This piece was originally published in The Daily Beast.
President Obama said all the right things in his Middle East visit; John Kerry has quickly undone his good work.
President Obama staked out key diplomatic positions in Israel’s favor during his Passover Eve visit. If handled properly, they could help form the basis for progress toward Arab-Israeli peace. Unfortunately, Secretary of State John Kerry’s follow-up high-profile shuttle diplomacy is wasting Obama’s work.
Most analysis of Obama’s trip focused on his own “charm-offensive” performance and the resulting boost to his lagging approval ratings in both Israel and the pro-Israel community in America.
But those analyses miss the bigger picture: from Israel’s perspective, success should be measured less by a fleeting blip in Obama’s poll numbers, and more by the key substantive statements and projection of American-Israeli unity Israel was able to elicit from the President. In that regard, Israel should be thrilled with the results.
It’s worth revisiting the positions Obama set forth before handing off to Kerry.
The President spent in closed-door meetings with Prime Minister Netanyahu discussing Syria and Iran. They emerged with a significant endorsement of “Israel’s right and duty to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.”
Israel coaxed from Obama public statements of the Jewish historical connection to the Land of Israel, and of an American-Israeli “eternal alliance.” That’s quite a departure from his landmark 2009 Cairo speech, where he cited nothing prior to the Holocaust as justifying Israel’s existence.
In his peace process comments to the Palestinian Authority, Israel prevailed upon Obama to support its key position: just negotiate, without any pre-conditions such as freezing settlement-construction or any commitment to pre-1967 boundaries.
Importantly, Obama told the Palestinians that a two-state solution requires a Jewish state alongside their Palestinian state. That implicitly rejects Palestinian claims of a “right of return” and the ability to overrun Israel with descendants of those Arabs who fled from nascent war-torn Israel in 1948.
Israel brilliantly highlighted its own precarious existence as well as its uniquely close relationship with America. Israel presented President Obama a gift layered with symbolism—a nanochip of just 4/100ths of a square millimeter, engraved through Israeli technology with replicas of the Declarations of Independence of both the U.S. and Israel, set in a 2,000 year-old Jerusalem stone tool dating from the Second Temple Jewish commonwealth.
Next, Israel had Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau guide Obama through the powerful Yad Va’shem Holocaust museum. As a child, Lau was plucked from the corpses of Buchenwald by American forces; he grew up to become Israel’s Chief Rabbi. Lau publicly thanked Obama, expressing his deepest gratitude to America for his liberation and his life, and added a short story: last year, Lau was approached by a former brigadier general: Leo Hymas, a liberator of Buchenwald, tearfully asked Lau’s forgiveness “for being late, we came too late. I saw what we have seen, I understand we were late, forgive me.”
Referencing Obama’s promises regarding the Iranian nuclear threat, Lau continued: “Yesterday, Mr. President you promised us that we are not alone. Don’t be too late.”
That is effective messaging.
True, these diplomatic showcases are as much about visuals and domestic politics as about substantive policy. Furthermore, pronouncements by Barack Obama have a notoriously short shelf-life.
But we also mustn’t underestimate the potential importance of this visit. Showing America connecting with Israel on a host of issues, closing the “daylight” between the two countries, having the American President re-legitimizing Zionism’s most fundamental claims and re-confirming the Jewish connection to the land at a time when those claims are under worldwide assault are valuable in their own right. Israel made the most of its opportunity.
That set the stage for John Kerry. Obama’s public recognition of Israel’s legitimacy, permanence and security needs sent a strong signal to Israel’s foes that American-backed diplomatic progress will come only with an acceptance of Zionism, i.e., a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. That is the key to any agreement to which Israel will consent. Thus, it is Kerry’s job to stand strong echoing Obama’s message, and to dispel any hope that Obama will force an agreement on Israel absent that recognition.
That is a formidable diplomatic task—perhaps still impossible—requiring effort, shrewdness, advance work and finesse far beyond just shuttling between capitals and showing up for high-visibility meetings. Yet, Kerry jumped right in, seemingly more interested in the photo opportunities of his job than the diplomatic opportunities.
Combine that with Kerry’s history of underestimating the malicious intentions of America’s enemies and enemies of our allies–whether Viet Cong, Sandinista or his “dear friend” Bashar Assad—and, predictably, he is off to a rough start.
Reports from Ramallah are that Kerry is pushing…the 2002 Saudi Peace Plan. How creative. It is a non-starter for Israel, requiring withdrawal to existentially dangerous boundaries, withdrawal from Jerusalem, abandoning the Golan Heights to Kerry’s dear friend and creating a “right-of-return,” all in exchange for normalization with Arab states whose governments may be overthrown within six months. There is no mention of recognizing Israel as a Jewish state. Even discussing these terms undermines everything outlined by Obama.
In Turkey, as the increasingly-belligerent government gloated and rubbed Israel’s face in its apology for errors in the Gaza flotilla operation, Kerry praised the Turks for their “sensitivity” and for “preventing any sense of triumphalism.” Whatever Kerry lacks in clumsiness, he makes up for in spinelessness.
Kerry is putting the prestige of his office on the line, and getting nowhere. In fact, we are moving backwards: Kerry has now left Ankara and Ramallah empty-handed–save for additional demands to be relayed to Israel. This demonstration of impotence by the Secretary of State does not serve America or its allies well.