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Deputy National Security advisor discusses Mideast cease-fire efforts, Russia sanctions

July 22, 2014 at 6:13 PM EDT
Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes says U.S. intelligence has confirmed that the missile that brought down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 originated in Ukrainian territory controlled by pro-Russian rebels, but that Russia is not yet absolved of complicity. He joins Judy Woodruff to discuss coordination with Europe on potential sanctions against Russia and U.S. hopes for a Mideast cease-fire.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on the FAA’s suspension of flights to Israel, the broader efforts to broker a cease-fire in the conflict there, and the latest on the situation in Ukraine, we turn to Ben Rhodes, deputy national security adviser to the president. I spoke to him a short while ago.

Ben Rhodes, thank you for talking with us.

We just reported that the FAA and other safety agencies have halted commercial traffic into Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. We know the Israelis are saying that that’s not necessary, it hands terror a prize. We know Prime Minister Netanyahu has called Secretary of State Kerry to try to reverse the decision. What does the president believe about this?

BEN RHODES, Deputy National Security Adviser: Well, Judy, it’s important towns that the FAA takes certain precautions out of an abundance of caution.

And what the FAA said is that a rocket fired by Hamas landed roughly a mile from Ben Gurion Airport. That triggers the warning from the FAA to U.S. carriers to avoid landing in Ben Gurion. Again, that’s because we don’t want to put our civil aviation at risk. They will review this every 24 hours, but, again, this was done in accordance with our common practice.

If you see that kind of threat in the vicinity of an airport, we have to issue a warning to civilian carriers to avoid that airport.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So the president is not inclined to reverse the decision of the FAA?

BEN RHODES: No, we wouldn’t want to overrule something that the FAA is doing for the protection of Americans and those flying on American carriers.

Again, we can review those decisions based on the security situation on a 24-hour basis. But we believe it’s necessary, particularly when we see what happened in Ukraine, that we are taking great care when it comes to the safety of our air carriers.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, when it comes to the fighting in Gaza between Gaza and Israel, we know there are over 600 Palestinians dead, three-quarters of them civilians, a quarter of them children. We know that there are problems with water supply. We now know there are 29 Israelis dead.

When does this situation become intolerable for the president?

BEN RHODES: Well, Judy, we believe that the best course of action is for there to be an immediate cease-fire.

We have long said that Hamas is responsible for the conflict because it precipitated it with this rocket fire. Israel does have a right to defend itself against rocket fire, against tunnel attacks. But, at the same time, we have been heartbroken over the loss of innocent life on the Palestinian side, the growing death toll on the Israeli side, and again we believe the best outcome is an immediate cease-fire that restores calm and that deals of threat of rocket fire from Hamas.

Clearly, part of any cease-fire would have to be that that rocket fire stops and that we’re taking steps to address the Hamas stockpiles of rockets.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you’re saying that Hamas is the holdup here. Secretary Kerry now is saying that the Egyptian — the Egyptian proposal has been agreed to by the Israelis.

He is saying Hamas is the holdup. So you’re saying that’s the administration position?

BEN RHODES: Yes, absolutely. Israel has indicated an openness to the Egyptian cease-fire proposal. We are now working to try to get Hamas agreement to this so that there can be a restoration of calm and an end to loss of life that we have seen in recent days.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Do you think you’re any closer to seeing that happen?

BEN RHODES: Well, Secretary Kerry has been doing consultations in the region. Those have moved forward.

Again, it will take an extra push from those who have influence on Hamas to try to get them to come into compliance with the cease-fire. We were able to achieve that in 2012, the last time we saw a conflict like this. And that’s what Secretary Kerry is going to keep pressing in the region, talking to Egypt and other countries and partners as well.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me turn you to Ukraine.

Senior U.S. intelligence officials just late today are telling reporters that the passenger jet, the Malaysian jet was likely felled by an SA-11 surface-to-air missile fired by the pro-Russian separatists, but that they don’t have direct evidence of Russian involvement.

Does this mean the administration can prove that this came from within separatist-controlled territory?

BEN RHODES: That’s right, Judy.

Again, what we assessed and what we have seen in our intelligence is there was an SA-11 system that was the likely missile that brought down the plane, and that the geographic space from where that missile was shot is controlled by the Russian-backed separatists.

I wouldn’t absolve Russia of responsibility for this at all, number one because they have created this climate of arming separatists and stoking the conflict in Eastern Ukraine, and number two because we’re still looking very hard whether or not that SA-11 system came from Russia and whether there was Russian training on that system.

So, that’s what we’re still running down, because we have seen Russian provision of arms, including anti-aircraft systems to the separatists. So that’s something that we are going to continue to pull the thread on.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, can you share the evidence that the missile was fired from territory controlled by the separatists?

BEN RHODES: Yes, the intelligence is working to declassify and put out all the information we have. And that includes our assessment of where the missile was fired from, which is a Russian separatist-controlled area.

And also, again, our assessment is that this is a missile that goes basically directly up. The wreckage, of course, also fell in Russian separatist-controlled areas as well. So, to us, everything points to the fact that this was a missile that was likely fired by those Russian-backed separatists.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And do you believe you will be able to prove one way or another if the missile launcher was provided by Russia? Do you expect to get fragments from the crash site? I ask because there were reports that the crash area has been tampered with.

BEN RHODES: Well, that’s one of the reasons why we need international investigators to get access to that site, because we believe that there would be forensic evidence in that crash site that could further corroborate what we have determined here regarding the SA-11 and perhaps where it came from as well.

So we are very concerned about reports of tampering. It is the case that in these types of investigations, good forensic work can determine what it is that brought down a plane. I would note, Judy, for instance, though, there have been reports of course of the black boxes being provided out of the separatist-controlled areas.

That is not sufficient. A black box would not tell you exactly what felled the airplane. It would just tell you about the airport’s flight path. So that’s not sufficient. That’s why we’re working to get that access. We passed a U.N. Security Council resolution yesterday. We’re working to get teams on the ground. And the United States has FBI and NTSB teams on the ground in Ukraine to assist with that investigation.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And just quickly, Ben Rhodes, about the European partners of the United States. So far, they have not been willing to go along with tougher so-called sectorial economic sanctions, as the U.S. has been urging.

What does this say about the unwillingness of Europeans to punish Russia or punish Russia and its policy for what happened here?

BEN RHODES: Well, we have been coordinating with the Europeans in putting sanctions on Russia.

We did move into sanctions in different Russian sectors. The president has been working the phones with his European counterparts. And what we saw today is the European foreign ministers met, and there was actually a positive statement coming out of that meeting, indicating that they are giving instructions to prepare designations in different sectors.

And they named the energy sector, the arms sector, the financial sector. Those are exactly where we have been targeting our sanctions, so we’re optimistic that, with this announcement from the European foreign ministers today, we will see further action in the coming days and weeks in which the Europeans are moving to much stronger measures on Russia.

That will have a significant impact. Even our sanctions have already led to significant downward revisions in Russia’s growth rate and capital flight nearing $100 billion from Russia. Clearly, this can have a cost. And the Europeans can make that cost that much more if they follow through on the announcement that they made today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But you’re saying you don’t know if they are going to follow through?

BEN RHODES: We anticipate that they will. They were very specific today again in saying that they have given instructions to prepare designations and sanctions targets within these sectors.

We are going to work with them as they prepare those, so we are coordinated with them as well. And I would expect there to be further announcements from the Europeans in the days ahead.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Ben Rhodes joining us from the White House, we thank you.

BEN RHODES: Thanks very much.