Let's Blame Kerry

This has just been published by TheWorldPost, a partnership of The Huffington Post and the Berggruen Institute on Governance 

By the second week of the Gaza war, Israeli media were decided that Secretary of State John Kerry’s diplomacy was fatally inept. Presumably, much of the subsequent suffering on both sides might be laid at his feet. The most serious—certainly the most caustic—claims were advanced by Haaretz’s Ari Shavit:

Kerry ruined everything. Very senior officials in Jerusalem described the proposal that Kerry put on the table as a ‘strategic terrorist attack.’ His decision to go hand in hand with Qatar and Turkey, and formulate a framework amazingly similar to the Hamas framework, was catastrophic…The man of peace from Massachusetts intercepted with his own hands the reasonable cease-fire that was within reach, and pushed both the Palestinians and Israelis toward an escalation that most of them did not want…If Israel is forced to ultimately undertake an expanded ground operation in which dozens of young Israelis and hundreds of Palestinian civilians could lose their lives, it would be appropriate to name the offensive after the person who caused it: John Kerry. 

The “proposal” Shavit was referring to was a draft ceasefire plan which Kerry sent from Paris to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on July 26; it was the product of a meeting he convened with European foreign ministers that included Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid Al Attiyah—both in more or less steady communication with Hamas’s political chief, Khaled Meshal. The proposal called for a cessation of all violence, to be followed within forty-eight hours by meetings in Cairo between Israel and “all Palestinian factions.” It would “secure the opening of crossings, allow the entry of goods and people and ensure the social and economic livelihood of the Palestinian people living in Gaza, transfer funds to Gaza for the payment of salaries for public employees and address all security issues.”

What Shavit considered the “reasonable cease-fire that was within reach”—before Kerry allegedly began his clumsy meddling—was an earlier proposal, from July 14th., advanced by Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. This had called only (and vaguely) for talks in Cairo about opening the Rafah crossing from Egypt into Gaza, which Sisi had closed—in part because he regarded Hamas as an off-shoot of the hated Moslem Brothers. Netanyahu had accepted the Egyptian proposal, and began bombarding Gaza in response to Hamas’s missile attacks. Meshal, speaking from Qatar, insisted that the fight was to the death, if necessary. “We will not accept any initiative that does not lift the blockade on our people and that does not respect their sacrifices,” he said. By the time of Kerry’s proposal, casualties in Gaza were climbing to over a thousand, and over thirty Israeli soldiers had been killed. Shavit was convinced that, had Kerry simply reinforced Netanyahu’s threats, Sisi’s pressure, and used Qatar to leverage Meshal, Hamas would have cracked then and there.

No wonder, Shavit implied, Kerry’s draft was decisively rejected by the Israeli cabinet. Nor was Shavit alone. The proposal was leaked and criticized the following day by Haaretz’s diplomatic correspondent, Barak Ravid (“What was he thinking?,” Ravid, normally an acerbic critic of the Netanyahu’s policies, fumed), at which point public scorn for Kerry in Israel was wall-to-wall. Curiously, now that a cease-fire is finally taking hold, the terms of Kerry’s July 26 proposal don’t seem so ruinous. In fact, they seem much like the ones on everyone’s mind, including such different members of the cabinet as the centrist Tzipi Livni and the rightist Avigdor Lieberman: the Israeli security quid for the Gazan development quo. Was the American Secretary of State really so ham-fisted by suggesting them early on? Or should we just forget the carping, chalk it up to taut nerves, and move on?

This would be a serious mistake, I think, for it would mean ignoring the tortured strategic logic that helped propel the Israeli government into this war—and earlier ones. What’s been vexing for Israeli officials and commentators alike, you see, is that Kerry interfered in a game of regional brinkmanship Israelis imagine themselves masters of and the only ones with the nerves for. In this game, Israel’s forces must bring something like decisive victory, or the perception of having decisive power, if “deterrence” is to be reestablished—the only security strategy the Netanyahu government has been offering the Israeli public.

