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State Department Defense of Gutman Adds to Confusion

The State Department hasn’t posted a link to its daily press briefing yet, but I’ll paste the transcribed text at the bottom of this post so you can get a sense of how much the administration is squirming over this issue. The exchange between State spokesperson Mark Toner and one of the reporters is so incredibly awkward that the AP can’t even begin to capture it in the following write up:

State Department spokesman Mark Toner said Monday that [U.S. Ambassador to Belgium Howard] Gutman would remain in his post.

Toner said Gutman spoke as ambassador, yet expressed his own views. He declined to say if the administration disagreed with those views.

The White House on Saturday condemned anti-Semitism in all forms. Gutman did as well.

Jewish groups expressed outrage. Some Republican presidential candidates have demanded Gutman’s resignation.

Why is Obama sticking by Gutman?

Beyond Gutman’s fundraising in 2008, Benny Avni writes that Gutman also defended Obama during the Rev. Wright controversy. Maybe the administration expects this debacle to blow over quickly. But in the meantime, they’re putting themselves in a very awkward position.

In the press briefing below, Toner tries to claim that Gutman’s remarks were misinterpreted, but won’t say whether the administration agrees with the idea that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is responsible for anti-Semitism. He also tried to argue that Gutman wasn’t speaking for the administration, while simultaneously acknowledging that the ambassador is always representing the United States in public forums.

The big question that still remains is whether Gutman’s speech was approved by anyone in the administration. Toner said that he was “not aware that [Gutman’s] remarks were cleared back here in Washington.” But if the administration can’t even say that it doesn’t agree with Gutman’s statement, why should we assume that it would have objected to the speech in the first place?

Full briefing below:

   Q:  (Off mic.)

MR. TONER:  Sorry.  I’m really sorry to — it’s a great way to go
into a briefing — remind Matt that his team lost.

Q:  (Off mic.)

MR. TONER:  Yeah.  Well, the Eagles didn’t exactly shroud
themselves in glory.

Welcome, everyone, to the State Department.  Happy Monday.  I
hope you all had a good weekend.

I do want to — you probably just saw we did release a few
minutes ago — and just mention that Special Representative for North
Korea Policy Glyn Davies, who is now back in Washington but getting
ready now to travel to the Republic of Korea, Japan and China from
December 6th through the 15th — the media note detailed some of his
meetings, but obviously he’s there to — the purpose of his trip, his
first to the region as the special representative, is to exchange
views on Korean Peninsula issues.

With that, I’ll take your questions.  Matt, welcome back.

Q:  Thank you.  I’ve got a bunch — well, a few, at least, on
Israel.

MR. TONER:  OK.

Q:  I’ll start with Ambassador Gutman’s speech from last week.
Does the — did the administration sign off on this, or was it vetted
by anyone in EUR or NEA?  And does the administration agree with the
sentiments that he expressed in his speech?

MR. TONER:  I think you saw — actually, let me start again.  I’m
not aware that his remarks were cleared back here in Washington.  He
made very clear in a subsequent statement that they were his thoughts
or his remarks.  He did condemn — he — and was very vocal about
condemning anti-Semitism in all its forms, and I believe he expressed
regret that his words might have been taken out of context.

Q:  Do you — do you think that they were taken out of context?

MR. TONER:  I’m sorry.  In —

Q:  Does the administration agree with the content of the — of
Ambassador Gutman’s speech?

MR. TONER:  I think have to say — and you’ve seen, obviously,
the White House —

Q:  Well, no, actually I had to get those — they were apparently
being only sent to select people.  I wasn’t selected, maybe because I
was gone, but —

MR. TONER:  You’re always selected.

Q:  — I have — I have seen them, however.  I’m — but they
don’t answer the question about whether the administration agrees with
what Ambassador Gutman said in his speech.

MR. TONER:  And the administration and the State Department says
that we condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms.

Q:  That’s great, Mark.  I’m glad that you do.  And I’m sure
everyone is glad that you do.  But do you agree with the content of
Ambassador Gutman’s speech?

MR. TONER:  We —

Q:  I don’t know — it’s a pretty easy question.  Yes or no?

MR. TONER:  It is a — it is — it is — it was his remarks.  It
was his opinion —

Q:  So he wasn’t speaking on — the ambassador to Belgium, he was
not speaking —

MR. TONER:  He was not speaking on behalf — I think he’s said as
much.  He said it was his remarks and he was speaking on his own —

Q:  No, he didn’t.  He did not say that.  He — but he was not
speaking on behalf of the U.S. government?

MR. TONER:  I don’t believe so.

Q:  So the — OK, the ambassador to Belgium shows up at a
conference in Europe, in Belgium, and he is not speaking on behalf of
the U.S. government.  Is that correct?

MR. TONER:  The ambassador was expressing his views on an issue.

Q:  They’re not the view — so these —

MR. TONER:  He subsequently — he subsequently issued a statement
clarifying that he was — and expressing regret if his remarks were
taken out of context.  He then said that he does condemn anti-Semitism
in all its forms and in fact pointed to his own family history as a —
as a testament to that.

Q:  So are you — well, I understand that.  But you’re saying
that he was speaking as a private citizen, not as the U.S. ambassador?

