State Department spokesperson Admiral John Kirby left Israeli officials outraged yesterday by his remarks during the daily State Department Press Briefing when he suggested Israel was, at a minimum, at least partly to blame for the current eruption of violence in Jerusalem and throughout the Palestinian Territories.
Responding to the question “Is it the Administration’s position that the status quo at the Temple Mount has been broken?” State Department spokesperson Admiral John Kirby responded:
MR KIRBY: Well, certainly, the status quo has not been observed, which has led to a lot of the violence.
Shortly thereafter Kirby tweeted a “clarification”:
Clarification from today’s briefing: I did not intend to suggest that status quo at Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif has been broken.
— John Kirby (@statedeptspox) October 15, 2015
While no one implied Israel forced this retraction, Haaretz’s lede read:
U.S. Department of State Spokesman John Kirby has been forced to retract a comment he made on Wednesday that Israel had violated the status quo on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.
Kirby’s damning remark followed a series of questions aimed at providing context for the “upsurge in violence,” and specifically where the blame and responsibility should lie. Initially Kirby responded to questions surrounding the massive increase in settlements with a bunch of mumbo gumbo about challenges on both sides, and “not trying to affix blame .. too particularly” (seriously folks). He mentioned there was “nuance and context behind the violence”.
And then he was asked point blank why it was so important “not to affix blame”. He was dodging bullets and redirecting the focus to de-escalation of tension, restoring calm, and moving forward “towards a two-state solution”. But this didn’t stop the questions which included recognizing Jewish acts of terrorism (yes, “And we do”). Queried on whether the administration considered Israeli visits to Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount incitement Kirby tiptoed carefully:
MR KIRBY ….. Incitement can take many forms..I mean, the Secretary spoke specifically about incitement yesterday, and we recognize that incitement can go both ways here. But it’s the – whether it’s action or rhetoric, it’s things that encourage others to continue this cycle of violence.
Israel wants free rein to incite. Even though this exchange and the subsequent fall out was reported in Haaretz, the Jerusaem Post, the Jewish Press, the Times of Israel the mainstream press in the U.S. will not touch what’s behind the explosions of violence in Palestine. Even when the discussion is taking place in our own State Department Daily press briefings.
Last night Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered a lock down on East Jerusalem, forcing the closure of Palestinians businesses, and used an identical incitement strategy that has been used repeatedly towards the Haram Al-Sharif/Temple Mount by having the police then escort fanatical settlers through the streets of a locked down East Jerusalem:
Will the U.S. ever dare demand repercussions for this incitement? Will our mainstream media ever acknowledge these harsh actions as instigating violence?
State Department Press Briefing October 14, 2015:
QUESTION: The other – let me go to some of the other things that he mentioned. There’s been quite a bit of, I don’t know, uproar maybe is the right word about his comments about settlements contributing to – massive increase in settlements over the course of the last years being responsible for the current upsurge in violence. Recognizing that the settlement issue is one that is of serious concern to the Palestinians, is it the Administration’s view that settlement activity is, in fact, to blame for or is responsible for the current surge in attacks that we’re all seeing?
MR KIRBY: I think the Secretary was very consistent yesterday and has been over time in not trying to affix blame for the recent violence too particularly, and he was unequivocal yesterday, as you saw, in condemning the terrorist attacks against Israelis. What he has talked about is the challenges that are posed on both sides by this absence of progress towards a two-state solution. So – and he’s also highlighted our concern that current trends on the ground, including this violence, as well as ongoing settlement activity are imperiling the viability of eventually getting to a two-state solution.
QUESTION: So it is not, then, the Administration’s view that a massive increase in settlement activity in the last years is directly responsible?
MR KIRBY: I think the Secretary well understands that there’s a lot of nuance and context behind the violence that’s occurring recently. And as I said, he was careful not to affix blame in either direction on this in terms of past practices. What he did talk about – and you might have seen it if you saw him at Harvard last night – is that he understands there’s disenfranchisement, there’s disgruntlement, there is – there’s frustration on both sides that have led to this.
QUESTION: Can I ask, why is it so important for him or for the Administration not to affix blame or not to call out who it believes is responsible for what’s going on right now? Is it the case that the Administration does believe that both sides bear responsibility for this?
MR KIRBY: I think he’s been very clear that he wants both sides to take affirmative actions, both in rhetoric and in action, to de-escalate the tension, to restore calm, and to try to move forward towards a two-state solution. He also recognizes, as a public servant with a long career associated with foreign affairs and the diplomatic relations of this country, that many of these issues are ages old. And when there’s a specific attack such as we’ve seen, we are not shy about calling it out. And as I said last week on – if we believe it’s terrorism, to say it’s terrorism. We’re not shy about that in terms of affixing responsibility for it. But in terms of the general scope of the violence that we’re seeing and the unrest, he’s been very clear that rather than to affix blame specifically on all of that, to try to focus on moving forward and restoring calm.
QUESTION: Okay. But isn’t one of the things that you have to do if you’re going to move forward and restore calm is to address what has happened previously, no? Isn’t it?
