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Obama Sides with Kerry, Who Sides with… (Could It Be Hamas?)

by Shmuel Rosner

July 28, 2014 | 4:32 am

President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Kerry. Photo by Reuters

What Does Obama want?

Every experienced observer of Middle East affairs, Binyamin Netanyahu included, should have known that this was bound to happen. We often complain or worry that the enemies of Israel are patient while Israel doesn’t have the staying power – but that’s not true. Our enemies are indeed patient, but it is “the world” that doesn’t have the staying power, not even when it realizes that Israel has a point. With our enemy, Hamas, we can probably deal – with our friend, the US, we have recently been having some difficulties.

Yesterday, when President Obama called PM Netanyahu to press for a cease-fire, Israel could see that the clock is running out on its operation. What is Obama’s incentive? There is no easy answer to that. Of course, he wants people not to get killed, and that is a fine instinct, but I don’t remember Obama doing much about people being killed in other places, so this can’t be his ultimate motivation.

What’s Obama’s Incentive?

As I have written in the past, the Obama administration often seems to confuse goals with means and desires with policies. You can see it when Obama tells the Prime Minister – and this is from the White House’s press release – that “any lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must ensure the disarmament of terrorist groups and the demilitarization of Gaza”. What “lasting solution”, what “groups”? How do we get to “demilitarization”? Obama wants to score a point by stopping the fighting. As for future plans – you can see that he doesn’t have any. His plan for the future, just a short while ago, was to step back from all Israeli-Palestinian peace processing following his (and his Secretary of State’s) failure. So how do we get from there to a “lasting peace”, and what happens in the meantime?

But let’s stick with this logic: for Obama, the demilitarization of Gaza could only happen after an agreement on a lasting peace. Does this mean that he is going to step up to the peace process plate again? And how will he make it work this time? And does the President believe that as long a there’s no “lasting solution” Hamas is justified in having arms? And if it is, why call it a “terrorist group”? Did he even call it a terrorist group? Read his statement again: no, he didn’t. He said “terrorist groups” without specification.

And what about the other goals – other than the “lasting solution” - that were laid out in Obama’s statement:

“ensuring Israel’s security, protecting civilians, alleviating Gaza’s humanitarian crisis, and enacting a sustainable ceasefire that both allows Palestinians in Gaza to lead normal lives and addresses Gaza’s long-term development and economic needs, while strengthening the Palestinian Authority”.

We can talk about them one at a time:

1. Ensuring Israel’s security: How? The President doesn’t say. What he does say is that he wouldn’t quite accept Israel’s way of ensuring its own security (namely, letting it see the operation through).

2. Protecting civilians. This one makes sense. An incentive that makes sense. But again, Obama seems to have a special sensitivity for human life in Gaza that he doesn’t have when it comes to other places such as Syria. And it is not quite clear why. It is also not clear why Obama wants to protect all these civilians from Israel but has never raised a finger to protect them from Hamas, a radical terror organization that runs their lives.

3. Alleviate humanitarian crisis: Again, this one is easy to understand. Of course, the question for Obama would be: is it more important to alleviate the crisis than win the battle against Hamas? I think his answer was given yesterday – and unfortunately it isn’t the answer Israel wanted to hear.

4. Enacting a sustainable cease fire: The President must be kidding. How can it be sustainable if Hamas feels that it can gain by initiating a fight? How can it be sustainable if Hamas keeps its rockets and tunnels?

5. Lead normal lives: Under whom? Under Hamas rule?  

6. Development and economic needs: Same question – do you see Hamas putting an effort in developing Gaza’s economy? Because what we’ve seen thus far is Hamas investing heavily in arming itself, and the result of this war will only make it want to reinvest in arming itself.

7. Strengthening the Palestinian Authority: So I guess that is the long term plan. The PA-controls-Gaza plan. The nice thing about President Obama is that he has nice dreams. The problematic thing about him is that one gets little sense from him of how he plans to get from A to B. Obama just strengthened Hamas, while saying he wants to strengthen the Palestinian Authority. 

I don’t think Obama has a plan. His only plan is to back John Kerry’s plan, which is really a plan devised by Turkey and Qatar. That Obama and Kerry keep calling it “the Egyptian plan” is an insult to Cairo – and I suspect it might be an intentional insult.

At this point I’d like to ask you to read my previous post: How to demilitarize Gaza in less than 1000 words. Then we can talk about John Kerry.

What Does Kerry want?

On Saturday evening, my editor at Maariv, the paper for which I write in Hebrew, called to ask for an article about Secretary of State John Kerry. The premise was clear: Kerry, yet again, failed to understand the Middle East and hence failed in his attempt to get to a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas. And this was not just your ordinary mishap, it was a real blunder.

So much so, that the Israeli government – a government that was very careful not to be seen as the rejectionist party in this conflict – saw no alternative but to reject Kerry’s proposal.

So much so, that the Palestinian Authority, supposedly Kerry’s ally in its criticism of Israel’s “pin point” operation, was also furious with the Secretary.

So much so, that Israeli officials say that they sourly miss the mediocre State Department term of Hillary Clinton (her defense of the Gaza operation and schooling of Jon Stuart show how much more able she is than Kerry).

