Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu
Gamzu l'tovah - It's all for the good

US State Department media briefings host antisemitism

The State Department, even though it has a special envoy to fight antisemitism, allows an antisemitic activist to exploit media briefings to slander Israel
Arab activist and correspondent Said Arikat at State Department press briefing (Screenshot: US State Dept.)

The US State Department, through gullibility and ignorance of facts, provides a platform for an antisemitic and pro-Palestinian lobbyist to use his press credentials to spread lies and anti-Israeli propaganda at daily media briefings.

Said [Say-eed] Arikat, 74 an Arab American industrial designer by profession, hides his role as an anti-Israel activist behind the press badge he wears by virtue of his writing for the Jeruslam-based pro-Palestinian Al Quds Arab language newspaper.

He never studied journalism and never wrote regularly for a newspaper until, at the age of 62, he joined Al Quds, whose board of directors included, not necessarily by coincidence, his late cousin and senior Palestinian Authority negotiator Saeb Erekat.

Arikat, by his own admission, began writing for anti-Israel Arab media while “doing some political work on behalf of the Palestinian community” in the 1980s.

He declared in a recent interview that he considers State Department media briefings to be “a forum to talk about the Palestinian cause.” Arikat told the London-based Middle East Eye website in 2022 that he sees his role at the State Department daily sessions as an activist and stated, “I raise questions on Palestine; then other journalists may piggyback on that and ask questions and further clarifications.”

Unlike professional journalists who do not use their social media sites as political platforms, Arikat goes beyond activism with hate messages and anti-Zionist rants.

Here are just a few gems from his X (formerly Twitter) site: “Israel is a criminal State, “a fraudulent state,” a “gangster state,” “a beastly, barbarian fascist state” and ”this is not an army; they are criminal thugs in uniform.”

Denying the right of a Zionist state to exist, Arikat tweeted on Jan. 17, 2024, “Zionism is a reactionary colonial movement; a legacy of a brutal colonial past that should have no place in the modern world.”

He retweeted a post in January 2024 that “…the Israeli state in its current form not only has no right to existence, but an obligation to be dismantled.”

The State Department deems as antisemitic “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”

His credentials as an antisemite are impeccable. In a speech in 2002 at a conference sponsored by the Institute for Historical Review (IHR), prominent in Holocaust-denial circles, Arikat alleged that Israel is “premised on the supremacy of one group of people and above all others.” His statement can be heard at six minutes and 15 seconds in his speech at the conference.

Arikat later declared in the same presentation: “America today is run and governed by the elite, and…Jewish Americans… have done all the right things to garner a disproportionate segment of this elite.”

His remarks were clearly antisemitic as defined by the State Department’s Office to Combat and Monitor Anti-Semitism, which states, “Contemporary examples of antisemitism…include…making …stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective – such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.”

He is clever enough to keep his remarks one step short of anti-Zionism at State Department briefings, but he is not clever enough to hide his activism. Spokespersons are aware of Arikat’s attempts to advocate for Palestinians at briefing and even have mentioned to him that he is advocating and not questioning. However, they choose to tolerate his diatribes that steer senior journalists in the briefing room to share his repetitive portrayal of Israel as guilty of everything from ”war crimes” to “ethnic cleansing.”

Arikat has questioned State Department spokespersons whether Hamas terrorist sexually assaulted women, and he suggested that the attacks and kidnappings did not occur in a “vacuum,” meaning they were a reaction to the “occupation.” On X, he recently referred to hostages as “Israeli detainees.”

He is able to manipulate State Department briefings with his Palestinian mission because spokespersons treat him as a regular journalist with an agenda and not as an activist hiding behind press credentials.

Media briefings are supposed to provide an opportunity for journalists to cross-examine and even attack American foreign policy, and the reporters, except for Arikat, always retain their status as professional journalists and do not spread disinformation and fabrications.

Arikat often raises “questions” that are loaded with half-facts, hyperbole, sometimes with totally false information and blood libels, such as the decades-old lie that Israelis are “poisoning Arab wells.”

Arikat’s allegations and propaganda, which spokespersons usually leave unanswered and on the record, make an indelible impression on senior and award-winning journalists, including those for The Associated Press, The Washington Post, The New York Times and BBC. Many of the them have covered major events around the world, such as AP’s Matt Lee, who has traveled the world with every Secretary of State since Madeleine Albright, reported from more than 100 countries and was shot and wounded during the 1997 coup in Cambodia.

Sitting among these distinguished reporters is Arikat, who never was wounded at the front because he never reported from the front. He apparently never reported from anywhere, and his only previous experience in communications was as spokesperson for the United Nations Aid Mission in Iraq from 2005-2010.

