One can appreciate that Yaalon, who served 37 years in the Israel Defense Forces and became head of military intelligence and chief of staff before entering politics, is not the most skillful diplomat among prominent figures in Israel. His quoted remarks in an off-the-cuff briefing to the daily newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth that Kerry "was acting out an incomprehensible obsession and a messianic feeling" because of his efforts to frame a peace agreement during his ten trips to Israel, though frank, lacked diplomatic tact.
Yaalon was immediately reprimanded by State Department spokesperson Jen Psaki who remarked that the comments "if accurate, are offensive and inappropriate, especially given all that the United States is doing to support Israel's security needs." For her, questioning Kerry's motives and distorting his proposals "is not something we would expect from the defense minister of a close ally."
First, about the reprimand by someone who herself has made inappropriate remarks. It was reassuring that Psaki spoke of Israel as a "close ally," but her statement is not the first time she has spoken strongly about critics of Obama administration policy. In October 2010 Psaki, then deputy communications director in the White House, used harsh language in criticizing a report by Neil M. Barofsky, well-known federal prosecutor, and a Democrat who had been appointed in 2008 by President George W. Bush to be Special Inspector General for the Asset Relief Program (Sigtarp). Barofsky's executive summary in the report had cited several deficiencies and shortcomings in the federal program. In particular, it stated that the White House bailout of $700 billion for Wall Street lacked oversight and transparency.
Psaki, speaking for the White House, used intemperate language about these objective but critical comments by Barofsky: "Some people don't like movies with happy endings ...Sistarp sought to generate a false controversy ...and grab a few, cheap headlines." Unlike Yaalon who apologized, or was obliged to apologize for his criticism of Kerry, Psaki never apologized for her own cheap remarks about Barofsky.
What is important is not the discourtesy by Psaki, but the implied substance of the comment by Yaalon, and his evaluation of the possibility of peace with the Palestinians. It is important to view the present differences between Israel and the U.S. as substantive, not personal in nature. While agreeing that Israel and the United States had common objectives and interests, and were allies, Yaalon was concerned about the naïve if sincere persistence of Kerry after ten visits to Israel and five months of fruitless negotiation.
In bringing this failure to the forefront Yaalon's remark cannot be considered "unhelpful" as some of his political opponents suggested. It is a refutation of the absurd regular Arab position that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is central to the Middle East, and indeed to the world. This fallacy is obvious with the Iranian taunting of the U.S. in the same week as Yaalon's comment. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, in reference to the agreement on nuclear issues between Iran and the six countries including the U.S., spoke of "the surrender of the big powers before the great nation of Iran," and other Iranian leaders have emphasized the right of Iran to enrich uranium, even close to weapons grade.
Secretary Kerry will continue the search for a framework for a settlement to end the conflict but that search has to take account of the context. The recent death of Ariel Sharon has reminded the world that the Israel Disengagement he engineered from the Gaza Strip did not bring peace. Rather it led to incessant attacks by rockets, ironically some on the very day of Sharon's funeral, coming from Hamas in Gaza. In recent months, Israel has acceded to the release of 78 prisoners, mostly terrorists, the price is was told to pay for bringing the Palestinians to the negotiating table.
Yaalon's remarks on January 14, 2013 was not the first time that he has expressed his frank controversial criticism of President Barack Obama's view of Israel behavior. In August 2009 he criticized Obama's demands that Israel halt construction of settlements. In colorful language, he objected to the way of thinking, presumably referring to the Obama administration, on settlements, stating that Israel just needs to give one more piece of land and then it will have peace is a kind of virus.
A certain kind of blindness still seems to permeate the U.S. State Department. Perhaps John Kerry is not as indifferent to current reality as his spokesperson seems to be. The usually articulate Jen Psaki refused to comment on the accusation by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the Palestinian Authority (PA) was continuing incitements against Israel while peace talks were taking place. She had "nothing new to report or any particular analysis" of this obvious development. She refused to answer the question based on the comments by Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian "negotiator" that Israel had poisoned Yasser Arafat. She also refused to comment on two other issues: the celebrations that Mahmoud Abbas, chairman of the PA, gave for the prisoners released by Israel; and the fact that by going along with the claim of the killing of Arafat that Abbas was not preparing his people for a peace agreement.
Secretary Kerry, and his spokesperson, might pay attention to the real attitudes of Palestinians as revealed in recent public opinion polls. A majority believes that a two-state solution should be the preparation for one Palestinian state in the future. An overwhelming majority wants Jerusalem to be the capital of Palestine, and most deny the historic association of Jews with Jerusalem.
The problems remain. The disputed territories, refugees, settlements, the Jordan Valley, the Golan Heights, Jerusalem, and Israel as a Jewish State. If Kerry is "obsessed" with the need for a solution he might start with the Palestinian obsession of refusing to recognize Israel as a Jewish state, and the insistence of the PA on "preconditions" before it comes to the table.
Michael Curtis is author of Jews, Antisemitism, and the Middle East.
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