Lessons to be learned from the Kerry-Ya'alon incident

Many have asked why Kerry seems to be focusing like a laser beam on the Israel-Palestinian situation, when there are so many other, even more pressing issues, in the region.

Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon gives a speech in Tel Aviv (photo credit: Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon gives a speech in Tel Aviv
(photo credit: Ariel Hermoni / Defense Ministry)

Some postmortem takeaways from Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon’s comments about US Secretary of State John Kerry and the diplomatic process:

Watch what you say, always

Numerous remarks that Ariel Sharon made over his long public career were trotted out at the memorial ceremonies and in the eulogies delivered on his behalf this week. One not heard was a comment he often quipped to journalists, “With you we laugh on Wednesday, and cry on Friday.”

Sharon was referring to the over-familiarity many Israeli politicians have with journalists.
They kick back and talk and laugh together in informal settings during the week, saying things they probably shouldn’t to people they perceive as “on their team,” only to cry on Friday when a story appears in the weekend paper, and they are “shocked, just shocked” to see in black-and-white everything they said two days earlier.
Israel is still a very informal country, and the boundaries between politicians and journalists are often blurred. They often know each other for decades, see one another in social settings, and feel innately comfortable together.
Israeli journalistic culture is also heavily reliant, much more than in the US, on the off-the- record or background briefing. On the record no one says much, but off the record: watch out.
This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand the public benefits, because when the remarks are reported accurately and in context they provide a true glimpse into what the country’s leaders are really thinking. The flip side is that leaders can get away with saying even the most outlandish things without any accountability.
Problems arise, obviously, when the lines are blurred between what is off and what is on the record. Yediot Aharonot did not discover America on Tuesday when it led its paper with Ya’alon’s unflattering remarks about Kerry. Ya’alon had apparently made similar remarks in other private conversations, and just five days before, Israel Hayom had a senior diplomatic official saying pretty much the same thing. But whereas the reporter for Israel Hayom did not put a name behind the quotes, Yediot Aharonot did.
Within the context of this whole saga it should be noted that the two newspapers are engaged in a fierce “newspaper war,” and while Israel Hayom is a paper staunchly supportive of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his government, Yediot is just as staunchly against. Ya’alon’s comments, obviously, don’t add to the health of the Netanyahu government.
Ya’alon should have known better. Maybe because he is a relatively newcomer to politics, maybe because he is a straight-shooter, he said things he shouldn’t say to people he shouldn’t say them to. He let his guard down – something a man in his position, and with his responsibilities, should never do. As it says in Ecclesiastes (10:20) “Do not curse the king, no, not even in thy thought, and do not curse the rich even in thy bedchamber: for a bird of the heavens shall carry the sound, and that which has wings shall tell the matter.”
Everyone needs to sip a Diet Pepsi and relax

Within hours of the Yediot headline, Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, whose overriding diplomatic philosophy seems to be simply “Never do anything that may annoy the Americans,” wrote on her Facebook page: “You can oppose negotiations professionally and responsibly without tongue-lashing and destroying relations with Israel’s top ally.”

Her party colleague MK Amram Mitzna accused Ya’alon of no less than sabotaging relations with the US.
Really? “Destroying relations,” “sabotaging” ties. If the US-Israel relations are so shallow that one insult, as egregious as it may be, will destroy the relations, then we are all in trouble.
It’s time for everyone to internalize that the US-Israeli relationship is bigger than one man, one president, even one administration. It’s even bigger than one issue (settlements), or one disagreement (Iran).
Does anyone really think that because of disrespect to the secretary of state, shown in a private conversation, the relationship is on the brink? What about history, common values, mutual interests? What about the wide US public support for Israel? Will Congress, which reflects the will of the American people, allow Washington to steer its ship of state away from Israel because of an ill-thought and misplaced comment about Kerry? Get serious. It’s time to get a bit more secure about our relationship with the US. Not reckless, for sure, but secure.
During the Israel-US dustup in November over Iran policy, both US and Israeli officials characterized it as a disagreement within the family. Okay, extend that metaphor here as well. Do parents cut off a son because he called them “jerks” behind their backs?

The US is sending a message

Not only Yediot, but also Ya’alon did not discover the wheel here. Ya’alon was not the first man in the annals of diplomatic history to speak disparagingly in private about another leader.

French President Nicolas Sarkozy was caught on microphone in November 2011 telling US President Barack Obama that “I cannot bear Netanyahu, he’s a liar.” And Obama’s response: “You’re fed up with him, but I have to deal with him even more often than you.”
Did Israel demand an apology from either leader? No. (Not that it would have mattered even if it had.) Matters were worked out behind the scenes – Sarkozy sent a personal letter to Netanyahu a few days later reiterating France’s tough stand on Iran and signing the missive “With friendship.” An Obama spokesman did not apologize but rather deflected the issue by saying the president “has a very close working relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu.”
The issue went away.
The State Department, by calling Ya’alon’s words “offensive and inappropriate” and not something expected from a close ally, was sending a message. It could have let the issue be worked out quietly behind closed doors, but opted not to. Why? Perhaps to put Israel it its place, perhaps to put it on the defensive as Kerry comes back to continue his diplomatic efforts, and perhaps to send a message to the world that – yes – the US does uphold its honor.
None of this, by the way, excuses either Ya’alon for his comments, or the Prime Minister’s Office for not nipping the issue in the bud. Netanyahu should have killed the issue immediately after seeing the Yediot headline, reprimanding Ya’alon for undiplomatic comments and coming out with a clear comment distancing himself from them. By not doing so he let the issue gain traction, almost forcing the State Department to respond.
Had Netanyahu responded immediately, the State Department would likely have coupled a milder condemnation of the comments with an acknowledgment that Netanyahu repudiated them.
The message was lost in the medium

Through it all, what was lost was what Ya’alon said: that Kerry is obsessed with the Israeli-Palestinian issue; that he approaches it like someone on a messianic mission; that the negotiations are being conducted not between Israel and the Palestinians, but by each side with the Americans, not a healthy way to negotiate; and that the security arrangements the US is recommending are simply not acceptable.

Save the characterization of Kerry as being motivated by a messianic sentiment, and that he should just “take his Nobel Prize and leave us alone,” Ya’alon’s sentiments are neither illegitimate nor crazy. Nor are they his alone.
Many have asked why Kerry seems to be focusing like a laser beam on the Israel-Palestinian situation, when there are so many other, even more pressing issues, in the region. As Fouad Ajami wrote last week in The Wall Street Journal: “The ground burns in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. Borders are being contested, and militant Islamists have all but overwhelmed secular authorities.
Yet America’s chief diplomat, Secretary of State John Kerry, was in the neighborhood this week, for the 10th time, on an expedition to Israel and the Palestinian territories.”
Ya’alon’s comment that it was unwise to run the negotiations through the Americans, rather than directly between the sides, is not outlandish, nor is his claim that Israel seems to have made all the concessions up until this point. Is a pledge not to wage diplomatic war with Israel in diplomatic forums around the world – what the Palestinians “gave” to enter the talks – equal to Israel’s release of 104 convicted terrorists? And as to Ya’alon’s remark about the unacceptability of a US security plan for the day after an agreement is signed, is it not his job, as defense minister, to voice his reservations? His problem is that he voiced them in the wrong way, and in the wrong forum.
But no one should be mistaken: What Ya’alon said rather inelegantly, many other Israelis – both inside and outside the corridors of power – are thinking.