Like many American Jews, I was brought up to believe that if I pulled the Republican lever on the election machine my right hand would wither and, as the Psalmist says, my tongue would cleave to the roof of my mouth. According to the Bible, of course, these are actually the feared consequences of forgetting Jerusalem. Now, while there are many reasons one might want to vote for John Kerry, remembering Jerusalem — remembering to stand up for the State of Israel — is not among them.
It is true that candidate Kerry’s campaign pronouncements have been unexceptionable from the pro-Zionist point of view. Yes, he flip-flopped on the miles of trenches and fences Israel is building to defend itself from the plague of terrorism, first attacking it as “another barrier to peace,” then accepting it as “a legitimate act of self-defense.”
He has also foundered concerning what can be expected of Yasser Arafat. Just as Arafat was launching the second intifada in 2000, Kerry asserted optimistically that we must “look to Chairman Arafat to exert much greater leadership.” Three days later, he portentously declared the obvious on “Face the Nation,” calling the Israel-Palestinian conflict “an extraordinarily complicated, incredibly deep-rooted problem.”
What made this problem so extraordinary and incredible? “Arafat, has forces around him, underneath him, close by him, that are working against what he is doing,” Kerry said by way of exoneration. (And, to sustain the moral equivalence of the parties in his head, Kerry added, “The same is true of Prime Minister Barak” — which was nonsense, as there wasn’t a single such person in Barak’s circle.)
By now, to be sure, Kerry thinks that the chairman’s support for terrorism has already rendered him unfit as a partner for peace. And his votes in the U.S. Senate (like all but a handful of senators’) have been routinely friendly to Israel.
So why am I still exercised about John Kerry?
It’s the ramifications of his foreign policy in general, especially his fixation on the United Nations as the arbiter of international legitimacy, proctor of that “global test.”
Save for the American veto in the Security Council, Israel loses every struggle at the United Nations against lopsided majorities. In the General Assembly and Human Rights Commission, Muslim states trade their votes to protect aggressors and tyrannies from censure in exchange for libels against the Jewish state. The body’s bloated and dishonest bureaucracies are no better, as evidenced most recently by the head of the U.N. organization for Palestine refugees, who has just defended having Hamas militants on his staff.
I’ve searched to find one time when Kerry — even candidate Kerry — criticized a U.N. action or statement against Israel. I’ve come up empty-handed. Nor has he defended Israel against the European Union’s continuous hectoring.
Another thing that bothers me about Kerry is the deus ex machina he has up his sleeve: the appointment of a presidential envoy. It’s hard to count how many special emissaries have been dispatched from Washington to the Middle East to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict. What’s easy to see is that none of them has gotten to “yes.”
In recent years, both George Tenet and Gen. Anthony Zinni have served in this meaningless position. And who would Kerry designate? He first suggested the sanctimonious Jimmy Carter and James Baker, Bush 41’s secretary of state.
Then he found out — why he didn’t know this is another matter — that both Carter and Baker were deeply distrusted by the Israelis and by American Jews. There was no mystery as to why. Carter (well, how does one say this?) is not exactly a friend to the Jewish nation and, besides, his favorite politician in the Middle East was the mass murderer Hafez Assad. A huge beneficiary of Saudi business, Baker was adept at pooh-poohing concerns about Israeli security.
So we are left with Kerry’s other putative designee, Bill Clinton, whose national security staff was so mesmerized by the mirage of a quickie Israel-Palestinian peace at the end of his term, that, according to the 9/11 report, it couldn’t be bothered take out Osama bin Laden after the attack on the USS Cole. Clinton succeeded in squeezing Israel into the extravagant Camp David and Taba formulae, but failed to get Arafat to go along. At least for Israel, these proposals are now toast.
For his part, Kerry grabs at any showy idea to demonstrate his sense of urgency. As a response to militant Islam and to encourage moderate Muslims, the presidential aspirant proposed that “the great religious figures of the planet” — he mentioned the pope, the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Dalai Lama — hold a summit.
To do exactly what?
“To begin to help the world to see the ways in which Islam is not, in fact, a threat,” Kerry said, “And to isolate those who are, and to give people the strength to be able to come together in a global effort to take away their financing, their freedom to move, their sanctuary, and so forth.”
This muddled foolishness reflects Kerry’s sense of politics as desperate theater. Another simply showy idea he proposed (to Tim Russert on “Meet the Press”) was to insert U.S. troops between Israel and the territories, as part “of some kind of very neutral international effort that began to allow Israel itself to disengage and withdraw.” Now, if anything would put American soldiers in harm’s way it is such a move, exposing our men and women to fiercely competing gangs of suicide bombers and other killers.
Kerry asserts that it is “Israel’s presence [in the territories that] puts Israel in difficult circumstances and obviously creates an enormous handle for Osama bin Laden for all the radicals and extremists to hang on to.” But this stands history on its head. It is not the occupation that caused the conflict. It is the very existence of Israel — even within the unbearably narrow 1949 cease- fire lines.
To project his Middle East bona fides, Kerry has bashed George Bush dozens of times for supposedly showing no interest in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, for breaking a continuum going back at least 30 years.
“Some cliches,” wrote the dovish Israeli journalist Aluf Benn in the even-more dovish Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz, “become permanent features in public until someone takes the trouble to check out their validity.”
Which is what Benn did. And what did he find? The Bush administration “has been far more involved than any previous administrations in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has courageously presented the two sides with practical objectives and demands.”
Kerry seems to have nostalgia for the peacemaking ways of Bill Clinton. But what Clinton actually bequeathed to George W., says Benn, was “an Israeli-Palestinian war and a total collapse of the hopes that flourished in the 1990s. The height of the peace process during the Clinton era, the Camp David summit in July 2000, was a classic example of inept diplomacy, a rash move whose initiators failed to take into account the realpolitik, misunderstood Arafat and brought upon both Israelis and Palestinians the disaster of the intifada.”
By contrast, Bush has committed Ariel Sharon to a Palestinian state and to a withdrawal from some, though certainly not all, of the settlements. In return, the president has recognized that the most populous and strategically pivotal settlements would remain in Israeli hands and has also ruled out what would be suicide for Israel, the return of Palestinian refugees after 56 years. The Palestinians have not yet signed on to these particulars. But they are the future details of any peace.
Bush’s empathy for the government in Jerusalem is particularly remarkable, because empathy was altogether foreign to both Bush pere and his secretary of state. One can only imagine the horror of 41 and James Baker (to whom the president may actually owe his office) in seeing the inheritor become a true ally of Israel.
Yet there it is. And with his understanding of, and sympathy for, the Israeli predicament, Bush has coaxed from Sharon an agreement to withdraw unilaterally from all the Gaza settlements and from four in the West Bank — something even left-wing governments, as Benn puts it, “were afraid to do.”
Kerry, meanwhile, appears ready to formulaically follow the failed precepts of the past, complete with photo-ops and multiple interlocutors. This is a road map to nowhere.
(Martin Peretz is the editor in chief of The New Republic.)
The Archive of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency includes articles published from 1923 to 2008. Archive stories reflect the journalistic standards and practices of the time they were published.