The Obama administration won't say whether or not it agrees with the Turkish prime minister, who said today that Israel is a "terrorist state" that "massacres small children."
The State Department's refusal to comment on the statements by Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan laid bare the administration's constrained ability to publicly criticize allies like Turkey, which have been injecting themselves into the ongoing conflict between the Israeli government and Hamas in Gaza. State Department reporters got into a heated exchange with State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland at Monday's press briefing over Nuland's refusal to condemn the remarks.
"When the leaders of Turkey come out and say that Israel is engaged in acts of terrorism and you refuse to say that you don't agree with that -- or maybe you do agree with it -- that's being silent," AP reporter Matt Lee pressed Nuland.
"We have made a decision that we need to engage in our diplomatic work diplomatically," Nuland responded. "We don't practice diplomacy from the podium. We have been very clear that Israel has a right of self-defense. We've been very clear that rockets continue to be fired and land on Israel. We've been very clear that we are working to try to get this conflict de-escalated. We have been very clear about our concern for the civilians and innocents on both sides who are getting caught in this..."
"And yet you won't stick up for your ally, Israel, when the Turks, another one of your allies, say that they're engaged in terrorism in Gaza?" Lee shot back. "Why can't you say that you don't agree with the Turks?"
"Because 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?" Nuland said.
Eventually, after several more rounds of back and forth, Nuland gave in a bit and said. "We, of course, agree that rhetorical attacks against Israel are not helpful at this moment."
While Nuland was playing defense in Washington, President Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and National Security Advisor Tom Donilon were working the phones from their Southeast Asia trip, trying to get regional actors to help de-escalate the conflict.
Obama called President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt Monday after dinner and "underscored the necessity of Hamas ending rocket fire into Israel," according to a White House readout. Obama then called Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu to get an update on the situation.
Nuland said in a Monday statement that Clinton has made several Gaza-related calls over the weekend, including to Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil, who traveled to Gaza to express solidarity with Gazans. Clinton also spoke with U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius, Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Hamad Bin Jassim Al Thani, and Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davotoglu, whom Nuland noted has "also been active diplomatically."
"In all these conversations, the secretary underscored Israel's right to self defense when rockets are falling on its citizens, and the urgent need for all leaders with influence to use it to seek an immediate de-escalation of tensions," Nuland said.
In the briefing, Nuland declined to say whether any or all of these countries were playing a helpful or unhelpful role overall.
"It's not helpful for us to be getting into an individual grading of the different efforts. We are encouraging Egyptians, Qataris, Turks, others to use the influence that they have with Hamas and with other extremist groups," she said.
Special Envoy David Hale has been in touch with Palestinian authorities, she added.
Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) were quick to condemn the Turkish prime minister's remarks in a joint statement Monday.
"We regret that the Prime Minister of Turkey referred to Israel today as a ‘terrorist state,'" they said. "Prime Minister Erdogan, a man we know and respect, should play a constructive leadership role in pushing Hamas to cease its attacks on Israel so this conflict can be brought to an end. His comments today, unfortunately, will have the opposite effect, encouraging Hamas to continue with its acts of terrorism, thereby prolonging the fighting and risking further loss of life on both sides. This serves no responsible interest."
Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes told reporters traveling with the president that Donilon has been in daily contact with his Israeli counterparts and that Donilon and Clinton have been briefing Obama on a regular basis. On the flight into Burma, Donilon and Clinton also had a conference call with Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, Rhodes said.
"Our position continues to be that those nations in the region, particularly nations that have influence over Hamas, and that's principally Egypt and Turkey, also Qatar... that those nations need to use that influence to de-escalate the conflict. And de-escalation has to begin with, again, an end to rocket fire from Gaza," said Rhodes.