, that this humanitarian pause will achieve its desired intention.

QUESTION: Since you used the phrase “would raise suspicions,” is there a concern that if, as the Saudis have alleged, that Iran is providing material support to the Houthis, that bypassing Djibouti could be a signal that it’s trying to shore up the military capability of the Houthis?

MR RATHKE: Well, we don’t – we’re not aware of any reason why any donor, including a UN member state, would not be willing to – would want to go outside internationally regulated – or internationally recognized humanitarian systems. And so as I said, those – you could have those suspicions arise if countries were not willing to coordinate.

With regard to Djibouti, it’s our understanding that Djibouti is the primary logistical hub for the United Nations and for other international humanitarian organizations through which they are addressing the humanitarian crisis in Yemen. And so that’s why you’ve heard statements encouraging its use. Now the UN and its partners have the lead in addressing the humanitarian crisis, so we certainly would refer to them about any more operational details of that.

QUESTION: Do you have any comments on the – another strike by the Saudi-led coalition, I think on a truck nine people killed according to security officials?

MR RATHKE: According to —

QUESTION: Yemeni security officials.

MR RATHKE: I don’t have a comment on that. I was not aware of that report. But maybe just a word on the ceasefire —

QUESTION: Please.

MR RATHKE: So we are aware that the Saudi-led coalition put out a statement last night which indicated multiple incidents of ceasefire violations, which included in one example reports of rockets being shot over the Saudi border. From what we understand, the Saudis also have reported those incidents to the UN. But at the same time, in their statement the Saudi-led coalition confirmed their full commitment to the humanitarian truce and to restraint. So we continue to urge all sides to continue to exercise restraint and hold to the terms of the ceasefire.

I would say more generally that our information is that there has been a broad pause in the fighting. There have been reports of incidents, but there has been a broad pause in fighting overall. And this has resulted in the successful delivery of some humanitarian assistance and some relief for the Yemeni people. Those – there are – there is humanitarian assistance that has gotten in in recent days, plans for more to come in. So in that regard, we see that – the humanitarian pause and the ceasefire as having facilitated some of those aid deliveries.

QUESTION: So, Jeff, we’re already in day three of – well, two of the truce.

MR RATHKE: Two, I guess. Yes.

QUESTION: Humanitarian groups are saying – and you’re only getting the supplies into some of these ports and nearby areas – half of it – it hasn’t even really started being distributed. Humanitarian groups are saying today that five days is not enough to get this – these supplies to the people that need it. Would you agree with that assessment? Is – has that been raised already as an issue by the U.S. – by development groups to the U.S.?

MR RATHKE: Well, going back to the announcement that the Saudi-led coalition made about the ceasefire, they described it as a five-day ceasefire that would be renewable. So I think that’s an acknowledgment of a desire for it not simply to last five days and end; the purpose is for it to continue if the conditions are right and it’s abided by by all sides. And also, this is connected to the broader question of the UN-led dialogue process, the GCC initiative, the national dialogue, and all of those political elements which are essential to finding a way forward that is in line with the UN Security Council resolutions and the need to address political – the political issues.

QUESTION: Do you know when the declaration will be made over whether it will be renewed or not?

MR RATHKE: I don’t have that information. I don’t know. I’m happy to see if we have anything more. I don’t know.

QUESTION: Yeah. I mean, I ask because, obviously, if it’s in the last day and they haven’t said if it’s renewed, aid groups are going to have to pull their people off roads and off cities and – or out of cities and into safe places. You can’t – these things take many days sometimes – certain deliveries to get places —

MR RATHKE: Yeah.

QUESTION: — and how can you plan if you don’t know whether as of 10 p.m. bombings are going to start?

MR RATHKE: Yeah. No, I understand the question; it’s a valid question. I just don’t know what the answer is to it.

QUESTION: Okay.

MR RATHKE: We can see if there’s – if there’s more.

