The Shaming of John Kerry and the Downturn in the Battle for Israel’s Image

The Secretary of State has fallen prey to an ongoing series of mishaps, faux pas and other unfortunate events, begging the critical question: has he become a nebbish?

Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev
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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.Credit: AFP
Chemi Shalev
Chemi Shalev

In March, 1988 the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir met with Ronald Reagan at the White House and steadfastly rejected the American president’s pressures and pleas to accept then Secretary of State George Shultz’s peace initiative. The Israeli journalists who accompanied Shamir were sure that a historic showdown was in the making, but Reagan preferred to downplay the Israeli leader’s rejectionism and the dead end that the Shultz plan had reached.

“Those who will say no to the United States plan - and the Prime Minister has not used this word - need not answer to us; they'll need to answer to themselves and their people as to why they turned down a realistic and sensible plan to achieve negotiations,” Reagan told reporters. By refraining from formally submitting the plan for Israel’s approval, Reagan created the "didn’t say no" escape hatch; Shultz would later use the same obfuscation in order to disguise the fact that the Palestinians had also refused to play ball.

The same kind of artificial construct was supposed to safeguard Secretary of State John Kerry’s dignity on Friday and to maintain life support for his foundering cease fire proposal, but too many participants in the cabinet meeting that was taking place in Tel Aviv were eager to tell the media about the explicit and resounding "no" with which the Israeli ministers had unanimously responded to Kerry’s offer. The subsequent combined efforts to re-spin the rejection could not hide the egg that Israel had splattered on Kerry’s beleaguered face in Cairo - nor did it avert the “Israel rejects Gaza cease-fire” captions that American television networks displayed throughout the rest of the evening.

The fallout from the Israeli rejection couldn’t be clearer, though it was mitigated by the 12 hour humanitarian pause that Kerry had extracted from Prime Minister Netanyahu as a face-saving gesture and could very well be neutralized completely if a longer cease fire is achieved in the coming hours or days. Nonetheless, Netanyahu himself had bragged that his decision to accept - and Hamas’ decision to reject - the original July 14 Egyptian cease fire proposal had given Israel strong international support and provided the IDF with ample breathing room to expand its Gaza operations. The rejection of the cease fire achieves the opposite effect and brings Israel two steps closer to the international condemnation and possible confrontation that it has hitherto avoided.

Especially when the naysaying is coupled with the negative downturn in Israel’s battle for Israel’s image. The turning point came on Thursday, in the wake of the bloody attack on the UNRWA school in Khan Yunis, and things got worse on Friday, following the violent confrontations with thousands of Palestinian demonstrators in the West Bank. Western governments and American pundits may sympathize with Israel’s war of self-defense against a fanatic Islamist terror group in Gaza but they take a much dimmer view of what they may see as violent repression of a popular uprising against the unjust occupation.

Whether there will be any lasting damage from the shaming of Kerry remains to be seen. Unnamed Israeli sources were quick to attack what they described as Kerry’s capitulation to Qatari cease-fire provisions and to question his ability to master the complex array of players and conflicting interests that need to come together in order to make a cease fire stick. Despite Israeli derision, however, Kerry is still the foreign minister of the still indispensable United States and could very well achieve a Gaza breakthrough that would be added to what the Washington Post’s David Ignatius listed this week as his recent diplomatic achievements in Iran and Afghanistan.

Nonetheless, one can’t deny Kerry’s almost inexplicable series of mishaps, faux pas and unfortunate events: on Friday it was the press conference in Cairo with the UN Secretary General and the Egyptian foreign minister that was not only upstaged by the Israeli rejection but also marred by technical mishaps that either blotted out Kerry’s face or distorted his voice; before that it was the Egyptian security authorities who insisted on humiliating Kerry by carrying out a physical security check before his meeting with President Sisi; before that it as Kerry’s unfortunate “So how is your day” query to the grieving American mother of fallen IDF solider Max Steinberg; and before that it was Kerry’s hot mike comments about Palestinian casualties on Fox News. Never mind this week’s widely-mentioned New Republic investigative report in which Kerry was assigned most of the blame for the collapse of his own peace efforts.

Increasingly, Kerry comes across as a hapless nebekh, which many Americans pronounce as nebbish because, as Leo Rosten says, they don’t know how to clear their throats. The etymology of the word in Yiddish has been traced by researchers to Middle Age Czech, which is only fitting given Kerry’s renowned Jewish roots in the Czech village of Horni Benesov, where his forefathers were known as Kohn.

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