If you read my long post on Obama and Kerry three days ago, you might find the following article a little odd. It is not – or at least I don't think it is. John Kerry can be very problematic (case in point: him calling PM Netanyahu a "stubborn head" – did he not understand this would be leaked? Or did he want it to be leaked?) but Israel should not make an enemy out of him. That was my message to Israelis when I wrote the following article in today's Maariv. Here is the translation:
The conversation between the American Secretary of State and the Israeli leader was very tense. In order to stop the fighting in Gaza, said the Secretary, you need to do "something positive" about the Arab League. “You asked for this help”, said the American. “I did not”, said the Israeli. The conversation was unpleasant, the American tone threatening. If there will not be a positive answer, it "could harm US-Israel relations".
And no, this isn’t a description of a recent conversation between Benjamin Netanyahu and John Kerry; it’s a description of a conversation between Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni during operation ‘Cast Led’. The conversation is described in Tested by Zion, the book by Elliot Abrams, who was President Bush’s Deputy National Security Advisor at the time. Livni, writes Abrams, “was shocked by the threat”. She called Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to report on the conversation and figure out how to “protect US-Israel relations during the conflict”.
What can be learned from that conversation about the current tension between Washington and Jerusalem following Secretary Kerry’s miserable mediation efforts last week? First of all, that there’s nothing new under the sun. American Secretaries of State have a difficult time dealing with Arab sensitivities when Israel uses military force in Gaza. Secondly, that not every case of tension is a sign of the collapse of the relations and not every threat about how the relations will be hurt is realized. Thirdly – and Abrams states this explicitly in his book – not everything that’s written in the papers about the relations between governments is completely accurate. Livni and Rice’s relationship was described as "sweet" and "sisterly"; the reality was not always like that.
The case of Livni and Rice was a relatively easy one, mainly because Israel’s insistence had an attentive ear in President Bush’s Oval Office. In Kerry’s case, things are more complicated. Barack Obama, at least according to the official announcement, stood behind his Secretary of State. But what did he actually say to Netanyahu in the conversation between them? Judging by reports in newspapers and TV, it wasn't an easy conversation. But if we can judge by the events that have taken place since, it was a conversation which also had a degree of attentiveness to the Israeli position. Kerry was clearly and understandably offended by the insults he received following his ceasefire plan, but while he may still find a way to avenge them, his position as a mediator was improved.
He is an annoying Secretary of state and not a very good one. He also carries with him the negative baggage of a sense of failure for which he blames Israel. On the other hand, John Kerry is all there is at the moment. He, and Barack Obama, with all their flaws, are the great friend that Israel has to work with. And it’s true that their understanding of Israel’s needs is limited; that their instincts are off; that their impatience with Netanyahu’s government is unreasonable; and that their ability to craft a policy, explain it, and carry it out is not impressive. But, at least at the moment, Israel has no good substitute for the friendship and the support of the American administration. It cannot reach its goals without American assistance. In other words: if the relations with the Americans are a problem, it’s a sign that the Israeli policy which was based on them isn’t that great either and that it needs to be changed. On the other hand, if the relations aren’t a problem, we should treat the disputes, including the bitter ones, with proportion.