BRUSSELS — Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said Wednesday there is a chance for peace between Israelis and Palestinians, as President Trump prepared to make an announcement on the status of Jerusalem.
Speaking to reporters at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization’s headquarters about six hours ahead of Trump's speech on Jerusalem, Tillerson brushed off criticisms that the Jerusalem decision is more likely to doom prospects for peace than advance them.
“We continue to believe there is a very good opportunity for peace to be achieved,” he said, urging people to listen to Trump's full speech and its context before passing judgment.
“The president is very committed to the Middle East peace process,” he said. “He has a team he put into place. That team has been working very diligently.”
Tillerson's message was one he has delivered repeatedly — with little success in convincing anyone — during two days of meetings at NATO as the anticipated U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital was criticized from the Kremlin to the Vatican.
Since arriving in Brussels on Monday night, virtually every diplomat who has met with Tillerson has raised objections to Trump’s move, though Tillerson said they did not spend much time discussing it. But the issue at times pushed Tillerson to the sidelines as a silent bystander while his counterparts aired their unhappiness.
“Clearly, this is a decision that makes it more important than ever that the long-awaited American proposals on the Middle East peace process are now brought forward, and I would say that that should happen as a matter of priority,” British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said after posing for photos with Tillerson, who stood a few feet away as Johnson spoke to reporters.
Before heading in for his own meeting with Tillerson, Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told reporters the decision is a “grave mistake” that will have dire consequences.
“It will not bring any stability or peace, but rather chaos and instability,” he said. “Not only [in] the Muslim world. The whole world is reacting, and the whole world is against the possibility of this decision.”
Asked if he had conveyed that message to Tillerson, Cavusoglu replied, “I already told him, and I will tell him again.”
Tillerson also has met resistance over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. The Trump administration wants to enlist European allies to work together in pushing back against Iran’s support for proxy groups, terrorism, ballistic missiles and cyberattacks. But the Europeans all consider the deal, which lifted some economic sanctions in exchange for restrictions on Iran's nuclear program, to be working. They say they will only discuss the other concerns outside the framework of the nuclear deal.
At his news conference, Tillerson was asked about reports last week that he is about to be replaced. He answered with an abrupt dismissal of the reports.
“This is a narrative that keeps coming up about every six weeks, and I would say you need to get some new sources because your story keeps being wrong,” he said.
Tillerson also said the United States believes that the Cuban government knows who has conducted targeted attacks on U.S. Embassy employees in Havana and could stop them.
U.S. investigators have shared with the Cubans only limited information gleaned about mysterious symptoms that have been exhibited by at least 24 embassy employees since late 2016, with new cases reported as recently as August. The United States has yanked some of its diplomats out of Havana and expelled some Cuban diplomats in response.
Tillerson said he has directed the State Department not to share any personal information about the affected employees or their medical conditions, and “not to provide whoever was orchestrating these attacks with information that is useful to how effective they were.”
“What we've said to the Cubans is: Small island, you got a sophisticated security apparatus, you probably know who's doing it, you can stop it. It's as simple as that,” he said.
“We understand the Cubans don't like the actions we've taken. We don't like our diplomats being targeted.”