Secretary of Defense James Mattis Holds Joint Press Conference with Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman

April 21, 2017

STAFF:  -- defense, James Mattis here in Israel.  We'll start today's press conference with opening remarks, first from Minister Lieberman and then from Secretary Mattis; after which time they will answer questions from two journalists -- two Israeli journalists and two American journalists selected in advance.

Thank you.




Your Excellency, Secretary of Defense General James Mattis, I would like to express my appreciation for your friendship, for your sincerity, for your support and for your understanding of complexity of all challenges that we are facing here in Israel.

No doubt the main problem, not only for us, but for the entire world, it's an axis of evil from North Korea to Iran to Damascus and to Hezbollah and Beirut.  And no doubt the same, the main link in this chain, it's Iran.

Iranians, they are trying to undermine stability in all Middle East; in Yemen, in Iraq, in Syria, in Lebanon and of course, their activity against Israel through their proxies.  We are sharing the same values, we are sharing the same views.  And I hope that with your support we will be able to overcome all these threats and, of course, to bring peace and stability to this part of the region.

We appreciate your success against the Daesh, your operations and you are leading the coalition against terror, against Daesh in Mosul, in Raqqah.  And it really seems that it is a great, great step forward to overcome the terror all around the world.

On behalf of myself and the people of Israel, I would like to extend our gratitude and appreciation to the American administration, led by the President Donald Trump.  We're happy to see you, the first member of cabinet visited to Israel.  And of course we hope to see during this year President Donald Trump in Jerusalem also.

Thank you.


SECRETARY OF DEFENSE JIM MATTIS:  Well, thank you, Minister Lieberman, my friend.

And good morning, everyone.

I'm honored to return to Israel once again to show my respect for this country.  And for the Israeli people, I am keenly aware that we stand together this morning; just a week before the Holocaust Remembrance Day.  And we share a common determination to never allow such horrific events to recur.

As you noted, this is my first visit to Israel as secretary of Defense and I'm honored as well to be the first cabinet official from the new administration to visit our friends here.  This trip follows a number of senior level engagements between the political leadership of our two countries, including President Trump's meeting with President [sic] Netanyahu in Washington in February and Minister Lieberman's visit to Washington in March.

Our defense cooperation is nested firmly within our diplomatic relationship.  And on that score, I'm pleased that the U.S. Senate confirmed Ambassador Friedman who will arrive here next month.

I just came from Saudi Arabia and Egypt, two other important U.S. partners in this region.  My discussions in those countries reinforced the need for vigilance and for the strongest possible cooperation in the international community to defeat threats to all of our counties.

Minister Lieberman and I just finished our third meeting since I became the secretary of defense in January.  Our close and regular dialogue is a reflection of the enduring bond between our country's militaries.

During this meeting we had another in-depth conversation, sharing a keen appreciation for the security situation facing Israel and our friend's in the region.  And further refining the practical steps we are taking together to defend our shared security interests.

The depth of our relationship was clear following the U.S. strike in Syria when Israel immediately expressed its strong support for our action to enforce the longstanding international prohibition against the use of chemical weapons.

Looking across the region, we in the United States recognize ISIS represents a clear and present danger, not only to Syria and Iraq, but to Israel and other countries in this region, to Europe and, ultimately, to the U.S. homeland.  The coalition campaign against ISIS in Syria in Iraq, as you noted Minister, it is on track and we have accelerated and intensified that campaign to surround and isolate the enemy so we methodically remove its physical caliphate.

In addition to our campaign to defeat ISIS, we also recognize the need to confront the destabilizing activities of Iran.  Iran continues to threaten Israel and its neighbors with ballistic missiles, through its maritime and cyber activities and through proxies and surrogates, including Lebanese Hezbollah, a terrorist organization helping to keep Assad in power in Syria.

In the face of these threats the United States maintains absolute and unwavering commitment to Israel's security and to its qualitative military edge over Iran or other threats.

The foundation of our long term commitment is the significant 10 year security assistance package we signed recently with Israel which will enable Israel to continue to acquire the most advanced U.S. military technology.  This complements our expanding cooperation on intelligence sharing, counterterrorism, and counter-proliferation across the region.

This specifically includes our continuing cooperation to defend against a ballistic missile threat and, in that regard, I congratulate Israel on the highly successful David's Sling and Arrow 3 ballistic missile defense systems.  Both of which achieved initial operating capability.

With Minister Lieberman, I look forward to accelerating process on David's Sling and Arrow 3 and the other elements of our defense cooperation.

And in closing, our alliance with Israel is a cornerstone of a larger regional security architecture, which includes cooperation with Egypt, Jordan, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and our Gulf partners.  My goal is to further strengthen our partnerships in this region in order to deter and defeat threats and, ultimately, to temper our adversary's designs.

I welcome your questions, thank you.


MIN. LIEBERMAN:  Thank you -- thank you.


STAFF:  First question will be from Tal Shalev, Walla! News.


Q:  Hi. 

General Mattis, in 2013 you told the Aspen Security Forum that you think the current situation in Israel and the Palestinian Authority is unsustainable and you warned that the settlements could lead Israel to becoming an apartheid state.  Do you still stand by this position?

And Mr. Lieberman, we've been hearing contradicting statements from the administration in recent days about how much Iran is complying or not complying with the Iran -- with the Iran deal, with the JCPOA.

What is Israel's position?  Does Israel want the U.S. to cancel the Iran deal?


SEC. MATTIS:  To answer your question, I believe in Israel's security.  And whatever it takes to keep Israel secure is where we stand and where we will always stand as Americans.

In that regard, how Israel achieves its level of sustainable security is absolutely critical, and that includes all the peoples here inside the borders of Israel or inside the Middle East.  All these people are going to have to work together, we're going to have to resolve it, and it's got to be done in a way that looks out for the rights of all those people.



