In Matthew Miller’s first State Department briefing on May 22, about a quarter of the question-and-answer period—11 minutes—was devoted to Israel.
The first question centered on a statement that Miller, State Department spokesman, released on May 21, which Matt Lee, of the Associated Press, characterized as “highly critical” of Israel’s decision to walk back legislation barring Israeli citizens from entering Homesh in northern Samaria.
Had Washington heard back from Jerusalem? Lee wanted to know. And, he added, the statement referred to letters that former Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and former U.S. President George W. Bush exchanged.
“You seem to be complaining, and this is the second time this has happened—not, the first time under your name but the second time it has happened—that you guys have complained about this. And yet it was in fact the Obama administration that said when it was in office that it no longer recognized or no longer felt bound by the assurances that were given by both sides in these,” Lee said.
“So, why do you expect the Israelis to uphold this when you guys haven’t for 12 years?” he asked.
Miller reiterated that Foggy Bottom is “deeply troubled” by the Israeli government’s order. He added that the order is both inconsistent with Sharon’s “written commitment to the Bush administration in 2004 and, significantly, the current Israeli government’s commitments to the Biden administration.” (Miller added that Washington and Jerusalem communicate “on a number of levels, all the time,” without speaking more specifically.)
“I don’t care who the letters were exchanged between. They could have been between Golda Meir and Lyndon Johnson, but the fact of the matter is—is that you guys were the ones who first said you’re no longer bound by them, so why do you keep bringing—why—if you think that what the Israelis are doing now is inconsistent with what they’ve told you—I mean ‘you’ meaning this administration—that’s one thing,” he said. “But why keep bringing up the Sharon-Bush letters?”
Miller disagreed that the U.S. position has changed over time. “Our position has been clear and consistent across administrations, and it is our view that that letter was not withdrawn,” the State Department spokesman said.
“Really? The last administration, really?” Lee asked. “That was a clear and consistent view in the—during the last administration?”
When Miller said that the State Department’s view is that the Israeli government has not withdrawn its obligations in the letter, Lee called that position “interesting.”
“So, this administration still feels bound by the commitments that President George W. Bush made to former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon back in,” he said, as Miller cut in. Lee then asked about the Obama administration policy, about which Miller would not comment.
“But the current president was the vice president during the Obama administration, so I’m just—I am curious. Do you expect the Israelis to uphold something that the Obama administration already said it was not interested in?” continued Lee.
“We expect them to—to uphold their commitments that they made in that letter, their commitments that they made to the Biden administration, and, as I said, the fact that these settlements are illegal under current Israeli law,” Miller said. Which drew a response from Lee: “I could understand this a lot better if you just said that you expect them to uphold their commitments to the Biden administration.”
“Which I’ve said,” Miller said.
Which got Lee going again. “The fact of the matter is that you’re asking them to uphold commitments that were made almost 20 years—15 years ago that you—that the United States under the Obama administration has already said that they’re not bound by. So why does Israel have to uphold them if you don’t?” Lee said.
Other questions followed. Lee wanted to know if Washington was OK with Israel saying it would not rebuild on private Palestinian land, to which Miller said that the State Department believes expanding settlements “undermines the geographic viability of the two-state solution.”
“Their pledge was to remove all settlements from this area,” Miller said.
‘The provocative visit’
Andrea Mitchell, of NBC News, chimed in next, asking about the second part of the State Department statement, which chastised Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir for visiting the Temple Mount, Judaism’s holiest site, on Sunday.
“Clearly, Sharon did not observe any understanding about not going to the Temple Mount. Is there an understanding, a legal understanding other than your concern, the U.S. concern about that holy area, about what you’re saying was the provocative visit?” she asked.
Miller reiterated U.S. concern about the “provocative” visit.
“We believe this holy space should not be used for political purposes, and we call on all parties to respect its sanctity,” he said. “More broadly, we reaffirm the longstanding U.S. position in support of the historic status quo at Jerusalem’s holy sites and underline Jordan’s special role as the custodian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem.”
“Does that—did that apply when Israeli police entered the mosque, just in recent weeks?” Mitchell asked. (She did not note that there were rioters within.) Miller did not comment on that specific incident, but noted that “we are concerned by any actions by either side that escalate tensions, and make an ultimate resolution more difficult.”
Next up was Said Arikat, who reports for a Palestinian publication and frequently smears Israel in his questions, who complimented Miller on the State Department’s statement.
“I mean, look, good statement, strong statement, as far as stating your position on the settlements and so on, and expansion and otherwise,” Arikat said. “But what next? … maybe you’re angry and so on. But what steps can you take to really drive the point home?”
Miller rejected the “implicit premise” of the question—“that the words that we deliver from this podium or elsewhere in the U.S. government have no impact.”
“I think if that weren’t true, I wouldn’t be looking out at a full room of people here ready to ask what our position is on this issue and others,” he said.
“Are we ever going to hear ‘or else’ kind of a thing? You do this or else, this is our position?” Arikat asked, before offering a testimonial.
“Just before you answer that, let me ask you about my own village. I mean, there are plans today to build in my own village, in Abu Dis, 400 housing units. So, I mean, it seems that the Israelis, they may take what you say very seriously, but then they go on with their own plans,” he said.
He further opined. “Building 400 housing units in the heart of that town, it will make it like Hebron. It will be a flash point. It will be a constant confrontation and so on,” he said.