At last Tuesday's daily press briefing, U.S. State Dept. Deputy Spokesman Adam Ereli was having a tough time with a couple of reporters. Here's how it began:
QUESTION: Change subjects. The Israeli Government invited construction bids for 1,000 new homes in the West Bank. An Israeli official said that it's within the guidelines of the government and the agreements with the Americans. What's your comment on that?
MR. ERELI: Our comment is that we are studying the details regarding the tenders that have been issued by the Government of Israel. Our concern is to determine whether these tenders are consistent with the Government of Israel's previously -- previous commitments on settlements.
As you well know, National Security Council officials were in Israel recently, discussing with Israelis those commitments. I think we made it clear that we expect Israel to fulfill pledges it made to President Bush on the question of settlement outposts and settlement activity, and obviously, this is a subject of continuing discussion with the Government of Israel.
QUESTION: Adam, it seems pretty clear this is not consistent with the Government of Israel's previous statements. Why is it -- you know, it's pretty -- it seems fairly -- there seems to be a fairly obvious case to be made that this is a violation of their roadmap commitments. Why is it that you can't say that?
MR. ERELI: Because I'm not in a position now to say that any specific action is a violation of commitments. I'm just not -- we're not there yet.
But the questioner continued hammering the point. And hammering. And hammering. And even speechifying.
QUESTION: Don't you think it's a bit unrealistic to say that the Israeli Government should be -- have no doubt about what your position is on their commitments when your unable to say -- when your unable to take, I mean -- unable to say right now that this is inconsistent with their commitments? If you're trying to parse the phrase in the roadmap that says "no new settlement activity," or, "a halt to settlement activity," you can't do that. It's black and white. It says it right there.
In response to which Mr. Ereli's position was consistent.
MR. ERELI: Let me be clear, if there's any misunderstanding or lack of clarity. We are clear with the public and with the Israelis that they have made a commitment to freeze settlement activity, including natural growth, and that is the position -- that is the commitment they have made, that is what we are working with the Israelis to follow through on, both publicly and privately.
But it didn't stop there. On Saturday, The New York Times "broke" this story, predictably raising shrieks, howls and all manner of accusations from various quarters:
U.S. Now Said to Support Growth for Some West Bank Settlements
By STEVEN R. WEISMAN
WASHINGTON, Aug. 20 - The Bush administration, moving to lend political support to Prime Minister Ariel Sharon at a time of political turmoil, has modified its policy and signaled approval of growth in at least some Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, American and Israeli officials say.
Neither the American nor the Israeli "officials" are identified, of course. But hidden in the story are a few interesting points that should be noted. There has, for some time, been discussion between Washington and Jerusalem over "defining the construction line of settlements." This reference first appeared publicly in a letter dated April 18, 2004, from Sharon's Chief of Staff, Dov Weinglass, to Condoleeze Rice, and appears to be linked to President Bush's remarks about "new realities on the ground" in his speech of April 14, 2004.
The implication, of course, is that construction within certain existing "settlements" that will under no circumstances be abandoned by Israel will proceed within defined parameters. This shouldn't be news, and those who have chosen to make it news are, in my opinion, clearly doing so with an agenda. An agenda designed to place certain of the Administration's foreign policy efforts in the Middle East under a microscope, to effectively paralyze them, while allowing other efforts to continue virtually unnoticed.
And so, at yesterday's briefing, Mr. Ereli was back in the same conversation, once again:
QUESTION: Can we go to the issue of settlement construction? There were reports today that Israel plans to build more than 530 new settler homes in the West Bank. There were, as you are well aware, there was a tender last week for the construction of an additional 1,000 housing units.
What is the U.S. position on this? Is this acceptable under the roadmap? Is it not acceptable under the roadmap?
And, later on, this particularly disingenuous question:
QUESTION: You said that there were technical talks under way in part to clarify Israel's intentions. Well, there are bulldozers out there. Aren't the intentions fairly clear?
It's quite a jump from "tenders" and "plans" to "bulldozers," but "bulldozers" now have a whole load of baggage attached that fits into the agenda quite nicely. Cute. Anyway, here's how this part of the briefing (finally) ended:
QUESTION: Adam, as the gentleman suggested, there's a very widespread impression in the Middle East that in recent days there's been a change in U.S. policy with regard to settlements. Is that -- yes or no? I mean, has there been?
MR. ERELI: I guess -- I don't think anything I've said today would lead you to that conclusion. I've said -- I've reiterated what the President said in 2002. I've reiterated what was agreed to under the roadmap. I've said we are continuing to work with both parties to fulfill those commitments made under the roadmap, and that in the case of the Israelis, we are in ongoing discussions to clarify intentions and to work towards a freeze on settlement activity. So I don't know where the departure is.
Frankly, I don't either. Perhaps the problem is that the pivotal words of the Mitchell Report from which the 'Roadmap' language was taken are more ambiguous than they might seem. A "freeze [on] all settlement activity, including the 'natural growth' of existing settlements" could mean anything from the cessation of all "activity," i.e., even repairs and rennovations (or perhaps even commerce, recreation and transportation?) within settlements, on the one hand, to the mere cessation of the activity of settlement, i.e., the establishment of new settlements and the territorial expansion of existing ones. Those who favor dismantling all Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria choose to see Israel's commitment as closer to the former. Those of us who don't, gravitate toward the latter.
This much is clear. To date, Israel is the only party to the 'Roadmap' that has made even a token effort to abide by its terms. Further, it's pretty obvious that the 'Roadmap,' like Oslo, is a failed enterprise, so its constant invocation as some sort of holy grail is getting mighty tiresome. It's time, as Wes and Joan once said, to move on.