John Kirby, US State Department spokesperson and self-described “lover of history,” knows “the media pivot.” He can ably transition from uncomfortable political terrain – Israeli wrongdoing – to the preferred territory of criticizing Palestinians living under military occupation.
Last week provided Kirby just such an opportunity. The spokesperson was asked by Said Arikat of the Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds for his take on “a group of senior Israeli government officials, notably the Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely … pushing for the total annexation of Maale Adumim, one of the largest settlements in the West Bank.”
The question should have been an easy one for someone in Kirby’s position to answer. All of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank are illegal under international law. Building colonies on territory acquired by force amounts to a war crime.
Yet rather than calling the settlements illegal or criminal, Kirby described them as “unilateral efforts that would prejudge the outcome of negotiations.”
Kirby then moved swiftly to discuss the problems the US government has with “Palestinian incitement.”
Kirby also voiced concern over “trends highlighted in the Quartet report that are threatening the two-state solution.” He was perhaps referring to a recent publication by the so-called Quartet – an ad hoc group, comprised of the US, European Union, UN and Russia – that purports to manage the Middle East “peace process.”
“These trends,” said Kirby, “also include Palestinian incitement as well. And along those lines, I would just tell you we were deeply concerned by reports yesterday about a Fatah Facebook page praising the Palestinian who shot three Israeli soldiers day before yesterday. And we’ve raised this issue directly to the Palestinians as well.”
Mustafa Barghouti, leader of the Palestinian National Initiative, a political party, and member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, expressed his concern about Kirby’s shift in focus.
“It is shameful that Mr. Kirby is avoiding this extreme Israeli violation by repeating old statements,” Barghouti told The Electronic Intifada.
“Such statements mean nothing as long as they are not associated with specific actions to force Israel to stop building settlements and de facto annexing Palestinian territories in violation of international law,” Barghouti said. He argued that Kirby was “adding insult to injury” by “equating grave Israeli violations of international law” with comments on Facebook.
Policy on Balfour?
Arikat also asked Kirby if the Obama administration will support a Palestinian Authority demand that Britain issue an apology for the Balfour Declaration. Under that declaration – dating from 2 November 1917 – Britain, then the world’s preeminent power, pledged its support to the Zionist movement’s goal of establishing a “Jewish national home” in Palestine.
It was an early salvo in stripping away rights from the majority Palestinian population living there, notwithstanding the declaration’s inclusion of language stating it should be “clearly understood that nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine.”
Kirby confessed it was the first he had heard of a Palestinian interest in pushing for an apology at the United Nations. That was despite the fact that Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, called for such an apology when addressing the UN General Assembly in September.
Matthew Lee of the Associated Press followed up by asking if the Obama administration has “a position on the Balfour Declaration – good, bad, indifferent?”
“I don’t know,” responded Kirby.
Surprised, the question was put to Kirby a second time, to which the spokesperson quipped, “I don’t know if we’ve taken a position on the Balfour Declaration or the Treaty of Westphalia.”
The sarcastic nature of his reply is telling. The Balfour Declaration is not something from the remote past; rather, it can be considered as a landmark in a colonization project under which Palestinians are still being dispossessed.
On the defensive, Kirby was then queried by Lee on other treaties.
“How about the Treaty of Worms? That one?”
Kirby, off his game, parried: “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
The Internet did not blow up.
Ultra-conservative media cite a 19 October letter from Jack Shebson to The Jerusalem Post that pre-dates Kirby’s comments.
“On 3 December 1924, the US signed a treaty with Great Britain that was ratified by the US Senate and signed by the president, having the legal effect of making the [British] Mandate for Palestine (including Judea and Samaria) and the Balfour Declaration part of US domestic law,” Shebson writes, using the terminology that Israel uses for the West Bank. “This is a fact of enormous importance that has been conveniently forgotten.”
Yousef Munayyer, executive director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, rebutted Shebson’s case in an email to The Electronic Intifada: “That is a misreading of the history and of the convention [treaty] involved. It does not even line up with the State Department’s own understanding of it from that time period.”
He added: “The convention recognized the reality of the mandate and that Palestine was falling under the administration of Great Britain and thus this agreement dealt with how the two countries would relate to each other in this space. The Balfour Declaration was a policy pronouncement. The US State Department, well into the ’20s and ’30s, was careful not to explicitly endorse the policy of a foreign government while at the same time acknowledging the sympathy of the American public with concept of a Jewish National Home in Palestine.”
In the days since Kirby’s statement, the State Department has not released an update regarding its position on the Balfour Declaration. And with Donald Trump now the president elect, no American reckoning with the consequences of colonization – British or American – will likely be in the offing for the next four to eight years.