So I wrote a lengthy article about Kerry for Maariv, and I tried not to be too nasty. I think I ended up writing the most generous assessment I’ve seen of his conduct of Middle East affairs. Not even the leftist columnists of Haaretz would defend Kerry’s preposterous proposal for a cease fire. And for good reason, as the proposal pretty much asks Israel to accept Hamas’ terms. What Kerry was thinking – if he was even thinking – is a mystery that Israelis and others have been grappling with over and after the weekend. The Americans now say that Kerry was treated unfairly by Israel. It is true that he was severely criticized. But this is what happens when a Secretary of State bungles a serious matter.

Five main explanations have emerged, and all of them have a similar deficiency: we can’t know for sure.

1. Kerry is just not very wise.

2. Kerry is vengeful to the point of being blind.

3. Kerry believes Hamas has the better case in this conflict.

4. Kerry finds it necessary to listen to Qatar-Turkey.

5. Kerry is in need of success to the point of being blind.

I can’t tell you which of these five is the correct answer. My choice was number five, which, as I said, I think is the most generous to Kerry. It goes as follows: Kerry is a Secretary of State with very little to show for. He is under heavy fire from all quarters. He has had little impact on world affairs, and most of his current legacy at State is made of gaffes. Kerry needs success; he needs it badly. A cease-fire is a success, or at least something that can be presented as a success. Surely, some critics might tag it as a failure, but Kerry could still argue that it is a success – a tangible agreement, an actual impact. Kerry made a difference. So I believed, and still believe, that this was Kerry’s main motivation when he decided to attempt to force on Israel a cease-fire that is truly a surrender.

But, again, the need-for-success explanation is just one of five, and the other four merit a hearing. Let’s try them:

Kerry is not very smart: Yes, that works too. You can find the traces of this suggestion in different past columns of various writers, like the one written by Jackson Diehl a couple of months ago in which he said that “it’s hard to think of a previous chief of Foggy Bottom who has so conspicuously detached himself from on-the-ground realities”. David Horovitz, in a blistering analysis of Kerry’s conduct last week, mentions the many Israeli officials that responded to Kerry’s proposal by calling him “amateurish, incompetent, incapable of understanding the material he is dealing with — in short, a blithering fool”. Haaretz’ Barak Ravid comes close to suggesting a similar reason (“serious doubts over his judgment”).

A fool is actually still a little better than the other options. He can be manipulated, he can be ignored. If Kerry is not up to the task, there is reason to hope that at some point the President might notice it. Not that President Obama is the person that Israel would choose had it the option of picking a mediator for a cease-fire (Israel’s choice has already been made – Egypt). But at least no Israeli official that I remember has ever claimed that the President is a fool (naïve – yes; hostile– yes; dangerous – yes; but never a fool).

Of course, Kerry can be incompetent, but this still doesn’t mean that the other reasons I mentioned aren’t valid.

He can be incompetent and also vengeful: clearly, the scars of his failed attempt at having a meaningful peace process haven’t yet healed, and Kerry puts most of the blame for his failure on Israel. So maybe – and this is a serious accusation – this was payback time for him. Maybe it was time for him to demonstrate to the government of Israel that sabotaging the peace process (that’s how he sees it) has a price. Of course, you’d have to believe that Kerry is a terrible person (or a fool) to want Israel to pay in essential security concessions to appease his appetite for some revenge.

And then there’s the third option – that Kerry actually finds Hamas more acceptable than Israel in this conflict. That he actually believes that by some logic Hamas is fighting a good war against Israel. One of the problems with Kerry is that one never knows. If Israeli officials regard him as “duplicitous and dangerous”, that’s the reason: they no longer believe he is telling Israel the truth and no longer believe that his gaffes are, well, just gaffes.

It is a reasonable suspicion, as Kerry has a history of questionable dithering: I still remember covering his White House race back in 2004, and the puzzlement over a comment he had made about Israel’s security barrier being a barrier to peace. Kerry later retracted his comments, and this is a habit for him. Just three months ago he had to clarify a comment about Israel becoming an “apartheid” state. And there were oh-so-many such incidents that one, well, never knows. Gaffes can be a sign that reason-number-one is what we are looking at. Or it can be a revelatory glimpse into Kerry’s true feelings.

The fourth option is somewhat similar to the third option, only in this case Kerry’s decision to back the proposal more beneficial to Hamas is not because of Hamas but rather because of the countries supporting Hamas – Qatar and Turkey. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas hinted at such an option, and other Palestinian speakers were blunt in making that case: “Kerry was in fact trying to create an alternative framework to the Egyptian initiative and our understanding of it, in a way that placates the Qataris and the Turks”. The upside for Kerry in such an analysis is that it makes him look smarter and more calculated in his actions. The downside: it leaves him with few friends, and not necessarily the ones that will make him look good in the eyes of fellow Americans.

So you see: suspecting him of wanting an achievement too eagerly was indeed the most generous explanation. Or was it? It still makes him look shallow and desperate and dangerous too. That is, Kerry ended up not having his success with the cease-fire and is going to keep trying, a troubling thought. What is even more problematic is that he might do the same as he negotiates with Iran.

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