Transcript: National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan on

The following is a transcript of an interview with National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan that aired on Oct. 29, 2023.

MARGARET BRENNAN: We go now to White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. Jake, good morning to you.

JAKE SULLIVAN: Good morning, Margaret.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Does the US know if the roughly five to six hundred Americans in Gaza have survived the past 23 days of bombing and have the hostages?

JAKE SULLIVAN:  We are in regular contact with most of the Americans who are in Gaza. We can’t say every single one, but all of the ones who reach out to us we follow up with on a regular basis, even sometimes a daily basis. And so we know that many of them are still there, still waiting to get out. And we are working actively to try to make that happen. The challenge right now, Margaret, is that the Egyptians are prepared to let Americans and other foreign nationals out of Gaza. The Israelis have no issue with that. But Hamas is preventing their departure and making a series of demands. We’re trying to work through that to create a circumstance where all of the Americans who are in Gaza are able to get out. It is a priority for the President. He has no higher priority than their safe passage out. And he will continue to work at it until it is accomplished.

MARGARET BRENNAN: This morning the Palestinian Red Crescent said it received threats from the quote occupation authorities to evacuate al Quds Hospital in Gaza, because it’s going to be bombarded. Is that accurate? Is that hospital a military target?

JAKE SULLIVAN:  I have not heard that. So I can’t confirm that or deny that one way or the other. What I can tell you is that hospitals are critical civilian infrastructure. Under international humanitarian law hospitals should not be targeted. They are not military targets.

MARGARET BRENNAN: We’ll watch that developing story. Let me ask you about Israel and how it has explained its mission to the US government. Saturday their military said it committed it killed a Hamas leader who had overseen the drone strikes and the paragliders who carried out that horrific attack on October 7, they’d already announced that they’d killed the commander of forces responsible for the massacre at kibbutz Nirim, and another key Hamas commander. Have they told you yet at which point they will declare this mission a success?

JAKE SULLIVAN: Well, they have declared they have told us in broad terms that making sure that Hamas can never again threaten Israel in the way it threatened Israel before is their core strategic objective in this conflict. But in terms of what the specific milestones are, that is something that ultimately is up to Israel, this is their military operation, they will make that decision. And we will continue to ask the hard questions, Margaret, that we would ask of ourselves in a military operation like this, what exactly are the objectives? How are the means matched to the objectives? And how will this evolve over time? That’s a conversation we’ve been having. It’s a conversation we will continue to have in the days ahead.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So it sounds like that endgame has not been specifically laid out. Do you expect at this point, a full scale Israeli invasion and occupation of Gaza? Or is that off the table?

JAKE SULLIVAN: Well, I’ll let the Israeli Defense Forces speak to what their operational planning is. And I’m not going to characterize it on television today. What I will say is that the United States has been very focused on a core challenge here, which is that Hamas is using civilians as human shields, they’re hiding behind civilians, they’re hiding among civilians. They’re putting rockets and other terrorist infrastructure in civilian areas. That creates an added burden for the Israeli Defense Forces. But it does not lessen their responsibility to distinguish between terrorists and innocent civilians and to protect the lives of innocent civilians as they conduct this military operation. That’s true of striking from the air. It is true of going in on the ground, and this is something that we talk about with the Israelis on a daily basis.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I understand. But I also understand now that there has been a tremendous amount of death in Gaza. I know President Biden said the other day, he has no confidence in the numbers presented by Palestinian authorities in Gaza. But I wonder at which point does the US say there needs to be some cess-cessation of violence?

JAKE SULLIVAN: Well, first President Biden was making a straightforward point, which is that the particular institution, the Gaza health ministry, which is run by Hamas, we can’t take what Hamas says at face value. But we have also been clear, repeatedly, that we have seen thousands of Palestinian civilians killed in this conflict. That- that is a tragedy. Each and every one of those individual deaths is a tragedy, and that the life of every civilian, Palestinian, Israeli, anyone is sacred and has to be protected. And that, as I said before to you, Margaret, the fact that Hamas is using people as human shields does not lessen the responsibility on Israel to try to put heck, those civilians from the point of view of a ceasefire, what Israel suffered on October 7th was the equivalent of fifteen 9/11’s. After 9/11, if the terrorists had simply said, We want a ceasefire, I don’t think the United States would have said, We’re gonna stop going after terrorists. Now, it was important for us, and it is important for Israel, to distinguish between going after terrorist targets, to take out terrorists who continue to threaten Israel, and going after civilians. That is an obligation and a responsibility for Israel. And it’s something that we will continue to press them on. We also believe that there should be humanitarian pauses to get hostages out, potentially to get aid in and we will continue to work toward that end.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I know, Jake, I’ve heard this. And frankly, some of the language is a little contradictory, or it sounds that way, because Secretary Blinken said, even a temporary pause and bombing would benefit Hamas. He said that on this program last week. Then a few days later, he went to the UN and said a humanitarian pause must be considered, then the US at the UN voted against a humanitarian truce. So what exactly is the Biden administration calling for here because everyone from the Pope to the World Health Organization to the UN is saying, just stop the violence for a period of time at least.

