Photo Credit: screen capture
Mark C. Toner, U.S. State Department Deputy Spokesperson

At just about every U.S. State Dept. Daily Press Briefing at least one, usually several, reporters attempt to catch the State Department spokesperson into saying something the spokesperson really does not want to say.

Invariably, especially if enough reporters pile on, the spokesperson emits some group of words which, if strung together with padding and context added, will amount to the headline the reporter was seeking but the spokesperson was trying to avoid.


For those who don’t know, the spokesperson for the State Department holds a press briefing several times a week in Room 2209, the Press Briefing Room. At the top of the briefing the spokesperson strides into the room and up to the podium, opens a large notebook, and begins the briefing with some late updates or travel arrangements or such, and then throws the floor open to the credentialed reporters sitting in the room.

Almost always the topic of “Israel” or “Middle East Peace” or “Israel/Palestinians” is on the list of issues discussed.

At the Monday, Oct. 19 hearing, Israel was the first topic raised. It came up in the context of statements made earlier in the day at a press availability by Secretary of State John Kerry, who was in Madrid, Spain.

Kerry discussed his planned upcoming trip to the Middle East, and had made two significant statements about the current situation in Israel, both regarding Har Habayit (the Temple Mount).

First, Kerry rejected the proposal that international peacekeepers be stationed on Har Habayit.

Second, Kerry said that neither Israel nor the United States contemplates any change to the Tempe Mount. He said, “Israel understands the importance of the status quo. What is important is to make sure everybody understands what that means. We are not seeking some new change. We are not seeking outsiders or others to come in.”

But Kerry couldn’t stop there. He had to add, “we have to have clarity.”

Mark C. Toner, the Deputy State Dept. Spokesperson, fielded the questions at Monday’s press briefing. Last week, Admiral John Kirby, the State Dept. Spokesperson, had gotten into a tangle because he was, essentially, entrapped into saying that the status quo was not being maintained by Israel on Har Habayit. Kirby had to walk that back, and it received some media play.


So on Monday the first question asked by a reporter was why there needed to be any clarity about the situation at the Temple Mount if the U.S. agrees the status quo had to be maintained and Israel agreed it was and intended to maintain the status quo, about what was clarity required?

After several dozen more words were uttered trying to parse out the meaning of clarity, Toner said: ” I think perhaps what we’re talking about is just clarity on all sides, and that includes the Palestinian side, that there is no change in the status quo, that all sides need to recognize that, make every effort possible to reduce tensions, and as I said, end the violence so that we can begin to take affirmative actions, as the Secretary has talked about, to reduce the temperature and to end the violence and to begin moving towards, ultimately, a two-state solution.” Of course.

But then the real operator in the Briefing Room, the reporter for the Palestinian Arab media outlet Al Quds, Said Arikat, began developing a meme he began last week. This story suggests that acting Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas isn’t really in charge of the Arab Israelis living in eastern Jerusalem. With this theme Arikat hopes to prove that Abbas cannot be held responsible for any violence engaged in by Arab Israelis. Arab Israelis have been mostly responsible for the current wave of stabbings, knifings, shootings and car rammings in Israel.


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Lori Lowenthal Marcus is a contributor to the A graduate of Harvard Law School, she previously practiced First Amendment law and taught in Philadelphia-area graduate and law schools. You can reach her by email: [email protected]