Lesley, you mentioned humanitarian deliveries, also Brad, as kind of the core of your question. Just to say again that in these first days, our understanding is that aid agencies are working on accessing and delivering from their in-country stocks and – but we – it’s our understanding as well that there will be additional flights and vessels to arrive in Yemen in the coming days. So we would still refer back to the UN OCHA and the relevant authorities for more specific detail on that.

Nicolas.

QUESTION: Can we move on? New topic?

MR RATHKE: Yep.

QUESTION: Burundi.

MR RATHKE: Sure.

QUESTION: So the political situation is still very confusing on the ground. So thanks to the assistant secretary and your embassy, do you have more clarity of – about the whereabouts of the president and who is leading the country?

MR RATHKE: Mm-hmm. So let me – on the specific question, I’ll come to that, and may just make a couple of general points about the situation in Burundi. We’re watching the situation there very closely and with great concern. As we discussed yesterday, the situation remains very fluid, so we continue to attempt to gather facts. There are multiple reports of clashes and violence in Bujumbura, and we have called for all actors in Burundi to show restraint, to avoid violence, and to take all steps in their power to ensure that the human rights of all Burundians are respected. We think it’s more important than ever that all political forces, civilian and military, respect the principles of the Arusha Agreements. These principles have been the basis for the lasting peace and unity in Burundi. We are also deeply concerned about reports of Burundian military involvement in the violent events in Bujumbura. I would highlight that under the Leahy law, the United States cannot provide U.S. military assistance to military units if we have credible information that they have committed gross violations of human rights.

On the situation on the ground, our embassy has received reports that the airport continues to be closed and that the land borders may also be closed or restricted at this time. You asked about the whereabouts of President Nkurunziza. We understand that he overnighted in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, where he was attending the East African Community’s head of state summit. I don’t have further information about his precise whereabouts.

I would also go back to the point that we discussed yesterday, which is that President Nkurunziza remains the president of Burundi.

QUESTION: So your understanding was that last night, he overnighted in Dar?

MR RATHKE: That’s our understanding. But we – I don’t have an hour-by-hour accounting of his whereabouts, so I can’t say exactly where he is —

QUESTION: So same question than yesterday: As of now, he is the president of Burundi?

MR RATHKE: Yes.

QUESTION: There was no coup d’etat, or if there was, it failed?

MR RATHKE: Well, yes, the fluidity of the situation – so there are reports of clashes in Bujumbura. We’re following those and attempting to gain as much information as we can. He remains the legitimate president of Burundi. That’s the way we see it.

QUESTION: Legitimacy aside, do you understand him to have effective control over his government and the country right now?

MR RATHKE: Well, there are reports of these clashes. I – it’s – his whereabouts, I’m not – I don’t have his precise whereabouts. There are contesting or competing claims to authority, but we recognize President Nkurunziza as the legitimate president.

QUESTION: Jeff —

MR RATHKE: And then the rest – there – the rest, it’s – we’re just trying to —

QUESTION: Jeff —

MR RATHKE: We’ll go to Pam and then we’ll come back.

QUESTION: Has the U.S. had any communication with the president within the last 24 hours, even if it’s been by phone?

MR RATHKE: Well, as I mentioned yesterday, our assistant secretary for African affairs, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, was in Tanzania for the East African Community’s summit. And she met with officials of the countries in the region to express U.S. support for regional efforts to find a solution. She was – as I mentioned yesterday, she was in touch with the – our delegation there was in touch with the Burundian delegation. Assistant Secretary Thomas Greenfield is on her way back. So she left Tanzania yesterday, did not have an opportunity to speak with the president before her departure. So I don’t have any contact in the last 24 hours with the president to report on. But she certainly looks forward to continued engagement by the region on Burundi. I would point out there’s a – just next week, May 18th, there is an upcoming meeting of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region. And so we consider the regional role to be especially important, given that they have been so active up until now.

Same topic? Yes.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR RATHKE: Well, I think this is the same question that Brad asked. It’s a fluid situation. We consider President Nkurunziza to be the legitimate president of Burundi. Of course, there is – there are clashes and violence on the streets. I don’t have a kind of a real-time recounting of that.

