Analysis: A tale of two Kerrys

The US secretary of state is in the country to regain Israel's trust, which will be needed if Israel decides to take the security risks that will be involved in any future accord with the Palestinians.

netanyahu and kerry shake hands 370 (photo credit: Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv)
netanyahu and kerry shake hands 370
(photo credit: Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv)
The John Kerry that Israelis saw deliver a statement to the press following his meeting with Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu on Thursday was not the John Kerry that they saw a short month ago in a joint television interview with an Israeli and Palestinian journalist.
That Kerry, the one from the interview with Channel 2’s Udi Segal and Palestinian Broadcasting Corporation’s Maher Shalabi on November 7, was the Kerry threatening Israel with a third intifada if the talks with the Palestinians collapsed.
That was the agitated Kerry who lectured about the settlements, pretty much placing the onus for a lack of movement in the talks with the Palestinians on Israel, and warning that if a peace agreement was not reached, Israel would face increasing isolation and delegitimization.
That was the Kerry who said, “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.”
That was the Kerry who signaled impatience with Israel’s demand for a security presence along the Jordan River, saying that “if we don’t end the presence of Israeli soldiers perpetually within the West Bank, then there will be an increasing feeling that if we cannot get peace with a leadership that is committed to nonviolence, you may wind up with leadership that is committed to violence.”
Thursday’s Kerry, at least the one on display alongside Netanyahu, was completely different. Nary a word about the settlements, not a word about a third intifada, not a hint of his “I’ve got news for you” hectoring.
On Thursday it was smiles, “my friend, Bibi,” and a deep understanding of Israel’s security concerns.
If the television interview left the impression of a secretary of state a bit cavalier and dismissive about Israel’s security concerns, Thursday’s statement provided the antidote.
“I understand the challenge of security that Israel faces,” he said, after recalling a visit he took to Kiryat Shmona in 1986 where he saw Israeli children hiding from rockets from Lebanon, and another visit he took years later to Sderot where he saw people “taking cover from Gaza.”
What happened? What happened was a bad month in USIsraeli relations – a month where everybody, including Iran, saw fundamental tactical differences between the US and Israel.
What happened was, at Washington’s urging, the signing of an interim accord on Iran that the Israeli government considers a danger to Israel’s security.
A senior US administration official who briefed reporters Thursday said that in the US view, the Iranian deal has not impacted on the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process. Iran, he said, was a separate discussion.
This, however, seems to be wishful thinking. The two issues – the Iran deal and the Palestinian negotiations – may not be linked in Washington’s view, but they are linked in Jerusalem’s.
Not linked in the sense that if you get something on the Iranian front, you can give something more to the Palestinians, but rather that Israel watched carefully, and with grave concern, what happened in Geneva, and drew the conclusions.
Despite the efforts of Kerry and Netanyahu to paper over difference at their joint appearance on Thursday, there was deep, deep disappointment in Israel over how the Obama administration, and Kerry, handled the Iranian dossier.
Even though the criticism in recent days has been more muted, and the focus now on the future negotiations with Iran, Jerusalem still believes the interim deal was, as Netanyahu said repeatedly in the past, a “bad deal.”
And here is where there is linkage with the Palestinian issue, and it also explains Kerry’s underlining the security issue in his statement Thursday.
First of all, the agreement Kerry is pushing with the Palestinians will necessitate Israel taking calculated security risks.
But with Iran suddenly “off the ropes,” emboldened and enjoying newfound international legitimacy as a result of the recent accord in Geneva, Israel is likely to be less willing – not more willing – to take those security risks.
Secondly, any possible future agreement with the Palestinians would undoubtedly necessitate ironclad security guarantees from the US. An Israeli willingness to place its security in the hands of American guarantees has decreased – not increased – as a result of Washington’s handling of the Iranian file.
As a result, Kerry comes to Jerusalem and – unlike the impression he left after his television interview last month – places a huge emphasis on Israel’s security.
“I join with President Obama in expressing to the people of Israel our deep, deep commitment to the security of Israel,” he said.
In order for Israel to take the security risks that will be involved in any future accord with the Palestinians, Jerusalem will have to have a great deal of trust in US security pledges and assurances. The Iran issue has chipped away at the trust.
Part of the reason Kerry is here now is to regain it.