March 6, 2013
Washington Diary: Worry About Hagel-Out, Worry About Kerry- In
The need to worry about something or someone is a constant element of Jewish political life. In fact, most of us are capable of worrying about many things simultaneously and we often add new items to our list of worries without ever getting rid of the old ones.
After just ending a long round of worrying about the appointment of Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defense, we can now turn our attention to worrying about Secretary of State John Kerry. Unlike Hagel's, Kerry's confirmation was smooth and uninterrupted. Pro-Israel activists and some Israeli officials did quietly grumble that while Hagel is truly an annoyance, Kerry also wouldn't be their first or second choice; but the focus was on Hagel, and Kerry didn't get as much attention.
But all this might be changing - it might need to. After all, Hagel is going to be very busy running the Pentagon, and it's hard to imagine him wasting precious time giving Israel trouble. He is going to be under the microscope every time he has to make a decision related to Israel, and as Congressman Brad Sherman told me on Monday, it is probable that annoying Israel was not on Hagel's list of priorities to begin with. Hagel, as the storyline goes these days (as the storyline was told by AIPAC activists this week) was confirmed, but came out scarred from his confirmation process. He wouldn't want to make more waves and dive into stormy water over Israel again.
The man in charge of many of the policies related to the Middle East is Kerry. He was the one who went to Egypt to make demands, he was the one sent to Turkey to ask to questions. And when the Obama visit is over, he'll be the one handling Israeli matters in Washington, including the Israeli-Palestinian portfolio.
Put simply, there are two main issues that have the potential to strain US-Israel relations in the coming year. The first one is Iran - and this issue will be handled by the White House. It is too serious, and consequential to be left to the State Department. The other issue is Israel-Palestine- Kerry’s apparent soft spot.
In the first Obama administration, the US was in pressure mode, battling with Israel over the settlements, the 1967 borders and other Palestinian-related issues. This changed sometime in mid-term, due to fatigue, lack of achievement and political considerations. But while the level of pressure diminished, it did not completely disappear. Obama officials were still unhappy with Israel's policies and still grumbled that more can be done to revive the peace process. The question was when- and if- the administration is going to find time for this. The time was not found - not for the President - but a man was found: John Kerry.
Here's a list of reasons for the Israeli government to worry about Kerry (a list compiled with the help of Washington operatives, congressional sources and diplomatic veterans in recent days):
"If there's going to be trouble, it will be Kerry, not Hagel", one Washington veteran told me. After the (quiet and successful) Obama trip is over, the time for Kerry to step in will arrive. Israel will have a new government, presumably one which is more concerned about domestic affairs than about the peace process, and the Kerry team will have four full years to nudge it - and the Palestinians - towards making progress. One problem for him might be the different timetable that Israel envisions for making any progress. As Defense Minister Barak stressed at his AIPAC speech earlier this week, Israel doesn't really believe in final status negotiations at this point in time. Incremental steps are the goal, but no one is going to get a Nobel Prize for 'incrementalism'. Besides, when Washington gets "incremental" from Bibi, it hears 'delay', 'abstraction', 'never'.
Kerry had a surprise meeting with Palestinian President Abbas last week. This was the beginning of his long journey in the treacherous waters of Israeli-Palestinian peace making, but surely not the end. If Israel will have a government based on settler-friendly Habait Hayehudi, though, it's hard to see how any concessions on settlements could be offered to Kerry. If Netanyahu decides to send Habait Hayehudi to the opposition and base his coalition on centrist Yesh Atid and the Haredi parties - ready for revenge and currently less sympathetic towards the settlements – his government will quickly face political instability.
Of course, many things can still save Netanyahu and Israel (and the Palestinians) from Kerry's overly ambitious activism: it could be Iran, Syria, or Dennis Rodman for that matter - other events that will keep him too busy to be investing in a cause that deluded so many before him. Or he can be saved by doing the un-Kerry thing: going small, modest, forgetting about big breakthroughs and aiming low. Incremental steps for Israel and the Palestinians, incremental steps for the Secretary.