After a Year in Office, the Biggest Puzzle Remains: What Makes Kerry Tick?

Is the secretary of state obsessed with the Middle East? Is it his desire to enter the history books or possibly his tangled Jewish roots? Or does he like to live dangerously and take foolhardy risks?

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

A sharp-eyed American source was the first to define the two main ingredients of the skeptics’ diagnosis of John Kerry’s first year in office. The former Massachusetts senator is "determined to the point of obsession” to change the tone and direction of relations between Israel and the Palestinians, the source told Haaretz in February 2013. "He sees it as the holy mission of his life," the source said.

“Obsessive” and “messianic”, in other words, just like Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon said. With more than a sprinkle of anti-Semitism, as some right wing Israelis, in and out of government, asserted this week. What other explanation can there be for Kerry’s decision to devote the last chapter of his illustrious career to the Middle East, which has been a quagmire for the Obama Administration, or to sink his teeth into the intractable the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – and then refuse to let go?

The dry statistics tell an amazing story: In his first year in office, Kerry has spent 152 days travelling abroad. He has logged up 708 hours in the air and accumulated over 327, 124 miles, enough to travel around the world at the equator more than 13 times, with change. Nonetheless, he has visited only 39 of the world’s 197 countries: China once, Japan twice, Germany thrice and Israel, no less, 11 times.

His accomplishments elicit harsh critiques: he is, after all, a “human wrecking ball”, as his friend John McCain recently described him. The interim nuclear agreement with Iran is “terrible”, according to Benjamin Netanyahu. The chemical weapons accord with Syria is a “farce”, as Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer noted. And Kerry’s efforts on behalf of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement is “a declaration of war against the creator of the world and its leaders” that usually entails death by hanging, according to the verdict rendered this week by the so-called “rabbis” of the so-called “Committee to Save the Land and the People”, with nary a protest in response.

Kerry wants to ensure his place in the history books, or at a Nobel Peace Prize ceremony in Sweden, is the snarky conventional wisdom. He is concentrating on the Middle East because “he wants to do something that is his and the Department’s”, as former Deputy National Security Adviser Elliott Abrams, not a great fan, told the BBC this week. And then there is Kerry’s ego, he added: “The sense that what has been missing [in the Middle East] and that explains the failures in the past is 'me' - John Kerry."

And perhaps some of the answer to the question “What Makes Kerry Run?” to the Middle East – to paraphrase the once-famous Bud Schulberg novel – lies hidden in Kerry’s tangled Jewish roots. It was only a decade ago, after all, that Vienna genealogist Felix Gundacker uncovered the documents that proved that Kerry’s paternal grandparents had not been born as the Catholic Frederic and Ida Kerry but rather as the Jewish Fritz Kohn and Ida Lowe, she of Budapest and he of Bennisch, now Horni Benesov, in the Sudeten area of what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Kerry’s grandfather committed suicide in 1921 in the washroom of the Copley Plaza Hotel in Boston, when his father Richard was only five. Kerry had long been told that Fred Kerry had taken his own life because of financial setbacks, but now, he once acknowledged, new possibilities emerged: that his father was undone by the clash between his Jewish past and his Catholic present. This, of course, is a gold mine for those on both sides of the fence who lean towards complex psychologistic explanations for political decisions.

Throughout his 28 years in the Senate, Kerry was considered to be a clear-cut supporter of Israel, especially in light of his prominent place in the left wing of the Democratic Party: he regularly received good if not perfect report cards from the pro-Israel lobby AIPAC. When Kerry was appointed in January last year, Netanyahu lauded their many years of friendship: sources in Jerusalem breathed a sigh of relief, saying better good old Kerry at State rather than that someone like Chuck Hagel, the man who previously served as the Administration’s designated Jew-hater. Kerry is a pro, everyone said: he won’t make too many waves.

“I have big heels to fill,” Kerry told Hillary Clinton at the State Department ceremony on his first day in office, although they are getting smaller as time goes by. She travelled a lot, smiled even more, received tons of accolades but her achievements were modest, at best. Clinton was risk-averse, possibly because of her political ambitions, but Kerry, as he told CNN on Wednesday, has reached his “last stop”: he’s got nothing to lose, he can go all the way, and he has always found excitement in danger.

In his 2003 profile of Kerry’s “privileged youth”, the Boston Globe’s Michael Kranish recounted the story of Kerry’s 1967 daredevil efforts to fly under San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge in a small rented airplane. Only a seagull that hit the plane’s wing and the specter of more birds hitting the engine and bringing the aircraft down convinced Kerry to steer away at the very last minute.

“In the coming years Kerry would take countless risks,” Kranish wrote, “most of them more calculated than flying a plane toward the Golden Gate Bridge. But the episode underscores a life lived on the edge, foolhardy daring matched by controlled focus. There is a boldness, and brashness, about Kerry that can breed resentment, but it has also served him well in political life.”

Perhaps those traits – boldness, brashness, bravery and a willingness to take risks that borders on the foolish – are preconditions for any Secretary of State to try to personally navigate through dangerous diplomatic minefields such as Iran or the Israeli-Palestinian stand-off. In that respect, Kerry seems to be exhibiting the kind of gung-ho leadership and all out dedication to mission that Obama showed in his first term in his battle for the Affordable Care Act. Both efforts, detractors will point out, are going to end in disaster.

One way or another, the commentators have dubbed 2014 as the year of John Kerry. With Congress paralyzed and Obama’s domestic agenda going nowhere fast, the president’s legacy is increasingly dependent on the “Energizer Bunny of American foreign policy,” as former US diplomat Aaron David Miller described him.

“I believe that history is not made by cynics,” Kerry once said, “It is made by realists who are not afraid to dream.” By now he probably realizes that most of his dreams are viewed, especially in right-wing Israel, as dreadful nightmares.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Germany, February 2, 2014.Credit: Reuters

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