Israeli Media Blaming Kerry Reflects the Tortured Logic That Started the War in the First Place

Israelis take cover in a shelter as a siren warning of incoming rockets is heard around the southern city of  Beersheba, Isra
Israelis take cover in a shelter as a siren warning of incoming rockets is heard around the southern city of Beersheba, Israel, Saturday, July 12, 2014. Israeli airstrikes overnight targeting Hamas in Gaza hit a mosque its military says concealed the militant group's weapons, in an offensive that showed no signs of slowing down. Israel launched its campaign five days ago to stop relentless rocket fire on its citizens. While there have been no fatalities in Israel, Palestinian officials said overnight attacks raised the death toll there to over 120, with more than 920 wounded. (AP Photo/Tsafrir)

By the second week of the Gaza war, Israeli media were decided that Secretary of State John Kerry's diplomacy was fatally inept. Presumably, much of the subsequent suffering on both sides might be laid at his feet. The most serious--certainly the most caustic--claims were advanced by Haaretz's Ari Shavit:

Kerry ruined everything. Very senior officials in Jerusalem described the proposal that Kerry put on the table as a 'strategic terrorist attack.' His decision to go hand in hand with Qatar and Turkey, and formulate a framework amazingly similar to the Hamas framework, was catastrophic...The man of peace from Massachusetts intercepted with his own hands the reasonable cease-fire that was within reach, and pushed both the Palestinians and Israelis toward an escalation that most of them did not want...If Israel is forced to ultimately undertake an expanded ground operation in which dozens of young Israelis and hundreds of Palestinian civilians could lose their lives, it would be appropriate to name the offensive after the person who caused it: John Kerry.

Haaretz's Ari Shavit: "Kerry ruined everything. Very senior officials in Jerusalem described the proposal that Kerry put on the table as a 'strategic terrorist attack.'"

The "proposal" Shavit was referring to was a draft ceasefire plan which Kerry sent from Paris to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on July 26; it was the product of a meeting he convened with European foreign ministers that included Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu and Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid Al Attiyah--both in more or less steady communication with Hamas's political chief, Khaled Meshal. It called for a cessation of all violence, to be followed within forty-eight hours by meetings in Cairo between Israel and "all Palestinian factions," to "secure the opening of crossings, allow the entry of goods and people and ensure the social and economic livelihood of the Palestinian people living in Gaza, transfer funds to Gaza for the payment of salaries for public employees and address all security issues."

What Shavit considered the "reasonable cease-fire that was within reach"--before Kerry began his clumsy meddling--was an earlier proposal, from July 14th., advanced by Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. This had called only (and vaguely) for talks in Cairo about opening the Rafah crossing from Egypt into Gaza, which Sisi had closed--in part because he regarded Hamas as an off-shoot of the hated Moslem Brothers. Netanyahu had accepted the Egyptian proposal, and began bombarding Gaza in response to Hamas's missile attacks. Hamas's Meshal, speaking from Qatar, insisted that the fight was to the death, if necessary. "We will not accept any initiative that does not lift the blockade on our people and that does not respect their sacrifices," he said.

By the time of Kerry's proposal, casualties in Gaza were climbing to over a thousand, and over thirty Israeli soldiers had been killed. Haaretz's Shavit was convinced that, had Kerry simply reinforced Netanyahu's threats, Sisi's pressure, and used Qatar to leverage Meshal, Hamas would have cracked then and there.

No wonder, Shavit implied, that Kerry's draft was decisively rejected by the Israeli cabinet. Shavit was hardly alone. The proposal was leaked the following day by Haaretz's diplomatic correspondent, Barak Ravid. "What was he thinking?," Ravid, normally an acerbic critic of the Netanyahu's policies, fumed--at which point public scorn for Kerry in Israel was wall-to-wall.

Curiously, now that a cease-fire is finally taking hold, the terms of Kerry's July 26 proposal seem much like the ones on everyone's mind, including such different members of the cabinet as the centrist Tzipi Livni and the rightist Avigdor Lieberman: the Israeli security quid for the Gazan development quo. What was so ham-fisted about an American Secretary of State suggesting them early on? Shouldn't we just forget the carping and move on? This would be a mistake, I think, for it would mean ignoring the circular, tortured logic that helped propel the Israeli government into this war in the first place.

"What's been vexing for Israeli officials and commentators alike is that Kerry interfered in a game of regional brinkmanship that Israelis imagine themselves masters of and the only ones with the nerves for.'"

What's been vexing for Israeli officials and commentators alike, you see, is that Kerry interfered in a game of regional brinkmanship Israelis imagine themselves masters of and the only ones with the nerves for. In this game, Israel's forces must bring something like decisive victory, or the perception of having decisive power, if "deterrence" is to be reestablished--the only security strategy the Netanyahu government has been offering the Israeli public.

