Israeli politicians’ sharp criticism of US Secretary of State John Kerry led to the State Department issuing an unusual statement Sunday imploring Kerry’s critics not to distort his words.
“Secretary Kerry has a proud record of over three decades of steadfast support for Israel’s security and well-being, including staunch opposition to boycotts,” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki wrote.
She added that while Kerry always expected opposition and difficult moments in the negotiations, “he also expects all parties to accurately portray his record and statements.”
The State Department comment came following a barrage of criticism aimed at Kerry for mentioning “talk of boycotts” Saturday at the Munich Security Conference while discussing possible scenarios if the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations break down.
“You see, for Israel there’s an increasing delegitimization campaign that has been building up,” Kerry said. “People are very sensitive to it. There are talk of boycotts and other kinds of things. Are we all going to be better with all of that?” Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu mentioned the prospects of boycotts at the opening of Sunday’s cabinet meeting, but was very careful not to mention Kerry. Efforts to boycott Israel are neither moral nor justified, he said amid a growing public sense that the boycott and divestment movement is gaining traction.
Moreover, Netanyahu said, these efforts will not achieve their goals.
“First, they cause the Palestinians to become entrenched behind their intransigent positions and push peace farther away, and secondly, no pressure will cause me to give up vital Israeli interests, first and foremost the security of Israel’s citizens,” Netanyahu said.
While Netanyahu never mentioned Kerry, Intelligence Minister Yuval Steinitz had no such reluctance.
Kerry’s words, he told reporters before the cabinet meeting, were “offensive, unreasonable and unacceptable.
It is impossible to expect Israel to negotiate with a gun to its head.”
Construction and Housing Minister Uri Ariel said most of the country believes that Kerry’s approach is not balanced, and “I think that there has to be fair and honest mediation, or else it will not be accepted.”
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett and Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon were among the politicians who slammed Kerry for his comments already on Saturday night.
Kerry’s comments Saturday were similar to ones he made during a television interview during one of his visits in November, though this time he did not warn, as he did then, of the outbreak of a third intifada if the talks failed.
The State Department said that Kerry spoke at the Munich conference “forcefully in defense of Israel’s interests, as he consistently has throughout his public life.”
According to the statement, Kerry responded to a question about the peace process by describing “some well-known and previously stated facts about what is at stake for both sides if this process fails, including the consequences for the Palestinians. His only reference to a boycott was a description of actions undertaken by others that he has always opposed.”
One Israeli government official, meanwhile, played down the overall impact of the boycotts on Sunday, saying that although the threat was “out there” and something Jerusalem was paying attention to, it was being pushed by a kernel of anti-Israel activists trying to blame Israel for the diplomatic impasse.
“First of all,” the official said, “the idea that the reason that there is no peace and justice is solely because of one side is something that has to be rejected.”
Secondly, the official said, Netanyahu returned last week from the World Economic Forum in Davos, where he met both with leaders of countries – such as Mexico, Panama, Nigeria and China – and international companies who were very eager to do business with Israel, “not because they are Zionists, but because they understand there is so much to gain from doing business with us.”
“The success of the so-called boycotters has been limited in the extreme,” the official said. “At the moment it is more of a potential concern than anything else, and one that has to be fought and condemned.”
The official refrained from going into the practical plans the government had to combat the issue.
Labor MK Merav Michaeli, however, said Netanyahu exposed Israel to the threat of sanctions, “which is even more dangerous than Iran. Israeli security is a fantasy if we don’t have a diplomatic treaty, and that includes our economic security.”
Michaeli called for Netanyahu to “wake up, take responsibility for the country and stop being prime minister of the settlers – be every citizen’s prime minister.”
Meanwhile, Kerry met Sunday on the sidelines of the Munich conference with Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who is leading the talks with the Palestinians, and with Netanyahu’s envoy Yitzhak Molcho to discuss the document he is expected to present in the coming weeks to serve as a basis for continued negotiations with the Palestinians. He also met with a Palestinian delegation headed by chief negotiator Saeb Erekat.