|State Dept Spokesperson Grilled Over Gaza|
|Dana Hughes (@dana_hughes)||Nov 19, 2012, 6:05 PM|
When reporters questioned the State Department spokeswoman on the specifics of what the U.S. is doing to help ease violence in Gaza and Israel, Victoria Nuland refused at least eleven times to discuss any details of the Obama administration's diplomatic efforts, frustrating the press corps and leading to a an abnormally confrontational moment.
Over the weekend Nuland released a statement detailing the telephone calls Secretary Clinton made underscoring the intense diplomacy taking place behind the scenes. Since Wednesday three Israelis have been killed by rockets fired from the militant group Hamas targeting southern Israel and its largest cities Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. More than 100 Palestinians have been killed in Israel's air offensive targeting Hamas launch locations and other military installations.
But Nuland had nothing to add at an on-camera briefing in Washington, D.C. on Monday. Leaders of Turkey and Egypt have forcefully spoken out against Israel while also helping behind the scenes to negotiate a cease-fire. The U.S. has been active behind the scenes, but not as public in it's defense of Israel.
"How do - you know, this whole thing of saying nothing, I'm not sure I understand why you think that that's helpful in the situation," asked AP's Matt Lee "You say that it would not be helpful for you to discuss any of your conversations, that quiet diplomacy is the way to de- escalate that. Well, you've been doing your quiet diplomacy now for almost a week. How's it going so far?" he asked.
"We are are working hard with the parties," responded Nuland.
"You're staying silent while people are dying left and right," said Lee, who pushed back further on why the State Department was refusing to respond to Turkey's President calling Israel's actions, acts of terror against the Palestinians.
"I'm not going to get into a public spitting match with allies on either side. We're just not going to do that, OK? "said Nuland.
"Do you think that that's worse - a public spitting match with one of your allies is worse than hundreds of people dying every day?," asked Lee.
After several minutes of the contentious exchange an exasperated Nuland finally explained. "We of course agree that rhetorical attacks against Israel are not helpful at this moment. Is that what you were looking for?"
The exchange is sign of just how delicate and intense the negotiations are to end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in the Gaza strip, with Egypt, Turkey Qatar and other U.S. allies all playing key roles to try and keep the conflict from escalating.
Egypt, which has emerged as the third and maybe the most pivotal party in the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, is the recipient of billions of dollars in U.S. aid hand has traditionally been America's historically strongest Arab ally in the Middle East. Though neither Obama administration nor Israeli officials are openly expressing concern, language about Egypt's role in the conflict has reflected some uncertainty about how reliable an ally the country will be with it's new government post-Arab spring.
Israel's Ambassador to the United States Michael Oren told reporters on Friday that Hamas had continually violated Egypt's negotiated ceasefires over the last few months, causing the Jewish state to launch this offensive. He also disputed reports that Israel continued its offensive into Gaza while the Egyptian Foreign Minister Hisham Kandil was visiting on Friday. During the visit Kandil stood shoulder to shoulder with the leadership of Hamas, a U.S. designated terror group, and called for world to "take responsibility in stopping this aggression" against the Palestinians.
"We haven't seen a change in Hamas behavior from the visit," he said. Oren also spoke about relying on Egyptian support the past tense; similar to language used by the State Department "Our expectation is that Egypt will continue to play a constructive role as it has in the past and we hope it will continue to do so," he said.
But the ambassador said there's no doubt that the general instability of a post-Arab spring has benefitted Hamas, particularly their accessibility to weaponry out of Libya which was tightly controlled by Gadhafi but is now flowing freely to militant groups throughout the region.
"Clearly Hamas has felt emboldened by the changes in the region generally," said Oren. "The greater accessibility to Gaza from Sudan and Libya and the flow of arms from Libya has been significant. We've encountered arms that have been fired have been brought in from Libya and travelled through the Sudanese route."
But Egyptian President Morsi and Turkey's Prime minister Tayyip Erdogan have, at least publicly, taken the exact opposite position, calling Israel the aggressor.
Israel has amassed troops at the border and has called up 75,000 reservists, but the United States and other allies including United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon are actively trying to negotiate a cease-fire before the conflict escalates further.
On a conference call Monday, Major-General (Ret.) Dan Harel, former Deputy Chief of the General Staff of the Israeli Defense Forces told reporters he sees a 24-48 hour window for a truce to occur before Israel moves to the next phase of the operation which would likely include a ground offensive.
Harel says Israel wants Hamas to stop launching rockets and assurances that Egypt will reign in Hamas and keep them from smuggling weapons and ammunition into the Gaza Strip.
In a press conference Monday, Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal said that the group is open to a truce but that the conditions have to be on its terms.
President Obama and other administration officials have said clearly that while Israel has the right to defend its self, the United States does not want to see a ground offensive.
"Israel has every right to expect that it does not have missiles fired into its territory," President Obama said during a news conference with Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra over the weekend. "If that can be accomplished without a ramping up of military activity in Gaza, that's preferable. It's not just preferable for the people of Gaza. It's also preferable for Israelis, because if Israeli troops are in Gaza, they're much more at risk of incurring fatalities or being wounded."