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Volokh Conspiracy

Gross incompetence at the State Department? (UPDATED)


Someone left State Department spokesman Jen Psaki grossly unprepared for a press briefing today (or at least I hope this reflects lack of preparation), and she wound up disagreeing with the notion that a teenage Palestinian Hamas supporter with American citizenship throwing molotov cocktails at cars on an Israeli highway was "essentially a terrorist" whom the State Department was a bit too quick too mourn. Of course there were ways she could have finessed this, for example by pointing out that a fourteen-year old's death is tragic under any circumstances, and the government was simply acknowledging that fact, not in any way condoning the underlying violence that led to his death. If you watch the video, you will see that Psaki didn't come anywhere near "finesse." [I accidentally hit "publish" for a draft version of this post that wasn't ready for prime time. This is the version I intended to publish.]

UPDATE: A bit of additional context: Relations between the Israeli government and the Obama Administration, and the State Department in particular, never great given Obama and Netanyahu's rather obvious mutual disdain, are currently in what many call a "crisis". State is mad at the Israeli government for a variety of reasons, some more legitimate than others, and the Israeli press has been filled with reports of signs of this pique. Defense Minister Yaalon was in the U.S. last week, and State officials leaked that he was unwelcome to meet with anyone they could influence not to meet with him, because he has not publicly apologized for harshly criticizing Secretary of State John Kerry earlier this year. More seriously than the treatment of an individual minister, reports have surfaced that the Obma administration ordered a sudden and unannounced freeze on supplying Israel with weapons during the Gaza war, and also stopped U.S. law enforcement in its tracks as it was trying to help Israel locate the origins of a Facebook post that could have revealed where Hamas had taken an Israeli soldier during the war (the U.S. denies the latter is true). Israelis had also previously perceived that the U.S. government seemed reluctant to aid in recovering the three kidnapped teenagers whose deaths helped precipitate the Gaza war, one of whom was an American citizen.

To show how worried Israel and its supporters have become about signals emanating from the Obama Administration, pro-Israel media was most recently filled with criticism of the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem for sending out a memo referring to the terrorist murder for a three month old baby in Jerusalem, an American citizen, as a "traffic incident," which was much more likely internal bureaucratise than an intentional slap at Israel. In short, this is a very sensitive time in U.S.-Israeli relations, where every statement from the U.S. government is being scrutinized to see if it will cause, or reflects, a further deterioration in those relations. Which means, in turn, that one would expect the State Department spokesman to be well-prepared for exactly the sort of question Psaki received, so that the government could clarify that it both was concerned about escalating violence in Jerusalem and the death of an American-citizen teenager, but also stood with Israel against Hamas and terrorism. You really need to watch the video see how poorly she handled the question, and how ill-prepared she seemed.