John Kerry: A Staunch Supporter of Israel but a Harsh Critic of Its Policies

Kerry’s appointment as Secretary of State is unlikely to encounter meaningful opposition among pro-Israeli Jewish groups, who are saving their ammunition for Hagel's nomination for Secretary of Defense.

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

Democrat John Kerry was to George Bush in the 2004 presidential elections what Barack Obama was to Mitt Romney in 2012: the candidate who garnered an overwhelming majority of Jewish votes because of his liberal domestic agenda and despite perceptions that his rival was better for the Jewish state.

By any traditional measure, of course, Kerry is a staunch supporter of Israel. He has an exemplary voting record in the Senate on Israel related issues, is a strong advocate of Israel’s right to defend itself, has repeatedly stood up against global anti-Semitism and believes in a muscular American posture against Iran’s nuclear designs.

But by the increasingly narrow standards of the term “pro-Israel” set by the rigid right wing in both Israel and the U.S., Kerry is definitely problematic. He is a harsh critic of settlements, has lambasted the blockade on Gaza and he believes in a two-state solution based on modified 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem - according to a 2010 WikiLeaks diplomatic cable - as its capital.

Kerry has criticized Obama’s early focus on an Israeli “settlement freeze”, telling a Brookings Institute forum in 2011 that the President had “wasted a year and a half” of potential peacemaking. He favors an Israeli-Palestinian agreement that first deals with borders and security and would thus “solve the settlement problem” as he put it.

In addition to his liberal ideology and his past as a key figure in the anti-war protest movement in the early 1970’s, Kerry is a firm believer in U.S. global engagement, in international multilateralism and in the pursuit of a diplomatic solution to complex security problems. Like Obama, therefore, Kerry is what most Israelis would derisively describe as a “smolan”, a leftie, a politician whose general worldview is oceans away from that of Israel’s ruling coalition and from the sentiments of the majority of its population.

Kerry thus seems poised for certain collision with the current Israeli government and even more so with its anticipated successor, which, if anything, is expected to be even more right wing and pro-settlement. The question is not whether there will be friction between Kerry and Israel, but how intense it will be, and how soon it will materialize.

Unlike UN Ambassador Susan Rice, whose thwarted candidacy for the State Department paved the way for Kerry, the Massachusetts senator is a political heavyweight in his own right, with decades of foreign policy experience behind him. He is thus better situated and probably more inclined, potentially, to initiate his own diplomatic moves in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, with Obama’s tacit agreement. That is one of the reasons why some Israel supporters were quietly rooting for Rice to prevail.

Nonetheless, while right wing activists and commentators are sure to protest against Kerry’s appointment in order to score points against Obama, it is unlikely to encounter any meaningful opposition in Jewish and pro-Israeli circles. First, because Kerry’s appointment is a done deal, as most analysts agree, and second, because Kerry is considered to be a significantly “lesser evil”, from an Israeli point of view, in comparison to his former Republican Senate colleague from Nebraska, Chuck Hagel, who is one of the leading candidates to be the next Secretary of Defense.

Strikingly, Kerry and Hagel share formative experiences in the war in Vietnam. Both were highly decorated soldiers who were repeatedly honored for their bravery. But while Hagel remained a strong supporter of the war for many years, Kerry became a symbol of the opposition to the war, following his dramatic April, 1971 Congress testimony in which he described “atrocities” committed by American soldiers.

This was the testimony that catapulted him to national prominence and helped launch his political career - but which also played a pivotal role in his 2004 loss to Bush as a result of the relentless campaign waged against him by the Swift Boat Veterans, who had never forgotten nor forgiven his public indictment of their war time actions.

If both Kerry and Hagel are ultimately both nominated and eventually confirmed, there will be pluses and minuses for supporters of an aggressive military posture towards Iran. On the one hand, by the Nixon-to-China principle, any decision made by such a triumvirate to attack Iran is likely to gain wide support across the political spectrum and to allow the U.S. greater leeway in pursuing a successful outcome.

On the other hand, proponents of a military confrontation with Iran, including Israel and its supporters, will be facing three pivotal figures who not only share an aversion to military adventurism but who also believe that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is critical to stabilizing the entire Middle East – and that current Israeli policies aren’t helping much to achieve that goal.

Follow me on Twitter @ChemiShalev

Kerry and Netanyahu in 2010.Credit: Moshe Milner / GPO

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