Even then he was singled out for his activism by an advisor to then Iraqi prime minster Nouri al-Maliki who stated in a confidential cable, revealed by Wiki Leaks: “Said Arikat is a Palestinian, with many previous writings and interviews on Al-Jazeera that are critical of the United States and Iraq…How can such a person be involved with the UNAMI team?”

Arikat, by representing Al Quds, gains entry to State Department briefings, an almost daily ritual that lasts anywhere from 30 minutes to an hour and a half. Up to 50 journalists sit behind microphones at computer user-friendly desks, in full view of a camera that videotapes the question-and-answer sessions in the State Department’s Carl T. Rowan briefing room, located several blocks from the White House.

The State Dept. spokesperson, who currently is Matt Miller, opens the briefings with initial remarks on latest developments, ranging from climate control to equality as well as international conflicts.

Spokespersons obviously cannot be well-versed on every subject, often leaving them to depend on an immensely thick reference book to respond to questions. They typically answer Arikat’s half-facts and malicious language by regurgitating a line from their guidebook, such as “we encourage both Israelis and Palestinians to reduce violence and work for the two-state solution.”

A classic example of Arikat’s deceptive tactics was on May 4, 2023, when he asked deputy spokesperson Vedant Patel to comment on the IDF’s “killing of four Palestinians, including “a mother of three, in her hometown at a checkpoint.”

Patel had no idea of the incident and followed Arikat’s script by responding, “I’ve not seen this specific report…We continue to be deeply concerned about the sustained level of violence in Israel and the West Bank and the region broadly.”

As later reported by several news services, the supposed innocent “mother of three” was shot after she stabbed an Israeli soldier at the checkpoint.

Two of the other three “Palestinians” who were killed by undercover soldiers were the gunmen who murdered British-Israeli wife of Rabbi Leo Dee and their two daughters in April. However, Arikat left out this information in his question and simply stated that the soldiers “went incognito, dressed like Palestinians, and they just hit a home with an anti-tank weapon to kill three.”

The impression spokespersons allowed Arikat to make on journalists is that Israeli soldiers gun down innocent Arabs whenever they feel like it. Arikat often is more blunt, as on Dec. 12, 2022, when he alleged at the briefing that soldiers are “intent on continuing killing Palestinians day after day.”

He squeezes the same anti-Zionist venom in his questions, such as on Dec. 19, 2023. Referring to anti-terrorist actions in Hebron, Arikat stated, “The occupation army just runs amok anywhere it wants, it goes into homes, throws people out, uses the facilities and so on, they tie them up and so on. So how long will this go on?“

Spokesperson Matt Miller did not directly challenge Arikat’s prejudicial language and responded with a typical “balanced” answer that “Israel does have a right to protect itself, to conduct operations against terrorism…but…they must also take possible measures to avoid any harm to civilians.”

Miller, on January 30, 2024, did not even raise an objection to Arikat’s language when he asked if Israel is “a group of gangsters” after it killed three terrorists in a Jenin hospital.

Hundreds of these type of exchanges between Arikat and spokespersons over the past 13 years are vicious anti-Israel impressions that seep into the memory of journalists, almost all of whom are not the greatest fans of Israel.

Perhaps the most atrocious characteristic of Arikat’s skills and spokespersons’ ignorance is the dissemination of lies that journalists in the room accept as the truth.

Arikat frequently reminds everyone in the briefing room that he is from Abu Dis, an Arab village that he always and incorrectly emphasizes is in “East Jerusalem.” He grew up and has relatives there, all of which help him create an image that he is the “resident expert” on Israel and the Palestinian Authority, as AP journalist Lee once described him at a briefing.

His “expertise” is highly questionable. Arikat’s placement of Abu Dis in East Jerusalem is a 90 percent lie. In 1927, a group of Jerusalem residents seeking lower rents, bought 112 acres of land from Abu Dis authorities. All of that land is owned by Jews and is located in East Jerusalem, but the entire remaining 90 percent of Abu Dis is beyond the Green Line and under civilian control of the Palestinian Authority. It is not in East Jerusalem, contrary to Arikat’s claim.

On Sept. 11, 2023, the Jerusalem District Planning Committee discussed advancing plans to build homes on the Jewish-owned land for approximately 300 Jews, a few of whom have been living for several years in three homes.

Arikat raised the issue at the Sept. 11 briefing, falsely alleging that construction of the homes means “my home could be gobbled up”.

With spokesperson Miller’s help, Arikat created facts out of fiction. Miller answered, “The expansion of settlements undermines the geographic viability of a two-state solution, exacerbates tensions, and further harms trust between the two parties.” In fact, the project does not expand anything except the number of Jews allowed to live on land that has been under Jewish ownership for nearly a century and is located in an entirely different area from the rest of Abu Dis.