I have sat through many intelligence briefings in which Israeli officials fill PowerPoint presentations with assessments of Palestinians' motivation and capabilities. But press these officials and they almost always define motives in terms of capabilities--if Palestinians can hurt us, they will want to. The desire to eliminate Israel goes back to the Naqba. It cannot be allayed, only stupidly appeased. Israelis cannot imagine deterring Palestinians unless they make them feel defeated. It is not that we believe only in force; alas, that is the only thing our enemies do.

The unexpected death of so many soldiers, sons looking back cheerfully in newspaper pictures, pulled from their classes, hook-ups and trips to Nepal, endowed the strategic talk of deterrence an elevated sense of pathos. The discovery of the tunnels brought this vendetta logic to a heightened urgency--and in social media, hysteria. Another veteran journalist, Akiva Eldar, wrote soberly in Al-Monitor that grief had transformed tunnels into a symbol for Israel's darkest fears. Polls show that the war is overwhelmingly popular.

Facebook and Twitter, Eldar laments, are lit up with discussion of "a horror scenario," in which the tunnels provide Hamas with an infrastructure for a ground invasion: thousands of Hamas troops, dressed in Israeli uniforms, could fire hundreds, or even thousands, of rockets into the center of the country. Eldar quoted a wildly popular blogger who wrote, "Under those circumstances, Israel would potentially have to contend with tens of thousands of casualties, the paralysis of all its systems and the need to create defensive measures for individual neighborhoods and even for streets." The blogger went on, "Counter-attacks by the air force won't help when everyone is dug in deep underground, laughing all the way to Jerusalem."

"These journalists will simultaneously infantilize Kerry and the American presidency. From here on in, you can assume that, in their view, violence against Israel is the result of American fumbling.'"

Kerry's mistake, then, was to imply flexibility, a willingness to respond to manifest grievances, when the game called for convincing ruthlessness. Motive has nothing to do with justice; it is the perception of comparative capability. Perhaps one would wish to rehabilitate Gaza; former defense minister Shaul Mofaz has called for a fifty-billion-dollar redevelopment plan, after all. But if Hamas was for it, Kerry was "reckless" not to be against it. If only Kerry had pressured Hamas just a little harder, Hamas's will would have been broken. Hey, didn't Qatar just buy eleven billion dollars in defensive missiles from the U.S.? Kerry just squandered American authority. He was in over his head, sinking beneath the surface of Israel's tautology.

The point is, you dig into this Israeli media criticism, and it rests on these flimsy assumptions about the psychological state of the Hamas leadership. They understand only force. Inflict pain, secure "quiet." Moreover, to criticize Kerry for working with Qatar and Turkey is to demand he remove from play American channels to, and leverage on, Hamas's diplomatic supporters. And yet, it is these very Hamas supporters that Israeli leaders are now counting on to achieve a more permanent quiet--even complete "demilitarization," which Netanyahu now insists on.

In retrospect, one might just as easily conclude that Hamas was in no way on the verge of breaking: that Hamas leaders saw the casualties rising and assumed that many deaths on both sides worked to their advantage; that the very frame of mind that makes them terrorists also makes them cynically apocalyptic, suicidal, carried away by solidarity; that they knew very well how more Israeli bombardment could play into their hands, provoke international condemnation, possibly a new Intifada in the West Bank, a rising in Israeli Arab cities, missiles from Hezbollah, riots in Amman, or all of the above; that Hamas was about to lose its tunnels in any case and could not maintain its moral prestige among Gazans without making a stand to "break the siege."

Actually, the Paris proposal assumed that next diplomatic steps would take place in Cairo, under Egyptian auspices--as they are now, since Egypt still controlled Rafah, the first imaginable crossing to open. "All Palestinian factions" was an obvious euphemism for the united government of the Palestinian Authority which the U.S. had already tried to work with and Israel tried to break Abbas away from. This government had already agreed to participate in an international effort to monitor the crossings, work on Gazan development and pay the salaries of Gazan officials with funds committed by Qatar.

And Israel will now sit down with this government, though not with Hamas directly--just what Kerry expected. Israeli journalists will continue to accuse him of childishness for trying to mitigate further violence--not just by intimidating Palestinians--but by articulating a better life for Gazans and a comprehensive deal. These journalists will simultaneously parentalize Kerry and the American presidency. From here on in, you can assume that, in their view, violence against Israel is the result of American fumbling. It is not a bad career move--as various neocons have proven--to declare that the Obama administration's weakness is responsible for every attack from the world's awful people. Hopefully, Kerry will press on. Soon enough, Israelis will be carping at themselves.