Same topic?

QUESTION: Different topic.

MR RATHKE: Anything else on this topic?

QUESTION: One more.

MR RATHKE: Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Yeah. On Monday, the State Department put out the Travel Warning to Americans warning them to avoid non-essential travel. And now, you’re talking about the airport being closed, land crossings possibly being closed as well. Is there any initial planning on trying to remove Americans who want to leave Burundi since the usual options for their departure may be inaccessible?

MR RATHKE: Let me say a word about what we’ve been advising American citizens. Over the last two days, we’ve issued two emergency messages through our embassy in Bujumbura. And this is, of course, occasioned by the increasing violence in multiple locations across Bujumbura. So we had one message that was issued today. There was also one yesterday about the military activity as well as alerting U.S. citizens about border and airport closures as well as some flight cancelations.

Our recommendation to American citizens in – who are in Burundi is that they exercise extreme caution, and if they are in a safe location we recommend that they remain where they are because travel in Bujumbura currently is not – is not safe. We are continuing to provide updated information through our embassy to American citizens. The embassy is – today is – today actually is a local holiday, if I understand correctly, so the embassy is not open as it normally would be, but they are – our operational status is unchanged. We are continuing to provide emergency services even though it’s a holiday to U.S. citizens. So we have no change to our status or staffing to announce.

Yeah. Okay, go ahead.

QUESTION: Thank you.

QUESTION: Do you have any update on what is or isn’t being done to help these Rohingya in – and I think Bangladeshis as well onboard these ships in Asia that no one seems to be willing to take them in?

MR RATHKE: We are – we’re concerned about the situation. We urge the countries of the region to work together to save lives at sea. This is an urgent regional challenge that needs to be addressed regionally through a coordinated international effort and in accordance with international conventions and with maritime law. We are coordinating with the affected government authorities, also with the UN high commissioner for refugees, the International Organization for Migration. The priority is to save lives. And we appreciate that the governments of the region have accommodated many Rohingya and other refugees and we urge them to continue to do so. We also appreciate the efforts that are being made by the Thai Government to convene a regional conference on these issues. That would take place May 29th, but the priority right now is to save lives. So our ambassadors in all of these concerned countries are engaging governments to discuss ways of providing assistance so that that can be achieved.

QUESTION: Which ambassadors in particular are seeking meetings and what – so Malaysia, what, Thailand, Indonesia? Who are we talking about?

MR RATHKE: Yeah, those are – those are the countries, of course, that are affected by the migrants. We also continue to raise these issues with the Burmese authorities, because of course, we have to remember that there’s an urgent need to fulfill commitments to improve the living conditions of those affected, the humanitarian situation – excuse me – in Rakhine state. So we’re raising it with all of those governments.

QUESTION: You expressed appreciation to these countries for taking in so many previously, but do you find it not disheartening that these are human lives essentially drifting away at sea and no one’s willing to take them at this point?

MR RATHKE: Well, there have been a number of people who have been admitted or accommodated, so we appreciate that. But you are right; these are – there are many lives that are – that are in danger, and that’s why we think the priority has to be to save lives and we urge governments to continue to accommodate these people who are on the seas in their vicinity.

QUESTION: Just one —

MR RATHKE: Yeah.

QUESTION: My last one on this. You said yesterday there was nothing at this point about any U.S. operation to rescue these people.

MR RATHKE: Correct.

QUESTION: I assume that stands.

MR RATHKE: That remains the case.

QUESTION: That remains —

MR RATHKE: This is a regional issue. It needs a regional solution in short order.

QUESTION: Is there any contingency planning at all to step in if no one’s willing to step up here?

MR RATHKE: I don’t have any plans of those sorts to read out, no.

QUESTION: New topic —

QUESTION: Can you confirm that issue is the – what was the focus of Deputy Secretary Blinken’s meetings today with the ambassadors of Myanmar, Indonesia, and Vietnam?

