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Around and Around Foggy Bottom

At the State Department briefing, one sometimes gets the sense it’s Abbott and Costello time (“Who’s on First?”). Reporters on Tuesday tried in vain to get answers to two questions: have the Obami thrown in the towel on the Jerusalem housing issue and have proximity talks actually begun. You can read the transcript in full and not find an answer. A sample of the questioning gives you the sense the Obami would just rather not talk about much of anything right now.

On the housing issue:

QUESTION: Yeah. Yesterday in her speech to AIPAC, Secretary Clinton said that Israeli construction in East Jerusalem and the West Bank — but we’ll just confine ourselves to Jerusalem here — was — did not help; it damaged the credibility of both the peace process and also the credibility of the United States as a mediator. Several hours after she spoke and after she met with Prime Minister Netanyahu, he addressed the same crowd and said that Jerusalem is not a settlement, it’s our capital. He said that Jews have been building in Jerusalem for 3,000 years and would continue to do so.

What gives here? Where is — is there any attempt to reconcile these positions or have you just — have you guys just decided that they win and you’ll agree to disagree on this?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, we are continuing our discussions with Israeli officials and with Prime Minister Netanyahu. He’ll meet President Obama later this afternoon. We understand that Jerusalem is deeply important to Israelis and Palestinians, and to Jews, Muslims, and Christians everywhere. We believe it’s possible to reach an outcome that both realizes the aspirations of all parties in Jerusalem and safeguards its status for the future.

Without getting into the specifics of our ongoing conversations with the prime minister or with Israeli officials, we’ve raised our concerns with them. Jerusalem is one of those issues. The prime minister has responded to our concerns. During the course of our dialogue over the past two weeks, he has added some thoughts of his own in terms of how we can create an atmosphere of trust and move the proximity talks forward, address the substance, including Jerusalem. It’s a final status issue. The only way to ultimately resolve competing claims on the future of Jerusalem is to get to direct negotiations.

We’re not putting any preconditions on this. Our task at the present time is to get the parties — get the proximity talks moving forward, get the parties into direct negotiations, putting the substance on the table, and finding a just resolution that ultimately reaches a peace agreement. That is our ongoing effort, and that conversation and that effort will continue this afternoon at the White House.

QUESTION: Yeah, but he was extremely emphatic, so I’m a little suspicious about whether this response that he gave to the Secretary contained anything in it that you would like — that you actually want to see done. I mean, how can you convince us that, in fact, progress is being made when he basically said last night that he’s taking your suggestion on East Jerusalem and said thanks but no thanks?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, the Israeli Government has a policy, but we also have a point of view that Jerusalem is a final status issue. And we look forward to addressing these issues first within the proximity talks, moving to direct negotiations. Ultimately, the future of Jerusalem can only be resolved through the direct negotiations that we hope will get started as quickly as possible.

QUESTION: And you don’t see him — you don’t see what he said last night, and not just in the comments that I quoted, but in others, as that Israel does not agree that Jerusalem is a final status issue?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I think at one point the prime minister also added that he did not see a distinction necessarily between in Jerusalem and building in Tel Aviv. We — and we disagree with that. And that Jerusalem is a —

QUESTION: So is that the bottom line here?

MR. CROWLEY: — is a final status issue. It’s a city of significant importance to multiple communities. The issues surrounding the future of Jerusalem as part of this process can only be resolved through direct negotiations, and the sooner we get there, the better.

QUESTION: So the bottom line is you have agreed to disagree on this specific issue?

MR. CROWLEY: We are continuing our discussions.

And that’s not even the end of the ping-pong match. Hmm. Sounds like the Obami would rather move on — after they blew up Israel-U.S. relations, sunk Obama’ approval in Israel, and gave Palestinians the idea that there is plenty of daylight between the U.S. and Israel.

OK, so have proximity talks begun? Here we go:

QUESTION: P.J., we’ve gone back and forth even as long as 10 days ago on whether the proximity talks had started formally or not started. And now we’ve had the interruption, the Quartet meeting, and yet Mitchell’s — Senator Mitchell’s gone back and had meetings with both sides. Is it your contention that the proximity talks are ongoing or they’re yet to be resumed? What’s the way to phrase it?

MR. CROWLEY: We are looking to make progress through proximity talks, and that is the focus of our effort.

QUESTION: Well, are they ongoing or are they yet to start?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, again, let’s go back to — the proximity talks are a means to an end. And the first step is proximity talks. The second step is direct negotiations. Hopefully, the end result is a peace agreement that ends the conflict. What we want to see through the proximity talks are to see the parties begin to tackle the substance, to tackle the core issues at the heart of the process. That has not started yet. So we hope to resume that, but before we can, obviously we need to make sure that there’s an atmosphere of trust, so that when those proximity talks begin to address the substance, they will be productive. …

QUESTION: Because, to be honest with you, P.J., and during the last administration we were constantly told that Annapolis was yielding results, that everything was — and they were, oh, just trust us. Yes, it’s happening. Well, it went nowhere. Why should we believe either government this time?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, no. Look, I mean, there is a simple pass/fail test here.

QUESTION: And where do you think you’ve gotten on that right now?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, all right, can I – give me a chance, Matt. All right, the proximity talks are not an end to themselves. The proximity talks —

QUESTION: But you haven’t gotten proximity talks yet.

MR. CROWLEY: All right.


MR. CROWLEY: Do you want to switch places?

QUESTION: No. (Laughter.) I just want to — if you can’t — there’s a simple answer, which is why keep this stuff secret? Why keep it secret?

MR. CROWLEY: Well, I mean, it can be a straightforward answer if I can get it out.

QUESTION: All right. I’ll shut up.

Well, if you can’t even tell whether proximity talks have begun, then there’s no way to tell whether they’re working. It’s increasingly hard for reasonable people to say with a straight face that any of this is producing anything of value. Well, other than the daily dose of farce from Foggy Bottom.

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