John Kerry’s Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

Secretary of State John Kerry has an impeccable sense of (bad) timing.  When he was buffeted by Swift Boat ads during his 2004 run for the Presidency, he responded by going parasailing.  During the July 2013 coup in Egypt, he was on his boat off of the coast of Nantucket.  And now he’s referred to Israel as an “apartheid” state – on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

US Secretary of State John Kerry (photo credit AP Ahmad Jamshid)
US Secretary of State John Kerry (photo credit AP Ahmad Jamshid)

One can’t help but think back to the first season of the (American) House of Cards, when after having been passed over for Secretary of State, Frank Underwood (Kevin Spacey) torpedoed the President’s preferred nominee by leaking a thirty year-old editorial that he allegedly wrote condemning the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and Gaza.  However, in this case there’s no Frank Underwood.  And there’s no question John Kerry said what he said.

The calls have already started to come in for Kerry’s resignation, starting with the Emergency Committee for Israel, a right-wing group populated by neoconservatives from yesteryear.  AIPAC has issued it’s own condemnation.

Michael Kinsley famously said, “A gaffe is when a politician tells the truth- some obvious truth that he isn’t supposed to say.”  In this sense, did Kerry commit a Kinsley gaffe?  Or did he simply demonstrate why he wasn’t able to bring the two sides together: his own ineptitude?

Richard Goldstone, the South African jurist who’s infamous report on Operation Cast Lead accused the Israeli government of having committed war crimes in Gaza, has said that referencing Israel’s current state of affairs as one of “apartheid” is nothing short of “slander” that is “calculated to retard rather than advance peace negotiations.” Under the 1998 Rome Statutes, “Nothing comes close to the definition of apartheid…” Even in the West Bank and Gaza, Goldstone found no evidence of intent to establish an institutionalized regime of racist discrimination against the Palestinians.

Israel does face a demographic time bomb that, if not handled, could challenge the very fabric of the Jewish state itself.  However, this is not the same as apartheid.

Kerry was right to suggest that he considered an imposed settlement, or having his own Jim Baker moment, where he would have told the two sides to either “take it or leave it”- and to call him when they were ready.  But Kerry punted and stayed with the tried-but-untrue mediating posture of endlessly shuttling between the two sides a la Kissinger in hopes of breaching their chasm-like gap.

Kerry was also right when he suggested a change in leadership in either side could accelerate the peace process.  (Frankly, a change in leadership in both sides would do the most good.)  The distribution of political authority on both sides ties the hands of their leaders, making it difficult for them to hold onto office and make the necessary concessions for peace.

However, Kerry’s talk of apartheid wasn’t just inaccurate.  At best, it’s counterproductive, giving extreme hawks on both sides an excuse to make unreasonable demands of the other.  Extremists like Naftali Bennett can say, “See, I told you so!  The whole peace process is a sham, and the Obama people are against us.”  Hawks in Hamas can say the same thing: “See, we told you so!  Israel’s not serious about peace, and even John Kerry agrees with us!

It would be unfair to suggest that Kerry always misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity.  The window for peace has not been very large for some time and, if anything, Kerry was trying to force it open with every crowbar in his arsenal.  Furthermore, he was right when he struck back at Senators during a hearing earlier this month when he said pushing for an agreement was worth it, even if the downside meant failure.  But he’s not right to put Israel in the same league as apartheid-era South Africa.  Even if it were true- and it’s not- it was just plain stupid.

About the Author
Dr. Albert B. Wolf is an Assistant Professor of International Relations at ADA University in Baku, Azerbaijan. He has written extensively on international security and Middle East politics.
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