JAKE SULLIVAN: Well, what a lot of people are calling for is just a stop to Israeli military action against terrorists period. Just stop no more Israel cannot go after terrorists who conducted this largest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust, and who continue to fire rockets and continue to attack Israel. We have taken the position that Israel has a right to defend itself against terrorist attacks. That is different from what Secretary Blinken spoke about, which was a humanitarian pause. A pause in the fighting, for example, so that there’s a period of time where there can be safe passage of hostages.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So just a hours–

JAKE SULLIVAN: President Biden and his whole team are working extremely hard to get those hostages out. We will continue to do that. I won’t put a timeframe on it. But I will say that given the number of hostages, it would be more than just hours if we were able to secure their release, and we are actively working to secure their release. And similarly, when Secretary Blinken said that any pause and fighting benefits Hamas, that’s a reality. There are a lot of complicated realities in this, a humanitarian pause would be a good thing to get hostages out. But you can bet that Hamas will try to use that time to their advantage as well. These are the things that Israel is trying to grapple with. And these are also the hard questions that we are trying to pose to Israel as it works to prosecute a campaign against Hamas, while we press them to make sure to distinguish between Hamas and the Palestinian people who Hamas does not represent and the Palestinian people deserve to live lives of safety, dignity and equality.

MARGARET BRENNAN: So to that point, Benny Gantz, who is part of the Netanyahu war cabinet said, “We will listen to our friends, but we will act in accordance with what is right for us.” Is there any daylight Jake, between the US and the Netanyahu government right now?

JAKE SULLIVAN:  We have conversations like friends do on the hard questions that I talked about before, on issues associated with humanitarian aid, on distinguishing between terrorists and innocent civilians, on how Israel’s thinking through its military operation. Those conversations happen multiple times a day, they happen between the President and the Prime Minister. They happen by the Secretary of State, Secretary of Defense myself, other senior members of our administration. We talk candidly, we talk directly, we share our views and an unvarnished way, and we will continue to do that. But sitting here in public, I will just say that the United States is going to make its principles and propositions absolutely clear, including the sanctity of innocent human life. And then we will continue to provide our advice to Israel in private.

MARGARET BRENNAN: I understand this is another country’s decisions here. But the US gives more than $3 billion a year in aid to Israel, some of those weapons being used in Gaza are purchased or help to be purchased with US taxpayer funds. So whether it’s intended or not, to some of the world, it looks like the US is endorsing all of what Israel is doing here. Are you at all asking the military to be more limited in its tactics or more strategic?

JAKE SULLIVAN: The United States of America when we transfer weapons to another country, whether it’s Israel or anyone else, requests, requires an assurance that those weapons will be used in accordance with the law of armed conflict, and we seek accountability to ensure that that is the case, we will continue to do that. We will also work around the clock to try to make sure that life saving humanitarian assistance gets to people in need. And so the United States will set out its policy and its principles as a sovereign nation, Israel will make its decisions as a sovereign nation. But fundamentally, what President Biden says, how he has described things from the point of view of civilian protection, access to life saving goods and medicine for civilians, this is where the United States stands. And we do not stand for the killing of innocent people, whether it be Palestinian, Israeli or otherwise. And we weep and grieve for every last life and will continue to do so.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Is that going to be your message to Saudi Arabia’s Defense Minister, when you meet tomorrow? I know, you know, a number of Arab partners are concerned about the level of violence in Gaza right now.

JAKE SULLIVAN:  We’ve been talking to our Arab partners, including to Saudi Arabia, about the unfolding crisis in Gaza. We listen to them carefully. We share our perspective. And yes, we will have the opportunity to dive deep, not just on what is happening today, but on what tomorrow could bring. Because what President Biden said in the Rose Garden this past week, was that we can’t go back to October 6th, that means Hamas can no longer terrorize Israel. But it also means that there needs to be a political horizon for the Palestinian people, two states for two peoples, the right of Palestinians to live in safety, dignity and equality. And we’re going to work towards that. And Arab states, including Saudi Arabia have a role and a responsibility in that as well.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Before I let you go, do you now believe Iran is deterred?

JAKE SULLIVAN: Well, what I believe is that the United States will follow through on what we say we’re going to do. We said that if our troops were attacked, we would respond, we responded. If they’re attacked again, we will respond again. And we are vigilant, because we are seeing elevated threats against our forces throughout the region, and an elevated risk of this conflict spreading to other parts of the region. We are doing everything in our power to deter and prevent that. But I’m not going to predict what the future brings, other than to say that if we are attacked, we will respond.

MARGARET BRENNAN: Jake Sullivan, thank you for your time. And Face the Nation. We’ll be back in one minute. Stay with us.

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