WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Obama administration is pushing back hard against Israeli critics of its peace efforts, enlisting American Jewish groups to respond to personal attacks on Secretary of State John Kerry.
In recent weeks, administration officials have strongly condemned Israeli critics of Kerry’s peace bid. In response to some of the harshest anti-Kerry rhetoric, Jewish groups weighed in with their own denunciations.
Obama administration insiders and Jewish communal officials say some of those rebukes followed direct solicitation by administration officials. But the responses from the Jewish groups also reflect a concern that the tone of some of the Kerry criticism could damage relations between the administration and the Israeli government.
“Even if people, be they in Israel or in the United States, have disagreements with what John Kerry is proposing, it’s absolutely essential that those disagreements are expressed on the substance and not through personal attacks,” said Nathan Diament, the Washington director of the Orthodox Union, which issued a statement condemning a small number of Israeli rabbis who warned that Kerry could face divine punishment.
But defending Kerry’s future proposals may be the one of the motives behind the administration’s aggressive pushback. Administration officials and Jewish groups sympathetic to Kerry’s initiative say there is a longer-term agenda in preempting attacks on the framework peace agreement that the Obama administration is expected to propose soon.
The administration has tapped sympathetic Jewish figures and groups to prepare the ground in the Jewish community for the difficult compromises on territory and Jerusalem that will be embedded in the framework peace plan.
Robert Wexler, a former Florida congressman, is traveling to Jewish communities around the country advocating for the compromises likely to appear in the framework proposal. J Street, the dovish Israel policy group, has launched a campaign of town hall meetings across the country to support a two-state solution.
“As Kerry’s initiative gathers steam and Israeli and Palestinian leaders near a moment of decision, we expect sadly to see more outrageous attacks on one of the greatest friends Israel has,” J Street said in a Feb. 4 statement.
The harshest public attacks on Kerry — the ones that drew the rebukes from centrist American Jewish groups — have come from fairly marginal Israeli figures. U.S. officials, however, also are upset by criticism of Kerry coming from more significant figures within the Israeli government.
Senior Obama administration officials told JTA that Kerry has made his unhappiness clear in the daily phone calls he has with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The prime minister has been responsive. According to The Jerusalem Post, Netanyahu told a party faction meeting last week that the best way to disagree with the Obama administration is by “substantively discussing the issues and not by engaging in personal attacks.” Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Liberman, told a group of businessmen in Tel Aviv that Kerry is a “true friend of Israel.”
“We deeply appreciate Secretary Kerry’s commitment to Israel’s security and to helping Israel achieve a lasting and secure peace with the Palestinians,” Ron Dermer, the Israeli ambassador to Washington, told JTA. “Throughout his nearly 30-year tenure in the U.S. Senate and as secretary of state, Secretary Kerry has been a staunch supporter of Israel and of strengthening the U.S.-Israel alliance.”
Most of the statements from centrist Jewish groups were triggered by remarks last month by Moti Yogev, a backbench Knesset member from the Jewish Home party who said in an interview that Kerry’s “obsessive” focus on the talks “may have anti-Semitic undertones.”
The American Jewish Committee, Anti-Defamation League and World Jewish Congress condemned Yogev’s remarks. The ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman, called the comments “offensive” and “ beyond the bounds of legitimate critique.”
The Orthodox Union’s statement, which it issued with the Rabbinical Council of America, condemned the Israeli rabbis who had put out a letter likening Kerry to Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonian king who destroyed the First Temple, and warning that the secretary of state could face “heavenly retribution.”
The letter was issued by a group calling itself the Committee to Save the Land and People of Israel, which said on its website that “dozens” of rabbis had signed on, though it named only five who are all affiliated with Israeli municipalities.
But criticism of Kerry has come, too, from Israelis who are closer to the center of power.
Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon was quoted in the Israeli media last month privately calling Kerry’s peace efforts “messianic.” Yaalon later said he apologized if the remarks attributed to him had offended Kerry.
Last week, after Kerry had warned that a failure to achieve a peace agreement could spur more boycotts against Israel, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett accused Kerry of “amplifying” the boycott movement and Strategic Affairs Minister Yuval Steinitz called Kerry’s warning “intolerable.”
Administration insiders say the Bennett and Steinitz attacks rankled Kerry more than those by Yogev and the rabbis.
“Ad hominem, on-the-record attacks by a series of senior Israeli officials against Secretary Kerry were deeply concerning and crossed the line,” a White House official told JTA.
In a series of Twitter postings Monday, Susan Rice, the national security adviser, called personal attacks “in Israel directed at Sec Kerry totally unfounded and unacceptable. John Kerry’s record of support for Israel’s security and prosperity rock solid.”
Even as they condemned Yogev, Jewish groups have not necessarily been on the same page as the Obama administration regarding the remarks from more influential Israeli officials.
Foxman called the furor over Yaalon’s alleged comments a “tempest in a teapot,” noting that they were made in private. The ADL also issued an open letter to Kerry criticizing his warning that a peace setback could fuel boycotts of Israel.
Kerry’s boycott remark, the Foxman letter said, “will inevitably be seen by Palestinians and anti-Israel activists as an incentive not to reach an agreement.”
Still, Jewish groups have tried to strike a supportive tone. Foxman’s letter criticizing Kerry also stressed that the ADL backs his efforts to achieve peace. The day after Rice’s tweets, the AJC’s executive director, David Harris, said that Kerry deserved plaudits.
“Bravo, then, to Secretary of State John Kerry for his current effort to reach peace between Israel and the Palestinian Authority,” he said in his weekly radio commentary.
The Obama administration, meanwhile, has been responding not only to attacks from Israeli officials but also from nongovernmental groups. Kerry’s spokeswoman, Jen Psaki, cited among other “mischaracterizations” of Kerry’s record a satirical video in which an Israeli actor bewigged with a gray bouffant declares Jerusalem holy to Klingons and Hobbits, among other groups.
The point of criticizing the video, Obama administration officials said, is that it was funded by the Yesha Council, the umbrella body for West Bank settlers funded indirectly by government subsidies for settlements.
Dani Dayan, a senior Yesha Council official, said he was amazed at Psaki’s reaction. The satire in the video, he said, was aimed at Kerry’s policies, not his person.
“It’s nonsense, he’s not anti-Semitic — I even suspect he’s philo-Semitic,” Dayan told JTA. “His policies are misguided, the solutions he proposes do not solve the problems.”
Kerry is firing back at his critics.
“No one should distort what we’re doing or saying because they’re opposed to the peace process or don’t like two states or whatever,” Kerry told CNN last week.