John Kerry, under fire
By: Edward-Isaac Dovere
April 29, 2014 06:09 PM EDT
Name one high-profile issue that’s going well right now for Secretary of State John Kerry.
Russian troops are still sitting on the Ukrainian border, and Russian-backed militants haven’t backed off inside the country. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov is still taking Kerry’s calls, but not seeming to care much about what’s being said.
Syrian President Bashar Assad announced Monday he’s running for re-election, unopposed, eight months after firing nerve gas over President Barack Obama’s red line.
(Also on POLITICO: Kerry backpedals 'apartheid' comment)
Kerry’s attempted peace process reboot between the Israelis and Palestinians has stalled out.
And then, “apartheid” — what the future could hold for Israel without a peace deal, he warned in a closed door meeting last week.
In a defiant apology of sorts that fired back at those who questioned his support for Israel, the nation’s top diplomat acknowledged “the power of words to create misimpression, even when unintentional.”
Kerry’s been confronted with this lesson throughout his career in public life, repeatedly getting caught in impolitic descriptions of what he would argue are just realistic assessments of where things stand. This is the politician, after all, who famously explained his procedural maneuver on Iraq War funding as, “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it” — a true, and in his mind defensible, position that proved poison to his 2004 campaign.
(Also on POLITICO: Kerry's private remarks allegedly taped by reporter)
“One of those inarticulate moments,” he said at the time.
Once again, he’s fed a problematic narrative about himself as a man who goes knee deep with his foot in his mouth, and a larger narrative of an Obama administration foreign policy that’s stumbling and in trouble — which the president defended over the weekend as “you hit singles, you hit doubles; every once in a while we may be able to hit a home run.”
State Department officials say Kerry is undeterred.
“This guy is absolutely locked in, unafraid of bumps in the road, and he always jokes, ‘What are they gonna do — send me to Vietnam?’ said a senior official close to the secretary. “Now the proof is in the pugilism. Kerry has spent a lifetime in the arena, and that’s where he’ll stay.”
(Also on POLITICO: Cruz: Kerry should step down)
Even as Kerry and Obama have brought together allied international action on Ukraine, Iran and elsewhere, his administration has been under attack at home and abroad for not being better able to showcase strength or effectiveness toward Russia and Syria.
Amid that criticism, Kerry is the face of the administration foreign policy, whether announcing the preliminary breakthrough with Iran in November — still moving forward, at least for now — or standing in Geneva again two weeks ago to cautiously accept the basic agreement with the Russians, now proven useless, to de-escalate Ukraine.
And then there’s his own decision to making a renewed Middle East peace effort a central mission, which continues to have Obama’s support and which hasn’t been affected by the “apartheid” comment or the response it’s generated.
Kerry sees progress on multiple fronts, say aides, from moving toward the May 25 elections in Ukraine or planning for the two-and-a-half years ahead of him to make progress on the peace process. And that doesn’t count many issues gaining less attention, from attempting to stabilize Egypt to tackling the genocide in South Sudan, which he’ll be addressing on a trip to Africa this week.
“He’s not looking for a quick sugar fix, he’s looking for a way to keep making progress, keep chipping away,” said State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki.
(Also on POLITICO: Barbara Boxer: John Kerry apartheid critique ‘ridiculous’)
“On Syria, he knows we’ve rid 92 percent of the chemical weapons from Syria, but he won’t be content until we’re at 100 percent and Assad is gone. On the Middle East peace process, he knows that there are ups and downs but the two parties always end up determined to get back to the negotiating table. On Ukraine, he feels liberated to blast the Russians and he knows that exhausting the diplomatic process brought reluctant Europeans to finally get tough on sanctions,” the official close to Kerry said.
The “apartheid” furor is one that in the minds of the State Department is playing out purely within the American political context, and is likely to disappear just as quickly as it arrived.
Few sober assessments of the Israeli-Palestinian positions, from hardliner or dove, differ significantly from the situation Kerry was apparently trying to describe. The Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza aren’t going anywhere, and their population is growing. The Israelis have no interest in empowering the Palestinians with citizenship rights, which would over time risk Israel’s identity as a Jewish state. In the near future, that could result in a situation where — in what would still be one country — the Palestinians outnumber Israelis, while Israelis retain the economic and political power.
“I do not believe, nor have I ever stated, publicly or privately, that Israel is an apartheid state or that it intends to become one,” Kerry said in his apology statement, leaving the rhetorical room for what he did say behind closed doors on Friday, captured on tape by The Daily Beast: that apartheid might be what Israel effectively gets anyway, no matter its intentions or current reality.
Still, giving the Israelis a reality check again hasn’t exactly made them rush back to the table. Nor has it won over the Palestinians, who remain suspicious that the response to Kerry’s comment is more proof that despite all his efforts put into equal time and ascribe equal blame — America isn’t ever an even broker.
Kerry’s been down this road before many times, and repeatedly over the last year of peace efforts.
Back in November, he said in a television interview that “the alternative to getting back to the talks is the potential of chaos,” asking, “Does Israel want a third Intifada?”
What Kerry appeared to be trying to say was that he couldn’t see how violence wouldn’t eventually erupt again in the absence of peace. What many heard was Kerry condoning an uprising should Israel fail to agree to a deal.
Urging the two sides to find a solution in a speech at the Munich Security Conference Feb. 1, Kerry said, “The risks are very high for Israel. People are talking about boycott. That will intensify in the case of failure.”
What he appeared to be trying to say was that there was no denying the energy behind the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions effort that seeks to impose costs on the Israeli economy for the country’s treatment of Palestinians. What many heard was an acceptance of BDS as a legitimate response to Israel’s actions.
At a Senate hearing at the beginning of April, describing how talks had collapsed, Kerry went through a list of problematic actions from both sides that ended with a mention of the Israelis approving new settlement construction, “and poof! That was sort of the moment.”
What he appeared to be trying to say was that this was the last step in a sequence, chronologically. What many heard was Kerry blaming Israel for the end of the process.
Each time he was condemned by supporters of Israel.
But even without all these flare-ups, or thirty years in the Senate, three as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, a presidential run and over a year at the State Department, Kerry might have anticipated that “apartheid” would be a charged word, in private or public — at least in America.
Pointing out that former Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert have used the word, as has current lead negotiator Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, hasn’t helped his case at home — but it may help explain why the condemnations haven’t been streaming in from Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
The measure of just how much Kerry blundered by using that one word himself was Anti-Defamation League national director Abe Foxman’s statement accepting what he called his “rejection” of apartheid.
Foxman isn’t one to be at odds with American officials, but he struck hard at Kerry in a statement Monday. Once Kerry backtracked over the one word, though, Foxman said all was forgiven.
“Apartheid is a particularly loaded epithet that has repeatedly been used by Israel’s worst enemies to delegitimize the Jewish state and suggest it promulgates abhorrent racial policies similar to those of the apartheid regime in South Africa,” Foxman said. Kerry “is a true friend of Israel. His statement makes that clear, and we consider this chapter closed.” http://dyn.politico.com/printstory.cfm?uuid=358D3884-6493-45BB-8351-0E7236A8FBA9