I have sat through many intelligence briefings in which Israeli officials fill PowerPoint presentations with assessments of Palestinians’ power: their “motivation” and “capabilities.” But press these officials and they almost always define motives in terms of capabilities—if Palestinians can hurt us, they will want to. The desire to eliminate Israel goes back to the Naqba, presumably. It cannot be allayed, only (naively) appeased. Talk of occupation is a distraction, a propaganda victory for them. So Israelis cannot imagine deterring Palestinians unless they make them feel defeated. Might makes, of all things, right.

The war did little to undermine this logic. The unexpected death of so many soldiers—sons looking back cheerfully in newspaper pictures, pulled from their classes, hook-ups and trips to Nepal—endowed “deterrence” an elevated sense of pathos. In social media, at least, the tunnels pushed many Israelis to hysteria. Another veteran journalist, Akiva Eldar, wrote soberly in Al-Monitor that grief had transformed tunnels into a symbol for Israel’s darkest fears. Polls show that the war is overwhelmingly popular. Facebook and Twitter, Eldar laments, are lit up with discussion of “a horror scenario,” in which the tunnels provide Hamas with an infrastructure for a ground invasion: thousands of Hamas troops, dressed in Israeli uniforms, could fire hundreds, or even thousands, of rockets into the center of the country. Eldar quoted a wildly popular blogger who wrote, “Under those circumstances, Israel would potentially have to contend with tens of thousands of casualties, the paralysis of all its systems and the need to create defensive measures for individual neighborhoods and even for streets.” The blogger went on, “Counter-attacks by the air force won’t help when everyone is dug in deep underground, laughing all the way to Jerusalem.”

Kerry’s folly, then, was to imply flexibility, a willingness to respond to manifest grievances, when the game called for convincing ruthlessness. Perhaps one would wish to rehabilitate Gaza; former defense minister Shaul Mofaz has called for a fifty-billion-dollar redevelopment plan, after all. But if Hamas was for it, Kerry was “reckless” not to be against it. If only he had pressured Hamas just a little harder, Hamas’s will would have been broken. Hey, didn’t Qatar just buy eleven billion dollars in defensive missiles from the U.S.? Instead, Kerry squandered American authority. He was in over his head, sinking beneath the surface of Israel’s tautology.

The point is, you dig into this Israeli media criticism and its rests on these flimsy assumptions about the psychological state of the Hamas leadership. They understand only force. Inflict pain, secure “quiet.” Moreover, to criticize Kerry for working with Qatar and Turkey is to demand he remove from play American channels to, and leverage on, Hamas’s diplomatic supporters—the very ones Israeli leaders are now counting on to achieve a more permanent quiet—even the “demilitarization,” which Netanyahu now insists on.

In retrospect, one might conclude that Hamas was in no way on the verge of breaking: that Hamas leaders saw the casualties rising through the fog of war and assumed that many deaths on both sides worked to their advantage; that the very frame of mind that makes them terrorist also makes them cynically apocalyptic, suicidal, carried away by solidarity; that they knew very well how more Israeli bombardment could play into their hands, provoke international condemnation, possibly a new Intifada in the West Bank, a rising in Israeli Arab cities, missiles from Hezbollah, riots in Amman, or all of the above; that Hamas was about to lose its tunnels in any case and could not maintain its moral prestige among Gazans without making a stand to “break the siege.”

More reasonably, Kerry’s Paris proposal assumed that next diplomatic steps would take place in Cairo, under Egyptian auspices—as, indeed, they are now, since Egypt still controlled Rafah, the first imaginable crossing to open. “All Palestinian factions” was an obvious euphemism for the united government of the Palestinian Authority which the U.S. had already tried to work with and Israel tried to break Abbas away from. This government had already agreed to participate in an international effort to monitor the crossings, work on Gazan development and pay the salaries of Gazan officials with funds committed by Qatar. Israel, meanwhile, will discuss “all security issues.” It will also sit down with this government, though not with Hamas directly—again, just what Kerry expected.

None of this means that Israeli journalists who’ve mocked him will stop doing so. They’ll accuse him of childishness for insisting a comprehensive deal is necessary to improve on an unsustainable status quo. Yet they’ll parentalize him and the American presidency—assume that violence against Israel is the result of totemic American fumbling. It is not a bad to career move—as various neocons have proven—to declare that the Obama administration’s weakness is responsible for every attack from the world’s awful people. Yet, hopefully, Kerry will press on. Soon enough, Israelis will be carping also at themselves.