Israeli critics of Mideast peace talks focus on Kerry
By Batsheva Sobelman and Paul Richter | Los Angeles Times | Published: February 7, 2014
JERUSALEM — Emerging from a black limousine, the tall man in the bushy gray wig lectures a small crowd of Israelis on how their holy city of Jerusalem belongs to followers of all religions — “Jews, Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Klingons and Hobbits.”
He asks a young passerby, “Do you think I deserve a Nobel Prize?”
The two-minute spoof video, released on YouTube this week by ultranationalist Israelis, is the latest sign of how critics of a possible Mideast peace deal have focused their ire on the effort’s chief champion, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.
With Israeli-Palestinian negotiations building pressure for concessions from both sides, the right wing of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition has unleashed a furious attack on America’s top diplomat, accusing him of failing to understand Israel’s security needs and of encouraging an international campaign to boycott and isolate Israel.
Three members of Netanyahu’s Cabinet — Yuval Steinitz, minister of intelligence and strategic affairs; Naftali Bennett, minister of the economy; and Moshe Yaalon, minister of defense — have taken whacks at Kerry in the last three weeks.
Lawmakers, settlers and Orthodox rabbis also have piled on, in what moderate Justice Minister Tzipi Livni on Thursday called the “curse-Kerry competition ... the latest popular sport.”
Obama administration officials deny the charges, and insist they remain focused on the negotiations.
“I am not going to be intimidated,” Kerry told CNN.
“I’ve been, quote, ‘attacked’ before by people using real bullets, not words,” he said, referring to his Navy combat service during the Vietnam War.
Kerry said he objected to suggestions that he did not support Israel strongly enough when “I have a 100 percent voting record in support of Israel for 29 years in the United States Senate.”
Susan Rice, the White House national security adviser, weighed in on Twitter, saying criticism of Kerry was “totally unfounded and unacceptable.”
Kerry and other U.S. officials say the true goal of the attacks is to derail the peace process. After six months, the talks are reaching a critical stage.
U.S. officials are preparing in the next few weeks to release a U.S. “framework” proposal that that would lay out a preliminary agreement on key issues and would receive at least partial Israeli and Palestinian approval.
Though it appears that Kerry will not achieve his initial goal of reaching a final deal by April, the complaints suggested critics are worried that impending decisions could cut too close for comfort.
“The volume and intensity of this noise suggests that Kerry’s views are starting to hit home,” said Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and a former advisor to President Barack Obama. “You don’t expect this kind of language, this kind of ad hominem attacks, from an ally and a friend.”
Kurtzer said the critics have multiple goals with their attacks. They want to force Kerry and the Obama administration to back off, partly by raising the political price at home, he said. They also want Netanyahu to understand he will face trouble in his conservative political coalition if he makes concessions to the Palestinians.
Kurtzer, now with Princeton University’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, said the criticism echoed the personal attacks that once were leveled at secretaries of state Henry Kissinger and James A. Baker III and President Jimmy Carter when they got close to peace deals.
Palestinian officials also have complained about a peace deal being prepared in secret. But the Israeli complaints have been louder even though, in the view of many analysts, Kerry is creating a deal that offers favorable terms to Israel on key issues.
Kerry appears prepared to accede to Netanyahu’s demand that Israel be recognized as a “Jewish state” as part of the deal, according to officials of U.S. pro-Israel groups who have been briefed on the discussions.
He also appears willing to endorse Israeli demands to have a security force in the Jordan Valley for years after a deal is signed, to protect Israel’s east flank, those officials said
For Netanyahu, the outpouring of criticism is a two-edged sword, said Robert Danin, a former U.S. diplomat in the Middle East.
It could further damage his relations with the Obama administration, which he needs to help resolve Iran’s nuclear threat and other regional crises.
If the condemnation of Kerry were to kill the negotiations, Netanyahu could be blamed for the failure of peace talks, with the “dead cat at his doorstep,” as some diplomats have put it.
Netanyahu has privately told his ministers to stop their criticism, aides have said. But on some points, he also seemed to agree, in part, with them.
State Department officials declined to say whether Netanyahu was doing enough to quiet Kerry’s detractors.
“It’s hard for me to evaluate whether we’re satisfied or not,” said Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman. “The question is whether (Kerry’s) record and his words will continue to be mischaracterized.”