Here’s yesterday’s press briefing at the State Department. If you watch the first 20 minutes of the video, you’ll see the degree to which Matt Lee’s anger/skepticism about Israeli settlements is reflected by several other reporters, notably Rosalind Jordan of Al Jazeera English, who says the administration has adopted a “softer take” on settlements.
Jordan bores in on the apartheid issue, saying:
When you have talk of train lines being brought through to connect one settlement with another and not allowing people who live in between to board them, it… makes it more difficult for the Palestinians to say to their side you have to be patient, we’re trying to make this work–
While Matt Lee starts out by showing that the Israelis have announced 4000 new settlements since the start of talks and the Palestinians have just “sucked it up.” Lee also riffs off of John Kerry’s statement that the settlements are “illegitimate.” He looked up the word and said it means they are either a, born out of wedlock or b, illegal.
Lee opened the briefing yesterday, with a sharp rundown of all the settlement activity since the announcement of talks.
Matt Lee: Since the peace talks began here back on the 30th, the Israelis – this is just the latest move in this direction – on August 4th they expanded subsidies to West Bank settlements; on August 8th they announced another thousand new apartments in the West Bank; on August 11th the Housing Minister announced what you talked about yesterday, 1,187 West Bank apartments and 800 East Jerusalem, and then today 900 new apartments in East Jerusalem.
The Palestinians meanwhile don’t seem to have done anything except kind of sucked it up on this, and I’m just wondering if you view – is this evidence of Israel’s good faith – what you talked about yesterday when you said both sides were at the table in good faith?
MS. Marie HARF: Well, we still believe that, Matt, that both sides are at the negotiating table in good faith here, because they believe in the importance of the peace process….
MS. HARF: Well, those are your words. Those aren’t mine.
Lee: Well, what is it when you tell them not to do something and they do it? … Is that not – that’s either ignoring —
MS. HARF: …I said we have serious concerns… I said this yesterday that we had… serious concerns with the announcements that we were talking about yesterday.
Lee: So you’re not necessarily – you have serious concerns but you’re not opposed to them?
MS. HARF: I’m not going to – and again, we can play the word game again today, but I’m not going to further describe our —
QUESTION: No, it’s not a word game because —
MS. HARF: — position on this announcement. Let me finish for a second, Matt. I’m not going to further describe our position on this other than…. to say we have serious concerns.
Lee: But it’s not a word game. These things have actual consequences … on the ground.
MS. HARF: Absolutely. Which is why our team is there negotiating with both sides exactly because they have incredibly serious consequences. You’re right.
Lee: So does it bother you at all that the Israelis do not seem to be listening to you?
MS. HARF: I’m not going to discuss whether or not something bothers us. I’m going to say that we have serious concerns with the recent announcement. We’ve made those concerns known…
Question: would you explain to me – the Secretary of State said that all settlements were illegitimate. What is the difference between illegitimate and illegal, in your parlance, in your explanation?
MS. HARF: Well, our – the Secretary – our position is clear and has not changed that we do not accept the legitimacy of continued settlement activity. That is our policy. I can say it every day but it has in no way changed…
QUESTION: Did anyone ask him – I did ask it yesterday, and again, has the U.S. told Israel to stop?
MS. HARF: I am not going to further outline what our diplomatic communications are with the Israeli Government on this issue other than to say yesterday that we had serious concerns with the latest announcement and made that known to the government…
Rosalind Jordan: The Secretary said he was trying to get in touch with the Prime Minister. Did he make that phone call, and what did he tell the Prime Minister?
MS. HARF: I believe he did. Let me double-check with the traveling party on that. I was just on the phone with them before I came down here, but I want to get the latest information. I believe it happened, but let me just double-check on that and we can get it for you after the briefing.
Jordan: Are you going to come back and tell us that you’re not able to say because it’s part of diplomatic discussions because —
MS. HARF: I don’t know what I’m going to come back to you and say. If I can read it out for you, I will. …
Jordan: And then looking at the larger stance of the Obama Administration in dealing with Israel on this issue, at first there was a very hard line going back to almost the moment when Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State, very critical of the expansion of settlements in the West Bank, whether or not it was inside Jerusalem. And now there seems to be this softer take. Is the U.S. essentially throwing up its hands and assuming that Israel is going to build settlements even though doing so may impede the ability of establishing a fully contiguous independent Palestinian state?
MS. HARF: I would in no way, I think, characterize it like that. I’m not going to do a history lesson about where we’ve been for the last five years, but… we continue to have conversations with the Israeli Government about all of these issues…
Jordan: But look, there was this nine-month-long moratorium that Netanyahu put in going into 2010. He allowed that moratorium to expire not three weeks after the start of renewed peace talks here at the State Department. The Palestinians threw up their hands and said if this is continuing, we’re not going to be at the table. That same risk exists right now. Is the Obama Administration going to continue essentially spinning its wheels on this matter if it does not convince Israel to refrain from expanding these settlements?
MS. HARF: …There’s a lot of history about why this hasn’t worked in the past, but we are focused on the fact that both sides sit down at the table and say this is important, it’s imperative, it’s the right time, our leaders are committed to it, and so we are going to continue working with you on this to get to a better place.
Jordan: But when we talk about settlements, we’re not talking about something in the abstract. We’re talking about people bringing their families in, establishing roots, establishing communities. Those are very difficult to dismantle with each passing day, as you noted.
MS. HARF: All of the issues involved with Middle East peace are difficult.
Jordan: But when you have this and when you have talk of train lines being brought through to connect one settlement with another and not allowing people who live in between to board them, it does raise the difficulty and makes it more difficult for the Palestinians to say to their side you have to be patient, we’re trying to make this work, so that we can get what we have been fighting for for 30 years. Is the U.S. throwing up its hands on settlements before this process even gets started?
MS. HARF: No. In no way are we throwing up our hands on settlements….
Lee: All right. On Said’s question about illegitimate and what it means, I want to leave apart the definition because there’s only two definitions of it. One is being born outside of wedlock and the other is illegal. So assuming that you don’t mean that it’s born outside of wedlock, you mean it’s illegal. But I don’t want to focus on that. I want to focus on the continued part of this; continued settlement activity is illegitimate. What about prior settlement activity? Is that also illegitimate?
MS. HARF: …I’m not going to make a broad sweeping generalization from here about prior settlement activity…
Lee: Do you know when the cutoff is between legitimate and illegitimate? Or is it only continued, i.e. settlement activity in the future that is illegitimate, and once it’s built… it’s not illegitimate? Do you see what I’m —
MS. HARF: No, I understand your question.
Lee: The problem with it is… is that nothing is actually illegitimate. It’s always pushed into the future. So I want to know when it is that you think the illegitimacy of settlements began.
MS. HARF: Okay. I can – I will take that question.
Lee: Did it begin at – in ‘67 or is there some stuff that is okay and that should be off the table in terms of swaps, stuff that Israel should have claimed to before the negotiations come to an end?
MS. HARF: …we know this is a very delicate issue. It’s one that’s being discussed right now, and I wouldn’t want to get ahead of discussions on the ground.