Commentary Magazine


Perhaps the Answer is Obvious

If the issue were not so serious, this would be comedy gold. As it is, it sets some sort of record in the annals of U.S. diplomatic history.

No one knows the prior record for seriatim refusals to answer a straightforward “yes” or “no” question, but the trophy was retired yesterday by State Department Spokesman Robert Wood at his press conference — which followed the May 27 refusal of Department Spokesman Ian Kelly to answer whether the Obama administration stands behind the U.S. commitments in the April 14, 2004 letter to Israel, and Wood’s own refusal to answer the question seven times on June 1.

Yesterday there was this colloquy, as the issue was raised again for the third time:

QUESTION: I would like to go back to Middle East. Yesterday, you spoke about the Israeli settlements.

MR. WOOD: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: And I didn’t understand very well what is the Obama position on — the Obama Administration’s position on the letter from the previous administration, from the previous President Bush to Israel on the settlements. Do you consider this Administration is bound by this letter?

MR. WOOD: What I tried to say yesterday, and I’ll try and say it again today, is that we are working with the two parties to implement their Roadmap obligations. And I think we’ve been very clear in terms of what our position is with regard to settlements. We’ve been extremely clear about that.

QUESTION: So it means you are not bound by this letter?

MR. WOOD: What I said, Sylvie, was we are working with the two sides to help them implement their Roadmap obligations.

QUESTION: Why don’t you want to say if you are bound are not? I don’t understand.

MR. WOOD: I’m saying what I’m saying.

QUESTION: Well, you are not answering. (Laughter.) I don’t understand why you don’t want to say it.

MR. WOOD: What I’m saying to you is, is that this Administration wants to see both sides implement their Roadmap obligations. There are a series of things that the Palestinians are required to do under the Roadmap, as well as the Israelis. Settlements — it’s one of those issues we have made very clear what our position is with regard to settlements. Why won’t you take that as the Administration position?

QUESTION: Because it’s not enough, because there is —

MR. WOOD: I’m sorry, Sylvie.

QUESTION: — an additional letter and — I mean, it’s the big topic between Israel and U.S. right now. You will have a lot of questions about that. It’s only the beginning, so, I mean, you should prepare something a bit more clear for us to understand.

MR. WOOD: I don’t know how much clearer I can be on the subject. We are —

QUESTION: Yeah. (Laughter.)

QUESTION: Have you seen the letter? Do you know which letter we’re referring to?

MR. WOOD: I know what you’re referring to.

QUESTION: Have the Israelis brought it up in their conversations?

MR. WOOD: I haven’t been privy to those conversations with regard to this issue. But look, I’ve been very clear — we’ve been very clear about our position with regard to.

QUESTION: What? Well, we must be stupid because — (laughter) —

MR. WOOD: No, I’m not saying you’re stupid.

QUESTION: — we don’t understand.

QUESTION: It’s a yes-or-no question, Robert. Is the Obama Administration bound by the contents of that letter or not? A yes or a no will suffice.

MR. WOOD: Well, I’m giving you the answer that I’ve given you yesterday and today.

QUESTION: What’s problematic about your answer is that we are continually calling, for example, on the Palestinians — all factions of the Palestinians — to abide by the commitments that previous Palestinian governments have made. And yet you stand at that podium unwilling to declare whether or not the United States feels obligated to abide by the commitment that a previous United States Government made, the previous United States Government.

So why are you in a position to demand such things of Palestinians, and not to abide by those kind of rules yourself.

MR. WOOD: We’re demanding things from both sides. This is not an issue of what the United States needs to do. This is an issue about what the two sides need to do.

QUESTION: It’s American policy —

QUESTION: But there is a letter, there is a document which is public, which has been published extensively, and which was signed by the President of the United States.

MR. WOOD: Mm-hmm.

QUESTION: So is it a commitment or is it not a commitment?

MR. WOOD: I will say it one more time. We — the Obama Administration is helping the two parties implement their Roadmap obligations. That’s where we are. That’s the policy.

QUESTION: Is the —

QUESTION: And elucidating what is your position on the letter would not help that?

MR. WOOD: I’m giving you what I’ve got. That’s all I can give you at this point.

QUESTION: This letter diminishes Israel’s Roadmap obligations and puts — it gives them a loophole in their Roadmap obligations. So if you’re demanding that they abide —

MR. WOOD: I don’t see it — I don’t see the situation in that way. What I see here is —

QUESTION: So they’re not bound, so you’re not bound?

MR. WOOD: What I’m saying is the two sides committed to undertake some obligations. And the U.S., of course, is helping the two sides implement these obligations, as we agreed to do. That’s what we’re focused on — the Roadmap obligations. And I can’t say it more explicitly. That’s our policy and that’s where we are.

QUESTION: I asked you at a previous briefing if the United States relationship with Israel was under review as a number of other foreign policy matters were under review at the time.

MR. WOOD: The relationship — the United States relationship with Israel is not under review. We have a very strong, solid relationship with the Government of Israel.

QUESTION: Well, one element in that relationship was this letter signed by an American president and received by the Israeli prime minister. So if that’s not under review, presumably you still feel bound by that — by the contents of that letter.

MR. WOOD: James, I’ve already — I don’t know how many times — has anybody counted how many times I’ve tried to respond to this? I don’t have anything more to say on it.

QUESTION: I’ve — we’ve counted the number of times you’ve not responded. We have not counted a single time you’ve tried to respond.

MR. WOOD: I have responded, in my view.

Eleven refusals to answer, and three instances of outright laughter from the press corps at the identical repetitions of the same non-answer. Somewhere Baghdad Bob and numerous former Pravda press spokesmen are tipping their hats.

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