MR RATHKE: Deputy Secretary Blinken – he had a few meetings today. The meetings with ambassadors from Vietnam, Indonesia, and Burma were previously scheduled, and those were – I don’t want to say routine, but those were previously scheduled meetings. So – but the deputy secretary, for those meetings that happened – I can’t remember which ones were before the briefing there, some were in the afternoon – but the deputy secretary will use the opportunity to discuss the full range of issues, including important human rights and regional issues. That wasn’t the reason they were scheduled. They were scheduled previously, but they certainly provide an opportunity in particular with ambassadors from Indonesia and Burma to talk about these issues.

QUESTION: (Off-mike.)

MR RATHKE: Same topic? Yeah. Okay.

QUESTION: Bradley mentioned what I was planning to ask you, but how many numbers from Bangladesh —

MR RATHKE: I don’t have a good estimate of the numbers. There are —

QUESTION: A lot.

MR RATHKE: There are – they’re large numbers, but I don’t have – I don’t really have an authoritative estimate from here.

QUESTION: Can we switch topic, please, yes – to Pakistan?

MR RATHKE: Same topic?

QUESTION: Yes, Pakistan. Can we?

MR RATHKE: Okay. Anything else on this issue? Okay, go ahead.

QUESTION: Okay. I just read Secretary Kerry’s statement on yesterday’s terrorist attack in Pakistan expressing sympathy and offering assistance to the investigators. You know that 43 people – the Taliban attacked a bus and killed 43 people in Karachi yesterday. And I wanted to go beyond the statement and just sort of remind you that the investigators found pamphlets left behind by the attackers, which were —

MR RATHKE: I’m sorry to interrupt you. Which attack are you referring to?

QUESTION: This is Karachi yesterday.

MR RATHKE: Okay, very good. I wanted to be sure.

QUESTION: And the pamphlets were from the ISIS and sort of saying that they would kill anybody who opposes them, blah, blah. So does it increase your concern about the presence of ISIS in Pakistan and Afghanistan? Do you see that as a phenomenon that is becoming increasingly more alarming?

MR RATHKE: As we’ve said before, we remain concerned about that potential, but we – I won’t speak to the details of the attack yesterday because there’s an investigation ongoing. It’s being led by Pakistani authorities. So – but in general terms, we certainly are concerned about the possibility of ISIL influence spreading. However, up until now, our estimation has been that these are primarily of a rhetorical nature, not of an operational linkage between ISIL in Iraq and Syria and Pakistan or South Asia. So that’s – but that’s a topic we continue to watch.

Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: Since the new disclosures on the OBL operation in Pakistan, we have seen the statement from the White House, but there is a – tight-lipped in Pakistan, both the army and Pakistani Government. And it looks they’re very pleased with this report and there is some truth in the latest relations. So do you have anything to say?

MR RATHKE: I mean, I think the White House has been quite clear and definitive about that. I don’t have specifics to add, but I think you should – you should look carefully at what the White House has said. And that certainly stands for this building as well.

Elliot.

QUESTION: New topic?

MR RATHKE: Yes.

QUESTION: Assistant Secretary Russel was testifying on the South China Sea and East China Sea territorial issue on the Hill yesterday, and he said that there would be a meeting tomorrow with 10 senior officials from ASEAN. Do you have any details to provide on that?

MR RATHKE: Yes. So Assistant Secretary Russel will welcome ASEAN senior officials from the 10 ASEAN nations, as well as representatives of the ASEAN secretariat today and tomorrow at the department. They’re going to discuss an array of important issues ranging from economic integration to regional maritime cooperation. And of course, the assistant secretary will take this opportunity to underscore the United States commitment to a close relationship with ASEAN. He will reiterate the importance of ASEAN unity and centrality as they continue on a path toward economic integration, and as they – as the members of ASEAN face difficult regional and global security challenges. So this is part of our growing relationship with ASEAN, and we welcome the opportunity to have a meeting.

