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Kerry and Israel: A Warning from the Well-Intentioned Bully

by Shmuel Rosner

February 2, 2014 | 5:58 pm

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry speaks during the Munich Security Conference at the Bayerischer Hof Hotel in Munich February 1, 2014. REUTERS/Brendan Smialowski

John Kerry deserves the benefit of the doubt. That is, for Israelis to assume, as Minister Tzipi Livni does, that his warning of a possible boycott of Israel if his initiative fails to bear fruit is not a threat, but rather an expression of concern. Livni's kind interpretation of Kerry's remarks in Munich (he "cares about the state of Israel") is generous, but not preposterous. Kerry's plan, or the parts of it that are gradually being revealed, might not be the exact plan the Israeli government would draw, but it is also not a plan that could be dismissed as one sided (in fact, the Palestinians are those who dismiss it as one sided – they claim that it tilts towards accepting the demand of the Israelis side). Kerry can be suspected by opponents of his plan of being an obsessive, messianic, self-important, naïve, uninformed, unwise – all of the above – Secretary of State. But assuming he is anti-Israel would not be healthy, and the assumption would be difficult to justify. That is, unless one believes that any attempt to revive the peace process based on the two-state-solution paradigm is inherently anti-Israel.

Minister Naftali Bennett, a right wing Israeli leader, was not as generous with Kerry as the centrist Livni. "We expect our friends in the world to stand by our side against anti-Semitic boycott efforts against Israel, and not be their trumpet", Bennett said. Was Kerry being a trumpet for such boycott efforts? State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that Kerry has a "proud record of over three decades of steadfast support for Israel's security and well-being, including staunch opposition to boycotts”. In other words, the American position is that Kerry wasn’t being a trumpet for boycott. But I still think he was. Was it his intention? That’s a different question, and the answer to it depends on the level of sophistication one attributes to Kerry.

Let's see what he said.

He said: "I’m only just scratching the surface in talking about the possibilities, and I’ve learned not to go too deep in them because it gets misinterpreted that I’m somehow suggesting, 'Do this or else,' or something. I’m not". So Kerry made sure to tell Israelis that his is not an attempt to make them surrender lest the great boycott wolf comes. His clarification aside though, the threat is indeed a threat. It is as subtle as the friendly suggestion by the neighborhood bully that the current state of affairs isn't sustainable.

Here: "For Israel, the stakes are also enormously high. Do they want a failure that then begs whatever may come in the form of a response from disappointed Palestinians and the Arab community? ...What happens for Israel’s capacity to be the Israel it is today – a democratic state with the particular special Jewish character that is a central part of the narrative and of the future? What happens to that when you have a bi-national structure and people demanding rights on different terms? ...I believe that – and you see for Israel there’s an increasing de-legitimization campaign that has been building up. People are very sensitive to it. There are talk of boycotts and other kinds of things. Are we all going to be better with all of that?"

You can agree or disagree with Kerry's assessment of the situation – but you can't argue that there is no threat. Kerry warns that for Israel the stakes are enormously high – he doesn't say as much about the Palestinians. That is, Israel has the stronger reason to make concessions. An Israeli official complained on Sunday that Kerry "pressures Israel and grinds it down, while Abbas hasn’t moved his stance one millimeter". This, of course, could be seen as an anti-Israel stance, but, again, there could also be a more generous explanation: Kerry is pressuring Israel because he doesn't have a way of pressuring the Palestinian side. Pressuring Israel is taking the (relatively) easy way to compromise. Obviously, it is not a way that the Israeli government is too enthusiastic about.

Back to Kerry's words. He also warned of "a response" from "disappointed Palestinians and the Arab community", which most listeners would interpret as Kerry's way of saying that violence against Israel might be on its way. Again, you don't see him warning the Arab side of a possible Israeli disappointment that might lead to violence. Again, this is a message tailored as a suggestion to Israelis that they have a strong incentive to compromise. And Kerry also danced around the boycott issue: "Are we all going to be better with all of that?"

"We"? Are "we all going to be better"? Even the language is the language of a bully. So Bennett is right to wonder why "he" – the American – gave this unfriendly reminder to "us". Don't Israelis know there is a problem with Israel's image abroad? Wouldn't it be reasonable for them to suspect that by raising such an issue in such an informative (rather than critical) manner Kerry is trying to frighten Israel into accepting his plan?

Yet Kerry also complains that his statements often "get(s) misinterpreted that I’m somehow suggesting, 'Do this or else,' or something. I’m not". So maybe what we have here is another case of misinterpretation? Even if he is misinterpreted, the problem doesn't rest with the Israeli listener, it rests with the speaker. In other words: this isn't a case of misinterpretation, but one of misspeaking.

Of course, whether Kerry is right to assume that the threat of boycott, or similar measures, is likely to make Israel more prone to compromise is not clear-cut. That Israelis like their prosperity and economic success is true (and obvious). That they'd hate to pay dearly for keeping a remote settlement is also probable. Hence, I'm not sure if Bennett was not overselling his case when he said that "a country has yet to be born that will give up its land because of economic threats, and we won't either".  

Still, there's a limit to what a threat of boycott can achieve with Israel's stiff-necked public. In 2000, when the second Palestinian Intifada began, there was also a lot of talk about Israel's soft belly and its ultimate vulnerability – talk that proved to be premature and lacking in true understanding of Israel's character. Now the soft belly has been rediscovered by Kerry, but this time it is not violence with which Israel is being threatened, it is economic hardships.

The problem with all the aforementioned threats is quite simple: Israelis have long been ready to accept a reasonable proposed agreement, along with the many known compromises and "tough decisions" necessary – if such an agreement can guarantee their long term peace and security. If such an agreement can be put on the table by Kerry, the threat of boycott is unnecessary. If, on the other hand, the Kerry plan will be seen by Israel as one that is dangerous and is itself "unsustainable" – a term the American mediator is so fond of – then the threat of boycott will not suffice, and for good reason: if the choice is between life and prosperity, a reasonable people would, grudgingly, have to choose life.

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