WASHINGTON – US President Barack Obama said Friday that both Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are responsible for rhetoric stoking a wave of violence between their peoples.
“We condemn in the strongest possible terms violence directed against innocent people and believe Israel has a right to maintain basic law and order,” Obama said, in his first comments on the crisis. “We’re very concerned about the outbreak of violence.”
“We also believe that it’s important for both Prime Minister Netanyahu and Israeli elected officials and President Abbas and other people in positions of power to try to tamp down rhetoric that may feed violence
or anger or misunderstanding, and try to get all people in Israel and in the West Bank to recognize that this kind of random violence isn’t going to result in anything other than more hardship and more insecurity.”
Since October 1, seven Israelis have been killed and dozens wounded in 30 stabbing or attempted stabbing attacks by Palestinian terrorists.
On the Palestinian side, 40 have been killed so far, including 18 attackers.
The rest died in clashes with IDF troops either in the West Bank or along the Gaza border.
While the US State Department has characterized the recent wave of attacks against Israelis as “terrorism” – as well as an attack in Dimona by an Israeli Jew against his fellow Arab citizens – Obama declined to use the term on Friday, speaking at a press conference with the president of South Korea at the White House.
He rejected criticism of his secretary of state, John Kerry, for comments he made at Harvard University earlier in the week that suggested a linkage between Israel’s settlement activity in the West Bank and the current terrorism wave.
“What’s happening is that, unless we get going, a two-state solution could conceivably be stolen from everybody,” Kerry said. “And there’s been a massive increase in settlements over the course of the last years, and now you have this violence because there’s a frustration that is growing.”
Responding to a query on the matter, Obama said reports on the quote mischaracterized the secretary’s words.
“I don’t think that’s what Secretary Kerry said,” Obama argued. What Kerry meant, the president said, is that the current atmosphere among Israelis and Palestinians “creates the potential for more misunderstanding and triggers, and that’s something that has been true now for decades.”
“There’s not a direct causation here,” he added.
Kerry is to meet with Netanyahu in Germany next week to discuss the crisis, State Department officials confirmed on Friday. He will then travel to the region to meet separately with the Palestinian leadership.
In an interview with NPR News published earlier in the day, Kerry said there was no justification for the attacks.
“No amount of frustration is appropriate to license any violence anywhere at any time. No violence should occur. And the Palestinians need to understand,” Kerry said.
“President Abbas has been committed to nonviolence,” Kerry continued. “He needs to be condemning this, loudly and clearly. And he needs to not engage in some of the incitement that his voice has sometimes been heard to encourage. So that has to stop.”
Netanyahu said on Thursday he is willing to meet with Abbas without preconditions, and called on the PA leader to condemn the violence as terrorism. Abbas has yet to do so, accusing Netanyahu of seeking to change the status quo arrangement on the Temple Mount and Israeli security forces of conducting “extrajudicial executions” of innocent Palestinians.
The Israeli government says both claims are lies that are inciting Palestinians to violence.
Israeli officials are privately seeking public US reassurances that it recognizes the continuance of the status quo on the Temple Mount, where non-Muslims are not allowed to pray. Confusion over Israel’s policy on the holy site appears to have been a spark of the recent uptick in violence.
But US officials are hesitant to issue that line after a series of comments from Netanyahu throughout the month of September suggested, to their ears, that Israel may have been reconsidering its policy.
In his press availability, Obama said, “The status quo that allowed shared worship in and around these places needed to be maintained.”
He did not comment on whether he believed the status quo had been breached or otherwise violated.
“We recognize that it is being maintained and we welcome the efforts by both Israel and Jordan to continue the maintenance of it,” State Department spokesman John Kirby said on Thursday. He was clarifying a statement the day before, when he said the status quo had to be “restored.”
Ambassador to the United States Ron Dermer praised Kerry for his comments directed toward Abbas on Friday, and called on other international leaders to follow suit.
“Follow Secretary Kerry’s lead pushing back on President Abbas and saying, ‘you have to condemn these terrorist acts,’” Dermer said.
He also thanked the United States for its “very clear” position on Israel’s commitment to the status quo on the Temple Mount.
“The truth of the matter is, Israel is the guarantor of those sacred sites,” Dermer said, adding that Joseph’s Tomb, a site holy to many Jews and Christians, was torched by Palestinians the night before.