QUESTION: That’s a two-day set of meetings?

MR RATHKE: Well, I don’t know when exactly they begin and when they finish. It may be that it’s more like one day spread over two calendar days, if you know what I mean.

QUESTION: Right, sure.

MR RATHKE: So the duration of the meetings I don’t have information on.

QUESTION: Okay. And then I understand Secretary Kerry will address the issue of Chinese land reclamation when he goes to Beijing. Do you have anything further on what he will convey to Chinese officials during those meetings?

MR RATHKE: Well, I don’t have a lot to preview about his message to Chinese officials specifically, but I think our view on issues related to the South China Sea has been pretty clear. And we’ve talked about it quite a lot, as did Assistant Secretary Russel in his testimony. So we continue to believe that the scope of China’s land reclamation in the South China Sea is contributing to rising tensions in the region. And we’ve spoken about the effect that has and our support for ASEAN’s efforts to conclude a code of conduct with China. Our position on this is pretty well known, and I think it will be an opportunity for the Secretary to discuss with his Chinese counterparts.

QUESTION: But is it fair to say that the message he’ll convey will be a harder line than what he’s conveyed in the past? I mean, recently you guys have really been sort of upping the ante in terms of your statements on this issue. So I want to sort of get at whether Secretary Kerry will also be sort of raising – turning the heat up, so to speak, in this conversation.

MR RATHKE: I wouldn’t refer to it as upping the ante. I would say that we’ve been responding, as have countries in the region, to a pattern of land reclamation that is contributing to rising tensions. So I think it’s that that the Secretary will be interested in talking about.

Yeah, go ahead.

QUESTION: Moving on?

MR RATHKE: Yeah.

QUESTION: I wanted to ask you about something that came up yesterday. It’s language in the trade bill concerning Israeli settlements.

MR RATHKE: Yes.

QUESTION: Particularly it seems like requirement that the Administration would have to push back against any BDS efforts globally. What is your view on such language in the bill, whether —

MR RATHKE: Mm-hmm. You’re right. This question was asked yesterday. I have a little bit more information on it today. The Administration’s policy opposing boycotts against the state of Israel and opposing Israeli settlement activity remain unchanged. Our position on settlements has been very clear every U.S. administration since 1967 – Republicans, Democrats – has opposed Israeli settlement activity beyond 1967 lines. This Administration is no different, and our policy remains firm and unchanged. We’ll continue to oppose settlement activity and efforts to change the facts on the ground, and – because we believe they only make it harder to negotiate a sustainable and equitable peace deal.

QUESTION: Is it your view of the language that’s being proposed that essentially you would have to go to bat for Israeli settlements around the world, push back against European governments and others who would divest or boycott Israeli operations or Israeli commercial interests that have any activity in the West Bank?

MR RATHKE: I don’t have an interpretation to that level of detail of the amendment. So I don’t have anything to offer on that.

QUESTION: I mean, it sounds like you oppose the amendment. But is this something you would be willing to swallow given that the trade bill seems to be a top priority for the Administration right now?

MR RATHKE: Well, again, we have – as I mentioned, we’ve got two policies that I think are important to stress. We opposed boycotts directed against the state of Israel, and we oppose Israeli settlement activity. So those policies remain unchanged. It’s our understanding that certainly from the Administration point of view the language in this amendment will not change our policy.

QUESTION: Well, it may not change your policy, but it’s going to – it may change your activity. And if you are going to European governments and telling them that they shouldn’t boycott anything that’s related to settlement activity, you’d be going to bat for settlement activity, would you not?

MR RATHKE: Well —

QUESTION: I mean, you may – you can uphold the principles, but if you’re basically supporting settlement activity, then you’re supporting – I mean, the principles are gone, right?

MR RATHKE: Well, I don’t have a detailed analysis of the implications of the amendment. But I’m simply stating that from an administrative – an Administration perspective, that this language will not change our policy.

