The following is a transcript of an interview with Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer that aired on Nov. 19, 2023.
MARGARET BRENNAN: We go now to the Deputy National Security Adviser Jon Finer. Good morning.
WHITE HOUSE PRINCIPAL DEPUTY NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISER JON FINER: Good morning, Margaret.
MARGARET BRENNAN: I know hostage diplomacy is extremely delicate. We’ve been close to a big breakthrough before and then fallen apart. But this morning, Qatar’s Prime Minister says we are close enough to reach a deal. And the differences are just logistical at this point. Does the US share that assessment?
FINER: Look, Margaret, we have been following this hour by hour, really minute by minute for a number of weeks now. This is an extraordinarily high priority for everyone in our administration, up to and including the President who is personally engaged on this issue. What I can say at this point is we share the assessment that many areas of difference that previous- previously existed have been narrowed, that we believe we are closer than we have been to reaching a final agreement, but that on an issue as sensitive as this and as challenging is this, the mantra that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed really does apply. And we do not yet have an agreement in place. And so until that is the case, you know, we’re not going to lay out all the details in public. We’re going to continue working this directly and intensively behind the scenes with the goal of getting as many of these people home including the Americans, who are held hostage there as we can- as soon as we can.
MARGARET BRENNAN: So Israel’s Prime Minister said on CBS recently that they had intelligence indicating that there were hostages at Al-Shifa hospital, but none were found. There were two bodies found nearby. Did the U.S. share the assessment that hostages were being held at- at the hospital because there was a release suggesting that, from declassified intelligence the US shared. Was the US assessment wrong?
FINER: So what I am going to tell you is what we have put out in terms of intelligence that we have been able to share and that we’ve been able to downgrade on Al-Shifa. And, look, this is a microcosm of the challenges associated with this entire conflict, because this is obviously a hospital where there are patients who were being treated, the most advanced hospital in Gaza, also a place where innocent civilians who’ve gathered during the course this conflict and all of those innocent lives are sacred to us, or equal in value to lives anywhere that are innocent. We’ve also said and been quite clear that we have intelligence information, not just Israeli intelligence, but American intelligence that Hamas has used this facility to build terrorist infrastructure, to do command and control for combat operations. And we’ve been quite clear about that. But we’ve also said that none of that authorizes, in our view, direct military strikes from the air or on the ground against that hospital. So that is the complicated knot that the Israeli Defense Forces find themselves in and that is how we are advising them to proceed at this point.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Right. The downgraded assessment shared by the White House said the U.S. believes that there could be, in Al-Shifa Hospital, a command node and tunnels underneath and that in the past, these hospitals have been used to hold hostages. That’s why I was asking you, since none were found there, if the US actually thought there would be hostages there. There has been–
FINER: — One thing I’d say about that, Margaret, is- is that that facility is still being exploited by the Israeli Defense Forces. I expect you’ll see more information in the coming days, I think we feel confident in the information that we’ve put out. And let’s see what their investigation reveals and where it leads.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Okay. Do you have a sense that you are running out of time?
FINER: I’m sorry?
MARGARET BRENNAN: On the hostages, do you have a sense that you are running out of time to keep this diplomacy going?
FINER: You know, every minute, every hour, every day that these people spend in the situation is too long. So, it is not acceptable that they have been held as long as they have; this is really an unconscionable act by Hamas. And so that is why it is our priority not just to get them out at some point, but to get them out, absolutely as soon as possible. Obviously, Gaza is an extremely dangerous place to be- to be a civilian- to be a hostage held at this point. And so there is a time imperative I wouldn’t use the- the phrase running out of time, but we feel acutely that this should be done as soon as possible. And we are putting pressure on- on the diplomacy to try to get this done.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Israel’s Prime Minister was on this network this week and told my colleague Norah O’Donnell, that they are trying to cause minimal civilian casualties, but “unfortunately, we’re not successful.” Given that acknowledgement by Israel, I wonder if the administration is applying the Leahy Act here that would allow for the United States to restrict some military equipment based on human rights basis. Is Israel exempt from that, given what’s happened and what Israel is acknowledging? Do you need to change that?
FINER: So, I’m not going to get into legal determinations in public and in this conversation is not really my role. No countries are obviously exempt from laws of armed conflict or from the U.S. statutory restrictions, but beyond that, I’m not going to say more. What I will say, though is- is, we have been quite clear that Israel has every right to defend itself against the threat that it faces. That includes, by the way, the right to go after Hamas leadership, who they say now have fled to the southern part of Gaza and have sought refuge there. So in the – in the event that we believe that Israel is likely to to embark on combat operations, including in the south, we believe both that they have the right to do that, but that there is a real concern, because hundreds of thousands of residents of Gaza have fled now from the north to the south at Israel’s request. And we think that their operations should not go forward until those people- those additional civilians have been accounted for in their- in their military planning. And so we will be conveying that directly to them and have been conveying that directly to them. They should draw lessons from how the operation proceeded in the North, including lessons that lead to greater and enhanced protections for civilian life things like narrowing the area of- of active combat, clarifying where civilians can seek refuge from the fighting. But I will also reiterate that Hamas takes no such precautions in fact, openly and wantonly flouts and almost brags about its desire to perpetrate war crimes. And so this is an adversary that does not hold itself to the standard that we and others believe is essential.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Understood. Hamas is extremely brutal. I want to quickly ask you about President Biden’s op ed that he published in The Washington Post. He said the US is prepared to issue visa bans against extremists. He was referring to Israeli settlers moving into the West Bank. Does that threat have teeth given that there are estimates that American citizens make up as much as 15% of the settler population?
FINER: Look, the President has been extremely clear, I think far beyond even what many of his predecessors said about our concerns about developments on the West Bank, and in particular, our concerns about violence perpetrated against innocent Palestinians by extreme settlers. He said that in public speeches. He said that in an op-ed that was published just this weekend. And as he indicated, and as we are now moving to operationalize that could include consequences that the US would impose on people associated with violence against innocents in the West Bank, including a ban on them being able to travel to the United States on visas. And we’re moving in that direction, and we’ll have more to say about that, I’m sure in the coming days.
MARGARET BRENNAN: But that is a government policy issue, rather than, you know, just the settlers, I guess, is my point there. The last time you were here, you talked about the Palestinian Authority, having done a fairly good job at maintaining control in the West Bank, given the security threat. The president said the Palestinians already needs to be revitalized to govern the West Bank and Gaza after Hamas. Does that mean they need to hold elections-like who actually runs the Palestinian Authority? The president is eighty-eight years old.
FINER: So the Palestinian Authority, throughout this period of crisis since October 7, has continued to work to provide security in the West Bank has continued to cooperate with Israeli defense forces on the provision of security, including, even though, they are under incredible pressure inside their own communities uh not to do that, quite candidly. And so our view is the Palestinian Authority is the only official institutional representative of the Palestinian people in the West Bank. That it will have to be part of any way forward when it comes to governance, both in Gaza and the West Bank. And the President spoke about this publicly and in his op-ed as well, that it will need additional support in order to be able to have the capability and the capacity to do that important work. But there is also a legitimacy challenge associated with the Palestinian Authority and we will work with them directly on enhancing their legitimacy, enhancing their capacity to be able to play this important role going forward.
MARGARET BRENNAN: Understood. Jon Finer, thank you very much for your time this morning.