MR KIRBY: Yeah, of course. I mean, you have to deal with this issue in the context of the times and in the context of what’s going on. I mean, how far back do you want to go in terms of some of these – some of the ill will? He’s trying to keep it in perspective of what we’re seeing right now, which is obviously not constructive and not helpful to getting us to a two-state solution.
QUESTION: All right, this will be very brief. I understand that you have decided now how to qualify the stabbing attack on the Palestinians in Dimona?
MR KIRBY: Yes, we’ve had a chance to look at that attack more deeply, and I think you’re going to ask me what – do we consider it an act of terrorism. And we do.
QUESTION: You do consider it an act of terrorism. Okay, so that would suggest then that you believe that this is – that both sides are, in fact, committing these —
MR KIRBY: Well, I would say certainly individuals on both sides of this divide are – have proven capable of and in our view guilty of acts of terror.
QUESTION: All right. And then the visit to Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif by Israelis, is that – does the Administration consider that to be visits to there – does the Administration consider that to be incitement?
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to be able to characterize every single act with terminology. What the Secretary has said and stands by is that we want to see the status quo restored, the status quo arrangement there on Haram al-Sharif and the Temple Mount, and for both sides to take actions to de-escalate the tensions. So incitement can take many forms. Again, I’m not going to – I’m not going to go through a laundry list of what is or what isn’t. I mean, the Secretary spoke specifically about incitement yesterday, and we recognize that incitement can go both ways here. But it’s the – whether it’s action or rhetoric, it’s things that encourage others to continue this cycle of violence, it’s just not helpful and not going to get us to what we really want to see there.
QUESTION: Is it the Administration’s position that the status quo at the Temple Mount has been broken?
MR KIRBY: Well, certainly, the status quo has not been observed, which has led to a lot of the violence.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: Can I ask —
MR KIRBY: Go ahead.
QUESTION: The Secretary spoke about re-engaging last night. That’s the word he used. Was – is that – what does that mean? I mean, re-engaging since last year’s failure of the talks? Does that mean that he’s even looking at trying to get the sides together?
MR KIRBY: Well, I don’t want to get ahead of – I don’t want to get ahead of things here. But when the Secretary talks about re-engaging, he – it speaks directly to his desire to continue to pursue a two-state solution there. And he recognizes that that’s hard work, that’s complicated, that that’s going to take some time. It doesn’t mean by saying re-engaging that we were disengaged. It just means that I think the Secretary obviously believes that this is an effort worth pursuing and worth pursuing as energetically as possible.
QUESTION: So he’s – what I understand what you’re saying is that he does – he is thinking of trying again to mediate in bringing these two sides together.
MR KIRBY: No, I wouldn’t go that far, at least not at this point, Lesley. What he’s interested in doing right now, immediately – and you heard him talk about this yesterday – is trying to see if there’s ways where we can reduce the violence and to help restore some sense of calm there so that meaningful work can be done to try to find a two-state solution. But right now it’s difficult to have that kind of a discussion when there’s so much violence going on, and you see it again just today. So I think that’s where his chief concern right now is on communicating his desire to see that – the violence be reduced.
QUESTION: So does he believe that bringing the sides together would be helpful, or is it premature?
MR KIRBY: When you say bring the sides together, I —
QUESTION: Bring the leaders —
MR KIRBY: To work on a two-state solution.
QUESTION: Two separate rooms, same house, same building?
MR KIRBY: Again, I’m not going to get into modalities here. The Secretary’s made clear his concerns over what’s going on there and his desire to travel to the region to engage and to discuss and to try to find ways to reduce the tensions, restore the calm, and then start to work collaboratively, hopefully, towards a two-state solution.
MR KIRBY: Yeah.
QUESTION: What would be the practical steps that both sides can take immediately to defuse the situation? What would be, like, practical suggestions to both sides that they must do now?
MR KIRBY: Well, again, I wouldn’t get too specific here. I think the Secretary spoke about this yesterday very clearly that the violence needs to stop. So to the degree leaders on either side can help lead to that outcome, that would be useful. The incitement needs to stop.
MR KIRBY: So to the degree to which leaders – whether they’re responsible for it or not, to the degree that they can contribute to an atmosphere which isn’t encouraging more violence, more killing, that would be useful. And then, again, to sort of put in place and then keep in place, maintain a sense of calm. All that would useful right now, and I think that’s really again where the Secretary’s head was yesterday. It’s where it is today, and it’s why he’s interested in pursuing travel there soon.
QUESTION: For instance, the Israelis put a great many checkpoints in the last, let’s say, 24 hours in and around Arab neighborhoods, Palestinian neighborhoods in Jerusalem and the surrounding areas, and so on. Would that be something that the Secretary or you would call on the Israelis to undo, so to speak, to sort of – to alleviate some of the frustration or the feeling of being cooped in and so on by these young men and women?
MR KIRBY: Well, I don’t think it’s going to be useful for me to stake out a position on each and every decision that the Israeli security forces are making. They certainly have an obligation towards their citizens and we understand that. Again, what the Secretary wants to see is the violence cease.
QUESTION: Mahmoud Abbas just made a speech, a short speech, a little while ago. I wonder if you’ve had the chance to see it.
