The following is a transcript of an interview with Jon Finer, White House deputy National Security Adviser, that aired on Nov. 5, 2023.
MARGARET BRENNAN: We go now to White House Principal Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer. Good morning to you.
WHITE HOUSE PRINCIPAL DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER JON FINER: Good morning, Margaret.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So, the U.S. has been trying to get roughly 400 U.S. citizens out of Gaza. I understand some have made it out, are all of the Americans out and were there any casualties?
FINER: Margaret, we believe that there are still a number of Americans inside Gaza, but that over the last several days, through pretty intensive negotiations with all sides relevant to this conflict, we have been able to get out more than 300 Americans, lawful permanent residents and their family members. This is obviously a major priority, and one that we’re going to continue to work out until every American who wants to leave is able to do so.
MARGARET BRENNAN: And where do we stand with the negotiations to get hostages freed by Hamas?
FINER: This is another significant priority for the President and we believe for the Israeli government as well. This is a very difficult negotiation. There’s a significant number of hostages held inside Gaza, many of whom are international passport holders, including, we believe, a number of Americans. Those negotiations are going on quietly behind the scenes, they have taken longer than any of us would like. But we continue to believe that there is the possibility of getting a significant number of these hostages released, and you’ve heard both President Biden and the Prime Minister of Israel say that there could be a pause in the fighting to enable that the way there was when two American hostages were released very early in the conflict. And we’re going to continue to work on that as well.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Has the Israeli government agreed to pause for a hostage release?
FINER: You heard the Prime Minister of Israel say yesterday that the context in which they would consider a pause would be related to a hostage agreement. We don’t obviously have yet a hostage agreement, but again, we’re working very hard to get one. And if that were to take place, just being able to move hostages around the battlefield in a way that is safe, get them to a gate leading outside of Gaza would take time. And we would want to only be able to do that safely. So we believe a pause would be appropriate in that context.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Understood. Secretary Blinken has said that what Hamas is doing with using human shields is monstrous. But he also said that he shared with the Israeli government steps they “could and should take to minimize harm to civilians.” That is the closest I’ve heard a US official come to you saying the administration isn’t 100% comfortable with what the Israeli military is doing.
FINER: Margaret, I think we’ve said versions of what you heard from Secretary Blinken, a number of times, including from the President, look, we’ve been quite clear that the way that Hamas conducts this fight, launching an appalling attack on Israel and then retreating into the Gaza Strip and essentially concealing themselves among a densely populated civilian population is unconscionable. At the same time, while that raises the burden on the Israeli military to conduct this fight and go after Hamas, it does not diminish their obligation to do so in a way that distinguishes between civilians and fighters. And we have had many direct conversations with the Government of Israel on that topic and will continue to do that.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Right, but could and should suggest they are not currently. The U.S. provides more than $3 billion a year in military aid to Israel. Does the U.S. need to set conditions on how that U.S. paid for weaponry is used?
FINER: What I will say is- is some of the images and some of the events that we’ve seen transpire in Gaza have been heartbreaking for all of us. There are innocent people being killed in this conflict in Gaza. There were obviously many innocent people killed by Hamas, in Israel, and all of this, we strongly oppose. We build a law of armed conflict assurances anytime we transfer a security assistance to any country, including Israel, and when we see a circumstance, events, that- that concern us, we raise those very directly with the government of Israel. And again, we will continue to do that as this conflict transpires.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But, Jon, you know, that your fellow Democrats I mean, Senator Chris Murphy said he urges Israel to reconsider its approach and shift to a more deliberate and proportionate counterterrorism campaign. Arab leaders, Arab foreign ministers said yesterday, “how can we justify that killing 9,000 people is self defense?” How close are we to this stopping?
FINER: So what I would say is Israel continues to face an enormous threat from Hamas. Obviously, we’ve seen that threat manifest itself. And not only does that threat continue to exist, but you continue to see Hamas say that if given the opportunity, they would conduct a version of what they did on October 7, again. So the threat has not been eliminated. At the same time, as you say, the devastating toll that this has taken on civilians as one deeply concerns us, one that we raise in a very direct way both publicly ,as Secretary Blinken has done, as others have done, and privately and directly with the Government of Israel. There are certain responsibilities that any army has in the context of waging a military operation like this and they’re widely known. They’re related to international humanitarian law, and we expect them to be followed.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Secretary Blinken was in Ramallah in the West Bank, as you know, today, meeting with Mahmoud Abbas, and he was reportedly talking about a future for the Palestinian Authority and some kind of role in Gaza. How close are we to the end of the war? If we’re talking about a future government here, and is the Palestinian Authority really up to the task?
FINER: So I don’t want to speculate about how close we are or are not to the end of the war. But what I will say, and President Biden has been very clear, about this is that whenever this conflict is over, we cannot go back to the way things were before October 7, either in Gaza, or in the West Bank. We’ve obviously been very concerned during this conflict, but also well before it about the rise in violent incidents in the West Bank. President Biden has spoken to the role of extremist settlers in that context. That behavior has continued, we’ve expressed that concern directly to the Government of Israel. And we give a lot of credit, frankly, to the Palestinian Authority for the work that it has done to prevent the West Bank from spiraling into greater instability, even in the context of what’s happening in Gaza. And in the aftermath of this, the President has said we need to get back to the urgent work of working towards a two-state solution that includes both Gaza and the West Bank. And I think there’s broad agreement about that between the United States- among the United States and our Arab partners and Secretary Blinken met within the region over the weekend.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Just to make sure I’m understanding you there. There are some ultra-nationalists within the Israeli government who have been very clear their positions. One of them, saying he was going to cut some funding to the Palestinian Authority, because he didn’t think their reaction was strong enough to October the seventh, another one was also handing out weapons to settlers in recent days. Have you convinced the Netanyahu government to stop that?
FINER: So look, I think you’ve heard the President speak to his concerns about some of the members of the Prime Minister’s cabinet, some of the positions they have taken not just during their time in government but in the run up to it. You’ve heard the President speak to again, serious concerns about the behavior of extremist settlements, settlers, violence that has been perpetrated by them in the West Bank that could lead things to spiral out of control. So we obviously don’t accept that we raised those concerns very directly and have done so. We believe now is not the time to reduce support to the Palestinian Authority, given that they are working, in many cases alongside Israeli security forces to try to keep a lid on things in the West Bank, and we believe that they should both continue to do so and be supported in that endeavor.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Jon Finer, thank you for your time today.
FINER: Thanks again, Margaret.