QUESTION: So in that case, you don’t oppose it necessarily, because it doesn’t actually affect you?

MR RATHKE: I simply have nothing more —

QUESTION: You don’t —

MR RATHKE: — to offer on that. I mean, for more specific comment, I’d refer back to the White House.

QUESTION: You don’t – so you can’t say if you oppose or support it?

MR RATHKE: I don’t have more to say.

Pam.

QUESTION: Two questions on different topics. The first one, Cuba: Do you have anything new on the process of restoring ties? There are reports that there are going to be meetings next week to discuss the reopening of embassies. Can you confirm that?

MR RATHKE: There were reports yesterday evening, and there were – I know some of you had queries about that. We have been planning for a meeting next week. We don’t have an announcement of the specific dates right now, but we will make an announcement on the date when both sides have confirmed. We continue to work with the Government of Cuba on re-establishing diplomatic relations and on reopening embassies. We believe that it would serve the interests of both countries, and as soon as we have a date we’ll share that.

QUESTION: And a second question, different topic. This is on Nauru and it deals with social media. There are reports saying that it has blocked social media, in particular Facebook, because of what the government says is concerns about protecting children. But advocates for refugees say the ban was designed to restrict asylum seekers who are in detention there to keep them from communicating with the outside world. Do you have any response?

MR RATHKE: We’re aware of that, and we’re concerned by reports of recent internet restrictions imposed by the Government of Nauru, including that they blocked Facebook and other social media sites. Freedom of expression online and offline is essential to a healthy democracy, and so ensuring that a country’s citizens have access to an unrestricted and open internet is in accordance with Nauru’s own expressed desire to the higher – to the highest standards of democracy, and we’ve certainly conveyed our views to the government there and reiterate our call for these restrictions to be lifted.

Yes, go ahead.

QUESTION: I think you were asked yesterday about the Japanese cabinet and the defense bills. They actually approved them today, and I was wondering if you might have an update on them.

MR RATHKE: Well, the security legislation itself is a domestic matter for Japan, but we certainly welcome Japan’s ongoing efforts to strengthen the alliance and to play a more active role in regional and international security activities. That’s reflected, of course, in the guidelines that were just approved for U.S.-Japan defense cooperation, so this is certainly consistent with the discussions that we’ve had both in the 2+2 as well as Prime Minister Abe’s visit.

Yeah.

QUESTION: Can I ask about if you have an opinion on the Bahraini king attending a horse show in the United Kingdom instead of attending the Camp David summit?

MR RATHKE: I think I’d refer you to Bahraini authorities for their assessment of that. I think, as my colleagues from the White House have said, the important thing in this meeting with GCC leaders has been that the right people are in the discussions to carry out these kinds of important security and regional cooperation concerns.

QUESTION: If he wasn’t one of the right people, why did you invite him?

MR RATHKE: Well, that was a Bahraini decision who would attend on their behalf. I don’t have a comment on —

QUESTION: Well, the question’s pertinent because I think when all of the no-shows were announced, it was stressed that a lot of people – a lot of leaders had very important matters of state to attend to, prior commitments. Do you see a horse show as more important than a summit on regional security that you’re hosting?

MR RATHKE: Well, again, I’m not familiar with the king’s program on his visit to the UK, so I don’t know if that’s the only thing he’s been doing there. So I don’t have further comment on that.

QUESTION: And you still see this as not a snub, per se, because he’s attending a – he may be doing other things in addition to the horse show?

MR RATHKE: Well, again, you may know more about his schedule than I do, Brad. I don’t know. But the – we consider that we’ve got the right people there. And I think not only the White House but also the countries participating – I think the Saudi foreign minister spoke to this extensively a couple of days ago with respect to their representation by the crown prince and the deputy crown prince, so we are confident that it’s going to be a productive discussion. And I’m sure that right about now my colleagues from the White House will be saying a little bit more in detail the outcomes of the meetings.

All right. Thank you very much.

(The briefing was concluded at 1:38 p.m.)