John Kerry isn't doing himself any favors. When it comes to Israel, the Secretary of State may be remembered more for his gaffes than his accomplishments.
First there was his apartheid remark. Next came his summer ceasefire proposal, so disastrous it sparked nearly all of the Israeli public to abandon him. Barak Ravid, a columnist for the leftist Israeli newspaper Haaretz and an outspoken Kerry supporter, had a dramatic change of heart.
Regarding Israel's Gaza operation, Ravid chastised Kerry for making matters worse, and warned that, as a result, "the American secretary of state will be one of those responsible for every additional drop of blood that is spilled."
Tough stuff. But if that wasn't enough, last Thursday Kerry further trashed his credibility with the Israeli public -- blaming the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the rise of the Islamic State (also known as ISIS, ISIL, or simply IS).
Speaking at a State Department event commemorating the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha, Kerry remarked:
"There wasn't a leader I met with in the region who didn't raise with me spontaneously the need to try to get peace between Israel and the Palestinians, because it was a cause of recruitment and of street anger and agitation."
He also used the occasion to restart Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, calling their renewal 'imperative'.
Yikes. Let's get this straight. Kerry did two things here. One, he linked the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to the brutal takeover of ISIS. Two, he said the Israelis and Palestinians must get to the negotiating table -- or else. Basically, the Secretary of State just said, "Let me broker a solution or, you know, beheadings."
This was just the kind of ammo the Israeli right needed. It is no secret that the bulk of Israel's ruling coalition does not believe a two-state solution can happen at this time. But it is unpopular to say no to negotiations, to say no to "peace", so the government goes along largely to save face.
Yet comments like these make it easy for the right-wing to discredit Kerry, to make supporting negotiations unpopular. Communications Minister Gilad Erdan responded to Kerry's remarks with the following:
"I actually respect Kerry and his efforts, but every time he breaks new records of showing a lack of understanding of our region and the essence of the conflict in the Middle East I have trouble respecting what he says."
Economy Minister Naftali Bennett was a little less polite.
"It turns out that even when a British Muslim decapitates a British Christian, there will always be someone to blame the Jew," he said, referring to a recent video of an ISIS beheading. "To say that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is strengthening the Islamic State is encouraging global terror."
State Department Deputy Spokeswoman Marie Harf came to Kerry's defense, saying that the Secretary of State "did not make a linkage between Israel and the growth of ISIL, period." She asserted that the comments were misinterpreted and accused a "specific minister" (read: Bennett) of distorting them for his own political gain.
Maybe so. Maybe Bennett is taking advantage of the situation, using it to discount negotiations. That doesn't justify a counterattack. The Americans should not be making such pointed statements at a man who is considered the leader of the Israeli right -- even moreso than current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
It is not surprising that the Americans want to make digs at the Israeli hard-liners. They fundamentally disagree with each other. The Americans have been driving two-state negotiations for decades. Bennett, on the other hand, has called for annexing part of the West Bank -- effectively killing the two-state solution.
In spite of these differences, Bennett's is still one of the largest parties in power. If the U.S.-Israel relationship truly is the ever-quoted "unbreakable bond" -- friends no matter what -- then it would behoove the U.S. to cut the snark. The right wing isn't going anywhere. Nor is Bennett. That should be kept in mind.
Finally, there's the other part of Ms. Harf's clarification. She insisted that Kerry did not mean to connect Israel and ISIS. Period.
To this again, maybe so. Maybe Kerry did not mean to insinuate this type of causality. But as someone who has dedicated himself to the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, shouldn't he be a little more privy to the way his words might land? Did he really not know what he was saying? Why are so many Israeli ministers accusing Kerry of an inescapable dimness?
It is hard not to be reminded of Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Ya'alon's leaked comments earlier this year. Ya'alon said that Kerry's security plan was "not worth the paper it's written on," and famously blasted, "the only thing that can save us is for John Kerry to win a Nobel Prize and leave us in peace." (For the record, only 32% of Israelis at the time trusted Kerry with their security).
The problem is this: Kerry does not appear to understand the region. His most recent comments, taken in the context that they do tie Israel to the expansion of ISIS, are so inexorably out of touch with reality that they seem to be in character.
Most surprisingly, if he really wants to redeem himself, if he really wants to prove that he, in fact, understands Middle Eastern turmoil better than anyone else, shouldn't he be the one issuing the correction? Why is Marie Harf explaining what he meant by his comments rather than the man who said them himself?
Especially as he tries to restart negotiations, one would think that now of all times Kerry would want to assert that he knows what he's talking about. Unless he doesn't.