MR. TONER:  Well, of course, when — any time an ambassador
speaks, he is representing the United States.

Q:  So the views that he expressed in his speech do not represent
the views of the administration?

MR. TONER:  Matt, I made it very clear —

Q:  Mark, I understand that you condemn anti-Semitism in all its
forms.  I understand that, OK?  I’m asking you if you agree with the
content of his speech, which he gave as the U.S. ambassador to
Belgium.

MR. TONER:  And I would just say that he was — he was sharing
his views on an issue.  Our commitment to Israel’s security is
ironclad.  The United States — or Israel has no greater friend or
ally than the United States.  And we condemn anti-Semitism in all its
forms.

Q:  OK, that’s fine.  But I don’t — I’m not hearing in there —
unless you’re going to tell me right out he was speaking as a private
citizen not as the ambassador.  Is that — that’s what you’re
saying?

MR. TONER:  What’s that — he — that — I’m sorry, could you
repeat your question again?

Q:  That his comments were delivered as a — as a private
citizen, not as a representative of the U.S. government?

MR. TONER:  Again — (chuckles) — we’ve been very clear that we
condemn anti-Semitism in all its forms regardless of, you know, how
call it or how you characterize it.

Q:  Do you — do you think that — do you — OK, so you do not
agree, then, with the — with the — with the contents of the
ambassador’s speech?

MR. TONER:  I think I’ll just stop there.

Q:  Well — (chuckles) — (inaudible) — this guy, who is the —

MR. TONER:  I think I just said we condemn anti-Semitism in all
of its forms.

Q:  OK, so you don’t draw a distinction between criticism of
Israel —

MR. TONER:  No.

Q:  — and —

MR. TONER:  No, we don’t — we don’t draw any — we don’t —

Q:  All criticism of Israel — all criticism of Israel is anti-
Semitism?  (Laughter.)  Is that what you’re saying?

MR. TONER:  Look, I will leave it to the ambassador to Belgium to
clarify what he meant by his remarks —

Q:  Does the — does the — does the —

MR. TONER:  — to this gathering.  I can only speak on behalf of
this administration, and that is that we condemn anti-Semitism in all
its forms.

Q:  Does the administration think that Israel is above reproach,
in other words, that Israel should not — should not be criticized for
anything?

MR. TONER:  Speaking largely about the issue that was on the
table, which is Middle East peace and the importance of it and,
frankly, the stability that it brings to the region, we’ve been very
clear that, you know, the best way to a lasting peace is through the
negotiating table.  That remains our focus.  We want to get both sides
back into direct negotiations.

Q:  Surely, though, the administration has, with the specific
example of — I’ll use settlements here, you have been —

MR. TONER:  Absolutely.

Q:  The administration has been critical of the Israeli
government, correct?  Yes?

MR. TONER:  If we’re talking now about efforts to get both sides
back to the negotiating table, we have been very clear when either of
the parties, we believe, does actions or takes actions that are not
constructive to that process.

Q:  This administration has been critical of the government of
Israel before, correct?

MR. TONER:  Of course.

Q:  Yes.  Do you — is that criticism anti-Semitic?

MR. TONER:  Of course not.

Q:  So all criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism?

MR. TONER:  Again, I don’t want to parse this out.  I just simply
want to say —

Q:  I know you don’t want to, because you’re in a very difficult
position.

MR. TONER:  — we condemn — we condemn anti-Semitism in all of
its forms, OK?

Q:  You’re saying, though, that you accept a distinction between
criticism of Israel and — criticism of the government of — the
policies of the government of Israel and anti-Semitism.  You draw a
distinction between the two things, correct?

MR. TONER:  I’d just say that this administration has
consistently stood up against anti-Semitism and efforts to
delegitimize Israel and will continue to do so.

Q:  Does the administration believe that you can be critical of
Israel without being anti-Semitic?

MR. TONER:  I think that when it comes to trying to keep the
parties focused on the peace process and in citing behavior that is
not constructive to that process, we are certainly able to do that and
have done so in the past.

Q:  Does the administration believe that you can be — that one
can be critical of the policies of the government of Israel without
being anti-Semitic?  Yes or no?

MR. TONER:  Well, again, I think I just answered the question,
that we have been critical —

Q:  OK, so you’re saying that there — you do draw a distinction
between criticism — between criticism of the government of Israel, of
policies of the government of Israel, and — in other words, not all
criticism of — when you come out and you say, we think that more
settlements are a bad idea, that doesn’t mean the administration is
anti-Semitic, right?

MR. TONER:  Of course.  Of course.  Of course.

Q:  OK.  So in his speech, Ambassador Gutman draws a distinction
between the classic anti-Semitism and some kind of new form of hatred
toward Jews, which is based — what he said, based on the policies of
the government of Israel.

Do you — do you — it sounds as though you accept that there is a
distinction between the — between the two.

MR. TONER:  What Ambassador Gutman was — I believe what he was
trying to convey is that there are different forms of anti-Semitism.
We condemn them in all their forms.

Q:  All right.

I’ve got another on Israel, but it’s not on this subject.

Q:  Can I just follow up briefly on that?  Some Republicans have
called for the administration to fire Ambassador Gutman.  Is there —
does the administration have a response to that, have a position on —

MR. TONER:  We have full confidence in him.



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