MR KIRBY: I have not.
QUESTION: But he’s – he’s basically accusing Israel of conducting summary executions, and so on. He’s threatening to take it to the international court – the International Criminal Court. He’s saying that we will not be held hostage to agreements that Israel is not adhering to, and so on. Apparently he’s talking about Oslo. He’s saying that the Palestinians must have a recourse to resist an occupation. Do you agree that the Palestinians must have some sort of a method or recourse, and so on, by which they oppose this occupation that has gone on for so long?
MR KIRBY: Well, again, without getting into specific terminology here, Said, what we would like to see is progress made on both sides in both rhetoric and in action towards a meaningful two-state solution. That is very difficult to get to, to even get to the process of pursuing that when there’s so much violence going on, which isn’t doing anything but spiraling the tension upward rather than downward. And so again, what we want to see is both sides take the actions to calm things down so that we can have meaningful discussions and progress towards a two-state solution.
QUESTION: So —
MR KIRBY: Yes.
QUESTION: — you’ve called this wave “terrorism.” You now have 28 attacks over 14 days, 7 dead, over 70 wounded. Just a couple hours ago you had Ambassador Saperstein come here and he said to hold Israel to different standards than other – any other country isn’t just inappropriate; it’s anti-Semitism. What would you have – in terms of these checkpoints, what would you have Israel do? And I’ll follow up on that, because the exact quote from yesterday wasn’t actually read. Kerry said, “And there’s been a massive increase in settlements over the course of the last years,” and “Now you have this violence because there’s a frustration that is growing.” Is the suggestion that what Israel should do is stop settlements? And if that’s the suggestion, are you not also suggesting that the terrorism that is happening at the current moment, as you describe it, has legitimate political motivations?
MR KIRBY: On settlements, our policy has not changed. We continue to believe – to continue to take the position that they’re illegitimate. So there’s been no change on our policy on settlements, and – now hang on, just let me finish. You ask a whopper of a question, so you got to give me a chance to answer here. So no change in our position on settlements. And obviously, we don’t want to see that practice continue, okay? That’s crystal clear. And you’re right the way you read the quote back, and I’m actually glad you did because it just reinforces my point earlier. The Secretary wasn’t saying, well, now the settlement activity is the cause for the effect we’re seeing. Is it a source of frustration for Palestinians? You bet it is, and the Secretary observed that. But he’s not – this isn’t about affixing, as I said, blame on either side here for the violence. What we want to see is the violence cease, and we want to see it end.
And so to your other question, well, what do you want to see the Israelis do? I think you mentioned checkpoints. I’m not – I’m not – it’s not our – we’re not going to dictate immediate security requirements onto Israel. Again, the Israeli Government has a right and a responsibility to protect its citizens. Now, we have seen some – I wouldn’t call the checkpoints this, but we’ve certainly seen some reports of what many would consider excessive use of force. Obviously, we don’t like to see that, and we want to see restrictions that are elevated in this time of violence to be as temporary as possible if they have to be enacted. What we want to see, though, to your second question, is for both sides to take – to take the leadership responsibilities of calling for calm, maintaining that calm, and being able to restore a sense of normalcy so that people can get on with their lives safely and not have to worry, but also so that we can really begin to have again a meaningful discussion towards a two-state solution – which we continue to believe is the outcome that is – that’s best for the people there in the region.
QUESTION: But Abbas seems to be losing complete control. I mean, apparently these – a lot of these people are very young and they are not – they’re not listening to him. They really – he had no authority over them. They move about. A lot of them are from East Jerusalem, where he exercises no authority whatsoever. So what would you have him do? I mean, in fact, his leverage with the Palestinians seems to have dissipated. In such a situation, what would be a course of action that the United States, as someone who has garnered this peace process or the pursuit of a two-state solution has done for over 20, 25 years?
MR KIRBY: Said, I can’t give you – and I wouldn’t, just like I’m not – we’re not going to dictate from this podium temporary security restrictions that the Israeli Government may or may not need to put into effect. I’m not going to dictate from this podium specific steps that President Abbas has to take. I mean, he’s the leader. And the Secretary was very clear yesterday our expectation of leaders is that they’re going to do what they need to do to get calm restored, to reduce the violence, and to begin to start again on a process of dialogue here towards a two-state solution.
QUESTION: Doesn’t that leave you in a very awkward position because – or a difficult position, not awkward – the fact that he was elected 10 years ago and does not really have a great deal of credibility among his people?
MR KIRBY: My position up here is never difficult or awkward. Look, I – the —
QUESTION: Really? Never difficult? (Laughter.)
QUESTION: (Inaudible.) All right.
MR KIRBY: I think I’ve answered this. I don’t think I really can answer it any better than I have in the past. I think my answer will be the same.
QUESTION: Could I just follow up on logistics? Now you said that the Secretary may meet in the region. But he could also go to the West Bank and to Israel, right? It is possible on his trip?
MR KIRBY: I’m not going to – I don’t have any —
MR KIRBY: — specifics on his travel to announce, Said. And I think you can understand. When we have something that we can talk about in terms of dates and places and agenda items, we’ll do that. We’re just not at that point right now.