Another favorite trick of Arikat, and of most Palestinian media, is to challenge Jews’ ascending the Temple Mount by describing them as “attacking” or “storming” the holy site, as if they were knocking down guards and breaking through police carriers in a wild rage. Spokespersons never correct him. Jews do not “storm” the site. They enter, stay and leave the site under police guard and are hauled away immediately if they engage in forbidden activity, such as praying out loud.

One of Arikat’s most flagrant violations of journalistic ethics occurred during the Obama administration, when spokesperson Jen Psaki allowed Arikat to repeat a false Hamas allegation that Israel intentionally had opened supposed dams to cause massive flooding in Gaza during a winter storm that dumped several inches of rain on the Gaza coast of the Mediterranean Sea.

International media immediately picked up the phony story and even broadcast Hamas’ appeals to the United Nations for emergency relief because of Israel’s supposed inhumane behavior.

By Feb. 24, the day after media published Hamas’ false claim, an Israeli spokesman told Vice News, “There are no dams in the southern part of Israel so we couldn’t open any dams because there aren’t any.” Most major media outlets that had jumped on the anti-Israel story were forced to publish a retraction and admit their mistake.

If Arikat were indeed the “resident expert” on Israel, he would have known that the story was false. Instead, two days after the retraction, he not only continued to spread the lie but also embellished it at the Feb. 26, 2015 State Department briefing:

Arikat: The Israelis have flooded the areas – farm areas of Gaza with some waste water and so on. Do you have any comment on that?… Wastewater, whatever, I don’t know what they call it.

Spokesperson Jen Psaki: I can check into those reports.

The State Department team not only failed to realize that the story was a Hamas propaganda hoax but also did not note that Israel actually helped Gazans during previous floods, as reported by The Times of Israel several hours before the briefing: “Israel responded to a special appeal conveyed through the UN, transferring four high-power pumps to the Gaza Strip intended to help residents remove water from flooded areas.”

State Department spokespersons’ gullibility has turned themselves into puppets on Arikat’s strings, which he pulls for the benefits of his “colleagues,” as he often calls them.

Playing the part of victim, Arikat pleads for sympathy and works on the emotions of journalists covering the State Department. At the expense of the State Department, Arikat sells the image that Palestinians are “one of the most hapless communities on earth.” He knows very well that pleading for sympathy is not going to change American policy, but doing so can indeed encourage journalists to view Palestinians as “hapless.”

Arikat is the only journalist in the room who would even think of exploiting media briefings to lobby the American government for money for the Palestinian Authority. It is difficult to understand how spokesperson Paski, on Jan. 29, 2015, accepted Arikat’s pitch for the Palestinian Authority coffers, a clear breech of his press privileges if not a violation of conduct at government press briefings.

He got away with it. Arikat told Paski, “The Israelis today cut off electricity or reduced the electricity to the Palestinian Authority areas, saying that they owe them about $450 million or something to that effect accumulated over the last few years…Is there something that you can do in this case, perhaps infuse the Palestinian Authority with some emergency funds to deal with this issue?”

Psaki not only allowed Arikat to lobby for the Palestinian Authority but even responded somewhat favorably, stating, “As you know, we provide a range of funds to the Palestinians. That’s continued. I’ll talk to our team and see if this is an issue that we’re closely tracking.”

The closest spokespersons have come to reprimanding Arikat was on Feb, 6, 2023, during an exchange between him and spokesperson Ned Price. Following an earthquake in Turkey and Syria in early February, Arikat told Price that it would be a “great gesture” if the American government would “reach out to the Syrian government” and “sort of lift the sanctions that have basically suffocated Syria.”

Price replied, “Said, I’m going to resist the temptation to go into your advocacy rather than questioning.”

If the State Department knows that Arikat is involved with “advocacy,” why does it allow him to do so? Price hinted an answer in interview with the Jewish Insider on Dec. 15, 2022. Referring to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he confessed that he is cautious to say anything beyond standard policy statements.

Price said, “When I first started in this job, I would go to extraordinary lengths not to talk about it. There are few issues where words are parsed as finely as when it comes to this particular issue.”

The State Department’s fear of offending Arikat leaves a huge vacuum that Arikat successfully fills by taking advantage of their refusal to rebuke him for exploiting his press privileges to work as an activist and further the cause of anti-Zionists, often in contradiction to the State Department’s stated policy to fight antisemitism.

About the Author
Tzvi was born in Baltimore, earned a BA in Public Affairs (journalism) from The George Washington University. He was an investigative reporter for small Virginia newspapers, senior copy editor for Montreal and Edmonton newspapers, op-ed contributor to Vancouver Sun, writer for Arutz Sheva and The Jewish Press. He also was a turkey farmer, tractor driver and fruit picker on kibbutzim and moshavim.
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