MIN. LIEBERMAN:  Thank you.

First of all, we are not in a position to give any advice to an American administration.  But, of course, we were happy to see a new policy renew, a new approach.

And first of all, regarding their terrorist activity, not Hezbollah and not Hamas, they're not able to exist even one week without Iranian support.  Iranian authorities, they are trying to -- as I mentioned, to undermine the stability even in Yemen and even in Iraq.

Their efforts to create more proxies and more militias is also, I think -- it's a big concern for both states.  And I think that Iran it's clear the biggest sponsor in the world of terror.  And according this -- their position, it's crucial to place more pressure and more sanctions on the Iranian regime.


STAFF:  Next question will be from Bob Burns, Associated Press.


Q:  Thank you.

Question, Mr. Minister, can you confirm that Israel estimates that the Syrians retain between one and three tons of chemical weapons?  And can you provide any evidence that that's the case?

And a question for Secretary Mattis:  What would be the implications for this large quantity of chemical weapons still being in Syria?  And can you say where -- whether the remaining Syrian air forces has moved its aircraft -- its combat aircraft to a Russian base at Lattakia and what that might imply for future U.S. options to act against another example of Syrian use of chemical weapons?

Thank you.


MIN. LIEBERMAN:  First of all, I hope that you do not expect that I will share with you our intelligence information.

But I clarified my position.  I think sometimes that we have 100 percent information that Assad regime used chemical weapons against rebels.  And I think it was very, very clear position.

And we strongly support the last U.S. action in Syria.  It was very, very strong and new message to all this region.


SEC. MATTIS:  Yeah, Bob, the bottom line is, there can be no doubt in the international community's mind that Syria has retained chemical weapons in violation of its agreement and its statement that it had removed them all.  There's no longer any doubt.

The amount of it I don't want to get into right now.  We don't reveal some of that detail because we don't want to reveal how we're finding out.

But the bottom line is, I can say authoritatively they have retained some.  It's a violation of the United Nations Security Council resolutions.  And it's going to have to be taken up diplomatically.

And they would be ill-advised to try to use any again.  We made that very clear with our strike.

So, I'll just leave it at that.


Q:  Of the aircraft?


SEC. MATTIS:  They have dispersed their aircraft.  No doubt they've dispersed their aircraft in recent days.


STAFF:  Next question you will have (inaudible).


Q:  Mr. Defense Secretary, what is your opinion on the Iranian nuclear deal, an agreement to which you have objected in the past?  And will the U.S. insert changes that Israel is demanding?

And another question, in your opinion, will the transfer of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem lead -- to Jerusalem resulting in the escalations?  And is that why the process has been frozen?

And Defense Minister Lieberman, does Israel attack ISIS targets in the Sinai?  And if so, have they done in coordinations with the Egyptians?


SEC. MATTIS:  Okay, yeah.  On the -- on the Iran nuclear agreement; as our secretary of State said about three days ago, Iran appears to the degree we can determine it -- and we're pretty confident, they appear to be living up to their -- their part of the agreement. 

It is an agreement that is in force, the United States has signed it in the previous administration.  It continues to be in force.  That in no way mitigates against -- or excuses the other activities of Iran in the region, to include its support of the war in Yemen that grinds on thanks to their support -- to the Iranian support.

Or what they're doing in Syria to keep Assad in power and continue the mayhem and the chaos and the murder that's going on there and the refugees.  So those are separate issues, but the agreement on nuclear issues still stands and that's all I can say about it.

On the move of the embassy, that is something you'd have to take up with the secretary of State, it's just not under my purview.  I can't speak to that.


MIN. LIEBERMAN:  I think that we're really happy to see that the Egyptian military force is more active and more efficient in their fight against ISIS -- ISIS in Sinai.  And of course we saw that their last operation were very, very successful.


STAFF:  Last question from Idrees Ali, Reuters.


Q:  Mr. Secretary, North Korea has once again made some provocative statements about making -- or taking strikes against the U.S.  This comes after -- you know, Vice President Pence has made statements, you have made statements as well.  At what point is there a tipping point where words just won't do it and you have to take some sort of action beyond words?

And the second question is, Aya Hijazi was sort of flow to the United States today from Egypt.  Did her issue come up when you were meeting with President Sisi?  And how significant is her release to resetting Egyptian-American relations?

And, Mr. Minister, the Trump administration has obviously made some very strong statements against Iran, but their actions seem to be very much in line with what the Obama administration did.  For example, you know, the recent sort of acknowledging that -- that they're in line with the JCPOA.  What do you want to see from the Trump administration that would differentiate them from the Obama administration in regards to Iran?


MIN. LIEBERMAN:  Thank you.


SEC. MATTIS:  As far as North Korea's latest words, I think we've all come to hear their words repeatedly, their word is not proven honest -- it's been provocative, they've not lived up to any statements they've made in the past years -- decades actually, about stopping their ballistic missile and their nuclear programs.  So I would just take their words at the same value we've always given them as we've learned not to trust them.

As far as the release of the American citizen, she was found innocent in the Egyptian courts and, appropriately, she has returned home.  We were happy to hear she was found innocent and the court system recognized that she was not guilty of what she had been charged with.  So it all turned out fine from our perspective that she has now returned home with her family.


MIN. LIEBERMAN:  You know, the new administration just now accomplished the first 100 days and what we see it's really, that new administration, in the midst of new policy review, mostly completely new approach to North Korea, Syria and also Iran.

I think that we saw in the last days very, very clear and strong message regarding the Iranian regime and we're really satisfied and we have enough patience to wait for concrete steps.


STAFF:  Thank you, everyone.


MIN. LIEBERMAN:  Thank you.