Poor John Kerry, those obtuse Israelis just keep misunderstanding what he says.
That, at least, was the subtext of US State Department Jen Psaki’s remark Wednesday at the State Department’s daily briefing. Psaki was commenting on Israel’s angry reaction to her boss’s statement at the Senate’s foreign relations committee the day before when he strongly implied the peace process went “poof” after Israel failed to release the last batch of 26 Palestinian terrorists two weeks ago, and then – three days later – announced tenders to build 700 units in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Gilo, beyond the Green Line.
Following a New York Times
story quoting an official in the Prime Minister’s Office as saying Jerusalem was deeply disappointed by the remarks, Psaki said Kerry was “frankly, surprised by the coverage of his comments because he doesn’t believe… that one side deserves blame over another, because they’ve both taken unhelpful steps – that’s something you’ve heard him say frequently. And at no point, including yesterday, has he intended to engage in a blame game.”
The problem is that when watching, listening and reading his statement, it just did not seem that way.
“Unfortunately, the prisoners weren’t released on the Saturday they were supposed to be released,” Kerry told the senators, after saying both sides “wound up in positions where things happened that were unhelpful.”
“So day one went by, day two went by, day three went by, and then in the afternoon when they were about to maybe get there [an agreement on a package to continue the talks], 700 settlement units were announced in Jerusalem, and – poof – that was sort of the moment. So we find ourselves where we are.”
If, as Psaki said, the problem was not with what Kerry said, but how Israelis heard it, then this is a serial problem, because with his “poof speech” Kerry hit the trifecta with Israel. (Senator John McCain irritated Kerry during the hearing saying he was about to “hit the trifecta” with foreign policy failures in Syria, Iran and Israel.) The first leg of this Kerry/Israel trifecta came in November, when Israelis “misunderstood” this comment as the threat of a third intifada by the secretary of state during a television interview: “The alternative to getting back to the talks is the potential of chaos. I mean, does Israel want a third intifada?”
He continued: “I know there are people who have grown used to this. And particularly in Israel – Israel says, ‘Oh, we feel safe today, we have a wall, we’re not in a day-to-day conflict, we’re doing pretty well economically.’ Well, I’ve got news for you: today’s status quo will not be tomorrow’s or next year’s.
Because if we don’t resolve this issue, the Arab world, the Palestinians, neighbors, others are going to begin again to push in a different way. And the last thing Israel wants to see is a return to violence.”
Then again in January, at a security conference in Munich, Israelis again “misinterpreted” the following comments as somehow giving a tailwind to the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement: “You see for Israel there’s an increasing delegitimization campaign that has been building up.
People are very sensitive to it. There are talks of boycotts and other kinds of things. Are we all going to be better with all of that?” Kerry’s comments in each of these cases irked Israel.
In November – that he was suggesting a third intifada.
In January – that he was somehow countenancing boycotts. And this week – that he was blaming Israel- for the breakdown of the talks.
And in each case the Israeli anger was followed by State Department clarifications that Kerry was just being descriptive – saying what could happen – or giving a chronology of events.
He was not, according to these clarifications, endorsing a particular course of action, or, in the latest case, attributing blame.
And, indeed, taken in their entirety, an argument can be made that by isolating the comments, by not placing them in their entire context, their exact meaning was muffled. Yes, perhaps Israel is too sensitive.
But, by the same token, Kerry and the State Department should be aware of Israel’s sensitivity, and know that in the current super-charged atmosphere Israel is paying particularly close attention to his every word and nuance. During this hyper-sensitive time, it is to be expected that when Kerry spells out two Israeli actions before saying the talks went “poof,” Israel will interpret that as placing the blame for the failure of the talks on its doorstep.
And not only Israelis. Clearly the Palestinians, and the Europeans, heard Kerry’s comments as well and will draw their own conclusions. If Kerry seems to blame Israel then the Europeans most definitely will, and the end result will be to cement Palestinian inflexibility.
What Kerry unwittingly did was make a return to the talks more difficult – and, if and when the sides do return – render progress more unlikely.
To a certain degree, this is history repeating itself, a moment reminiscent of US President Barack Obama’s misstep when he first came into office in 2009 and he called publicly for a total settlement freeze. The Palestinians heard that and could ask for no less, essentially putting a halt there and then to any diplomatic movement.
The same dynamic is at work now.
Or, as one official told the Times after expressing Israel’s agitation, this “will both hurt the negotiations and harden Palestinian positions.”
If the Palestinians sense that Israel will be blamed for the collapse of the talks, then why show flexibility in those talks? They need not recognize Israel as the national home of the Jewish people, they need not agree to an Israeli security presence along the Jordan River, they need not acknowledge that – yes – Gilo will remain a part of Israel, because no matter what, Israel will be blamed.
There was also another telling comment in Kerry’s testimony when he said the “irony, the bitter irony” is that “at this particular moment this fight is over process, it is not over the substance of the final agreement, it is over how you get to the discussion of the final-status agreement.”
That comment is a poor relation to another comment that Kerry made in Munich, and one that has been heard over and over by countless officials over the years, that everyone knows what a final agreement will look like, and that all it takes is to figure out the process to get there.
“After all of these years,” he said in Munich in January, “after Wye, after Madrid, after Oslo, after Taba, after Camp David, after everything that has gone on, I doubt there’s anyone sitting here who doesn’t actually know pretty much what a final-status agreement actually looks like. The question is: How do you get there?” Wrong. Not everyone knows what the final process looks like. The assumption is that both Palestinians and Israelis know that, for instance, the Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem will remain in Israel’s hands, and the Arab ones in Palestinian hands, with some sort of accommodation to be worked out regarding the Old City and the “holy basin.” But if that were the case, then building 700 units in Gilo would not be an issue, because Gilo will remain a part of Jerusalem.
Israel knows that; the United States probably knows that. But the Palestinians – they neither know nor accept that.
The same could be said of the Jewish state issue. It may be clear to much of the world that Israel is the national home of the Jewish people. But it is not clear to the Palestinians. Do the Palestinians know the settlement blocs, for example, Ma’aleh Adumim, will stay a part of Israel? Or that they will have to forfeit the “right of return? There is little evidence to suggest they do.
To say that the problem is one of process, is to underestimate the cavernous gaps in substance. And it is those gaps – not problems of process – that have prevented all those previous efforts Kerry talked about, from Oslo all the way through Taba, from coming to fruition.
Kerry recognized in his testimony before the Senate committee that there are gaps. But, he added, “a lot of groundwork has been laid over the last eight months. We don’t talk about it publicly, I’m not going to go into the details here, but there has been a narrowing of differences. Are there gaps? Yeah, of course there are gaps, but the narrowing of where they are, and of different options of how one might deal with them is real. And I hope the parties will be able to find a way back.”
Ironically, by blaming Israel, Kerry did not make that road back any easier.