The State Department Clown Car Makes Things Worse In the Middle East

Palestinians have launched at least 28 attacks on Israeli Jews over the past week, leaving seven dead and more than 70 wounded. These attacks, mostly using knives while a few involved guns or motor vehicles, have been encouraged by Islamic preachers on the West Bank and by Mahmoud Abbas.

This violence, while of great concern to Israelis, pales in comparison with the human catastrophes in Syria and elsewhere in the region. But as always, Israel and its tormentors occupy a disproportionate share of the world’s attention, including–unfortunately–that of the U.S. State Department.

Initially, John Kerry sparked outrage by suggesting that the Palestinian attacks were caused by Jews building homes in Judea, Samaria and Jerusalem:

“There’s been a massive increase in settlements over the course of the last years,” Kerry said during a question-and-answer session, “and there’s an increase in the violence because there’s this frustration that’s growing.”

That makes perfect sense–the natural reaction to Jews moving into their ancestral homeland is to try to kill them, evidently.

Yesterday, State Department spokesman John Kirby made matters worse during his press briefing by maintaining an exquisite neutrality as between would-be murderers and their victims. The colloquy is too long to reproduce here, but it is helpful to read the whole thing to get a full understanding of the tone. I will reproduce some highlights, and comment on them:

QUESTION: Let’s start with the Middle East and some comments that Secretary Kerry made yesterday and also that the White House just made. … 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 has led to this.

So, when dozens of murderous attacks are launched, it is important not to place blame on either the perpetrators or the victims.

State Department spokesman John Kirby

State Department spokesman John Kirby

Now and then, the fog does lift and the administration’s position is clear. That was true with regard to an incident in Dimona, where an Israeli stabbed several Arabs in retaliation against the many attacks that had been carried out against Jews:

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.

There are terrorists on both sides, so neutrality is appropriate.

Kirby also ventured the opinion that the Israelis have been guilty of using excessive force. It wasn’t clear what he had in mind here; shooting terrorists who were in the midst of stabbing Israelis, apparently:

QUESTION: [I]n response to Michael’s question, you said you’d seen reports of what many would consider to be excessive use of force. And I presume that you were talking about from the Israeli side. Is that correct?


QUESTION: You said what many would consider. So is the Administration among those who would consider what the Israeli actions have been to be excessive?

MR KIRBY: I think, again, without qualifying each and every one of them, we’ve certainly seen some reports of security activity that could indicate the potential excessive use of force. And again, we don’t want to see that anywhere. We don’t want to see that here in our own country. So yeah, we’re concerned about that.

QUESTION: So the – so you have raised this issue with Israelis? You’ve said that —

MR KIRBY: We – we’re always concerned about credible reports of excessive use of force against civilians [Ed.: I.e., terrorists armed with knives], and we routinely raise our concerns about that.

QUESTION: Okay. Now, that’s just a little bit different than what you said before. So you believe that these are credible reports of excessive use of force by the Israeli security forces on Palestinian citizens?

MR KIRBY: We’ve seen reports. We’re always concerned about those kinds of reports.

The Arabs have frequently used rumors of changes in the administration of Temple Mount as a pretext for violence, and apparently are doing so again. The Obama administration gave them aid and comfort:

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. …

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.

The topic was revisited later, and Kirby reinforced his point:

QUESTION: So I just have two extremely brief ones, so we can move on after that. You said in answer to my question on the status quo whether – at the Temple Mount whether it’s been broken or not, you said that it has not been observed and that is what has led to – I think. I’ll go back and look at the transcript, but I think you said it had not been – it was not – has not been observed and that is what has led to a great deal of the violence. That certainly sounds like you’re affixing some kind of blame to Israel if this is, in fact, what the Administration believes has led to the violence – the visits by – visit by Israelis to —

MR KIRBY: Well, it’s not about believing it, Matt. I mean, you just looked at what’s been happening in that – on Haram al-Sharif and the Temple Mount recently. I mean, just if we’re looking at this in acute – through an acute lens, I mean, the activity there, the status quo not being observed, has led to violence. There’s – that’s indisputable. That’s not a belief; that’s a fact.

It is not a fact, however, and shortly thereafter Kirby took to Twitter to recant:

Emphasis added. The result of the State Department’s oafish diplomacy was to enrage our ally Israel:

Jerusalem reacted furiously Thursday to State Department spokesman John Kirby’s statement that Jerusalem was not maintaining the status quo on the Temple Mount and accused it of using disproportionate force to stop the wave of stabbing attacks.

“The comments by the US State Department spokesman are so crazy, deceitful and baseless, that I expect President [Barack] Obama and US Secretary of State [John] Kerry to distance themselves from them, and to clarify the US position today,” said Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan.

John Kerry’s State Department is a clown show, and Kerry drives the clown car.